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Perfectionism, Permission, and Pleasure in Writing

Recently I sat down to talk about writing with Thea Sutton, author of historical novel, The Women of Blackmouth Street and writing coach and mentor on the One Lit Place creative team. We discussed the three Ps: perfectionism, permission, and pleasure in writing and how writers can avoid, give, and enjoy them in turns by making minor shifts to our expectation of the creative process.

Perfectionism: The Scourge of the Writer

Writers commonly feel a black cloud of doubt creep over our hearts when reading excellent books written by masters of the craft. This cloud has blotted out many a writer’s ability to carry on- a tragedy for them and also for their readers.

Comparing ourselves to other writers is a surefire way to feel lesser or inept, but if we instead view our own work as unique, valid, and as rightfully occupying its place in the canon, our work will also come to mean something to readers.

Sutton, who has a PhD in literature and has read literary masters as part of her scholarship, has had to make peace with the idea that she will never be on a par with Virginia Woolf or James Joyce.

Those writers, similar to great musicians, composers, visual artists, come around once every 100 years. They put me in my place. And that’s okay. To compare ourselves to those writers is defeating. No one’s asking you to be Virginia.

Just be yourself and carve out your own place on the shelf.

 

Asking for and Giving Ourselves Permission: the Bad and the Good

Asking for Permission from Outsiders Invites Judgment

Often writers crave validation from outsiders, third parties to whom we hand our autonomy and ask to determine whether we have the chops or not. Inviting critique or criticism is yet another way to take our confidence down a notch.

Whereas working with an outsider through mentorship or coaching — someone who is trained in giving writers constructive, positive feedback designed to build the writer’s confidence, inspire the writer to take creative risks, and teach aspects of craft within the context of the writer’s style, voice, and story ideas— is a fantastic mechanism to invite growth and to deepen our enjoyment of writing for its own sake.

Permission to Write for the Love of Writing and Creating Intimate Connections

Writing is something that gains strength and traction the more we do it. The more we allow ourselves to deepen into the process, the rough, raw, risky mess of it, the more expanded as artists we become, and the result is our writing gets better.

Sutton admires visual artists’ sense of freedom and how they give themselves permission to create or what they call, “fulfill their practice.”

It’s not about the reviews are or how many paintings or drawings they’re going to sell. They talk about their creative process of habit, or as a lifestyle. They share their exploration, their journey, with little judgment. I wish writers could do more of that.

Performance should instead become recognizing the power of the individual and writing for that person rather than seeing ourselves standing before the faceless masses and believing we have to be everything to all.

“With visual artists, if they have an exhibit at a local gallery, and 40 or 50 people come and engage with their work, that’s fulfilling.”

The world is a better place when even a single person takes in someone’s story and is moved by it. That person becomes expanded, has more empathy, and brings themselves differently to their life. It helps to remember that writing is ultimately about an intimate connection between human beings.

 

blank journal with pencil


Pleasure: Making Writing a Habit

Treating writing as a lifestyle, a habit, and an identity is how writers are best able to churn out meaningful work and feel pleasure from the work they do. (Our 1-month course Cultivating Creativity: How to Start and Sustain the Writing Habit was built precisely for this reason: to support writers with building a practice and giving them an infrastructure inside of which to bring their writing into their lives regularly, and with purpose, for the long term.)

Sutton remembers when she nervously approached a renowned visiting professor from France, Julia Kristeva, to ask her which of two essays she should study.

She looked at me and said, ‘Choose the one that gives you more pleasure.’ Pleasure! So here I was thinking I’m going to have to climb Everest; it’s going to be really hard to know what to do, but to be told to do something that pleases you? It was a very French answer, of course, but more it was about not letting yourself get tied up in judgment or other people’s expectations.

What gives you pleasure to write at the end of the day is what matters: that you’re doing something you enjoy.

runner in sneakers going up stairs

Pleasure as Defined by the Long Game

Sutton says, “I always compare it to taking up a sport. I’m the least athletic person on the planet, but when I first started to run, I went maybe half a block with my lungs exploding. Two days later, I did it again and got to one block. After a month or two months, I was hobbling along and kind of liked it. Then after maybe six months, I had to do it.

It’s the same with writing. At the beginning, it’s like creating any habit; it might feel uncomfortable, it might not be immediately rewarding, you might not see results you like, but the more you do it, the more you’re firming up that mushy muscle and getting better and stronger. And then before you know it, you want to get to your desk, and you want to write.”

Letting go of others’ notions of success and simply creating for the pleasure is fundamental to writing for the long term.

Bearing that in mind is the greatest gift we, as writers, can give ourselves.

blonde woman in profile

Sutton says about her work, “just like I can’t wait to finish reading a great book to see what will happen, I also can’t wait to get back to my writing desk to see what will happen.”


Thea Sutton is the author of numerous publications, including The Women of Blackmouth Street.

Love historical fiction or simply a fantastic story set in Victorian times? Check out Sutton’s book and download her FREE book club reader guide to share with your book club and get the most out of the story!

 

2 Responses

  1. Thank you. I needed this pep talk today as I’m dragging my heels yet again. The challenges of writing my story are beating me up. I believe in my story and want readers to really enjoy it but also to realize how it relates to our world on a metaphorical level. That’s when a story really stays with you . I want to reach an ideal I’ve set for myself, but it butts up against the permission of being free to write this story within the boundaries I see it evolving. Stepping outside of that framework while maintaining its integrity is uncomfortable. Regrettably, discomfort negates pleasure. When that happens, a writer is compelled to fight the odds to the finish. A creative work of fiction can be frustrating. Onwards, I say. My sword is drawn. The dragons will fall.

    1. Marianne, thank you so much for sharing your journey with this book. It is indeed filled with rises and falls, twists and turns, and it will challenge a person intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually far more than most daily endeavours (what a way to know you’re alive, right?). You are a strong person for forging ahead, and you will emerge having told a story that feels satisfying to you- because you’ll insure that it is. Good luck slaying your dragons (poor poor dragons- if only they knew what they were up against!)

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