In between the blur of beer and video games of my sophomore year of undergrad, I started writing a novel. I thought, in typical 20-year-old fashion, that I had learned enough about life and writing and had the requisite knowledge to write an entire book. I created an elaborate outline and starting clacking away at my little re-furbished Asus with literary abandon.
I thought the premise was brilliant: a young, misanthropic college student records the behavior of the undead (Jane Goodall style) in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. At the climax of the story his hubris leads to him getting bitten and he revisits his diary, making footnotes as he begins to slowly turn into one of the things he’d been hiding from/studying for an entire year.
But very quickly, because of my lack of any focus and real experience, the story degraded into nothing but random scenes and overly visceral descriptions of the reanimated dead. I wrote ~3000 words about the nuance of how flesh falls off of a zombie’s face, for some reason.
I got lost in a maze of wanting everything to be the best writing in the history of writing, throwing out stupidly complex vocabulary, piling on unnecessary details, and inserting random asides just because I thought they sounded great. I hadn’t learned any lessons about my own writing, so my voice was weak and dense and boring.
I was drawing from years of exposure to the zombie subculture, but doing very little creating of my own. Everything was a cliche; the way the virus spread, the way the zombies looked, sounded, and moved, my character’s motivations and assumptions about the world.
It had no dialogue. At all. The protagonist was an archetypal asshole. I couldn’t figure out how to transition between chapters, so I just didn’t.
This generic, boring tragedy went on for about 4 months. I stopped writing at about 41,000 words.
Until this morning, I hadn’t looked at that manuscript since the “Last Modified Date” (9/3/2007), because I was afraid of what I’d find. It’s ugly. Repulsive. A perfect collection of unforgivable mistakes and errors that sums up how terrible a writer I was, packed to the margins with my insecurities and collegiate arrogance.
But I refuse to delete it. It is awful and will exist in a perpetual state of editing, but it was my first attempt. My first-born. The first time I really committed to trying something outside of the familiar, the comfortable. This document is milestone zero on my journey to become a writer. To delete it would be a futile attempt to forget where I came from.
Revisiting it now solidifies a lesson that I think a lot of us can take away from NaNoWriMo: Not everything we write is going to be great. Not everything is going to be as clear and coherent as we hoped or expected. Not everything is going to be publishable.
It is great to aim high. I’ll pretty much always suggest that someone aim as high as their imagination allows. Stretching and trying and growing is how you’ll improve, even if you don’t actually reach whatever goal you set.
But at the same time, be realistic. A musician doesn’t expect to write a number one hit every time he picks up his guitar, so don’t expect the Pulitzer for the essay or short story you jotted down after work. Practice and have confidence in your ideas, and you can’t help but improve.
If you pour yourself into your art, eventually the art will pour out of you.
The first big thing you ever write is an act of artistic puberty; an awkward time where you’re forced to experience all kinds of unpleasant things all for the sake of maturing. The acne will clear up. Your hormones will stop raging. Your voice will no longer crack at random, but be strong and consistent and uniquely yours.
As you continue to write, take some time to look back on your earliest work. Open up those NaNo novels in a few months (or even years). It’s amazing to see how far you’ve come, and gives you hope for all those miles you still have to go.