What if your ambition outstrips your talent?

Advice for a writer who’s been working for years without seeing any real improvement

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Last week: Austin’s Kleon’s quarantine routine. This week: my monthly advice column. (Weigh in with your own advice here.)


Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

What do you do when your ambition far outstrips your talent? I suppose the answer is “work on getting better” but what do you do when you’ve been practicing for years and you don’t seem to be getting any better?

My partner and I had a baby a few months ago (and he is truly an A+ baby, vastly superior to other babies). We split our parenting duties very evenly, but between parenting, working a full-time job, spending time together, and navigating the stress of [gesturing vaguely in the direction of our garbage nation] all this, we both feel like we’ll never again have time to write. I know you’ve touched on the time management issue before, but my main question is this: What do you do when you feel your writing isn’t improving at all, AND you don’t have any time? 

In the rare moments of time that we do give each other to write (btw I am insanely grateful to be married to a fellow writer), I feel like I’m just producing a handful of extremely shitty sentences. I have been working my ass off at writing fiction for like 15 years (I’m in my mid-thirties), and I feel as though I’ve barely improved. Over the past few years specifically, I feel my writing hasn’t improved at all, and I’m at a loss over what to do. I wrote (and rewrote, and rewrote) a novel and a bunch of short stories and poems, and I have gotten hundreds and hundreds of rejections. And rightly so—on rereading them all now, they seem blandly serviceable but unimpressive. I have a bunch of new projects I’m picking away at, but none of them feel particularly exciting.

I’m a big fan of that one Ira Glass quote where he says you probably feel bad about your creative work because your talent hasn’t yet caught up with your taste, but what do you do if your talent feels stuck at a standstill? What if it never catches up?

I have an MFA, and I’ve done writing mentorship programs, and I’ve paid for editorial feedback, and I’ve had beta readers, all that. I definitely don’t think an MFA is necessary to be a good writer; I only mention it to point out that I’ve tried everything I can think of to improve my craft (and before the baby was born, I did spend hours each day writing). I have hundreds of thousands of words of pure, unadulterated meh. It’s not aggressively awful, but it’s not good either. I feel like the tank is empty right now, inspiration-wise, and I hope to fill it up, but I also feel like it’s always been empty?? What is a Boy to do? [Frasier voice]

Warmly,

T in the Pacific Northwest

Dear T,

Thank you for writing with this extremely vexing dilemma! And thanks as well for introducing me to that Ira Glass quote about “the taste gap,” which I’d somehow never read.

I’ll be honest: I don’t think I totally agree with Ira Glass here. (Sacrilege, I know!) His idea is that beginners start off with a gap between their excellent taste and their rather paltry talent, but with time, and lots and lots of hard work, they can close that gap. In the end, Glass says, “the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.”

That last part in particular feels wrong to me. Having pored over a lot of writers’ and artists’ diaries and letters for my Daily Rituals research, I can say that most of them never felt that their work fulfilled their ambitions. Or, if they did feel that way, it was only in brief surges of confidence, which could be tremendously satisfying and productive—but which never lasted as long as they would have liked.

Rather, the keynote of most long-lasting creative careers is dissatisfaction—a nagging feeling that what you’re doing is not quite good enough, which keeps you moving forward, always chasing a vague but powerful sense of what could be.

Do you have that feeling in your writing life? I hear the dissatisfaction with what you’ve produced so far—that comes through loud and clear. What I don’t hear is whether you know what you’re after. Do you feel a pressure inside you, of an idea or a sense of the world that you want to convey? Is there a kind of writing you want to read but which doesn’t seem to exist, and which you’re trying to invent?

I ask all this because I think some of us writers start out wanting to write excellent fiction (or nonfiction, in my case) and then get stuck because that’s . . .  the wrong starting point? At the end of the day, the writing is just a vehicle for something else—some feeling about the world or human experience that you want to suggest or precipitate in your readers.

You write: “I feel like the tank is empty right now, inspiration-wise, and I hope to fill it up, but I also feel like it’s always been empty??” That worries me a bit! Has your tank really always been empty, or are you just writing from a place of profound—and very understandable—burnout?

If you agree that burnout is at least part of it—and who wouldn’t feel burned out after hundreds of rejection letters and a creeping sense of meh about your writing?—then I’d argue that addressing that creative burnout is your first task.

One way to start may be to think of your writing career in phases. There are the phases of dedicated, head-down daily writing. It sounds like you’ve already spent a significant amount of time in that mode—15 years!

Then there are the phases where you step back, let yourself soak up experiences and ideas—let the tank refill, so to speak. And it sounds to me like you’ve naturally arrived at one of those phases. You just had a baby, you’re working a full-time job, and it’s a pandemic? It’s hard to imagine a better moment to be less focused on literary productivity and more focused on observing and feeling what’s happening in your life.

