Tim Clare is an award-winning author, poet and creative writing advice podcaster. His podcast ‘Death Of 1000 Cuts‘ – offering motivational rants, writing exercises, interviews with authors, and detailed critiques of first pages submitted by listeners – has been downloaded thousands of times. Here, he offers constructive advice to any writer struggling with self-doubt about their words on the page: write badly.
There’s a famous test in psychology called the Montreal Imaging Stress Task or MIST, used to measure how people perform under stress. It’s used a lot because it’s actually quite hard to reliably and ethically stress people out in a laboratory situation. You can’t just put a revolver to their head or tell them their house is burning down.
In the classic MIST, you’re given some sums to do, with a timer. After doing a trial round to show you how the system works, you’re told to start the test properly. The thing is: it’s a con.
The whole thing is rigged against you. How you performed in the ‘trial’ round is used by a computer programme to set the speed and difficulty of questions slightly too fast for you to cope with. A progress bar on the side of the screen, showing you how well other participants did, moves faster than your own progress bar. The experimenter will give you scripted negative feedback, like ‘you need to do better’.
In this scenario, with a time limit, an unrealistically high difficulty level, social comparison (the progress bar) and negative social evaluation, participants reliably experience acute stress. Experimenters can test how that stress manifests physiologically through saliva swabs measuring cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, the participant’s heart rate, and even how much they sweat.
It should not surprise you at all to learn that, in almost every study of creativity and cognitive ability, acute stress induction impairs performance. Activation of the sympathetic nervous system reduces our capacity for divergent thinking, increases cognitive load, impairs working memory, impairs recall and may well downregulate areas implicated in higher-order processes like language. Which, you kind of like need for writing.
And the reason I’m telling you this is because, without realising it, a huge number of writers make themselves subjects in their own personal MIST experiments every single time they sit down at the laptop.
We say ‘I must write x words today’. We evaluate our first draft, as the words land on the page, as if it were a published novel. We compare ourselves to other writers – usually unfavourably. And worst of all, we keep up that little experimenter in our heads, saying ‘you need to do better’. ‘For the sake of the experiment you need to do better.’
You can’t learn writing through mistake inhibition. Creativity is, after all, a form of adaptive mistake.
Continual self-evaluation while writing is a maladaptive strategy. It doesn’t work, and tragically, when it doesn’t, many of us double-down on it and make the problem much worse. Almost without realising it, we’re constantly asking ourselves ‘have I written enough?’ ‘Is it good enough?’ ‘Have I made mistakes?’
To be fair, this tactic is not illogical. If we want to write well, we need to hold ourselves to high standards, right?
But as we’ve seen, negative evaluation, the knowledge that you’re being watched and judged, makes it harder to do most tasks well – especially ones requiring creativity. So the act of checking your own work as you write makes it harder to write to a high standard. Which means, when you check, you’re more likely to find something wrong with it. Which makes you think oh! Thank goodness I caught that mistake. I’d better be extra vigilant now to make sure no more slip through the net. The behaviour gets reinforced. So you do it more. Which makes your performance even worse. And so on.
Pretty soon, writing becomes so stress-inducing, the work you produce so stilted, that you give up. And who can blame you?
The counterintuitive answer is to lower your standards. Actively court mistakes, slapdash writing, clichés. Leave blanks when you can’t think of a word. Practise writing deliberately bad scenes, make lists of names for pubs or racehorses, try writing for five minutes with your eyes closed, without stopping.
I’m not suggesting there’s no value in discernment, redrafting, working hard on a text. Just that writing takes practice. And if you aren’t turning up and writing and building those creative muscles, you won’t get any better. You can’t learn writing through mistake inhibition. Creativity is, after all, a form of adaptive mistake. You only learn by moving the pen, putting one word after the other, experimenting with different combinations and observing the effects they create.
And writing badly, believe it or not, takes practice. For some of us, writing with the perfectionist brakes off is intermittently terrifying. But it’s liberating too. And the good stuff, this inspiration that artists are always talking about, just pops up out of nowhere.
On the good days, it feels like flying.
Want more? Tim will be recording an episode of ‘Death of 1000 Cuts’ at Dragon Hall on Friday 1 November. In this live special, Tim will be taking the first pages of audience members’ novels, breaking them down line by line and looking for ways to make them better. He will also bring all he has learned from chatting to bestselling authors, editors, and even neuroscientists and psychologists about how to break through blocks, avoid common mistakes and start loving stories again. Book ticket now >>