Dear Captain and Crew,
I have a lighter question for you. What do you do when you are nearing the completion of your creative project, and it just feels weak? In my case, I have been working on my first novel on and off for just over a year. I am in the privileged position that I both have friends in the arts whose expertise and honest opinion I can rely on, and am able to afford a non-biased editor. With their support, this thing has been battered to hell and back, and I am now in a place where I can look at it and say that this is the story I originally set out to write. There are a few minor gaps still to plug, and then it needs polishing up, but, essentially, this is it. The problem is that, now that it actually exists, I’m less than enthusiastic about it.
I’ve done plenty of stuff over the years which I haven’t been happy with, but it has always been because I did it half-assedly and the end result didn’t match what I had in my head in the beginning. This thing, on the other hand, I’ve diligently ‘done right’, and it does match the feel of what I originally wanted to create. So why do I feel so meh about it? It’s making me really sad, especially because it was a story I really wanted to write for myself, the kind of thing I like to read but can’t find much of, rather than something I was potentially going to make money off of. My friends say finish it before passing final judgement, and I kind of want to, just to be able to say I’ve done it, but every time I sit down with it I just feel sad and awkward. I did take some time away from it, it didn’t help.
Thanks for any advice,
Dear Amateur Writer:
You have no idea how close to home this hits, and how much time I have spent thinking about this exact question as an artist who is not quite where she wants to be with her art form yet and as a teacher of artists.
And here is where I am with it, or where I am trying to be.
Your job is to do the work and then send it out.
You have to love the work enough to do the work, and then you have to let go and send it out and let it be what it will be in the world.
It’s good to revise and it’s good to self-critique, and I’m not gonna tell you that people have never written a thing only to tear it up and write a better thing.
But I think it’s normal to have a postpartum let down after completing a project, when the creative energy and adrenaline dissipates and the initial “LO, I HAVE FINISHED A THING!” sense of accomplishment fades and you’re left with this thing that you made.
I think people understand the letdown that comes when you compare the actual, imperfect work to the theoretical, perfect work you had in your head. Ira Glass talks about it in his piece on creativity and beginners. When you start out wanting to be an artist, your taste is “killer”, your ideas are amazing, but there is a gap between your taste and your skill level. And because you are a self-aware and intelligent appreciator of good art, you are able to measure, in exquisite discouraging detail, just how big that gap is.
Worth watching in its entirety:
(There is no transcript at that link, but the text appears on screen as the video plays, so it should be OK for hearing-impaired folk).
The thing I would add to this is that every piece of creative work you make teaches you how to make the next one. The problems you couldn’t quite solve? The voice you couldn’t quite find? You’re probably going to solve those things the next time around, because now you know something you didn’t know before about what you are really trying to say. That next piece of work will have its own insoluble problems, and so on, and so forth.
So, when you finish your thing, you’re not only comparing it to things your idols made, and to the thing you wanted it to be when you started, you’re also comparing your past self – the self you were before you made it – to the one who knows what you know now. So of course this piece isn’t your BEST work, you are capable of so much more! How can you possibly be judged on this work? People will see the mistakes and not know how very beyond them you are now! Better put it in a drawer, then, like I did with my Directing III film, because I could only see it as proof of what I hadn’t quite accomplished yet. Better start over.
What you need to do is compare this completed, created work to….nothing.
“First, when there’s nothing…” the song starts. I am skeptical that “Flashdancing” is actually a thing-distinct-from-stripping that was popular in working-class Pittsburgh in the 80s, but I do think that all creative acts start there.
First, there is nothing.
And then there is you.
And then there is something that didn’t exist before in the world.
And this language that we have, this way that we create things to tell our stories and to move and inspire and delight each other, is a gift we were given and a gift we give back.
Amateur Writer, finish your novel. Give yourself a deadline to make any last edits, and then decide it is finished. Then send it out and let others make of it what they will. If it gets picked up and published despite being not quite what you wanted, you will have good problems. If it doesn’t, you will likely get some good feedback in the process that will help you next time. Most people are not Harper Lee! You are allowed to grow and experiment and evolve over time as a creator. You are allowed to see this novel as a first step.
You didn’t ask about publishing or financial success, so right now this is a battle between You and You, but let’s do a quick thought exercise:
Quick, think of a published, professional novelist or other creator who isn’t necessarily the best at it. Don’t tell us, just picture them: Your artistic nemesis. Picture their not-very-good book selling in bookstores, with their smug jerkface grinning from the back cover. Picture their book tour, signing for fans in bookstores, going on TV, getting paid to speak. Reach out to the Dark Side of the Force and let the envy and the certainty of their inherent mediocrity really fill you up. Got it?
Talent matters, connections matter, timing matters, many aspects of privilege in terms of looks, education, race, class, money, location, celebrity, etc. matter and I’m not going to pretend that those things don’t matter. BUT there is exactly one controllable difference between you and this successful person that you resent. That difference is that this person finished their work and worked hard to get it in front of other people. And if it didn’t work the first time, they improved what they could and tried again, or moved on and made something new, and tried again, and again, and again until something stuck. Scratch most overnight success stories and you find a good decade of scrappy rejection and perseverance.
I can’t tell you if your book will be good, or if you will ever feel better. But I can look over the rims of my teacher glasses and say:
FUCKING FINISH YOUR BOOK.
Even if you feel weird and sad.
And then send it out and see what happens.
Make no apologies or excuses for it. Just let it be what it will be, and let other people receive it how they will.
And then maybe write another one, knowing what you know now.
Postcard from the Party
You have to be invited, and there’s nothing
you can do to be asked. Headlines and bloodlines
don’t help. It’s a long way from home but I’m
here, the view much better than I’m used to.
How did this happen? Dumb but good luck,
right place and time, the planets aligned.
No contract, no deadline, no risk. And what
did I do to deserve this? Slept with all
the wrong people, gambled too much on friends
of friends with light bulbs over their heads.
Wrote every day no matter what.
Postcards from the Interior
BOA Editions, Ltd.
This poem has been a manifesto for me since I read it. The first line is dead wrong, actually – There IS something you can do to be asked to “the party.” It’s called: Write. Finish things. Send them out. It’s the only part that you absolutely can control.