What to Do If You Hate What You’ve Written
by Nancy Holder
A better title for this piece is “What to do when you hate what you’ve written.” I don’t know anyone who has enjoyed a one hundred per cent hate-free writing life. We’ve all been there and this is what we usually do about it:
Start a story or a novel or a poem.
Read what we’ve written so far.
Read what we’ve written so far.
Work on another part of the story.
Read what we’ve written so far.
Talk about getting back to it.
Let time slide by.
The catch is that most of the time when we hate what we’ve written, it’s not actually about the writing. It’s about the expectations we place on ourselves. We have some kind of blurry vision about where we should be in the writing process, and we’ve concluded that we’re not there. It’s difficult to understand how we can recognize good work yet be unable to produce it, and it’s often even harder to accept.
So sometimes we displace our disappointment by seeking validation as writers in “writer-adjacent” ways—getting more followers on Facebook, participating in conferences, buying office supplies, doing research, offering to read someone else’s work and so on. But in our hearts we know that none of this makes us writers.
Writing makes us writers.
Ira Glass, the host and producer of the radio show This American Life, has a wonderful video titled “Being Creative” where he talks about this gap between our taste and our work in progress. He says that there’s a disconnect because we’re learning how to do our creative thing. And that’s the key word: learning.
So what is the solution? Ira Glass and I both agree:
It’s to write more.
Really and truly, the only way I have found to stop hating my work is to write a lot. To have written so much for so many years that I can’t help but improve. The learning curve is always there, but it’s a different curve than what it was in the beginning. But I rarely hate what I write. I may see weaknesses and flaws, but those dark thunderclouds of despair and loathing are for the most part absent.
It’s important to write reams of material because then writing seems less like an activity that is separate from your life until it is part of your life (and for some of us, writing is our life). When we write so seldom that writing always feels new and awkward, we spend an inordinate amount of time judging it. We’re hyperaware of what we’re doing and hypercritical of the results. When writing becomes commonplace, it takes less energy to get better. When we see flaws and weaknesses, fixing them doesn’t seem like an insurmountable task.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. It has nothing to do with writing. I’ve decided to start baking and decorating cookies. My dream is to make cookies that are so beautiful that when people receive them as gifts, they’re truly excited. Maybe even that people would be willing to pay for them. I’m all juiced up about it. My boyfriend has even started calling me “Cookie.”
I bought myself a well-known “cookie bible” and some equipment and all the ingredients I needed, watched a bunch of videos, and got started. Look at me! I’m a baker!
My first batch of cookies was pretty good. The next batch was terrible—too thick and burnt. The third batch tasted doughy. The four batch was almost as good as the first batch. Okay, then, on to decorating.
My icing was too runny. Then when I mixed in more sugar, I didn’t stir the icing enough and all the cookies came out streaked. I had to throw out a bunch of icing because I didn’t work fast enough and it went bad. That meant I had to go to the store again. I ruined a batch when I tried to stencil them. That meant that I had to make more icing. Again.
To frost more cookies, I needed to make more cookies. This time the dough cracked and stuck to the rolling pin. When I tried to transfer the cookies to the baking sheet, they stretched and a couple of them broke apart.
I got distracted and mismeasured how much cream of tartar to put in my next batch of icing. It tasted weird.
Onward! I told myself. Stay the course.
I stayed the course.
For a while.
At the outset, I had told my friends and family that I knew I was going to have make tons of cookies to get any good at it. And yes, at first I held to that. I reminded myself that this was a pleasant hobby, a diversion, and not something that defined me. So it was a little easier to maintain some distance while I learned how to do it.
Then I got invited to a baby shower. I looked at the calendar and offered to make some really cute cookies I had seen online. I ordered the cutter, then got to work, baked a batch, then frosted them. Drum roll…
Frankly, they looked as if a little kid had made them. The outline of the cookie was difficult to identify because the dough was too “loose” and my frosting was still streaked. They just weren’t ready for prime time. The shower date loomed closer…and closer. And by then I was on a writing deadline. Now I felt pressure from two sides, where before I had had none.
Frustration set in because my expectations had changed—I had assumed that surely by now I would be good enough to unveil my cookies to an adoring public, and I was so very not. I got into a funk. What was wrong with me? Couldn’t I even make cookies? They were just little cookies, not three-tiered wedding cakes. The people in my books and my videos made it look so easy. I had followed all the steps. But my cookies sucked. I was tired and bummed out. I kind of hated the whole thing. Maybe making cookies was not my thing after all….
Then I remembered Ira Glass. What he would remind me is that my cookies only suck now. But they will get cuter (and tastier) if I continue to make batch after batch, reread my cookbooks, and watch my videos—if I keep practicing. I can stop now. But if I do, my cookies just won’t be that great.
The analogy is obvious, and so is the take-home message. A writer writes. And writes some more. And keeps writing. Through the pressure and the frustration.
And then a writer gets better. And then, pretty good.
Is it ever good enough?
Only if you think there’s an end game. And for a working writer, there isn’t.
You just keep writing forever and ever and ever.
And more often than not, you actually enjoy it.
Here, have a cookie.
Here’s Ira Glass’s youtube video:
Nancy Holder is a New York Times bestselling author and the recipient of several awards, include five Bram Stokers for her horror fiction. Her YA thriller, The Rules, is out in June. She writes and edits comic books and teaches in the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program offered through the University of Southern Maine. She lives in San Diego and just turned in the novelization of the new Ghostbusters movie starting Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Socialize on Facebook and @nancyholder
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