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Help me shut down my perfectionism in my creative writing
August 2, 2008 2:20 PM   Subscribe

How do I kill the perfectionism, the precious and fearful impulses, and the self-doubt that keeps me from completing my creative writing projects.

Usually, I can barely get beyond the first paragraph without constantly editing and reediting or doubting myself and then abandoning the piece altogether. I feel trapped. I'm constantly starting over. And when I do manage to squeak out a paragraph, I treat it like a genius work of art...which in the end I decided it absolutely is not. I'm either riddled with self-doubt or I'm totally over confident, all without producing completed work. Help!
posted by mizrachi to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
 
Write when you're mildly drunk, edit when you're mildly sober, submit when you're totally shitfaced.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:32 PM on August 2, 2008 [16 favorites]


No, sorry about that. I'm actually interested in seeing some good responses to this question myself.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:34 PM on August 2, 2008


two things:

1) just finish it. Don't analyze every sentence as you go. Just concentrate on finishing a draft without worrying about the quality at all.

2) Accept that writing is re-writing. The quote, "the first draft of everything is shit" is attributed to Hemingway, although it could be apocryphal for all I know. Nevertheless it is very very true. Early drafts suck, even if you are one of history's great writers. So give yourself permission to suck the first, second, third, fourth, even fifth and sixth times through. Don't throw it out and start over, just keep revising until you honestly feel it's done.

3) The odds are very high \that any given paragraph you write is neither brilliant nor terrible. As long as they have the basic competencies, 99.9% of everything people write falls somewhere in the middle. try to get away from passing judgment. A lot of it has to do with what mood you're in that day. Many writers report that sometimes they feel like they're writing brilliantly, and sometimes they feel like they're writing shittily. And when they go back and read the two types later, they come out sounding just about the same.

Ok that was 3 things.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:35 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


if you come to a particularly challenging place, you can even write "xxxx fill this in later xxxx" or something and just keeping going. That's what I do. Anything to keep myself from losing momentum. (later I do a search for "xxx" and find all the places i need to fill in)
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:39 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


The War of Art might help.
posted by sharkfu at 2:42 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't think you're totally off with that suggestion, Dumsnill. While the self-medication route has been favored by so many talented writers it's become a cliché, it does seem like one, moderately effective, approach at sequestering those inhibitions and fears.
posted by mizrachi at 2:43 PM on August 2, 2008


Take a creative writing class. When you have actual deadline pressure, you learn how to shut off your internal editor.
posted by SansPoint at 2:44 PM on August 2, 2008


Write when you're mildly drunk, edit when you're mildly sober,

Fuzzy on the attribution (Hemingway?) but the prescription was: write on coffee, rewrite on scotch.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:49 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I tend towards perfectionism in certain things, and the beginning is always the hardest. I'm not familiar enough with the others, nor am I a 'professional' writer, so I can only comment on the perfectionism part, along with a little bit of the related self-doubt.

I find that it's helpful to promise yourself that you're going to proofread quite thoroughly, but not for a while. In other words, write a whole paragraph, or a whole page, and if it's complete crap, just keep going until it's finished. Then come back and revise. The goal is to keep myself moving forward, on the theory that, especially being a perfectionist, I know that I'm capable of revising what I've written, but only if I have something written in the first place.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Sometimes when I realize I'm spending way too long on getting a sentence or paragraph "just right," and I'm still not at all happy with it, I change my goal to writing it as poorly as possible, and then I just move on to the next part. (Perhaps it's because I can be passive-aggressive, so it's almost as if I'm spiting... someone... by making it bad.) Back in my college paper days, I was put in charge of the article about a student who died from meningitis, and knowing that it was going to be the front-page spread, something every single person on campus would read, was making it really hard for me to get anything done. After a good ten minutes of trying various first sentences, I settled on, "So, like, some girl here died from meningitis!" And then I went on to the next sentence, as if the preceding one wasn't horrible, and wrote something halfway-decent. And the one after that wasn't bad. And soon I was writing a good article. When I finished, I had something that had some horrible chunks (including a quote from Mrs. I Forget Her Name And Hope I Don't Forget to Change This), but was overall a solid article. And, knowing I'd written a pretty solid article, it was pretty easy for me to go through a second time and let me inner perfectionist shine, changing the opening sentence to something good, and fixing up all the other parts.

