What to Do When Your Beginner Stuff Sucks

A couple of years ago, I stole the words of a 16-year-old writer and passed them off as my own. In a writing contest. For money. Pretty evil, right?

Well, I passed the words off as my own because they were my own…just 11th-grade “my own”.

Yep, like my pretentious “McCarthyist” Hallowe’en costume, strangely floppy haircut, and militant veganism,  the words I re-used yesterday were born of a time when I was unaware of how blissfully un-self-aware I was.

At 16 I thought I was nigh on enlightened.  I read Alan Watts books and listened to Patti Smith on repeat. I was a poet, for chrissakes. Obviously, I knew what was up. So my poetry had to be pretty great, too, right?


Well, it didn’t stink, and it even won me a couple of contests. During this time, I learned that

a) 6-hour flights are actually pretty fun when you’re not jammed into economy class (thanks, scholarship!)

and b) it’s normal for 16-year-olds to receive fan mail and talk to Pulitzer Prize winners on the phone.

You know, those universal truths that apply to every teenager and make you have a balanced, even view of your own importance. Oh, and I never edited a single word of my poetry back then. Here’s part of what I submitted to the Bridport Prize in 2009:

Rot showed

in teeth, in trellis. “No place,” she hissed, “to grow

a world.” She wrote in books, kept everything defined

as it pleased her—inked in characters, lines,

gaps in the woodwork. A bright shock of candles

revealed where anonymous rodents ambled

inside. She was handsome, our encyclopedia—

inaccurate face, pale as anemia

patients’, and poorly arranged in a grin.

Her hands: cramped, curled, their skin

thin and marbled as vellum. She droned

on about lepers on islands, alone

and ravaged (“At least the guards had their guns

to love”), though the lepers, she knew, had done

it: they were happy.

It rambles on like that for two pages. I *think* somewhere buried in the inscrutable ruins of page 2 is some sort of weak point about racism, but that is as much as I can figure out.

Point is, I just dashed the thing off and sent it away from the nest long before it had legs, let alone could fly. That’s how I thought writers wrote.

I’m reminded of that famous Mark Twain quote:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

My old writing includes copious metaphorical “damns” AND “verys”, but I didn’t have the perspective–wouldn’t let myself have perspective, more like–to see and delete them.

But I had ideas, gobs and gobs of ideas, and patient mentors who guided my hand like a stern but kind piano teacher making me do scales.

I’ve met a few young writers like me–either too cocksure or too unsure, and either way they usually have no idea what makes their “good” work good and their “bad” work bad. Every 16-year-old writer needs a very damn good editor to help them over this awkward hump. Which brings me to the time I reused my work.

I hadn’t looked at this one poem, which I wrote half for a friend and half for a poetry contest, in years. But the more I read through it, the more I realized I was mentally salvaging the bits that worked and chucking everything else, adding new starts and better stops. Editing my overexcited 16-year-old self. The result? I ended up with a piece for a contest I thought I’d have to skip that year. Guess I inadvertently took to heart the whole “put it in a drawer and look at it later” dictum. Just much, much later.  

To your past and future embarrassments–may they yield you material.

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