Late last fall, my writing came to a screeching halt, the kind of halt that gives you whiplash. Things had been going well, or so I thought. After weeks of planning and plotting a story, I had a writing desk full of notes, outlines, Post-Its, printed Google docs, research articles, calendars, and a good amount of words written.
I had a vision and a plan, and I was going to do this thing right.
But then things didn’t work quite the way I wanted. My story hit some snags, so I tightened my grip on it. There was no messing up here. After all, I’d had an embarrassing critique on a different story at a workshop a year prior, and I certainly wasn’t going to go through that again.
But the scenes started snagging some more, and the words didn’t come out right. Knowing that wasn’t going to work, I got serious. I replotted, replanned, re-researched.
Then fearing I wasn’t doing ANY of it right, I worked myself into a black hole of inactivity whose gravity even the Starship Enterprise couldn’t escape. Writing felt impossible because NOTHING was right, and my story started to feel more like labor than love.
In frustration, I do what I normally do when I get stuck. I take a walk, and I turn to books on craft in hopes of illumination from others who are wiser than I. I wandered to the writing section at my local Barnes & Noble and came across a book: PART WILD: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO HARNESSING THE CREATIVE POWER OF RESISTANCE, by Deb Norton.
Well, I was certainly experiencing resistance, so maybe this could help. I purchased it on a whim and started reading it in the mornings before work.
I realized very quickly that I wasn’t trying to write.
I was trying to write perfectly.
And nothing will give a writer whiplash faster than trying to lay down a perfect line.
Perfectionism is an ugly beast, and as Deb Norton sagely points out in her book, “it goads you into rewriting before you’ve even written” (39).
I was working so hard not to make any mistakes that I wasn’t making anything except myself miserable. Worse, I was holding my story hostage and demanding that it be what I wanted, fully formed, before it even made it to the page.
I managed, without writing a word, to destroy the joy and wonder of my story, and to deny my characters – whom I sincerely hope you get to meet someday – the experience of being in this beautiful world I’d created, which was the whole reason I started writing in the first place.
Writing is as much a psychological endeavor as it is a skillful one, and Deb’s book reminded me that I have the skill. I just have to recognize the resistance I experience, in whatever form it takes, and work with it so that I can get back to the page.
(And, I’m happy to report, that has definitely happened, more wondrously and joyfully than before.)
Today I am thrilled to introduce you to author and writing coach, Deb Norton, whose book, PART WILD: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO HARNESSING THE CREATIVE POWER OF RESISTANCE, has both inspired and challenged me to reevaluate the resistance I experience in my own writing. Read on for her FANTASTIC thoughts on perfectionism and how you can work around (and with) it.
AND to win a signed copy of her book, sign up for my newsletter here: http://www.brandiwillisschreiber.com/contact/ I’ll be giving out a copy to a random newsletter subscriber this spring!
Deb, would you mind introducing yourself to folks who may be unfamiliar with your writing and your work?
I’m an actor by training and a writer and teacher by profession. I’m often referred to as a writing midwife and much of my work centers around helping writers who need help releasing, developing or refining their work. I love and admire people who are willing to engage with the creative process, so it’s a gross understatement to say that I enjoy my work. What else? I live with my husband and two dogs in a tiny town, at the edge of the Tahoe wilderness that can only be found as a result of being very lost or very determined.
Tell us a little bit about PART WILD and how this book came to be.
Well, frankly, writing a book, writing anything was never my intention. I knew from very early on that I would be an actor. That was always the plan and there was no plan B, which is why it was so difficult to graduate from acting conservatory and discover that I hated the acting business – auditioning, networking, marketing myself, waiting to be chosen. So, in an attempt to bypass all the smutty bits of my trade, I sat down to write myself a vehicle. Brilliant, right? I was so proud of myself for not being deterred from my path.
But, the minute I picked up the pen, I was attacked from the inside by a host of internal critics that I never even knew I had. That was when I first tangled with creative resistance and the only advice I could find was just to be tough and disciplined and push through it. Well, I’m not tough or disciplined and by the way, neither are 99% of creative people, so I started digging around in my acting and improv toolbox, I researched, I read, I grilled my writer friends, I experimented and eventually, VERY eventually I’m afraid, I wrote a play. The play did great and so many wonderful things came out of it, but the most important things were the processes I’d outfitted myself with to deal with any form of resistance. I started sharing those processes with other writers and that turned into a workshop and that turned into my book.
Deb, you and I have been emailing back and forth about this idea of perfectionism and how it is "the enemy of done." I find that thought really profound, because as I wrote to you, my own perfectionism has not just been the enemy of my writing, but pretty much the Supreme Adversary Extraordinaire of my creativity AND my spirit. Why is perfectionism so dang detrimental to writers and artists?
