In college, I took as many creative writing courses as I could. Some were more helpful than others. Though anything that makes you write on a deadline and gets you feedback from people who aren’t your friends or family is always a good thing.
In high school, I was known as a writer. I wrote for the school paper and the annual and entered every writing contest that came along (The only sort of trophy or prize I’ve ever won for writing came in 8th grade, for a story about a grizzled old cop breaking up a modern-day slavery ring. As you can see, I haven’t strayed too far from my original course). In high school, people liked what I wrote. My family liked it, friends liked it, teachers liked it. I remember when I got to college and started taking creative writing courses, it was the first time I encountered someone who hated my work.
That’s a fundamental experience for any young writer.
Until you’ve met someone who will only see the flaws in your work, you don’t truly understand your own writing. Your family and friends, because they already like you, tend to only see the stuff in your work they like. They see potential. Other students in a college writing course, students who don’t know you, who don’t give a shit about you, are looking for flaws.
Every young writer needs to meet people who will hate their work.
It’s the first step in breaking away from being someone who writes just to please their friends and family and becoming someone who can write for a real audience.
My favorite professor from those college writing courses was named Lawrence Wharton, and I remember in the first day of his class, he laid out his very no-nonsense rules:
Keep your stories straight-forward. No fantasy or crazy sci-fi. This just wasn’t the place for it.
This was a short story class, he told us. Not a cheap substitute for psychotherapy. We were here to write stories, not to work through our deep-seated personal issues on paper. (Some people, unfortunately, failed to follow that particular rule and I think later came to regret it.)
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Professor Wharton gave us a sage little bit of advice:
Always write like your parents are dead.
I’ve followed that advice ever since.
Now don’t misinterpret. I love my parents and have a great relationship with them. My mom has always been my biggest fan. She buys and reads everything I write, from “Scalped” to “PunisherMAX.” She even has a page of Guera’s art from “Scalped” hanging on the wall of her living room. My dad, I think, is a bit perplexed by my success, but is as proud of me as he can be, even though if it was up to him I would’ve gone to law school years ago.
To write like your parents are dead doesn’t mean you actually wish them harm. It’s just about letting go of your inhibitions. Forgoing embarrassment and plunging ahead. Not censoring yourself. Not worrying about who might read it, but just laying yourself open regardless of what others might think.
To write for yourself and yourself alone.
I’ve been writing like my parents were dead for a long time now.
Back in grade school, I was writing the kind of demented shit that would probably get me expelled me today. Or at least have me marked as guy-most-likely-to-pose-a-threat-to-others. I didn’t, of course. Pose a threat that is. I think I got in one fight during my whole grade school tenure, and I’m pretty sure I lost it. My delight in all things violent and profane was confined solely to fiction.
The first story I ever remember writing was in middle school, and it was called, I shit you not, “Charlie Brown and the Chainsaw.” My teacher, God bless her, instead of being horrified and alerting the authorities, instead encouraged me. She was one of the first people to ever tell me I should grow up to be a writer.
And here I am. Still writing the same sort of twisted shit. Only now I get paid for it.
Over the years, I wrote a lot. Poems, stories, journal entries, a few sprawling bumbling cluster-fucked attempts at novels. I wrote lots of sick and twisted shit. Most of it aspiring to be “mature,” but while it may have been in terms of subject matter or level of violence, it rarely was in actual content.
But because I never reined myself in, I was able to write my way through a whole mess of drivel. I was able to grow up on the page.
For years, I wrote like no one else would ever read what I had written. And (thankfully) few people ever did. There’s not much I can look back on from that period and feel proud to have produced. There’s not much that feels like the work of a true professional. Most of it isn’t even close.
But I don’t regret a single line. Because it got me to where I’m at now. And I like where I’m at now. I like it a lot.
I still write for myself. I still write like my parents are dead. Like everyone I’ve ever known is dead. And like no one but me will ever read any of this.
If I ever get to a point where I’m writing for someone else, it’ll be time to hang it up.
Until then, I’ll still be here, typing fucked-up shit to make myself smile.
Thanks for reading.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.