I was catching up with an old friend the other day on Facebook. She was telling me how she found writing difficult because she didn’t feel that she had all of the proper grammar rules down and she had no editor to provide her feedback and…well, she had several reasons for why she didn’t write much anymore. I thought about what she was saying for a moment and I told her:
You need more cowbell!
At least that’s what I meant. What I actually said was:
You need to write more; not less.
When you first start any endeavor, be it writing, or salsa dancing, or learning a language, it is always always rocky at first.
I take that back – it actually starts off as electrifying and heart-racing fun which is why you find yourself drawn to the activity in the first place. Just being on the floor and dancing salsa feels good. But the novelty (not necessarily the excitement) wears off rather quickly and you start to realize that you aren’t very good at this thing that you like doing. You start to notice how fluid and rhythmic all of the other dancers are and you realize that you can’t quite flip your hair oh so sexily. And that makes you cringe. How can you not be good at this thing that you enjoy so immensely? And this is the point where you will either walk away from the thing or you will do more of it.
You want to do more of it. You need more cowbell.
Before I type any of these words, I hear them in my head first. This sonorous first person narrator reads me evocative and rich paragraphs, full of emotion and novel metaphors. Her soothing voice has all of the enchantment of the best storytelling. She’s witty and clever and the things that she says are so enticing. But as soon as I begin to take dictation and type out what I hear, that beautiful voice turns discordant. My once lovely words are now stale and dimensionless, my paragraphs trite and all the beauty that existed in my head has departed. Everything becomes lost in translation.
It is disheartening to be unable to create the beauty that you envision in your head.
Do more of that thing anyway.
Here’s how Ira Glass puts it:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. 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 potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
The only way that I know to get better at taking dictation – transcribing the vision in my head onto paper – is to write more. Has my writing improved over the last couple of years? It has. My transcription is still spotty and I can only type 47 words-a-minute, but that’s 30 more words than I could type two years ago. I only manage to capture the echo of what I hear, but what ends up on paper is much closer to what I hear in my head.
There is plenty of literature that attests to the fact that putting in the time will reap benefits in the end. But don’t take my word for it (or theirs). Try it for yourself.
Get more cowbell!
I think you’ll find that it’s definitely worth the effort.