Catch Me Writing Dirty
Since “author” is in big bold print on this blog’s heading, I’m going to be doing regular entries about writing, and the first one is about writing “dirty.”
Disclaimer: Writing dirty is not what you think it means. It has nothing to do with sex, or swearing, or trying to get into the pages of Hustler.
Let me describe the concept by sharing a story that I’m sure consumers all over America are familiar with. Recently, I got a brand new grill. Stainless steel panels. Pristine grates. Spotless burners. Everything was shiny and perfect. I would gleefully start it, let it get hot, turn it off. I shopped for cleaners and a cover for the new grill. But at some point, I had to cook on it.
Food would stick to the grates. Fat would drip onto the flavoring panels. The stainless panels would get scratched and worn with grill tools and pans hitting the work surface.
Something inside of me wanted to avoid cooking on this grill at all costs. It would then no longer be perfect, whole, and new.
You have seen this syndrome in your aunt’s house, the one with all the furniture covered with plastic sheeting. You know, to keep it brand new—at the expense of ever experiencing the softness and luster that made her buy it in the first place.
You have likely felt this yourself with a new car. You know those first few months, where every speck of tar or every struck puddle was an excuse to wash, polish, wax, and micromanage. No one was allowed to eat inside the car. You maintained the fresh smell.
But years went by. Pretty soon, the interminable destiny settled in on you, car owner—this thing would not stay perfect or new forever. Now there is salt and hair stuck in the shag. There are old french fries tucked under the seat. A sticky ring from sodas. It smells like dust. Sure, you clean it from time to time, but there are scratches and stains and weathered parts that will never be new again.
At some point, you come to expect that perfection will not last forever. You take the plastic off. You tolerate the muddy puddles. You learn to love the blackened grates of your trusty grill.
A writer must reach this point as quickly as possible, because if one does not, the need to maintain perfection becomes paralyzing. I am confident that this perfectionist urge that is best seen in our treatment of new playtoys has absolutely decimated millions of writing projects. I wonder how many stories, novels, and essays, have been dropped, ignored, tossed, or deleted because of the allure of a “perfect” new idea.
Much has been written in the “how-to” arena about how writers must get past their perfectionism. But this is a powerful problem, and the only real solution is to simply recognize it and talk yourself through it.
For a writer, the new item is an idea. It is so whole, so perfect, so awesome, that we spend hours on the very first line. That line then has to be rewritten to be perfect. Maybe even a whole first paragraph or chapter. Perfect. But at the first sign of trouble—it is quite a blow. Confidence sags. Maybe the idea wasn’t that good. Sometimes we get halfway through an entire novel—thirty, forty thousand words—before this paralysis sets in. This was not a good idea. The excitement is gone. Where is this going? It’s going to be messy. I have this new idea though—this one can be perfect. This is my magnum opus. Maybe I should just start on that one. Right? After all, this is the thing that is exciting me.
We justify dropping the project. Which is the equivalent of saying “Forget washing my car, I’ll just buy a new one.”
Sometimes our writing needs more than a mere washing—it needs bodywork. A paint job. New upholstery. Sometimes the maintenance—the rewriting part—is hard. But this is the cost of writing. Perfection isn’t born, it is made, one word at a time, one rewrite at a time. Even then it may not be perfect—but it will have approached it, inched closer to it, and sometimes that progress is all we need to get that story or book sold, or maybe just put a period on the project, taken away a great deal of experience and practice, and we move on to the next one.
I am writing about this because I am guilty of this. I have two half-done novels, about forty-thousand words each, that were lost to the allure of a new, perfect idea. But I think I have learned my lesson. Instead of glossing over a first line over and over and setting a perfect precedent for the rest of the project, I let it stay mediocre. Then I keep going. I have a completely disposable first paragraph, page, or chapter, but then momentum comes. Things get better, not worse. Then they get worse. Then a little better. I know that the plastic is off the couch. The grates are stained by burned food. The stainless is scratched. The car is muddy as all hell. I’m writing dirty.
I keep going. I write a chapter. It’s a good one. The next one’s bad. Probably going to toss it or polish it later. Another good one. Then . . . wow, this thing’s going off the rails. Terrible. I should stop—but I don’t. Another decent page is out there. The good stuff doesn’t line up to be bagged—you have to write dirty for a good while for each salvageable word and page that comes your way.
Strangely enough, we expect writers to be perfect. We look at an athlete—how many times did Jordan miss in order to hit his game-winning shots? How many times did Reggie Jackson strike out to hit those mammoth homeruns? (Answer—more than anyone else, ever). We respect the work ethic of athletes, about how they fail time and time again to register their successes.
Now imagine a huge author in a back room writing his or her ass off. How many pages get thrown out? How much bad writing did they endure to get to the good stuff? How many stones did they encounter while panning for literary gold?
Answer—a lot. Yet many casual fans think their favorite writers have perfect books pop out of their mental birth canal. Writers know different—yet they still suspect that it is easier for the big ones. I would bet my new grill it isn’t.
And for all this talk, I have no formula to help anyone get past the famous perfection paralysis that many writers face. But I will say this—if you are confident enough to pick up a pen or keyboard and build an entire world from scratch, you have the confidence to endure the bad lines, pages, and chapters that you will produce while at work. They are the exhaust of the craft, the waste product of your creative engine. Talk yourself through it. Embrace the dirt you kick up. It’s part of the process. And tell yourself that if you can build a world, you can take a red pen to cut, fix, revise, and rework your pages.
But that stuff is all for later. Right now, you’re too busy writing dirty.