Play Through the Suck: Writing Edition
Last week I participated in another one of Martie McNabb’s wonderful Show & Tales events. I highly recommend them, whether you decide to participate or just observe. It’s storytelling for everyone.
One of the participants told a story about seeing a guitarist perform. He was surprised to find out that, at 65, the man had only been playing for five years. How did he get so good in only five years, when playing well had been a lifelong struggle for the man telling the story? The guitarist explained that when you start you’re bad, but the more you practice, the better you get. And he described it with this advice:
Play through the suck.
Yes, talent is important, but more important is the determination to improve your skills. That means practicing, keeping at it even when you know it’s really bad. Working at it is the only way to get better. I thought about that mantra - emblazoned on the storyteller’s t-shirt - for days. Why do some people succeed and others fail?
‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is one of those incredibly stupid bits of advice that is actually not true. You may not spend all day every day hating your job, but there will be plenty of days when you will, even your much-loved, chosen profession/activity. No job is perfect, no matter how much you love it. And it’s useful to remember that everyone starts out knowing a lot less than the people around them. It might make you feel less self-conscious and anxious.
When I started writing I knew almost nothing about the craft and less than nothing about a business that was rapidly changing. It was a daunting learning curve and there were plenty of times I felt I was not up to it. There are still days like that, nine years after my first books came out. But I’m here to tell you that there is no time when ‘play through the suck’ is more appropriate than when writing a first draft.
I was in NYC earlier this month to crank out as much of the first draft of my next book as possible. One of the hardest things to do in that situation is to just write and ignore the impulse to self-edit at the same time. I was mostly successful at that; it’s a skill I’ve honed over the years that allows me to just put words on paper without immediately cringing. The cringing comes later, trust me.
The only way I can play through the suck with my writing is to remind myself that I’ve improved over time. I’ve learned so much - often the hard way - and I’ve elevated the skills I’ve acquired over the years. Because I kept at it, even when what I wrote was cringe-worthy. Now and then I find myself needing to learn something new, or focus on a new topic to write about. My self-confidence wavers, sometimes a lot. I have to remind myself to keep going, that it will eventually get better, get easier. And even if what I write is not very good the first time around, I know that at some point it will be good enough, or maybe even really good.
I used to refer to this stage as ‘banging my head against the wall’ or ‘nose to the grindstone’. But now I think I’m going to call it what it is: playing through the suck.