Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Do you hate your own writing? It’s more common than you think. From those authors who read back a whole project and despise it to those who cringe at a few choice phrases, hating your own work is definitely normal.
But what’s the next step? Does disliking a piece mean you should change it, is it something you can work to move past as an author, or is it something you can never quite escape? The answer differs from person to person, but if hating your work is something you suffer from, read on – I may be about to surprise you.
Hating your work is part of improving your art
The first thing to note is that, for many authors, hating your own work is a necessary step to improving your art. You want to get better, after all, and a lot of getting better is identifying and removing what isn’t working. More than that – it may even be an advantage for what we deem to be good to outstrip what we can currently create.
Ira Glass, host and producer of This American Life, has some potentially life-changing words on this dynamic. I’ll share them below, but, if possible, it’s worth seeing them in the context of Daniel Sax’s short video that presents Glass’ words in the context of art they’ve inspired.
Of course, even if you can’t watch the video right now, Glass’ words have their own value.
Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told this to me… All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste… But it’s like there’s a gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making – it’s kind of a disappointment to you. You can tell that it’s still sort of crappy…
And the thing I would say to you is: everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, if you’re just starting off and you’re entering that phase, you gotta know it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month, you know you’re gonna finish one story… ’Cause it’s only by going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions… It takes a while – it’s gonna take you a while – it’s normal to take a while, and you just have to fight your way through that. Okay?
– Ira Glass, ‘Ira Glass on Storytelling: Part 3’
Glass is entirely right – getting better at writing takes practice, and practice means producing art. If you hate your art now, it may be that you’re right, but take comfort in the knowledge that you’re getting better; that the way you feel about your work is an integral part of getting better.Hating your work can help you make it better. Click To Tweet
In fact, while it can be an unpleasant feeling, hating your work may actually be a tool that someone who’s happier with their output is missing. After all, you both want to improve, but only one of you is feeling that on a visceral, instinctual level.
Hating your work can protect you from (some) ego
One of the most famous pieces of writing advice is Arthur Quiller-Couch’s ‘murder your darlings’. That is, be especially brutal to those sections of writing that you love. Why? Because those are the places where your pride blinds you most, where you’re least likely to strictly focus on forcing each detail to justify its presence, and so they’re likely to be the worst sections for a reader who doesn’t have that investment.
Hating your work frees you from a little of this; it removes the rose-tinted glasses and forces you to confront what you don’t like and work out how not to do it next time. If you can push past the worry and upset of not liking your art when you know you have the ability to make something better, you can make real progress in what you produce.
Of course, you should also be trying to produce finished work as you go. Having work to submit to competitions or projects is great for your career as a writer, and developing ideas past their early stages, to something that’s sincerely meant for a reader, is a great habit and the only way to build oft-neglected writing skills. So, even if you hate your work, even if you can accept that hating it is making the next piece better, you should still treat each new piece as something to finish. If hating your work makes you give up, you may simply never produce something you like.Even if you hate your work, you need to learn to finish it.Click To Tweet
On top of that, it’s kind of a must, since you may be one of the minority of people who just never comes around to their own work.
Hating your work doesn’t mean it’s bad
For some people, hating their own work is a permanent state. It’s not a particularly fun state, but it’s not the problem you might expect.
Some people hate their own work because they simply have amazing taste – if you’re capable of envisioning something truly tremendous, then it may only be possible to hit that target in rare moments, or after a lifetime’s work.
For others, writing is personal. They can produce great writing, but they know what influenced it, and that cheapens it in a way that isn’t the case for any other reader. They know they got a certain phrase from an old family saying, that a nugget of insight fell into their lap, and they can see the joins in what is, to anyone else, a seamless piece of writing.
In fact, maybe it’s something of a surprise that any authors enjoy their own work. Creating a story means building it from the ground up – knowing every twist, development, and insight before it’s written, unsurprised by the inventiveness and purpose of the writing. Maybe that’s part of the charm, but if familiarity breeds contempt, the odds are stacked against any creative from the start.Hate your own work? Maybe you’re just too close to enjoy it.Click To Tweet
You might not even hate your own work, but the work of the writer you were when you started. Again, writing a piece using clichéd metaphors and faulty logic may be what matures you past those bad habits. You leave a better writer, but that doesn’t mean you enjoy revisiting the process.
