Monday, January 15, 2007

It's okay to write junk

I always discover new things about my own writing or the writing process when I'm preparing a workshop. Sometimes that means simply finding ways to articulate what I feel or do anyway. Sometimes it makes me think about something I've never considered before. Thus it was with the workshops I did on Saturday.

I was talking about writers' block, specifically why I think that can happen and what to do when the muse seems to have gone AWOL. I was thinking about the adage that we're told so often, that in those circumstances you just let yourself write junk. What you write doesn't have to be perfect, or even good. You can fix it later.

But I also appreciate that there are some people who simply can't do this, especially among unpublished writers. I suspect some of the reasons they can't stem from their childhoods, but I think there are some that are shared.

I think there's a fear that, if a writer allows herself to write "junk," when she goes back, she won't recognize what's good and what's bad -- that the junk will be left in the manuscript, that an editor will see it as junk, and the work will be rejected.

However, I also believe most people who want to write do so because they love to read.

Every single book a writer has ever read has been part of the process of learning to be a writer. If you liked the book, you've learned what appeals to you as a writer, too. If you hated a book, you've learned what you don't want to write. All of those books have been teaching you what's junk and what's not, in your opinion. And when it comes to writing, we all write based on our own opinion of what's good and what's not, what works and what doesn't. Your instincts, honed by years of reading, are just as valid.

But what if an editor doesn't share the same likes and dislikes?

Welcome to the wonderful world of being a writer. We ALL face that hurdle. It will never go away. Your work will be accepted by an editor who (generally) shares the same likes and dislikes when it comes to writing. It will be rejected by an editor who doesn't.

Also, you have to be able to ignore the idea that "anything worth doing is worth doing well," which carries the implication that otherwise, you've been wasting your time. Sometimes that's true, but I don't believe it holds true for writing. Every single time you work on your manuscript, whether you write a paragraph, or a page, or a chapter or two or three, and even if that material gets cut from the book, you're learning. You're getting an even better idea of what works and doesn't work for you as an author. You're learning what you write well, and what you need to work on. You're always learning how to write better.

By allowing yourself the freedom to write and discard, you're also learning to let go of the idea that your words are all wondrous jewels that are too precious to waste. There is no finite number of words allotted to every writer. You can waste a few million and there will still be more.

There are people who excuse the endless tinkering by saying they're perfectionists. I often get the feeling that they think that makes them better human beings than me, too but I'd argue it pretty much just ensures they're more stressed out than me. However, since we're speaking of writing, I'll confine myself to that, and ask, "Is there ever such a thing as a "perfect" book?" Is that a realistic goal? Because it seems far more likely to me that if you think you've written a perfect book? Just wait until a reviewer reads it. Or some of the folks who post on Amazon. The experience of reading is too subjective for any book to ever be "perfect." Every reader has likes and dislikes based on their experiences and beliefs, so no book will satisfy every single reader.

Am I saying you should just write any ol' thing and call it a day? Heck, no. That's why you go back and revise the junk. But whether you're published or not, trust in your instincts honed by hours and hours of reading, and have faith in your own judgment.


Vicky said...


I was fortunate to attend the meeting on Saturday, and I have to tell you that everything you said to us and wrote in your blog is true.

I am one of those people who clearly has problems with doing things that aren’t perfect – I use the word perfect loosely – let’s say to my expectations. I do not consider myself a perfectionist and I never will. I know my flaws, some I’ll admit to sooner than others, but when you gave me two crayons I thought I was going to go crazy! Such a simple exercise spoke volumes about my ability to accept things as they are and move on.

It was essentially a therapy session. Yup. Margaret you are a delight and inspiration and I thank you for everything.

I went out and bought a colouring book yesterday, now I just have to bring myself to keeping only two crayons. Every time I get frustrated because something I’m doing isn’t exactly as I want it to be, I’ll pull out my colouring book and think of our meeting.


Margaret Moore said...

Vicky, thanks so much for posting and telling me this! That's exactly what I was hoping for. And trust me, there are many things I have to remind myself about, too. Like, the only thing about publishing I can control is my writing. :-)

Maureen McGowan said...

working with a critique group... and submitting to agents and editors, cured me of my perfectionist tendencies.

I know for some people critique groups can have the oposite effect... they can paralyze you into never thinking you're good enough because they always find faut...

But i'm lucky to have found an amazing group and I know who to trust on which things and I know they'll let me know if it's great when I think it's junk and vice versa.

Christine said...

I have to agree with Vicky on the benefit of the activity. It really helped me clear my mind and let the ideas flow. Thanks again for a wonderful talk!

Amy Ruttan said...

The exercise that you had us do about listing 20 things broke a writer's block that has been plaguing me for weeks. I couldn't write anything, I couldn't even blog really. I came up with something so left field that it actually seemed to work in my current WIP. Believe me I am not a perfectionist ... I do write junk. My NaNo at one point was rambling on about the cuisine my characters were eating in 18th Century, a dreadful little dish called Beef Olives, let me tell you there ain't no olives in there.

Great workshops! I thoroughly enjoyed them!