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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
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« Squirrels, and also the apocalypse. | Main | Helping out Nie »
Monday
Sep012008

A few words about writing.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the creative process. Partly because Scott has started this amazing project, after years of talking about it but not doing much of anything. The one thing harder than starting is starting after years of talking about starting. Talking can kill the urge to create. So I'm sort of dying of pride, over here, while my husband works and works and keeps working, like he's a professional. I am a little in awe.

I've also been thinking about it because a reader (hi Sharon!) recently expressed surprise that I struggle with writing. I'm a little embarrassed to even share that with you, because it's kind of ridiculously flattering. It's also woefully inaccurate. So I wanted to reiterate to her, and you guys, that writing is a struggle for me, and always will be. It's the nature of the game. It's always hard, especially if you're doing it right. You're always aspiring to be better than you are, so no matter how much experience you get, it's always an uphill battle. Always, always, always.

Not to mention that whole "inner critic" hooha that anyone creative has to deal with. I am amazingly accomplished at beating myself up. I tell myself I'm too old, that all really talented writers were published much earlier than I ever was, that I don't have enough publications under my belt, that I should have written my novel when I got out of graduate school, that there are X number of writers who left my writing program when I did who are all on their second or third or seventh novel while I'm still not even a third of the way finished with a short story collection. I tell myself blogs are useless, that this site is a waste of time that's taking away from my Precious Writerly Resources. Or I tell myself that I'm just a blogger, as if blogging is somehow less relevant, so I shouldn't bother writing anything else. I tell myself that because I don't have large expanses of time to work I'm never going to reach my full potential. Or just decide that I suck and everyone who hates me is right and I'm never going to blah blah blah blah BLAH. It's a miracle that I get anything done, I'm so busy giving myself a hard time.

But everyone does this. This is how the mind works to stop you from writing. Creating is scary, and your brain wants you to run from scary things. For some reason it forgets about the rewards that come from risk. The brain will also do this for painting, or dancing, whatever creative work you do. I also draw and paint (in an extremely amateurish fashion, mind you) and I've been finding all sorts of reasons not to do either these days. The light in my dining room isn't quite right. I need better materials. My sketchbook is either too large or too small. There's nothing good to draw in my house, and I don't want to leave the house to draw because then people will look at what I'm doing. I can't remember how paints work. Watercolor paper is expensive and don't I need to stretch it, or something? Also my brushes aren't right. I have numerous excellent reasons for never attempting to create any artwork ever again.

Then yesterday I sat down and, while my brain screamed NO! DON'T! STOP!, I sketched for an hour. I sketched my cat, and my foot. Exciting, no? It was crappy and I did some terrible work. When I was done that voice in my head had been reduced, temporarily, to a mouselike squeak. And I felt like a superhero.

The only way to win over that voice is to work despite it. Doing stuff is always better than not doing stuff. Period.

Here's an inspiring talk on creativity by Ira Glass that another lovely reader (hi Erin!) sent me.

In a similar vein comes this anecdote from Art and Fear—which is a brilliant piece of work, by the way, chock full of quotables. A ceramics class is divided into two groups. The first group is graded on quantity: it doesn't matter how good their stuff is, just how many pounds of work they end up with. The second group is graded on quality: it didn't matter how few pots they create, just how perfect the final product is. Can you guess who ends up doing the best work? It's the quantity group: the students who churned out work day after day and learned from their mistakes. Meanwhile, the quality group had wasted time mulling over how they could achieve perfection, so by the end of the class they had "little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

It's all about working and working and working some more, no matter how crappy you think it is. You are never the best judge of your work, so shut up and work and don't stop to wonder why it's not a masterpiece. Remember what Voltaire said: "The perfect is the enemy of the good." He probably wrote that after spending an hour whining about how he'd never be as important an Enlightenment figure as that fathead Rousseau .

Don't sit and agonize over how you're not good enough. Don't leave yourself with a pile of dead clay. Start and keep going; if you stop, start again, and keep going.

