Aspiring writers often ask me, “What the most important piece of writing wisdom you wish you knew when you were just starting out as a writer?” My answer is never what they expect. It’s not the tried-and-true “show, don’t tell” or “kill your darlings” advice we’ve all heard time and time again. It’s something much simpler. And in my opinion, something that would have saved me years of frustration, self-doubt, and self-judgment.
My most important piece of writing wisdom:
I’ve been writing seriously for over ten years now. And by “seriously” I mean writing novels and short stories with an eye toward publication. I’ve published one nonfiction book, and one work of autobiographical fiction. I also coach writers, so I’ve edited countless manuscripts.
Last month I finished the first draft of my next nonfiction book. I’ve spent the last year reading and researching, and the past six months painstakingly writing out each chapter. “I’ve got this,” I thought to myself all summer long. “I finally know what I’m doing.”
Then, a week ago, I read through the entire first draft.
And immediately went into the black pit of despair.
If you’re a writer you know what it’s like to have a “writer’s brain.” You meet people for one second and get caught up fantasizing about their life stories. Your imagination goes into overdrive just from hearing a song on the radio. You get so attached to characters in books that you have extreme emotional reactions whenever anything bad happens to them.
Your brain never stops moving. It never stops plotting, dreaming, building, investigating, and finding new roads to travel down.
This is the blessing of being a writer—and the curse.
I had a really bad time in a creative writing class I took in college.
It was my senior year and a very small class. I desperately wanted to write, but I was having huge problems even finishing one page. Everything I wrote felt clumsy, awkward, and stupid. I was also introverted, super sensitive, and just plain weird. On top of this, the other students in the class seemed to know exactly what they were doing. They seemed to be clicking with the teacher, and handing in work that aligned perfectly with her expectations.
And the teacher did have firm expectations, that much was clear. She seemed very knowledgeable about publishing and what people wanted to read. She had a lot of opinions on what we should spend our time writing, and what would be a waste.
I grew up in a family of alcoholics.
For many people it takes a lot of time to admit that, but for me, it took a lot of time to even know that. As an adult, when I started delving into 12-step programs, I heard horror stories about what it was like to grow up in an alcoholic family. Parents who frequently got arrested for drunk driving or getting into bar fights. Parents who were physically or verbally abusive when they got drunk. Parents who took off for days and weeks at a time on binges.