Three years ago, I started writing a manuscript. It was a story idea that had been knocking around in my head for a couple of years. Unfortunately, I wrote myself into a corner. Not having done any outlining, I had a premise, but no clear trajectory or idea for an ending. By 64,000 words into the process, I felt the story was going nowhere fast and set it on the back burner.
Then I started a new manuscript. A shiny new story idea. I quickly realized 26,000 words in, I’d put myself in the same position. I felt frustrated about the wasted effort with no finished product to show for it.
Discouraged by my sluggish pace and lack of direction, both stories ended up on the back burner. Feelings of self-doubt and insecurity paralyzed me. Would I ever be able to finish a manuscript?
Last week, while listening to a Masterclass lesson on writing by Neil Gaiman, he spoke right to my heart. He aimed at my feelings of inadequacy and analysis paralysis in exactly the way I needed.
“If you write something, it can be improved. The problem is, you cannot fix a blank piece of paper… You cannot fix nothingness. So you have to be brave. You have to just start.” -Neil Gaiman
Intellectually, we know this to be true. It’s perfectly logical advice. Sometimes we need to hear it from someone else when we can’t pep-talk ourselves. Hearing it from a prolific, celebrated writer who shares his own writing struggles helps so much.
I have a writer friend who calls the clunky, imperfect first draft the “vomit version”. Get it on the page and don’t obsess over making it perfect the first time. Then go back and edit until suitable. Her strategy must work based on the number of books she’s completed and published.
Perfection is the enemy. I have to get it out of my head that I am writing my magnum opus and just get something done. See it through instead of worrying that others will find it trite or foolish. I simply need to write and pray my work falls into the hands of the right readers. An imperfect published work is better than the perfect one in our dreams that never finds its way to the page.
Writing is hard. Messy and demoralizing. Exhilarating and gratifying. It is all the things and all the emotions because it’s a bit of ourselves pouring out onto the page. Hemingway famously spoke of this aspect of the writing process.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” -Ernest Hemingway
If you aren’t a writer, this might not make sense. But it’s true. The constant inner battle we wage as we journey through the process is painful. Self-doubt stings and distracts. We stand in our own way and treat ourselves like the enemy.
At least I do.
Thankfully, Neil Gaiman’s aptly timed advice has put a puff of wind into my sagging sails. These doldrums aren’t all there are is in the great ocean of creativity. He offered a parting thought to punctuate his sentiments.
“You have to be willing to let the process carry you through. And you have to be willing for it to sometimes land you on the rocks.” -Neil Gaiman
Indeed, sometimes we’ll land on the rocks. Our stories may flop. But they might soar. We won’t know until we write them. Write the shoddy first draft. Fill in the plot holes, and prune the dead wood once it’s done.
There can be no tweaking or tinkering if there’s no finished product. Self-doubt must take a back seat to progress. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a messy first draft to write.
Tracy is a New Jersey writer who loves Earl Grey tea, spending time outside, and painting. She lives with her husband and children in a home where birdsong and rainstorms provide the soundtrack for her creative life.