Embrace the Suck

Embrace the Suck

Embrace the Suck

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I’m currently writing a lengthy contracted article for a prominent publication, and boy, does it stink. It’s rambling, disorganized, and repetitive, and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t found the central nut of my point.

And I’m cool with that.

There have been plenty of times in the past (and by “past” I mean as recently as a few months ago) when this kind of struggle to get something coherent on the page might have derailed my confidence about myself and my writing. These things tend to be cyclical, demons that pop their little heads out of their cave every now and again to party in my psyche.

Read more: “Attack of the Inner Demons

But at the moment—as at my favorite times—the demons and I are peacefully coexisting, respecting one another’s space. You do you, demons. I’ll do me.

Read more: “Doing Creative Work amid the Sh*tstorm

And that means that I’m not letting my current failure to create a cogent article I am contracted to deliver on deadline undermine my ability to do so.

I’m drafting, both the demons and I agree as we’re hanging out amicably at the watercooler, and that means that it’s going to be bad before it gets better. But embracing the suck is part of that process.

Working through the Suck

Sometimes we may start a project knowing exactly what we want to say and how to say it, and the words flow out of us like milk and honey in the land of plenty.

It’s going to be bad before it gets better. But embracing the suck is part of that process.

But other times—I would argue most times—we have to find our way to what we’re trying to convey, just keep pounding out the words and ideas so we can get a sense of what we’re thinking, start organizing it into some kind of coherence, get to know our stories and characters as we keep exploring them on the page, so that we can begin to form clear ideas of who they are, what they do, why it matters.

That process may vary from author to author, plotter to pantser—but it may also vary from story to story or day to day. The muse is a fickle creature, as are so many coveted souls in high demand.

Read more: “If You Feel Like Sh*t, Sit with It

Often when I’m working on content creation for authors, I know exactly what my thesis is, and usually have a clear outline of how to present it in a logical, organized, useful fashion.

But not at the moment. Right now I’m yarking up a steaming stream of consciousness I know I can sift through later to extract what I need, the way I frequently have to put on latex gloves and squish through my dog Gavin’s poop to ensure that the various items he might have eaten around the house and on our walks aren’t clogging up the works and causing problems in there. (Sorry for the mental picture, folks. No one said writing was glamorous.)

The trick to staying productive and finding your way to where you’re trying to go is not to get hung up on it. If I keep excreting words onto the page and fleshing out my thoughts, sooner or later they’re going to start to coalesce into something coherent and I’ll find the heart of my message. I’ll use that to start teasing out a throughline, and little by little I’ll get the thing where I want it to go.

It may involve roadblocks and dead ends, but I don’t let those throw me off either. When I’m stuck somewhere I will often insert placeholders like, “something transitiony here,” or “make this headline less bad” or “conclude the hell out of this bitch.”

Read more: “The Wall of WTF

The lighthearted language is part of what helps me not take being stuck too seriously—and the shorthand bookmark also keeps me from stalling out on a single speed bump and lets me maintain momentum, keep moving. I know I can come back to it later, when the perfect segue or heading or conclusion might more readily come to mind—or I can at least bring a fresher perspective to wrangling it out of my consciousness.

Bouncing Back from the Suck

After this morning’s writing session I walked into my husband’s office and announced cheerfully, “I just laid down some serious stank.”

But you know what else it is? On the page. And I can fix something that exists.

In fact that’s how I wrote this very post, free-associating my thoughts into a hodgepodge of a document and then sitting down to edit. You can’t spin your flax into gold without getting yourself some flax in the first place. 

You can’t spin your flax into gold without getting yourself some flax in the first place. 

That’s also how you stay productive. Thanks to fully committing to this morning’s emesis, continuing to simply disgorge all of my garbage thoughts onto the page, I finished a first draft of not only my poor sad little article in progress, but this blog post, a pretty impressive word count for a few hours of seemingly uninspired writing.

And now I have something to work with. Tomorrow I’ll have the fresh perspective, the time, and the material I need to don my metaphorical latex gloves and start sifting through the poop to find what I’m looking for. (“Hey, authors, watch for my upcoming craft book, Sifting Through the Poop!”)

Talk to me, friends. How do you handle the suck times?

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16 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks so much for this post — it is exactly what I needed to read this morning as I slog through my own mire of suck, questioning everything!

  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    February 8, 2024 1:23 pm

    The Suck derails too many writers who quit, then start a new Suck, only to quit that one. On and on it goes. Sadly, the cure comes after: revising. At least, that was the cure for me. I’m not talking about fixing the draft, but attacking it with purpose. That requires the determination to improve it beyond what I’d first imagined (thank you, Intuitive Editing).

