Every beginning writer goes through that place of—I was going to call it indecisiveness, but I think that’s wrong. The feeling I’m talking about is very decisive: the absolute certainty that your work is garbage.
I picked up Theft by Finding, excerpts from David Sedaris’s diaries, hoping to learn more about his journey as a writer. The book starts in 1977 and I had to read all the way to 1985 before he mentioned writing, but it was worth the wait.
By 1985, Sedaris is a painting student at the Art Institute of Chicago. And he’s going through a crisis of confidence:
“I reexamined the painting of a briefcase I’ve been working on and got depressed. It looks like it was done by a seventh-grader.”
So when he says “I write like I paint,” he doesn’t mean it as a compliment:
“I stayed up all night and worked on my new story. Unfortunately, I write like I paint, one corner at a time. I can never step back and see the whole picture. Instead I concentrate on a little square and realize later that it looks nothing like the real live object.”
Beginning writer, process error
I can’t judge Sedaris’s painting, or the story he wrote in 1985. But the way he describes his process as a beginning writer, well, I see that kind of thing often in my writing students. It keeps them from finishing pieces. And when enough unfinished work piles up, it can allow them to decide that they’re not a writer after all. And they quit.
If I’m following the painting analogy correctly, it sounds like Sedaris writes small chunks and then revises and revises them. When does he stop? Maybe when he thinks he’s perfected that bit—though it sounds like that might be a rare occurrence. Instead he works at it until “it looks nothing like the real live object.”
If you read all of the books about “how to write” that had ever been written, I doubt you would find one author recommending this process. Why? Because few people who write that way ever get published.
Oh, there’s the occasional exception—like Fran Lebowitz, who says “I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.” But usually you have to have some early success (as Lebowitz did) before editors and publishers will tolerate such paralyzing perfectionism.
No. You need to get your first draft out as quickly as possible, before the crisis of confidence sets in. After all, there’s no point in having the perfect opening paragraph if you never get to the closing paragraph. So just write as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Get it all out on the page.
And then I revise, right?
No. After you write, you rest.
Rest? You mean, let all those imperfect sentences just sit there being imperfect?
That’s exactly what I mean.
Know when to say when
Give yourself some space, some distance—overnight at a minimum, unless you’re up against a deadline. But even when a deadline looms, at least take a walk. Eat a meal—somewhere away from your keyboard. Forget about the piece you’re writing and focus on something else.
Because if you keep fussing with that writing, eventually it’s going to look “nothing like the real live object.” Then you’ll be frustrated, and think you’re a terrible writer. You’re not; you’re just an impatient reviser. There’s a big difference.