On becoming a worse writer

I think every writer periodically gets this feeling like they’re getting worse. For me, it seems to arrive roughly every five months (yes, it does not fit neatly into the year). I’ll have this terrible, gnawing feeling that I’ve gotten worse. Then I’ll have a breakthrough and write some interesting (but very flawed stories). Then the writing will get much easier. And I’ll write some well-constructed, fairly competent stories. The stories that I really love will be the flawed, interesting ones. The ones that sell will be the competent ones.

And then I’ll suddenly get this feeling that I’ve gotten worse!

I think the tricky thing about this feeling is that it’s partly true and partly untrue. In part, the feeling comes from an increased ability to perceive my own faults. For instance, I was reading some of my published stories the other day, and all sorts of clunky phrases and odd choices leapt out at me. The stories hadn’t gotten worse, I’d just gotten more perceptive.

However, sometimes your writing actually does just get worse. When I compared the first draft of this current novel to the first draft of my last novel, I noticed that the writing in this current one is just measurably worse. I’m not sure why this happens. I think it’s because putting a story is very complicated. It takes a lot of work to construct all the bits and join them together just right and make everything come out properly in the end. And when you’re thinking hard about other parts of a story, the writing tends to suffer.

I also think there’s something of an observer effect. During a highly self-critical period, I think about everything much more and do my best to avoid mistakes, but all the thinking tends to get in the way of my instincts. The thinking is certainly necessary (it helps you formulate new instincts and stop following poor instincts), but it doesn’t necessarily help you write this story.

The thing about becoming worse is, it’s kind of okay. Like, it still causes me tons of anxiety, but I’m slowly becoming okay with it. What helped was just to realize that I wasn’t really that good before.

I mean, I’ve written some good stories, and they got published and I’m proud of them and that’s awesome. But they weren’t it, you know.

Like, when I lived in Oakland, I went to a fair number of house shows (because that’s what people do in Oakland). And part of the fun of a house show is that there’s a non-zero chance that you’re watching the next big thing: a band that’s gonna blow up in a few months and become way too cool to play house shows anymore.

Both the bands onstage and the audience often got caught up in this shared dream: the notion that we were watching not just a performance, but some tiny bit of musical history. But I had a friend who was a little more pragmatic about the whole thing. He told me that when we heard the real thing, we’d know. The difference between the real thing and just another band isn’t merely one of degrees. The real thing has a sound that’s so compelling that you go out and tell your friends about it. The real thing isn’t just fun to listen to (most of the bands were pretty fun to listen to). The real thing has a sound that sticks with you. It has a sound that makes you buy the CD and lend it out to people. And when other people hear the real thing’s CD, then they too get excited about it and go out and talk to more people about it.

I mean, all bands have fans (just like my writing has its fans). But the real thing doesn’t just have fans. The real thing rewrites neurons and changes lives.

That’s the kind of effect you need to have on people in order to achieve even a very moderate amount of success as an artist. In order to succeed, every artist pretty much has to go viral.

And my writing has never yet managed to affect people in that way.

So, yeah, if I’ve temporarily lost the ability to write fun little tightly-constructed stories, that’s fine, but it’s also not that big of a loss. It’s just another step on the way to becoming the real thing.

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