There’s a terrific anecdote in the only self help book that’s ever helped me. “Art and Fear” is by David Bayles and Ted Orland. They describe a pottery class divided into two groups. One group is told they’ll be graded on the quality of one pot which they can remake as many times as they like. The other half is told they’ll be graded on the quantity of pots they make. At the end of the semester, those in the “quantity group” are vastly better potters.

It’s only by permitting myself to make tons of just-okay pots that I seem to make progress! Sometimes you have to make bad work--and lots of it! Somehow things improve that way.

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oh, dear Lord, i like to talk about the doing, too....

And of course, I have something to add to George's great and thoughtful response.....

You, dear questioner, write: "How do I get beyond this? Let go of the "preciousness" of my creation?" And I can tell you what works for me, if you want to hear/read it.

I put that ceramic pot of which you speak into a drawer and I absolutely do not look at it for as long as possible. For instance, right now, a story I wrote last year is in the drawer. i'm on the verge of pulling it out--it's been over 6 months since i last looked at it. And I'll tell you what will happen when I finally read it again. I'll say--wait, i wrote this? Because when you step away for a good length of time and you work on other things, you eventually forget what you wrote before. And now, having waited, you can really and truly see it with those fresh eyes everyone's always talking about. You can toss those sentences that you once loved (and maybe find you love again) but which aren't working any more for this piece. You can cut and cut brutally. Or you can read and find out--voila! the little ceramic pot is already perfect!

So that's what i'd add to George's great advice. Give your work a rest. Return to it later when you're a different person.

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Mar 30·edited Mar 30

One trick I've learned regarding the original question (which may or may not work for you): when you KNOW something needs to change, yet also feel as if its "glazed, fired, and cured" into a solid, irreversible state, sometimes we need to refresh our visual perspective of the story. I do this by separating each sentence of the story into its own line, literally making a list of every sentence. Now that each sentence is in isolation, for some reason, I feel it's often easier to revise. And then once you're done, put all the sentences back together and see how it sits.

By doing this, we're sort of willfully "blowing up" the story into discrete units (sentences). It can help kickstart the revision process by allowing us to see our story in a different way, at the "unit" level.

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Mar 30·edited Mar 30

Sometimes I feel like the Story Club hive mind is all on the same wavelength. The other night I drafted a version of this very question, intending to email it to you but I never got around to it.

Thanks to whoever sent this in. And thanks in advance to whoever reads my mind and sends in the next question I’ve been secretly pondering.

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I have a good friend who's a painter, working mostly in oil. His "editing" process can include "ragging out" (i.e. turpentine + a rag) or physically sanding down the layers of paint he's added to a canvas. That seems like the BASE jumping version of editing -- just say goodbye to what was, and trust for something good to come. But there's no getting those marks you made back once you rag them out.

It makes me very grateful for the belay version of editing that is open to us as writers - I like to keep my piton in the rock.

That being said, I heard Lauren Groff describe her writing process once -- writing a story (a novel, even) by hand on paper, then... throwing it away (!!!) ... then starting over. Her reasoning is that anything that sticks is worth keeping, anything she forgets, must not've been. So there are BASE jumping writers, too...

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I once got to take a writing class with Matthew Neil Null, a great young short fiction writer. For those of us who were hesitating to make bold revisions to our early drafts, he compared it to having a beautiful car in the garage that we've cleaned and restored and made wonderful and special... But we still have not taken it out on the road and seen how it responds. And the thing is it's not just OK to drive it, a car is *meant* to be taken out on the road and moved around.

A pretty simple metaphor, but it's one I often come back to. Personally I find it freeing - "now let's take this baby [early draft] out and see what it can do!" 😃

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Mar 30·edited Mar 30

George, I just love how self-aware you are about how you go about your own work, and how well you're able to articulate it, and how well you're able to extrapolate what in it is useful to other writers, readers, and editors. Endless gratitude as always!

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These past few office hours posts are issues I've been thinking about so much, so basically what Skylark said, there's a wavelength, perhaps!

I read a draft of someone's book, and it was super cool, exciting, original, a blast to read. The writer then took the draft to a professional place that edits, packages, markets, and helps you sell a self-published book. I read that final product, too, and was surprised to feel that some of the magic and acceleration was much less than it was. I didn't say anything as it was already published, and I still liked it, but I liked it less. All these other editors had taken away some of the writer's original feel and quirky voice. Too many cooks in the kitchen? Or...what? I don't know. It makes me wonder how we can tell when we've "flattened" something fun and quirky and made the story less alive somehow. Still wondering about all this.

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This also reminds that it's really important to have really good critical readers to rely on for feedback. You don't need to pay for this or get experts. Nor do you want readers who are just critical to be negative or someone who loves everything you do. What you do want is at least one reader who is willing to give you honest feedback. More than one is ideal. There is almost nothing more valuable. This doesn't mean take all the critiques as action items. It's okay to pick and choose as long as you put the work first. To wit: I had an experience recently with a short story that's still in progress. I had this scene in mind when I first sat down to write it. It required a little bit of research and when I wrote it, I was very happy with how it turned out. But when I sent it out to a couple of people for critiques, both of them said the scene wasn't working. One suggested it be axed from the story completely.

I was sure this wasn't good advice.

