The Terror Gap (for Beginning Artists)

It’s a gap that causes terror, not a gap made of terror, nor one related to terrorism.

“The Terror Gap” is the term I recently thought of that, for me at least, captures a particular feeling I get as a writer. 

Often, when I think about a piece I’m working on – or even one that I haven’t started working on, but is just in my head – I compare it to other works I’ve seen onstage (or in print, or in whatever medium).

I think about those works, and how they are good (especially in final form, performed by great actors or bound in classy books).  They’re so much better than mine!  My works, the ones I’m in the middle of – when I think through to their completion, and imagine them onstage, they’re awkward.  They’re pretentious and overcomplicated.  They’re amateurish.  They’re just plain bad, in comparison.

The thing is, of course – I’m right.

My works in progress are bad.  They’re bad in comparison to those finished works – not just the works of the Greats, but even the works of colleagues and peers.

They’re bad because they’re in progress. 

As I’ve discussed before in my post on “preconceptions of revisability”, it’s been said that:

Good books are not written – they’re rewritten. 
attributed to Michael Crichton

 This is where the terror comes in.

It’s hard for me to see the “bad” works which lurk “underneath” the good works I’ve seen – no matter how much I understand intellectually that those unrevised, awkward, pretentious, amateurish beginnings were there, I can’t imagine them.  The quality of the finished product seems so far away from the first draft I’m hammering at and I’ve heard too much about True Born Artists who just knock out Perfect Masterpieces without so much as a backspace or cross-out.  Sure, maybe Eliot’s opus The Waste Land was extensively revised, but those revisions seemed to have merely taken Extremely Good Stuff That I Could Never Achieve and turned them into Totally Perfect Stuff That I Still Could Never Achieve. 

So when I look at/think about my early-draft works in progress, and consider them in light of those good finished works, I can only conclude that I’m a bad writer, and I’m deluded if I think I can turn this early-draft crap into gold.  That’s the terror: the terror that I can never bridge the gap, and this whole being-a-writer dream is so much puff and smoke and false hope.

This is sort of the flip side of the pressure I described in that Preconceptions of Revisability post: whereas what I talked about there was how producers, publishers and other artistic gatekeepers have a hard time giving a novice writer like myself a chance because they don’t see how my early-draft work can be brought up to the quality of the good, final work they’ve seen – my revision abilities being unproven – the Terror Gap is that same perception, except coming from inside me. 

But it’s not just that external pressure internalized.  It also comes from having some real, confident skill as a writer.

If I have any solid opinions about what makes writing good, and feel that I have anything approaching some expertise beyond that of any random shmuck on how to write, this means I can tell, specifically, what makes my early-draft writing not good, and what makes the final stuff I’ve seen – and the good early-draft stuff I’ve seen, like Eliot’s – good.  It’s not just some vague, low-self-esteem-y feeling of “oh man, they’re so awesome, I’ll never be that.”  It’s an actual concrete appraisal.  I know enough about writing to know how far short my early-draft work is falling of the good-enough-for-the-public ideal.  I know enough about writing to know that, while some of the achievements of the good writers are theoretically within my reach should I keep revising my work – some better dialogue here, a sharper plot there – a lot of the elements that I identify as good within their work are, finally and certainly, elements that I know I could never achieve.  I know enough about the writing process in general, and my own process, to know I’d never come up with “April is the cruellest month…” or any of its equivalents in the whole kingdoms of fiction, drama or screenwriting.  The leaps required to reach such heights are not within my agility.

So, again, the terror.

In order to write – to keep writing – or to start writing anything I’m dreaming up, I have to cross that gap.  Every time.  Every single time, pretty much.  It’s a black chasm of meaninglessness and mediocrity, containing nothing but the echo of Salieri’s absolution.  What I need is to see the Land of Achievement beyond it, and believe myself capable of making that crossing, of being able to build a bridge of my own work from the Land of Early-Draft Crap all the way over.  If that seems impossible, then how can I even venture to begin?  All I’ll do is make my way partway out and then fall in.  Better to stay here on the safe side, with nothing written.  At least over here, I can still dream it to be theoretically possible that I’ll one day make it across.  Whereas if I fall in, it’s all over.

I doubt I’m alone in this (although I may be alone in conjuring such an awkward metaphor for the feeling), so I wonder how many would-be writers out there are stuck, forever one of those “oh I’ve been working on a novel for the past two decades”-types, because of this terror that if they should finish they will have to face the fact that they may be mediocre.  (And they probably are, by the very definition of “mediocre.”) 

I think it would be wonderful if the great writers out there would share more of their early, horrible drafts, particularly of their really great works, not just their juvenilia.  It would mean a lot to me, I know, if, say, Tony Kushner shared early drafts of Angels in America that were overwrought, incomprehensible, boring dribble full of flat characters and unfunny comedy, or if the screenwriters of the modern Pixar classics shared early drafts of their screenplays that were all cliché, stereotype and deadend plot twists, or so on.  If I could believe that great work could be developed out of an early draft by a sort of war of attrition with the crap that fills it, then I could believe that the terror gap is illusory.  That maybe it’s all fears and nothing real, and that the landscape between Crap and Achievement can be crossed just through continuous hard work, and doesn’t require some superhuman ability.  That would be nice, and I sure would get a lot more writing done.



  1. […] Ideas, So Little Time A Writer’s Motivations: Would I Be A Better Person Just Doing Charity? The Terror Gap (for Beginning Artists) A Writer’s Motivations: Preconceptions […]

  2. Anonymous · · Reply

    Why do you claim that progress is bad? Isn’t progress good?

  3. Anonymous · · Reply

    I never liked any terror gap.

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