Perfectionism and the Myth of the Tortured Writer

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A question: 

What do you think writing actually is?

Another question: 

Who do you think writers actually are?

We love to romanticise the tortured writer, the lonely writer, the writer for whom everything comes out perfect first time, the writer who sits at their desk, head in hands, for an entire montage before everything suddenly clicks and they sit up all night with the words flying. That ‘good’ writers immediately get massive publishing deals.

Gif of a manequin head on a robotic arm smooshing itself repeatedly on a keyboard
is this not how it’s done?

Well. Let us dispel some of this stupid fucking nonsense for you. 

Artists do not have to be tortured. You can have deep and difficult thoughts and be perfectly content, thank you very much. You do not have to turn yourself inside out to find the truths you want to share. You can be vulnerable and honest and beautiful and strange without also being an absinthe-drenched arse. Sure, artistry from torment is a great story, but it’s not necessarily your story, or even the story. The tortured artist is revered because for years we have allowed abusive men to be our canon and we need to build a mythology around them to justify their behaviour. Just for a moment imagine how much more rich our cultural and artistic history would be if Ernest Hemingway or Jack Kerouac or William Burroughs or Ezra Pound weren’t allowed to be arseholes and the people (women) they shat on were instead-or-also allowed to create their own art, tell their own stories?

AHEM RANTY SEGUE

Gif of a woman stirring something in a bowl saying "and breathe"

Now let’s talk about perfection. Do you know how many drafts Kurt Vonnegut wrote of Slaughterhouse 5? A LOT. Like, many many many. Possibly hundreds. It reportedly took TWENTY THREE FREAKIN’ YEARS.

Here’s what Tom Roston, author of The Writer’s Crusade: Kurt Vonnegut and the Many Lives of Slaughterhouse-Five has to say about it:

“He really did write some toilet paper–worthy material…He may have been uniquely gifted but it took so much work to make his writing appear almost childlike and off-the-cuff. The evidence is in all those rough drafts. Vonnegut hammered away at making accessibility an art form.”

So. You don’t need to be tortured. You don’t need to be perfect. What about those late night montages where it all just clicks together? Meh, not so much. 

You know the thing where Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains Of The Day in a month? Yeah, he didn’t. Here’s what’s missing from that story: he’d already spent many many many many many months (years?) researching the novel. He already knew what he was trying to write. He had already tried to write several drafts. He eventually bashed out a shitty zero draft in 30 days, NaNoWriMo-style, and then spent many many many many many months editing it. 

We are telling you these things because very often writers need permission to be free. Here is your permission to be free. Right here. Here is your permission slip. Free of expectation, free of nagging doubts that you’re somehow not doing it right. Free of the weight of genius of all the writers who came before you. Free of the idea that you’ll ever not be a neurotic mess. Everyone is a mess. No one knows what they are doing. People are often terrible and confused and do things badly. The stories we think we know about the creation of stories are often misrepresented and packaged as much as the stories themselves. 

The inner critic will be with you forever so you may as well make friends with it right now. 

There is no one way to be a writer. 

There is no one way to write. 

As Zadie Smith said, “There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

What you need considerably more than the intensity of angst, the intensity of perfection, the intensity of the all-night writing binge, is consistency

Five minutes a day. Ten minutes a day. Fifteen minutes a day. One hour a week. One day a month. Whatever it is that you can do regularly, reliably, and whatever brings you joy and satisfaction and that sense of completeness when you write the thing you’ve been trying to write. Whatever feels like you, and not a romanticised idyll of how you think writing should work.  

In the words of the glorious Octavia Butler: “Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.”

Gif of a typewriter typing words. Underneath is a dictionary entry that says: cacoethes scribendi, noun: a mania for writing; the insatiable desire to write

Disclaimer: we of course recognise that for some people daily writing isn’t a thing they can do. The aim is to find a practice you can do, so please don’t throw your laptop away in disgust… keep reading. 

All of which leads us on to something tangible you can actually DO to switch up your perspective and boot perfectionism out the window.

So grab a cup of tea, grab a fresh piece of paper and a pen, and try this:

  1. Ask yourself what preconceptions you have about writing and/or being a writer
  2. Write them down
  3. Look at how ridiculous they are
  4. Laugh maniacally
  5. Then take that piece of paper and rip it up, burn it, eat it, wipe your butt with it, flush it down the loo, hold a sacred ceremony in the woods to cut the ties that bind you to your former perspective, bury it, wrap seeds in it and bury it and let it grow into something real. Whatever you need to step outside of the limitations of your writerly beliefs.
Gif of a white woman with long dark hair wearing a blue top raising her hands up and down in front of her saying 'inhale, exhale'

You’re probably feeling a bit better already, but let’s go one (or five) step(s) further, just to cement your newfound perspective, shall we?

  1. Take a fresh piece of paper
  2. Take a min to think about what really works for you as a writer
  3. Where, when and how do you write best? What inspires you? Who do you turn to for advice and feedback? What’s your favourite genre/style of story to write? What are all the joyful things about writing that keep you coming back?
  4. Look at how very YOU all that is
  5. Laugh maniacally, because now you have your own perfect writing ‘lifestyle’ and it was inside you all along <GASP>

Just like that.

Now go write.


WHAT NEXT?

READ THIS:

  • Possibly the most important writing advice we have to give you today (or any day): Write What You Love
  • And if you’re need of some inspiration for your actual writing today, why not try this lil’ exercise which is literally all about shifting your POV?

DO THIS:

  • Change your own perspective of what writing needs to be and just… take some pressure off, maybe? Check out Writing Without Fear to purge the terror and, uh, get the fuck on with it 🔒
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Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis

Sarah is one half of Writers' HQ. She writes a lot of short bios about herself.
A happy woman sitting on a green sofa with a laptop. Lovely kitchen in the background. I'd be happy too tbh

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