November 8, 2009
Yesterday you met the mischievous demon—the one who nips at your ankles while you’re trying to work and says "it’s a beautiful day outside. C’mon let’s play." But there’s a meaner demon. This is the one who tells you you’re no good.
In his latest podcast, comedian Mark Maron describes a night in San Francisco while he is doing stand-up comedy. Hopefully, I won’t change the point of his story while I clean it up a bit.
He’s on stage doing his comedy set and everyone is laughing except for one guy. This one guy isn’t laughing, he isn’t smiling, he doesn’t seem to be reacting at all. No matter what Maron says, this guy just seems to be angry. Maron is sure the guy doesn’t find his material funny, in fact he imagines the guy taking some pretty solid shots at him personally.
So after the show, Maron stands in the back of the club and says goodnight to people as they leave. He’s a bit intimidated by this guy but he asks him anyway "hey, what did you think of the show."
The guy looks at him and says he loved it. The show was really funny and he really enjoyed himself.
Maron is dumbfounded. He realizes that the entire dialogue of disapproval happened in his own head and that he’d created the whole situation himself.
In comedy stand-up you have to face your audience as you are creating and performing. But this imaginary disapproval has real impact on the quality of your creativity. When you write, you are alone in a room. That demon—the one who thinks your writing sucks—will try to get heard.
He might do it in a helpful way pausing to tweak a word or a phrase. He might urge you to delete the last few pages and start again. Mostly you should ignore him while you are writing. At the end of today’s writing you can take a moment to listen to him.
You can not create and refine at the same time. You are in different states. While you are writing, this demon wants to push you into the editing mode. Don’t do it. You aren’t in a state to appropriately judge. Of course there are cases when you should break this rule but for the most part when you’re writing keep writing.
It’s kind of like photography. Don’t throw out pictures because of what you see when viewing them in your camera. Wait until you look at them on your computer—when you are not caught in the moment. You might see things in the shot that you missed at the time.
I had a great partner in morning radio in Cleveland. When I thought I’d blown a bit and that the show wasn’t going well Matt Morgan would say "Wait and listen to the tape after the show. It’s never as bad as you think it is." Invariably he was right.
I know I’ve told this story before so I have to tell you the other side of this as well. When I thought I’d really nailed a bit and the show was going great he’d say "Wait and listen to the tape after the show. It’s never as good as you think it is either."
The same is mostly true about your writing. Some parts are going to be better or worse than others. For the most part nothing is going to be as terrible or as wonderful as you think it is when you are writing it. Silence the editor demon you have inside of you and wait. When you look back at what you’ve written it will mostly be ok. It will mostly be stuff you can tweak and fix tomorrow or whenever you come back to revise your work.
This post originally appeared in the Pragmatic Life blog.