Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, April 9, 2018

Much Ado About Writer's Block

Much has been written about writer’s block. In fact, I have spent countless hours searching online and seeking out books that will help me to overcome being blocked. Over time, I have realized that writer’s block is really another name for perfectionism. You can’t out anything down on paper, or type anything on the screen, because everything you can think of to say sounds wrong even before you’ve written it. The longer you sit in front of the blank page or screen in front of you, the harder it gets to put something down, and eventually, you just get up in frustration, telling yourself that you are blocked. 

Incidentally, I am a master at writer’s block. I spent years planning the first chapter, the first scene of a memoir that I wanted to write. This was going to be my first book, my most important book. If I didn’t nail the first scene, then the book wouldn’t come together. I never thought of writing the chapters I did know how to write, and simply putting the initial chapter in place later. Eventually, of course, I did employ that approach, and wrote other books; but because of that thinking I lost years of writing time. 

Perfectionism in writing is an insidious thing. It creeps up in the guise of “standards”. Who wouldn’t want to write well? Or ensure that they do a good job?

But there is a difference between having standards and perfectionism. Having standards means you care about quality, maybe you go over your work one more time, you take extra care while editing, you strive harder to get better as a writer. Perfectionism tells you that you have to get it right in one draft. There is no room for improvement, no room for error. With that attitude, no wonder we freeze up when faced with the prospect of having to write a first sentence. We stare at the blank page, aware of the importance of that first sentence and think - “This has to grab the reader. This has to be witty and entertaining and shed light into the mysteries of life”. No wonder we are paralyzed. 

How do you get away from perfectionism? You remind yourself that what you’re working on is just a draft. I had a professor in law who introduced our class to the concept of the ‘zero draft’. This was the stage even before the first draft, which even though it has the word ‘draft’ in it, most people including myself, associate with the final or near-final version of something. That way, having a zero draft gives you a chance to write an unpolished, messy draft. Ever since, I always started my academic papers, and later my books, with a zero draft. 

Which hasn’t stopped me from having several other drafts as well. When asked how many drafts a piece of writing might need, writing coach Hilary Rettig said, “As many as it takes”. 

I think the best way to combat the tendency towards perfectionism in your writing is to give yourself permission - permission to write something that needs to be edited. Permission to write something that isn’t quite finished yet. And permission to write and publish something that isn’t perfect, but is something better - it represents you. 

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