When I was younger, I attempted to write a teen angst romance. I didn’t think it was a genre, I didn’t think how hard it would be, I didn’t have any idea about plot or structure. I had never heard of a story arc, or worried about word counts, or even if I could do it. I simply propped myself up on the still agitating washing machine with a stack of paper, and wrote. I moved to the dryer when the spinning started. The only thing that interrupted me was waking from my daze long enough to hang the washing out and put a new load on. I wrote for 4 loads, then went up to my room and wrote another chapter. I had 5 chapters wracked up in one day. I stalled when my ‘novel’ got a bit racy, and I got embarrassed by what I’d written. What if somebody read it? I tore up the lot and threw it in the bin. I was 14 and I had no idea what I was doing, but I had blundered straight in, regardless. And blundered back out again at the thought of criticism.
Later, age 19 – 23, I wrote a few short stories. One won a local writing competition. I didn’t overly edit them (in fact, hardly at all). I didn’t think about sentence structure or pacing or active language. I didn’t brainstorm to get ideas. They just poured out, in one sitting. Then one of my stories was received badly by one person and I was hurt by the criticism. I moved on to poems, and they came out accordingly, straight off the bat. Less people will criticise poems so willingly, so my career as a poet had much more lift than my career as a story teller. My confidence survived, unscathed, and I wrote some good and some mediocre poetry. In my eyes it was all brilliant. Editing remained a dirty word, and beyond the initial creation, I pondered my poems not.
But sooner or later, the well dried up. Looking back now, I can see the immaturity in my work – not in it’s subject matter, but in it’s execution. I had inspiration and a certain talent, but I lacked knowledge and discipline. When the inspiration dried up, the talent disappeared. There was nothing to replace it but a void.
Fast forward ten years to now. For the past five or so, I’ve been pursuing my writing purposefully, if somewhat timidly. Certain aspects of my more youthful attempts were in fact admirable. I had courage immeasurable – so long as it wasn’t challenged.
Today, I doubt myself, although I’m not entirely sure that that’s a bad thing. If I doubted myself and wasn’t learning how to improve my craft at the same time, it would be a terrible thing, and was, for quite a time. But doubting my brilliance, rather than my ability to be brilliant, is a subtle wisdom that my younger self could never have achieved. I’ve learnt the gentle art of constructive criticism and how to direct it inwards.
The question is “Is this the best that this can be?”.
That question, had I asked it earlier, would probably have given me a career by now. But regret wastes time and I’ve already done enough of that.
Instead, the question prompts an answer, in the form of another question. It asks, “What can I do to make it better?”
I sometimes hanker for things from my younger days; the endlessness of time, the belief in my immortality, the sense of wonder and positivity in the possibilities of life and the absolute belief that I was bound for greatness, nothing less – or rather the careless confidence that came from those beliefs; but a deeper knowledge has shoved those things out of the way. The knowledge that persistence packs a deeper punch, that my time is finite, that really shitty things in the world exist, and that I could choose to be one of them, has unseated my arrogance and ruined all chance of blithely skipping along waiting for inspiration to strike and greatness to fall upon me. It has also made me a lot less vulnerable to criticism.
Without needing to protect my illusion from reality anymore, I can happily criticise myself and in doing so, can only become a better writer, and a better person. In learning to be critical of what I produce I am seeking to improve, and I now seek out criticism from others to see where I can improve. It’s a different kind of courage, the one I prefer having.