YMMV, of course. I suspect a large part of it comes down to why this all happens. But by promising myself that I'm just going to do a first draft, however bad it is, I can keep myself moving, and it's a heck of a lot easier to revise when I can see each sentence in the context of the whole product.
posted by fogster at 2:51 PM on August 2, 2008 [4 favorites]


I suffer from the same thing with my photography. When I really want to get off my butt, I challenge myself to take as many bad photos as possible. That's my goal. Shoot crappy photos. Then, anything good that come of it is a plus.

Years ago, I wanted to submit my work to publishers and galleries, but my perfectionism and fear of rejection got in the way. So I made it my goal to collect as many rejection letters as possible. When a new one came in the mail, I was actually happy to add it to my "Rejection Letter" folder! I would even call my friends and brag that I was rejected by an exclusive gallery or a major art publisher! At least I was doing something!

My campaign of collecting rejection letters was cut short due to some unfortunate life events, which demanded all my time. But when I am back on track to market my work once again, I will use the same tactic.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:53 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


"...and let my inner perfectionist shine..." Boy was that ironic.
posted by fogster at 2:53 PM on August 2, 2008


Don't start a piece until you've thought about it for at least a week. Make a note of the idea, though, and details, so you don't forget it.

Write longhand. I returned to writing first drafts longhand a while back. It does help to make a note in a margin next to bits you're not happy with and to think "I'll fix that when I type it up". 85% of the time, it's obvious what needs fixing by the time you go back to it, knowing what comes later. 10% of the time it doesn't need fixing. The other 5% you can delete or get back to when the whole MS is done.

Sketch, then paint - summarise the first couple of dozen paragraphs in fewer than 20 sentences. Then either go back and write it, or edit it up to weight.

These are just suggestions. I suffer a good deal from the problems you describe myself, and I look forward to seeing what others suggest.

Plus, as a single anecdotal datapoint, I became considerably more prolific after quitting drinking, and quality of output also rose slightly.
posted by WPW at 2:56 PM on August 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


I have a friend who keeps redoing her novel and it is always just about right. I finally figured out that through she enjoys the working on her book, the thought of sending it off, getting rejected, etc are very frightening for her, and so she keeps telling herself that the book is not quite right at the moment. Then, too, the possibility that once done and sent off--what is left in life? another one, perhaps, but why do that when you can stay with what you have been so used to?
posted by Postroad at 2:59 PM on August 2, 2008


I agree with drjimmy11. Don't lose momentum; just leave the sticky parts for later. And don't keep thinking about them. Your subconscious will keep working on them when you're not even aware. When it has the answer, it will make you aware of it--although it may not be what you had originally expected.
posted by chaplinesque at 3:04 PM on August 2, 2008


I find writing in longhand really helps with this, oddly enough. I write in a Moleskine notebook, and I turn the page, and poof, what I've written before is gone and I don't have to look at it anymore. And there isn't enough room for me to edit in place more than a tiny bit without making a giant mess of the notebook, so I don't so much. If something is totally not working plot wise, I might scratch out a large section and rewrite the whole thing, but I don't nitpick my grammar to death the way I do when I write on the computer.

On my current writing project, every five thousand words or so, I type it into the computer and edit it as I type it in. But then, very importantly, I go back to writing the next sections in long hand, so I'm still not constantly revisiting what was already done.

I carry a printed copy of what's come before if I need to refer to it, but I print it in small type, tight line spacings and narrow margins. This helps on two levels -- it reduces the amount of paper I have to carry around, and it reduces the space I have for 'just fixing this sentence' on my carry around copies.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:06 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Excellence comes from revision. Your first ambition should be to write a bad story. You need something to revise. Stephen King wrote in his memoir On Writing that he shoots for a thousand words and day and expects to throw about 50% away in the second draft. So try not to be too ambitious in your first draft, Just get it all down fast and sort it out later. The longer it sits before revision the better.
posted by RussHy at 3:07 PM on August 2, 2008


Shitty First Drafts.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:12 PM on August 2, 2008


I think part of the problem in cases like these is that (on some level) you're sitting down to "create art." That's a lot of pressure! And that thought alone kills the sort of looseness and casual nature that allows good written to happen.

