The paradox of diminishing competency

You know, I’ve sold over 30 short stories to great publications, have a duology coming out soon from a well-respected New York publisher, and achieved a small degree of recognition and critical success. And yet, for some reason, I’ve never felt less competent as a writer. It feels like the work has gotten exponentially harder and the words I put on the page exponentially more sucky.

As you might imagine, this is very frustrating.

So I’ve been paying close attention to what more experienced writers have to say on this subject. Elizabeth Bear recently posted in her blog about how she’s becoming more comfortable with looser first drafts, pointing toward sentences like:

The old ways–the old respect–it might no longer be enforced with terror, but enough of it lingered that he did not entirely [blah blah blah he holds out some creepy droit de seignure hope for humanity].

Of this approach to drafting, she goes on to say:

Yeah, I’ll figure it out later. Apparently, as I get more comfortable with this professional writer on closed course thing, I also embrace It’s a draft it can suck with absolutely preternatural enthusiasm.

I really admire that attitude, so I’ve been trying to incorporate it into my own work. It’s definitely helped from increased-words-on-the-page point, but it also has its drawbacks. I find that it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for the project when you’re not particularly excited about what you’ve already written. For me, it’s always been the excitement of having written a good beginning that drives me to completion. Changing the motivational driver to how good the piece will be … well, that requires a lot more faith than I currently have, and may be a more advanced trick than I’m ready for.

Anyway, I’m interested in all y’all’s experience. Tell me about your periods of extreme suckitude. Looking back, did they turn out to periods where your writing *actually* sucked—as the result of, say, creative staleness? Or were they periods when you *perceived* an increase in suckage simply because you’d learned to be a sharper critic of your own work? And most importantly, what strategies did you use to move forward?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. As far as me goes, I intend to go eat some pie. There’s nothing more inspiring than pie.

P.S. If you like that graphic above, it’s available for sale from Cafe Press on a coaster, button, teddy bear, apron, notebook … all sorts of things, really! See, I don’t gank images, I market them.

9 Responses to “The paradox of diminishing competency”

  1. March 12, 2010 at 11:52 pm

    I’m in a period of suckitude right now. Everything I’ve written up ’til now sounds terrible. It’s probably a little bit because I haven’t written in a few months, though…

    The strategy I generally use is to just write and keep writing. This might mean leaving a the sucky writing alone for awhile and moving on to a different project. Nothing sucks you back into the loop of suckitude like revision.

  2. March 14, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    “It’s definitely helped from increased-words-on-the-page point, but it also has its drawbacks. I find that it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for the project when you’re not particularly excited about what you’ve already written.”

    Hmm, good point. I think that’s what I’m finding as I work on my latest WIP. I was always the type of writer that wanted every paragraph to be perfect before I moved on to the next. But as you can imagine, that leads to really slow progress, and perhaps never finishing. Because you can lose enthusiasm for projects if they take too long, too.

    So now I’m trying this whole write-quick-as-you-can-and-don’t-look-back thing, and I’m facing what you described. Loss of enthusiasm because I’m not that excited or proud of what I’ve written.

    So. What’s the solution? I’m not sure. I have spent this weekend rewriting a bit of my beginning, and that’s reinvigorating me. Maybe it’s not about being perfect, but about achieving a certain amount of quality that enables you to continue with pride and enthusiasm?

    Certainly good food for thought. Thank you!

  3. March 15, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    I think your experience of extreme suck-i-tude has another name, too–the Dunning-Kruger effect. Apparently when you first stumble into a skill you think you’re brilliant, but the more you learn (the more competent you become) the more you perceive your non-brilliance. I guess greater ability leads to greater critical ability. I don’t know if having a theoretical label (validation and all that) helps. Hope so.

    Since I’m still at the point of thinking my writing’s pretty damn good, I guess I’ve got a long way to go 🙂

  4. March 16, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    I find that having two projects to work on helps. For one thing, they’re at slightly different stages, so if I don’t feel like editing, I can write new words. And for another, the one that I think sucks more at the moment, I can work on the other one. Then later, when I decide that one sucks too, I can go back to the first project, and fix some of the suckitude, or maybe realize it’s not as bad as all that.

    Then the problem becomes finishing one before I add a third project to the mix (or to be honest, a sixth. Five is the max, really).

  5. December 28, 2016 at 4:07 am

    I’d like to find out more? I’d like to find out some
    additional information.

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