When I got stuck with a fiction writing project a while ago, many people told me the solution was to lower the stakes. They offered thoughts that worked for them, like “just get your 500 words down, it’s not a big deal” and “just get through the first draft, and then see where you are” and “it doesn’t have to be anything great, it just needs to be done.”
These sound like useful thoughts, and clearly for some people they would be. But my brain made them mean something that turned out to be really unhelpful for me: that I should just get through it all as quickly as possible. I started just rushing through my day’s writing and the project as a whole with my eye on the finishing line. I was kind of just putting down a certain number words as a marker, and racing to escape.
I think this happened because I had this idea that I wasn’t “supposed to” care how good the writing was, because fixating on quality and expecting final draft level polish when you’re on the first draft can block creativity. I didn't know how to do that, because I only knew how to try to make things perfect. The advice I got was designed to help me get past that problem. But I still didn't know how care about something without being hyper-invested in perfecting it, so I translated the advice to: just try to make it without really caring about it.
The problem was, you have to care to create something. You don't have to care about how good it is, but you have to care about something. Creation is an act of love. Those thoughts had me treating it like bad sex you try to get over with as quickly as possible.
And I was thinking them because I was afraid. I was afraid to care about this book without trying to make it perfect from word one. I was afraid to love it and be all in, because what if I gave it my all and it was still not good? Or what if I give it my all and it was good? (My issue with these thoughts came to a head after I got positive feedback from a colleague on what I’d written so far.)
I’d been trying escape my fear-driven perfectionism by telling myself the book wasn’t a big deal. That was bullshit. It was totally a big deal to me. Creation is a big fucking deal to me. Showing up fully to use whatever talents I have, even when it’s hard, is pretty much the guiding principle of my life. I want to be all in, even if it means trying my damnedest and failing. I want to love the things I make hard and be all the way there for the consequences.
So I stopped trying to tell myself it didn’t matter or that it had to be perfect. Instead I found what I call the third door.
The third door is a tool that helps when you’re stuck between two choices that seem to be simultaneously mutually exclusive, the sum total of all possible approaches, and totally unacceptable. Mine were:
Door #1, I could stymie myself by trying to make a first draft into final draft while I was writing it.
Door #2, I could write throwaway prose that read as flat as I felt when writing it.
When I told myself those weren’t the only possibilities, though—when I looked for Door #3—I realized that the solution wasn’t to care less but to care differently.
Rather than either trying not to care or fixating on getting it perfect, I focused on my love for the world I’m creating and excitement about sharing it with readers who may want to live in it for a while. Rather than thinking “This doesn’t matter” or “This better be fucking amazing, or else,” I thought “I want to create a world that I love and share it with others.”
This made it possible for me to see that it wasn’t about me, without thinking it wasn’t about anything. It lessened the stakes in terms of self-judgment, without pretending that creation doesn’t matter. It made space for my fear be there without letting it stop me.
The fact is, creation matters, or we wouldn’t want to do it. That’s why we want to do it, and why it’s scary. If it didn’t matter, it would be easy and we wouldn’t be afraid, and it would be as important and terrifying to us as playing a game on our phones. The solution, though, isn’t to get rid of your fears, but to make your care for yourself and your work bigger than those fears, so you can get on with the creating that you are here to do.