Don’t Be a Delicate Flower: Advice to a Younger Kathleen

This week, we’re sharing what we’d wished we’d known when we started writing. It’s a hard question. While I tell people I didn’t start writing seriously until about age 36, I’m realizing that’s not really true.

This is the delicate flower I wish I wasn’t.

The first story I remember writing, all the way from start to finish, was a pirate adventure. I wrote it when I was nine, I think. I can’t remember the details, but there was definitely a treasure chest. I remember a guy with a scraggly beard and maybe a peg leg. There were the requisite gold coins. I skipped lines on the paper. The next year, I touch-typed a novella on our family’s Apple IIc. Remember those? The book was about a friendly monster who lived under some kid’s bed, a sort of a poor man’s Monsters, INC. and many years before its time. In sixth grade, I wrote a memoir about my family’s travels to China. My teacher took me to McDonald’s for lunch after I handed that one in. We discussed revisions and the potential for publication. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me. In middle and high school, I wrote lots of humorous plays and a trove of completely emo poems, as well as a zillion personal essays about running, which has been my other lifelong hobby.

Then, between the ages of 17 and 26, I wrote nothing but academic papers and conference proposals and comments on the essays of my students. Finally, in 2004 after I’d learned about blogs in a graduate school class, I started writing one. No one read my particular blog, but it didn’t matter. I wrote on it all the time, sometimes spending hours on a single 500-word piece, trying to get the dialogue or the timing just right. I told stories about my kids and my husband and my running and my work. I interacted with other writers. This blog was pure joy.

So, when I started writing fiction five years ago for the first time since childhood, I had a writing practice already. I was used to endless revision. I’d had the feeling of putting myself out there, even though not everyone was interested or would approve. 

I can’t think of what I didn’t know about writing that I wish I had. 

I already knew that writing is hard and sometimes frustrating. I already knew that I write better when I do it almost every day. I knew that writing was more rewarding when I built a community of people with whom to do it. Maybe I didn’t know about the waiting and uncertainty of traditional publishing, but to be honest, it’s not shocking to me. I think happiness in writing depends on dedication to craft, a willingness to make new friends, and a thick enough skin to accept feedback.

I do wish I’d had that last thing at a slightly younger age, but alas, I’ve been mostly a delicate flower until very recently.

What about you? What do you wish you’d known about writing? What would you tell your younger self? I guess I’d tell mine to toughen up, just to get ready.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.