The Mind Game of Writing

The Mind Game of Writing  by Leslie Watts at

I’m a history buff who loves to study battles, and though I’m a fairly peaceful person, I find military strategy (and its application to nonmilitary problems) fascinating. I was listening to a podcast the other day about the Blitzkrieg during World War II and flashed on something true about the mind game of writing. (You can find the History Extra podcast episode here.)

Blitzkrieg is the German term for "lightning war," and describes a strategy the army employed during World War II to invade France and the Low Countries in 1940. To avoid a war of attrition, which had proved fatal during World War I, the army needed to change their approach. Different levels of command adopted a collection of tactics that took the Germans farther in six weeks than their predecessors had in four years.  

Amateur and professional historians tend to treat the results of this strategy as inevitable. But according to Professor Lloyd Clark of the University of Buckingham (whose talk you can hear in the podcast episode linked above), it was anything but: The French and British had opportunities to stop the advance that could have changed the outcome of the German offensive and the war in substantial ways.  

Fair warning: This is a criminally brief and simplistic discussion of complex historical events. Although I was a history major in college, I’m in no way an expert on these events or military strategy.* Hindsight and time allow a view of events and consequences that people couldn’t access then. Still, there is plenty that we writers can learn and apply to our work.  


Attitude is Critical

Many factors led to German success in this 1940 campaign, including a fair bit of disobeying orders (by generals and sergeants alike). But the important point to remember, and one that is often lost, is that the attitude you bring to the battle is critical and often determines who wins and loses.  

The French and British planned joint actions to stop the invasion, but the French never showed up. When it was time to take action, according to Clark, "They’ve lost their will. They’re dislocated. They believe they've lost the battle, maybe even lost the war. ... And that’s what war fighting is all about. It’s not about how many men you kill. It’s about whether the enemy are still willing to fight."

Superior numbers, advanced weaponry, plentiful resources, and even ample intelligence, do not always win the day. History provides plenty of ancient, medieval, and modern examples. The mindset of the people who plan and fight the battle is as important.  


Doing Battle with Resistance

You can probably see where I’m going with this, and no doubt you’ve read and heard this before. Still it bears repeating. You must be willing to do battle with the enemy, that is resistance, every day. (Read The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield if this is new to you. Better still, get the audio version too so you can hear Pressfield’s voice in your head.) 

This is not new, but what I know from experience is that I need to hear certain truths regularly, from different people, in different contexts, and in alternate forms for them to stick. The thing that worked last year, last month, or last week doesn’t necessarily work today.

There is no "one and done" when it comes to resistance for me. When I get complacent, I find myself terrified to sit and write. It’s embarrassing. It feels utterly ridiculous. What the hell is wrong with me? Nothing. But the need to do battle is an everyday thing.

On the off chance that you experience this too, I didn’t want to leave it unsaid.  


It’s A Mind Game

The mind game of writing (and editing) is as important as possessing the resources, tools, and knowledge to get the job done. With the proper attitude, you can obtain or make unnecessary what you lack and solve the problems that arise. Without the willingness to do battle, though, nothing else matters, not for the long haul.

Writing, revising, finding your blind spots, receiving criticism, journeying into the unknown, learning new things and applying them—all of this takes time and effort. You can’t rely on luck or innate talent or inspiration. 

Most writers I know, whether they’ve sold thousands of books or none, deal with the crappy thoughts that flow from resistance. Nothing on earth is guaranteed to relieve you of this burden. Resistance shows up regularly unless the goals you’ve set for yourself don’t challenge or excite you. (If you’re here and reading this post, then it’s unlikely this applies to you.)  


Show Up and Be Willing

Resistance never goes away. As a practical matter, what can you do with this information? Analogies of military tactics only work if you can apply them in your personal battle, so this is what you do: Understand that the practice of showing up with the willingness to do battle makes it easier to show up and do the work.

The battle is not with the passive voice, dialogue, or weak scenes, though they are important. Your battle is with the voice that says your work sucks and don’t bother because, even though you’ve heard the advice a million times, you see the same problems in your writing.  

The practice is the practice no matter what your personal writing challenge: Show up with the willingness to do battle—no matter what.  

When it’s time to write, according to the commitment you’ve made to yourself, prepare for battle. Your armor in this engagement is your will that must be stronger than your enemy. Whatever negative thought comes up, talk back to it, ignore it, imagine it’s a person you send on vacation, or call it a neuronal glitch.

Do whatever works for you to keep going and complete the commitment.


Don’t Be Constantly At War

As someone who has overdone it a lot over the last year, I need to be clear about what I’m not saying: Do not give up sleep, exercise, or healthy food. Don’t ignore the important people in your life. I’ll have more to say about this soon, but though I want you to put your armor on when it’s time to write, I don’t want you to be constantly at war in your life.  

I know this analogy won’t work for everyone or every time. We all have different needs and they can change from day to day. If this is not your jam and military strategy turns you off, then find what works for you. That is your quest for the moment. You will find your way if you keep looking and doing the work.

Because we’re all in this battle together, I’d love for you to share what works for you. What helps you to show up and face resistance? You never know when what you have to share will be the right words at the right time for a fellow writer.


*To learn more about the events I mention here, I suggest Lloyd Clark’s book on the subject: Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality, and Hitler’s Lightning War: France 1940. If you want to hear about military strategy generally, you might enjoy listening to History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach. Finally, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast episode "Saigon, 1965" (season 1, episode 2) to explore the limits of military intelligence.  


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