Archive for April, 2011

Your Netflix queue is composed of two kinds of movies and TV shows:

1. Shows you will have delivered to you, watch, and return.

2. Shows you will have delivered to you but never watch, or shows you will never have delivered to you.

Why do we queue up movies we won’t watch, or won’t even have delivered? Are we trying to impress someone? Are we trying to fool ourselves? Are we trying to change our own habits? Are we trying to improve our movie-watching? By what standard? And is it working?

The Netflix queue is a case study in perfectionism. It shows how we let our inner critic create guilt for us, which stops us from doing what we actually want to do in our lives. Here’s the thing: your actual movie-watching habits are already perfect. Netflix, like the entire universe, is there to let you do what you want to do. It’s a service that robotically delivers exactly what you ask for. So don’t try to impress the machine by delivering Hotel Rwanda to your house, if you know you’ll never be in the mood to actually watch it. Bubble up a show that interests you. Have something delivered that makes you eager to rip open that red envelope and make a batch of popcorn.

I’ve been working on notes and ideas for a new story for a few weeks, and I’ve noticed a kind of “Netflix guilt” guiding my story. I’m writing about what I feel like it should be about, rather than what excites me. I fall into a pattern of making it about the Big Serious Drama of Life, and find that my mind wanders and instead of writing I go fiddle on the internet or play games on my phone. It’s because I’m letting my inner critic dictate the writing instead of joy. I’m not eager to return to my writing journal because it’s like a queue full of Hotel Rwandas. I need to clear those Important Dramas out of there and fill it up with action-adventures and crime thrillers — the stuff I actually like to watch. I am not impressing anybody by filling up my private writing with heavy and sober topics. Even more important, if I am not eager to return to that sober, pain-filled stuff, I am not writing.

Seriousness points are not the goal. Enjoying movie night is the goal. Getting your book written is the goal. Your tastes are already perfect.


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In spite of what an unending conveyor belt of writing books tell me, I am not one to “trust the process.” I do not feel the trust vibes flowing through me. I like questioning assumptions. I advocate devils. I am Critical Analysis Man, the superhero voted least likely to be asked to ribbon-cut at restaurant openings.

That’s not to say I don’t come around on things in the fullness of time. I permit myself to become convinced. I allow my suspicions to evolve into convictions once enough calendars have flitted by.

So when I write, I don’t enter a state of writerly bliss. I don’t achieve flow. I hammer every word from stone and am conscious of every blow on the way down. I can’t trust my own thoughts, ephemeral and newly-born as they are. It goes against my normal critical mode of hunting for doubts and errors. I am uncomfortable with the speed of trust. I like brakes and rumination and Googling everything. I like fact-checking. I like being right.

Given that I write for a living, that is not terrific.

I’ve spent time writing blog posts about the dangers of perfectionism. Here’s a secret: they’re written with my own bad habits in mind. I’m excessively familiar with the incompatibility of self-criticism and psychological flow. Wanting to be right is not all bad — it’s just that new prose needs a gentle caretaker. It can’t hold up to the glaring ultraviolet of a critic’s gaze. And writing a novel isn’t a process of conjuring up a few perfect sentences. It’s the psychological equivalent of about fifty marathons. It’s the stringing together of thousands of more-or-less handsome sentences and then subjecting them to a handful of major overhauls. That takes breaking through the paralyzing basilisk gaze of the inner critic — not just once, but over and over and over again.

What’s the solution? What’s the trick? What’s the magical pill?

Ain’t one. Use whatever tricks you’ve got — all of them, singly and woven together into a quilt of self-encouragement. But here’s a hint. What’s the one thing that always overcomes fear? It’s love, so try remembering what you love about what you’re writing. Kindle your love for your protagonist, and let her in turn kindle excitement in you. Perfectionism is the anti-love. The critical eye is bored by eagerness, and tends to nod off to sleep when your emotions become roused. Let it have its rest.

You don’t need to “trust the process.” If you’re like me, phrases like that just set off all my alarms and no work gets done. Instead of trying to turn off negative thoughts, chase positive ones. Go after what gets you excited.

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