Like a Sturgeon
Last night, I read some of my writing. Normally, I avoid this at all costs. Writing is like any other bodily secretion. The act of extruding it is certainly necessary, and may even be pleasurable (in an illicit sort of way), but to linger on the final product is the domain of perverts and simpletons. Once I have written something, the green Publish button is my flush lever: I send it spiraling out in the toxic morass of the Internet, where it will hopefully sink and biodegrade quietly. Like all right thinking people I bear a Victorian shame towards my “output” and wish to see it disappear.
But last night I read something I had written a couple of months ago. I don’t know why. I had received an admiring comment, I suppose, and I wanted to see what it was that this random nobody liked so much. It was a throwaway piece, not something I lingered on. I tend to write in spurts and trickles. This one, as I recall, was easy. It flowed out of me onto the page and was done before I knew it. I don’t write for a living and don’t aspire to, so typically my approach to editing is haphazard; I like to publish, then go back and fix anything that needs fixing. I recognize that this is perhaps the worst possible way to write in the entire universe and it degrades not only me personally but the profession as a whole, but we live in a blind idiot universe run by a mad god and I owe you nothing.
I read this piece and I had a very clear thought. It startled me, and it has stuck with me, and I will share it with you now. I thought: “this doesn’t suck.” That was pretty astonishing. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I am not fishing for compliments. I don’t think I am a uniquely poor writer. It’s just that a huge proportion of everything sucks. This is often lazily expressed by the idiom “Sturgeon’s Law,” named for the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, which states that “90% of everything is crap.”
Leaving aside the suspect statistical rigor, this seems difficult to quantify merely because of the inherent subjectivity in aesthetic judgment. I posit that what determines whether something is “crap” or not rests not on whether you personally like it, but the degree to which it matches the creator’s vision. In other words, something that is what it is meant to be cannot be crap. Crapness comes into being when you fall short, when the work on the page or the screen or whatever isn’t what you imagined. That leads to some weird outcomes, like how the original Star Wars trilogy is crap by that standard but the prequels aren’t, but as a starting point I think it’s worthwhile.
Writing for me isn’t just transcribing my thoughts. I have a feeling, an inchoate thing that ferments and bubbles in my head until it spills onto the page and I try to squish it into shape. Often I mostly succeed. That’s a pretty qualified sentence, but it’s true; often, I mostly succeed, and that’s about the best I can hope for. This piece of mine, I actually nailed it. It wasn’t perfect, but I had good flow, my use of language was strong, my metaphors clicked, and the overall message came through. I enjoyed reading it. I may even read it again. That is unusual for me, and it makes me wonder how many other times I accidentally did something right.
I don’t feel bad about producing mostly crap. I’d like to produce no crap at all, but I think the arc of my progress is towards less crap, which satisfies me. Even writers I admire, writers whose work eclipses mine by every possible metric, occasionally produce crap. I might not recognize it as such, but they certainly do. I am sure that Sam Kriss and Dan O’Sullivan will, on occasion, grimace and navigate away when one of their pieces is linked by another author or approvingly quoted on social media. Everyone produces crap. The fact that their crap is better than anything I will ever write does not make it not crap. It’s just harder to recognize from outside.
Don’t be sad about producing crap. Revel in it. If you have a vision, eventually you will want to turn it into a reality. Do not constipate yourself waiting for the perfect moment. Push it out! Do not let it ferment inside you, because the inevitably product will be as rancid as you can imagine, overdone and rotted from its long incubation. We live, we die, our bodies putrefy, and the excrescences of our minds live on in some corner of the Internet, lying on a shelf in a humming fluorescent server farm until the oceans rise and claim it all back. None of this matters. Write. Draw. Animate. Talk. Produce, and if what you produce is crap, then try again.