Sometimes Progress is in Admitting How Bad You Once Were.
Save that bad stuff. It'll make you proud someday.
I don’t know when it started, but the notion of writing to an audience of strangers who wouldn’t necessarily love me and tell me lies just to keep me happy became a thing. It scared me silly, but I wanted that. I wanted what I wrote to go out to complete strangers for reasons I can’t even conjure up anymore. It’s not because I had a huge ego. I was mousy and unsure and given to heaping undeserved praise on people in order to get them to like me. It made no sense, yet there it was—if I were going to write, it had to be for an audience.
My early writing was bad at first—of course it was—but I must have thought I could get better, or I wouldn’t have gone on. I did go on, and finally I decided what I was putting down on paper was good enough to show to someone. Not a stranger, exactly, but someone I trusted. Someone I’d never even told I’d been doing this.
I’d been writing.
My best friend Dorothy didn’t know what to say. She stared at the pages long after she’d read the last words, and I knew it was because she didn’t know how to tell me she didn’t like it.
We were both around 16 and she was into horses. In her room she had horse posters and horse statues and horse books, and they were her life, even though she didn’t have a horse and had never even ridden one. She found romance in horses, and I’d like to think she didn’t like what I wrote because it wasn’t about horses.
But soon enough I didn’t like it, either.
I know now that that’s what growth looks like. I didn’t see it that way then, of course, and I was crushed, but if I’d liked it enough to want to share it but later it seemed like junk, it had to mean I’d grown enough to see the flaws.
I could see better ways of writing things, and maybe someday, if I kept at it—and I wasn’t saying I would—I’d even write something that would become a book or get published in a magazine. A one-time deal. That was the goal.
I wasn’t yet thinking about actually being a writer, and it would take decades before I would use that word to describe what I did—even after I’d been published in real newspapers and magazines. It wasn’t until I could claim it as a job title on my income tax forms that I began to say, out loud, “I’m a writer”.
But writing was never a hobby the way drawing (badly), or painting (excruciating), or crewel stitching (passable) was. I don’t think I ever just wrote for the fun of it, even in my diary. (I fully expected someone would find it someday when I was long gone, so I wrote in it as if that was going to happen.) If I was writing, I was writing with readers in mind. At least that’s the way I remember it.
But that’s not to say any of it was ever good enough. Some of it was truly awful. Even the published stuff. I look at some of my early columns and I cringe. If I could, I would rewrite them in my voice today. And maybe 10 years from now I would want to write them in my 10-years-from-now voice.
But some of it was good enough. I couldn’t have kept going if I didn’t think that. Still, good enough then looks pretty mediocre now. And I’m seeing that as a good thing. That’s progress.
We’re never as good as we think we will be, but we’re better than we were. So I say let’s go back and read some of that junk and revel in our decision not to quit. If we had quit, that’s where we would still be. We’re not. We’re here now. We got here by moving on from there.
The road ahead is wide open and we’re on it.
The rest is in the rearview mirror.
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