When I came to Los Angeles 13 years ago, it was not to be a writer. I didn’t know yet that I was a writer. This seems silly in retrospect, given that I wrote my first play in kindergarten, tortured my family with puppet shows through elementary school, spent junior high writing original Nancy Drew mysteries, and was one-fifth of a sketch comedy troupe in high school. But math has objective answers and I usually got them right, so that’s what I knew I was good at.
Even after light dawned and I actively embraced what I had been doing my whole life, I still didn’t feel comfortable calling myself a writer. It wasn’t about legitimacy – I got paid as a writer for years before I called myself one; it was a little about resistance – being an actor is sexier than being a writer; but it was mostly about proof. Before I uttered the words, “I am a writer,” I wanted to be confident I could back it up with evidence (blame the mathematician in me).
Writing is weird in that it is something most people think they can do yet very few actually can. Or do. The coffee shops of the world are full of folks with “this amazing idea” who never manage to get it out but still call themselves writers – as if having the intention makes us the thing. I have the intention of learning to change my own oil someday, but that doesn’t make me a mechanic.
Eventually, I came to understand there are a few key elements separating writers from “writers”, all thanks to the quintessential poser I met in my first few weeks here:
Russell the Love Muscle and I met as extras on the set of Legally Blonde 2, and continued to connect on various film sets for months. Russell (dubbed “the Love Muscle” by my eventual boyfriend – who hated him) was many things; he was confident, he had an overdeveloped sense of what he had to offer the world, and he had an inferiority complex about everything. He was the inspiration for the term Nerd Fucker after our one (and only) date, which consisted of car-ride conversations about my IQ and Mensa, and the introductory phrase, “This is Kate, she went to Harvard” used every single time at his friend’s party. The Love Muscle had not gone to Harvard, and my purpose was to prove, through my willingness to associate with him, that the universe had royally messed up on that one.
Russell was also a writer, which was provable because he had a website. In showing me his work, he was the first (but certainly not the last) person to say to me, “Oh, I don’t believe in re-writing. I think the art is more pure if you just let it flow and then put it out there in its original form.” He may have even said “virgin form” – he was that kind of a guy.
This, as any real writer will tell you, is complete bullshit.
To his credit, at least Russell put actual words down on paper (or keyboards). The first key element to being a writer is 1) WRITING SOMETHING, which seems obvious but is probably the hardest step. There are a shockingly high number of “writers” out there who don’t even get that far.
This is because it is scary.
I mentor burgeoning writers regularly, and one of the most common discussions I have is about getting started. People get stymied because they can’t figure out how to translate the glorious idea in their head into words, and I tell them that the secret is to just do it – without stopping or looking back – because the other secret is that they can’t succeed. At least not the first time.
Which brings me to the second key element of being a writer: 2) HATING WHAT YOU JUST WROTE. First drafts suck. They just do. This is why they are called “drafts” and also “first” instead of “finished products”. There is a great Ira Glass quote about how too many aspiring artists stop after producing a bad first attempt, when in truth the mark of a real artist is that very ability to recognize its poor quality. He is completely right. While the Russells of the world look at their first drafts and declare them genius, the writers see all the flaws and get inspired to improve.
That improvement is the final key element to being a writer: 3) WRITING BETTER. My favorite author, John Irving, has said that he considers the real skill of writing to be in the editing. I could not agree more. A writer must not only have the ability to recognize weaknesses and visualize improvements to her writing, but also then have the fortitude to rip apart the work to make it better. There is a reason why this process is referred to as “killing your darlings” (or “babies”) – it hurts. But it is vital, and also impossible without something to fix in the first place.
Writing a first draft is terrifying, because translating a three-dimensional idea into two-dimensional words is essentially an impossible task. You will fail. Admitting that failure is ego-shattering, but necessary because the protective ego stops progress. You must be vulnerable to change. And making changes is heartbreaking, because the initial creation, while flawed, is still precious.
Once a writer gets through this process and creates something to be shared with the world, it is absolutely exhilarating. But the process itself is messy and miserable. No true writer would ever want those earlier drafts – those mocking failures – to be shared with the world.
Think about that before reading Go Set a Watchman. Is the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird something Harper Lee would want the world to see?