Saturday, December 03, 2011

fighting perfectionism and turning off kfkd

[B]ooks are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don't get in real life – wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded ...

Anne Lamott says Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life contains "almost every single thing I know about writing". Some snippets from the book (her stuff is indented):
[How do you do it?] You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. ...

It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started. ... One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do - you can either type or kill yourself." ...

E.L. Doctorow: "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." You don't have to see where you're going, you don't have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard. ...

[T]hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." ...

I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph ...

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.

Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness ... Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles ... Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it's going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
Thinking that you have to write an entire book can be a paralyzing thought. While writing 1918, I often felt like I had to write it all out in finished form. Which, of course, is completely impossible – and was guaranteed to make me feel like crap when it didn't happen.

In On Writing, Stephen King recalls being asked, "How do you write?" He answers, "One word at a time." He wasn't being a smart-ass. That is literally how it's done. It's a variation on the saying, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." There is that first step. And then a second step. And a third step. You cannot take 40 steps at once and get to your destination quicker. There are no shortcuts. Left foot, right foot, left foot ... One thought, one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page. Do that, over and over – write enough words, take enough steps – and you will reach your destination.

The curse of perfectionism: somewhere in the back corner of your brain, you know how you want the sentence to read. (I have had dreams where I was writing entire articles or reading a finished article. More than a few times they were what I was currently working on. However, once awake, I had no idea what the dream article said.) But I felt that it was in my head somewhere and so it must be possible to get it out. I don't think I believe that anymore.
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper. A friend of mine says the first draft is the down draft – you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. The third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy. ... Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can't – and, in fact, you're not supposed to – know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.
For some of us, three drafts is what it takes even before we show it to someone. Then we get some feedback and push ourselves through another draft or three. King also implied that three drafts is the standard amount, though obviously, there is no set number. David Foster Wallace was a "five draft man" – his first hand-written draft, two hand-written rewrites, and two more typed drafts.

Perfectionism goes hand in hand with what Lamott calls "shitty first drafts" (she meant it as a good thing in the quote, above). Getting something down on paper should make you feel good, but, for me, it often reinforces whatever negative feelings I have of not being able to write. My first draft of anything more extensive than addressing an envelope is a mess. Half-finished, simplistic sentences – which "proves" to me that I have no business calling myself a writer, and I should quit now before I waste any more time.

But I have finally learned to tell myself – okay, this is the part where I type a bunch of crap. No one will see it and the second run-through will be immeasurably better – because there is likely a germ or grain of something worthwhile in there, some phrase or sentence that can be built upon. Or I realize the draft is not really writing at all, it's more like evidence of thinking.
If you are not careful, station KFKD [K-Fucked] will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your inner ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one's specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.

The best way to get quiet, other than the combination of extensive therapy, Prozac, and a lobotomy, is first to notice that the station is on. KFKD is on every single morning when I sit down at my desk. So I sit for a moment and then say a small prayer - please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to he written. Sometimes ritual quiets the racket. Try it. Any number of things may work for you ... Rituals are a good signal to your unconscious that it is time to kick in.
It is very comforting to know that these feelings are universal. Every book on writing addresses them in some way. Now I have to go re-read Art & Fear.


laura k said...

Thanks for writing about Bird By Bird. This book has meant a lot to me.

I read it so long ago, yet I always retain the image of the 1-inch frame and Doctorow's headlights.

When I am having trouble writing, I sometimes visualize myself driving down a country road at night. If I look into the distance, it is pitch-black and I can't see, so I can't drive, I am paralyzed. But if I look just in front of me, it's light, and I can proceed. This image helps quell the anxiety, and focus enough to write.

laura k said...

Getting something down on paper should make you feel good, but it often reinforces whatever negative feelings you may have of not being able to write.

I am so relieved after writing a first draft. My big fear is that I have forgotten how to write - literally. So after I have a first draft, I can breathe, and get to work.

allan said...

Funny how people are different. I think I feel at my worst after a first draft (or pre-first draft notes) is dumped out.

Jere said...

"You cannot take 40 steps at once"

Down 3 games to 0? Just win one game at a time.

johngoldfine said...

The twin mottoes on the rubrics I use with students:


The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

--and sometimes when I write I can even follow my own advice.

johngoldfine said...

Do you know Lynda Barry's 'What it Is'?

allan said...

No, but it looks amazing.

laura k said...

Ready-Fire-Aim - brilliant. :)

I love Lynda Barry, but don't know that one - will definitely check it out.

juna said...

Bird By Bird is one of my favorite books. How could I not like someone who says "Clutter is wonderful fertile ground"? (You've also made me want to read "On Writing.")

I also like Kurt Vonnegut's thoughts on writing and on the creative act in general:

“The arts are not a way of making a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

allan said...

"Clutter is wonderful fertile ground"

I meant to point that out to Laura!

Don't expect too much from On Writing, but it's worth a trip to the library.

allan said...

Lamott quotes Vonnegut in the Perfectionism chapter: "When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth."

laura k said...

Wow, I LOVE the Vonnegut quote. It's sidebar material, or something to tape next to my desk. Thanks for that, Ms Juna!

laura k said...

"Clutter is wonderful fertile ground"

I meant to point that out to Laura!

Pfft. Gotta clear away the weeds if a flower is to grow.

Or some bullshit like that.