The Gap, And How To Close It

If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about The Gap.

In fact, I can’t believe I’ve been writing every day for a month and haven’t mentioned it yet.

Years ago, my friend, artist James Jirat Patradoon, told me about an interview series Ira Glass, of NPR fame, gave to young creatives wanting to break into journalism.

Jirat loved it because it was a look behind the scenes on someone with a prolific body of work.

I loved it because it put into words the frustration I was feeling at the time: an intense desire to produce much better work than I was currently capable of.

I wanted so much to be writing at the same level as George Orwell, Joan Didion, John Vaillant. I tried and tried and everything I wrote just fell so flat.

Glass put into words that this gap between my taste and my ability was both a rite of passage and not a personal failing.

The problem was that I just didn’t have enough experience of the craft to write at that level. It wasn’t a lack of effort — I just hadn’t been writing long enough to have accumulated the skills yet.

I could see that level, understand what they were doing, but I hadn’t practised enough to be able to pull it off myself.

Glass, who has been producing amazing stories for This American Life and many other radio programs for many years, also helped me figure out how to get there.

It’s simple, really. At the time, I was like, “DUH LAURA SO OBVIOUS.”

But that’s why having coaches and mentors is important. They know what to look for and can see what you’re missing.

The key is to write a lot with the intent of having your work read.

That might be creating content for clients, or for a blog that you publicly commit to maintain, or working through a creative writing course.

Intending to have someone read your work — even if that someone is a faceless, nameless non-entity right now — changes your attitude.

If there’s no reader, you go easy on yourself. There’s no motivation to stretch yourself if you know no one is ever going to see it.

But having a reader creates a tension in your work, a sort of magnetism, that draws your work upward in pursuit of greater clarity and style.

In psychology this is known as the Hawthorne Effect. In physics it’s the Observer Effect. Same thing, different subject: people and particles change when they are under watch.

Most people adjust their behaviour — in ways both small and large — when they know someone else is watching them.

We want to be seen at out our best, and so we put in more effort than we would if we were alone.

(Do you fully close the bathroom door when no one’s home? Prepare yourself a sit-down lunch alone, instead of eating a tin of tuna over the sink? Put on a nice outfit for a solo Friday night on the couch? Come on. We all revert to being #basic when no one is watching.)

This is why the reader is so important.

The reader, maybe more than anything besides a lot of practice, will help you close The Gap between your taste and your ability.

The reader, really, holds all the cards in the relationship — if they decide to put your work aside, there’s nothing you can do to pull them back.

And so as the writer, you’re faced with a most urgent challenge: to write what the reader most wants to read, most needs to read, and that is most likely to show them some truth that reaches out and touches them.

It’s a tall order.

Rearranging the structure of a piece, finessing the words in search of ever-greater clarity — it can be maddening.

But it’s in this process that our taste and our ability eventually align.

So, for this final email of the year before I toddle off for the holidays, I’d like to invite you to find a reader.

Find someone, or choose someone, you can write to. It doesn’t matter if they actually read your work or not.

What matters is that you write, to them specifically, with all the effort and energy that their attention would deserve.

I rotate between a few specific readers in my mind. It doesn’t matter that they’re all profoundly different people, with different interests and outlooks. What matters is that their opinion is important to me, and so I strive every time to make the writing worth their while.

So find your reader, and spend the time. Acknowledge where you have a gap, and give yourself the gift of working to close it.