Monday, September 13, 2010

Perfectionism and writer's anxiety

I used to think that I could learn to toss off remarks on the Internet. This post is my 20th at Bounded Science. But I have 24 un-posted drafts.

I recall ever-so-clearly copying sentences from the board when I was in the first grade. The other students had finished all ten, and I was on my fifth. The anxiety and shame I felt were incredible. I’ve since studied psychology and had some counseling. But I cannot begin to explain what was going on with that little guy.

I took the Scholastic Aptitude Tests back when there was no penalty for wrong answers. Although I knew to stop agonizing and start guessing when time was running out, I could not bring myself to do it. I left fairly large numbers of questions unanswered, and ended up with high (“DaveScot”) scores anyway.

Please don’t take this as backhanded bragging. My birthday is coming soon, and how little I’ve produced is weighing heavily on me. “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” I might have another 20 or 30 years in which my brain works well, and I’m wondering how to turn my life around.

The greater the scrutiny I expect a piece of writing to receive, the greater the problems I have with it. Writing for a journal ties me in knots. No matter that I see mediocre stuff in journals all the time, I can’t let go the notion that my own submission has to be absolutely fabulous.

The more I struggle to make my work fabulous, the worse it gets. The best prose I’ve turned out is, unfortunately, my dissertation (1990). What made it different? After gathering data compulsively, I had only a month to do the writing. There was a job in the offing, and my wife and son were depending on me. So I forced out a certain number of pages each day, revising little. Every now and then, I flip the book open, and find myself asking, “Is that really my work?”

I get annoyed when people like Dembski weigh my c.v. I’m well aware of my horribly low output. But anybody who attempts to diminish me when I speak about the area of research I’ve focused upon for 15 years has problems greater than my own.

I’ve begun writing a special post — a highly accessible presentation of my current understanding of “no free lunch” in optimization. Dembski and Marks are pushing an interpretation of the classic NFL theorem that is precisely backwards, and my goal is to get most of you to understand it better than they do. But let’s plan on my post being far from perfect, and on its improving with feedback from you.

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