Can you remember the first piece of writing you ever wrote that really made you cringe? That made you squirm with embarrassment and think "no-one must ever read this - I must burn it to ashes and then bury the ashes under fifty feet of concrete and then deny to my dying day that these ashes ever existed?" (Or, if you're not a teenage me, a little less melodramatic variation?)
If you can, I'm willing to bet it wasn't because that piece of writing was bad from a technical point of view (even if it was, as well.) No, I'm putting money on the actual subject matter being the source of mortification. What began in your brain as passionate stream-of-consciousness prose, pouring unchecked from the very depths of your soul, somehow morphed into one of those embarrassing mental home videos, like the ones your parents always pull out at family get-togethers, because remember how you messed up sooo bad and it was soooo funny when you got so cross because mummy was filming you looking like a prize tool...
Mine, as I've mentioned previously in this blog, was birthed when I was about fourteen. It was a short story about an elder daughter who was sidelined and ignored in favour of her beautiful, popular and much-more-loved-by-everybody younger sister, who also thought, along with everyone else in existence, that my heroine was a massive loser who would never amount to anything. Except - ha HA! - when they both became adults, it was the loser elder daughter who was living the happy, fulfilling life and all the people who ever dissed her who were suffering and discontent... for no discernible reason other than sad-sack teenage writer deemed it so! But of course it was completely fictional - no way on this earth the aforementioned SST-Writer was channelling her real emotions, oh no...
When I found that piece of writing several years later it was excruciating. What I saw wasn't just the scribblings of a young writer trying to grow her wings; I saw a teenager who was angry, confused and in a shitload of mental pain. Or as the nasty little grinch in my head put it "over-sensitive, self-absorbed and childish." And I didn't want to acknowledge that I'd ever been that teenager (because hey, no normal teenagers are ever like that, are they?) I wanted to be the capable, oh-so-together grown-up I was supposed to be, who didn't just let people walk all over her and then whine about how unfair life was. Nobody likes a Moaning Minnie - and I was pretty sure I had enough reasons already for people not to like me...
Think back to that piece of yours that makes you cringe - or, even better, if you've still got it somewhere go dig it out. It's okay, I'll wait. It it basically a fictional (or even non-fictional) smokescreen over past moments in your real life when you were actually, truly hurting inside?
That's probably why you hate it.
Hemingway called it 'bleeding onto the page' - when you draw on the very real pain, anger and confusion from your own life and use it to fuel your fiction. It's lauded as the thing all writers should do if they want their work to sing with truth, and definitely something most writers strive for in terms of improving at their craft.
But here's the thing; even the most stupid of people associate blood pouring out of their body in a place it's not designed to as a sign that something's gone horribly wrong somewhere. It usually scares enough crap out of them to motivate them into trying to stop it. And that same instinct kicks in when writers 'bleed' emotionally as well. It's bloody scary, seeing a page of your work, made by you and nobody else, covered in stuff that's supposed to be hidden away deep inside of you - where it belongs, thank you very much...
At first, when you're still a young writer - and I'm talking in terms of experience rather than actual age here - it can be too scary. You back away with this creeping sense that maybe you've gone a bit Dr Frankenstein, and this creature you've created might actually be a monster. You might get your Mr Rochester on and decide the best place to keep it is locked away in an attic, where no-one else can ever see it and be hurt by it and you can pretend it doesn't exist anymore. Or you might even summon up your inner Frodo and decide it must be cast back into the evil fires from which it was created and melted out of existence before it destroys the world. But ultimately, you walk away, because no-one wants to see your inner pain, right? Can't put it out there, all naked and raw, for others to see. It's too much, too personal. Too dangerous.
Most of the malformed corpses of stories I've abandoned in the past have fallen into this category. I got to a stage where I was starting to say things I wasn't comfortable with people knowing I was saying, and rather than sticking with it and writing through it, I walked away. It's partly why I switched to writing lyrics for so long; you can only 'bleed onto the page' in short bursts and at a more superficial level for a three-to-four-minute song, and I could handle that.
But now I'm writing Redemption, and it's not so much bleeding as ripping out my heart and smooshing it all over the page like I'm garlic-rubbing a chicken for the oven. There are more times than I can count when that feels hella wrong, believe me. If I had a pound for every time I've asked myself "should I be writing this?"... well, I could buy my own publishing company and self-publish the book without giving one single monkeys if no-one on the planet bought it, ever. But actually, that last point is the thing that's made the difference this time around.
This time around, I'm prepared to put myself on the line and let the potential audience decide. Give people the chance to hate it if they're going to, rather than decide for them that they will and then walk away, like I always did before. Warriors don't become warriors by being invincible right from the start; they have to cock things up a few times first, and then learn from the experience and do it better next time. And they certainly can't run screaming from the battlefield at the sight of their own blood.
If you're a writer, you're also a warrior - a Warrior of Words. We're gonna bleed, guys, and it's gonna hurt like hell. But it's part of the job, and what we signed up for even if we didn't read that in the small print at the time. So we might as well start getting used to it.
Next time something you're writing makes you think "Should I be writing this? Is this too much, too controversial? Is it wrong for me to put this in here?" look that Inner Grinch straight in the eye and say "Shuddup and let me write, dude." And keep right on writing it. Elbow-deep in all that blood. Your blood.
You earned the mental scars that helped you create that stuff, and this is your chance to own them. Not to endure them as some sort of Badge of Shame that you got for screwing up or not being good enough that one time, but to put them out there and say "Yeah, this is real shit and it happens, so let's deal with it."
Sure, some people won't want to. They might even jump on you for making them see this thing they'd much rather close their ears to and go "la la la, can't hear you so it doesn't exist." Not everyone is willing or able to face the things that scare them. Doesn't matter - you're not writing for them anyway.
You're a warrior. So get out there and fight.