Posted by: mew | May 25, 2010

how to kill your momentum

“There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”

~ Haruki Murakami (Hear the Wind Sing)

Well, I’m obviously a bit behind on the weekly check-in for the Creativity Workshop.  Our internet connection was down for several days, and so I did no posting during that time.

Because I had no internet with which to waste time, and because I actually finished my last freelance assignment a bit ahead of the deadline, I was able to pick up the writing pace for the workshop.  In two days, I’d churned out freewrites about both characters’ backgrounds (to attempt to correct last week’s problems with not knowing my own characters intimately enough), plus 3,700+ words on the first three scenes of the story.

Then Wednesday morning I decided to reread everything I’d written.  This anxious first draft reread is the kiss of death for me, and I know it well.  As soon as I’ve read it, I’m convinced it’s horrible, and the whole thing must be immediately rewritten lest I die of shame.  So, of course, that is what I did.  I rewrote the entire thing, and then edited it.  The new version was just shy of 3,400 words, so some of the first draft got cut.

And then I went back and reread and edited the first week’s output.  I decided I liked it better on a first rereading — but still, it needed a lot of work.  It was full of dialogue tags and wandering introspection and info dumps.  So I edited that one, too.

Then I tried to resume the week-two story right where I’d left off.  Only I had no momentum left.  No storytelling juju.  Every sentence seemed as dry and flaky as mica — and as brittle.  Every idea was liable to break into unusable pieces mid-paragraph.  I made it, crawling slowly, back to the summit of 3,800 words, but just barely, and by then I was ready to throw the story into the shredder.

I hated it that badly.

But I knew not to reread first drafts yet.  That act is a dangerous drug, and destructive this early in the game.  Why did I do it anyway?  I could tell you that my curiosity was overwhelming, or that I gave in to temptation, or that I was bored and had no overflowing e-mail inbox to distract me from my inherent evil tendencies.

I suspect it was something more like this:  I got going too fast and the writing was going too well, and I got scared, so I slammed on the brakes.

Why would I get scared by writing going too well?  That sounds just dumb.  And it is, in a way.  But also in a way, it totally makes sense.

For a big chunk of my 20s, I didn’t write at all, after having allowed my ex-husband’s harsh criticism to silence me completely.  Then when I tried to write again, it was like that time I went to give blood right after my Emergency Swimming exam, which required, among other insane tasks, four laps in an Olympic-sized pool while wearing my clothes — well, all except my jeans which were first used as an impromptu flotation device for extra points* — and keeping my shoes handily tied together and ready so I wouldn’t hurt my tender feet should I actually reach land (the whole ridiculous exercise of course dependent upon my first having miraculously survived the plane crashing into the water.)

Ah, the things I’ve done for college credit.

Anyhow, the Red Cross nurse stuck a needle in me, and the blood came out like sludge, really just barely flowing, and she was about to ask if I was unusually dehydrated for some reason when I passed out cold.

That was how the writing flowed once I decided, “Okay, I’d like to write again.”  My writer self/artist child was angry and moody and had really made quite a nice little place for herself there in the basement where I’d relegated her for so long.  She didn’t much appreciate being hauled into the light and asked to perform.

So I got used to writing being tough, to it feeling like work, or worse, like opening a dehydrated vein.  And frankly, it still makes me quite nervous when several thousand words just slip from the end of my pen with ease.  Clearly, I’m my own worst enemy, and I really do need to join Perfectionists Anonymous (or found it, if such an organization does not already exist).

That 6,000-word goal was in reach.  The story may not have been perfect, but no writing is.  All that time and energy when I could have been moving forward, I moved back and recovered old territory.  Now I could just kick myself.

So this week my goal is simple:  do not reread.  Do not print out rough drafts.  Do not even go over the last few paragraphs when I sit down in the morning to continue.  Just move forward.  Looking over my own artistic shoulder is a surefire way to kill my momentum.  During week four, the artist and the editor must be sent to their separate rooms, and the perfectionist gets to use a Q-tip to clean the grout between the tiles in the basement.

*Yes, this does work, and I now always wear jeans when I fly overseas.  You know, just in case.
Photo of Moroccan traffic sign via Stockvault.  Photo of American traffic light via yours truly.


  1. I’m sorry that you killed your momentum, but pleased that you’ve had the lesson again! Fingers crossed you can continue to plow ahead this week on the story, ignoring any desire to read back over it. It’s a hard one to tackle – first drafts are never going to be perfect so there will ALWAYS be something that we can do better. I’ve been known to sabotage myself like this before too, so you’re not alone in this! Good luck 🙂

    • Thank you, JC, for the crossed fingers. I’ll take all the luck I can get. 😉

      It’s so good I’m not alone in my writerly self-sabotage. Why do we do this to ourselves? Ah, well, the main thing is not to do it again…

  2. Wow–so much to comment on here, Meredith! I can so relate to the editor’s squashing of the writer, and the angry and moody writer/child within. I’ve experienced both of these phenomena. (I tell my inner editor, “Shut Up, You Will Get Your Turn.”) Premature rereading hurts, too. Sometimes you need a little distance to be able to evaluate clearly. I’m just so impressed by the amount of work you’ve gotten done!

    Also, if you start Perfectionists Anonymous, sign me up to join!

    • “Premature reading.” I like that phrase, Kathy. I hope you don’t mind if I appropriate it for self-pep talks as I try to avoid rereading my first draft this week. Tomorrow’s Thursday, and it feels like the writing week is just clawing its way slowly by, while the rough draft sits in its file, begging for attention. Must make it to Saturday!

      Glad to know someone else’s artist child is not all sweetness and light. Mine might more accurately be described as pouts and temper tantrums. 😉

  3. During week four, the artist and the editor must be sent to their separate rooms, and the perfectionist gets to use a Q-tip to clean the grout between the tiles in the basement.

    Oh my goodness!!!!!!

    I have to print that line out and post it on my dream board above my desk. Rules for life. And writing.

    I have every confidence in your skills as a writer. You’re engaging and witty and humorous. I would read what you write and publish by virtue of knowing it’s your brand.

    Please stop undermining yourself. (okay, that’s me talking to you and to myself) I do the same thing with the rereading and editing. I could hack my work to death in its earliest stages.

    I’m with you. Keep writing!

    • Oh, thank you, Lisa. This comment was wonderfully uplifting. I may have to come back here and reread as necessary. 🙂

      And yes, by all means speak to yourself as well. We need to quick hacking at the work and start hacking at the chains of doubt that bind us so well!

  4. I think what you describe happens to most writers. At least, I know it happens to me a lot.

    Us writers are an emotional lot. When I was younger, I’d internalize things so badly that it would stunt my inspiration to try new things for weeks, months … And when I’d start to do well, I’d become my own self-fulfilling prophecy and mentally bring things to a screeching halt. I’m still pretty sensitive to this day, and rereading my work has a similar effect– You are not alone.

    • You’ve said it, Nick. Emotional, sensitive, moody — however you want to phrase it, it’s true of many artists and writers I know. Thanks for the sympathy and kind words. 🙂

  5. Very good lesson, and one I need to follow more often. Nothing like defeating yourself with your own need to be perfect. Great post!

    • Yeah, isn’t that goofy? Almost like a child pitching a fit: If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all! Hopefully I can stop that trend cold in its tracks…

      Thanks for the compliment, Merrilee. 🙂

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