‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ – Theodore Roosevelt
Have you ever read someone else’s work and been struck by the sheer beauty of their words? Did you then turn to your own work in despair because it could never match what the other writer had produced? Did the comparison take the joy out of your writing for you?
Anne Lamott, one of the great philosophers of our time, often warns us against comparing our insides to other people’s outsides. She’s usually speaking in a more general sense of personal well-being but it applies to our writing as well. When we compare our messy drafts with someone else’s published work, we are comparing our insides to their outsides. It’s a cruel thing to do to ourselves because it is not a fair comparison and it certainly doesn’t help us become better writers.
When we see those beautiful words, we don’t have any idea how much work and how many revisions went into them.
There’s no way to know what they were like when they started and how many drafts it took to make them beautiful. It’s like comparing ordinary beach rocks to ones that have been tumbled and polished and set into jewelry. They are the same basic material but there are a lot of unknown factors between the two sets of stones.
That’s why, when we write (or create) anything, it is so important for us to learn to focus on the process instead of the end product.
We need to get comfortable with creating and we need to let go of our expectations about the end results. When we learn to do that, we can enjoy our writing and produce lots and lots of very plain beach rock words. Then we can choose our favorites, polish them nicely, and set them into something that showcases their beauty. But without the plain rocks as raw material we will never get the jewelry. So how do we get enough rocks to start with?
I’m sure by now that you’ve heard about the college instructor who divided his pottery students into two groups – one group’s grade depended upon the perfection of a single pot that they had to submit at the end of the semester. The second group was graded on the sheer volume of the pottery that they produced. It seems like the first group would be the ones producing the most beautiful, skilled work but it turns out that it was the second group – the ones who had freedom to make mistakes, to create ugly pots, and to just fool around with the learning process – who created true beauty.
For writers, challenges like NaNoWriMo, the A-Z Blogging Challenge and the 10 Minute Novelists 365K Club put us in the same situation as the second group of pottery students.
Those challenges aren’t about producing a small set of perfect words, they are about losing ourselves in the process of writing. There is something about the structure of a challenge that frees us from the pressure of choosing what to work on and the volume of words required means that we have to let go of trying to polish each one as we produce it. There’s no time to be fussy and precious about our words when we have so very many to write in a short period of time. These challenges let us push ourselves past the limits of perfectionism and the pressure of creating beautiful words. Pushing past those sort of blocks is key to our development as writers. We can’t create beautiful words unless we start with ordinary ones: it is impossible to polish work that doesn’t exist.
Challenges like those listed above may not have any appeal for you, not everything works for everybody.
But if you are finding yourself thinking too much about results or getting caught up in a quest for the perfect word, please try to find a way to shift your focus. After all, there’s no guarantee that your end results will make you happy but when you concentrate on the process of writing, you become much more satisfied with your work. You don’t want to become one of those people that focuses so tightly on a narrow outcome that the fear of falling short keeps you from writing at all.
I think that the key to creating work you are proud of is to give yourself that freedom to create all kinds of different words – beautiful ones, ugly ones, plain ones, and everything in between. We all want to create beautiful words – the shiny ones that await us at the end of the writing and the editing and the polishing – but we can’t lose sight of the work it takes to create them.
We all start with plain beach rocks and the beauty comes from the effort we put into them.
Christine Hennebury’s storytelling career began when she was four and her parents didn’t believe her tale about water shooting out of her nose onto the couch – they insisted that she had spilled bubble solution from the empty jar in her hand. Luckily, her story skills have improved since then. She makes up stories, shares stories, and helps people shape their life stories, in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
Find out more about her storyfying at www.christinehennebury.com
Read some of her recent fiction at mombie.com/category/writer-dame/storyaday2014/
Chat with her on twitter @isekhmet