What would I change?
by Julia Nolan
I wouldn’t have stopped writing.
Let me provide necessary context. From eighteen to twenty-four, I was convinced that I was meant to be a writer. Although I had a very sensible engineering degree and a good job in my field, I also had literary aspirations. To achieve them, I set some goals. I’d write for an hour a day, then submit my stories. I figured success was soon to follow.
The hour a day soon became an hour a few times a week. My goal to receive feedback was stymied by my conviction that critiquers “didn’t get it”. And the vast majority of my submissions came back with form rejections. So after six years, I gave up. I still hadn’t done more than publish in a few token paying markets. The evidence was clear; I was a terrible writer. Deciding this was not easy for me, I abandoned all aspirations for nearly a decade, before I started writing again with a more mature perspective.
And what perspective was this? Mostly the realization that I’d been lazy. I had assumed since I was reading at three and writing at five, the first time I tried my hand at fiction writing, I’d be genius. What I hadn’t taken into account was that I’d thrown myself into an incredibly competitive field without any practice or training. (Consider what would happen if I had decided to perform open heart surgery despite my lack of a medical background. After all, I’d been studying science all my life, and had even completed a high school biology class. Surely open heart surgery isn’t that much more difficult…it sounds ridiculous when put that way, and yet a similar arrogance infected me.)
The second time around, I looked at things differently. I sought critique, even when it hurt, from writers whose work I respected. I read short stories and novels with a critical eye, trying to figure out what made them worthy of publication. I gave critiques, hoping to improve my own ability to judge good from bad. Eventually I applied for (and received), a position at Allegory which allowed me to get a feel for what it is like to read hundreds of submissions and accept only a very few. In short, I learned patience and humility.
By doing this, I improved.
Now I suspect I’ll never be Shakespeare or Stephen King (they’re both one of a kind). And I doubt I’ll ever be able to support myself by writing alone. (Fortunately, I like my day job.) But…I’ve gotten two stories accepted in publications I love and suspect that if I continue working more success will follow. Probably not as fast as I’d like, but there’s no hurry, either. If I continue to practice, I will continue to improve. And good publications buy good stories.
Why do I regret my earlier arrogance if it did no long lasting damage? Because if I had not wasted all those years, I’d be a decade ahead of where I am now. More importantly, writing has always been a source of pleasure. It helps to ground my thoughts, and to stretch my mind and imagination. Giving that up for nearly a decade because I thought I wasn’t “good” was a self-destructive act. If we only did the things we instantly excelled at, we’d do nothing.
Julia Nolan is a project manager of epic proportions. The other ways in which she wastes time include making elaborate costumes, dancing, singing, and playing with chemistry. She had work appear in Mars Dust and will have stories in Penumbra and Stupefying Stories. She also edits for the ezine, Allegory.