Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not A Good Writer

Pen a few poems, stack up a few stories, acquire a few articles, and sooner or later you will run into the question-- am I a good writer?

Do not entertain it.

I have wanted to tell stories since I was old enough to scribble fantasy tales in my unicorn notebooks, and when I was nineteen I decided to become Serious about it. I wanted more than anything to write a Very Important Book that was worthy to join the ranks of that most elusive and admired of creature, the Published Author. But was I good enough? Were my words, my characters, my passions worthwhile or should I go back to the unicorns?

That question started small but quickly grew into a screech that drowned out any creativity I could muster. Every tiny flaw in my writing was held up to this imagined Good Writer Scale as time and time again I abandoned manuscripts in search of the One that would be Good. Meanwhile I was writing less and less; in fact, I no longer considered myself a writer. I'd have ideas, turn them around in my head for a few days, savoring the creative juice, then leave them to dessicate because I still couldn't answer that question. Would a Good Writer do this? What if I end up with an entire book that is horrid and unreadable and, worst of all, rejected?

One night my frustration drove me to ask my husband a direct question. Ladies-- do this only if you want a direct answer. I asked him if he thought I had what it took to be a writer (again, trying to answer the Good Writer question) and he said no. I gaped like a fish. Was my writing bad? No, he said, but I had done very little to demonstrate that I had the desire or the capability to complete and submit substantial manuscripts and that he wasn't even sure I liked writing. He said it made me miserable.

I fumed.
No desire? It's called mom of small children disease. At the end of the day I desire sleep.
Complete and submit? I have two short story publications, one contest honorable mention and a handful of copy ads....
Writing miserable? It's my passion, my calling, my dream, my....

Oh wait. He was right.
Writing did make me miserable because it had become a hamster wheel of guilt, shame and self-judgment. Trying to be a Good Writer sucked every bit of life, joy, or passion out of my writing. I had given up on each sentence before I was even finished typing it.
And sure, I'd published little bits here and there but it had been eight years since I finished anything substantial. Eight. Years. Even my most cherished excuse-- the sacrificial mommy-- seemed a bit thin when I thought of other writers who managed to finish entire series of novels while they had small children.

I realized I had two choices. Walk away from writing and spend my life doing something else I love or shut up and write with everything in me.

Constantly asking myself if I was a good writer was utterly the wrong question. If I ever were to decide the answer was yes, I would become self-satisfied and complacent. If I kept convincing myself that the answer was no or you'll never know, then I would continue to hate everything I created. I decided never to entertain that foolish query again. Instead, every time I sit down to write-- or even when I'm not writing-- my question will be what am I doing to become a better writer? I will never, ever arrive because there is no destination. Twenty years from now, I will still be honing my craft, sharpening my skills. When I wrote my first novels at ten years old, that was my thirst...to learn everything I could about writing and literature. I was insatiable.
I want that back, want it forever. Writers whose skill surpass my own are not causes for Good Writer Shame but food and drink to my craving for knowledge.

It is also the wrong question because I no longer care.
The second epiphany occurred while I was browsing a fan fiction site that hosted some of my old stories. (Yes, I wrote fan fiction. I admit it.) Even reading them years later I could tell that I loved writing those stories, that I wrote with confidence that I had something worth saying. I decided at that moment that I would write what I loved and how I loved and if every other person on the planet decided it was trash, so what. I have wasted eight years writing for other people and it's about time I started writing for myself.

I will be a writer because, quite simply, I will write. Without that act, I can have all the literary aspirations I want but they are pointless, like an obese woman telling themselves they can be skinny any time they want...they just haven't gotten around to it yet. I've lost almost a decade to that gibberish. I refuse to lose any more time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go write.