coping with writing’s bitter aftertaste

Ship! the gurus tell us. Everyone should ship, all the time. Always Be Shipping.

For writers, this means, essentially, share your work with the public. Early and often. Better to publish an unbaked draft, solicit feedback, and then refine that published work over time. It’s trivial to change an ebook or blog post. In this vast overwhelming digital landscape, no one pays attention to the failures and the flaws. Fail a lot in public until you succeed—then scrub all evidence of prior work and bask in the glory.

This call for what you might call permapublishing has its roots in software development. The received wisdom there is that you can’t just go into your cave and build something at your own pace—you need iteration, a feedback loop from real “customers,” or you risk creating something no one wants. Or never finishing at all. Stories abound of software projects dragging on for years in isolation only for their creators to discover on release that the world has moved on. Only by shipping, shipping, always shipping can you be sure that your aim will track with the moving target of public demand.

Traditionally published books work differently. Three or more years might pass between the moment an author decides to write a book and the day the finished product appears on a shelf. Will it arrive at the proper moment? Who knows? Not publishers, believe me—they just take credit when it happens. I certainly did.

Zeitgeist, according to Wikipedia: a concept from 18th- to 19th-century German philosophy, translated as “spirit of the age” or “spirit of the times”. It refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch in world history.

A book catching the Zeitgeist is a remarkable, utterly unpredictable thing, sort of like Sigourney Weaver making this over-the-shoulder basketball toss while filming Alien: Resurrection. (Unlike many of the authors lucky enough to score with a blind throw, Sigourney knows better than to think she’s Kobe Bryant.)

Here’s what differentiates writers from Bay Area technologists growth-hacking their way to a Google acquihire: shame. Publishing your writing takes a toll. It gets a little easier with practice—maybe?—but the bitter aftertaste of sharing your words never goes away completely. Win as many awards as you like. It doesn’t help, and there’s no amount of meditation or therapy that’ll help you side-step it. Regardless of whether you’re posting something to your blog, sending something to your mailing list, or publishing a book, expect some degree of emotional trauma, a little paper-cut on your soul.

I don’t know why we hate to acknowledge this. It’s like we’re embarrassed to admit we’re embarrassed. And yet that’s exactly what publishing is: embarrassing. You are putting yourself out there in the most intimate way, naked in front of strangers. You’re taking your own thoughts out of the warm, comfortable privacy of your mind and laying them on a platter for anyone to see. It’s going to sting.

Feel free to throw up a beta of your new iPhone app. Call it version 0.1 and people will cut you a ton of slack for bugs. The idea that you’ll blithely do this with your ideas or your story is absurd. I don’t know about you, but I need about a day to emotionally recover from sending one of these ridiculous essays, let alone publishing something deeply personal or profound.

I’m all for letting things bake and only publishing something when you’re damn good and ready. This manifesto for Slow Thought nailed it for me. Take your time with your ideas. Publishing anything, large or small, is going to take a piece out of you—make each one count. There’s no need for masochism. The way I see it, trauma is trauma. Contrary to popular wisdom, trauma doesn’t make you stronger. The less of it, the better.

When you do, finally, “ship,” give yourself a break. Go for a walk. Drink some tea. Take a nice, warm bath. Let Calgon take you away.

You’ve earned it.

p.s. Regarding last week’s essay: just kidding about home-schooling, guys. It’s a perfectly valid form of education.

p.p.s. Also regarding last week’s essay: you are a creative person. I only suggested otherwise rhetorically. Plus, creativity is a wonderful, beautiful, powerful, liberating energy and nothing to be criticized or evaluated. Break out those finger paints, guys.

p.p.p.s. I need to stop looking at reactions to the Maven Game on Twitter.

p.p.p.p.s. It often occurs to me that I should record a podcast for the Maven Game, just to provide author’s commentary. The Maven Game: An Exegetical Study. I’d spend twenty or thirty minutes each week patiently breaking down the essay line by line, explaining my jokes and references, defusing any possible misunderstandings, and generally smoothing things over for my highly sensitive subscribers. I don’t think of my content as remotely controversial and yet some people have been truly offended.

Of course, I could just take a cue from Shakespeare—his highly sensitive audience included the occasional monarch—and end with a variation on A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

PUCK
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.