Sometimes You Write, Sometimes You’re Wrong

A meditation on cooperation with my inner criticPhoto by Steve Johnson on UnsplashThe pen is willing, but the mind is weak

I was fortunate enough to enjoy a generous break from my day job for the 2020 holiday season, and I decided to capitalize on a portion of that found time by working on one of the more complex writing projects that has occupied the back burner of my literary ambition for nearly three years. I devoted many good hours over the span of my vacation to this task, spilling a prodigious amount of ink (metaphorically) in the process, but each session culminated in that cocktail of anxiety and disappointment that tends to accompany the realization that one has produced something glaringly mediocre. The story wasn’t coalescing into anything approximating the grandiose vision of which I had descried fragments during walks and showers; worse still, I was failing to craft sentences in which I could take an artisan’s pride.

Yet, despite my misgivings, I decided to persevere for another couple of sittings because I still believed I could write my way out of the plot holes and bolster my anemic verbiage in editing. The extent of my miscalculation would be revealed in the waning hours of my vacation, when I sat, hot cup of tea in hand, to read through my masterpiece and at last confirm my earlier intuition with an irrefutable finality that nearly sufficed to flash-freeze my Earl Grey:

The story sucked.

Pleading inanity

When you have as much experience with writing and abandoning questionable fiction as I do, you become uncannily adept at discerning when a promising work in progress merely requires a bit of additional effort, and when what began as a charming spark of an idea has set off an unquenchable dumpster fire. Unfortunately, despite all the effort and aspiration that was tied up in the creative odyssey that occupied much of my 2020 holiday break, it ultimately became clear that the product was not only bad, but was in fact one of my most egregiously ill-executed endeavors to date and would be, frankly, a massive embarrassment if it ever saw the light of day.

How did I know it was really that bad? As with any obscene material that is devoid of artistic merit, I knew it when I saw it. Because the average literate adult is similarly able to distinguish between competent fiction and disastrous drivel, I thought it best to leave my yuletide abomination unpublished. I like to think that by pleading guilty in this case, so to speak, I was able to secure a more lenient sentence for my writer’s ego than if the piece had been presented as evidence before a jury of my peers (i.e., you, dear readers). Thanks to some honest introspection about the nature of that which I had attempted to create, along with my subsequent decision to bury it, I was able to mitigate my own chagrin as its hapless creator, and was thereby able to swagger blithely off to the next project with my confidence relatively intact.

Fear and self-loathing

How am I able to maintain confidence in my writing after giving myself giftwrapped failure for Christmas? I will admit, the unbridled badness of what I had written did briefly force me to consider whether, perhaps, I am bad. I still think the idea underlying what I wrote is cute and novel, but after approaching it from a dozen different angles and failing to make it click, it became abundantly clear to me that I am simply not up to this particular compositional challenge at present.

Contemplating the inferiority of one’s own writing in a candid manner is never a pleasant experience, yet the conscientious writer seems to take to this task with paradoxical alacrity. This propensity for masochistic self-criticism is a likely inspiration for the portrayal of the writer as a brooding perfectionist surrounded by reams of pages marred by strikethroughs and revisions or crumpled and resigned to the floor or the waste basket (of one’s office and/or of history); or, in this modern and more environmentally conscious age, as a pallid figure staring into a dimly glowing void of white, out of which a cursor blinks back, condescending and incredulous, following a robust flourish of backspaces.

For a writer who conforms to this archetype, it can be difficult to perceive anything one produces as “good enough,” and, by extension, to maintain a positive impression of one’s own abilities. It is not garden variety writer’s block that arrests the creative process of such a person — the words may fly freely onto the page, only to be subsequently immolated in the cleansing fires of obsessive QC. To then watch a good idea collapse into the faulty foundation of one’s best (but insufficient) efforts can often be far more demoralizing than struggling to develop an idea in the first place.

I am of course projecting, and have long identified as one of these debilitatingly self-conscious writers. Consequently, I have succeeded in bringing only a very modest body of nonfiction to fruition, and have struggled to finish any fiction at all (I have too little of the divine within me to build worlds and create people, I think). Therefore, every sentence I do finish to my satisfaction, in some cases every ideal word I choose, is a travail and a triumph, and it is by virtue of these triumphs that my confidence endures.

Thus, while I may be my own biggest critic (at least to date), I have successfully navigated the gauntlet of my own standards enough times to know that, by those very standards, I must have the rudiments of talent — even though I regularly come up with some pretty regrettable content. Behind the bulwark of this cautious optimism, I am gradually learning to reject my bad writing without rejecting my identity as a writer.

Reject, revise, repurpose

Rejection is an inevitable and frequent occurrence in a writer’s life; however, before you can graduate to the thrill of being rejected by agents, publishers, critics, and the general population, you must first learn to overcome that most scathing rejection from within. I was never taught this lesson in school, and did not learn until I was well into adulthood that you cannot grow and thrive as a writer until you overcome your own trepidation and perfectionism, find your authentic ‘voice,’ and learn to write and publish confidently in that voice. Of course, one who has found their voice and their confidence does not abandon all scruple and publish every bit of nonsense they jot down; the need to filter and edit your content remains, but by knowing yourself and your boundaries as a writer, you become better able to produce something that both meets your own standards, and is likely to satisfy your audience, as well.

Therefore, for me, writing remains an iterative process: before the final form of a successful project manifests, it often undergoes at least one partial collapse and rejection leading to successive rounds of revision, during which redeemable language is salvaged for use in present or future pieces, and all lackluster text is purged; and that is assuming a satisfactory final form is reached at all. A comfortable majority of my projects still end up getting dropped because I realize after wading into them that they would be inextricable quagmires, while others that retain at least some modicum of promise languish in the purgatory of my works in progress folder awaiting deliverance at some unspecified future date. I am gradually growing as a writer by accepting these complete and partial failures as a natural part of my process — even though not all of my writing is good, it is all writing, and it is all good practice.

Yes, even my hopeless opus of Christmas 2020.

Sometimes You Write, Sometimes You’re Wrong was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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