Writing is a profane act.
I don’t literally mean in the FUCK THIS, SHIT THAT way (though for me that tends to be true enough just the same). But I mean profane in the classic sense: it’s a heretical, disrespectful act. Crass! Irreverent! Writing and storytelling is this… nasty task of taking the perfect idea that exists in your head and shellacking it all up by dragging it through some grease-slick fontanelle in order to make it real. You’re just shitting it all to hell, this idea. You have it in your mind: golden and unbreakable. And then in reality, ugh. You’ve created a herky-jerky simulacrum, a crude facsimile of your beautiful idea run through the copy machine again and again until what you started with is an incomprehensible spread of dong-doogle hieroglyphics.
The end result will never match the expectation.
You will never get it just right.
The idea is God: perfect, divine, incapable of repudiation, utterly untouchable.
The result is Man: fumbling, foolish, a jester’s mockery, a bundle of mistakes in tacky pants.
Nobody is good enough to tell the stories and ideas inside them. I mean that sincerely. The ideas in my head are shining beams of light, perfect and uninterrupted. And when they finally exist on paper, they end up fractured and imperfect — beams of light through grungy windows and shattered prisms, shot through with motes of dust, filtered up, watered down.
But sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes, a beam of light is still a beam of light no matter how diffuse it is, no matter how dirty the light, no matter how filthy the floor is that it illuminates. And when it’s not enough, you keep on trying until it is. Because eventually, it becomes that. The only reason it doesn’t become that isn’t a lack of skill or talent, but giving up before that lack of skill or talent shows up on the page. The only true failure is giving up and giving in.
I write this in response to a colleague who was talking on Facebook about the ideas in his head never matching the expression of those ideas, whether from a lack of skill or talent or intelligence. Thing is, it’s true. My colleague is right. Those things will never match. No matter how hard you try, because the only way to get our stories out of our heads and into your heads we first need to translate them into mundane language. And when you translate one language into another, you introduce imperfections, inaccuracies, misunderstandings. You move the Bible from Enochian angeltongue to Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English and you lose something vital — once, the Bible was about a guy named Dave who saved the Galaxy with his unicorn army. Now it’s blah blah blah something about “Jesus” and “loving one another.” Writing is always this: an adaptation of the sacred into smut. Dragging the divine out of his Sky Chariot and into the human dirt.
But me, I like that aspect.
I like making God into sausages.
I like dragging those angels down into the slurry, dirtying their wings, breaking their harps.
I like translating the beautiful celestial song and grunting it in our human chimp-shrieks.
Because that’s the only way it will ever exist.
Because if there’s one thing that is imperfect about perfection —
It’s that it’s too perfect to live.
It’s unreal. And I don’t truck much with unreality.
Writing unwritten is a promise unfulfilled. I’d rather make the promise and complete it badly than make the promise and never even try. A story untold is a life unlived. What’s the point? If you want to do this thing, you have to set yourself up against unrealistic expectations. You cannot combat perfection because perfection? That smiling, shiny jerk always wins. You do what you do, crass and irreverent as it may be, because committing heresy in the name of art is far better than huffing invisible God-farts and cleaving only to invisible philosophy.
We’re told to do no harm.
But sometimes, you have to trample pretty daisies to get where you’re going.
This also means setting for yourself realistic, reasonable metrics for success. A day’s worth of writing is a success. Finishing the thing is a success. Separate that out from the aspect of professional, business success. You can’t control that kind of success, though you can maximize your luck and that means first finishing what you begin. If you want to create? Create. If you want to write and tell stories, do that. Don’t give yourself over to unkind, cruel standards. Judge yourself fairly. Work despite perfect expectations. Those who try to master perfection will always fall to those who iterate, and reiterate, and create, and recreate. Art is better than philosophy. Creation, however clumsy, is always better than sitting on your hands and fearing what damage they can do.
Kill the perfect. Slay the angels. Fuck the gods.
You’re human. You’ll get it wrong. Everybody gets it wrong.
But getting it wrong is the only way you get close to getting it right.
57 responses to “Writing Is A Profane, Irrational, Imperfect Act”
In this, the most irrational of worlds, the only truly rational response is to write.
