This is for the ones who despair. This is for the ones gripped by the feeling that it will never get better. That they will never get better.
I promise you this much: It can. And you might. That’s the best guarantee you’re going to get. Can and might. There’s only one certain guarantee, and that’s how to make sure that it doesn’t and you never do:
Quit. Whatever you’re doing, just stop right now. I mean it. Put down the pen, close the Word file, toss the notebook in the trash, click that folder full of story files and half-formed dreams and punch the Delete key like you mean it.
There, now. Just relax. Breathe. Doesn’t that feel better?
If it does, if it genuinely does, then go ahead and empty the trash, real or virtual, stop reading right now, and go about the rest of your day, the rest of your life. You’ve just been spared years of toil, doubt, and heartache.
But if it doesn’t feel better, if in fact it feels kind of awful, then you’d better fish those temporary discards out of the trash before something bad happens. Clutch them to your breast and promise to never treat them — or, more importantly, what they represent — with that kind of disrespect again.
Respect is important, because there’s work to do.
The Agony And The Ecstasy. Mostly Agony.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been digging among my roots. I’ve just finished prepping my first two novels for new editions. Both predate my migration to word processing, so I’m working with files generated by OCR scans of the original books. You have to proofread these things. Carefully. Sometimes OCR software has a whacky sense of humor about what it thinks it sees.
I’ve had no need to look at either of these novels for more than twenty years. Now that I have, I can honestly say I would’ve been happy to let them sit another twenty, if only to spare myself the daily torture.
I thought these novels were awesome at the time. And they still have their moments.
But now they’re like that TV show you used to love as a kid. You know the one I mean. The one you were absolutely nuts for, that you couldn’t get enough of. The one you’d run miles to get home in time to watch.
The most merciful thing you can do is never watch it again, ever. It never holds up. Better to leave it alone and let the sepia-toned memories remain intact.
Here’s how I described my reaction to this process the other day, in a new Afterword to one of the novels:
“Here and there are bits that make me glad I wrote them, that wouldn’t look or feel out of place in later work, but mostly I just groan a lot and want to bang my head against the desk, unable to believe that this was the published draft.”
Which sounds polite for general company, but really, it’s more like this prayer:
“Please, oh Odin, god of battle and poetry, please make it stop! And if you can’t make it stop, make it better. And if you can’t make it better, please send your ravens to pluck out my eyes.”
Yeah, that bad. To me they are.
There are a lot of things about these formative works that should console me: That agents thought they were worth representing. That publishers thought they were worth publishing. That reviewers said good things about them. That there are readers who remember them fondly, maybe even loved them the way I did, and that even now there are publishers who want to bring them back into print.
While I’m enormously grateful for all that, I can’t say there’s much consolation in it.
But then there’s this. This summation of the gulf between then and now, of all that’s come in the interim, and all that’s still to come. This may be the finest thing you could ever say about yourself when comparing where you began with where you are today:
I would never write that now. It would never even occur to me. Or if it did, I wouldn’t write it in remotely the same way.
It’s so clear: Things got better. I got better. Mostly as a consequence of not stopping. Not stopping, and an unrelieved sense of dissatisfaction.
Through The Looking Glass
Pure serendipity. The other day, not even knowing what I’ve been up to lately, my longtime friend Clark Perry cued me into the quote below. Clark is one of the few spawning salmon who made it all the way upstream, past a million belly-up floaters who gave out, to get hired writing for TV.
We were there at the very beginning, for each other’s origin stories. We saw each other through years of the exact process that Ira Glass, host and producer of Public Radio International’s This American Life, describes in this clip from 2009:
“…all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there’s this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, 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’re just starting out or you’re still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work … It’s only by going through a volume of work that you’ll close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions …
“It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You just gotta fight your way through.”
Except there’s one thing Glass doesn’t address here: Okay, so how do you fight your way through?
The Good Fight
People analogize the creative process and the crucible of improvement in different ways. Me, I like finding the parallels with, appropriately enough, fight training. It resonates.
If you’ve never done any fight training, just know this much: The bag work, the mitt work, kicking pads and drilling your footwork and head movement … it’s all just theory. True practice comes when you take what you think you know and match it against something that hits back. And when you start sparring, it’s a humbling, humiliating experience.
How did this guy just hit me six times and I couldn’t do anything about it? What openings did he see that I wasn’t even aware of? That I couldn’t see on him?
Simple. Once he (or she) was where you are now. He was the one getting hit six times. She was once the one without the experience to spot the openings.
It’s nothing personal, this pounding you’re taking. Or if it is, it’s personal in a good way. You and your sparring partner are actually there to teach each other. True, it’s a hard way to learn. It’s also the only way.
Your partner got through it by doing what you have to now: find something to love about the process. Something you love more than you dislike the discomfort. Something that never gets old, that keeps the experience alive and fresh for you. Something that keeps luring you back from the pits of discouragement.
You get through it by learning to live for the little victories. Maybe next week you only get hit four times in a row. Or she swings and you’re no longer there. Or you nail him with a sweet counter.
And so it is with writing, with every other creative endeavor.
Everything you think you know from books, from blogs, from classes … it’s all just theory. Everything you work up behind closed doors and leave there in the dark, that’s theory too, just another kind … still something you haven’t yet put to the test.
True practice comes from putting it out in the world, daring to risk the vulnerability that goes with this. Feedback readers, critique groups, submissions. Especially submissions. That’s when the ordeal begins. That’s when you have to find the thing you love enough to keep you going despite the rejections, the cheap shots, the indifference, and the clear-eyed recognition of the gap between your work and your ambitions.
That’s when you have to learn to live for the little victories. Do you know how many successful writers have had their day made, their week made, when a rejection came with a personalized note of encouragement from the editor? All of them.
That’s how better happens. By increments and milestones and thinking in timeframes that most people don’t have the patience or guts for.
So put in the time. Take the hits. Keep going.
It does get better. And so will you.
***** Sure, that was a lot to absorb. Take a breather anyway, pack a light lunch, and come on over to my own blog, Warrior Poet, and glean some ideas for 2012 from “Rock Your Writing This Year With The 30-Things Challenge.”
[Photo by Eric Langley]