Why Even Try?

Yesterday I was on the phone with my current ghostwriting client, talking about questions that had come in from her audience about her new book.

There were lots of same-same questions for her, since she’s a bad-ass and everyone wants to know the secret sauce…

“Where do you get rich clients? How do you charge millions of dollars? Can I work for you?”

But amongst all the chaff, there were a few golden threads I wanted very badly to pull.

My favourite was from a young writer who wanted to volunteer his services to a non-profit he is passionate about.

He had joined their mailing list and become a supporting member to make sure he was seeing all their communications, and he had even put together a list of resources he thought would help them go further in their marketing…

But he had given up. He had stopped short of actually asking for a project.

His sadness and confusion about that bled through in the last line of his email…

“How can I compete with writers who are THAT GOOD? Why even try, when what they have is already great?”

Why even try?

I have to confess that I’ve thought this many times myself. I think most writers do.

Why, when [insert writing idol here] does it so much better than I’ll ever be able to?

Why, when trying just highlights all the ways I’m not good enough?

Well, NPR host and renowned journalist Ira Glass put it like this in his now-immortal riff on ‘The Gap’:

(You can watch this as a short film here if you prefer)

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, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really 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, you know what I mean?

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 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 what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to 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 can 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 are 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, okay?

I first read this piece a few years ago and I come back to it again and again, especially when I’m feeling discouraged about how my own work is going.

It makes me feel better to be reminded that I do have good taste, and that, as ever, the answer is to keep at it.

It’s easy to be distracted and discouraged by the accomplishments of others, and to discount your own gifts in comparison.

But comparison is the thief of joy.

No great work can be done when you allow yourself to be robbed of the joy that drives your creativity forward.

I want to remind you, and that disheartened young man, that it’s OK if your skills don’t quite live up to your taste just yet.

Remember, if you’re stuck, that the answer is not to give up, or to allow yourself to stop when ‘why even try’ seeps into your psyche.

The answer is to give yourself a deadline, and get to work.