The title might sound like a hokey platitude, but before I learned to do this I was paralyzed. For much of my time as a young student, I enjoyed writing but never really thought I could ever be “good enough” to publish a story (and certainly not a novel). My inner critic swatted down most of my own ideas before they could find their way onto the page. When I did put pen to paper and discovered the brilliant work I imagined read like, well, a shoddy first (and later, a shoddy second or third) draft, I viewed this as a personal failure. Through I enjoyed the mental play of writing, the results were rarely validating, and I spent a great deal of time getting in my own way.
It wasn’t until I was able to get past this self-doubt and self-punishment I was able to start actually finishing things on my own, without the imposed deadlines of college courses. The novel Malagon Rising was a fantasy novel written with a playful disposition (in my own heart, if not in the relentlessly bleak lives of its characters). As it was in many ways a pastiche of the 1960s and 1970s dark sword & sorcery tales I’d loved as a young person, set in an imaginary land, I felt emotionally “safe” enough to let my hands go and type out what I’d daydreamed while running a cash register or standing in line at the supermarket.
I learned a great deal about the novel form by doing it, more from my mistakes than my successes. For example, about 200 pages in I realized my hero lacked any capable antagonists. As gratifying as it was for me to write him cutting though his adversaries like a lawnmower roaring over a block of spam, there wasn’t much tension for the reader. The end was expected and inevitable, and not in good way. I then learned how impossible it is to introduce a narrative-driving element (in this case, a resourceful and despicable villain) at page 200. And I got a serious lesson in re-writing.
Now, this basic mistake could have been crushing for me, but I didn’t let that happen. In the past, I would have cursed my stupidity and incompetence upon realizing I’d half-finished the novel without including something needed from the beginning. I would have pitched the thing in a box or relegated it to a folder on my computer and tried not to think about it ever again. Instead, I took it as a puzzle. How could I fix this? I knew it wouldn’t be as good as if I re-wrote from scratch, but I doubtlessly could use many of my pages and still get the book up and running again. I thought I could do it. And if it didn’t work, oh well. It was just a book I was writing. For the first time, I thought I could succeed with a written work on my own. And if I didn’t, I understood that the value of what I wrote was not synonymous to my value as a human being. Everything we do is only our best attempt, and even if it doesn’t work out the way we want it to, the results are uniquely ours and inform our future choices. So it is in writing and so it is in life.
I tried expressing this to a friend of mine, who in turn referred me to clip of Ira Glass discussing the unavoidable gap between our tastes and our abilities when we begin any sort of creative journey. He states it all more succinctly than I could, and it’s advice I either never got or didn’t listen to years ago. It’s still something I need to remind myself, and I’m happy to share it with you.