Reader Comments (102)



You've written something that should be on every grad student's orientation package.

And now I am off to write SOMETHING on my dissertation.

Thanks, I needed that! :-)
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAni
I also really relate to this post. I am a singer/songwriter/writer/procrastinator. The less I write the more my self-esteem seeps away, and the more reasons I find not to even bother starting. It is amazing that it takes reading someone else's words telling me that "creating is scary, and your brain wants you to run from scary things" to remind me of what I already know and inspire me to get to work.

Also: this post (and the following comments) encapsulates all that I love about blogging. Thank you Alice.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLéonie
Thank you Alice! This has been my problem all my life - when I was a kid I wanted to be an artist but then I got into high school and realized there were a lot of people much better than I am, so I gave up that idea.

I then wanted to be a writer, and majored in journalism, but ended up in a different career that includes writing but that isn't the main point of it...Ironically even at work I can always dash off a summary of a study in e-mail but if I sit down and try to write up a "formal" report I freeze up. I found I had to write it in an e-mail first and then copy and paste it to a memo format!

And of course, like you, I alway feel as if the blogging doesn't "count." But in reality I do think it is giving me practice in writing so it is encouraging to read about the importance of just doing it.

You are an inspiration and I love the example of the ceramics creators. Taking pictures is probably the only way I am adventurous - I take tons of pictures and sometimes get a really good one. So I know how that works!
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMauigirl
I'm not a blogger, but I am a fiction writer who is stuck on two novels that may never get out the door--unless I do what you're doing and just write the damn things. I was feeling discouraged and really needed this post today. THANK YOU.

September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterwonderer
I've discovered that, as Ira Glass called it, my "taste" is more refined than my work. But I guess that's the point--you have to know what's BETTER so you can actually try to get there. The key is not being so self-critical that you just don't create. For a long time I thought blogging was nothing more than boring, voyeuristic journaling. But I was wrong. Starting my blog has been one of the best things for me as a writer, and has helped me be more creative professionally.

Thanks for sharing this. We all need to hear it every now and again.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterErin
Carrie, I share your curiosity about depression and creativity. While I don't suffer from depression (at least I don't THINK I do), I find that the blog entries that I write while suffering from the worst PMS are some of my best. Maybe reative and cranky go hand in hand somehow, and why so many great artists and writers are what they call "characters".

Alice, struggle or not, you are such a great wordsmith. I love reading what you churn out in the end. Blogging maybe useless, but between the time I spend reading blogs, and the time I spend writing my own, I get a lot of happy time! Keep on keepin' on girl!
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRobin
Add another thank you to the list!And remember that if you do end up with a clump of dead clay, you can just add a bit of water and you're back in the game.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterElfini
Thanks for saying it. I sooo hate to Write (note the capital letter), which is why I like to blog -- it's my place to let myself write (lowercase) without fear.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjanny226
Bless you, Alice. I've always been surprised, too, that you struggle with writing. Your writing sounds so effortless. Thank you so much for this. I'm actually feeling inspired and am going to DO something TODAY!
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLisa C
Thanks, this was just the kind of push I think I needed.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterelise
A girlfriend and I were just lamenting over the whole "look who has been scoring big book deals/written their second collection of short stories/in-with-all-the-right-editors-because-they-moved-to-New-York-and-not-some-town-that-is-so-small-it-isn't-on-the-map-to-raise-babies-and-tomatoes" thing. A little depressing, I'll admit, especially when you are elbow deep in poop issues with your toddler, like I am. Anywho-- thanks for the reminder that any work is better than no work, and that the good stuff comes when you are spewing the garbage right along with it.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterkate
Jeebus, did I need to hear this today! And by the looks of the comments, so did a lot of others. Thanks for inspiring us, Alice; you really made a difference!
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterheidi
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I make jewelry and I struggle with the same thing. "My stuff is crap. Who am I kidding? Why do I do this?" And then someone buys a piece and raves about it. And so often I am tempted to throw win the towel, but I keep going back to same thing: I love creating something, regardless of whether or not it's worthless. I love the feeling I get when I'm in my studio creating a piece. And that's what I have to cling to to get through the dark periods of doubt. Just keep on creating and tell that little naysaying voice to shut up.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
Alice, Thank you for being so open about your struggles with your creative abilities. I read your blog all the time and I just love it. I started my blog at the beginning of the year, largely because I was inspired by Finslippy, and also because I wanted to try something new. I'm an average writer at best but it feels good to do something different and challenging. I have also adopted a personal "mantra" so to speak for this year which is "progress, not perfection" It hasreally helped me to "unstick" me when I get mired down with negative thoughts etc.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie
Alice, I needed this today, my day job went down the tubes..and my web site is all I'm hanging onto today. I love writing, sharing and hoping others will do the same...your post told me continue and further enjoy that I can write... Thanks so much Alice..some days you need help getting over that hill....