If you could make a change to anything you’ve written over the years, what would it be?
Hahahhahahahahha apart from rewriting every single sentence, do you mean?
– ‘Twenty Questions with Jon McGregor’ from TLS
The good news is that none of this makes your work bad, and it isn’t even necessarily a problem. We all want to enjoy our own pieces, but art is made for other people, and it’s a poor author who sits around endlessly reading their own work.
John Banville, winner of the 2011 Franz Kafka Prize and the 2005 Booker Prize, is perhaps the poster child for writing great fiction while simultaneously hating it.
I loathe my fiction. I have a fantasy when I’m passing a bookstore that I could click my fingers and all my books would go blank, so that I could start again and get them right… I hate them. I mean that. Nobody believes me, but it’s true. They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame. They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me. There is a great deal more pain than pleasure in writing fiction. It’s only now and then, maybe once every three or four days, that I manage to write a sentence in which I hear that wonderful harmonic chime that you get when, say, you flick the edge of a wine glass with a fingernail. That’s what keeps me going. When I read the proofs of a new novel – which is the last time I will read or even glance at it – I approach it with one eye closed, so to speak, thinking, God, what am I going to find here? And I find horrors, horrors that can’t be fixed. Everything in the text now seems hopelessly flat and deadened. Where I imagined a dancing rhythm, I find clumping and stumbling.
– John Banville, ‘The Art of Fiction No. 200’, from The Paris Review
If Banville is to be believed, a solution to permanently hating your own work is to stop reading it once it’s done and treasure the rare moments where it works. After all, beautiful craft might make an author’s heart sing, but the reader gets the last say on value and quality.
Work you hate might change someone’s life
In terms of suffering through art they hate, authors have it easier than many other artists. There are plenty of musicians who are expected to perform music they’ve grown past, hated from the start, or even meant as a parody of songs or ideas they hated.
The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different. There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right’ who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them.
– Michael Diamond from Bruce Pollock’s American Songs III: Rock!
Actors are often required to endure marathon press tours for projects they dislike, or even those they never wanted to do, and plenty of comedians have expressed frustration at the lifelong connection between them and characters they invented in their youth. No one is going to yell passages of your hated novel at you across the street, at least.
I have this kind of love/hate relationship with [Alan Partridge], because I’m encumbered by him. He’s prevented me from doing things I want to do, because he’s been so successful… Perversely, the more successful I am at doing what I want to do, which is more dramatic stuff and writing and producing dramas that have comedy in them, as opposed to just broad comedies — the more successful I am the more likely I am to do Alan Partridge. Because I don’t feel so insecure about it.
– Steve Coogan from Matt Prigge’s ‘Steve Coogan on his ‘love/hate’ relationship with Alan Partridge’
For authors, there’s still the worry of putting your weight behind a project that you later regret, but it’s not something you have to reprise. Generally, once a project is finished, it’s jettisoned from the author’s hands. It exists as a separate entity, and they’re free to leave it behind forever, untroubled by work they don’t like as it drifts into the hands of those who love it.
And make no mistake – there are a lot of people who’ll love it. Don’t think that just because you hate your own work, everyone else will, too. A piece you write before you hit your peak, or one that grapples with ideas you find childish later in your career, still has a place in the life of many readers; maybe even a pivotal place.
Remember: even if you hate your work, you’re not writing it for yourself.Click To Tweet
If you can’t convince yourself that it’s worth persisting with work you hate because it’ll get better, consider that you might be working on something that’ll end up as someone else’s favorite book.
Loving to write
In short, hating your work isn’t a nice way to feel, but it can be temporary, useful, and doesn’t have to stop you producing great work that resonates with readers. If you want to feel better, venting to other writers is generally useful, as is having people around who love your work. Nevertheless, it can be useful to keep in mind that hating your own is a perfectly normal reaction, and, in the long-term, might even make you a better writer.
Have you overcome Ira Glass’ ‘gap’, or are you a writer who still hates their own work? Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments. You can also check out Are You Sabotaging Your Own Success? Here’s How To Stop for advice on moving past your mental blocks, or try How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published if you have the opposite problem.