Permission To Create “Bad” Art

Crossposted to the Deadline Dames, who have a shiny new website!

I’ve spent the last two days heaving blindly into whatever receptacle I can find. My stomach staged revolt, right when I had revisions under a tight deadline. So I’m going to bring out an old Midnight Hour writing post for this Friday’s offering. This is from April 25 of 2008, and I don’t think I’ve ever put it here before. Enjoy.

Permission to Create “Bad” Art
April 25, 2008

True to form, life hath served me my Friday post. Last Wednesday I was at a signing for for Elizabeth Lyon and saw some of my old writing students; we chatted a little bit about this very thing. And I’ve been reading f-listers’ thoughts about this particular issue all week. A lot of people seem to be struggling with it, so I’m going to give my two cents.

Coffee? Check. Comfy chair? Check. Idea firmly in mind? Check. Settle in, dear Reader.

Here’s what I want to say in a nutshell: It is perfectly okay to write dreck.

I’ve seen a lot of people lately agonising over the ‘fact’ that they write, well, crap. The plotting is clumsy, pacing nonexistent, they see the book so clearly in their heads but then go back and look at what they’ve written and it seems pale. Spiritless. Stupid. Pointless. They might as well just give it up because it’s not perfect or even very good. After all, they’ll only get rejected. Or they’ve gotten rejected several times already. And it’s horrible, but they’re starting to question this whole writing thing.

And I reply: God, don’t stop. This is when you’re getting better.

Assuming you are consistently practicing your writing, about every six months, stop and look back over something you haven’t touched for the past half-year. Open up the document and read it. And notice what you’d do differently now. When you’re in the wilds of practice, concerned with camping on the plain of the story every night, you don’t have time to notice how far you’re walking, how far you’ve come. You do have to stop and look back hard to realize it, and to realize how your ‘muscles’ have hardened and your craft grown more sure.

The willingness to engage in consistent practice is the willingness to learn. You’re going to have ‘crutches’ and things you rely on. (Like “that”–one of the most overused words in the English tongue–and dialogue tags, my particular follies. But I digress.) That’s why an editor and a good beta are worth their weight in gold and platinum. (Again, I digress.)

Practice has to start out somewhere. We all start out not knowing a story from a scene, the right verb from the wrong adverb, a passive action from an active one. And we all start out, from Chaucer to Hemingway, writing utter crap.

That’s why I call it writing “practice.” It’s just like dance class or tennis practice or even practicing your scales on the piano. You’ve got to make mistakes and stumble in order to learn.

Writing is a little odd in that we see the finished product on the shelves–the months and years of work that went into it are invisible. It takes far, far less time to read a book than it does to:

1. Write the first draft.
2. Get critique/let the manuscript sit
3. Write other drafts, from one to ten
4. Submit and get rejected a million times
5. Get accepted, wait for contract, wait for revision letter
6. Write other revised drafts
7. Arrive at final draft
8. Get copyedits
9. Get proof pages
10. Wait, biting nails, for the book to come out

That process–of a manuscript becoming a book–is so long and complex, and it allows a book to get better. It also grants a book a stamp of reality the half-finished noddles on my hard drive don’t have, the imprimatur of someone actually paid money for this.

Is it any wonder writers feel uncertain? Especially unpublished ones?

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the point I started out wanting to make. This is what I used to tell my writing students.

The first million words are practice. They can be as bad as they want to be while you’re learning. It is not important WHAT you write. It is important THAT you write, and write consistently, and keep looking for ways to make your writing better.

As long as you can open up something you wrote six months ago and see that you’ve made some progress, don’t sweat it so much.

You are going to have to accept that you may be too close to your own work to judge it for what it is. Most of the time, this leads to harsh self-judgment, not a clear-eyed appraisal of the work. Plus, the whole system of: crit readers who have egos to feed (possibly at the expense of yours, since there are bullies everywhere), toxic writing groups and classes (not all of them, but we all know my prejudices on this point), rejection by the bucketload (because publishing is a business; it is not about craft but about money, but writers often forget that and think it’s about Them Personally), even more rejection (because your manuscript may be meat to one agent/editor and poison to another), and EVEN MORE REJECTION (insert all other types of rejection here)…well, even the sanest, most thick-skinned writer could be reduced to a bleeding wreck twitching in the water by the end of it, you dig?

You have to find a way to write through all that. You have to give yourself permission to write something that may not be perfect. Even the Grand Old White Men of Litrachur had stinky-ass half-finished pieces of fanfic in their attics. We just don’t hear about those because the books they wrote after ages of practice are now taught in high-school classes. And not only that, but some of the Auld Classics are even crappy books. I can’t read Faulkner to save my life, and some of Dickens’s stuff bores me to tears. I love Dumas but I know lots of people who would rather shoot themselves in the head than read Louise de la Valliere. Even the classics are not immune from bad writing.

If Hemingway, Dumas, Faulkner, and yes, even Shakespeare (dude, have you READ some of the historical plays? YAWN.) struck out occasionally, what makes us think we won’t? Even Heinlein and Bradbury had their less-than-stellar moments. We just didn’t get to see the really horribly dreadful ones while they were learning their craft.

One of the most liberating things I ever read in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was this: you have permission to create “bad” art.

Yes, we try to be as good as we can, and a certain level of technical achievement is necessary to get published. But you will never reach that level of technical achievement if you’re not willing to make mistakes. Mistakes will teach you much more than noodling over an easy, perfect piece. Every mistake is a chance, every stumble an invitation to create a new dance step. You are allowed to do something badly while you are learning to do it.

Christ, I struggled with this. My parents were insistent that I had to do everything perfectly the first time–which is, I’ve come to learn, par for the course in abusive or dysfunctional households. Just wrapping my lips around the concept that I could write total crap and have it be okay was a brain-bender right up there with the nature of suffering and the existence of the Divine. It still is. I still get wrapped around the axle of “this can’t possibly be good enough.”

Especially when I’m about three-quarters of the way through a Book That Will Not Die, under deadline and short of sleep, and the entire world seems designed to drive home to me how inadequate I am as a writer and a human being. That’s when it’s hardest to give myself permission to just write the damn thing, get the corpse out on the table and then cut it up and prettify it.

Yeah. Like that.

But that’s another blog post.

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