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Fighting the Tofu

Close up of 'Late Night Bread' by Libby Haines.

"This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard, and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard." ~ Neil Gaiman

You’ll often be told that discipline is one of the crucial components you need to have as a writer.

No matter what, the ability to sit down and write is at the heart of, well, being a writer. But almost every writer will tell you sitting down and writing is the most challenging part of the gig.

After years (and I mean years) of procrastinating from starting a piece of writing I’d already spent hours thinking about, I finally sat down and began to piece together the story. At first, it seemed effortless. I dedicated a set amount of time per day to writing and diligently aimed for a set number of words. Nothing extravagant; I simply wanted to gently build the habit into my day - and it worked. Within a week, I had just over ten thousand words, the most I’d ever singularly written for a piece of fiction writing. 

And then it happened. Resistance.

The gentle habit that had steered me so well suddenly went out the window, and not only was I fighting to sit down in front of my newly word-loaded document, but I was struggling to type a single word. Despite having mapped out the narrative arc and created dot points of the key scenes I wanted to write next, I simply couldn’t get over the hurdle. 

The resistance to writing, that formidable adversary almost every creative mind confronts, transcends time and talent. Renowned author Steven Pressfield, in his seminal work The War of Art, delves into the heart of this struggle, describing it as a force that "is most powerful at the finish line." 

Well, Steven, that sounds about right, but I am still far from the finish line and yet resistance is pushing back. Hard. I like Pressfield’s book on the topic and dug it out during my recent battle with resistance to try and unworry the process. Resistance to writing is not quite imposter syndrome - although that can certainly be a part of it. While I know that many writers and creatives face it, I do believe there is a deeply personal layer to the experience, too. My resistance seems to find its strongest footing when I’m in the local op shop and see the piles of books stacked up, many by writers I’ve never even heard of with titles that make me in no hurry to pick them and browse their blurbs. Someone pushed through their resistance to write these books, and now here they sit, discarded. I know this is an impossibly negative perspective to take - and if you’re a writer who’s since found one of your books in the op shop, do let me know how that experience felt to you - but as I say, it’s the kind of thinking that’s pure petrol to get the fire of my writing resistance roaring.

It's a paradoxical challenge — the closer one gets to the act of creation, the more formidable the resistance becomes. Fellow wordsmith Maya Angelou once remarked: 

"What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks, 'the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.' And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I'm writing, I write. And then it's as if the muse is convinced that I'm serious and says, 'Okay. Okay. I'll come.'"

Angelou's insight underscores the tension between the desire to create and the resistance often preceding it. The act of showing up, of persisting through the seemingly mundane or uninspired phases, becomes the battleground where writers either succumb to or overcome the resistance. Resistance is not a one-time obstacle but a recurring nemesis that tests a writer's commitment to their art. So, what happens when showing up is no longer enough?

Apparently, it’s time to break out the tofu.

Fighting the Tofu

In her book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg describes this resistance to writing as ‘fighting the tofu’. She advises: 

“Tofu is cheese made out of soybeans. It is dense, bland, white. It is fruitless to wrestle with it; you get nowhere.”

Goldberg shares this humorous expression learned from her spiritual teacher, Katagiri Roshi. She connects it with her internal fight of wanting or needing to write and battling the voice telling her she can’t write. Ultimately, her advice is to lean into resistance; there’s no point fighting a battle you can’t win. 

Accepting the resistance is the first step to overcoming it. Like Pressfield’s work, I found myself digging out my copy of Goldberg’s book once more recently to turn to this chapter and pry into what other steps I can take to overcome my recent resistance. I previously wrote these steps out in an old essay, so I revisited them and tried to put them into practice in my current state to see just how helpful (or unhelpful) they might be.

Take the resistance to the page. 

Goldberg advises that when resistance rears its ugly head, she simply invites it onto the page. She writes about it until she gets sick of it and can banish it from the room altogether. Instead of fighting the tofu, lean into it. 

Hence, here I am, rewriting and expanding on this old essay I wrote years ago, published on a website that now seems to have been disbanded. Here’s hoping this’ll help me get sick of the matter, and I can return to my novel (I’ll keep you posted).

