Writers, it’s tough out there. People want to pay you literal pennies to write for them. You weather rejection letter after rejection letter, and that’s if you hear anything at all. And because we’re spending so much time each day with our thoughts, inevitably intrusive, negative ones will creep through.
Whether you’ve been at it for 10 years or 10 months, you’ll still have to deal with self-doubt. It stings when you write something, feel it's the best thing you’ve ever written, and read the words, “Sorry, we’re going to pass this time around.”
If this amazing thing I wrote wasn’t good enough, you might think, then I’m not as good as I thought.
So here’s the truth: you’re probably not as good as you thought. You’re also not as bad as you’re thinking. Artificial intelligence thankfully hasn’t replaced us yet, which means you, the reader, are human. And like most humans, you’re changing constantly.
As the philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.”
It’s almost impossible to recognize change when it’s happening.
Barring major dramatic moments like quitting your job, getting married, or a sudden death, it’s hard to recognize that we’re changing in the moment. But each day, with each new experience and new piece of information, we change just a bit. Over time, that change builds on itself, years pass, and suddenly we look back at the haircut we thought was cool at sixteen and wonder, “Who the hell let me do that to my head?”
But that’s exactly the problem. We can only recognize that change in hindsight. We didn’t suddenly wake up one morning, look in the mirror and say, “You know what, bangs don’t work for me.”
This is something everyone experiences: the cringe of looking through old photos, the shame when your drunk friend from college tells the story about your weird hookup, the regret when you bump into an ex and question why you ever loved them.
The benefit of being a creative is that you have something — or likely many things — that you can look at and see gradual progress.
My roommate is an artist, and he recently found an old sketchbook from when he was starting out roughly ten years ago. It’s a night and day difference:
We laughed about some of the old pieces (like the one above), but mostly it served to him as a pleasant reminder of where he started. Humble beginnings. A way to look back and say, “Wow, I’ve gotten a lot better.”
It’s the same thing for writers. Along the way, you learn new tricks, techniques, and steadily come into your own style. Hell, sometimes you simply learn new words. You apply these things until they become second-nature, but since you’re not thinking about them anymore, you forget what it was like before you knew them.
Go back and reread some of your old writing. Read your first article, a short story from when you were fifteen, the first screenplay you ever wrote. You’ll probably read it through scrunched eyes like looking at a car crash, and that’s okay. You were just starting out. You needed to learn.
Recognize how far you’ve come, how far you’ve still got to go, and make a plan for the future.
I studied screenwriting in college, and, stupid career-decisions aside, I don’t regret it. I learned a lot, met some amazing people, and grew as a person. I remember “pitching” my first feature film script to my professor. It was a found-footage Lovecraftian horror film called Maryland.
After class, my professor emailed me saying that he enjoyed the short 3-page comedy scene I’d written for a different assignment and suggested that I re-pitch my feature as a horror-comedy a la Shaun of the Dead. Back then, I never thought I could write comedy. I have to be funny? On purpose?
But I did it. And it sucked. I leaned way too heavily into the Shaun of the Dead influence. Except I’m not Edgar Wright or Simon Pegg. The script was called Suckers, and it was about a group of friends who get drunk after the main character is dumped, only to wake up the next morning and discover that everyone in town has been possessed by Leech-like alien creatures. They also learn why they weren’t possessed: the aliens can’t tolerate alcohol.
Two years later, I took a class called Rewriting the Feature, and I rewrote Suckers. In that two years, I’d written more comedies, horror films, and worked on multiple sets. I was more confident as a writer and as a person, and it showed in my rewrite. The jokes were better; the characters were more fleshed out, and the script felt more me and less Shaun of the Dead.
It only took two years to see massive improvements in my writing.
Obviously, I’m not in college anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’m done learning. None of us are. I never want to stop learning. The future is terrifying, and I’m still riddled with self-doubt, but I know that if I learn, apply that knowledge, and embrace the bumps along the way, I’ll come out the other end all the better for it.
I’m not an expert. I’m barely a professional. Mostly, I’m a 24-year-old boy (I wouldn’t call myself a man) who’s trying to figure some stuff out. But if I’ve learned anything in the past few years, it’s this:
Everyone is a work in progress, and we never really hit a point where we’re “finished.” We all have flaws and insecurities, but rather than wallowing in them, we should use them as guidelines for how we want to move forward.
So go reread something of yours that you forgot about. Cringe, laugh, smile, feel whatever you need to feel about it, and then feel happy that you’ve gotten better.
As another famous philosopher said, “Life is a highway. I wanna ride it all night long.”