Breaking the paralysis of creative perfectionism: Writer’s block and the tyranny of the virgin page
Ernest Hemingway once rather arrogantly declared that “writing is easy – all you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Objection, Mr Hemingway. Writing isn’t easy. And what do you do once your creative reservoir has, metaphorically speaking, ‘bled out’?
I’ve been writing for nearly fourteen years now. In that time, I’ve learnt a lot about my personal practice of writing, having balanced my (mostly blissful but sometimes a little icy) immersion in the "world of wordcraft" with the demands of several part-time jobs, three undergraduate degrees, a postgraduate degree, launching a career in clinical psychology, and finally, the vicissitudes of chronic illness.
And it's been nice to have some wins lately. Recently, I signed a contract to publish my debut novel, finishing the sequel nine months after starting it. I’m now onto my third book, writing between 2000 and 6,500 words a day. I started writing this one, tentatively titled The Rendering, on the 1st of October 2019, and I’m already more than 82,000 words in.
While that sounds like a massive fib or a bit of a boast, it really isn't.
Because for years, I struggled with the tyranny of the blank page.
And that debut novel? It took twelve-and-a-half years to finish.
So here’s a summary of several things I’ve learned along my journey about prose, procrastination, and perfectionism… though not everything, because, you know, if I waited till I’d thought of everything, I never would have finished writing this article.
1. To write well, you first have to… well, write.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but for so many of us writers, true inspiration is hard to come by.
It’s such a nice feeling when you’re struck by that idea – the one to which Hollywood execs will be scrambling to buy the film rights, thus setting you up for life and allowing you to buy your long-suffering hubby that Porsche he’s been eyeing. (Is it a nice feeling? Can’t say – never had it.)
Let me tell you now (although I’m guessing you know the truth of this already): if you wait for inspiration to strike, you’ll never write much at all.
If you shackle yourself to your laptop even when you feel like slumping to the floor and weeping, there’s still a chance that you’ll write a whole lot of purple prose that you immediately cringe at as you review it the next day.
But sometimes, just sometimes, you’ll surprise yourself. As you push through that first wave of lethargy/apathy/boredom/existential despair/cravings for hazelnut gelato, a real gem might drop into your lap. And you’ll be able to chalk up your failures to progress and keep going. When you train your brain this way – wired for effort, not achievement – there’s no telling how much you’ll improve.
And eventually, those some times gems might become often times.
2. Be aware of the subconscious excuses (yep, they’re excuses) that stop you from writing.
Humans are masters at inventing a whole gamut of excuses to wriggle themselves off the proverbial hook of writerly obligation. Do you recognise any of these?
“I’m too tired.”
“I’ve got nothing left to give.”
“I’m too hot and my study chair is stiiiiiicky.” (Summertime in Australia, anyone?)
“It’s too early in the day to write – I’m a night owl, after all.”
I’m generally a morning person, and I like to get most things done first thing in the day.
You know the thing about mornings though? They don’t last very long.
On days when I found that the whole morning had passed without accomplishing anything remotely writerly, I often caught myself using the excuse of “that’s it, the day’s half gone – I’ll try again tomorrow.”
Eventually, after several impromptu afternoon sessions of productive writing, I realised that I was imposing my own rules – and excuses – on my craft. Now, I power up my laptop at all times of the day, even if I only have a little bit of time or energy to spend on writing. You’d be amazed at what my tired brain has produced long after I thought it was time to call it a day (well, I’m amazed).
3. Welcome the morning-after cringe as a sign of growth.
When I tell people that I took twelve-and-a-half years to write a novel, they often look at me like: “But seriously, what did you DO in that whole time?” (The answer is, lots and lots of making excuses. See Point 2 above.)
But in all truth, most of the scenes I wrote in the first ten years of that period were horrifically bad. I mean, Frozen-songs-played-on-a-recorder kind of bad. I hope they never, ever see the light of day. My hard drive crashed a few years back, and you know, there wasn’t a whole lot on that Frozen sing-a-long-a-thon that I really missed.
