Fill a Bag with Garbage: A Creative Principle That Every Aspiring Writer Should Know

Without a doubt, the single most important thing I learned in digital media design school was this principle: some of the things I create are going to be crap.

Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those lessons I had to learn for myself. If it was, I might have given up long before I learned it. Fortunately, my classmates and I had a design teacher who cared enough to come right out and tell us. “Not everything you design is going to be great,” he declared after taping a big plastic garbage bag to the top of the whiteboard. “Most of the things you produce won’t be worth anything to anybody. That’s just a fact. It’s also true that some of what you create will be worth a lot to somebody. Just remember that you can’t have one without the other. If you want to produce great things, you’re going to have to fill a bag with garbage.”

I don’t think it’s coincidence that the novel I began to write after receiving my digital design diploma was the first one I would actually complete. I’m sure there was more to it than just understanding the “bag of garbage” principle, but I’m equally sure that it played a huge role. The biggest killer of my creative projects, written and otherwise, has always been my own self-critical nature. I would look back over whatever I had done, realize that parts of it weren’t very good, become discouraged, and toss the entire project. It never crossed my mind to take a step back and try to figure out why the idea wasn’t working properly. I’d just assume that it wasn’t a very good idea or that I wasn’t a very good writer. The following truths were painfully foreign to me:

  1. Good writers can have bad ideas.
  2. Good ideas can be poorly executed, even by good writers.
  3. Bad ideas and good ideas can coexist within a conceptual hierarchy (e.g., a story).

All of these problems will happen at some point during the slippery, uphill slog that is the creative process. Fortunately, all of them can be overcome if we’re willing to put in the work, which is why it’s so important to understand, accept and ultimately embrace the “bag of garbage” principle. Producing a certain percentage of flawed or poorly executed ideas is not only normal, it’s necessary—an inevitable byproduct of the creative process. The difference between success and failure is not in the size of this percentage but in how we respond to it.

Some of us are overly critical of our own work. Some of us aren’t critical enough. Regardless, we’re all emotionally tied to our ideas, especially those we’ve put time and effort into developing. (We’re not prose-writing robots, after all.) Because of this, the revision process requires a degree of wisdom and lots of emotional maturity. We don’t want to toss away a promising idea because of a few setbacks, but it’s equally dangerous to cling to an idea that just won’t work. An honest critique from a trustworthy third party can be invaluable in this area (I’ll talk more about this in a future post), but the important thing to remember is this: anytime you sit down to refine a large piece of work, significant portions of what you’ve written will (not might, will) wind up going down the proverbial drain. Recognizing in advance that this would (not might, would) happen helped me overcome a huge mental roadblock and allowed my first novel to survive a few setbacks that might have otherwise killed it entirely.

The early stages of rewriting an entire book aren’t fun. Weeding out entire characters, themes or subplots that you’ve spent hours developing can be a painful process. I know this from personal experience. In the end, though, a full garbage bag means that you’ve made room for more stuff that’s not garbage, and that’s the stuff that people really want to read. Bottom line, the “garbage” is going to happen one way or the other, so get your bag ready. Best to just accept it as part of the process—or better yet, embrace it as an opportunity to grow as a writer.

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