One of the biggest barriers facing a new writer – a blogger, a novelist, a copywriter – is the self-knowledge of just how far away you are from their ideal.
When I first started copywriting, I was afraid to show my work to anyone. I was afraid to show first drafts to my colleagues. I was afraid to show fifth drafts to my clients. I was afraid to show my work to my peers, even though they had offered to look at my work and help me figure out how to make my writing better.
This was because I was highly aware of what Ira Glass calls “the gap.”
Ira Glass has worked in public radio for 30 years, during which he was a reporter and host for several NPR programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation. He currently hosts and produces This American Life, and is a well-known and much-loved minor celebrity in the United States.
What most don’t realize about Ira Glass is that from the time he began to the time he became the beloved host of a national radio show, he slogged through about ten years of being truly, self-admittedly bad at being on the air, and another five of being just okay.
He gave an interview in which he tries to describe how difficult that part is, the part where you are confronting the immense gap between where you are, and where you want to be.
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, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer, and your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.
Most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work went through a phase of years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing we want it to have.
And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s totally normal and the most important thing you can possibly do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on deadline so that every week you will finish one story. Put yourself in a situation where you have to turn out the work, because it is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met.
It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
This is an intense and powerful series of thoughts, and I have trouble applying it to my own work, so let’s break it down slowly and look at what this means in practical terms.
You Already Have What You Need
I’ve worked with a lot of would-be writers, and here is the difference between the ones who are going to make it as professionals and the ones who won’t:
When you explain what’s wrong with their writing, the ones who will make it understand what you mean. The ones who won’t make it do not understand.
If you’re having a hard time as a writer because you look at your own work and you think, “This isn’t good enough,” that’s a good sign. It means you know the difference between what is good and what is not good.
It means that when you do produce something good, you will know it. It means when you produce something bad, you will know that too.
You will never insist that something is good when it is not.
That is all you need. Everything else is leg work. Everything else is practice. Everything else is trial and error. There are people out there who will founder around forever, practicing and practicing and never getting any better, because they honestly cannot tell the difference between good and not good.
Sometimes they will produce something good, by accident. But they won’t know that it’s better than the bad stuff. The good stuff will get buried in all the bad stuff, because they simply do not have the understanding – the taste, as Ira puts it – to know that it is special, that it should stand on its own.
If you are aware of the gap between where you are and where you want to be, then you have the ability to close the gap.
Closing the Gap Takes a Long Time
Closing the gap will take years. That is honestly not negotiable. Even geniuses, even people who were practically born with their blood humming with prose so gorgeous it makes the greatest poets weep in their graves, even those people wrote screeds of bad, bad stuff.
They may have done it when they were five years old. But they went through those years. And so will you.
Those years never get any shorter. There is no way to jump to the end. You just have to show up and produce stuff that’s bad, and then stuff that’s okay, and then stuff with potential, and then stuff that’s pretty good, and finally, finally, finally you will get to stuff that’s good.
And after that, it’s all glory. It’s really good stuff, amazing stuff, phenomenal stuff.
But you have to go through those years.
If you’ve been putting off starting because you can hardly stand to look at your own work until it is good, if you are waiting for someone to invent a short cut so that you never have to go through those years, you are fooling yourself.
Start now. Start today. Count off your 10,000 hours.
Those years do not get shorter. The end only gets closer if you actually start.
It’s Going to Be Difficult
While it’s completely normal to take those years, nobody ever claimed that “normal” was easy.
It’s normal to go through a lousy couple of years when you’re a teenager. It’s normal to fall down and hurt yourself pretty badly – a cracked skull, a cut that needs stitches, a broken arm – when you’re a child. It’s normal to flounder a bit when you first enter the workforce.
It’s normal. But it sucks.
A lot of people do not want it to be hard, and a lot of them will quit. They will want those years to be over sooner than they can be. They will want their work to be better sooner than it is capable of being better. They will want to get to the end, where all the glory is, and they will be frustrated that hasn’t happened yet.
And they will quit.
You can do this. You can say it’s too hard, and you can walk away.
Those years will still be sitting there, waiting for you to go through them, when you decide twenty years from now that you really do want to be a writer.
They are patient. They can wait. You can go through them any time you want.
They will never stop being difficult. But you may stop being daunted by difficulty.
The question is whether you want to stop being daunted now, or in twenty years.
I’m struggling with this question now. I struggle with not wanting to go through the years. I struggle with not wanting my work to be so far short of what it could be, and I struggle with being able to see the gap every day between what I can do and what I want to do.
But I know that in twenty years, I will still be facing it down. I will still want to get across that gap. And I may be too old then, have too many responsibilities, too little freedom.
I may not be able to do it then. And I know I can do it now.
That’s what I can do, right now. I can show up. I can create work that is not as good as I want it to be. I can close the gap day by day.
What I can’t do is wish away those years.
How big is your gap? How many years have you written through? How much farther do you have to go?