Everything You Write Is Terrible
(But It Gets Better)
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.
You need to start somewhere.”
— Anne Lamott
At the hormonal and complicated age of 14, I held no desire, secret or otherwise, to be a writer. My dream was to be a professional footballer. Schoolwork bored me. I found writing essays and book reports tedious, although I had an aptitude for English. Then one day my teacher assigned the class coursework: we had to write a short story based off the title A Moment Of Crisis. He didn’t specify what we had to write about, just as long as it was inspired by the title.
In those days, before the writing bug bit me, I hated writing of all kinds, but especially creative writing. For whatever reason I’d convinced myself I didn’t have an imagination, and wouldn’t be able to pen anything interesting anyway. Poems, stories, novels, they all seemed like hard work with no possible upside. Hard work for the sake of it, which is the worst kind. My poems were always acrostic because I was too lazy to construct something original from scratch, and my stories, up until that point, were always written by my mum — along with the rest of my English coursework.
But something compelled me to give this one a shot.
Mr. Judelson gave us a deadline and the class hunkered down to work. The person next to me began writing a drama about her father — I’m assuming she had skeletons in her closet she needed to dig through. Behind me, a girl chose an even deeper subject: her story revolved around a teenager sitting outside a waiting room, deciding whether to abort a baby or not. I still remember those two stories, because at the time they seemed too bleak to me. Boring and lifeless. Who gives a shit about abortions or absent fathers? I wondered.
My attention span has always been on the small side. If I’m not entertained fairly quickly, I switch my brain off and move on to a different task. I’ve long suspected I have some type of ADHD. Fortunately I’ve been able to focus that extra energy into my work, which not only keeps my mind occupied but gives me an outlet. If I don’t have a book in my hand, or some work to edit or write, or a TV programme to watch, I feel lost. I hate not doing anything. Maybe I’m just a workaholic or unsatisfied with life. I’ll ask a shrink one day. Either way, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to write a boring incest abortion drama. I wanted to write something that would get the heart pumping: meaning action, blood, gore, and a couple lipstick lesbians to decorate the cake. So instead of taking the route of my nearest classmates — plumbing the depths of their emotions for something deep and literary — I chose to write something closer to a film scene: a bank heist.
Probably in an attempt to rebel against my teacher, or the school system, or whatever constricted me at the time, I filled my story with swear words, sex scenes, and gratuitous violence. I didn’t think it was allowed, but I stuck it all in there anyway. I figured if I was being forced to write, I might as well get some enjoyment out of it.
Which I did. Although the story was terrible in almost every way.
Zero thought went into the construction of my story. On top of that, many of the scenes made little to no sense. It was like a Michael Bay movie: I was blowing shit up for the sake of it. Everything lacked context or motive. One scene in the early version was so horrific my mother forced me to cut it out. At the time she’d been typing the story up on her computer at work — we either didn’t have a computer at home yet, or it was broken. I can’t remember. In any case, she stopped typing and refused to add the scene into the final version. (She also changed I’m scared shitless to I’m scared enough to shit myself because she hadn’t heard of the word shitless before. But that’s irrelevant.)
The scene she cut involved one of the main criminals in the bank heist penetrating one of the hostages with his pump-action single-barrel shotgun, using the weapon as some kind of metal dildo, fucking this girl on the bank floor until she orgasmed. Her screams of delight coincided with the criminal pulling the trigger — a double explosion, so to speak. I still remember the scene vividly. I thought it was hilarious, smart, groundbreaking, edgy and it probably derived from too much Eminem and maybe a sublayer of teenage misogyny. Who knows? Thankfully, though, my mother forced me to cut it out.
My point is: I wrote it in the first place. I then read it back and thought it was good. And it wasn’t. It was a ridiculous, utterly unrealistic, and quite possibly offensive and needless scene. At fourteen I had no idea what I was doing.
When I finally handed it in to be graded, I expected the work to be torn up, and I thought I’d be sent to the Head Teacher’s office to be told off. Instead, Mr. Judelson loved it and gave me a B-plus. He called it “terrifying” and “inventive” and praised it to the roof. I recall him reading some of it to the class.
