The worst thing I’ve ever written didn’t kill me

Revolver
© Brian Lary/sxc.hu

In the months leading up to my college graduation, I panicked. What the hell could you do with an English degree except teach or go to law school – neither of which I was very excited about?

I took the LSAT, but only because I watched a lot of Law & Order and wanted to work with a hot detective like Benjamin Bratt. Fortunately, I got lost on the way to the exam and didn’t have enough time to eat lunch, ensuring I got a mediocre score and gave up the thought of going to law school.

I’d make a terrible lawyer.

My best friend was panicking, too. She majored in world arts and cultures, an even less practical degree (though she does know how to do a traditional Indonesian dance). So she proposed we apply to teach English in Japan through the JET program.

The application required me to write an essay, which I did quickly and without much care. After all, I was an English major so I could write, right?

By the time I had my interview, I’d forgotten what I’d written. I walked into the room where three people sat behind a table. One of them was glaring at me already.

Not a great sign.

They took turns asking me questions. The angry woman went last, and she asked me something directly relevant to my essay. Turns out she didn’t like it. In fact, I’d written something she found incredibly offensive.

Without going into too much detail, because the experience still haunts me, I had apparently opened my essay with a provocative story. I’d wanted my essay to stand out, to be memorable.

Holy cow, was it ever memorable.

This one interviewer grabbed hold of the wrong end of the stick and battered me with it for the entire interview. But it was mostly my fault. I’d handed her the stick.

The experience taught me a couple of big lessons.

1.  Get other people to read over what you’ve written.

Do not be precious about what you write, unless it’s your own private diary that no one will ever read. No matter how much writing experience you have, there will be times when your words don’t convey what you actually mean. If we always expressed ourselves perfectly, editors wouldn’t exist.

2. There’s very little chance your writing will ever kill you.

Unless you offend someone so badly they become murderous, writing is a fairly safe activity. All the pain is emotional (except paper cuts – *wince*). As excruciating as that experience was – and I did leave the interview blinking back tears – it didn’t kill me. I was able to learn from it. I approached my writing more maturely because of it.

After being rejected by JET, I decided I’d spend a year teaching in Prague until I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life.

And that’s where I met my husband and stumbled into a career I love.

What’s the biggest lesson a bad writing experience has taught you?

165 thoughts on “The worst thing I’ve ever written didn’t kill me

  1. The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that you HAVE to have someone else read over you material. In your mind, it always makes sense, but to someone else it may not at all lol

        1. Boy don’t I know it. As a writer, producer, director, I once had to translate an entire script from English to Russian, obviously with the help of a Russian translator for an investor to assess the film project. I have to say, this was an eye opening experience for me. I suddenly found all those missing words, sentences and even entire scenes that were lost due to the mysterious workings of the mind. Somehow the brain has the capacity to fill in the logical gaps when reading incomplete text. Everything made sense to me when I read it but not to the translator.

    1. I don’t know about better, but it’s certainly beautiful and I loved my time there. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

  2. I like your writing style! I work as an editor at a private publishing house, so I see a lot come through. Sticking out is definitely something you want to do.

    I loved how you saved the best for last and completely surprised everyone. Congrats on finding the person and career you love. I’m certain there isn’t a better feeling in life than having both simultaneously.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. Thank you so much, Kristin! I’m truly flattered!

      Yes, it was a really magical time in my life, and a magical city for it to happen in!

      Hope I see you here again. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I once enrolled in a childrens literature writing course and my papers were returned to me with more Red ink covering the page…It discouraged me from ever attempting to write anything profound…….

    so now I blog.

    Spread the humor: charlywalker.wordpress.com

  4. Well I hoped all goes well with my very personal reconsideration letter I’ve written to the Rector of my university. I’m appealing for admission to medical school. BS in Biology graduate. My family won’t say yes to any other field aside from medicine 🙁

  5. Strangely enough, a VERY MEDIOCRE post to my blog was Freshly Pressed–so sometimes bad is good–at least according to WordPress. Or maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe I just don’t know good when I see it. Which I guess is not good!

