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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sucks at what?

On the one hand, I can dig what John Scalzi says about teens' writing sucking, and the possible usefulness of saying it. Writing as craft, not as talent dropping from the sky; the usefulness of beginning with a realistic appraisal of one's talents; the humility required to strive over the long haul for ever greater non-suckage; etc. etc.

But there's another sense in which it bothers me.

Trying to decide what bothers me about it, I am reminded of the common paleo-pro writing advice that goes something like this: "writing is suffering. Hard, undendurable suffering. It's a terrible job. You should only do it if you are driven to. If you can't bear not to. If you can do anything else, for god's sake do, and run as fast as you can from the grim specter of the writing life." That always bothered me in a similar way.

Mind you, I do not think Scalzi would say this at all. Unlike those grizzled veterans of hundred-thousands of words a day on manual typewriters, dictatorial Golden Age editors, and shyster literary agencies, Scalzi (like me) actually has plenty of other ways to make money besides those five-cents-a-word, and writes, I expect, by choice.

Nor is it just that the overtly self-congratulatory tone of "your writing sucks now, kid, but one day you may be like me" evokes the covert self-congratulation (for being One Driven To Write) of the pulpster's grim warning.

No, what the two soundbites share more subtly is the implicit assumption about what writing is for -- and the answer to "what is writing for?" that these pieces of advice seem to posit is "five cents a word -- or more, if you can get it."

As it happens, I did the exercise recently of going back and reading the notebooks I kept in high school. They weren't polished drafts of anything -- they were more like blogs, unmediated thoughts spat out on the page, never looking back. In fact it's fair to say that my high school crowd and I prefigured blogs; a decade and a half too early for the web to deliver us the ideal digital implementation, we went with an analog one, handing off notebooks in crowded hallways between classes to read, comment, and hand further on next period.

Some sentences I wrote then are as good as anything I write now. Whatever facility I have for putting words together on a line level, I don't think it's changed much in the past twenty-some years.

But there is no sustained piece which really succeeds as an artistic project consumable by anyone, anywhere. And a good deal of it is absolutely ghastly -- self-indulgent, maudlin, self-congratulatorily clever, a mess -- painful to read in a way that hardly any sentence I would nowadays allow myself to write would be painful to read.

But, see, that's also the point. I do not suffer, now, from the kind of paroxysms of spasmodic honesty, from the ruthless selfishness and aching selflessness, from the desire to overturn everything I know right this instant and the terror that everything I know will be overturned. Or if I do -- in occasional moments -- suffer like that, I have all the props and procedures of adult life at my command to bring it under control, to numb it, to squash it, or, better yet, to turn it into some productive cog in, perhaps, the writing machine.

I am not in the process of writing myself a self. My self is pretty much done, thank you.

Sometimes, I am pleased to note, I still have violent eruptions of doubt about what I know -- one of the joys of my new online science-fiction-writer life is the discovery of so many smart people who are willing to argue passionately about ideas as if they have a right to do so, so that in talking 'bout a revolution with Nick Mamatas or disentangling the theistic metaphor with Hal Duncan, I often find that I am no longer sure of my position, or even worldview, as I was at the beginning of the conversation.

But even so, I just do not have selfhood on the table the way I did at fifteen.

As adult writing -- particularly that subset of adult writing destined for sale and publication -- sure, teenage writing sucks.

As teenage writing, though, it is perfect; adult writing -- the kind Scalzi and I produce -- would be too honed, too fussed over, too timid by far.

It seems not only a category error, but an awfully dreary one, to brush away "figuring out who you are, becoming who you would become, and creating a passionate shared set of metaphors, visions, and narratives with your friends" as inconsequential and erect above it a great pedestal adorned with the words "Five Cents A Word (Or More If You Can Get It)".

(If you really want unbridled creativity, of course, you should listen to anyone between two and seven. It is not coincidental that the hypothetical cigar-chewing man in the street derides Picasso and Pollack by saying "a three-year-old could do that!" Indeed. Except that even Picasso and Pollack could only grope for, and never really achieve, a three-year-old's freedom.)

What I want to tell that fifteen-year-old me, so twisted up with anguish and longing and self-disgust and arrogance, so quivering with ecstasy, is not at all "you suck now, but with enough work one day many people will be willing to pay you to entertain them," but rather, "this is important, what you are doing now; this is maybe the most important writing in your life. Stop worrying about sucking or not sucking. Trust yourself, and retain this vividness for as long as you can."

