Me: “It sure has been a long time since you wrote anything. What happened?”

Also me: “Well, you know. It’s hard to find time.”

“Oh really? Seems like you’ve found a lot of time to play video games in the last… What has it been, 9 months since your last blog post? And another 4 before that?”

“You know it’s different with writing. You need a decent block of time to really get into it.”

“Yeah, I seem to recall saying that before about gaming too though. You claim to want to be a writer but when push comes to shove, you make time for video games but not something that is supposedly very important to you. What gives?

“Well, video games are easier right? You play a video game to mentally relax. And they’re all about guaranteed competence. You know that if you keep playing, you’ll get better and more powerful and eventually you’ll win.”

“You do realize that if you wrote regularly you’d get better at that also, right?”

“Yes, but it’s hard.”

“What’s hard about it? Just put the words on the page.”

“It’s easy to put words on the page, but it’s hard to do it well.”

“Who cares if you do it well?”

“I do. I have these ideas in my head, and when they’re there they seem so great, but the moment I try to put them on the page, I realize that they’re not as good as they seemed.”

“But once they’re one the page, then you can make them better. If they’re just rattling around in your head you can’t see where they need to be improved.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s also scary.”

“What is scary about writing? It’s not like someone is making you do it and they’re going to punish you if you don’t do it well. You’re not being graded. You don’t even have to show it to anyone until you’re ready. Or at all! You can write stuff down and not show it to anyone!”

“I know. But I build these ideas up in my head so much that it’s hard to finally see their flaws when I write them down. One of the main reasons I want to write is to get some part of myself out of my head and into the world. So when I build these ideas up in my head, they get tangled up in my sense of self and self-worth. It’s a lot more pressure when the words that I’m dumping on the page are in some way a part of me.”

“So you’re scared to work on writing that you find important or meaningful, because if it ends up not as good as you hoped, then in some way, you’ve immortalized that you yourself are not as good as you hoped.”

“Yeah. That’s why for a long time I was just doing blog posts here. Blog posts are lower-stress. I especially liked writing reviews of things because I could just jot down my opinions and move on. Not a lot of self-worth caught up in my opinion of the latest video game or TV show or whatever.”

“But you basically stopped writing here on the blog too…”

“Well, toward the end of 2020 I started writing a follow-up to my previous two very personal and philosophical “Finding Balance” posts, trying to figure out the extent to which I actually believe in all the nice things in those posts, and how much of it was trying to justify not working as hard. But that grew into a whole series of posts trying to pin down my own personal understanding of the meaning of life, and whether I am living the values that I claim to believe in. And it got to the point where working on those posts would often ruin my mood and send me into an existential crisis.”

“Sounds like they stopped being low-stakes blog posts and became something very personal, and therefore scary to work on.”

“Yeah. I still want to finish them, but it’s daunting. And it’s not like I have new insights. People are probably better off just reading Sartre.”

“Well, but the point is to get your personal take on these big philosophical questions. But if it’s hard to make progress on this project, take a break and write something else. You have other ideas.”

“Yeah, there’s a novel idea and a nonfiction book idea that have been rattling around in my head for years, but working on a “real” book project seems even more daunting than the philosophical blog posts. It’s much longer, much more work and then when all the work is done I know that I might face rejection trying to get it published anywhere. I have made small starts on both ideas, but never got very far. The self-doubt just kills all motivation.”

“Yeah, I get that. But let’s look at this rationally. What is the worst case scenario if you write?”

“I guess the worst case would be I spend a bunch of time on something that turns out not to be any good, and it doesn’t get published. It’ll feel like I wasted my time and I’ll be embarrassed by how it turned out.”

“And what’s the worst case scenario if you don’t write?”

“I’ll be disappointed in myself for not achieving one of my life goals. I’ll never know if I could’ve gotten something published. My thoughts and ideas will be stuck in my head.”

“The con for writing is interesting: You’ll feel like you wasted your time if what you write isn’t any good, but you’ll at least have something to show for it. Which is more of a waste of time, writing something that ends up not getting published or is not as good as you hoped, or spending that time passively consuming media with no end result to show for it?”

“I mean obviously writing is better. But it doesn’t change that it’s hard and scary and hard to get started and stick with it.”

“So how do we get over it and write anyway?”

“Momentum helps. I should try to write as often as I can. And probably need to get away from the idea that writing can only be done in big chunks. Little bits here and there can add up.”

“And lower the stakes. Everything you write doesn’t have to be the last or most important thing that you write. Especially on a first draft, you know it’s more about getting the words written so that you have something to edit. Writing the first draft is creating the lump of clay, not the finished statue. Nobody just sits down and writes a finished novel in one go.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And the best way to do good creative work is to do a lot of it. Instead of agonizing over one thing, write ten things instead. Maybe nine are crap but one might be great, and you can’t really know until you do it.”

“Yeah, I recall a quote along those lines. Something about how it’s not the writer’s job to judge what they write, it is their job to write it. But I can’t find it.”

“Oh well. There’s always this one. Seems like a good place to end this post. Let’s write.”

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Ira Glass