Platonist! *hurls sandal*
Good post, Chuck, but here’s Ira Glass on this very subject, which may provide some answers to those writers who feel they can’t match (yet) what’s in their head. Check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BI23U7U2aUY
I’ve linked to that here before, and I’m glad you linked to it now. That said, I think it’s worth looking at what happens even after that — meaning, I’m beyond the point where Ira Glass is talking about. I’m a capable, professional writer. I still manage. But I also never feel like I get it right. I never feel like the end result matches the inception. Not with the post I just wrote. Not with a book. Not even with a single sentence. It’s always perfect in my head, and crudded up when it hits the page. So, it’s not just a problem of being unpracticed — it’s instead, a very human problem, I think. Creation is raw, pyroclastic. Creation changes the idea. Ruins it.
But bringing an idea to ruination remains necessary for creation, just the same.
If I may get Zen-ified for a moment…when you name a thing, it is no longer that thing. As Sensei has clearly illustrated. Much love and respect. Art on, disciples.
This could not have been more timely. It might be the end-of-winter frustration or that this beautiful vision in my head translates to complete shit on paper. I enjoyed this very much. Now, I must get back to making a completely mockery of good writing. Thanks.
“complete mockery”. This writing session is going to rock, if that typo is any indicator.
I guess you could say the writing session will be a complete rockery.
Ha! So much of what I’m feeling right now. You’ve expressed it perfectly.
Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
I think that we have to leave room for the story to evolve as we write it. We shouldn’t expect what we end up with, or any version of it along the way, to match up with what we originally conceived. We have to give it room to grow and become its own thing, just like a kid. I like to write in a notebook, then edit as I type up that first draft, then edit again and again and again. Then get other people to look at it and see what works and doesn’t, see where what I intended meets with the understanding they derive from reading it, and where it doesn’t. I still try not to spend too much time thinking about what my daughter “might” be when she grows up.
So true. My stories suffer from a lack of translation between imagination and pen. I often want to just keep those beautiful images only in my head where I can visit their perfection. But low and behold the pen is mightier than my restraint as an author and out they spill…stained, worn, incoherent, and unintelligible. Such is the life of the true writer.
“Nobody is good enough to tell the stories and ideas inside them.” This got to me and really you could’ve just posted that sentence and my jaw would’ve hit the desktop and the coffee would be on the monitor screen. Because it kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
The trip from concept to language is definitely imperfect and probably includes lots of fender benders, side trips and a flat tire or two – but so is the human experience. And I’m thinking that even if we managed to get that perfection on paper, or in a book or a story or some nifty commentary it might not land. It might be that perfection is something that can’t be appreciated or even understood in this human universe. So we curse and bang on the keyboard and spit out some herky-jerky version of that perfection in hopes that there will be some kind of connection. Or that people will somehow read between the lines.
And maybe that’s all we’re meant to do – to keep trying – to keep spitting out that perfection inside us in whatever way we can. I’ve read that Michelangelo thought the Sistine Chapel was crap. So there you go.
Good brain boiler for a Monday morning, Chuck. 🙂
Shining strong. You cleaned this particular window somethin’ good.
When I attended a talk by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett, he said writing was a bit like hang gliding – for the first part, you’re running like hell with a huge, awkward, heavy thing strapped to your back – and then suddenly you’re soaring. I like to keep that image in mind. If we want the soaring, we have to put in the running.
This makes me feel so much better about what ends up on the paper. The stories in my mind are clear as a pristine lake. On paper, it’s like trying to cut through the ice to get to the fish.
That is quite nicely said.
You can now write my blog posts from now on.
*hands you the keys*
Now more than ever Mr Wendig, are your words a beacon in an otherwise murky world. Thank you.
I misread that as ‘bacon’ and I thought, OK, bacon is good.
Words as Bacon would be my superpower.
Oh, if only I could trample through pretty daisies. Right now I’m slogging through the mud and slush of mid-March. But I know there are pretty daisies waiting under the snow, and I’m patient. They have to come out sometime, and when they do, I’ve got them. Got them by whatever tender parts daisies would rather I didn’t have them by.
And until them, while I’m waiting, I write, so I have stories to tell the innocent little daisies.
I’m not a total monster. Yet.
Love you, Paul Baxter! Image clearly received.
i can hear the screams for mercy even now.
It’s a huge comfort to see that even the finest authors fret when they’re writing. In the end, we all have to get through it ourselves, but it’s good to know that there are others who have the same difficulty – in finding the right words to make our story come to life, in self-doubt, in trying to do justice to our ideas – as they write. It’s a relief to have that company.
