Good writing is horribly painful

From Caren’s excellent post “What I Have Learned Reading Slush” which I recommend in total. One of them, though, demands further commentary:

10. This line, while usually meant well, is almost always a bad idea: “I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.” This is because I, too, am a writer, and my personal experience is that everything I have ever enjoyed writing personally was always really, really bad. If you have more fun than I do—that’s great. But telling me is going to make me suspicious when I first start reading.

Yeah. Here’s the dirty secret about writing: it’s a fucking horrible experience if you’re doing it well. Writing, say, “Usurpers” I typed, randomly took notes longhand, thought about the story all the time, and felt this world-destroying anxiety about it. To get the rhythm (and the rhythm breaks) down I read it out loud to myself over and over. By the time it went to Asimov’s, I’d read the story out loud to myself 50, 60 times. And every time during a reading I’d tick off a mark each time the flow broke, and each mark would end up being an intense and sometimes far-reaching re-write. That story’s written within an inch of its life, and by the time I was done I had to step away for a while to gain any perspective on whether it was worth sending out or not.

Or my book — when I was done with revisions, there was a point where I wanted to discard it entirely. I’d read the stories so many times they seemed worn, the jokes didn’t survive a hundred readings, and my editor’s assistant told me “Well Derek, no book is truly finished until the author is disgusted with it.”

There’s joy and satisfaction in a piece well-written, but it’s a job, a fucking job, where re-writing is more important than inspiration. The sword-maker doesn’t say “woo-hoo!” when they pull that steel out of the forge and then hope people think it’s awesome. That’s only the start of the work, pounding and folding and shaping, and absolute concentration.

My best writing involved me fighting anxiety the whole time about whether it would turn out awful or great, if I was putting too much of myself into it and would be embarrassed, if I’d gone too far. It’s a scary constricting feeling in the chest, difficulty swallowing, and a massive tightness of stress across my shoulders. If I want glee and happy fun smile time, I’ll go read something. That’s not what writing’s for.

I wouldn’t ever write “I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed writing it”. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

1 thought on “Good writing is horribly painful

  1. Hilary Moon Murphy

    Hey Derek —

    I cannot find contact info for you, so I am writing to you here. I just listened to “Conversations With and About My Electric Toothbrush” on Escape Pod, and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it.

    It was such a sweet funny story, and it made me laugh out loud. I don’t know whether it was fun to write, or whether you suffered for you art, but I do know I loved it.


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