I better understand how it can take a lifetime to write a book, especially how getting stuck or fearful can lead to online moodling and learning what your rap name is (“Young” plus the last thing you purchased.)
This memory wormed its way to my cerebral center stage this week:
Before age thirteen, all my stories got big smiley faces drawn on them as feedback. I always had a story at the ready, could handle any prompt thrown my way with a sense of whimsy, and, dramatic turdball that I was, I always volunteered to read my stories to the class. Only after the teacher asked. Not, like, randomly. “Hey guys, I know we’re in the middle of a fire drill, but who wants to hear my latest masterpiece ‘Winnie The Pooh Applies for a Legal Name Change and Learns to Love Himself’?”
One year in middle school, we had required journal entries. We were told we could write whatever we wanted. My weekly entries were tweeny installations that together made up a months-long silly story in which I made my good friends and myself the leading characters in some truly dumb adventures. Before handing the stories in, I’d pass them around to my friends, and because my friends were excellent, they read them and laughed (whether out of pity or amusement mattered not at all to me.)
After several months of weaving together multiple plotlines and ending each entry with a cliffhanger that left everyone on the opposite of tenterhooks, my teacher gave me one piece of feedback. In red-penned, even handwriting she simply wrote: “I’m getting tired of this story. Please write something else.”
I’ve not written a piece of fiction or creative nonfiction that was longer than about ten pages since.
As a teacher, I look back on that and shudder. You simply cannot make the rule “Write anything you want” and then tell a student, especially an enthusiastic one, to write anything you want except that.
The best approach, of course, is to sit the kid down (or write in your very nice penmanship) and discuss ways to enliven the story. Talk about plot twists and story structure.
Our early stories are derivative, based on what we’ve been told, what we’ve watched. We go through the “and it was all a dream” phase. As children, we steal jokes and plots and characters liberally from television and movies and books. Then we get better. We improve. We improvise. Eventually, if we keep at it, we innovate. But the creative process can be shut down so very easily.
It is amazing that one teacher’s comments thwarted my confidence in writing fiction. At 13, I was not strong enough to think screw that, I’m a good writer or hmm, ok, this piece is boring but I have lots of other good ideas or some version of I’m going to keep going. After that, any time we were assigned “creative writing,” I wrote personal essays, not trusting myself to create anything not boring.
I’d heard criticism before (and since), but BORING is a slice across the throat.
The creative nonfiction I wrote was well received, even rewarded throughout school and beyond, and I quickly adopted the mental script “You don’t write fiction well.” Don’t get me wrong, I love writing personal essays and I can write a non-fiction piece with, if not the best of them, certainly the second-tier, but I spent some time thinking this week what a loss that has been, how many years have I missed out on trusting myself to write fiction, more than 2500 words, because my 13- year-old self bored a Language Arts teacher.
Writers are sensitive types who take messages to heart. So are 13-year-olds. And girls. I wish this teacher had inspired me to take that story to new places. Or, you know, just left it alone and allow the story to fizzle out on its own.
This is a lesson in going back and being as confident as a silly 13-year-old with a wacky story and big, loopy handwriting.
She’s gonna help me write this book
I’m eighteen days in, and despite the three buffer days I’ve already built into the process (one per week), I’m behind.
The start of school plus all five of us sick with various forms of a cough (pleurisy, probably?) led to many sleepless hours. And, because it’s my family, we don’t bother to try to get sick at exactly the same time, we’re staggering starting and stopping points for this illness, and I lie in bed at night either coughing or playing Who’s Coughing Now?
Two of the littles have already had to stay home from school, miserable and wanting me around rather than at my desk. And of course, the kiddos get my attention. No question. But it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t also prefer them to be healthy and at school while I’m at my desk.
My brain is tired and sluggish. The writing right now is in the planning and the imaging and that takes a logical, stern mind and that is incompatible with lack of sleep. The ideas come but the words are chopped salad and inelegant.
Still, forward progress.
This past week I:
- Wrestled with an alternative POV that would change the whole book. Looking forward to somehow figuring out if those changes are for the better or not.
- Looked at the story structure. I can see where the problems are, and I need to spend more time trying to plot this thing so it flows, rather than offers dry spells and then floods.
- Considered my antagonists and their goals.
- Starting to visualize what these characters look like, what their backstories might be, what were pivitol events in their lives, and how all these fictional humans orbit each other in this pretend little world.
- Wrote a brief recap of the story from the perspective of each of the major characters. I’m realizing that’s where some of the plot holes can be filled.
- Began thinking about minor characters.
Onward to another week, fully confident that if the story ventures into Boring Town, I shall ride in on a tired steed and rescue it.