Writing would be easy if you had one helpful shortcoming: if you couldn’t notice flaws in what you wrote.

If you lacked the capacity to be dissatisfied with the words that landed on the page, you’d never get stuck.

If you were totally insensitive to badness, that doesn’t mean you’d be able to write well, but at least you’d be able to do it without pain and frustration.

When we experience writer’s block, that’s because we don’t like something about what we’ve written and we’re not sure how to fix it. Maybe our writing is not eloquent enough. Not persuasive. Not interesting. It’s too wordy, repetitive, vague, roundabout, and wasteful. Even when we “have nothing to say,” we really do. The problem is that we have nothing to say that we like. Writer’s block is trouble managing dissatisfaction.

Sometimes it feels that by putting a few thoughts down on a piece of paper — just a few — we’re generating a disproportionately large amount of work for ourselves. That’s because we’re not perfect — we’re flawed humans — and our flaws manifest in the words we write.

A first draft, even a short one, is bound to be full of bad things. It’s teeming with problems that need to be fixed. And that fixing requires labor.

Anyone can scribble, but if we want our writing to shine we’ve got to pay our dues. We’ve got to weed out all of the sins and infelicities that were committed in our earlier drafts, no matter how tedious and painful that process becomes.

But this view of writing is demoralizing. It’s like we’re encountering misfortune as soon as we begin to write, and now we’ve got to extricate ourselves from that misfortune.

All those flaws in our work — we wish they weren’t there. Why do we have to be so wordy? What a shame! Why do our thoughts have to be so scattered and arrive at the page in such a jumble of incoherence? What a shame! In an ideal world, those unnecessary words, those useless sentences would never have been there at all. In the present world, they are there, but they shouldn’t be.

What is a different, more inspiring way to look at writing? It starts with faith. We’ve got to believe our essay should exist. We’ve got to believe our point should be made. We’ve got to believe our voice should be heard.

Now let’s consider anything we put on the page — anything — as a stepping stone towards that goal.

But we don’t have the “right” for our essay to manifest all in one piece, perfect the first time. We’ve got to go through a process of bringing it into being.

To create a thing that doesn’t yet exist, we’ve got to begin revealing it, and then keep revealing more of it. Vagueness happens when we reveal a little more than we yet understand, and that’s what allows for progress. Flaws are a sign that we are manifesting the necessary flexibility to keep the process in motion. Errors are the concomitants of revelation.

You can’t be rigid when you create something. You’ve got to experiment and adapt and put some ideas forward without yet knowing if they’re right. Defects are proof that you’re experimenting, which is to say they’re proof that you’re taking the posture that’s necessary for creation.

When you fix a “flaw” in your writing, you are not extricating something bad. Rather, you are removing something that has already fulfilled its purpose of moving you forward.

That redundant statement of your point, that unclear sentence, that confusing tangent — when you wrote them down, they helped you stay in motion, they helped you search for what you really wanted to say. They were possibilities. They were prospects you explored. They served as points of comparison to help you discover what’s essential versus inessential in your work.

Now it’s time for them to go, but not because they’re intrinsically bad — quite the opposite, they did their job and now it’s done. They were never your enemies, they were temporary assistants, like strips of masking tape that were needed in one phase of creating a sculpture, but not the next.

Even a humble typo is good in a way — it’s a sign you were writing quickly, allowing ideas to flow — and it’s easily corrected.

When you delete text that’s not useful anymore, don’t be angry at it. Don’t wish it had never been there in the first place. Even if a sentence is “ugly,” don’t think of it as an evil thing that’s preventing your writing from being good. Give it a little love — it was present, it was part of your process, it helped you stay in motion — now delete it with a bit of respect for the purpose it served.

If you have a sense of what you love in prose, if you have a high standard you’re aspiring to reach, you’ll find it’s very easy to get angry when you write.

But anger is not the way to finishing.

None of these ideas are specific to writing though. It’s the same for any project, anything you try to do. You get stuck when you see flaws in your work as signs of your own misfortune. You get stuck when you look at those flaws as sticky, immovable burdens, locking you into a state of dissatisfaction. You get stuck when you allow those flaws to fill you with doubt and loathing.

You get unstuck when you see those same flaws as stepping stones to the next phase of your work. You get unstuck when you learn to be thankful for the bad parts of your emerging creation, because those bad parts are placeholders that have been helping the whole thing take shape, and now they give you something to engage with further: something to refine, something to improve, something that keeps you moving.

None of these ideas are specific to writing, but writing is a perfect testing ground for them, because writing involves so many choices that can lead you in so many different directions. If you allow one particular philosophy to govern all those little choices, then the outcome of your writing project is going to be a reification of that philosophy, an example of what it can do.

So if you want to compare the consequences of different attitudes, like optimism versus pessimism, or self-compassion versus self-criticism, or faith versus doubt, just try taking one or the other attitude while you write an essay. Then see how the essay comes out, or whether it comes out at all. ■

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