Perfectionist Writers

Does perfectionism keep you from getting started on your writing? Does trying to write your best create pressure for you?

If you, you’ll be encouraged something in Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s about being a perfectionist–and how to deal with the pressure it generates in all artists, including writers. Read about this experiment:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class, he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot–albeit a perfect one–to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work–and learning from their mistakes–the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Quality from Quantity

Isn’t that a fascinating experiment? I know that we get better by writing more, like a piano player gets better by practicing more. But what struck me is how much more FUN the first group must have had (while at the same time producing superior pots.) They were just trying to create a lot of pots, without any emphasis at all on the finished product.

Could I use the results of this experiment to revamp my own writing that was often stalled by the perfectionist demon?

Reforming the Perfectionist

I decided to try an experiment of my own this morning. Most days I more closely resemble a pot maker from Group B: stewing, not writing, being unhappy with results and scrapping them, judging, blocking, and finally quitting for the day. Today I decided to be a Group A pot-making writer and just relax. I stayed off the Internet till noon and just wrote–a lot. [I had already outlined my book.] My only goal was to produce a lot of pages. I wrote for three hours with intermittent short breaks, and I had fun! From what I can tell, the nice pile of finished pages aren’t half bad either.

I think I’m onto something here! Don’t try to write the Great American Novel today. Just make some pots, lots of pots!

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Honor the Process

Every piece of new writing is a voyage into the unknown. There are things you can do that help the writing process–many things! There are just as many that dishonor the writing process.

Wiser published writers than I am often say, “You have to honor the process.” What does that mean exactly? I think it means you have to accept the complexity of writing, how it happens for you, and what you need in order to nurture the process. (Simple example: If you know you need seven hours of sleep in order to write well the next morning, you honor the process when you go to bed early enough to sleep those hours. You dishonor your writing process by staying up till all hours and arriving at the keyboard the next morning in a mental fog.)

Ways You Dishonor the Process

There are many ways we unknowingly and accidentally dishonor the writing process. We may:

  • get a great idea for a story, but wait until we have time later to write it down, and when “later” comes, we can’t remember it.
  • rush into writing a rough draft before we’ve given the idea time to gestate.
  • tolerate habits detrimental to our health.
  • allow such critical voices in our heads that everything we write sounds like rubbish, so we give up in discouragement.

We all probably dishonor our writing process in different ways, depending on personalities.

Ways You Honor the Process

If you wanted to honor the writing process, you might:

  • keep a pen and notebook handy to jot down ideas immediately.
  • let your idea grow and simmer before starting the rough draft.
  • eat good “brain” food, get enough exercise, and do what’s needed to avoid injuries from sitting all day.
  • do whatever’s necessary to silence the negative voices (e.g. pray, do positive self-talk, read motivational books, see a counselor).

In Deep Writing, Eric Maisel made this observation:

“I hope that you’ll take seriously the notion that you can help or harm the writing process and that, in a corner of awareness, you already know which of the two you are doing… When you find the courage to explore your own truth about honoring and dishonoring the process, some writing successes are bound to happen.”

What about you? In what ways do you honor the writing process? Make one small change today that honors your writing. (And then, tomorrow, make another one!)

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A No-Guilt Writing Life

Does taking time to write make you feel guilty? In her book Writing as a Way of Healing, Louise DeSalvo said, “Many people…have told me that taking time to write seems so, well, self-indulgent, self-involved, frivolous even.”

Does that describe you? Do you fight your own guilty feelings that say you should be doing something more productive? Does writing–especially if you haven’t sold much or aren’t making piles of money from it–feel selfish to you? Do the real (or imagined) opinions of others keep you from spending time writing or making it more of a priority?

The Stages of Guilt

When our children are small, we fight the guilt that comes with motherhood. Are we taking too much time away from the kids? is it really good that they’ve learned to entertain themselves so well? Is it really the responsible thing that my kids are the only ones on the block who know how to run the washing machine and cook meals? Will the children remember Mom as someone without a face, only a hunched back and tapping fingers?

I used to wonder all those things when my kids were small. But we needed the money from the book contracts I was receiving, and at least I was home. (Only technically, it felt sometimes.) You may know the feeling. When you’re writing, you feel like you should be doing crafts or baking with the kids. When you’re making the umpteenth finger painting, you long to be writing.

This Too Shall Pass…or Will It?

Once my children were grown and on their own, I thought the guilt would stop. But I really identified with Carol Rottman in Writers in the Spirit when she said:

“Now all I have to do is quell my guilt over the things I displace because of my indulgence in writing. There are so many worthy causes that regularly tempt me to leave the desk. A sister describes me as ‘driven’ when I am so serious about my work, and friends wonder why I don’t join them for lunch. My children and young grandchildren, all within a twenty-mile radius, can use as much time as I can give.”

The Cure for Guilt

As in so many cases, the cure for guilt seems to be in finding the right balance. Balance between time for writing and time for family/job/home/church/community. Have you found the balance that works for you and your family? It will look different if your children are babies than if they’re teens or adults.

