Learning to fail.

Here’s why I procrastinate.

I procrastinate hard. While writing (or really, while dreaming about writing) this article, I’ve checked my social media accounts no fewer than four thousand times, painted my nails, and mastered the art of blow drying my hair straight in under twenty minutes, thanks to hundreds of tutorials on YouTube. I’ve also engaged in a long conversation with someone with whom I have nothing to talk about, done three weeks’ worth of laundry, and then, of course, shared an article on Facebook on how to sit down and actually write instead of just dreaming about it.

Between the first paragraph and this one more time has passed than I’m willing to admit. I start and I stop. I write and I delete. Write. Delete. Write. Delete. Write. Delete. Writedeletewritedeletewritedeletewritedelete. Repeat ad infinitum.

Google confirms that I’m not alone in this. A quick search for “writer’s block” turns up tons of articles with common tips for hard-core procrastinators and horror stories about the looming presence of The Blank Page.

The truth is, I sometimes procrastinate and find myself in front of a blank page for a very primal reason: I’m scared. If I delay my work it is not always because I’m being lazy or haven’t managed my time, but because I unconsciously search for ways to distract myself from an acute fear of failure.

I believe a lot of my resistance towards writing stems from an inaccurate idea of what writing is. I’ve noticed I have a tendency to think about writing as a metaphysical activity, as if it were sort of a god-given talent granted to only a few people. This is a dangerous idea, especially for writers like me who hope to be paid for my work. Such a perception ensures that success is dependent on inherent talent, and the problem is that, in reality, writing is not so much a divine process but a muscle that needs to be worked every day.

A screen capture of the editing process for this post.

A screen capture of the editing process for this post.

When the ability to write is seen as a god-given talent instead of a craft that has to be actively cultivated, there’s an unconscious expectation to produce brilliant work at the first attempt. I see this happening to me sometimes when I sit down and try to write. I start off thinking that it’s all going to just flow, but I quickly realize that good writing rarely comes that easily and that in fact, a lot of my writing can be pretty bad. I get disappointed with myself. I can hear my ego going something like: “what is all this crap coming out of me? Why, if I supposedly have a talent for writing, can’t I manage to put into beautiful words all that is on my mind?”

With this perspective, every piece of writing I produce automatically becomes a reference point for who I am as a person. What I write fundamentally equates to who I am. Writing badly becomes synonymous with something being wrong with me and I end up falling into an “impostor syndrome” spiral where I’m frightened of showing my work to other people lest they find out I don’t have the innate talent I thought I had.

Society is not that nice about failure either, and that’s something that certainly contributes to the fear of writing. We live in a world where mistakes are stigmatized. You do something wrong in school, you get a bad grade; you screw something up at work, you get fired. As a result, we put so much focus on trying not to make mistakes that a lot of times we lose our will to try, to just have a go at whatever it is we’re doing.

But the fact of the matter is that failing is important. If I don’t know how to fail, if I don’t learn to embrace the crappiness of my first drafts, I will never improve and will never come up with anything original.

I’ve always maintained that what we are is not something that’s given but something that we construct. To be consistent with this idea, I should start thinking of my writing less as a talent and more as process. A process that involves developing the will to write badly and defending my right to do so.

A little side note
In one of my procrastinative journeys I stumbled on an article about hypergraphia, writer’s block’s strange counterpart. Hypergraphia is characterized by a compulsive need to scribble away constantly and everywhere. Although it’s considered a pathological condition, I’d like to think of hypergraphia as a gift. I’d love to wake up one day and feel an irrepressible urge to write with no constraints. I’d write on notebooks, napkins and walls. I’d write on my own skin. I wouldn’t let fear or self-sabotage stand in my way. I’d just write.

Subway platform header image by Catalina Zuleta.

6 thoughts on “Learning to fail.

  • My number one tip for the dreaded procrastination and writer’s block is write first and edit later. Most times I just need to get something down and worry about how it’s all going to make sense later.

  • Excellent article. I think that another reason why writing can be so frightening is because the written word has always been seen as a compromise, as something official, like a contract. Even if one can change what is written, there is this feeling that one needs to be more careful about what one writes than what one speaks.

  • I think the idea that writing is a “natural talent” puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on writers, and prevents them from trying to improve their work. Love the idea of learning to embrace your crappy first drafts. Wonderful post 🙂

  • You suck. 😀

    Kidding.

    We’re the product of an industrially focused educational model, where, if you suck at something mechanic and continously do it to improve and eventually produce a result of excellent mechanical labour in record time you’re celebrated. However, if you’re a creative and you contuously improve your creative abilities as to reduce the time in which you complete a piece of writing, you’ll continously doubt and thrash your work as to emphasize your perception of writing being a god-given talent and not something you progressively get better at as you write, and publish.

    Loved your first piece. Please keep writing, and publishing, I promise you’ll only get better.

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