So, my first inclination was to ignore it. I liked the scene and I put a lot of work into it. To my mind, it was integral to the whole story. But as I tackled the edits, I realized quite organically that it wasn't working. At all.

I ended up cutting all but one sentence of it. Now when I go back to the original I can totally see how extraneous it is and can't believe I didn't see it from the get-go. Removing it didn't feel like a big deal by the way. It actually made me feel good because I was doing the hard thing and it felt right.

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A few years ago I left an incomplete draft of a piece I was writing on the table in my sons apt.

When I realized I had left it I was panic stricken and disturbed that this rough draft would be the standard of my writing that my son and his wife would see and judge my writing and find out that I am a fraud as a writer. I couldn’t breathe.

This was a first draft!

Maybe it would never even be typed up!

Asking after those pages - left in a messy pile I was met with laughter and good will…all positives.. as well as their critique that my “piece” was very David Foster Wallace -like

(Clearly ridiculous)

I was dumbstruck, obviously.

And as a woman of a certain age even a few years ago- and not suicidal- or depressed- or alcoholic ( maybe a touch) , I changed my mind about editing- and do it gently. No need to feel pressed to refine and rethink- sometimes it works the first time.

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I love that you think of your writing as ceramic pots. What I personally love about ceramics is that when you put something on the wheel you: spin, cone, press down (everything is the same) and then you shape - if you’re skilled you know what shape it will take, if you’re not you have an aim but you have to follow it. If you’re skilled, you can work with more clay too.

The shape is pulled and then you refine, refine, refine, refine. And perhaps that process is shorter term (while wet, before it dries) you actually are mostly editing what you’ve made. You pull the sides. Pulls the sides. Cave it in or out - to your desire. It can be thicker or thinner. Your choice! You shape it the whole process on the wheel. You control the speed and how thin and how tall and how round and how straight. And each step of the way is an opportunity to make something wonderful or make something just absolutely awful.

For me, in my ceramics class I made 8 items. One I made was a plate and everyone was like, Whoa! You made a plate? That’s actually really hard. I was trying to make a bowl but I put too much speed and it turned into a plate. My teacher told me I had to kiln the plate. That wouldn’t happen for me again. That was lucky!

So I kilned it, and it really is a beautiful plate. But after the kiln, I glazed it. I used a runny pink and a runny green. My plate came out…like vomit. It is ugly. But I of course use it! Because to have made a plate is awesome.

Anyway, I think that you thinking of your art as ceramics is correct but you are thinking that ceramics is much more complete and finished than it is for a ceramicist (unless you are a ceramicist and you know more than me, an amateur). But maybe when you make a first draft, that’s the first pull. Each subsequent pull is a draft. Yeah? If you think of each draft that way, maybe that helps.

If I were to do one pull and then kiln my ceramics, I don’t think I would be as happy. And also they go through more stages. You dry them. You sand them. You carve more. Perhaps you add embellishments (a handle, a cut design, pressed in clay). Then you glaze. And then you kiln it. Then it is done. There are many steps.

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"I think it’s best to enter into editing with this mindset: we are just playfully trying something, in hopes of extracting, say, 10 percent more light from the piece, and we’re doing it out of love for the piece."

I love this.

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I usually write a wobbly first draft and then "tolerate a high degree of obsessive back-and-forth." I have dozens of copies of some of my pieces, some of them, maybe even over 100.

I rewrite until I can't hear my piece, anymore. I don't know my own voice. I don't know who I am or what I like. Sometimes, I really do make things worse. Sometimes, it was bad to begin with, and after many drafts, it's still bad. My only hope is that I'm subconsciously improving as a writer.

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I struggle with the ceramic pot state as well, and the mental model that helps me is the following:

The story I am writing/just wrote is not important. It’s juvenilia, it’s just for fun, it’s a lark, it’s for an assignment, whatever. It is not permanent, any more than a saxophonist’s solo in a practice room. It is one attempt among many, ephemeral, and I can do what I like with it because it’s job is not to be good.

That’s my job. I am the knife that is being whetted, the baseball glove that’s being broken in, the I don’t know, the sauerkraut that is being fermented. I’m sitting in this Starbucks, honing myself, and everyone is cool with it. What I am writing is me, the factory of stories, and the story is an incidental part of that.

For me, this helps get over a silly but natural focus on the idea of an ouevre, a body of work that represents me in some way. But if I think back to stuff I wrote five years ago, I feel basically no connection with it. Instead, the question is just, can I do this better next time, with a better idea, with better taste.

Of course at the end of that I go and submit a story, but that’s a totally separate process.

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I knew about kintsugi, and I hate to admit that I thought about its mention on the latest Ted Lasso episode when I starting reading The "Ceramic Pot" First Draft.

Maybe another way to think about revising and fixing.

. . . from Wikipedia

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, "golden joinery"), also known as kintsukuroi (金繕い, "golden repair"),[1] is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum; the method is similar to the maki-e technique.

As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

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This is incredible, I just finished a draft on this very idea, about the weirdness and precarity of the first draft. I haven't published it yet but plan to in the next day or two(there have been many, many rounds of revisions) but my takeaway was that we do have a tendency to overestimate our own work. That isn't to say your work is bad, nor mine, but that a form of confirmation bias is actually at play. However, I love George's point that if the first draft makes the writer happy, and is well received by the read, then who cares!!!

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