Sucks at what?
On the one hand, I can dig what John Scalzi says about teens' writing sucking, and the possible usefulness of saying it. Writing as craft, not as talent dropping from the sky; the usefulness of beginning with a realistic appraisal of one's talents; the humility required to strive over the long haul for ever greater non-suckage; etc. etc.
But there's another sense in which it bothers me.
Trying to decide what bothers me about it, I am reminded of the common paleo-pro writing advice that goes something like this: "writing is suffering. Hard, undendurable suffering. It's a terrible job. You should only do it if you are driven to. If you can't bear not to. If you can do anything else, for god's sake do, and run as fast as you can from the grim specter of the writing life." That always bothered me in a similar way.
Mind you, I do not think Scalzi would say this at all. Unlike those grizzled veterans of hundred-thousands of words a day on manual typewriters, dictatorial Golden Age editors, and shyster literary agencies, Scalzi (like me) actually has plenty of other ways to make money besides those five-cents-a-word, and writes, I expect, by choice.
Nor is it just that the overtly self-congratulatory tone of "your writing sucks now, kid, but one day you may be like me" evokes the covert self-congratulation (for being One Driven To Write) of the pulpster's grim warning.
No, what the two soundbites share more subtly is the implicit assumption about what writing is for -- and the answer to "what is writing for?" that these pieces of advice seem to posit is "five cents a word -- or more, if you can get it."
As it happens, I did the exercise recently of going back and reading the notebooks I kept in high school. They weren't polished drafts of anything -- they were more like blogs, unmediated thoughts spat out on the page, never looking back. In fact it's fair to say that my high school crowd and I prefigured blogs; a decade and a half too early for the web to deliver us the ideal digital implementation, we went with an analog one, handing off notebooks in crowded hallways between classes to read, comment, and hand further on next period.
Some sentences I wrote then are as good as anything I write now. Whatever facility I have for putting words together on a line level, I don't think it's changed much in the past twenty-some years.
But there is no sustained piece which really succeeds as an artistic project consumable by anyone, anywhere. And a good deal of it is absolutely ghastly -- self-indulgent, maudlin, self-congratulatorily clever, a mess -- painful to read in a way that hardly any sentence I would nowadays allow myself to write would be painful to read.
But, see, that's also the point. I do not suffer, now, from the kind of paroxysms of spasmodic honesty, from the ruthless selfishness and aching selflessness, from the desire to overturn everything I know right this instant and the terror that everything I know will be overturned. Or if I do -- in occasional moments -- suffer like that, I have all the props and procedures of adult life at my command to bring it under control, to numb it, to squash it, or, better yet, to turn it into some productive cog in, perhaps, the writing machine.
I am not in the process of writing myself a self. My self is pretty much done, thank you.
Sometimes, I am pleased to note, I still have violent eruptions of doubt about what I know -- one of the joys of my new online science-fiction-writer life is the discovery of so many smart people who are willing to argue passionately about ideas as if they have a right to do so, so that in talking 'bout a revolution with Nick Mamatas or disentangling the theistic metaphor with Hal Duncan, I often find that I am no longer sure of my position, or even worldview, as I was at the beginning of the conversation.
But even so, I just do not have selfhood on the table the way I did at fifteen.
As adult writing -- particularly that subset of adult writing destined for sale and publication -- sure, teenage writing sucks.
As teenage writing, though, it is perfect; adult writing -- the kind Scalzi and I produce -- would be too honed, too fussed over, too timid by far.
It seems not only a category error, but an awfully dreary one, to brush away "figuring out who you are, becoming who you would become, and creating a passionate shared set of metaphors, visions, and narratives with your friends" as inconsequential and erect above it a great pedestal adorned with the words "Five Cents A Word (Or More If You Can Get It)".
(If you really want unbridled creativity, of course, you should listen to anyone between two and seven. It is not coincidental that the hypothetical cigar-chewing man in the street derides Picasso and Pollack by saying "a three-year-old could do that!" Indeed. Except that even Picasso and Pollack could only grope for, and never really achieve, a three-year-old's freedom.)
What I want to tell that fifteen-year-old me, so twisted up with anguish and longing and self-disgust and arrogance, so quivering with ecstasy, is not at all "you suck now, but with enough work one day many people will be willing to pay you to entertain them," but rather, "this is important, what you are doing now; this is maybe the most important writing in your life. Stop worrying about sucking or not sucking. Trust yourself, and retain this vividness for as long as you can."
(Note that, despite my reservations about the soundbite, I agree with most of the writing advice in Scalzi's original post).