Anyone's who been a bit drunk and tried to speak a language they only know vaguely has realized that alcohol alleviates some of the self-pressure that hinders free expression. Unfortunately, sooner or later you're going to have to sober up, and the problem will still be there. Unless, of course, you drink yourself to death . . . but that's unadvisable.

I've been asked by someone at a publisher's to write my own story. It's flattering, and I've got some interest in doing it. (But a lot of doubts, too.) I know the pressure to bang something like that out would kill me if I were to act as if it were an assigned project, or if any sort of deadline were imposed on it. But I keep the idea in the back of the mind, and occasionally I'll write down a little anecdote when it's vivid in my recollection. Sometimes, these little pieces will end up connecting to one another in a way that creates its own narrative structure much more effectively than if I'd consciously imposed one. If they remain fragments, I view them as practice; they've helped me to better express myself in English. Metafilter is a great place to write "creatively," too. For example, I don't care if someone still living in mom's basement has it in his head that the one billion-plus Muslims in the world are all waiting to kill someone for apostasy . . . on a purely ideological level, it's not worth the trouble. But engaging in such a debate is a great way to practice writing "off the cuff" with no pressure. I save all that stuff, too. I got that idea from a songwriter who felt he had the same problem as you; he dealt with it not by attempting to write whole songs, but just little "seeds" - a lyrical line or two, a rhythm, a hint of a melody. He stores these up and once he's got a bunch of them, it's relatively easy for him to make complete songs. We're human, not imaginary monkeys who can sit in front of typewriters for an infinite length of time picking away, until we "accidentally" create a new work of genius. Great writers have been sporadically known to sit down and write a masterpiece with no break . . . but that's unusual, even for great writers.

I think we've all done that thing where we're really happy with what we've written, only to wake up the following morning and read something pretentious and trite. One can get so caught up in one's thoughts that the writing one does in such a state doesn't make sense even to the author, once the mental context in which it was written has evaporated, after a night's sleep or a tea break. One way to avoid creating these hugely internalized contexts is keep focus on one person you think may read it. And take breaks - watch some television or go for a bike ride - so that when you return, you will have cleared your mind somewhat.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:23 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


What I do, which is a tip I learnt from Slavoj Zizkek in a documentary about him is to write everything down as a rough 'plan', keeping yourself in a perpetual state of 'planning'. Then slowly flesh everything out and before you know it you have a book/essay/article.

I find that once I have the semblance of something vaguely structured, I can get down to work. Nothing better.
posted by ashaw at 3:35 PM on August 2, 2008 [2 favorites]


I, too, suggest that you try writing on actual paper, rather than on a computer, for a draft. A typewriter works too. You can't go back and edit so easily, so you're forced to move on. Then, when you decide on something, you can go back and write in the margins and repeat the process again.

I have found this helpful for just getting the first draft out, and for a few revisions thereafter... then I start having similar perfectionism troubles. But it's a place to start.
posted by Nattie at 3:38 PM on August 2, 2008


I'm with FuzzySkinner and RussHy. Write badly on purpose. Think, "Today I will crank out dreck! Absolute crap! And lots of it!" It works for me. Writing badly gets me going, and eventually I find that I'm writing close to what I want. It's just the beginning that sucks. Most beginnings should be deleted anyway, so there you go.

Other tricks that work for me (writing is a big part of what I do for a living):

- Start in the middle.

- Write as fast as possible, no editing allowed, no re-reading allowed, for at least 10 minutes. It helps me to not even look at the screen--to type blind. If you can't think of what to say, write all about how you can't think of what to say.

- Write when you're barely able to stay awake, like at 2 AM. Probably similar to writing drunk.

