You have the right to suck.
There, I said it.
This is a little known fact about authors and publishing and hell, life in general. And I think this has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn over the past 8 months of being a published author. I still have the right to suck at it.
I think a lot about the almost-moments. I first submitted to publishers when I was fourteen, thinking that I’d be one of those wunderkind children and have all this praised lavished upon me—at the time, this included the cute boy I had a crush on and that of my high school peers. Without me having to say or do anything, I’d come into school one day and they’d just know. They’d see it written all over my face. I was awesome, and they should have known it all along.
Then there are the moments later, the almost-yes of this agent or that, the amazing one on one critique that almost-almost-almost–and didn’t. These very frustrating moments that got me just a little closer to the dream, the goal, the shining idea of being published.
I am so thankful that I didn’t get published at 14. I spent ten years being totally selfish with my writing. I didn’t care when I could see all the ways in which it blatantly sucked—the ways I was subtly or not so subtly ripping off other writers, the ways I had taken scenes from movies I loved and just kind of changed some names. I didn’t care if it sucked.
I let my own opinion develop. It took a really long time to develop those instincts, and choose for myself what was terrible and what was something that was actually speaking to me, to the story, to something more visceral and true. And that was something I learned to treasure.
A friend recently pointed me to an example of someone saying it with much more eloquence, as only Ira Glass can do:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
But then how do you reconcile this suckitude with being a professional, with having deadlines, and worse, expectations placed upon you? You simply don’t have time to suck. It’s gone. That selfish period of self-discovery has ended, and you’ve got to figure out how to cling to it—you’ve got to figure out how to suck again, how to remember that you are allowed to be a bad writer more times than you have to be a brilliant writer.
I’m trying to make time to be an awful writer. I’m trying to make time to not care about anyone else’s expectations but my own, to hear nothing but the voice inside. Because let’s be honest—when I stop listening to that voice, my writing is terrible anyway, but it’s terrible in a scary, paralyzing, I’ve-totally-lost-it kind of way.
I want to be terrible in the selfish way. In the high-volume, only 10% of this is good but I KNOW which 10% it is kind of way. ITS SO HARD. WHY DID SOMEONE MAKE THIS SO HARD?! But that’s the game. That’s the problem, the goal, the everything in one.
If you haven’t hit your goals yet, publication or otherwise, don’t bog yourself down in self-criticism. This time is your gift to listen to your voice. To fight for those ambitions with your heart to guide you, because believe me, it has such a true compass. Trust yourself, and you’ll get there. You don’t have be perfect; you can suck. You just have to be yourself, and keep going.
And if you’re in the middle, if you’ve hit some of your goals but not all of them—don’t forget that you have a right to suck. You can write as much trash and garbage as you want to. The reason that you want to write it, that gap between product and ambition, will become clear. It will make you a better writer, if you allow it to. Trust that gut instinct that you spent so long developing.