If there is one thing I wish I had known as a young writer, it’s this:
You will always suck.
Or at least that’s how it will always feel.
You have to accept that writing, especially creative writing, is tough work.
What you produce might seem tangible at first, but the delete button will be the most worn out on your keyboard.
What this means is that your best efforts will often find themselves in a dumpster.
Languages are bizarre (and beautiful) ecosystems in which a writer will frequently get lost in, and not in a nice, existential-yoga-trip way.
Sure, it will be a “self-discovery” journey of sorts, but in turn you will only become less sure of yourself.
The biggest myth in the writing world is that there is turning point. That all of a sudden you’ll transcend from mediocre to legendary.
Is having an unreachable goal necessarily a problem? Not if you can stay motivated. Then again, sometimes not even Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” is enough to get you out of a writing funk.
What’s problematic is thinking that other writers reach this transcendence.
As a young writer, you will pick up best-selling novels, flip through them, and adopt one of two positions:
If you’re lucky, you’ll be in awe of the piece and become obsessed with figuring out how to become this kind of writer.
If you have more deep-seated issues with the writing process, you’ll find a way to knock it off the best-selling pedestal.
Both responses to the success of other writers are perfectly normal, yet they both hold the potential to become a swallowing, overbearing negative force in your life.
That’s why I suggest accepting early on that you’ll never be any of these writers, if only because these other writers are already taken.
Your draft will never be perfect, even after 100 revisions.
In fact, even after publication, some writers still continue to fix their novels, refuse to re-read them, or straight-up disown them.
Can you imagine that? Working on a novel for however many months or years, only to disown your very own book after publishing it?
Hemingway used to say that he’d write 91 pages of shit to one page of masterpiece. Fitzgerald rewrote certain sections of The Great Gatsby more than 30 times.
But the point I want to drive home isn’t just that “all great writing is re-writing.” Instead, I want to capitalize on what the process of rewriting entails.
It literally means morphing or all-together discarding what you had already written, at times even with conviction.
Creating gems, masterpieces, or works of canon require a lot of failing, a lot of sucking, and an ultimate acceptance of the work as a finished product.
Paul Valéry would tell you that novels and poems are never finished, just abandoned.
That guy has been dead for over 70 years and still has a Wikipedia page (i.e. relevant).
When you’ve been exposed to your own writing for so long, especially when writing long-form pieces like novels or scripts, your own creative talent can and will saturate you.
Maybe you can commit to liking a small poem you wrote if you don’t revisit it often, but accepting that sixty thousand words you wrote are good? You’d use up a year’s worth of energy trying to cough up all that self-esteem.
And maybe that’s why some authors become arrogant, because they need to constantly convince themselves that their work is as excellent as other people say it is.
It’s what keeps the producing.
But being a prolific writer and being humble aren’t mutually exclusive.
Let me rephrase the advice I would give myself as a young writer:
You will always think you suck, and that’s okay.
Of course I’ll always suck! I will always be a worse writer today than I will be tomorrow.
There is no cure for this, but treatment does exist. The caveat is that you need to give yourself some time.
Whenever I’m working on a project that means a lot to me and the little voice inside my head is getting louder and louder, I reach into my old works folder.
I read the angst-y song lyrics I used to write as a 13-year-old.
I read the novel drafts I worked hard on at 15.
The college paper I wrote fresh out of high school.
When you’ve put enough distance between you and your writing ghosts, you’ll be able to give yourself credit for the things you were able to do back then.
And maybe you didn’t start writing as a kid, maybe you started at age 65 after you retired.
But the point is to always look back at what you’ve done when enough time has passed for those words to “marinate,” as Stephen King would put it.
The only difference between a good writer and a bad writer is that a bad writer thinks she’s hit the “turning” point.
If you show up at that blank page and fill it up with stuff and it reads like crap to you: that means you’re holding yourself and your work at a very high standard.
You know you can do better and kick yourself around for not having achieved it on the first or 100th try. And it’s this mind game that often keeps us from accepting that Draft Five was actually pretty darn good.
One of the most magical things I’ve experienced is sitting at a writing workshop and listening to somebody else read my work out loud.
Somehow, when listening to your overthought words coming out of somebody else’s mouth, with a different, less judgmental voice, your writing changes.
It comes alive to its own nature.
You don’t hear all of the clunky sentences you thought you wrote, and frankly, sometimes you can’t even believe you wrote that at all.
Sure, maybe the reader will have a question.
There might be a sentence they didn’t understand, a description they’d like to envision more clearly, information on a character you’ve neglected, or they’ll help you spot continuity errors.
But these are pointed critiques, what one actually means when one says “constructive criticism.”
Writing drafts are called drafts because changes are expected.
Having somebody point out the changes your story needs is helpful.
Being consumed by the critic inside your head, scurrying away from a half-written page, or interpreting your writing process as an irremediable failure is not.
If you’re a young writer, or a beginner at this game of word peddling, do yourself a favor:
When you’re readying your backpack for your first day at the literary trenches, don’t just pack a hipster pencil pouch and a deconstruction notebook.
In whichever pocket you can, fit in a small piece of paper that reads:
I will always think I suck, and that’s okay.
Find comfort in the fact that art is not an exact science.
That someone out there will like your writing no matter what you’re writing.
Yes, this is a thought that keeps me up and night. (This is especially true when I look at it from the perspective of humanity as a whole).
Yet, it’s not the case when thinking of finding a place for myself and my book children in the infinite sea of writing voices.
Earlier, I talked about the different responses that you could have towards another person’s published work. Revel in the fact that you aren’t any of these people.
No matter how far the finish line may seem, or how long it takes to reap what you sowed with your feeble typing hands, nobody can outdo you in your own journey.
If it takes you 10 years to be at peace with your first novel, so be it.
There is no rush.
There is no competition other than being a better writer than you were yesterday. Which isn’t to say that your writing process will be progressive.
You won’t always follow up 500 solid words with 600.
Sometimes you’ll sit down and write a whole chapter you’re proud of (after the first read only).
Other times you’ll spend a month trying to follow writing prompts to get your juices flowing again.
Writing is not progressive, but it is continuous.
You only win at writing if you continue to show up at the front lines, courage and doubt in hand.
Your doubt will keep you humble.
It’ll make you strive for tighter narratives, wilder images.
But keep in mind that you’re always running at a doubt surplus.
What you truly need to be working on is your courage.
Train your gut to allow you to lift the pencil, type the word, think through a scene.
Write through boredom, write through fear, write through self-doubt and self-loathing. Write through pain, through sadness, through your own self-pity.
And remember: “You can’t edit a blank page,” but you can definitely get lost in the editing process.
Even if you think your current writing self sucks, remember your past writing self was a butt-kicking trooper who typed up those 70 thousand words without having a clue of which way was up.
Never lose sight of that.