Clearing the Mud

Writing for the words I'll write ten years from now

Clearing the Mud

A few years ago, I fell down a rabbit hole reading through the blog archives of one of my favorite writers. While skimming through some of his posts from a decade ago, I was surprised (then inspired) by how mediocre they were. His old writing wasn't bad--it just wasn't the greatness he's known for now.

There are days when I have a million things I want to say, but none of it do I seem capable of saying. The only words I can muster don't seem anywhere close to good enough.

"Writing, like so many creative acts, is hard. Sitting there, staring, mad at yourself, mad at the material because it doesn’t seem good enough and you don’t seem good enough." - Ryan Holiday

On those days I think, why write at all? Why bother when every sentence that comes out feels worse than the last? Yet I find solace in the idea that the terribleness of our early work is an unavoidable due we pay to refine our craft.

To paraphrase Ed Sheeran, the creative process is like turning on a dirty tap. At the start, dirty water is going to flow for a while, but if you keep it running long enough, clean water will eventually start to flow.

In the beginning, the work isn't very good. That's fine because you're getting it out. The more you write, the more mud you clear from that tap, and the clearer the water gets.

This is true on a micro level. When a writer sits down to write, he often passes through a period of "throat-clearing"--writing out the hazy cloud fogging his mind so he can get to what he's really thinking.

But on a macro level, the metaphor is equally apt when applied to the span of person's entire creative career. The early years are marked mostly by sub-par work. This is fine because the artist is getting out the words and sentences, melodies, and portraits that aren't great but are necessary to get to the point where they can create the truly great stuff.

In the short term, clearing the mud is overcoming writer's block. In the long term, clearing the mud is writing bad sentences now to build the requisite skill to write good sentences later.

Though this feels true intuitively, the process can be frustrating because of the Taste Gap, as described by Ira Glass:

“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... 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.”
- Ira Glass

Of course I'd like to create something valuable and beautiful and useful today, but even if my work is none of those things, I write in hopes that one day my work will be as good as my ambitions.

I'm not writing for the words I'll produce today, tomorrow, or next month. I'm writing for the words I'll produce ten, twenty, thirty years from now. I hope you'll do the same.


Ed Sheeran interview

Cover Photo by Maria Teneva / Unsplash