Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Why don't you write about writing, Todd?"

she said.

"Well, I guess I could," I said.

One thing I've found as I get older and more experienced in my writing is that I think it sucks more quickly. When I was scrawling things down on paper in the seventh grade, staying up way past my bedtime, I thought I was AWESOME. I literally thought I was one of THE GREATEST WRITERS to ever have lived. I wrote a lengthy television script for a show loosely based on my friends and I (called Bridges). It was supposed to be a sitcom. One of the recurring jokes featured something called Manny's Wheel o' Meat.

When I read it now, the structure is pretty good (somehow, I internalized basic three-act structure -- and I didn't watch a lot of TV as a kid), but the rest of the thing just doesn't work. The jokes are hackneyed, and the characters are little more than cliches birthed to spout said bad jokes. And while the structure has a vague notion of how to tie all of this together with a plot, it also goes off on wild tangents that make little to no sense.

I detail the travails of Bridges to point out one thing to you: When I wrote this, I thought I was the funniest person to ever have lived. I submitted it to a number of contests and never won anything (not even from the South Dakota State Fair, where I was the only person entered). When I got criticism back (as I did at the fair, where the judge called them "acid-head joke machines wandering through a surrealistic landscape"), I was convinced the judges were wrong.

Now, a lot of this can be read as just a little kid not being able to take criticism (and most kids can't), but so often in our lives as writers, we're just like that.

I think the real moment you know you're a writer (of any stripe from novels to journalism to instruction manuals) is when you realize that you kind of suck, that you're not Shakespeare or Joyce (nor will you ever be either of those two). The history of human literature is so rich that you bump up against a true genius everywhere you turn. Even in the medium of television, you run into David Milch, Joss Whedon, David Chase ... and that's just for starters. And these guys often compare themselves unfavorably to other writers.

Even if you're the best in your field, in your time, you've still got to go up against Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Dante and all of the others. You're just not as creative as them. You're just not as astute as them. And you're just not as good as them.

This is both humbling and liberating. It makes you realize that you're part of a tradition stretching back for centuries (even if you're just writing a blog post). But it also makes you realize that you can NEVER BE that good. So you're free to experiment, to fail, to try things.

But what does all of this mean? It means that education never stops. To become the best writer you want to be, you have to consume more, more, more culture. It's not just watching great TV. It's seeing great films and reading great novels. It's searching out tales of human history and trying to understand the science that drives our world. Because when you bump up against your limitations, against that great expanse of history you're facing down, you start to know just how far you, yourself, can go.

Theoretically, anyone can BE a writer. There are a limited number of rules, and you can learn them all. Sentences can only be structured in certain ways, then tied together into paragraphs only in certain ways. And those paragraphs fit together in certain ways as well. Sure, you may not have the sheer talent or genius (so few do), but you'll know the basic mechanics, and that's enough in many cases (as you'll know if you've ever read one of those cheap-ass paperbacks they sell on the spinning displays in used-book stores).

But there's another thing about learning you suck. If you start to doubt your abilities, you open yourself up to criticism. And that's when true greatness can be achieved, because you're always revising, always striving more.

And you'll NEVER BE HAPPY. Intellectually, I know what I write now is miles beyond Bridges. But emotionally, I'm never as happy with anything as I was with Bridges. And all of my career will probably be an attempt to chase that sheer sense of satisfaction I felt when I wrote that dumb sitcom script.

So bump up against writers who are better than you. Because it's good to know that you suck. Just a little bit.

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