It’s no secret that writers have a hard time being nice to themselves. I don’t know why this is. Maybe the only people driven to regularly put lots of words down on paper are already a wee bit touched to begin with. And maybe the resulting madness of trying to shape words into experience makes some of us spiral into a horrible questioning of choices. Or maybe, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, our minds are the bad neighborhoods we should try never to go into alone. No matter what the reason (or reasons) why, I can’t help but notice that many of us writers and our fellow perfectionists could use a little shoring up every now and then.
When I was pretending to be a normal human being and designing a research project for my dissertation, I naturally gravitated toward studying the outliers. This should have been a MAJOR clue that I had no real business in research. I’ve always loved the person who faces away from the crowd, the one salmon who swims with the current, the story that stands out but somehow ends up showing us the whole picture. A researcher recognizes patterns; a writer tries to pull them apart.
God bless my sainted dissertation committees’ souls. Somehow, they helped me to shape my artist self into a respectable looking academic’s suit, and I did wind up writing about poets and the poetic process, though as you might imagine, all I was able to unearth and systemize came out in very broad, fuzzy strokes. One of those Impressionist strokes in particular, though, has stuck with me ever since. It was the idea of gestation, or the writers’ need to poke around in the creative realm without actually writing.
I’ve written about this before. But it’s worth revisiting on an endless loop, given how hard it is for many writers to grasp. Not because the idea is anything but basic, but because accepting it would mean releasing ourselves from the more socially acceptable habits of self-loathing and avoidance. In other words, because we’re so very, very good at punishing ourselves, it’s extremely hard to face down the barrel of a few or several hours of writing time and find ourselves doing nothing more than staring out the window for the first half hour (or, you know, hypothetically, the first three of three hours of three hours plus a five minute grace period).
And truth be told, I am still sometimes SO mean to myself when this happens, as it did yesterday. Instead of actually sitting down to write as I had planned to do in the morning, I decided instead to organize and categorize my unreasonably large collection of beads, most of which I plan to tie up into jewelry but actually enjoy the most loose, as textures and colors that click together in my hands. And while I know that makes me sound like I’m mentally challenged, that’s only because I really am quite mentally challenged; but the good news is that I’ve developed lots of handy coping mechanisms to get me through this bumpy ride.
My favorite one is the internal check in, a sort of rundown of gentle questions to ask myself when not writing. Simple enough, but hard to remember when in the throes of writerly angst. I did something like this when my kids were infants and I started to notice how those really bad crying jags threatened to unravel my already loosely woven wits. So I put a little check list on the refrigerator: food, diaper, sleep, pain, overstimulation (aka Daddy came home late from work and decided playing roll about with the baby right up until his bed time sounded like a fun idea. But I digress).
Anyway, I know it might sound ridiculous, but those of you who’ve experienced the harrowing early years of someone you love up close and personal probably know how essential a few simple roadmaps can become. And a similar map proves to be useful when I want to be smartly punching out thousands of words a week but somehow, don’t.
I start by stepping carefully away from the driver’s seat by asking myself to take a look at what I am doing. Is the beading or sketching or researching or wandering somehow keeping me in touch with my project? Is it giving the project space to gestate and work toward its next iteration, to work out a problem I don’t want to just write through, to recognize a problem in the story or a character or (gack) the plot that my intuition is telling me to pay attention to before I write the next scene or otherwise plunge ahead? Is the work, in other words, cooking, and it’s too early to open the oven?
Or am I simply terrified of taking a risk? Of putting yet more of myself out there for others to judge as impersonally as print marks on paper? Of trying that next, great idea, only to find that, like a fantastic crush who turns out to be a sloppy, wet kisser, it’s going to go nowhere fast? Because while these fears are great signs, too – signs that I’m actually hovering on the edge of incompetence and risking more than a little so I can find my best work – they are also indications that I might not be gestating – I might just be running as fast as I possibly can away from the truth I’ve chosen to embrace. The one I really want to stand up for, unsteady though I might be.
It takes a lot of time and trial and error to recognize the difference.
But the good news is that both conditions respond to the same approach. Which is to sit quietly and lower your expectations drastically and develop some varsity level patience with how slow and hard it becomes to move forward when you’re choosing to take on a really hard and long and steep climb. To just hydrate and fuel up and relocate your sense of humor and take extra good care of yourself, maybe put a list on the refrigerator of the five things you get most fussy without, and maybe intentionally invest in some productive daydreaming. Writing never looks like it should, anyway, so it’s best to stop fighting yourself and the work and just remake the world. It could use a little revisioning, anyway.