"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Saturday, June 15, 2013

On Expectation vs. Reality

Photo Spread: Ms. Butterfly on Tumblr. Movie: 500 Days of Summer

If anyone knows the feeling that reality never lives up to our expectations, it's writers. We rely on our imaginations to give us story ideas and interesting characters and plot twists, so it's no surprise that we also spend inordinate amounts of time imagining just how great our stories are going to be once they get on the page. Or at least, I do. It's writers who must deal with the constant disappointment of not having the words on the page come even close to the potential the story held when it was just in our heads.

I was talking to my mom about this the other day, and she said something which I thought made a lot of sense. When you think about it, the story in your head doesn't really matter. Sure, that idea is the catalyst for what you put on the page, but its importance pretty much stops there. After that, all that matters is the real story. That's the story that will be worked on and labored over. That's the story that will go through actual critiques and have actual readers. What's the good of clinging to what your story could have been when you have the real one right in front of you?

Of course you can tell yourself this all you want and it won't make up for the fact that the real story will never be as good as the imagined one. But maybe we should stop putting so much emphasis on the imagined story. Maybe we should shelve it in the backs of our minds once it's given us that first spark of inspiration and focus on the task at hand, which is learning to appreciate the real story, and the work that goes into it, even though it will never be the same as the one in our heads. This is all easier said than done. Still, I think it's worth a try. As Maureen Johnson puts it: Dare to suck. I'd also add: Dare to embrace reality. Even if it sucks. A lot.

If this post was helpful or confusing or you have more thoughts on this subject, don't hesitate to leave comment!


  1. After writing for awhile, now, I still sometimes think, "I love what's in my head." But your mom is right: that doesn't matter. We can make what's in our head perfect because it's in a bubble. There's no real effort that goes into knowing enough about a story and idealizing it in one's mind. It doesn't take hours and days and even--at times--years to make that idea in our heads real. So I think about this perfect thing in my head and idealize it sometimes. Still.

    But in the act of actually putting the story down come the moments I never expected that make me leap up from my chair and think, "I just wrote that!" I can look at any of the manuscripts I've finished and see things I'll always want to change, but I'll also say this: the perfect in my head is never as good as those surprise moments when I pull something off that I didn't know I was capable of doing.

  2. I need to stop getting all the credit here . . I think what really happened is that I said something mundane and Laura's wonderful old soul brain interpreted my ramblings into the insightful stuff on the blog.
    to Chris --> I am a graphic artist, not a writer and I find often that once I actually start physically doing something - better ideas start flowing - those surprise moments.