Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lower Your Standards

American poet William Stafford had a controversial approach to writing. He instructed his students to “lower your standards and keep going. When it gets hard, don't stop - it is hard because you are doing something original.”  After the writing flow is staunched, then it is time to raise the standard during the rewrite process.  William’s son, Kim Stafford, wrote of this in his father’s biography, Early Mornings: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. 

Me, I’m afraid to write junk. It doesn’t mean I haven’t done it – just not intentionally. My inner critic whispers to me that my worth is tied to performance. It is communicated from birth at home, church and school, and especially in college.  Writing junk is unacceptable – a product of laziness. A waste of time.  So says my subconscious.

There is nothing wrong with writing good prose from the get-go, but unless you know how to disengage from perfectionism, you can ruin your ability to tap into that place where true creativity happens.  Starting out with high, insurmountable standards creates thresholds impossible to cross which throws your abilities and creativity into shadow.

In order to create a safe place for this lowering of standards to occur, I must first lay the ground rules. Most importantly, I promise that no one else will ever see it and I keep that promise.  Next, I have permission to toss it if it truly stinks like a rotten fish.   

Not long after the death of his father, a friend of Kim Stafford’s pointed out that in medieval warfare, lowering one’s standard meant offering truce.  When you offer truce to your opponent (the blank page) you are open to what may come and you disarm your inner critic.  

Are you afraid to write junk? Do you trust yourself enough to lower your standard in truce? We’d love to hear.


Marian said...

The way I learned to allow myself to write junk is when I participated in the NaNoWriMo. I had to write 2000 words a day and didn't have all day to do it. Junk and creativity flowed together like twins. Very exhilarating.There's a bit of a mess to clean up, but I'm okay with that. I'm killing off the evil twin and fleshing out what's left.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Marian, did you finish and is the evil twin still dead? I've always been curious about NaNoWriMo.

Josey Bozzo said...

Yes, I am afraid to write junk. Since I have arrived late to this party called "writing" I feel like there isn't time to write junk, I must get it right the first or second time because I don't have a lot of time.
And yet, I don't spend as much time as I want writing because I'm afraid of writing junk. Afraid that is all I have. That there really isn't anything good.
I know.
I'm a little nutso.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Josey, I arrived late to the party, also. I don't think I really had anything of importance to say until my 40s. Instead, imagine that all those ideas and deep thoughts are just steeping.
I wonder if it would be a good exercise to cover the computer screen or wear a blindfold to really let lose once in awhile. It might be a good way to start a writing session. Hmm...

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I have to tell myself, "You can fix that later". It helps lessen the junky writing anxiety. I'm learning to trust editor Susie to come through and fix it.

Sometimes editor Susie takes several sweeps to get it right. And that's okay.

Marian said...

Debbie, I did finish the NaNoWriMo and have the certificate. I am very happy with the creative structure of my WIP.
Right now I'm busy killing the junk. Once I finish with that I have to give my characters more character and present more emotion. Possibly there could be a more efficient way to do it, but I'm enjoying myself.

Bonnie Grove said...

It's hard to write junk because what pours out is my raw experience, my base truth about myself and how I see life--but all in disguise.

Tricky stuff, writing.

I'm learning that letting go isn't about writing junk or great prose, it's about finding the bottom of honest. Junk happens for me when I try to stop the elevator before it reaches the bottom floor.

Thanks for sharing this, Debbie. It's a keeper.

Latayne C Scott said...

I participated in NaNoWriMo a few years back. It was exhilarating! And with a few revisions, it's actually being considered by a major publisher.

So I say (along with Katy's spirit): Dance in the Desert! Let 'er rip!

Cherry Odelberg said...

I was both directly and indirectly raised "Anything worth doing, is worth doing right (perfect) the first time." How liberating from perfectionism and the judge in me when someone said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

I prefer the days the words flow in effortless voice and sequential prose. There are other days all I can do is madly type in a bunch of disjoined sentences in order to capture the wild thoughts as they fly by. Those times I must rest secure in the knowledge that I can come back and fix it later - that a warm shower or inspiring walk might order random thoughts into profundity.

However, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly," does not mean I trot it out there for public inspection while it is still in the junk state.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

You ladies all challenge me to write more junk! How freeing is that? Or is it 'pre-perfect?

Camille Eide said...

Debbie, I needed to hear this today.

In fact, I met with an author earlier in the week during mentor sessions at our local ACFW and I asked if she's a perfectionist, because I needed some advice on how to stop being one and just move on. I'm only 4 chapters into a story I've been working on too long because like you, I want to perfect, (not that I don't write junk....) and get so bogged down to the point of freezing up. She wasn't a perfectionist so she had no advice. Others say "just move on." Hmm. That doesn't really help. So I really needed to hear this today. I was just telling friend that I need to commit to not showing it to anyone (a HUGE factor in the pressure to make perfect pages is being in Randy Ingermanson's local critique group...). So I have just decided that NO one will read this. I will just write crap and keep going. I will enjoy prettying this up later.

There is one thing that I fear still holds a standard over my head is that if I'm not careful about: the direction of the story. If I mess up, I'll end up throwing out tons and rewriting half a book. Which....probably isn't so bad. I guess I should remember writing garbage is still forward progress, perhaps more progress than I'm getting when staring at the page or going back over previous chapters for a gazillion tiny tweaks.

Thank you for the reinforcement, and for telling me I'm not the only one who struggles with this.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Camille, I can understand why you'd want to take a polished bit of story to share at Randy's critique group. His snowflake model is a great plan for those who outline extensively. And his creativity certainly didn't suffer from that sort of that planning. Even when you're writing junk, you do need to have a sense of where the story is headed. I struggle with this myself.
Please tell Randy 'hello.' He was incredibly supportive and encouraging when I was in his mentoring class at Mount Hermon several years ago. I would love to hear what he thinks of lowering your standards to get the story out.

Camille Eide said...

I will tell him, Debbie. I already know what he's told me about my last chapter that I rewrote many times before bringing: you've chewed the taste out of that piece of gum. Spit it out and move on.

While I'm sure he's a rough drafter even with the Snowflake (he NEVER brings HIS pages to our group, oddly enough...) the group usually treats each offering as an Olympic performance, score cards and all, so it's assumed we are only bringing work we WANT ripped to shreds. I realize I can't write a baby, fledgling story knowing it must be perfect & unrippable as I write, it completely hamstrings my story flow because I worry about everything I know will be "judged". I don't blame the group, the feedback is valuable. But I recognize what you're saying about lowering MY standards just enough to move on with the story, or to vanquish writer's block, if that's what it takes.

I am solely to blame for holding myself to high standards in my first draft, so I can lower them for now. Like an addict can walk away from crack. With teeth gritted. (Wish me luck....)

Thanks again Debbie. For the permission, and the reminder. :)