But because I loved writing so much, and I seemed somewhat better at it than I was at drawing, I pushed past that precipice of cringe. And, interestingly enough, I eventually got to a point where the cringe factor started to diminish. Now, I might wince at some badly-worded prose or an ill-placed homonym, but I rarely cringe.
My attempts at drawing, you might be interested to know, still have plenty of morning-after cringe.
4. Finish each writing session on a high, or a slightly unresolved point.
Writers, like readers, crave excitement, even from their own novels. Honestly, if you were bored by your story when you finished the last scene, you won’t be thrilled to pick it up again the next day.
One trick I’ve learnt is to finish your writing session on a high, or even right in the middle of a scene you’ve been having some flow with... this is when your motivation is probably at its highest point. Finishing here, while it feels a bit painful, may help to pull you back into the story when you sit down next, your motivation in bit of a slump again.
5. Write constantly.
One of the excuses I used to love to use was that I never had a decent slab of time to start writing. You know, like three or eight hours.
Of course, if you have kids or caring responsibilities or a demanding job or pets (birds, anyone?), you’re chronically time-poor, which is a major challenge for the average writer whose creative efforts return a solid investment of about three cents an hour.
Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard is to steal every minute you can. If you’re waiting for an appointment, whip out the notes section of your phone and flesh out your next scene. While you’re driving to work, brainstorm dialogue exchanges between your characters. In the shower, when you’re chronically bored (or is that just me?) sketch out a setting in your head.
The next time you sit at your computer, you won’t have to wait for inspiration to strike.
6. Keep track of your bursts of inspiration, and use them as a springboard in your writing sessions.
I’m that person who pauses the movie credits to write down a great character name. I’ve probably driven my poor, long-suffering husband crazy with the amount of times I flick on the light during the night to write down a stab of brilliance – which is usually something unintelligible or decidedly less brilliant the next morning, like “man eats cake – it good.”
Find what works for you, but try and keep a bit of a filing system going, if you can. It will help you later on when you reach for those punchy ideas.
7. Establish a writing routine.
Many writers I know listen to instrumental music before they start a writing session. Honestly, do what works for you.
Stretch a bit. Pray. Make a cup of tea. Achieve world peace.
Whatever you do, make sure you don’t use this time to procrastinate – and I’m looking at you, compulsive house cleaners. While we love this hobby of ours, to really fine-tune our craft, we have to be disciplined. Work hard. Knuckle down. Go big or go home, and all that.
8. Minimise distractions.
One of the best decisions my parents ever made – not that I appreciated it at all at the time – was not having Wi-Fi internet for most of my childhood. While some of you will gasp in horror at this stunning deprivation, my writing can only thank them for it. That, and my dear hand-me-down laptop of 1990s ancestry which likely barely had Internet capability anyway.
As for you guys, well, you know your weaknesses. If you have a soft spot for hazelnut gelato and you live next door to the supermarket, you might not be able to move house to get away from the temptation… but maybe you could ask someone trustworthy to hide your keys?
9. Work out if you’re a plotter or a pantser, or some combination of the two (plantser?) – and don’t punish yourself for it.
Some writers can’t write a word until they know everything that’s going to happen in their book, right down to the colour of the passing postman’s eyes in Book 4, Act 3, Scene VIII. Others won’t outline beyond the first line of the first page.
Everyone is different. After many years, I’ve discovered that I’m a combination of the two. For my third book, I have a twenty or so page Word document with a summary of the genre, setting, main characters, language, world-building and a very brief dot-point summary of the action. Beyond that, I wing it a lot. I have no idea what colour the postman’s eyes are (although there honestly isn’t one in this current book). And it suits me just fine.
10. If you come to a serious block, take a break and try and think about it from a different angle.
If you’re bored by a scene, your reader might be too. What about writing from a different perspective? Or you might try simply putting a description in the body of your text to come back to when you’re feeling inspired, e.g., “main character learns how to fence from renowned instructor” or “protagonist philosophises on postman’s eye colour.”
