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Let's Panic: The Book!

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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain,
and Finally Turn You
into a Worthwhile
Human Being.

Written by Alice Bradley and Eden Kennedy

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Sleep Is
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Chicago Review Press

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At LET'S PANIC ABOUT BABIES, Eden Kennedy and I share our hard-won wisdom and tell you exactly what to think and feel and do, whether you're about to have a baby or already did and don't know what to do with it. → 

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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)

So true. Although Bossy prefers the pick-ax metaphor.
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBOSSY
Oh, man. A couple of months ago, I came to the decision that writing is my calling. This was apparently the signal to stop writing. So this is good. Quantity.

Quantity = more than no words a week.

Got it.

September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTina Rowley
Oh hell, yeah! You nailed it babe...

I have thousands of dollars of equipment in my garage that does not get used because gee, I need to clean my house first. With a toothbrush. Or I feel guilty about putting my family aside for a few hours. Or I need to watch a repeat season of "Top Chef". But it all comes down to fear-fear-fear. Fear that I just don't have "it". Fear that I never had "it" to begin with. But you can't get "it" unless you at least give it a go.

Ironically, as my name says, I teach art and drill into my students the importance of never giving up no matter how frustrated...time to practice what I have been preaching. Thanks for the reminder and all the lovely commenting souls who remind me the naysayer voices in my head are just plain silly.
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterart teacher
...creating can also be scary because once you start creating the creation takes on its own energy...leaving you to be a if you're used to being in control, letting go of of it can be hard and, yes, really scary...great post!
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterbigP
Thanks for the great post. I've been trying to write songs for years and have a bunch of half-written ones, and maybe one fully written one -- unfortunately it's a lame birthday tune I recorded for my mom that took me about an hour. I know, lame. Your story about the pottery class really brought it home for me, and made a lot of sense. Of course we get better by doing!
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCameron Glenn
Yes, yes I so needed this. Thank you for being you. I love you AND your writing and your talent makes my writing look like someone threw up maggots all over the keyboard.

Forget all that. I want the sketches.

September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHeyJoe
I don't know how you feel about the book "Drawing on the right side of the brain," but the author has a theory that the left side of the brain, the time-keeper, language manager, doesn't want to give over control to the creative right side of the brain. All I know is that when I took a drawing class years ago, I'd spend the first time battling thoughts such as, "You're no good at this." "This is too hard." "You don't have to stay, you know. You could say you have a headache." for about the first hour of the class. Then, suddenly, the instructor would be telling us it was time to clean up and I'd realize that I'd once again beaten back my left brain and let my right brain, who has no ability to keep track of time, run free for at least an hour.

But do I ever draw now? Um... no...
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDawn
Don't look now, Alice, but I think you just got inspirational. : )
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJulie @ Letter9
I highly recommend "Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life" by Bonnie Friedman. It's a wonderful book. She knows exactly what you're talking about.
September 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara
have i ever mentioned that i love you? i don't know you & we will probably never meet but this post is exactly what i needed to hear/read(& that combined with the fact that you make me laugh out loud makes me love you)...thank you so so much...also i love ira glass (i have lots of love to spread around apparently) & i loved what he said too...wonderful post...oh & i totally want a shirt that says 'Doing stuff is always better than not doing stuff. Period.' actually i think i will write that out & put it by my little creative space (i will give you full credit, of course) okay...well, thanks again...have a good day
September 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteremily ruth
damn! Now I have NO excuse not to open that word file and finish the bleeding paper which i think is *only* going to be "good." Better dust off the violin too for a practice later (but not when the boys are asleep; or when they are awake and in the way... er... that could be harder!)

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRLJ
And another thing to share and thus avoid the creative process: the best piece of advice I got for writing my PhD was "write for 15 minutes every day." That's your target. Even if it is complete crap. I translated that into "one page a day." It's brilliant because it is always the first page that is hardest to write each day; once you have got that far, most days you will keep going because you have entered the zone. And if not? If it is complete crap that will end up in the file "things I have written with the vain and unrealistic intention that I might actually use them someday, but know deep in my heart I will never even read again" then you can go and enjoy the rest of your day, knowing that your target has been met.

