Writing Shit

Writing Shit

No rubbish.jpg

I’ve been meaning to rewrite this post for some time. It was one of my first posts as a blogger and thus I had not yet settled on how I was going to approach blogging or how much time I was going to put into each post. Nevertheless, this has probably remained one of the most popular posts on my blog, and thus I decided it was time to rewrite it, because it was at best half-assed. At worst, it might have been sh*t.

1) Sometimes you will think your writing is fantastic. Sometimes you will think it is shit. Both will probably be correct.

Writer Hari Kunzu, in The Guardian Writing for a living: a joy or a chore? probably captures this best in the following quote about the writing process, and in particular of writing novels:

"Along the way, there are the pitfalls of self-disgust, boredom, disorientation and a lingering sense of inadequacy, occasionally alternating with episodes of hysterical self-congratulation as you fleetingly believe you've nailed that particular sentence and are surely destined to join the ranks of the immortals, only to be confronted the next morning with an appalling farrago of clichés that no sane human could read without vomiting."

We have all had the experience of reading our own writing and being blown away by how great it is. We have probably also all had the experience of cringing in despair at how appalling it is. Sometimes we experience both emotions regarding the same section of writing depending on our general state of mind when we read it. Writing well is insanely hard. There is a fine balance between looking at your work critically and improving what needs to be improved, and brow-beating yourself into believing that it is shit and you will never write well. Most writers probably do both. But serious writers know anything can be improved. It just depends how long you can keep at it. As Stephen King observed in On Writing:

"Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes  you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to  shovel shit from a sitting position."

2) You have to be prepared to write shitty first drafts.

Most writers will know this comes from Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird and most writers will be thoroughly acquainted with writing shitty first drafts. Shitty first drafts are critical to the writing process and you will never be a writer if you do not get words down on the page. The key is to know that it is a shitty first draft and not to stop there. Shitty first drafts must be revised, again, again and again.

The tricky part comes sometime between the fifth and the tenth draft when you are no longer able to discern whether you are improving your manuscript or ripping apart that which gave it soul or movement. That’s when the writing process gets shitty (but that’s another post).

3) There are few accepted external criteria with regard to whether your writing is shit or not.

Okay, yes if you have sold a million books, fans love your writing, the reviewers fawn over you, you have won a Pulitzer and you make $5 million a year, your writing is probably not shit. But very few writers have achieved all of those things. Best-selling authors get panned by reviewers. Prize-winning authors fail to sell copies. Different readers have different tastes and very little writing will be universally loved. Thus while external feedback is important in determining whether your writing is shit or not, it is not the only metric you should use. If you have met even one of the above criterion, you should probably be happy. Even if you haven’t, your writing might not be shit. There is just so much writing out there that some good writers will fail to get noticed. Definitely do not use your ability to generate income from your writing as a criterion for determining whether your writing is shit or not.

4) Your writing might be shit.

This may be the hardest thing to accept as a writer. Some of us will simply not be good enough, or as good as the truly gifted writers out there and no amount of revision will make our writing not shit. Not everyone will be a good musician, artist, or doctor. For every human endeavor, there are people who fail. Just take a quick sift through some self-published novels, and even some traditionally published ones if you want to unearth much shit (you will also find many great novels).

There is a somewhat pervasive myth that you can do you want as long as you work hard enough at it. This is simply not true, and at some point it may be desirable to accept that your writing may be shit. That does not mean you cannot continue to write. I am a shitty ballet dancer, but I love it, and I get a lot out of trying to improve just a little bit each year. But it is also important to be realistic. I will never make a living dancing ballet and it is quite possible, you or I, will never make a living writing. But sometimes it’s also important to have a big slug of your gin and tonic and see number one, two and three above.

Photo Credit: andreasf 

One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do - you can either type or kill yourself." ~ Anne Lamott, 1995