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed yourself–hang on for the ride!
    Kathy

    1. It’s definitely been quite a ride, Kathy! When I opened my email and saw how many people had ‘like’d my post, I thought there must be some sort of bug with WordPress!

      1. I had a similar experience as Kathy and had a blog I didn’t bother to flesh out and finish Freshly Pressed. Lesson learned!

        And oddly enough I started to follow Kathy’s blog shortly after.

        Love your writing!

  6. “There’s very little chance your writing will ever kill you.” I love this, I do. I’ve always loved writing since I was about 6 years old.
    Lesson learned (not necessarily in bad writing but writing in general) is consider who you’re writing for. I tend to write like I speak… slightly offensive and honest to the point of occasionally shocking people. I had a high school English teacher crucify my writing for being “inappropriate”. It didn’t kill me but killed my spirit as a writer for a couple of years until I got to college and found a professor who told me he “loved my voice” when I was writing. He said I wrote the only Shakespeare essay that had him laughing.
    Although your worst writing may not kill, it can leave some welting bruises on your ego. When writing and being graded (or considered for a job) over-think who will be reading it. Otherwise be true to yourself.

    1. “When writing and being graded (or considered for a job) over-think who will be reading it. Otherwise be true to yourself.” – This is such fantastic advice. Everyone should have this engraved on their screen.

      And I’m with your professor. You’ve got a fantastic voice. And a great name. Thanks so much for leaving such a thoughtful comment!

    2. I agree with you. Although it did not kill her it did batter her, as she herself said. We know the battering affected her chances of landing the dream job, we do not know if it had impacted on wrinting spirit. To conclude, I must say that I do really enjoy the style of the piece.

  7. The biggest lesson a bad writing experience ever taught me is that sometimes what feels brilliant to me can be mediocre at best to my reader–particularly when I have made the mistake of “drwriting”, i.e. committing to Microsoft Word or my Facebook Wall the aforementioned brilliance after a glass of wine or two. lol It’s often best to go back and re-read to make sure before hitting that send or post button, wine soaked or not. 🙂

    1. Ah, the drunken post. Always such a mistake. And for some reason a mistake no one seems to learn from – considering how often we repeat it!

      1. guilty, at least once or twice. And mobile uploads always seem so funny too . .till the next day. My best/worst writing – I never know which of my posts will generate a bunch of interest and responses and which will not . . .I’ve given up trying to figure it out. Posts I’ve agonized over have gotten very few views and others that I banged out in an hour got read over and over. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  8. Fellow English major here…I was burned by a non-english major class and the professor telling me I didn’t know how to write! Yes, I don’t know how to write psychology reports…that’s why I am a teacher! (although I didn’t start out that way- started in PR)

    1. Sheesh, people should learn how to give criticism better! And not to see themselves as such experts. Glad you had a sense of humor about it!

  9. Ah! Same here!
    I always fall for this trap. Haha. Sometimes I write what I don’t mean or want, And I try to re-read my (posts for example) a dozen times.
    What’s you career path right now?

  10. What you’ve written usually won’t kill you, but it might bring death threats, if you write in the capacity of a newspaper reporter.

    “Get other people to read over what you’ve written” is good advice. As a former copy editor, those words warm my heart.

    If anyone needs a read, or an edit, I’m available. I work cheap.

    1. “What you’ve written usually won’t kill you, but it might bring death threats, if you write in the capacity of a newspaper reporter.” – Unfortunately, that’s very true, John. Tragically true.

  11. A bad writing experience? In my short career, I haven’t experienced anything I’d call bad. But I can say that I’ve learned a lot about better writing. When I look at the beginning, I can see the more amateurish side of my work. But as with any skill, craft, or art, that has improved with time. Everything that I write shows that growth. And for those who read my writing, they get a chance to experience it firsthand.

    1. It’s wonderful to be able to see growth as a writer, and to have others who are able to point out areas where you’ve grown. My crit partners are great for this, and I’m so lucky to have them.

    1. I can only guess that the people reading the applications weren’t offended and that particular interviewer hadn’t done the shortlisting. And yeah, it seemed to half-way work!

