We All Start Somewhere, Usually The Bottom

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-06-10 12:00:00 No comments

Sometimes I think the only difference between good and bad artists is a combination of two factors: disinhibition about failure, and the willingness to play over one's head as an incentive to improve.

I can speak for myself on both counts. I was a terrible writer for a long time, but I didn't care how bad I was as long as I could keep trying, and could learn something with each trial. Here I still is.

The very first full-length novel I wrote was during the summer of 1992. I temped at some company in Manhattan where I had an extended tour of duty, at least a month, and the workload was light enough that I found myself with many days with nothing to do. I'd open Microsoft Word, jot down stuff, and save it on a floppy disk I brought in with me. Today, work PCs don't even let you plug in a USB drive, and floppy disks are museum pieces. But I was lucky enough to live in more innocent and forgiving times, and so I spent most of my days writing. Badly, but still writing. For me that was revolution enough.

Some context. I wrote a lot in high school -- like, a short story a week (no, I don't have any of that stuff anymore) -- but once I entered college in 1989, I found myself in a dry spell. Maybe because I was trying to grow past the nihilistically clever stuff I'd been whomping out before, and didn't have a good idea about what to put in its place. It wasn't until my third year of college that I really started the wheel turning again. So, for me not only to be writing (gasp!) but writing a novel-length project (erk alors!!) was momentous stuff to be sure.

It took most of the summer to write that piece of crap and finish it, but finish it I did, and a finished piece of crap is better than an unfinished piece of crap because you can improve something that's finished. Unfortunately, I never did improve on it, but I learned enough from it to start working on the next thing. That next thing, I worked on from about 1994 to 1995 and never finished because the concept broke down along the way. Ditto the next thing I worked on in 1995, which I also never finished. And in 1995 I wrote yet another thing, which I did actually finish, but I wasn't proud of it; from 1995 to 1996 I wrote yet another thing, which I was indeed proud of.

But then I hit a massive dry spell, one where I ended up mucking around with a bunch of things that never came to any fruition: a few screenplays (something I would like to try my hand at again), a number of other aborted novels, all in a depressing subterranean vein that I mistook for "realism". It wasn't until 2005 or so that I got back in the saddle for keeps, and started producing things I felt confident enough in to stand behind and put out there.

As bad as all those earlier works were, I can trace to each of them some specific improvement that stood me in good stead. From that first book, written during my chair-warming days over the summer, I got the discipline and personal rhythm needed to start something and see it all the way through. Working with that book every single day gave me a firsthand sense of what it was like to devote myself to something, to say, "This is what's going to occupy my time for the next X months." I think every writer should train themselves to know that feeling, to cultivate it and not shrink from it, to know that discipline is the friend of their creativity and not its enemy.

Sometimes the lesson was nothing more than "don't do that". That "realist" book I mentioned before, I started working on because I was in one of those headspaces where I'd come to believe SF&F were "escapist" -- that they weren't confronting the Reality of Our Lives Now, or some such horse puckey, and so I should be working on something Serious instead. Didn't last long; I got about halfway through before I looked at it and said to myself, if even I didn't want to read this mirthless, desiccated thing, there's a good chance nobody else would, either. With that ended forever my urge to be a sullen little moralist as a form of artistic superiority. (This impulse, and the lesson gleaned, I plan to expound on some more in a future post.)

Most of what I wrote on those days was not good, not because I had a bad command of the language but because I didn't know what kinds of stories to tell or to what end. In high school, and through college, I kept trying for the kind of chicly nihilistic stuff I thought was Impactful and Real. The problem is, that stuff only works when you have life experiences to put behind them -- when you can bring the receipts, as they say, to demonstrate why you see the world like this. (Even then, it's a crapshoot. Céline's nihilism played better before we found out nihilists are not people you want at your back when things go to pot.) Deep down, I didn't see the world like that. It was all an act, and I didn't fake it well enough not to get caught in the act. I had to retrench.

I had to admit the SF and fantasy I liked as a kid was far more interesting to me -- more genuinely interesting, more the kind of thing I actually wanted to see and create. Not something I just wanted to get patted on the head for. It was the foundation I wanted most to build some truly marvelous houses on, because I believed, deep down, that foundation was broader and firmer than just about anything else out there. It could support the kinds of things we most needed to be telling each other about these days.

I don't think I've even so much as -- I have to steal another metaphor from Keith Jarret -- courted a few sparks from that flame so far; I've yet to touch the flame itself. But I have several efforts in that realm to my name so far, and more to come even as I write this. Like anyone else, I had to start somewhere. It was where I drove myself that mattered.

Tags: creativity writing