What I’m Learning Wednesday: To Be Lousy

This week I started a 30-day class to write a children’s book.

I didn’t know I had any interest in doing this until I watched R.L. Stine’s Masterclass a few months ago. The way he talked about writing for kids struck every chord I have, even though I never read (and don’t want to write) kid-sized horror. As a kid I breathed books, and in adulthood my favorite books are still kidlit, the old ones that formed me and the new ones I’m discovering.

Much as I enjoyed–and learned from–last month’s Writing For Your Life conference, I did come out of it with an acute sense of unworthiness. Or maybe the better word is unreadiness. I’m 19 years out of seminary with no job history. I have a small life and even smaller circles of contact, thanks to moving all the time. I don’t come to writing with long ministry experience or deep engagement in justice work. I don’t bring a network, a platform, or even a particularly interesting life story.

What I do have…

I have a great imagination.

Most of the time it’s a thorn in my side; I have an uncanny ability to imagine all the details of the worst possible things that might potentially happen. You’d be amazed.

But imagination can be used for good, and can be handy for grownup(-ish) things too, like sermons and devotional writing. Imagination can help people to hear (and see, and taste, and smell) stories of faith in ways they never have before.

Listening to R.L. Stine made me wonder if I should try my hand at writing for the kind of reader I was–and am–: the kind who is learning to love stories, and to find themself in books. For the first time, one of the major mental blocks I’ve had about writing–that unworthiness, that unreadiness–seems to be fading.

The next writer’s block.

Another delightful personality quirk of mine is a fear of sucking. If I’m not putting it too bluntly. I love to learn, but I hate feeling incompetent, fumbling, wrong-headed–in a word, stupid. (For those of you who are Enneagram fans, yeah, I’m so Type 5.) I avoid doing things I’m pretty sure to suck at until I feel confident enough not to be so sucky.

Writing has always come naturally to me. I never worried about writing papers for school, even in creative writing classes where I anticipated critique. Sermons and devotionals and liturgies are fun, if not always easy. But writing a book is a different story.

One of the lessons of the writing conference (and, okay, every podcast, online course, and writing textbook I’ve consumed) is that writing is work. It requires terrible drafts and intense editing. Writing a book isn’t just writing a book, but book after book after book just to learn to write the one that is it.

Turns out being a writer isn’t the outcome of giftedness or talent or even ability. Being a writer is the outcome of being exuberantly lousy, over and over, and then learning to edit the best of that lousiness into something wonderful.

Bach’s Minuet No. 1.

About 18 months ago I did something I’ve wanted to do since I was about 11. At age 44, I started violin lessons.

Toward the end of my first study book is J.S. Bach’s Minuet No. 1, and I’ve been anxious to be able to play it and have it sound good (not just not lousy, but actually good). I’ve even moved on to begin book 2, and I knew my Minuet had improved from months ago. Last week I set up my phone to record myself so I could see and hear how good I sound.

Let’s just say I… do not sound like the guy in the video.

For about a minute I felt so discouraged and, I’ll say it, stupid. How am I still so lousy at this song? Then I remembered: I am learning the violin because I like it. It’s not “for” anything or anybody. It may be the first thing I have ever sucked at and kept coming back to just because I enjoy it. And I know–in spite of the Minuet No. 1–my terrible-ness IS decreasing, and my abilities are growing. (And I probably need new strings, too.)

It actually caught me off-guard, to feel these two things at once: awareness of my lousiness, and a deep desire to keep playing.

That’s the mindset I’m learning to take to the writing desk. Yesterday I had my first “practice session,” and I wrote the first chapter of my first-ever middle-grade novel. And it’s lousy. It screeches, and my tempo is all over the place. But if I can learn to live in the wild duet of accepting my own lousiness and reveling in the playing, maybe someday there will be a minuet after all.

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