Fear of failure the tolstoy syndrome

My 1981 short story "Casey's Empire" is about Jerry Casey, a graduate student struggling to be a writer:

His professors spoke blithely of Shakespeare's "minor plays," Shaw's "failed efforts," Dickens's "unsuccessful pieces." Stories that Casey, stretched out on a flat rock under the blank Montana sky, had thrilled to and wondered at and anguished over, were assigned grades like so many frosh comp papers. B+ to Somerset Maugham and Jane Austen. B- to C.S. Lewis and Timon of Athens. His own half-finished stories, Casey figured, the stories sweated and bled and wept over in his $83-a-month hole above a barber shop, were about an H-. On a good day. ...

Casey walked. He walked on village streets at noon, over snowy athletic fields before dawn, in night woods where one clumsy step could break his unwary neck. While he walked, he agonized. He agonized because he was not Tolstoy or Shakespeare or even Maugham. He agonized because he was honest enough to know that he never would be Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Maugham. He complimented himself on being "at least" that honest with himself, and agonized that his self-compliments showed a lack of artistic passion. When he wasn't walking and agonizing, he wrote. It was all H-. When he wasn't writing, he read Tolstoy. It was a definite A.

Jerry Casey's stories are "half-finished" because he gets stuck in the middle. He writes the first half, reads it over, and is immediately discouraged because it's not as good as the professional stories he reads every day. Casey suffers from the Tolstoy Syndrome, which affects only intelligent and self-aware people—and that includes most people who want to write. Their standards are high (how many of us can be Tolstoy?). "Whenever I apply myself to writing," said French author Jules Renard, "literature comes between us."

If you get stuck because nothing you write measures up to your own high standards, you're hamstringing yourself. You will only get better if you practice your craft, but you don't practice your craft because you're not already better at it. Even ifyou see this vicious circle taking place, you may feel helpless to stop it.

One rather elegant solution to this conundrum comes from veteran writer Robert Sheckley, in his essay "On Working Method." He suggests telling yourself that you're not really writing a story but only a simulation of a story. A simulation has action and characters and tension just like a real story, but since it's not a real story, the words you use aren't crucial. You don't worry about it, you just write it, working "rapidly and with a certain lightness of touch, as one would do a watercolor rather than a painting." In writing a simulation, you aren't competing with Tolstoy, who wrote real stories. The pressure is gone.

What Sheckley found, of course, was that his simulations looked pretty much like first drafts of his regular stories. He could "only write as I write, not much better or worse." But convincing himself he wasn't really writing got him unstuck.

Is this technique merely a mind game, a self-sanctioned self-deception? Yes, of course. But, then, the problem exists only in your mind in the first place. Ifyou can manipulate your attitude into reducing the internal pressure you put on yourself, maybe you can get unstuck and finish the story.

If not, perhaps one of the other techniques discussed later in this chapter will help.

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Project Management Made Easy

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