I was sitting in my office earlier this evening, staring at my computer, and feeling really frustrated. No, it wasn't because I had to write a blog post-- I usually enjoy doing that. Here's the problem: when I'm not teaching, I'm a free-lance writer, which I also usually enjoy doing... except, for the past few days, I've been working on an article that I cannot seem to finish. I haven't been able to find all the information I need; some of what I did find was contradictory; I can't seem to write a good concluding paragraph; and to be honest, I don't even like my introduction (I've rewritten it numerous times)... I finally just had to step away. So, I drank some hot chocolate, watched some TV, answered some emails, and now I'm getting ready to start writing again.
Perhaps you've had a similar experience-- a project you thought would be easy to complete, but it ended up taking longer than you expected. Some of my students tell me this is what writing a term paper feels like for them, and believe me, I can empathize. More often than not, it's fun to do research and write articles; I like the opportunity to learn something new, and to share that knowledge with others. But every now and then, I seem to get stuck on one article, and I have to decide to power through it, even when getting it done seems impossible.
I suppose the reason I'm telling you this is because of what I've learned from these experiences. For far too long, I was a perfectionist, and if the article I was writing didn't meet the impossible standards I set for myself, I didn't want to submit it at all (or when I did submit it, I fully expected to be told it was awful). I spent a lot of time being critical of myself, convinced that I was the worst writer in the history of humanity. And when my editors told me I had done a good job, I didn't believe it-- I thought they were just being kind.
Over the years, I've written six books (and a few chapters for other people's books), as well as many articles. I've also written some encyclopedia entries on a variety of subjects. The fact that my work has appeared in lots of places ought to be an indication that I'm not such a bad writer after all, but for a long time, I couldn't give myself any credit. It took me a while to get to a place where I wasn't my own worst critic. And once I got there, I was finally able to be proud of my work-- whether I thought it was perfect or not.
And if I can offer any advice, it's this: it doesn't make you a better writer (or teacher or artist or anything else) if you're spending your time dwelling on all the flaws you think you have. It doesn't help you to be more effective if you're constantly second-guessing yourself. Most of us really do learn through trial and error; and while there's nothing wrong with having high standards, setting unrealistic expectations rarely leads to success. What I also figured out is the one thing we could all use more of is patience-- so, if something doesn't work out immediately, instead of being angry with yourself, it may just be time to step away and regroup, and come back to it later. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have an article I intend to finish!