There is an endless number of words in your body. You’ve got tons. When you are born, there is no Word God that christens you with a finite amount of words you can put down on the page. It is entirely possible you could write every hour of every day of every year of your life and still not reach your limit.
Whether the words are good or bad though is an entirely different story. It’s a rare occurrence that someone can sit down, start writing, and everything is like a rainbow issuing forth from their butthole. It’s just not a thing you and I, mere mortal writers, will get to experience.
I have a theory.
We have a pile of shitty, bloody, putrid words sitting at the top of this endless stack of words. Years of following proper essay structure and your fifth-grade English teacher reprimanding you are what make up this fecal matter. Under this crusty, festering mound of excrement, there might be words that matter, words that are pure, words that will give breath to those reading them. But, the only way to get to that unspoiled stuff is to roll up your sleeves, pull on your rubber boots, and shovel the shit off the top. Your shovel, well, that’s your pen or pencil or typewriter or keyboard. You just write, non-stop, until you start to see the loamy, deep earth goodness that this steaming pile of feces has covered for so long. You’ve got to get dirty to get to it, though and, for a while, you are going to stink to high heaven.
You can get some help in shoveling out the shit. Reading writing books, taking classes, being part of a critique group-they’ll all help you. But, they aren’t going to put in the same backbreaking work you’ll be putting in. At the most, those helpers have a garden spade. You’re the one with the gigantic, shit-stained excavator attached to your arm.
This current story I’m working on, which is moving more toward the length of a novella-slash-maybe-novel, is going to be shit. I know this going into it. I’m not going to sell it to a publisher (I’d love to, but I’m not any good yet). This isn’t going to end up on bookshelves. I love my characters, but they can’t be saved from my lack of writing over the past decade. I am heartbroken that my protagonist is going to die with a noose made up of strung-on sentences and tired clichés. Someone’s got to be the sacrificial lamb.
I am okay with knowing she will be put into a drawer, never to see the light of day. I don’t believe I only have one story in me. I know there are plenty more to come. Her limited and short life will inform her children and her children’s children. I plan to write many words with many characters in many places. What’s one shitty novel? What’s wrong with two shitty novels?
Anne Lamott, author of the lovely Bird by Bird book, wrote about shitty first drafts. When I read that chapter in her book over twenty years ago, it gave me permission to write the horrible stuff. The problem was, though, that my second draft didn’t get much better. I kept writing shitty drafts, no matter the number. I lost interest in writing when the stories got worse with more drafts! Who wouldn’t? I stopped writing altogether for the better part of a decade.
Reading what I’m writing now compared to what I wrote back then, I know I am getting better. I have written more to reduce the shit mound. Whether it’s these here blog posts, the endless scribbling in a journal over the past years, or in character sketch after character sketch, I have continued to write. This is where my theory comes from. Lots and lots of shit piled on top and I’m still working my way through it.
Recognizing that I’m bound to write muck has made the hard part of writing more painless. The editor isn’t so persistent in my head. I’ll eventually get to a place where I have solid characters, a balance between too much detail and not enough, and dialogue that actually sounds like a human would speak it. Holding myself up to the standard I read coming out of bookstores isn’t realistic nor is it kind. At this point in my fledgling authorhood, kindness and consistency matter more than perfection.
Now, if in a year I’m still wading through the detritus of yesterday’s meal and the pile seems to be getting higher rather than clearing out, well I might just either have to dig faster or dig longer. I’m done giving up.