(Or, How I Came to Learn to Write and How My Ego Got in the Way So Many Times, and How I’m Still Learning, and Still Stumbling Over My Ego)
2000. I have graduated from the Ohio State University only a few weeks before. It’s January. It’s bitterly cold. I have my first post-collegiate job, going door-to-door in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, soliciting donations and petitions for a citizen’s rights activist organization. It was my attempt to get a job that would make a difference in the world, and I was awful at it.
At night, I smoked pot and typed fragmented ideas into a digital journal or scribbled them into cheap memo pads that I carried in my back pocket throughout the day. I had an idea that I would spend the year after my graduation learning to write. By the end of that year, either I would have “made it” as a writer (I had no idea what that meant), and if not, then I would put the notebooks aside and head to grad school for philosophy to become a teacher. But I had been writing my whole life. I dictated my first stories to my mother when I was in first grade. This was my destiny. It was time to go for it.
Neither of those things happened. The canvassing job with the activist organization lasted about two months before I bailed and picked up a job for which I was much better suited: working at a bookstore.
Evenings and weekends, I continued to write furiously, writing story after story that exploded out of me like fireworks. By the end of the first year, I was sending out these stories to tiny magazines that paid only in contributor copies. I had this crazy notion that if I just published something, I would be on my way to success. I didn’t know anything!
After 37 rejection letters, I finally placed a story, “The Cloud,” in a tiny hand-printed magazine called “Eyes,” early in 2001. I have to admit that I was pretty excited to receive those two contributor copies. But that excitement quickly faded. As I read the other stories in the magazine, I realized they weren’t very good, and by extension, I realized that my own story wasn’t very good either. They were all competent stories, but not excellent stories. They were amateurish. And so was my own work.
Actually, I didn’t realize that all at once. It was something that sank into my subconscious over the next year or so. I was still sending out stories, but at a less-feverish pace. I had succeeded in selling a story to a non-paying market (twice, in fact) and it hadn’t made one whit of difference, except that I began to realize that my stories weren’t actually very good.
I kept writing out of stubborn determination and out of a need to do the thing that I have always wanted to do – be a writer. Sunday evenings I gathered with friends at Eveningland and sat with my thrift story typewriter on the front porch in a t-shirt and jeans, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and hammering out my next awful story. I carried a notebook with me everywhere and used to it record observations, to capture fragments of dialogue or ideas for other stories that came to me while running the cash register or playing cards with friends. I audited creative writing classes that a friend was teaching at Ohio State. I read every book on writing that I could find. I even revised my stories to try to make them better. I founded a tiny zine (The Floating Liars’ Club) with my fellows from Eveningland and used it to publish local writing (much of it ours).
It all sounds romantic and idealistic, doesn’t it? It was. There was an ugly side, too, one that I didn’t see until much later. Every time I finished a new story, I was convinced that it was the greatest thing that had ever been written. I was convinced that anyone who read this latest story would see its brilliance and would recognize my artistic genius! It was the kind of enthusiasm and excitement that helped me believe in myself in the face on long, desperate odds against success, but also a kind of blind ignorance of the fact the learning to write fiction well is a long, grueling process where it takes years, sometimes decades, of making garbage before you make anything worth reading.
Worse, I was judgmental against others’ bad writing. Not that of my friends – I worked hard to give my best feedback to them and loved and believed in their writing. But while reading submissions for the Floating Liars’ Club, it was easy to judge inferior work, failing to see the parallels in my own prose.
This story is an admission of guilt as much as a coming of age story.
Each year I would look back upon my own earlier work and be embarrassed by the shoddiness of it. That was one of the few clear signs I was improving as a writer, that I could see the flaws in my earlier work. Still I turned out short stories, and still they were awful.
<to be continued>