On Being Bad
Posted by monicamynk
Post six in the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”
My students always want to get things right the first time and get frustrated when they can’t. My go-to answer is inspired by a quote from Thomas Edison. I often tell them, “Congratulations! You’ve just found one of the ways that won’t work. Now, go find another way.”
Writing can have the same effect. You pour sweat, blood, and tears into trying to paint a picture and it comes out all wrong. Someone critiques it and rips it into shreds. Unfortunately, that’s part of the process.
I cannot stress this enough. THE ONLY WAY TO BECOME GREAT IS TO FAIL!!!
Bausch’s next piece of advice is simple to understand and hard to do.
Be willing. Accepting failure is a part of your destiny _ learning to be willing to fail, to take the chances that often lead to failure in the hope that one of them might lead to something good. Be open for business all the time. You must try to be that person on whom nothing is lost. This does not mean that you are taking notes while people around you suffer. You are not that kind of observer. It means in the workroom you are willing to follow whatever you are dreaming presents you with – openly, without judgment or attitude or even opinion.
As in any life venture, nothing is gained if no effort is made. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who want to write but are afraid to do so because they think they can’t write anything worth reading.
So, here are a few things a beginner needs to accept.
1. At first, everything you write will be bad. Not just a little bit. All of it. And it will be very, very bad. That’s okay, though, because the more mistakes you make, the more opportunities you will have to learn. The only way to get better is to keep trying.
2. Someone, perhaps many people will reject your work in the early stages. Don’t be surprised if you get that same reaction you gave Aunt Lula when she handed you that ugly Christmas sweater last year. “Oh. That’s… nice.”
3. Every time you start to think you’re good enough to finish in one draft, someone will point out how bad you still are. You know who writes successful books? I’m convinced it’s really the editors. The author has a fabulous idea in their heads that they get down on paper, and the editor shows them how to reign it in and shape it up into something publishable. Even the greats, I’ve been told, rely heavily on their editors. That old advice you were given in school is always going to be true. You will never reach a point in your life where your writing does not need revision and reflection. That’s why I’m currently reading Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Best-case scenario is that you learn how to be that editor for yourself.
4. There is nothing so bad that it can’t be revised into something great. Professionals might disagree with me on this one, and that’s fine. I’m far from what I’d consider a proficient writer, but through critique groups, I’ve worked with many novice writers, and seen some terrible work. Some of them, I’ve helped the writer revise six or seven times before the piece has been shaped into anything resembling a story, but still, it gets better every time.
5. There are some things that just need to be discarded. Even though every bad piece of work you’ve ever written CAN be fixed, that doesn’t mean it should. Sometimes you have to just get rid of those “ugly babies” that are tainting your work and rewrite from a fresh angle. Don’t be afraid to let go of anything you’ve written, even if that means starting the story completely over from the first word of chapter one.
I love Bausch’s line that we must try to be the person on whom nothing is lost. It’s okay to be bad. We all were at first. Some of us still are. But as long as we are embracing every opportunity to learn and add something to our writer’s toolbox, it’s worth every drop of sweat, blood, and tears that we pour into it.
When you get bad feedback, don’t crawl up into a hole or whine about it to anyone who will listen. Just push up your sleeves and give it another go!