Guest Post, Jen Knox: Burning My First Words

My writing is better than it once was. I could be so bold as to say my writing is much better than it once was. When I examine old work from an emotional standpoint, I sometimes feel the urge to burn all those old tester stories, sentimental poems and heavy-handed essays. When I examine older work logically, however, I am proud of sticking with it for so long. I have put in my 10,000 hours and then some, after all, so why not hold my head high? Here’s the thing about writing, or at least my personal relationship with writing: logic is easy to forget.

I have drawers full of old notebooks, mostly pocket-sized deals that I used to carry everywhere, in case I had a story idea or came up with the perfect way to describe a character. I figured it was part of being a writer to pluck quirky quips, fancy words and epiphanies from the air as they floated by, and I was so incredibly afraid of missing one. I felt lost if my notebook was not nearby. When I first started writing creatively in college, I wrote constantly. I was late to the game, I thought, but I had arrived ready to make up for lost time.

It was all so romantic. I imagined a life of breezy insights piling up and turning into great works people would devour; readers would offer massive amounts of, if not money, praise in response to my insight, and all the support would keep me well-equipped to continue doing what I loved. I envisioned myself reading work in front of crowded rooms. Perhaps the notebook I was carrying would be auctioned off for great sums in the future; I thought these things, but wouldn’t dare say them for fear of sounding full of my future self.

When reading my work from five years ago, I often wonder if I should own my mistakes or scribble over them, bury them beneath other words, better words. It is tempting to hide one’s flaws and move forward—nowhere but forward.

Recently, I have been thinking about this duality a lot. I have work that I wrote some years ago, such as my short story, “Disengaged,” which appears in v4 of s[r], that still feels right to me, but I also have work I want to burn, throw into a fire ceremoniously, watching as amber sparks turn to ashes and misplaced words disappear.

Jen KnoxIf you can, imagine yourself with me, toasting to the cremation of your well-intended misses. What are we be burning, failures? Incomplete thoughts? Under-developed plots? Unlikable characters? Clichés? And what happens after these words are burned? Will we have successfully fooled everyone, even ourselves, to think writing is easy and success feels as natural as the pen does in our hands? Perhaps. More likely, though, we’ll have to arrange another burning of our current work some time from now. Then, all will be clean, pristine and unblemished. Then again, maybe there will be another burning and another.

My relationship with writing seems one in which I am never wholly satisfied, but here’s my point in this blog: This is good! I have come to the conclusion that owning my flaws and misses and failures is what truly makes me a writer. A writer’s dues are high and increasing year by year. There seem more writers and fewer readers every passing day, yet we endure because we must do what we do. We must write.

When I meet with the energy and hope of a new writer, I encourage him or her wholeheartedly. I nurture the talents I see buried when I teach creative writing, and I watch, happily, as the buried voice begins to surface. If a writer has a smaller vocabulary than her peers or a tendency to over-write, I tell that writer to keep at it. Every word matters, I say. There are no wasted words. I give this advice over and over. I say you never know what gems are in your writing, so never, never throw anything away. Never, never be embarrassed of your journey. It is a journey.

I say this to those emerging writers, to myself, to anyone who writes. Let’s own those early words. Let’s share them and show the journey. Because much like in any good story, there must be change. The story of a writer is no different.