Ten Things I Will Never Learn

I participated in a great conversation at the airport on the way home from RWA last year about how learning to be an author is not just about achieving 10,000 hours of craft mastery. I believe it was Del Dryden who posited that there were more like 50,000 hours involved — 10,000 to learn to write, 10,000 to learn to tell a story, 10,000 to learn to sell yourself to the gatekeepers — agents and editors —10,000 to learn how to market and promote yourself to readers, and 10,000 to learn how to be exposed to the world and its vagaries without losing your mind.

This is a lot of hours, which means a very, very long time spent in what Ira Glass calls the gap. If you’ve never seen this video, it’s totally worth watching:

Part of what makes it so hard to become an author is that it’s so easy to give up when you’re stuck in the 50,000-hour gap. And it lasts so much longer than you’d ever guess. To all appearances, you seem to have “arrived” but you’re still trying to figure out how to survive this crazy challenge you’ve set for yourself.

The thing is, there are certain aspects of The Gap that persist. Even when you’re pretty far along in the 50,000 hours, even when you start to feel like you’ve mostly closed the gap craft-wise, that there are certain lessons that no matter how many times you’re taught them, you fail to learn. Here, in no particular order, are the top ten things I don’t seem to be able to permanently internalize, no matter how hard I try:

1) The first day of writing after a long hiatus sucks, no matter how inspired and fresh I feel.

2) It’s really hard to write the beginning of a book. There are just so many moving pieces.

3) It takes between ten minutes and twenty-four hours after I receive criticism to go from “WTF?” to “I wish I’d thought of that myself.”

4) It’s not true that it would be easier to write the book perfectly the first time around so I don’t have to revise it. The harder I try, the less I can write.

5) When the book is torn apart for revision, its guts laid out on the floor, it will go back together again, despite appearances.

6) There is a weird contradiction that goes like this: Trying to write when when I have no idea what to write next will never solve the problem. On the other hand, a lot of the time the only way I can figure out what comes next is to write it. Maybe this boils down to: If I’m sitting at the computer, I should be writing; otherwise I should get up and take a long walk.

7) Being almost finished (which involves writing and anticipation) is way more fun than being finished (which involves not writing and the realization that I don’t know what to do next).

8) When I unlock a level of author achievement (Agented! Published! 100 sales! 1,000 sales! 10,000 sales! Amazon list!) I will immediately crave the next level of achievement.

9) It is impossible to write a sex scene with someone else in the room, even if they’re not looking

10) The book is way better than I fear in moments of despair and way worse than I believe in moments of elation.

From past experience, I know that writing these things down is helpful. It doesn’t mean I’ve learned them, and it definitely doesn’t mean I’ll remember them when I need to, but at least I can come back to them and remind myself that a previous version of me has wrestled these demons before and lived to tell the tale.

Do you find any of these things unlearnable? Is there anything else that you keep not learning over and over again? If you’re a reader rather than a writer, do you have similar “unlearnable” principles in your day job/art/craft?

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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17 Responses to Ten Things I Will Never Learn

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    Oh my goodness, you nail so many of my demons here. Yes! Sometimes, when I’m wrestling with these things, I conclude that I’m failing, but you helped remind me that that sensation is part of the growth that leads to success:-)

  2. All of these. All. Of. These.

    And I’ll never learn I am not the only one in this boat. That even X and Y and Z authors I look up to are in the same boat with me. Sure, they may be chilling on the lido deck while I’m in an airless, windowless cabin down below, but there’s never a moment when I’m alone on the voyage.

    • Serena Bell says:

      Oh, and corollary to that: You (meaning I) will always THINK you’re (meaning I’m) the author in the airless, windowless cabin and that the other authors are up on the lido deck. :-)

  3. “3) It takes between ten minutes and twenty-four hours after I receive criticism to go from “WTF?” to “I wish I’d thought of that myself.”

    Yes, times 1 million.

  4. Adriana Anders says:

    Thank you for this. Being new at novel writing, I find myself constantly full of self-doubt. While it’s not great that these patterns continue, even for seasoned writers, it’s good to know that I’m not alone. And I can’t imagine being in better company.

    • Serena Bell says:

      The self-doubt remains, but the self-knowledge grows, so you still feel all the same old stuff but you know it’ll pass. Like the difference between raising the first kid and the second … you’re still awake all freaking night, but you’re not quite so positive it will last the rest of your life.

  5. Delphine Dryden says:

    Oh God yes. GOD YES.

    And the sad corollary to #8 is that once you’ve achieved the *next* thing, the previous things no longer register as achievements because they’re now just the way things are.

    (And yeah, that was me with the 50,000 hours…but hat tip to Malcolm Gladwell for the first 10,000 hours, because that isn’t wrong, exactly. It’s just that authoring is a really strange career with a lot of stages, each of which basically equates to being promoted).

  6. This is perfect. Thanks. : )

  7. This is basically a giant pile of perfection.

  8. Maggie Wells says:

    You nailed this!

    I think #3 was the one of the hardest aspects for me to master. I still get the jitters when I see a round of edits in my inbox. The difference is, now I know that I’m going to skim through them, run the gamut from “He/she’s an idiot!” to “OMG, he/she must think I’m an illiterate idiot.”, then let them marinate for 24-72 hours (depending on where I am in terms controlling the emo and how many boxes of Cheez-Its I have on hand) before I track so much as a comma.

    And yes, there is a direct correlation between emo control and the consumption of cheese flavored snack crackers.

    Thanks for sharing. This was great!

  9. Sarina Bowen says:

    Mine is chapter 3 of Bird by Bird: Shitty First Drafts. I have learned and then forgotten this vital idea SO many times.

  10. Tamsen Parker says:

    Yes! So many of these things. Mine include:

    No matter how awesome or how crappy I feel about the words while drafting, when I go back I often can’t tell the difference so I should just write.

    I will always be squeamish about even mentioning a project until a draft of said project is done.

  11. Serena Bell says:

    This — “No matter how awesome or how crappy I feel about the words while drafting, when I go back I often can’t tell the difference so I should just write.” SO TRUE! And this applies to the book as a whole, too–a book that “seems like it’s going well” is more or less the same beast as one that’s killing me in stages. Somehow they get done and don’t suck.

  12. Cara McKenna says:

    Love. Love love love.