Did you ever watch a child try to stand for the first time? My elder nephew’s attempts fascinated me. He’d strain on chubby hands and feet to push his diapered rump into the air, doing the baby Downward Dog until he’d cry in frustration and fall back to the floor of his playpen. He did this over and over. I felt so badly for him, because he was so clearly in anguish about not being able to stand and walk like the Big People. Then one day, he got up. It wasn’t a linear progression. Some days were better than others.
Now he’s in graduate school.
Writers go through much the same process, although hopefully, with fewer diaper changes. We were all once wobbly beginners aching to run before we could even stand.
When we’re new, we write with the heart-pumping joy of a story sizzling through our fingers, harboring secret fears that it’s all a pile of crap, that we don’t know what we’re doing, that any praise we get is accidental. Criticism is a stab through the heart, a corroboration that we should take up fencing, or haberdashery, or register for nursing school like Mom always hoped.
To paraphrase a popular grass-roots campaign, it gets better.
Do anything enough times and you will learn.
We all learn. All writers were amateurs once. Your favorite author, the one whose work keeps you up way past your bedtime, the one you’d stand in a block-long line to meet, once didn’t know how to write his or her own name. Didn’t know how to conjugate a verb. Didn’t know how to write dialogue or sustain dramatic tension. I could regale you with story after story about the rejections certain well-known books or authors received before someone decided to take a chance on them.
So go a little easier on yourself. As an “apprentice” writer, you have a couple of things working for you.
1. A beginner’s mind is an enthusiastic, thirsty little sponge. Take the opportunity to learn all you can about writing. There are some good books on writing out there. Two of my favorites are Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. But one of the best ways to learn is by reading. Read a ton: good, not-so-good, something outside your favorite genre. It’s a great way to see the craft in action, to see what works and what doesn’t, and to begin to get a feel for why.
2. You don’t know yet what you don’t know. A frustrating bit of tautology, perhaps. But I noticed this as a long-time judge for a local school district’s yearly literary contest. The stories written by the younger children were so free and imaginative. Unicorns turned into flying sailboats that turned into rocket ships that took them to Saturn, where they had tea parties with space creatures. Something happened to these children as they get older, though. Maybe a teacher told them that unicorns aren’t real or if they really tried to have tea on Saturn, they’d die. Or a parent criticized their work in some less-than-thoughtful way. By sixth grade or so, many kids were writing with critics on their shoulders. Their writing got smaller, more contained, less imaginative. They began to associate writing with homework and grades and red ink. This analogy, I think, also holds true for adults beginning to write fiction. Unhampered by an internal critic that parrots back things like, “Never use flashbacks,” “Write what you know,” or “No one will ever publish this,” the apprentice writer may feel more free to experiment, to try different points of view or tenses or genres. Take advantage of that and play. Otherwise, you might never know that you’re really good at writing horror. Or poetry. Or stories about flying to Saturn on a unicorn-sailboat-rocket.
I hope you’re taking some time to enjoy the trip.