Realizing that you suck at something is the first step toward getting good at something. I didn't know that I sucked at writing when I started my practice, but I learned pretty quickly. After a few months of diligently writing in notebooks every day, I felt confident enough to read through some of the things that I had written.
Committing an idea, a phrase, a sentence to the page is always a minor act of courage. Private words in the mind become public domain when they're written down and they can't be taken back. Whether anyone actually does read them is immaterial, the fact is they can be read now. Writing and reading have a symbiotic relationship with each other, they create a conversation between the writer and the reader that is still intimate despite its unidirectionality.
I sat down with my notebooks to read what I had written, hoping to enjoy the brilliance of my imagery and the flow of my prose. Instead, I found this in my first draft of Chapter Two:
Then I fell in love with a girl. The White Stripes said it best,
Idiots indeed. I was embarrassed, sitting alone in my room with no one else to know the atrocities I had committed. In truth, I'm embarrassed to share it now, because it's such a clunky attempt at describing something delicate that it loses all of the sentimentality I was trying to capture. Some of the details are good, but some are wholly unnecessary to the story I was trying to tell, like I didn't know what to pay attention to and instead wrote down everything.
Hating my own writing became instructional. I printed out the pages of what was then Part I and took a red pen to it, crossing out phrases, correcting punctuation, and annotating corrective reprimands in the margins like, "Stop addressing 'you,'" "Never say 'made way for,'" and "Never say, 'first order of business" with all of the ferocity of a samurai warrior. I've never been a very sentimental person.
My reaction to the junk I saw on my own pages was one of visceral shame and anger. I was angry that I had written something so stupid so permanently, where only the social contract prevents people from discovering it. What if I died tomorrow and all that was left of me were my notebooks? I wouldn't have the chance to say, "No, wait! That was just a practice page! You don't have to take those words seriously, I didn't mean them!" I would lose my chance to defend myself and my struggling attempts to write.
People think that writing is a series of House-like epiphanies that precede marathon sessions of hands flying across paper or fingers tapping on keys, that a moment of inspiration spurs the writer to empty themselves onto the page, but the truth is not so romantic. It's certainly true that those moments of inspiration happen, I have lost myself in my work and looked up after immeasurable time with tears on my face, but that came later.
Before those neural and motor pathways were receptive to such surges of inspirado, I had to try and fail and try and fail to write. Over and over again, I would write what was on my mind and in my heart, agonizing over word choice and sentence structure. I would come back a week later to sift through the rubbish and hope to God no one else ever learns how poorly I express myself. My whole life has been spent with the best literature in history, so it's possible that my standards were set too high, but what's the point of having goals if they don't make you reach? Dad always said, "When you can reach the bar, it's time to raise it."
Failure is a great teacher. When I saw the same phrasings and similes over and over again, I learned what "avoid clichés" really means. It doesn't necessarily mean to avoid something someone else has already said, or to eschew memetic clichés, it means, "don't use the same turn of phrase so much it becomes meaningless."
It's okay to hate your own writing, especially if you're just starting out, as long as it doesn't stop you from writing more. The secret to writing is writing, and there will be plenty of opportunities to cut out the shit. By the time I was finished with The Total Manageability of Everything, I had cut more than four hundred pages, and that was just from the previous draft! The one before that had even more to cut. Hating the bad parts of my writing allowed me to see more clearly what was good, what belonged, and that's a critical part of the whole process.