Three Things to do After a Bad Day at the (Writing) Office

Ever have days where you feel like everything you’ve ever written is terrible or (even worse) simply average?

John Steinbeck did. Referring to a writing session during the creation of East of Eden, he wrote:

“It is just no good and I am going to throw it away. I haven’t had many bust days but this has been calamitous from the start. Also I am not going to worry Elaine about it. She has a million things to do. And I’m not going to worry myself about it either. It is just a loss. Maybe I can pick it up next week. That means two days will be lost this week. It may take me quite a bit to pick it up but maybe the rest will do me good. I’m going to try it anyway. I’m not going to worry about it but I wish I could know what caused it. Went to bed early last night, read happily, slept happily. Got up early and suddenly felt terrible – just terrible. Fought that off and was drained dry. Then I forced the work and it was as false and labored and foolish as anything I have ever seen. I tried to kid myself that it only seemed bad but it really was bad. So out it goes. And what do you suppose could have caused it? I just don’t know. There seem to be dead places in a man…”  (Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, 71)

Some days it gives me a great deal of relief to know that the writing greats had bad days. Here are three things I learned from Steinbeck about how to deal with those times when you feel off your game:

1) Own up to it – There’s really no use pretending. I know when something I’ve written is a complete waste of time. Admitting it is the first step in effective revision…or effective deletion.

2) Throw it out –Not enough can be said for revising – most writers simply don’t take revision seriously enough (those of you who note all the erros in my blog are nodding your head rapidly…I left that one in on puprose…that one two…okay, its getting old now). Seriously though, sometimes the best and most productive way to revise something is to delete it and start again.

3) Move on – You are not a terrible writer! Well, you might be a terrible writer, but you will get better! We all improve over time – that’s the single best thing about being a writer. If today you feel like you are writing at level 1.1 out of 10, keep writing and soon you’ll be at level. 1.101. It’s inevitable. So move on from your bad days and keep writing.

John is so generous, taking time out of his busy afterlife to mentor us.

What did you learn from his bad day in the office?


8 Replies to “Three Things to do After a Bad Day at the (Writing) Office”

  1. What interests me is not being able to judge whether my writing is good or crap. So often what I think is good, people do not like and what I think is terrible, is the most read or commented on. How do you determine what is good?

    1. When you say people don’t like it, do you mean your visits for that day aren’t huge (the reason I ask is that for the inverse you mention comments, so I assume you are talking about blogging)?

      Blogs sometimes make it difficult to judge the quality of your writing. You could write poorly about an interesting topic or with a fascinating headline and get a lot of hits. You could write something very well but on a topic that doesn’t interest people and get low traffic counts.

      For Steinbeck, “good writing” seems to mean that he maintained consistency with his previous efforts, the characters continued to feel alive, and the plot moved forward efficiently. Perhaps you need to develop a better sense for what “good writing” means for you, regardless of how many clicks you get in a day.

      1. Yeah. Not only talking about blog posts though. Also talking about essays written for a class and essays that I show friends. The ones that I think are terrific sometimes get slaughtered and sometimes the one’s that I think are not that good bring tears to people’s eyes. Not saying all the time, just sometimes and it completely bewilders me. Is it just me, or do other writers experience this? I often wonder if what we think is great is not that good and vice versa. Do we too quickly determine it for ourselves without sharing it with others?

      2. I think we as writers can have an emotional investment in a piece that clouds whether we can see it’s goodness or not. It’s like people with ugly kids. Do you think they know their kid is ugly? Most likely not. For all I know my kids are horrible assholes, but I love them. My emotional investment keeps me from seeing clearly. It is also hugely subjective as evidenced by writers sending their novels to tons of publishers before becoming a sensation. So just write and say fuck it. Sometimes it will please some people, sometimes it will please me and sometimes it won’t please anyone. But it had to come out like a bowel movement. You know, kind of like this comment! : )

  2. “If today you feel like you are writing at level 1.1 out of 10, keep writing and soon you’ll be at level. 1.101.” Boy, that’s some hard truth. Sigh. Great thoughts. Thanks.

    1. That actually made me laugh out loud. Let’s not get carried away with improvement! Take it nice and slow. Inch that number up…

  3. First. LOVE J. Steinbeck, and what a delightful thing for him to school us from the beyond.
    Two: Anne Lamott warns us about sh%tty first drafts. Indeed. I thought the first draft of my book was the best I could do. Thank God in Heaven for smart people who knew better. They coaxed more out of me that I thought was there. BUT, it was grueling to settle in and become courageous enough to allow it to come out. Does that make sense?
    Three: Writing is so much like running I find it aggravatingly simple. Some days are simply better than others.

    Well said, my friend. My next book purchase will be Mr. Steinbeck, whose “East of Eden,” is quite possible the best American novel. Very high on my list of favorites.

Comments are closed.