Practice Makes Perfect

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Spread from Cory Arcangel’s book Working on My Novel.

I’m just starting out as a writer, and I think I’ve established the kind of voice I’d like to project. I’ve gone through the artistic stew period of figuring out what I’m passionate about, how to think and talk about it, and how I would like to connect concepts and themes. Alright, okay.
My question has to do with discipline, and how to know when to move on from a project even if it isn’t done just yet. Robert Mapplethorpe made his initial move to photography because he felt his paintings were taking too long, and he started thinking about new ideas before the first painting was finished. I’m suffering from a similar distractedness in that I let myself formulate an essay in my head, but I don’t write it down before I become fixated on some new idea. Am I being too slow and precious with my writing? If I conceive of my larger body of work as a game of conceptual dominoes that requires publication of a first essay before the second can be written and published, how do I jolt myself out of sluggishness?
The Twitter feed for Working on My Novel.

Dear Waterlogged,
As a fellow writer, I know how difficult it can be to follow through with ideas. Discipline is the hardest thing for any creative person to master, and it’s particularly hard for writers because no one can see the progress you’re making (or not making). Sculptors and painters and pianists often have something tangible or audible to show for their progress, whereas the writer’s “masterpiece” is typically an unremarkable-seeming Word Doc on her desktop. Regardless what genius conclusions or epic tales lie behind the icon, it’s hard for that to ever feel like much. I get that.
But let’s be real: you’re stalling writing by thinking about writing—over-conceptualizing what you plan to do very soon, real soon, like so super soon. And that’s one seriously dangerous, beguiling form of inertia. What you need is a good old-fashioned kick in the sweatpants, so I’ll start there.
First off, having ideas is easy; following through with them is hard. It is what separates mice from men. So if you think you’ll become a writer by having grand ideas for essays and books, you are in for a very rough ride, little dove. Lots of people have ideas for essays and books, so don’t pat yourself on the back too much for that. Pat yourself on the back for projects you complete.
Have you seen Cory Arcangel’s Twitter-feed-turned-book called Working on My Novel? It is composed entirely of tweets from people who claim they’re working on novels. It’s wildly entertaining and depressing and a bit cruel, but if nothing else it serves to remind us of one crucial lesson: what you say you’re going to do and what you actually do are two different things. In the end, it’s only what you actually do that matters. Just take a little stroll through the feed and see for yourself. Talk is just talk. Not to mention, it’s sobering and painfully motivating to remember how many aspiring writers are out there. Time’s a-wasting, Waterlogged!
Secondly, I’ve been surrounded by artists and writers and musicians most of my life, and have seen time and again with my own eyeballs that it’s not necessarily the ones with the grandest ideas who end up making a career for themselves. It’s the ones who actually do stuff, then do more stuff, and then continue doing stuff after that—regardless whether the world thinks they’re “good” or “bad” at their craft. (Because inevitably, with time and practice, they get better and become total pros.) Like them, you can only become the essayist you are destined to be by writing essays, then writing more essays, and then continuing to write essays after that. Tenacity is everything—do not underestimate it.
That said, maybe you’re like me and need to set yourself up with deadlines. This column being published every Monday is the main reason it gets done at all. Deadlines are great for some people, maybe you’re one of them. So use all those ideas of yours to pitch essays/articles to magazines and indie publications. Pitch lots of ideas because you need to plan for the rejections—say you send out 10 pitches, maybe one of those will get accepted. This worked for me in the beginning, and got me in the practice of handing over my work and intuiting when a piece was finished. It helps train the writing muscle.
Way back in 1967, Ray Bradbury said, “Any man who keeps working is not a failure.” I side with him completely. So get busy, you special star you! Write good stuff, write bad stuff, just finish things. Make yourself say “okay, this is done now,” and move on to the next project. Don’t abandon it prematurely and don’t stress over perfection. Regardless of how the finished piece measures up to your expectations, always remember that no effort you make to attain something beautiful is ever lost. Helen Keller said that.

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