“Well, I think that curiosity is probably the biggest thing that can keep you going, and the feeling that you can do something that hasn’t been done before…”*
As writers, we write the story we want to read because it hasn’t been written yet. Have you ever read a story or novel and thought, “Close, but I wish the author had done A, B, or C instead. When I write my story, that’s what I’ll do!” It’s human nature to want to take an existing object and perfect it. Build better roads, taller buildings, faster cars, and bug-free software.**
This is why many writers tackle the same themes throughout their writing life: they are perfecting their existing work, crystallizing their favorite ideas into their one perfect book. We may not do it consciously, but isn’t that one of the underlying reasons we write? To create exactly that which we think is missing in the world?
This is how it works. Writers are born. And then somewhere along the way we start to read. We read picture books and Peanuts, and then graduate to John Green, S.E. Hinton, Lemony Snicket, Judy Blume, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and so on. And then we start writing, producing strings of words unlike any other—unique in context, structure, syntax, and theme.
In the process we teach ourselves how to write the words we want to see on paper. We train ourselves to become experts on how best to tell our stories and shape our characters. That’s why it takes so long to write a good book: you need time to develop the right muscles for writing your story. It may take months or years, but when you finally become the best writer for your story, you know everything your characters do and say in any situation.
James Joyce may have been a great writer, a genius at writing his work, but he would be a flop if he attempted to write your book. In his fussy, voluminous hands your characters would become clumsy and self-conscious, speaking nonsense. In Joyce’s charge, your characters may never leave the house! Thank god you’re around to save your own writing.
How good are you at writing your own writing? There is only one way to find out. Give it over to someone else to read. Yes, you may be surprised at how much you can suck at writing your own writing. You need perspective to see how unique your shitty writing really is. Don’t be afraid. This is part of the process.
To gain insight, have your writing group or your online writer friends critique your work. You will get all kinds of feedback, but as long as you surround yourself with writers who respond with supportive comments and suggestions without trying to turn you into them, then your potentially shitty best writing can be shaped and crafted into a closer version of your best writing.
Just write what you want to read and the rest will follow. Because remember—there’s nobody else like you. So now it’s your turn. Let’s see what you got.
* Screenwriter and director Robert Towne (Chinatown, Shampoo, Ask the Dust) responding to the question, Is there any one particular thing that keeps you motivated to continue (writing)? From Stop Smiling magazine, issue 32, 2007
** Only if we’re writing science fiction.