Clementine Ford on writing through the fear

The three-time author speaks about running, putting pen to paper and ignoring your self-doubt.

6 Dec 2021
Written by
Clementine Ford
How To
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Illustration by Michelle Pereira

Towards the end of 2020, I decided to take up running. I had been inspired by my hairdresser, who’d adopted the habit in the midst of a long, lonely statewide lockdown that had forced her business to close temporarily. With nothing to do but worry about the state of the world and her future in it, she began clocking kilometres of pavement in Melbourne’s inner north. By the time I managed to see her again, she was regularly running anywhere between ten and fifteen kilometres, four or five times a week.

“Do you love it?” I asked her, impressed by both her stamina and the sleek new muscles I could see peeking out from beneath her shirt.

“I hate it,” she replied. “But I can’t seem to stop doing it.”

A few days later, I pulled on some sneakers, drove to Princes Park and shuffled twice around its perimeter. In terms of speed, it was barely more than an ambient stroll. Still, I was proud of myself for pushing through the whole ordeal without stopping. When I pulled on the same shoes a few days later and attempted the same distance, I was pleased to notice a tiny improvement. Like my hairdresser, I hated every second of it. But I loved the feeling of having done it.

Despite the unchanging torment of the activity itself, I was compelled to keep going, and was soon jogging two or three times a week. Each time, I would grimace my way along the streets near my house, wrestling with what I began to refer to as Bad Brain. Why are you doing this? my inner voice would demand to know, as I pushed my feet forward and panted against the breeze. You should just quit now. You hate this! Just stop. Stop and walk home, and abandon this nonsense.

Shut up, Brain! I’d think to myself, wheezing my way along the gravel track.

Fine, it would reply. But what happens when you finish? You’ll just have to go again. And again after that. You’ll never be allowed to stop, because then you’ll be a quitter.

There’s a metaphor here. But then, writers are notorious for them.

My first piece of published writing came in the form of a letter. I had just started my first year at university, and had been irritated to read an obnoxious editorial in the student newspaper sneering at the new flock of freshers. Being a priggish school prefect type, I sent a tersely written response defending my peers, and was thrilled to see it had been included in the following edition. I took it home to show my mother, who clipped it out and stuck it on the fridge. It greeted me every time I went to retrieve a snack, and I would be filled once more with the feeling of validation that comes from having a strong opinion acknowledged.

When my friends became editors of the paper the following year, I applied for and succeeded in assuming the role of ‘culture’ sub-editor, which mainly involved writing satirical op-eds and sitting around the office eating footlong Subways. We would emerge in the soft dawn light on a Monday morning, bleary-eyed and greasy from a long weekend spent putting the paper together, and think to ourselves: this is the life. So much was it ‘the life’ that I spent the next five years working on the newspaper in some capacity, before finally becoming editor myself. I was working simultaneously as a media monitor, and I used the excessive current affairs knowledge I’d accrued from hours spent listening to talkback radio to write a weekly column exploring issues of social justice, feminism and politics. It was crude and unformed, but in many ways the perfect practice ground for what would come later—a column in a regional Sunday tabloid, then a biweekly role as an opinion writer for a major broadsheet.

Every day you sit down to write, you’ll be inviting your fear, self-doubt, insecurity and insufficiency to sit alongside you. And let me tell you, those fuckers never shut up.

After my editorial duties ended and I left university, I found I missed the satisfaction of writing those weekly columns. This being the mid-aughts, I joined the hordes of other millennials and set up a blog. We all used anonymous names back then, thrilled at the thought we needed to keep our real-life identities a secret from the world. Slowly but surely, online relationships formed between those of us whose work spoke to one another. These were the people who could be trusted with our names and faces, and we took the responsibility as seriously as if we were all agents working for MI5. Almost twenty years later, many of us have gone on to become published authors, cultural commentators, screenwriters and playwrights—but we all cut our teeth in the sometimes scrappy, sometimes withering, always earnest world of blogging.

It’s a different world now, with different opportunities to hone your skills. But one thing I always tell people when they ask for advice on how to become a writer—by which they invariably mean how to become a published writer—is that they actually have to write. It isn’t enough to have a voice. Like any skill, you have to practice to get better. You have to keep pushing through to do it, even when it feels tedious and hard and boring, even when you fear you have nothing to say.

No one ever became a writer because it was fun.

A few days before I sat down to begin writing this essay, I submitted the final proofs for my third book. It’s a collection of personal essays on love and the many forms it takes in our lives. I’d started writing it in 2019, with the view to it being published at the end of 2020. But then came the global pandemic, and all thoughts of rigorous, disciplined daily writing flew out the window. Publication was pushed back by a year, because we all foolishly believed everything would be ‘back to normal’ by then.