This is just what I needed this morning. Thanks, Chuck.
When ideas come to me, they come in terms of language – actual sentences I can write down. When I am struck with a concept, it’s usually a first line, or a bit of dialog, which births the entire rest of the 5,000 or 100,000 words. When the sentence comes to me, I write it down, and when I can get to my outline, it’s there that the rest of the language starts to take shape.
My first form of artistry was violin. I was never very good at it, so I learned early not to work for perfection. I was always going to miss a few notes, and my fingers were sometimes going to be a little flat (or sharp). I apply the same rule of thumb to my writing: even after I’ve spent three careful weeks editing a story, even with help, I’ll send it off, and still find things after submission I would have done differently. But it’s gone, it’s in the ether, and there’s nothing to be done. I’ll do it better next time.
With every mistake we make, we learn a little bit more how to improve. The first sentence that came to me with my first story wasn’t as good as the last one I wrote. With every story and every book, I get better. We only improve through practice.
Chuck, your frank (and sometimes brutal) honesty makes me keep pushing forward.
I collect writing quotes, print them big, and plaster them all around my writing desk, like holy glyphs to ward out demons(like self-doubt). Sharing one of my favorites:
“The story is always better than your ability to write it. My belief about this is that if you ever get to the point that you think you’ve done a story justice, you’re in the wrong business.” — Robin McKinley
That’s a fantastic quote! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Hiya, Chuck. It’s not often I stop by any more because I’m a person of extremes–I either keep myself away or follow you and fall down the Wendig Rabbit Hole, never to see my family or write another book again–but I’m so glad I caught your tweet about today’s topic.
The hardest thing for me about writing is my unrealistic expectations of making it perfect. And I don’t only mean during final edits. I beat myself up over sentences and words in the rough draft, trying to make them as close to perfect as the image in my head. But it’s soooo counter-productive and makes my writing incredibly slow. (Granted, I turn in really clean rough drafts, so my edits usually aren’t too heavy, but still.)
So this sentence is what really struck a chord with me: “Those who try to master perfection will always fall to those who iterate, and reiterate, and create, and recreate.”
I need to allow myself to create that first draft, imperfect that it will be, so that I can recreate it during edits. I wish there was a magic pill to take for that. Instead, I think I’ll probably just get that tattooed on my arm to remind me.
Thanks, oh wise one. 🙂
I find this explains a phrase that has been bouncing around in my head for the past month or so: “Fuck it. Just get off your ass and go write your shitty little stories, Raya.” (I paraphrase of course because isn’t that what this is all about?) I hear this and it pleases me -nay- inspires me because my stories are going to be exactly that for a bit (Hell, maybe always): Mine and Shitty. And I’m alright with that.
I have given myself permission to be shitty so that I can be not-so-shitty later. …Much later? Maybe-? “AW FUCK IT, RAYA! JUST GO!”
[…] First, there’s a great new post from Chuck Wendig up: Writing Is A Profane, Irrational, Imperfect Act […]
Does anyone else ever think Chuck travels into our minds, digs out our deepest fear and worries, and uses them to fuel his blog and other writings?
Thank you, Mr Wendig, very on the nose advice that I hope I will be able to follow despite the pesky perfectionist inside of me.
Ooh. Great stuff. Just great. Thanks Chuck. As always.
This one piece of advice seems to be the key in all matters of creative endeavor: embrace your flaws and do it anyway. How do I actually follow the advice? I still struggle with this killer of ideas in the ugly dark cornors of my mind. For several years I’ve had all the time on my hands I could ever wish for, and the amount of ideas I’ve had I wouldn’t be able to count on my hands and feet and hairs on my head, and the amount of ideas I didn’t give up on immediately I can count on one hand. Whenever I’ve told myself to just do it, I sit down and try to ready my mind and nothing happens. I simply can’t let it out if it’s not good enough. Are there any writing exercises that help break down this ten tonne heavy, all-consuming monster of a barrier?
Well, a first draft is SUPPOSED to be a steaming pile of donkey-doo… it’s when you’re telling yourself the story, so it’s bound to come out like an over-excited seven-year-old after a bucket of Sunny D (“..and then this really cool thing happened and it was, like, soooo awesome – oh, but first this super-awesome thing happened which made that other guy all mad and…. oh, did I mention about the thing with the fish already?”) But yeah, I know how you feel. Been right there with that, and it stopped me getting further than Chapter five with every novel I ever wrote up until a year or so ago.