Whatever you do, try and keep the momentum going. Write a scene that needs a little less research. Edit some of your earlier work, re-read a scene you loved, or the last section you wrote.
Don't get stagnant.
11. If you’re feeling really rough, make some downward comparisons.
In psychology, we talk about “upward comparisons” and “downward comparisons.”
Upward comparisons, like comparing the circumference of my waist to Jennifer Aniston’s, or the emotional impact of my story to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, often result in me feeling bad.
Downward comparisons, like me comparing the number on my scales to the gross tonnage of my small car, make me feel much, much better.
Yes, comparison is the thief of joy, but sometimes, when you’re having a bad day, it’s helpful to compare your work to published books you’ve read that aren’t as good as yours, like the mindless dribble you devour in one sitting or the book you just read filled with proofreading errors.
I don’t mean all this in a narcissistic or schadenfreude sense, but sometimes it’s nice to remember that Fifty Shades of Grey, which has sold over 125 million copies, stolen the record for the UK’s fastest selling paperback of all time, and been translated into 52 languages (is it as bad in every one? Perhaps not…), is almost universally criticised for its terrible prose.
This is kind of like the way we writers proudly file away our rejection letters and quote J.K. Rowling’s dozen or more knockbacks prior to eventually finding a publisher for Harry Potter… cue worldwide stardom.
You know, sometimes it helps.
“If I waited for perfection I would never write a word.”
- Margaret Atwood
12. Out-write your fears.
As a psychologist, I know that every time you face your fears, your fear gets a little smaller.
The same goes with writing and perfectionism. The best way to break your fears about writing imperfectly is to… you guessed it, write a bunch of imperfect stuff.
You may not ever write a bestseller, but is that honestly why you first started writing? (If it is, I have a ton of better suggestions for jobs that will help you make your first million…)
13. If you want to learn how to write, read.
Numerous writers have attested that reading is the fundamental, unskippable prerequisite to writing. Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, famously said “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”
Sometimes, I really am so tuckered out that I have nothing left to bleed onto the page. In that moment, I often reach for a book instead. There’s something so nice about slipping into someone else’s world for a moment and recharging, like an introvert coming home from a party.
14. Disregard everything I just said (particularly if it doesn’t work for you).
I have an undergraduate degree in English literature and creative writing, and I won’t say it was a waste of good paper. I learnt a lot over those years.
But I’m always wary of the numerous ads I see for various writing resources: writing coaches, writing retreats, writing manuals, writing courses, writing stationery (on the subject of specially designed writing mugs, I must admit my jury is still out...).
There are many helpful principles to learn about the writing craft (the golden rule of “show, don’t tell”; minimising clunky adverbs; the pros and cons of the controversial Oxford comma, etc.) and sharing your work with others is especially valuable (if you can join one, online or face-to-face writer’s/critique groups are great).
But, to be honest, there’s not a whole lot of fundamentals regarding the craft of writing that cannot be learned from the act of writing (and reading) itself. For the most part, to really write well, you first have to… well, write. The editing part can come later.
Unlike many other crafts, writing has very few rules. Of those, several are meant to be broken (do I hear someone say “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is a grammatically-incorrect split infinitive?).
The same applies to the practice of writing itself. If you require three cups of tea to get started, go for it. If you like to write without pants (a wholly different kind of pantsing to the one I referred to before), write without pants (but please, for the love of your neighbours and everything good, close the blinds).
The bottom line is, regardless of the creative endeavour, don't wait for perfection. Believe me - I waited twelve-and-a-half years for perfect words which, like most of the people who RSVP to Facebook events, never showed up. I even procrastinated on writing this article.
One of the reasons why I love the annual writing fest that is NaNoWriMo is because in aiming to write 50,000 words in 30 days (or whatever your goal is), it's a natural perfectionism killer.
So go get 'em.
And just remember: a manuscript written perfectly is almost always a manuscript half-written.