- Always remember that it's just a first draft. Just get something down. You'll fix it later, preferably much later (ideas improve when they're allowed to ferment).
posted by PatoPata at 3:44 PM on August 2, 2008 [3 favorites]


Someone once told me that trying to edit while you write is like trying to put one foot on the accelerator and the other foot on the brake.

While you're writing, don't judge yourself. Just put the words on the page (or on the screen). You can always fix it later, when you're in editing mode.

Every writer writes tons of crap - they just only show people the good stuff.
posted by davetill at 3:44 PM on August 2, 2008


And I really really like the "today, I will write tons of crap!" idea.
posted by davetill at 3:46 PM on August 2, 2008


Don't focus on yourself -- don't worry about whether you're a genius or not. Focus on the work and the goal of the work.

If you find yourself evaluating your paragraph for quality level, stop. Ask yourself: does it accomplish [some goal] ? Choose the goal well, so that the question is easy to answer and possible for you to achieve in a reasonable amount of time.

Then just be disciplined; catch yourself when you begin to worry about "good" vs. "bad" and just stop that. Only ask: does it get the job done.
posted by amtho at 3:48 PM on August 2, 2008


keep it simple. your first paragraph isn't going to win a pullitzer. don't write all your big ideas in the first paragraph. start small. start simple. and keep writing. write write write.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 3:59 PM on August 2, 2008


I'm a photographer, and every time someone asks me "how are every one of your pictures so great/colorful/fun/other compliment?" I tell them the truth: they're not. For every one picture you see that's so colorful and great, I took two hundred or three hundred that were out-of-focus, dull, underexposed and poorly composed.
The same principle applies, I think.

Set out with the goal of just writing, not writing well. Writing well is what you do the second time around.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 4:18 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read somewhere that Joyce Carol Oates (who teaches writing at Princeton) requires her students to focus not on writing well, but to write things with plot and structure. If I understood her method correctly, she believed that if she taught her students to write stories --- with the proper elements of stories, whatever those elements are --- that the "good writing" would take care of itself. So, she would not urge students to labor over the quality of the writing, but rather over the structure and story.

I think there's a lot of wisdom in that approach.

As for the commenters who are saying "write write write," I find that answer (perennially voiced on AskMe in response to similar questions) to be a not-very-helpful response to the question. If the questioner is asking how to conquer his/her perfectionism, "write write write" is not answering the question. The questioner is saying that perfectionism is keeping him/her from writing writing writing.

One way to break your perfectionism would be to set yourself certain writing assignments, where there is no "failure." Success is completing the assignment. Such assignments could be as simple as "describe the corner store in spare language," "write about last night's party in extravagant, fanciful prose," etc. No requirement of a plot, just little chunks of prose that help you see that you can patiently labor at writing and produce good results.

I used to write a lot of newspaper journalism in college, and early on, I was somewhat paralyzed by the same anxieties that are bothering you. As I persisted, my work process became more fluid, I was less neurotic, and I could just sit down and start working on something. Yes, I might re-write the opening sentence five times, but this was not a fraught endeavor because I knew I would find the right opening.

I think a lot of the struggle in overcoming these perfectionist tendencies comes down to proving to yourself that you can write. Right now, you are constantly judging yourself ... if you don't get that first paragraph right, there's a little voice in your head saying, "maybe I am not a good writer, I don't have what it takes." More experienced writers realize, "I've dealt with this problem a million times," so they know they will eventually get it right.

The challenge to get past this anxious stage you are in is something everyone faces. I think it explains why a lot of accomplished writers have backgrounds in professional writing (newspapers, etc.) because that training teaches people how to get past the wheel-spinning stage you are in right now. People who were never forced, as part of a job, to produce writing on schedule face a disadvantage in learning how to overcome the perfectionist blockage.
posted by jayder at 5:06 PM on August 2, 2008 [6 favorites]


As people above have touched on, writing and editing are two entirely different processes. Write first, edit later. Write without reading anything. Write and write and write, and then eventually go back over what you've done, cut, chop, edit. And you'll probably find that a lot of what you might initially have thought was crap turns out to be gold, given enough distance from it to be (a little bit more) objective.