Bargain with the resistance. 

Make a deal that’s easy to strike. Allow yourself time to feel the resistance and everything it’s telling you. If it’s 9 am, tell your resistance it has an hour to do what it likes, and then you’re putting it away so you can write. Listen to what it has to say, tell it ‘thanks so much - see you tomorrow’ - and then write.

I’ve been attempting to implement this one for the last few days, but it hasn’t worked thus far. I’ve hidden behind the excuse that it’s my last week of work before I take a well-earned break for the holidays, which means I will no longer have said excuse tomorrow. 

Join a writing group or find a writing partner.

Set a weekly or bi-weekly catch-up with your group or partner, and agree to have one piece of writing you want to share and get feedback on. Nothing helps beat resistance like the judgement of other writers that you haven’t done anything.

This has worked to some extent, as it was in conversations with a writer friend chatting about her idea for a new book that gave me the much-needed kick to get on with my own. Between her telling me about having the initial concept and us catching up a month later, she’d managed to get thirty thousand words down. It wasn’t disapproval that spurred me, but certainly the thought that time moves quickly and if I kept sitting on my ideas, they would never, you know, actually happen. 

I have found having a friend or two to help keep you motivated can definitely be helpful, and in the spirit of such, I have told a few close friends what I’m up to so that when they ask me ‘How’s it going,’ I feel I have some other minds pushing me onwards.

Set some micro-goals 

Resistance often digs its spikey heels when our goals are big and lofty. Saying ‘I’m going to write my first novel’ is a significant and scary goal. Saying, ‘I’m going to create a 300-word plot structure for a novel idea I have’, is far more achievable (and much less scary). Build on your micro-goals each week or month, and gradually work towards progress.

I’ve put this process into place with an aim to write a set amount of words per day - these can be from any part of my work in progress, and there’s no pressure to work on it any set order or structure if an idea for a scene strikes. It’s worked well - until the resistance struck me down! So perhaps this idea isn’t as useful for overcoming resistance as it might appear?

Embrace spontaneity 

Although a lot of writing advice says to sit down at the same time each day to write (and there is merit to this), if resistance is holding you back, it might be more complex. Inspiration can strike anytime, so keep a notebook and pen handy. When an idea hits, or you feel a crack in the resistance - embrace the opportunity as much as you can and write.

This feels like an obvious but effective strategy - and when I feel in the mood to write, it’s easy to write. The trouble I’m experiencing is that resistance is knocking the mood out of me, OR even if I initially feel in the mood, once I try to write, I find it a struggle thanks to said resistance. While I love the idea of writing in a notebook and carrying one wherever I go, I find writing in one spontaneously tiresome. Ideas often find me when I’m running, swimming or walking my dogs, making it a tad difficult to suddenly get my pen and paper out. As someone who works full time, studies full time and has a plethora of other demands on my time (self-curated and other), spontaneous writing doesn’t seem to work for me.

Another writer who eludes me now has advocated for sitting down at the same time each day to write so you create a mindset that kicks into action for that set time - there’s nothing like habit and routine to help us get somewhere and our minds our powerful in helping us make that happen. I find this is better advice than embracing spontaneity, which doesn’t suit a busy life schedule very well.

I think the key here is to find the right tricks and tips that work for you and help you either create cracks in the resistance or pull wide open the ones that are already there. You can create as many as you like - so long as they get you writing.

In essence, the resistance to writing is an integral facet of the creative journey, a challenge faced by literary luminaries and aspiring authors alike. The struggle is not unique but shared across the tapestry of literary history, with each writer grappling with this force in their own way. It is in acknowledging, confronting, and persisting through this resistance that the true artistry of writing unfolds.

Goldberg ends the chapter on fighting tofu in her book with this solid piece of advice:

“Just don’t get caught up in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure. When it is your time to write, write.”

But I also quite like the world’s most classic cult quote on resistance, and I feel there’s something here worth leaning into, too, if only because it speaks to the heart of the matter - that, as a writer, resistance is something I will ultimately overcome:

“Resistance is futile.”  ~ The Borg, Star Trek.


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