I can still recall the thrill of my very first newspaper byline—it imparted a buzz far better than drugs (some of them, at least), and the memory of it still gives me a posthumous kick of heady glee.
I was living in Missouri, and it was my first week of grad school, and I’d been asked to write a one-page arts feature for the local newspaper’s weekend insert.
My assignment: to cover a mini-concert headlined by three teenaged rock and hip-hop bands and staged atop a parking garage at sunset. Small peanuts, but that didn’t stop me from my nerves.
I hovered around the periphery of the crowd that evening, just observing, then I peppered various surly adolescent rockers with a bulleted list of eager, searching questions typed onto a crumpled piece of paper stuffed into my back pocket.
Around 11 p.m., I biked home, fired up my laptop, and got to it. I sat and I wrote and I sat and I wrote until the clock struck 3 a.m. I looked upon my work, and believed that it was good. In the morning, just like that, I filed my very first arts feature.
When the story ran a few days later, I hoarded a clean dozen copies, mailing a few to my parents, saving a few for posterity, and lovingly pasting the least wrinkly one into an expensive black art portfolio purchased expressly for the purpose. I was so pleased.
In the 10 years since, I’ve amassed hundreds of clips, some far worse than that first one, and most far better. I have complimentary subscriptions to most of the magazines and newspapers I write for nowadays, which means I no longer have to wake up at dawn and hunt down a newspaper stand to see my name in print. (It’s a miniscule cachet, but I’ll take it.)
And that’s a good thing, because the shine of bylines is definitely off. Sure, I’ll thumb through the periodicals when they arrive just to see what the designers have done with my stories, but just as often, they are tossed onto the kitchen table and gradually disappear beneath an avalanche of junk mail and other household detritus.
Until, eventually, my husband gathers them into an orderly pile and perches them on the edge of the table nearest the stairs: my hint to move them along to their final resting place.
The art portfolio approach proved too precious and time-consuming, so I’ve settled instead on the Multiple Overflowing Shoeboxes Storage (MOSS) method of archival. It involves: carrying the magazines and newspapers upstairs to my office, then throwing them into the MOSS pit that’s slowly taken over my closet’s top shelf.
Another shelf in my office houses a small collection of self-published books that I have painstakingly and lovingly edited for various clients. These aren’t given much more attention than the MOSS pile, mainly because I lack the gumption to ever, ever read them, out of the irrational (or perhaps totally rational) fear that I’ll find some horrible typo or plot hole and die of embarrassment and shame.
None of these habits is probably particularly unusual. In any profession, the trajectory trends, over time, away from awe and self-satisfaction and toward cynicism, indifference, and low-grade terror. Work is work. Writing’s no different. It becomes, in time, just a job. A time-consuming job, and who’s got the hours or energy to sit around poring over a pile of old stories? And who in their right mind would want to?
For most of us, staring down an ancient writing artifact engenders actual, physical pain. Because, let’s face it: if you are doing things right, you’re a far better writer now than you were before, and confronting less-polished iterations of yourself can feel unbearably intimate and distressing, like staring at yourself naked in a full-length mirror.
Sometimes, it’s easier to just avert your eyes and hope nothing too godawful’s been left dangling out anywhere.
But on the good days, I like to believe that writing’s got more in common with mountain climbing than it does with getting naked. Consider: if you were a mountaineer who’d summited a steep mountain, you would pause at the tippy-top to enjoy the view, right? You’d probably take a selfie, too, and maybe have a sip of water. And I’m willing to bet you’d feel at least a wee bit of pride as you took in your surroundings, relishing in the true measure of exactly how far your feet and your will had carried you.
What you wouldn’t do is sit there scowling back down the trail head, cursing every switchback and gravel bank and tree root you stumbled over as you brought your body to the top. Right?
So, I’m putting to you (and to myself) a challenge: look at your old stories and clips more often. Published or not. Finished or not. Awful or not.
Steel your loins, sit down, and really, really read them. And as you read, don’t you dare take to calling your writing all sorts of terrible names. Instead, laugh at your conspicuous flourishes, your dangling modifiers, your trying and trying and trying and for the love of god, stop trying hard!
Also: admire the things you did well. Pick out the gorgeous bits (they are there), the clever bits, the bold bits, the experimental bits. Learn to view the progress you’ve since made as a beautiful unfolding of potential, word by word and piece by piece.
My, how you’ve grown. This here’s the real and visible proof.
And if ever you just can’t quite get to the feeling proud bit, call your mom; she’ll set you straight.
Years back, just after I’d scored my first full-time newspaper reporter gig, my mother had one of my early hard news stories professionally framed. At the time, I was embarrassed by the gesture; this was your basic one-off story about an ill-fated plan to build a rural hospital, after all, and who was I to mistake it for art?
For years, I was too abashed even to hang that framed clip up in my office. It felt pedantic, self-important. Like crowding a wall with framed diplomas that needily shout to all comers: “ADMIRE ME NOW PLEASE BECAUSE I AM SMART!”
Today, I see it all differently. I’ve been rejected and raked over and run off the damned road entirely enough times to know that you gotta take your kudos wherever you can get them. You’ve also got abandon those silly compunctions about humility and learn to pat your own back. Vigorously and frequently. Just in case nobody else (except your mom) sees fit to do so.
The framed newspaper clipping now has pride of place in my office, and I regularly look it over, always particularly enjoying an unintentionally hilarious quote I collected from a crotchety 84-year-old woman named Thelma Bonar (pronounced “Boner”), and pausing a moment at the black-and-white reporter photo of Younger Me, with my silly grin and my blonde mullet.
That clip represented a moment of arrival, however small. Chasing down my writerly ambitions has been exhausting and expensive and all-consuming, and guess what? I’m still not famous. I have no fancy awards or major bylines. I’m not rich. And I’m still not a tenth the writer that I’d hoped to become when I started out.
Certainly, others have progressed further, faster. Daily, I encounter work that is so damned devastatingly masterful that I can’t see how I’ll match it, even if I try for a hundred more years.
But hating on that girl in that black-and-white photo, or the one who stood atop a parking garage that felt like a mountain, scribbling self-important snippets into a tiny spiral notebook some humid summer night a million years ago, is disloyal and so totally unnecessary.
She was young and proud and naïve and hungry. She also had a lot left to learn.
So do I.