How do you push through it? (Mr. Ira Glass, I have a question!)

Whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell’s 100,000 hours or or the proverbial million bad words, Ira Glass wants you to know something:

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

This will probably come as a (not) startling confession, but I am one of those writers. The one who has a million ideas that most likely have merit but is eternally frustrated by her inability to do those ideas justice. Ira Glass, you have offered me some true comfort. I’m glad to know that every writer is one of those writers. And I know that the solution to that problem is work, but I strongly feel that I have taken myself as far as I can go on my own, so what now?

I think in my more naive writing years I believed that editors would see my potential and guide me into that nebulous sweet spot of writerly Shangri-la. But the truth is editors don’t want to do that. Editors are busy people. They are strapped for time and money. Especially in the Mormon market where most of them work and publish not to make a profit (although, I’m sure they dream about it) but out of the goodness of their hearts and their commitment to our cultural heritage.

I think a lot of folks solve this problem with grad school. But since we are all MFAs (remember when Wm blogged about that? Man, that was a rocking discussion.), I wonder if grad school would actually fill that need or if an MFA program would just be more professors ardently trying to make me agree with, accept, and parrot back their worldviews. Because, well, professors are strapped for time and money too–publish or perish, natch.

Another option that occurs to me is a writer’s group, but, while the Boulder area has many writer’s groups fall into one of two categories:”audition only” groups or a bunch of retirees writing their memoirs for their future grandchildren. I’m not knocking either group–obviously they have found what works for them–but I don’t think I have the chops to make it in an audition group at this point (they come across as rather snarky on their website) and I’m not a retiree writing memoirs for grandchildren. For me the writer’s group has proved depressingly elusive.

I imagine that many of my co-bloggers (Wm, Patricia, Th. and Tyler especially), and many of the AMV readers!, are very tolerant of this phase in my writing. You all hold no illusions about my abilities–which I actually find quite freeing–and have been kind in helping me out in small ways. I’ve also had some great eye-opening experiences with editors at Irreantum, Segullah, and Dialogue. But, again, I know how busy you all are and I hate to impose. (And I hate to embarrass myself, but the relationship between fear and my writing process is really the subject for another post entirely! *cue self-loathing*)

So that leads me to what I want to know: How do you push through it? What do you draw on to increase your abilities and finesse your writing? How do you become the writer you dream of being?

20 thoughts on “How do you push through it? (Mr. Ira Glass, I have a question!)”

  1. Laura:

    1. I don’t have a writer’s group, and I haven’t pushed through it. And fear is a constant. And we aren’t just tolerating you. So there.

    2. You know how I feel about MFAs, but I will say that the right MFA program can work. It certainly did for Angela Hallstrom.

    3. Sorry about posting on the same day. Oddly weird that it also featured Ira Glass. But I had to get that all out.

    4. Whatever finesse I have comes from hours and hours of reading and writing. So as cliched as it is, I think the answer is to just keep doing it. And don’t put pressure on yourself (it’s the pressure and anxiety that kills — I’ve wasted years because of it [in relation to writing fiction]).

    5. I don’t know that you can ever go as far as you can on your own. Certainly getting feedback is important. And you are right that there is a lack of that in this market (I’ve traded critiques with others, but it’s like one a year — not really enough to really help). But maybe this is also just a sign that you need to try something new/different. I’ve found that trying new things (forms/genres/lengths) pushes me so that my writing overall gets better.

  2. Fortunately, it’s only 10,000 hours! Or did my copy of Outliers leave out a zero?

    Someday I will have more time to write. Right now, any time dedicated to writing feels like getting away with something. That feeling–creative work = pure luxury–is something to cultivate. It makes forcing myself to sit down and write somewhat easier. Also, I am not shy about asking friends to read my stuff. A select few have been very generous with their time. You know who you are!

  3. Laura, I probably missed it in my reading, but what are you pushing through again? Getting a certain number of words finished, or achieving excellence within the words you’ve finished, or gaining some kind of self-confidence in your talent/skill?

  4. “How do you push through it?”

    If I knew that I would push through it. Success of any kind would be helpful. I envy every person here who has had a story published. The best I have done is get family and friends to read my stuff. They like it, but they aren’t publishers.

