I sometimes forget how probable it is that I will one day fall down the stairs. No matter how many times I skip down them with drunk feline grace, or how many times I lug dangerously bloated trash bags down without meeting disaster, I will inevitably fuck up. There is nothing I will do perfectly forever. There’s nothing I’ll even be good at consistently. If I can manage to make sleeping, a basic human function which I have done almost every day for my entire existence, difficult, then it really shouldn’t be surprising when I fall down the stairs or slip in the bathtub, or burn an egg, or just write something that’s not very good.
One of the most damaging misconceptions my students tend to have about their writing is that it will be good. This is not to say that they are bad writers. I don’t think there are bad writers, just bad drafts and people who either are or are not willing to work on them. However, it’s dangerous for my students to think they’re writing will be good because I have seen a lot of early drafts, and I can say with certainty that many of them are total shit, even the ones that turn into amazing papers after a few revision stages. If they expect their writing to be great, then they’re going to be disappointed when they see a clunky, underdeveloped draft after they’ve put all that work in. They don’t see the potential for a great piece, they see something they worked hard on that would probably get them a low B.
I’m the same way. If I feel like I’ve put in a lot of work into something I’m writing, I’m profoundly annoyed when I finish it and notice it’s kind of shitty. There are so few things that work this way. When you’re cooking dinner, if you put in a lot of work and stick to what you need to do, generally the product will be tasty. I have rarely had to revise a stirfry unless that means adding a little extra salt and sesame seeds, but I think the written equivalent of that would just be spellcheck. Writing is unique in that even if you try your hardest, it’s probably still going to suck until you work on it again.
But writing doesn’t always turn out well. Even if you like the piece, have hurled your best work at it, driven yourself into the ground trying to make it work, sometimes you just need to turn your back on it and never look at it again, treat it like your Myspace account.
This was the second post I wrote for today. The first one was last night, and in it I tried explaining the wild rage I’ve been feeling because it turns out I have to wait until I’ve been working for 3 weeks before either of my jobs will pay me. I’ve never written something that managed to use the words “bureaucrat” and “fuck” so much, but it amounted to an inarticulate jumble of fury that would probably only be appealing to other people who have been fucked over by the rusty clockwork of academia wherein I am a tiny, apparently irrelevant gear in a machine that will continue unperturbed without me. Fucking bureaucrat nonsense, I have bills motherfuckers… Yeah, today wasn’t long enough after the infuriating impetus for that little post.
Not everything we write is good. It’s usually not even adequate until it has been revised, left to settle, and revisited with a new way of thinking. I’ve been trying to tell my students that for years, but I expect I’m still going to see that they wrote it all in a night and their revisions were just spelling my name a little less wrong this time.