I’m Sick of This

By

Yesterday, I saw someone on Facebook mention that they’d sent the final draft of their manuscript off to the publisher after having rewritten and revised it so much that they had come to hate it and could stand to look at it no longer.

I know that feeling.

When I sit down to write, one of two things happens. The first possibility is that I have a great idea, know exactly what I want to write and how I want to write it, and I bang it out in a whirl of clacking laptop keys. When I’m finished I triumphantly hammer down the save button and go away feeling satisfied with myself.

The second possibility is that I sit and stare at the screen for a while, eventually writing an awful sentence, then deleting it, then writing another but maybe deleting only half of it because the first part wasn’t quite as bad as the last, then staring at and loathing even that until I delete and rewrite it twelve more times. This continues for an hour or two until I’ve got a few hundred words cobbled together that I can no longer stand to look at. I close the laptop and walk away feeling a little sick and a lot like a complete hack.

To be fair, there’s a third possibility—a hybrid of the other two. I’ll have a great idea, and I’ll know exactly what I want to do with it, but when I sit down to write, nothing comes together.

The interesting thing, though, is what happens the next day. When I come back to pick up where I left off, I read over the last thing I wrote and, in general, I find that whatever was written in the first case is usually a royal mess that’s no where near as clever or as interesting as I thought it was while I was writing it. On the other hand, the writing done in the second case is usually pretty good—which seems completely backwards. Right?

In my experience, the writing I do under what I’d call “inspiration” is usually far inferior to the writing I do when I have to rely on little more than hard work. When the words are coming easy, they tend to end up sloppy. When I have to squeeze every word out amid weeping and gnashing of teeth, relying on a developed set of skills rather than on the sugary high of inspiration, the work tends to be lean and focused—in other words, it tends to be pretty good. That’s a hard truth for me, but I’m learning to rest on it.

I wrote a short story last month called “The Oracle of Philadelphia,” and it’s a good example. I started out with two ideas that I really liked—a fun twist on the historical Oracle of Delphi, and the idea of two men adrift on a melting ice floe. I had no clear idea of what either of those things had to do with the other, but it felt right. I started off strong and banged out several scenes of Thurston and Obadiah adrift on the ice, but then I hit wall. Inspiration ran out and, like my characters, I was stranded on a melting life raft with nowhere to go. I had nothing left to lean on but discipline.

I had committed myself to finishing the story, and I had my wife to be accountable to, if no one else. So I kept going back to those scenes, adding a sentence here, deleting one there, scrapping this, adding that, and slowly, painfully, a functional story began to emerge.* When I finished, I told Jennifer, “Well, I got to the end. But I hate it.”

The story was awful. I was sure of it.

But though I hated it, I felt like the core of the story hung together, if only just, and so I started rewriting and revising, taking the thing I had come to loathe and breaking it down a sentence at a time, trying to figure out what was wrong with it. Though I’d fallen completely out of love with the story, I was committed to reworking it to the point that I could publish it without being embarrassed by it.

I kept at it mechanically until, in the end, I was sick of it and could stand to look at it no more. So I gave it to trusted friends to help me see where my blind spots were. More revisions followed until, again, I had to abandon it. It was as good as I could make it—even if I felt it wasn’t good enough.

But a few days later, a fresh read of the story changed my mind. I found that now, after all, I loved the story again. Why? Because I had put work into it, work enough that my puppy love for the story had faded until I could see it objectively and scour away its imperfections (though I’m sure it has plenty more that could stand a good scrubbing).

I think if anyone is serious about writing (or art in general) it’s important to get beyond what we usually like to call “inspiration.” In fact, that’s the wrong word. That first swell of love we have for a potential work isn’t inspiration, it’s infatuation. And just like in human relationships, once the infatuation fades, the real work of love begins. And it’s in the context of that real work—that work in which you may seem at times to fall out of love with the object of your labor—it’s in that work that real inspiration takes place. It’s in that work that the Holy Spirit often does work of his own. And it’s out of that hard labor that a work of art is finally hewn.

So if you’ve created something and labored over it until you can no longer stand to look at it, keep the faith, your work is not in vain.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” —Thomas Edison

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” —attributed to a number of people who apparently abandoned the original quote

“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.” —dubiously attributed to William Faulkner

 

*For the record, not a single jot of those original scenes remains in the final story.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


25 Comments

  1. Rachel R.

    Thank you so much for this, Pete! I’m not a writer or an artist, but this applies to so many other areas. Thanks for helping me look with new eyes on some of these things I’m sick of. “We shall reap if we faint not!”

  2. Jennifer K.

    Thank you for validating my numerous frustrations about writing – the birth pangs, so to speak – and for helping destroy the myth that art is breathed out effortlessly. Much courage and patience needed for the hewing.

  3. Laure Hittle

    Yes.

    i wrote a series of fairy-stories about a year and a half ago, under deadline, that i thought would kill me. They were too happy, too conflict-free. i felt like i had to pull every word of them out of my veins with tweezers. When they were finished, i flung them aside, grateful and panting in exhaustion and relief. (i am not sure what it says about me that it was so hard to write joy and innocence. i have probably been watching too much Joss Whedon.)

