Franz Kafka’s Writer’s Block

Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, writes about three procrastinating writers, Edgar Allen Poe, William James, and Franz Kafka: "In 1908, Kafka landed a position at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, where he was fortunate to be on the coveted “single shift” system, which meant office hours from 8 or 9 in the morning until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. This was a distinct improvement over his previous job, which required long hours and frequent overtime. So how did Kafka use these newfound hours of freedom? First, lunch; then a four-hour-long nap; then 10 minutes of exercise; then a walk; then dinner with his family; and then, finally, at 10:30 or 11:30 at night, a few hours of writing—although much of this time was spent writing letters or diary entries. In his letters, Kafka complained that his day job was holding him back, but as Louis Begley argues in his excellent biographical essay on Kafka, this was really just an excuse. Begley writes, "It is rare that writers … [Read more...]

Artist Sol LeWitt’s Productivity Advice: Create More by Focusing on the Work Itself

This short movie contains many F-bombs but offers valid productivity advice: The movie's text is an F-bombed version of a letter from Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse, who struggled with self-doubt: Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!… Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety… You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!… Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – you are not responsible for the world – you are only responsible for your work – so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be… I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest … [Read more...]

On Being a “Good Enough” Parent

We live in an age of perfectionist parenting, but one mom was smart enough to bow out: I wish my new-mommy-self had been familiar with the philosophy of the “good enough” mother. Donald Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst coined the term in the 1950′s while studying the interactions of mothers and their infants. He believed mothers did not need to be perfectly attuned to the needs of their child but just “ordinarily devoted” or “good enough”. He explained such a mother strives to protect her child from overwhelming extremes of discomfort or distress. “Good enough” goes beyond mediocrity. It involves making rational choices when faced with challenges and then striving for improvement. It does not include the compulsive behavior that results when driven toward an illusion of perfection. … [Read more...]

David Foster Wallace: Perfectionism as Paralysis

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“My life…was often lived as performance art for invisible Simon Cowells”

A moving and wise essay on how one woman's becoming less perfectionist helped her when she had to face cancer: Around 13 years ago, a confluence of events revealed to me how soul-sucking perfectionism was, and how much the futile striving for it was costing me in stress and anxiety. I began to understand that my zealous pursuit of knowledge was feeding arrogance, complacency and flawed answers that left me empty in crucial ways. Control was a deceptive illusion and my life, though not fake in any way, was often lived as performance art for invisible Simon Cowells. So I forsook perfectionism, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and the insecure need to control and be right, and the world began opening up to me in surprising ways. Coloring outside the lines led to more happiness and optimism, my character flaws became just a part of all I am, and “just OK” became permissible. In mystery, no longer a source of anxiety, I found wonder and satisfaction, even amusement. I began to value the questions, finding an … [Read more...]

Why Rodin’s “The Thinker” Should be Renamed “The Perfectionist” (Plus, Bonus Balzac!)

Auguste Rodin's famous "The Thinker" statue (1902) is, all by itself, probably responsible for many cases of perfectionism and procrastination. It's such a forceful statement that some, looking at it, probably think, "So THAT'S what intellectual work is supposed to look like! A grinding inner struggle! I'd better aim for that, and if my work comes too easily--or, if it's actually fun--I must be doing something wrong." The problem is, very few prolific people really work that way: most "think" via doing. So, most mathematicians work out their math problems through the act of doing math, most sculptors work out their sculptural problems through the act of sculpting, and most writers work out their writing problems through the act of writing. Another problem is that The Thinker looks pretty miserable. Check out his deeply furrowed brow, tense muscles, and utter lack of joy. His seat also doesn't look very comfortable. Even if we could think our way through problems, most of us can't tolerate prolonged … [Read more...]

Lyrical Guy Embodies Perfectionism (Now With More Hemingway)

Someone posted an entertainingly macho/perfectionist take on writer's block. I'm not going to link to the original, in the interests of protecting the misguided, but it does provide us with a valuable teaching moment, displaying as it does such vivid examples of perfectionism as: Harsh Judgements ("Those who complain about writer's block are just looking for an excuse to not write.") Macho Grandiosity ("There are times when you hit a perfect phrase--just two or three words that sing, that shine in the darkness, that illuminate a dark area where the monsters come from. And when you do find those two or three words that sparkle in the fog of the mundane existence of an everyday routine, you create magic, and life is really worth living all over again.") Overidentification With the Work ("Writing is life and life, writing.") Hyperbole ("Writing for some of us is just as vital as the blood that runs through our veins.") And he illustrates it all with a picture of the patron saint of grandiose … [Read more...]

“Minecraft” Creator Blocked

Markus Persson, the creator of the megapopular game Minecraft, is blocked on his next project. Sounds like a classic case of situational perfectionism to me. SP often follows a huge success or an early success. (See, also, this.) He sounds like a genuinely nice guy (among other things, a supporter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and I wish him well. … [Read more...]

Is Perfectionism Genetic? (Plus Solutions)

This Wall Street Journal article is old, but still worth checking out. It reports on twin studies showing that some young kids seem to have a biological predisposition to perfectionist behaviors like getting unreasonably upset if their shoelaces are different lengths, or to "[idolizing] the bodies of models and celebrities." However, the article is quick to point out that environment factors outweigh the possible genetic ones. The article also points out some useful solutions, including: 1) Exposure Therapy: "Make small mistakes and do not fix them," she says. Tie your shoes unevenly. Leave a comma or a period out of a paper. "People are not big fans of this at first," she concedes. "But they do learn that a small mistake doesn't make a whole project worthless." A recovering perfectionist herself, Dr. Przeworski says she is crocheting a blanket that is full of dropped stitches." I recommend a similar technique and love her blanket! 2) Using Timers to Delimit Projects: 'I decide on a reasonable … [Read more...]

Nonperfectionist Online Writing

Some good insights in this article on overcoming perfectionism. The author, psychologist Anna Deeds, also discusses how she overcame her perfectionist tendencies when writing online: When I started writing online, I used to read every post 5 or 6 times before I would publish it. You won’t get many posts complete if you read them over and over, trying to make them better. At some point you have to trust yourself and accept that you know what you are doing and you don’t have to make it perfect. Now, I write a post, use the spell check and publish it. I might review it once but never more than that. I was wasting too much time trying to make my posts perfect. The truth is there is no “perfect” and you will only drive yourself crazy trying to reach it. As I write about extensively in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, online writing is more challenging that it looks. Here are just some of the considerations: *constant rejection and abuse; perfectionist, nit-picking culture *privacy and boundary concerns *short … [Read more...]

All Your Work Should Be Sand Castles

The wonderful and much-missed writer and writing teacher John Gardner wrote in On Becoming A Novelist: “If children can build sand castles without getting sand-castle block, and if ministers can pray over the sick without getting holiness block, the writer who enjoys his work and takes measured pride in it should never be troubled by writer’s block. But alas, nothing’s simple. The very qualities that make one a writer in the first place contribute to block: hypersensitivity, stubbornness, insatiability, and so on.” However, if you work on your perfectionism and other barriers to productivity, all your work CAN be sand castles! Those other barriers, as outlined in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, include: resource deficiencies, unmanaged time, ineffective work processes, ambivalence, unhealed traumatic rejections, and an exploitative/unliberated career path. Yes, your work might be intellectually or emotionally challenging— but the act of sitting down to do it should be little harder than sitting … [Read more...]