But how do you find that balance and banish the guilt? Take some time on your own and prayerfully answer the following questions:

  1. What/who pushes your guilt buttons when you’re trying to write?
  2. How do you choose whether to keep writing or not?
  3. What questions do you ask yourself in order to find the right balance and keep your priorities straight?
  4. What are you willing to give up of your own in order to make time to write?

Once you’ve decided, make a schedule for your writing, inform friends and family, and then make a firm commitment to banish the guilt. Trust me on this. Even if you now prioritize your days according to guilt (like I did for decades), you can do this. And in a surprisingly short amount of time, when you see the world goes on functioning while you’re writing, the guilt will fade away.

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Jane Austen and Me

I got some news last Tuesday that took my breath away.

In the past two years, I’ve written (among other things) four mysteries for adults. Three were part of a historical series. One novel featured Jane Austen.

This week I got an email from a woman in charge of collections at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, England.

It was about my Austen novel, A Dangerous Tide, and her decision to add it to the museum’s Reading Room.

Felt Like a Dream

Sue Dell, from the museum, said the following: “Having reviewed your book we have decided we will place your book on our public shelves in the Reading Room at Jane Austen’s House. It will remain on the shelves for 12 months. We like to show the public that Jane still inspires writers today, and your story is a lovely example of this.”

I read the email several times before it sank in. My novel featuring my all-time favorite author, Jane Austen, is sitting on a shelf in Jane’s house in England, just down the short hallway from the dining room where Jane sat at her tiny, twelve-sided table and

Jane Austen's famous 12-sided writing table

wrote Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and others.

I was more thrilled by her email–and my book being placed in their Reading Room–than any award I ever received for a book. Below is a photo of one side of the reading room, and the other photo shows Sue Dell adding A Dangerous Tide to the shelves. [And below that, I'll share a dozen photos of places in Jane's house that appear in the book.]

Jane Austen House Museum Reading Room

Sue Dell, Collections Volunteer

The Fun of Onsite Research

The events in the book were purely fictional, but the historical setting is accurate, the historical events of the time are real, and the Austen family is based on a lot of research done over the years of enjoying her books and movies and biographies.

For those of you who subscribe to the series (and for my friends who’ve read the book), I thought I’d share some photos of my trip to Jane’s house last September. I have included photos of places featured in the book’s story.

In no particular order then…

Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton, England

Jane's pony cart

outdoor bakehouse

kitchen hearth

Jane's upstairs bedroom overlooking court

seeing Jane's view from her bedroom window

courtyard below Jane's bedroom; bakehouse opposite

relaxing in the Austen garden

 

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Writing á la Pavlov

In previous weeks I’ve shared why I went AWOL for months, the need to rest, reflect and realign, how to re-figure your writing output, and how to avoid burnout in the first place.

What if you’re ready to write again?

You may not have hours every day to write, or you may have tight deadlines. So you need to make the most of your time. And that means getting started quickly. 

Write on Cue

A jump-starting activity is something that makes your brain realize immediately that “now it’s time to write!” If Pavlov’s dogs could be trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, I thought surely I could learn to write on command.

Rituals and Routines

I’ve always loved reading about other writers’ rituals, the things they do to “prime the pump” for writing. I never felt much need–nor wanted to use the writing time–to do much of that myself. I tried a few times, but the writing exercises would take me 30-60 minutes and Julia Cameron’s morning pages took me an hour. (I consider myself a pretty fast writer, but most of the things that “only take 10-15 minutes” take me considerably longer–including these blog posts.)

What I needed, I realized, was a short cue along the lines of the ringing bell for Pavlov’s dog. I needed something to trigger an automatic writing response–and it needed to be something I could do at home, on the road, or when staying with my grandkids.

Time-Tested Help

If your writing time is short–and you need to get started quickly–here are some rituals and routines that other writers have used:

  • Light a special lamp or candle
  • Put on a particular kind of music that works for you (Lyrics? Instrumental?)
  • Prayer, meditation and/or affirmations for writers
  • Hot tea or hot chocolate
  • Eat a banana or apple or something healthy
  • A short walk–ten minutes or so
  • Stack dishwasher, pick up house (Some writers do this for their jumpstart, but it doesn’t appeal to me!)

Again, I needed short things to do. The danger is always that the ritual takes over your whole writing time. If you have all day to write, that’s a different ball game. You can take a whole hour to get started, if you want to.

Make a List

It’s a good idea to have a number of rituals to choose from too. “Create as many practices as you can, because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t,” says Vinita Hampton Wright in The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life. “Their effectiveness will vary. When one thing doesn’t help so much, go to something else…adapting practices according to the season of the year.”

This makes sense to me. While in the winter, a good cup of hot chocolate is perfect, during hot Texas summers, it’s about the last thing you want. I think a written list posted near my writing space would be a good idea too. I might have a whole list of rituals to choose from, but so often when I try to think of one, they all escape me.

If you want to read more about the power of these little habits, see a book by Mason Curry called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. In the book 161 artists, writers, and other creative types give insights into the specific rituals they use to get the creative juices flowing on command.

And doesn’t that sound appealing?

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