I know, I know: my current site design is hideous, and the site itself appears to have no reason to exist. Let me explain.
Here’s why this site exists: as a thing that allows me to share my writing publicly, no matter how bad it is, and hence (theoretically) encourages me to actually write.
Obviously, nothing I write is very good. This is distressing. But I’ve decided to live with the distress and keep writing anyway.
My perseverance here was inspired by the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, which describes a woman who, when asked how to become a good writer, silently took out her notepad and mimed scribbling something down on it. Her point: the only way to become a good writer is to write.
It’s awful to read what you’ve written and find it a mangled, garbled mess. But this is still better than not writing at all. I’m trying to overcome my perfectionism by telling myself I’m allowed to publish awful writing. As long as something gets published on this website every 1–3 weeks, no matter how badly written it is, I’ve accomplished by goal.
I’m also inspired by Scott Berkun’s wise words. I read his advice about writing so long ago that it’s become part of the way I talk to myself—as in, I hear his voice in my head sometimes—and now I can’t remember exactly what he said, or where I found it.
But I know he said something like, “Thinking about writing is much harder than actually writing. Compared to thinking about it, writing is easy.” And, “A book is just a series of sentences. Anyone can write a sentence. So anyone can write a book. The question is, are you willing to sit down to construct sentences day after day?”
I spent 45 mins just now scouring his website for the posts containing these ideas, and I can’t find them, so we’ll just have to live without a source here. I did come across another helpful thing he said, though, so at least I can include a link to that:
A book is just a collection of 8,000 or so sentences. If you can write one you can write 8000. When anyone laughs at your book, just say “ok, where is yours?” Then when they start to make up some excuse for not having one, hit them in the face (with your book).
(From How to write a book, part 2.)
If I’m so dissatisfied with everything I post, why do I force myself to publish so frequently? Why don’t I take as much time as each post requires to turn it into something better?
My policy here comes from something I read about students in a pottery class. (I can’t remember where I first read this story, but I know I’ve come across it in multiple places. I’ll update this with a source if I find one again.)
A class of pottery students was split into two groups. Half were told that 100% of their grade would depend the quality of a single pot. It didn’t matter what else they did during the class, as long as they produced one excellent pot by the end of the term. The other half of the class was told 100% of their grade would depend on how many pots they created. It didn’t matter how bad the pots were, they just had to make a lot of them.
By the end of the term, the students who made the most pots also ended up making the best pots. I’m hoping that by writing as many posts as possible (no matter how bad they are!) I’ll eventually end up writing much better posts. (So feel free to ignore these early efforts for now and come back in 10 years.)
Plus, even before I read this pottery story, I was inspired by Tim Urban. You might know about his mega-popular blog, Wait But Why, but did you know he has an earlier and equally fantastic blog called Underneath the Turban?
And let me tell you: Wait But Why is good, but Underneath the Turban (as a whole) is one of my top three favorite things I’ve ever read. I don’t know how it’s not more popular.
And I know I’m not as good a writer as Tim is, yet, but whenever I start to feel down about that, I remind myself of what he said about finding your voice:
Write. I wrote 300 blog posts between the ages of 23 and 29 before starting Wait But Why. It can take a while to find your voice and your tone and your style. At the beginning, you’ll be all over the place, the same way you are when you try a new sport or video game or musical instrument. That’s good — you’re experimenting on a canvas. Don’t judge your own writing at this phase — you’re experimenting and searching and playing — you’re not doing your best writing yet. If your mammoth is freaking out too much and ruining things, start with an anonymous blog.
(Quoted in this Medium post, Great advice on writing from Tim Urban.)
So, why do I need to publish my bad writing publicly? Because otherwise there’s too much incentive to just give up on your ideas halfway through. I’ve found I agree with Paul Graham’s statement in The Age of the Essay:
Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.
Aside from (theoretically) forcing me to think better, the existence of this blog forces me to acknowledge when I’ve failed my goal of writing something, however bad, every 1–3 weeks. At least three people I know read this blog, so if I suddenly stop posting they’ll ask me what happened to it, and I’ll have to admit I failed to do what I said I would do.
Let me end with one final thought: In How to Do What You Love, Paul Graham suggests some ways to test whether you’re actually working towards finding work you love, or just being lazy.
Here’s one test:
Always produce. For example, if you have a day job you don’t take seriously because you plan to be a novelist, are you producing? Are you writing pages of fiction, however bad? As long as you’re producing, you’ll know you’re not merely using the hazy vision of the grand novel you plan to write one day as an opiate. The view of it will be obstructed by the all too palpably flawed one you’re actually writing.”
Here’s to many more palpably flawed posts!
[Edited 10/18/2019: Added the parts about Tim Urban and Scott Berkun.]