The Art of the Vomit: How to generate copious writing content
My best writing experience came from a complete failure.
In the early summer of 2011, I had my first phone call with Prof. Anne Wimbush Watts, the patron saint of Morehouse College, and told her how motivated I was to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. By this time, I thought I was the perfect candidate. As a scholarship whiz, I thought I had this had this process figured out. We had the call five months in advance, right? Of course, we had time to prepare.
Apparently, we were late to the game already. So much for my scholarship experience.
You’ve probably heard of the Rhodes Scholarship, but you’ve never heard of what it takes to apply.
At the time, you needed to have:
- an eligible GPA (3.8 or higher),
- a letter of recommendation from your university’s presidential office (because you can’t apply by yourself),
- a perfectly developed online resume,
- up to EIGHT recommendation letters,
- and a thousand-word personal statement.
A thousand words? Seems simple enough, right?
Dr. Watts made me write over 50,000 words about my personal and professional life, and how it logically lead to a admittance into Rhodes House at Oxford
Yeesh. At the time, it felt like purgatory. Now, I ask my mentees to do the exact same thing.
I know what you’re thinking. How on earth could you ever write that much?
How to Vomit Words
Write drunk, edit sober.
— Not Ernest Hemigway
Apparently, he never said the quote. As a teetotaler, I can’t even heed his commands. However, there’s a critical point that every successful writer needs to understand.
Writing and editing must be done separately.
As an innovation researcher and consultant, I can verify this is true in nearly every creative endeavor. Designers, while innovating effectively, completely separate methods and mindsets of generation from methods of critique. They understand that the process of brainstorming and the process of judicious critique, require different mindsets.
Humans aren’t wired to do both at the same time. But, your brain tries to do both when it’s writing any document- and inevitably, fails to make anything.
Unfortunately, it takes discipline to separate the two. This is why you have to actively choose to prioritize your focus. When you start writing, you have to decide to split up your vomit writing from your editing. Don’t do both at the same time, as much as you might want to correct that spelling and grammatical errors in the second paragraph you keep passing.
Keep your mind focused on one goal: either laying down new thoughts, or, revamping old ones, but don’t try and do both. This division of labor keeps your mind focused on the task at hand. Though I agree that it is not easy, it’s a worthy skill to learn.
When you vomit-write, you have to discipline yourself to develop a flow of complete, generative, self-discovery.
Which means, your first drafts will suck.
If you ask me, are you a writer Judy? I’ll say no, but I’m a great rewriter.
— Judy Blume
Though Masterclass offers the incommensurably gifted for writing advice, you can take the first step.
Write it down. Get E.E. Cummings with it. Throw grammar rules, punctuation, everything to the wind. Just write it. like now.
Seriously. Leave this Medium draft, get out your pad, your phone, your computer, right now, and get something — ANYTHING — down.
Did you do it?
Don’t cheat yourself, now. Just get it done.
Congratulations. That’s the hardest part. Now you have to keep going.
Rid yourself of distractions. Set a timer; maybe, a Pomodoro timer. Get started fearlessly and get your story down on the page.
Not sure what to write about? Try some primers:
- What does the academic program remind you of? Why does it attract you?
- What would you do, if you had all the money in the world?
- What one skill people wouldn’t expect you to have when they first see you.
- Name three qualities you value in your friends, and why.
- If you were lost in the Amazon rainforest, what tools would you take with you?
- Name your heroes. What do you like about them? How are you like your heroes?
- Name your favorite smell. Draft the story you remember based on that smell’s memory.
I got a hundred more. Google does too.
Try out a few. Write until you can’t write.
Wring and Repeat
Once you’ve wrung the intellectual towel, leave. Once you create something, your brain continues to process what you made subconsciously after you leave a project. A lot of smart people say the same.
Every time you return, you will undoubtedly be able to approach your words with a fresh start and a new perspective.
No one can craft an impressive story by writing tens of thousands of words for days on end. The same goes for my 50,000 words. and every single one of those esteemed Masterclass authors. Once you come back, you’ll have more to say.
You think after I distilled my life story into a crystallized thousand-word essay, I’d be set, right?
I told you this story ends in failure. I didn’t get the Rhodes scholarship; I wasn’t even put on the finalist list.
However, I knew learned something special from Dr. Watts’ crucible: eventually, these tools would be put to good use.
I wasn’t wrong. By using the skills the taught me, I was accepted to every graduate school of my choice; MIT, Stanford, Michigan, and my eventual doctoral alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley. Moreover, I obtained funding for my graduate program and finalized my academic career — and four degrees — with no debt.
Eventually, I found a way to share the love. I’ve taken on countless mentees over the years, and many have asked me for advice about how to apply for graduate school. Amazingly, every single undergrad whom I’ve directly advised got into a graduate school program of their choice.
Sometimes, from vomit comes sustenance.
I don’t tell you these accomplishments to brag on myself. Surely you can see by now; each win had a foundation of countless losses.
That process, however, is just like the word vomit process I’ve been preaching all this time. To find the diamonds in the rough, you have to keep digging-incessantly, diligently, tenaciously-through the rough.
Your digging just needs you to put pencil to paper.
So, what are you waiting for?