Defeat Writer’s Block: A Mental Hack from the Age of Discovery

                                                  Michel de montaigne

                                                 Michel de montaigne

About 430 years ago, Michel de Montaigne wrote a series of short works that became famous. People still read these writings today because of their profound ideas and their excellent style. I’m attracted to what Montaigne wrote for many reasons, but the biggest reason may be the title he chose for the collection. He dubbed them with a name no one had used before. He called them “essays.”  

Literally, essay means “attempt” or “trial.” The revered Montaigne, who wrote short works that would go on to stand the test of hundreds of year and would be upheld as models for an entire genre, didn’t think it beneath himself to consider his endeavors to be mere attempts. This is a liberating idea, an idea that can help us to grow as writers if we embrace it. 

Trying=winning

When we write, we must resist the notion that we are creating something perfect. We are only writing an attempt. The desire for perfection is a feeling that dominates most of us when we undertake something creative, and perhaps in no other area so much as in writing. We’re filled with this sense of obligation to our reader (and rightly so, to an extent), but too often this feeling goes too far. Certainly, we want to reach our audience, but we can’t suppose that we’ll create the perfect piece of writing in the first draft. We need to lower the stakes. We need to accept that all writing is just an attempt, a trial. 

I’ve met so many people who have the urge to write something, especially a book, but who don’t undertake the task because they hold up an unattainable standard. The benchmark they set is so impossible, they can’t even begin. These folks should take a cue from Montaigne. 

Imperfect writing is fine

Each draft that we begin is only an attempt. Nothing that we write is as good as it could be. A book or essay is never really finished—we just force ourselves to stop tinkering and allow people to read it. There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Shakespeare had deadlines. Hemingway had an editor. Even the best of the best decide to stop writing and walk away. If they wanted to, they could keep revising for ever, but they don’t. We need to recognize, no matter what level we are at, that we have to stop at some point and let what we’ve written stand for itself. 

Acknowledging from the get-go that what we write will not be as good as we want it to be is paradoxically powerful. Of course we want our writing to be perfect. Accepting the idea that it won’t be perfect can be deflating; sometimes it can even make us feel like the task is worthless. On the other hand, acknowledging the inevitability of imperfection is also empowering. When we recognize that perfection is only a pipe dream, we are free to explore what really lives in our head. We cease to interact with a projected creative self and become acquainted with the creative self who truly exists. 

Uncertainty is a blessing in disguise

Exposing what we really have to say can be a scary experience, not unlike hearing our recorded voice for the first time or seeing a video of ourselves on a stage. But it’s also one of the greatest opportunities in life to experience an incredible blend of challenges and rewards. Seeking to reconcile our target achievement (or projected creative self) with our actual level of achievement (actualized creative self) is a process that can easily fill a lifetime. And this is a process filled with joy and wonder, as well as certain disappointments. Like all life, creativity can be painful, but that pain is the necessary corollary to the rewards to be had. 

As I write this blog post, I am keenly aware that it is not coming out the way I had intended. It lacks the punch that I envisioned. It lacks the style. The overall direction is different than what I had thought it would take. Yet all of this is normal, even preferable to a hypothetical perfection. The unknown is part of what makes writing so alluring. It makes it challenging, for sure. Yet, this quality of unpredictability and of not perfecting so much as attempting is ultimately freeing. It allows us to explore or minds—not as we imagine them to be—but as they truly are. Unveiling our own thoughts is exciting and scary at the same time. To write on a daily basis is to strike out and blaze a trail—like the explorers of Montaigne’s day—through the wilderness of our amassed thoughts. Discovery awaits.

Never stop attempting

Resist the impulse to avoid writing because it is uncertain. Accept that all of our writing will be imperfect. Take comfort in the knowledge that for even the best of writers, each day is just an attempt. If we remain faithful to that ongoing attempting, the goal we seek as writers is inevitable. 

Now please, go write something. Let it be bad if it needs to be. Just make that attempt and know that you are on your way. Feel free to brag in the comments.