My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, May 26, 2017

This "Populist Writing Philosophy" (Mailbox)

I disagree with the popular writing advice that quality doesn't matter.

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week. I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I try to do only gentle takedowns when folks aren't anonymous.]

Paul writes:

I have to fundamentally disagree with this populist writing philosophy you espouse--i.e., that quality doesn't matter, instead all that matters is you write. While that may not be a statement you agree with, it certainly seems to be the gist of your day-to-day and week-to-week posts.

I'm sorry, but what matters is that you write the best you can, every time, and never accept anything less from yourself. Because if you write shit, no matter how much you polish that shit afterwards it's still just going to be a polished turd. I have seen many lifelong writers never even come close to escaping mediocrity, simply because they subscribe to this cop-out of refusing to demand more of themselves.

And it ties in with the idea of simply getting something on the page and then fixing it afterward. If you don't take the time to think about what you want to write first, you will rarely write anything that lives up to your true potential.

My reply:

Damn Paul, I just came here to have a good time and I'm feeling so attacked right now.

Okay, seriously though....I didn't get this as anonymous feedback, so I'm going to try to play nice, but it would be difficult for me to disagree more with the gestalt and particulars of a message than I do with this one.

There are basically six issues here, Paul, and I'll take them on as they showed up in your PM to me:
  1. That elitism has a place in writing. (Through the implication that populism does not.)
  2. That the end goal of everyone's writing is something we even know.
  3. That one should write the best they can every time and "demand more of themselves."
  4. That there is any way to be good at writing other than by first writing a lot of what isn't good.
  5. That getting something on the page is not a fundamental part of the writing process.
  6. That one ought to think about it for a long time before writing.

1- That elitism has a place in writing. (Through the implication that populism does not.)

Whenever "populism" gets used outside of politics–and I mean literally the word itself–I start thinking of non-ironic use of the word "plebs." ("The plebs might like this sort of thing, but anyone with some REAL class....") It's not that I don't think typical writing advice can sometimes be less than helpful. It is after all a typical position that writing every day is not particularly important to becoming a well-known published author, whereas most successful writers encourage it. In this respect a certain amount of elitism can creep into good writing advice. I mean, do you want to listen to your friend who has seven chapters of their totally sick post-apocalyptic steampunk zombie/dragon love story tucked in a drawer and has been talking about how wicked dope it is for five years when they tell you you don't need to write every day, or do you want to listen to the legion of household name authors when they respond to the question over and over and over (and over) about how to "make it" as a writer that writing every day is essential to that goal?

My question then becomes, Paul, if "just writing" is a populist philosophy, who are these "normal people" you think are kidding themselves and who my page should not cater to. I don't just mean that as a "gotcha" question. I would really ask yourself that and reflect. Elitism in writing has a fraught historical and cultural legacy–even who was taught HOW to write is only a couple of generations from being a repulsive means of cultural control.

I would really consider why you are comfortable with an elitist approach to writing that is so codified that you don't just think your approach is better for you personally, but that I am actually running my page wrong and you need to tell me so.

Writing is for everyone (or should be), and one of the things I disagree with the most is folks who try to gatekeep it either through content or quality or grammar or whatever. I'm more about tearing down walls and making writing accessible (and hopefully enjoyable) to even more people. You, of course, get to decide what you read, but deciding what other people write and if they're doing it right, is significantly different.

2- That the end goal of everyone's writing is something we even know.

This "don't do it half-assed or you aren't really even doing it" advice is everywhere you look. Fitness trainers are saying it to people who power walk or just come enjoy the gym's pool. Multi-level marketers say that you have to become a salesperson powerhouse. Cosplayers demand a costume be of a certain quality. The leader of my old World of Warcraft guild said it when I told him I wasn't going to be able to raid for three to five hours, five nights a week.