I had been grateful for the reprieve, but a year only buys you so much time, even in a statewide lockdown where it seems like there is nothing but time. The book still needed to be written, so I took the small windows I had between co-parenting a child and producing online content to replace the speaking gigs and more formal work that normally provided my income. I resisted the urge to think about the book in its entirety, the mammoth task ahead of me. Instead, I applied the same method I had used with my first two books. I didn’t need to write 10,000 words a day. I could write 500, and each sprint would take me closer to the finish line.

A lot of what you write will be junk. [Other times] you have to throw away perfectly good words because you just can’t make them fit.

There is a practical approach to the discipline that I have always found helpful to get me from one moment to the next. Before I begin the writing process itself, I make a visual template. I’m talking just a giant piece of white cardboard separated into boxes. Within each box, I write a chapter heading and a list of ideas. Then I put it on the wall somewhere in my house where I’ll see it every day. I have cursed at it, on occasion, but its presence there is a reminder to keep working towards the end goal. Once the chart is drawn out, I set up a file in Scrivener—a writing app designed for longform projects—with those same chapter titles listed as folders.

And then I tackle the hardest part. Starting. You just have to get some words on the page, no matter how terrible they seem. Pull your running shoes on and just get going, even though your brain is screaming at you this is shit this is shit why are you doing this to me can we just stop????

I have thrown out so many early words, weeping internally as I pressed the delete button, feeling the loss of every last one of them as a setback that took me further away from the goal rather than closer to it. Part of being a writer is coming to terms with the fact a lot of what you write will be junk. Even worse are the times when you have to throw away perfectly good words—sometimes even great words—because you just can’t make them fit.

Other days, you cast your net into the river and find that the fish are well and truly swimming. This is easy! you think. I’ve cracked it! The next, cocky and high on the thrill of being a literary genius, you sit down and stare at your computer and find you have nothing to say. That’ll show you! your brain yells.

Fuck beautiful prose, at this point you’ll settle for legible.

Slowly, surely, you begin to cobble together some kind of structure. If I compare writing as a practice to that of running, I often think of writing as a project to be more domestic. Deciding to write a book is a little like deciding to clean and rearrange your bedroom. The plan itself seems good. You can visualise the end result, and the first hour or so—the planning and the initial organisation—feels manageable. But the further you go into it, the messier it all seems, until suddenly you find yourself sitting in the middle of a clothes explosion with no clear idea of how to make your way out.

This was a terrible idea, you think, wondering how you’ll ever put all these words and passages into some kind of comprehensible order. Fuck beautiful prose, at this point you’ll settle for legible. But you keep chipping away at it, taking frequent breaks for snacks and drinks, until at last you can see the finished result begin to take shape. In some ways, this is the hardest part. We’ve all felt the urge to give up at the final hurdle. To throw the last bit of clothes and bedroom detritus into the bottom of a wardrobe, promising ourselves we’ll deal with it later and knowing we never will. This is the moment of fatigue with book writing, just the same as it is with running, where you reach the last kilometre and have to dig deep to keep pushing towards the end.

This is how I wrote through lockdown, even when the weight of it all was pressing down on me. I decided which part of the room needed to be put away that day, and I tried my best to do it. In the end, that’s all you can do.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned during my years as a writer is that writing is a decidedly unglamorous profession. There are literary festivals, yes. Book events at which cheap wine can be consumed. The occasional letter from people who appreciate your work. But the vast majority of it involves quietly, internally wrestling with yourself. Every day that you sit down to write, you’ll be inviting your fear, self-doubt, insecurity and insufficiency to sit alongside you. And let me tell you, those fuckers never shut up. It requires a lot of mental fortitude to ignore them, even if you can’t help but believe them most of the time.

What you must learn to do is resist the temptation to quit. Not all of what you write will be brilliant. In fact, most of it will be average at best, particularly when you’re first learning how to do it. You will sweat, you will hurt and you will wonder what the point of it all is.

But you keep running, even when your brain is telling you to give up. And slowly, you get better at it. You learn how to breathe. You tell the inside voice to be quiet. You push forward, familiar at last with the pain but also the relief that comes from having survived it. You tell yourself you don’t have to run forever—you just have to run today. You become addicted to seeing your results. The improvement in your pace, the way your muscles respond, the feeling you have when you finish. One day, you feel confident enough to take a less familiar route. Another, you decide to run an extra kilometre or two. Some days are complete write-offs, and you fear you’ll never get back into the swing of it. But then you have a stretch of good days, and you wonder what it was you were worried about.

You notice that getting started is never any easier, particularly if you’ve let a few days lapse in between practising. But you keep doing it anyway. Because you understand, finally, what every writer knows to be true: that the hard of it all is what makes the finishing so good.

Clementine Ford is a writer, broadcaster and commentator living in Melbourne. Her third book, How We Love, is out now.

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