So many of us are asking the same thing about our writing — our concerns are timeless, regardless of a writer’s age, gender, first language, or location.
How do you keep writing, when you’re afraid that what you’re writing is really bad?
A writer sent me this email recently, and said it would be okay for me to share it with you:
What’s going on my writing process right now:
Horror. Stalled, and horrified. I finished a novel revision on Monday last week. Gave myself a day to let it rest, and then launched in to read this version through. I am bored by it.
That’s a year’s work. Over in a matter of hours.
So, what’s going on for my writing process right now — feeling myself pulled to stories, to shorter things, things I can finish and make better without a year going by.
Yeah, that’s where we’re at.
If we’re going to write, a shift has to happen in our mind so we can get through our quality concerns.
Every writer who has taught a master class in our Story Intensive has said something about this, in their own way. That includes Ann Patchett, Karen Joy Fowler, Ruth Ozeki, George Saunders, and Margaret Atwood. This mind shift is a thing.
What they all say, basically, is keep writing anyway. I’ll paraphrase them briefly here: KJF says, Have fun. You get do do whatever you want. Ruth Ozeki says, When there’s a wall, write through it. Ann Patchett says, The struggle never goes away. Buddhism! Margaret Atwood says, You have to go in anyway. George Saunders says, It’s not intellectual. You’re seeking a feeling.
At first, I was surprised to hear that these writers had the same concerns about quality that I have. I admire them so much! But if they struggle with their work, then maybe the rest of us are doing it right, after all.
The more I spoke to authors about their process, the more I understood that this concern about quality never goes away.
Here is my response to the writer who sent me that email:
The truth is, I also feel horrified, on and off, about the quality of everything I write. I also feel elated, on and off, about the quality of everything I write.
Neither assessment is true.
It’s easier for us to love or hate our work, because at least then there’s some certainty about it. Our minds struggle with uncertainty. But certainty is always false. It’s the not knowing that is real.
Not knowing is being alive.
When you’re writing creatively, you’ve disengaged from the judging part of your mind. Get used to the feeling of intellectually not knowing if your writing is any good. Disengage from the good/bad spectrum— instead, get to know the feeling of writing something true, something that makes you feel alive.
Meanwhile, practice craft and technique. Read and study the work you love. Keep learning about what makes writing sparkle for you. Take bigger and bigger risks — write what is forbidden, write what scares you, write what you know, write what you don’t know.
With practice, you’ll learn how it feels when you’re writing something with your deep, inquisitive. and creative mind. When you have that feeling, you won’t be intellectualizing what you’re doing. When you can’t tell if your writing is any good, it also means that you’re probably in a very creative place.
The paradox is this: if you’re going to write anything fresh or surprising, you necessarily won’t know that it’s fresh and surprising.
It will only be what it is.
This is the joy. It’s the win, the success, the point of it all.
Write what you want to read. You get to do whatever you want. Don’t write to punish yourself — write to enjoy yourself.
The very best thing for what you’re feeling right now is to write something new. Get out of the wondering if it’s any good loop, and just be interested in making your own sentences again.
Writing and reading is your safe zone.
Try this: write a new scene today that feels risky and strange. Enjoy writing it.
Writing a novel is hard work; revising it is even harder! Let your novel rest for a little while until you can look at it with new eyes. You’re a writer, which means that you’re going to spend the rest of your life writing. One year is simply one year spent writing. Great! Read short stories for now, and see what that does to your sentences.
Then, when you have a moment, read this guest post by Daniel Griffin, author of the newly released novel, Two Roads Home. Daniel gives really helpful advice about rewriting when you don’t feel good about your first draft.