I finished reading the book. I laid back and I stared the ceiling and I smiled.
It’s all going to come together, I thought. I do not know how. I do not know when. But somehow, sometime, I’m going to make something I can be proud of.
And that was enough.
Over the last decade or so, a handful of books have appeared in my life at the perfect moment and given me a swift kick up the arse. Tyler Cowen, by way of Ryan Holiday, calls these books “quake” books, for they shake you to your core. One of my quake books was consumed in a single sitting early one morning in a friend’s bedroom in Rome. The writer was Steven Pressfield and the book was “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.”
I wasn’t an au-pair any more. And other than being newly in love with Emma, my life had no direction. Oh, I knew where I wanted it to go: I wanted to write. I wanted to write songs. I wanted to write stories. I even wanted to write non-fiction to help and inspire people. But the shameful truth was that even with all the time I had on my hands, I wasn’t. Most of the time I wasn’t even trying. And on the increasingly rare occasion I mustered the courage to try, the disappointing fruits of my labour made me regret bothering.
So when I heard that Steve had a new book coming out, I was really excited. Not only was I was desperate for advice, I was and still am a huge fan – I’ve lapped up his War of Art, Do the Work, Turning Pro, The Warrior Ethos and The Authentic Swing, and as of this moment in time have read each one at least a dozen times.
But then I heard the title of his new book and immediately got depressed. “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.” Well, duh, I thought. Tell me something I don’t know. The last thing I wanted was yet another voice competing with the ones already in my head telling me night and day that everything I try and create is a bag of wank and it always be and that’s just the way life is so suck it up and get a job you hate like a normal person…
I almost didn’t bother reading the book. Of course, the second I started it I realised just how incorrectly I had interpreted the title of the book. Because the book has a subtitle. It’s really:
“Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It.“
You see, the mistake I’d made – not my first, won’t be my last – was taking the title of the book personally. I presumed that the “shit” in the title referred to everything I had ever or would ever create – my past, my present, my future. Nobody wants to read my shit. Of course they don’t – I don’t want to, and I’m the one writing it!
But Thank Christ that’s not what it meant at all.
The “shit” in the title refers in fact to the stuff you as a creator make on your way to making the brilliant and unique work you are more than capable of making. The work in its unfinished, embryonic form. Nobody wants to read, or listen to, or watch, or experience that. And can you blame them? There’s a reason screenplays get drafted and redrafted before they’re made into movies. There’s a reason The Beatles took over 700 hours to record Sgt Pepper before they thought it was ready. And there’s a reason it took Steven Pressfield himself over 30 years of trying to get his first novel published.
What comes out of you when you first start out is just raw inspiration. It’s not yet art. To become art, it requires molding. It requires time. It requires taste. It requires patience. Leave out those things, and all that you will have to show people will be your “shit” and as we’ve made abundantly clear, nobody wants to read that.
So if they don’t want to read your “shit”, what do they want? They want your “work.” Your finished work. That you have sweated over. That you have cared enough about to write and rewrite and rewrite again. That you have held up to the light, asking “Is this as good as it can be?” before going back to the drawing board until you can honestly answer “yes.”
To be clear, this is not to advocate perfectionism. Your work will never be perfect. But it needn’t be. What this is about is the enormous difference between just tossing something off and beating yourself up because nobody seems to like it, and really putting in the hours to make something special, no matter how imperfect the final result.
As you can tell, I found the book incredibly inspiring, and every time I reread it something new jumps out at me. Give it a look. You won’t be disappointed. I’ll leave you with an extract from Chapter 4.
“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You realize that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates her time and attention, which are extremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give her something worthy of her gift to you.
“When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire the skill that is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs—the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every phrase and every sentence: Is this interesting? Is it fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is he bored? Is he following where I want to lead him?”Steven Pressfield – “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit”