Tapping a pencil (by Rennett Stowe)

Tapping a pencil (by Rennett Stowe)

I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast interview with Rolf Potts (author of Vagabonding) over the weekend as I was walking into the city, and something they talked about toward the end of part one (around 1:09:00) really made me pause and reflect. To be fair, a lot of what the two of them talk and have written about previously really interests me, but this one tiny insight really caught my attention.

They talked about how Kurt Vonnegut says writers fall into two categories, “swoopers” and “bashers.” I had never heard these terms before but right away I knew which one I fit into. I’m a basher!! It was comforting to know that both Tim and Rolf, both highly accomplished writers, fell into this segment as well as I just assumed there was something wrong with me this whole time!

As Potts explained, swoopers will blast through their first draft and then spend tons of time working on draft two and then keep writing drafts until they get it right. Bashers go sentence by sentence and then by time page one is done, paragraph one will have been rewritten 10 times. And by the time they get to the end, it’s pretty much done. They won’t do a whole lot of rewrites, but that process will take 20 times as long as the time a swooper takes. Both are legitimate creative methods, however.

The thing about being a basher is that we will just stare into a blank page with a lot of anxiety just trying to get started. That first paragraph might take us forever to write. I’ve seen some people, obviously swoopers, who just start typing right away and have a fully-written piece in no time. I envy them!

Me on the other hand, if it’s a short story, a blog post or a press release, I might still be on that first sentence by time the swooper finishes. Maybe not so much press releases. There is a certain format to those that back when I was working in media relations, I could bang those out fairly quickly once I had all the facts – particularly post-game recaps (it helped being on a tight deadline and writing parts of the release as the game was going on). Anything else though, especially emails, can take me forever! It really takes me far too long to write something and it frustrates the hell out of me.

Talking about how he would agonize over the first two paragraphs in an hour, Tim said, “I have to imagine that being a basher is the most torturous process of self-loathing and doubt.” I can relate!

Like Rolf, I’m not only a basher, but I’m also an optimist, which makes it even harder to get started. That first step is somehow at odds with our optimism in thinking that we’ll write something good. It might not really make sense and it’s hard to explain, but as he said, “the last third (of the story or book) is the easiest to write because I have the first two-thirds to show that I’m not an incompetent.”

It seems to me that we are both perfectionists as well. I’ve been working on trying to suppress this aspect of my personality as it really does get in the way of my productivity and my growing. To paraphrase Rolf, he said “There’s something worthy about Anne Lamott’s idea of shitty first drafts… of getting the words on the page.”

I have long struggled with this. I think I’m a decent writer, at least my finished product generally seems to come out well. Many people have complimented me on my writing before. I was speaking with a university professor of mine recently who told me that, to this day, I was the best writer of the students he had taught. That was very high praise coming from a very intelligent person that I have a lot of respect for. Heck, my last class there was over 12 years ago. And yet, despite hearing things like this, I still struggle.

This got me to thinking that it isn’t just in writing where I see this block happening in my life. That concept of “just getting work out there” is very similar to the insight I picked up at WDS this past summer. Take imperfect action. This has held me back in many ways for years.

Getting started has repeatedly been a stumbling block for me. Writing papers, starting a business and even my recent moving and decluttering. I was speaking with a couple coaching friends of mine recently and the topic of my confidence around this area came up. About my feeling that I needed to learn, grow or be something more before I start seeing better results. They stopped me there and did a pretty good job in convincing me that I had all the confidence, knowledge and experience I need.

I know this is true! I knew this all along and yet I still doubted myself – metaphorically staring at that blank page. I guess now that I have awareness of this it will get better, whereas I was completely oblivious to this before. Tim and Rolf are quite accomplished human beings, and if they can push through this type of thinking and anxiety, then surely I can.

It’s a work in progress, although with these recent insights, I feel I’m starting to bash through it already!