A funny thing happened to me in the middle of 2006.
I learned how to tell a story on paper.
It wasn't that I couldn't write in the years prior to that revelation. To the contrary, I'd earned a master's degree in English and had become fairly proficient at composing the critical essays that are the life-blood of that academic pursuit.
I'd published fiction and non-fiction and spent better than a year writing sports for a couple of community newspapers in the Portland metropolitan area (I still miss covering the vaunted Greater Oregon League, let me tell you).
I'd written short stories at Linfield--most of them pretty marginal. I penned a 100-page horror novella based on the legend of the Stick People. My classmates seemed to enjoy it, but our instructor actually made the comment (disdainfully) that I was "writing for Hollywood."
Generally speaking, my stories at that time were ok--you could read them, and they had a few nice turns of phrase. But they didn't have much in the way of voice. Every writer needs to find his or hers, and mine was more than a little, well...bland.
Here's a great link to supplement this discussion, by the way.
I was reading all the authors I admired, and I was writing pretty frequently. Those are two of the old canards on getting there: write a lot and read a lot (huh, who would have thought?). Then one week, I felt a shift in my work. It felt more alive on the page--more energetic and vibrant. And, best of all, it felt more like me.
The results weren't immediate, but over time they became tangible. The form rejections have dissipated; I get fewer forms now than I do positive notes with feedback (and no, it's not an oxymoron--a "good" rejection is indeed a courtesy and a boon to the writer).
I probably wrote a million words before experiencing this shift, by the way. Like I said above, not all of those were invested in writing fiction, but I mention that only to underline the notion that this is all an immense process.
Now, when I sit down to write a tale, I'm fairly sure it'll have my signature on it. I can feel it there, and there's a measure of satisfaction in that.
I'm writing this because I'm going to retire a few stories that have been out on submission. These tales are ok--they're technically proficient, with a few nice turns of phrase. But they never get far in the editorial process, and I'm not sure I want them out there right now speaking for my abilities. I think there comes a time when you need to put some of these tales to bed, and I thought I'd gone through that stage with my Linfield stories, but it turns out that the personal validation I was looking for in my own work was still a ways down the road.
Will any of these tales ever see print? Who knows? Ray Carver once called his early work "awful," but when the stories were later collected and printed, audiences were much more charitable.
And I think that's what makes a life of writing such an illuminating experience. There are stories up the road, just around the corner. There are chances to take and places to explore that will stretch and redefine your voice as you blunder down that path.
Incidentally, I've spent the last two days working on the most bizarre thing I've ever attempted. It's going to be fun, and it's going to be long. I'm also working on edits for a pair of stories that have found, at least provisionally, solid homes.