Here’s an exercise you could try: Start writing the story you want to write as you usually do – but this time, try to do it as BADLY as you possibly can. Make it like the worst writer in the world might do it; loaded up with cliches (the more mangled the better,) terrible dialogue, prose so purple it makes Barney the Dinosaur look anaemic – every sin you’re so afraid you’re going to commit if you try and do it properly, let’em rip and take ’em to the max. Do that for maybe, one scene or fifteen minutes, whichever is quicker. It should work as a way of getting all the doubts and indecisiveness out of your system – and having a little laugh at them, which makes them less scary – before getting down to the serious business. And as a handy bonus, you’ve at least got yourself a handy little cribsheet on how NOT to do it at the end. 🙂
I never though of that; what a brilliant idea. It makes so much sense I don’t know why I didn’t think of it first. The thought alone of doing it completely wrong puts an ugly smirk on my face. Anybody can do that – even me!
Print a happy smiley face on a piece of paper and hold it up. That beautiful black parenthesis? That’s how happy I am right now.
Thank you kindly for the many words, Wendy. Your help is greatly appreciated.
Oh, and I’m sorry about the joke. I know it’s not at all funny but it just made me giggle and now I can’t stop. I had to get it out of my system.
“Kill the perfect. Slay the angels. Fuck the gods”
me- holy shit that sounds awsome
*Gives Chuck Wendig a mahoosive virtual hug. But in a purely platonic way of course, because she doesn’t want to freak him out or anything.*
I SOOOOOOOO needed to hear this today! (So much so that I didn’t even put enough o’s on that ‘SO’ to justify the o-i-ness required, but I didn’t want to sound too teenager-y… bad form when you’re forty-mumble, apparently.) My first reaction was “Oh thank God!” since I suffer regularly from wanting my mashed-up-creatures-story to be squashed into diamonds rather than the coal I always seem to end up with. I’m still draft-two-ing on my current w-i-p – the furthest I’ve ever got with any novel I’ve written ever! – and even though every day I work on it wishing it was better than it is, I’m not giving up on it. It’s gonna take flippin’ ages to get it right, but I’ve resigned myself to that now. I aint James Patterson and I’m dealing with it.
Thank you so much for making me feel better about my crazy stubborn goal of finishing my shizzle. This page has been duly bookmarked for future meltdowns. 🙂
“But getting it wrong is the only way you get close to getting it right” – wow, I couldn’t say better! 100% true, thanks Chuck
When I read this earlier, my personal assessment was almost the opposite. I had an intuition that the differences were a product of emotion, but I did not see enough of the picture to be satisfied. More thought on the nature of the process of refining a project has led me to something that I think could be useful to me and might prove a helpful insight to others.
Certainly, when I think of an idea for a story, it is clearer, but that is only due to the simplicity of the state. On no level do I think my best ideas, the ideas that haven’t been killed because they aren’t good enough, are as good in the idea state as they are in the final product. Making such a comparison seems similar to comparing a seed to a full grown plant. The seed might be more perfect, less flawed, but the complexity, including the imperfections, of the full grown plant is more amazing in most every way. This is how I think about any project I’ve worked on that has led to a completed product. I’ve abandoned ideas when they turned out to not be a good platform for adding on complexity and nuance as the project progresses. Some of the projects I’ve worked on needed massive transformation to get to a satisfactory form. Every bit of that has been accompanied by a sense that my original idea was a small piece of crap and the transformation was an unanticipated windfall of good fortune.
Where I have encountered the sense of the core ideas being better than the finished product is in computer programming. It is much easier to conceive of an algorithm than to do all of the work to make it function properly under a wide variety of conditions. I’ve never written a piece of software outside of a homework assignment that did everything I wanted it to. Usually the algorithm isn’t as efficient or doesn’t provide as high quality a result as desired. If nothing else, it is always desirable to make a piece of code more generalizable so it can be applied to more situations.
A software project can lead to unexpected discoveries, which often lead to a need for a new piece of unanticipated software. Sometimes, that new piece of software is more important or exciting than the one which begot it. However, that separateness seems to provide a different experience than the sense of enhancing the monolithic whole provided by fixing a problem in or adding a nuance to a novel.
