I’m writing a book.
I’m actually writing several, as I have been since I was 12. Of course, none of those ever quite got finished (until recently; more on that later). Part of the problem is my ongoing ADHD (I have a hard time staying focused on things), part of it is my never-ending quest for perfection (“It’s not perfect yet, so let me just tweak this…”). No matter what the cause, the effect is the same: shit doesn’t get done. It’s frustrating enough in the short term, but in the long term, it’s downright maddening. I’ve considered myself a writer by nature since I was very young and have always excelled at writing assignments, but the talent and ability notwithstanding, I haven’t really got any completed work worth showing anyone.
Look, we’re talking about more than a quarter century of writing. Of telling stories, telling jokes, giving instructions, providing insight — some of good and some of it less-than-good, but none of it complete. And I think that’s the point of genuinely good writing: it’s not about quality, but quantity. And completeness.
This, of course, runs counter to everything we’ve ever been taught about craft: making a bunch of shit isn’t worth as much as One Great Thing. But the dirty little secret about creating the One Truly Great Thing is that, in nearly every case known to humanity, One Truly Great Thing was preceded by Ten Thousand Truly Awful Little Things. This is especially true with writing. It’s not a possible method you can use; it’s an actual necessity. You have to finish loads of garbage before the really good stuff begins to emerge. The Beatles had to write awful tunes before they knew how to write good ones. Tolkien had to write reams of shitty poetry before he had any real ability to turn a phrase.
It’s not about failure or success; the only real success is completion. You’ve heard Edison’s maxim: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I’ll do him one better (I am that kind of arrogant, thank you for asking): Success is one percent inspiration, four percent perspiration, and ninety-five percent completion. (You are permitted to quote me. Or re-do the math. But you see my point.) Getting the job done means more, my precious angels, than how amazing the concept was or even how much time you spent being amazing. That first rule of writing we’ve all heard a thousand times? “Show, don’t tell”? It applies to the act of writing as well. Don’t tell me how much you’ve written, how good of a writer you are, how one day you’ll write the Great American Such-and-Such. Show me. Make it impossible for me to ignore. If need be, dare to overwhelm me with volume.
And this isn’t to say that “Oh, it’s fine that the article/column/blog entry/book/what have you sucks; as long as it meets the deadline” — far from it. Quality matters. But quality in writing — hell, in any real kind of creating — comes from quantity. (Malcolm Gladwell, ten thousand hours, expertise, et cetera.) That, and lots of revision. Rewriting is worth ten times what writing is. But you can’t begin the process to revise and adjust if there’s nothing there to revise and adjust. Completion is required. Art emerges not from genius but from craftsmanship. And craftsmanship emerges only from workmanship. And workmanship only emerges from work. It’s pure cause-and-effect here. Build something, a lot of somethings, and if you care about it, you will get better at it. And you will make something Truly Great. Don’t despair about not making your mark on the world if you never bother marking anything in the first place.
Not everything is going to be perfect. But it’s going to be done. Hell, the process doesn’t even matter as much as you might think. The book I’m most interested in finishing is really about taking my random impromptu speeches on eating well, typing them up, then using the various sources of research I have to support the main idea, and try to find a decent structure to hang it all on. It’s work. Hard work.
Actually, it’s not hard. That’s an exaggeration. It’s really just work. Which I must do. I’m still inspired, but I have to commit the prose or else it’s all just bullshit on my part. (Which I fully intend to do. That and a dollar will get you half a granola bar, chief.) And that book I did finish recently? I transcribed the manuscript that had been occupying random blank books since 1994, tightened it up, and got the job done. I think it’s pretty good, certainly in parts. And I will more than likely revise the living hell out of it. But it does, in some concrete form, exist. It’s there.
And sometimes, that’s all that matters.