Go Ahead, Be Terrible

One of the hardest things about starting a new book is the awfulness of it. I’m there now, at the beginning, no longer thinking about the book or making notes or even writing long backstory and character pieces—which is actually one of the most fun parts of writing. If it was only that part, I would be the happiest writer in the world.

Instead, I’m actually starting to write the thing, in scenes, with characters talking and moving and all that.

This is the point of ruination. I’ve talked about this before—every book is perfect before I must try to bring it into the world. They live in some other place, in the Land of Books Waiting to Be Written, and some are mine to write and some are yours and some are still waiting for their person to get busy and bring it over into the Land of Books That Can Be Read.

As I try to bring my book over the wall into this world, I ruin it, almost from the first word.

It horrifies readers and writers alike when I say this, though I’ve never figured out quite why. I’m a devoted writer and have been devoted to the craft my whole life, but I am only mortal. How could I possibly write a perfect book? I don’t like the ruination, and I am always striving to do a better job of bringing the books over the wall, but if I am not at peace with the fact that they are all going to be flawed and ruined the minute I bring them over, I will never get them written in any form at all, and that would be far, far worse.

The fear of failure, of doing something badly, is one of the great enemies of the creative person. Of anyone really. It keeps writers from writing and artists from painting, but it also keeps many of us away from exploring new things, making new friends, expanding our lives. My tai chi teacher says over and over, in his soft thoughtful voice, “You can’t be good at something you don’t know.” But don’t we often want to do just that? To be masters at everything on the very first day?

This morning, I was going through the watercolors I worked on last week. Some are studies of a particular technique or an exercise taken from one of the (many) books I’ve bought over the past five months. A few are free hand, me trying to reproduce what I see. Not a single one of them is brilliant or even approaching competence, and yet I am quite happy with two—this one of my living room,IMG_8611

and this one of a lemon.


Something about fruit is helping me understand how to create a sense of light, and I have a lot of sketches of oranges and lemons and apples. One of a pair of tiny Asian pears is one of my favorites so far, and I tacked it up onIMG_8612 the wall in my office to give myself a gold star.

What I am still not getting anywhere close to being able to capture are flowers of any kind. This is the latest attempt. Lifeless, lightless. But that’s okay. I am a beginner. I can’t know what I don’t know. There are endless videos and lessons out there and I can access them and keep trying and sooner or later, maybe I’ll get a decent flower. If I don’t keep painting really bad flowers, I never will get a good one. Ever.

I’m at the start of a book, and I don’t know what I don’t know—a book is revealed as it is written, no matter how much I outline. It happens as the words hit the page, as the characters take on life and ideas and opinions of their own, as the settings take on light and movement, as the themes are slowly uncovered. In time, I’ll know who everyone is and why I’m writing this book that chose me. Until then, my only job is to show up and work, day after day. Just as I paint a subject over and over until I start to understand it. Just as I am a clumsy tai chi student and still learn something new every single lesson, some tiny thing like how to stand more fully on both feet.

Don’t be afraid to be awful at things. It’s how you eventually become a master.

Are you afraid of getting things wrong, failing in public? What makes it easier for you to ignore the critical voices and just keep moving forward?

4 thoughts on “Go Ahead, Be Terrible

  1. Thank you! This is just what I needed to read.

  2. Rosemary Dunn

    As Donna said, I needed to read this. I am feeling quite paralysed attempting to do something new, again, after a false start. I didn’t really fail the first time, other things got in the way but I had to start over. My confidence took a blow though. Wobbling with a deep sense of incompetence and the fear of failure, despite the support of so many people who have great faith in me, has me procrastinating something awful, searching out and reading your backlist! Enjoying your lovely characters and beautiful writing but I need to be a bit sterner with myself. Knowing other very accomplished people wobble about too is actually very helpful! Thanks

  3. Ohoyo Tohbi

    So funny that I should read this today. This morning another favorite author of mine posted a note about being brave. Looking back, I don’t see big events, really. I just see little grasped moments of courage. What I do know is that the best compliment I’ve ever received was “You’ve got guts to burn” from my father. I was stunned that he thought of me that way and flattered, too. And maybe that’s it. Tiny victories adding up to adventure. 🙂

  4. I cannot tell you how often I feel this same way, afraid to start, afraid I will ruin what is so great in my mind, afraid of failure. Self-imposed deadlines and daily word counts definitely help me, but even then, I procrastinate, and your post explains why. Thanks for this – It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

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