Jerry had a problem.
Jerry was a world-renowned author – guaranteed you’ve heard of his biggest book, and good bet you’ve read it. Jerry wrote one other novel that didn’t meet the same acclaim (few could) as well as some short stories for magazines such as The New Yorker. In fact it was that magazine that published his last work in 1965.
At least, nothing published. There were murmurs from reliable sources that Jerry never stopped writing. Those sources say he wrote as often and as intensely as any novelist and/or short story writer of the time. A lot of it handwritten. And all of it stored in a safe. Jerry was one of those sources himself, saying publicly once that he still loved to write for himself.
So what was his problem? Why did he stop publishing?
Jerry – better known to you and me as J.D. Salinger – is the classic recluse writer. And who could blame him? His seminal work, The Catcher in the Rye, literally brought the crazies foaming to his door in Cornish, New Hampshire. Couple that with his intense desire for privacy, and living like a hermit seems like a perfectly sensible thing for him to do.
Many assume that it was the privacy and reclusivity that caused him to stop publishing. Indeed, he felt overwhelmed by his fame and thought interacting with his readers cut into his writing time. I get it on some levels. But on another, funnier level, it all sounds Monty Pythonesque, like John Cleese talking about the rude hotel manager he met who became his inspiration for Fawlty Towers.
“He felt he could run the hotel properly – if it wasn’t for all the guests.”
If it wasn’t for all his bloody readers...
Was Salinger’s Real Problem Maybe Perfectionism?
Salinger coveted his privacy for the rest of his life. But it didn’t stop the crazies from knocking. So if privacy was the reason he stopped publishing, it was a dismal failure.
It makes me wonder if maybe perfectionism played a role. I’m not pulling this idea out of thin air. Salinger was known to be a perfectionist. Some even read Holden Caulfield, the main character in Catcher, as a study in perfectionism. (Even the novel’s namesake job, hiding in the rye and catching people before they fall of a cliff, could use the mindset and temperament a perfectionist.)
Salinger’s son, now apparently tasked with pulling together Salinger’s life’s work (there’s nothing definite in the World of Salinger), told the UK newspaper the Guardian, that it was always his father’s intention to publish the work – when it was ready.
“There’s not a reluctance or a protectiveness: when it’s ready, we’re going to share it,” Matt Salinger said.
Fifty-five years for some of the pieces, and decades for all of them at this point, and it’s not ready yet? I can’t say for sure of course, but all the flags for perfectionism are there, blowing freely in the wind.
Perfectionism is the close cousin of the imposter syndrome. It’s the irrational thought that everything you write should be pure gold flowing from your pen every time you sit down to write. It doesn’t happen that way for any writer. (With a few possible exceptions, including Hunter S. Thompson, who I talked about in an earlier post. But that happened once, allegedly, and you have to consider the source…)
Worse, some writers feel that anything less than pure gold is total failure on their part.
In Salinger’s case, he was literally competing with himself. Everything he wrote after Catcher lived in its shadow, measured against this impossible yardstick. It didn’t help that his last published story, Hapworth 16, 1924, was panned as “self-indulgent” and “unreadable” by critics. (Apparently Salinger himself thought it to be the top of his writing game.)
Given all this, it’s no wonder Salinger never felt his writing was “ready” as his son puts it.
Writers are frozen by perfectionism every day. They spend 30 minutes at the dining room table, gaze at their copy of Hamlet on the bookshelf, and wonder how their few hundred freshly minted words measure up. Worse, they’ll glance at the bookshelf first. They’re playing catch-up before they even get a word down. Often, it stops them from writing altogether.
Is that fair? No. Absolutely not. Is it crazy? Well… it’s a common affliction, so I don’t scoff at it. I’d prefer to dig deeper to see exactly what’s going on here.
The Root of Perfectionism
I think that the root of perfectionism goes back to fear. Fear that you’re not good enough, that you won’t measure up. There’s probably a nice dollop of imposter syndrome in there as well. Comparing your first draft to one of Shakespeare’s finals isn’t a realistic exercise. Why put that pressure on yourself? All it does is kill both creativity and productivity.
Here’s a thought for you: even though Salinger never did publish again in his lifetime, he still wrote. Every day, from the sounds of it.
There’s a lesson there. It’s okay to write, even if you suspect it won’t be perfect. In fact, I highly recommend it.
Tell yourself that what you’re writing right now isn’t for anyone to read but you. Because if that’s the case, it doesn’t have to be perfect! You can write it now and lock it in a safe or save it on some obscure flash drive you have lying around the house and forget about it forever.
Or, maybe (more likely), you’ll come back to it with fresh eyes, see the spots where it’s not perfect, and fix it. And maybe you’ll do that again. And again. And maybe after a bunch of editing you’ll have enough of the less-than-perfect spots fixed up that you’ll want to do something with it.
Like get it published or submit it to a writing contest. Isn’t that a nice thought?
But that’s down the road a ways, as I’m fond of saying. Your first – and only job at the moment – is to get some words down on the page.
And do yourself a favour: keep your eyes off the bookshelf while you’re doing it!
Key Takeaway: The first draft of anything won’t be perfect. But that’s okay, because you’re not showing it to anyone anyway until you’re happy with it. Besides, it’s the way it should be! Just get your words down on paper and search for gold later.
Fun Writing Exercise
Spend 20 minutes and write about anything you like. If you’re stuck for ideas, here’s a nifty little site I found called the Writing Prompt Generator to get you started.
I’ll leave you today with John Cleese’s story about his encounter with the hotel owner who prompted the idea for Fawlty Towers. (Scroll down below.)
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!