It was 1996. The new boyfriend and I were taking a break from our London jobs and were holed up in a cosy bar in Prague, smoking Camel cigarettes and writing feverishly in our notebooks with the kind of earnest intensity that only twenty-somethings can get away with. New Boyfriend even had a fountain pen (hey it was the nineties). Massive Attack was probably playing on the stereo.
I don’t quite remember what sparked the epiphany that followed but I stopped and stared down at what I was writing, as if a veil had been lifted and I was seeing it for the first time. And it wasn’t good. In fact it was god awful. As Dorothy Parker once wrote, “This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”
To appreciate the weight of that moment, I need to clarify how big a thing writing was. I had devoted an entire childhood to it, a moody adolescence obsessing over it, even a few years at university studying it. There was a letter penned when I was eight, sealed inside a time capsule and ceremoniously buried under the netball courts in honour of my school’s centenary, declaring my life goal of becoming a writer. I may have also written that I wanted to live on a purple boat with lots of cats but still, I was committed to this thing.
But now it was like the flood lights had come on to reveal I was starring in one of those horrible ‘gotcha’ TV shows where everyone in the audience is in on the joke. The laughter signs were flashing and everyone was slapping their knees. And she actually thought she was a writer! Hahahaha!
It was like a little death, and not the fun kind.
In truth I was really just experiencing a rite of passage that every writer, every artist, goes through as a beginner. The frustration and disappointment in the creative work. Facing the harsh fact that despite your best efforts, your work still sucks.
And I’m sure my work did suck. It was probably quite terrible. I was only 23 after all (with a flair for the dramatic) and the truth is, everybody sucks at first. What was more significant though was my absolute conviction that there was no point in persevering. I believed that writers were born not made. And if I wasn’t any good by now (and by ‘good’ of course I meant ‘perfect, brilliant and award-winning’) then it obviously wasn’t going to happen.
Right, I thought, snapping my notebook shut and pouring more wine. That’s it then. I’m just kidding myself, I’ll have to find something else to do with my life. I’m done with this shit.
And so just like that, I quit writing.
Except that I didn’t. Well not really. Although I did try. I refused to publicly identify with writing yet privately I couldn’t leave it alone. I filled copious journals, later squirrelled in taped up boxes to a room under the house. I filled secret folders on my computer, stealthily guarded and never shared. Ideas for characters and stories and bits of conversation would bubble up and be compulsively jotted down but I would do nothing with them. And I told no one.
Because not good enough. Because not a real writer.
(Which of course only fuelled my secretive bouts of furious non-writing).
It is so ludicrous this false belief that great writers, or great anything for that matter, be they pianists or painters, all just start off instantly great. Just like they were born with blue eyes, thick hair and a roman nose; a combination of genetics, luck and divine intervention. As if Beethoven sat down at a piano one day and just happened to bang out the Ninth Symphony first go.
It’s more than just ludicrous though, it’s bullshit. It’s destructive. So many writers and artists give up at this point because of it.
“The most important possible thing you can do is a lot of work.”
Years later Ira Glass, a man I really needed to meet when I was 23, would nail the secret to creative success in a now legendary interview about storytelling.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important possible thing you can do is a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.
It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
I want to hug this man. Hard.
Oddly enough, it was a last minute NaNoWriMo challenge (an annual event that starts again today) thrown down by a friend – to depth-charge a novel by writing 50,000 words in 30 days – that eventually got me back in the game. I was home with a six-week old baby at the time, my second child, which sounds insane (and it was) but in actual fact turned out to be an ideal scenario. The challenge gave me something else to focus on in that hazy newborn fog where time chunks past in an endless loop of two hour blocks. Little B slept from 9pm till 1am most nights, during which time I wrote.
It turns out the kamikaze approach of NaNoWriMo, where the point is just to keep writing, was the key that unlocked the vault. I wrote 50,033 words and finished two days before the deadline. It was like a dam wall had burst and a rush of words, long-suppressed, was released. And for once it didn’t matter if it was any good or not. I was writing again.
George R. R. Martin, when asked if he found it fun to write, replied, “I do. Yeah. To the extent that anything is fun to write. I’m one of those writers who say ‘I enjoy having written.’ There are days I really enjoy writing and there are days I fucking hate it. I can see it in my head and the words won’t come. I try to put it on the page and it feels stiff and wooden and it’s stupid. Writing is hard work.”
So if I could, I’d like to go back to that cosy bar in Prague.
I’d like to walk up to my 23-year-old self, sitting there glumly with her notebook snapped shut and her misguided resolve to quit writing. I’d take that wine from her hand, throw it back in one swift move (cheers) and upend the empty glass on the table. Then I’d bend down and stare into my eyes (by now looking slightly alarmed and wondering who the hell is this crazy lady who kinda looks like my mother and why is she drinking all my wine).
“Listen,” I’d say. “Whether you like it or not, whether you’re any good at it yet or not, you are a writer. And the only way to get better is to get writing. Every day. There are no natural-born Booker prize winners. There are only writers who write. Who do the work. And only once they have done the work, can they then do their best work.
So stop whinging about it and just get on with it.
(And while I’m at it, try not to waste too much time on that new boyfriend either. Keep travelling. Keep reading. Make friends with the quirky chick with braids who listens to Beth Orton when you get home. The redhead on roller skates is going to be important too. Don’t worry, there is a hunky writer with better hair waiting for you in exactly ten years time. Oh and also, stop smoking. You’re welcome.)”.
Writing is a wrestle. But it’s a satisfying one. It’s a compulsion. I love teasing out, then crafting a story. And every time I finish something, every time I put up a post on the blog, it brings a kind of sharp joy. Writing simply makes me happy. It’s taken me a long time to come right back to where I started.
And this time I’m not letting it go.
Is there something you’d like to say to your past self at a crucial fork in the road? Have you ever quit something you loved because you felt you weren’t good enough? Or did you somehow push through that and close the gap? I’d love to hear all about it, so please leave a comment below.
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