A common bit of aspirational advice given to authors is "Write the book you want to read." It's one I've followed myself ever since I started doing this halfway seriously. Sometimes I'd encounter an idea I thought hadn't been explored properly, or wondered why a book about X didn't exist. The next step from there was obvious.
What I always wonder about is how this advice is taken by people who have all the aspiration, but none of the chops. What if you want, desperately, to write the book you want to read, but just plain don't know how?
The first four or five books I wrote aren't featured here on this site, for two reasons: I either don't have the manuscripts anymore, or they were just plain terrible and aren't worth the bother. In some cases the former was due to the latter. In each case I knew I was trying to write something I wanted to see on a shelf, even if it wasn't anyone else's shelf but mine. The hard part was actually producing something that lived up to the aspiration.
It took time for me to understand how that aspiration by itself alone was not enough. It wasn't enough to simply want it to happen, and not even enough to let that wanting fuel my writing of it. I had to go and look at what I'd finished and say "Okay, where do we go from here?" — to treat each finished work not as a finished work, but as one of many markers in a continuum. There was, and will be, always room for improvement, and I knew if I took this seriously I couldn't afford to simply rise to the level of an enthusiastic amateur and get stuck there. My own limits had to be tested, not once but with each time I wrote THE END.
No prizes for guessing a lot of people find that kind of self-appraisal — shilling for self-dissection — scary as hell. Well, why wouldn't they? It's no fun to pour heart and soul into something, only to turn around and tear it to pieces looking for things to learn from. But the real value of the work you finish isn't in the completed product alone, anyway; it's in the steps taken while making it happen. If one can see each work is part of a conversation and not just a thing unto itself, the struggle as a whole becomes far clearer. What sense is there in doing this stuff without pushing yourself? (And, again, I say this as someone whose current work probably still stinks, albeit in a manner wholly distinct from my previous stinkage.)
The problem is, we have too many ways to reward mediocrity. It's too easy to produce something that makes a few people tell you "That was good!", and then construe that as evidence of success. I wrestle with this one constantly, because the fact that the likes of Dan Brown and E.L. James make tons of bank is not proof that in obscurity lies true success. Contrarianism is not wisdom.
That said, don't think of this as an argument in favor of continuing beatings to improve morale; you're never going to make people climb out of their own ruts by kicking them yourself. The most you can do is give them arenas in which they find the incentives to outperform themselves.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind