Bridging the Gap Between Aspiration and Talent

My first quarter in UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Low-Residency MFA program, I studied fiction with Mary Yukari Waters. Mary said something once that was mind-blowing to me, a real lightbulb moment. Mary actually said many mind-blowing things over the course of our time working together, but this one in particular has stuck with me. Mary said it succinctly, but I can’t remember her exact words. The idea, though, was something like this:

Babies understand the meanings of words long before they can say them. It takes a long time for babies to learn how to talk, how to translate the words from their brains into actual speech that comes out of their mouths. It’s the same with writing. This is why we can imagine a brilliant story in our minds, but when we sit down to write it, it comes out all wrong. It takes a long time, years of practice, to learn how to write, to translate those brilliant stories in our minds into good writing that comes out of our pens and onto paper, so that the story reads the way we imagined it.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

This was life-changing for me as a writer. Before Mary said this, I thought there was something wrong with me–why couldn’t I get the story from my head onto paper? My story ideas seemed fantastic when I imagined them, but in written form, they were dreadful–amateurish, cliché, and contrived.  I know now it was a part of the process of my development as a writer—I was a baby writer, and I needed to learn how to communicate, how to translate my thoughts and ideas into written stories.

Wherever you go, go with all your heart. —Confucious

Ira Glass is a writer and the host of NPR’s This American Life. He famously described this gap between what is in our brains and what comes out of our pens another way, as the gap between having the ability to distinguish good writing from bad writing and actually being able to write well. Here is what Glass had to say, in its entirety, because I think it’s important for you to read this and know it to be true:

Nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish somebody had told this to me, is that all of us who do creative work, … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap. That for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. … A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point they quit. And the thing I would just like to say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting, creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. It didn’t have this special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing I want to tell you is, everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase, you gotta know, it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while. It’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that. —Ira Glass

Here is a beautiful video created by Daniel Sax featuring Glass’s words, which I urge you to read and to hear over and over again:

Keep going, writers.