there is no Shangri-La

"I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief
that if you run carefully enough,
hitting each stepping-stone just right,
you won't have to die.
The truth is that you will die anyway
and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet
are going to do a whole lot better than you,
and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."
 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I know, it's cliche to write about writers feeling inadequate, but I'm doing it anyway.  Because everyone - or everyone who isn't a raging narcissist - has that voice, that voice, skulking around in the backs of our brains, that sleek silky whisper purring that all of this is stupid, it's pointless, you're making a fool of yourself, you're wasting your time, it is never going to work, never, and oh, you poor thing, you poor, poor thing, you're to be pitied, honestly, because you are pathetic and silly and sad for thinking it ever could.

(Y'know, until I wrote that out I didn't realize how condescending my creepy self-doubt voice is.)

Anyway.  This isn't just a writer thing - I think everyone has moments when they're wracked with self-doubt.  But for the record, I think writers have to spend more time than most fighting it off.  For one thing, writing is a pretty solitary activity, and self-doubt is made for quiet moments.  For another, it's our job to poke around inside our brains all day.  When 90%* of your life is lived inside your head, you're bound to trip over your neuroses fairly frequently.

Over time I've come up with a lot of strategies to defeat The Voice.  One fairly obvious thing that makes a huge difference is having supportive friends and family around who can remind me that it's never crazy or pointless or pitiable to do something you love.  (Growing an online group of writer-friends has helped too.  Uh, brace yourself for sappy squeeze squish love time... but really, I'm fairly new to this blog thing and already I'm developing some budding friendships.  It's AWESOME.  Love love love.) 

Another strategy is to take lots of deep breaths and remind myself over and over that there is no Shangri-La.  The work had better be the happiness, because the goal is always moving and never guaranteed.

But that's big picture stuff.  This week's strategy has been a little more ground-level - trying to think my way out of demanding the perfect first draft.  And here's what's working for me right now: writing a body.

There are a million metaphors for what it's like to write a novel, and this one definitely isn't new, but it's working for me right now, so I'm going with it.  When the self-doubt begins, I tell myself that I'm just writing the bones.  It isn't perfect, and it doesn't have to be, because no one sees the bones.  When they're all in place, laid out in their approximately correct places and shining white, then I can go back.  There's time after - all kinds of time - to rearrange them, to join them together in new ways with tendons and muscle, to layer them with flesh, add organs - brain, heart - and probably some tattoos and piercings for flavor.

The work is the happiness.

There is no Shangri-La.

I'm just writing the bones.

And so I make it through another week...

So, I'm really interested to know: how do you tame The Voice??

*No?  Is that just me?


  1. When I hear that voice, I punch him in the face. Because he's only me, and I know I'm better than that.

  2. The work had better be the happiness.

    You got it. And I love the building-a-body metaphor. I mean, I’m big on winging it, but once you got the first draft laid out, if you don’t focus on the structure you might end up with something that looks like Jabba the Hutt. A big, gooey glob that trails on forever.

    As for taming my own doubts… stubbornness helps. Even when it’s just bashing one’s head against the same wall for years. Luckily, I seem to enjoy it.

  3. Punching faces, bashing heads... we really do NOT like this voice! :)

    I'm with both of you, though. Stubbornness - just absolutely refusing to succumb - is what it takes. Can't stop / won't stop.

    Here's to bony 1st drafts and 2nd drafts that aren't TOO too slimy.