The woman presenting a lecture on grit last night claimed that people who exhibit grit focus on the former rather than the latter. That sparked a lively discussion among some of her listeners. Some believe perfection must automatically be excellent. Why wouldn’t we strive for perfection? they asked.
I thought about the writers I’ve worked with over the years. So many get stuck because if they cannot compose the perfect sentence—and, spoiler alert, no one can compose a perfect sentence, certainly not on a first try—they’re afraid to write anything.
I thought about myself, when I’m learning a new skill. It’s much easier to stop trying at all than to confront my mediocre attempts.
In those cases, striving for perfection doesn’t produce excellence, it produces nothing.
As my friend (and not relative) Sam Bennett says: “Get a C.” Do something. Try. And if you fall short of excellence, congratulate yourself on being human. If improvement is important to you, then try again. And again after that (for 10,000 hours, if you believe the statistic Malcolm Gladwell misquoted). That’s grit.
Maybe at some point you’ll stumble onto excellence; maybe not. But perfection—if that’s your goal, you’ll never get anything creative done.
I was so psyched for Thanksgiving weekend. Not just for the turkey and stuffing, but for the FOUR DAYS of unscheduled time, most of which I planned to spend with this personal project I’ve been working on. And then I fell into the Pit. You know which pit I mean: creative despair. Nearly 350 years ago, writer John Bunyan called it the Slough of Despond. When a man falls into it, Bunyan wrote,
“there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.”
Yes, this Thanksgiving in addition to turkey and stuffing I had a triple-helping of “fears, doubts, and discouraging apprehensions” about my writing. I’m sure Bunyan had them too, which is how he knew so much about the Slough of Despond—but he climbed out of it and published a book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has been in print continuously since the first edition in the 1670s. If you thought your work would have even half that long a life, you’d climb out of the pit and get back to work, wouldn’t you?
If only it were that easy. I tried all the tricks I know: I called a writer friend and requested a pep talk. She reassured me and then we talked through what had thrown me in the Pit. I grabbed a book that’s been sitting on my shelf since its publication last spring—Austin Kleon’s Keep Going, excellent medicine for what ailed me. I turned to Dale Trumbore’s inspiring book about creation and anxiety, Staying Composed. I also went to movies and walked the dog and watched Law & Order: SVU marathons, and knitted.
And I wrote. For 15 minutes every single day, even when I definitely did not want to. Even if it was crap—which it mostly was. Even though every phrase I wrote seemed to say, in that taunting schoolyard lilt, “You’ll never solve your PROB-lem. You’ll never solve your PROB-lem.”
And then I did. I wrote something, partially inspired by my writer-friend’s pep talk, and I took it to my writing group and they agreed: it solved my PROB-lem. And I was out of the Pit and making progress once more.
I hate the Pit, but I know you can’t get to creativity without some creative despair. It’s inevitable. Climbing back out of the Pit is not inevitable, but only because so many people give up once they fall in. I knew that as long as I kept writing, I had a chance at getting out. And so do you.
Keep Going. It’s not just a good book, it’s great advice.
I’ve just finished what feels like my best week ever as a writer. I wrote two very different pieces (I’ve been working on both for two weeks) and I actually felt that they were more than just good; they might, in fact, be great.
Now when I say “finished,” I mean first drafts—not completed, ready to submit pieces, although I suspect they’re pretty close. And the rush of adrenaline, endorphins, whatever—elation!—coursing through me when I stepped away from the keyboard…well, it felt like I’d just rappelled down a waterfall and into a raging river. Not that I’ve ever done that, but my friend Melissa just did and posted such realistic pictures that I found myself holding my breath while scrolling through them.
Don’t get the idea that this two weeks of writing was all sunshine and buttercups. A lot of it was hard, especially the daily slog through the muck of my subconscious—the Willits have a swamp in my front yard. In fact, I think I only finished them this week because a writer friend stopped in for an overnight and seeing her working diligently at my dinner table made it impossible for me to pursue my usual goofing-off strategies. So I worked. And, to paraphrase a famous author, “She saw that it was Good.”
It’s funny, a couple of weeks ago, just before this writing spurt began, I had a free session with an energy coach. He works with people to unblock their stuff. About halfway through the call, he started talking about “the pain of writing.”
“Hold up, mister,” I said—or words to that effect. Writing is harder some times than others, but I don’t see it as painful. He reframed his question a couple of times, but I didn’t bite. And it wasn’t resistance; it was my truth.
