#510: Falling out of love with your creative work and losing momentum

Mozart & Salieri in Milos Forman's AMADEUS
What if Salieri had just kept making his own music and doing his Salieri thing?

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,

Amateur Writer

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.

That’s all.

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:

Fifty Shades of Grey
This is an actual book you can buy in an actual store. Ponder it.

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:

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.

Wyn Cooper
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.

84 thoughts on “#510: Falling out of love with your creative work and losing momentum

  1. Oh, do I know this feeling! I’ve personally had to come to accept that I will probably never completely love anything I create–I’m simply too much of a perfectionist; SOMETHING will always bother me about it, even if it’s just the kind of ennui the LW describes. It was actually really important for me to recognize and get over this, because otherwise I overwork pieces to death, trying to make them “perfect,” and then give up in a fit of disgust, never finishing anything. And never finishing anything feels much worse than being vaguely dissatisfied with stuff that is, at least, finished.

    Also, LW, I’m sure you know this, but remember–YOU may be tired of your book, but there are lots and lots of other people out there who haven’t been living with it in their heads for ages and would probably love it.

  2. Captain Awkward’s advice is SO on.

    My own experience of this comes from science, not the arts, but when I am getting close to the end of an analysis, I am fucking sick of the data. I am sick of the systematics. I am sick of statistics. I am sick of everything. When I finished my thesis, I never wanted to look at it again. All I could see were the flaws.

    Two years later, the flaws are still there. But I also look at it, and I see the really good—great, even—work I did to get that thesis done. I expanded humanity’s knowledge of the universe by a little bit.

    LW, you’ve made art and put it into the world. Now, rest. Write something different. When you come back to it, I think you’ll probably find it better and more enjoyable than you find it now.

  3. I think what tends to happen is that your brain only writes selected feelings and memories to your long-term hard-drive. Most of the immediate ‘now’ stuff hangs around in your short-term-RAM and after a while it gets cleared out by new memories.

    Neutral or positive memories less likely to be written to your long-term memory than negative ones.

    Here is an example:
    I am a hobbist graphic designer and I recently worked on a project that involved making a complex sort of a dress-up doll. The person who commissioned me is one of my role-models so I was extremely excited about it. On top of that excitement was the fact that it took over 80 hours of work, produced over 100 individual images that had to be edited and rendered multiple times and that it was the hugest project I’ve ever worked on. It also took over a year to be pushed live (6 months after I finished all my parts since the programmer too ages to get it finished.)

    When it was unveiled I was foaming-at-the-mouth-ecstatic. Three weeks later, I’m not so excited, I’m kind of ‘meh’ about it and I am moving on to other things.
    Sure, I remember being really excited and also all the late nights and stress I sometimes felt but only as shadows of the feelings themselves.

    That’s just the way that memory works. It is both a protective mechanism and one of efficiency. To feel that heart-pounding sense of achievement or acute pang of failure every time you recalled memories would be exhausting!
    It also gets you to go out and make new memories and emotions for yourself. If we all just fed off old memories we wouldn’t take on new projects, we’d just relive the successes of the old ones instead.
    So I like to accept that it’s done, it still exists and, that the excitement that came with finishing that huge project was there at the time but I’ve ‘moved on’ from it.

    All in all, don’t worry. We all feel this way, it’s natural and normal. 🙂

    1. And now that I’ve had about 5 minutes to think on this more, allow me some more rambling.

      It’s a balance between being able to enjoy a memory so much that you don’t actually seek to do it again and forgetting how good you felt so that you never go out and try again.

      For example: I like sex. I know I like sex because I remember that it feel good. But when I remember it it is nowhere vivid enough to replace the act of having sex but it’s good enough that I know that I liked it enough to seek out more sex.

      It works with a lot of things – food (you might cook recipes again that you really liked), exercise (you felt exhilarated and energised), talking with someone (you liked talking to them enough that you will talk to them again) or basically any other experience that you might repeat based on enjoyment or any other positive feeling.

      As for negative experiences: I once stabbed myself with a kitchen knife when I was trying to remove an avocado pit (a moment of pure stupidity on my behalf).
      I remember that it hurt and that it was stupid (and so not to do it again) but the memory of the pain is not so great that I will stop eating avocados or using kitchen knives.

      It’s all about how the brain works. Neat eh?

    2. “Neutral or positive memories less likely to be written to your long-term memory than negative ones.”

      Do you happen to have a cite for this? Not because I think it’s unlikely, but because, being prone to depression and anxiety myself, this statement resonates pretty heavily with my own experience. Plus, I tend to geek out pretty hard on neuroscience–in particular the neurophysiological mechanisms that drive feelings/memory/response–so obviously, this hits a real sweet spot for me, and I’d love to burrow deeper into the topic.

      Sadly, my Google-fu seems to be failing me today. 😦

      1. I probably should have added ‘, in my experience.’ On the end.

        Unfortunately I don’t have any citations, most of the stuff I know about memory I learned from neuroscience lectures at uni.

      2. I don’t know how long before it’ll disappear behind a paywall, but this article starts with the idea that the brain privileges negative memories over positive ones, and then talks about how to change it.

  4. Boy oh boy, I needed this. I’m not done with my book yet (I want to be done with it so much right now) but I can see all the big old GLARING flaws in everything and it’s really hard to remind myself that I am not going to get it perfect because this is the first time I’m doing it. But I want it to be perfect so everyone can see this wonderful thing that came out of my head! WHY CAN’T I BE BRILLIANT AT IT RIGHT FROM THE START?

    The “artistic nemesis” is good advice. I’ve used it a lot to 1. give myself hope that my stuff (which is obviously much better) will get picked up and 2. if [INSERT AUTHOR WHOSE WORK I HATE] could finish their awful cliche-ridden waste-o’-trees then damn it all so can I. In fact I have to. (You can insert a shot of my fist catching on fire with my burning spirit here.)

    The “learning experience” is a drum I am trying to beat in defiance of my “but it’s crap” feelings so… this is good, yes, reinforcement of truth about doing creative things. Thanks.

  5. And sometimes, you will love it later. You might not be capable of loving anything that comes out of your own brain right now, you might have taxed your ability to love your work too hard in the course of getting this far. A year or two will pass. You will be going about your business and a scene you wrote will steal into your head or you will open the file for no reason thinking morbidly “let’s FACE how shitty I used to be/stll am” …and there is there is the thing you made, doing what you meant it to — maybe even doing MORE — and you will be surprised and enchanted by your own work.

    (Okay, there will be other times when you will do this and have to bash your face against the nearest hard object in despair, but we take the rough with the smooth.)

  6. My husband is artistic and creative, whereas I am not. I am not upset about this; it is simply a statement of fact. He is really, really good at pen and ink drawing, especially caricature drawings. He has a dry, sarcastic sort of wit, and so can come up with pithy, one-liner type drawings, depicting a variety of things: a funny something someone said (usually one of our kids), a funny hat someone is wearing, etc. He will do this in bars, at home in his journal, that sort of thing.

    The thing is, he thinks what he is doing is not that big of a deal. He thinks “anyone can be an artist; you just have to create art”, and I’m not going to argue it here, but let it suffice to say that I disagree w/ him on that point. No amount of drawing and creating by me is going to result in anything I want to look at, much less show to anyone else. He’s convinced anyone could do what he does.