Much better than my former strategy, known as smug... guilt.... smug...., when I wrote a blast of 10 pages, then felt great so did nothing for a week or two; then the guilt seeped in, till it was so unbearable I wrote another ten pages.... and so on. Very bad for the mental health and appalling for the coherence and continuity of the book you are purportedly writing.

Really going back to the file now... once I've checked my email, read the news, hoovered the cat...
September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRLJ
Alice, add four kids into the mix, NO university education (just getting started now-- long story) and you will have written exactly how I feel, minus the collection of short stories.

There are few blogs I look forward to reading like I look forward to watching Grey's Anatomy (sensuous guilty pleasure-- except more intellectual and less guilty than tv)and yours is one of them.

Do you ever write for magazines like Wondertime? Wondertime has great writers. So-ho-ooo much better than Parents mag. I can see you in there, easily.


September 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNatasha
Ohhhkay. Just watched that video and... LOVED IT! Thank you Erin and Alice. Will definitely be linking to that from my blog at some point. I just want to pick him up and stick him in my pocket and occasionally twirl his hair with my fingers and let him spur me on.
September 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterNatasha
Alice, i'am 18 years old and just had my first play produced - as a young writer, you are one whom i admire and have the upmost respect for, writing is an impossibility for all of us, but it's nice to have role models such as yourself.


September 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDale
This should be required reading Alice. Just fabulous.
September 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMom101
Ah ha! A perfect quotation to go with my own humble, nascent blog. Your post is fantastic and gets at the heart of my goals as a goodenoughwoman. As for writing? Ha. For so long I've been so in love with my own potential that I've been terrified to write much at all--afraid of how reality might present itself. I'm trying to move past that now. Kids and age help one do that, I think.
September 8, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGoodEnoughWoman
While I may have come across this a few days late, the appearance of this posting in MY search was perfectly timed!

I label myself the Queen of Procrastination, because I fear my creativity. I'm only half joking when I say it's scary what I'm able to do well with only a minimal effort. It really is scary, and I'm afraid to succeed. 'Cause then I'll really have to live UP to expectations rather than keeping the bar set really low.

Yes, our brains are hard wired for self-flagellation.

Thank you for the reminder that we need to (in the ubiquitous words of Nike) "Just do it".
September 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMother O'Two
You either write for money, for art or the joy of it. Only a few ever hit the trifecta.
September 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteralways home and uncool
Have you read _I Capture the Castle_ where the heroine forces--I think by leaving him in a deep hole--her literary, blocked father to write "The cat sat on the mat" until his juices kick in?

Love that clip from Ira Glass. Every time I see him I have to laugh about that TAL show on testostorine where he hypothesizes that since he is the successful host of a national radio program that he must have high levels of testosterone. And of course he ends up having much less than his gay coworker.
September 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterangela michelle
Thank you for this post. These are the kinds of things I need to remember, really internally remember. On a daily basis when I try to write, or, more likely, procrastinate and get hateful of myself because it's never good enough.You're echoing, and conquering, thoughts I struggle with. Thank you!

September 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth W.
Late comment, but I wanted to thank you for this extremely insightful comment! This is what I live with every day, all the time! It is so hard to put into words. Especially to explain this concept to someone who doesn't have this kind of insecurity or nagging and pathological inner critic.

Bravo and THANK YOU!Linda
September 15, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterlionemom
Thanks for this. I was just now moaning to myself about what a terrible and under-accomplished writer I am for my age when I followed some bizarre blog trail and ended up here.

So, now, back to work.
September 17, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersutton
Wow, all of this is so completely on-point! I mean, you don't me to tell you this--just look at all the comments.

Thank you so much, it logically makes so much sense, to just push past your critic (mine is so VERY VERY venom-tongued), but it helps so much to hear someone else fighting theirs, and encouraging us to battle our own.
September 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEuthie
Wow, I've been saving this post for a day when I had a few extra minutes to watch the video. Ira completely nailed it for me. It's like: I know good writing, I love good writing, it's so painful to put something out there knowing that while it's fine and good and some people like it okay, it doesn't even scratch the surface of what I want it to be. And God it's HARD to work through that feeling. Thanks for the reminder.
September 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMissy

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