That may be hard for you. For some people, letting yourself rest can be really uncomfortable. I know because I’m one of those people. I’ve based a lot of my self-worth on being productive, having something “to show for myself.” It’s not the worst way to be: Achieving things feels good, and having meaningful, engrossing work is a worthwhile life goal. But it’s also a very late-capitalist mindset, where our worth is completely tied up in our production. (A very good book on this subject is Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing.)

Just remember: It’s often during the rest phases that we make the most progress. It’s sort of like building muscle (so I’m told): First you have to tax the muscles through exercise, then you have to rest them. The actual getting-stronger part happens not during exercise but during rest—that’s when the muscles you’ve broken down repair themselves, coming back a tiny bit bigger than before.

Also, resting doesn’t mean doing nothing. It just means doing something different for a while. For a writer, it often means reading—reading intentionally, critically, with a pen or pencil in hand, making notes, capturing your authentic responses, arguing with the text, arguing with yourself.

You could also think of it as hoarding—hoarding ideas and impressions. That’s the raw material for good writing, or at least one kind of writing that I personally seek out. I love it when I feel like writers have really immersed themselves in a subject or a dilemma, often for years, and now they’re reporting back—not necessarily on what they “learned” (yawn) but on the experience of being changed by ideas.

One kind of raw material is books. Another kind—the main one!—is life. And by having a baby during a pandemic, I can’t imagine that your life right now lacks drama, conflict, frustration, hilarity, boredom, goofiness, and on and on.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that you are actually in an excellent position for a writer—if you can let go of the idea of “getting better” and instead let yourself organically and authentically experience what’s happening in your life, what you’re reading and thinking about, and what part of that stew feels like it ought to be expressed—eventually—in a novel or a short story or a poem or an essay.

Along the way, you may do some amount of actual writing or you may not. You could try keeping a journal, or setting aside a couple hours on the weekend to type up all the notes you’ve made in the margins of the books you’re reading. You might not write at all for a while and then write a lot in a burst. When you’re feeling burned out, that burst is something to strive for—you want to let the pressure build until it becomes almost intolerable and writing everything down feels urgent and necessary. As the New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal said in a 2019 interview:

the task is always to write every single piece like it’s your only one. It has to have that energy. Use your best material now. Just squander yourself. Enjoy it. I don’t want to read anyone’s tepid writing.

Yes! I love that advice: Just squander yourself. But first you have to build up a surfeit of enthusiasm, passion, energy, inspiration, whatever you want to call it. Bring that all up to a steady rolling boil and then get back to dedicated, head-down daily writing, and I predict that you’ll see a leap forward in the quality of the results. And when that happens—or if it doesn’t!—I hope you’ll write back to let us know.


YOUR ADVICE, PLEASE!

Readers, do you have additional—and perhaps better?—advice for T? By all means, please weigh in via the open discussion thread I’ve created for this question. Sincerely, I’d love to hear your thoughts about “the taste gap,” ambition, talent, burnout, and whatever else feels relevant to this dilemma. Leave a comment here and I’ll be reading and replying this week.

Join the discussion


CONVERTING LIMITATIONS 💩 ➡️ 💎

While mulling over T’s dilemma, I spent some time leafing through Susan Sontag’s journals, among my favorite records of a writer’s development, self-doubts, and self-admonitions. And I found a few entries that seemed to speak to T’s situation, though I ultimately wasn’t able to work them into my reply. For instance, on November 1, 1964, the 31-year-old Sontag wrote to herself:

As a writer, I tolerate error, poor performance, failure. So what if I fail some of the time, if a story or an essay is not good? Sometimes things do go well, the work is good. And that’s enough.

Later in the same entry, she added:

Q: Do you succeed always?

A: Yes, I succeed thirty percent of the time.

Q: Then you don’t succeed always.

A: Yes I do. To succeed 30% of the time is always.

That blew my mind when I first read it, because it’s such a useful—and mature!—attitude toward creative work, and also because it’s the opposite of the way most creative people talk to themselves about their work. We want to succeed 100 percent of the time! And that’s just not possible. Or, as Sontag reminds herself here, 30 percent of the time is 100 percent of the time.

Here’s another Sontag journal entry that felt relevant, from more than a decade later. On June 12, 1975, she wrote to herself:

The function of writing is to explode one’s subject—transform it into something else. (Writing is a series of transformations)

Writing means converting one’s liabilities (limitations) into advantages. For example, I don’t love what I’m writing. Okay, then—that’s also a way to write, a way that can produce interesting results.

Again, what a constructive attitude! All writers (and artists and musicians and performers) have limitations—the goal is to convert them into advantages.


WRIGGLING THROUGH 🐛

That concludes another installment of this advice column. To submit your own creative dilemma, email me at subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

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(Read my past advice here.)


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