My first year out of college I taught math at a low-income high school in New Orleans where there weren’t enough textbooks or even enough desks. But I showed up on the first day of school with high expectations for myself and my students. I was going to change lives! I was going to be the best teacher they’d ever had!
With exactly five weeks of Teach For America training under my belt, I thought I knew how to help my students succeed. But, as it turned out, there was a ton I didn’t know, including the fact that I really didn’t yet have the skills necessary to teach in such an intense environment. I found this out quickly enough. On my third day, two of my students got in a violent fist fight, and I was powerless to stop them. As one of the boys slammed his fist into the other one’s face, I realized: crap, I have no idea what I’m doing.
Later, I wrote a story about the fight. At that point I was still under the impression that teaching would be my career and writing would be my hobby. But as time went on, I wondered if I should focus on writing instead. Unlike trying to teach students who refused to sit down and listen to me, the words would do what I wanted them to do — wouldn’t they?.
So, after two difficult years of teaching, I quit and dedicated myself to writing. I’d always been praised for my creative writing in school, and I figured I’d be able to pound out a good novel in a year and be a successful novelist in no time. I worked as a secretary, and then as an orthodontic assistant, and since these jobs were less demanding physically, mentally, and emotionally than teaching, I was able to write a novel in my free time.
As I was writing this novel, I felt pretty good about it. It was about a high school girl very similar to me with a friend who was very similar to my friend Nikki. Things happened that were very similar to things that had happened to me and Nikki. It was a literary coming of age story with beautifully poignant descriptions and quiet-but-true moments. At least, that’s what I was going for.
I finished the novel, and at first I was proud of it. I sent it off to some agents and ended up getting tricked into paying $150 for a scam editing service which did me the disservice of telling me the manuscript was great.
To be clear: it was not great.
I haven’t actually looked back at this novel in nearly a decade because I’m embarrassed to do so. But I’m pretty sure that it is boring and poorly-written. A thinly-veiled autobiography with a very thin plot.
Back then I didn’t think it was terrible, but I did begin to realize that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I compared it to the books I loved, and mine came up lacking. But why? I knew what a good book was. Why hadn’t I been able to write one?
That’s when I realized: crap, I don’t know what I’m doing. And I started looking into the MFA program at University of New Orleans.
In her awesome book Writing Irresistible Kid Lit, Mary Kole says:
…people trying to master something move through four stages, from “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence,” to “conscious competence,” to “unconscious competence.” (You can read more about this idea here.)
With teaching, it only took a few days in the classroom for me to move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and that’s pretty much where I stayed. I was very aware of all the ways I was sucking as a teacher.
With writing, though, I moved very slowly from unconscious to conscious incompetence. Even after getting my MFA, I was still under the insane delusion that I’d be able to sit down and let a fully-formed and amazing novel flow out of my brain in a few month’s time. I’d learned about language and mechanics in my program, and I’d certainly improved my short story writing, but I still had no idea how to create a novel. (To be fair, I did write a novel in a few months right after grad school, but this one, too, I have been afraid to go back and look at.)
It wasn’t until I turned thirty and quit teaching for the second time and (for the second time) fully dedicated myself to writing, that I actually became aware of how incompetent I truly was. I’d been writing for years, and I still didn’t know how to plot a novel! Writing a decent book seemed like a monumental task that I finally realized I was ill-equipped for.
But I did it anyway. I wrote a novel. And then another one. And then another one. And then another one. (Mary Kole also mentions that writers may need to write “a million bad words” before their stuff is good enough to be published.) In other words, I honed my skills and slowly gathered experience.
In addition to writing, I also read craft books for the first time. I attended conference panels about plot and characterization. I read books with an eye for what worked about them.
And all of this has paid off because I finally feel like I know what I’m doing… at least somewhat. When writing my most recent novel, for the first time I felt keenly aware of what good novels need, and aware that I was attempting to craft my story in the same way. The women in my writing group described the chapters they read as having “authority.” They felt like they were in “good hands.”
Could it be that I’m creeping into the third stage: conscious competence? I’m producing good writing, but I’m highly focused on the technical craft. These days, writing doesn’t seem like a free-flowing creative activity. It seems a lot more like work… but it’s working!
It only took me ten years to get to this point. And I imagine that it will be at least another ten years before a competent novel might flow out of me unconsciously. I suppose it takes a lot of work and a lot of words to get to the point where it all seems natural.