Bad reasons not to write

Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.
Salvador Dali

Would that I knew the context of this line, found in many quotation lists. In isolation it’s a good thought, enough so that I’m willing to risk ripping it out of context thus:

I happen to be (gasp!) over fifty. That in itself is no scandal: so is Robert Silverberg. So is Harlan Ellison. So is Ursula K. LeGuin. And so forth, and so on. What is regrettable is that my creative output isn’t even a bare fraction of theirs. And why is this? Because for the longest time I refused to write anything, convinced that whatever I did was either (a) “too much like …” or (b — et pardonnez-moi mon français) crap.

The first one we can dispense with right away. One of Isaac Asimov’s introductions in his collection The Rest of the Robots opens with the words, “Before I was a writer, I was a proto-writer.” That is to say, when he was a kid, he told stories orally to his friends — stories that had actually been written by other writers (a favorite, if I remember right, was originally by Clifford D. Simak; I bet it was a humdinger).1 Eventually he included some of his own compositions in the mix, and knew he was on to something when a friend insisted on borrowing “that” book (which didn’t exist). If you want a magisterial precedent, that should do. If you want a fictional illustration, consider Orson Scott Card’s “Unaccompanied Sonata,” in which would-be composers are carefully isolated from all musical influences lest their work be derivative — with the result that they actually produce little of real power.

Or consider Ecclesiastes 1:9 —

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

The Preacher knew that there isn’t anything we humans can make that doesn’t have a precedent somewhere. Tolkien said it another way, calling himself and other writers “sub-creators”; there is only one true Creator, and all we can do is rearrange and build on what he has created.

Finally, consider Dali’s statement quoted above. If you’re afraid you’ll be imitating someone else, your output will be zilch. Hear the Preacher again: intentionally or not, you will be drawing on what has come before.

So if you would write, give yourself permission to be derivative. And if you find that what you’ve written (once you’ve finished it, mind you) is too derivative, edging on plagiarism, only then should you throw it out. But even then it might still be salvageable.

The second argument may be harder — but is even simpler — to overcome. The plain truth is that everyone, at some time in their life, writes crap. Those who sell their very first story, like Robert A. Heinlein, are a small minority; and many there be who will tell you that Heinlein wrote his share of fertilizer. I’m even told that the average writer produces somewhere around a hundred thousand words of rubbish before getting to the point where his or her stuff is considered good, and that most novelists have at least one novel that went directly “into the trunk.” (Hemingway even went so far as to destroy his first novel, an act for which scholars everywhere would have cheerfully hanged him by his thumbs.)

So if you would write, give yourself permission to write crap. Theodore Sturgeon once announced that nine-tenths of everything — science fiction included — falls into that category; if you don’t like what you’ve written (once you’ve finished it) you know that you’re just working through your personal nine-to-one noise/signal ratio. And keep writing.2

Me, I’m now endeavoring to be a late bloomer. Which no doubt will involve a lot of fertilizer.


I’ve got to read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life — it’s turning up in too many sources I respect. It not only affirms the above advice on Bad Reason #2, it applies that advice to everything a writer produces. The first draft of anything, Lamott says, is going to be crap. Accept it, assume it even, and write on — without repeat without stopping to edit — because it’s a prerequisite for the superb final draft. See discussions by Debbie Weil and Merlin at 43 Folders. Merlin brings up Lamott with reference to some similar comments by Sven Bonnichsen about producing art.

post-postscripted epigraph

And so, by giving myself permission to fail, I was able to begin.
James Patrick Kelly


  1. Holy smoke! The Good Doctor himself once told other people’s stories?! *Whew* I feel better for my early stuff having been derivative. [return ↩ ]
  2. J. Michael Straczynski told a story some years ago about how, as a young screenwriter who had thus far failed to sell anything, he once telephoned Harlan Ellison to ask his advice. Ellison’s response: “Your work is crap! Stop writing crap!” Straczynski did, and produced, among other things, Babylon 5 and some excellent graphic novels and comics. I submit that this story is not an exception to the above rule, for not only had Straczynski by that time already written his “trunk” pieces, what is more important is that he kept at it. He didn’t stop writing; he merely stopped writing crap. (But ask him sometime if he has never written any crap since, and let me know what he says.) [return ↩ ]
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