IWSG: Let Yourself Be Terrible

1st Wednesday of the month is Insecure Writers Support Group. Wherein I post about the difficulties and joys of writing.


This is an embarrassing post.

I was a very smart kid. I had a high IQ and they put me in the gifted program in school. I never had to work hard to be smarter than other kids, so I didn't bother working hard. I was a mental sloth. But a time came when I wasn't precocious anymore and by then, most of my peers had bypassed me because they had been paying attention and working hard and I had been coasting along with a big vocabulary and a poor work ethic.

It turned out that you can absolutely get by in this world with very little knowledge of things like grammar, punctuation, science and algebra. I have been to plenty of job interviews and never once have I had to solve a quadratic equation to get hired.Take that, seventh grade math teacher!

What I lacked in knowledge, I made up for by trying to be charming. Charm does a pretty good job of masking ignorance at a job interview or a party, but on the written page, charm is useless. My ignorance gave me away every time.

When I wrote the first draft of my work-in-progress in 2009, it was awful. Despite being an avid reader, I knew next to nothing about writing dialogue. All my previous stories were first person and in the head of the main character with no dialogue at all. I didn't know when to use commas, what an adjective was or even basic things like when to make a paragraph break. I'm actually still not sure when to use a semi-colon. My manuscripts tenses shifted with the wind and my main character drifted from first person to third with startling frequency. It was largely unreadable.

But I was proud of my ugly baby and too ignorant to know how bad it was. I gave the first couple of chapters to my friend and fellow blogger Jeannie. A week later, she brought it back to me with a wild look in her eyes and said, "I can't read this, it's making me nuts. You have to put paragraph breaks in it."

I knew so little about the craft of writing that I couldn't figure out where the breaks should go, so I went into the file and chose random places to hit enter. Yup. I had always been a very good report writer but I couldn't put together the concept of paragraph breaks in a story being the same as it is in an essay. When I got back my next draft from Jeannie, she was as patient as one could be when dealing with someone with so little basic knowledge.

Four years, several grammar books and one awesome writing group later, I am a much better writer then I was. I still struggle with adverb-itis and misuse of semi-colons but I can write dialogue like it's no ones business and I'm learning to edit myself in a constructive way.

 Last week, I wrote a new chapter and I shared it with my hubs. After reading it, he told me that it was the by far, the best thing I've written and that it's amazing how much I've improved. It was the best compliment ever. I am still warm and glow-y from it.

Why did I tell you all this? To tell you that it's okay to be a dumb-ass artistically. It's okay to not know how to do it and to do it anyway. Because the thing that will make you less of a dumb-ass, is practice. It's persistence. And it's a good friend who will patiently explain what the difference between tense and perspective. Thanks for that Jeannie.

We all want to be perfect writers and we want to sell novels and be validated. But you won't get good if you wait until you know it all. You won't miraculously become a Hemingay or an Austen by sitting on your ass. You've got to work. You've got to let yourself suck. Make bad choices, poor plot structure, one dimensional characters, boring sex scenes. Do it all. Be brave and foolish. Name a character something ludicrous. Change your tense halfway through the story. Have muddy themes. Don't be afraid to be terrible, because if you let yourself be terrible, while striving to be better, someday someone will tell you how awesome you have become.

Go write the best shit you know how to write. And then learn to write better. Perfection is unattainable. Learning to be less terrible is a lot closer to your grasp.