Ten Long Years and I’m Still Messing Up

I realized this week that I’ve been writing for ten years. Ten years! I’m young enough that that’s a significant portion of my life. I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, when I started writing my first novel. My parents had just gotten a new computer so they passed the old one on to me, ostensibly so I could do my homework more easily; but I had just discovered Lord of the Rings and the fantasy genre as a whole, and one day I opened MS Word and wrote a sentence that had popped into my head apropos of nothing. I don’t remember the sentence, but I do remember the thrill of it, and the whole blank page ahead of me.

And that was it, I guess. I fell hard with the writing bug, hard enough that I finished that novel and started on another. Maybe it helped that it had never occurred to me, at age fourteen, that I might not be able to write a novel. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

I still don’t think my parents have grasped the fact that that computer changed my life. Plus one for technology, I guess. Sometimes I think it’s unromantic, as if writing my first novel longhand on six different notepads with a set of special novel-writing gel pens would have been more appropriate or romantic, but that’s not how it happened. I became a writer because my parents gave me a computer, a clunky, beastly Gateway running Windows 95. A lot of programs crapped out on me over the years, but MS Word was not one of them.

It might also be worth noting that this was 2002, a mere few months after the 9/11 attacks, a full year before the Iraq War began: In other words, a time in which no one knew what the hell was going on. I was fourteen, naive and confused, trying to make sense of a world that was changing before I even had a chance to understand it. A lot of teenagers have to grapple with their understanding of the world, and I did so be writing. I learned who I was through my writing; I learned what I thought about things through my writing; I learned who I wanted to be through my writing.

Ten years later I have more skill and less confidence; I mess up less egregiously but I feel it more. And, somehow, I’m still trying to figure out the world and myself by writing.

Also this week, I decided to accept that the novel I’m currently working on has problems I can’t just push through. Not that the story isn’t salvageable, because I do think it is and I would still like to write it, but maybe all along I’ve been writing the wrong story. I have zero angst over the thought of rewriting — I happen to think rewriting is one of the more exquisite pleasures of the writing process. But still, to not even be able to finish the draft? I always finish my drafts. I’m a compulsive draft-finisher, charging to the end and leaving a path of gaping plot holes and inconsistencies in my wake. That’s just what I do.

Which is why I’m not doing it this time. Sometimes change is good. This time I’m taking a break. Time to reassess, make sense of all of this again. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the entire rest of my life appears to be in flux too. When it rains, it pours…)

They say (I’m not even sure who “they” are) that mastery over a skill only comes after a person devotes at least 10,000 hours to honing that skill. I used to be discouraged by that oft-repeated statistic, but not anymore. It’s more encouraging than anything else. You wrote the wrong story? That’s just a blip, it still counts toward your 10,000 hours. You still put in your time. You still have the characters; you can find the right story and tell it. And maybe you’ll master it this time — or the next, or the one after that.

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4 thoughts on “Ten Long Years and I’m Still Messing Up

  1. This makes me feel tired and energized all at once. I have never been good with or excited about rewrites, but I do like your way of looking at the mastery thing. I’ve honestly never thought of it like that before, but it does make sense. I’m writing my fourth novel now, and I do learn several big, new things with each one. Each time, it breaks my heart to acknowledge that this book still might not be “the” book, but it is nice to know that either way, it will help get me to where I want to go.

    1. Lura Slowinski

      I love rewrites, possibly even more than drafting, but I think I’m in the minority on that one. I’m also weird in that accepting that this novel had gone astray made me feel better than if I had decided to keep going. I already have some thoughts about improvements for the second draft, so although it seems like a step backwards to me it feels like a step forward.

  2. linda

    Congrats on the new perspective! I need this, too. I am so afraid of messing up that I put off actually starting the project I’ve been thinking about, because I feel like I don’t have things figured out yet. Maybe I should just go for it and take the leap.

    1. Lura Slowinski

      I don’t think I ever really feel like I have things 100% figured out, but then again I’m a “pantser” so I have to write it first to figure out what I’m trying to do. Or, in this case, what I’m not trying to do. Messing up is part of the process, but it’s the part that helps add clarity in the first place.

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