As school semesters and a season comes to a close, deadlines of all kinds loom for many folks I know right now. I've had MFA students, MSW students, and author friends anxiously confess that they have been procrastinating for hours on end, and the worry levels rise with every Netflix episode watched (I, uh, recommend Happy Valley.)
In the last few years, I've been getting to know my proCARONation better, both its origins, what feeds it, and how to tempt it out of the house for periods of time. One of the important things that writers and mental health professionals have recognized and written about is that procrastination of important tasks is not lazy or sloth-like behavior—it's often the result of perfectionism. Most people I know who tell me they haven't been able to get words on a page, schedule an important interview—or, uh, get their Museletters and blogs out monthly—have a desire to do things Right or Perfectly or Best. And of course when it comes to writing a paper or story or conducting an interview, there is no Right. There is no such thing as Perfect. And our Best can only ever be evaluated in the context of this very present moment. Thankfully, we can always write a better version of the story, we could always have asked a better phrased question, always chosen a better metaphor, word, beginning or end; we can always become better, because our motivating perfectionist sidekick voices make sure we are always evolving, learning, becoming better versions of ourselves—except when they overdo it and accidentally unleash their Freeze Rays. So, how do we unfreeze? We have to remember the trick about Superheroes is that when they get cornered they take action. If we just wiggle our toes, breath out a warm breath...the ice will start to melt. Or maybe we need to let ourselves fall, crack, and be released. Which leads me to one of my favorite tricks....
The World's Worst Words Competition!
Can't start the personal essay that will get you into college and Change-Your- Life-Foreverrrr? Can't find the perfect ending to your YA novel? Can't write that email to your boss? Can't start your paper on the societal economic benefits of arts education? Can't draft your questions for what will become the most awesome Eddie Izzard interview ever? Can't get the first draft down of that new picture book idea that is so awesome-but-what-if-I-don't-do-it-right-a-better-writer-could-do-this-so-much-better-who-do-I-think-I-am-to-even-try-I-can't-even-keep-the-dust-bunnies-under-control-I-should-just-give-up-on-writing-and-vacuum-my-house-right-now!?
The World's Worst Words Competition is for you!
Here are the rules:
1. Look at your calendar and pick the first open slot you see (if it's right now, then it's Right Now.)
2. Go to a writing place. Any writing place.
3. Write Down On a Post-It or paper:
"Challenge: Write the World's Worst_[YOUR PROJECT HERE].
(Ex: Picture book about two iconic polar bears, paper about Capitalism's effect on mental health, article on the new DNA technology, etc.)
4. Get your gear (writing pad, computer, pen, research notes, etc.)
5. Set a time for 20-90 minutes (depending on your project, rate of anxiety, schedule, etc.)
6. Ready, set...DO YOUR WORST!
Really, I mean it. Truly attempt to write the world's worst opening line.
Then write the world's worst second sentence, the world's worst introductory paragraph, the world's worst first page, the world's murkiest, mushiest, mish-mashiest middle, etc. Do this in sessions. When your timer goes off, take a break, or do this over different days. And in your last session, make sure to write the World's Worst Ending.
(Check out the look of horror on your perfectionist sidekick's face! Giggle at the hilarious contortions of their eyebrows as they squirm in the sidelines. Oh, dear, is your perfectionist puking? Don't worry perfectionist sidekick, we'll let you off the bench for a bit soon.)
7. High five yourself for completing the competition!
8. Take a break (whether it's 5 minutes in the case of an imminent deadline, or 5 weeks in the case of a novel.) Check out the look of surprise on your Perfectionist Sidekick's face as they realize their worst fear has happened, and they have survived.
9. Read over your work. Feel the disappointment...darn, this is not actually as horrible as you'd hoped it would be. But that's okay, you'll do better, I mean worse, next time.
10. Invite the Perfectionist Sidekick to come collaborate on revisions. Be kind, but firm. Let them know you do value their thoughts, but that if the get out of control you're gonna have to use the freeze ray on 'em.
Note: (While writing the World's Worst version of your project, the Perfectionist Sidekick will likely attempt to swoop in from time to time. Tell them they are free to keep some quick note on things they want to change later. After all, we can revise the Sidekick metaphors another day. Or just realize that our readers are generous people who can stomach a rotten analogy here and there.)