Image: Matthew Loffhagen
In writing circles, we commonly tell each other to turn off our internal editor in the early stages of writing. It’s good writing advice, but do we go far enough? In her book If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland says:
Though everybody is talented and original, often it does not break through for a long time. People are too scared, too self-conscious, too proud, too shy.
We spend a lot of time encouraging writers to hone their craft, tighten their prose, chart their plot points, map their character development; in short, we teach them to analyze their work. But Brenda raises a good point – if in all this work to hone your craft you can’t write freely, with abandon and authenticity, you’re missing something essential.Authenticity is a cardinal virtue of the author.Click To Tweet
Does this ever happen to you? You get stuck in a way you know is more than writer’s block. You can’t get more than a few words out at a time, you second-guess your work to death, or you feel dissatisfied with everything you write. If this is you, take a step back. Return with me to the heart of your writing, to that deep well of inspiration from which your words spring.
One common root of this problem is perfectionism. The need to get the words, the pacing, the character description – fill in the blank – just right can make a writer clam up. Perfectionism has its merits, but given free reign, it can also be a killer. It’s hard to give up the need to get it just right, isn’t it? But if your high standards are crippling your creativity, they’re not serving you.It’s good to have standards, but don’t let them slow you down. Click To Tweet
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, talks and writes openly and often about her relationship to perfectionism. I’ve adopted one of her sayings as a mantra to combat my own overactive perfectionist tendencies:
Done is better than good.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m the first to advocate for excellence. But getting your writing perfect doesn’t do you any good if it keeps you from getting it off your desk. Do good work, tinker with your prose, but get it done. Then let it go.
Another common pitfall is writing for some arbitrary, made-up audience. I’m not talking about your target readership – they are important, and their expectations and desires matter to a point. I’m talking about Them. You know, the Writing Police, the ones who are judging you and holding you to The Rules. Let me tell you a little secret: they don’t exist. They’re not real.No outside source can make you write a certain way. Be authentic.Click To Tweet
If you find yourself second-guessing everything you create, asking if you’re doing it ‘right’, and struggling to be confident in your work, you need to camp out here for a while.
The only person you’re accountable to is yourself. Write for you. Forget everyone else for a little while. Forget the list of unspoken rules and expectations that has you feeling inferior. Trust that if you are seeking to create something authentic, you’ll find your way.
Are you paralyzed by the need to be original? Are you worried about writing for the latest trends? Do you wring your hands trying to come up with that sparkly new idea no one has ever tried before? Stop. Don’t do that. I’m not saying you should be derivative. I’m saying you should focus more on authenticity than originality. In the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun.
Here’s another gem from Liz Gilbert:
Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me.
A hundred people can write on the same theme, but if you write from a place that’s true, it won’t be the same as what anyone else has written. So don’t get too worked up about being original. As she says:
If you are authentic, you WILL be original.
A place to start
Ueland outlines an activity for writers who find themselves in this trap. It goes something like this: Try to write something really terrible. Go ahead. Try to write a really banal story about the most uninteresting character you can imagine. Write in utterly boring language. Create a story no one would ever want to read it’s so derivative and unoriginal.
I really hope you try this exercise; it’s brilliant. Here’s what happens. It’s so easy to write like this because it removes all pressure and expectations that have built up in your writing life. You’ll get a few sentences in and realize how ridiculous it is that you’ve put so much pressure on yourself, and you’ll immediately begin to feel freer about your writing.
The other thing that might happen is that your mind starts spinning with inspiration. You might start to write a story about boring old Bob going to the store to buy milk and flour and eggs to make cookies. But why is Bob making cookies on a Monday afternoon when he should be at work? Who are these cookies for? Soon you’ll be losing yourself in a story that was supposed to be boring and terrible; before you know it, you’ll be writing something unique and interesting.What is Bob UP TO? This ‘boring’ exercise will help your writing...Click To Tweet
This is a simple exercise, but it’s a great start for those of you who are stuck under the weight of expectation or self-doubt or perfectionism. It’s also a great palate cleanser for every writer from time to time. Pull it out of your writer toolbox when you need to freshen things up or jump-start your creativity.
Writing is hard for all kinds of reasons, so don’t get mired in self-doubt, perfectionism, or unrealistic expectations. Do some soul searching and see if Ueland’s advice applies to you. Are you writing from an authentic place? Is your writing your own? I’ll leave you with a final quote, and my thanks to Jim Aikin, a member of our commenter community who suggested the value of sharing it.
Be careless, reckless! Be a lion, be a pirate! Write any old way.
– Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
What practices do you use to keep your authenticity in check? Do you have a mentor or role model for your creative life? Tell us about some of their practices or teachings that have been helpful to you, and you just might inspire a future article. For more writing advice with an interesting twist, check out There Are Wolves In You! Now, How Can They Help You Write? and What A Blacksmith Knows About How To Fix Your Story.