The Quiescent Writer and the Path of the Five Whys

By Cynthia Ray

The 5 Whys is an iterative question asking technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda, used in process improvement work.  Questions are used to explore the cause and effect relationships underlying a problem.  Asking why at least five times is a way to get to the root cause of something.  I’ve used this technique to understand issues, but never on myself—until now.

Recently, a friend asked me how my writing was going, and I muttered something about not having as much time to write as I would like, being too busy, etc.  Later, as I mused on the conversation, it hit me like a chunk of nasty space rubble—all of my excuses were a sham; I was lying to myself.

I’d written steadily for a few years, but looking back over the past few months, it dawned on me that I was not writing at all.  I’d become a Quiescent Writer, which is to say, no writer at all.  Quiescence is a state of inactivity.  How the heck did I get here?  Heres where the Five Whys come in:

The First Why:  Why did I lie to myself about not having time to write? Sure, my time is limited, but time is like money; we choose to spend it on what we choose to spend it on and I was choosing NOT to write, and not because I didn’t have time.  Everyone has time, and much has been written about how to make time to write, how to motivate oneself to write.  It wasn’t that.  Then what?

The Second Why:  Why didn’t I want to make time to write?  Was I bored with writing?  No, I love creating worlds and working with words.  That still interested and fascinated me, but perhaps I wasn’t writing the right kind of thing?  Fantasy and science fiction are fun, but maybe I’m a frustrated literary crime fiction novelist?  Nah, if you aren’t writing, what does it matter what you are not writing.  I got the feeling I was avoiding something.  The cold splash of fear in my stomach told me I was on the right path.

The Third Why:  What am I avoiding by not writing?  The answer sprang up from my gut and brought tears to my eyes.  FEAR.  A giant red-eyed demon kind of fear.

The Fourth Why:  What am I afraid of?  What is the fear?  Of failing?  Maybe. I certainly like to be successful; I like to feel competent, but there’s more.  Mediocrity?  Yes, that’s there, I never want to be in the middle of the bell curve, I want to be better.  The fear came into focus.  I had reached a certain point of proficiency with my writing, and couldn’t seem to get to the next level.  I became frustrated at not being able to write through that ceiling.

And instead of pushing through, I stopped.  Like scaling a mountain, and halfway up realize you are out of shape, and instead of pushing through, or doing something to strengthen yourself, you just lay down and cry about not being strong enough to get to the top of the mountain.  I had just laid down and given up.  I was afraid that I would never be better than right now.

The Fifth Why:  Why did this fear of not being good enough paralyze me and stop me from doing what I wanted to do?  This vein of fear went very deep, to the very root of me and I didn’t want to face what it might say about me as a writer, as a person.  I stood on that chasm and visited with the red-eyed demon for a while.  Turned out he was a hologram, and not real.   I find that I am a courageous person, a brave person, and I decided to keep going.

I will be setting a new writing schedule, but taking a new gentler approach.  I don’t have to crash any ceilings or fight any demons.  I can sit on my patio and smell the flowers, and write to my heart’s content.   This journey to root causes of things will make me a better writer.  Why?  Sorry, I’ve reached the end of my answers for now.

2 thoughts on “The Quiescent Writer and the Path of the Five Whys

  1. Excellent post. Seems like I go through that soul-sucking fear of never achieving my goal every time I hit a plateau, but I guess I’m lucky(??) in that my fear of not writing is greater than my fear of eternal mediocrity.

  2. Thanks Christina….Yes, I think that is where I am getting to also. I don’t think you have to fear mediocrity, though. Everybody demon takes a different form…

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