Ask A Book Nerd: Are my best writing days behind me?
[image description: A pile of book pages spread out. Across them is a yellow banner that reads “Ask a Book Nerd,” the title of this literary advice column.]
Trigger/Content warning: sexual assault
Sometimes I get a question from a reader and it literally stops me in my tracks. This is such a good question and I had to dig deep within myself to come up with a good answer.
The question is: How do you go back to writing and not hang onto the past? Some days I feel like my writing heights were left in college.
We all know there are writers who write one or several great books, each better than the next, until they hit a point where the subsequent books don’t stack up to the previous books. But the authors didn’t know that when they were writing those less successful subsequent books. If they had, they might not have written those books, then where would that leave their fans?
Some readers are fair weather fans of writers, but other readers hungrily wait for every single new book their favorite authors publish. The fair weather fans aren’t to be judged––it’s just the reality of the reading life. Every reader is a fair weather fan for some author (or several), just as every reader is a ride-or-die fan for some author (hopefully several more). That doesn’t mean that a less successful book––whether it’s “less successful” commercially or critically or by some other metric––doesn’t deserve to exist or have effort put into it on the writer’s part.
For me, personally, it’s easier said than done, but I have to believe my best days are ahead. Most writers don’t do their best work until late in life. It makes sense because unlike other creative outlets—including acting, music, dance, modeling, etc.—there’s no market for child writing. That means it’s an art that you can’t really practice effectively until you get older. Youth shouldn’t be praised in writing because unlike those other creative endeavors, youth gives you no advantage in writing.
The more you write, the better you’ll get. The better you’ll get, the more you’ll see your best days are ahead. If I didn’t believe my best days were ahead, I’d give up right now because there’d be no point. Whether or not my best days are actually ahead, I have to believe they are. I have to believe I have things in me worth saying and there are readers out there ready to read what I write.
I do think it’s easier for me because I don’t glorify my past, particularly the college years. Yes, there were good memories. But I was also suffering the worst clinical depression of my life. I had debilitating anxiety that was exacerbated by being abused and assaulted—by two different guys. I refuse to believe my best days are behind me because I know those weren’t my best days. Everyone says college is the best time of your life, but it only has to be if you let it. Live for now. Show up like you’re meant to be here. Write like you have something to say because you do.
I also think that college creative writing classes are somewhat misleading because the world outside the ivory tower doesn’t mimic the classroom. It’s easier to produce writing consistently when you know your grade depends on it and you have a professor and other creative writing workshop students waiting on your work. In the world outside university, people are rarely hungry for your work (until you really start cranking it out consistently). It’s easy to lull yourself out of a regular writing practice outside of the pressures of consistent workshops.
My sense is that you had a more consistent writing practice in college, so you have a larger volume of work from that time to look back on compared to your post-college life. The best way to get over thinking your best days are behind you is to keep writing. I know very few writers who don’t look back on things they’ve written years, months, weeks, or even days ago and despise what they’ve written––even if it was published.
I do this all the time. Every time I read back over something I wrote any significant time ago I start thinking of all the things I’d change if I were writing that piece now. We do this because we know writers get better with time. Regardless of whether the new books are less successful than the early books, I think most writers will still tell you they get better with time. The size of the readership or the amount of money a book generates is not an indicator of quality. A lot of that has to do with the popularity of the author and how much of a marketing budget they got. It’s a sad but true fact of the book business.
At any rate, this means you have to keep writing––regularly and consistently. In my own experience, even when I take a break from writing (which I think is healthy after finishing a big project!) for anything longer than a couple of weeks, I start wondering if I still know how to write when I come back to it. I worry I’ll have lost some writing talent. But then when I actually start writing again, I realize those fears are unfounded. The more you write, the easier it gets.
I don’t want you to come away from this column thinking, “yeah, yeah, just write more, that’s so obvious, that’s what they all say, blah blah.” So I want to give you a specific challenge. Yes, write more and develop a regular practice and schedule it on your calendar like it’s the important date it is. But also, as you’re getting back into this consistent writing practice, write without judging yourself. You might be a little rusty at first. It’d be like taking a couple of years off from doing yoga then diving into a hardcore class without stretching. You have to stretch your writing muscles again. The muscle memory is still there, but you have to wake it up and remind it how to work.
Even if you start a consistent writing practice, if you immediately read back over what you’ve written and decide, “Nope, this isn’t as good as what I wrote in college,” you’re doing yourself a disservice. Just allow yourself to write freely. Don’t pressure yourself to publish everything you write during this period. The goal is to get your writing muscle memory back and later your editing muscle memory back.
If you do that, I think you’ll find your best days aren’t behind you. They’re now. They’re tomorrow. They’re next year, and the year after that, and the decade after that. You have the words in you. It’s time to let them out.
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