I remember thinking I had writing talent when I was in Mrs. Alalof’s 9th grade English class. One day, while handing in one of my flowery essays, I felt a rush of confidence that my work would be one of the best of the stack. Sure enough, the graded paper was returned to me with praise of my vivid descriptions and creative vocabulary. At the time, my young distorted ego was quite impressed with itself, and I entered adulthood with fancies of my innate skills.
I realize today, however, that the praise had less to do with my talent, and more to do with the comparative apathy of my classmates, who churned out a bunch of words just to fill the page and be done with it. In my young writing days, I thought that details and big words could woo my reader beyond any concern for grammar or content. This is not unlike my step-son’s strategy of assuming that his charming talk can make up for a lack of effort at school. It’s the age-old style-over-substance trick, one that always catches up to you, sooner or later.
My epiphany came in my 30’s, when I asked a colleague to offer comments on an article I’d written. He was Mensa-level smart and severely critical of everything, so my young ego awaited the healthy boost it was going to receive when he offered rare accolades for my obvious ability. In truth, I was really only sharing it to impress him, since I had a little crush and was eager to show off. I didn’t really care about any suggestions for improvement, because the piece was not important and was clearly already amazing.
When the article was returned to me, however, I was devastated. It had been slashed with more red than a Halloween movie sequel. The Mensa-critic was kind enough to preface his comments with, “I’m only telling you this because you asked,” knowing enough to be embarrassed by the amount of errors in my work, but not enough about my motivation for letting him read it in the first place. If he shared my affections, he would have lied. It turned out to be fortuitous for my writing that he did not.
When I started reading the feedback, I realized his suggestions were quite legitimate and mortifyingly simple: I had made numerous sloppy mistakes. Had I proof-read the article even once, I would have caught most of them. Other comments were eye-opening to me, notes about efficiency in sentence construction that I had never before considered. If there is a way to say something that offers more clarity in less words, isn’t that a better approach? A whole new writing world was opened to me: the world of editing.
I began to spend time in this world, seeking to teach myself how to edit. I soon realized what Blaise Pascal meant when he said, “If I had more time, I’d write you a shorter letter.” (This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but part of editing turns out to be fact-checking, as well.) I have yet to master the art of the edit, as evidenced by the fact that it takes me a good 4 hours to finish a decent blog, wearing out the “preview” button as I hone it down to the clean essentials. I finally hit the “publish” button, not because the editing is complete, but because I am exhausted and on the edge of vomiting if I read the same words one more time.
So, with continued practice, there is hope for my writing on a technical level. On a content level, however, there might be a teensy problem that is a little more tricky to overcome: personality. It turns out that you have to have one to be an engaging writer. I know there is a slight deficiency here, from spending a lifetime of being called “overly serious”, so I find myself with a late start on two levels.
Sometimes when I read an essay that blows me away -like David Sedaris, for example- it makes me want to abandon all of my own vague writing ambitions. David Sedaris has spent his entire existence both being funny AND practicing in a journal everyday. What hope is there for the rest of us? I admit to some similar feelings of jealousy and surrender towards a few of the writers on the Jezebel blog, which has a staff of confident, witty and articulate columnists. Do aspiring golfers feel this way when they watch Tiger Woods? Shouldn’t we have role models who inspire us to greatness? My role models inspire me to expletives and defeat.
In the end, I always come back to the advice given by my favorite poet, Rilke. (Or, as Lou Andreas-Salome called him, “the only poet”.) In his “Letters to a Young Poet”, he advises his protege to only write if he feels so compelled that he might die if he could not. This is really an overly-dramatic way of stating something we should all heed: only write if you have something worthwhile to say. We have to live a full life and develop a full self in order to have the content worth sharing. All of the grand words and savvy editing will not save a lack of heart and imagination. So for now, I will focus more on the living than the writing, blinded by my ever-present delusions of talent.