I am going to force myself to talk about something I would rather not revisit for the sole purpose of sharing what I learned: I’m going to talk about the worst short story I ever wrote. Because I wrote it around this time last October for my Intro to Creative Fiction class, and the flashbacks I’ve been getting are just too painful to ignore.
Here’s how this nightmare started: I wanted to write a story that took place around Halloween time because I’ve always enjoyed Halloween as fodder for creative writing, usually in the form of some not-scary story about werewolves or vampires or the like. I’m not a horror writer; never have been. Nor was this class the kind that would accept a story about vampires; it was specifically a Contemporary Fiction workshop, meaning it had to be realistic, mostly. So I opted for a story about a cynical girl who can’t stand her eccentric, emo-punk coworker who insists on playing The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack over the loudspeakers. She snaps, berating him for being weird and unlikeable. He then retaliates by completely reinventing himself as a “normal” teenager, which creeps her out to the point of a near-mental breakdown, culminating in her learning a lesson about judging people by what they look like. It was trite, cliche, and unconvincing. My characters were flat and my plot was contrived. Nothing seemed realistic and it played out like a bad Twilight Zone episode. It was a total disaster.
The worst part was, before I took it to workshop, I thought it was the best story ever. I was emotionally invested in it, which was my fatal mistake. When my classmates tore it to shreds during my workshop, my pride took a serious beating. I couldn’t believe how blind I’d been; how had I missed all the things they’d pointed out? How could I write something so bad yet think it was good?
Well, after a year of trying to suppress the memory, and after two semesters of Fiction Workshop during which none of my stories really cut the mustard, I figure I must’ve learned something. The first thing was, I am definitely not a contemporary fiction writer. And I realized that was okay; everyone has their niche, and that wasn’t mine. The second thing was, these are the necessary growing pains of refining any skill, especially a creative art. You have to suck at it a lot before you can get kinda good at it. I had never known rejection until I took those damn workshops, and let me tell you, by the end of the year, I had a thicker skin for it. Definitely not indestructable, but certainly much less fragile.
Am I still a little sore about that stupid short story? Admittedly, yes, but if I’d never written it, I’d never have learned just how easily I could fall into the trap of going story-blind, like a doting mother who only sees the cuteness of her bratty, incorrigible child. In terms of storycrafting, I learned that in most cases it’s really not the best idea to go in with an endgame already in mind; I wanted to write a “Halloween” story so bad, I neglected my characters, my plot, and basically everything else fundamental. I love Halloween, I love gimmicks when they’re cleverly placed, but it’s not worth the integrity of a story to incorporate them just for their own sake. I had to learn that the hard way. Consider this a cautionary tale, ye fellow writers: attend to thine characters and plot, or they shall haunt thee for the rest of thine days! Be ye warned!
But most of all, for anyone pursuing a skill or an art or a passion, do it with all thine might, for to suck is human, but to persist in spite of sucking, that is perhaps divine.