On Being a Beginning Writer: Give Yourself a Break!

In the movie Amadeus, which centers on a rivalry between the composers Salieri and Mozart, the character of Salieri bemoans his perceived lack of talent when compared with Mozart. “Why,” he asks the priest who hears his confession, “did God implant the desire, but deny me the ability?”

As a writer, you might identify with Salieri. You might feel that you have the Great American Novel in your head but suspect that you lack the ability to write it. And so, you tell yourself, you’ll write it when you are good enough to write it. Then you spend the next twenty years bitterly resenting every book on the bestseller list. And you don’t write your novel.

Why don’t you write it? Because you think you have to be really, really good to write it.

Not so at all. One of my favorite novelists, Joyce Carol Oates, is widely considered a brilliant author and is inarguably prolific. But what many people don’t realize is that that when she was in college, she wrote, as she tells it, “novel after novel,” all of which she considered so terrible that they’ve never seen the light of day.

Why did she do this? To practice learning how to write.

The patron saint of mediocrity.Maybe they were terrible. But what would have happened if Oates, having written that first awful effort, decided, like Salieri, that she just didn’t have the talent to write and quit after the first one? Or the third? Or maybe even the tenth?

This is the secret to actually becoming a successful writer: You have to give yourself permission to be an awful beginner.

You might think great writers start out great. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a Vonnegut ever writing anything mediocre. But no, most writers aren’t that spectacular when they first start writing.

When you sit down to write a piece, give yourself a break. Allow yourself to be a beginner. Allow yourself the freedom to write without telling yourself how bad it is. All you need to do is to tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it. Really, that’s all.

Maybe you won’t surpass Neil Gaiman this time out. That’s okay. Neil Gaiman didn’t surpass himself on his first time out, either.

The point, though, is to be kind to yourself and your creativity—let yourself bruise your knees, stumble, fall. It’s okay. You’re learning. Someday, you too will be running.

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