A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Like millions of other folks, you most likely committed yourself to some New Year’s resolutions—lose some weight, call your relatives more often, read more books, clean out the garage, or save money for that long-awaited two-week journey to the sun-kissed landscapes of southern Italy (that one’s mine!). What’s most interesting is the research showing that fully 60% of all the people who make beginning-of-the-year resolutions have dismissed them from their routines by the time Groundhog Day rolls around. In short, we often “talk the talk,” but find it difficult to “walk the walk”—at least when resolutions are involved.
The American Psychological Association has a few words to say about resolutions. They recommend starting small and focusing on one behavior at a time rather than creating a laundry list of habits you want to stop. The implication is that change needs to occur one (small) step at a time, not with massive To-Do lists that often become overwhelming and unconquerable.
To that end, I have an interesting suggestion for you.
One of the classic books you should have in your library is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg, an accomplished author herself, offers sage advice and insightful perspectives on what it takes to be a successful writer. (She does not equate success with placements on the New York Times Bestseller List or mountains of books in every metropolitan bookstore in the country.) Her writing is down-to-earth and impactful and often goes against the grain of what most writing instruction books do. Her admonitions for the writing life are to subtract rules rather than to add more rules to an already challenging process.
One of the finest pieces of advice in the book—and one I have taken, quite literally, to heart ever since the book’s publication in 1986—is, “Give yourself permission to write crap.” It is, in so many ways, a piece of advice that says as much about creativity as it does about writing. When people learn I have written well over 150 published books, they are often amazed. But, what I don’t tell them is that I have also written well over 550 books worth of crap!
When I begin writing a children’s book, I start with a first draft, or “sloppy copy.” My task is, through a long series of revisions, edits, and modifications, to create something that is both readable and accessible. Does that happen all the time? Absolutely not! I know I will write a lot of imperfect paragraphs, disconnected thoughts, run-on sentences, misspelled words, bland descriptions, and weird thoughts. I’m perfectly okay with that. Not everything that comes out of my computer will be Newbery Award perfect. A lot of it will be just what it is: rubbish, garbage, bunk, drivel, hokum, boloney . . . crap!
One of the challenges I face every morning (indeed, one of the challenges writers of every stripe face when seated in front of their computer) is to get ideas out of my head and onto a screen. Will all of those ideas be perfect? No! Will all of those ideas be ready for readers to read? No! Will everything that appears on the monitor be fit for publication? No! A lot of it will be trashy, rotten, and crummy; but I’m getting it out, I’m getting it down.
We often have this belief that the key to good writing is to always generate engaging ideas that will have editors scrambling to publish them. As a result, we focus on “the perfect manuscript” or “the best book ever.” That thought, perhaps, does more to curtail our creative spirit than anything else. While it may be a focal point for a professional project, it narrows our vision and extinguishes our creative fires when writing for children. We try and conjure a single “really good idea” without the necessity of generating lots of substandard ones along the way. Being comfortable in producing unworkable, impractical, worthless, and sophomoric ideas is a necessary part of the creative process.
So, here’s a potential New Year’s resolution for you: Give yourself permission to create crappy manuscripts. It will lubricate your mind to produce lots of ideas. And, one of those ideas may be just what you’re looking for.
A retired professor of education and resident of York, PA, Tony is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books. He is also the author of the forthcoming (Spring 2020) adult trade book Fizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity (https://amzn.to/2rsbJPs).