Where to Start? The Case Against Perfectionism
“The consequence [of writing] is that you must start by writing the wrong meanings in the wrong words; but keep writing until you get to the right meanings in the right words. Only in the end will you know what you are saying.” —Peter Elbow
Where to begin as a writer?
As a young reader I believed that writers began their works at the beginning and kept writing until they’d finished, their words lining up neatly before them in a single, sustained rush of inspiration. But for most writers, writing is a process that rarely takes us from start to finish.
We begin with a lone line or image. A memory that wakes us up in the middle of the night. The pinprick of an idea we jot down in our journal.
We begin in the middle. We begin at the end. We work for days or months, like an artist chiseling away at the slab of marble to see what work of wholeness and beauty might emerge from our efforts.
To write means to carve or sketch
Many of the words for "write" originally meant to carve, or scratch, or cut—such as the Latin scribere, the Greek graphein, or the Sanskrit rikh.
The Old English wrītan, means to score; to outline; to form (letters) by carving; to draw the figure of.
The German reissen means to sketch or drag.
Which is what my writing practice looks like most of the time. I carve, scratch, tug at the image I’m trying to pull from the blank page or screen.
Write like an artist
The sculptor inherits her raw materials—a slab of marble, a bucket of clay. She dips her hand into the clay and begins the process of shaping her material.
As writers, we must make our own clay.
We make our clay by lining up words and images and ideas as they come to us—without censoring them or wondering if we’re putting them in the right order; without wondering whether or not anyone will want to read these words of ours.
Like the sculptor, we know that if we show up every day and write, we will have material to work with. And, like the sculptor, we know we can always come back later to rework it.
We can move our words around. We can add new ones. We can throw some or all of them away.
But none of that can begin until we first generate some material. And so we set a line of words down on the page, not knowing where they will lead us. First one word and then the next.
This is our one and only first task: to fill the page, or screen, with words.
The enemy of our writing process is our inner perfectionist
The enemy of our writing process is our inner perfectionist. She has us staring at the blank screen, waiting for genius to strike. She tells us we need to clean up our act; we need to choose better words; we need to reach for more sophisticated ideas. She forgets that we can add and subtract from the clay of our words, carve new textures into what we’ve started, throw the whole bit back in the bucket and start again.
Close cousins of the inner perfectionist are the inner critic and the inner pleaser. The inner critic tells us we’re babbling on about things that no one wants to hear, or that our words aren’t headed in any clear direction.
The pleaser tells us there is no market for our words. We are too radical, too boring. We are too angry. We are not angry enough.
If we listen to these voices too early in the game, we become paralyzed. That image or memory that woke us in the middle of the night evaporates. The spark of our big idea fizzles before we’ve even tried it out.
Which is why, in the early stage of drafting any piece, it is vital that we don’t listen to the perfectionist or the critic or the pleaser, or any of the other voices that might prematurely say no to any of its possibilities.
We need to let our words try themselves on.
Later, we can shape our material into something tidy and polished, even publishable.
But first we must push past the blank mind and page and get that first line of words onto the page.
Because, as Elizabeth Gilbert reminds us in her book, Big Magic, we have extraordinary treasures inside us. “And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.”
Learn how to use Peter Elbow's free write to get those first words on the page in the second post in this series, Write Without Fear.