SLANT LETTER: Permission to Get Scrappy

From your friendly editor: a love letter to writers who are hitting a creative wall.

Good morning! How about a love letter for your weekend?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been an interested observer of the language that has been formed in our pandemic era. At first, everything was “unprecedented,” then came the calls to “pivot,” and by now we’ve pivoted so hard that we no longer know which way is up and can only acknowledge we’re hitting the “pandemic wall.” Also, word people that we are, there comes a time when words fall short and we are left to primal screams. I see us. I see you. We’ve all been hanging tough for a long time now, and the wall is real. 

In talking with writers, it seems many of us are hitting a creative wall as well. I know many writers who feel their motivation has long dried up, who feel only fog where curiosity used to live, who have struggled through book launches, or humbly asked for yet another extension (trust me, you are not alone in this). 

So today I want to offer a word for the ones who are hitting a creative wall. I wrote recently about the myth of “starting strong,” why we are so hung up on this notion and so hard on ourselves when we can’t, and what mindset we might claim instead when it comes to our creative endeavors. I want to take this space to expand on what I think is the better alternative, which is this: 

Allow yourself the humanity of being spent. You’ll get strong as you keep going, but you don’t have to start there. A better idea, IMHO, start scrappy. Let yourself off the hook. And make way for beautiful, which more often than not comes to us quietly, in its own good time.

For some, when I say “stay scrappy,” you hear a call to fight mode, to grit, to standing your ground with fire in your heart and sweat on your brow. Yeah, that sounds exhausting. Few of us have the energy for this battle-brand of “scrappy” right now. 

So I’d like to suggest a gentler goal, because we could all do with some gentler expectations on ourselves right now.

What if we got scrappy by simply doing the work of collecting our creative scraps. That’s it.

I don’t know where we get this illusion that the writing process is grand overtures, midnight muse visitations, when any work you’ve ever read is the accumulation of a fellow finite human’s scraps:

  • Snippets you heard on the radio that sparked fresh thought of your own

  • Rough-around-the-edges napkin sketches 

  • Questions that snag your curiosity

  • Half-baked ideas that you jot down anyway

  • Fragment-sentence reflections you punch out with your thumbs in your phone notes

I wish I could look you in the eyes right now when I ask you this question:

Why do we berate ourselves for this kind of work—collecting the creative scraps—when this IS the work?

I don’t know about you, but my writing has never ever arrived in my brain fully pre-packaged. It is always the humble accumulation of scraps. And that is what I mean when I say let’s stay scrappy. 

For anyone who is feeling the hard edges of your limitations up against the high hopes you have for your work, I hope you will remember creative spirits have always hovered over unquiet waters. My hope for you is that you can learn to trust that you are not alone in this process, and let up the pressure on your own creative genius to perform on demand.

At the same time, give yourself some credit! You are doing the work of collecting the scraps, and now you can let it build into something beautiful in its own time. This is essence of Anne Lamott’s “bird by bird” wisdom: just scratch out the bit that’s in front of you today. And do it again tomorrow. 

In this light, staying scrappy is not the bare minimum of what you “could” be doing, it’s your greatest asset. 

Just ask the city I used to live in. My husband and I lived in Knoxville for three years while he completed his doctoral program at the University of Tennessee, and we quickly learned the city’s nickname as “Scruffy City” has a story behind it, as most nicknames do. Knoxville was appointed as the host for the 1982 World’s Fair, and a writer with the Wall Street Journal was—ah—less than impressed with this choice. This journalist bluntly declared his opinion that Knoxville was undeserving as a "scruffy little city" on the Tennessee River and definitively not Paris. 

So the locals, after a well-attended and objectively successful World’s Fair, threw the moniker back in his face with pleasure by sporting t-shirts and pins reading, "The Scruffy Little City Did It." They took what was meant as a criticism and fashioned it into a crown, and this spirit infuses the city today. And this same spirit can enliven our writing process today.

Here’s what scruffy-scrappy writers know:

  • There is nothing beautiful that did not start out small

  • There is nothing meaningful that was not formed out of a mess 

  • There is no final cut that was not crafted out of fragments foraged along the way 

The bits and pieces, odds and ends, and half-formed thoughts are worthy of our respect. No, it’s not polished and it’s definitely not Paris. But these are the raw materials of your finest work and they are all in your possession, no matter how limited or creatively spent you feel right now. I love-love-love how one Knoxville journalist put it: “Scruffy is the negative space that is ready to be claimed by something bold.” 

Consider this your invitation, your reset if you must: Get scruffy. Get scrappy. And get ready for something bold.

Until next time,

Take heart. Write on. You got this.

P.S. // Find a Good Thing Here?

This letter is this editor's off-hours labor of love. If you've found something useful here, please pass it on! You can forward this message to a writer friend, share this post, or the subscribe link here.