  12. “No matter how much writing experience you have, there will be times when your words don’t convey what you actually mean. If we always expressed ourselves perfectly, editors wouldn’t exist.”

    I am too sensitive about scrutiny of what I write — the whole its-my-baby thing — but the above statements were helpful. Just wanted to say thanks!

    1. I’m glad it was helpful, Elaine. Much easier said than done, though. It’s difficult growing a thick skin as a writer!

  13. So what did you write about that set her off, I’m dying to know . . .? Good blog…I’ve found even with e-mails there is a 24-hour cool off period, before sending, and if I have a queasy feeling in my stomach, have a good friend read a post first, there are times not to share too personal stories…believe me, lesson learned!

    1. The 24-hour cool off is a great rule, as is knowing when not to over-share (a lesson I still haven’t learned yet!).

      Thanks for stopping by!

  14. Thanks for the post! As a wannabe writer I enjoyed your tips, and as a student completing my bachelor of arts I can relate to the feeling of not knowing what to do after studying! I have a burning question that I hope you don’t mind answering- what is the career that you stumbled onto and love?
    As for lessons I’ve learnt from my bad writing…hmm…
    All I have to share is that my basic formula to avoid bad writing is inspiration + lots of time.

    1. That’s a great formula – thanks for sharing!

      The career I stumbled onto is working in communications for a humanitarian aid organization. Creative and inspiring, and I get to be surrounded by amazing people. I couldn’t ask for a better career – fits me perfectly!

  15. I also felt like that after I got my degree (in History, minor in English)…. a little like…what now? I thought I HAD to enter a graduate program only to find out there were none in a 200 mile radius of my home. Plan 2, sit back and wait for inspiration? Thus…I became a writer. I am working on finishing my manuscript that just recently was requested by 2 agents. Now…I am really S**ting my pants. I loved reading your post because sometimes we don’t know where were going, but when your greeted with a stick wielding elder, you know…that is not that path. Seriously…you need to write a story around that. I need to know more….

    1. Thank you! Maybe I will one day. Of course, I’ll disguise it as fiction because otherwise it’d be too humiliating to admit. 😉

      Best of luck with the agents! My fingers are crossed for you!

  16. Hey, nice piece.

    The biggest lesson I learned was humility. As I was applying to graduate school I went back and looked over some of my papers from college and I was horrified by what I saw. Careless, poorly thought and even more poorly communicated, my papers were kind of the prototype underachiever’s work. Since then I learned that I need to be humble, and that I need to work hard to prevent being embarrassed in the future.

    1. Humility’s a great (and difficult) lesson to learn. And it sounds like you’d grown a lot as a writer in between college and grad school. Imagine if you’d looked at those old papers and thought, “I wish I could still write like that.”

  17. my biggest lesson: writing, posting, and announcing said actions on various platforms is not a good idea at 4am, especially if you are returning from an establishment (or establishments) that serve the liquid fruits of fermentation.

  18. The biggest lesson I’ve ever learned is that you can’t please everyone. From spelling and grammatical errors to offensive writing or not provactive enough – you’re going to find a critique at either side of the road. My solution is to write about… 🙂
    Prague’s way cooler – and besides didn’t Japan have a huge Tsunmai hit them? I’d say you have a fairy godmother or someone special looking out for you!

    1. Yes, people will never agree about what’s good. I think about writers like Hemingway or Steinbeck who are passionately loved by many and loathed by many. Maybe that’s the secret to success. 😉

  19. The worst thing(s) I ever wrote were all in my diary, which was classically discovered by my little sister. It wanted to die, but it didn’t kill me. 🙂

    1. Ha! I’m so lucky my little brother had no interest in reading. I would’ve been humiliated if he’d read my diary!

  20. My biggest bad writing experience is that whenever i write an article, and think that i have done a very bad job with it. 99 out of 100 times the work gets published. So far it has given me 17 bylines in Navbharat Times, the paper i worked in as an intern. 😛

    1. Congratulations on so many bylines! That’s great work. And I’m just like you. The stories I think are strongest often don’t do as well as the ones I’m unsure of. Wish I knew why that was!

