I suppose most writers don’t like to talk about writers’ block. It’s not a pretty sight — to have a deadline looming, and every time you sit down at the blank screen, you just get lost in the void of it all.
And instead of writing… nothing.
It’s such an ominous part of the writer’s life that you can find lists online of movies devoted to the topic. I can think of two off the top of my head: Shakespeare in Love and Ruby Sparks. Both are humorous stories, and in each film, the writer — who is male — finds his creative spark restored through the influence of a beautiful female muse (what critics have called “the manic pixie dream girl”).
Okay, not all writers are men, and certainly not every artist (writer or otherwise) is going to get their own personal muse to help magically jump-start their creative flow. Sorry about that. For most of us, we need to find a more realistic, down-to-earth solution to our lack of inspiration.
The other day I was chatting with a friend about the challenges of writer’s block. He pointed out to me that it often seems to be related to perfectionism. I nodded my head in agreement. It’s not merely not having an idea (although sometimes that’s the case), but it’s also the fear that, whatever words I do manage to put down to my file (or paper) will simply not be very good. People who read it will find out the terrible truth: that I’m just a “lousy writer!”
Such catastrophizing is a giveaway that what is really at work here is perfectionism: that nasty thought, lodged deep in our skulls, that our work must be perfect to have any value at all.
Yecch. It looks really irrational, in plain black and white. So why is it such a hard notion to liberate ourselves from?
Perfectionism is really lazy way of looking at the world: it’s an insistence that everything is black or white, good or bad, perfect or lousy, with nothing in between. It ignores the radiant beauty of a world filled with literally millions of colors.
(A lot of people like to say that the antidote to seeing things in black and white is to learn to know the “shades of grey.” But I think even that is too limiting. What makes life sparkle is not 32 layers of greyscale, but an almost infinite array of eye-nurturing color.)
I think one of perfectionism’s nasty little tricks is to always compare ourselves (unfavorably, of course) with the writers or other artists whom we admire. How can I ever amount to anything as a writer, when my work is so lackluster compared to the shimmering genius of ________? (fill in the blank with your favorite writer).
But I think we can beat the inner-perfectionist at his or her own game. And I realized this by thinking about one of my favorite bands, the Beatles.
It’s been nearly fifty years since the Beatles disbanded in an acrimonious split — but they are still the top-selling pop music group of all time. None of them were yet 30 years old, and their entire recorded output consisted of just under ten hours of music. Some of their songs have become truly iconic: “Yesterday,” “In My Life,” “Hey Jude,” “All You Need is Love” “Let it Be,” “Come Together,” “Something,” — just to name a few. The Beatles featured not one, not two, but three brilliant songwriters; when they split up, every member of the band went on to enjoy a successful solo career. The two surviving Beatles, both in their late seventies, are still going strong as we approach the 60th anniversary of the band’s founding.
It’s reasonable to say the Beatles were geniuses.
I’m not a songwriter, but the perfectionist in me has no scruples about comparing my lack-of-genius to the geniuses of another art form. But that road goes both ways. And by thinking about the creative work of brilliant songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, ironically I can find a way to talk back to my inner perfectionist.
Here’s what occurred to me the other day. I was listening to The White Album — a brilliant recording, to be sure, but notoriously uneven. There are plenty of tracks on this album, released in 1968, that were experimental, or avant-garde, or just plain weird. Don’t take my word for it — cue up Spotify and listen to tracks like “Wild Honey Pie,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” or “Revolution #9.”
In other words, geniuses aren’t perfect. And if they don’t have to be perfect, why should you and I be?
Pushing this line of thought a bit further, I thought about the Beatles’ all-time most celebrated song, “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s an artsy song, featuring a symphony orchestra and impressionistic lyrics in which John Lennon’s almost cynical commentary on the daily news is punctuated by Paul McCartney’s playful narrative of a worker’s mundane morning routine. It wasn’t a hit song like “Hey Jude” or “She Loves You,” but it still sounds fresh and relevant after more than fifty years; and the song seems to epitomize the critical consensus about Beatles music: that Lennon and McCartney were each great songwriters on their own, but when they composed a song together, they truly were far, far more than the sum of their parts.
But before your inner perfectionist gets all worked up… compare that to the Beatles’ first-ever hit single, a surprisingly modest number recorded in 1962: “Love Me Do.” It’s a mid-tempo rock and roll love song, with lyrics that could easily be dismissed as banal; aside from a sassy harmonica line played by Lennon, it’s actually a fairly ordinary song.
But it was a hit song for the Beatles, and nearly sixty years later, Paul McCartney still regularly performs it live. It’s charming to watch a video recording of McCartney at Dodger Stadium in 2019, introducing the song and admitting that he was so nervous when recording it (at barely 20 years old), that you can clearly hear the quavering in his voice.
It’s not the song he’ll be remembered for: it’s not “Yesterday” or “Let it Be” or “Penny Lane.” But it was good enough.
And that’s the key: good enough.
“Love Me Do” was good enough for the Beatles to have a hit record in 1962, and it’s good enough for Paul McCartney to keep it in his setlist in 2019. But nobody would accuse it of being a perfect song.
It’s not — because it doesn’t have to be. It’s good enough, and that’s good enough.
The next time I experience writer’s block, I’m going to listen to “Love Me Do” — and maybe even see if I can manage to get all the way through “Revolution #9.” Since I can forgive the Beatles for releasing a song as bad as “Wild Honey Pie,” and appreciate them for a run-of-the-mill song like “Love Me Do,” then I can certainly give myself permission to engage in my own writing in a less-than-perfect way.
Now, in 1962, the Beatles probably were not even capable of writing masterpieces like “Come Together” or “Hey Jude.” At least, not yet. Those songs were the result of years of practice and performance and hard work in the studio. But what if, in 1962, the “perfectionist” inside Lennon’s and McCartney’s heads wouldn’t give them any peace because all they could manage was something like “Love Me Do”?
They might have given up. And the world would be so much the poorer for it.
So the next time you have a little conversation with your inner perfectionist, listen to the Beatles. And tell your perfectionist that maybe all you’re capable of doing is writing something about as good as “Love Me Do.” But that’s good enough. By doing your “good enough” best today, maybe tomorrow — or next year, or 10 years from now — you really could create a work of genius. If the Beatles could grow into it, why not you? But that’s for the future. No pressure to be a genius today. For today, just do the best you can.
And that will be good enough — God be praised.