Last summer, my friend and writer comrade Pam Jenoff shared a meme for #WriterWednesday. It was a photo of a soda fountain machine—the kind you’ll find at any fast-food restaurant, gas station, or movie theater. Only the drink flavors were relabeled: blue Pepsi was Feeling stressed out when writing; red Coke was Feeling stressed out when you haven’t written. A large Writers hand simultaneously pressed both into a jumbo cup. The meme made me laugh out loud. Literally.
I first shared it with my husband, who responded with a wide-eyed: “This is so you.”
Then I shared it with writer pals and family members. A few neighbors got a screenshot, too.
“Is this what it feels like to be inside you?” One innocently asked.
This is what it feels like to be a writer.
More recently, I was on the phone with a friend, a prolific author with a backlist of highly successful books to her credit, who sighed in frustration, “The writing is stressing me out, but I can’t take a break because not writing would totally stress me out!”
And the soda fountain visual came to mind.
What is this psychological self-flagellation that we collectively suffer? And more importantly, is there a cure?
Sitting down to write this very essay, I nearly didn’t. I sat here staring at the blank page thinking, I don’t have anything worthy to say right now. I sat for half an hour with my fingers on the keyboard, willing an idea—a worthy one—to magically bubble onto the page.
I’ll spare you the suspense: Nothing happened.
What happened was that I got angry at myself. The stress of writing and not writing fizzed up and overflowed on everything. I couldn't even pet my cat without feeling the sticky residue of anxiety. That's when it occurred to me, maybe we set ourselves up for stress spume because what our creative fountains really need is for us to say, write—whatever you please—or don’t. There’s great creative liberty in setting the bar low.
“First drafts don’t have to be perfect, but they have to be written.” That’s the anonymous quote we all pass around to each other in various forms. I might’ve even said it to my friend on the phone. An automatic push-button response, I confess.
But how many of us hear this maxim, agree, and then secretly in our heart of hearts say to ourselves:
But as close to perfect as possible would be best…
as close to perfect as possible would be the goal…
as close to perfect as possible because people will ask for a refund if their soda story is flat…
as perfect as possible.
I’ll argue that this soda fountain psychosis only gets accelerated after you’ve been published.
Before I published my first novel, I spent three years at an in-residence MFA program doing nothing but writing, revising, shredding, and writing again. There was stress but nothing compared to the kind circling now. Back then, I wasn’t afraid to write poorly because… that’s why I was there—to learn to write!
I was naïvely confident that in my unworthiness, I would have the chance to make something worthy. In my mistakes and the imperfections, I had the opportunity to create something wholly new and unique. Daily writing and weekly workshop critiques by my peers, countless pages in the garbage can, a pile of student loans, no guarantees of any quantifiable success at the end, and those were the years that convinced me that I could only be a writer for the rest of my life. I’m telling you this because in writing it, I’m reminding myself.
Perfect is not the goal. Perfect is nonexistent. Perfect is a machine button we push-push-push, filling our cup with whatever is the flavor combo of the day but never having our thirst quenched.
In the research and writing of my new book Mustique Island, I was introduced to a man (a real figure) who got it in his mind to manufacture his own branded utopia on an island. He had the means and the moxie, and those together fueled his unwavering ambition. From the first stones he shipped over (taken out of a Hindu temple), he was determined to build his perfect story. I’m not ruining the ending by telling you that he failed, pretty miserably.
I rewrote this book four times over four years. No magic in that. It simply took me that long to learn from the historical content I was excavating. When I freed myself from the weight of perfection, I found the heart of this novel. It wasn’t in the pretty prose and salability glitz; it was buried in the dirt and quite nearly forgotten by the world. There, in the mucky stuff that I had initially put aside because it felt too ordinary was the worth. The essence of this story is a woman and her grown daughters who are perfectly imperfect in all ways.
I still remember the day I took the pressure off the buttons and closed my laptop in despair thinking that rewriting this book (again!) was the equivalent of drowning in my soda cup. Drowning actually sounded nice at that moment, to be honest. Then I wouldn’t have to stress anymore. I’d be under froth, below the waves of expectation, deep down in the quiet of the writing-not writing.
I gave myself permission to unthink the way we think of writing: Letters forming words to make sentences in neat paragraphs that become pages and chapters to a culminating The End. Instead, I started floating in stream of consciousness, ignoring structure, function, Freytag’s Triangle, and all the rest. I let myself remember what it was like to be an artist without training, a writer without rules, fearlessly flawed, and entirely human. And that, my friends, is when I started to dream again.
I rewrote the book. It wasn’t perfect. It isn’t perfect and never will be. Only now I don’t see that as a fault but a strength. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that bad writing be publicly shared. Highlight, circle, and star this: Not all writing should be published. But I am advocating that we celebrate the bad and the good writing as a necessary part of the process.
We come to the writing fountain thirsty. If our cups are running over already, we haven’t any need for more. It’ll make us sick (read: stressed). The filling up gets too much praise. Just as important is allowing ourselves time to empty. And it doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other. Nothing in this world is best at extremes.
This essay is a bit wandering, yes. No thesis statement with corresponding areas of discussion. But it’s got punctuation and paragraphs. So maybe between the writerly ideas and writerly protocols, there’s room for a spark—a feeling, an idea, commiseration, or inspiration. Or maybe just a friendly reminder that the writing life isn’t standing in line at the soda fountain machine.