Writing is not always easy, but it’s my choice to do it and I’m not in the habit of choosing pain. Work, yes; struggle, sometimes. Sometimes you spend more time playing Candy Crush than writing. But that’s not pain; it’s part of the process.
Have you ever felt that elation? Had a “Best Week Ever”? What’s it like for you?
I haven’t made much progress with my revisions. Oh, I’ve been writing every day, nibbling around the edges. I’ve written several new openings for the book—think I may have finally settled on one I can live with, at least for now. And I separated out 20-ish pages for a retreat application and another seven or eight to submit for publication. That may seem like progress to you, but to me it seems like stasis—or perhaps like treading water. A lot of energy expended, but you’re not going anywhere.
The most consequential comment my writing coach gave me was that I should restructure the piece. Her reasoning seemed sound, so I committed to doing it. A month later, I haven’t even started. First, I told myself that to make a change that large would require that rarest of rarities in a writer’s life: Uninterrupted Time. Not only that, but the Uninterrupted Time should probably take place somewhere other than my house. I’ve had my eye on some chic, Scandinavian-type trailer “cottages”—one step away from camping. Now I’ve mentally added Money to the things preventing me from doing this work.
Eventually, I caught on to my self-sabotage. I set aside a weekend—not an entirely uninterrupted weekend (I wouldn’t have those until baseball season ends), but a weekend nevertheless. I would devote myself to the manuscript. Maybe after that massage I rescheduled for Saturday. What happened? Well, my house finally got cleaned.
No, something else happened too: I realized that one of the things keeping me from restructuring the manuscript is fear. (I mean, duh. But when you’re in the middle of the fear, it’s rarely that obvious.) Although my coach offered sound reasons for restructuring the piece, I’m afraid she may be wrong. But Fear overplayed its hand on Sunday morning when it told me that reordering the manuscript would “ruin” it. Ruin? Like I’m not smart enough to make a digital copy before I start cutting it up?
So I’ve started the manuscript, because
1) she may be right.
2) she may be wrong, but I don’t know how else to structure it. Maybe pulling the piece apart will help me put it back together in a more compelling way.
I’m doing the work sitting at my very own desk in my very own house. While I started with a great swath of time on Sunday, I’ll continue in whatever bits of free time I have. Fear is a shifty, sly thing, but I’m going to win in the end.
I did my job—I turned out a first draft. I knew it was far from final, but still there were some parts I found myself returning to frequently, proud of the ideas or a turn of phrase. I sent it out to my writing coach for feedback, but I wasn’t going to see her for another two weeks. I knew I needed to take a break from writing for a while, but I kept opening up the document, re-reading my favorite parts. Uh oh, I thought. Better not fall in love.
Falling in love with a first draft is as helpful as marrying someone midway through your first date. It may be good fodder for a reality show, but it’s disastrous in real life. I knew this even as I congratulated myself for being clever, even as I saw a t-shirt bearing a somewhat obscure phrase that I’d made central to one of my favorite passages. I bought the shirt. Even if the phrase didn’t survive editing, at least it looks good.
As I write this, I cannot tell you if that phrase will survive. I sent the manuscript, well, 80% of it, to my writing coach and she gently told me exactly what I’d expected: there’s a lot of good material there, but I need to restructure the story. I won’t know how radically that changes the bits I liked until I figure out a different way to start the book. Small detail, right?
I’m still working on it. At the moment, I have four different openings—maybe, when I review what I wrote over lunch today, five. I fully understand that I may get to 50 before the great Aha! The writer Mary Karr said she worked on the first paragraph of her first memoir, Liars Club, for eight months before she was satisfied enough to continue. I don’t usually recommend that approach for a first draft—in my opinion, it’s better to get the material OUT than to obsess about getting every word right. But Karr is now known as an exceptional memoirist, so she clearly knew what she was doing.
Being in a writing class boosted my self-confidence and gave me some self-imposed deadlines. And I met them: bringing in three or more pages of new writing for each class. I thought of these things as essays; they seemed too slight to be book chapters. I wasn’t yet sure I had a central idea. But I remembered enough of what I tell the writers who work with me that I decided it didn’t matter WHAT I wrote; it only mattered THAT I wrote.
