How writing is like quitting smoking

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Do you make new year’s resolutions every year? Do any of them relate to writing? Here’s my advice for turbo-charging your resolutions.

I’ve never smoked. Even as a sullen, rule-breaking, hitchhiking teenager, I never even tried it. I say this not to brag – more to display my damn stubbornness.

The thought of sucking tar into my chest always disgusted me. And if those photos of blackened lungs displayed by my grade 8 teacher didn’t have enough impact, well, there was always my father. A lifelong smoker, he liked to pile all five kids into the car and then light his pipe. The sulfur-y smell of the match was enough to make all of our stomachs turn. And when we shrieked about it, he calmly kept smoking and told us to get used to it.

When I became older, however, I noticed that I have a streak of the obsessive compulsive running through me. I realized that if I ever started smoking, I’d soon be burning my way through two packs a day, and I certainly didn’t want that to happen.

Over the years I’ve had my share of friends who were smokers and quit and I’ve held their hands. I understand that the addiction is terrible – nicotine affects both the brain and the nervous system — and I know some who had to quit many times.

I also want to point out that becoming a writer is very much like quitting smoking. It’s not easy and you may have to try a number of times before it works. But here are some suggestions I’ve adapted from an e-booklet on quitting smoking:

1. Work out your main reason for wanting to write and focus on it. Like quitting smoking, writing requires effort. It takes time, commitment and hard work. Why would you want to do it unless you have a darn good reason? Focus on yours. Do you want to write to earn a living? Do you want to write to leave a memoir for your family? Do you want to change readers’ minds about something? By identifying your purpose you will help generate the willpower you’ll need to pursue this task. Find a photograph or an illustration that reminds you of your purpose and tape it to the wall or bulletin board above your computer. Remind yourself of it every time it seems like too much trouble to write.

2. Do it for yourself, not for anyone else. Others – such as spouses, bosses, editors and parents — may want you to write but when you sit at your desk, think only of the writing. Don’t let the thought of the finished product (i.e.: what someone else needs or wants) even cross your mind. Editing and getting published are two entirely separate jobs and you shouldn’t think of them until you’ve produced a first draft. For yourself.

3. Believe you can write. Damaged by the over-eager red pencils of high school teachers, many people believe they are incapable of writing. This is so sad. And so untrue! Writing – like exercise, music and cooking – is something that everyone can do, albeit with different degrees of success. But know this: the more you do the better you will get at it.

4. Set a writing schedule and follow it. I believe that every writer should write five days a week for a set amount of time. Like non-smokers you may have tried this schedule before and given up. Don’t let this discourage you! As the American Cancer Society says about quitting smoking: “Even if you don’t succeed the first few times, keep trying. You can learn from your mistakes so that you will be ready for those pitfalls the next time.”

5. Get support. Everyone who does something great has had help. Just as former smokers quit with the help of nicotine patches and late-night calls to friends, so too writers succeed by connecting with others. Talk to other writers. Read some books on writing. Get some coaching.

You too can become a writer. And you can try at any time of the year. What really counts is your determination. My father finally quit smoking at the age of 76. If he could do that then, surely you can write.

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