And that's great for what those powerhouses want to do, but some people don't want shredded abs, they just want to have more energy to play with their kids. They don't want to be the top of a pyramid scheme; they just want the product for their family and a few friends. They don't want to spend 150 labor hours making a costume; they just want to hang out in something that looks good enough. They don't want a part-time job worth of video games; they want to play casually a couple of hours on weekends when they are done writing. Telling those folks they aren't really doing it and their effort doesn't count is at least kind of crappy. But mostly it just presumes to know what they want out of life and their pursuits, and tends to come with a certain level of sneering dismissal of anyone who isn't "in it to win it" so to speak, and a sort of belief that they are the "real" versions of whatever it is. If I don't get to be in that World of Warcraft guild (and I don't) because I'm a weekend warrior and never have the latest tier 87 power gear, that's fine. But I have fun and I'm pretty good at what I enjoy doing (battlegrounds). And I can't remember the last time I picked a talent spec that wasn't exactly what the "pros" were picking to win in the arenas. So don't tell me I don't really play. 

It's true that I modulate my advice based on whether or not I am addressing someone who is perfectly happy to do Tumblr fanfic once a month for the rest of their life vs. someone who wants to be a working (and perhaps just a wee bit rich and famous) novelist vs. someone who already has a writing career, but in general my advice is fairly consistent, and I don't presume to know what someone's goals and objectives are.

Write a lot. Read a lot. Don't give up. That'll get you pretty far when you realize everything else is variations on a theme and frosting.

People write for lots of different reasons. For catharsis, for enjoyment, for friends and family, to be understood, for money, for the joy of the page, to fulfil the ambition of a full-fledged career in writing, for the pursuit of artistic excellence. I've written more than one story to impress a woman. None of these approaches to writing is "incorrect" or "improper." Just because someone hasn't done their best every time doesn't somehow not make it writing. Even published authors might, for some extra cash, whip out a short story that is "less than their best." And given how hard achieving high end life goals like "paying career" or "artistic brilliance" can be with any art, the only generalized assumption I make is that most people who write enjoy it in some way.

If you want to drive yourself to be great, spiffy. But let's leave some of the ice cream for the other kids, okay?

3- That one should write the best they can every time and "demand more of themselves."

If everyone who wrote, or I suppose everyone of the half a million folks who follow Writing About Writing on Facebook, definitely wanted a career as a well-paid novelist or to tap into their literary potential, I might focus on encouraging them to write the best they could every time.

I more or less agree with you that doing your best consistently is the way to improve your writing, but improvement is not everyone's end game. Some people are getting what they want out of writing and that's great on them. It's not like the money and the fame and the groupie threesomes are reliable enough that anyone should be writing to get to those things. So the love of writing itself must be the primary motivation. And some people are content with their skill level and want to tell stories. Many authors improve only incrementally once they start getting published because at that point they have the skill they need to tell the stories they want to and maybe make a career out of it. That's okay.

Improvement is not always on every writer's mind during every part of their life either, even if it tends to be in general. When my partner of ten years got cancer and then I went through a breakup and a move, I just wanted to keep from losing readers. For an entire year, my only external goal with writing was simply not to lose ground. The real reason I kept writing was that it was my way out. It was my catharsis. My processing. My therapy. (Well, okay, I also had some actually therapy, but that helped.)

I wrote my way out....

4- That there is any way to be good at writing other than by first writing a lot of what isn't good.

You can't sit around and think your way to good writing, Paul. It goes against everything you will ever hear about how to improve your craft. At least by anyone who has done so themselves.

You can sit in smoke-filled coffee houses discussing craft and attend webinars and take classes and read books until the end of days, but none of that will help if you don't get a lot of practice as well. Some of it might help you get better a little faster, but nothing will take the place of practice.

Adventure time.  Warner Bros. Television Distribution
You have to write. You have to write a lot. And you have to write a lot of crap. And maybe, maybe, MAYBE after you write a lot of crap, you will be a little better at writing stuff that sucks slightly less.

