The tyranny of perfection and the blocked writer

If I need this blog post to be perfect, I’ll never get it done.

I prefer the “It can’t be awful” standard over “It must be perfect.” This feels more humane to me and allows for greater freedom and creativity, though maybe I’m aiming too low.

It is important for a writer to have an internal editing function that evaluates whether the words on the page communicate effectively. The seeming permanence of the written word naturally leads you to scrutinize your written symbols with an different intensity than is applied to most verbal communications, which normally disappear politely with the wind.

I experience the internal editing function as a complex system of judgments, impulses and decisions that concern multiple aspects of the writing project. It’s amazing that we can do this, really, and these capabilities are essential in order for us to write at all. But when one of your inner editors becomes too loud, harsh, critical, insulting, deprecating or fear-inducing, you end up spending more and more time evaluating and cogitating, and less time producing words. At the extreme, the result is to lock down the writing process entirely.

I often see this problem with writers who apply intense, microscopic scrutiny to their words even during writing of first drafts. There is an inability to allow their initial, roughly hewn sentences to exist without trying to perfect them right off the bat. It is very hard to simultaneously generate ideas, write them down, and do final editing at the same time. It slows the writing process considerably, exhausts intracranial resources and leads to cognitive overwhelm, a distaste for the writing process and work avoidance.

If your psyche is inhabited by a ferocious, perfectionistic, inner editor, see if you can train the beast to hold off on all the advice-giving until you’ve had the opportunity to let your ideas flow onto the page and develop a bit first. The obsessive talents of the tyrannical perfectionist are very useful during the final draft editing stage of the project, but can devour your desire and energy for writing if allowed to run amok too soon.

Lighten up!

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How much attention should a blocked writer pay to “Time’s winged chariot?”

Andrew Marvell’s recommendation is, “Let’s get it on!”

In his famous poem “To a Coy Mistress,” Andrew Marvell wrote the following lines in the mid 1600’s:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Marvell was evidently an early incarnation of what we would call a ‘motivational speaker’ in the twenty-first century. In this poem we see him creatively harnessing his literary skills to try to get his girlfriend into bed. And even though I wouldn’t want to equate sleeping with Andrew Marvell with writing a novel, he does raise the valid point that time is limited, no matter what you are hoping to accomplish.

As a writer, this means that there will come a day when the universe will actually put the ‘dead’ in your deadline. Can we use this stark existential reality to assist us with overcoming writing blocks? Maybe.

Everyone is different, but it is true that a bit of time pressure works for many people who might otherwise dilly-dally and fritter their time away instead of writing. If the deadline is in the distant future, however (as death might seem to a someone contemplating writing a novel) it might not generate the necessary adrenaline discharge to bring resistant hands to the keyboard.

Doctoral students often struggle with motivation and productivity problems because they tend to have a long-term, uncertain deadlines for their dissertations. Writers who have no external deadlines at all must learn to utilize motivational resources that are not connected with the fear of missing a deadline. Perhaps if we knew with certainty that we only had a couple of months left on the planet more of us would get cracking, because deadlines with definite negative consequences in the near future seem to work best.

On the other side of this coin, I’ve also known writers with the reverse problem. They were so acutely aware of the passage of time that they lived in a state of constant anxiety and guilt about not producing enough. This inner turmoil then made it harder to write. They needed to relax and get the fear of ‘Times winged chariot’ out of their minds so they could concentrate on the task at hand. One might imagine that Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress may have been less coy and more responsive to his amorous advances if he wasn’t going on and on about her impending death all the time.

So, where does this leave us regarding utilizing alarm about deadlines and death to assist with encouraging the flow of words? ‘Different strokes for different folks’  comes to keep in mind, but a general rule of thumb is that deadlines that are close at hand, and that involve meaningful consequences, work best for motivating writers to write. Long term deadlines that are vaguely defined are less effective, and generating excessive deadline pressure can induce overwhelm or rebelliousness.

We may never know whether Andrew Marvell eventually got lucky with his mistress  by employing his carpe diem argument, but at least he got a good poem out of it. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we mortals don’t generally know when Time’s winged chariot will pull into our driveway, so just in case, it might be wise to work on your coy writing project today.

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Two Upcoming Summer Events

6/22-24/2018: I will be presenting at the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Conference in Van Nuys, CA. Details TBA.

6/25/2018: I will be teaching “Overcoming Writing Blocks and Procrastination,”  a 5-week, online class (ENG 96) offered through Stanford Continuing Studies.


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Clock-Blocked and the Speed of Write

In order to write we need to make use of time. We have to find time to write,  then actually use it for writing.  We have to decide when and how long we will write, and figure out a way to sustain this routine week after week.

The clock is both a writer’s invaluable friend and his or her most vexing adversary. It’s impossible to describe what time actually is, but we all have an intimate and complex relationship with it nonetheless. All of humanity must contend with the glories, mysteries, adventures, dramas, terrors and griefs that characterize temporal existence. And without the relentlessless flow of our hours and minutes, what is there to write about anyway? There would be no windows of creative opportunity, no due dates, no deadline pressure, no beginning and no end of our projects. Writing is inextricably tied to our relationship with the endless cycles of the clock.

