Friday, April 29, 2011

If you're a writer, read this.

I found the link to this post by Ira Glass on the DorothyL list (thanks Bonnie Riley). 

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.

But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.


Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.


It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile.


You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

36 comments:

Yvonne Osborne said...

Well, he doesn't know me!

A fresh way of looking at the creative person and what they go through. Why this is a lifelong climb up the mountain with no peak.

Anything by Ira Glass is worth reading and This American Life is one of the best shows on radio. Thanks for pointing it out.

Michael A Tate said...

It takes a lot of bad 'the ends' before things really sparkle.

Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks Janet.

Flo said...

Thank you, so very much, for posting this. I was just about to give up on writing because it was never "right", never what I wanted it to be. Parts of it have become exactly what I want, and then... cow pies. I know the bad is better than my best was in the beginning, but wanting to get it perfect has been crippling me.

I needed this.

THANK you.

steeleweed said...

Semi-agree. There are a lot of writers who produce dreck for years, gradually improving. The early Louis L'Amour was clumsy writing but he evolved into a master storyteller. There are a lot of great writers whose early works are deservedly ignored. Others, like John Masters, seem to write well from the start.

I set aside my first novel for several years and when I picked it up again I was almost embarrassed by it. I tried to rewrite it, which did improve it but not to be worth publishing. I also tried to tell the same story as if the original had never been written. I'm still working on that one, because it's taking off in a whole different direction and getting rather serious.

Pepper Smith said...

This is so spot on. There are so many things writers don't know and understand when they begin, and it can take years to work it out on your own. (At least in my earlier years, I was too young to understand how really bad my writing was.)

I'll probably put the link to that post on my own blog. Thanks for posting this.

MacDougal Street Baby said...

Reminds me a bit of Outliers. You have to put your 10,000 hours in to become expert.

Debbie said...

I needed to hear this too. I've been so frustrated with myself and my writing lately. It's almost there but not there yet. Thank you for this.

And, Steeleweed, we don't know how many manuscripts and stories John Masters wrote before the first published one. He may have just shoved more under the bed than L'Amour did.

jan said...

Thanks, Janet--this gives those of us who are still wannabes reason for hope!Those of us who are "of a crtain age", however, worry about running out of time. Seriously.

Julie Musil said...

Wow, thanks for this.

R.J. Edwards said...

Thanks Janet. I try to remind myself of this every time I hit one of those "giving up" moods.

Veronika Walker said...

Very cool. I never thought of it in terms of "taste" versus "know-how" before.

Great stuff.

therese said...

Yes, this is something every new writer should be told.

I was the rare breed who got upset at a rejection but, instead of venting or pouting, assumed there's stuff I still hadn't learned. Now I don't have to apologize to readers for what they may have read.

earth said...

I feel this post is solid and right on target. It's also something I needed to hear. The only thing which pushes me to keep writing is this fire and excitement inside me which won't let me quit.
Making time is hard, and often your paying job and family occupies all your time. What keeps me going is that half- hour I have reserved everyday to my story. It's hard work, taking a paragraph and polishing it repeatedly till it shines. I'm glad to know others go through this as well.

Shannon Heather said...

I write because it's the only legal way to brutally murder people and not get dragged away in handcuffs.

I'll write even if I am the only person who ever reads it. (sort of like the blog I just started.) =P

Scooter Carlyle said...

I look back at my first works and shudder. They're getting better, though.

Huntress said...

It amazes me how this writing community provides support, giving time and expertise to help others.

Is there another support group like this? I don’t know but I find my fellow writers and their selflessness truly humbling.

Jonathan Dalar said...

Great advice! Not always the easiest thing in the world to do, but still right. It's looking back on earlier work that really gets me going because I can see how very far I've come over the years.

Bryce Daniels said...

Thank you. Period and exclamation point.

Elisabeth Black said...

Yes! I saw this last summer and I was so inspired.

Loved reading it again.

Catherine Blakeney said...

There is a saying that if you want to be a good artist, you should draw 5,000 pictures. The same thing goes for an author - if you want to be a good writer, you must first write 5,000 pages. My first short story back in middle school was horrible, but it was still better than my peers, and by the same time next year I'd written five more that were marginally better. I like to think that my web drabbles and hundreds of short stories since them helped me along, but then I decided to try a novel for the first time and it went right back to square one. You're always a beginner when you try a new thing.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Definitely! And while in this phase, sometimes you'll write something really great, and then your next work will suck. It takes a lot of time and practice to learn to write well consistently.

Zan Marie said...

This certainly describes my starts and stops. I stop when I realize I'm not doing it as well as I want to. I'm bad about comparing myself to others who have written for years.

Thanks for this post. I'm only three followers away from a milestone and have a blogfest planned. Come see me at www.intheshadeofthecherrytree.blogspot.com

Taymalin said...

I'm with Flo. I go through a lot of days where I just want to quit, because no matter what I do the story just isn't right. But this post has given me hope that it will get better. Thanks Janet.

Geekamicus said...

Once, when I needed it most, a mentor told me that "no one at Harvard thinks they deserve to be there." This, like that, makes me realize that I'm not alone. Thanks, this was very much appreciated.

shtrum said...

Well put. As a former designer/ architect, I can lay claim to an early portfolio of good ideas rendered horribly. Same with writing. The development of thick skin, combined with a good 'inner critic' that isn't afraid to remind you that you're nowhere as good as you think you are, is key. Mixed liberally with perseverance (or in my case, the sheer stupidity of knowing when to quit), can have surprising results.

Maryann Miller said...

Good points. Thanks for posting this. I keep some of my earliest work so I can read it now and then and say, "Whew, I'm so glad that I practices enough to get it right."

Jo-Ann said...

Are writers born or made?

I used-to think "born", due to the huge volume of writing that I loved but never felt I may be able to emulate. A great writer makes it seem so effortless, your eyes just glide across the sentences and paragraphs. Now having read widely across many writers' blogs around, I believe they can be "made". Like most skills, its practice, practice and practice.

If I read something that I've written a few years ago and now cringe, I feel elated, because it means that my ability (and taste) has grown. It means that I'm now a step closer to writing something that may be appreciated by others!

Kathy Holmes said...

How fabulous - what great timing!

Tawna Fenske said...

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

You can't see me, but I'm standing and applauding right now.

I'm also not wearing pants.

Tawna

Joelle said...

I'm a writer, so I read this. If you're a shark, read this. You status is being challenged by cows! http://www.eileencook.com/blog/?p=2721

gillian said...

Thank you for sharing this insight. So kind of you to share. The comments were another reason to smile. SCBWI is a truly kind community, and why wouldn't it be, given that it's members are dedicated to entertaining or helping children.
Thanks again!
Gillian

jjdebenedictis said...

Aww, love this.

However, some of us go through a period of churning out crap that we think is brilliant and sparkling. The things we do badly are, by definition, our blind spots. It takes a step forward in one's understanding of craft to spot those weaknesses.

Which is nice, because it means every time you feel like an incompetent hack, that's really just an indication you've recently improved as a writer.

Leah said...

I could so hug you for posting this...makes me feel like there's still hope!!

BIG SMILE and a thanks!

Julie Hedlund said...

An absolutely fresh take on why you need to write, write, write in order to get good. I LOVE the point about good taste. Thanks for sharing this inspiring post.

Jill Thomas said...

I cannot begin to tell you how timely this post is for me. After writing,let's face it, s**t for the past three years (albeit learning from said s**t), I have at last found MY story. I am now at the point of 'filling in the details' and have been struggling with what I call AIS syndrome (Ass in seat). Thank you for the motivation I needed to finish.