There’s this thing about writing that I think also applies to a lot of things in life: striving for perfection can be stressful and self-defeating, and it can actually prevent any progress.

Case in point: the first draft (of a short story, an essay, a book…anything). Many writers struggle with writing a first draft. The pressure to produce something good (or to produce anything at all) and to know what you want to say with your writing can be immense. Imaginings of literary journal editors, publishers, or teachers who might read you’re writing and criticize or reject it can be terrifying. The word “rejection,” along with the comparisons to others it brings, can too easily get tied up with feelings about ourselves–not just as writers, but as human beings. So much so that sometimes we don’t write at all.

Whether I’m teaching creative writing to adults, undergrads, or children, I always say the same thing about writing a first draft. Forget the editors, the publishers, the teachers, and that little voice in your head that insists you are no good. JUST WRITE THE FIRST DRAFT. That’s all it is, a draft. Don’t worry about it. Barely even think about it. No one has to see it but you. Just get it on paper (or your hard drive). Play. Flush out your ideas. Explore what you want to say, and don’t expect the answer to come too quickly. Don’t think about the grammar or the typos or the quality of the metaphors, or whether the sentences are varied or rhythmic. JUST WRITE THE FIRST DRAFT.

Then, hey, check it out! You wrote something. Take a deep breath and feel good that you accomplished that. You can let it cook for a while. Your page is no longer blank. You have what I call your “lump of clay.” Like a potter, you need this basic ingredient, this clay you can shape into whatever your project will become. For now, it might seem shapeless and uninteresting. But you HAVE it – you have something to work with. And oh, the possibilities ahead! This is the fun part.

How often we forget that writing is supposed to be fun.

When I was a teenager, I competed in gymnastics. The goal every day was to make each move perfect. Anything short of perfection led to deductions in competition–deductions from stern-looking judges who watched your every move. Any fall led to a gasp from the audience and a ribbon or medal slipping from your fingers.

That kind of pressure, the pressure to be perfect, led to all kinds of problems. And not just in the gym.

The thing is, at the beginning it was just fun to flip. And the truth is, no one cared if I fell or lost points nearly as much as I did. This wasn’t the Olympics. In fact, Simone Biles recently taught us all that there are far more important things in life than being perfect, even when you ARE at the Olympics.

So, writers and friends pursuing other life goals out there, let go of the need to be perfect. Write your first draft and just have fun with it. Every day is an opportunity to try something new, make a mistake, and figure out what does and doesn’t work. And if you write something that no editor ever likes or accepts, so what? You practiced and tried something new. You expressed something you wanted to express. There are a hundred reasons for literary rejections that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. Or maybe you’re just unique and unexpected. Pat yourself on the back, let a friend or two or twenty enjoy what you wrote, and write the next piece.

That’s absolutely, perfectly fine.