Before I was anything else, I was a writer.
I was probably eight or nine years old the first time that I sat down and wrote a story on my own, not for a school assignment, not because anyone asked me to, just because I wanted to. I still remember most of it, it was about a teenager whose friends are all getting matching tattoos of this demon/monster and his parents won’t let him get tattooed with his friends. So he storms out of the house and runs off with his friends to get tattooed. But they find out afterward that the tattoo is some kind of occult symbol that transports them into a parallel dimension. I don’t remember exactly what happens in the alternate dimension but I remember that he eventually finds a way to communicate with his family and get home. It wasn’t very good, heavily influenced by my love of Goosebumps, but it was the earliest indication that I wanted to write.
In the twenty or so years since I wrote that first story, I’ve written lots of stuff: poems, short stories, essays, novels, plays, &c &c &c. In high school, I think I showed some real promise for no other reason than because I wrote and read so much. But I never really treated writing like work; I never strived to get “better,” I just did it. And so I wasted what early potential I had by never cultivating my writing like a skill. This is probably the number one reason that I am a bad writer: I’ve never treated my writing like a skill to be improved.
For me, writing has always been more or less a biological process like breathing. Stimuli go into my brain, and writing comes out in one form or another. If you inhale, you must eventually exhale. The only way I could really avoid writing would be to avoid living.
You breathe everyday, and you do it without thinking. And if one day in your thirties you decided to take up yoga, or swimming, or a woodwind instrument, you would come to the disconcerting revelation that while you have been breathing your whole life, you aren’t terribly good at it. The very idea of being good or bad at breathing would probably confuse and upset you. It sounds absurd that it’s only in my thirties that I’ve decided that perhaps I should try to be a good writer. It’s embarrassing for me.
From a young age, I have been fixated on reading “the classics.” Part of this drive comes from resentment about growing up poor and uncultured in a family of heroin addicts and drunks. Like the main character in Six Degrees of Separation, I had this idea in my head that education, literature, and “culture” would magically pull me out of the mire. Of course it didn’t, it just made me a novelty — the starved, unwashed bookworm. Only money pulls you out of the mire; the rich don’t actually care about literature and culture.
Another part of my obsession with the classics was the idea that reading “great” writers would help me be a “great” writer. But I missed the point; I was trying to be “great” rather than trying to be good. Greatness is often a product of history. Every writer would love to be remembered as a genius, but in the moment folks like Twain and Melville were just trying to pay their rent. They were trying to be good and leaving greatness to the judgment of history. Obsessed with the spectre of literary greatness, I have tried to write classics the way that comedian Mitch Hedberg describes the impatient wino eating grapes. “Dude, you have to wait.”
This is the second reason I am a bad writer: trying to be great before trying to be good. It’s not that I’ve tried to take a shortcut so much as I have let some dishonest idea of “timelessness” be the ultimate goal of every word I have put on the page, which is not only a terrible way to write, it’s counterintuitive. I’m trying to imitate the results of great writers without imitating their methods. The writers I want to be wrote stories and characters of their time, which through the power of their prose became emblematic of the human condition, they became universal. I have tried for decades to write characters who are universal by stripping them of everything that could keep them from universality, which unsurprisingly also stripped them of every thing that could have made them interesting. I wrote story after story focusing on characters who don’t use cell phones or the internet, who have no modern interests or desires, in the hope that I can drop a 100 year old classic onto a desk fully formed. Not only has my desire to be great hindered my characterization and my plots, it stunted the growth of any voice I could’ve had. In an attempt to sound timeless, I’ve made myself sound like an uninspired student from the 19th century. I shit you not, I once used the noun wont in a short story in the tenth grade.
