Writing sucks. We all know it, no point trying to lie about it. Sure it can be rewarding to yada yada yada, pouring inner truth onto a blank canvas, blah blah blah, uncover a smorgasboard of revelations… I don’t need to go down this road, right? I mean, if you’re here, wasting time on a blog about writing, you know this already, agreed? In fact, why the hell are you even here? Have you been staring at a white screen, or some words that need re-writing, and come to that awful realization that the second you start hitting those keys, you’ll begin teasing the end of a gross, scabbed-over band-aid that might take anywhere between two months to two decades to fully rip-off?
So you know what I’m talking about? I can move on? Thanks.
Every creative person will hit several points in their life when they have to question whether they’re genuinely getting better, or just treading water. Common sense dictates that yes, if you are working at it, you must be getting better. The tiny ant, given enough time, can indeed move the mountain. It’s just basic logic. Same logic that dictates turbulence on an airplane is inevitable and not a sign of falling, but rather a consequence of riding along varying patches of air. So why does my stomach flip and my heart race with the absolute certainty of death with every single bump, even the ones that are so modest they couldn’t even register a ripple in my diet Coke?
Well, I guess for the same reason that deep down, all us writers are certain we are failures. If you have any reverence for the art and craft of writing, you will always compare yourself to the first-rate writers that awakened your soul and lit the world on fire with words, and never to the hacks who eke out a living by luck and happenstance. And hence you are doomed, because your reverence hinges on the ultimate resolution that you will never be as great as the giants on whose shoulders you hope to stand.
Faced with such imposing standards, logic has no chance here. Your instinctive lizard brains tells you the probability of failing as a writer holds as much weight as a massive cylindrical conglomeration of steel and metal magically floating in the air. Your mind can measure the odds and point out that good writing is the product of hard work and determination, but your gut is holding onto the seat, screaming for salvation as he awaits an inevitable and fiery death.
However, like the tiny ant who ventures to move a mountain, you plug along, taking one seemingly blind stab after another, praying that this time you’ll write something you don’t hate with the core of your being like a demon hell child that tore up your insides and birthed itself on your laptop with all the grace of an alcohol-tinged sulfur fart. And then one day, that might happen, when you clear away yet another coal-black placenta and stare long enough and hard enough at that demon baby and say, “Hey, call me crazy, but as sacrilegious as this abomination might be, I’ll be damned if I can’t admit it has my mother’s eyes.”
That’s what we call a rough draft.
Did I lose you on the demon baby thing? Was that too much? OK, fine, you’re right. I’ll accept that note. Let’s go with something simpler, more common in the day-to-day terms us writers use when describing our work. How about… vomit? Does that work? Good.
So you keep at the writing/vomiting, but you never recognize any of your output. “What the hell have I been eating?” you might ask yourself. But then one day, like the plucky young ant grasping at its first kernel of dirt, you start to identify real bits of food in your vomit. Not much at first, a bite of an apple here, some mashed up corn over there. And then one day, should you be so lucky, you might even recognize an entire unchewed slice of pizza in that mess of froth and bile and say, “Holy shit! That’s totally still edible!”
So you take that horrid slice of what was once last night’s microwaveable pizza, and you gently wipe off the other bits of curdled pie and scummy tortillas in a process some people like to call “rewriting,” though I think that’s a bit too flowery a word for it. I prefer a more accurate term like “smearing,” as in “taking a napkin and smearing the gunk around until it goes from chunky undigested crap to an uncomfortable but less noticeable greasy sheen.” And then, oh boy oh boy, dare I say it?
We’ve got ourselves a first draft!
