A month or two ago, I dragged out an old photo album from a 1991 trip to Vail. I was beginning Nick’s story and I wanted to remember exactly what Colorado looked like, the color of the mountains in October, the clarity of the sky, the exact shade of a hot spring new friend, Baxter, had brought us to.
I found much more. Pictures of my younger, faster-running self. Captions written in her stranger’s voice. The look in my eyes and the voice bothered me most. It was like seeing a stranger in my body.
I read them over and over, heard the sarcasm, the immaturity, the brittle, affected cynicism. Who was this creature, teetering over disillusionment, but still clinging to notions of romance? By that Vail trip, I’d thrown myself at life hard enough to cause a few serious fractures. I was toxic back then and this album proved it. I wanted to throw the evidence in the garbage.
As writers, we face this kind of thing all the time. Our early work, our early selves as writers, are so rustically unskilled, sophomoric and boastfully posturing that it can be hard to face them in retrospect. Around the time of the Vail trip, I remember being thrilled with myself because I’d finished writing a dreadful category romance, tantalizingly titled Legacy of Deceit. It’s an eye-roller, not because it’s a romance, but because my heroine was such a tantrum throwing little snot and because my writing was painfully bad. I couldn’t balance the basic elements of narration without tripping; it was like watching Frankenstein’s monster lurch haltingly along.
I run into this now with recent projects. I expect I’ll run into it down the line with the drivel I’m grinding out now. Somewhere on the Road to Me is considerably better than Legacy was, but the initial draft needs such substantial revision, I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. And my first short story published, “Beautiful,” makes apologies leap unbidden to my tongue. It’s embarrassing. (I swear, I’m a lot better now.)
So what do we do? Hold our writing close on our hard drives until we reach the lofty pinnacle of skillfulness? That’s like waiting for the polar ice caps to melt—they say it will happen, but who the hell knows exactly when? And that kind of insularity is counter-productive. Our writing should be read so we can glean useful feedback, which in turn leads to further growth.
But that takes guts.
I had an email from a friend yesterday. Let’s call him Bob. He was kicking himself over a blog entry he’d posted. Riddled with errors, Bob claimed. He said he never should have posted it. I wondered what the hell he was talking about. I’d read his blog and gushed over it in my comments. I really felt I’d learned something valuable. I couldn’t believe it was actually crap.
Well, I did what any good friend does: I told him he was full of shit (in a nice way) and that I really liked the post. I mentioned this concept of being embarrassed by our own past work. Email back: Bob wasn’t buying it.
I’ll spare you the ins and outs of our e-dialogue. But I’d like to leave you with this: for all its isolation, writing is a public act. We put ourselves out there when we share what we write. And once it’s out there, we can’t take it back. Just like we can’t take back the words we speak, we can’t erase our published writing. And published writing is worse, because it lives on as written, unlike spoken words which can fade in our memories. It takes a tremendous act of courage to put any piece of writing out there for another human being to read. Courage to face whatever criticism we may be given. Courage to face who we are in this moment in time, knowing we may look back and cringe.
At times, each of us doubts our nerve.
The great writer EB White captured this idea best, so I leave the last word to him:
A writer’s courage can easily fail him . . . I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.
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