Recently, I started reading The Inner Game of Tennis, the 1972 classic on peak performance, on the recommendation of screenwriter Michael Piller. I've heard people recommend The Inner Game for skills other than tennis, but writing? Yet in his own book, Fade In, Piller cites The Inner Game as a significant influence on his approach to screenwriting—and an essential tool for coaching young writers, something Piller did throughout his career.
In The Inner Game, W. Timothy Gallwey, a tennis pro, distinguishes between Self 1 and Self 2.
Self 1 is you: the conscious entity who observes your performance, judges it according to some standard, and attempts to correct it, i.e., "No, I'm not supposed to hold the racket like that. The book said..."
Self 2 is the you who actually performs: swings the racket, blows through the saxophone, writes this week's newsletter. This means Self 2 includes your body, of course, but it also encompasses the unconscious part of the brain that controls the body (and does pretty much everything when we're in a flow state, including write.)
Self 1 and Self 2 operate in very different ways and speak different languages. Since Self 2 doesn't really understand Self 1's instructions—"Raise that racket higher next time!"—all that self-judgment only gets in its way. Self 2 learns by doing and observing the results in a state of flow. We fail to improve—at tennis, writing, or any other skill—when we allow Self 1 to interrupt Self 2's natural learning process.
To win the inner game, Gallwey argues, Self 1 must get out of the way completely. Instead of judging and correcting Self 2, it must relax and allow this non-verbal, unconscious entity to figure things out for itself:
[This] doesn’t mean positive thinking—for example, expecting that you are going to hit an ace on every serve. Trusting your body in tennis means letting your body hit the ball. The key word is let. You trust in the competence of your body and its brain, and you let it swing the racket. Self 1 stays out of it. But though this is very simple, it does not mean that it is easy.
I've suggested similar things here, but I like Gallwey's simple distinction between Self 1 and Self 2. Self 2 does the writing. Self 1 gets in the way—if you let it. One way to guarantee interference by Self 1 is to read book after book about writing. All those tips, techniques, and systems we collect are profoundly unhelpful when we sit down to write. Sure, some techniques can aid the revision process, but writing advice combined with blank pages generates absolute misery. According to Gallwey's model, writer's block is the result of Self 1 telling Self 2 how to write.
As I've quoted before, screenwriter David Milch always told his writing students that "any time spent thinking about writing is wasted except when one is in a room writing." In other words, Self 1 must leave Self 2 free to work for as long as possible before stepping in. Here's Gallwey again:
In some ways the relationship between Self 1 and Self 2 is analogous to the relationship between parent and child. Some parents have a hard time letting their children do something when they believe that they themselves know better how it should be done. But the trusting and loving parent lets the child perform his own actions, even to the extent of making mistakes, because he trusts the child to learn from them.
Saying this is easy enough. Letting go of control and trusting Self 2 to do the writing is harder. In my experience, anyway. To do it, I remind myself that Self 1 is a lousy writer. When I'm deliberate and considered in my writing—when Self 1 tries to cobble words together—quality goes away. Self 2 may be inscrutable and unpredictable. It still delivers the best material. So I trust it. I have no other option.