    In December, i finished, finally, a two-and-a-half-year-long battle with the protagonist of my main project and a large chunk of her story. Somehow i had managed the worst continuity error that, i am sure, ever existed in the history of the multiverse. i had written and rewritten the blasted thing more than twelve times, and although the versions were all utterly incompatible with each other, each was simultaneously true to me, the Maker outside of time, viewing them all simultaneously. It was an endless (i thought) cycle of despair and frustration and—most odious of all—glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout. i kept having flashes of inspiration, and each felt like the key to the whole thing, the one clue that was sure to put all to rights, only to have that hope dashed when i realized that that solution, too, was impossible for one reason or another. i had to come to the utter end of myself in order to be willing to make changes to phrases and passages that i loved but which could not exist within the plot that needed furthering. i am still somewhat amazed i survived that ordeal; i thought i was going mad.

    (Right after finishing that struggle, i found the following quote from Michael Lewis: “Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do. After that moment there’s always misery.”)

    In the end, looking back after some emotional distance, both of those stories are solid. The too-innocent fairy stories are perfect and beautiful and even piercing in their loveliness, and there was a plot in there after all that i did not intend to put there. And the two-and-a-half-year-long battle finally came together, and we love each other for the hard work we did together.

    In contrast, every once in awhile i go back and look at scenes i’ve written that were effortless and a joy to write, and discover i hate them. They are such hackery. They have inconsistent POVs all over the place, embarrassing purple prose, ludicrous sentimentality and drama. As i face my own unfiltered creativity, they tell me that i can never hope to be a real writer—but that’s the point, right? That “inspiration” is not what makes a writer at all.

    i think what this means is that if we kill our children, our stories are stronger—and if our children kill us, we writers are stronger.

    Pete, i would be interested to know how Barnabas Bead came into being. That story is simply perfect, and i wonder what level of difficulty it gave you.

  4. Janna Barber

    Wow. Thanks for the fresh perspective, Pete. I’ve dabbled in other disciplines this year and it’s helped me see how the first thing I come up with is rarely the best. Revision is definitely part of the process, and there are so many wonderful parallels to draw between our faith and these creative acts.

  5. Eowyn - Hannah Long

    I have found my people! I’m so glad I’m not the only one. 🙂

    Honestly, I will go for months without writing anything because I feel like every piece I write and have written is so inadequate. But then I re-read it, fall in love again, and the cycle begins once more. On the other hand, doing NaNoWriMo twice (you know, the whole 100 page novel in a month thing – it’s insane) really forces me to do some of my best writing. I know there are bigger problems in the world than my writer angst, but it is comforting to know I’m not the only one worrying about these things.

  6. Loren Warnemuende

    I love this–and not an infatuation type. It’s so true. I got a taste of this through Jennifer’s class, and it was a lesson I needed. Now to remember it.

  7. Jeff M

    That last paragraph (“I think if anyone is serious about writing”…) is brilliant – and I’m not a writer but a computer consultant who thinks of my work as art (sometimes). Amen, brother!

  8. Kimberly

    “I was committed to reworking it to the point that I could publish it without being embarrassed by it.”
    Very relatable 🙂

    I also am struggling to know how to write when I don’t feel inspired and the words aren’t tumbling out. I thought the comparison of inspiration to infatuation and the hard work of editing to the hard work of love was excellent and enlightening. It’s funny how much more credit we give inspiration/infatuation when it can be so fleeting and shallow.

  9. Drew Zahn

    I have a story I’ve been working on for 15 years now. And that’s one of the best descriptions of the process I’ve ever heard.

    In my journey with it, I’ve found the “infatuation” was a lot like puppy love – Oh, sure, the story was cute! So dreamy. We’ll walk down the aisle and live happily ever after and have lots of children.

    Of course, then I started to grow up as a writer. I realized it takes more than a cute smile to make a long-term relationship. Things like character, shared values and goals, commitment and hard work. Things like undergoing a radical change and discovering the other person is still there for you.

    Now, in my 15 years with the same story, I’m discovering my story and I have grown up together. We’ve been through some hard times, and both of us have seen the baby fat trimmed. Something about enduring life with this tale has cemented our relationship. This is love. And … though I’m still nervous about it, we’ve set a date! Taking the plunge. 15 years is long enough to date. It’s time to commit. Hutchmoot 2014 is going to be a big day for us.