    1. Sorry – I’ve learned my lesson well. Definitely won’t be sharing the story. I doubt my ability to tell it has improved. :/ I’ll just say the other two interviewers didn’t seem to find it offensive. Of course, that was just my impression from scrutinizing their faces, but that could’ve been wishful thinking, too.

  21. Thank you, this was an inspiring story! I’m graduating in May with a BS in Psychology and have no idea what I want to do and am starting to panic. It’s nice knowing others have been in the same boat.

    I’ve had one or two blog posts which one or more people found slightly offensive, and I learned to just take a step back and listen, respect their opinions (even if they don’t respect mine), don’t get defensive, and don’t take it personally.

    1. Don’t panic! I’m sure you’ll find something you love if you stay open to different possibilities.

      And yes, taking a step back from criticism is hugely important. Probably easier to do when the criticism is online instead of to your face, but any criticism will be difficult if it isn’t delivered gently.

    1. Charity work. I volunteered with Amnesty in Prague, then decided to get an MA in human rights in England, then got a job as a writer – and now a web editor – for a humanitarian aid organization.

  22. I say if it feels right…write it! Who cares what one persons opinion is? Because who is right?? Who are “they” and what makes “them” have the say so? I don’t know, the more I write, the less I care if it is politically correct. I just want to write like I write, what is me, not what someone else deems I should be. I sound mean today.. I promise I am not. I am just passionate about staying true to yourself. Congrats on FP!!

    1. I don’t think that sounds mean at all. I think you’re right, unless there’s someone in a position of power deciding whether you’ll be able to do the thing you want to do (like publish your novel or get a job teaching English in Japan ;)) And sometimes other people’s opinions can help you find ways to improve your own skills.

      Stay passionate, onemom! (and good luck with those rugrats!)

  23. Thank you for this post 🙂 I have the terrible habit of writing quickly and never giving it a second glance (causing many lower grades than I could have received). Typos, glitches, and beautiful misunderstandings occured frequently as I have been honing my writing skill. Hopefully one day I will overcome the laziness and just look at what I have written. Maybe.

  24. That is what is so great about writing a blog…instant feedback. But at the same time the bad part about writing and posting a blog is that it is out there for the world to see.

    Great Post!

    Blessings,

    Ava
    xox

    1. Thanks, Ava!

      Yes, that part about a blog being out there for everyone to see has stopped me from hitting publish a few times. It reminds me to read over what I’ve written a few times and be careful. Because that instant feedback isn’t always positive. :/

  25. I never had anything nearly as haunting as you. Then again, I’ve never gotten that far either. I think perhaps the biggest thing I have learned from messing up is to go with my gut. I knew my story wasn’t good, and I knew it needed help, and I knew it was too long. HOWEVER, I still submitted it to the writing contest and lost terribly. (And was shamed that I even submitted it.)

    My bigger problem right now is that my current English teacher, for a class that requires a minimum of a 30 page research paper, thinks I should seriously pursue my research topic of mermaids for further serious study. I think I should just stop at the end of the semester. So we’ll see, but that’s a good thing I think.

    1. I hope you at least got some valuable feedback from the contest, Abigail. For me, that’s one of the best things about contests.

      Good luck deciding whether to follow your English teacher’s advice. Like you said, go with your gut. You know what’s best for you, and you know what you’re interested in. That’s the first step in succeeding at what you do.

  26. As a writer of 28 years, I have learned a lot of things. First, “A good story is in the mind’s eye of the reader.” In other words, for everything you write, there will be at least one person who loves it and at least one person who hates it. Second, criticism will not kill you, but it will not necessarily make you a better writer either (see previous sentence). Third, the only thing that will ever make you a better writer is to practice, practice, practice! And lastly, I always have the final word on my creations regardless of what editors and publishers tell me. I spent the best years of my writing career listening to editors and publishers tell me what to write about & how to write until I completely lost my own writing style. I had been turned into something that would generate profits for them versus what was best for me as a writer. Since I chose to become an indie author, I have been happier and more receptive to suggestions. Which brings me to a final lesson: no one knows how to write my own storylines better than me; but they may just have some good suggestions on how to word it 😉

    The Wrong Way to Write Well – Live and Let Write!

