I like writing, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what changed to get me there. I used to hate writing but love having written, but now I think I enjoy the process more than the product. This is me trying to explain how that happened.
The first step I take in writing anything is frustration, frustration that I may know what I want to do, but the idea isn’t old enough to walk. It needs to grow, develop, become something that can stand on its own. I read a lot of books and blogs and articles and essays about writing, and every author seems to have a different take on it, but those people don’t matter. William Strunk Jr. has intense opinions about grammatical correctness, and William Zinsser writes “vigorously” and Steven King massacres his darlings, and none of it matters because none of these writers are me.
I volunteered at the youth services section of a library when I was a teenager. I wish I could say I did it to be closer to my community or to give back to the town that had given me so much, but that town didn’t give me anything except anxiety and sunburns, so I worked at the library because I wanted to be adopted into the capitalist book machine by showing them how much work I could do for no money. Financial stupidity aside, I remember a conversation I had with one of the librarians. She was talking about a book she was writing. In hindsight, I wonder if librarians who are also authors feel a kind of masochistic pleasure at adding more books to their library, which means more books to put back on the shelves, more books that are definitely checked in but likely put somewhere they’re not supposed to be, more books whose covers they will have to gingerly clean the caked candy and hair off of.
The librarian mentioned she was working on a book. I, being a teenager who wanted to sound like they had something going on in their life beyond watching Pixar movies and crying, said I also had a story I wanted to write. The librarian asked me how far along I was in writing it, and I said I hadn’t started because I was waiting until I was a better writer to do it.
I was waiting to write something because I didn’t think I figured I’d be a better writer in the future. Makes sense. Practice is the best way to perfect any craft, and I can totally understand the desire to want to wait so other people can see exactly what you have in your head. But I wasn’t practicing. I was just sort of waiting. I was waiting to get better. I must have thought of writing skill as developing proportionally to my inevitably disappointing height or how close I was to being allowed to vote. I didn’t practice my writing. I didn’t write. I did my school work. I wrote shitty papers about 1984 and Frankenstein. Sometimes I emailed people. I didn’t write, but I wanted to be a better writer.
I remember I once actually started writing that story I was waiting around for. I remember having the images perfectly aligned in my head. I remember knowing exactly what I wanted the beginning–escaping from a scary dystopian city using superpowers–and ending–bullets and fighting and love interests and explosions and maybe Alaska–to be. I remember thinking of the rest of the book as “the middle parts” which I figured could be filler stuff.
Strangely, when I started writing that story, I didn’t get very far. The pictures I had in my head amounted to about 3 pages to get everything started, which really just amounted to introducing the main character–the only person I had thought about–and having them escape from science prison. I skipped to the ending, figuring I’d get my momentum going by writing the exciting bits first: about 5 pages. I’d exhausted everything from the story I’d thought about for months, and it took 8 pages. I didn’t have a computer back then, so these were 8 handwritten pages too. That’s like 4 real pages, maybe.
I was dumbfounded. How could so much of what had been in my head take up so little space? I read back what I’d written. It was exactly the wording, exactly the imagery, exactly everything I’d been imaging. It was terrible. The imagery was made of the kinds of descriptions you’d use if you were telling a friend about a new Walmart that opened up in the hometown they moved away from: it’s big and by the road that’s across from the Target by the big tree where Shawn broke his teeth in 3rd grade. The details were messy and built off images I already had perfectly formed in my head, but if someone read them without private access to my brain, they wouldn’t know what anything looked like.
The plot, as far as such a thing could have been established in a few pages, involved evil scientists who are also the government wanting to kill the main character, but they also wanted to control the city–the entire world, of course, being a city–using the main character’s cool psychic brain powers. All this was established quite succinctly in single line yelled by the nameless white-coated villain: it went something like “We’ll get you, [name I’ve forgotten], and use you for our evil government science!”
By the time I was floundering my way through 8 pages of clumsy cliches and hamfisted character introductions, I had been exposed to a fair amount of writing instruction. I had really great teachers in high school, all fantastic writers, all provided some wonderful articles from authors I still like. Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is a great little introduction into hating most writing I’ve done or will ever do, and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a classic that aggressively orders its audience about what’s what in the world of grammatical minutiae. For a person trying to write a rad story about teenagers using psychic powers to kill the government, they weren’t all that useful. I didn’t learn how to write like me. I learned how to write like a teenager’s understanding of an old white guy with too many degrees.
In all the reading I’ve done, I’ve mostly just seen writers telling people how they do it. I’ve written about that too. I wish someone had told me earlier on that it doesn’t matter if Orwell would call my writing slovenly or Strunk would berate me, or my high school composition teacher would laugh at how weird it is and wonder why I’m like this. I heard that Stephen King bought the van that ran him over, and now he beats it up when he’s stressed. Sometimes I cry in the shower because it’s the only place the internet can’t get me. I do not recommend any other writer do either of these things because one would involve purchasing an entire van just to ruin it, and the other involves pruney fingers.
There was a point during my undergrad where I was reading as much of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series as I could find. It’s a huge collection of fantasy satires and amounts to some of my absolute favorite books in the known universe. I first started reading them right before I started a creative writing class in my undergrad. I love Pratchett’s work so much, I decided I’d try to write similarly to him. People had already told me we were kind of alike, but I wanted to take it a step further. I made vocabulary lists, analyzed how he introduced and developed characters, read essays written by other people who were trying to figure out why his books were just so top notch tasty.
I’ve looked back at some of the writing I did in that class. Did you ever have a phase in school where you got really obsessed with a celebrity or a trend, and that just became your life? You started dressing differently, acting how you think you should based on the stipulations of the trend, and of course, any media you voluntarily exposed yourself to had to be fitting with that trend. That’s how I think of my phase trying to force my writing to be like someone else’s.
But a good thing did come from my obsession. I realized how hard it was to write in a way I thought someone else would write, and I started letting a little of me get in. My stuff was still laughably derivative of a better author, but every time I recognized how terrible a draft was, a little more of me got into the next version or the next project because it was harder to try to be someone else than it was to just shove some of myself into the cracks.
Eventually, it was just me. After a lot of revising and coming to terms with some of my worse habits, I learned to like the parts of my writing that hadn’t turned writing into a formula. Trying to be Terry Pratchett didn’t make me a better author. Trying to be Orwell or Strunk and White or Zinsser or any of the other authors of writing books that people swear by will not make your writing perfect, and it might not even make it better.
What can help your writing is reconciling your self-worth with the fact that you’re going to fuck up a lot. Writing takes practice, and practice means mistakes, not reading more theory or orders from people with recognizable names. Learning to write like George Orwell can be useful, but I think that’s only if you’ve done enough writing and have enough of an understanding of your own ability as a writer to take his words as a suggestion, not an order. The same goes for any writing guide.
There are currently around 160 posts on this blog. I absolutely detest around 150 of them. Those posts commemorate a time in my life when I was completely different as a person and as a writer, and I look back on them and cringe, but I’m glad I have the chance to do that. I’m lucky to have a few hundred pages of my writing that I can say helped bring me to a point where I actually like writing, even if it’s hard.
Committing to being a writer is like committing to being a rocket ship powered entirely by your own garbage. You will move forward at the expense of all the trash you have to make first.