The Fear Of Improvement

The Fear Of Improvement

When I was making the decision whether or not to publish Crossroads Poetry, one of the things that crossed my mind was a question which bothers me about every single thing I write: what if I come back to it in six months or a year or two years or more and I don’t like it? What if I end up feeling about The Quiet Ones or A Single Soul the way I feel about the first novels I ever wrote when I was thirteen?

I’ve always thought of this as a fear of not being good enough, and up to a point it is. I don’t want to release something to the world that’s substandard or unready, especially if it could be improved.

But really, what it is in the end is the fear that I’ll get better.

I read somewhere that Stephen King’s first novel would probably never have been published if his wife hadn’t told him it was good enough and he should try for publication – and it was a bestseller. Yet now that he’s written a whole load of books, he won’t even read it again. He thinks it’s no good, because he’s improved so much since that first one.

I’ve read books by authors where the first one was mediocre but the series got stronger and stronger until the final book was stunning and you can see with every book the improvement in that author’s work.

I’ve come across books where it’s so obvious that the author listened to criticism before they wrote the second book and addressed the issues that people raised and I guess, in the end, you’re always going to look back at everything you write before and think it’s no good compared to what came after it.

But that’s because you’ve improved. Got better. Levelled up in the game of writing.

It’s the same with any skill. With music, I was so proud of myself the first time I shifted position on the violin or learned to double-tongue on the flute. Yet a few years later I looked back at my playing and considered it bad, because I’d got better and I could recognise that. With drawing, at the end of ten hours’ work the piece is great – but a year later you draw another and suddenly the first one’s nothing, it’s not as good.

The thing about these skills is that we know we’ll get better, and we allow ourselves to start out terribly. Nobody expects their first attempt at a concerto to be worthy of the Royal Albert Hall – yet somehow, our first novels are meant to be bestsellers?

Even if it’s not world-class, that first concerto needs to be performed somewhere. It might be a draughty old hall where the tickets are sold for two pounds and only the performer’s friends and acquaintances come, for the sake of the musician and their empty wallet. But if they like it, they’ll tell people. And the next venue will be bigger, the next concert longer, the applause louder.

Because it’ll be better too. Every one will build on the one before, and by the time you make it to the main stage the video of your first concert embarrasses you. It seems scratchy, out of tune, or even simply lacking in the nuances of expression of which you’re capable.

Yet without those early performances, you’ll never get to the Royal Albert Hall.

I, like many other people, need to learn to take the same approach with writing. I know that in a few years time if I continue to improve I will look back at my current writing ability and I’ll judge it. But unless I start, at some point, I’ll never get anywhere.

Maybe a few people will like this poetry collection. So maybe I’ll release another one. Maybe, gradually, I’ll write something longer and a publishing house will take it on and a few people will tell their friends and eventually, via a circuitous route that never travels the same paths twice, I’ll have a novel on a bestseller list, the writer’s Royal Albert Hall. (Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll be selling books out of my car, next door to a failed concert violinist with CDs in stacks on a trestle table.)

I’m trying to let go of the fear that I’m not good enough by recognising it for what it is: the fear that I’ll get better and I’ll judge myself. If the first thing I published was the greatest thing I ever wrote, everything after it would be an anticlimax, a disappointment. The first book or poetry collection or whatever is the first rock in the foundations. You don’t put the stained-glass windows in until the very end, and there’s no point creating them until you’ve got a floor and roof and walls.

I need to embrace the idea that I’m going to improve and that I’ll probably judge my early work, and once I’ve done that, I should be able to build a solid foundation for everything that comes afterwards.

At least, that’s the plan.

If you want to be part of the audience of that first concerto, as it were, Crossroads Poetry is now on Goodreads as a pre-release thing, so you can add it ‘to-read’ or whatever and hopefully convince people this is a thing that’s going to happen. Or something. That’d be nice.

3 thoughts on “The Fear Of Improvement

  1. I added it on Goodreads. ;) I’ve always felt my writing isn’t good enough. Every time I write (or rewrite) a story, I think it’s awesome and then…reality check. ;) It’s definitely a plunge to put yourself out there, for criticism too.

    1. It’s terrifying! And sometimes I like bits of something but not others, or I’m fine until I read it more than three times and then suddenly I don’t like it again… etc, etc. Poetry’s even harder because it’s so esoteric and personal so you can’t really get an outside editor the same way you can with novels.

  2. Ah, Miriam, you get me. I remember that cold feeling I got sometimes as I went over the first hundred or so pages of my first book while I was revising it. It was torture. For a while, I just doubted that I was a good writing, and then I realized that it was getting better as I went along. I realized that, apparently, I had managed to improve my writing skills in a year and a half. I felt a bit better after that.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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