There really aren't any shortcuts to this part of the grand writing scheme. A lot of people really hope there are, and folks chasing the sacred effort shortcut amount to a tremendous amount of the cash flow generated by the "writing industry." However, almost every overnight success story you've ever heard actually wasn't overnight at all. There was just a lot of work going on behind the scenes. I'm often shocked at how many people can almost quote to me the story of Stephen King getting his "We-want-to-buy-Carrie" phone call from his publisher (he writes about it in On Writing), but can't tell me within a decade of accuracy how many years he wrote almost constantly before that happened...even though that's described only a few pages earlier. (The answer is over twenty years.)

Writing is a skill. When we think about what we want our finished product to be, we imagine bits of it as cinematics in our heads, fudge over cerebral ideas, and skip parts we're not sure about yet. It is uncongealed and not set to words. It turns out that actually converting all those great ideas into concrete language is really, really hard. Hard enough that when people are good at it, we pay them lots of money. Hard enough that there's not really any way to get good at it except through practice.

5- That getting something on the page is not a fundamental part of the writing process.

I was sort of with you till we got here, Paul. I mean I had my problems with the elitism and stuff, but it seemed like maybe you were taking umbrage with people who just keep writing first drafts and wondering why they're not rich and famous yet. Or the folks sending their Nano manuscripts to publishers. Or folks who self-publish a draft that clearly needs more revision. Obviously not everyone wants to do the work of revision, but some of them do scratch their head and wonder why they aren't getting better. But then you kind of undermined the first part of the point with the second and the whole thing fell apart.

It's funny that you mention polishing a turd as a way NOT to treat a first draft. See, that's more or less exactly how the writing process works, and why an awful lot of writers using that exact fecal metaphor. In fact, one of the breakthrough moments when experienced writers try to teach inexperienced writers is when the latter finally takes a leap of faith and lets go of the idea that they have to write something good the first time they sit down.

But hey, you know what. Don't take my word for it:
"The first draft of anything is shit."  -Hemingway 
“I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they’d like to have. I want the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me, so I can just focus on the second, third and fourth drafts.” -Judy Bloom
"Just get the story down." -Nora Roberts
"I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them – without a thought about publication -and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside." -Anne Tyler
 “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” -Terry Pratchett
Shitty First Drafts PDF (An essay by Anne LaMott) 
 “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”
― Raymond Chandler  
“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”—Lawrence Block, WD 
It's polished shit, Paul.  Polished shit all the way down.

Not that you can't ever find writers who don't work exactly this way (Vonnegut and Koontz spring to mind), but even their page-by-page revision and polish happens on a real page, not in their heads over time, thinking about it until they finally have thought so much that they can just write gold. They just tear a lot of pages out of the typewriter and crumple them up like you see in the movies.

Even in the case of those incredibly rare writing moments (like when Marilynne Robinson wrote Gilead in what would almost be a single draft), the writer admits to doing the actual linguistic work of sentence and paragraph revision in their head for years before they committed a single letter to the page.

What I fear your eschewing of revision reveals, Paul, is a fundamental distrust in the writing process. I hear this all the time from my students who think they don't have to draft or that their revision process will be little more than a quick pass for grammar and a few word choices rather than a massive tectonic upheaval that reshapes and reforms their work. "Not MY draft," they all say. "Mine is good already because I really thought about it." They think they're not going to have to rip their work apart and they can somehow, with enough prep, get it right on the first try. If you're trying to get writing right on the first try, you're not trusting that you're going to crack open its chest and do some organ transplants, and won't get away with a little nip and tuck.

You're not trusting the process.

Let me be as clear as I can: From popular cotton candy novelists to Nobel laureates, all have the same thing to say about the idea that revision can be avoided with enough aforethought: That's NOT going to happen. You can't prep your way out of revision. You have to be ready to revise the shit out of your story. When they say "kill your darlings," they aren't suggesting every book needs a body count.

The process of polishing shit is HOW writing works. That's exactly what you want to do. Grab that turd and bust out a lint-free cloth! Once the idea is on the page, you can see what's not working. Revise your approach. Get rid of that character. Notice those two chapters are doing the same thing. Abandon that plot arc. Start after all of that god awful exposition dump. Get rid of 90% of those lines you thought were so fucking clever. Rewrite it if necessary (and it will be at least once).

