How to overcome writer's despair?
October 5, 2017 1:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I overcome the negativity that prevents me from completing partially-finished writing projects?

So about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way through any creative writing project, I'll be overwhelmed by an absolute certainty that what I am writing is absolute garbage that nobody will ever enjoy or care about. I'll also (typically while editing) decide that I've gone the wrong way with regards to major components of the work, in ways that would necessitate scrapping the entire project and starting over.

The idea of starting over is so overwhelming that I kind of give up in despair and end up with projects that don't get finished.

1)how do I know when my criticisms of my work are valid vs. when they are just insecurity?

2)how do I work past the powerful critic voice that says "this is pointless, what you are writing is sloppy and derivative and boring and mediocre and your excitement was totally unwarranted"?
posted by windykites to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I wrote a book about this. It's called Finishing School: overcoming work blocks to get your projects done and into the world.

(1) How is it that you're getting criticisms of your work when you're in the middle of it? It sounds like, for you, that's probably a bad idea.

(2) More important than (1) is your own criticism. In the book I write (in great detail) about exploring in depth what's going on with those voices. They come from somewhere. There are no shortcut answers to this kind of thing (although you're probably going to get a whole bunch of them in the posts that follow this one!). There are actual causes for your feeling lousy about your writing. If you do a little work to find out more about these critical voices, you'll be better able to counter them.

Basically, there is a powerful force that doesn't want you to finish, probably because you're terrified that if you do finish, it will finally be "proven" that you're "sloppy...derivative...boring" etc. You don't dare finish. The stakes are too high! you have to lower them, by finding some place in the middle, in between "I'm the worst" and "but maybe...just MAYBE... I'm great!"

The work you might want to do on this is designed to get you to that middle place, so you don't have to live in the extremes anymore.

If you don't want to buy my book, here's a song I wrote instead!

I'm Great -- But Wait
posted by DMelanogaster at 1:23 PM on October 5 [8 favorites]

Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.” ― Jane Smiley
(Attributed; I'm pretty sure Anne Lamott has a similar quote floating around.) Recognize your negativity for what it is: fear. Everything looks like garbage when it's only partially finished (cakes; remodeling projects; surgical procedures), and you cannot judge your work accurately, or work on improvements and edits, until that first draft exists.

That powerful critic voice? Listen closely: it's a chorus. It's your own self-limiting perfectionist voice, yeah, but it's also a bunch of people you probably don't even have in your life anymore, who ran you and your ambitions down for reasons of their own (reasons that rarely anything to do with you personally, likely you were just at hand).

You're writing, and creating, and you love doing those things, and your excitement is totally warranted. Best wishes.
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:26 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]

It is very natural that you feel overwhelmed because it is scary to write something that you don't know if others will like and all of the self-doubts that are coming up.
You are not the only one who faces so-called Gremlins which are just our negative thoughts that we are not good enough. Not good enough Gramlin is the most common and it comes up every time we do something new or different.

1)how do I know when my criticisms of my work are valid vs. when they are just insecurity?
Ask yourself, "What was the response to my work so far? " List the projects that you completed and were successful. How do you feel when you have those thoughts? How would you feel without those thoughts? Are your thoughts true? How do you react when you believe those thoughts? You diminish what you've already written and you re-write which is very time-consuming and it doesn't bring you joy, inspiration, and empowerment.
Have you asked someone to read through your project and asked for the opinion?

2)how do I work past the powerful critic voice that says "this is pointless, what you are writing is sloppy and derivative and boring and mediocre and your excitement was totally unwarranted"?
There are a few of ways how you can do that:
1. Recognise your thoughts and know that they are just your Not good enough Gremlin. Give a name to the Gremlin so that you separate those thoughts from yourself.
2. Do the mediation with your Gremlin, where you thank the Gremlin (visualize it and name it) for protecting you. Acknowledge that you know that it is protecting from being hurt or look stupid or sloppy or boring. Tell it that you don't need his protection anymore and that you'll be fine. You can say something like, "You must be tired, you've been talking all day. Let's sit down and have a cup of tea. Relax." When you don't resist the Gremlin will persist.
3. Ask yourself:
Is it true?
How do I react when I believe those thoughts?
Who would I be without those thoughts?
Look up The work by Byron Katie. She is amazing.

4. Ask yourself, What is the vision of my project? What is the purpose? Who and how do you want to serve?" Sometimes we just need to go back to basic.
What doubts and thoughts stop you from achieving your goals? You already listed them in your post.

Hope this help.
posted by Romana S at 1:43 PM on October 5

I also have this problem. I think everyone does. I went to a good talk by Charles de Lint a couple of years ago on this exact topic. It was extremely well attended. He pointed out the importance of practicing finishing things. We all have a ton of practice starting things, but almost nobody has much practice finishing big projects. That's why we're not good at it -- we're unpracticed at it. So you should finish as practice, if nothing else.

