Where the words come from
Sometimes, like I did this morning, I go through work from days gone by. The words are familiar yet somehow fresh again, polished by time’s breath like a home-town you return to after decades spent away. The flaws highlighted by age, yet rendered precious like rough-cut gems of nostalgia. Could’ve used a different metaphor, or none at all. That turn of phrase tastes acidic after five years spent maturing. Was that epigraph in Latin really necessary? There is no worse example, and no better teacher, than the writer you used to be.
Most of my work falls into this category of “well, at least you learnt something”. Then there’s the other ones. The ones I didn’t write.
I harbour the suspicion that my words are not my own. Not the vast majority of clunky, half-baked stories or turgid love poems that make me whimper in self-affronted disbelief; those are surely mine (not that any other would lay claim to them). But the others, the ones which still sparkle under the harshest gaze, the ones whose plots and rhymes and cadences the years cannot condemn – who wrote them?
I may have been the one to type them out, or scrawl them out on scraps of loose-leaf office clipping, but they do not belong to me. When I look back – whether it be in the afterglow of their frantic exposition, or with the cool distance of the years between us – I can only read them as the words of someone else, some writer more deft and precise and human than I know myself to be. I must bear responsibility for them, just as a mother for her newborn, but I cannot truthfully say “these are my creations, and I am their creator”.
The words, the ones which last, they come from somewhere else. Whether that be God or my subconscious or as-yet-undiscovered subatomic particles colliding against one another deep within the trappings of my brain is ultimately a matter of opinion. And without thousands of hours of decidedly not-subconscious practice and self-appraisal, they would have no viable outlet onto the page. Which is why I keep writing: so that when the words come, I can do them justice.
So my advice is: keep working at your writing, and keep learning from what you’ve written. Read widely and imitate mercilessly. Take advice from your harshest critics, but remember there are no “mistakes” in what we do. Find mentors. Attend classes. Give classes. Do whatever it takes to gain full mastery of the language at your disposal. That’s how you become a good writer – and for most of you, that’s all you’ll ever want or need.
But if you need something more, then wait. And listen.