I’m an aspiring writer trying to develop my craft. In my hours outside work (which always seem too few), I try to fill my time with equal parts reading and writing. However, when I look over my own work, it never seems as good as what I had intended. My scenes seem sterile and my dialogue stale. Any advice?
I wish I could count up for you the number of times I’ve all but completely lost my faith in the identity and future I’ve been imagining for myself, in varying shades of color and detail and secret ambition, since the third grade.
I can’t. I’ve lost track of them myself. A few particular memories linger, ones I still can’t poke at too closely, but for the most part the many times I’ve been dispirited and even desperate about the distance between where I’ve been and where I want to be have faded into tender but tenacious scar tissue, connected by the bits of success or satisfaction that have kept my hope from dying out entirely. You and I are both still working on it. Gradually, the idea goes, our persistence and ambition and maturing skill will grow over the gathered disappointments. Attaining will replace aspiring. Right?
That plan, of course, is a beginner’s daydream. We might hope for a future with no more polite rejection emails or stubborn sentences, but disappointment and wavering faith don’t stay put in the past. Like us, they persist. They continue to crop up, maybe seasonally or maybe when we least expect them, because our ambition grows along with our skill. The better we get, the better we want to get — and the more we know just how much more there is of what we don’t know yet.
That’s not failure, though I know it feels like it sometimes. Ease and validation are more comfortable than wondering if you’ll ever write a decent sentence again. You spend hours outside of work plugging away at your keyboard, so you know that there are some things worth working for, even with no guarantees — but that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. And while some (inspiring and/or infuriating) people have that ineffable spark that draws them happily to their desks for hours each day just for the love of the craft, some of us have to drag ourselves there. It’s not always that fun to be not yet as good as we want to get. The same might go for running or navigating a relationship or learning to make pie crust from scratch — but making art is tangled so tightly with our identities that it can be painful to accept how far we are from what we read.
The fact that you keep filling your hours with the work you want to be doing means you haven’t yet let that painful reality stop you. That’s like 73% of the struggle right there.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you’ve experienced your last disappointed read-through of what seemed like a promising new work, or that you ever will. But that doesn’t mean you land on disappointment and stay there. After disappointment (and maybe rage or exhaustion or stress hunger) comes a break, maybe a snack, and a refreshed dive right back into making something better than it was. Disappointment is a prelude to discovery — but discovery, as you’ve no doubt heard from pretty much every writer who has ever doled out advice, requires being prepared enough to notice it. That means open eyes, a sharpened pencil, and a habit of showing up to practice even when inspiration doesn’t.
Sometimes, when put that way, the task sounds a little grim. (Especially when you notice that you’re doing it already and still feeling the sting of scenes that sound sterile.) There’s a lot of showing up with very few guarantees of creative or financial or social success. Shitty First Drafts (thank you Anne Lamott) are basically required. Critique — necessary negativity — is a crucial part of what we do. But as difficult as it can be to wallow in the shallows of the learning curve for longer than we’d like to, it’s still so much better than the alternative.
Imagine: what if it really were as easy as getting better and then just…being good? Imagine never agonizing over another sentence, hunched over a keyboard with fingernails bitten to shreds, and instead leaning back in your silk caftan as shining snippets of dialogue and precise, poignant descriptions tap danced out of your fingertips. You would drink only cool water — no coffee necessary to power your self-sustaining creative fountain — and you’d forget how to use “Track Changes” because every draft would be immediately perfect. Imagine never having to go for a walk to think out a tricky ending to a story. Never chasing a crucial source who refused to talk to you. Never second-guessing an idea and coming up with something better. Just imagine that: being good. Being only good. Imagine how boring that would be.
The dispiritedness that comes with reading stale dialogue or out-of-tune descriptions is not a problem; it’s fuel. Agonizing over the right number of syllables to stick in a sentence for it to land just right is part of the fun, not failure. We play with words and learn how to massage them or engineer them or wield them better. We go back to the empty page again and again because we haven’t given up trying to express something — even if it leaves us hunched over with bleeding cuticles and bad eyesight. We drink coffee. (Well, I drink coffee. I try to stop drinking coffee, but then I drink coffee anyway.) We use inspiration to show us where we might go, not to stop us from trying to get there.
More accomplished writers than I have shared the same advice in dozens of different packages, and it’s all true (and worth re-reading, because Morrison and Solnit and Glass give good advice). The gems among them say basically this: make a lot of work and a lot of mistakes, aim for as many rejections as possible, and ditch self-pity so that you can get to work.
But sometimes their advice stresses me out. Sometimes I don’t feel ready to feel so many feelings. Sometimes, when I read such soaring advice about creativity and power and responsibility, writing feels less like a vocation — let alone like an art — and more like an important part of being a human that I’m doing wrong, and that I want desperately to do better.
On those days, my favorite advice has less to do with writing directly, and more with learning to learn better. Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose work has been applied to basically every productivity hack and pedagogical philosophy under the sun, has written extensively about what she calls the growth mindset, a frame of mind that believes no quality is unchangeable. She applies it to emotional intelligence, car design, skill in portrait drawing. Any ability, she says, can be expanded.
In the last couple of years, during which I’ve climbed up the steep slopes of several learning curves and backslid painfully a few times — without yet reaching the edge of possibility or ambition — I’ve thought most often of this. Maybe it’ll inspire you too. Not to be great or accomplished or, ugh, “talented” — but to delight a little bit, through the disappointment, while dragging yourself to your desk or away from it, in how much there is to learn, even after this many years of trying to learn it. Here’s to being not quite as good as we can imagine just yet. Here is to having the guts to do the work to get better. And here is to always, still, being able to imagine more.
For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.