I love Alan Watt. Every newsletter he writes has me nodding and laughing and murmuring those sounds of recognition and delight. Each one is full of the wisdom of one who has been there again and again. And it always seems that the topic of the month is what I myself have been wrestling with.

He begins his latest newsletter with this quote:
“Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”  
— James Hadfield
And I can’t help but post his whole newsletter, because every word resonates. And also because it has that quality that all of us love – a successful writer lets us know that we are not alone. That our doubts and fears are shared. I don’t believe that we can hear or read this too many times.

Here’s what he has to say:

    At some point in the rewrite process, it’s inevitable that we grow sick of our story. Familiarity breeds contempt. All we see are the mistakes. As we get more specific with our work, our limitations become like a blinking lighthouse signaling the precise areas where it’s lacking. When we’re in this place it’s difficult to have objectivity. We wonder, “Is this just a waste of time…and perhaps a huge embarrassment?  How do I explain to everyone that this is what I have been spending my time on?” The desire to abandon ship seems to be a part of the process.Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha, found the beginnings of his first novel, Carrie, in the trash. She read it and encouraged him to finish.When we’re experiencing doubt it’s helpful to ask ourselves a few simple story questions: Does my protagonist have a powerful want? Do I have worthy antagonists standing in the way of him achieving his goal? Are the stakes life and death? Do I have a sense of the dilemma at the heart of my story?

If there are days when you feel that every word you’ve written is inferior and you’re tempted to throw the whole thing away, then you’re probably a writer.

Franz Kafka asked a friend to burn all of his work before he died. Without his friend’s understanding of a writer’s self-doubt, there would be no Kafka canon.

We would not have written our first draft if we had been critical with every one of our ideas, but as we continue in our rewrite we can afford to ask objective questions, such as: “Does this scene move my story forward? What is the importance of this paragraph or sentence or word?”

We begin to read our work through the eyes of our ideal reader. That sentence we thought was so clever begins to stick out. We’re not so interested in showing off or drawing attention to our prose. We begin to shed the more self-conscious aspects of our work and we seek flow. We want the story to be greater than the sum of its parts.

The rewrite is where we embrace our objectivity. We let go of the idea that this work must be a masterpiece. Our job is to let it live. Ironically, when we approach our work with a certain cool detachment, we tend to write from a place of greater truth.

If you have any questions or comments about this August letter, I would love to hear from you. Please email me at: al@lawriterslab.com

Until next month,