Messy first drafts.

It’s been a few years since I wrote a blog post, and every time I think of writing another I ask myself but do you have a subject worth blogging about?

Which is really to say: do you have a subject worth blogging about after so much time?

Which is really: aren’t you embarrassed yet of all the times you’ve stopped and started this blog? Are you sure you want another “I’m back” post only to follow it with months of silence? Aren’t you tired of writing meta-posts about blogging to explain why you are or aren’t blogging?

Recently I’ve been sharing around a poem by Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Knight of the Elephant of Burmah. What I’ve shared less is a blog post I wrote about the poem a few years ago, during a previous era of my life where I was trying to accomplish things and feeling at times overwhelmed by the effort of it all.

Around that time I nearly published an entirely different post, one which may still live in my drafts somewhere. I remember the feeling behind it—conscious of and yet struggling against an overpowering sense of being cringe.

College lingered close enough in the rearview mirror that it still grounded my identity, my career was too young to warrant the word, and to my surprise thoughts of self-loathing were beginning to worm their way through my defenses with increasing frequency.

That was the red flag for me that something was wrong. I’ve generally had the good fortune to like myself as a person. Where, then, did the thought “I hate myself” come from? And how had I let it become a mantra?

What I was lucky to recognize at the time was that these intrusive thoughts came from feelings of insecurity, and that my insecurity was a consequence of trying something new. New things are scary. Putting yourself out there is terrifying. Letting anyone in the world know that you’re trying to accomplish something ambitious is one of the most intensely vulnerable things any of us ever do. And that’s because, when we start, we’re not very good.

A couple years ago, my niece (who was then ten or eleven) asked me to show her how to play the piano. I can’t really play the piano. I know about two songs. But I sat down and showed her what I could play, and she looked at me with shining eyes and said “Wow, Aunt Laura, your fingers just flew over the keys.”

(Narrator: They did not.)

Then I tried to show my niece how to play, and as I was not a good teacher and as she was about ten, she quickly grew discouraged. I remember watching her face fall and thinking: oh no, she’s becoming self-conscious. She’s growing up.

Children are blessed with a lack of awareness about their own lack of ability. It’s what allows them to play with abandon, and as anyone who knows anything about learning can tell you, play is a powerful educator.

I think about this with language as well. I started learning Spanish on Duolingo during the pandemic, and about a year ago began working more seriously with a tutor. I’m really proud of my progress. For those of you keeping track, Spanish is my third foreign language after German and Russian. When people hear this, they sometimes say things like “I’m too old to learn a language. You have to learn as a kid or it’s too late.”

So I tell them: I didn’t learn my first language until I was eighteen and fully graduated from high school. I’ve certainly had opportunities to be immersed in languages that not everyone has, but age really has nothing to do with ability. In my own opinion, the thing that age affects most is confidence.

Because to learn a foreign language, you have to be willing to feel like an absolute fool for a long time. You have to be willing to make the most idiotic mistakes. You will spend fifteen minutes trying to convey the simplest idea, and you may only get halfway there. You’ll find yourself getting by with facial expressions and hand gestures. You’ll clown and mime and people will think you’re a fantastic comedian because the only thing that will save you is a good sense of humor.

(But you’ll also make wonderful friends, because learning a foreign language is the surest way to identify the most patient, compassionate, and empathetic people anywhere you go. And you’ll value that, and it will make you more patient, compassionate, and empathetic.)

Speaking of patience: friends, I promise I’m reaching my point in all this.

Earlier this year, for about the dozenth time, I started work on a novel. I feel better about the concept and scope of this one than I have for many of my previous projects. It’s achievable, in theory, in ways that previous stories were not—at least for my current skill level.

Nevertheless, since beginning work on this book, I’ve been facing that old monster again—the one that tells me that I’m bad at what I do, that my insecurity is based in a permanent lack of ability, that trying is cringe.

There’s a paragraph that Jerry Holkins over at Penny Arcade wrote in one of his blogs, which I copied down and return to every now and then:

“You have to get back on the horse. Somehow, and I don’t know how this kind of thing starts, we have started to lionize horseback-not-getting-on: these casual, a priori assertions of inevitable failure, which is nothing more than a gauze draped over your own pulsing terror. Every creative act is open war against The Way It Is. What you are saying when you make something is that the universe is not sufficient, and what it really needs is more you. And it does, actually; it does. Go look outside. You can’t tell me that we are done making the world.”

I’ve had friends asking recently to read the first chapters of my book, and while I’m flattered I’ve had to tell them: no. They aren’t any good. They’re not ready.

And that’s true. What I have right now is what writers (courtesy of Anne Lamott) often refer to as “messy first drafts.” They’re the words that you spew all over the page because you need to get something down, because it’s only after you have words in front of you that you can see how wrong they all are and start digging into the work of tearing them apart and making them better.

There’s a lesson in that. We writers want to give the world only our most polished final drafts. We slave over each line, and when we’re done we give them to other people to slave over them as well so that each word is perfect, so that there are no typos, so that we can seem flawless.

So perhaps its no wonder that writing a blog has felt like a bigger task than it once did. Because publishing a blog, no matter how much time you put into each individual post, is always a work in progress. You‘re just pantsing it the entire way. Blogs are messy first drafts, where we may have to live with the cringe of our false starts, but where the beauty is not in the perfection, but in the progression.