For several months I've been trying and failing to "Start writing again".
I keep writing 80% of a post and then... not posting it. My hard drive holds dozens of 80% done posts. Here's what happens: Instead of posting it, I stare at it, tweak it, procrastinate about it, tweak it some more, angst about it, and then it's past midnight and I have to go to sleep so I give up.
It's been really, really frustrating. I used to have a website that I updated several times a week, from about 2001 to 2014, and I never had problems finishing and posting things.
(The old website was public and under my real name. This was a Mistake. One time a post of mine went viral and attracted a lot of unwanted attention, to my real name. It was real bad. This led to my decision to deep-six the website soon after. I never want that to happen again.)
But it's not just web posts. I have a lot of 80% done creative projects. I have a lot of partly-written songs that I haven't shared, a lot of partly finished comics, some partly finished games...
I want to finish things! I want to finish things and then share the things I finished!
My wife is sick of hearing me wail "aaaaa, I never finish anything, aaaaa, I don't remember how to be creative, aaaaaa, I'm a failure, aaaaaaaa!!!! etc"
It feels like the reason I can't finish writing posts is somehow the same reason I can't finish comics, or songs, or etc. I'm not sure what that reason is, but maybe if I unblock one of them, I can unblock all of them.
Here's the common thread: I have no problem generating lots of material, but hit a point where generating more material doesn't get me closer to done.
For instance, when I'm writing a song, I have no problem creating more and more melodies, sections, variations, etc. but I still don't have a song that I can play for anybody. I just have a lot of pieces! After a certain point, generating more stuff is actually a form of procrastinating about finishing the song.
The only song I've finished was one where I had a hard deadline: I wrote it as a Christmas present for my wife. I was up until 3 AM secretly recording parts in the downstairs bathroom so as not to wake her up! It was agonizing. But I did finish it.
The only comics I've finished also had externally-imposed deadlines -- because I drew them for comics anthologies with submission deadlines.
So I can finish things if i have a deadline. My problem is finishing anything without deadlines.
"Just post what you have, it doesn't have to be perfect" sure, great idea, except that often "what I have" is sixteen paragraphs that belong to the middle and the end, with no beginning and no logical transitions between them. (Do some people start writing things at the beginning and write in order? I've never been able to do that.)
So clearly what I have to do is put on my Editor Hat for trimming and structuring.
But turning on Editor Mode is scary. Because then I start thinking about how not-good my thing I wrote is, compared to what I intended to write. Hitting "post" fills me with terror, apparently. Editor Brain starts imagining who's gonna read it, and what they're gonna think of it, and answers "Nobody", and "They're all going to hate it"
So I keep generating and tweaking material indefinitely as a way of delaying the moment when I hit "post".
It's obviously not logical to be simultaneously scared of nobody reading my thing and scared of everybody reading it. But one means I'm wasting my time, and the other means I'm attracting unwanted attention from haters, and they're both bad, and in order to picture a happy medium that is neither of these extremes I have to do something very hard:
Decide who I'm actually creating for. Who do I want to read it (or listen to it, or play it)? What do I want to happen when I post it? What am I trying to accomplish by creating a thing and sharing it? What, after all, is the point of creating anything?
These are really hard questions. The "who do I want to read it?" question leads to "What sort of Online Presence do I want to have?" which is to say "What sort of Identity do I want to present to strangers?" I don't have good answers to those and I don't really like thinking about them; I don't want comments from randos, I don't want things to go viral, and I don't want strangers forming opinions about me.
What's that quote? "if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known."
Yes, but... I already have love from people in my real life. I don't need it from internet strangers. Being known isn't the reason I want to create things. It feels like a distraction, actually. Creating an online image or persona for myself feels like a distraction from what I really care about, which is making work that is good.
I would like a handful of regular readers/listeners/players who can give me feedback on whether the work is good or not. Other than that, the whole "online persona" thing is a red herring. Let's go back to the question of "what am I trying to accomplish?"
I never had this problem with my old website. Having a
blog website was just what one did, back then, in the before-social-l/media times. Of course the whole world needs to know my opinions! I didn't think too much about why I was doing it. But thinking back, some of the main benefits were:
- Let my friends/family know what I'm up to lately
- Have an outlet to share photos, drawings, other creations, etc.
- Get feedback from my friends on my ideas
- Get a thought out of my head so I could stop ruminating on it
- Feel like a participant in the back and forth flow of ideas and issues
- Write to clarify my own thoughts on a confusing question
- Get better at writing, by practicing it frequently
- Just generally shout into the void "I was here, I existed, I had these thoughts on this day" (better than spraypainting my name on a bridge, I guess)
I'd really like to get some of these things back into my life!
(In hindsight the "let friends/family know what I'm up to" and "share photos" functions do not belong in the same place as everything else. They belong somewhere private, friends-only, away from the hostile public internet.)
Getting back to that sense of fear I have before hitting "post" -- my Internal Editor wants to know why I think something is good enough to post, and he doesn't think "get this thought out of my head so i can stop ruminating" or "get feedback from friends on my ideas" or "just practice and get better at making" are Good Enough reasons to publish my song/comic/game/essay.
Are my editor's standards way too high? Yeah they're way too high. What do I do about that?
In software startups we have mantras of "fail faster"; it means instead of trying to design the perfect software, it's better to write something very basic and get it out in front of users to start getting feedback on it.
I know that, but...
There's the (possibly apocryphical) parable from the book Art and Fear about the Pottery Class Graded-On-Quality vs Pottery Class Graded-On_Quantity. The punchline is that the class graded on quantity was making better-quality pottery by the end of the year, because they had gotten more practice, while the graded-on-quality class was still trying to design the Perfect Pot.
I know that, but...
Comic artists have a saying that you have 100 (or 1,000, or some other number) of Bad Pages inside of you, and the Good Pages will not come out until you've drawn all the Bad Pages first.
I know all that! But my internal editor isn't listening! Here's what he's saying:
"Because you haven't created much of anything in the last 5 years [since my daughter was born], the next thing you make has to be your TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO COMICS or TRIUMPHANT RETURN TO BLOGGING or whatever. It has to be so good that it "makes up for" 5 years of inactivity!"
"You're 41 years old now, which means you basically have ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE so you don't have time to waste making a bunch of bad pottery, you'll probably DIE OF OLD AGE NEXT MONTH so this is your LAST CHANCE to create ANYTHING EVER".
"Justify your ENTIRE EXISTENCE by producing something AMAZING, RIGHT NOW."
In conclusion: I have a bad internal editor.
I've decided I need to fire that guy and replace him.
The new editor needs to understand what a Growth Mindset is, and that getting something done and out there and receiving feedback and learning from it is more important than everything being perfect.
Coincidentally, this post marks the third night in a row that I've written and posted something. If I can keep up this streak I might even dare to start claiming that I've "started writing again".