Amy Poehler writes about writing in Yes Please:
Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone”— blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.
Good god damn. That is the truth. I participated in NaNoWriMo last month. This is what kept my blog posts and Facebook status updates lean. All of the energy I could muster for crafting words was poured into writing twenty-five hundred words five days a week for four weeks.
SIDE NOTE for nerdy nerd nerds: In that quote she references the cabin in Big Sur that Jack Kerouac worked in toward the end of his career. This is the place I am going on a pilgrimage to in the coming weeks. This was in the plan before I randomly picked up this book.
The point of NaNoWriMo is to prevent the perfect from being the enemy of the good. At thirty-nine I am finally grasping the reality of this problem. I shall explain.
I made a sensible choice years ago to take a job in tech as opposed to design. After years of eating ramen to snag two degrees, I was in desperate need of creature comforts, comforts that are easily procured with money. With skills in both software development and design, I pursued software development to net a bigger paycheck and an assured brief job search. I could always go back to design after I avert the very real risk of scurvy.
Fast forward thirteen years, and I never went back to design. True story: eating ramen and sweating making rent sucks. I can’t say that I have regret. Yet, I have been yearning to stretch my creative muscles.
Two things mortified me when I started tentatively stretching those atrophied muscles in the last few years. First, I have grown afraid of failure, or perhaps more precisely, afraid of displaying my stunning lack of competence. The second compounds the first. I’ve spent fourteen years consuming excellent writing and music; I have a much keener sense of what good and, unfortunately, bad looks like.
I found these two gremlins in my photography, writing, and music. I spent years thinking I would find sunlight to melt them into oblivion. Instead years passed, and I created nothing.
Something caught my imagination a few years back when I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Bear with me as I will grossly truncate one of the key ideas he expresses in his book; 10,000 hours of practice is all that’s required to master a skill. What we often call talent, might better be understood as persistence and discipline in a given area of interest.
In the years since, I’ve come to see compelling arguments that some of his interpretations are questionable. I read the book just after it was published, so I didn’t have this information to discourage me. And for that, I am thankful.
I decided to blog. I decided to schedule photo shoots. I shared my photos on my blog. My discomfort with mastering my new camera body was on display. My utter failure as an editor is still there for all to see–just go to my archives here and select stuff from three years back or more. (I’ve probably let some typos through in this very post.) Since I committed to write about the BBC’s Big Read booklist, I had to write blog entries when the muse wasn’t there. I forced myself out of the apartment with my camera when I wasn’t inspired.
Something wonderful started to happen. I learned a habit that enables my inner editor–multiple passes of the same passages in different sittings. Sometimes in pass two or three I discovered that under my aimless, uninspired rambling was something worth saying. Sometimes the muse that left me adrift on the first draft found me on rewrite two or three. Shots that felt pointless in the moment only revealed their beauty once I sat at the computer editing.
And then there’s learning that can only take place in the context of experimentation. Over three years, I mastered my photo editing software. I started to know what could and couldn’t be altered later while at the shoot. My vocabulary has expanded, giving me more efficient ways to express myself. I know how to use a colon–sure I had to look that up about nine times. I got physically adept at manually focusing–and quickly–so as to not be victim to autofocus selecting the wrong focal point. My ear for good prose expanded. I’ve grown to have a sense of what lens I should use with just a rudimentary understanding of the environment.
At first, I couldn’t look at my work. I cringed at every sloppy mistake. But more than three years on, I see my mistakes less and my progress more. I see that the experiences of creating the work, writing or pictures was worth while in its own right.
And this brings me back to the perfect being the enemy of the good. The unholy mess of writing I did years ago, I can now see as the good. It wasn’t good writing. Yet the only way to to become a better writer is to write, and this is the good. The journey of learning to write well is the good.
I wrote a novel. It is not great. And that’s ok because multiple rewrites can solve for this. It’s good because I now know I am just awful at writing dialog. It’s good because the experience has made me a different reader. It’s good because I know something about writing now. I know that writing my way through a plot I know from word one feels dull even when the pacing might be appropriate for the reader. My mind moves faster than my fingers. My brain fumbles with thoughtful prose as I am eager to move the plot forward. I’ve learned that my inner artful muse really needs my inner planner to ensure all plot holes are sealed up. I’ve learned that I forget what the hell I wrote the day before.
And this was all better than good but less than perfect. It was great. Congratulations fellow NaNoWriMo winners. Congratulations me.