RussHy:
Your first ambition should be to write a bad story

My personal writing maxims are similar to this. First you should worry about telling a good story. Then worry about telling that story well. And then, and only then, should you worry about writing that story well.
posted by iivix at 5:43 PM on August 2, 2008


As for the commenters who are saying "write write write," I find that answer (perennially voiced on AskMe in response to similar questions) to be a not-very-helpful response to the question. If the questioner is asking how to conquer his/her perfectionism, "write write write" is not answering the question. The questioner is saying that perfectionism is keeping him/her from writing writing writing.

Sure, but this is a chicken and egg scenario. The equivalent situation in painting is "blank canvas anxiety". Confronted with a blank canvas, any mark you make is going to ruin the perfection. But you have to make a mark, lots of marks, and lots of flawed marks, to create a beautiful painting. The trick is in knowing that if you screw up one mark, you can scribble another one on top to correct it. And in this regard writing isn't like making a precious little watercolour, it's like being able to paint with quick drying acrylic on an infinitely large canvas. If you only write one paragraph, of course you're going to worry about it being as perfect as possible, but if you churn out lots at a time, you can concentrate on the bigger picture first, working into the details second, just as if you were painting.
posted by iivix at 5:54 PM on August 2, 2008


Everyone here has covered the practical advice, so I'll give the more wimsical.

A saying I bring out whenever I'm getting perfectiony is "Done is art". Or in other words perfection is fine as long as you don't have any other goals. Finishing is one goal. Writing perfectly is another. Prioritize accordingly.

Find someone to pay you for it, on a deadline.

Hire an editor. They're the ones that get paid to perfect your writing.

I've found hobbies to be a good way to fight perfectionism. See if you can spend time doing something where the punishment for imperfection is low. I started learning a foreign language in part to combat my perfectionistic leanings, and I make mistakes all the time. Finding natives to speak with reinforce that even though I'm not perfect I am good enough for quite a lot of things. In fact I'll never get any better if I let perfection from keeping me from talking.

Maybe you could write piggy-bank style. Take a shoe box and tape it shut securely. Go around it a bunch of times with duct tape. Sit it on end and cut a 3 inch slot in the top. Sit down to write and write on 3x5 cards. When you finish a sentence put the card in the box. Don't open the box until you've finished writing. (or the box it full).
posted by Ookseer at 6:28 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Third vote for longhand/ typewriting. Underwood No.5 typewriter (or anything like it). You can't go back.
posted by priested at 7:04 PM on August 2, 2008


My oft-repeated mantra is, "Just get the shit on the screen, and edit later."

Also I find a set goal of x number of words a day is helpful. (For me x=500, which is what I can do in about an hour.
posted by orange swan at 7:32 PM on August 2, 2008


)
posted by orange swan at 7:33 PM on August 2, 2008


i wholeheartedly second reading "the war of art" - GREAT book for getting over creative motivation probs.

i also wholeheartedly second writing while drunk or stoned.
posted by beccyjoe at 7:58 PM on August 2, 2008


I agree with just getting stuff down. I didn't learn to do this until I attempted nanowrimo two years ago. It was my third year trying, and though I didn't win, I got very close to the goal with about a week left when I chickened out. Like most near-misses, fear of failure (fear of success?) might have been at the heart of it, but I brought this from the experience:

Forcing yourself to write daily is really the only way to complete any major writing project. You don't have to go at the breakneck pace that a project like nanowrimo requires (I was only writing while at work, so I was averaging a terrifying 2500 words a day), but several hundred words daily means that you'll be making appreciable progress, enough to feel like you're accomplishing something. Yes, you'll mostly have to ignore your internal editor during this time--but take mental notes of those thoughts. Let yourself do major editing after completing your project, and only after completing your project, as a reward for reaching your goal.

