You have good taste. It's why you got into this whole “writing” in the first place—you're aware of good writing when you read it. Of course, this has both an upside and a downside.
The upside: you know good writing when you read it, so you know what you want your writing to be.
The downside: you know good writing when you read it, so you know your writing has a long way to go.
You may know the name Ira Glass. He's spent years as reporter and host for radio programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation, and is currently the producer of This American Life. In a 2009 interview, he made one of the most profound statements on creativity I've encountered in my life.
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.
Today, I'm here to talk about that gap.
The Creative Gap
There's a downside to knowing what we want our writing to be. While that understanding, that good taste, pushes us to get better, on dark days, it also adds to the struggle. We know our writing isn't “there” yet, and sometimes, that's devastating.
Or, to continue Ira Glass' amazing quote:
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
You know, that's not actually a bad thing. You need that high standard so you know what to aim for. That good taste is your guide.
Now, I know this makes some of you nervous. Many writers I've met are afraid of being overconfident; they've met (or heard of) some guy somewhere who writes terribly, but is sure he's a genius. Nobody wants to be that guy.
I'm not telling you to be overconfident. I'm telling you to keep reading and learning to recognize good writing so your taste stays killer. As long as you keep your taste keen, you will (a) know what you're aiming for and (b) know when you're off, and (c) you won't become that guy.
Fight Your Way Through
Ira Glass went deeper into this conundrum of mismatched taste and talent:
A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.
I've known people who quit. I almost WAS one of those people who quit.
I bet you've had moments when you wanted to quit, too—and if you haven't yet, you will.
When that happens, remember that you're normal.
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.
Normal. All of us run up against this wall because we have that good taste.
And there is only one way past it: we have to fight our way through.
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.
You've gotta fight your way through.
Maybe this means reading a lot. Maybe it means cutting off the people in your life who are really toxic and listening to people who encourage you. Maybe it means picking up old work and reading it to remind yourself that you do not, in fact, suck.
Maybe it means putting the book down for a little while, then filling your creative well with other things: exercise, photography, friends, meditation, or something else inspiring.
What it means at its heart is this: find what you need to do to fight your way through this wall, then do it. Keep honing your taste and remember that you're not alone. That gap is one we all have to jump over.
Fight your way through, fellow writer. Fight your way through.
How are you fighting through this month? Let us know in the comments!
Today, let’s practice aiming for what your good taste demands. Here's a prompt for you to get started: if you're writing fiction, take your character and put them in a room with the most beautiful object they've ever seen. Maybe it's a painting, or maybe it's just a window with a view. Describe not just what your character see, but how it makes them feel.
If you write nonfiction, this is for you, too: it's time for you to describe the time you saw the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. Share how it made you feel. Share the power of being moved by beauty.
Write for fifteen minutes without stopping to edit. Don't be afraid. All you're doing is describing beauty and how it feels to see it. When you’re done, share your writing in the comments, and don’t forget to leave feedback on your fellow writers’ pieces!
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.