In addition, it seems to me that no two  people experience time in the same way. We’ve all been conditioned or wired to manage time in a unique, particular way. Some of us write rapidly, some slowly. Some writers have large chunks of time to write yet they accomplish very little, while others are productive writing in the cracks of tightly scheduled lives.  Some can readily create schedules for their writing lives and stick to them religiously, while others exist primarily in the here and now and have extreme difficulty imagining the day ahead of them or sticking with the same routine day after day.

It helps to remember that the number of writing sessions available in our lifetime is not infinite, because the prospect of leaving this earth without doing the writing we want to do can serve as a motivator.  However,  I’ve also know writers who were so acutely aware the passage of time that they became anxious, overwhelmed and unable to find their muse. Clock-blocked.

There is no absolute right or wrong about how we should experience or utilize our writing time, and even among very productive, great writers, approaches vary widely. It’s good to keep in mind, as Einstein revealed to us, that time is relative. I think he also said that everything changes and becomes very ineresting as we accelerate to speed of write, but I may be misquoting him.

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“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” True for writers?

Jack, a boy who has worked too hard, decides to breaks free of his dullness

As a demonically possessed, binge-writing, axe-wielding Jack Nicholson wrote repeatedly in The ShiningAll work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  The last thing a writer wants to be is dull.

Does a writer become dull if he or she is too compulsive about the work regimen? Maybe, though a writer who is too undisciplined may suffer the same fate, simply from a lack of productivity.

I wrote about Henry Miller’s writing COMMANDMENTS in a recent post, and a couple of these are relevant to this question about discipline.

“4. Work according to the Program and not according to mood.”

This one emphasizes the need to stick with a regular writing schedule, even if you don’t feel like doing it. Distractions are many and moods vary continuously. If you wait for perfect conditions and only the best inspirational states, you will write rarely. To be productive, there needs to be a certain amount of discipline to do the work consistently.

“9. Discard the Program when you feel like it – but go back to it the next day.”

Miller adds this commandment, which is interesting. He puts a bit of breathing room in his structured writing  program, which acknowledges something about our humanity. This commandment may seem contradictory to #4, but it is actually only a variation that allows for flexibility in the program – to an extent. Sometimes there is a need for a break, or an alternative activity that will refresh and renew the writer. Such a temporary hiatus could be an antidote to burnout…and dullness.

It’s a balancing act, and you must develop your own program, and reasonable exceptions to that program. An extreme swing to one pole or the other on the discipline/freedom continuum could impair the quality or quantity of the writing.

Jack Nicholson in The Shining is a good example of a writer who failed to find the right balance. First he swang to the completely undisciplined pole and didn’t write a word for weeks. Then he swang to the monomaniacal, over-working pole and wrote pages and pages of dull, repetitive crap. Finally, he swang an axe at his wife, and froze in a blizzard.

A psychotic death in a snowbank is without a doubt unfortunate, but the real tragedy is that Jack never finished his novel. A little more balance and a lot less swinging and would have helped that dull boy.

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Isaac Asimov wrote 500+ books. Did he do it just to make me feel bad?

Isaac Asimov: Prolific at producing both whiskers and books

Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, with a book count of over 500 as well as countless articles, letters, and short stories. Why did he have to do this? Did he think the rest of us needed a few hundred more reasons to feel inadequate?

Then, to top it off, he had to go and write books that were good, influential, and made into movies! It’s enough to make a writer wonder, “Why even try?” I mean, come on……500 books?! Thanks a ton Isaac, for making the piddling efforts of millions of writers seem absolutely pointless!!

“Isaac Asimov had writer’s block once,” fellow science fiction writer Harlan Ellison said, referring to Asimov’s impressive output. “It was the worst ten minutes of his life.”

Maybe, if I can overcome the narcissistic wounds that Asimov’s legacy inflicts on my ego, I can learn something about being a more productive writer. I don’t want to, but perhaps I should, entertain the unlikely hypothesis that his motive for writing was something other than a malevolent desire to do harm to my self-esteem.

I’ve just ordered the book he wrote with his wife, Janet; How to Enjoy Writing: A Book of Aid and Comfort.”  I’ll report back on what I learn.

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Ralph Ellison became highly visible after he wrote “The Invisible Man” but he couldn’t finish the second novel.

Ellison wrote two thousand pages of his second novel over forty years. He never finished it.

Ralph Ellison’s fist novel, The Invisible Man was critically acclaimed and a bestseller after its publication in 1952. By the time he died in 1994 he had written over two thousand pages on his second novel Juneteenth, which was begun in 1958.

That’s not to say Ellison stopped writing, but he primarily published non-fiction essays during the rest of his career, though some unpublished stories were found after his death. What interests me most is that he evidently wanted to complete the novel, because he chipped away at it for decades, but was unable to.

Arnold Rampersad has written a biography of Ellison,  in which he puts forth the ideas that Ellison was a perfectionist who had lost touch with his cultural roots and perhaps felt incapable of matching his initial success as a novelist. Whatever the reason, it gives a writer pause to realize that someone with obvious talent and proven success can still hit the wall. In Ellison’s case, the wall was never overcome, despite his abilities and efforts.

Perhaps, given the appropriate support or guidance, Ellison’s story might have turned out differently, but who really knows? He left an amazing literary legacy in any case. Writing is a gift to be pursued while we are able to do it, and should not be taken for granted. Life is short, and for a host of reasons, our opportunities and ability to produce the written word may not always be there.

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