I actually agree with orange swan about the 500-words-a-day goal, and that's actually what I'm doing now on my current project. There are days when 500 words feels excruciating, and there are days when I have to stop myself from writing so I don't burn myself out for the next couple days. I'd advise that you always end a writing session with more to say. That way, you can sit down and know exactly where you're going. You can even cut yourself off in the middle of a sentence, so that you can maintain the momentum from day to day. I've found that doing this really helps me prepare to sit down the next day and write. Anyway, 500 words a day means that you can have a novella or short novel (YA fiction, which is what I'm working on) in 3 months, and a full length novel in 6. You'll feel rewarded by the constant numeric reward of your word/page count, and the further you get into it--assuming you haven't exhausted your plot--the more difficult it gets to just give up.

I actually don't think that having a beer (or the equivalent dosage of your drug of choice) to help you get over those blank page blues is really so awful for starting out. At the beginning, you just really need to do whatever is necessary to get yourself going. A way to overcome self consciousness is to mildly imbibe. An undergraduate poetry professor once bragged that he'd never written sober, but honestly I've found that a little sottishness never hurt.

Good luck! If you're still having this problem in November, you really might want to try Nanowrimo. It's not perfect by any means, but the community aspect and the winning aspect can really help you become more goal- and less- detail oriented.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:56 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


Erk. The undergraduate professor had never written drunk, which of course is another story entirely.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:57 PM on August 2, 2008


At Amazon.com, Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction gets four point five stars. I'm not quite done with it, but it's already the most helpful writing book I've read in years.

In addition to that and to all the good advice above, let me add a couple of quotes from professionals which I've found to be valuable:

"Your writing will develop more naturally if you resist the temptation, for the time being, to crown yourself Writer and continue simply to think of yourself as someone who is playing around."
– Victoria Nelson
On Writer's Block


"Save your mulling for more serious and lasting commitments. The blank page is more like a first date – you can keep things casual and see where it goes."
– Kathy Kleidermacher, The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Beating Writer's Block

It's hard for me to skip around and write the scenes I know and go back and do the scenes I don't; I prefer to write a story straight through. But I'm finding it valuable to slowly break this habit. Also, I've got a blog where once a week I post an original haiku and an original piece of short fiction. The thought that someone out there is expecting this work each week (whether that's true or not) is incentive to meet the deadline. It does help focus the mind.
posted by bryon at 9:36 PM on August 2, 2008 [5 favorites]


In my experience, perfectionism is not so much rooted in the desire to have something "perfect" -- an impossible goal, and, I think, a deliberately impossible goal. It is, instead, rooted in fear of failure. Some use perfectionism as an excuse not to finish things. Some mistake working hard for working smart, and think that if they endlessly labor of something, fiddling with a word here and changing a sentence there, it will somehow protect them against doing a story that others don't like.

Forget perfection. Strive for good. Let greatness take care of itself. Tell a good story. Tell it in an interesting way. Communicate clearly. Describe things. Try to only put one idea in a single sentence and one complex idea in a single paragraph. Don't be afraid of this structure: Subject verbs object. It's the backbone of writing.

Have fun. If it's laborious for you to write, there is a good chance it will be laborious to read. Write what you would enjoy reading. And don't believe it when people tell you writing is editing. For some it is. For some it isn't. Harlan Ellison doesn't re-edit his own work much, or at all. Some people work well that way. Some don't. Find your own process. But that process must involve getting words down on a paper, and finishing a story.

Trust me on this. The best thing you can strive to be in competent. As simple and unexciting as that goal seems, mere competence will put you miles ahead of most of your competition. Greatness starts with competence. Not everything you write will be a masterpiece. But if everything you write is a story worth telling, told clearly and entertainingly, every so often you will produce something extraordinary.

For a writer to be able to write, they have to give themselves permission to be just okay every now and again.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:27 PM on August 2, 2008 [11 favorites]


