On Not Getting It Right the First Time

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This post is dedicated to a couple of young people I know who struggle with the idea of having to get things right the first time.

file000947770525I’ve been taking a ceramics class for fun and to explore another creative outlet. For the last few weeks, we’ve been hand building different kinds of vessels and forms. But on Monday, we switched to throwing on a pottery wheel. My instructor made it look so easy, demonstrating how to center the clay and pull the sides up into a cylinder.

Then it was our turn.

We sat at our wheels and tried to coax cylinders out of our own lumps of clay.

And we tried.

And tried.

To be fair, a couple of people did quite well. But most of us…well, it took several attempts before we got anything not wobbly, let alone cylindrical.

It was frustrating. Humbling. More than once I thought, There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this.

But each time my walls grew too thin or my cylinder lost its center, I crumpled the clay back into a lump, scraped the excess from the wheel and started again.

It took a few tries, but finally, working slowly, I threw a cylinder.

Will I be able to do it again next time? I don’t know. But I’m willing to keep trying until I learn.

That’s what it’s like for starting any project. Writing a first draft of a story. Starting a new painting. Sculpting clay by hand or on the wheel.

You don’t have to get it right the first time. Few people do. The magic happens in the revisions and later attempts.

So go easy on yourself. Give yourself the freedom to try and grace when you fail.

And never, ever stop learning.


Stay Flexible

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octopusI’m knee-deep in revisions (which is why it’s been quiet around here, sorry), and right now I feel a little bit like I’m wrestling an octopus.

For the record, wrestling an octopus makes me think of Cthulhu. And Cthulhu makes me think of the Ood. Which just goes to show all roads lead to Doctor Who.

Right. Where was I?

Wrestling an octopus, yes. Because it’s like I’ve unleashed all of these arms that were once pinned down and now are flailing around and I’m trying to pin them all down again and make them behave. On some level I know I’ll get them all pinned down again, but right now this seems like one big octopus and I’m no Bear Grylls. (Does Bear Grylls even wrestle octopus? I have no idea.)

But here’s the really cool part about all of this work: I’m learning.

I’m learning the importance of staying flexible. Like…well…octopus arms!

When I logged on to WordPress to write this post, I saw DexRaven’s post about killing your darlings (always sound advice) and I realized what I had to say was kind of along the same lines.

We writers are such a silly lot. We write our stories and we lovethemlovethemsomucharen’ttheyprecious?! When we feel brave enough, we show them to other people, and the other people see things that we don’t see and they make suggestions to make our precious stories better.

And sometimes, well, that doesn’t sit so well. Change is hard, and it’s so much easier to stay blind to those things that can be improved or to harden ourselves to the possibility that maybe we didn’t get it quite right the first time. Or not even that, but maybe just that there’s another way to do it that is just…better.

So, I’m working through the notes from my editor, and I’m finding again and again and again that as I unpin these octopus arms, all kinds of new (read: better) opportunities open up in the story. It’s really exciting to go through this process and see the story grow into an even more satisfying read.

But none of this would be happening if at any point along the way, I’d not been open to change. If I’d not been flexible. Even going waaaaaaay back to the first drafts I showed to my writers group, back before the novel looked anything like it does now.

Ugh. I am so glad I didn’t stop back then when it was a terrible, awful, ugly first draft mess.

Revising can be hard (Octopus arm! Duck!), but it can also be so good.

Stay flexible.

Fighting the Yousuck Monster

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So I’m working on some projects right now, and as usual, I have to keep the Yousuck Monster at bay. You know, the one that sits on your head and tells you over and over how awful your writing is and how you’ll never make it and you should just give up now.

Well, today I had an idea. A new defense of sorts.

When the Yousuck Monster shows up and you’re really feeling down about what you’re writing, go read the first thing you ever wrote. Or as close to the first thing as you can find. You know, that story you wrote six years ago that you were sure was going to launch your career. That brilliant idea that no one had thought of before. That beautiful prose dripping in detail and sensuality.


Not as good as you remembered it, is it?

That’s because in the last six years (or however long it’s been) you’ve grown as a writer. You’ve learned how to avoid adverbs, passive verbs and adjective storms. You’ve learned to really see a setting before putting your characters into it. You’ve learned to dismiss your first idea and your second idea and even your third.

You’re getting better every time you sit down to write. The draft you’re working on right now — the one the Yousuck Monster is hassling you about — is so totally way much better than that first story, isn’t it?

Now flick the Yousuck Monster off your head and get back to work.