One of my favorite quotes is attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”
Like most inspirational Internet quotes that end up getting commodified on Etsy and pinned to dozens of Pinterests boards, it’s also likely misattributed. But regardless of who said it, I think of these words often.
Since I was in middle school, there’s one thing I’ve dreaming of: being a published author. I was a voracious reader growing up, and I wrote little stories here and there as a child. In 7th grade, I started writing a cheesy romantic novel with a close friend. We would stay up late at night, our faces illuminated by the glow of our laptops, as we took turns typing our story into an AIM chat window (oh dear, did I just date myself?).
It didn’t take me long to recognize that this thing that had started out as a fun pastime had become much more for me.
In high school, I started writing a new novel with a different friend. I had high hopes going in this time, because like me, she was also passionate about writing. We spent the next few years working on a manuscript, plotting out the next three books that would come in the series. I knew everything about the characters we’d created—their hopes, their fears, their aspirations. I loved that story, and I still do, but unfortunately it didn’t work out. While she was a talented writer, my friend was flaky, often missing the deadlines we set for ourselves, her investment in the novel fading as we entered our college years.
When it was clear that the project was officially dead, I found myself asking, What now?
The thought of writing a novel all by myself was exhilarating: getting to make all the decisions by myself, not having to navigate around someone else’s schedule or whims. It was also terrifying. I had never written a novel by myself and besides, I was so, so tired. I’d put so much time and love into crafting that story. I didn’t know if I had the energy to do it all again.
It turned out I did. I spent the next six to seven years working on my first solo manuscript. I wrote draft after draft, sometimes going months without writing due to the fatigue of simultaneously working 40 hours a week with an additional four hours of commuting each day.
Eventually, I moved to New York. I joined a critique group, and for the first time ever, I showed my work to real writers. I learned so much from them, first and foremost, that I had a lot more to learn.
One winter, we decided to take a break from our usual projects and work our way through a book of craft exercises. That was the first time in years that I’d written anything other than my project, which I just couldn’t seem to get to work. I was shocked by what I produced, and so was my writing group. I realized when I wasn’t constrained by a project I’d started writing in college, by a questionable foundation riddled with problems stemming from inexperience, I could apply everything I’d learned over the years and actually write something that was kind of…good.
A few months later, I submitted my entire manuscript to my group for review. They confirmed to me what I’d already known: it just wasn’t working.
So there I found myself with another decision to make: keep trying to make this thing I’d put so much time into work or start over again. I heard F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (or whoever said it’s) quote echo in my head. Did I really have the strength to do this again? I did.
I could feel an immediate difference as I started writing. I was able to implement all the knowledge I’d gained over the years, avoid the early mistakes I’d made in my previous projects. My writing group had overwhelming praise to offer for each chapter I submitted.
It’s been about a year and a half since I started working on that project. Yesterday, I submitted the second draft of the full manuscript to my writing group for their review.
In the past, the idea of starting over or putting my work out there for others to critique was terrifying. I always felt so drained, and asking me to give more was like trying to pour from an empty cup.
One way I handled those fears was by putting things off. The longer I went without showing anyone my writing, the longer I could believe that everything was just dandy. Of course, all I really ended up doing was wasting months I could have been using to improve my craft.
The thing is, all those things I was afraid of, the mistakes I feared making…they’re the reason I was able to write a novel I’m so proud of now. As in life, making mistakes is the only way to grow and living carefully doesn’t protect you from making them. It only keeps you from becoming a better version of you.
So make mistakes. Make them early, and make them often.
One day, I hope I’ll get to walk into a bookstore and see a book with my name on the shelf. When I look at it, I’ll see all the failed novels that came before it. And I will be so, so happy, because to me, it will be a testament that I had the courage to start all over again.