I'm twenty-two now, and I guess I've spent half my life kinda-sorta working my way towards that eventual goal. I majored in creative writing at uni - went to the university I went to specifically because of reputation it had for its creative writing programme - but I can't say I walked out at the end of four years feeling like I'd learnt very much. Looking back, I think I probably should have majored in English Literature; I think I would have learnt more about writing from studying the work of others. In any case, I learnt far more in my year abroad, working intensively one-on-one with a tutor with whom I clashed excessively and who more than once made me absolutely furious (somewhere in the depths of Gmail lurk the emails between me and a good friend of mine, recording the many rants I sent off directly after tutorials, expressing my frustration with said tutor). And yet despite all that, I learnt far more from him in that one year than I did at my home uni. I think there's something to be said for being pushed to your limits: you learn what it is you really care about in your work. I figured out what I was willing to let slide, what I was willing to compromise in order to clash with him a little less, and what I absolutely refused to let go of, what I had to stand up for, because it was important, to me, to the story, to the characters occupying that world inside my head. I don't think I ever got that kind of challenge from my creative writing professors at my home university; there was general feedback, and some criticism, but the feeling I got from them was that they were too wrapped up in their own work to push us in ours. I did get that challenge from my English Literature professors, particularly my honours supervisor, and in retrospect I've realised that at times we clashed in much the same way that my tutor and I did when I was abroad. I think it's part of the process, and I don't think it's a bad thing. Someone should always be there to challenge you to do more, to challenge your assumptions, to argue with the way you've decided to do things. The drive to challenge ourselves should really come from within, I know, but sometimes we can be too close to our own work to realise that that thing we love about a piece, that we've held on to since the start of it, has no place in the work it's become. Sometimes someone else has to batter down the walls we've built around a beloved story and knock some sense into us, and it's only at that point that we as writers can figure out what it is that's really important, what to keep and what to lose.
I'm not saying I walked out of that year abroad with a clear idea of who I was and what my writing had become. Quite the opposite: I'd compromised a lot of who I was, in terms of my writing, in order to get through the year, and I came out of the year uncertain of where exactly my style as a writer lay. I'm still rediscovering what kind of a writer I am. I also came out of that completely burnt out; I didn't write for months. My imagination was shot; it took months for the glimmer of a story idea to even flicker across my radar. I'm not sure I'd care to repeat the experience, but neither would I erase it. One of the things about being a writer is that every thing I do, everywhere I go, every moment I experience, contributes to who I am and the wealth of knowledge at my fingertips: knowledge that is infinitely valuable to me as I think about how to write, who to write, where to write.
I think one of the most depressing things about the computer age (something supremely ironic, as I sit here writing on a computer) is the fact that we write, erase, and write again, and nothing of what we wrote the first time remains; it disappears forever. There's a whole process that the writer goes through that just disappears. As I've got older, I've started to save successive major drafts as separate documents, to avoid this, but 'minor' changes are still impossible to track (unless one turns on the track changes option, and who does that?). I never did this with my older work, and consequently I have things like my first novel (eek) that has about four places where I started to rewrite it...and there's no way of knowing what was originally there. With that one, I do have the benefit of having the very original draft in manuscript form, because in middle school and high school I wrote everything in notebooks first. I'm sure my teachers despaired; I'd sit there in class with a notebook on my desk, scribbling away. I have a whole shelf of notebooks at home. Some of them are actually completely full. Some of them actually have complete stories in them (that would mostly be the really, really appalling sci-fi series of stories from middle school). Most of them are only partially filled, and as best as I can remember, only the later ones are dated. It's still possible to track my progress through the improvement in my writing, however, and since I can remember where I was when writing some of them (sixth grade, 'Orphan's Magic': end table in the library by the doors), I can sort of date some of them. Sometimes I go back and look at those old pieces, and as much as I cringe at how bad the writing is, it's still encouraging when I realise how much I've improved.
This post has kind of got away from me. I suppose I've been thinking a lot about writing lately. I'm halfway through my MLitt in Shakespeare Studies, and I'm in the process of constructing a research proposal to apply for a PhD (also in English Literature...not creative writing). I did my senior honours in Shakespeare, because, as my supervisor pointed out, if I was planning on going on in English Literature (as I obviously have), doing honours in English Lit would be more helpful than doing honours in creative writing. She was right, of course, but I can't help but feel that I'm getting further and further from what I want to be doing with my life. This is probably prompted in part by the fact that I had some free time in January, and I spent a lot of it working on El (see Rebecca and Rebecca, again). I started El last summer, at the end of July, and when I picked it up again in January, it was sitting at around 21,000 words. In about the first week I worked on it, I more than doubled the word count; at last count, a little over a month after I picked it up again, the word count stood at 70,823. That's over 50,000 words, over half of which was written in about a week. I think I realised what I'm capable of when I really try, and I think I'd forgotten how happy I am when I'm writing. It's like all the missing pieces just slot into place. El's more or less done, insofar as the story is basically complete; my goal for the next couple of months is to restructure and rewrite it into something resembling publishable material, and then see if I can make that happen. I love academia, but it's not where I want to spend my life. My heart lies in my writing. It's what I've wanted to do since I was eleven, and I don't want to spend the next eleven years walking in place. I'm not the best writer in the world, but I can only improve by working. I know I don't spend as much time writing as I should, and I could spin a dozen excuses as to why that is, but in the end I think the real reason is that I'm afraid that I just won't be good enough. I think I keep doing other things to avoid the inevitable, because one day I'm going to have to learn whether or not I have what it takes, and I'm terrified that I don't have it. And if that's the case, I'm afraid I will break. But since I'm rapidly running out of options (academia's all very nice, of course, but I don't really fancy spending my life in the academic bubble), I need to get moving. I talked about challenges. I guess this is where my challenge really lies.