Do you remember the exact moment your pet turned from kitten into cat, or from puppy into dog, or from tiny goldfish to slightly less tiny goldfish? If you’re a normal human, probably not. Our brains tend not to notice small, incremental changes that happen over a long period because we’re only fed little pieces of information each day, and struggle to put all the puzzle pieces together to create a single image of the change. The only way we really notice the complete evolution is by comparing the present to the past using photographs or some other artifact, so we can make a direct comparison between mewling kitten and meowing cat.
Your progress in writing follows the same rules. You improve slowly over the course of many sentences and paragraphs written over many hours and many days, and you rarely notice any improvement as it is happening, even if it is relatively drastic. This is partly because of the natural functions of your brain, and partly based on how we’re told progress is supposed to work.
We are taught, through school and the visible success of public figures, that progress is a linear thing, a perpetually chugging and climbing train that always moves upward and forward, upward as we scramble up the Aggro Crag of our craft and forward as we hurdle over the obstacles of life and art, American Gladiator style. It makes logical sense that every word we write, every short story and essay we finish, moves us closer to our goal of becoming excellent writers. Every hour we put towards getting better actually makes us better. Practice, in theory, has a one-to-one progress pay off.
If we graphed the idealized form of progress, the purest, sweetest form of achievementitude, it would look something like this:
Pretty simple: as time stomps ever-forward, our skill inevitably improves.
But obviously nothing in life is idealized, not even our fantasies and dreams. Writing is a roiling, boiling witches brew of different techniques and skills, all of which need to come together to create a strong, compelling narrative potion. It requires a close eye on the cauldron and balance of the various ingredients – for these purposes grammar, imagery, dialogue, creativity, and structure – to brew up a tincture that readers will pick out from the other bottles on the shelf and actually want to imbibe.
And because these skills are not perfectly synonymous with each other, because they require different, often disconnected parts of your brain, because they may come naturally or not come at all, progress is never going to be perfectly linear. We’d like to think that each thing we write is still moving us forward though, so roadblocks in certain areas are just plateaus, times when we circle the wagons to weather the dust storm until we can sally-forth once again, all pen-and-paper manifest destiny like.
If we graphed a more realistic representation of progress, it would look something like this:
A little more complicated, but still manageable: time still trudges down his path and we still get better, but we have to take some detours and hang out in some places until it’s safe (or smart) to move on.
But naivety; I know you too well. How quaint to think we’d always be improving, never slowing or staggering or falling behind! For a long time this idea, the notion that progress could never be stopped, clouded my mind like a heavy early morning fog that had yet to be burned off by the heat of the afternoon sun. I wanted – expected – everything I wrote to improve upon the last thing I wrote. I lived under the impression that every essay had to out-do the last, every short story needed to be more and more nuanced and literary, that every metaphor had to transcend mere humanity and do a fly-by buzz of the god’s palatial manor up on Olympus.
But that is as improbable as it is impossible. We are hard-wired to want to always improve, but if you obsess over what is in practice an unachievable goal, you’ll never actually write anything, stuck the underworld on the quest for unending improvement. You will write stuff that just isn’t very good. You’ll backslide, your words will fail you, you’ll have some pieces that instead of ringing out into the world with the flair and revelry of a triumphant trumpet, will slither out and drop onto the ground with an unsatisfying and sort of disgusting plop.
You’ll find that the train of climbing progress is actually a roller coaster, and at any moment the bottom might drop out, sending you screaming down the rails into a valley of meh. Sometimes you’ll write a thousand words and the only improvement is a single adjective clause tucked away in some otherwise uninspired paragraph. Sometimes you’ll have a fresh, invigorating idea that ends up ruined by your poor execution. Progress isn’t always upwards, but that’s OK. You can learn just as much from your not-so-good writing as you can from your really good writing. The point is, you’re still writing.
If we graphed the ups and downs, the cheers and jeers, the flourish and the plops of how we really grow, it would look something like this:
Now it’s looking more like a true writing process: when your dialogue is near perfect, your imagery is like, something grey or something? When your creativity is soaring, your grammar might be guttural Cro-magnon pseudo-speak and your structure might be reminiscent of a 3rd grader’s finger painting. You’re still technically improving, but sometimes only in one area, sometimes moving downwards before upwards, but still forward, as each new lesson, good or bad, teaches you something new.
This all dances around the idea that we are humans (not robots who can eat and survive on graphs alone) and our moods and wants and emotions all play into how we create. All of these skills are completely dependent on how we employ them, how we glue them down on the construction paper and arrange the colorful shapes, which is in turn dependent on our confidence.
Confidence, even using bold and headstrong people as examples, is nigh unplottable. The data for such a thing isn’t made up of numbers that can be understood by anyone in any real way. It’s like a taco made of paperback books or a cupcake baked with broccoli inside and frosted with hummus. It’s outside of our normal brain bubbles. It’s all very non-Euclidean.
But, since I’ve got this graph theme going, I tried anyway. If you added human confidence to this whole progress thing, it would look something like this:
Regardless of your actual progress, you’re constantly fighting the growth and maturity (or lack thereof) of your confidence. Each success boosts and sends the orange line twirling skyward, like a model rocket at full blast, bumped slightly off it’s trajectory. Each rejection and stream of mean comments causes the rocket (and orange line) to smash into the ground (or X-axis) at full force, trying to burrow into the ground to hide from the negativity. Confidence in your art is the one ingredient that can make or break the literary meal, as it effects every single aspect, down to how you cook it and present it to your diners.
Progress can be so intangible, so caught in the fishing nets of practice and skills and self-doubt, that we can’t even see it as it creeps into our brain. It is important to take some time to track your progress, either with spreadsheets or a notepad or an abacus or something, so that at intervals you can take a break and actually look at what you’ve accomplished and how much you’ve improved.
Progress is slow going and often painfully roundabout, and yet we’re taught to think it’s a straight arrow-shot to fame and fortune. We’re conditioned to think that achievement is positive and should be celebrated, while failure is negative and should be shunned. But that’s just silly. No one could possibly live up to the expectations of winning or succeeding at everything they do, every time they do it. And if they somehow could, via a pact with some ancient evil or a old, bored Djinn, I’d say they were actually missing out on the lessons that can be taken away from doing something wrong.
Don’t be upset if your progress slows or stop or goes backwards, or even if you can’t even see any progress for a while; that is completely natural. The only thing that will actually hurt your ultimate progression is to quit completely. If you stop writing, you stop learning – from the wins and the losses – and soon enough, your graph will be blank.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have a ton of squiggly, messed up lines that show I’ve tried, than no lines at all.