“Don’t Spare Yourself.” The Science of Not Holding Back

Mural art by Lydia Bear Ishmael, 2017

So,  I’m taking violin lessons. Along with my violin lessons I discovered another life lesson, as well as a good lesson for writers.

If I want to learn how to play the violin, I have to be willing to play poorly. Like I remind my writing students all the time — be willing to write several shitty drafts before the story works, before you “sound” pleasing. 

The enjoyment found in writing several shitty drafts, as well as playing crude on the violin, is indispensable to progress in both. I delight in holding an idea and seeing how it comes out on the page. I enjoy holding the violin and bow to make a combination of legitimate and illegitimate sounds. Playing badly with my violin (I make my dogs howl), is essential to learning how to play.

So, we must be willing to write several shitty drafts till they no longer are. But if we don’t enjoy this part of our writing life, we are not likely to write for long.

My violin teacher (bless her heart) keeps saying:  “That’s great, Julie,” as I play.

I doubt her. Just as so many of my students and clients doubt me when I encourage them.

Inevitably, I asked her what many of my students and clients ask me: “Are you just saying that to encourage me?”

“No,” She says.

“What would you say if I was not doing so ‘great?,’ ” I ask.

“I would let you know.” (I believe she would, just as I guide others with honest encouragement.) I know too, as she does, anyone can learn to write or play the violin.

So, we spoke a little about shitty first drafts and playing poorly on the violin. She shared a lesson her teacher told her as she struggled with a difficult musical piece. Her teacher advised:

“Don’t Spare Yourself.”

Basically play shitty with all you’ve got. And keep playing shitty, with all you’ve got till the sound comes together and you have something worth listening to. Or, you have something you feel good about.

Don’t Spare Yourself. Have fun; get into it! Play poorly with all you’ve got. In writing, get the entire story down, every thought, idea, and detail you can come up with. Don’t hesitate and don’t hold back. Keep writing shitty drafts till you have something that works. If we hold back and write sparingly, the rules of the trade, or our egos, dictate our hands and mind and we will never give it our all.

“I say this to myself with everything now,” she shared as I packed my violin.

The morning of my violin lesson had been a rough one. I made the mistake of checking the news on Twitter. The endangered species act is, well, endangered. Sigh. And, life close-in for me, though beautiful, continues to be full of uncertainty.

But the lesson uplifted me. I met the bow to the right string, several times (my first violin lesson). She repeatedly said, “Great! Great Julie. That’s it.”  And, well, I left with the willingness to not spare myself with whatever arises in my practices, and in life. (At least for today).

A few other essentials that you may find helpful in writing and life:

  • My habitual (old) mind tells me: you are not going to get thisremember this, or create anything decent. I nod an acknowledgment to these thoughts and keep playing.
  • Sometimes when my teacher says, “Great, yes, you got it!” I haven’t a clue how— But I trust that my body and soul do know.
  • In having the bow meet the string, the bow needs to be ever so slightly heavier against the string in the middle of the bow. This is because the bow bends in at the center. So, If I don’t want to keep having my bow slide about on the string, I have to add “just a bit of pressure” when the bow is in the center. Okay! Is this even possible? Remember, at this point I am simply trying to get the bow to the right string! Here is how I put just a bit of pressure at the right moment (and I just love this!): I think the bow as heavier as it reaches its middle point. For me this is the intuitive, kinesthetic aspect of playing, writing and living — hold in your mind the practice and intention and then just play, just write! Don’t spare yourself.
  • A good writing, music or spiritual teacher, accompanied by a bit of enthusiasm, makes the effort possible. Makes our efforts, effortless. Find that good teacher, and keep her close-in until you are ready to move on to the next good teacher.
  • Trust yourself, trust your body, trust your soul. And move toward that which calls you — no matter what! and recite the mantra: “I won’t spare myself!”
  • Keep doing this one good, fun, crazy thing (be it playing the violin at 60 or writing a novel) that makes a clearing for you in your life.



Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worth of rescue.



Suzan McVicker

Too much holding back is a serious limitation.  Thanks, Julie, for sharing how our early efforts can make dogs howl.  Skill-building is more fun in community with many voices and a great teacher to offer pointers and encouragemsnt.  Our local writers tribe where we learn to stop heistating would not exist without you.  Keep trusting your own medicine!

March 3, 2017

Anne Forbes

Effortless effort, trusting the body and soul... dive in and enjoy. Julie's advice to the writer, and any other aspiring creative, is right-on once more. Just like we expect it to be.

March 3, 2017

R. Cecchini

I love this reminder of deep listening -  "Sometimes when my teacher says, 'Great, yes, you got it!' I haven’t a clue how— But I trust that my body and soul do know.", as my body and soul often find uncomfortable ways to overrule my mind when it wants to give up on (what it thinks is only shitty) writing. Great piece. 

March 3, 2017

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