Procrastinators Are Just Perfectionists Paralyzed by Fear

My muse is a bit of a bitch. Oftentimes when I’m away from my computer I’ll be struck by a thought–a simple line of dialogue or a facial expression or a freeze frame as though from a movie–and find myself fumbling over my phone trying to capture it. And many times I capture it exactly as it came to me.

Then I put my phone away and, oh gosh, after some time I come around to writing it down in a clean Word doc. And it’ll sit there as I stare at it. And maybe we’ll stare at each other for quite some time before I fold it away in defeat, my muse snickering because she hasn’t got a stroke of genius to lend me.

But more often I think of all the wonderful ideas and moments I’ve committed to memory. I have scenes written in my mind that I haven’t come to in my book, but even when I come around to them they’re never quite how I imagined them. Say for instance, I had planned for an epic hand-to-hand combat between two characters. I had really felt the impact of those blows, felt the sweat lingering on their foreheads, and even lost my breath for a moment. But then I finally get around to the scene and suddenly it comes off as–I don’t know–something as cheesy as a Power Rangers fight, full of theatricals and dialogue injected thick like the fake cheese they put in cheese dogs.

And many times when I write or think of writing I’ll recall these moments of failure and think, “Oh, what’s the point?” Or worse yet, I’ll think about how much more I have left to write until this draft of the book is complete and feel defeated despite never even putting a word on paper for the day. It’s like running a marathon and stopping halfway because my my legs are just so tired.

As a writer, my fear of failure is my biggest fault. And I think this failure is very common among writers. Oftentimes we’re plagued by the thought that, even if we complete a story it won’t be as epic or thrilling or amazing or whatever as we imagined it. Sometimes a great writing session halts at a single sentence. We lose our momentum and walk away feeling defeated no matter how much we may have written.

The Drive to Keep Creating

My dad recently got me into TED talks and I listen to them on the treadmill. One which struck a heavy cord with me was Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Eat, Pray, Love) “Success, failure and the drive to keep creating.”

She discusses her failures as a young writer, how for nearly six years she submitted stories for publication only to receive rejection letter after rejection letter. And for a time she wondered to herself if she should quit while she was behind and “spare [herself] this pain” of rejection.

But she had always aspired to be a writer–like so many of us–and so she always returned to it. I don’t think it takes rejection letters for us to feel dejected. Being a writer is hard and frankly, it sucks sometimes. Just everyday living–between work or school, bills, relationships, etc.–soaks up so much of our time. It’s easy to distract ourselves. But there’s something in us which pulls us toward the craft no matter how far we may venture from it. For me, there’s greater pain in avoiding my writing than there is in feeling like I’m failing as one. But Gilbert wants us to embrace failure. After all, there’s more to learn in failure than in success. And the longer we avoid failure the longer it’ll take for us to overcome it.

I think if we just learn to expect failure and accept it as a very normal part of being a writer, the sooner we’ll stop fearing it. So write a sentence that sucks today; make a cliche character; and write dialogue as bland as Anastasia from 50 Shades of Grey. We’re all doing it. We’re all sucking together. But those of us that keep at it, and toil and cry over it will eventually come upon a sentence, then a character, then a story that resonants with readers. And finally we’ll have what we want: a creation of our own doing that moves people.

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