  5. Wm–No worries about posting on the same day! Apparently Ira Glass is becoming the Ryan Seacrest of Gen Xers. And thanks for not just tolerating me. I just perceive the rest of you as so polished and possessing such solid artistic direction; I envy it. I think trying something different is a good idea, but I worry about becoming a dilettante. I have SO MANY unfinished projects. I feel like all my half written junk is becoming a monument to inability. You know, like Charlie’s Monument except not inspiring 😛

  6. Lee– You are very kind. I think this is the first time anyone has used the word “polished” in relationship to my writing. I had a college professor who used to tell me my writing was like looking at a room full of dusty antique furniture. All the stuff to make it beautiful was there, but it was such a mess all the nice stuff was lost. Maybe in the almost nine years since I graduated college I’ve gotten a little better! Thanks for those articles. I didn’t want this post to come across as a everybody-feel-bad-for-me-and-try-to-give-me-some-false-confidence kind of thing. I wanted some real tips and the articles do that.

  7. S.P. Bailey–thanks for the correction! It has been in my head as 100,000 hours since I read it and has struck me as completely undo-able, but 10,000 hours, well, I can probably swing that. . .

    I like your point about keeping writing pleasurable. My expectations for myself make writing very un-fun. Keeping it enjoyable would make it a lot easier to keep plugging away.

  8. MoJo–When I wrote this I this I thought, “Mojo is going to comment and she’s not going to understand.” This is because I perceive you as the one in a million writer who does not have this problem–which is a compliment to your ability and tenacity.

    The problem I’m trying to push through is the massive gap between the fabulousness that I feel my writing should embody and the not-fabulousness that I produce. I know what I want my writing to read like and feel like, but I very seldom achieve the level of excellence I want.

    From the way you present yourself online (at least the parts of you I see/read) you don’t have a lack of confidence or an inability to create exactly what you want. You excel at pushing yourself to complete novel and realize characters. Which is great. Any tips on how to not spend so much time worrying???

  9. Jettboy–At least your family still reads your stuff! My family is burned out 🙂 I think your comment points very specifically to one of the things I struggle with the most. I need readers who are wise (and available) enough to offer useful critiques–that isn’t always necessarily my family (although, I appreciate all the time they do spend on my stuff) and editors simply don’t do that any more. Maybe some of the websites the other commenters mentioned can help us both out!

  10. My fiction output in the past 10 years: 8 completed short stories/short short stories/prose poem/stories. 4 published (2 of those were self-published).

    Current works in some form of progress (as is in it is feasible that they could become at least a first draft if I were to work on them) = 18.

  11. Any tips on how to not spend so much time worrying???

    Well, that’s why I asked because I really wanted to address it but I needed to know exactly what I was addressing.

    Actually, I understand all three scenarios and have gone through them. I just didn’t know *which one* you were specifically talking about.

    These are off the top of my head. I’m going to probably revisit this as other things occur to me.

    1. …getting a certain number of words finished…

    Some writers feel that they should do X number of words per day, even if it’s crap. I don’t work like that, but it works for others and I don’t knock what works for someone else.

    What methods have you tried (or not) to just put words down on paper?

    BUT more importantly, do you have at least a sketchy idea where you’ll end up at the end of the story?

    2. …achieving excellence within the words you’ve finished…

    You will attain that if you practice, but you’ll never feel like you did. You need to have people whose writing you find excellent to tell you that. You don’t have to believe it, but you have to know THEY believe it and you respect THEIR writing.

    3. …gaining some kind of self-confidence in your talent/skill…

    It comes with practice and an editor willing to teach (as you’ve said). The problem is finding the editor that understands your style, understands your level of skill, and likes your work to begin with.

    You’re never EVER going to please everyone. You first have to please yourself, and this is where it’s important to enjoy what you’re doing. You MUST enjoy the process of doing it, but first you have to HAVE a process that’s all yours, tailored to suit you. (I don’t know if you have one of those.)

    I will tell you this: I wrote my entry for M&M when Wm posted his list of what he’d like to see. I picked out three things he hadn’t had any of and just started writing. That’s all. The entire genre is so totally foreign to me as to be a different language.

    At page 6, I sent it to him and said, “Do I trash it now or keep going and see where I end up?” He said to keep going.

    So from that NOTHING beginning, I had to flesh out SOMETHING. And on a deadline. I can work on spec and to deadline, but I don’t like to. As a result, it’s not exactly my best work.

    On the other hand, the work I think is my best (technically) (Stay) is consistently rated far below what I think is my worst (The Proviso). In the end, once it leaves your hands, it’s not yours anymore.