    Once I’d experienced what my drafts could become I gained immunity. Suddenly, the Suck became Potential. Suddenly, there was the certainty that if I worked hard enough that my original vision couldn’t compare to the eventual result. It isn’t magic, it’s hard work, but the result certainly looks like magic.

    • Wise words, Christina! I LOVE the idea that suck is potential (and with your permission may appropriate that excellent phrase).

      Revision is the magic sauce–it’s where stories find their fullest depth, and to me, the most fun part. I often joke that I wish the universe would hand me my first drafts–I can edit and revise the daylights out of most anything and make it coherent, if I just keep working with it, as you say. We all can. I’m so happy to hear Intuitive Editing has helped you in that process for your own first-draft suckage. 🙂 That was my best hope in writing it.

  • Rebecca Rosenberg
    February 8, 2024 1:32 pm

    I can safely say this speaks to all of us writers. Especially meaningful from a consummate editor like you!

    • I think it must too. Drafting isn’t the real work of writing–editing and revising are. Next week, in fact, I’m going to post a play-by-play of what that looked like for me with this article, just to show that in action.

      Thanks for the comment, my friend!

  • I handle the suck times a lot less confidently than you do, although I’ve been amazed by what I’ve salvaged from a pile of my stank in the past. Not only am I not sure I can ever do it again, but somewhere in my psyche one of my elementary school teachers (with the best of intentions) programmed me to believe that I should know what I want to say before I open my mouth or put pen to paper. I think it happened in the lesson on outlining. No one ever gave me permission to write just because I wanted to, felt the urge, or thought I might have something that was trying to get itself expressed. Until you wrote that post, I thought it was just me. That program is now toast. Thank you very much.

    • I’m happy the post undid the strictures of getting it right in a first draft. That’s SO much pressure! Sometimes writing happens that way, but more often I do think it’s the result of noodling, tweaking, rethinking, rewriting.

      That said, your teacher’s words are probably pretty good advice for speaking. Lord knows I would benefit from taking a beat to think about what I want to say before I open my mouth and start saying it. 🙂

      Nice to see you here, Bob.

  • For a while I did “Morning Pages” which worked wonders to get noise out of my head, and sometimes even brought about nuggets worth highlighting and coming back to later. Other times I embrace the suck and just write what comes to mind without overthinking it, to either set it aside and start over, or edit-whip it into shape. Either way, I take it as more of a reflection of how much information we are saturated with and how much noise is in my head than a sign that I can’t write.

    Thanks for the reminder! Because I do sometimes forget.

    • I’ve heard that morning pages are really helpful for a lot of authors for that exact reason–it pushes past the noise. Also a great description of all those demon-doubts that assail us in the suck times. You’re right–it’s just part of the process. But I think we all welcome reminders of that from time to time. I know I need them! Thanks, Shahnaz.

  • Annette Nauraine
    February 14, 2024 12:31 am

    I call the first couple drafts ‘barfing up a hairball’. Right up there with sifting through poo.

  • Igor Chirashnya
    February 15, 2024 3:16 am

    For me, it’s always ‘suck time.’ It takes me a good 10 hours on average to wrestle out just 3-4 pages of my latest novel. Whenever I hit a snag—whether it’s a scene, dialogue, or transition that just won’t cooperate—I take a convenient detour to my browser for some ‘research.’

    Take, for instance, the time I needed to describe a scene where my main character is glancing at his watch. I found myself staring at a blank page, scratching my head for a clever way to depict it. So, naturally, I turned to the internet for some insight into WWII-era watches.

    Five hours later, I emerged with a newfound expertise in vintage timepieces from the ’40s. And, voilà, the whole scene was born, inspired by my knowledge of watchmaking: ‘He looked at his watch—it was midnight.’

    Sure, some might find it odd to spend hours researching something so trivial, but for me it’s part of my writer’s journey.

    • Oh, that’s the trap, isn’t it? It’s so easy to get hung up on the minor little details like that, we derail our whole writing session. That’s a main reason I put in my placeholders–I know if I stop to investigate, find the perfect word or phrase, research, etc., I’ll lose momentum.

      That said, you make a great point: that the root of most of us pursuing this craft is the satisfaction and reward of the creative process itself. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in the fierce “produce, publish, repeat!” mentality of the current market, and with the “validation” of writing so often being perceived as what we achieve with it. If we don’t stay connected to that foundational intrinsic satisfaction of creating, it’s so easy to get caught up in all that and find ourselves unhappy and dissatisfied with our writing. Good for you, Igor, for knowing what fulfills you. I think tapping into that and staying connected with it is the key to creating a meaningful, sustainable writing career–whatever that looks like for each of us.


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