I have more than a shit-ton of shit on my mind right now. Stressors have kicked into high gear. Some of it’s the same shit; some of it’s new. All of it has worn me out, and none of it is under my control. Or anyone’s for that matter. There’s no point in continuing to dump the same thoughts out of my frazzled brain. Suffice it to say I’m struggling. I’m distracted. I’m exhausted. I’m waiting.
Let’s talk about something else for a minute or two. Go and read this blog post by my writer friend and co-worker, Carrie.
Done? Okay. Now. Let’s answer the question “As a writer, is it possible to write without expectations?????” (I’d leave a comment on Carrie’s blog if I could be sure my comments would be brief. They won’t be.)
First of all, the answer is a resounding Fuck Yes! It’s absolutely possible and is in fact absolutely fucking critical to write without expectations.
If you expect your book to be a bestseller or your poem to win a prize, you’re not only defeating the purpose of writing, you’re stomping the purpose of writing into the mud, beating it with a hammer and defecating on its bloody corpse. The act of writing requires you to put aside your expectations and just fucking write. Expectations are paralyzing. If you manage to overcome the paralysis, you’ve poisoned your work. This is exactly why I had such a difficult time finishing Red Light. I expected a certain flow of events; I expected a certain reaction from readers (yes, Sand, I expected to make you cry.); I expected the story to follow the dictates I’d set for it six years ago when Jack Runner first appeared, was killed and immediately informed me that he wasn’t going to stand for that.
But all that meant was that I was fishing for a reaction. I wasn’t listening to the story, and I couldn’t get it out. Only when I stopped expecting anything from it was I able to get the story done. While it turned out completely different than I thought it would, it worked.
Having commercial expectations for your work is no different. You cannot write the perfect poem or book the moment you sit down to write it. I don’t think that even upon publication and gaining number one bestseller status that a writer believes his work is perfect and perfectly finished. Why else are there so many “author’s preferred text” editions? Okay, well, that’s a dirty marketing trick, but it’s still material that the author thinks enhances the book in some way, inclusion of the darlings that Stephen King recommends killing, scenes and lines that maybe don’t work in the work as a whole but are nonetheless precious. This is no different than expecting your kid to be a straight A student or at least consistently above average. What happens when the kid has to tackle a subject he just can’t grasp? It’s unrealistic to expect a kid to excel in everything, and it’s devastating to the kid to fail. I do speak from experience on that matter. I was supposed to be a straight A student, but I couldn’t run a mile (asthma) and I couldn’t comprehend math in any incarnation. You have to let the story be true to itself. Push it too far, and it will break.
This doesn’t mean you should write with no intention of writing the best you can, but to get the story down, to put the words in order and let them really work, you have to get out of the way, and that includes ditching your expectations. Editing, revision, polishing — all that comes later. You can expect success or failure or anonymous mediocrity then. Write first.
Second of all … second of all? There was a first of all, so there should be a second. There was. I don’t know what I thought it was supposed to be. If I were being a careful writer, I’d go back and edit that, but this is a blog, and I don’t give a fuck. Anyway.
Students are always told, “Know your audience and write for them.” While this is generally helpful (kids’ books are not the same as adults’ books), it can be a burden inasmuch as it’s not the audience that’s important. Not at the genesis of a piece of writing. I’m one of those writers who believes that writers should write for themselves first. I write the stories and poems I want to read. I have never ever expected anyone else to get anything out of my work. Every time I send a story or poem to Piker Press, I’m filled with dread. What if this thing is truly awful and doesn’t work on any level? Well, what of it? I can either revise until it is fit for public consumption or withdraw it. That’s happened a couple times. The very first version of Transmission was about 2000 words, and while it wasn’t bad, it didn’t quite make an interesting story. The published version is either the fourth or fifth draft. Another story simply could not be made into a good story without being untrue to what the purpose of it was. After briefly struggling to revise it, I decided it was better left unpublished. I’ve treated events in that story as cannon in Jack’s universe, but honestly, it works better unsaid. What I expected, audiencewise, of both those stories was completely not the case. Had I stuck to my expectations for Transmission, I doubt the rest would have ever happened.
On the other hand, don’t expect the worst for your writing either. If you submit a poem for a contest and expect to lose, you’ll eventually stop bothering. This is a major problem for me. I’ve come to expect failure, not because I think my writing sucks (it doesn’t, I know that, but my lack of self esteem doesn’t believe that), but because I was told over and over and came to believe that success at what I wanted to do was impossible. The expectation fostered impotency. Not only could I not attempting submitting my work, I could, at times, barely write. That’s no better than having lofty expectations and constantly being disappointed. Both can make you stop writing. Then you slowly become not a writer, and that’s no good to anyone.
It’s hard not to have expectations of either stunning success or abject failure. It’s hard to be realistic about you and your writing are capable of. But in order to find out, you really do have to put all those expectations aside and write. Write the best fucking story or poem or essay you possibly can. Save being critical for the next draft. Expect to have to revise, expect to be rejected, but also expect to, at some point, be accepted.
Of course, this is only my personal philosophy about expectations. This won’t work for every writer. Some are probably driven by the expectation of success. Maybe they’ve got a point to prove to someone or to themselves. Points or not, the writing still needs to come first. If the writing is good enough, the point will prove itself.