If a Job’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Wrong

When I was a kid and then a preteen, my father and stepmother had the habit of telling me and my siblings that “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” In our case, “right” often meant “perfect,” at least in terms of what my parents deemed an acceptable job.

Of course, I understand that they didn’t expect absolute perfection from my child self, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. At the time, it felt like they were constantly hanging over my shoulder, pointing at any spot left on the window I had just cleaned, telling me over and over that “if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.”

Well, I’m in my twenties now, and that feeling of self-doubt and hyper-criticism still bounces around in my head when I try to write a first draft. I’m constantly picking apart the sentence I just wrote, telling myself that I hadn’t done my job right. I picture myself living in a cramped studio apartment while I work a draining office job for the rest of my life, never seeing my work published, never knowing if what I’m doing is worth doing at all. The self-doubt doubles with every scenario.

But then, after taking a deep breath and closing my eyes, I gently lead my mind back to the sphere of logic I try to inhabit daily. I tell myself that all first drafts are shit, that the real job I’ll be doing is the rewriting of whatever I’m working on, that when I go back over the things giving me grief now that it will be like retaking a test with the answer sheet next to the exam paper. I tell myself that, to get to the level of quality that I want for my work, that I first have to let myself mess up. I have to be raw and playful and absurd and just plain crap if I want to ferret out the core of the project.

Then, I can start the real job.

The editing, the reshaping of what I’ve dropped on the page, the careful dissection of each scene and sentence. By investigating what I’ve let myself reveal, I can present what I really want to say, complete with the precision and dedication to finding the right words for what’s in my head.

That is the job worth doing right, but that’s a job that doesn’t inspire that same feeling of being observed and judged as my daily chores did. This is a job that I do to my own expectations, to my own expectation of what is “right.”

Focus on the Process, Not the Product

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and I heard a line that made me sit up a little straighter. When I heard the line, I had been in the shower after a long day, letting the hot water relax my muscles and my mind. I had been doing what I often find myself doing, visualizing my life once I graduate college and move to Boston, where I will strengthen my writing career and becoming a famous, influential writer and have a wonderful life far from the South and required college courses.

It’s one of my favorite fantasies.

Well, anyway, I was soaking in the shower, my phone resting on the folded towel by the lip of the shower, when I heard Cameron, who had been narrating a passage discussing the creative practice, say, “You will discover the joy of practicing your creativity. The process, not the product, will become your focus.”

Usually, when I have an audiobook playing while I’m in the shower, I’m only partly listening; the motivational lessons and lyrical language serve more as a way to soothe my mind while the hot water does the same for my body. I work two jobs and go to school full-time. There’s a lot in me that needs soothing.

But this time, I perked up, and that line looped through my head even while Cameron continued her narration. I had been doing just the opposite of what she suggested: I had been focusing on what my writing would look like when I was done with it. I had been dreaming of the rewards, while my writing life had started shrinking in my day-to-day life.

Sure, I wrote a few pages of my thoughts in the morning, and I developed ideas for future pieces and ways to edit drafts. But I had neglected the process of serious creation. The writing I did create was never anything that had the intention or even the chance of reaching other people.

So, since hearing that line, I have tried to focus more on the process and less on the end result. I’ll never get to that result if I don’t engage with the process anyway. Now, I am working on a new short story, and I keep reminding myself to find joy in the act of putting words together, of creating surprising and interesting images, of telling stories that illuminate the different ways we, as humans, live in this world.

Doing this work is a privilege, something that I should take seriously, but it is also something that needs to be a source of joy and pleasure in my life, even it if sometimes makes me want to jump out of my second-floor dorm window.

I’m much less interested in the product of that particular process.

Through the Guard Rail (or Writing With Abandon)

Hesitate, and you are lost. These words can apply to most any action, and writing is one of them. When writers spend heaps of time (seconds, minutes, hours) laboring over the act of writing, they miss the more important thing: the fact of having written. They bite their nails, tear their hair out, generally worry themselves sick over whether or not what they’re writing is Good Enough. They do this, instead of actually writing the story they need to write. Rather than spending time tinkering with a single sentence during the first draft, a writer’s time is better spent writing furiously, through the guard rail, with abandon.

Leaving Your Inner Critic in the Dust

I like to imagine my Inner Critic as some scrawny, wheedling guy trailing behind me while I write. He peers over my shoulder, waiting for me to pause so he can jab a finger at my screen or page and say something like, “What are you thinking, writing that? That’s complete crap, and you know it. It’s trite, hackneyed, old news. No one’s going to want to read this. You need to fix this right now.”

But the truth is that I don’t need to fix it right now. It’s the first draft for a reason. I need to get the story belted out before I step back and fine-tune the details. But I can’t do that if I’ve got an Inner Critic hanging over me, whining about how my similes are lazy pieces of shit.

So what do I do? I kick the bastard in his kneecap and drive off in my Writer-Mobile while he rolls around in the dirt, crying about how my plot is choppy.

More specifically, I write fast. I set a timer (sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 10) and just write. I don’t give myself the permission to keep checking my word count. I don’t let myself stop for more than a couple of seconds before I hit the keys again. I go until the timer runs out. (Sidenote: this tactic works especially well for me because, as someone with ADHD, an immediate deadline is just the ticket to get me to do my work.)

By pounding away at the keyboard, I step on the gas and speed off down the Literary Highway, paying no heed to where I’m going (except for the bits of the plot that I need to think about so I can write them). Only thinking about how I need to put one word in front of another.

If that means crashing through a guard rail into uncharted and sometimes dangerous territory, then so be it.