"Hi Ksenia! I'm currently writing my second novel. The first one was so easy; such a continuous rush of excitement and inspiration and creativity. But this one... is very different. It's the first time I've lost all faith in my writing and thought that it all is pure shit, and wondered how I'll ever be able to turn this into something readable. I feel like just giving up. How do you do it? Are you ever faced with these moments of despair and futility in your writing? You are so goddam inspiring—you've made a career out of writing books all by yourself, in a language that isn't even your native tongue! That amazes me. I'm hoping you might be able to pass on some wisdom to me. Thank you!"
Hi Spencer! Thank you for asking this difficult question. We like to boast about the rush of writing but we don't like as much to talk about the other side of it, do we? We like to hide, to pretend, to blame writers' block, or whatever. Most of the time we do it quietly, we the non-social creatures who don't like to air out our personal problems in public which is why we like to write fiction in the first place, right? And the truth is, most of the time after we decide that what we write is so bad there is no point in continuing, we quit. And that's a shame. So many books could've been written. So many books never get finished because of this fucking internal police.
"You're not good enough. You'll never be good enough. So why the hell do you even try? What chance have you got? Who do you think you are? You think you're so special? I'm sorry to break it to you, but you're nothing. You're a blimp on the ass of the Universe. Not even that. You're the ingrown hair to be yanked out. You're a parasite. Just look at your writing, what kind of drivel is that? How much worse can you get, dummy? Quit it. Go get a job like a respectable member of society. Make some money, go on vacation, get drunk. Forget this writing idea. You suck. You know you suck."
Oh, it never stops, does it? It just won't shut up. So how do you continue writing when what's staring at your from the page is so awful you want to stick your head in the oven and turn on the gas?
The knowledge that you will get better by not quitting.
There are four stages of learning. This is a crude generalization that I have picked up in some book or other, and I believe I have blogged about this before, but it's always a good idea to repeat, because I tend to forget. You tend to forget. We all tend to forget.
1. You don't know that you don't know.
In other words you can call it "fool's bliss." The first book you write, you have no clue how to do it, you're not aware of rules and pitfalls and traps and dangers and typical mistakes and all that smart jazz that books on writing novels teach you (fuck them, by the way). That's where the exhilaration comes from. It's like skiing down the slope for the first time. "Wheee!" you go, until you hit the tree. You don't know you can hit the tree, it's not in your scope of the world as you see it. That's how kids do things. They have no fear because they don't know there can be fear. They think it's endless fun.
2. You know that you don't know.
Welcome to the tree. Or the boulder. Or 53-year-old Susan Muller who happened to be in your way and has lost her dentures thanks to your noggin slamming in her jaws. Whatever it is, you suddenly see you don't know shit. And now you're afraid. You're so afraid you don't want to try again. Some of your enthusiasm is still with you, though, so on inertia you continue. This is where most writers quit. They're the ones who tried to write a novel and saw that they couldn't and abandoned it. Too bad. It's only another learning stage.
3. You don't know that you know.
I suppose this is where the most stubborn of us get left. We continue just because, just to spite all those who tell us we can't. We flip them a finger and go down the slope and break an arm and get the cast and return the next season and break both legs and come back the next season and keep coming back until we stop falling and stop breaking bones and start enjoying skiing. We know we're awful at skiiing. We long ceased to dream about becoming an Olympic star but we started enjoying it and keep doing it just for fun. This is another stage where lots of writers quit. By practicing writing they start getting it, getting the craft, but they don't see it yet. They don't know that they know. I'm here somewhere still.
4. You know that you know.
This doesn't strike you out of the sky one glorious moment. No. It comes gradually, stealthily. You notice more and more that you're comfortable doing what you're doing and you start liking it. You like the process. And then you start seeing it, that you can fucking ski. That you can fucking write! You really can! This is where all the big ones are, all those who have finally believe in themselves and stopped doubting. This is where you accept yourself as an artist and stop trying to be someone else and start working on bettering yourself and your writing style. Your style, not someone else's. When you reach this stage, you're gold. Here is the deal, though.
YOU WILL NEVER REACH IT IF YOU QUIT.
All that shit you write? It's just practice. Get it?
Think of writing as learning a new skill. Any skill. Let's say, cooking pancakes. Your first pancakes will be burned and lumpy and inedible, right? Right. What's the way to fix it? Make more damned pancakes to learn how to do them right. It takes practice. If you stop making shitty pancakes you will never learn how to make great pancakes. You get me?
Your writing is a path, not an end.
Every book you write is a horrid pancake on that path. Awful charred piece of shit, one after another after another, until it gets a little better, and a little better, and a little better.
You have to write a lot of shit to produce gold. Here is how it applies to books.
If you want to write novels, good novels, you have to write a lot of bad novels. Practicing on short stories won't do. You need to practice on what you want to make. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Sure you will hone your writing with a flash fiction piece here and a poem there, but you won't have a clue how to write a book, and when you start it will prove so overwhelming you will be tempted to quit. Don't put yourself in that position. Start working on novels right away. All that prep will only condition you for shorter pieces. You need to learn to lug around your brain about 100K words of stuff and be able to think through it WITHOUT THE HELP OF NOTES.
Yeah, yeah, I know there are tools and what have you. It's all bullshit. It's crutches. You must learn to hold it in your head. Only then will you be able to compete it and make it coherent, not some mumbo jumbo of scenes that make no whole. And you'll learn how to finish it. Most books get never finished.
So you see now how your shitty writing is not shitty at all? It's doing something very important. It's teaching you how to get from point A to point B, complete it, and move on.
That is how you persevere, Spencer. You step on it to get to the next step up the ladder. Finish it no matter how awful you think it is and move on to the next novel, and the next, and the next. And one day you will write a Pulitzer. I know you will. That is, if you won't quit. Don't you dare. Or I'll find out where you live and come over and spank you. The Russian way. You don't want to find out what that feels like, trust me. So enough of this. Stop reading this post and go write. And if you need a little something to pick you up when you're down, remember: EVERY WRITER YOU LOVE STARTED OUT WRITING UTTER SHIT. The only difference between them and the others is that they never quit. They just kept at it.