I became a published writer at age 11, when I wrote a 250-word article for the local paper about a concert at my elementary school. I still have the check—the first ten bucks I ever made as a writer.
The article was not well-written by adult standards, and the editor misspelled my name in the byline, but damnit, I wrote something and I got paid for it.
Soon, I was writing everywhere, every day. I wrote on legal pads, in school binders, on my mother’s old desktop. I wrote literally hundreds of pages—the early sketchings of novels, “Lord of the Rings” fanfics, and cringe-worthy NaNoWriMo entries. The characters I brought to life were like old friends. I liked them better than the assholes I went to school with, at any rate, which is probably why I imagined them in the first place.
None of what I wrote was very good, but it didn’t matter. I had ideas in my head, and I wrote them down. I don’t remember it ever getting more philosophical than that. I didn’t know any better. I was unafraid.
A few years ago, that changed. The ideas weren’t there anymore. I didn’t stop writing, but what I wrote felt stiff and artificial, every word measured and every line of dialogue premeditated. I rethought and rewrote and reworked the first paragraph of a story fifty times, and the poor thing died still waiting for me to go on and finish telling it.
I’m afraid to write a 500-word blog post, which is why I haven’t posted here in over month. Shit, I can’t even send a two-line email without agonizing over the verbal cadence—the cadence of a fucking email.
Aside from the occasional freelance gig, I’m unemployed. I have all the time in the world to write, but I find excuses not to. Instead, I watch YouTube videos and read blogs and click on links to more YouTube videos and more blogs.
That’s how I came upon this article over at Medium.
The bottom line? Write just to write.
Those words woke something in me. All I could think was, ‘What the fuck happened to me?’ What the actual fuck happened? When did I stop writing just to write? When did I start telling myself that if I wrote fewer words, only the “good” words would make it onto the page, and I’d be magically catapulted to authordom?
When did I fall out of love with the honest act of putting words to a blank page?
I think it may have been right around the time I started getting good.
When you suck, it’s easy to fling your words around like an amateur chef flinging spices around the plate. You don’t bother with notions like style or theme or subtlety. You have an idea that you think is interesting, and you write it down.
When you start getting good, you begin using words more judiciously, studying the writers you admire while attempting to craft your own voice. But now that you’re able to recognize good or even great writing—now that you understand what “great” really means—you’re forced to the sickening realization that you’re not great. Sure, you can string sentences together that don’t sound like absolute crap, but you’re no George R. R. Martin or Stephen King or Neil Gaiman.
And in that moment of realization, there’s a tiny little monster in your head that whispers, “If it’s taken you this long to not totally suck, then it’s much too late to hope of being great.” Your dream of seeing your novel on the shelf next to Scott Lynch and Naomi Novik and Guy Gavriel Kay seems suddenly foolish, impossible.
The fear sticks in your bones, and fear is poison to the mind of a writer.
Stephen King knows about fear. After he was infamously struck by a van in the summer of 1999, he spent months in recovery with a fractured hip, a chipped spine, and cracked ribs. Just sitting upright left him in excruciating pain. Meanwhile, his memoir and writer’s guide “On Writing” sat unfinished in a desk drawer.
“How was I supposed to write about dialogue, character, and getting an agent when the most pressing thing in my world was how long until the next dose of Percocet?” King wrote of the challenge he faced. “Yet at the same time I felt I’d reached one of those crossroads moments when you’re all out of choices. And I had been in terrible situations before which the writing had helped me get over—had helped me forget myself for at least a little while. Perhaps it would help me again.”
If he hadn’t made himself sit down to start writing again, Stephen King’s prolific career might have ended that July day.
But he did, and it didn’t.
“The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic,” King wrote. “And the first five hundred words were uniquely terrifying—it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.”
King finished the book, and has published over 30 more since. His fifty-sixth novel, the much-anticipated sequel to “The Shining,” will be released this September.
Like King, I’m terrified that I’ve lost all my old tricks. When I try to write, it’s as if I’ve never written anything before in my life. Like King, all I can do is sit down at my desk, write, and hope that things will get better.
The scariest moment is always just before you start.
After that, things can only get better.