Nobody Tells Beginners…

I recently came across a video by Ira Glass (this video: and he talks briefly about what it’s like for creative types as beginners. It isn’t long, but as I sat listening to it, I realised that he was entirely correct. That feeling—that you have good taste, that you know what you’re trying to do is brilliant, but that what you’re actually seeing in front of you isn’t, well, your best work—I know that feeling. I’ve been living that feeling for the last several years as I’ve worked and sweated over my novel.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m trying to broaden my reading horizon and discover new talent to help inspire and instruct my own writing. In that search, there have been innumerable times when I’ve set the book I was reading down, and just said, “wow”. I’m sure you’ve had that feeling too, at some point. When you read something that just hits the right spot, touches you where nothing else has before, or finally puts words to that nameless feeling you’ve been carrying around inside you for years, possibly without even knowing it. It’s times like these, when I set that book down and audibly release a profound sigh, that I realise something: My work doesn’t measure up. How can I compete with this guy, who just blew my mind? I’ve never written anything half so meaningful or true. What, in my brief years on this earth, could I possibly have experienced or come to understand that would be worth anyone’s time to read? What could I know or understand that would change someone’s life? How presumptuous of me to even try!

...been there.

Well, I don’t know. But I’ve decided that’s not going to stop me from trying. I’m sure one of my favourite authors, Hemingway, didn’t set out to try and change the world when he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. He just had a story, had experienced something himself when he was in Spain during the war, and decided to share it. It turned out that what he set down there was something immortal, because it was true. The people there might not have been real, the words the spoke might have been fabricated. But the experience, the feeling, the ideas were true. There are probably only a handful of people alive today who were there in Spain during that time, fighting in those mountains against the fascists. But everyone who reads that book can relate to the emotions there. And that’s what makes it timeless.

So back to the video by Ira Glass. I don’t have to write something profound. In fact, the less you are conscious of what you’re writing, the less presence you as the author have in it, the more natural and compelling it’ll probably be. I have a few notes I keep to refer to when I’m working on my book, and at the top of the page are a few quotes from some authors I hold dear. One of them is Frank Herbert, and among the several quotes of his there is this one: “Looking back on it, I realize I did the right thing instinctively. You don’t write for success. That takes part of your attention away from the writing. If you’re really doing it, that’s all you’re doing: writing.” It’s simple, to the point, and explains the reasons behind why I usually have trouble when I’m writing. I’m too involved as the author.

So when we begin, we have this period, as Mr. Glass said. This period where we don’t really like what we’re doing. We can see that it has potential, but it misses the mark. As I read and re-read my novel, I’m right there. I’m in that place. There are parts that are good. Damn good, if I’m honest. But there are other parts that are grasping, weak, and fall far short of where I intended them to land. I have to re-write those places. But you know what? That’s good. I’m glad I found them. Because when I wrote them, I thought I was nailing it, that they were really good. With the power of my future vision, I can see now that they weren’t that great. But that means I’ve grown, and that what I’m writing now is better than anything I’ve ever written before. I’m going to get through this time of doubt and misgivings, and come out the other side a better author. Right now, I’d probably just settle for “published author”, but I’ll take what I can get. They’re all stones in the path to success, so I know that eventually everything will turn out alright. As Churchill said, ”never, never, never quit.”


  1. I can absolutely relate to this. My own struggle has been learning to worry less about what people will think (friends, family, the literary smarty-pants club) and instead, to use my energy on the story itself.

    Recently I stumbled upon this quote by Jayne Anne Phillips: “I tell my students never to ‘think’ of the reader, but to be ‘in’ the work itself, lest you ‘perform’ for an audience, rather than hearing the story, penetrating the material, coming to the truth of the story.”

    I’m striving to be ‘in’ the work. Thank you so much for the great post! Love me some Ira Glass.


    1. Exactly! Writing is kind of like being popular in high school. There’s the cool crowd, and the more you try to fit in, the more you struggle to do things people will like, the more transparent and unlikable you become. Just set out to do your own thing and be your own voice. You’ll shine through brighter than you ever imagined.


      1. So true. It can be hard to “own” your distinct writing voice, especially when it relegates you to “unpopular.”

        Also, not being in the cool crowd is easier to affirm in others than in yourself. Like it’s easy for me to tell other writers, “You’re awesome. Who cares what THEY think.” But still, I care what THEY think about me. And then I hate myself for caring. It’s a wicked dance.

        The more I write, though, the better I get at identifying good–a good that is based on my own honed sensibility–and that is giving me the confidence to believe in the work, regardless of the affirmation (or lack thereof) of THEY. I think that’s the only way. Struggle to find what is in you, rather than struggling to model after others. I mean, other writers can teach you a ton, but in the end, you can only achieve a unique writing voice if you have the courage to speak your own truth (even in the face of terrifying consequences).


  2. I completely relate to this. It took me years to finish my novel, and part of that process involved me reading it and thinking, “this is great,” and reading it again and thinking, “this is terrible,” over and over again.

    And, the part about reading other writers’ works- I’ve had that moment so many times when I’d set the book down on my lap and thought, “my god, I’ll never be able to write like this,” but I have also had a few moments when I thought, “this is a simple sentence. Carver can write a simple sentence that I can understand. I can do it too”.

    Sometimes my greatest inspiration and teachers have been the books I’ve read. And listening to Ira Glass.


    1. Oh absolutely. My best teachers have always been books. I graduated with a degree in creative writing, and those round table sessions were certainly helpful. But nothing has been more instructive that simply reading excellent books by authors who know what they’re doing, and applying it to my own work. Nothing has been more instructive, and simultaneously disheartening =)


  3. The best advice (or warning) is a very old one, here cited in Latin but methinks it goes back to the caves:

    Ars longa, vita breva.

    One translation, “The life so short, the art so long to learn”… but the way I translate it (less orthodox, more true):


    The catch, of course, is that something will eat your life in any case, and mindfulness is always to be preferred to its obverse.


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