Then you revise again. Then you get some peer review and you go back and revise again. And again. THIS is where you hone all the skills. THIS is where the real magic starts to happen.

That's how all art works. You don't get better at a concert by thinking about it. You have a rehearsal and see what needs more practice. You don't paint great paintings by thinking about how awesome it's going to look when it's finally done and then just splatting it out. You sketch it, draw it, and paint it and see what works and maybe scrape it off or redo it if it isn't working. You don't think about your dance. You choreograph it, take a look at it, notice the parts that need work and start adding in complexity and nuance.

6- That one ought to think about it a long time before writing.

No! No no no. No. NO!  No. Don't do that. No.

(If it helps you not to feel defensive, Paul, I'm writing that more like a loving mother whose child is walking hand first towards the lit stove and less like Steve Carell on The Office.)

This is a really great way to get writer's block. I mean like bigtime, no nonsense, serious ass, sit in front of that keyboard for hours and then days and then months kind of writer's block. Please don't do this. This is EXACTLY the sort of fear of failure/demand for perfection that paralyzes writers indefinitely. Thinking that they have to get the words perfect on the first try is basically the number one cause of writer's block. Or they get one line perfect and then....fall apart at line two. Not to mention that this is the thing that most steals away the simple joy of writing.

And then we have to go back and unlearn all this perfectionism. And relearn about morning writing and free writing and stream of consciousness writing and trusting in the writing process to be able, over many revisions, to turn a steaming hot turd into something beautiful. We are so worried about perfect execution that we've forgotten how to let go and be creative and we have to go back to those fountainheads of inspiration as a deliberate act of will. We have to remember how to write a bunch of shit down and throw 90% of it away because it's not working, but maybe we get a really good idea from something in that 10%. We have to remind ourselves how much of art is play.

I hate Scott Adams untethered bigotry, and I sort of wish we could
liberate this quote, but boy did he nail it here.

Are there some ideas you let percolate before you write them? Sure. They're not really fully-formed ideas at that point. And many's been the post or essay I thought about for days before I started writing. My personal process leans towards deep introspection, lots of "staring at the ceiling," and then faster writing once I'm at the keyboard. But I still have to ACTUALLY write it down after the ceiling is done giving me ideas. I also rarely use outlines or notes once I know where I'm going, and I'll admit that on important works, I should be revising more than I do. People have a different point before they need to start articulating their thoughts, but 1) it always happens eventually, and 2) the people who need to start writing sooner are no less of writers.

The inescapable truth, though, is that once the nebulous ideas are as crystalized as they're going to get, you have to just start splatting them out (warts and all), so that you can see what you're dealing with and start the process of revision. You HAVE to start forging these ideas in the crucible of language or they will only ever languish all nebulous-like inside your own head. Thinking about it MORE after that point doesn't really help, and if you just sit around and play Fallout for 16 hours a day thinking that your idea is somehow going to evolve into its final form in your head, rather than by struggling with the precise words you need on the paper, you'll only ever end up with lots of thoughts and a very, very small number of written things.

It's not that quality doesn't matter, Paul. Of course it does. Any writer who isn't comfortable exactly where they are with exactly what they are doing (whether it's their aesthetics or their career) should care very greatly about the quality of their finished products. Revision, editing, and final product all take lots of work and dedication to quality. It's just that there is a way we get to quality in the arts. A faith in the years-long apprenticeship with the old masters and our personal heroes that produces lots of practice and lots of unusable product, and after that, a faith in the process of refinement (revision, in the case of writing) to bring our initial efforts to a higher quality.

But between the writing process that absolutely is all about revision and the writers who don't necessarily want to be treating their writing like it's boot camp, I'm really uncomfortable being elitist about a prescriptive demand that writing requires anything but writing to be writing.


