September 25

Have you ever been embarrassed of your writing?


    Have you ever looked back on some of your writing from 5, 10, or 20 years ago and thought, “Who was that person writing? Was that really me?! Good Lord, how awful.” In that moment, you can so easily become trapped between wishing you could go back to fix mistakes you’d made and fearing the mistakes you’re making now that you won’t even realize for another 10 years. How do you move past feeling embarrassed of your writing?

    Stephen King offers an interesting perspective in his foreword to the first book in The Dark Tower series, which he began writing at age 19 (1970). Over the last 42 years of his writing career, King has become one of the most prolific and best-selling authors in history, yet The Dark Tower remains unfinished.

    In 2003, King revised the first book of The Dark Tower series and released a second edition. Can you imagine, 52-year-old King revising the work of 19-year-old King? King offers this remarkably poignant reflection of his younger self as a writer:

    …I should say a word about the younger man who dared to write this book. That young man had been exposed to far too many writing seminars, and had grown far too used to the ideas those seminars promulgate: that one is writing for other people rather than one’s self; that language is more important than story; that ambiguity is to be preferred over clarity and simplicity, which are usually signs of a thick and literal mind. As a result, I was not surprised to find a high degree of pretension in Roland’s debut appearance (not to mention what seemed like thousands of unnecessary adverbs). I removed as much of this hollow blather as I could, and do not regret a single cut made in that regard. In other places—invariably those where I’d been seduced into forgetting the writing seminar ideas by some particularly entrancing piece of story—I was able to let the writing almost entirely alone, save for the usual bits of revision any writer needs to do. As I have pointed out in another context, only God gets it right the first time.

    In any case, I didn’t want to muzzle or even really change the way this story is told; for all its faults, it has its own special charms, it seems to me. To change it too completely would have been to repudiate the person who first wrote of the gunslinger in the late spring and early summer of 1970, and that I did not want to do.

    Here are the points that King’s foreword illuminated for me:

    We will all be embarrassed of our previous efforts at writing At least, we should hope to be embarrassed because we want to learn and grow as writers. This is a natural part of becoming the writer you were meant to be and the writer you want to be. If you’re too afraid to start, you’ll never grow, and you’ll never have the pleasure of being embarrassed of your earlier work.

    Even the greatest writers begin at the beginning. Never assume that the writer whom you admire put pen to paper and began forming golden letters. The only way to learn how to write is to accumulate massive word counts.

    Finding your true voice is more impressive than trying to impress the reader. It’s one of the great frustrations of watching the immature grow. When we’re immature (think: high school), we worry constantly about how we’re perceived. As we mature, we come to realize that the only people that matter are the ones who like us for who we really are.

    It’s the same with finding your true (mature) voice in writing. The more you strive to impress your reader, the more distance you put between yourself and the reader. Only when you give up trying to impress your reader and embrace your own intrinsic value will you establish a true connection with your reader. Finding your writing voice takes time, word count, a self-reflection.

    As King would say, give up any lust you have for ambiguity and pretension, and, instead, embrace clarity and simplicity – there you will find your true voice.

    What about you?

    Have you ever dared to look over some of your previous writing? Did you cringe? Were you proud of the progress you’ve made? Did you have some other reaction?


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