Jason Zimdars

March 11, 2021

Re: Stuck? Do something.

It's interesting to me that this gets more difficult as I age. I remember distinctly as a teen that I chose to write and draw in pen rather than pencil. Yeah, it was somewhat obstinate of me but I thought of it as an act of discipline that would improve my work, forcing me to consider every word and line before committing it to paper. Did it work? I don't know. I know it sometimes meant throwing away a drawing and starting over which I don't recall really bothering me all that much. 

Today I'm careful in a different way. I plan a drawing with loose sketches for composition and layout. Next I layer on top of a tighter sketch with more details before completing the final rendering over that. Many of the major decisions have been made before adding ink and color. 

Why? Well, I'm optimizing for success and minimizing the chances of making a fatal mistake and having to begin again. I'm trying to avoid wasting time. It's pretty much the opposite of what I did as a teen. 

Circling back around to Jamis' post, I would be paralyzed today if I had to draw something perfectly, in ink, the first time. Same thing with this post if I had to write it without editing. But I know that teenaged me wouldn't have been bothered. 

And that's my point. 

There is something we lose—audacity? fearlessness?—that has us scrambling for strategies to get unstuck as adults. Maybe what we really need is to rediscover the fearless joy of creating we had in our youth.  

On March 11, 2021, Jamis Buck <jamis@world.hey.com> wrote:
When I was writing my first book, Mazes for Programmers, there were many days that found me staring at a blank page, wondering how I was ever going to make this void magically align with my chapter outline. The same has happened every time I've participated in NaNoWriMo, or while writing my second book, The Ray Tracer Challenge. More recently, I've been tinkering on a board game idea and a few different web-based writing tools, and the same block has hit me there as well. It even rears its head at work, when I'm considering how to approach a new feature, or how to solve a bug I've been investigating.

Writers block! Ugh. It's reputation is justly earned, this black void where inspiration goes to die. But as I've thought about it, what I feel is not so much an absence of inspiration, as the manifestation of a fear of doing something wrong. What if I write the wrong thing? What if what I write is bad? What if I can't express the scene or idea as clearly as I can picture it in my head? What if someone criticizes my fledgling creation?

In every case, the solution for me has been to just do something. When I take a deep breath and step back, I'm able to acknowledge that I'm not chiseling something into granite---I'm literally manipulating bits on a computer, and these bits can be just as easily erased, replaced, and iterated upon. The first draft is nothing more than that: the first. There is no sin in a second draft, no threat in a third, no fault in a fourth.

But you can't get to the fourth draft if you never start the first. Do something. Free write. Sketch. Put pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and do something. I've even explicitly given myself permission to intentionally write something bad first, to "get it out of my system". Invariably, the act of writing something bad will segue into the expression of something better, and eventually into something I'm even proud of.

Another metaphor: getting it right on the first try is like getting a hole in one. Yes, it's possible, and with practice you might even find yourself landing them more and more often. But most of the time, you'll need multiple tries from tee to hole, perhaps even arriving by way of a sand or water trap. That's okay. Unlike golf, no one's keeping score here. All that really matters is that you eventually land the putt at the end.

For some reason, I keep needing to learn (and relearn) this lesson. That's okay, too. I will get there eventually.

Share your own experiences with writer's block on this Twitter thread, or send me an email. I'd love to hear from you!

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About Jason Zimdars

Product designer at 37signals working on Basecamp, HEY, and ONCE since 2009. Illustrator of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work and the Prince Martin Epic series. You can find me on X, Instagram, LinkedIn and at jasonzimdars.com.