I always have the sense that any given thing I produce doesn’t include everything I would like. Something always ends up being held back, because it doesn’t belong or I’ve failed to find a way to fit it in gracefully. I don’t think that’s what’s being discussed here. This dissatisfaction seems to be more analogous to my programming disappointment, which may have led me to a small insight that pertains at least to me and maybe some other people.
Two of the hardest things for me to do on a writing project is to make arbitrary choices between options that are equally good or to add in details when I know I’m too ignorant to be credible. This leads me to an incredibly vicious cycle of seeking more information and more meaningful criteria for choosing. This makes my first version of a written work a lot more work than most think it needs to be. Still, I eventually wear myself out and settle for a less than perfectly researched or thought out option.
Revision for me is an opportunity to make decisions that are all non-arbitrary and to look for ways to add more from the long list of ideas that were previously left out. Revision is a positive experience, so I do it quickly and am not easily bored. It will even give me momentum to move forward on the project more quickly, so I’m inclined to frequently go back and smooth out what I’ve already written. This is completely different from my experience with debugging software, which I’m pretty sure most everyone wishes were unnecessary. Certainly, debugging can become an opportunity to shore up shoddy code, but it doesn’t often seem to turn out that way.
This had led me to wonder if the sense of the final product versus the original idea is entirely a product of how one experiences the process of revision. I know as I’m writing something that it’s going to need revision, probably a lot. It doesn’t bother me, because I’m making progress toward what I consider a better product and the project will be done when it’s ready. I suspect that the satisfaction comes from not pursuing the original inspiration in my revision process, but by making many small improvements to make something I come to perceive as being better than the original inspiration.
I have never tried programming simply for that reason. And, perhaps, I have never deemed any of my writing complete because there will always be a plethora of ideas I feel need to be added (when in reality, there is plenty, if not an excess, of complexity and symbolism and all that other stuff that gets added if I focus on the idea of it outside of the time I write in).
Thank you for putting into words that getting a draft completed to be revised is good enough.
Man, this inspired and depressed me all at the same time. That crystal perfection in my head is like clarity in a bottle, but mine are sort of like singularities- a bit static. When I get them on paper, they’re as ugly as newborn babies, covered in blood and slime and meconium, but they’re bawling and breathing and going somewhere. So I love them a little more than that shining idea in my head, I think.
Me too, I must admit. Because while I hold some love for the perfection of the stories in my head, those proto-stories are always cold, lifeless, unborn creatures. Terrifying bundles of potential, simultaneously my best and worst future work. The stories never really breathe until they’re on the page, at least for me. I think that while I never live up to that potential, am never quite good enough to really capture that elusive dream, I’m also never quite bad enough to screw it up the way I dread I will either. Not as good as I’d like to be, not as bad as I fear, always in purgatory dreaming of heaven and dreading hell.
Crystal Ball prediction -when 2015 has drawn to a close, this will be one of Chuck’s Top Ten posts for the year. Crystal Ball question – has Demonified indeed been handed any keys?
[…] WRITING IS A PROFANE, IRRATIONAL, IMPERFECT ACT […]
This video sums that for beginners that the gap between their taste and what they put on the page should be taken as challenge, not a stop sign.
Thank you. No, bless you for these words. And for exposing the Unicorns!
[…] in my head. Over the past few years, I’ve worked on getting past that. Chuck Wendig’s recent blog post on the topic is an excellent reminder to kick the idea of perfection in the junk and just get on with writing, […]
[…] WRITING IS A PROFANE, IRRATIONAL, IMPERFECT ACT: Our writing takes our perfect thoughts and tries to replicate them on paper, but we fail because we are imperfect, human, and end up with our imperfect results. Success doesn’t mean perfection; set up realistic expectations for success and just remember that it’s better to go for it instead of never even trying. […]
[…] really appreciated Chuck Wendig’s take on the fear that your story won’t be as good written down as it is in your head, because I’ve […]
[…] Writing is a Profane, Irrational, Imperfect Act […]
[…] ever perfect. No, that’s wrong; it’s perfect while it’s in your head. Once it comes out of there, it’s as human as you or I. Unless you’re an alien, in which […]
Thank you I needed this. I get so frustrated at having this celestial jewel looking like something the cat hacked up
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