While I’m on maternity leave with Baby Milo, a few dear friends have written pieces just for you all. I know you’ll enjoy them, and I hope you’ll find some new writers to follow and add to your community. Today’s post is by the super-kind Heather Caliri.
When I was first trying to write regularly twenty years ago, I could not, for the life of me, finish anything.
At the time, I was trying to write fiction. I wrote one story about a husband and wife making a hard decision over the phone. I could hear their voices in my head, imagine the wife crouched in the bedroom, the shame around her neck like a tight, glittering choker, could imagine the husband trying to pretend to be the man he wanted to be.
But after about three pages, I could not imagine anything else. The thread of the idea trailed off into an impenetrable jungle.
And that was a best-case scenario: I had a scene, I had characters, a situation. I was rich. Most of the time, I had only one line of dialogue and no idea who said it; a situation but no people; people, but no voices, or a scene without any idea why it mattered. It was like trying to make a banquet at a campsite with no tools and only scallions and black pepper to work with.
Writers finish stories, I told myself. You can’t call yourself a writer unless you write things. I would sit down to write, and with much effort, stray bits from a creative junk yard would emerge, but I could not MacGyver them into anything intelligible.
This went on for a couple years. It wasn’t pleasant.
Twenty years later, I finish things easily. I pound out a first draft of an essay or blog post or chapter and then later I revisit it. I come to rough drafts like a contractor with a whole team of workers behind her. I reframe whole sections without any hesitation, put up new joists like they’re post-it notes.
Now it’s time for a confession. Sometimes, I hear writers with less experience complain about not being able to finish anything and my first reaction (forgive me) is exasperation.
Stop thinking so much about it and just do the work, I think. I know full well that I would have shriveled up into a little ball if anyone had said that to me twenty years ago. I also know that it’s easy to say DO THE WORK when you have twenty years of experience, and all the necessary tools. I’ve got a lot more than scallions in my pantry right now.
So what is actually useful to say to these struggling writers? Because the truth is, I tortured myself a lot back when I started out, and I would love to save everyone else the mental anguish.
And here is what I would say: It’s not YOU that’s the problem. The problem is the work.
In other words, if you can’t finish a single piece to save your life, it’s not because you’re a terrible writer, or a talentless hack, or a lazy pretending dilettante. It’s because writing is hard and it takes practice.
If you can’t finish something (or start something, or know what to write next, or organize research, or plot a novel) it’s not about you. You are (I promise) perfectly capable of doing any of the writing tasks you want to do. Just as a journeyman apprentice will eventually learn how to lay pipe or add new cross beams or put up drywall, you will learn. It might take you years, but if you show up for work every day you will learn.
Your incompetence does not mean you’re broken. It means you’re a beginner.
I’ll say it again: you are not the problem. The writing is the problem.
See, back when I was a beginning writer, every roadblock freaked me out. I thought it meant I Did Not Have What It Takes to Be Creative. I thought there was some sort of magical pill that real writers took that gave them competence and plot ideas. If I struggled, it meant I was DOOMED.
But my real problem was a) lack of skill and b) being so freaked out about my incompetence that I could not take risks.
I couldn’t plot a novel, so I thought I was just a hack. But a lot of writers struggle with plot—and there are resources out there that help you learn how. But I couldn’t seek them out or use them effectively because I was so freaked out all the time about being a hack.
I couldn’t come up with ideas, so I thought I wasn’t creative. But new ideas take a lot of practice, and telling yourself you’re a terrible, miserable piece of *&^% every day isn’t the best way to woo your muse.
I spent a lot of time worried about me. How creative I was, how talented I was, why I could not do x, y or z. And I have a lot of compassion for myself back then because it was hard and I was afraid. But sometimes, I am amazed that I didn’t realize that focusing on ME was not going to help me write.
I needed to focus on THE WORK. And do it.
I needed to do the crappy work I was capable of because that was the best I could do, and it was enough.
I needed to do the work even if I felt talentless, because talent is overrated.
I needed to do the work I did not yet know how to do because it’s the only way to learn.
In other words, I needed to be an apprentice, and I acted like I was a beauty contestant, judged on intangibles like personality that you can’t really control. I don’t even like beauty pageants. I’m not sure how I set myself up for one.
Becoming a better writer is not intangible. It requires hours, and hours and hours of work. Eventually, if you put in the hours, you will get better. It really is that simple.
I realized, after many years of stumbling around in the dark, that it was okay to struggle. It was natural, even laudable to keep limping forward. It was the only way to learn.
I was not the problem, and neither are you. The only real problem is this: the longer I put off writing page after page after terrible page, the longer it will take to actually write the end.
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety,” for free here.