  1. For Paul -- here's what happens if you keep polishing your shit: https://www.ixquick.com/do/search?q=coprolite+cabochon&nj=0&cat=pics

  2. I think about a piece of writing as similar to a fruit growing on a branch. Once it's large enough, you can pluck it, wash it, remove the stem and withered leaves... but the stem (usually masses of exposition) is essential to the initial growing process. You can't grow a peach without dirt, roots, trunk, branches and stems. Nobody wants to eat those things. The final edit yields a peach, but if you think you MUST omit the dirt when growing peaches, you're a real coffee shop effete elitist, and the best you can do to help other writers is to keep your trap shut.

  3. I have 'Paul' moments in my singing and piano playing career. I was once told that if a person cannot play at an accomplished level then they should not play. How do you become accomplished if you don't make all the mistakes and learn? To make such statements is a weird elitism. Writing is only for accomplished writers? Singing is only for accomplished singers? I suppose cave wall painting is only for accomplished cave wall painters, too? This is not a real idea. Books are not created without lots and lots and lots of words looked at and then thrown away.

    1. I have this in my songwriting, sometimes I write something that I think to myself "This isn't the most perfect or unique thing I could write" and I struggle with writers block for days because I decide that everything is a rehash of a rehash and that I lack the skill to write a song that doesn't use the same chords, or similar ideas that I've used before.

      More than that though, the most musically edifying and satisfying moment of writing music for me was when, inspired by a bunch of other music, I wrote a track, and upon listening to it, I realised, it was complete garbage. Just not what I intended, not interesting, not worthwhile. And it was incredibly liberating. That perfectionism is often rooted in this conversation I have with myself, where I go, "Am I just buried in my own ass? Is what I write any good? Is this all just my ego". Writing something that I could actually identify as massively lacking, despite putting a bunch of time into it, was hugely inspiring. It made me trust my own judgement more, and it was gratifying to know that I could let something go because it wasn't good enough.

      On writing every day, I try to write music every day, applying that same concept, but since each piece is unique, there is a level of waiting for inspiration. So on the days that I don't have that, I practice my instrument and teach myself more skills. I polish arrangements for other parts for songs I've already written. The most important thing is the habit. You do it every day because that is the best way to get the work in to get better at it.

  4. Thanks Paul, thanks Chris, for this.
    The questions Paul are very illuminating, because you spell out what's been going on in my mind silently for years, and what has been keeping me from writing even though I always thought I wanted to. It's such a relief to read it, to see someone else put it into words, to know this is a thing for people, not just for me. I also have the certain but not yet quite articulated sense that this goes for more areas in my life and could act as a subtle pointer in those areas as well. That needs more thought, though. Haha. Not really. More practice and doing, more like =).

    The answers you give Chris are very useful indeed, and have helped me get behind the keyboard and start a Free Writing routine, hoping to keep it up! Thank you for posting and answering this question!

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  7. I'm one of those writers who (at this point) gets it pretty close to correct on my first draft--but that's only if you don't count the outlines I typically do ahead of time, which can go into as much detail as a screenplay at points. Also, I've been writing seriously for twelve years now, and casually for twice that. My recent novels are readable on the "first draft" only because I've spent so long honing my craft (oh my goodness my early works were awful, I'm so glad I didn't get published when I was a teenager). And of course, this is just describing what works for me, personally, an individual who has always had issues with being forced to do multiple drafts of essays and other writing for school. I wrote my first novel when I was seventeen, and edited it a decade later, after ten years' worth of writing under my belt; that allowed me to scrap a majority of the original draft and keep only those parts that were most vital to the story, not so much polishing a turd as replacing it with a polished stone. But without the decade of experience, writing whatever came to me, I wouldn't have been able to do that.

  8. Well said, Chris. My novel wouldn't be anywhere near completion if I'd waited for the right words. Someone said they'd rather edit/revise a page of garbage than a blank page. I've still got those first garbage thoughts, but they're not in the current draft, partly through self-criticism, partly from reader comments (not always favourable). For me, the right words only come when I review the crap I've written. Garbage forces the issue.