John Adams knows you can do better

Sometimes when I’m writing (such as the blog post I was going to write this week) I hear that little negative voice most writers have to contend with. Unlike most writers, my negative voice takes the form of John Adams in a scene from the musical 1776, when he reads a draft of the Declaration of Independence aloud then stops in the middle of a sentence and flatly says “This is terrible.” The good thing about this is that I can respond “SIT DOWN, JOHN, IT’S NOT LIKE YOU COULD DO ANY BETTER.” The bad thing is, Mental John Adams is usually right about my writing.

willsomeoneshutthatmanup“Will someone shut that man up?” – “NEVER!”

The truth is, most writing is going to suck. Hell, most anything is going to suck on the first try. There’s no way around it. All we can do is keep going through all the suckage until the piece is done, then go back and find a way to make it suck less – and keep going back again and again until it not only doesn’t suck, but is actually maybe kind of good. If you can’t find a way to make it not suck, you cut it and replace it with something else or start over.

To carry my 1776 comparison entirely too far: when Adams tells Thomas Jefferson that the (already discarded) draft he’s reading is “terrible,” he doesn’t follow it with “so you must be a terrible writer who has no business doing this in the first place, screw you, I’ll write it myself.” But I’m willing to bet a lot of people’s internal negative voices say something to that effect. Don’t believe that. Instead, try to imagine your negative voice is John Adams, too. John Adams (well, the version of him depicted in the musical) is blunt and tactless, but he still believes that Jefferson can write something good. He just wants to push Jefferson to keep going until his writing’s as good as Adams knows it can be.

declaration_of_independence_stone_630_halvedAnd then it’ll be endlessly debated, butchered in the editing process, and – yep, too far.

Your work is going to suck sometimes, and a voice inside you will tell you so. Both of those are unavoidable. But the next time it happens, try to use that negative voice’s message as encouragement rather than discouragement. I’m not going to pretend this will be easy; a lot of the time people say “Just change what that negative voice says!” as if it were a goddamn switch you can flip on and off. It’s not. Your negative voice is probably going to spout the same old discouraging nonsense it always does. What you can do is try to change how you respond to it.

Don’t ignore the voice or silence it, just let it say its nonsense; but when it’s your turn, say something like “You’re right – I’ll keep working until it doesn’t suck.” And do that. Keep going. It’s never going to not suck if you stop working on it. But if you keep trying, eventually it might not suck. There’s only one way to find out.


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