I can still hear his voice. Direct, commanding, with more than a tinge of a Queens accent: “Write it down, Fred. Write it down.” He’d pantomime the writing motion with his hand, sometimes quite intensely, if he thought I didn’t react quick enough.
The voice and hand belonged to Andrew Cuomo. In the past I wrote about my experience working for Andrew my first two years out of college. I learned a ton from him, not the least of which was the critical role writing plays in our careers.
Meeting after meeting, he would remind me, or more accurately order me, to write things down. At times it got incredibly annoying. I didn’t think it was necessary for me to write everything down. Back then I was young and blessed with a better than average memory (unlike today as my family often reminds me).
None of that mattered to Andrew. The reminders continued. And continued. Not until much later, long after I stopped working for him, did I fully appreciate what he was trying to do.
Andrew wasn’t concerned about my memory. He was instilling the habit of writing (use the full force of his formidable personality) for much more significant reasons.
Writing forces you to pay attention. It’s very easy for one’s mind to wander, especially if you’re trapped in a conference room for endless hours. But writing is a tactile act, much more so back then when our only options for writing were a pencil or pen. When you’re taking notes in a meeting you are engaging more of your senses – seeing, hearing, and touching. Your brain will rev faster as a result, making it almost impossible to zone out.
Beyond focusing your mind, writing is the best way to help us figure out what we think. Many people in marketing and media (and politics), especially those in management roles, essentially get paid to perform in meetings. We talk for a living – briefing our teams, presenting ideas or strategies, answering questions, sharing insights and perspectives. In those settings we react in the moment, leaning into our proven experience, trusted intuition, and hard-earned knowledge and expertise.
All that is well and good. Very often the people who think best on their feet do quite well professionally. But if you really want to develop well-considered opinions and perspective, there is no substitute for writing. It’s not until we try to string sentences together on a specific topic that we begin to understand the merits, or the deficiencies, in our positions. What sounds good in a sound byte inside our heads may not shine as bright when we try to explain it in writing.
It’s no coincidence that many mental health professionals advocate daily journaling. Writing down our thoughts and experiences get us out of our heads and can be a powerful bulwark against negative emotions and feelings.
The reasons people often give for not writing are they think they’re not very good at it or don’t have the time. The latter is nothing but a lame excuse. Fifteen minutes of writing a day is better than nothing, everyone has fifteen minutes to spare. Lack of confidence in our writing ability is much tougher. Believe me, as someone who blogs regularly and writes fiction for a hobby, I’m well aware how difficult writing can be. There can be nothing scarier or more daunting than staring at an empty screen.
Here’s a piece of advice that helped me: don’t let self-doubt keep you from trying. Everyone who writes, even the most accomplished novelists in the world, struggles with self-doubt. Stephen King has confidence issues at times. It’s part of the deal no matter who you are. But the truth is that ultimately there is no such thing as writer’s block, what we are afraid of is writing badly.
We understand that if we start exercising after a long period of inactivity, the first few workouts are going to be tough. But we will get better. Writing is the same. If you haven’t tried writing in a while you’re probably going to suck at it at first. It’s ok. The more you practice the better you will get. And in the end if all you do is keep a journal, no one ever has to see it. So, who cares if it’s any good? What matters is that you did it. What matters is you’ve transported your thoughts onto a page where you can evaluate them more rationally and intelligently.
There’s interesting irony with writing that I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve done more of it the past few years. It can be incredibly lonely – just you against the page. But if you get to the point where you’re willing to share your writing, I think you will find like I have that it is a magical way to bond with other people. Through this blog and my book, I’ve enjoyed wonderful experiences reconnecting with people from my past as well as making new friends. It turns out the most solitary of pursuits – writing – can be incredibly social.
Andrew’s incessant “write it down” reminders were about much more than performing my best at work. Writing, like exercise, eating right and helping others, is an essential ingredient for a being your best in every aspect of life. It took me a while to fully absorb that lesson, but I’m very grateful, even if I still twitch a little when I hear someone say “write it down.”