“I know some great writers, writers you love, who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right one of them does, but we do not like her very much…Very few writers know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.”
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
We’ve all been there: We’re expectant. We’re determined. We’ve carved out a juicy chunk of time to write our little hearts out. And we end up staring at a blank page for longer than we care to remember or reveal, or our only output is a few lame paragraphs that we feel like throwing into the wash along with our laundry.
There’s a simple solution for this if it’s happening to you right now or you think it might happen some time soon and you’re dreading it: Give yourself permission to write badly.
That’s right! Take a leaf from Annie Lamott’s wonderful guide, Bird by Bird, and embrace her wise and generous advice: Lower your standards. Don’t go for an “elegant first draft” or even an elegant set of words or paragraphs. Just start writing, holding on to the belief that you’ll figure out what you’re doing as you go along.
Here’s another tip: Get yourself a notebook — nothing fancy — and write longhand. Somehow this makes the whole act of writing seem more playful, more casual, less fraught with expectation and self-judgment. Just sit, pen or pencil in hand, and scribble away. I find colorful inks and cheerful pencils help.
Give yourself a week or more of writing sessions like this. Look back over what you’ve written the day before if you want to — or don’t bother; just keep writing. At some point, take stock of what flowed from your mind and pen. More than likely you’ll be surprised. There will be a sentence or phrase here and there that you really love — that provokes and challenges you. You may even find whole paragraphs that hold the seeds of something exciting: a story perhaps, or a way of describing a character that was eluding you.
If you’re feeling playful, you can even pluck three words from the ether and start writing around them. If you keep going, chances are you’ll arrive at something worth salvaging and exploring.
There’s already so much pressure out there: to produce, to publish, to prosper, to prioritize, to prance and preen in print. Don’t know where all those “P’s” came from, but they just popped out. You get the point. All this performing can be exhausting: It can rob us of the fun and joy of practicing our craft. If all this is getting to you, why not take the pressure off for a while. Just “freelax” as Alex used to say — and then write on.