My grandnephew, age 13, was twitchy in the passenger seat—all wound up from attending a session of the 4-H robotics program my sister and I enrolled him in this fall. He was going on and on about what was involved in building and coding a Lego robot.
Then he said in an excited, but also slightly panicky voice, “I don’t know how to do this.”
“Of course, you don’t know how,” I said. “You’ve never done it before.”
This exchange reminded me that as a rule most of us are really lousy at letting ourselves be beginners.
But he’s a kid, so of course he’s a beginner at a lot of things.
Those of us who are adults (or a-dolts as husband and I like to say), with all our knowledge and experience, well, are we ever really beginners?
Yeah, actually, we are. We just don’t like to admit it.
All that is required is the humility to be a beginner.
I started creative writing at the ripe age of 49. I’d written plenty in my jobs, volunteer activities, etc. But I decided to take up creative writing—essays, creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction.
I made a pact with myself at the time--even wrote it down:
I am a beginning writer. As such, I will be self-conscious and awkward. There will be times when my writing resembles literary acne. I’ll trip up the stairs of story and make a lot of questionable decisions.
I figure it’s all part of growing up as a writer.
Now, I’m 67 and I have been writing creatively all that time. That means I’m a grown-up writer now, right?
Only I’m entering a new phase. I have a novel manuscript that I've been working on for the last four years. I printed it off and after a short hiatus (to let the story clear from my brain a bit) the task of revising the manuscript will begin.
I’ve never done this before. When it comes to revision of long-form fiction, I am a beginner.
Damn. Have I mentioned that I don’t like being a beginner? That I’ve never liked it?
When I was in the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, I was required to learn two languages: French and Bambara. During the three months of pre-service training, we had what was called immersion, which meant that right after breakfast and until dinner was served, we weren’t allowed to speak English. This forced us to practice our new language skills.
Basically, I was mute during immersion, except for the minimum amount of speaking required in class. I zipped my lip so I wouldn’t sound like an idiot.
The staff was worried about me. One trainer (Seth, I think it was) said something that stuck with me. “You have to be okay with sounding like a three-year-old in the beginning. It’s tough on your pride, but it’s the only way you’ll learn.”
I did better once I got to my village. It helps when your survival depends on spitting out something.
I made a lot of mistakes, like the time I was explaining to my friend Hawa, in my halting Bambara, that we have a saying in English: I stuck my foot in my mouth. Only I got the word for foot wrong. I said “sin” when I should have said “sen.”
The resulting phrase was: I stuck my breast in my mouth.
Yeah. I did that. You should have seen her face.
But I learned, tripping and falling all the way. And what’s a few feet in the mouth anyway?
We are always afraid to start something that we want to make very good, true and serious.
- Brenda Ueland
In my writing group, the Coddiwomple Crew, new members struggle to read their writing out loud. There are usually lots of disclaimers: I don’t really know where this is going… it’s not very good… bear with me. That sort of thing. We always tell them that it’s not necessary, but they do it anyway.
Eventually they get over that and just read what they’ve got.
All of this to remind myself that when it comes to revising a novel:
I’ve never done this before.
I’ll make mistakes but nobody will die (except maybe in the story).
It's better if you just dive in.
And in the immortal words of Bob Ross:
As long as you’re learning, you’re not failing.