My friend Michael Procopio–a San Francisco based gentleman blogger who fights for the honor of words and glorifies the well-timed delivery of a witty retort–wrote a moving essay on the topic of writer’s block this past week. Michael’s post described how his writing had come to a halt once a desire to create something perfect had settled in. Writer’s block–the kind that demands nothing less than greatness– can not be relieved without the delivery of an impossible ransom. The desire for praise or success only elevates the price. Michael’s essay bared the hard truth; a desire to create something perfect can kill the ability to create.
Oh, man. Who hasn’t felt that way? Who hasn’t longed for a pat on the back? Who hasn’t worked hard on a creative project, only to feel a heightened sense of obligation for the next deed to be even greater than the last? Who hasn’t heard those dark whispers that say the work you’re done is no good. Or worse, that nobody out there really cares?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frozen by the idea that the last thing I was proud of may be the last good thing I write. And then, just when I’ve talked my self out of the corner, the voice of self-doubt returns to trump the whole thing with the hateful notion that the last thing I put down on paper wasn’t all that great after all. Why bother, it tells me.
Boy, we creative types really can be rotten to ourselves.
Luckily, I’m in something of a good place today, so I can muster something close to a snicker to the dark thoughts that come in and tell me I might as well stop writing. Where do these thoughts come from? Who allows such mean talk to go on in this head of mine? Thanks to Michael’s essay, I’m happy to know I’m not the only writer who has suffered through a block.
It’s odd, what we do here in the blogosphere. We begin our work in obscurity, work hard to define what it is we do, and then–once we get a sense for who we are online–we work hard to lift our blogs out of the void. We write more often, we search engine optimize, we go to classes, and attend conferences. And then–if we’re lucky enough to make a blip on the radar and get noticed (Yay! A spike in traffic! Yipee a mention on a site we love!), we’re suddenly faced with a whole new set of challenges.
Recognition and kudos feel good. But self doubt can come in and erase all that. Fear can step in and tell us that somehow we’re gonna mess things up.
Savor obscurity while it lasts
When I started this blog four years ago, I felt the spaciousness of obscurity. I craved attention, yes, but I knew there was a wide margin of error and discovery in the early essays I posted. In blogging limbo, no one cared what I had to say. Later, as the years went by and the curve of my stats arced upwards, I began to feel a sense of obligation for what I wrote. Minutes of editing became hours. I got lost in things that weren’t as important as the act of writing. The quality of my lenses and camera suddenly became very important. How my blog looked took a lot of time. Luckily, I never came close to getting a smidgen of readers close to someone as prolific as Pioneer Woman, but yet, the more readers I got, the more I began to labor over my “hobby”.
My writing became constricted and forced. What once took an hour or two now took an entire day to write. I fostered a growing sense of insecurity as I wondered if other writers took as long to write a post. I questioned my talent, my love, my desire to create. My creative playing field became a dungeon. I became shackled to certain ideas and desires.
Nobody cares. Do it for yourself.
I recently read a book that offered up some entertaining and sobering advice on the creative process. “Ignore Everybody And 39 Other Keys to Creativity,” written by Hugh MacLeod (author of GapingVoid.com), illustrates through business-card sized cartoons and short essays how creative types like Michael and I need to face the realities of creating and remember to do the hard work for the love and passion of it.
“You are responsible for your own experience,” says MacLeod. “Nobody can tell you if what you’re doing is good, meaningful or worthwhile. The more compelling the path, the more lonely it is.”
MacLeod reminds his readers through entertaining illustrations he pens on the back of business cards, that nobody really cares what kind of art we create. What’s important is that we create it. Readers may have an opinion or a set of guidelines that they measure you with–but the nobody honestly CARES about what you’re doing. Everyone is too busy worrying about their own lives to sincerely care about the work that we do. In the world of what’s important, it really doesn’t matter if our posts contain the word chocolate, bacon, or low calorie a certain number of times.
Thoughts of What if I mess up, What if I disappoint? Will I lose readers if I try something different? aren’t thoughts we should waste our time worrying about. Expectations weigh down the creative process and bring it to a screeching halt. What we need to do is CREATE. Creatives have a drive to put ideas down on paper, snap a photo, bake a cake, or sing a song. The problems start when we create something in hopes of making someone other than ourselves happy.
Only you–the creative–should be concerned with the subtleties, quality and results of what you do. The desire to create something perfect can make ideas thicken with self-doubt. Self-criticism evaporates the desire to be fearless and take chances. So when I start to find my creative process weakened by thoughts of pride, ego, and self-doubt, I just remember the words of Hugh MacLeod:
“If you are successful, it’ll never come from the direction you predicted…Dreams have a life of their own and they’re not very good at following instructions. Love them, revere them, nurture them, respect them, but don’t ever become a slave to them. Otherwise you’ll kill them off prematurely before they get the chance to come true.”