“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” — Philip Roth
You can write if you want to. But you need to get past resistance and get over any fears. You need a new mental model that let’s you write more freely, and makes it OK to make mistakes as you go along.
It’s how you get stared, it’s how you get better, and it’s how you improve, every time you write.
You can’t start out perfect. And perfection should not be your goal. Instead, focus on progress, focus on learning, and focus on sharing your unique gifts with people who can benefit from your writing and your experience.
The Secret of Real Writers
Steven Pressfield taught us the secret of real writers: “There’s a secret that real writers know that wanna be writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is resistance.”
Resistances is a powerful force that can hold us back from putting things down on paper. Yet, if we can put things down on paper, we can iterate and improve. Chances are, you can easily do better the second, third, fourth time around.
If we can get past resistance, and if we can use our drafts to propel ourselves forward, and if we don’t worry about our first efforts, and if we give ourselves a learner’s permit to make mistakes as we go, then we can write more freely, improve much faster, and flow way more value to people who would benefit from what we have to say or what we have to share in terms of our knowledge, skills, and experience.
Otherwise, as the saying goes, we die with our music still in us. (Whatever our music may be.)
In the book, The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks, and Imperfections, Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal shares his insights into how adversity can help writers get started, keep going, and improve their work, and enjoy the process, no matter how messy it is.
Use Your First Draft to Propel Yourself Forward
It can be easier to fix something than to start something. So make it easier to just start something, and you’ll make your whole writing process easier. Rosenthal writes:
“Writes, too, routinely go through multiple efforts before they are satisfied. Ernest Hemmingway perhaps put it most succinctly when he said, “All first drafts are shit.” Coming from a master, I find these words comforting. I also enjoyed reading Christopher Isherwood’s observation that his first draft was generally so bad that it would shock him into writing a better second draft. To his credit, Isherwood took advantage of adversity, using his disgust at the first draft to propel himself forward.”
Don’t Worry About Your First Efforts
Don’t over-edit, over-engineer, or over-analyze your first drafts. Get what’s in your head, down on paper. And, don’t be attached to what you put down on paper. You are not your writing. Rosenthal writes:
“All prospective authors would do well to heed the advice of these masters: “Don’t worry about your first efforts. Many people are afraid to commit themselves to the written word; they write but never send out their work because they fear being judged and found wanting. That is because they confuse their words with themselves, so that being edited strikes them as a blow to the ego, not a helping hand. A person who can’t get past that may never write anything at all, which is a shame: Their unique message to the world will never be delivered.”
Give Yourself a Learner’s Permit
You’ll struggle in the beginning and the process is a mess, but that’s OK. You’re learning. Remember what it’s like to learn anything new and give yourself some slack. Rosenthal writes:
“Elise Hancock, formerly editor-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins Magazine and author of Ideas into Words, has this advice for those who suffer from a fear of writing: ‘Remember the many times you’ve tackled something new. Think hard about how you struggled at the beginning — when you first learned to drive, to kick a soccer ball, or to read a book. In just the same way, when it comes to writing, you’re learning — so give yourself a learner’s permit. As with many things we fear, it gets easier as you go along. The process may seem like a mess, but all that matters in the end is the finished product.’ “
Work a Little at a Time, Every Day
A little progress adds up, and breaking things down is one of the best ways to tackle your greatest efforts. Rosenthal writes:
“I have taken comfort from similar advice by the great writer Isak Dinesen, who wrote: ‘When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.’”
They say, in life there are no second chances at a first impression. In writing there is. (Er … there are?)
Make mistakes. Make beautiful music, warts and all.
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Image by United States Mission Geneva.