#Expansion: Play, Fear, and the Zero Draft

Remember: the main rule of zero-drafting is that you can’t do it wrong. Therefore every experiment is valid.

Experimenting is much more fun when there’s no such thing as failure.

However, just because you can’t do it wrong doesn’t mean you can’t do it better.

You can’t do it wrong: No one can stop you. You aren’t going to get fired. Maybe the haters will set their sights on you, but that ain’t no thing: haters gonna hate. Don’t take it personally.

You can do it better: You start a zero draft because you want to say something. How do you know when you’ve said it? Well, how closely are you paying attention to how you feel? How you feel: the zero draft will show you if you let it. There’s your teacher.


As I’ve worked with this process–in the initial zero-drafting, and then certainly in the editing and now the publishing–I’ve been feeling a lot of fear. It permeates my body.

I don’t remember feeling so much fear. But I’m pretty sure it was there. Apparently the rules I’m working under help me feel fear in a way I didn’t before.

It’s easy to not feel fear when you don’t change anything and don’t take risks and live in a tiny little shell.

I remind myself that I started changing the rules when it became clear that my choice was either change or die.

Maybe feeling fear is a good thing?

#Expansion

Sometimes I get overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities. How do I keep control in the face of all this uncertainty? This has been an ongoing story in my life. My answer has tended to be to seek to control via contraction: I clamp down.

Thus the possibility of expansion has felt deeply threatening to me.

So in many ways I have lived a small life, bounded by my need to feel in control, and I have hated the smallness of the life I’ve allowed myself, but until now that’s what I’ve allowed myself.

Now, finally, I am practicing expansion.


I am practicing expansion:

What if life could be so much more than it currently is?

Well of course it can.

Then why isn’t it?

My teacher, Jerry, points out that I am attached to the struggle. He says, “Ben, it doesn’t have to be so hard.”

Hmm. What might that look like?


“Play with it.” Jerry gives that instruction a lot.

Somewhere over the course of my 40 years, it became a lot harder to find play in what I’m doing. How did that happen? And why?


What might that look like?

It would look a lot like play, I think. It would look like taking chances and seeing what happens.

It’s a little weird to think about how I’ve lost much of the ability to find play in what I’m doing, and at the same time I say that I’m a professional writer. I mean, what else should writing be but playing with words?


What might that look like?

It would look like deciding to publish every day, and then facing the fear and the not-knowing, and then doing it anyway.

More on Rules

Have you ever thought about how the rules define the game?

Imagine if soccer didn’t have an offside rule. Or if a goal scored from outside the box counted for two points.

American football fans have been watching their game evolve for years. An example: rules got put in place to protect the quarterback and receivers, and the passing game has risen in importance. This is not mere coincidence.

Change the rules, change the game.


During the winter, I worked with a couple of different approaches to zero drafts, and watched the writing change as a result. Now I’ve made a rule to publish something every day.

Beyond the obvious, I’m not sure what changes in my writing it’s bringing with it. I feel like I’m seeing some, but I can’t yet put my finger on what they are.

I’m seeing questions arise: “What is the story I’m telling. And why?” Also this: “In this medium, what is the thread between yesterday’s post and today’s? Between today’s and tomorrow’s?”

I don’t know the answers yet. For now, it’s enough that I’m starting to see the questions.


Thinking more about rules: have you noticed how attached people become to certain rules? How much they hate changing the rules? You’d think the rules came down from the mountaintop on stone tablets given by God. People: we invented the rules. We can change them.

I live in Colorado and recently we decided to change the rule about marijuana being illegal. Now you can grow it and buy it and use it and, most importantly, experiment with it (as a substance and as a product). Still people are shrieking, “It’s a gateway drug! What about the children!” They just hate letting go of the old rules.

In the meantime, some of what we are seeing appears obvious: tax revenues instead of tax expenditures. A proliferation of retail stores. (You will not see me write, “Retail stores are sprouting up like weeds.”) No more arrests for simple possession.

And some of it is not so obvious: new ways of using it. Joints, bongs and pot brownies seem almost medieval compared to what people are learning to do with the stuff. Now there are concentrates and tinctures and salves. People who never thought they’d use marijuana in any form get lotions infused with it and rub it on their creaky knees and ankles and report that the pain goes away, with no intoxicating side effects.

New ancillary industries are coming into being as well, as people with a little vision and the sense that this is uncharted territory go out exploring, feeling finally that they can safely do so.

