Sunday, 1 September 2013

You Need To Write Badly Before You Can Write.

There's a lot of fear involved in writing fiction. One of the biggest is that, as a fiction writer, you might, y'know - ssshhh, say it quietly - actually suck.

If a footballer has a rubbish season where he doesn't score any goals and... I don't know, plays football badly in whatever way that works (don't judge me - I'm not a football fan so I know squat about the game, okay?) people will almost certainly say he's a rubbish footballer. But unless he's been getting up to the kind of scandalous-private-life stuff that keeps the tabloids in business, it's very unlikely they'll also say he must be an arrogant, badly-educated, horribly-flawed person, who's cheapened the good name of football for all the real, proper footballers out there who've worked hard to get where they are and have real talent... in other words, he'll be judged on what he's failed to do, not on how he's failed as a person.

Aaah... if only being a writer worked like that. But it doesn't.

This is because it is universally believed that, as a writer, you are what you write. And I think that's sort of true. I don't believe any fiction novel is a direct window into a writer's soul (otherwise the local cop shop should be deeply worried about people like Stephen King...) However, I think it certainly is true to say that, with every word you write, you're saying to the world "This what moves me, what hurts me, what makes me laugh, cry and get angry - this is why I think the way I do." That's very personal, because you're baring your soul  - and it hurts deeply if the overwhelming response to that act of bravery feels like the bully kid from The Simpsons pointing at you and going "Ha ha!"

When I was fifteen I wrote a short story. I'd written many short stories before then - even won a couple of competitions in fact - but I was particularly pleased with this short story because... well, unlike most of the ones I'd written before it, this one wasn't written specifically for anything, like a competition or a school assignment. I wasn't confined by pre-defined boundaries like subject matter or word count; it was just me writing about what I felt moved to write about, using as many words as I needed to tell my story. It came straight from my teenage heart, uncensored and raw, and when I finally wrote 'The End' in that pastel-papered A4 pad I decided it would be the first - heck, maybe even the best - of a collection of short stories I planned to write and publish. Like a real, proper writer.

A few years passed before I picked up that pastel A4 pad and read that story again. I'd been writing other stuff in the meantime and pretty much forgotten about this bygone 'masterpiece,' so you can imagine how excited I was to read it again and get that warm and fuzzy feeling about how good I was - even back then - at writing really emotional, sensitive stories...

Hoooo boy... was I ever in for a massive kick in my egotistical pants...

It. Was. DREADFUL. It read like a melodramatic, clichéd tale of "this poor heroine's life is TERRIBLE 'cause everyone around her is being SO UNFAIR - but - ha! In the end her life turns out to be BRILLIANT and everyone else's life is HORRIBLE 'cause they were so mean to her - so YEAH, CHEW ON THAT, BIG CRUEL WORLD!"

I had to face facts; it was not the great, emotionally-charged nugget of literary marvelousness I'd fondly imagined it to be; it was a whiny, self-pitying rant against everything the average moody teenager thinks is JUST NOT FAIR about their TERRIBLE LIFE... And - ooh, hell yeah - I was mortified that I'd ever written such drivel. So mortified in fact, that I spent the next twenty years writing other things instead; comedy stories, light-hearted plays and musicals, parody lyrics - anything but serious, gritty stuff. I made the decision that writing about things that affected me emotionally was something I should just never, ever do ever again... I clearly wasn't cut out for it, because look at the dog-poo I produced when I tried...

There's no doubt that godawful teenage story should never, ever be published. But it's only now I'm older, with more writing experience under my belt, that I realise it absolutely needed to be written. I had to get it out of my system; that and many other works I wrote in later years when I first began to dip my toes in the waters of Serious Writing again. To get to the clear, pure emotions of the story you really want to tell, you gotta purge an awful lot of sewage first...

It's only now, as I'm writing Draft Two of The Renegades, that I'm starting to regain the courage to dig into my emotions again. I've discovered an uncomfortable truth about this novel, which it took me a while to realise and may explain why it's taking me so long to write it; like that angst-ridden short story of my teenage years, telling this tale is requiring me to  delve into raw and vulnerable areas of my inner psyche. But I'm not that inexperienced teenage writer anymore; I 've learned a lot, both about writing and about life in general. This time around I can use all that pain and struggle with a more balanced perspective than I had back then.

So I guess that's my Musing For Today; when you first begin to dig deep and write from the heart, for a while you may only dredge up piles of steaming shit. But never let that make you afraid to keep doing it. Baring your soul in your writing is scary as hell, yes it is - but you have to keep doing it badly before you can learn how to do it well. Feel the fear of writing shit and do it anyway - and when you're afraid that everything you write for the rest of your life will be shit, write some more! Because the alternative is writing from 'behind the wall' - telling without showing, talking without understanding. Trying to tell your story without letting your reader peek into your soul is cold, dead writing. And your apprentice-level shit may be smelly, but at least it'll keep you warm until you can come up with something better.

And you will, Padawan - with time, practice and patience, you will...

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