Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It’s been said that all art is lying, but that doesn’t mean that all lying is art. In fact, there are a lot of lies that can get in the way of art, demoralizing artists and frittering away their time on methods that will never pay off.
Even among these dangerous mistruths, there are three lies that stand head and shoulders above the rest as the most damaging lies a writer can tell. Not only are these lies that authors tell themselves, but they’re lies that they tell every day, spinning the same falsity along for years at a time.
As tempting as these three lies may be, they’re not helping your writing, so in this article, we’ll be shining the harsh light of truth their way in an attempt to banish them from your everyday life.
Lie 1: I was more talented yesterday
The page has a weird kind of hold over a reader, even if that reader also happens to be a writer. Once we see something written down, it gains a sort of authority in our heads – it becomes official. Not only are you less likely to change it, but even the changes you do make are minimized.
This is a huge pitfall, leading writers to commit to decisions that don’t work just because they made them in the past. In justifying this compulsion, many writers settle on the homily that they were more talented yesterday, explaining why their modern-day savvy doesn’t seem capable of deconstructing what that brilliant writer in the past set down.
It’s not an issue that’s unique to writers – in film, editors often use something called a ‘temp track’. This is a piece of audio used to set the mood and tone of a scene while it’s being cut together, but which isn’t intended as the final audio for the film; this might be another existing song, or something recorded specially.
Unfortunately, having a piece of audio in place during editing can lead to a director considering that the ‘official’ score, and it can be difficult to move on – composers often fall foul of the temp track, unable to produce something that feels ‘right’ in comparison to the ‘official’ version, and directors even become so besotted with their temp track that it makes it into the film.Yesterday’s writer doesn’t know better than you.Click To Tweet
Generally, though, the temp track isn’t the right choice – it’s a placeholder, an outline of an idea that needed more room to grow, and the same is true of your writing. I’ve written before on the dangers of continually adjusting your work, but it’s entirely possible to go too far the other way, accepting what’s there just because it’s there.
So what’s the answer? Well, the best course of action is generally to have a plan in place. This might mean forcing yourself to redraft a certain number of times, or even having a minimum threshold for when words are allowed to be the ‘final’ version of what you’re writing. This doesn’t have to completely tie your hands – you could make a rule that you’ll rewrite a section but keep the old version squirreled away, ready to reevaluate once it’s lost that sheen of false credibility. This takes the decision out of your biased hands, allowing you to take an honest, critical look at the work of the writer you were yesterday.
Lie 2: I’ll find time today
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of a promising project must be in want of an hour to write in. We’ve talked before about how it’s difficult (but not impossible) to find regular writing time during the day. The problem is that doing so requires you to put in effort, to plan well in advance, and there’s no impetus to do so if you believe that you’re going to snatch an hour or so later in the day – probably in your lunch hour, or this evening, or you’ll just stay up a little longer, or you’ll wake up early tomorrow…
You’d think that a few days of not finding the time to write would disabuse us of this notion, but that’s just not how the human mind works. If we can trick ourselves today, we can almost certainly tricks ourselves tomorrow.
This is compounded by the fact that sometimes, the planets will align. We’ll feel like writing right at the moment when someone cancels, or we find we have an evening free, and we’ll get a surprising amount done. Great, fantastic, except we haven’t made any real progress, and our brains will only use this little endorphin kick to convince us that we can definitely find writing time when we want to.When it comes to writing, making time will always beat finding time.Click To Tweet
Here’s the real problem – inspiration fills the gaps we leave for it. If we know we’re going to write, then our brain spends the day bubbling away, preparing us for the act by chewing over ideas and lighting the touch paper of our talent. That means that by the time you reach your planned writing time, you’re actually ready to work. In contrast, vague plans to write later don’t give our brains time to prepare. That’s why, even when you have the evening free, you’re likely to find yourself watching TV, playing a game, or browsing the web, rather than using that time to write.
The solution is planning, but realistic planning. You probably won’t find a spare hour to write today, but you can carve out a dedicated twenty minutes. Maybe it’s not ideal, but ideal may never arrive, and you’ve got a book to write. If that isn’t enough to motivate you, consider those twenty minutes a beachhead – establish that writing time as the rule and you’ll have the ability to expand, to conquer more of your time.
Lie 3: I’ll be more dedicated tomorrow
It’s an odd quirk of human behavior that we expect our future selves to show traits our past and present selves can’t muster. It makes a certain kind of sense – sure, we didn’t maximize our working time today, but we didn’t need those distractions, and tomorrow we’ll just ignore them.
It’s this line of thinking that leads writers to vastly overestimate the dedication of their future selves. ‘This week I wrote a thousand words, so next week I expect to write five thousand.’ It doesn’t make any sense from the outside, but it mostly stems from not understanding our needs.
Turns out that maybe we do need those distractions – some may be negotiable, but most are our brains recuperating or allowing the subconscious room to work. More than that, it’s just plain easier to expect more from a person who doesn’t exist yet.
As a writer, the best predictor of your future behavior is your recent past. If you wrote a thousand words last week then it’s probable you’re going to write a thousand words this week. If you want to change things, aim those changes at your current self instead of counting on a more dedicated iteration down the line.
This especially applies to making and sticking to plans – don’t make a plan for tomorrow, make a plan for today and keep doing it. It’s fine to say that, starting tomorrow, you’ll set aside twenty minutes to write, but today-you has already opted out, and that’s who you’ll be tomorrow, too.A writing plan that starts tomorrow just isn’t going to happen.Click To Tweet
A lot of writing advice focuses on setting and keeping plans. That’s entirely appropriate – planning ahead really is the magic bullet – but it’s especially necessary that your plans are realistic. To have a hope of working, they need to start today and involve who you are right now.
Of course, that can feel almost impossible, so here’s an extra tip to help. Every time you swear to yourself that you’ll achieve a writing goal by a certain point, draw a small circle in a notebook or on a piece of paper. When the deadline passes and the goal isn’t complete, fill in the circle so it’s a black dot. Keep drawing these circles in the same place so that, when you make a plan that depends on future dedication, you’re confronted with visual evidence of how unlikely this process is to work. It’s not a lot, but crucially it’s something that will change over time – you won’t magically grow more dedicated or change the core of your writing behavior, but you might collect enough dots that you can finally convince yourself to make realistic plans that start today.
The tangled web
The problem with these three lies is that each supports the other – it’s fine to assume you were more talented yesterday, because even if you weren’t, the diligent editor you’ll be tomorrow will make things better. You’re bound to find time today, and there’s no point being more specific, because you’re going to be more organized tomorrow, anyway. You should expect great things tomorrow, because the work you did yesterday didn’t even really need editing.
Disentangling yourself from this web of lies isn’t easy, and it’s likely they’ll pop up again and again over your writing career. But knowing what they are and actioning realistic solutions now, not tomorrow, will free you from a cycle and reclaim day after day of your writing career.
For more on good writing practice, check out There Are Wolves In You! Now, How Can They Help You Write? and 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book. Are there other lies that writers tell themselves, or a misconception that it took you time and effort to break out of? Share your knowledge in the comments below.