Of course, the twist is that once you're finished you realize that the work is not so bad after all, and problems that seemed insurmountable now look surmountable. De Lint said that when he reads back over something he has written, he can almost never identify the spots at which he felt stuck or considered giving up.

The War of Art is a good book on this topic.
posted by Prunesquallor at 1:51 PM on October 5 [6 favorites]

Ira Glass had a story about when he first started This American Life, how he was so hyper-critical of his work that it was hard to go on. Looking back, he realized that his taste level was really high even back then, but his skills weren't developed enough to produce work that would satisfy that taste level. He needed to keep working and develop.
posted by jasper411 at 1:52 PM on October 5 [2 favorites]

1)how do I know when my criticisms of my work are valid vs. when they are just insecurity?

I treat this like something fundamentally unknowable and unimportant. If I have made it 2/3 of the way through a novel, I have made a commitment to myself to finish. Even if it's the most horrible 2/3-of-a-novel in the entire world, it will be good for me to finish. Even if I have written the most horrible 2/3-of-a-novel in the entire world, there was something I once loved about this idea - or I wouldn't have started writing it in the first place. I write the last 1/3 in the hopes that writing the ending will give me some information or insight that I need in order to figure out how to write the novel I want to write - and this is, in fact, often true. Even when it's not, I have always been glad to finish the thing.

2)how do I work past the powerful critic voice that says "this is pointless, what you are writing is sloppy and derivative and boring and mediocre and your excitement was totally unwarranted"?

By taking it as an article of faith that it's OK if I write something sloppy and derivative and boring and mediocre.

That's the logical part, though I can't always get my gut to believe it. When I can't get my gut to believe it, I write myself pep talks with some cognitive-behavioral ideas and some Dialectical Behavioral Therapy ideas.

The one I have here went something like this:

1) I understand that I feel resistant about this.
2) I understand that summer is running down. (That is, I was running out of time to finish my book).
3) I understand that I want to sell this book and that means making it better but I cannot make it so perfect as to guarantee my success.
4) Do not hurry, do not rest.
5) The doing is not actually as bad as the anticipation even if it feels that way.
6) Even if it is, wouldn't you rather feel lousy and have a lot of work done than feel lousy and not have any work done?

So I argue with the insecurity until I can get to work but ultimately - I don't have to believe I'm doing good work. I only have to be willing to do the work.

This all sounds very dour and nose-to-the-grindstone but the last piece of it is that I try to do everything I can to get myself excited about what I'm writing and put myself in touch with the thing that made me want to write it in the first place. Sometimes that's rereading parts of it, sometimes it's reading/watching things that inspired me, sometimes it's just making sure I take time to listen to music and watch movies I want to watch and look at art and go for walks in nature.
posted by Jeanne at 2:20 PM on October 5 [2 favorites]

You don't say the length/scope of the writing projects you're attempting, but I'm guessing you mean novels. I think it could be really helpful to write shorter things--short stories and even flash fiction. You can still hone your writing skills in those formats, they are easier to finish, and if you don't like them afterwards, they're not such major investments. Plus it's easier to send them out to lit mags or share with others, which could boost your confidence. You could even write short pieces that you think you'll later integrate into longer pieces. Granted, there are skills that are specific to longer formats like novels that you'd still have to keep developing, but you'd be a more developed and confident writer when you returned to those projects.
posted by mermaidcafe at 2:28 PM on October 5

I'll suggest two things. First, what you're describing isn't a writing problem. If you were painting or sculpting or designing architecture, you'd have this same problem. This has nothing to do with writing. Second, no writing is ever finished. It's just due. Revision can be endless—so can writing—if you let it. You need to take control and decide when and how much you're going to write, when and how much you're going to revise, and when and how much you're going to walk away from the desk and go play with your kids or visit your mom or watch Survivor (Wednesdays at 8 pm on CBS!).

how do I know when my criticisms of my work are valid vs. when they are just insecurity?

No criticism is ever valid. Every criticism is valid. [Shrug.] For me, there are two kinds of criticism I care about: (1) criticism from someone whose actual job is to critique my work, like my editor; or (2) criticism from someone who is the audience for this specific work. And the latter (audience criticism) isn't something I would ever seek, receive, or consider while I was merely "2/3 to 3/4 of the way through" the work. No audience is qualified to judge a work that's in progress.

how do I work past the powerful critic voice...

