One of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer is that, no matter how much you try, no matter how much time you spend reworking and rethinking, sometimes a piece just doesn’t work.
It doesn’t happen often. Usually, a piece of writing is something that I will chip away at, gradually, over hours and across several days, constantly tweaking and despising every word of it until, suddenly, something will click and the “shape” of the piece reveals itself. Sometimes, when my head is particularly chaotic, I’ll have to write a piece like a jigsaw puzzle: in little paragraphs I can piece together later. Often, I can’t start a piece until I know my opening and final lines.
Very rarely, such as this essay on writers being scared, the words will quite literally fall out of me in a frenzied couple of hours, requiring very little editing at all.
Last night however, after spending hours over several evenings writing an essay for this newsletter, I deleted the entire thing.
It was about the minefield of cultural criticism. I’d been to see two films – gorgeously shot and pacy psychological thriller Don’t Worry Darling, cleverly caustic satire of the super rich Triangle of Sadness – and loved both of them. But having then waded through several reviews and viral Twitter threads after each screening, my thoughts were scrambled. Triangle of Sadness was described by one critic as a “blunt and smug satire of class and capitalism” while DWD was ripped to shreds for its “problematic” sex scenes and being “enamoured” by its own aesthetic.
The reviews were valid and compelling, and I felt guilty for having enjoyed them without having considered these flaws. Yet I was also irritated by the internet’s relentless over-intellectualisation of entertainment and the potential for loud online discourse to flatten individual thought, and wanted to write something about it.
Walking to meet a friend on Saturday afternoon, my head became so full of ideas and anecdotes that I could use to make my point that I started furiously writing on my notes app, continuing to type them out while jogging uphill to get to the pub on time. Happily, I thought the piece would write itself.
But the argument wasn’t yielding and I ended up tying myself into knots, over-egging my opinions to make a point, and turning what had been a mild irritation into a full-blown tirade on the state of modern cultural criticism. Twelve hundred words later, I read the piece back and thought: do I actually think this? It felt like I was writing something for content’s sake – sometimes an opinion or a thought is just that, and not a two-page essay.
I’d never voluntarily deleted a piece before, but I’ve had two pieces “spiked”. The first was an interview with a 19-year-old sugar baby who was using the money she got from sex with older men to fund her time at university. I’d written a 2000-word, fascinating and bracingly candid interview but as soon as my boss heard she had unprocessed mental health issues he killed it, saying she might come to regret it. I was 21 years old and devastated that one of my first big print magazine pieces that I’d spent so much time on was going in the bin, but almost a decade later, I couldn’t be more relieved.
The second was an interview with a horror film director for a newspaper. I thought his film was crap, and, despite having been perfectly pleasant to him over the phone, thoroughly rinsed him in the write up. My editor winced as he read it, telling me it was “a bit much”, before quietly leaving the article in drafts in our company CMS. I was mortified for days, but the following week re-read the interview and found it mean-spirited, charmless and not in the least bit clever. I’d written it quickly and without thought, simply to meet a deadline, using sarcasm to make points I didn’t really believe in. Thank God it never saw the light of day.
The issue with writing in the age of the internet is that nothing can be retrieved once you hit the publish button, even if you delete it at source. Becoming a writer at the age of 22, my hundreds of bylines from across the last 10 years are now time capsules for different selves. It’s unnerving to think these will be floating online forever, rather than kept hidden in an inky diary at the bottom of a drawer. Now, when I write I try to think carefully about what opinions I will stand by in the next five, 10 years, and what private experiences I won’t regret sharing. I know many writers who already regret a lot.
Writing simply to fill your “content quota” is a pressure I can imagine many writers come up against when trying to build a newsletter following or to earn a living through journalism. And many writers cannot afford to skip a week when inspiration fails. But sometimes the best thing to do is to write, delete, and start again.
This week in links
I’ve been reading about Effective Altruism. It’s not something I was hugely familiar with until I read this excellent New Yorker profile of Will MacAskill, who limits his personal income to $26,000 a year and gives everything else away. He believes in “earning to give”, suggesting that going into a highly lucrative career such as finance in a developed country and donating most of your salary is much more efficient than working a “socially good” job in a poor country. But Effective Altruists have been criticised for their utilitarianism, and “acting as though they are above such structural issues as racism and colonialism”. It’s fascinating, have a read.
I’ve been watching the best-written show of the year, The Bear, which hits Disney Plus this weekend and is bound to scoop up handfuls of Emmys and appeal to anyone who loved Boiling Point. It’s about a top chef, Carmen, who comes to rescue his late brother Michael’s Chicago sandwich shop: a chaotic, bankrupt joint run by a group of stubborn cooks resistant to change – and hierarchy. It’s a wonderfully funny, big-hearted show with fully fleshed characters, superb acting, beautiful food and mercifully short episodes. Breakout star Ayo Edebiri is one to watch.
I’ve been commissioning James Balmont on the history of Korean culture, to mark a big new exhibition at the V&A which traces the explosion of post-war Korean culture back to the Seoul Olympics of 1987. K-pop and K-dramas are now picking up major awards and shattering records, while the £684.6m industry of ‘webtoons’ are set to be Korean culture’s next chapter.
I can’t stop thinking about cosmetic leg lengthening. Not because I want it (I’m apparently tall for a woman, at five-foot-seven), but because I read this excellent GQ piece about the rich men who are paying a fortune for the procedure to lengthen their femurs and tibias by up to six inches, which, I learned the hard way, should not be read about over lunchtime. It’s also a very insightful (and at times quite moving) look at why society fetishises height, and the mental health implications for shorter men.
A final recommendation is a Substack I just subscribed to: Black Row by Amy Odell, who writes deeply informed, sharp analysis of celebrity, media and fashion, like this excellent piece on Dolce & Gabbana’s rocky relationship with celebrity and why Kim K’s new Gabbana show is pure marketing.
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Wow - I found myself nodding my head throughout this piece. I have noticed this pattern really shows up for me more in the cases of talking about other forms of creations. I always feel that internal struggle of not wanting to read a damn thing about it so I'm not influenced but simultaneously desperate to know if anyone feels the same way I do. Inevitably, this always leads to disappointment that while some people may in fact share my feelings about the creation, most do not. This almost always leads to the "killing" of a piece I planned to write. I haven't ever been able to articulate it but I think your piece just did it for me.
This really resonated with me for several reasons. I liked how you mentioned writing small paragraphs then connecting them as that's how I often did essays in college to make sure I covered whatever the required sections/questions were for the essay. I also liked how you mentioned seeing a movie and then seeing discourse about it and not having an issue (or maybe even an opinion) on something others had a lot to say about. I feel like that connects to the concept of people just talking down on literally everything that comes out. On a positive note, I always like to hear about writers heading to their notes app to jot down something whenever it hits them because I feel like that's something we all do :)