    My point is that sometimes I feel like whatever we excel in, we forget that others have different strengths, and familiarity breeds contempt with our own strengths, such that we forget how awesome we are.

    You are awesome. You have written a novel. So few people can actually do that, and it’s kick ass. Come back and let us know when it is published (if you are comfortable doing so), so the Awkward Army can share in your awesomesauce.

    1. I think your husband is right, actually but with one important caveat: anyone can be an artist (or writer, musician, etc) if that is what they want to do. If you really, really wanted to create his kind of art, but had not spent your life up until now doing it spontaneously, I believe you could learn to do it, and do it well. But do you want to? Not everyone does. And if you don’t want that particularly, why on earth would you sink the 10,000 hours or whatever into it? I am a writer, and I’ve been doing that all my life since I learned to write. I sort have an idle wish that I could also be a visual artist, to make my characters come to life… but I have no love of the process of art. I don’t want to experiment with form or material or style. I just want a perfect photograph of what’s in my head to appear in front of me. That’s not enough motivation, for me personally, to go down that path.

      (Though, for the record, I am having fun looking at ways to “cheat” using 3D figure programs. ^_^)

      1. Right, you have to want it and love the process of it enough to be willing to do it badly for a while until you get good at it.

        1. I know that I could be a really good musician if I wanted. But that’s the thing: I don’t want it. I don’t love music. Without that, there’s no reason for me to dedicate any huge portion of my life to music.

          Now, writing on the other hand… 🙂

  7. De-lurking here. I may print this out and read it every time I sit down for a writing session. I am in the middle stages of a slow-going dissertation, and I realized recently that I hate it. Not my topic–no, no, I love that. Not the previous research on my topic–that is excellent as well, and I have a lot to say about it. I also enjoy the obligations that come along with my work, even grading student essays. But whenever I sit down to write I first have to crash through a concrete wall of fear and anxiety, self-doubt, resentment, boredom, loneliness, and depression. Every time. It is exhausting.

    I know crushing anxiety was not the LW’s complaint, but I have to tell myself a story about my anxiety that goes something like this: I have a cave. A plush yet airy cave full of soft pillows and good books and musical instruments. This is where I feel safe, but this cave is buried underneath Anxiety Mountain. To write means I have to leave my cave for a while, and to leave the cave is to be subject to all of the deadening rules of Anxiety Mountain. But eventually, if I stop retreating to that blasted, wonderful cave, I can crawl my way through the Mountain and I won’t need my cave anymore. So I sit down and tell myself “today I’ll move just a few feet” and write maybe 200 words. Before I worked out this silly story I was writing zero words, so I consider this a fantastic improvement (intellectually, at least. Emotionally I still self-lacerate, but I’m working on that).

    1. That’s a good point. The first time I finally finished a big project, I didn’t know what to do with myself for the longest time.

    2. Yes, for me at least, emotionally distancing myself from a project is necessary to let it go into the world. Rejection is a part of that.

  8. This. Yes.
    I’ve heard the “practice” rule mentioned different ways–there’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule, for instance. But the issue with Gladwell’s rule is that it puts a finite number on it and says, “Now you are a master.” Not true. I honestly think I’m coming up on 10,000 hours with my writing, if I haven’t surpassed it yet, and I’m still learning, still refining, still enduring “holy CRAP I just want the thing DONE” stages. And really, if I ever feel like I’ve reached mastery, then I think I’m doing it wrong, because it indicates I don’t want to learn anymore.

    Sometimes, writing is a slog. Sometimes (often, actually) it hurts. But if I stopped writing every time it turned into a slog or turned painful, I’d never finish anything. And I’m trying to get better about finishing.

    Best of luck to you and your project, LW. As the Captain says, finish it and get it out there, and in the meantime, start the next thing.

  9. I have been in the process, for several years now, of rewriting a book that I had sold sight unseen as part of a 2-book contract.

    I don’t know how many drafts that book has been through, but it must be seven or eight or so. It hurt like hell to keep coming back to the knowledge that it wasn’t good enough. It broke my heart. It breaks my heart knowing I’m going to have to give up on this book.

    I kept twisting myself up in knots trying to think about getting it right this time, and thinking about how I wasn’t good enough, and I just had to keep coming back to this: the ONLY thing I could control was whether I showed up and put the work in. I had to treat that as a decision that had already been made, so that I didn’t even have to think about it: what do we do tonight? We write. But what if it’s terrible? What if it’s not worth it? What if I put in a lot of work and it doesn’t make any difference? Hey, it’s not up for negotiation. We write.

    This story doesn’t have a happy ending, at least not yet, if you want to measure in bestseller lists or starred reviews or just books published, but when I think about it this is the story that I tell myself: that I was miserable, and I did the work. That I was scared, and I did the work. That I gave up forty times and picked myself back up forty times. And I am fiercely proud of myself for that, even if I have failed at everything else.

  10. I am a perfectionist. For me, the hardest thing to remember is that I can always keep improving. I can keep changing things from now until the end of time. This has led to the creation of one of my 3 rules in creativity:

    3a) If the thing is half-done and hasn’t been opened for 6 months, you may delete
    it, thereby declaring it done.

    If I don’t, I will stress and obsess until the end of time.

    1. I like your rule 3a! I have an acquaintance in fandom who does an end-of-year clearout of Works No Longer In Progress — posts all of the decent-but-unfinished drafts, publicly declares that they’re as finished as they’re ever going to get, and then deletes them (and, presumably, all of the terrible-and-unfinished drafts as well) and doesn’t worry about them anymore.

    2. Yes, the photos! Taking photos of ephemeral things like clouds or butterflies is good practice for this.

      For work stuff, it’s remembering that /doing/ the thing, even when it’s not “perfect” (which by the way is impossible), is way better than not doing the thing. Doing the thing gets results, usually moderate-to-good results, whereas not doing the thing definitely means no positive results.

  11. So much good stuff here!

    LW, this is your first novel. Congratulations! Most people never write a novel. It’s worth celebrating.

    The novel-writing process is different for everyone. The only thing I can say for sure is that you absolutely should finish that book.

    Some other things to consider which may or may not be helpful depending on your individual writing process:

    The process of editing heavily while writing on that same project can steal some of the momentum and much of the joy. This is common, and is why many writers don’t do heavy edits until draft zero has been achieved. Ponder whether it might work better for you to save that until last for next time.

    Finishing a novel is painful for some people. Walking away from these characters and worlds that we have created is sometimes a heartbreaking thing to have to do. My husband and I both get post-novel drop something fierce. My response has been to write very long books with loads of sequel potential. His has been to begin withdrawing emotionally from the work before he is done. Maybe you are doing this? It can’t be an uncommon defense mechanism. Just a thought.

    Some people find that as they are about to finish a piece of art, be it visual, literary, or musical, whatever, they have said what they set out to say and expressed what they needed to express, and now they are not as interested in finishing it. This is especially easy to do if you value expression above creating a finished work of art.

    I may formulate more thoughts later, but it’s early morning for me and I’m typing with one finger on a tiny screen. I wish you luck. I do think that you should finish it, whether you intend to send it out or not. Never forget that what you have done is extraordinary and beautiful and human. It is of immense value, even if you are in a place where you are not feeling that so much.

  12. I’m not much of a creator of art (Unless you consider marketing stuff art? I don’t. I may be alone in my industry of narcissists in this opinion.) However. Whether you are doing something creative, or trying to write a memo, remember: Done is better than perfect.

    Done is better than perfect, so finish your book and let it live in the world. It will not be perfect. You may even have come to hate it now. But it will be done. You can cross it off your list, think of it no more, and start something that excites you again. But first, you must do this one thing and finish it. Putting a line through that item on your to-do list will bring with it a relief and kind of joy of its own.

  13. I’m a techwriter. We’re actually in the final stages of spinning up our release today and I found a bunch of small problems. Augh!! How did that happen! How did we miss them! Augh!

    But it’s got to go out the door. We fix ’em and the fixes go out in the next release.

    It’s not creative writing, but some of the things we learn are similar. Get it as good as you can in the time you have, but it’s better to send something imperfect out the door than to sit on it. It’s never going to be perfect, it can’t be.

    Then: Work on the next thing.

    When it’s time, go back to what you worked on before and, probably, shrink in embarrassment at your best effort from then — and do it better this time.

    WORK WITH AN EDITOR. LOVE YOUR EDITOR. Growl in frustration at all the damn edits and what the heck does that mean and you want what and reorganize it how!?! TRUST YOUR EDITOR. But also remember that you’re the author and can say no. Speaking on behalf of our editors, OCCASIONALLY SEND YOUR EDITORS SMALL GIFTS AND BRIBES.

    And then…. let it go. That thing that you are so pained about is a small part of the whole, a tiny detail. We have to focus on the details to get the quality we want, but the problems we miss, they are usually small details that the reader never notices. They just sail right on by.

    LW, to fight through everything you’re feeling, something you can do today might be to talk to your beta readers, whoever really liked it, and ask them to tell you again what they loved. Ask someone who’s capable of being enthusiastically positive (not everyone can be). Or give your story to someone else who adores you and will love everything you do. Having someone bounce up to you saying OMG I LOVE THAT THING IN CHAPTER TWO or AAAAA HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO BOBBY might help you see your work with fresher eyes.

  14. I’m a grad student in science, so I don’t know if this transfers. I just finished my MS thesis, and I was convinced that everything I’d accomplished was trivial and obvious. I hated the project. Then people read it and told me it was fantastic. I’ve been thinking about where my loss of perspective comes from; this is my theory.

    After I finish a big project, everything I write sounds obvious to me. I can’t imagine anyone reading it and being enlightened and learning something new, because I already know all about it. I have lost the ability to experience the work as a new reader would. Intellectually I can try to imagine what it’s like to see it for the first time; I try to lay out my argument such that I don’t assume some fact before I introduce it. But I have lost the _feeling_, the direct experience of learning this stuff.

    So a new reader will have a completely different experience to me when reading my work. I can work to make my paper better than previous drafts, but I have NO insight about how good it is in absolute terms. I have become the only person who cannot see how good (or bad) my own work is.


      I have the utter pleasure and fortune to be in a similar field to my parents, so I got this *helpful* advice weekly from my father: “There are two kinds of theses: good ones and unfinished ones.” I’m trying to get mine published, but I absolutely don’t want to see it again. I’m counting it as a win that I don’t hate everything I wrote about.

        1. Ooooh. Yes.
          I knew it was Not Good Quality Work even as I was writing it – but it got finished, I graduated – and with departmental honors, so it must have been adequate (by the standards for undergrad students, anyway!)

          I guess the point is, it’s DONE. And I wasn’t expecting it to get published in a fancy journal. Get undergrad degree? Check.

          Also, lesson learned: I do not want to write a PhD thesis. And it’s better to discover that as a college student than half-way into a PhD program!

      1. I know that advice as “There are two kind of thesis: perfect ones and finished ones. Aim for the latter.” Finished and imperfect is better than perfect and imaginary.

    2. This is EXACTLY how I feel about my work for my Philosophy MA. It just all seems so… obvious. So obvious that I think “Why am I even writing this?” “This is philosophy, it can’t be this obvious..” “I will get a low mark on this because I’m just saying what stuff that anyone could work out… Ah well, here is the deadline, it’s on the word limit, best get this over with…”

      A few weeks later: I get a really good mark and great feedback for really understanding the arguments I was writing about.

      Rinse. Repeat.

      1. I’m junior faculty, and still feel this way sometimes. The idea that you’re being “obvious” is such a terrible trap in philosophy–like it’s not really deep unless the person reading/listening has to struggle. Even proving a theorem can seem like not much of an accomplishment, because after all, every step is obvious. But that’s what good argument is: getting somewhere new by a series of clear, obvious steps.

        1. (I say this mostly because last week, I told myself “I know nothing about X”, had a student drop by my office to ask a question about X, successfully gave an answer off the top of my head that involved writing logic formulae on a whiteboard from memory, and then noticed a disconnect.)

    3. Yep, I can’t write anything I’ve plotted in advance because then I already know the story and why would I bother writing it?

      I’ve been thinking of setting up a 10-week (totally arbitrary timeframe) training program for myself to get over this. The first day’s exercise is to write:

      Girl meets girl.
      Girl loses girl.
      Girl gets girl back.

      Every subsequent day expands that story in some way but always keeps the initial plot. If I do this enough, ideally I will prove to myself that there’s more to writing, and more to reading, than knowing how the story ends.

    4. I just finished my MS thesis, and I was convinced that everything I’d accomplished was trivial and obvious.

      Ahaha I am finishing my maths PhD right now and do I ever know what you mean. /o\ I think you’re spot-on, and this may be something that applies especially to really technical subjects like maths/science research.

      Near the start of my PhD, I went to a talk by an academic who spoke about the “domain of triviality”. (Yes, we’re mathematicians…) The way their theory went was like this: all of us think that what we do and know is really easy and straightforward, and we admire or are envious of the people who work in the “difficult” areas. The temptation can be to switch to the difficult area to get some “real” work done instead of the obvious, trivial statements we’re producing… but this is exactly the wrong thing to do! The whole thing is very subjective: for someone working in that other area, chances are that *they* think the stuff *they* do is really clear and obvious and your stuff is awe-inspiringly hard. (I actually had a conversation with a friend of mine in a different area that went exactly like this, with both of us expressing how simple our own stuff was and how impressed we were by the other person being able to work in such a difficult area). So instead, what you want to do is keep playing with the stuff you think is trivial and try to expand your “domain of triviality” by learning more about the things on the borderline.

      It makes perfect sense to me, I just wish I could get it further into my subconscious! At this point I don’t think I’m even going to be able to look at my thesis when it’s finished because everything will seem so banal, obvious and – well – trivial. I keep having the fight the thought that at my thesis defense the examiners will just go “and you thought this was worthy of a PhD why again?”

