Forgiving Oneself as a Writer

In eighth grade art class, I made a stained glass window. I cut shapes out of a piece of black construction paper to create the outline of the windowpane and glued tiny bits of colored tissue paper over the spaces to mimic the glass. The assignment was to fill in the parts of the rectangular paper window and suspend a silhouette in the middle. I went to Catholic school, so a lot of the shapes we got to choose from were spiritual symbols: doves, crosses, the holy Eucharist. (I believe it was an Easter-time art project.)  The silhouette I chose to create was a butterfly, a symbol of new life. Instead of making the butterfly a black shadow on the colorful background, I decided to make it bright and real. I cut soft patterns in the wings and filled them with light spring colors while the window itself had a hard, angular design with dark blues, purples, and reds.

It took me much longer to finish that project than the other kids in the class because I gave myself an extra assignment–to fill the whole sheet of construction paper with color instead of leaving a blocky black shape in the middle. As my teacher observed me snipping away at the paper and getting glue all over my hands, she called me “a glutton for punishment.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but I didn’t think I was punishing myself. Through that art project, I was telling a story. I wanted to convey the image of a beautiful creature emerging from a dark place. But it took a long time. It was sticky, I got a lot of paper cuts, and in the middle somewhere, I’m pretty sure I almost ripped it up and started over with a dumb dove. I kept going, though, and when I finished, I was so proud. I had made something beautiful–something different from everyone else’s– and my hard work showed.

I often think of this experience when I sit down to write, whether it’s a short story, a poem, or an analytical essay. That saying rings in my head: “glutton for punishment.” For me (and a lot of other people, I’m sure), writing is very taxing. I am, as my eighth-grade artistic pursuits demonstrate, a perfectionist. I cannot rest until I know that everything I’ve written is better than anything I’ve ever written before. When I’m “writing,” most of the time I’m staring at a few lines on a Microsoft Word document, thinking about how not to mess everything up instead of how to make the piece move forward. Sometimes it takes me hours to construct a simple sentence. It’s extremely frustrating, especially under the pressure of a deadline. I’ve stressed myself out to the point of a breakdown because I wasn’t happy with my fix-everything-as-you-go method of getting things done. In the end, though, I got things done. I was usually proud of those things, too.

In workshops, teachers always emphasize the importance of drafts. “Don’t worry, it’s just a first draft,” they’ll say; or, “You can fix it later in another draft.” According to the online Oxford American Dictionary, only one definition of the word “draft” is “a preliminary version of a piece of writing.” The rest of the definitions have to do somehow with the force of pull: “(v.) to pull or to draw,” “(n.) the act of pulling something along,” “(adj.) denoting an animal used for pulling heavy loads, e.g. draft oxen.” A draft can even be a current of cool air in a confined space. In a draft, you are pulled forward, out of where you were before. You are forced into some kind of service or motion. There can be no standstill, no blank page–only words, only movement.

I, as my perfectionism and various other neuroses might indicate, do not understand drafts. For some reason, I cannot conceptualize a future in which I will be allowed to change what I write now after I have written it. No matter how many people tell me, “Don’t worry it’s just the first draft!” I worry. Not because it is the first draft, but because it is. Like the butterfly in my eighth grade art project, I want to do justice to whatever story I’m telling. I want to make it beautiful from the very start to the very end. So, I fear, I will always over-edit my first drafts and spend hours making sentences I’ll surely change the next time I look at the document. I’ll always agonize over my work, trying to make it better before it even exists. And that’s okay.

That’s okay because, I’ve realized, what keeps me from writing is not any anxiety I have about the work itself, but the perception that how I write is wrong. I spend so much mental energy trying to convince myself that I should be doing something differently–I shouldn’t spend so much time on one thing, I shouldn’t worry about whether all the commas are in the right places, I should do what I imagine my former professor would tell me and immerse myself in the “flow experience.”

Worrying about what I should and should not do doesn’t amount to anything. No writer works in the same way. We all have our quirks and tendencies. We all have distinct anxieties and can, at times, think of our work as pitiful, meaningless, or self-destructive. So, when it comes to the writing process, I say accept your quirks and tendencies and anxieties and let that acceptance be a vehicle for forward motion. We can only reach the page when we allow ourselves to do so.

Am I a glutton for punishment? I don’t think so. I love writing. I don’t think I could function without writing every day. The hours I spend scrutinizing my work don’t feel like punishment; in fact, I hardly notice them pass. I’ve only learned to think of writing as punishment because of the way I compare myself to others and allow comments like “you’re a glutton for punishment” to define me.

After working hard for three years in an intensive creative writing program, I have come to accept my work habits. They aren’t permanent and will probably change a lot in the years to come. But for now I tell myself, “Yes, I am writing. Yes, this may take a very long time. Yes, this will be difficult, and I will wonder why I started in the first place. But that’s okay. Because I am moving forward, and I will be proud.”


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