There's no voice. Stop with the touchy-feely stuff, because it's hurting your ability to surmount this problem. You are the voice. There's just you and the paper (computer, etc). If you hear an actual voice, then seek professional medical treatment, and short of that, stop empowering your insecurity and self-doubt by thinking about them as a "voice." There is no voice.

You work past it by working past it. There isn't a magic trick. You sit down at a desk with your tools in front of you, and you spend twenty seconds thinking about how everyone else in the world—carpenters, landscapers, plumbers, truck drivers, coal miners—puts hammer to nail because they don't have a choice, because that's what a job is. Writing, in this moment, is your job. That's why you're going to finish.

Or you won't. Keep in mind that what you're describing is one of the key distinctions between actual writers versus Billy Joel's real estate novelist. The world is full of people who have begun writing books. Finish one, then endure the purgatory of trying to get it published, and then you'll be a writer. If you want a word of encouragement, that's it. There isn't some mystical character trait separating you from those successful writers, a trait that maybe you don't have and that you can fret about. It doesn't exist. What separates you is that they finished. So go finish.
posted by cribcage at 3:32 PM on October 5 [3 favorites]

I recommend this on Ask on a super-regular basis, last time less than a week ago! So I'll just copy the relevant bit of my last answer below...

Listen to Liz Gilbert's podcast, Magic Lessons (there's also a book called Big Magic, which I've not read, but go for that if you prefer, I assume they're similar). It features her coaching a whole series of creative people in different fields to help them through the fear of rejection, lack of confidence, or other forms of being stuck that are so often a part of creativity. At best it'll get you through it yourself, at worst you'll at least know you're not alone, this is part of the creative life for the vast majority of people. Her Ted Talk is pretty great, too. It's all about not taking your success/failure as a writer quite so personally as a measure of your success as a human being. It's also funny.
posted by penguin pie at 3:49 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]

I like having a mantra, because it's a quick way to re-direct when those kinds of thoughts start. For this situation, your goal is to write something Good and the mantra is, 'Perfection is the enemy of Good.'
posted by (F)utility at 4:35 PM on October 5

I would suggest you don't edit it until it's done. Just write and write. You can go back and read it and make minor changes in a way that helps you move forward, but you shouldn't start making serious revisions or deciding if you like it or not until it's done.
posted by AppleTurnover at 6:47 PM on October 5 [1 favorite]

This is me, too. I'm getting palpitations just reading about it. Eagerly reading all advice.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:08 AM on October 6 [1 favorite]

I feel like I'm just restating here what Jeanne wrote, but maybe hearing it in a slightly different way will help?

how do I know when my criticisms of my work are valid vs. when they are just insecurity?

They're never valid. They're not valid because the work isn't done. Until the work is done, you are not capable of assessing it. Looking at your half-finished draft and announcing, 'oh, this is garbage' is like walking up to a half-finished sculpture and being like, 'this sculpture is crap! look, it doesn't even have arms.' A valid ranking of the quality of your work goes like this:

1. An idea in your head
2. An unfinished draft
3. A finished draft that is probably bad
4. A finished draft that has been edited to be a little bit better
5. A finished draft that has been edited to be a little bit better than that
6. Etc. etc. etc. etc.

People talk a lot about how writer's block stems from fear, which it does, but for me at least, it also comes from ego. "I, a great writer, would never write something that is crap; this looks like crap, so I better throw it away and write something better." Shut up, ego. A big turning point for me as a writer was realizing that I'd rather be a mediocre writer than not write at all.

Like, in the end, even if you write twenty drafts and it's still kind of crap, who cares? At least you wrote something. Most people don't. Do you find joy in the process apart from the idea of writing something 'good'? Did something about the idea excite you or scare you or turn you on? Figuring out a way to get back to that energy will restart you. Find the place where it's fun to write, even if what you're write is going to be so bad when it's done you'll need to set it on fire and never tell anyone about it. It won't be that bad, but let yourself write with the idea in mind. It's not about quality. It's about excitement. Figure out what you love about the project, tell everybody else, including yourself, to fuck off, and write into that space.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:54 AM on October 6 [2 favorites]

In my experience, my own impulse to edit while writing a first draft is totally pointless. Most first drafts are deeply flawed, but when you're down in the trenches of writing, you don't have enough perspective to fix things properly. It's like trying to remodel a house that's missing a foundation.

Finish your draft, accepting that it will be gloriously bad, put it away in a metaphorical filing cabinet for a couple weeks, and then pull it out and look at it with fresh eyes. Sometimes you'll find a project isn't salvageable, but it's usually still worth finishing for the sake of writing experience.
posted by toastedcheese at 1:22 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]

This article about the concept of "permission to suck" has quotes from published writers that might be useful? The Write Practice
posted by Shark Hat at 2:37 AM on October 7

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