And other emotional whiplash

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

My mother loves to tell the tale of how I wrote my first story at the age of three.

It was a comic book, believe it or not. I never really kept up with the illustrating side. I couldn’t animate to save my life, though I do a pretty acceptable landscape.

The “book” was six pages long, just about. In it a turtle went on a walk. That was the title too, just to ensure there was no confusion. The entire novel was done in crayon, on blue construction paper. My mom stapled the pages together, and thus an author was born.

I didn’t finish another story for anything but class assignments for twenty-two more years.

Now, don’t get me wrong. “Turtle Went for a Walk” was a smash hit, generating tons of non-critical acclaim. No one has done anything but encourage me to write all my life, and I often think of myself as a writer, even when I have done no such activities. I did try, fairly often, until I began to predict the results. I’d write, and I’d write, and for the first two hours, it would be exhilarating. I’d be consumed, whether I got to write that all at once, or over a few days. I’d spend far too much other time not writing but planning — outlining, describing, researching. I’d figure out where I wanted to write. Did I have a new journal? An app? A specific playlist I could use to concentrate? I’d eventually reach the end of page one.

And by the end of page two, I’d scrap it all, and cry for a while in the bathtub.

A lifetime of avid reading has given me an innate sense of my own writing’s quality. Page one was, objectively and in my own view, good. I’m great at beginnings. I’m reasonably confident in my endings too, actually, for all I rarely seem to get there. Occasionally, I’ll write the first page and the last, and move on to a new idea entirely. But something about the reality of middles throws me off. At some point, I have to stop writing, cut off my flow, and then try to come back to it. Picking it up and putting it down, stringing two separate ideas together — these are skills I have not developed yet. I have a short attention span sometimes, with more ideas than work ethic.

All of this adds up to a blow to my self-confidence on day two. Which, all in all, is amateur hour. And I know it.

But the biggest rookie mistake I make is to put my heart and soul into it.

Logically, when reading, one can tell what was written by an author of experience. An author that has tried, and failed, and has honed their craft so they can create a masterpiece. Every writer wants to do that too, to write their masterpiece and weave their perfect story.

I try to do it on my first try.

I expect perfection, even on draft 1, page 2.

Somehow that’s not working out.

It’s strange for me to say that I get ambitious. I’ve never felt more ambitious in my life than I have in the last few months, and I’m having trouble coming to terms with that. It’s not part of who I saw myself as. I was rarely one to want things for myself, instead passively hoping that they would come to me, or simply being content consuming what creative content others put forth for me. But there’s a perfectionist hiding deep inside, who comes out when I’m writing.

I don’t want to call her out or anything, but she’s a bit self-defeating.

To be honest, this article is turning out strangely similar to the last article I wrote about writing, where I talk about my fear of writing in a way that is simply mediocre. I didn’t realize when I sat down to type this that we’d end up here, but it’s true. My desire to write something special often manifests as the desire to write something profound and important. I’ve read too many classics, I guess, where there’s always a life lesson, a universal theme. I keep defaulting to an attempt to do the same.

As a person with the classic tag team of anxiety and depression, that just doesn’t work for me. Particularly not on the first try.

So many classic artists and writers have the “tragic backstory”. Half of them are diagnosable, even through the blurry lens of history, and almost all of them report being miserable. Without going into too much detail, I have some events in my past I could use as fuel like that. It would be nice, actually, to turn bad experiences into creativity. Something positive. A dash of heart, a piece of soul — that’s where a lot of good writing comes from.

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” 

— Ernest Hemingway

I’m not using a dash.

It’s like trying to make an entire dish out of nutmeg. Yes, nutmeg is amazing. It absolutely makes pumpkin pie and apple cider, which are some of my favorite things. But instead of peppering it in (that’s a spice joke. Get it?), I’m just eating a tablespoon of nutmeg. Which, according to google, can actually kill you. Or at least cause hallucinations and convulsions.

Which, from the outside, sounds kind of like the panic attacks that send me running to the bathtub.

I’m telling you, it is amateur month over at my house. Amateur life, so far. I like doing things right the first time. I have trouble accepting when that’s impossible. I can’t tell you if I need to write just about my particular traumas, to process them and get it out of my way, or if I just need to avoid them. Right now, probably I need to avoid them. I’ve tried to push through, write when I’m upset. Maybe that works for some. It doesn’t seem to fit my style though. Without fail, I produce the writing equivalent of puberty, a hormonal and angst-filled slop I want to burn upon reading. None of it feels true, after the fact, and I get terribly confused about who wrote that nonsense, and if they maybe need some help?

I guess I can write hard and clear about what hurts, it just has to be after the fact. Much after the fact. Alone in my room on a sunny Saturday, with some happy music in the background and a cup of coffee in my hand.

I am having some success. I’m not writing this article simply to complain, I promise. These are my excuses. For a terribly long time, I did not write, as I’d try too hard, burn myself up in a few hours, and be unable to write for days as I recovered. It wasn’t worth it, not for a single page that was often unusable. Too many times I’d written a pulsing, aching, one-dimensional version of myself in a fictional setting, a version limited only to a piece of pain I found lodged like a splinter in my soul. I wouldn’t even count it as fiction, just a rookie mistake whining on a page for the rest of always. It was embarrassing. And it made me feel like a failure.

So part of what I’m doing now is learning to relax. It’s funny, I love so many books that are simply fiction. A story to entertain, not to make some huge statement. Some do, of course, through the telling, and are better for it. But that’s not the point. I don’t know why I’m so adverse to writing my own. I’m convincing myself, slowly, to try. At least the first time. Probably also the second. Not necessarily because I want to. There’s a small, petty part of me, that wants to complain. And I’ve had to rein my hot and cold ambition back in, making a compromise that we’ll produce anything at all, only if my ambition will accept that the combo of quality and a statement piece are (at least currently) out of reach.

The recalibration is still in progress, to be frank. But it’s getting there. I’m not sure what my niche is yet, and a lot of what I’m doing now is simply finding a place to be comfortable. For now, the win is to keep going, keep writing as my whims see fit. I’ve burnt myself out a couple times already, actually. It’s only been a few months, so that’s impressive in the bad way. But I haven’t given myself a panic attack over this for a while, so I may have a writing career yet. Time will tell.

You can check out my other writing here, if you’re as curious as I am to find out.

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