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Perfectionists Don't Sleep
What do you do when you're beating yourself up for getting stuck in your writing
Do you ever get stuck amidst writing? Like I start and then it dies.
I feel like flogging myself. Honestly. A stupid children’s story I wrote 3 years ago and I am still stuck finishing it because I lost the initial manuscript.
I get hung up on stuff like names. I can’t write the story if I don’t have the right name of the character so I peruse baby name sites to find “just-the-right-one.”
God!! I'm SO pathetic!! Why won't I write???? What the hell is the matter with me????
Sorry, I'm venting. I appreciate your words and support.
Every writer gets stuck. Every story I have ever written, I have gotten stuck. My general pattern has been, start a story, have no idea how to finish it, get stuck, avoid it forever.
On the off chance that I start working on it again, I will often get stuck on the timelines and realism. Is what I have written remotely possible? Is it anachronistic? What was the weather actually like on April 27th, 2004? Down the research rabbit hole I go.
It’s as if I think the eventual reader is fact-checking everything I write, even though I have never checked the historical weather report to verify weather conditions described in any book I’ve ever read. Like, who does that?
But much like you getting stuck on finding the perfect character name and getting lost in baby name books, this is resistance.
Every writer faces resistance. It’s a part of the creative process, I think, because it’s so pervasive. It’s not knowing and still plunging on into the unknown the brings about creativity.
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time in the unknown anymore, especially thanks to the magic of Google. We can look up how to do almost anything. We’re praised for having plans, schedules, checklists, methods, experts to consult. We spend a lot of time either being sure of ourselves or pretending that we are.
But our creativity comes out to play when we have no idea what we’re doing. This is not always a comfortable feeling. Most of us like feeling competent. I mean, if I’m a writer, shouldn’t I know what I’m doing when I write?
It can be the discomfort with this feeling that brings on the resistance…. we think surely we must be doing something wrong. Surely, I should feel in control of the work. Surely, this should feel easier. Surely, I should be oozing confidence by now.
But the feeling of not quite knowing isn’t a sign you are doing anything wrong. Rather, it’s often a sign that you’re doing something right.
All that said, the thing that strikes me the most about your letter is the way you are beating yourself up for not writing. For having resistance. For not doing this perfectly.
You lost your manuscript. That probably feels devastating—that all the time of fighting through resistance to actually produce something has been erased.
But let me tell you a story. In 1922, Hadley Richardson—that terrible dude Hemingway’s first wife—lost all of his manuscripts. She had packed them up to bring them to him, including all the carbon copies and notes, and the suitcase was stolen from a train station. He had virtually nothing left.
Was he pissed off? Yes. Devastated? Yes. Supposedly, when drunk he would claim this was the cause of their divorce, which conveniently neglects the whole cheating with his future second wife thing.
But he still went on to write more things and win the Nobel Prize for literature, and kick off decades of young writers trying to imitate him and then later realizing that while there are things to be learned from a stripped-down style, perhaps emotional constipation isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of writing.
You lost your children’s book manuscript three years ago. Are you trying to re-create it? You need to first ask yourself, is that where the energy is for you? The writer you were three years ago and the writer you are now are different writers—is the writer you are today still interested in writing that book?
If you are, recognize that it will be a different book. And that’s okay—let it be. And if you’re not, that’s okay too. Let it go.
Write the book that calls to you now. And if you don’t know what that is, give yourself the room to explore. The time you spent writing the previous book was not wasted; it’s contributed to your growth as a writer.
This may be cold comfort, I know. You’re allowed to mourn the loss of your book. But don’t get stuck in trying to bring it back. That book was not your sole idea, not the sum total of everything you’ll ever do as a writer. The unknown is a big place, and there are more ideas for you there.
Now about the names. Writers can be a little precious about what they need to start a story, whether it’s a character name, a voice, an opening line, etc. But there’s a fine line between precious and perfectionist. Precious might be re-arranging the pillows three or four times to get it just so in order to sleep. Perfectionists don’t sleep.
If you find yourself leaning into perfectionism, start imperfectly. If you can’t find a perfect name, find one that’s good enough. If nothing is good enough, pick any name. Yes, that may change the character you are writing: there’s a difference growing up as a Debbie versus a Eugenia versus an Ayesha. But that’s okay. Be open to the possibilities that it brings.
Sure, sometimes when we’re stuck, we genuinely need a break. We need time to rest, to relax, to nap, to go for a walk, to see some art. This is writing too, even if it’s not putting words on paper.
Try those things. Let go of the mental to-do list when you do. Stay present in the moment. Do it guilt-free, without thinking you should be putting words on paper, or cleaning, or cooking, or working, or tending to children, or whatever.
Then come back to the writing. Get some words down on the page. Don’t worry if they are good words or not, or if you aren’t productive, or working on something specific. You can do something specific if you like, but if that’s stressful or mucking you up, just write. See what happens.
There is no wrong way to do this, so don’t beat yourself up. Especially, don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up. Just write.
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