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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. erling stoldt permalink
    April 19, 2011 1:19 am

    I get that feeling often (I’m writing crap), but then I read some of ‘The Masters’ books and wonder how they got published. One famous writer spent more than 50 pages commenting on a fight. Another crime novel filled some 50% with car chases, the car was a manual, that made the book some 15% longer. After that, I didnt feel so bad.

  2. adampb permalink
    April 19, 2011 1:55 am

    I can see a group for writers, where we all stand around chanting, “My work’s crap and I’m proud of its crappiness!” Then we all have tea and bikkies.
    Good advice and wise counsel.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  3. April 19, 2011 4:43 am

    If only you told me this a few years ago… 😉
    Thanks for putting into words what I know I’ve thought more than once

  4. April 19, 2011 5:42 am

    Thanks for this! After years of thinking about it, I’m finally trying to write the novel that’s in my head, and I’m constantly disappointed when my work doesn’t sound like Hemingway’s. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one!

  5. PJ Kaiser permalink
    April 19, 2011 6:41 am

    Terrific post, Dan. This is very much the mode that I’m in right now. Thanks for shedding some light on my situation. I can’t wait to check out the Ira Glass videos – he’s one of my heroes.

  6. April 19, 2011 6:46 am

    Adam – that group you were talking about – its is our informal support group of writers on twitter and facebook!

    Dan – you speak the truth, my friend, as always. One of the most important lessons Emma Newman has taught me in the two years I’ve known her – is giving yourself permission to write crap (which sorry Em, is probably a shocking paraphrase of what you did originally say). I dont have an inner critic needs to be shut up when I write… but I have this terrible fear of not being able to live up to the standard of the last piece of work I produced. Thus I find it harder to write now than I ever did – to the point where I just won’t show up at the page it is that debilitating.

    What I do to console myself with is this: I’ll write crap, I’ll polish it up so it makes a modicum of sense and then I will send it through to my beta readers who will help me sort the grain from the chaff. My beta readers and my online critiquing group are my safety net, or my crap-repellant which empowers me to write, mostly bad, some good and the odd spot of brilliance. And there’s nothing like having a cheer squad as well.

    And the deadline… the (un)holy deadline. The motivator of all procrastinators!

    Looking forward to watching the vids you suggested. Sounds just like the kick start I am currently looking for.

  7. rebeccaemin permalink
    April 19, 2011 8:09 am

    Dan, you speak so much sense! Great blog post.

  8. April 19, 2011 8:29 am

    I hear you. During my “hiatus” the stories never stopped knocking. I tried many art forms, diverting the creativity to other media, but the stories kept coming. Eventually, I had to return. The crap was still there–is still there, however, I’ve realized there is no backing up. In three months I’ve written 250,000 words of crap just to get it out of the way so I could concentrate on my stories. I guess some people would say I’m in hell. I think I was there when I tried not to write. So, if it’s got to be hell, then by God I am going to write while I’m sitting in the flames. 🙂

    Enjoyed your post.

  9. April 19, 2011 9:23 am

    Very interesting. I usually manage to recognise the crap but like Jodi, I value other people’s judgment recognising what could be good but isn’t yet. That too is important. And it’s not easy finding people when you’re not living in an English speaking country. I’m so grateful for the internet and for Fiction Friday etc. But at times the comments seem to me fairly superficial and not really that much help. Maybe, we all need help in commenting so as to help each other improve her/his work. Jodi posted a few very helpful articles last year. They would be a good start.

  10. April 19, 2011 9:59 am

    Hey WP,

    Finding good feedback has always been a problem. I usually get it from writers in my crit group. Crap is always going to turn up. Figuring out how to deal with it comes within. Keep reading good work. Keep thinking about it. Keep pushing harder. The truth is, you’re the only one who can make the final call. Readers are just too damn subjective when it comes to evaluating your work. Jim Butcher (Dresdin Files) had a journal years ago in which he posted some of the crits he received on one of his new novels (that is, it was new at the time) Talk about abusive. Crap is relative. What’s that old saying? “One man’s crap is another man’s treasure.”


    Good luck!

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