Two years ago I did a crazy experiment in tiny and daily writing.
I’d been wanting to develop a consistent, sustainable writing practice for a long time. I also wanted to learn to write poetry like my poet heroes.
I was already a believer in the benefits of a tiny and daily creative practice (namely, daily keeps your toe in the creative stream, and when you keep your commitment tiny makes you a thousand times more likely to actually make it happen, plus it helps you get back on the wagon when you stumble), but so far I’d mostly focused on making tiny artworks.
Like these, all smaller than 5×7:
I hadn’t been so successful thinking tiny and daily with my writing, however.
But in 2013, thanks to a 90-minute writing workshop with Maya Stein at Patti Digh‘s Design Your Life Camp (now called Life is a Verb Camp), I’d been introduced to the humble 3×5 card as a tiny “container” for writing.
Having a tiny physical container for my writing (the 3×5 card), rather than just a tiny time container (ie, two minutes, ten minutes, etc.), was just the spark I needed, and upon my return home from camp I designed an experiment to bring my desire to develop a consistent writing practice and my desire to become a better poet together:
I would fill a 3×5 card to a random one-word prompt every day for an entire year.
Although my secret dream was to write poetry as luscious as the poets who read their work at camp, I knew that was unlikely to happen overnight, or even in a year. So from the outset the question wasn’t, “How good can I get?” but rather, “What can I create in ten or fifteen minutes each day?”
And also, “How will that change — and how will it change me — over time?”
And because I’d already figured out that the thing I do first is the thing that gets done (click to tweet), I intentionally put my 3×5 writing time first thing in my day. In fact, I did it in bed, right after waking up.
Just for the heck of it, within a day or two, I started snapping a photo of each day’s 3×5 card and sharing it on my Facebook page.
This was scary, posting writing that aspired to greatness, but was pretty rough (I intentionally did not edit the cards — the point was to practice writing off the top of my head), but my Facebook page doesn’t get a ton of action, so two weeks in I decided to ramp up my experiment and share each day’s 3×5 card on my blog. I even created a newsletter so that anybody who wanted to could sign up to get the daily 3×5 card in their inbox.
Honestly, this was scary as heck, but that was an intentional part of the experiment.
A life-long perfectionist, who had spent too much of my life mired in perfectionist paralysis, I knew how dangerous and unhealthy perfectionism is, and I had done a lot of work to let go of it. In fact, I had started to intentionally embrace imperfectionism, and even created an Imperfectionist Manifesto poster to help me stay free of my perfectionist, “Nothing You Do Will Ever Be Good Enough” gremlins.
I saw this 3×5 experiment — now referred to as Project 3x5x365 — as a great opportunity to practice imperfectionism with the heat turned up. After all, it’s one thing to allow yourself to create crap. It’s another level entirely to put that crap on public display.
But that’s exactly what I did with Project 3x5x365, every day for an entire year.
As I said it was an experiment.
I hypothesized that through this tiny-and-daily practice of writing and sharing, I would:
- Prove to myself that I’m capable of sustaining a creative commitment over the long haul.
- “Bake in” said commitment, so that it would become a solid habit.
- Improve my skills at short, poetic writing.
- Desensitize myself to the fear of sharing imperfect (or mediocre, or downright crappy) work — ie, tame the perfectionist gremlins!
So how did it turn out?
Let’s go over my results one by one.
Hypothesis #1: Prove to myself that I’m capable of sustaining a creative commitment over the long haul.
I learned a ton from my Project 3x5x365 experiment, not least of which is that I have no desire to ever take on another year-long daily challenge!
Seriously, I think more days than not I was tempted to bail on the whole thing. No matter how tiny the daily task is, committing to doing anything every day for an entire year is intense.
Project 3x5x365 confirmed for me that I much prefer to take on shorter commitments. Say, one month.
However, it also did demonstrate that yes, I am capable of sustaining a longer-term commitment, so hypothesis #1 was a win!
Hypothesis #2: “Bake in” said commitment, so that it would become a solid habit.
Hypothesis #2 didn’t pan out quite so well. At the end of my year I didn’t want to see another 3×5 card for as long as I lived!
So much for baking in a new creative practice of poetic writing…
However, I wouldn’t call it a failure. Not by a long shot.
The failure was not in the practice so much as in my commitment to the goal of becoming a (decent) poet. Ultimately, that vision didn’t compel me enough to prioritize it over other visions.
In short, I’m just more enamored of — and therefore I prioritize — painting, making music, and the kind of writing you’re reading right now; which, as it happens, I drafted in in my journal, first thing upon waking up this morning.
The thing I do first is the thing that gets done, remember?
And since writing is important to me, I’ve learned to do it first thing if I want to make sure I write today.
So although Project 3x5x365 did not result in my baking in a daily short-poetry writing practice, it likely played a part in my developing my current writing practice.
I definitely consider that a win, even though the prize is different from what I hypothesized.
Hypothesis #3: Improve my skills at short, poetic writing.