(Note that, despite my reservations about the soundbite, I agree with most of the writing advice in Scalzi's original post).

Posted by benrosen at June 19, 2007 02:18 PM | Up to blog

Well, and Mr. Scalzi's original comments were pretty clearly (if I remember correctly) in the context of getting published. Teenagers who want to become published writers should be told, in his opinion, that one reason they don't get published is because they suck. So suck at what is suck at the producing publishable stuff.

On the other hand, Mr. Scalzi is experienced enough at this internet thing to understand that context is really easily lost, and that it's probably a good idea to keep pointing it out. He has to take some share of the blame when things like "teenagers suck at writing" drift off their moors. Mores? No, moors. I think.

As for me, I probably peaked as a writer around twenty-one or so, what with having done a lot of writing of various kinds in the years before then, and having done very little since. So if I sucked as a teenager, and I'm sure I did, what I do now is so far beyond sucking that it ... um ... thing. You know, when I was twenty, I could have finished that sentence.


Posted by: Vardibidian at June 19, 2007 06:56 PM

I don't remember people telling me my writing sucked when I was a teenager. (Ha, I can say that now...) In fact, I remember being thrilled when I went to Alpha and finally found people who would really critique my writing, point out things that I hadn't thought of and challenge me to take my writing and do more with it.

On the other hand, I haven't written much since high school. I've written a couple of things that I really like, and I've written a couple of things that just didn't work, and I've tried to write several other things and given up partway through; most of the time I haven't written at all. In middle school and high school it took me longer, a lot of times, to decide that something wasn't working. I get frustrated with things faster now, and having written a couple of things that I really like, it can be harder to remember that Really, It Doesn't Have To Be Perfect On The First Try. I've forgotten how to distract my internal editor long enough to try new things that don't quite work at first.

I have a friend who decided to delete all of her old livejournal entries, but she printed them all out first. As someone who expected to write YA fiction, she wanted to have the record of what it was like to be a teenage girl. (I think she's braver than I am--I can't bring myself to delete/throw out journals, but mostly I can't bring myself to read them, either, once I've written them.)

Posted by: Em Tersoff at June 20, 2007 03:57 AM

I think not confusing teenage writing with adult writing is the core of what Scalzi's trying to say, actually.

(Although looking at it from that point of view doesn't address his follow-up post about development as a writer being an ongoing process of distancing oneself from suck.)

Posted by: David Moles at June 20, 2007 04:40 AM

I think you're right, David, that that's the core of what he's saying; I just wanted to invert (or at least question) the implied relationship of the adult writing as the real deal and the teenage writing as "just practice for later".

Em, that is indeed the very hardest thing to remember, and that greater sense of freedom to go astray is why kid writing is often so much more exciting than adult writing. It's a struggle to recapture that freedom in adulthood.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 20, 2007 09:30 AM

Thanks for this post. "retain this vividness for as long as you can" is the best advice you can give any young writer.

Last year I read at one of those "Adult Writers Read from Their High School Diaries" kind of readings that have sprung up around the country. There was an obsessive fascination with each reader that gripped the audience. I think it was because we all wanted to tap that initial vividness that got us started as writers in the first place.

Posted by: Jason Boog at June 20, 2007 02:28 PM

A couple of belated thoughts, from various angles:

1. To me, it seems like blogs/journals and writing-for-publication are (by and large) very different categories of things. They may overlap in things like memoir and newspaper columns, but (for example) writing a complete work of short fiction (or a complete nonfiction article) and sending it out to editors (even to the editor of a high school literary magazine or newspaper) seems to me to be a very different thing from writing "unmediated thoughts spat out on the page, never looking back." The former is, it seems to me, generally an attempt to join the adult world of publishing (or to prepare to do so), rather than an attempt to create the self.

2. I never kept a journal 'til my Wanderjahr (well after college), except for a brief foray into journaling in early college, and I wouldn't have shown it to anyone if I had; then, too, I would probably have said my sense of self was pretty solidly formed by high school. I think the closest I have to what you're describing is my membership in an APA, starting in early college, where my writing was indeed "self-indulgent, maudlin, self-congratulatorily clever." But in high school, I was writing fiction intended for publication (and sometimes even sending it out to magazines), and I didn't see what I was writing as being bad; I considered it as good as the sf short stories I'd been reading since I was small.