Regards, Dorothy from grammologygrammology.com
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDorothy Stahlnecker
Thanks for the encouraging blog and video.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSunny
Dearest Alice,

May we see the sketches please so that we may criticize, nay praise them?

Sucking artistically,Joe

September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHeyJoe
Now I don't just marvel at your talent, I marvel at your kindness. Thank you for this. Thanks! Really, I can't think of anything that would have been better for me to read right now. And I love the randomness of blogs because if you had published this in a writer's magazine or some such, I never would have seen it.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie
Lovethispost.

I'm housing that Voltaire quote in a special corner of my brain for a few weeks. I needed it just then. Thanks.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commentererin
To reiterate everyone else: Thanks, I really, really needed that right now.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTammy
Dead on Alice. I've noticed that I've been a bit stuck lately writing. I've been reading so many wonderful things, like a kid in a candy store that I've lost track of myself! Like reading you for example! Everyone is so much better at it than I am I think... I guess I'll keep trying!
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterstarrlife
This is so great Alice. In my work, I have to write. I don't know if academic writing can even be called creative and yet the issues are so similar.

For me, other writing is easy. It's because, for non-academic writing, I am entirely in the 'quantity' group.

(In my blog, I'm afraid, this really shows. I don't even edit because I associate that with work.)

How silly to take a break from writing by writing but they are such different kinds of writing. I used to take a break from writing my dissertation by writing poetry and stories. And since I didn't care what happened to them, they were so easy. Then, I took a creative writing class for fun, and experienced critique and so on and it totally ruined my creative writing mojo.

In order to be more productive, I've done coaching groups and all sorts of stuff and what you say here is so true--the only thing to do is work, a little bit, every day if you can. Just do some writing, somehow. Even if it is one sentence a day, it is quite remarkable what can happen as a result.
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterozma
This is absolutely wonderful. Some weird grip inside loosened up a bit as I read your post. I often don't blog because my creative fortitude isn't much more than a fallen souffle at the end of my crazy days. If my work - whatever it may be - isn't gleaming with brilliance (and it isn't), I disdain putting it out there. Your post gives me a new perspective - thank you!
September 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
"It's always hard, especially if you're doing it right. You're always aspiring to be better than you are, so no matter how much experience you get, it's always an uphill battle. Always, always, always."

It's good to hear someone come out and say it. Writing is work for me. I love the work . . . find it invigorating and mind-stretching . . . but it is hard nonetheless.

So I avoided doing it for a long time. Not good for an adult student going back to school to get a degree in English/Creative Writing and Philosophy. Perhaps that's why I went back, though. To stretch myself. And it's also one of the main reasons I started my blog back in February. It gets me writing on a somewhat regular basis, putting this mess inside my hoary head down for all to peruse and contemplate.

So thanks for the reminder. Writing is work, people. Do it well . . .
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTysdaddy
Just the encouragement I needed to remember. Thank you, Alice.
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTherese

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