Ann Patchett on Surviving Creativity’s Core Disappointment

Ann Patchett has many useful things to say about writing in her new essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and in particular about the core creative challenge of surviving the fatal moment when, having finally summoned the courage to bring your vision to life, it immediately disappoints:

This_Is_the_Story_of_a_Happy_Marriage_3d“Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. This is why we type a line or two and then hit the delete button or crumple up the page. Certainly that was not what I meant to say!

That does not represent what I see. Maybe I should try again another time. Maybe the muse has stepped out for a smoke. Maybe I have writer’s block. Maybe I’m an idiot and was never meant to write at all….”Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

Obviously, this is all much less of a problem for nonperfectionists who set reasonable goals for themselves. Patchett’s “forgiveness” is, in fact, a key element of compassionate objectivity, perfectionism’s opposite and “cure.”

For those working on a long piece, Patchett offers the following useful perspective:

“Novel writing, I soon discovered, is like channel swimming, a slow and steady stroke over a long distance in a cold, dark sea. If I thought too much about how far I’d come or the distance I still had to cover, I’d sink. As it turns out, I have had this same crisis with every novel I have written since. I am sure my idea is horrible, and that a new idea is my only hope. But what I’ve realized over the years is that every new idea eventually becomes the old idea. I made a pledge that I wouldn’t start the sexy new novel I imagined until I had finished the tired old warhorse I was dragging myself through at present. Keeping that pledge has always served me well. The part of my brain that makes art and the part that judges that art had to be separated.”

“The part that judges” being, of course, your inner perfectionist.

If you’re identifying with Patchett’s attitudes and experiences, that’s a good reminder that, with few exceptions, even “famous,” “prolific,” and “successful” writers are not a separate breed.

  • They’re basically the same as us; only they’ve figured out how to overcome their perfectionism and other blocks to production.

If you’re working on overcoming such blocks, or just on increasing your productivity in general, my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, and my coaching, will help.

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