The most embarrassing thing I ever wrote

On developing talent in the pre-internet era

A recent conversation with a writer friend reminded me that before Twitter and WordPress and Facebook and direct emails, before I got sucked into the world of branding and cultivating an audience of readers and understanding market trends, I was a lonely kid who sat in her bedroom writing stories on the back of old office memos from my mom’s work.

I wrote short stories and novels. I designed covers for my books. I reimagined them as movie trailers with Don LaFontaine narrating (although I didn’t know his name and didn’t know “book trailers” were a thing). I created series and drew maps of the neighborhoods my characters inhabited. And – this was my favorite thing ever – I drew blueprints of the houses my characters lived in.

I might have done more ancillary work than actual prose writing, now that I think about it.

But when I did write, often lying on the trundle bed that rolled out from under my day bed, I poured my heart into it. I wrote epic adventures, gripping emotional scenes, adrenaline-laden climaxes, and heartfelt resolutions.

Or so I thought.

Now, many years of training and wisdom later, I understand that my books, which I imagined would win awards, were just the drivel of a novice writer developing her craft. They were inspired but technically flawed. And sometimes terrible.

Here’s one that I remembered in that recent conversation with the friend:

Prisoner of a Gas Chamber

Premise: Separated twins have each been raised by a different parent (hello, Parent Trap). The father is angry (about what?) and wants revenge, so he kidnaps Kate, one of the sisters, and brings her to his split-level suburban home. It looks perfect ordinary on the outside, but Kate’s bedroom has been outfitted to serve as a “gas chamber.” When her father doesn’t get the answers he wants (about what?), he fills the room with gas that knocks Kate unconscious. Her sister (did she even have a name?) must save her. Or maybe Kate was supposed to save herself.

Here is my recollection of the carefully designed cover, which was done on green paper with blue pen, drawn by hand because we didn’t have fancy computers for that kind of thing back then. The original has long since been lost, so this is my best memory of it, hastily redrawn thirty years later:

I think we can all agree this was a pretty dreadful idea. It’s clear I didn’t understand basic physics (couldn’t Kate have just opened a window?), character development (what was Dad’s deal?), or…really…anything. Thankfully, this little work was created on paper, alone in my room in the pre-internet era. There was little risk that anyone beyond my immediate circle would know about it (until now).

I think there is a lot of value in developing craft through digital social networks. Events like NaNoWriMo encourage productivity and help create community among aspiring writers. Social networks on Twitter and Facebook allow people to share ideas, give each other feedback, and find critique partners. There is so much good that can come from this. Things I didn’t have access to when I asked for a copy of Writer’s Digest for Christmas and spent my entire school break typing and mailing query letters to publishers. (Don’t worry. I didn’t pitch Prisoner of a Gas Chamber. I pitched Surrealistic Stanzas, my collection of poetry that had nothing to do with surrealism.)

I also think there’s value in learning, developing, and writing really terrible things that don’t go anywhere. Not everything we write is good enough to be shared. Not everything should be shared. I think developing talent is matter of experimenting, be willing to take risks that fail, and slowly growing over time. By sharing immediately, we potential damage that “self-branding” by giving the world access to things that aren’t ready to be seen. I wonder if my eight-year-old self would have wanted to post my fantastic idea for a novel to Tumblr if it had been available back then? I’m very glad it wasn’t.

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