A City of Crumpled Paper

During my prison writing class this week, one of my students approached me and said he wanted to talk. Like all the men, he wears khaki scrubs and enormous khaki lace-up hiking boots (which seems a rather cruel joke).  Like most of the men, he towers above me.  I always forget how short I am until the end of class when they unravel themselves from those tiny desks. This particular student is thoughtful and cheerful and shows talent. The week before he had shown me the first few pages of a story he’s writing about a young girl struggling to find a better life.  Last month he shared the first part of a memoir he’s writing.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I don’t think I can do this anymore.” His voice was soft, his eyes on his boots.

“Why not?”  So many things can happen in a prison — men get transferred, they get locked up, their schedules shift.  Change is a constant here — sometimes seemingly arbitrary and sometimes because the inmate does something felony-stupid.

“I just want to give up.”

“Give up?” I said.  “Why would you say such a thing?”

“What’s the point?” he said. “I try so hard. I work at something for a long time and then it’s no good.”

“Who told you it’s no good?”

He laughed and looked at me.  “My editor-in-chief.”

Good Lord.  He meant me.  “When did I say that?”

“I gave you that piece to read and I thought when I gave it to you it was brilliant, and then you gave it back to me and you had all these comments on it.”

Oh dear.  “I told you I liked it, didn’t I?”  He nodded.  “I told you I thought you should keep going with it, and that I wanted to know what happened next, right?”  He nodded.  “I told you I thought you had talent, didn’t I?”

“Yea, I guess so.”

“So how did that turn into ‘it’s no good’?”

“I thought it was perfect, and then after you looked at it I saw how bad it really was and I don’t think I can do it.”

And so we sat down and had a chat about what it takes to be a writer, including that great quote from Oscar Wilde (who also did some time) about how he spent the morning taking out a comma, and spent the afternoon putting it back in.  We talked about how what the student heard, and what I said were two different things. I never said his work wasn’t any good; his internal “Editor-in-Chief” said that, the annoying little bugger.

All writers do that, of course.  My husband used to threaten to put a recording device on my phone calls with my agent and publisher because no matter how many lovely things they said, I’d get off the phone convinced I was a talentless, unpublishable hack.

A writer learning his craft.

A writer learning his craft.

“You have to give yourself permission to write crap,” I said.  “You’re learning.  It takes time.  It’s slow work, and hard work.  I write a boatload of crap for every book I finish.  So will you, if you’re lucky.”

He looked at me as though he wasn’t quite sure about my mental health, but he agreed to keep going.

Now, it’s true these men have some special challenges.  For the most part, they’re not in prison because they’re masters of discipline, patience and hard work.  But the truth is they’re not much different than most of my students outside prison.  I can’t tell you how many students walk into class presenting their work so reverently you’d think it was the next “Ulysses,” nor can I adequately describe how deflated some become, even if the work is good, when they learn their prose could use just, oh, let’s say a little tweaking.

If I had only one piece of advice for emerging writers I would say this:

Give yourself permission to write poorly, to write dreck, to write garbage, and lots and lots and lots of it, just like a person dreaming of being a concert pianist will hit a gazillion sour notes over the years and years it takes him to play Rachmaninoff’s concerto no. 3 properly.

If you don’t expect this, and accept it, your ego will get in the way and you’ll give up. You will  permit that internal critical voice, the “Editor-in-Chief”, to whisper nasty lies in your ear, you’ll quit, and then the voice wins.  Tell the voice to just step outside for a moment, take a seat and wait, you’ll be right with her, and then shut the door and get on with your writing.  Fill up buckets with your crumpled pages, fill up rooms, full up whole houses, whole cities…Eventually, slowly, you’ll improve, and that’s what it’s all about.

Writing is a path towards a perfection you’ll never reach; keep going anyway.  I’m not saying everyone who wants to write will be the next James Joyce, or Alice Munro or Virginia Woolf.  I’m saying that if you don’t write your way through the city of crumpled paper, you’ll never find the garden at its center.


  1. Jen Violi on September 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    Lauren, thank you for this! Precisely the writing medicine I needed this mmorning. Just had a conversation with my agent last night about my latest new novel draft and I felt just like the gentleman you described. Today, I’m giving myself lots of permission and also telling my editor in chief to shut it. xoxo

    • Lauren B. Davis on September 17, 2010 at 2:41 pm

      Jen — oh, those dreadful conversations with agents. No wonder they don’t like calling us, the good ones know how much weight we put on their words, and the insensitive ones don’t care. Keep going, Jen. Keep going. Aim for the garden; it’s in there.

  2. Elizabeth Hilts on September 17, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Can I get an amen?

  3. Julian J. on September 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm

    Lauren, thank you very, very, very much for this. It was just one da
    of those days when I needed to hear the truth…and you caught me.

    Will you be my writing coach (again)from afar?


    • Lauren B. Davis on September 18, 2010 at 7:34 am

      Lovely to see you here, Julian. If you’re serious about working together, I am teaching via email these days (although to just a few people). You can see the details here: https://laurenbdavis.com/ldavis-workshops-quill.htm just scroll down and you’ll find the “Sharpening the Quill by email” details. Peace right back at you, my friend.

  4. Jen Violi on September 18, 2010 at 1:05 pm

    Thank you, Lauren! Luckily, my agent is one of the good ones, and a great advocate. Most fo the time, I’m the one who is holding me down. But not today. Today I go for the garden!!! xoJen

  5. lisa on September 20, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    i love the comparison with musicians…EXACTLY true.
    though they may be dismayed by the number of wrong notes,
    they keep at it for hours & days & years, and amazingly enough,
    they improve. good to be reminded! (as i listen to the musician practice…again…)

  6. Leslie on October 21, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    This is wonderful – thank you! No matter how many times and
    how many ways I’ve heard this, I always need to hear it again.
    And again. I also like the comparison to musicians. I’ve been
    about ready to give up on both my writing and my singing so many
    times lately. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. J Kelly Huddleston on October 5, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Your comments on writing make a lot of sense….even though I’m late to this (and this post), it was worth wading through these other sites to get to your blog. Thanks for your words of encouragement…I’m sure your workshop classes are instructive and beneficial.


    • Lauren B. Davis on October 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm

      J Kelly — thanks so much for your comment. Never too late! And keep writing — it’s the only way.

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