Why we should publish and be damned

Publish and be damned? What libellous tomfoolery is she on about now, I hear you cry.

Well, let me take you back aways to a time ‘before the internet’ and a personal story to help illustrate my point.

Years ago I was visiting my best friend who had moved to Denmark when we were ten. I was 16 at the time and riddled with a self-conscious awareness of the vast ocean of discrepancy between the beautiful thoughts in my head and the ham-fisted way I seemed to arrange words on a page.

Embarrassed Peek

Nowhere was this more true than in letter-writing to my best friend. She, on the other hand, would send me beautiful pages of script, detailing beach parties she had attended, holidays she was going on, her views on key political and human rights issues of the day and so on. Despite my clear lack of aptitude for saying anything worth reading, during this trip, my friend revealed she had a whole drawer full of letters I had sent her over the past six years. I was touched and horror-struck in equal measure.

I allowed myself an embarrassed peek at one or two and then pushed the drawer shut. “There are so many more I never finished,” I confessed, internally I think justifying to myself that these unsent missives were likely the truly brilliant ones, far better than the ones she had received.  I was roused from my naval gazing by her simple and sincere response: “You should have just sent them. I would have loved to read them, finished or not.”

I was astounded at the thought that despite the awfulness of the content I was sending, here was a human being who wanted those words anyway.

It was a revelation. ‘Just send the damn letter,’ became something of a motto for me from then on. For a few years at least until the advent of email, which is a whole other story.

Kernel of perfectionism

What does a story from the last century about letter writing between friends have to do with your writing (and publishing, and being damned) you may be asking…

Working with writers, I have over the years come across a startlingly similar phenomenon to my letter-writing process. It doesn’t look the same in everyone and there are varying degrees of self-awareness. But that core kernel of perfectionism, of not wanting to publish (send) content, or finish writing a piece, or even for some people, of wanting to take down earlier content that they now deem embarrassing, all stems from this same sensation of discomfort with what is on the page vs in the mind. There is for so many of us often a fear that was is written is not ‘good enough’ or in some way misrepresents who we are.

Write it or lose it

There’s also the passage of time. When we write it is an act that belongs entirely to the present. It belongs to who we are this hot, sticky, grey June day, with a dog farting on her bed beside us. How we’ll feel about what we have written tomorrow will have tomorrow’s sticky fingerprints all over it. And how we’d write on that same subject next week or next month and definitely next year will have again an entirely different DNA. The point is that the story that moves within us also moves on.

The point is that the story that moves within us also moves on.

Maybe you don’t have a pressing deadline, a specific schedule to meet. There’s no editor knocking on your door for overdue copy. And it’s hard to imagine that your best friend who lives a thousand miles away from you in Henne Strand actually cares whether there’s a letter heading towards her from you. All of which makes procrastinating, hanging on to the few lines you currently have a bit longer, waiting till you have more time to work on it, to polish it, to get it just right a seemingly easier option. BUT what we rarely recognise is how the story itself changes.

Everything Changes

The letter that you started to write before you went on the trip to the planetarium now needs a fairly boring-to-write (and to read) paragraph explaining that you’ve been on the trip. You are now picking it up from a new future point in which what you can say about the planetarium is entirely different. That your views and points you were going to share would probably have headed off down a different route is automatically discounted by your brain which now believes you have ‘better’ information. So you write a bit more (and these days probably delete the first section because it’s not handwritten) and still don’t quite manage to finish. THEN you go to a talk given by Tim Peake about the European Space Station which has just frankly blown your mind and reframes your entire understanding about that trip you had to the planetarium.

You get my point.

Everything we do changes what we have to say about the world. Probably not that massively but enough for our brains to undermine and undervalue our earlier opinions.

What readers love

And yet. Imagine you are the friend in Denmark. Wouldn’t you have enjoyed reading about how excited your friend was to be going on the trip to the planetarium? Wouldn’t you have loved to hear about what books she was reading in preparation and what she was most looking forward to? And then, wouldn’t you also have enjoyed hearing about the coach trip, how she’d embarrassingly agreed to sit with a boy from her class, and it was a kind of date, and her so-called friends were really annoying and kept asking stupid questions about which member of New Kids on the Block she liked best, and how the whole thing was an aggravating distraction from the fact she really wanted to know more about planets and stars and constellations.

And then wouldn’t you have loved a third letter (spun heavily into the future now! Ha) where she shared her reaction to Tim’s presentation? How her whole understanding of the universe had shifted. How suddenly she realised when she was looking out into the clear night sky, she was looking at an uncountable number of suns scattered across an uncountable distance, and how suddenly life elsewhere in the universe seemed inevitable in a whole new way. Three letters. Not one. That’s what readers love.

As readers, we go on a journey with our writers. We want to learn what they learn when they learn it. Their growth, their change in perception, understanding, belief, that becomes our guide, helps us to navigate a subject and to do so at a pace at which life is lived. No one is looking for you to have all the answers (and if they are, that’s again a whole other issue!). They want to know what it is like to be you, to have the experiences you are having at the moment, to be able to assimilate the distance between your experience and theirs in a new, fresh way in the aftermath of reading your words.

The writing season

In the main, I’m talking here about short-form content, about articles and blog posts, though the same is true of short stories, plays and novels. Both Stephen King and Elizabeth Gilbert speak to this need to write like hell for a season till the thing is done and then get it out there. King talks literally about writing the first draft of a novel in three months, the length of a season, or for him the story goes ‘stale’. Gilbert talks of stories as having a life of their own, that it is the story choosing to be told through you. Monkey around with getting it down on the page, she says, and said story will go find some other more willing participant to help it express itself.

Why not publish, and be damned?

Whatever you are writing, find a way to get your words out. We live in truly extraordinary times. We can all be our own editors and publishers these days. Start a blog, post something to your favourite social channel, use Medium or Substack or whatever writing means you like. Self-publish – you can do it via Amazon for the cost only of your time in setting up the account and adding the content (not that I’m underestimating the amount of time it takes by the way). Write it in play form, a monologue, or write a poem. There are heaps of online poetry communities and online or real-life open mike nights. The world needs YOUR words, YOUR stories, YOUR perception as it exists today. They don’t need perfect, they need human.

So how about it? Why not publish, and be damned?

Image Credit: Nick Fewings Unsplash

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2 thoughts on “Why we should publish and be damned

  1. Everything changes. You are so spot on with this point. By not allowing personal writing or that of a character evolve over time we can lose a great story. I personally think I have to have it all now. I need to understand and be perfect in every detail. I also appreciate the Write it or Lose it. Your demonstration on the letter writing is indeed exactly what is required. Just write the damn thing even if perceptions change over time. The story at the moment could be interesting. If one continues to write the development of perception can be interesting in and of itself. However, exposing that writing is a big hurdle even if technology has allowed it to be easier.

    1. I’m so glad this resonated! Equally, your point about how challenging exposing and sharing our writing can be even if it is simpler today is absolutely spot on. There are few things that make us squirm and feel quite so vulnerable as publishing our writing in any form and it’s important that we’re gentle with ourselves in approaching and surmounting that hurdle for sure xx

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