We package this first draft very carefully in some used wax paper we found in the garage, and we gently fold the edges to make it look vaguely presentable. Then we stand by that spot near the highway ramp that the other bums usually avoid because of the overbearing stench of ammonia and chloride from the pesticide company right next to it, and we try to convince the people in BMWs and Mercedes who stop at the traffic light that, yes, this is indeed a real slice of pizza. How would you like to buy it? And they laugh and say, “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
But wait! Don’t lose hope yet! Because just as they’re about to peel off, they offer a sliver of hope. “Hey, buddy,” they say, “If you ever make some mac n’ cheese, let me know. I love mac n’ cheese.” And then the light turns green and they’ve flown off with all the other fast, beautiful cars, speeding off to their studio lots and their towers of leisure.
Success! And why do we call that success? Because! The man in the car didn’t say “Ew! Get that vomit away from me!” He said “Next time, try selling me mac n’ cheese.” Which really, when you think about it, is a huge compliment! This guy in the BMW, this man of taste and achievement, has just inadvertently accepted your flimsy premise that this pizza was even edible in the first place! Hidden between the lines of his glib, indifferent dismissal, he just implied that you are a person who, despite perhaps selling a combination of tomato, bread, and cheese so rancid and unholy that you couldn’t even sell it at Domino’s, are still nonetheless a purveyor of what could feasibly be real, genuine food!
That’s what we call our very first taste of validation. For better or worse, you’re a writer now. Congrats, buddy! You earned it!
You can finally back away from the ledge of utter despair. You keep going. You focus on eating more mac n’ cheese. You vomit up more demon babies than you can count. (Yes, I’m mixing my metaphors now, but that’s because I’ve earned it with my validation!) Of course, you have to disassociate from the normal world and find a shack near the swamp so people won’t be able to hear the pained shrieks of horror as you introduce your mac n’ cheese-smelling demon babies into the world. But hey, it’s not so bad. You begin to recognize different things in your hideous offspring – macaroni fingers, bacon-bit toes, cheese-filled noses. And then one day, one of your demon babies will be fully formed enough that it stops trying to suckle your blood and actually wants to toss the old pig’s skin in the backyard. (Mind you, demon babies only toss an old actual pig’s skin, not a football, but hey, at least it’s progress, right?)
Meanwhile, you might take a moment every now and then to go visit your old friends in the real world, people who have real, human babies that spring from youthful and healthy loins rather than tepid vomit. In other words, people who are actually successful. And then you return to the swamp and look at your own little maggots fighting over the carcass of a dead alligator, and you have to wonder, how much longer can I do this?
And that’s what we call one day at a time.
One day, after you’ve grown accustomed to living in a house full of demon maggot macaroni babies, and you’ve long since given up trying to pawn off your bizarre and inedible offspring to the people who drive by on the highway, you begin to notice something. People from around town have been coming to visit your little shack in the swamp to see the freakshow family you’ve raised. To your shock and surprise, they want to know more about them, and about you, and about your “process.”
To which you respond, “Process? What process? They’re macaroni demon babies.” And upon saying those words, those people, people who you might have always thought to be successful, and happy, and bursting forth with creativity, look down at their shoes sheepishly. They step aside, revealing behind them their own brood of sushi-smelling dragon turds that might be able to breathe fire, but could never in a million years play with a pig’s skin the way your little macaroni maggots could. And then it hits you that maybe you’re not as bad as you think you are.
And that, in a way, is what I imagine true validation is. It’s not suddenly waking up and discovering you’ve written a masterpiece that will earn you some real estate on the shoulders of giants. It’s waking up and discovering that you’ve genetically engineered a bunch of mac n’ cheese demon babies in a way that no one else could or ever will, or would ever even want to. But now that they’re here, people still want to see ‘em, because hey, that’s some pretty freaky shit, right?
But beyond that, on a deeper level, is something a good writer friend of mine once told me: The better you get at writing, the less impressed you will be with your work.
Oh, and that guy in the BMW? Well, he stops by too, and tells you that it turns out macaroni maggot demon babies might not do well domestically, but they are a delicacy in the foreign markets, so, uh… cha-ching! (I fucking hope so, at least.)