Book Recommendation: One Continuous Mistake. Four Noble Truths for Writers

by Helen Kenwright

I read a lot of books about writing, because you never know where you might get a good tip or idea to improve your practice and craft. But this was one of the first I read, and it had a huge impact on how I approach and think about my writing.

Gail Sher is a writer, psychotherapist, teacher and a Zen Buddhist, and One Continuous Mistake involves all of these aspects. She introduces us to four noble truths, in the Buddhist tradition, of writing, namely:

1. Writers write

2. Writing is a process

3. You don’t know what you’re writing will be until the end of the process.

4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write.

Gail Sher: One Continuous Mistake. Four Noble Truths for Writers. P5. Compass, 1999. 

When I came across the book I was undergoing an intense period of writer’s block. I wasn’t only stuck with fiction writing; I was at one of those tricky parts in my PhD thesis when it feels huge and impossible and I’d lost sight of what I was trying to do. I found the four truths immensely comforting. 

Gail Sher gently approaches different aspects of writing and shows how her noble truths apply; she provides five pillars of writing (Brainstorming, Journalling, The Draft, Enriching and Refining and Rest Periods) and uses examples and stories to explore and explain her philosophy. 

Central to Sher’s thesis is that writing at its best is an offering to the universe; not the finished product but the love and care the author takes in creating it. This process is nourishing to the writer, an authentic expression and crafting through words, made with focus, intent and compassion. Like a prayer, it is the sincerity and intent of the writing that’s most important; imperfect outcomes are to be expected and are all part of the process.

Sher likens writer’s block to anorexia, the author victim to an internal saboteur who constantly convinces them they aren’t good enough, aren’t worthy. And “the more frightened she becomes (of her crippling fear and inner emptiness), the more strident the saboteur’s threat: “Writing may be all-important, but you will never be able to.” (P. 84)

I’ve read a lot of theories about and solutions to, writer’s block over the years, but none have ever spoken to me like this. Writing is so entangled with success, from the moment we form our first letters as small children, there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’, and your success as a human being is repeatedly linked to your ability to communicate through the written word. The writing process itself is traditionally formed around  cycle of draft/edit/rewrite/edit, each cycle looking more and more closely at the ‘mistakes’ that need correcting. 

There is no acknowledgement in that process that perfection is unattainable, or that art is subjective. Our critical minds are encouraged to go into overdrive – all the more so if our mental health isn’t the best at the time. It flings wide the door to doubt, hesitation and self-criticism of the harshest kind. No wonder our inner saboteur finds their voice.

Gail Sher offers a different way to write. Amid her recommendations for the routine, focus and intent of practice is a very powerful piece of advice: “If you are a writer, writing and being are the same.” And that’s all that matters. The intricacies of crafting, the honing and shaping and learning, will all happen in their own time.

The only way to fail is not to write.

No compensation was received for this unsolicited review.  All book reviews are the personal and subjective opinion of the reviewer.  

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