The answer is simple, but not easy. Perfectionism is dangerous because it’s a moving goalpost. Nothing in nature is perfect – that’s how we know it’s natural! And this is meant to remind us that perfection is not achievable, nor is it desirable. Perfection is a mirage and it will always reset to being just out of reach no matter how close you get to it. It’s the same with potential. Once your reach it, the bar gets even higher because the greater you get, the greater your potential for greatness. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
You told a great story in your chapter, "Perfectionism - Picking and Polishing," about learning to rollerblade and how every small pebble and stone originally took you down. It wasn't until a friend pointed out that you needed to "go faster!" that you learned how to do it. How does this idea of "blowing by the pebbles" relate to perfectionism?
Right, the slower I went, the easier it was for the tiniest rock to stop my wheels cold.
The practical problem with perfection is that it goads you into stopping to examine every idea, every sentence, every word. Perfection looks over your shoulder as you polish and buff everything to a high shine, and then, in a fit of hysteria, points out an adverb that could tarnish the whole thing. Meanwhile, you’ve been working on the opening three paragraphs for two years and there are cobwebs growing from your hair to your pen.
Momentum is key to breaking this spell. If I find myself staring at a blinking cursor until I’ve picked my nails clean of polish, it’s because I’m trying to perfect an idea or a sentence before even writing it down. As though just writing it down and moving forward to see where it will take me is an act of reckless abandon that could get me killed.
If you’re picking you’re way along, clinging to the safety rail, then you’re not going to reach speeds that will allow you to stumble onto something new and fresh. We like to be safe, but safe keeps us in known territory and as a creative person, you’re not reaching for what you already know. You’re reaching for the discovery. So, the thought is, instead of slowing down to a “safer” speed, put on your helmet, wrist and knee guards so you can “safely” flirt with the edge of your next breakthrough.
Speed not only to snaps perfection’s hold, but it can lead to discoveries and improvements in your writing and, of course, it also increases your word count.
I remember rollerblading as a kid, too. But I remember being completely self-consciousness-LESS. There I was, flying down the sidewalks of Olton, Texas, in jean shorts and my purple and neon green rollerblades, and when the sidewalk ran out, I simply hopped from the grass onto the bumpy pavement and just kept going until another sidewalk appeared. Oh, to regain such a sense of possibility and courage! If I tried to do that as an adult today, I'd be terrified. What is it about adulthood - and this great big F-word you mention in your book - that crushes this ability in us?
Oh, that’s a great observation, great point! The older we get, the higher the stakes. Our margin for error seems to decrease as our responsibilities and our nearness to mortality increases. Falling hurts more as we get older and have less natural resiliency and bounce, but more to lose and less time to gain it back.
But, on the positive side, I think the natural process is to go from being unconscious to self-conscious to just… conscious. The first two just happen, but that last phase is one that we have to take on through awareness and practice and that’s the gift of aging, I suppose – we begin to process life into wisdom.
You have some wonderful advice about overcoming - or perhaps rollerblading around - perfectionism. One thing you mention is that writers and artists need to "create an environment that celebrates failures for the progress they [have] made." Tell us more about that. What are some ways that we could create those environments? What would they look like? What have you done to cultivate that kind of environment and mindset?
First and foremost, I’ve learned to recognize and embrace that awkward, wobbling, windmilling feeling that comes of flirting with my edge. That’s the mindset part of it.
As for environment, I think first and foremost about tools and equipment – the pen needs to blaze, so no skipping ink and no snaggy paper. A timer is essential – I can get more useful and surprising writing on the page in a six minute burst than I can in an hour of pressuring my muse for the perfect words.
And here’s the thing that many of us forget in terms of creating an environment that celebrates risk – surround yourself with objects, sounds, sights and people that “make you burn brighter.” Whatever it is that sears away self-consciousness and makes you feel expansive, delighted or awake… pull it in into your space. Music, nature, toys, colors, crayons, clay, healthy, life-filled foods, people who champion your creativity and the mess that the process makes of you… And of course, remove any objects, sounds, sights and people that make you feel like you need tidy up your flaws and fly right-er.
As a writer, I struggle in the middle ground between wanting to write RIGHT (whatever that means) and the paralyzing fear that I don't know what the heck I am doing. What advice could you give other writers who are stuck in this netherworld?
My friend and teaching partner, Dara Marks, often says, “You can’t analyze a dream until you’ve dreamed it.” I think the first stage of writing needs to be at least a little bit unconscious and groping. You need to be in partnership with your story, not in control of it. This is the stage where you’re not “writing what you know” but rather, you’re writing toward the next thing you’re trying to know. It’s the stage of listening, mirroring, dancing and channeling.
Only after you’ve done you’re exploring, can you start mapping. I mean, of course it’s hair-tearingly frustrating to try and map before you’ve explored, right?
