Be the Worst Writer in the Room

When you are mostly successful in your career, or in school if you’re a student, being a novice at something you care about takes guts.

In my first serious writing group, which was held at night in a skyscraper above Simon Fraser University’s downtown campus, I was hands-down the worst writer in the room.

Not the worst writer EVER. Not the worst in the WORLD. But still a relative novice, despite having written 4 novels on my own and taken one jillion night school courses.

I hadn’t really studied writing. I’d taken information in magpie style, looking for quick tricks to improve whatever I was working on.

I knew a good idea when I had one.

I knew a good sentence when I read one.

But at the time (and still now) I lacked the objectivity to know when I write a good sentence, except the tiny clue that I liked reading it. I wasn’t sure if I liked reading it because the writing was over, and the sentence was what it was…or because wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Or both!

At the time I don’t think I minded being the worst. I was hungry to learn, and I was around writers who knew their shit. This was, for me, a best-case scenario.

Challenges make you stronger

The exercise industry is founded on this belief. In my experience, it’s true.

A few years ago I entered the Spartan Race, which is a combination “run up a mountain in the snow” and “obstacle course.” Not because I wanted to run in snow, climb walls, or crawl under barbed wire. Certainly not because I NEEDED to.

With the Spartan race, the question isn’t “do I want to” or “do I need to.”

It’s “Can I?”

For most people in the Spartan, the point is not to win the race. The point is to finish it and come away with new skills, abilities, and strengths. More knowledge about yourself. More sense of being alive in the world.

Learning how to climb a wall makes me stronger, and learning how to write a book makes me stronger. Every wall and every book are different, and they make you stronger in different ways.

Let yourself do what you are presently incapable of doing

If you do only what you already know how to do, there’s no discovery.

Almost daily, I follow a breathing exercise led by a fellow named Wim Hof, aka “The Ice Man.” In the first round of breath-holding he says, “Let the body do what it’s capable of doing.” Then you find out if you can do it or not. The first time I did his beginner’s routine, I thought my lungs were going to explode. But they didn’t! And now I can hold my breath for a long time.

Will I ever need to hold my breath for a long time? Who knows, and that’s not the point. The point is that it’s okay to fail, or to suck at something while you learn how to do it. With writing, as with breathing, the only way to find out what you’re capable of is to challenge yourself, leave your comfort zone, and be willing to suck.

Willingness to suck is essential to skill growth

A side benefit of doing something like a Spartan race is that you see some very fit people up close. It wakes you up to the idea that there are dedicated enthusiasts out there, ones who are willing to work very hard in order to get good at something. You can see what it takes to be good, and this lets you approach the pursuit from a different bandwidth.

There is no quicker route to improvement than learning from people who have already learned to do it well. Like my first serious writing group. I didn’t care how long it took; I wasn’t going to leave until I learned how to write better.

So whenever you get the chance, embrace being the worst in the room. Understand that when someone says your stuff needs work, or when you come in dead last in the Spartan, or when you can’t hold your breath for even 30 seconds, or when your novel doesn’t get picked up after 30 submissions, it’s not the universe out to get you.

It’s more that some things are a challenge. Some things require patience, grit, and perseverance.

There’s no need to stop doing any of the things you want to do just because they’re presenting a gigantic challenge.

Life is “learn by doing.” Ten years from now, you can either have stopped trying to write a book 10 years ago and wondering why you quit…or you can have your book out in the world and be onto a new challenge.

With luck, in ten years, you’ll be sucking at something else!