If that sounds naive to you, you’re absolutely correct. For being the intermittently homeless and starved child of two heroin addicts in one of the poorest parts of a city with the third highest per capita murder rate in the country, I have always been laughably naive about many things. The more important something is to me, the more likely I am to be naive about it. Literature, being arguably the most important thing in my life, is something I have been the most naive about. That naïveté especially applies to money. I have always had a complicated relationship with money. Growing up so poor didn’t make me want to have more money, it simply made me hate money. As such I don’t feel greedy or envious of others’ wealth. I don’t strive to be successful, and I’ve always had this absurd idea that writing for money would keep me from being a “real” artist. So I’ve never even considered writing professionally. I’ve never submitted a single piece of writing to any magazine or publisher, I’ve never considered the commercial viability of anything I’ve ever written. I thought I was keeping myself “pure.” But this is of course another example of my trying to achieve the results of great writers without trying to follow their methods. I truly thought that I could write for the love of writing and become a legend. Of course it has happened. Emily Dickinson is probably the best example. But she’s the exception that proves the rule, rather than a model for literary success.
This is the third reason that I am a bad writer: I do not try to be successful.
By not writing for success, by never trying to get published or be professional, I have not only robbed myself of the lessons I could’ve learned from editor’s insights and the opportunity, if I “made it” to write full time and produce more and better material in the process, I also have limited myself to an audience of my friends and only my friends. Your friends are a terrible audience. Most of them don’t read, and when they do read, it’s your stuff out of courtesy. They tell you they liked it and then they forget it forever. They read it because they like you, and not because they like the work. You may benefit from that, but the work suffers. If you want your writing to be read by people who actually care about the work more than they care about you, you have to find a way to get the words in front of them. That means getting published, it means making money, it means having the freedom to write full time and perfect your craft. It means being successful. It means thinking about sales and money and making a living, just the way that Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and William Shakespeare did. Writers have to eat just like everyone else, and if you’re never hungry, you’ll never write with hunger.
This point gives me the benefit of the doubt that it is some kind of sophomoric brand of anti-capitalism that keeps me from trying to be a professional writer, and not simply a fear of rejection and the ego-bruising that would entail.
But truthfully, I am a coward who is terrified that consistent rejection from editors and publishers would strip me of my identity as a writer. If I never compete, I can’t lose, so I tell myself. And if I don’t lose, I’m not a loser. I have chosen to be a coward rather than a loser.
This is the fourth reason I am a bad writer: I am a coward.
My cowardice keeps me from taking risks in my writing and in my reading, and it keeps me from understanding heroism. Because I am a fundamentally mediocre, cowardly, and petty human being, heroism and greatness will never feel true to me. I am a small man surrounded by other small men. I will never be a Henry V, I will never know a Henry V. My world is intrinsically unheroic, unpoetic, unliterary. That cliche litmus test of the worthwhile life, “if someone wrote the book of your life, would anyone want to read it?” is met in my case with a resounding “no.”
It’s not simply that my life has been without adventure, it is that every meaningful virtue is foreign to my nature. Of course not every writer is Hemingway; undoubtedly some cowardly authors have created enormous, heroic protagonists. But my fearful tendency to wallow in the familiar rather than to explore the unknown has led me to spend years writing protagonists like myself, self-loathing men living lives void of ambition. I justified it to myself that the banal and the repulsively mediocre has its place in literature, and that destroying protagonists modeled after myself was perhaps cathartic. But in the end, the masturbatory quality of writing stories about myself for myself is inexcusable.
Literature is maybe the greatest gift that humanity has ever given to itself. It is our ability to tell stories that truly defines who we are as a species. We should prize our language and our stories and our words and our books and poems as pieces of the divine, grace which we do not deserve. I believe that, and I wish that belief alone was enough to make me better at what I do. But my flaws and my sins far outweigh my faith.
Truthfully I should never put pen to paper, or fingers to keys ever again. But it would be as easy for me to stop breathing as it would be to stop writing. It is an involuntary process for me. But like an asthmatic, I realize that a natural process, an involuntary process, a necessary process does not mean a perfect process. I must write, but I am a bad writer.