Reading time: About 3 minutes
Are you ever filled with regret after reading what you’ve written? I bet you’re suffering from a case of writer’s remorse….
When my husband and I bought our house some 30 years ago, we were unspeakably excited. We’d spent eight months looking — had toured dozens, maybe even hundreds, of other homes — and had never even been moved to make a single offer. This was the first house we’d fallen in love with.
The leaded glass windows at the front of the house. The original wood balusters and newel posts in the front hall stairway. The graceful old cherry tree draping over the back deck. This house and garden, built in 1913, were loaded to bursting with old-world charm.
We had a long close (the previous owners hadn’t yet found their new house) and by the time we were able to move in, several months had passed. So, when we finally arrived at the empty home, clutching our keys and several boxes of our stuff, it was as if we were seeing the house for the first time.
My reaction? Yuck! The house was smaller and darker than I’d remembered. The rooms were dingier and the kitchen was a disaster. “Have we made a terrible mistake?” I thought. We’d just made the biggest purchase of our lives — and now I was feeling awful about it.
Of course, I had buyer’s remorse. And this feeling has a fair bit in common with what I like to call writer’s remorse.
Instead of being about spending money (as it is for house buyers), writer’s remorse seems to be more about spending time. After all that time we spent writing the (fill in the blank)…. article, blog post, dissertation, book or report…. why isn’t it nearly as good as we’d imagined it would be?
But when it comes right down to it, the real issue with writer’s remorse isn’t time. It’s more the disconnect between what we expected we’d be able to do when writing, and what we actually achieved.
In our own mind’s eyes, we’re always heroes. When the idea for what we want to write first pops into our head, the possibilities seem endless, delicious. We believe that we will draw praise from our bosses and clients, rave reviews from readers and that we will be nothing but proud when we re-read our own words.
But that’s just in our mind’s eye. Here’s what really happens:
Our first draft seems sad and inadequate. The ground-breaking idea in our head has become weak and indefensible. We find ourselves saying things like, I spent a solid week working on that report and it’s nowhere near as good as it should be. Or, worse, I spent two years on that book and it really doesn’t represent what I had dreamed of saying.
I’ve been reflecting on this disconnect after reading a recent Austin Kleon post in which he quotes the late writer David Rakoff. (Rakoff’s book Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, told entirely in rhyming couplets, is one I still love to re-read.)
Here is the quote — from Rakoff — that Kleon highlighted:
“Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one’s least attractive, that sometimes it’s just easier not to do anything. Writing — I can really only speak to writing here — always, always only starts out as sh*t: an infant on monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.”
I especially appreciated Rakoff’s comparison to cooking — where you take something that’s often delicious, say, a pear, and turn it into something even more delicious, say, a pear tart.
Writing, on the other hand, doesn’t begin with delicious ingredients. There are just words. And ideas. And somehow, you have to turn them into something delicious. It’s hard work. And frustrating.
And it requires a time where what you’re working on is no good. Many people dislike that time because they fear it means they are no good.
But this is not true. We are all separate from what we do and write. We need to understand that, for a time, our words may be inept, ugly and unattractive. But we have the skill and ability to change them. As long as we can accept the brief time when our words are unattractive, when we are filled with writer’s remorse, we can work at making our words better.
Good writers edit themselves, relentlessly. They don’t expect the words to emerge in final perfect form by some sort of miracle. They take time to edit a piece until it’s much better than their crappy first draft. They spend hours and days revising.
Good writers are eager to get feedback from beta readers and editors and respond to it. They use it to make their work better.
Good writers aren’t perfectionists. Instead, they’ve learned the discipline of letting go of their work and putting it out there for the world to see. (They know they will have the chance to write more, later.)
Good writers are humble. They are committed to finishing, no matter how hard the writing is. They know they will get better.
Let me wrap up with a final story about our home. After my husband and I had lived in our house for almost 20 years, we decided to rebuild it. We sold off a chunk of our property and used the money to improve our house, keeping the old-world charm but reinforcing it with new-world plumbing, electricity and closets. Plenty of closets.
Suddenly, our crappy first draft of a house had become something we were justifiably happy with. It took us 20 years, but it was worth it.
You can do the same with your writing. And it won’t take you 20 years, either.
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What do you do to combat writer’s remorse? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Scott, the winner of this month’s book prize, for an Oct. 18/22 comment on my blog. (Please send me your email address, Scott!) Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please scroll down to the section directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!