    1. Some fantastic lessons here – thanks for sharing them! And I love how you express your last one: “no one knows how to write my own storylines better than me; but they may just have some good suggestions on how to word it.”

      So true!

  27. I like to write, and draw, and even make up stories… I have always wanted to be a great writer, but I’m not sure that I am?!?
    saltybill blog

    What was it that you wrote that made her so mad anyway???

    I have a friend that always jokes. around and says “I’m offended” lol, because many people are always offended.

    1. Not tellin’. 😉 Don’t want to go through that experience again!

      As far as knowing whether you’re a good writer, I’m not sure how anyone can tell. Think of all the incredibly successful (however you define that) writers who still feel insecure. I think that insecurity can push you to keep learning and growing, to keep improving. Do you enjoy writing? Would you keep doing it no matter what kind of feedback you got? To me, that’s a good writer.

  28. Writing about such a universal experience and doing so with a lovely voice has clearly touched a lot of folks. Congratulations!

    In the early 1970’s a female English major was often accused of getting an “Mrs.” degree. Discouraging when you’re passionate about writing. Criticism, often the projected and misplaced variety, has done so much to silence voices. Think of all the people you know who say they can’t sing because they once were asked to just mouth the words in a grade school choir.

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Cheryl!

      I’m so glad no one accused me of going for my MRS when I studied English. I think I would’ve flipped. And you’re so right about how detrimental some kinds of criticism can be. I think it’s also up to us, though, to learn how to shovel through criticism and see how much of it we can use to fertilize our skills. Because even criticism that’s delivered in a horrible way can sometimes contain a nugget of usefulness.

  29. I love your lesson #2. There are so many times when I’ve held back handing someone my work, or hitting “Publish” on my blog. But the truth is, the worst that could happen isn’t usually very bad. In fact, holding it back can result in missed opportunities that are worse than any possible negative outcome from showing the work.

    1. That’s such a good point about missing out on opportunities. I find I’m usually wrong when I think I know how people will react to a certain piece. “This one will be really popular” is almost a guarantee people won’t like it or engage with it, while “I’m not so sure about this one” often means it’ll be a hit and lead to unexpected, wonderful things.

      (I thought twice about publishing this post, mostly because the experience was so upsetting at the time, but look what happened!) So don’t hold back because of fear. But do hold back if you have a niggling feeling that something’s not right with it, and ask for another opinion.

  30. LOL at your experience, but thanks for sharing with us. Funny, I’d always thought superheroes and writers have a lot in common. That’s why I ended up naming my website UnderwearOutside. (Cuz they both put their insides on display for the public.) Even put up my first short story, FINALLY!

    @onemom4rugrats, I think the pastor who burned the Koran, causing UN workers to be killed, should have tempered his action/words. It’s fine to express truth all you want, so long as other people care to hear it.

    1. “Underwear Outside” – that’s brilliant, James! Love the comparison. And best of luck with your short story. So scary sharing something for the first time!

  31. Wow, it’s so great that you ended up creating your life just how you wanted it! I’m still undecided for my major, so maybe something like this will happen for me 🙂
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    1. Thanks! I found studying something I loved made a big difference, even if it didn’t seem like the most practical thing to do. Best of luck choosing a major!

  32. Oooh dear. For me, my writing probably would kill me – if I wrote anything too shocking and my parents read it, I’d be screwed. I think mother dear would eat me. Raw.

  33. What if you’re so bad a writer that your bad writing hasn’t even taught you a lesson? LOL!!

    Love your writing style, by the way. I’m a first-timer to your blog, and I’ll certainly be back. It was a delightful read.

  34. The biggest lesson writing has ever taught me is that if what you write is simply an outpouring of passionate emotions, it could be very therepeutic; but always think twice before you decide to publish it. Thanks for your post. Liked it.

    1. Great distinction between writing for yourself and sharing it with others, Steve! Such a valuable lesson to learn. Hope you didn’t have to learn it the hard way!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *