Last week I did something scary. It’s the kind of thing that I only did because I somehow conned myself into believing it would be beneficial for both myself, and for those of you who read (or listen to) these various methods I have of sharing my love of writing with you.
I read one of my very first short stories. Out loud. And shared it on the internet.
Like most people, I don’t like the sound of my own voice, when I hear it recorded. I have come, however, to understand that MOST people do not have the same aversion to my speaking voice that I do, and in fact, they like to hear me read. So, that wasn’t the scary thing.
What was scary was this: The story was from 1995. Originally written in 1994. I was a college student. I was twenty-two years old. It was (gulp) almost twenty years ago.
It is a scary thing for me to see someone reading one of the stories I wrote during my MFA years. Those stories are only four or five years old, and I see faults in each of them. When I go all the way back to 1994, and think of how much my writing style and understanding of the craft of fiction has changed, it is a little daunting.
Every Day, A Step Further Along
It is scary to share those old stories because, while I want people to read my work, I also would love to have the ability to sneak up beside them and say, “Look. I know this isn’t a perfect story. I was young. It was the best I could do at the time, but if I re-wrote it today I would do things very differently!”
This sort of fear comes because I genuinely believe that the stories I am writing right now, are better than the ones I wrote last year, which were better than the year before, and so on. Every single day, I want the next story, the next page, the next sentence to be better than I would have written the day before.
If every word I write makes me better, I should be at least a million words better than I was in 1994.
It’s Easy to Get Stuck
Of course, this whole idea of being a million words better than I was twenty years ago requires me to actually write a million words.
But it is so easy to get stuck in the “not-actually-writing” part of the writing life. At least, it is for me.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think there are other things that have to be done to be a writer, besides write. I don’t believe that at all, but there is no getting around this fact: to be a writer, I actually have to write, not just plan to write or think about writing or read about writing.
No Magic Wand
When I am stuck in the planning or learning phases of writing, I am mostly looking for a magic wand. I know, in my head, that I can’t just learn or plan without ever writing. But sometimes I convince myself that there is no use writing, yet, because I’m not in the right phase of the process.
Can this sometimes be true? Sure. It can. But that can also sometimes be a crutch I use to allow resistance to doing the actual work to win out.
Three Keys to Moving Ahead
The thing is, I know how not to get stuck. Without fail, I can get unstuck any time I want to. All I have to do is understand there is a process at work when it comes to improving my writing.
No matter what I am doing, I have to just keep repeating this same process: Identify what is lacking in my work, learn new ways to improve that area, plan ways to implement new techniques into what I am currently writing, and practice what I’ve come to know in my head by pushing my hand and pen across the face of the paper.
I know this cycle is constant and ever-renewing. It will never end, unless I let it, because I will never write a perfect story or novel. There will always be room for improvement.
And I will keep improving as long as I stick to these three keys:
- See the process through: I can not stop or dawdle in the Identify, Learn, or Plan stages. I must also do the Practice stage, and apply the things I’ve come to know in my head through actual use. Similarly, my Practice of writing is greatly enhanced by those less-hands-on stages, as well.
- Understand there are cycles, and be okay with it: There are going to be legitimate times when I am writing fewer words, but still doing very valuable writing work in the other stages. The trick here is to not allow myself to turn a legitimate slow down in my writing into an excuse to not write. I have to be both gentle with myself, but vigilant that I don’t let myself off the hook.
- Seek out opportunities for all four stages: If I come to accept the cycles of creativity, then I can also be proactive in making sure each stage is given both opportunity AND creative fuel. I read the work of other writers and listen to reader feedback, in order to identify my own weaknesses. I read, study, and seek input from others in the Learn and Plan stages. And I have to maintain a regular opportunity to practice, practice, practice.
To go twenty years back and not only make a story available, but to read it aloud on my podcast…well it made me nervous. But, in the end it was the good kind of nervous. I’m not sure it benefited anyone else, but sharing Things He Wasn’t Supposed to Do certainly helped me keep all of the things I’ve written in perspective.Perspective: If I were only marginally consistent with writing, I could have had well over 3.6 million words written in the years since Things He Wasn’t Supposed to Do was first published in the Ball State University literary magazine. 20 years x 365 days is 7300 days. If I wrote just 500 words every day (that’s about TWO pages, handwritten) that would be 3.65 million words. TWO. PAGES. PER. DAY. Even now, if I were more consistent I could write even more. This blog post, for example is around 1,000 words. I will write another few thousand words for my podcast. And probably around 5,000 words for my own writing, this week. That’s around 10,000 words. At that pace, I could write 520,000 per year, or over 10 million words in the next twenty years.