The Writing Life: Dealing with Dissatisfaction

Writers, it is often said, are their own worst critics. I take this to mean that writers, and artists in general, tend to be very harsh on themselves, though it could of course mean they are simply poor judges of their own work, and are incapable of accurately critiquing their own output by virtue of simply being too immersed in it. So having a faulty perception of our own work could also lead us to being extra hard on it, and ourselves. Ah, the joys.

The world is full of harsh voices – look at any book with hundreds of reviews and you will see some scathing responses, so I’m not sure that writers are the actual harshest critics of our work, but I do agree we don’t go easy on ourselves.

How does a writer deal with this sense of dissatisfaction? The specific sense that anything written could have been done better, more fluently, more emotionally true, more correctly grammatical, more iconoclastically ungrammatical, more precise, more ambiguous, more dramatic, more more more. (Or less less less, depending on the writer’s origin of dissatisfaction – it is a bottomless rabbit-hole down which to fall.) How does a writer deal with the nagging unease that comes with a completed work that just never feels complete?

I distinguish dissatisfaction from doubt. Doubt is a whole other beast in a writer’s life, and I have an at least 4 part series to come detailing its unlovely aspects. Dissatisfaction may be a form of doubt, but it hits after you’ve overcome enough doubt to actually finish a lot of the processes that lead to publication, and can linger afterwards. To be clear: if dissatisfaction stops you from putting your work out there, it is doubt. If you put your work out there, but still find fault in it on occasion, it is dissatisfaction.

The writer of the most haunting haiku can think it clunky, or not reflect the subject matter properly, or capture the moment elegantly enough. I’m sure Shakespeare shook his head at many of his lines, but the show had to go on. So how to deal with it?

Indulge it in some ways, ignore it in others. I would love to say that I can be zen and accept the flaws I see in my own work, and that the key to happiness is to embrace that approach and let dissatisfaction fade from view, but let’s be real here. (I do have a blog planned on Acceptance, and it is important, but I think I’ll need to write it when I’m in a more accepting frame of mind!)

So I indulge it sometimes. I stress only sometimes. I get feedback from people reading my book, and they tell me where they are in the narrative. I go and look at that part of the book (not every time, I’m not crazy). I am, by and large, horrified by what I see. (Sometimes I LOVE what I read, which can be equally misleading – remember what I said at the top about writers and their faulty perspectives!) Most of the time I close the book and tell myself to move right along, nothing to be done now, it is what it is, quit your bellyachin’. Ignore it. But recently I decided to open the book with a pencil in hand, and to circle the things that bugged me. Highlight the sources of dissatisfaction. Extra words, ugly sentences, anything that makes me wince. I read the entire book out loud more than once, how did these errors get through?

Because you cannot be perfect. Chasing the perfect leads to dissatisfaction. Attaining the perfect is a goal though, so we create this hideous rod for our own backs, if that is the goal we choose to pursue. That has to be accepted. It is hard. I’m chasing my tail here, and that is what dissatisfaction is, endlessly chasing your tail, biting at it, and perhaps making something fine into something bedraggled.

So I make my pencil marks. Do I plan to do anything with them? Maybe, once I’ve covered every chapter. The joy of self-publishing is you can do edits and revisions post-release, and so far my gripes are all minor, which is reassuring in itself. But in making the marks I scratch the itch of dissatisfaction, and it goes away for a while. If I felt a full revision was required I am sure I would look over my pencil marks and disagree with a bunch of them. Hell, I’ve erased a few as I went, which showed me how transient these quibbles of mine can be. I made editorial decisions already, and for a reason, thank you very much! But other changes may well be beneficial, things I (and my editors) missed for staring at them so many times they became invisible, but which now, months later, I can see more clearly than I could when in the rush of final preparation for publication. Does this make me wish I’d done one more pass, taken yet more time? No. I’d still have pencil marks to make. Some the same, some in new places.

So that’s how I deal with dissatisfaction – I acknowledge it. I mark some pages and put the book down. I don’t act on it, because I know my perspective may change again. By quantifying the things that irk me, by seeing that in the grand scheme of things my dissatisfactions are quite minor, I help put them behind me. For today, anyway. And that seems fair enough.

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4 thoughts on “The Writing Life: Dealing with Dissatisfaction

  1. Chuck

    An excellent article. Any artistic output is open to critical appraisal and books are no different. You need to roll with the punches, take on board what is useful and stay confident as dented confidence leads to poorer quality output. Separate out the obvious mistakes (like an erroneous apostrophe or incorrect use of a word) from the subjective comments and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

  2. Pingback: The Writing Life: Doubts Part 1: Am I Good Enough? – Roderick T. Macdonald

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