Sometimes it’s just about putting your butt in the chair

John and I both committed to daily creativity in November: I launched the Month of Thanksgiving with the declaration I would blog every day, and John rolled out 30 Paintings in 30 Days, in which he created a daily series of art works themed on things we love to eat and drink.

So I felt a kinship as I watched the Twitter traffic Monday night, with numerous writers declaring victory in NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month, which challenges participants to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November.

Click here to learn more about NaNoWriMo. You're too late to get involved this year but you can always plan for 2010.

If you’re trying to do the math in your head, that’s around 1,700 words a day, assuming you write every single day. Take Thanksgiving off and you’re going to have some catching up to do.

On Thanksgiving, I talked to a friend of a friend who’d done a similar challenge, writing a song a day for 30 days.

Whether it’s writing, paintings, music, whatever, I think there’s a similar motive here — it’s what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts” in her classic writing advice book “Bird by Bird.” If you fancy yourself a creative, you can agonize over trying to get it perfect in the first incarnation, and therefore become paralyzed by your perfectionism.

It’s what business geeks call letting great get in the way of good.

If you’re going to write 1,700 words a day, you probably need to let go of any delusion that each one will be gold. Some days you might hold your nose as you churn out slop you would be loath to let anyone else see.

That’s part of what’s liberating. If you hush the self critic and just let go, you might surprise yourself.

Some of the paintings John finished with just a few minutes before midnight turned out to be pretty beautiful.

Some of the blog posts when I started out feeling I didn’t have anything to say ended up being among my favorites.

The friend who wrote 30 songs in 30 days said he ended up with seven or eight he liked — which you could choose to see as a high failure ratio, since that means maybe 22 he didn’t. But how many musicians with day jobs can say they wrote seven or eight songs last month that they liked?

Anne Lamont says:

I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.

The NaNoWriMo Web site shares that philosophy:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

Today congratulating the NaNoWriMo writers, and patting myself and John on the back, because we all gave ourselves permission to write shitty first drafts — because you miss 100 percent of the pitches you don’t swing at.

And P.S., John’s doing another 30 painting series so it can’t be that awful.

What have you done to silence your self critic and just do the thing you want to do?


Categories: creativity

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1 reply

  1. When I need to silence the inner critic, it helps to put on some music that occupies the left side of the brain. Something catchy, that I know by heart, but that doesn’t distract the work. I’ve been listening to Bach and Beck and David Bryne lately.

    Then, I concentrate on the process, and when I’m tempted to judge my own work, I remember that I can’t really be objective anyway, and besides, there is no such thing as perfect, so I push on and meet the deadline.

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