If there is consistency in my life, a thread that runs through the whole panarama, it is writing.
In elementary school, I penned books of sincere, maudlin poetry. In junior high, I filled journal after journal with observances, annoyances and my overwhelming fear that I would die without ever kissing a boy. In high school, I wrote and eventually edited for the school newspaper, and in college, I wrote and then edited and then managed our monthly magazine. Upon graduation, I took a job as the editor of a beachside newspaper, my first "I can't believe I get paid to write" job. Eventually, I landed at NBC, writing and producing stories and sometimes newscasts, in a dizzying attempt to court fickle Nielsen.
These days, I write here. Or at least, I imagine I do. Lately, I've struggled to write, to do the work, as a good friend says. I find myself facing a wall of fear every time I sit in front of the glowing empty screen, a fear that's murky enough to defy examination but real enough to send me scurrying back to Facebook, where I can read and write pleasant little nothings without having to do battle.
Then, last week, I read an article on The Atlantic about Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators, and my whole being practically vibrated with resonation. Because the author, Megan McArdle, somehow saw fit to peak into my brain and heart and write what she saw. After describing in excruciating detail the lengths most writers will go to put off the work of actually writing - "In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read." - she postulates this theory:
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.My heart almost burst with recognition.
Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A's in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.
If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.
I write, in my head, all the time. Constantly. I rearrange words and record lines of dialogue and get the lead just so. I come up with idea after idea, and I feel so proud of my imaginary work. And then I sit down to write, to do the work, and I freeze up, because now I'm face to face with the very real possibility that what I write will be drivel, that the beautiful concept in my head will end up squished and bloody as a newborn baby after it descends from my brain to the screen.
Failure. I fear it. I avoid it. I despise it. So I slink away from the challenge and go fold laundry instead. Because at least then, I know I'll end up with something to show for my work - like a pile of neatly pressed towels - instead of a page of messy, incoherent crap that looks nothing like I had imagined.
Maybe you relate to this? For you, it might not writing. Maybe it's getting off the couch and starting to exercise again. Maybe it's changing, really changing, the food you eat. Maybe it's the art supplies you've stuffed in the back of the closet with a huff and a sigh. Maybe it's going back to school to finish that degree or entering that songwriting contest or looking for a new job that really excites you.
Whatever it is, I know this: doing nothing to avoid failure ensures failure of the deepest kind. We must try. We must fail. We must learn. We must grow. And we must never give up.
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says:
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.Amen? Here's to more having fun.