      1. I think everyone has areas where they are talented and interested and so those things come more easily. My fav way to express this is a story; I am IT, one of the guys on my contract was forever having issues opening email attachments or somehow losing documents, the reasons for this were trivial and silly to me. No matter how I explained things I would end up having to send a support person or do it for him myself. I did not mind this at all because the first time I met the guy he had just come back from Russia and he was ecstatic because he had inspected a nuclear facility that was falling apart and he was blissed out telling me how he could fix it, how it was easy! how it was so cool that the money was there and the fix was just simple as hell and wondering why the people who’d been running it could have missed this simple (to him) thing. And I didn’t understand one damn thing he told me about how he was going to fix it, but I he was so happy and so I just listened and nodded and laughed with him. After that, any time I got to thinking it was annoying that he couldn’t figure out email attachments, I just thought, “we all have our talents”. Also was impressed with the woman who could type whatever was spoken to her in real time and get it 99.99% right, I dunno even know how many words a minute that is.

    5. THIS. So much THIS.
      I just handed in my MA thesis and was honestly surprised when my supervisor said that it was “innovative” and “a contribution to the field”. Everything that I wrote seems so obvious and EASY.
      It wasn´t, my head bled a lot while I wrote it (metaphorically). It was hard and it was a lot, A LOT of work. But it just doesn´t seem that way now.
      Augh, I want that thing graded so I can move on from it. Except that I totally can´t, because there are publishing talks to be had. And more editing.
      On the plus side, I´ve started my PhD and it´s creative and awesome. Am enjoying it (in my country MA and PhD are seperate degrees, you have to complete MA before you advance to PhD).

  15. Hey OP, fellow amateur (hoping to become professional in the near future) writer here! I would like to recommend you this website/blog: http://kriswrites.com/ . It’s the site of a writer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has had a 30 year career in writing, editing, publishing – all sides of the coin. She blogs about the process of being a professional writer, and of having it as a career, which may not be your goal, but the thing that has been really helpful to me has been her ability to both acknowledge the joy/love/inspiration of writing and be very hard headed about the process/business side of it. One quote she throws out often (from Heinlein, I think) is “It doesn’t have to be perfect. It does have to be finished.”

    (For anyone else looking at a writing career: seriously, this should be required reading. She’s very much in favour of self-publishing and the new paradigm, but she’s not tossing traditional publishing out with the bathwater, and she emphasises the need to regard a writing career as a career and take responsibility for it. She’s also a damn good writer whose fiction I wholeheartedly recommend, particularly if you like blended genres (sci-fi/noir/romance? yes please!) and stories where there are women everywhere, being awesome, and filling any role they feel like. The Retrieval Artist series is particularly awesome.)

    1. Thanks for that link, I really enjoyed her essay. I totally used to be the “one-book writer” but over the course of self-publishing I think I’ve turned into the career writer.

      1. It’s part of a weekly series called ‘The Business Rusch’ which is well worth reading back over.

  16. Yup, I know the feeling well, with both writing and cooking. When I just spent two hours of complicated active prep on a dish, I don’t care how yummy and pretty it is – I want nothing to do with it. So I ask people to save me a plate and go do something else for a bit, and when I come back, the food is yummy and pretty and I enjoy it greatly.

    I only write in fandom and have never tried for publication, but the feeling is exactly as you describe. The story is not what it set out to be at all. I see all the flaws. The plot is stupid, the dialogue is strained, the elements I really wanted are lost, and I’m beyond all ability to tell if the thing is even good. But I know from experience that I need to finish it, publish it, then go away and not look at it for a good long time. Then reviews start pouring in, and hey, people like it! And in a week or so, I’m beginning to like it too and feeling pleased with my work. And if I open it again a year later, sure, Ill see some issues but all of them will be overshadowed by the overall coolness of this thing I created with my own brain and hands.

    On the subject of the story not ending up the way you intended, I read this passage once about writing that stuck with me for life (it was a second-hand quote, and I forget who the original author was). It said that ideas, even the best ones, are a dime a dozen and won’t even make a short story on their own, much less a novel. Imagine that the creative part of your brain is a big swamp, and there you take this shiny gizmo of an idea and toss it in the swamp. And then you pick up all kinds of garbage sitting around on the bank and toss it in after – an old shoe, a headless Barbie doll, fast food wraps, a disassembled engine and a dead rat. Then you let it stew. Then one day the final story comes out like a huge swamp monster, its body made up of all the junk it picked up in your head swamp, with your shiny gizmo of an idea for a heart, and that’s when you write it. I love that quote because it describes perfectly how a story picks up all that junk from your subconscious that you forgot you even had in there, and then it takes it into its own body. I think we do a good chunk of writing intuitively. That novel might not be exactly what you wanted but it still came from your head. So trust in your head swamp. Finish it, submit it, don’t look at it for a while, and then you’ll see that it’s actually great stuff.

    (Doo-doos happen, but that’s what you have those editors for – to tell you when you’re screwing up.)

  17. Hi, LW. Some time ago, you had something you wanted to say to the world, in the form of this novel. You’ve worked hard to be faithful to this vision, and you think you’ve just about said it the way you wanted to… but maybe what’s happening now is you really don’t care as much about finishing it because now you don’t really care as much about getting this book’s message out there any more.

    If that’s the case, it may be that one reason you’re feeling “meh” about the work is that you’re no longer the person who started it, and you no longer have that person’s commitment to say to the world whatever it is that this work says. That’s okay – your job now is to keep faith with that person-you-were and finish the work so whatever it was they wanted to say will be out there.

    Or maybe it turns out the whole point of writing the work was to get its message said to yourself, that is, to learn something new, and you feel like you’ve already finished that task, so there’s no real point in finishing the actual writing. If that’s the case, it might help to remind yourself that you’re not the only one who can benefit from it. Maybe it could help to spend some time mentally imagining and engaging with that wider audience, to inspire yourself to finish the book for them.

  18. “Funny feeling, isn’t it, when you bust a tough one? Triumph, sure. Maybe a little secret relief that you pulled it off. But there’s a fine sweet sadness in there, too, because now the golden moment is behind you. For a moment in there you were God… and now you’re just a guy who used to be God for a minute, and will be again some day.” –Spider Robinson

    See also Maureen McHugh’s novel-writing progress chart:


    You’re not alone, is what I’m saying, LW.

    I used to write songs, back when I was a teenager and didn’t understand anything about creativity. A couple of verses and a melody would leap into my head, I’d write them down, and then I’d get SUPER frustrated because nothing I could craft came close to matching the quality of the inspiration-stuff. The seam between the verse that appeared wholly formed and the verse I sweated out word by word was giant and ugly and stitched with the biggest clumsiest stitches in the world. It was like a sweater where one sleeve was knitted with perfect even tension and the rest was a lumpy mess of dropped stitches and knots. But it all came out of my head! Why couldn’t I consciously write song lyrics that were nearly as good as the ones I wrote unconsciously? SO AGGRAVATING. I left so many songs unfinished because I just could not make it work.

    But I kept trying, writing songs and poems and the occasional story, and eventually I developed some skills and got better at the craft of writing. It got less frustrating and more fun. Eventually I ended up with a few pieces that I’m really proud of.

    It’s harder to do that with novels, because it takes a long time to write one. Do it anyway. Either commit to finishing the novel–really finishing it–or, if you’re certain you’ve learned everything you can from it, trunk it and move on to the next one. But don’t let it hang over you and don’t let it drive you away from writing. Everyone started off knitting lumpy three-armed sweaters. The key thing is to persist and keep striving to make the next one better in one way or another.

