On Sucking

This post has been brewing for a few days. Perhaps even for a couple of weeks but I haven’t yet been able to articulate it.

You’ve all heard the advice for writers starting out: you are allowed to suck. In fact, you probably have to. You have to bake a bunch of bad bread, you have to knit a bunch of kinked-up scarves, you have to paint a bunch of terrible landscapes before you learn how to bake a loaf of good break, knit a stylish scarf, paint something you want to hang on your wall. Your mistakes, and your successes, come from studying the tools until you hands and eyes are literate enough to be able to transform (more or less) what you envision in your head into a physical form.

Yet, people are a lot more forgiving about the bad bread, the kinky scarf, the smeared watercolor in the pile with the others.

No so much when it comes to fiction. And it takes a hell of a lot longer to make and suffer through these first efforts, especially if we’re talking about a novel.

I have embraced the ‘you’re allowed to suck’ mantra for drafting. To date, I have finished the drafts of three novels, one screenplay-eventually-to-be-turned-into-a-novel, and each of better quality, story-wise, than the last. But now I’m taking what I think is the best of the bunch and I’m revising it — my first novel revision ever — and this feels like a slog I will never get out of with no right answers and no clear path.

Because, frankly, it’s not allowed to suck anymore.

The whole point of this is to make it better. But am I making it better? Can it even be made better? Should it? I have been working on a scene rewrite for a (frustrating) week now, rewriting it from another point of view character and into third person. I have it in my head, mostly, but I haven’t had the discipline to just get it done. On top of that, I’m re-reading the original scene, and I’m liking it, making the whole process even more annoying. Can I even tell what’s good anymore? Has the way I started it make it now impossible to make it good?

With these unproductive worries on my mind, I keeping coming back to Ira Glass’s “This American Life” discussion about creativity (found in four parts on Youtube). Particularly Part 3, where he talked about how there is a gap between where you have good taste about the field you’re in and the skill level of your first efforts. You can tell they aren’t there yet, but you aren’t sure how to fix them. And more importantly, more worrisome, is that this is time that people tend to quit. But you can’t quit. You have to keep pushing through, knowing that it’s normal that it takes a long time. Eventually your skill will match your taste.

I can hold a short story in my head. I can see all the pieces — the characters, POV, the setting, the story — and I can see its relative worth, I can see how to fix it, and if I can’t I’m not so tied up in the thing that I can’t just let it go. It’s only a short story, just like it’s only a loaf of bread, a funky scarf, just a watercolor doodle.

A novel is no such thing. I just have to have faith that I will come out on the other side improved, and make peace with the fact that however much I might will it to be otherwise, this could just be one of those first efforts and I must get through it.

And just keep trying not to suck.

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4 thoughts on “On Sucking

  1. Very true. It’s easy to feel intimidated by polished published works, but that’s because we can’t see how many flawed drafts and do-overs it took to get to those published versions.

    Speaking of beginner breadmaking! My chef training class made baguettes in our first baking class. One of my classmates was disheartened because her first ever loaf of bread was lumpy and ugly, so I suggested we think of it as “rustic” instead. That started a running joke of saying, “It’s not crappy, it’s rustic!” whenever we messed up. It was easier to learn (not to mention more fun) when we didn’t take the mistakes so personally.

  2. Steph

    I would love-love-love to find a website that actually showed the mess of drafts, the cue-cards, the scratched lines, all the material that gets generated between the initial idea and the final product.

    And … MMMM … baguettes. Nothing sexier. 🙂

  3. nicole

    Here’s to hoping that attending a workshop like VP will help us identify how to close the gap between where we want our novels to be, and where they are now! 🙂

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