    That’s why you must develop a process, find someone to guide and teach you (if you even need it at all, which I couldn’t say), learn to trust yourself, and, most of all, HAVE FUN.

  12. As for incomplete works…

    Not EVERY. SINGLE. THING. you write has to be completed. You should see the files in my hard drive from ideas that range from 1 paragraph to 100 pages.

    That’s not even speaking to the piles and piles and piles of handwritten scraps and snippets and notebooks of ideas and sketches and doodles. They all serve a purpose.

    Every word you write is progress. Very few of those words even deserve to be completed.

    I burnt toast this morning and I threw it in the freezer for stuffing. It didn’t deserve to be eaten–at least, not in that form.

  13. …the massive gap between the fabulousness that I feel my writing should embody and the not-fabulousness that I produce…

    Your writing class was 9 years ago.

    How do you KNOW what you put out is not fabulous?

    People ask me why I write. I say I write because I can’t paint. So I DO understand this disconnect between what’s in your head and what’s on the canvas. I could go take art classes. I’m sure I have enough talent I can be taught.

    But at this point in my life, that’s not feasible, so I’ve made peace with that. If I had invested my life in art but had sporadic and questionable tutelage, I would still be unable to paint what’s in my head AND I wouldn’t be able to write it, either. I would have to make a choice: give up because I can’t articulate my vision OR commit myself to serious tutelage and practice in order to achieve it.

  14. So no promises. But I will need a post-M&M project (after 6-8 months off [that’s 6-8 months after the key marketing/sales period so we’re talking fall 2012]), and I will share that one of the things I’ve been mulling is some sort of editorial cooperative. Not a writing group, but something that helps develop writers and editors yet doesn’t require a huge ongoing time commitment.

    Because the fact is that it turns out that I’m a pretty good editor. And I’m also an okay fiction writer. And I tend to swing between the two in an unproductive way (Okay, I’m this! No wait, I’m this! Why can’t I be that!) and that needs to change.

  15. Getting good critiques is absolutely invaluable. The best critiques are from people who somehow understand what it was that you were trying to do with your story, like it — and can make suggestions for how to make it better.

    I’m not sure how to get those. I was very, very lucky with No Going Back. The most promising possibility is to offer your own critiques in trade. But I’m under the impression that’s something you’ve already been doing.

    I also endorse Moriah’s comment about needing to trust insightful readers about when you’ve achieved excellence (or at least competence, which sometimes is the lesser goal that I find is about as ambitious as I can manage). Our own judgments inevitably are either too generous (focusing on the story we wanted to tell) or too critical (focusing on the ways we fall short of that). Sometimes both — if not at once, then alternately, about the same story. We *need* that external judgment. At least, I do.

    I also agree with Moriah about the impossibility of pleasing everyone. Hence the need to find someone whose taste you trust, but who also has a basic sympathy for the story you’re trying to tell. In a sense, you need to trust your most positive reviewers (of those whose opinions you feel you can respect) — not about whether or not your manuscript needs improving, but about whether it’s *worth* improving. At least, that’s been my experience.

  16. Sounds like you’ve received some great suggestions so far, Laura. I’m a bit new to this blog, but I’ve been working as a freelance journalist for 6 years and as an aspiring screenwriter/novelist for a bit longer. I also teach writing classes and though I’m not expert, I do know the fear factor when it comes to writing. I was WAY too perfectionistic in the beginning. I rarely had anyone read my stuff because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I would edit my material as I was writing and that was SO counterproductive.

    I would suggest you look at your initial drafts as a huge lump of clay on a potters wheel. It’s not a finished vase or cup yet, but it has form. Don’t worry about how it works or if it works. No one drinks water out of an unfinished cup. With each rewrite you will gradually finish your work and turn it into a masterpiece.

    Just give yourself permission to be awful, sloppy, etc. in the first draft and just get it on paper (or computer). Animators never draw a perfect drawing every time. They sketch out the shapes and then the lines are refined, cleaned-up, inked, and colored. Then you have a picture worth looking at.

    Most of all, take the emotion out of it. Make a writing plan and stick to it no matter how you feel. Make it very automated and emotionless. The plan will save you from yourself and the roller coaster of emotions we all face as writers.

    So…make lots of mistakes (think lump of clay), refine and stick to the plan! You’ll get there!!

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