    1. 1. I love that quote. I’ve been there. As an editor who occasionally has to suggest changes more extensive than the correction of misspellings, I’ve also seen the dark side of this phenomenon. I’m sure you can relate. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN I SHOULD CLARIFY THIS SENTENCE. DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND I AM GOD HERE.”

      2. I wonder if you’re being too hard on the parts of your songwriting you had to consciously craft. I’m a songwriter, and I make extensive, unapologetic use of the internal rhyming dictionary. “What could go here? Has to rhyme with ‘go.’ Ao, bo, blow, bro, co, clo, crow …” Some of my best lines have come out of this drudgey process.

  19. Fun fact: Nabokov was THIS CLOSE to chucking the unfinished manuscript of Lolita into a fire because he was so sick of it.

    I’m reading a thesis right now for essay research that I feel like I have to keep a copy of, just so if I’m ever in a position where it’s possible to do post-grad (the government cut financial aid for it, because that’s not at all a time where you want to be focusing on studying rather than working) I can look at it sometimes and go THIS GUY GOT A GODDAMN MASTERS AND SO WILL I. The content is great, it’s well-researched, but oh my god the homonyms and misplaced apostrophes and run on sentences even worse than mine and now halfway through there’s starting to be sentences that don’t even make sense until you read them four or five times and sometimes not even then. I’m pretty sure the only SPAG editing he did was running spell check. It makes me want to sit down and write my own damn thesis NOW, let alone actually, you know, getting a Bachelors or enrolling in post-grad first, so I suspect it will be quite useful fuel.

  20. I absolutely know that feeling. I’m almost done with my dissertation. I have a draft, there are revisions that need to be done, but it is pretty much finished. I’ve been working on this thing for ages now, but I just can’t find the motivation to finish. I’m mentally just done with it, even though it’s not quite done.

  21. As an aspiring journo, who doesn’t write art but must write every day, this is really helpful too. I love my job but i have to fight my fear of failure daily to work on the initial creative start of each story. What somebody said earlier: done is better than perfect. Thank you for that.

  22. Gonna come out of lurking just for this post.

    LW, I noticed you said you’ve only been working on this book for a little over a year. You’re about due to be frustrated with it, even if you weren’t about to see it complete. We can only hold onto any one emotion for so long, unfortunately that includes enthusiasm. Work on a longer project and you’ll see that love comes in waves.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t attach too much meaning to “it feels weak.” It always feels weak at some point.

    You say you’re “doing it right” this time by hearing a lot of feedback. That’s cool, and it’s cool if you like that sort of thing. But I think it’s worth saying that you’re under no obligation to make anything “good.” This goes for everyone, amateurs and professionals alike. You’re not obligated to create “good” work.

    My last piece of advice is also to encourage you to get it out there somehow. A story doesn’t really exist until it exists in other peoples’ heads, you know? Put it out for free or cheap, some people will find it and connect with the story and reach out to you and there’s really no better feeling than that. That’s my advice from personal experience as a webcomic creator.

    Also here’s a little cartoon on the subject: http://24.media.tumblr.com/2a7944ed43ca0dedfcd7bb818e580dc1/tumblr_mrgrmzntJ91qlwu36o1_500.png

    Good luck!

  23. I was asked a very similar question by a potter friend: I don;t have the time or energy or confidence to take my work to a gallery or a dealer, and I can’t produce enough to make it worthwhile for anyone to market it for me. And while I’m never completely satisfied with a pot or sculpture, it seems wrong to just put it away or dump it. What should I do?

    If you can’t do anything else, leave it on a street corner or donate it to a thrift shop or put it in Etsy for the cost of shipping it plus materials. It will find its audience and someone to appreciate it. When the work is done and you’ve cleaned up the mess of making it, your obligation is over – the rest is up to the work. Fame and fortune are sometimes nice, but really irrelevant. Art only asks to be seen,

  24. ‘nother de-lurker….

    I’m not a writer. I crochet. Every single time I finish a piece, big or small, I look at it and think, gad, that’s a piece of crap. So I toss it aside.

    Days, weeks, or months later, I happen on the item. My first response is: Where did this come from? Good grief, did I do this?

    How is it that it has come to look so much better than it did when it left my hook? I mean, this is really, actually not half bad!!

    It’s been a slow process, learning not to judge prematurely. Still not there yet.

    (Also: w00t, LW wrote a novel! )

  25. I am sorry, I don’t have time to read through the comments, so I hope I am not repeating others, but my thought is–maybe you’re putting too much emphasis on the end product, as silly as that sounds. Maybe you should pay more attention to the process you followed in getting there.

    You made this thing, and while you made it you learned a lot of stuff and improved your process, and upped your game. Maybe you feel like the end result isn’t up to the process. But now you can embark on other things and your process is going to be further enriched by what you learned and yet again your end result may not match what you had in mind, because you got better and once again can expect more from yourself.

    Maybe it’s an endless process of learning and trying to live up to what we’ve learned.

    I don’t know. I am a sort of creative person, but I don’t do art very often. Instead I’m thinking of my work, wherein I combine a lot of technical work with something that does have an undeniably creative aspect though not in a pure or self-expressive form. But I’m finding this is how it is for me: I make something, and while I’m making it I learn, and the end product can never live up to what I’ve learned, but I apply that new knowledge the next time around.

  26. If it’s any consolation, LW, getting sick of your current project means you’ll be more ready to move onto the next thing.

    Whatever happens, I hope you keep going. Here’s one of my favorite poems for possible inspiration:

    Why We Tell Stories
    For Linda Foster

    Because we used to have leaves
    and on damp days
    our muscles feel a tug,
    painful now, from when roots
    pulled us into the ground

    and because our children believe
    they can fly, an instinct retained
    from when the bones in our arms
    were shaped like zithers and broke
    neatly under their feathers

    and because before we had lungs
    we knew how far it was to the bottom
    as we floated open-eyed
    like painted scarves through the scenery
    of dreams, and because we awakened

    and learned to speak

    We sat by the fire in our caves,
    and because we were poor, we made up a tale
    about a treasure mountain
    that would open only for us

    and because we were always defeated,
    we invented impossible riddles
    only we could solve,
    monsters only we could kill,
    women who could love no one else
    and because we had survived
    sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
    we discovered bones that rose
    from the dark earth and sang
    as white birds in the trees

    Because the story of our life
    becomes our life

    Because each of us tells
    the same story
    but tells it differently

    and none of us tells it
    the same way twice

    Because grandmothers looking like spiders
    want to enchant the children
    and grandfathers need to convince us
    what happened happened because of them

    and though we listen only
    haphazardly, with one ear,
    we will begin our story
    with the word and

    ——–Lisel Mueller

  27. Another perspective! Coming fron fanfic.

    So I look at a lot of my old works and just shudder. I can’t reread the earliest ones because I find them too embarrassing, and then there’s that thing I wrote that’s more popular than everything else put together where I just go “ugh it’s cliched and horrible and there are too many italics and aaaaah why did past!self think this was a good idea! I don’t understand why so many people like this!”