Change the rules, change the game.

And not all changes will be obvious ahead of time.


To experiment within new rules requires being able to be wrong.

Today is the fifth day I’ve published under these new rules. I’m not sure what I’m doing. But I’m believing that what I learn by doing it will ultimately be valuable, and for now that’s enough.

More on Technique, and How It Serves

People have been asking me what I’m working on, and I’ve noticed how confused or even uncomfortable they’ve been when I’ve struggled to explain it to them. A friend, hearing me describe it several times to other people, told me that their discomfort is that I’m describing something outside their ken, and they have nothing to hold on to. Later, after I tried and failed to explain it to my mum, I had to consider that part of the problem was that I didn’t exactly know the answer myself, and that therefore I too was a little uncomfortable. So I set about figuring out the answer.

I have a technique I call zero-drafting, and it was born out of need to find a technique to write something when I knew I wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure exactly what that was. It existed in contrast to how I was taught to write, which is that you wrote a first draft and then edited it, and the way I was taught to write non-fiction was the three-paragraph essay, in which you state a thesis, prove the thesis, and then conclude with a transformed restatement of the thesis. And this works great when you have a thesis. But what happens when you don’t?

I discovered, through some stream of consciousness-type journaling that I did, that often I could sit down with a topic and write about it without knowing exactly what I wanted to say, and if I wrote long enough and honestly enough and sat with the discomfort and kept writing, often I would discover through that process exactly what it was that I was trying to say in the first place. I learned by doing, which you might imagine was something of a thrill, as well.

(I owe this technique to something Natalie Goldberg offers in “Writing Down the Bones.” She offers a technique of putting a title at the start of the page and then just writing and seeing what happens.)

The technique I am using now is to take zero-drafting to kind of an extreme. I am writing a great deal of volume and relinquishing immediate control over the word in several different ways. I’m not worrying too much about the immediate craft of the sentences, and I’m not worrying too much about the pieces’ logical structure and rhetorical thrust. For the former, I am trusting that I have developed my technique to the point that my sentences have some music to them even when I’m essentially improvising; I am also trusting that I can then find the music and bring it out and bring it out and bring it out until the pieces sing. And for the latter, I am trusting that when I discover what the piece is really about, I can edit myself into a structure that works effectively.

Using this technique in something like journaling is easy–I am writing for myself, and the point there is that writing is inherently worthwhile, and it’s not about being good, it’s about exploring something and learning and discovering and that having the writing exist is reason enough.

But in my writing-for-publication, I have tended to aim for a more controlled, carefully written first draft. Now, in letting go of a lot of that control, I am hoping for a few things. I hope to be able to find my way into saying interesting things before I exactly know what I think or feel about a given subject.

But I also hope that I will, through this process of letting go of a substantial amount of technical control at the get-go, find my way into spaces that I might normally not be willing to explore. That by taking chances with my technique I might be able to route around or through my discomfort with certain topics and dive more deeply into them. That I might, by letting go, write in a way that’s more vital and alive than what I’ve done until now.

I honestly don’t know if it’s going to work. I have a lot of fears. The first is that by relinquishing control of the works quality early on and trusting my editing abilities to iterate the work into solidity, that I’m actually at best making myself more work in the long run, and in the worst case digging myself into a hole that I just can’t get out of, a problem I could avoid by being more careful in the initial drafting.

I also worry that, rather than digging more deeply into a topic, rather than being able to find my way to the more startling conclusion, rather than discovering something I didn’t previously know, I will instead pump out work that is facile. That I’ll be using a lot of words to say very little.

So therefore I am practicing an even more profound surrender, I think. I am taking the risk that this experiment will fail, but that if it does, what I learn through the process will be sufficiently worthwhile anyway. I’ll be honest: it’s fucking scary. I know at the least that I’m out on a limb. But I also know this: I have lived safely at the base of the tree for a long, long time, so even being out on a limb is a positive change. And I know that I can’t move forward from here without finally starting to climb.

A Little About Zero Drafts

I’ve spoken about zero drafts but I haven’t really explained what they are.

A first draft is how you were taught to write in school. You have a thesis, which you are seeking to prove. So you start writing in defense of that thesis.

In a zero draft, all you know is that you want to write something, but you don’t know exactly what.

The essential philosophy of zero-drafting is that you can’t do it wrong. You don’t know what you’re trying to say. So say anything. When you are done, you will have accomplished your initial goal: you will have written something.

