Suck at It: Salvaging Inspiration from the Scrapheap

By Jason HellerImage

Three years ago I stood in a freezing warehouse, trashing books.

That was my job. The warehouse I worked at sold used books, and the ones that didn’t sell got tossed. Thousands of them every week. My duties included standing on the second-floor mezzanine, gathering all those unwanted books, and hurling them into a giant makeshift dumpster below. Paperback and hardcover, fiction and fact, they fluttered and flapped as they fell, like dying birds.

If I were the poetic type, I might say those books symbolized my writing career. Before taking the warehouse job, I’d spent almost ten years as a fulltime writer and editor, mostly in local arts-and-entertainment journalism. I’d reached the point, though, where I realized something: I sucked at my job. So I quit.

Sucking is a subjective thing. Prior to my realization, I was making a living as a writer. But I still thought I sucked. It’s ironic that the quirks a writer requires—sensitivity, introspection, a critical eye, an ability to sit still—are the exact things that can often undermine a writer’s confidence. I doubted myself, and no amount of accomplishment could change that. My paradoxical mindset eventually reached a breaking point. Instead of liberating that book I always knew was inside me, I sentenced myself to hard labor in a concentration camp for the written word.

Perversity, it turns out, is also a quirk of the writer.

At what point did my self-diagnosed suckitude start to metastasize? I can’t say. The grind of writing and editing for a living is a deceptive thing. It can be exhilarating. Pulling together an income stream—okay, an income dribble—using only your wits and words is a thrilling prospect. I hit my stride, as it were, in the ’00s, when the publishing industry was seeing huge upheavals. The economy had tanked, and traditional publishing models were forced to mutate in the ever-changing digital age.

For a while, that was good. At least for a writer with a reckless streak. Opportunities abounded. But exhaustion soon set in. I was on a freelance treadmill: pitch, write, file, pitch, write, file. When I became an editor, the treadmill got kicked up a notch. I would routinely pull seventy-hour weeks, catching a few hours of sleep on the office couch. If I stopped for a second, I’d get sucked into the gears. Creativity? Who had the time? I had columns to fill. And there were hordes of up-and-coming writers and editors snapping at my heels, ready to take up my slack.

Run down and worn out, I came to the conclusion that I simply sucked. The feeling wasn’t new. Years earlier, right out of high school, I worked in a warehouse. And I sucked at it. Following that, I worked at a retail store. Sucked there, too. I tried to make it as a musician. Sucked, sucked, sucked. The funny thing is, no one else thought I sucked. Objectively speaking, I did pretty well at those endeavors. The problem was, I was putting my effort into the wrong things.

When I walked away from my writing career and started working at the book warehouse three years ago, I’d come also to the conclusion that I sucked at writing. The evidence did not support this. But like any decent writer, I let my mind rearrange reality. It ran away with itself. I had to take things to an extreme—to actually consider walking away from writing forever—in order to snap myself out of it.

So that’s what I did. While working at the warehouse one day, I gazed down into the abyss full of dead books at my feet. Their paper corpses formed a heap of spurned prose. If I wrote a book someday, I thought, it’s entirely possible that it would wind up here, in this dumpster. Or another just like it.

That should have depressed me. Instead, I felt elated. Freed. There I was, throwing away all kinds of books, from major-house bestsellers to micro-press obscurities. The dumpster was the great equalizer. Did it matter if the authors of these books sucked or not? Or if that judgment came from themselves or others? They all wound up in the same resting place, the victors alongside the vanquished. The only difference between these writers and myself was this: They had somehow mastered their own doubt long enough to write a book. And then put it out into the world. And then live with the consequences. Or the lack thereof.

Every one of those authors, at some point in the process, thought they sucked. Maybe writing was their last resort. Maybe it wasn’t a gesture of cocksureness, but an act of desperation. Through a process of elimination—the path of most resistance—these writers became published authors. That process is inherently negative. The trick wasn’t to suppress that negativity, but harness it. Hell, even embrace it. Use the doubt as a fuel, as a fire, to keep your fingers warm while you work them to the bone in a warehouse full of the carcasses of books. Or whatever it is we do to sustain ourselves while digging sentences out of our souls. Life springs from death. Success springs from suck. It’s all part of the cycle.

With this in mind, I started writing again. While working at the warehouse, I’d jot down story ideas on slips of scrap paper. Sometimes even entire paragraphs, scribbled in a cramped scrawl of inspiration. When I got home each night, drained of energy after a ten-hour shift and an hour bus ride each way, I’d pull those scraps out of my pockets and arrange them as if they were body parts. A dead bird I was piecing back together.

Soon after, I quit the warehouse. I’d worked there for three months, through an entire winter. Spring was on the way. I gave two weeks’ notice and walked out after one. I didn’t look back. I had lost time to make up for. Two years later, I was making my living as a writer and an editor once again. I was also holding a copy of my debut novel. I’d just received my first box of them, and they were so alive it hurt to look at them.

So now, when I teach workshops students or advise new freelancers, I try to give them the most basic lesson I’ve been able to shake out of my own career:

To be good at writing, suck at it.


Jason Heller will be teaching three classes during Lighthouse Lit Fest: Blogging for Fun, Platform, and CraftKickstart Your Nonfiction Book; and Bottling Lightning: How to Turn Your Spark of Inspiration into a Fire (and mix metaphors while you're at it).