    But, you know? A lot of people do like it. Maybe they have no taste, maybe they see something in it I don’t, maybe I’m too close to it and getting irrationally annoyed by things I wouldn’t mind in anyone else’s work, maybe they’re at the same stage I was at when I wrote the damn thing and thought it was awesome… it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this thing I wrote, even though I don’t like it anymore and can’t even look at it without going “ugh SO BAD what were you thinking tiny!Kaz?”, brightens their day just a little. That something I produced might have made a crappy time just a bit better or provided some escapism at the right moment or bolstered their enthusiasm for the fandom or whatever. Sometimes that it provided enough enjoyment they decided to let me, the author, know that they appreciated my work through reviews or kudos or whatever. And none of that would have happened, none of it would exist if I’d given up halfway through or if I’d deleted the fic off the internet when I started disliking it. Maybe the fic I write isn’t as good as the perfect vision of the fic as it should be as it existed in my head, but the fact is that other people will never get to see that one – and the fic I write is definitely better than nothing at all.

    Disclaimer: I am still really bad at pushing through the “ugh this all sucks” feeling when I’m *writing* – generally the “ugh this all sucks” feelings only hit after the fact for me. Generally, I just don’t – this being one of the big reasons I will never try to write professionally. I personally found it relatively easy to learn things about writing from reading, and also my taste basically grew/grows along with my writing ability so I didn’t have the starting difficulties Ira Glass described. I’m now struggling with this because I’d quite like to learn how to draw, but I can barely set pencil to paper without the “UGH THIS ALL SUCKS” rearing its head. I’m pondering trying to take a class at some point, because I don’t seem to have the self-discipline to push through on my own and maybe a class will get me used to comparing my work to other beginners or to my own past work instead of the platonic ideal of what I was *trying* to do.

    1. Seconding this, again from a fandom POV. I look back at one of my earliest works and wince. But it’s also the most popular of everything I’ve posted – I even got a comment once that asked if one of the sentences could be used as a tattoo (!!!). Evidently the people who read it see something in it that I no longer do, and it brightens their day.

      Putting a piece of art (writing, visual art, music etc.) out into the world is really kind of scary. You make a thing, help shape it and form it and it may not turn out the way you want it to. But then you send it out before an audience anyway, and from then on you don’t have sole ownership of it. Sure, you are still the creator, but from the moment other people see it, it belongs a little bit to them – how they see it may not be the same as how you do. And that can be fantastic – other people come to it new and see what you loved about it in the first place.

  28. LW, I first wanted to say that I admire you so much for having written this much of your novel. I’m one of those people that walks around feeling like there are books inside my body or similarly, as you expressed, stories I need to tell for myself. I know from just starting that the actual day in day out progress of getting that shit onto the page is really hard. And you’ve come this far. I know it seems unfair that the end is as hard as other parts probably were. I agree with the Captain, despite the unfairness. Maybe see all these feelings that you’re having as part of this really hard but rewarding process that is making stuff instead of a sign that you should stop making stuff.

    Quick no pressure reccomendation? I love Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. You don’t necessarily need to read the whole thing, but I’d look over Part II where she describes staying healthy throughout the writing process. It’ll maybe help with ideas for staying as emotionally comfortable as possible if you decide to follow the Captain’s advice to finish the thing.

  29. I also thought the LW might appreciate some of the insights that Judith Scheckter writes in this post on her blog (http://judithschaechterglass.blogspot.com/2013/06/kill-skill.html)- she is a Glass Artist (and amazing at it!), and she writes,”Perfectionism is a form of fear (fear of failure to be specific) masquerading as a noble attempt to do one’s best. It is not just the biggest buzzkill out there, but also a path towards guaranteed failure. It is a great paradox that in attempting to do a good job, one cuts themselves off from the very sources of inspiration that might allow for them to do a great one.”

    And this:
    “As artisans, we transition from holy fools to journeyman to master and ultimately into something like a Zen Master. We go from simple play to learning, to knowing how to fix our mistakes to knowing when fixing them is desirable or not. And hopefully, ultimately, how to balance striving for perfection and when to play like a child. To not go through those stages is to deprive one’s self of full actualization as an artist. To stop at Holy Fool because that’s what the art world favors is to stunt one’s growth in a pantomime of a Shaman. Lame.”

    I think the LW might also get a lot out of reading Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” In particular, I’m remembering the part about how sometimes, as creatives, we plateau. We’re tired, we’re frustrated, but she stresses that this is the actual work of being a creative individual – not the highs, but the dedication and stamina to push through the lows. That we have to put in the hard, difficult work to get to the brief, fun parts.

    I think one thing the LW needs to remember is that creative pursuit is a journey, not a destination (sorry for cliche use!). Yes, there are some young creatives who get heralded as “geniuses,” early in their careers, and this fails to account for whatever support system or network they had in place to make their work and get it noticed. But the majority of creative people struggle somewhere. If this is your first book, you’re just at the start of a writer’s journey. Finish this book, and learn from it. If for no other reason, so you can have familiarity with the whole process. Nothing is as difficult to finish as the first big project for a creative person.

    As someone who teaches art students, I often ask them to examine their process, more so they learn about themselves and how they operate. And many resist this – “It’s just something I do, I don’t want to think about it!” But considering your personal process of creation is a way of harnessing your full potential and recognizing when you are making or revisiting a pattern of decisions. For the LW, this could be when they are re-using old plot devices, or when they are making choices about how they write that lead to this ennui.

    Things to consider – How can you envision dealing with this ennui/exhaustion/frustration for book #2? How do you think adapting your work habits may avoid it, or a least, not bring it on so strongly? What parts of the process did you enjoy most? How can you transfer the energy from the enjoyable parts to the less enjoyable parts?

  30. I’m so glad you asked this question! This thread and these comments have been really helpful for me to read.

    So, I used to write original (i.e. non-fanfiction stuff) back in my teens. It wasn’t very good. There were (I think) some good ideas there, but they were sort of buried under a ton of cliches and bad plots, because I didn’t know what I was meant to be doing.

    Then for about ten years I wrote nothing but fanfiction. The fanfiction started off pretty bad, because again I didn’t know what I was meant to be doing. I think as I’ve gone on, I’ve got better, and now the stuff I’ve written recently, I’ve been looking back and feeling pretty good about it. But in the last two years, I’ve actually come back to original. And oh my gosh, it is hard. I’ve finished the first draft of a novel and these last few weeks I’ve really been in two minds about whether it’s “worth” trying to rework it. But I’ve come round to the idea that I want to try. Because there is some good stuff in there, I think – and I think reworking an original story of this length is something that’ll really be informative for me in learning more about my writing, and how I write. Even though I constantly have to beat back the feeling of “bluuuuh, I HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT THIS STORY”. Because I don’t. I am just super-aware of some of the tropes and flaws in it, but I’ve had stories (both original and fanfic) where I’ve had to recognise “there’s just… nothing here, is there? This was… a flawed idea from the beginning.” This doesn’t feel like that. So (tl;dr) I thinking trying to develop a sense of “this really isn’t working, and it’s okay to walk away” vs “there’s something I want to salvage/keep persisting with” is a good skill to have.