You don’t have to apologize for what comes out. You can say, “I don’t know what to say,” five or fifty or five-hundred times. Say, “I don’t know what to say,” five-hundred times, and you’ll have said something. Believe me.

In a zero-draft, because you don’t have to apologize, you can say things poorly. You can leave in misspellings, if you want. You can go back and change things if you want, but you don’t have to. You can just write.

As you cannot do it wrong, the zero draft is done when you say it’s done.

My winter version of the technique was to just type, to write whatever asked to be written in the moment. I didn’t even stop to correct typos (and my text editor doesn’t auto-correct). Recently, as I noted in my first post, I have been aiming more directly for publication, and that’s changed my zero-drafting a little. But most of the time I still don’t bother to correct typos.

“Done” is an interesting question in a zero draft. If you don’t know what you’re going to say, how do you know that you’ve said it? I find for me the answer is often that I know I’m done once I’ve discovered what it was that needed saying in the first place.

But sometimes I know I haven’t said it. And I haven’t said it not because I haven’t tried–I’ve been zero-drafting, after all, and so I’ve been saying something–but because I haven’t yet figured out how to say it. But rather than letting my not-knowing frighten me into saying nothing, I am saying something.

And maybe that something, too, is worth saying.

In a sense, every zero draft is about not knowing exactly what it’s about, and how okay that is.

To dare to believe that something valuable might come out of it is therefore a practice of deep trust and deep vulnerability.

Brief Reflections. The Current Rules.

It was interesting to see how sharply my zero-drafting output fell off when I decided to publish on the equinox. Besides the seasonal and symbolic value of that choice, the idea was that I would be giving myself time to establish some form of queuing, going from zero-draft through necessary edits and rewrites and then getting the piece ready for publication. I didn’t want to be riding the ragged edge of disaster. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

Well, tough shit. During the whole process, I made up some rules for myself for the next phase of this project, and I’m going to work awfully hard to not break them.

The current rules:

  1. Zero drafting every workday (Monday through Friday). 5,000 words per week, which points to 1,000 words per day, but by thinking of it as a weekly quota, it allows me to catch up if something unexpected comes up, and to get ahead when something expected (e.g. ski day) will be coming up.

  2. Publishing every workday. I initially had planned on also publishing 1000 words/day, but that would mean that every zero-draft word got published. That’s a bad idea. The whole idea of the zero-draft is to not worry about the quality. And sometimes that means that you write some really low-quality stuff, and when you do, you shrug and delete it during edits. You certainly don’t ask an audience to read it.

So, Day 2 of the new process? Check. Still showing up.

Planting a Seed

It was the winter solstice, and so generally a time of drawing inward, of consolidation. Not normally the time to begin a new project. But I had known for a while that it was time to start writing seriously again, and there is a special power at the start of a new season.

Conveniently, I didn’t know what I should write about.

That not-knowing opened me to further contemplate the significance of the day. The solstice heralds a time of going deep, and so I decided to proceed purely by zero-drafting, that is, simply by writing what the given moment requested that I write and trusting that through the writing I would learn what I was trying to say. Through that process I could honor the season. I could spend that time underground, exploring the unseen depths, using zero-drafts as my headlamp.

Though I must add: Writing has been my calling but all too often I have failed to make it my job. I’ve rarely shared what I’ve written. This new practice was meant to be an exploration of unseen places, but it wasn’t journaling. The ultimate goal was publication.

With that in mind, in mid-February, I substantially changed the direction of my technique. I asked, What if I change my approach to zero-drafting? What if I blast out 1,000 zero-draft words per day and publish them right away? It was interesting to note what happened. My moment-by-moment writing slowed down. I became somewhat more careful about my grammar (proper grammar not usually being a concern in a zero draft) and paid a lot more attention to the logical and rhetorical flow of the piece.

By changing the boundaries under which the game is played, you change the game itself.

I initially liked the idea, and I found it a worthwhile practice, but I didn’t go through with it. I didn’t publish the piece right away.

Okay, I said. I’ll publish after a quick edit. I’ll start on Monday. And I did that quick edit, but it still didn’t feel right. So I didn’t publish.

Maybe next week? I asked myself. But no, not then either.

And then it occurred to me: If the initial zero-drafting was my deep, underground process for winter, then publishing could be the hello-sunshine process for spring.

Today is the equinox, and right here I am planting a seed.

And I still don’t know what exactly is going to sprout.