Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
I wonder if any of us over the age of twelve actually believe this.
If everything’s sizzling in your writing life, this post isn’t for you. Surf onward with my blessing. But if things aren’t quite tickety-boo, pull up a chair. (Disclaimer: As an American, I have no actual right to say “tickety-boo.”)
If we want to write better, we need to fail more, and if so, why not gleefully? To fail more, we need to work more freely and loosely. Though we work in words, we should imagine ourselves to be working in finger paints, not oils. Writing needs to be a game, sans competition, where making a mess is a bonus.
(This is the reminder I need most right now. I’m looking squarely in the mirror.)
Whatever “writing well” means to you—and it means something different to each of us, so with whom are we competing, exactly?—that shining country is reached eventually. Not today. So there’s no harm in making today a writing day where it’s okay to play.
What, in fact, are we so worried about? This is the lowest-stakes profession on the planet. Nobody dies on the operating table if we solve our characters’ problems too easily. The planes all land safely, even when our characters are dull as dirt. Nobody’s portfolio is wiped out by our penchant for cliché.
Therefore: If you want to write, write badly and have fun with it.
If you’ve got a better plan—say, perhaps, to be a tortured artiste, and produce nothing but flashes of luminous beauty, when, and only when moved by the muses—go you.
I’ve had seasons where ideas seemed to crackle and flow from my fingers. Pages poured. Insecurities notwithstanding, I knew something was working right. I beheld my work, and saw that it was good.
I’ve had seasons where I had nothing to offer to the page. Words, tepid; ideas, flat. The process, drudgery. My confidence, in the toilet. I beheld my work, writhed, and flirted with other career options.
All this means is that I’m a writer. But I wish I hadn’t worried so much. In the crackly times, I felt loose and light and free. In other words, confident. Confidence doesn’t always appear on command, but we can always choose to play.
Play is how puppies and kitties and cubs and babies learn—fearlessly exploring without caring how they look. Pretending. Pouncing. Mimicking. Rough-housing. Making plenty of nose. They wobble and leap, land on their rumps, then try it again.
Fun is the most open state of mind available to us, where we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we can genuinely laugh at our flops and failures. Fun is still how we learn best, if we let ourselves.
Why is that hard? Why do we run from fun? Why is it hard to persuade our teens, and ourselves, to take a chance on the dance floor and try that funky move we’ve been rocking in the bathroom mirror? Or to try out for the play/the talent show/the team? What have we got to lose? Only our precious egos, but who’s watching? Who cares?
Let’s say the writing’s not going so well right now. You’re not doing much of it; you’re blocked; you’re afraid; your idea stinks; you can’t solve the plot problem or the character problem or the research problem or the life problem.
Here’s what you do: you write a scene about a big booger in your WIP.
I dare you.
Or a scene about a drunken leprechaun. A talkative mime. A clown in love. A theme park visit gone wrong. A botched burglary. A crabby principal with a bad toupee. A first kiss plus halitosis. A loose octopus at church.
Anything worth doing is worth doing ridiculously. Face your fears in the mirror, then cross your eyes and stick out your tongue.
I’m going to hazard a guess here: perhaps what’s holding you back right now is not your artistic weakness, but your skill.Your talent. Not your lack thereof—that’s a pet complaint, but a fib, and we all know it. You can write. You wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t. But maybe, just maybe, the way you write well is your impediment. Maybe you have to let go of what you do well to learn what else you can do. Stop clinging to your safest style, and stop critiquing your draft with your pet preferences. Let yourself fall on your rump.
The top coaches in the world take the best athletes they can find, then break their habits. Their good habits! Their championship-winning habits. Those coaches force their star athletes to start over and rethink the game in entirely new ways. They don’t let top talent remain complacent. They rebuild them from the ground up. Brace yourself for my zinger here: they teach them a new way to play.
Which is why I offer you my booger method at no charge. If the old method isn’t working, try a new one, but if it isn’t play—if it’s not light and free and experimental—I’m not sure how far it can carry you.
We’re all here because in our innermost hearts, we knew making books for kids would be fun. Let’s not let worry squeeze all the joy out of this thing we once decided to do for love.
Try storyboarding your novel with fingerpaint. Sculpt a metaphoric representation of your antagonist’s motivations out of Play-doh. Hire Mr. and/or Mrs. Potato Heads to pose for that romantic scene.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t take our work seriously, nor write about weighty subjects. My topics aren’t all fun and games, but a lot of them are, and I can approach them all playfully. I don’t think it would’ve diminished the artistry of the Sistine Chapel if Michelangelo had whistled while he worked, or sketched some dorky glasses on Adam. Perhaps he did. (He didn’t use oils, either. Go figure.)
If we’re capable of writing – if we possess paper and pen, or a typewriter, or a computer, and we have a functioning brain and some command of language, and we have a roof to shield us from the rain and a lamp to light us, and enough stability in our lives that we can put some words down occasionally – then we are incredibly fortunate and blessed. In the great cosmic lottery, the human race allowed us to be the ones who could, if we would, serve as its storytellers. Let’s appreciate that gift by using it joyfully, playfully, and freely. Let’s stop worrying, plop our rumps in chairs, and write.
Julie Berry is the author of the 2017 Printz Honor and Los Angeles Times Book Prize shortlisted novel The Passion of Dolssa, the Carnegie and Edgar shortlisted All the Truth That’s in Me (2013, Viking), the Odyssey Honor title The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (2014, Roaring Brook), and many others. Her latest middle grade novel, The Emperor’s Ostrich, released in 2017 from Roaring Brook. Her new young adult novel, Lovely War, published by Viking Children’s Books, has received seven starred reviews, and been called “Poignant” by The Horn Book, “Mesmerizing” by Booklist, and “Virtuoso” by the New York Times. Her first picture books released in fall 2019: Long Ago, On a Silent Night (Orchard Books/Scholastic); Don’t Let the Beasties Escape This Book (Getty Publications/Abrams Kids); and Happy Right Now (Sounds True). She holds a BS from Rensselaer in communication and an MFA in creative writing for children and young adults from Vermont College. She lives in Southern California with her family.
For more information about Julie and her books, please visit julieberrybooks.com.
Now Available: Lovely War. Seven starred reviews. “An unforgettable romance so Olympian in scope, human at its core, and lyrical in its prose that it must be divinely inspired.” Kirkus, starred review.