It was a hot summer in Iowa City. Neal Stephenson had a regular job, and yet had a hunch that writing might be for him. He had written a "query" -- a plot summary, the outline of a book, biographies of characters, and a few sample chapters -- and started to send them to editors, which he picked at random from trade directories. Many rejection letters followed. Finally, one editor wrote that he was intrigued by the outline and the sample chapter and asked for the rest of the novel. After a brief exhilaration the reality set in: there was no novel yet. He had to write it. With all his vacation time and the 4th of July holiday there were 10 days, in which to write a novel. He rented a modern typewriter, secluded himself in his apartment and started to type. Soon a problem appeared: the typewriter had a modern plastic ribbon. The plastic mellowed and became sticky: it was July in Iowa City, and the apartment was hot. The only way to prevent the ribbon from getting stuck is to keep the ribbon moving. And the only way to keep the ribbon moving is to keep pressing the keys. That discovery did wonders for his productivity. He didn't have time to think: he had to keep pressing the keys and write the first thing that came into his mind. He sent thus created manuscript to the editor. The latter replied that his publishing house can't print that -- but the work was interesting and should be published. Eventually, Neal Stephenson got an agent, a publisher, and his first published book, "The Big U".
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:38 AM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Books that might have been suggested and might be helpful.

Writing Down the Bones - Natalie Gordimer
On Writing - Stephen King

Just remember you didn't invent this problem. It kind of comes with the territory.
posted by sully75 at 11:02 AM on August 3, 2008


for actors and writers, it really takes an *enormous ego*, as most successful writers and actors will tell you.
Its the enormous ego that will power you thru self doubt. Its better than beer.
posted by jak68 at 1:29 PM on August 3, 2008


Get a hot typewriter, like Neal Stephenson.

Maybe not an actual hot typewriter, but definitely a tool of some kind that encourages initial production rather than endless tinkering.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:34 PM on August 3, 2008


I started a writers' group to help me get over some resistance issues. We meet once a week, for about an hour and a half, and talk about the issues of writing and have a 10-minute freestyle writing session based on a random writing prompt. By the time we get going on that, we are racing against the clock to get our thoughts out - something about being limited in time makes you want to write more!

Once you realize it's not just you, it's perfectly normal, you don't dwell on it as much, which frees you up to actually write (and then rewrite). When I am writing for someone else, it's very easy for me to puke it out and then go back and fix it later. I don't care, because it's not art, it's work. I always have someone (my husband, a friend) look at my work-for-hire stuff, because I know that I tend to skip over things when writing quickly, typing "you" for "your," for instance, is one of my common mistakes. In fact, if you weren't making mistakes when you write a draft, I'd be worried -- your creative flow often causes mistakes, but if you can get your concepts down onto paper, or on the screen, you've done something, you've got something to work with.

Or as this article says, you can't fix what is isn't there.

I've taken non-credit writing classes in the past, just to get myself jump-started again. You're with other writers, usually at all levels, and you get assignments so you have to write something. Then you get critiques. You can do this with a writing group too, but if you're worried about the quality, let a teacher in a structured class help you out with that. Nothing worse than getting in with a group where someone thinks "critique" means "criticize everything that I haven't personally written." If you do start a group, make sure to set the ground rules on critiquing early on.

I do my best writing at 5:30 a.m., on my 2nd cup of coffee. Certainly a beer or a cocktail might help someone relax but trying to edit while hungover sucks big time. Good luck!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:39 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


I just recently started to draw and paint as a creative outlet. Over the years, since High School, I'd pick up some pencils and a sketchbook, start to sketch, make the first mistake, and would shut down because my psyche would be screaming that 'I can't do it, what the hell am I thinking even considering taking up something like this, what the hell - you're an artist now?!', etc. Then, I wouldn't pick them up again for a few months or so. Then, I'd do it again. Then the internal criticism would start up again, etc.

This time around, back in March, I found myself unemployed. I also found an interest in watercolors. So this time, when I started thinking about picking up some pencils and paints, the internal criticism started up as usual - but I put a stop to it, literally. I remember standing in my apartment, ready to head out the door to the art store, and as soon as I found myself getting into that defeatist mindset, I said aloud, "Why *can't* I paint silly watercolors of plants? What am I here - in school? I'm not planning on winning the Whitney Biennial with my AHRT, and no one's going to be grading me on this. Fuck this noise, I'm getting some paints." That afternoon, I got my first little travel sized student paint set, and it's still one I use all the time.

