On Writer's Block: Why Shame and Perfection Make Ridiculous Bedfellows
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
I play such a funny game. I buy a self-help book like the 5:00 AM Club, read it feverishly and then make a lofty commitment to do it. Get up, five days a week at 5:00am, and capture my best self before the sun is up. At first, it feels good. It feels amazing and life changing, and necessary. Necessary because I’m trying to write a book, and keep up a blog and raise three children and have a relationship with my husband and also squeeze in a full work day, while keeping up with the laundry and making sure there is something on the table for dinner every night.
In a busy house, getting up at 5:00am to write is my only hope. But at that hour, I have a problem. My littlest minion is deliciously warm beside me, and I went to bed too late and I have a very persuasive voice that tells me I’ll just carve out an hour later, or tomorrow. It’s okay not to achieve being a writer today, I tell myself. Look at all the places you have no choice but to show up. Not showing up for this is the only selfish act you own. You’ve been so stretched, my dear, maybe it’s a good idea to go back to sleep. Besides, of all the people you could let down today, you are the easiest one.
So very persuasive. I’m good at telling that kind of story. And when this goes on for weeks, it leaves me puzzled, because I’m a really hard worker. I love a good goal. When I put my mind to it, I get shit done. So, I think, gosh, the only real missing piece is just be consistent. I can do that. Just read the book, make a plan and get up every day and Just Do It. Thank you, Nike.
And yet, I don’t. I do sometimes, for short and feverish spurts, and then I don’t for long and languid epochs plagued by excuses. What I’ve come to understand about this on-again-off-again pattern surrounding my life as a writer, is that I’m absolutely paralyzed by perfection.
Blocks can be blamed on many legitimate things: madness, distraction, exhaustion. But I’ve found that what separates me fastest from the muse is perfectionism. Not to mention, I have a deeply seated fear of being misunderstood. I worry that I will offend or accidentally misstep and put forth something that incites or insults or alienates. The idea of sharing what’s true for me feels dangerous and reckless, and I’m positive it will only result in my being alone and destitute. Misunderstood and cast out.
Good gracious, no wonder I go long, stunted periods not writing. How can my Muse compete with that kind of doomsday forecast?
So, I have issues, but the greatest of these is perfectionism. Arguably all of the issues point in that direction. So, when I do finally sit down to write, that notorious kill-joy, Writer’s Block, shows up and says, maybe not today.
When you put all of that together, it leaves a trail of big, unfinished projects. The little stuff is all in check: my desktop files and the book shelf in the living room are curated wonders. But the big projects, the ones I label LIFE’S WORK are like the hallway closet - deep, tangled and seemingly unconquerable because all I do is keep adding stuff and nothing ever makes its way back out.
Those are the writing projects, the ones I’m more than capable of conquering, if I could just keep my focus. But focus is a transient devil with me because I’m so distracted by how to do it perfectly. I like to be organized and in control. My mind more easily unfurls into creativity when the dishes are done and the sheets are clean.
But the creative process is neither organized or something that can be controlled. In fact, the onset of a creative episode for me is messy and unwieldy. Words are spattered like paint on the page, sentences do not follow, ideas are stunted in concept but long-winded in explanation. At first, it’s always awful. I can’t stand awful. That’s where the Shame and Perfection police show up blowing their whistles, wondering aloud how I can’t get it right the first time. Why does she try, they ask? So much talent, so little discipline.
The real crime is that I listen to them. I put down the pen and agree that it’s awful. It’s not just that I listen to them - because a lot of times it really is awful - but that I let that stop me. I let myself believe that the shitty first draft is the best I can do. That nothing good lives beyond that, so why try.
I’ll tell you why I try. Because, in the absence of perfection this crazy, cosmic magic happens. My muse gets me up in the most vulnerable time of night - 3:00am – and she gives me permission to write things that I would never dare to write in daylight hours, or at 5:00am. There’s something about that time of night - when I fall asleep early with one of the kids and wake up refreshed at 3:00. The words come from a different place at that hour. Not my frontal lobe but more like the top of my head. A trap door that flings open and a Pandora’s box is unleashed and the northern lights are swirling and there is no fear. There is no judgement.
