Over Writing

There ought to be a word for it in German. Something without a direct translation. Something like “zietwertlos.” It’s a word for that feeling of worthlessness you get when you know you’ve created something bad, but you can’t seem to fix it. It’s different than simple lack of confidence, because your assessment of the work is accurate. You haven’t allowed low self-esteem to convince you that what you made is awful, it actually is.

This happened when I tried to write about the days I spent in Ithaca last year. The post was massive – over 2,000 words. I tried to break it up into three parts with marginal success. I tried editing. I edited it over and over again. I took out 600 words. I added 200 back in. I moved paragraphs around. I pulled some points to the end that were in the beginning. I took out the slow parts. I added them back in. I gave myself time. I gave myself way more time than usual. But the piece was over-worked. It was the kind of thing that gets you kicked off Project Runway.

It was especially disappointing because I had a wonderful time in Ithaca. I hung-out with fun people and had great experiences. I felt as though I’d let down the people I met there by not being able to write an interesting story about them. They were, after all, just as interesting as any of the other folks I encountered along the way. But I couldn’t seem to muster anything more than a long list of declarative sentences that came to no conclusion.

Eventually I decided to scrap the entire thing and start from scratch. Rather than trying to make it into a cohesive whole, rather than trying to explain each instance, I just wrote down the good parts. They were devoid of context, containing only what was necessary. And it worked. I realized that I’d been guilty of the thing I hate most in storytelling: abundant clarity. I don’t enjoy having everything laid out. I would rather walk out of a movie with questions than answers. There’s a reason we seldom watch characters while eating or driving or going to the bathroom. It’s boring.

I watched the latest Thor movie recently, and realized midway through that the subtitles for the evil elves had accidentally been turned off. Rather than turn them back on, I watched the whole movie without them. It was great. The elves were mysterious. I knew they were planning things but I didn’t know what. It left me guessing rather than guiding me through all of their precise evil schemes. As a side-effect I felt more sympathy for the heroes. Like me, they had no idea what was coming next.

As writers sometimes we’re so worried about being understood that we forget how much our audience will figure out on their own. No one cares how you get to Ithaca, they just want to know what happens once you arrive.