We all have days where we look at our work and want to vomit. Sure, the piece isn’t actually wafting off revolting stenches like a Whole Foods giving out samples of durian, but it looks rotten to the core. Words slouch in the the wrong places, lackluster sentences populate paragraphs like capri’d retirees wondering what’s next, and the rhythm is as lacking as that of a middle school orchestra. For me, today is that day.
It’s not that I truly believe I am the worst writer on the face of the earth. As my father used to tell me, just as there is always someone better than you, there’s always someone worse. I have my moments of pride and self-delusion. Still, we live in a world saturated with good writers, and trying to stand out is hard.
I was naive and young once. (Witness me telling myself I’m no longer young and naive.) I wrote books no one had ever even proofread and submitted them to actual publishing houses. (To be fair, I was fourteen and had no idea how publishing worked.) When I was a much wiser eighteen year old, I did kind of the same thing. I put two years into a book, this time writing and rewriting it. I queried agents. Some of them even asked to see larger segments of the manuscript. Still, nothing came of it. I didn’t have the endurance to keep going through the querying process, or, as I came to understand it, the rejection process.
My point is that sometimes, writing feels pointless. You can pour years into a project and see nothing come of it, but that’s the painful reality of this craft. What we have to do when that happens is pick ourselves up and try something new. I’ve come to realize that if you can’t do this, then you don’t have what it takes. Sure, J.K. Rowling was rejected plenty of times before Harry Potter became a smashing success, but we aren’t all going to have that happy ending. When you get rejection after rejection, maybe your work isn’t good enough, and at that point, you have to accept it and strive for something better.
But how do we go about becoming better? Because I graduated recently, this has been a primary concern for me. Without the resources of professor critiques and workshop sessions, improvement can be a challenge. Personally, I’ve come up with three key fixes to this post-school solution.
You’ve heard it a thousand times: writers read, and they read like writers. Pick up books with writing styles that appeal to you. Personally, I adore Donna Tartt and David Mitchell. I’s drawn to descriptive, imagery-rich prose, so this is what I read. However, When I read, I don’t just read for the story. Reading like a writer means unwrapping details and unpackaging the structure of the plot. See how every detail matters. Study dialogue patterns. Emulate this in your own writing. Again, every little thing must connect to the broader theme or story.
Connect with other writers
Connecting with other writers is one of the best ways to ensure that you keep writing and keep getting feedback. Before I graduated, I exchanged phone numbers with a classmate who is also working on a novel. We’re also both deciding to devote our lives to the risky business of creative writing, unlike some of our other classmates who were a little smarter about their choices of profession. While they’re off scouring Linkedin for job, my writing buddy, Evely, and I are content working our barista/library gigs so we have time to improve our writing. (Because writing is not just a hobby. It requires time.) Evely and I are meeting once a week this summer to discuss rewrites and edits one chapter at a time. I have already noticed significant improvement in my coherence and flow. I am slowly very fortunate to maintain a connection with my creative writing professor, who is currently helping me improve a short story for my graduate submission portfolio and publication. Most writers have a tendency to tear themselves down as awful. Then, the next day we have ourselves believing that we’re great. It’s a precarious balance. To see with eyes unclouded, just get a second opinion. My point here is that working with others writers will help because you’ll get a clear picture of the issues in your writing. You may tease out new ideas and themes together.
The key to writing is writing. Talk the talk, walk the walk. I try it write every day, even if it’s only a couple hundred words. If anything, I am at least journaling and brainstorming every day. I carry a journal wherever I go, and I jot down ideas as they come to me. Don’t get we wrong–plenty of pages in my journal are filled with complaints about my personal life, which currently resembles a a flaming pile of trash hurling down a chute. Whether you’re blogging, journaling, poetry-ing, prosing, or just spilling thoughts onto an empty Google Doc, it’s still writing. Try to do it as often as you can.
That’s all my post-graduate wisdom. Listen to me, I graduated Summ Cum Laude, and I’m trying to be a good writer.
Good writer? Bad writer? To an extent, those terms are subjective. The key detail is that good writers try. Being a writer means always striving to become better. So, when you look back on a piece you wrote two years ago and cringe, understand that the cringe is rooted in growth. You’ve already improved enough to understand that your previous work could be better, and you’re going to improve to the point that you can change your writing as you move through it.