I am making a ton of mistakes along the way - watercolor is a very unforgiving medium. It really is transparent, it's hard to mix colors sometimes, you can't paint over a dark section with a lighter one, and when watercolor is applied to the paper, it's there to stay. There's really no do-overs, unlike with writing. However, I've also created some really nice little pieces that I adore, and I still have a blast when I paint. I find the mistakes amusing instead of soul-crushing, and because of that. I'm able to learn from them.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:57 PM on August 3, 2008


Your question was about killing the perfectionism. The answer to me (and boy have I suffered with this one?!) is just to write and write and write. I write three pages every morning - longhand, whatever happens to be on my mind. I've wanted to write all my life, but only really done so since I took up this practice. No editing: just move your hand from right to left across the page...

My three favourite books on writing:

1) Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way
2) Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer
3) Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird

And finally, understand that writing and criticism are two different processes. Understanding this really went a long way to freeing me to write.
posted by m4nju at 2:29 PM on August 4, 2008


There’s a way that makes “writing vs. editing” irrelevant. It doesn’t involve books or courses. It doesn’t involve earnest striving. It involves daring to create the conditions for one’s maximum pleasure. The way is this: enjoy writing. This only works for some people. Some people write better in a state of contorted agony. Others write best when they lose themselves, when, as Chick sent me high (Csikszentmihalyi) said, you get into flow. You’re grinning—maybe after the fact, remembering how good it was, then, when you were writing that thing. It’s the ultimate feeling—the second-best game, really. Mark Twain felt like that, writing Roughing It. It’s selfish and sensuous and for some, the best hope of ever sinking a taproot into another’s brain. That taproot is not your doing—it’s a byproduct of your quest for a certain sensation. The most important thing is arranging things for you to be able to enjoy that sensation often enough to feel OK with all the rest of the deal.
posted by summerafternoon at 11:10 PM on August 4, 2008


A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.
posted by daHIFI at 7:08 AM on August 5, 2008


Your struggle as a writer is one that manifests itself across the creative spectrum, but I've never heard it expressed in a way that so closely matches my own struggles as an artist!

Are you familiar with Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing by John Trimble? Here's a snippet from Amazon:

Readers learn to develop a “writer's sense”: the book demonstrates that writing is really applied psychology since it is essentially the art of creating desired effects... In this fast-moving guide, John Trimble masterfully equips you with all the essentials you need to be a confident, self-sufficient writer. He takes the mystery out of how skilled writers actually think... Best of all, Trimble's style is as fresh as his approach - in fact, his style is a superb example of all that he is trying to convey on the art of writing.

I'm not suggesting this as simply a reference or style manual -- I'm sure you already have all the tools you need as a writer. 15 of the 17 customer reviews at amazon have five stars (the reviewers are almost giddy in their praise); Interestingly, each person seems to have taken away something different from the book so you might find something you can relate to, as well.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:27 AM on August 6, 2008


Just caught this thread. There's a simple answer.

When you're in the process of first spilling your thoughts, pay no heed at all to words you can't think of (type a few asterisks and come up with the word later), grammatical knots (untie them later), questions of quality (you can improve it later) or anything else. Just flow and get it out your fingers. Don't stop the flow. Ever (Beethoven wore diapers when composing, fyi).

Raw flow is not, in and of itself, good writing. But all good writing builds upon a strong raw flow. So when you're inspired, and ideas and words are tumbling out, do NOTHING to consciously stanch that flow. Let it suck. Vomit words.

Then clean it up. And don't stop until it's full polished. You'll notice that your flow will often choose lazy words...the substitute words we choose when we're conversing and don't have time to dig down for the more precise term. Do that digging down in the editing process. Writing gets good over a series of drafts. But you can't polish a turd, so the writing needs to have some inertia to it. The only way to get that inertia is to flow, baby, flow. Connect fingers to flow and get out of the way. Don't EVER try to write well on first draft.

hope that helps.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 10:04 AM on August 15, 2008


ps - what I'm saying is to channel your perfectionist compulsion where it can do the most good (in super diligent editing/polishing), and block it where it can only interfere (first draft).
posted by jimmyjimjim at 11:07 AM on August 15, 2008


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