Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Every now and then, I like to check out books about writing.

Whether it's a book about the writing process or about how to be a more productive writer or about how a well-known writer thinks about writing (to wit, my October blog post about Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft), I like to have the chance to think about this activity that shapes such a big part of my life.

This weekend, I stumbled upon Hillary Rettig's The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block (2011). While I'm not sure I'd whole-heartedly recommend it to seasoned writers--there was a lot in it that wasn't really applicable to me--I did like the way that she approached one of the most fundamental impediments to writing:


Rettig argues that procrastination is a state of "disempowerment" that stems, not from any "intrinsic deficiency or deficit on your part" (1), but from outside forces that operate as "obstacles" ("an activity or circumstance that competes with your writing for time and other resources") or "triggers" ("feelings that interfere with your ability to write") (2).

If we're under-productive writers, Rettig argues, it's not because we're lazy or lack willpower. These are merely "symptoms" of a state of under-productivity, but the judgmental and moralistic labels we assign to these symptoms are crippling.

For Rettig, this is what separates the prolific from the under-productive. Prolific writers are kinder to themselves. They attribute a lack of productivity to the obstacles or triggers that disempower them and set about finding ways of solving these problems.

More importantly, prolific writers (according to Rettig) do their best to prevent the kind of obstacles or triggers that inhibit their productivity. In particular, they don't succumb to perfectionism because, "it's mainly perfectionism-fueled fear (or terror, really) that fuels procrastination" (6).

I think Rettig has an excellent point. In my own experience, writers who want to write, but can't, often have an inability to move past a few basic roadblocks. In many cases, they think they have a project, but they're not sure if it's "good enough," so they wait for conclusive proof that it is (or will be) before they start writing.

The problem is, there's no such proof available. At least, not until you actually begin writing and the project begins to take shape. But even then.

Because ye gods, early drafts can be terrible things. Just appalling. I mean... you don't want to see what kinds of things can end up on a first draft.

And that can be extremely discouraging. I know this because I too have produced what Anne Lamott refers to as "shitty first drafts." Oh, so many, and oh, so much... shit.

Because that's the way of it. Every now and then, you'll have what seems like an epiphany and a really great sentence or paragraph will descend from your brain to the page via your fingertips, but even then, you may eventually have to face the fact that, although it has its own measure of greatness, it actually doesn't really belong in the thing that you're writing at the time.


When you can't write--or can't get started writing--you typically think of this as a "block" (i.e., the famous "writer's block" that every writer has felt and feared).

Rettig offers a useful way of rethinking this obstacle and the feelings that accompany it: it isn't really a "block," it's a "snarl"--"it's a giant spaghetti snarl with at least a dozen (or, more likely, two or three dozen) 'strands,' each representing a particular obstacle or trigger" (8).

Needless to say, as a knitter, I liked the idea of the "snarl" as opposed to the "block." Because snarls can be exasperating and look like the end of the world in the world of wool and other fibers, but snarls can, in fact, be undone. As Rettig points out, "[t]he fact that your block is really a snarl is great news because a snarl can be untangled far more easily than a monolith scaled or chiseled" (8).

And this rethinking and reimagining the nature of what it is that is impeding your progress is a great way of managing--if not overcoming--it. As Rettig argues, "the shortest route ... to maximum productivity is to work patiently within your human limitations so that you have a chance to regain your confidence and focus" (50).

So, instead of beating yourself up for all of the writing you haven't done, or lamenting the fact that you awoke with a scorcher of a headache and therefore didn't get any writing done yet again, the idea is to acknowledge the limits and "work patiently" within them.

This was a wonderful reminder for me, because as I've acknowledged repeatedly this year, I've not been particularly happy with my own level of writing productivity, particularly here on my blog. I've gotten other things written, but they've gone much, much more slowly than I would like.

And I've kicked myself for that, both publicly and privately. So Rettig's book was a reminder that I need to stop doing that--as she points out, "[f]ormulations such as 'The project was a total disaster,' 'I'm a total loser,' and 'It's going to take a million hours to edit this thing' are not helpful" (29).

I've said many of those things over the past year, many times. But since reading Rettig's book, I've been trying to catch myself when I do this and remind myself to "problem-solve" instead: what's the problem I'm facing and what can I do to unravel the snarl a little?

And I try to take a moment to remember the things I have accomplished. Because this too is a dilemma: even when you're productive, if you're perfectionist, the things you accomplish don't seem like enough at the moment when they're achieved.

You've been trained not to rest on your laurels, so you don't. Which isn't "bad," per se--one could argue that it's a way to foster humility. But it also isn't "good," really, because you spend so much time lamenting the things you haven't done and so little time acknowledging the things that you have completed, that you end up misperceiving your own efforts and achievements.

You snarl at yourself, because all you remember are the snarls.

But there's more to the fabric of writing, and if you can--as Rettig argues--"lose [yourself] nonjudgmentally" in your work, you will join the ranks of the prolific and the productive writers of the world.

For my part, that is precisely where I hope to be next year at this time.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."