I Am The World’s Worst Writer And I Totally Suck
Posted by Alan Edwards
I go through crippling periods of self-doubt when it comes to my writing. Luckily, at the moment, I am not in one of those trenches of despair where every word I type including “Sincerely, Aravan” looks ungainly and wrong. Bad word choice. Probably spelled wrong even though there isn’t another way to spell it. Tone is flat, metaphors lame, characters boring, setting insipid, point pointless, and everything I’ve ever written should probably just be gathered and burned so I can crawl into the supply closet of some abandoned factory somewhere and never have to reveal my stupid face to the world.
Other days, I feel even worse.
If you’re a writer, or have ever written, or ever plan on writing so much as an email in the future, then I hope you go through this feeling of utter self-loathing several times in your life. Why? Because I am a small bitter person who takes some measure of meager self-satisfaction from the joint suffering of others and will take whatever mean-spirited path I need to in order to make myself feel better. But also because I think it makes you a better writer in the long run.
Somewhere in the world, there is a writer who feels a sense of calm satisfaction with every word she types. She has no doubt that everything she writes is exactly correct, the choices she makes with the language are flawless, and that the world at large could not possibly help itself but to admire her utter brilliance. If such a person exists in the world, my guess is that it’s probably Harlan Ellison. (Long Parenthetical Aside: I like Ellison’s stories. Not love, but like them well enough. Unfortunately, I read the Foreword from one of his short story collections recently, and came away with the impression that here is a man who thinks his shit not only doesn’t stink, but also feeds hungry children in Haiti, postulated string theory, and is currently ranked third worldwide in single’s tennis. I get confidence, I can handle a little bit of arrogance truly earned, but the level of hubris that oozed its way off the page made me want to shower with a cheese grater.) Anyway, if that person really exists, I hate her. Hate isn’t even the right word. Loathe comes close. I need a word that means “the feeling caused by the sight of someone who you’d give nearly anything in the world to see hoisted on a gigantic platform for the entire universe to witness getting humiliated in such a fashion that even single-celled creatures view them with derision.” You probably do too, if you’ve ever struggled to come up with just the right salutation for an email to your company’s CEO, or tried desperately to describe the scene in your head but suddenly discover that there aren’t any words in any of the 3 languages you know to explain that particular manner of foot-positioning.
But it’s OK, because
Ellison that person will never do the one thing that you do every time you type a word: Improve.
That’s right, those stupid plunges into frantic self-hatred are good for you. It means you don’t feel perfect. It means you aren’t convinced that you have no room to possibly get one iota better. It means you can still learn, and without that you’re just stagnant and predictable and doomed to exist in the same rut you’ve made for yourself. It’s a horrible tragic painful learning experience, like every other terrible gut-wrenching agonizing episode you’ll ever go through in your life.
I hate those times when I’m mired in self-doubt, when I don’t even want to look at the title of my horrendous mutant creation of a Word Doc. I become morose in all phases of my life. I stop blogging, I withdraw from my friends, I struggle to write the simplest emails. It honestly and truly sucks. But it also gives me a perspective I generally don’t carry. It exposes me to feelings that, although uncomfortable, will make me a better writer if I can tap into the memory of them when I want to describe something tragic. At some point, the feeling will pass, and I will own it and make it mine and hug it and pet it and call it George. I’ll use it at some point in my writing to describe how that person feels when they hit rock-bottom inside their own heads, the place they have the farthest to fall.
Or at least I hope so, because if I don’t get anything out of it then I totally want to be Harlan Ellison.
But I never will be, and I have to come to grips with those times when I hit my own mental Skid Row. Usually during the throes of self-flagellation I just stop writing, take a mental break for a while. Then, when I think I’m ready, I’ll take a story I’ve written that I normally like or a section of my book that I haven’t read for a while and read it again. My eye is super-critical, it’s true, but those times when I read something I’ve written and it can still make me smile a bit, or there is a turn of phrase I don’t have any conscious memory of writing but enjoy immensely, I can begin to feel a sense that I’m not the world’s worst writer after all, that I have a perspective worth sharing, that my ability to translate thoughts into words is at least somewhat operational. And that’s good enough.
And if that doesn’t work? I have a secret weapon. I generally don’t give advice, but here I will: get one too. It’s amazingly helpful. On a shelf at home I have access to what I consider the most god-awful pile of dreck that was ever written. It’s published by an actual publishing house, one of the places that rejected me. It’s awful. So every now and again I take it down and read some it, and I feel a little better. My novel may be a festering pile of shit, but it can only be the second-worst novel ever written. I take comfort in that. Because I am small and bitter and mean. So find that book or poem or play or whatever, that someone actually published, and think to yourself, I might suck, but this crap got published. Mine deserves to be too. And keep writing and learning and improving. That’s important too.