My freshman year of college, I took a class in non-fiction prose with Verlyn Klinkenborg. It wasn’t the class I wanted to take, but I lost the lottery for the entry-level creative writing classes and figured some type of writing was better than none. I had no idea how much the class would change the way I thought about art, and in turn, myself.
Our first assignment was to submit 1,000 words on any topic by midnight on Tuesday. I don’t remember what I wrote about, but I will never forget that, at 12:01 a.m., we all got an email that said, simply, “I have 12 essays in my inbox. 12 seems like a good number for a class.” A third of the students had been cut. At the end of class the next day, we were given the next week’s assignment: Do it again.
“The second essay is always the hardest,” he told us. “The first one, you know exactly what you want to write, you’ve just been waiting for permission, but the second one…that’s where things get interesting.”
Sometimes you hear good advice and it bounces right off you. Other times you hold onto it for years before finally putting it to use.
I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember, and I was lucky to be encouraged at a young age. I’ve been gifted dozens of beautiful notebooks throughout my life, wrapped in the good intentions of their givers and meant to be filled with “all my brilliant ideas” or “all my special thoughts,” and I am sad to say that each one has remained untouched. Nothing ever felt good enough for those notebooks. Or, if I did have an idea I really loved, I never felt confident enough in my ability to do it justice. So even though I loved the idea of being a writer, I didn’t actually do all that much writing. I can see, now, that it felt safer to keep any ideas to myself than to see where they might actually lead.
Years later, after the Klinkenborg class but before his words had really sunk in, I worked as an event host for a bookstore. The place was known for its full calendar, and I heard hundreds of authors talk about their work during my time there. Inevitably, during the Q&A of each one, someone would stand up and ask what advice the author had for aspiring writers, and nearly all replied with some variation of, “There’s no trick. You just have to do it.” This was usually met with genial laughter from the audience, as if they already knew the answer. Because of course, they did, and so do I. It just took me a long time to understand how it applied to me.
The reason “just do it” often doesn’t resonate is because it’s hard to prioritize something that doesn’t exist (yet) over the very real and present demands of our responsibilities. And once we get in the habit of making our own work the last priority, it’s easy to mistake something immediate for something important. It’s easy to let that thing we want to build or create or do slip further and further down the to-do list until it has fallen off completely. But after years of letting this happen myself, I had a thought: Do I really want to get to the end of my life and think, “Well, I never got around to writing that novel I’d nursed for years, but at least I stayed on top of the dishes!”?
Turning 30 is always good for a life re-evaluation, and when I stopped to think about what I really wanted to be doing with my time, Klinkenborg’s words were right there waiting for me. What he meant by the pursuit of the second essay being more interesting than the first was: You have to squander your good ideas. Every single one of those precious sparks of genius that you’ve been hoarding like a dragon in your mind? You have to get them out of you and into the world. And you have to trust that there will be more once you’ve let them out — or that there will be more because you have. As it turns out, the lovely thing about ideas is that if you give them the space to do so, they lead to more ideas, and they can do that whether or not they “succeed.”
I still haven’t lost my fear of the blank page, and I doubt I ever will, but I’ve now gotten in the habit of writing “Squander Your Good Ideas” on the first page of every notebook I own, and even if it’s the only thing written there, it helps to remind me that there’s no shortage of great ideas. Every bookstore is filled with them and more get printed every day. And behind each book is an author answering the same question the same way: Just start.
Fear of failure will always be there — anyone who isn’t scared of failure lacks imagination — but 10 years after Klinkenborg’s class, I’m finally starting to learn that not doing something is a kind of failure on its own, because the worst thing I’ve ever written is still better than the best thing that only ever lives in my head. As fun and addictive as it is to hold onto a great idea, the truth is that creativity is like a magician’s scarf; it can only impress you if you keep it moving.
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.