All my life, from the time I knew what a book was, I’d longed to write one. When I was five, I wrote a small book and illustrated it, and I was frustrated it didn’t look like a book. As the years went on, I routinely took a pen, a notebook, and a flashlight under my covers, determined that this time, I would write a real book. Every time, I didn’t write more than a few disappointing words.
When I was eleven I tried to write a romance novel. It was going along great guns until I got to the second chapter and got irrevocably stuck. The worst part was the I knew with complete certainty what that book was. I knew the emotion of it. I knew the ache of the kiss, the look of the night sky above my world-wise (and practically elderly) fifteen-year old protagonists. I just couldn’t write it.
In high school, I started short stories based, again, on an emotion—the urge to capture a moment of great change in a small space. I failed. In college, I started to “really” write. I wrote what I thought was a good short story, and my beloved mentor and professor Al Landwehr, sat me down and told me I was talented. Then he leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and said, “Talent doesn’t count for much, though. And I’m not sure you’ve got enough to say yet. Even after you've lived some more, I’m not quite sure you understand this—it’s a hard road.”
Of course, I didn’t think he was right. I knew I was ready to write big things. Novels. I just had to start, that was all, and I’d get it right.
So I started. Over and over again, I started. I’d lie in bed and figure out the story. I had plot! Characters! I knew exactly which amazing words I’d use. Then I’d get up and string a few words together and stare at them, almost unable to believe how much it was possible to let myself down.
I know now I was at that state where your taste is better than your talent, a state Ira Glass talks beautifully about here. An excerpt:
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone 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.
You know what’s good—you just can’t do it. Most people, I think, stop there. They have the hunger to write, the burning need to share emotions on paper with another person, but when it doesn’t go well on the first or second try, it’s so damn easy to say, “I was wrong. I’m not cut out to be a writer.” Or worse, “I’ll figure it out later, when I have more time.”(The thing about later is that it automatically holds less time, not more.)
Some people (those crazies who don’t mind slamming their heads into walls, over and over again) just keep sucking at things until they get better. That’s what I did. I worked at sucking at writing until I sucked a little less, and now, every day I write I get incrementally less sucktastic.
And here’s the miracle: that ache is gone. The longing I’d had my whole life to write, the hunger I’d feel in the middle of dark nights to pick up a pen and get the words down, is completely satisfied because I do it. I do it all the time.
I remember about five years ago, after I’d been writing regularly, I felt tired one afternoon. I didn’t usually nap—it wasn’t something I’d ever been able to do. But that day, I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep, and when I woke, I realized it had been because the voice was quiet in my head, the voice that had always—always—been telling me I needed to listen to it, to feed it.
The unsatisfied hunger is gone, and now I write. I am a writer.