How The Hell To Do This, Part The Fourth: Let It Suck
This is something else I’ve written about before. It tends to be more of an issue with longer pieces for me, because those are the points at which stamina really comes into play (people who compare writing novels to running marathons are not kidding in the slightest, nor are they overstating the point, though again, everyone is different). But I think it’s the kind of thing that has the potential to be a problem for anyone, at any point.
Here’s what I’m talking about: there is going to come a time – and probably this time will come semi-frequently – where you’re not blocked, but nothing you write seems good and you’re sure that it all sucks. This is naturally going to make you want to stop writing, because writing sucktastic stuff is no fun, even if no one else ever sees it. It’s embarrassing and it feels like a slogging waste of time.
This is a trap. Don’t fall for it.
It’s possible that what you’re writing sucks, yes. Here’s two things, though.
- You are too close to your own writing to be sure of that. I really think that true objectivity – when you’re in the midst of the process – is just about impossible for most people. It certainly is for me. This is why we have editors, or why we should. You might think that what you’ve written sucks, and then come back to it days or weeks later and be pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s actually pretty good. But if you had quit back when you had started to feel like you were sucking, that’s some pretty good writing that wouldn’t have happened. Also, every time you walk away from a project, I think you may find that it’s more and more difficult to walk back to it. The times when it’s hardest to keep going are often the times when it’s most important to do so.
- You need to be okay with sucking. Anne Lamott has written a great deal on being okay with shitty first drafts, so let me just put in yet another plug for her: if you’re neurotic about writing, go read her stuff. She won’t make you less neurotic, but she’ll help you embrace your own issues and maybe even turn them into stuff that can work for you. But let me also reiterate her point: You have to get comfortable with your first draft being shitty. Because while what you’re writing may not suck, it also may suck quite badly. And that’s fine. That’s why we have first and second and third drafts, why we have beta readers and editors. You know what’s worse than having a shitty first draft? Having no first draft. A shitty first draft is almost certainly not shit all the way through. There’s probably a good story hiding in there, one that you can pull out and clean off in the editing phases, sharpen and reshape and polish into what you really want it to be. But you can’t do anything with nothing. Shit is still something to work with, even if it’s not good clay.
So take heart in the midst of hating everything you write. Keep going, even if it’s miserable. Even if you hate it and you want it to die. Finish it, put it away, come back to it later when the hate has subsided and you can see it with fresh eyes. You might be shocked at what you find.
And if what you find is still shit… go back to work on it. People have used shit to build houses with. It’s all good.