    I was complaining to someone that I found original writing much more of a grind and much harder to get right, and they were like, “That’s okay. I reckon it would be, because you don’t have the fannish love you have for whatever you’re writing fanfic for. You’re sustaining your entire world yourself. It’s going to be hard.” And it felt really good to have someone saying, “It being hard, or feeling awkward, doesn’t make you Not a Writer, or the story a Bad Story.”

    1. Tallulah, me too! Almost on the exact same timeline! It is SO HARD to write my original stuff instead of fanfic! Even though I love it and want it to live… there isn’t a pool of people out there I can go to and say “OMG CHARACTER!” and get instant feedback.

      It’s nice to know I’m not alone. 🙂

  31. Yo, this is my first comment here. I guess this one really brought out the lurkers.

    My relevant experience comes from dressmaking rather than writing, but I want to explain a very specific phenomenon which it sounds like you might be experiencing.

    So right at the beginning of a project, everything seems great. I’ve got this awesome fabric, I’ve drafted up this sweet pattern, everything’s going according to plan. I do some stitching, maybe I’ve got the pockets done, maybe I’ve done the collar. Everything still looks great! It’s not done but I can imagine how awesome the finished project will look.

    But the closer it gets to being a completed garment, the louder the Jaws theme starts playing in my head. Because the more it looks like a real thing I might wear into the outside world, the more obvious the unfinished pieces become. I find it harder and harder to imagine the final, completed project, because the half-finished, imperfect garment is staring me right in the face. The more it looks like a real garment, the more intolerable those imperfections become to me. And I confess there’s a nontrivial number of projects where I never could see past that and which are still unfinished.

    But if I do stick it out, more often than not, it’ll turn out that those seemingly insurmountable imperfections were really just the unfinished parts, or an easily-remedied fit problem, or just a need for a little pressing. And when the final garment is done, it comes out all right after all.

    I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes this almost-done-except for-the-details stage can be especially challenging in its own right. So stick it out LW! I’m rooting for you.

  32. I haven’t read all the comments, so someone could have mentioned this already.

    I see 2 things going on here that I identify with:

    1. When I’m almost finished with a piece that I am really loving (I’m an artist/photographer), I cannot stand to sit down and finish it. So far it’s been so freaking great, and I fear that I might mess it up with my finishing touches. The only thing I can do is just plow through, even if it’s 5 minutes at a time.
    2. I’ve worked on a piece for so long, analyzing every angle and possibility. When I finally get to the finish line, there is a disconnect. A big one. Usually viewers’ reactions let me know that I was right on target, thankfully! And when I look back through old albums, I’m often struck by the impact that I was going for.

    When I first started, I would freak myself out over all of this. It didn’t take long to realize that that’s just how I work, and now I try to just go with it.

    Make yourself finish that book! Even if it’s only 5 minutes at a time.

  33. I would highly, highly recommend Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life – partly because it’s incredibly beautiful, but also because it may be some comfort on the process of writing. Dillard is a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of my very favorite authors, a master of the craft – and even she finds writing to be an arduous and anxiety-inducing endeavor.

    A quote from that book, specifically on the subject of actually producing a complete book:

    “Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.”

    (You’re in good company.)

  34. I’ve been sitting here for the last hour trying to figure out how to say this. I mean, I don’t mean to hijack someone else’s thread, and maybe this is its own question I should submit myself, but it’s quite closely related, so I thought I’d ask. I’m delurking, though I’ve been reading and mining the archives for a while now, and I recognize a lot of people here.

    I’m an artist. About fifteen years ago I did a whole bunch of art of a type that would be published with a book. I’m trained as an artist, not as a writer, so I don’t necessarily know how to write anyway; but I’ve also not been taught *how* to write, like how to cite. I honestly do not know how to do this. So I asked, at a progressive online place when the topic came up. This was several years ago now.

    The answers I got were so nasty and so aggressive that I just clean dropped the writing. This was at a place that had a good proportion of academics, but was not strictly an academic site, being a progressive place open to all, except trolls of course.

    Now, this was the type of book I was writing–go into a bookstore to the New Age section and pull out a tarot deck and book set. That book. Something that will be like five by seven inches and maybe 150 pages. I was excoriated for asking what kind of citations a popular book like that would require. Because similar books that I looked at have none.

    Goddammit but they were such silencing assholes about it. Yes I do recognize that they pushed a lot of buttons that my toxic and abusive family put in me. I can see that, and I’ve been working on unwiring those buttons; but still I can’t seem to make myself pick up writing that book again. It’s like it’s radioactive now, and no matter how loudly I tell myself *Fuck ’em* all I want to do when I think about picking up the writing again is hide in the corner and try not to cry.

    I have fans of my art who would very much like to see it published, but even right now just writing this I’m feeling queasy and like I’m going to cry. Maybe I’m a wuss; I know that if someone said something nasty about my art I’d dismiss it without even thinking about it, because I *know* it’s good. But writing isn’t my field. I do want to do it right. But the way they were talking they made it sound like all books are held to PhD thesis standards. Which would mean starting the whole thing from scratch, another reason why it just feels impossible to me.

    How do I get to a place where I can look at it again? I imagine there are some practical things I could research but right now it’s just pain pain pain and I can’t get past it enough to brainstorm ideas.

    1. Oh Thalia, those people were jerks.

      Let’s see. Short form, you can end note, it doesn’t have to be any particular format, and your notes can be whatever is relevant. I don’t know what you’d be citing, since it’s your own work? But you don’t have to worry about that so much right now.

      Because you? You are an artist. You work visually. The best thing is that you already have the body of knowledge for your book. It’s your art! Woohoo! Step one done. YOU are all the research you need to do to get started. YOU sitting on the couch are enough.

      Step two is to figure out how to group things, what you want to say. That is Fun, because that is playing with your tarot cards or whatever. What goes together? What are categories? What are you trying to Say(TM)? Even if they’re actually tarot, you don’t have to present them in order unless you want to. When you’re working with words, this is the outlining phase and usually comes after a bunch of research, but again — *you* are your topic. Your art is your topic. You don’t have to do any research for that. A lot of people do this best with little note cards they can shuffle around; there’s software that emulates it (scrivener).

      Step three! Now, you look at your groups, and you write down — and don’t worry about the prettiness of the words or anything else, you fix that later — what each group is about. Not just “This group is about bunnies”, but why did bunnies inspire you? Why did you make ten paintings about bunnies? If you were inspired because you know something about renaissance bunny paintings, write that too — you’ll look that shit up later.

      For each item in a group, you write what it’s all about, and you write how it relates to the group. “This is the queen bunny, she is all X Y and Z, and I painted her this way because I was watching Queen Latifah sing her heart on in the movie Chicago.” Your inspiration, your message, whatever you want to say. Again, you are the source. You are the artist.

      All of this can be on little note cards. So by now you may have a card with Bunnies on the front and a paragraph on the back about bunnies. Then you have a picture and a card about that picture. Then another picture and a card. Sometimes you find a painting isn’t about bunnies and belongs with the bees instead, and you just move them over the to the bee group.

      The bunny group, right there, is a chapter. A bunch of groups is a book.