One reason for that flawed self-evaluation of my work is that I did have a talent for syntax. Teachers had been praising my writing to the skies for as long as I could remember. It may not have been 'til Clarion or later that I figured out that what the teachers meant (though they may not have known it) was "You're really good at putting sentences together," not "You're really good at the art of storytelling." But by the time I figured that out, so much of my identity was wrapped up in "being a writer" that I couldn't just put it down and step away from it. So on the one hand, someone probably should have told me (ideally gently, without using the word "sucks") that my early stories were not really all that good as stories (and that that was okay, 'cause I was just starting out); on the other hand, if they had, I most likely wouldn't have kept at it long enough to get better at all the things I wasn't so good at. (...It also helped that for our high school's Career Day one of the adults they would bring in to talk with us was a fiction writer, and each year whoever they'd brought would caution us against the folly of believing we could make a living writing fiction. So I had realistic expectations about that side of things from early on.)

3. I attended a writing-workshop meeting a couple years back at which the attendees were supposed to bring their earliest surviving fiction and read it aloud to the group. It was meant to be fun, and it kind of was, but I was surprised at how hostile some of the participants were toward their younger selves. One person read an extended section of a novel they'd written in high school, and kept interrupting their own reading with uproarious laughter about how truly awful it was. Which made me a little bit sad, because I thought it wasn't bad; I certainly see much worse in slush, from adult writers, every week. So I don't think it's necessary to be all *that* hard on one's own early writing, either at the time or later.

4. To me, it's not so much that there's this thing called "suck," a general badness that applies by default and that the good writer must continually pull themselves out of; but rather, that a given writer at any time of their life is going to be good at some aspects of the general area that we call "writing" and not as good at other aspects. I would add that some people start out good at some aspects, and some people need to work hard to learn to become good at some aspects. "Writing" is not a monolithic single thing.

For that matter, opinion about how good someone is at various aspects (and how much that matters) can vary tremendously among readers. Usually when Karen and Susan and I disagree about a submission, it's because we're focusing on different aspects of it (Karen loves the poetry of the language, for example, while I'm annoyed at what I see as the implausibility of the backstory, and Susan feels that the story is too superficial -- though any of us might take any of those stances), but sometimes we disagree even about a specific aspect. (Karen and Susan feel that the ambiguity of the ending is what makes the story brilliant, while I feel that it ruins the story. Or I feel that the narrative voice is perfect, while one of them hates it so much they can't bring themselves to read the whole story.)

Posted by: Jed Hartman at June 23, 2007 02:48 PM

Jed, I think that "Writing is not a monolithic single thing" is the general case of what I'm saying. "Create salable entertainment for mass consumption", "create artifacts of powerful connection in a small community", and "experiement with selfhood" are three specific instances of things you can do with writing. I was arguing from my own personal experience (that, as a teenager, I was well served concentrating on the latter two and relating to the former only in terms of a kind of romantic aspiraction); but my general point is that I flinch at elevating "create salable entertainment for mass consumption" to the ultimate arbiter of suckage.

May Your Mileage Vary!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 25, 2007 10:14 AM

When we were all writers together in college, reading scraps to each other in the grain silos (It was Iowa), we used to say the most hideously dismissive things. Oh, y'know, sweeping generalizations, "An author's first work is always a failure because it's autobiographical. He should just get it out of the way." Based on what did we say these things? We wanted to sound urbane so bad. And I think as a young writer I coulda used a little less of that, and a little less of forging in the smithy of my soul whatever it was I thought I was forging in the smithy of my soul and a little more of, if you want anybody to read you, here's what you might try.

Posted by: Jillian at June 25, 2007 08:18 PM

1. I love that you read to each other in grain silos. That cancels out a great deal of premature dismissiveness right there.

2. Could have used less dismissiveness. Yes indeed.

3. A little less forging and a little more pointers -- I dunno. That's an awfully nice soul you've forged yourself there, Jill, and perhaps we should not be quick to dismiss all that forging you were doing in it, even if the yearning to be urbane was embarassingly un-urbane.

Not that pointers are bad. I like pointers.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 25, 2007 09:15 PM
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