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Writing through the crap

April 19, 2011

If there is one thing about writing I wish someone had told me back in my twenties, it’s this:

You are going to read your work and think it is crap. Thinking this is okay. Every writer goes through this, particularly when embarking on their writing life, but also in all stages along that road.

If someone had told me this then it would have saved me the time of figuring it out and working my way past it.

In his superb series of Youtube vlogs on storytelling, Ira Glass talks at length about this problem. His comments are aimed primarily at people working in video and TV but are equally relevant to prose writers. To paraphrase Glass:

We want to write because we love stories, there’s stuff that we just love. The problem is, often there is a big difference in quality between what we put down on paper and what we love to read. This is especially true for beginners but is also a realisation that can hit a writer at any time, at any stage in their development or career.

In part three he explains:

‘All of us who got into creative work got into it because we have good taste…….There’s a gap for the first couple of years that you’re making stuff when what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you interested in the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell it’s still crappy.’

This would be exactly the reason for my not having written very much from my mid-twenties to my early thirties. This was the period in which I started working as a teacher. I was very busy with preparation and marking, often too tired in the evenings to contemplate writing anything and that is how I explained it to myself when I went suddenly from writing short stories, comic scripts, even songs, to doing no creative work whatsoever. If I am honest with myself though, the reality was quite different. I could have made time to write, fit it somewhere. I have far less time available to me now, with three young children and all the responsibilities that entails, yet I find time to write. I make sure I find time. So why didn’t I then?

The truth is I was so much in awe of the great writers I was reading that I didn’t see the point in trying. As Glass put it, my taste was ‘killer’ and I was smart enough to realise that what I was managing to chuck onto the page was nowhere near the level of what I was reading. So I stopped writing. For a long while. At least five years. Maybe more. I had brief periods where I picked things up again, started and failed to finish projects, drafting stories and filing them away in the depths of a desk drawer convinced of their crappiness, but these periods were short lived and I soon stopped again, convinced of the crappiness of my work.

Glass, in his videos, explains that ‘a lot of people never get past that phase, a lot of people at that point they quit.’ But he also explains that these feelings are normal, that ‘all creative people go through this.’ I wish someone had told me this back in my twenties. It took me a fair few years to get to the other side. The turning point for me was enrolling on a OU Creative Writing course. I reckoned that if I was crap they would tell me, if I was any good it would show in my success on the course. It was after doing this and receiving largely positive feedback about my work that I discovered Glass’ videos. The advice he gives for getting through the phase of being too critical of your own work is “Do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work.” Over the two years of my course that is just what I did; assessments, short stories for competitions, producing work to deadlines (another piece of advice Glass gives in the videos), while the feedback challenged me to make my work better, to fix what was not yet working.

Through the experience of receiving critical feedback I am now at a point where I am mostly happy with the quality of work I am capable of. That said, there are still bad days. Days when the work fails to live up to the vision I have of it in my head. Days when it feels so far from the quality of the stuff I am reading as to have been written in another language. But the big difference now is I know I can make it better. Now when I feel I am producing crap I only stop to regroup, figure out what’s going wrong and attack the work from a different perspective.

That isn’t to say that the feeling of crappiness doesn’t rear its ugly head. All writers, whatever the level of their success still have to face up to the good taste gap. Let’s face it, first drafts are never going to be up to the standard of the completed works we’re reading. In the last three months or so I drafted three stories in an effort to produce an entry for the Bristol Short Story Prize. The first two are currently languishing in my first draft folder. They were just too crap. I’ll be going back to them when I have time to fix what went wrong but it was clear when I finished them that a lot more work was necessary. So I wrote a third. Which on the whole worked, except that in my first draft I wrote a whole section that steered me straight into the crap, tainting the rest of the story. Still, I knew the core of this story was good so I performed major surgery on the draft, literally cutting huge chunks out and filling the gaps with scenes that fit the needs of my characters, story and themes.

It took weeks to cobble a draft closer to the vision in my head. I say closer because nothing is ever going to match the perfect stories carried around in our heads and, for that matter, it’s unlikely we’ll ever write anything we rate as highly as our best loved books if only because modesty prevents us. All we can do is produce the best work we can, work that does what we want it to do, work that achieves, in some small way, a fraction of the greatness it has as it rattles around in our heads before we put pen to paper. Work that, each time, is a little brighter, a little better. And the only way to do that sometimes is to write through the crap. So don’t be disheartened when the thing you are writing feels a bit crappy. You’re just doing what every writer has to do on the road to getting better.

  1. April 19, 2011 12:30 pm

    Great post, Dan.

    I went through a period of 16 years in which I wrote one short story and two very short poems. This after years of churning stuff out weekly or even daily. In 2006, I decided that the excuses were just that… excuses. I used them all: “I’m no good at this.” “I don’t have time.” “I have an idea, but I don’t feel up to it so I’ll write it down tomorrow.” “Man, this story is coming out an awful lot like ‘Nightfall’ or ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ so I should just give it up.”

    Now that I’ve been back to writing for five years, it isn’t as bad. The “I don’t have time” one still comes up, as does the last one where I worry about writing too close to someone else’s story (or even to one of my own). Getting feedback, especially positive but even negative, really does help me. I’m getting less feedback now that I’m struggling more to publish regularly and this is feeding into the negativity cycle. I honestly am not sure if it’s my inner critic stopping me these days or if it is Life, the Universe and Everything just piling on too much. I hope to figure this all out soon though because I am simply happier and healthier when I am writing.

  2. Jo Mc permalink
    April 19, 2011 10:43 pm

    This post rocked my world, Dan. I’ve been in that ‘everything else is awesome, my stuff is horrible’ unable-to-write mindset for a while now. Seriously paralysed. But this post has given me a way forward. Thank heaps.

  3. April 20, 2011 1:47 am

    @erling stoldt – even the greats have to deal with this sort of thing. Reading Chekhov’s letters at the moment and he talks all the time about how crap he thinks his work is.

    @adampb – t-shirts….that’s what we need….t-shirts with slogans.

    @AJ – It is something every writer should be told early on.

    @Cate – Good look with the novel. Don’t try and sound like Hemingway – just sound like you.

    @PJ Kaiser – If your feeling ‘the crapness’ right now, deinitely check out the videos, they will give you a new perspective on what to expect from yourself.

    @Jodi – beta readers are a great motivator and certainly help me polish the turd into a more acceptable shape.

    @rebeccaemin – thanks, glad you liked it.

    @Laurel W. – Wow, that’s quite a word count. Totally with you on hell being not writing. I’ll be at the desk next to you, burning as I type.

    @Welshman Paul – It is hard finding fellow writers when you live abroad and don’t speak the lingo so well. Like you, I am grateful for the internet. My interaction with so many great emerging writers has helped me no end.

    @Rob Diaz – Sounds like you had an even longer ‘crap’ related hiatus than I did. Really glad you made it through Rob. Make time for your writing as it’s always a pleasure to read.

    @Jo Mc – That’s the first time I’ve rocked someone’s world with my writing.
    Cheers for those kind words. All the best with getting through the ‘crap’ feeling. Believe me, keep writing and you will hit your stride and start looking at your work more positively.

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