“Start Messy, End Neat” : My One Trick for Writing Success

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One of the big problems I didn’t realize about becoming an editor is that now I have a particularly pernicious inner editor to overcome.

Thankfully, I’ve recently learned a trick for overcoming the typical block I get in working on my book. Given my tendency toward perfectionism, it’s no wonder my novel has sat on my hard drive for over a decade.

Stare deeply...
Stare deeply…

As an editor, and a typical human being I suppose, I’m prone to comparisons. Most of the time I know better than to compare myself to Wendell Berry and Frederick Buechner. But the worst trouble seems to come in comparing the blank page or the messy page to my own finished work that’s been previously well-received.

The expectation of writing well right out of the gate can stop me cold.

I have no idea why this is. I can’t remember lines of dialogue or what I had for breakfast, but I seem to have total recall of what that work took out of me.

But at that point, I have to remember my one trick for beating perfectionism and getting the next stream of words onto the page. I don’t remember when I learned this, am I’m sure it’s not original, but it has helped me many times. Thankfully, I’m a saver, so I always have old drafts of my work lying around (there are also significant downsides to this characteristic, which I won’t go into here). But I dig through my files for a while and pull out the worst old initial draft I can find and I wallow in its vapidity for a while. I force my mind to take in the too-long paragraphs, the lack of cohesion, the cringe-worthy attempts at proving my rationality and sanity.

And it works.

I remind myself the writing process requires a healthy dose of stupidity and blindness. It’s the editing process that requires “stoicism and the suppression of a natural affection.

So fegeddaboudit.

You can know all the good reasons for subjecting your work to a keen eye and a sharp trim. But don’t forget the reason to ignore all that when you set out to write again. Otherwise you may keep a foot on the dock as the boat begins slipping away.

“My own writing process is quite messy. I don’t always write my first drafts in full sentences, so it can take a few passes before things even gel enough for me to see what I’ve got.” 

So try it next time you’re facing the infinite blankness. And also, keep Anne Lamott’s advice on “Shitty First Drafts” handy: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

And remember why you started writing in the first place…I have yet to hear anyone say they write in order to impress everyone.

 “Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are….You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

― Anne Lamott

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5 thoughts on ““Start Messy, End Neat” : My One Trick for Writing Success”

  1. mick!
    oh boy, went to that natural affections piece and ate it up! this, my man, was such a comforting, massively helpful post. i dare say (as i continue to use too many words with glee) a reminder that could be used on a daily basis.
    suzee B

    1. But I know you never question whether your words matter. Whether they’re inspired. And you certainly don’t share the comparison curse! You’re too clever and crafty for that old crank! Blarg!

      :) but if you do, and you mean it, I love u all the more. Because I know what you feel. And I believe you know my fight too.

      And look at us! We both used to write such garbage! Ha!