It’s not a willful act at that hour. It’s a surrender. An allowing. It feels possessed and channeled and every bit resting on the seat of my truth. And my truth feels dramatic and luxurious. It overflows and weeps. It’s nothing like how I operate my waking life - conservative and apologetic. No, that treacherous ego is somehow still slumbering in the distance, unaware that I’m frolicking with certainty and verse like we’re secret lovers. It’s stolen and lustful.
When I read it back in the morning, I’m struck by the courage and clarity of what laid down on the page. And these are the words that actually make it to the light of day for others to read, because they are so achingly true I can’t help but to share them.
Don’t think of me in a cold room, sitting upright, hammering away at my computer either. Almost never. Not until the final edits. Up until that point I’m usually tucked deep in my bed, wrapped in darkness and solitude. It’s no surprise that I birth my stories the same way I birthed my babies - lying down, in the cloak of darkness, while the world sleeps. I find space for my deepest vulnerability in the solitude and quiet of night.
And on the rare occasion inspiration comes to me in waking hours, I’m usually alone on a walk, and something comes flying at me from out of the sky, and the neighbors find me curbside madly taking notes on my phone, trying to catch the tail of the dragon as it whizzes past.
It’s just pure magic. The loveliest, most transcendent experience…until it isn’t. Until perfectionism pokes it ugly head in the mix and tells me I’m not doing it right. Somewhere along the way I came to believe that being a conduit is something that should be as exacting and controlled as everything else in my life. Can’t the words just line up like office files, or folded towels, or dry goods in the pantry?
This is why you can just as easily find me in a ball of shame under the covers at 3:00am (or 5:00am), telling the muse to come back tomorrow or never. I tell her we only have a deal if it always works the first time, and it’s easy and it allows me to be known but doesn’t expose me, thank you very much.
This is where I imagine my muse rolls her eyes ever so slightly, adjusts the covers over me, and then carries on pouring ideas through the top of my head so that I can’t sleep anyway. I sometimes personify her as a mother that bathes her babe in warm water by candle light, while blasting heavy metal from the radio on the bathroom sink. It’s impossible to enjoy anything until the radio is turned down The only way to turn it down is to write it down. Just exactly what she’s giving me, without question. Without ego. Just get it out. Let it be borne from me. Fling it like paint on the page.
The more I surrender to this, the more I’m learning something that might just change the game. Writing a book or keeping up with a blog might not actually require the achiever in me, but rather the playful dreamer. The part of me that has been so completely dismissed as frivolous and inconsequential. The B actor. The sidekick. The guy in the movie that you recognize but can never remember his name. The expendable one that usually dies at some point in the story, because someone needs to die, and he’s not that critical to the plot.
But the dreamer is important! Arguably, non-linear dreaming is what I do best. My mind so readily unfurls into ideas and possibilities at every opportunity that I wonder if my real life’s work is not in the act of being tucked and focused, but rather to let myself unravel and go a little mad in search of the rabbit at the bottom of the hole.
How very un-American that would be - to relinquish control and go a little mad.
Maybe that’s why the genius that comes from effort is always just out of reach. Effort equals control, when what I really need is to let go enough to let genius run wild. Maybe the shortest distance for me isn’t that short. Maybe it’s long, with lots of hairpin turns. Maybe my “process” is losing my way in the mess, so that I can stumble onto the same path again and discover it in a new way. That’s kind of my jam anyway - taking new paths. Never retracing footsteps. Finding a different section of the same road and seeing it with new eyes. Isn’t it pretty? Doesn’t it sparkle in a way that makes it worth carrying on, despite the mess?
So lately, I’m trying something new. When those opinionated bedfellows show up, I tap them on the shoulder and tell them to take a hike. Excuse me, Shame and Perfection, thank you for working so hard to keep me safe and quiet but kindly move along. You’re in the way. I was just congratulating myself for showing up and daring to write something today that’s awful and a total mess. You two have wasted my time long enough demanding something more. Now excuse me while I get back to this delicious waking dream.