19 June 2007

The Young Writer

Because I'm in the midst of moving, I have been going through piles of things, and some of those things are things I'd forgotten I had. As I was throwing away lots of magazines and papers I'd kept for no apparent reason, I discovered, at the bottom of it all, a box of manuscripts. Mostly things printed on a dot-matrix printer, though some were handwritten. Hundreds of pages of, mostly, stories and poems, though there were a few letters, essays, and even parts of a novel. All written when I was between the ages of ten and sixteen.

At first, it was a nostalgia trip. I remembered a few of the stories and poems, remembered where I had been when I wrote them and what I was thinking. But for the most part, I had forgotten them. And for good reason. Once the nostalgia wore off, terror set in -- terror that anyone might ever read these things. They are talented, yes, and even precocious and impressive, but despite all that they are utterly and completely awful. Yes, I was an excellent writer for my age. No, I was not a good writer.

Last year, in a wise and valuable post, John Scalzi told teen writers: "Right now, your writing sucks." Not everyone took that to be a good thing to say, and recently he added some more thoughts. In 2005, Justine Larbalestier wrote something similar, and equally valuable, and has also recently reflected on it. [Update: Ben Rosenbaum offers a somewhat different view.]

I wish I'd been able to read John's and Justine's advice when I was younger, though I doubt it would have done any good. I was certain I would win a Pulitzer, or, better yet, a Hugo by the time I was 18. I also thought the first rejection letter I got from Gardner Dozois at Asimov's was written specifically to me.

Arrogance in a young writer can be a good sign, though, because it suggests they won't let rejection deter them. There was a part of me that knew the story I sent to Ellen Datlow at Omni was not the greatest story ever written and would probably be rejected, but I thought it had a pretty good chance at least of being among the top ten stories she received that month. (I expect -- I hope! -- it never made it to her desk.)

At what point does persistence in the face of adversity move from being admirable to being insane? I started sending stories and poems to magazines once I discovered Writer's Market in fifth grade. That was more than twenty years ago. As much as I wanted publication, and fame and fortune and everything that goes with it, usually I didn't write just to get published, but instead to discover what I could do, to surprise myself, to play around with words and ideas. The hope for publication was a strong one, and sometimes it overwhelmed my other reasons for writing, and when it did so, the writing became particularly lifeless, particularly empty.

I did manage to get published and have some successes at a young age -- a story I wrote when I was twelve and published at fourteen still occasionally gets excerpted or reprinted, but that story was an anomaly, a perfect mix of a particular sensibility writing about a particular subject at a particular time. I wrote it entirely for fun, with no thought of publication until later. And it doesn't suck. (Are parts of it embarrassing to me now? Sort of. I'm proud of its success, but it's definitely a story written by a kid. That's its virtue, really.) I thought that story's success meant I had passed over a certain threshold and would now only write good stories. Nope. I had a few more small successes, but for the most part everything I wrote over the next fifteen years was not very good. There were many reasons for that -- too much focus on becoming a publishable writer and not enough focus on becoming a writer worth reading; a tendency to write in all sorts of different genres and modes, making progress in any one genre slow; a lack of life experience to draw on to give what I wrote depth and resonance.

Eventually, I got to the point where I had enough skill to more or less know when a story worked or when it didn't, and I have developed some techniques for helping a story that doesn't work get closer to working. But it's not infallible. I just read a draft of a story I wrote last fall, a story I knew was unfinished and needed some revision, but which I thought was pretty good on the whole. Actually, it needs a complete overhaul, because, well, it sucks.

At 31 now, I am not the writer I thought I would be when I was 15. I needed the dream to carry me along and get me through the rough terrain of adolescence, but eventually I realized that my interests and talents are not the sort to bring that dream into any kind of reality. Four or five years ago I stopped writing to try to create a career, to try to catch up to the expectations I'd set for myself when I was a teenager, to try to get published wherever and however I could. Instead, I tried things out and took on projects that seemed like they'd be fun or stimulating. There was a time when I wanted fame and the adulation of crowds, I wanted to be the best, but I'm actually really uncomfortable with adulation and get far more enjoyment from being part of a community of readers and writers than from any sort of competition.

I've thrown out a lot of things as I get ready to move to New Jersey, but I'm not throwing out those manuscripts. They are a part of me, a monument to hours and hours of passionate work, a testament to old aspirations. I will never be -- and don't want to be -- the writer my young self yearned to become, but that's okay. I don't want to preserve the naive dream; I want to preserve the pure pleasure of manipulating words and telling stories, the pleasure that has propelled me when I have been most honest with myself.

6 comments:

  1. At 31 you are still a young writer, in my opinion...

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  2. Rilke: 'The point of life is to fail at greater and greater things.'

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  3. Great essay. It's amazing the amount of passion this debate stirred up.

    Once everybody calms down, they'll realize that this debate has generated pages and pages of advice for young writers--that's the most important thing to remember. Thanks for collecting all the responses in one place.

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  4. I am always suspicious of anyone who is quick to belittle and disrespect their early (I won't say "attempts at") writing. Methinks they protest too much; it reeks of insecurity.

    I think you are on the right track with your choice to value your older works without being constrained by them.

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  5. In referring to your stories and poems, you said, "They are talented, yes, and even precocious and impressive, but despite all that they are utterly and completely awful."

    Of course, stories and poems are not talented, but rather display talent. I guess you still haven't learned to write.

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  6. Dear anonymous,

    Get a life.

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