I’d say the jury’s still out on this one.
I certainly didn’t feel at the time like my skills were improving. Most days my inner editor assessed that morning’s 3×5 effort as “utter crap,” and the cards that I actually liked seemed randomly scattered throughout the year, rather than gradually improving toward a clump of better cards at the end.
That said, when I’ve gone back and read some of my efforts, I’ve liked them better than I remember liking them on the day I wrote them.
This is consistent with my experience in general: given enough distance in time, things usually aren’t so bad as I initially thought.
Sometimes I’m even surprised at how much I like something I created. “Wow — I made that? Dang, I’m better than I thought!”
So did I improve my skills at short, poetic writing? Honestly, I don’t know.
Hypothesis #4: Desensitize myself to the fear of sharing imperfect (or mediocre, or downright crappy) work — ie, tame the perfectionist gremlins!
I think the biggest lesson of all was from hypothesis #4. I’d guessed that my experiment would desensitize me to the fear of sharing imperfect work, and it did that in spades.
Not immediately, however.
(Confession: for weeks I was tempted to scrap my first card of the day and write another one, or even to create several rough drafts and transfer to final edit to the card I’d ultimately photograph. I confess to doing the former once or twice, but I did not allow myself to do the latter. Tempting as it was, I knew that was a dangerous, one-way door into a perfectionist black hole, which would have defeated the entire purpose of the experiment.)
Nor did my experiment make the fear go away.
It did, however, help me get comfortable with the discomfort of sharing imperfect stuff.
In short, I got used to it.
So much so that I started sharing other imperfect things:
• I began posting artwork in process on Instagram (and here) — even paintings in their horrible, awkward stage!
• When I started making spontaneous music loops in my iPhone and iPad, I shared them to SoundCloud (and here).
• Heck, I even started a podcast!
In other words, my experiment was a roaring success!
It taught me in a visceral way something I sort of knew already intellectually:
It doesn’t work to wait to share until you’re 100% confident; it is through sharing that you become confident. (Click to tweet)
Feeling ready, in other words, is not the right measuring stick.
Or to put it yet another way, doing the thing you fear is the only way to fully get past the fear. (Click to tweet)
And doing something you’re scared of makes you braver in all sorts of other areas of your life, too!
Surprising Bonus Results
In all of these sharing experiences, perhaps the greatest gift has been the ability to see my work through other people’s eyes.
I know I’m my own worst critic. I know that other people see my work for what it is, while I see my work for what it isn’t. (Click to tweet)
But there’s a difference between knowing that intellectually and experiencing it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed and thought to myself, “Well, this is a piece of crap,” while tapping the “submit” button, only to have that very piece elicit a shower of praise, in the form of likes, hearts, and positive comments.
And even in the form of sales! More than once I’ve posted a pic of an unfinished painting I had every intention of painting over — I mean totally scrapping — only to have someone ask if they could buy it!
The blog posts and podcasts that feel the most flawed to me are often the ones that receive the most positive comments and emails.
What this has taught me is that my opinion about my work is only that: my opinion. And it’s the ultimate in arrogance for me to think that my negative opinion is any more valid than someone else’s positive one. (Click to tweet)
Perhaps most surprising of all, sharing my work has helped me to have greater compassion for it, and for myself as its imperfect creator.
Here’s the best way I can think of to describe why this is true: sharing my work lets me take off my own hyper-critical glasses, and put on somebody else’s neutral glasses to see my work through their gentler, more positive lenses. (Click to tweet)
This is pretty ironic, given how scared we all are of sharing our work! We’re terrified other people will rip us a new one when they see our pathetic efforts.
In my experience of sharing on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, however, the opposite is the case: virtually everyone who comments has something nice to say, otherwise they don’t bother to lift a finger.
Sharing your work feels scary, but if you want to develop more confidence and fall more in love with your work, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered! Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
It helps to have a super-safe space and a warm, loving community to support you in your sharing experiments. Join me in Creative Courage Lab to get just that, along with some gentle structure and guidance.
It’s a one-month adventure in tiny-and-daily making, sharing and growing, and it all starts on Tuesday, November 17th.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!
SK Cothren says
Wow. How I relate to this! On so many levels!!! I call myself a recovering perfectionist and I love your methods. I am just recently committed to living my creative life out loud. Sharing the unfinished work and talking about it, even sharing the process on Periscope. A huge leap for me and I am slowly gaining confidence. I am also committed to my leap of being a full-time artist and writer, and would love your advice on how to sell more work. Galleries just don’t seem to move my work and that’s the only route I know how to use at this point.
Again, I am so impressed with you, your work and your fun ways to share. Keep up the good work. You truly inspire!
Melissa Dinwiddie says
Yay! I’m so glad my post resonated, SK! And *fistbump* to you for sharing your work and leaping! I’m cheering you on!
For great advice on the business side of things, I highly recommend my friend, Cory Huff, over at The Abundant Artist. 🙂
Thanks so much for your lovely comments — I really appreciate it.