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Misjudging Our Own Writing

J. Greg Phelan shares some advice he heeds in order to push through feelings about his work in progress.

By J. Greg Phelan

March 03, 2023

Writing novels there’s a lot to learn. You need to read widely, study craft, figure out how to gather your ideas into a structure for a book. Learn how to generate a first draft. How to revise. How to edit and polish your work. How to submit it for publication.

I love all of it. Well, most of it, not the submitting part. Even so, there’s a ton to master to write a decent book. In the thick of the process, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and get down on myself. Some days—lately it feels like most days—I feel like my latest work-in-progress is doomed to failure. That I’m a failure. So why even bother?

That’s how I felt today, after spending hours banging my head against my monitor, trying desperately to resuscitate listless prose going nowhere, all the while castigating myself, Why are you doing this? This sucks. Eventually, I pulled my wretched claws from the keyboard and headed out for a run.

That was when I recalled one of the most important things I’ve ever learned about writing books, from an off-handed comment at a panel by the fantastic writer Michael Cunningham. (If you haven’t read The Hours, I’d recommend you do). Cunningham shared a bit of wisdom he’d gained from many years of writing that I’ve come to know is true. That has consoled me on days like today. That I hope will console and help you.

He said something like this (I’m paraphrasing): How you feel about your writing on any given day doesn’t correlate with the quality of your work. Did your head just explode? Mine did when I heard him say that. Because up until then I’d taken my feelings about my work on any given day seriously. The this-is-a-waste-of-time misery as well as the this-is-brilliant elation. Whatever judgments popped into my noggin I believed they were valid and true. When Michael Cunningham enlightened me they were not. Mr. C taught me to ignore my rollercoaster of feelings and judgments and just work. That’s it. Put in the time. Just work.

Taking breaks when I’m frustrated (or even when I’m not) helps me gain some needed detachment, too. Run, walk, swim, do a few stretches, whatever. When I come back to the manuscript, I can almost guarantee I’ll see it’s not that bad after all. My previous negative thoughts indeed did not correlate to the quality of the work.

As an added bonus, during my break, I might even get a good idea that might solve a problem, like I did during my run today. This idea is a really good one, I must say. Maybe even brilliant. Doubt it. But it’s a step forward, and that’s what’s important.

J. Greg Phelan has written for The New York Times, America, and other publications. He is the co-founder and board chair of Project Write Now, a nonprofit writing center providing classes and outreach for writers of all ages. In 2020, he launched book inc, a community for memoir and novel writers.