So come at that first part with curiosity, integrity, intention and some amount of abandon and it will feel so much better. At the end, you’ll have something you can interpret and analyze and make decisions about. That’s when you can start structuring – otherwise you’re sculpting before you have clay.
You also had some lovely advice on another way to "blow by the pebbles": LEARN TO FALL WELL. I absolutely love this because although not all writing days will be awesome and rejection IS going to happen, failing is not the end of the world. Talk a bit about what learning to fall well means to you. What are some ways that you've learned to fall well?
I wouldn’t say I’ve learned it fully yet – like every human, I instinctually resist falling and the resisting makes falling more awkward. On my best days, though, I can successfully inhabit the understanding that if I’m operating at the outer edge of my skill, i.e. pushing to improve and innovate, I’m going to fall and that’s fine, because in this context, falling is an indicator of progress.
Imagine a gymnast or ice skater standing, stock still and staring at the beam or the ice, trying to work out all the ways this could go wrong. Or imagine them refusing to do anything that risks a fall. No, athletes know they will fall and the falling is as important to the process as the succeeding.
Or how about scientists? Any researcher will tell you that the failures are as important as the successes. They provide crucial data, without which, success could only happen by accident.
So, while I can’t say I’m in a state of release that allows me to fall and fail with ecstatic joy, I can say that being in positive relationship with falling softens my landing and allows me to bounce up more quickly. Additionally, having this perspective encourages me to “fail faster” which leads to more progress.
I love your Facebook page because it's so positive. You also post writing prompts that are easy to do but have surprised me with their depth. What are some writing prompts you'd recommend to the perfectionist?
Any prompt is good for shorting out perfectionism if you go fast enough! That’s the goal at the most fundamental level – short out perfection’s control over you by refusing to stop and tidy and polish as you go.
That said, I would recommend these sentence starters:
If I let myself go…
I could never…
But, remember, these are only effective if you move your pen as fast as it will go, throw grammar and spelling out the window, refuse to cross anything out (try circling it instead), find your willingness to write very unperfect dreck.
In fact, one of my favorite prompts for perfectionism is, “Write as badly as you can for six minutes.” Seriously, choose a topic and explore it in the most clichéd, trite, purple, immature, saggy, wandering, digressive, ungrammatical, incoherent way you can.
Deb, what final words of encouragement could you give to the fellow writer who is dealing with resistance?
Okay, so perfectionism is a form of internal critic. It’s there to slow you down and reduce your risk tolerance. Its mission is to keep you safe, keep you from getting hurt. But, of course this assumes that without perfectionism and all the other mean internal critical voices, you would forget to strive, lose all common sense and start submitting your rough drafts and high school poetry to agents. I promise you, perfectionism is not the only thing standing between you and moral decrepitude. It’s not the only thing keeping you safe from mortification and destitution. You can let go, make a mess, experiment, bark up the wrong tree, go down a rabbit hole, fail fifty ways and STILL write your book, but you will write it sooner and you’ll write it better than if you partner with perfectionism.
And remember, perfection, like all inner critics, is the guardian at the gate. And what do guards protect…? Something valuable! A castle, a treasure, a hostage, a weapon, a secret, a game-changing technology! So, if you think about it, any time your perfection flairs, it’s a sign that you’re getting close to something valuable and instead of stopping, you want to go at it with more energy. The more red in the face and fearful your inner critics get, the closer you are to something of value.
What is next for you in the author and writing coach world that readers might want to know about?
Well, I’ve taken a big chunk of time off from teaching in order to launch my book and I can’t wait to get back to leading workshops and retreats. I expect to get some things on the calendar for spring and summer in the coming days.
On the writing side of things, I’m finishing up a proposal for a book about creative shame – I think I have a new way of looking at it that could be very helpful. And I’ve just finished my stage play, a modern adaptation of the Persephone myth, and will be sending it out.
So many thanks to Deb for sharing her time and insight with me.
If you’d like more information or to connect with Deb, visit the following:
For free prompts, tips and encouragement, like the Deb Norton Writing Facebook page: http://bit.ly/2ci8FrE
Or if Instagram is your jam: @debnortonwriting.com
Or you can also get them in your Twitter feed: @partwild
For news about events and offerings, sign up for Deb’s newsletter (and get a free 30-Day Memoir and Journaling Jumpstart Kit): www.debnortonwriting.com
Deb Norton is a writer, actress, workshop leader, and story analyst. She is a master teacher at Hedgebrook and a former Co-Artistic Director at Theater 150 in Ojai, California. She believes that unleashing creativity is a matter of teaching our wild and civilized parts to play well together, and has developed a series of techniques to break through artistic blocks. She is the author of Part Wild: A Writer's Guide to Harnessing the Creative Power of Resistance (Enliven Books/Simon & Schuster). Deb lives in the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.