At one point, my oldest boy was up on top of the park fountain playing air guitar along with the band. A year ago or so, I bought him a cheap electric guitar and a couple of beginner learning books. We spent some hours working on it, and he picked it up fairly quickly. He showed some natural aptitude with his right hand coordination and rhythm. But once we got beyond a few chords and the learning was obviously going to require some work to reach the next level, he lost interest.
He's also the best singer in the house. But he refuses to sing in front of anyone. Ever.
Before bed last night, fresh on the heels of his air guitar performance, I asked him, "Why don't you want to learn to play? You have a natural knack for it. What's holding you back?"
He was quiet for a long time. Maybe it was a trick of the dim light or his allergies acting up, but I thought his eyes got a little moist. Finally, he said, "Because I don't want to suck. I remember what it sounded like when I played. It sucked. I sounded terrible. I don't want to be like that."
We all know exactly how he feels, don't we? Fear of sucking, and the perceived public humiliation that goes along with it, is crippling. It's like an ice pick right between the ribs and into the heart, stopping your motivation and enthusiasm dead on the spot. People will laugh. Or worse, people will think we're foolish or incompetent or flat out stupid.
I'd like to believe that age, experience, and thickening skin makes this better. So far, it doesn't.
Every time I publish a new story, I feel afraid. What if nobody likes it? What if the people who say they like it and leave 4- and 5-star reviews are just being nice? What if I suck?
This never goes away. It never gets better. All it takes is a declining sales report or another magazine rejection and all of the old fears come rushing back, invisibly flitting about my head like bat wings in the dark.
If that wasn't bad enough, I have PROOF that I suck! The first thing I ever self-published was a book of poetry called Rough Crossing. These pieces were written in my very late teens and early twenties, the product of a different guy at a different time wrapped up in a wholly different life situation. I can't comment on the objective quality of the poetry because there is no such thing. I thought they were great when I wrote them. Today, most of them make me cringe.
It would take me another twenty years to internalize this fact. We are not defined by our output. In a way, our works, like our children, carry some genetic markers showing their heritage, but they are at heart their own unique individuals. Just because you create something that sucks doesn't mean that you suck. In fact, the opposite is true.
Oh, how I wish that some teacher at some point would have sat me down and said, "I'm going to tell you the truth, young Van Winkle. Ready? For your age, this isn't a bad story. But on the even playing field of adult fiction, this sucks. Sorry, but it's true. You have some of the pieces needed to become a writer, but the one critical thing you don't have -- yet -- is failure. If you want to play and publish with the big boys, you need to suck. You need to fail. Repeatedly. In fact, you need to fail through so many thousands of words, you'll think you're suffocating under their weight. Because every one of those failures is a building block. If you just leave those blocks scattered on the floor, all you have is a big mess. But if you pay attention and experiment and arrange them in the right way, someday they can make a castle topped with gold and starlight. And the really funny thing? You're going to find that a lot of people like some of those failures just the way they are. Plenty of ingrates will think you suck no matter how good you get. You don't care about those people. You just care about the ones who enjoy your so-called failures and you work your butt off to give them something better next time."
I released my first novella last week. And yes, I'm scared. I worry that it sucks and that people will look at it on their e-readers, then look at me, and think, "Really? You're forty-two and a writer. Is that really the best you can do?" There are only two possible responses: either cave in to the fear and give up or reply, "Yes, at this time for this particular story, I worked my butt off, and this is the best I can do. Take it or leave it."
BestFriend is not epic literature. There are no sweeping metaphors or subtle feats of symbolism or any of the stuff that they teach you in school are the hallmarks of fine literature. It merely tells the simple story of a girl in the near future who has several challenges in her life, both internal and external. All she wants is a friend. One day, the means to having a friend comes into her hands, and she acts on it. This friend is an artificial intelligence downloaded into the implant at the back of her head. She names the AI Mira -- short for "miracle" -- and her life is transformed. The thing about childhood friends, though, is that they tend to change. Usually, the stakes in such shifting friendships are pretty low. This is not one of those times. This is life and death.
I can't tell you if BestFriend is good or not. I'm fairly sure that I'll look back on it in twenty years and, while cringing, wonder what in God's name I was thinking. So it goes. That's how the game is played. I can tell you that I started the tale thinking it would be about 5,000 words and, in relating the girl's story, her world and journey ended up needing over 27,000 words. That's my longest tale yet, and it's the first time in which I feel I had full control over the plot, character arc, and structure -- the skeleton and muscles within the story's body. If it sucks, I at least feel confident in saying it doesn't suck as much as the last story because I'm gaining proficiency as a craftsman. My castle walls are beginning to stand on their own.
People who read BestFriend swear they really like it. I don't know. Maybe they're all being nice. Maybe if I allow myself to keep thinking that, I will remain grateful and continue to work my butt off for them. Whatever, it's done. The next story is also done and should be out in the next week or two. And I have two novels in progress. That's scary. No, that's terrifying. The books may suck. (Don't 99.9% of all first novels suck?) Readers may think I'm a moron. I don't care. I can't afford to care. Because to get to gold and starlight, you need lots and lots of building blocks.
And just maybe, somewhere in the midst of all that failure that isn't failure at all, I'll get to entertain a few people along the way. That's what I want to show my son. Because if I have faith in myself and the necessary process of failure, maybe he will, too.