Tonight I did some writing and it was hard, and sucky. Just bad, sucky writing that sucked.
It took me an hour too and there wasn’t very much of it. It was so bad it made me wonder why I was bothering to write anything at all.
This is the response that I came up with:
Perhaps any act of writing — perhaps any act of art — must start from the basis of emulation, at least insofar as to say ‘here is a thing which I appreciate, and I believe that I can create something of its ilk. I can create something like this, even something better than this.’
For me the stimulus was (and I mean no disrespect to the author here) Raymond E Feist‘s Magician. On my second or third reading of that book, still a teenager, I started to see that I could parse its structure. I realised that it had form and function. I peeked behind the curtain to see not the players upon the stage presented to me but the craft that had gone into building that stage and showing those players.
My first efforts them were deeply emulative. As Neil Gaiman said, ‘most of us find our own voices only after we’ve sounded like a lot of other people.‘ (Have you heard that keynote speech? No?! stop reading this and go watch that now, then come back. I’ll wait…)
I lay no claim to having created anything the equal of, certainly not the better of, Magician. At some point though, as a cocky teenager biting off more than he could chew, I believed that I could. It may be that I yet can. My understanding of the process is deeper now, more nuanced, and still requires a degree of self-belief that spills over into arrogance in order for me to maintain the effort required.
There is a very strange dichotomy at play between the swaggering arrogance (and examined objectively it can be nothing else) inherent to the belief that I can craft narrative from thin air, that I can create prose which communicates emotion to a reader I have never met and do not know, and the depths of despair that haunts and preys and lunges upon the writer, upon any artist, at unexpected times.
Self-doubt. What a son-of-a-bitch is self-doubt. Here you are, going merrily along, assured of your own brilliance, reading over the words you just put down and wondering how you managed to write so wonderfully, and then one day… one day you just get an hour to yourself with something to write and crack your knuckles and get started… and you realise it sucks. All of it. What you’re writing now sucks. What you wrote yesterday sucks. Everything you’ve written so far sucks. In fact the entire concept sucks. Why are you writing this thing at all? This sucks. You suck.
This is what happened to me tonight, and in the past this would have sent me off into other things and I would have shelved the writing and come back weeks or months hence and started anew.
This is what self-doubt does. It takes something you’re doing, smears it in sucks, shows it to you, and aims to make you so revolted that you flee. It has conquered me in the past.
Not this time.
This time I recognise this phase for what it is. I have discovered — with thanks to social media and generous, honest writers who’ve shared their travails as well as their triumphs — that this is a common part of the process for even those successful, professional writers, and undoubtedly artists in all media and form. It is important to make mistakes (you watched the Gaiman video above, yeah? Good). You must give yourself permission to suck. You must, as Kameron Hurley implores, persist.
So I shall.
I took some time away from the Work In Progress to get these thoughts down for two reasons. The selfish reason being that by writing them here I am at least writing something, and in the process of writing them I have reinforced their value for myself. The second reason is more altruistic. Surely there are others out there who have hit this same point and not had the strength or the support or the advice to go on. If you’re there now and you’re reading this, chin-up, fist-bump, I’ve been there too, and others have, even the best have.
The difference, I believe between the best and the rest, between the successful and the unsuccessful, is that the best, the successful, kept writing even when it sucked, and they fixed it later. So that’s what I’m going to do.