The Best Ever Writing Advice
She dropped it so casually, this elegant bit of writing advice, that I have now been using for over nine years. It has saved me money and frustration, and it has saved me from the plague of perfectionism.
In the course Teaching College English in graduate school, my professor Lil Brannon required a composition notebook rather than a spiral-bound. The pages need to stay together, she explained: the drafts, revision exercises, brainstorming, lists, and thoughts. Writers never know what will be important, and without all the writing, as Annie Dillard said, you open the safe to find ashes. The composition notebook was like a junk drawer inside the safe: you might not find the exact tool you're looking for, but you will find another crude object that can get the job done.
But using a composition notebook is not the best writing advice I got from Lil.
She held up the familiar black and white static of the composition notebook. "Skip these first pages," she said. She leafed forward through the clean lines. "You're too tempted to want them to be perfect. Much easier to leave them blank and come back later."
We dove into our notebooks around the tenth page, starting up the lists and sketches, gluing in resources and revisions. When the course was over, and my notebook was chubby with colored post-its and glued-in envelopes for index cards and all kinds of things, it was the best-used and best-loved notebook I'd ever had. It was chock full of writing and ideas.
I continued to refer to the notebook and its exercises, in every teaching context from elementary to college, so eventually I added page numbers to create a table of contents, another bit of Lil's advice. I was glad I had the space at the front of the notebook. And Lil was right; I'd avoided the temptation to get the writing perfect. I'd made something better than perfect: it was messy, and, in its messiness, useful. Important.
Many writers are guilty of this: we think of a new project. We imagine the perfect notebook, wrapped in taut cellophane, its pages untouched. We covet it. We crack the spine. We sit, poised with pen. Inevitably, we're the same imperfect writer, and now we've added the pressure and constraints of perfection, which are antithetical to creation and creativity. First sentence, not the right one. Rip out the first page of the notebook. Start again.
The pipeline from imagination to fingertips is clogged with boobytraps, and we trip over each one. If you are a writer, you are likely not even wealthy enough for the notebooks you already buy. You can't afford to buy a new one each time you want to revise a sentence.
Skipping those first pages has saved me from buying a lot of notebooks.
I realized this week how the skipping pages trick carries over into other parts of my life, as well. My perfectionism has been with me since I was very young. As a child, I can remember falling asleep to the catalogue of my daily tasks, and how it would feel for everything to be perfect: stepping effortlessly into the clothes I'd chosen the night before, eating the right breakfast at the right temperature, picking up my already-packed backpack and shrugging it on with one fell swoop.
What I found was that the day was always (and almost immediately) compromised by someone else's agenda, by something I had forgotten, or by an unexpected change of plans. Once a perfect day slipped away, it wasn't worth trying for me anymore to get it back on track. That's not to say I stopped trying, but that I thought of these days as marred or broken or ruined.
Truly, I wasn't that much fun as a kid. And I never really learned to let this perfectionism go.
This year, as for the past several years, I started with the intention of following Yoga with Adriene for the full 30 days of her series. She starts January 1st, releasing one video a day for 30 days. Yoga helps me; when I practice regularly, I feel better. I relax. Breathe better. Stay in my body. This is something I want to do, because I am convinced that it is important for me.
We were in Florida without internet at the beginning of the year, so I started Yoga with Adriene about 8 days late. While I think there is something important about the energy of starting on the same day as many other people, and starting with the burst of energy of the new year, I also know that getting to the mat every day is far more important than matching the number video to the date.
Besides, in the context of the whole year, who would say January 8th is not the beginning?
Like skipping the early pages of the notebook, I found it easier to actually get to the important work when I'd given up on being perfect before I even started. Suddenly, it's been three-and-a-half weeks, and I have been on the mat every day. Wasn't that the whole point?
I did not realize how detrimental my perfectionism was to my life until my commitment to "going in order" and "doing things right" had created a world where I didn't feel like myself at all, a world where I was holding to an idea of a life rather than a real life. I wanted things to go "in order" because it was safe, even if it didn't light me up. Even if it blew out the candle of my art.
When I think about what I really want to do with my days, it's to create writing that speaks to other people, so they will feel less alone, so they will recognize something about the universality of human experience in my work, and so we can all feel more connection to each other.
You don't get to connection with perfection, because no one will relate to it.
My initial impulse to create always came from seeing clean, white pages, and it has taken many years to realize that their perfection doesn't make me a better writer. When I leave blank the first pages of a notebook, I don't really give up on perfect writing. I leave the space for it, in the unlikely event that it arrives. In the meantime, I skip ahead to the far more important, useful, and messy work of learning to write.