  10. Ash Parsons

    I loved this post when I read it yesterday….I’ve had to chew on it a bit before commenting….but then last night I had a conversation with my sister which I think, combined with this post, made me really aware of some of my struggles with this issue….and it boils down to:
    1.) Permission – giving yourself permission to create in the first place. When there’s no potential pay off on the horizon – and in order to dedicate yourself to the project you are always stealing time from something else. (I loved Paolo Bacigalupi’s “This is What it Takes to Write a Novel” Time interview that touches on this – language warning if you look it up)
    2.) Permission p2 – giving yourself permission to write/create the “shitty first draft” (to borrow from Anne Lamott). Get the draft out, don’t evaluate it. (but it keeps going after the first draft…I always will have “that’s horrible” moments, I think.)
    3.) Bum in Seat – Commiting to the work even (mostly) when it is work. AKA: talking about writing isn’t writing. 😀 (but I love talking about writing. quandry 😉

    I loved this post, obviously. I have to constantly re-learn everything I think I know. Or thought I knew at one time, but, obviously, it didn’t stick. 🙂

  11. Joe

    Man, I read how you pros struggle and can’t imagine how I can hope of producing anything but utter garbage. I don’t even know how I managed to get to chapter 20. My story has no plot (well weak plot) no protagonist, it’s my first attempt at writing anything beyond a status report, I’m not even a writer.. I’m a computer geek. I’m so embarrassed by the theme I can’t even talk about it. If anything is doomed pre-birth, my book has to be.

    but every time I go back and read through parts, I love it and see where to chip away, and keep going. I’ve never hated something so much, and loved it, and felt chained to anything like this in my life.

    I don’t even have a hope of getting it published. If I can just make it to the end, get through a rewrite and find a friend to edit for me, I’ll call that a win. Maybe self publish on amazon or google or something.

    This article and your comments are so very helpful though.

  12. Laure Hittle

    Joe! Take courage! You are describing exactly what ALL writers struggle with. Precisely because you are a computer geek rather than a pro, you have something unique to offer. YOU CAN DO THIS.

    i’m not a pro either, by any stretch, but as someone who has written an wide assortment of things drecky, unpublishable, and beautiful (and as the wife of a brilliant world-builder who also happens to be a professional geek by day)—hang in there. First drafts are for discovery. You won’t even know what your story’s about until at least halfway through, and that’s okay. 🙂

    Gosh, i am so proud of you for loving your story, as hard as it is.

  13. Peter B

    Hang in there, Joe. We should have a support group for geek-types who are trying to be creative.

    I’d think of a good name, but… well, you know.

  14. Joe

    “You won’t even know what your story’s about until at least halfway through, and that’s okay.”

    You can’t even imagine how freeing it was to read this. Thank you so much 🙂

    These comments are so helpful and encouraging. I didn’t know this was normal.

    pressing on with fresh excitement.

  15. Esther O'Reilly

    Remember too Joe that publication isn’t necessarily the best way to figure out if something is any good or not. There’s plenty of great stuff out there that will never be published, and plenty of dreck that inexplicably has been, and become very popular too! So even if you’re the next Charles Dickens, there’s no guarantee your book would see the light of day anyway. So just have fun writing!

  16. Jody

    Thank you for making the distinction between infatuation and inspiration… Recently I have only been writing when ‘inspired’ – which has turned out all right in many cases. But to be *able* to write when inspired requires the hard work of writing when you don’t feel like it. Writing when you think every sentence is clunky and woody, rather than smooth and pithy.

    I, too, have written pieces that I hated by the time I was done writing them. The effort was strenuous and it seemed impossible to say what was trapped inside… But taking a break, re-writing, and getting others’ perspectives really does help you work at loving the piece again. Thanks for taking me back to the reality that art is a discipline.

  17. Oliver

    Really interesting observations on writing and I really like the distinction between infatuation and inspiration! Sounds a bit like the struggle almost everyone faces in the process of “creating”. The tools may be different and so is the creative path, so the most important thing is probably to appreciate the way and trust your enthusiasm and perseverance…

  18. Laure Hittle

    Joe, you’ve come to my mind off and on over the last several months, and again today. i don’t know whether you’ll see this comment, but if you do: How are you and your story and your heart? i’m praying for you.

  19. JoeB

    Laure – THANK you so much! I’m still plugging along. I want so badly to get to that magical “2,000 words/day”.

    Is it a bad sign when you’ve told people about what you’re working on, and they never ask “how is it going?”. I still think it’s an important story, I still love it, it still scares me to death.

    Thank you for asking, Laure 🙂

  20. Laure Hittle

    Joe! How glad i am to see you! Can i just pray for you now? (And then i will keep praying.)

    Abba, see how Your son is modeling after You—Your subcreator, pouring himself into a creation that he sees value in even when others don’t. Be beautiful in him. Help him to see himself and his story through Your eyes. Empower him and embolden him to do that hard work. i pray that he would keep seeing glimmers throughout, so that when he is afraid or the story feels impossible or he is barely able to remember why it matters, he can hold onto those bits of glory and trust that You are in the process, shaping him and guiding him as as he is shaping his creation. And Abba, please—please provide him with one or two encouragers who live nearby and will ask after his story and listen to his heart and fuel his excitement and loves his creatures and suffer alongside him. You love him and You are proud of him; may he know that well.

    Baruch atah, Joe. i’m here praying—reach out when you need to hear it, or when you want to talk to someone who wants to hear about the process. i will check in with you, too.

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