So I plugged on, writing my essays. And then I got a nudge from a playwright I’d worked with briefly in college. Maria Irene Fornés, a Cuban émigrée, made unique contributions to the Greenwich Village theatre scene in the 1960s. She passed away several years ago, but this summer the City Center Encores Off-Center program did a concert staging of the one musical she contributed to—a bizarre and jaw-droppingly absurd thing called Promenade.
Irene wrote the lyrics and book (the script) and she did it in what seemed to me a miraculous fashion. She wrote the character names on index cards, one name per card, and then wrote various plot points, again one per card. Then she shuffled the cards and drew them at random: the results became the “plot” of the show—quotation marks because I recognize that not everyone would call it that.
By the time I’d left the theatre—or at least by the time I’d gotten home—I realized that this book I’d had in my head for so long didn’t have to be chronological. So what if it jumped around the decades like a rogue Tardis. Irene gave me permission to tell my story in any way I wished. The next day, I sat down at my computer with a completely different attitude: my first pages after that may have been tentative, but it wasn’t long before even I had to acknowledge I was writing a book.
Between that revelation in mid-July and the end of August, about six weeks later, my first draft had grown to over 60,000 words. I knew they wouldn’t all survive the revision process, but I was and am proud of my work.
I kept going, day after day, carefully monitoring any doubt that surfaced. “It’s not my job to judge this now,” I told my writing. “My job is just to write.”
And so by the beginning of September I was ready for the next stage.
I’ve been a professional writer for over 25 years, but I’ve rarely written for myself. I’m writing something for myself now, though, and I thought it might be helpful to share what I’m learning about writing.
I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for something I might write. I’ve actually written bits of it, but it never went anywhere because I lacked a few things:
a deadline—I was just kicking these ideas around figuring that one day they’d gel. But “one day” is not a deadline, so I spent far more time not writing this material than I did writing it.
belief—in myself, in the project. I fell into the Willits—”Will it mean anything to anyone, will anyone care?” The one Willit I did not entertain was “Will it sell?” because I knew I was only writing a first draft (when I was writing at all, that is) and first drafts are just for getting the material out of your head and into your computer.
support—yes, I read a couple of pieces to a few people; they liked it. But I needed someone or a group of someones who could keep me accountable and nudge me forward.
I remembered the old saying “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And I realized that despite all my decades of writing for other people, I had no idea what I was doing in this new format. Well, I had some ideas. But not enough to shore up my belief in myself—I just needed someone more experienced to tell me I was on the right track. And support—yeah, that one made me laugh because I tell my writers all the time that sharing their work with other writers is the only way to get better, whether it’s with a writers’ group or a coach.
A coach. I needed a writing coach. And as if by magic an email floated into my in-box: my friend Nadia, a very fine writer, inviting people to join her private Memoir/Creative Non-Fiction class.
I committed to bringing new material to each class, even though I knew I’d probably only get a chance to share it every other week. I had a deadline.
Sharing did indeed help shore up my belief—in myself, in the material I was working on. The women in my class seemed eager to hear what I’d brought each week. We did a group reading in front of a small audience—the strangers liked my work, too. I began to believe that I do have a story to tell.
And support—I did learn one or two technical things about writing a memoir, and my classmates always offered sensitive, insightful comments about the pieces I brought in. But I think the most supportive thing for me was just to sit every week in a roomful of writers (yes, this class happened in the real world. Can you imagine it?) and have them accept me as one of their own.
That’s why I called the program I offered this summer “Permission to Write”—because I realized that everyone needs it. Even me.
I’ll post every week about the things I’m learning and doing as I write the book. Subscribe to this blog to be sure to catch every post.
Scrolling through Twitter this morning, I found a post from a young writer, something about how her teacher had told her not to publish a book for 10 years. He called her work in progress a “burner novel”—something she needed to get off her chest, but not something anyone else needed to read. Maybe he’s right; I don’t know. But neither does he—he hasn’t even read the manuscript.
My first reaction on reading this was to call the teacher an arrogant prick.
My second reaction surprised the hell out of me: I found myself applying his arrogant, ignorant dismissal of this young writer to my own work.
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be planning to publish this book I’m working on. I mean, yes, I’ve been writing for 25+ years, but this is my first actual book. Maybe I need to wait more, grow more as a writer.
Of course I know this is, to use a technical term, bullshit. But once an unwelcome voice takes up residence in your head it can be hard to evict it. Still, that’s exactly what you must do. So I did:
I reminded myself that the Twitter thread had nothing to do with me and my work.