      When you get everything in the right order, you put it into the best word processor software you can afford. I hope it’s not Word, but if it’s what you’ve got, it’s what you’ve got. When you type up the notes from the cards, you might expand it a little bit, because you’ll think of more. “Oh yeah! There was that whole thing about the flower show and the africanized honeybees!”

      All that together? Is a DRAFT.

      It is only *after* your draft that you worry about sourcing your comments about renaissance bunnies and the history of tarot and shit… because you are not writing a history book! You are writing an art book. About your art. YOUR art.

      That is an enormous pile of work OMG. I know. But I also know that you can do it a tiny bit at a time, because you know your work. You can sit down for a few minutes at a time, look at a picture, and take a quick note about what’s in it and why you did it. You can make category names and then come back and fill in all the stuff about bunnies.

      In fact, I bet you already know the categories. I bet, reading this, you snrked at the bunnies — but the back of your brain already knows at least three categories.

      ….and what you do with your draft, when you get there, is you find an editor or a writing group (in person, not online, if you can) to help with the next steps.

      1. I should say, whatever you already have, you don’t have to throw away! Even if you do start over with this note card procedure — which I do recommend, because it is a way to start fresh — when you get to typing things in, you can grab the relevant words from your existing stuff and stick it in where it belongs.

        Words are infinitely reusable.

        Also, you are completely awesome. And you can do this.

      2. Thank you, carbonatedwit; that helps quite a bit. I can feel my shoulders coming down.

        For the record the art is about Goddesses, so there are some more ‘researchy’ elements to this than just that it’s my own work. The entries will need some historical information, retellings of myths, attributes of each one, that sort of thing, in addition to why I chose to depict each Goddess the way I did. All told though the entries are only a page or two, so the historical stuff can only be a paragraph or two, and fairly general.

        Anyway though that really helped and I can feel it loosening a bit, when it’s been stuck now for literally years. Thank you.

        1. You can google “citation style” or “style guide” if you want the full system, but you know what? This is not a thesis, this is not going to be graded. If what you basically want to do is 1) show you’ve done your work and 2) give credit where it’s due, then all you need is a footnote marker in the text, and something at the bottom of the page that contains the name of the source, its author, and possibly its publishing house/date. Make sure you always format it the same way each time, same order of words, but literally, your footnote could be:

          Some Book, Some Author, 1998

          … with no fancy formatting and you’d have done your due diligence. You don’t even have to footnote if you’re not quoting directly – you could just put a list at the end of a chapter, or the end of the book as a whole, of the sources you used. And if for some reason you wanted more structure, or an editor suggested it later, you would have the basic blocks to build on there.

          I’m sorry you got such a dickish response. 😦

    2. Wow. Those people really were assholes. I’m sorry. Editors like to poke fun at writers who think they know everything (which they don’t), but there’s no excuse, none, for attacking a novice writer who asks for help.

      Regarding citations, my guess is that you’ll want endnotes or a bibliography at the back of the book. You can find proper formatting for most things here …


      … but if you’re going to have the book edited, you don’t need to worry so much about getting it right the first time. An editor can tell you whether your formatting is right, or whether you need to cite something you didn’t cite. That’s the editor’s job.

      Good luck. I hope you get it finished!

    3. Assuming you’re the Thalia I think you are, that’s freaking horrible. Especially since your art rocks. I’d like to see it in a book, darn it.

      I do hate the total SHAME SHAME thing you get for ah….pagan/hippie/tarot stuff, if you mention it in public to any audience that isn’t filled with pagan hippies. However, there’s a bunch of research nerd pagans out there–perhaps you could try asking them? If you see any book along the lines of what you do, either read it for an example or write the author and ask them how they did it?

  35. My first thought when I read this letter was the interview where Stephen King says that he threw his first book away and his wife pulled it out of the trash, brushed off the cig butts and read it, then insisted he put it out there to publishers. LW, if you don’t go forward I’m afraid you might trash your book and then we will miss out on a chance to read your most awesome work because you will not publish that first book that leads to all the others.

    For the record I thought “Carrie” sucked but I am damned glad it got published or I’d never have been able to read “The Stand”.

  36. LW, I would say that your experience meshes pretty well with mine.

    I’ve got seven published books, plus a ton of fanfic. When I’m writing anything longer than a few thousands words, I often hit a point about 80% of the way through where I’m convinced that it’s absolute rubbish and no one will want to read it. Feeling that something is true doesn’t actually make it true, though. It just means that a feeling is happening. It might have a basis in exterior reality, but then it might not. These days, I still get the feeling of doom, but experience tells me to keep going, and I look at it more as a sign that I’m about 80% of the way through — awesome, nearly done!

    So I guess what I’m saying is, don’t try to work on the feelings of meh, work on the words, instead. Those feelings might just be something that happens in your process of writing a novel, no matter how good it is, or well-edited, or how diligently you did everything ‘right’.

  37. Also – if you don’t want to work on it, if you don’t want to finish it, you don’t have to!

  38. I relate to this one….My problem is that I will churn out the rough draft–usually a NaNoWriMo novel–and then seriously lose all interest once it’s written. I don’t want to edit it, I don’t care about fixing it, I read it and think it’s terrible and it’s definitely not worth the time and effort to try to fix it, assuming I knew how, which I don’t. I am fine with shorter nonfiction pieces, but anything long and I just start to stink on ice or something. I don’t know what’s wrong with me in that i just stop caring, especially with big writing works. I don’t nearly do this as much with arts and crafts, comparatively speaking. I just don’t care enough about the piece to fight for it and find it a home in the world–as far as I’m concerned, it deserves to be lost and pitched in an abandoned file. I don’t know if I am actually right about that or not, but if I don’t love my own work enough to fight for it, then….well, there’s no hope for me there, is there?

  39. A late additional comment, but I just saw this on Twitter and it really sums it up:

    “Creative process: 1) This is going to be awesome 2) This is hard 3) This is terrible 4) I’m terrible 5) Hey, not bad 6) That was awesome”

  40. Oh, wow. I know those feels. From what I understand, that feeling? Is quite common to a lot of writers. You get almost to the end, you’ve covered all the imaginative stuff, and now it’s just plain work, going through the stuff that’s left over.

    There’s a couple things I would recommend. First of all, have you been really putting yourself into this work? Have you been expending a lot of energy on it? Then maybe you should step away from it for a while, and give yourself a break from it. Try something else, like maybe a different creative project. Then, when you’ve had a break from your main project, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and try again.

    The second thing is: *do* go back to it. Maybe even after you take a break from it, you still feel ‘meh’ about your novel. That’s okay. It happens. But when you’ve spent so much time and effort doing a thing, it is worth going the extra distance to complete it. Yes, it feels like work. But it is *worthwhile* work. It is something you have done, which is awesome, and you have invested a lot in it. And who knows? Once your project is finished, you may feel excited about it. If not? Well, you’ve added something creative and good to the world.

  41. YES! This advice is spot on – I was struggling to finish a project about a year ago, and the “just finish it” is so true. Even if I never return to that work, it has opened up doors for me, and the closure in finishing it was satisfying in and of itself. I am going to try to remember that with my current project too – the only thing I can control is my output and putting it out there, not what others do with it. I needed the reminder right now!

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