I recently shared this popular quote by Ira Glass with my Grounded Writers group. It’s a quote that I’ve shared on social media more than once and it’s even on the About page on my website where I say it’s my favourite writing quote. Here’s the quote:
“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.”
I’ve been teaching creative writing for two years now and for the first time, when I read the quote out loud on a Zoom call with some writers from the group, I felt odd. Suddenly, the quote wasn’t inspiring anymore. I fumbled through what it meant to me and what lessons I found in that quote. “It doesn’t have to take several years, of course,” I said, “but it reinforces the idea that writing is a skill and that it takes time to learn how to write well.” I promised them I would share the quote in our Slack group but when I went to post it after the call, I decided not to. Something didn’t feel right anymore.
Ira Glass’ words are what kept me going when I felt hopeless that my work would never be “as good as my ambitions.” Whenever I read my writing and felt like it wasn’t any good, that quote reminded me that I just needed to practice more, learn more craft, and eventually after several years, I would be good enough.
The thing that I’ve noticed in the very short time that I’ve been teaching is how easy it is to learn how to write well. Craft is not difficult. Once you practice a few key things — writing details, show don’t tell, narrative arc, etc. — your writing will improve significantly. I’ve seen it over and over again in writers I’ve worked with. In a matter of a few months or even less, their writing shimmers and sparkles. Their stories come alive. It’s not hard at all.
So why then did it take me so long? After a few years of taking writing courses, I still didn’t feel ready to start submitting my stories for publication. I wrote and rewrote the stories I was working on multiple times. I revised them over and over because I thought I had to try everything I could to make them better. I never believed that my stories were already good. And I used the Ira Glass quote as a clutch — I wasn’t good because I hadn’t spent those years and years creating that “volume of work.”
But looking back, I realize now that I actually had! I had been writing poems since high school —emo poetry filled with the typical teenage-angst, sure, but I was writing nonetheless. I had a blog for several years. I also wrote op-eds, educational articles for work, and journaled regularly. In one form or another, I was always writing.
When I first started writing fiction, yes, my stories weren’t great. I fully appreciate that. They were lacking because I hadn’t studied craft and I wasn’t aware of what made a compelling story. But after I studied creative writing, and put into practice what I had learnt, I should have started submitting my writing. I should have known that my stories were good enough already.
The hardest part about being a writer isn’t learning the craft, it’s believing in yourself. Several things can be true at the same time:
- You’re already a good writer
- You need to keep writing and keep practicing to hone your craft because writing is a skill
- Your best work is yet to come
I never read up the context behind that Ira Glass quote. But it doesn’t matter. There are many reasons why a writer doesn’t get published even after years of putting in the work, especially if they are from a marginalized community. Their work can be excellent yet they keep getting rejected for one reason or another. This is where patience and persistence come in: keep writing, keep working on your craft because even if we’re good, there’s always more to learn, and keep sending your work out.
But putting all that aside for a moment, what I want you to consider today is this: What if you are already good? What if you already have within you what it takes to write a good story? What if you believed in yourself?
What would you do differently?