I opened up my latest draft and saw, as the Bible said, “that it was good.”
I wrote this post for you, so you can see that anyone can be vulnerable to criticism, any of us can get that unwelcome voice stuck in our heads. And when that happens, try not to waste a second worrying about it. Just open the back door and shoo it out like an annoying summer fly.
I do a lot of work with writers who get stuck listening to those unwelcome voices. Check out ShyWriters.com for my latest programs.
Q: How do you deal with an idea drought—when you just don’t know what to write?
A: The same way you deal with a real drought: stock up your resources in advance.
It’s raining right now in the Northeast, with more rain in the forecast every day for the next two weeks. Diagnosis: It’s April; happens once a year whether we want it to or not.
But people in desert climates treat rain as a much more precious resource. My rain falls off the roof and disappears into the land. In a desert, residents capture rain in barrels and cisterns and recycle every ounce of it for another use. They save their water because they know it won’t always be so plentiful.
Same with writers and our ideas.
Get an idea? Write that sucker down. Keep a small notebook or a couple of index cards in your back pocket. Or rely on that never-ending “notebook” on your phone. (But don’t rely on Siri to transcribe for you—not if you want to be able to decipher what you wrote.)
Ideas—maybe you’ve noticed this already—don’t grow on trees. It’s easy to sit down and write if you’ve snagged an idea. But what if you happen to feel idea-free—and you’re supposed to write anyway. Because that’s what writers do, right? Write every day. Keep those writing muscles well-oiled.
So pay attention to the ideas that honor you with their presence. Stop what you’re doing and write them down. Save them for a rainy day—or an idea drought.
I had not intended to blog again today. I wrote a post yesterday and I’m trying to get away from posting daily—although I still write for 15 minutes every day. Yep, every damn day.
Anyway, I hadn’t intended to blog today. Yesterday’s post—weighing in at a hefty 900+ words—took me far longer than my 15 minutes to write. Ate a good chunk of my morning, in fact.
But when I woke up today, Facebook reminded me that last year on this date, I had dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant with some friends—celebrating the one-year anniversary of my writing streak.
“That can’t be right,” I said to myself. “If it was a year ago today, then that must mean today is…”
The anniversary sneaked up on me, which might make you think my writing habit is pretty well integrated into my life.
You’d be—well, not exactly wrong, but it’s not quite as easy as the graphic makes it look. Especially the last couple of months, when I’ve been writing a big project for a client. I get to the end of a day of writing, grateful to power down the old laptop, only to realize that I haven’t done my 15. The commitment I made two years ago was 15 minutes of writing for myself, not for a client. Those days, when there’s not much left in my brain, I just journal. I figure it counts.
So what have I gotten out of this?
I moved forward with some aspects of my business I’d been putting off. Honestly, I think they scared me. But if I only had to write for 15 minutes…okay. That’s how the streak started.
I blogged every damn day for well over a year—maybe 18 months. (I’m on hiatus at the moment, but I may return.) Sometimes I had so many ideas that I could bank a week’s worth of blogs in advance; other times I just sat down at the keyboard and started typing, hoping that whatever came out would be at least semi-lucid. I’ll let you be the judge of that.
Eventually I even dethroned the woman who’d always taken first place in a Google search of my name—”Elaine Benes.” She’s now a sidebar. Whoo hoo!
Do you have an idea pinging around your head that wants to get out?
It’s scary to say you want to write a book. I know. When I decided to write one, for months I couldn’t say the b-word without air quotes. If you think “writing a book” has to mean shutting yourself a way for days on end—well, how attractive is that? If it means writing for 15 minutes a day, well, after a week you’ll have written for nearly two hours. After a month (one of those 30-day months, not freaking February), you’ll have written for seven and a half hours! And lived your life, too.
Do you want to get your work out in the world?
You may wonder what that has to do with writing every damn day. I’ll tell you: if you’re holding back because you’re afraid your writing is somehow flawed…honey, you don’t know “flawed” until you’ve written every day. Some days it’s golden, other days it’s, to put it politely, a pile of manure. But the Dutch have an old saying I love:
“Shit is not a holy thing, but from where it lies there come miracles.
Every bit of bad writing you produce gets you that much closer to producing good writing.
I’m on a mission this year. I want to help more people start and maintain their writing streaks. It’s more fun when we do it together. Fill in the Contact form and let me know how I can support you.