Looking back, however, the story was horrible.
Badly written and amateurishly executed.
But I wrote it.
My second story wasn’t much better. It might even have been worse. HiJack was written without any assignments set by my teacher. It was about — nothing, essentially. It followed a character called Jim Sullivan as he gets a flat tire and pulls to the side of the road. Out of nowhere (and for no discernible reason) some people try to shoot him. He deals with them, and then a drunken tramp wanders along the motorway and attacks him. He deals with him too, but then runs across the road to escape the police and gets hit by a truck, which somehow snags his top and drags him five miles before stopping. The hero then unhooks himself and claws his way toward a nearby gas station, which, inconveniently (and randomly) is being held-up. He crawls across the floor in time for the masked robber to blow the store to pieces. That’s basically the gist of it. I don’t need to tell you how bad it is — you can see just from the outline.
And it didn’t get much better.
My third story was also a letdown. And my fourth and fifth. I have a folder full of my early failed attempts. Half-finished novels, half-finished stories, completed stories which would have been better off half-finished, poems, raps, children’s books — I wrote everything; and in those early exciting days I thought they were all amazing. Every single thing I wrote seemed to be a gift from above wrapped in gold. My ego was moon-sized and even when I detected flaws in my writing, I still believed it was greater than most.
In hindsight, they were so bad it’s almost unbelievable. I look back on that work and try to decipher the mindset that created them, but I don’t remember him.
I don’t remember me — not that version anyway. I was a terrible writer.
You’ve probably heard the phrase It’s darkest before the light.
Well, my writing world was pitch — fucking — black.
Now, over fifteen years later, I’d like to think I’ve improved somewhat. It took a while: partly my youth was a reason. I had a lot of dumb kid shit to get out of my writing system — immature ideas, juvenile humour, etc. I didn’t particularly care about school either, which meant by the time I grew serious about my craft I had to relearn grammar and spruce up on my skills. On top of that, I read a lot of books on story construction, character creation, plot formation, etc. — soaking in a library’s worth of writing advice and learning through trial and error. For a long time my stories, in spite of my newly found wealth of knowledge, were still of low quality. It took months (maybe even years) of honing until I at least hit a level of competency. And I’m still in the apprenticeship stage: learning, growing, building toward a bigger future.
So if you’re doubting yourself right now, stop it. Everything you write might well be absolute trash. You can see it, your friends can see it, probably even your family — everyone knows you’re writing piles of dragon shit. But unlike singing, where perhaps you need an in-built aptitude and the right type of lungs or natural ability to hit the high notes, writing can be learned. Maybe not direct from teachers and manuals, but through constant repetition and revision, and also by approaching your work (and that of others) with a critical mind, you’ll naturally improve.
And even though some of your bad traits may linger on regardless, a lot of the time those traits are what define us — it’s the idiosyncrasies of our craft that make us stand out and gives us a unique voice.
Just don’t give up because you’ve written a few bullshit stories. That doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you’re learning. Babies don’t come out of the womb knowing how to walk and skate and play football. They pick it up as they go along. They practice. You’re doing the same. The only difference between someone who’s good and someone who’s terrible is that one of them kept on going. It’s imperative you practice, and lots.
It’s not acceptable to write a novel for three months, then take a year break and start again. How does that work? Every time you begin learning the process, you go away and the memories fade and your writing muscle weakens. You’ll take one step forward, two steps back and always fight an uphill battle. A week off here and there is fine, but never longer than a month. Train your writing the same way you would your body. If you do that, I guarantee you’ll stop producing subpar work or awkward prose.
One day, years later, you’ll look back on your early efforts and cringe. But you’ll also look at your current writing and realise how much you’ve progressed. And that’s when you’ll know all the hard work and tears has been worth it.
Just don’t ever give up. Keep fighting, keep writing, and you’ll make it.
Put your heart into your work and don’t stop until it stops.
That’s the only thing that really matters in this game.
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