Ll: Low, Lower, Lowest, Lower Your Standards

During April, I will be blogging about how creative people can practice their craft every day and what rewards will come from the daily effort.

Ll: Low, Lower, Lowest
Lower Your Standards

Writer’s block is real. I’ve experienced it, and I’ve witnessed it in students. It stems from anxiety and then causes even more anxiety. From musicians to painters and writers, what appears almost universally true is that writer’s/artist’s block starts with expecting way too much of ourselves. We set such high standards, our beginning efforts look ridiculous and we’d rather not try at all (see Bb). The question is, how can we overcome writer’s/artist’s block?

There’s a writer I admire named William Stafford. He’s most famous for his poems, but he wrote essays, too, which are my favorite. He’s also famous for the way he lived the life of a writer and what he taught his writing students. His son, Kim Stafford, shares this popular advice from his father:

“People said to him all his life that he was too prolific,” Kim Stafford says. “He didn’t believe in writer’s block. He would say ‘if you get stuck, lower your standards and keep going.’ ”  

This shocked me the first time I heard it. Lower my standards? Aren’t we supposed to be ever-striving to improve and achieve? Well, no. Not if your ambitions silence your words or stymie your vision.

Try it. It’s harder than it sounds. I already shared my example of the stick-figure bug I drew in my first painful attempts to get my creative groove back. That’s about as low as you can go, and it wasn’t fun, but it worked, it got me started, which ultimately felt better than holding in a bunch of ideas I felt too afraid to try.

Daily practice, especially in the first few months, can be challenging. You run out of ideas or energy or both. But rather than skip the work, lower your standards. Do something simple just to be engaged in the creative act.

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9 Responses to Ll: Low, Lower, Lowest, Lower Your Standards

  1. Happy to see you are still posting for the #Challenge. Hope you have made some new blogging friends. Come and visit if you have time. Today you can join me at Lutz Bakery in Ravenswood, IL.

  2. Alex Hurst says:

    I’ve been feeling more inspired this A-Z, and hoping that it will cure my long-standing writers’ block from last year at last. Just write. Be silly, and even stupid. Enjoy yourself. I have to remind myself of those things.

    • TRISTA says:

      Did A-Z cause your writers’ block last year? (Also, I keep changing my mind about the possessive apostrophe here. Is it writers’ or is it writer’s? I used to always use plural possessive, and then I switched.)

      • Alex Hurst says:

        No, I did get burnout, though. NaNo actually killed the ‘joy’ of writing for me, but I’ve slowly been claiming it back.

        I think writer’s block, since otherwise it suggests more than one person in your sphere of influence.

  3. EcoCatLady says:

    I totally LOVE this post! I really believe that BS is underrated. I learned this lesson in high school. I was a total straight A student, and compulsive about my grades. But some things happened the summer before my senior year that made me start to lighten up a bit, and I even started doing a few things like blowing off homework assignments – the horror!

    But, one day I walked into English class and discovered that we had to write a 30 minute essay comparing and contrasting some poems by Keats and Yates, which I, of course, had not read. My first inclination was to just be honest and turn in an empty paper confessing to the fact that I hadn’t done the reading. But then I started to think about my grades… and it dawned on me that the essay was worth 50 points, and even if I got an F – that would still be 25 points, which would be much better than getting zero, which is what I would get for turning in a blank paper.

    Soooo, I sat down and just spewed complete and total BS for 30 minutes. I had no idea what I was talking about, but I made it sound as plausible as I could.

    The next day when we got our graded essays back, I was fully expecting an F. -Imagine my surprise when I got an A – all 50 points! On the one hand I was thrilled that my grades wouldn’t suffer, but on the other it really made me wonder about all those other A’s I had received in the past. Did they really mean anything? Was the bar really this low?

    That event totally changed the way I looked at writing – both my own and other people’s. Knowing that I had the power to sound credible, even when I was anything but, came in really handy throughout my adult lifetime, and it made it sooo much easier to stop agonizing over every little word that I had to write. It also made me really wary of trusting someone just because they sounded like they knew what they were talking about!

    • TRISTA says:

      I would tell my students the same thing about skipping an assignment versus earning an “F.” As much as the “F” might hurt, it was still 50% rather than 0. But your story also reminds me of a student I had who was trying soooo hard to pass my writing class, but at the final, he was on the verge failing. When he turned in his in-class essay, he shrugged and said, “I just went off and B.S.’d.” Turns out, I think he finally relaxed and stopped trying so hard. His final essay was his best. I don’t remember for sure, but I’d like to think it was good enough that he managed to pass the class.

  4. Rose L. says:

    I have been told that stream of consciousness writing can help because it makes you write and does not have to be anything. Is P going to be procrastination? LOL

    • TRISTA says:

      Perfectionism! (Which I think relates closely to procrastination.) I agree about stream of consciousness writing, but also, for me, after many weeks of nothing but that in my journal, I started to feel like I was walking in circles. To lower standards, maybe a prompt or exercise that brings you back to the basics, a lesson a painter might give to kindergarteners or a writing prompt that might work for fourth graders. Simplify things.

      • Rose L. says:

        I have used this writing exercise and created a few poems. I used quotes.

        “Drop the last year into the silent limbo of the past. Let it go, for it was imperfect, and thank God that it can go.” ~Brooks Atkinson
        First Words – An Exercise for the First Day of the Year
        Other writers can often be our best inspiration. This exercise will require a short poem of 10-20 lines or a quote of 10-20 words. Let’s consider the first line of the Atkinson quote above as our example.
        Take the individual words of the quote (or the first words of each poem line) and write them vertically down the page. Then create a new draft using these first words as guideposts to draw you through the poem. (I have included a draft below – first words from the quote are in bold print.)
        Drop the party dress around your ankles, let it pool in
        the purple light of almost-dawn. This may be your
        last opportunity. Every January, you promise that this
        year will be different, better – you pour yourself
        into another mold, become viscous and malleable,
        the past you nearly unrecognizable. Your old tongue is
        silent, stuck to the roof of your new mouth. This is
        limbo, this first day, learning how to manage the hands
        of a stranger, these unfamiliar desires. You just want
        the chance to emerge from the confinement of your
        past. The smallest of insects is allowed even that.
        This exercise forces connections and gives an inherent cohesion to the draft, and it can be completed in just a few minutes. And, since all writers have a bank of poems and quotes that they love, this little exercise can be perfect for those times when a long session of writing isn’t possible. You could even do a series of these based on quotes or poems from the same author. The possibilities are endless. So give it a try – and let me know how it goes!

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