You’ve read countless author bios that include some variation of this:
I’ve been making up stories in my head since before I could read. My parents said I lived in a dream world. Characters come to life in my head and speak to me, I see whole worlds before I even start to write.
This isn’t me, and it got me doubting. Again. Can I write fiction if my mind doesn’t work like this?
Writers often obsess over the processes of other writers. When do you write? Where do you write? Do you use a laptop, pen and journal, retro typewriter? It’s as if we think adopting the traits of those that came before will improve our own odds of success. How do you do it?
If we don’t do it the way Author X does, we must be doing it wrong. If it doesn’t come easily, we’re not talented. My comfort zone with writing is non-fiction: essays, news features, memoir, commentary, humor, etc.. Writing in these forms is reflexive for me.
I’ve always written stories as well, just not naturally or easily, or sometimes competently, as it turns out. Enrolling in my first fiction workshop stretched my writing muscles, occasionally resulting in a cramp.
When I started this blog almost two years ago, I wanted to share my journey as a newly committed writer. I wasn’t new to writing, I was just new to allowing it to take up space in my life. I reviewed over 100 of my previous posts and found a lot of them were thinly veiled attempts to quiet the voice of self-doubt.
Today I came across a blog post by a lovely writer waxing on about her imaginary worlds peopled with fascinating characters that talked to her and interacted as if alive. She couldn’t remember a time when her imagination was without a menagerie.
My heart sank. This isn’t how things worked for me.
I almost accepted it as another sign from the universe that I shouldn’t be wasting my time on fiction. Despite a novel in revision and numerous short pieces, my dream of telling absorbing, made-up stories felt threatened.
Then I remembered the freewriting exercise I did before bed last night. I didn’t have made up worlds and people living in my imagination for days prior. But, as my black Flair felt-tip flew across the pages of my notebook, a movie unfolded in my head.
I saw Donald, a naughty little boy, as he tip-toed out of his house, without permission, to gaze at the glowing cheese moon up close. I smelled the cigarette smoke from Donald’s next door neighbor, ancient, senile James, and heard the creaking of the old man’s webbed lawn chair as he rocked back and forth. And I felt my chest tighten when a cold, rough hand closed around Donald’s ankle and pulled him off the wood pile. I swallowed a lump as another hand closed over the little boy’s mouth.
Donald and James arrived in my notebook, without making any previous appearances in my head. They’re not moving around there now, and if they’re talking, it’s not to me. I think they’re just waiting in Donald’s back yard where I left them.
I may return to them. I may not. I’m asking the what-if questions. My objective is to bring them to life in the mind of the reader.
Podcasts, blog posts, and social media links promise a magic tip or trick that will confirm we’re doing this writing thing right. Or, more in line with our anxiety, that we’re doing it all wrong. We’ll switch tactics and that will be the missing link in our quest to get published, score 5-star reviews, or sell our screenplay.
Maybe this is just another form of self-doubt, our inner gremlins trying to keep us safe in the land of the easy: Don’t try fiction, it’s too hard. You can’t make up stories if you don’t do it this way.
All the good stuff exists beyond the boundaries of the familiar, the comfortable. Does it matter that I don’t have entire worlds in my head? For now, I’ve decided it doesn’t. Fiction is challenging, it’s exciting, and I don’t want to stop yet. I’m learning to tell stories my way.
This is how it’s working for me. One writer’s process. My plan is to keep learning, keep seeking, keep writing.
You’ll find no magic tip here, just gentle encouragement. Your way is the right way for you, too.