Don’t Let Perfection Kill Creativity

I’ve been in a creativity drought these past few weeks. I’ve spent hours just sitting and staring at my computer but words wouldn’t come. I have read, hopeful that proximity to great literature would motivate my own muse. I’ve tinkered with old drafts and attended author events. Through it all, the creative juices have failed to flow.

Until I tried painting.

Let’s get this straight: I am a writer – not a visual artist. But, when an illustrator friend invited me to a mini art session at her house, I jumped at the opportunity. Why not? I thought. I’m not accomplishing anything else.

Seating us at easels, my friend distributed paper and brushes. We would do something called intuitive painting. She handed us cups of water and tubes of watercolor paints. Nothing about this felt intuitive. In fact, the whole thing felt very Age of Aquarius to me, but I did as I was told.

Our illustrator friend provided little in terms of instruction. She would play some music but there should be no talking. Other than that, she simply urged us to paint what we were feeling or thinking – no planning. There was to be no right or wrong, no judging.

I sighed deeply and, after some initial difficulties trying to figure out how to use these fancy, adult watercolors, I put brush to paper. I created waves of blue and green, yellow and orange. I painted thin lines and fat, opaque sections and transparent. I was still painting when our self-appointed leader stopped us for a quick check in. How were we doing? How were we feeling?

Somehow, we’d been painting for well over an hour, yet it seemed like we’d only just begun. I was no Claude Monet, but my page was blooming with color. I had entered into this process with zero expectations, yet somehow I was creating and having fun. I was feeling pretty proud of myself.

When I returned home from our painting party, I picked up my laptop and started typing. I was focused on maintaining this No Stress, No Judgment mindset. And something strange happened: Words came. I typed scene after scene, page after page. I had stopped trying to be the next Harper Lee or William Faulkner. By giving myself the freedom to simply write, I’d allowed myself space to experiment and make mistakes.

Perfection can kill creativity.

I know this from teaching, as well as from my personal writing experience. It’s why I’ve never graded students’ first drafts. Yes, I want to see that they’ve done the work, but those raw words aren’t ready to be assessed. Early drafts are about getting the story down on paper; fixating on grammar, description, or punctuation too early in the process can get in the way of the actual storytelling process. Trust me on this. I have a drawer full of “perfect” first chapters that have gone nowhere because I focused on improving what I had before I allowed myself to figure out where my story was headed.

Unfortunately, most of us set such unreal expectations for ourselves, that we don’t allow ourselves to take risks or fail. It’s a lesson I was reminded of by my intuitive painting experience.

A few years ago, I had the great honor of hearing author Judy Blume speak. She talked about writing her stories on a manual typewriter. As the audience groaned, she continued by explaining that when you type, you don’t stop to Spellcheck or use the online thesaurus. There’s no copying a sentence from one paragraph so you can paste it somewhere else. You don’t get caught up in making the first paragraph absolutely perfect – so perfect that the second, third and fourth paragraphs can’t possibly measure up.

With a typewriter, you simply type the story – beginning to end. When you’re finished – and only when you’re finished – you start reviewing your stack of pages. You know there are typos and overused words and entire pages of dialogue that need to be cut or reworked. But you don’t fix any of that until you have the whole story on paper, beginning to end. Allowing yourself to make mistakes during this drafting process, she reminded us, will free your creativity.

To those who say they have a good idea of where their stories are headed, I say, “Bravo.” You still need to write it down. It’s so much easier to react to and begin reworking a story that’s been written down than it is to mold an idea that’s still running wild in your mind.

Do I always allow myself the luxury of a no-expectations first draft? No. That’s reality. Sometimes I’m in a time crunch and sometimes I fall into bad habits. But when I do allow myself to fail – with the promise of time to refine later – I almost always produce sharper, more creative and brighter copy. More importantly, I produce completed stories or essays or articles. No surprise here: Judy Blume knows what she’s talking about.

Try it.

No judgment, no expectations, no rules. Give yourself the chance to write without restrictions and see where your creativity will take you.

When Words Won’t Come

Writer’s Block is real and, if you haven’t already experienced it, you will at some point. It’s not just a time when you’re not writing. It’s a time when anxiety grabs hold of your brain, strangles your confidence, and convinces you that YOU CANNOT WRITE.

Writer’s block is indiscriminate. It takes down novelists, screenwriters, songwriters, technical writers and it’s been known to choke the life out of PhD candidates during dissertation writing.

Good news: Writer’s Block doesn’t have to win. Sure, it may derail you for a day or two but, with some effort, it can be defeated. Next time WB threatens, try one or more of these tactics and you’ll be back to work in no time:

  1. Nix the blank page.

Clean, white pages are daunting. What if your words aren’t good enough? Your thoughts aren’t clever enough? Instead of fretting, write anything. Type the first few lines of your favorite song or the names of all the pets you’ve ever owned. Once you have a few words down, you may find you’re able to move forward with your actual project.

  1. Change things up.

If you typically write at your desk, go to a coffee shop instead. If you usually write in the morning, try writing flipping your day so you can write at night. If you write on a computer, try writing longhand. Sometimes a simple change is all it takes to get the words flowing again.

* A note about writing by hand: If you’re one of those people who prefer writing longhand, ditch the hand-milled, hand-stitched, handcrafted artisan notebook. Those things are idea quashers. How could any first draft or plotting session be worthy? Instead, opt for a 99-cent composition notebook. Lower your expectations, increase your productively; it can all be cleaned up later.

  1. Get moving.

Go for a walk or run. Do some yoga. Swim a few laps. I’m a firm believer that exercising your body can help kick your brain into gear. If you’re completely opposed to exercise, take a shower. Wash away all those negative “I’ll never write again” thoughts and start fresh.

  1. Write with weights on.

No, you’re not actually going to do bicep curls while typing away at your computer but the concept is similar. Imagine you have to run a mile carrying a heavy backpack. When you take the pack off, running will be easier; you’ll feel nimble and light. Instead of running, your assignment is to write using only one-syllable words. Write the next paragraph of your book or the next chorus of your song. It’s going to be hard. The text will sound choppy – but that’s part of the drill. When you finish, rewrite the piece with no limitations; let the words flow.

  1. Talk it out.

It’s likely the words won’t come because you don’t know exactly what story you’re trying to tell. Put away your laptop, close your eyes and pretend you’re sitting across from your best friend. Tell her your story. Tell her about the characters, their flaws, their dreams. Tell her about the scene you’re writing. Tell her what happens next. Talk and keep talking until you know what your story is really about. Then, open your computer and start writing.