Yes, we’ve all done it, we’ve all been through that awkward stage of youth and learning when our limbs are growing faster than we realize, so clumsiness follows us around like a hex – The same applies to our minds and our logic, which somehow expands before we are really capable of handling it, so we really would be better off not jumping in and speaking, because without a doubt we will suddenly show the world, in a most embarrassing way, just how little we know or just how stupid we can sound.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all said, done and written stupid things. We’ve all embarrassed ourselves.
It’s part of growing up, part of learning. Mistakes teach us things. Embarrassment teaches us things even faster. That’s fine. It sucks at the time, but it really is okay. The big thing is – Don’t judge your writing by your learning curve.
Not all, but most writers start writing while young. Most of them struggle with expression at much the same time as they struggle with everything else – puberty, school, relationships, and How Not to be a Dork.
I was writing sex scenes through puberty. Don’t laugh, my hormones had control of my brain. No knowledge entered the equation. It was mostly fumbling about and kissing, and then I’d hide everything I’d written for fear my mother would see it. Indeed, around that age I very deliberately taught myself shoddy handwriting so that nobody could read it (that backfired on me badly when several years later I found I couldn’t read it either. Go figure).
Now, while I’d love to show you examples of what I mean and entertain you with my long ago juvenile and humorous attempts at writing lust and sexual mayhem, such distant papers are fortunately sadly no more, and my memory refuses to cooperate. However, there were plenty of mistakes made in regular day-by-day stuff writing, too.
These were the expanding-beyond-my-reach sort of clumsy, the don’t-open-your-mouth and definitely don’t-put-pen-to-paper type of clumsy. These mistakes weren’t so much the stupid you-don’t-know-anything mistakes, more the amateur you-don’t-know-your-craft sort of mistakes.
What I will share in a few minutes won’t have you rolling on the floor, and it’s not verbatim – such leftovers seriously were burned many, many years ago. I remember it, though, because the result was the sort of foot-in-mouth hilarious on the surface and, true to young teenage perception, I was totally oblivious to it at the time.
When I did see what I’d done, I wasn’t too embarrassed (because nobody else saw it), but I was deeply disappointed.
I’m sharing this with you all because it’s a prime example of misrecognition. I saw it and I perceived myself as incapable of writing. Ever. I might have given up then and there, and that would have been a mistake – because, although my efforts at the time seemed poor, I was young, foolish, eager, clumsy and learning.
I was maybe 15 years old. I’d been trying my hand seriously at this writing-thing for about three years, scribbling notes and “wonderful” prose that was, of course, mostly junk – My dreams were new and my intention was strong – too bad I couldn’t write for toffee.
Young and aspiring writers bump into all sorts of realizations very early on. The first shock is that writing is hard work. The words don’t flow forth with poetic majesty to effortlessly mold themselves into stunningly spectacular mental images. You actually have to think about them and work with them. Not just some of them, either, but all of them. You have to learn the Craft.
The next shock – and probably the biggest of all of them – is realizing that you’re just not that good at it yet. That’s the worst one, the real killer. That’s the one that makes more people put down the pen than anything else. Why? Because people judge themselves and their work against the biggest and the best. They judge where they are now with where they want to be.
Back then, every time I read something amazing – some piece of action or a description that just so swept me away, I wanted to weep. I would look at it and think, this was what I want to produce, amazing things like this, and I would wonder how they did it. I would also despair of ever getting there.
One of my weaknesses was assuming that people saw what I saw. This is a common fault and easily done. That meant things get left out that shouldn’t.
Okay, now this memory isn’t particularly special, but stands out in my mind for really clapping me upside the head.
The scene had a policeman in it, at a police station. This was set in the future, so he had armor and a helmet in a fantastic and futuristic design (which I couldn’t describe so didn’t bother), and a conversation took place across the front counter. A serious conversation. It was a serious scene. God knows what the dialogue was like, it’s probably fortunate that I really can’t remember it, but at some point – just to add a “touch of realism” – the policeman put his helmet down on the counter off to one side.
Now there’s nothing wrong with that. I thought it added “that little something” and that it was probably one of my best paragraphs so far, containing a nice bit of detail. Smugly, I wrote on.
I forgot about the scene. Many months later, when I read back on what I had of this *cough* *cough* masterpiece, I had not only forgotten the scene, I had forgotten what the scene should be, which means that I had no pictures in my head falsely showing what I imagined everyone else would see. What I was seeing was the raw reality of my art and the stark differences between what I saw in my mind at the time of creation and what I words I used to describe it. I saw what was.
There was the police station. There was the policeman. And there, halfway through some pretty bland dialogue, the policeman pushed his helmet to one side. Trouble was, nowhere had he taken it off his head. It looked and read and felt as though this guy had reached up and twisted his helmet halfway around for no reason whatsoever, then continued on with the discussion as though nothing had happened. All a reader could see was this idiot with his helmet skewed sidewise, as though he was deliberately playing silly-buggers.
Nothing shoots a writer out of the water faster than a scene like that. That’s why I can’t remember the dialogue. Whatever I was trying to convey disappeared in a puff of ridiculousness.
OF COURSE he would have taken off his helmet, it’s just plain COMMONSENSE, right? Only it was clearly not the picture I painted, which I saw very clearly when I approached with no preconception. I had made assumptions that what I saw would come across clearly and that everyone would see exactly what I did.
I laugh now, but that was a dark moment for me back then. That was a between-the-eyes poleaxing moment – the biggest and best example of I Couldn’t Do It.
Your own bumping-into-reality moments might not be as bad as that. Or they might be worse. Point is, those are the times when your lack of skill stings the most and you realize that not only are you a klutz, but that if you pursue this dream, eventually everyone else will see that you are a klutz, too.
Being shy and retiring creatures, a lot of young writers pull back from that. It’s understandable, no one wants to embarrass themselves. It’s also wrong, because tripping over yourself like that is the very thing that teaches you coordination that eventually turns into elegance.
I didn’t like that lesson at all at the time. It highlighted my clumsiness, my lack of finesse. And yet after that I was very aware of the differences between what I saw in my mind and what I wrote on the page. It was a very valuable lesson.
What I wanted to show the world was a movie, but all I had to show it with was words, and that meant describing everything. That hurts, too, because – primarily – it takes too long and you know it’s taking too long, but you’re trying to capture everything.
Which is another lesson again – one I might save for another day. Meanwhile, happy writing, everyone, and DON’T be rough on your art or yourself!