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Inkcouragement: Battling Perfectionism

We can't expect our first drafts to be perfect, but we do it anyway.

Inkcouragement: Battling Perfectionism

As much as I would love to report success, I’m not actually having the best of luck with Carmen’s assignment. I’ve been pretty good about sitting down in front of my computer for 15 minutes a day (and doing so makes me feel inordinately accomplished—hooray for participation points!) but I’m having trouble motivating myself to, you know, actually write anything of substance. I’m really only averaging like 100-200 words each time I sit down.

Guys, this exercise has not been the magic bullet I really really hoped it would be. Instead of using this time to get words down on the page, I am agonizing about each and every sentence and whether my protagonist should have blue eyes or green, 'cause eyes are the window to the soul, dammit!

I was chatting with Carmen recently and she diagnosed me immediately. As she put it, I had conquered procrastination only to run headlong into perfectionism.  Like, a solid brick wall of perfectionism.

I have somehow, perhaps not surprisingly, come to believe that for writing to count as writing, it has to be good writing. And I am so terrified of bad writing, and I can sometimes barely get anything down on the page at all. I am full of completely illogical but also completely unshakeable fear that what I’m producing is so darn bad it actually disqualifies me from being a writer. That even though I’m writing for 15 minutes every day (heck, I’m writing right now!), I am secretly a fraud, and about two lines of flat dialogue away from being kicked out of the club. I’m scared that that the writing gods will swoop down and revoke my title, take my W card, and ask me to consider a different hobby. And I’m terrible at knitting, so I don’t have a lot to fall back on here.

Also, you know, I really like writing. My tendencies towards perfection—which serve me so well in other aspects of my life—have become my own worst enemy.

There’s got to be a way out of this mindset, right? Enter my new best friend: the shitty first draft! I was introduced to this idea through Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (which I cannot recommend highly enough), where she very persuasively argues that you can’t fight the shitty first draft—you should embrace it. Love it. Absolutely give in to it. It’s the dark and scary path through the woods that you simply have to walk along in order to reach the beautiful meadow of the second draft, the sparkling stream of the third draft, the expansive vistas of the fourth….sorry, metaphors are not my forte.

“The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.” (Full essay here.)

I love this. I love that the focus here is on forward momentum—something I’ve really been struggling with. This is about removing any expectations of what writing should be, and just write. Just get it all out there, messy and gross and full of flawed internal logic. I love that I don’t have to worry about how the draft will turn out because I already know that it will be shitty (hence the title of Shitty First Draft). I don’t just have permission to be imperfect, it’s encouraged.

This is a liberating idea, and I’m super into it. Remove the pressure to produce a good first draft and see what happens.

So I put my money where my mouth was and actually gave this a try. My last 15 minute writing session was an ‘edit as you go’ free zone (okay fine, there was a small amount of editing), just writing, no stopping. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t the one-stop-shop fix I was hoping for. But…it was pretty okay. It was hard to stop myself from judging as I went, but maybe that just takes practice? I mean, saying that you’re going to embrace the suckage is different from actually embracing your own shitty first draft. And yeah, I’m probably going to throw the whole thing out the window. But I wrote things! And logic says that I can’t write good things if I never write. I think I’m also learning that I probably can’t write good things if I never (gulp) write bad things.

The secret is out, guys: we’re all bad writers at first. Tell your friends!

My questions to you are: how did you do on Carmen's assignment? Word count aside, were you able to sit down and write each day? Are you able to set the judgment aside as you write, and if so, how?

Still looking for a critique partner? Join the FYA Writes Google Group and introduce yourself!

Leah Stecher lives in New York City, where she edits history books. When not editing, she runs, dances, rewatches Firefly, and eats nachos.

Thanks for stopping by, Leah!