Wednesday, November 28, 2018

On Writing Fiction (Or Not)

Prior to November 1st, I cleared my schedule to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). After four days, I decided to stop, not because I didn't think I could do it, but because I was simply not enjoying the act of writing.  As a result, I started reflecting on my journey as a writer over the past 30 years, from kindergarten to motherhood. I want to talk a little bit about that journey today, as I continue to discern whether writing fiction is something I ought to be doing.

I wanted to be a writer from the time I learned to write. I loved it when teachers set aside time for "Writer's Workshop" in elementary school, and I wrote completely un-self-consciously about the subjects that interested me, imitating books I loved, like Danny and the Dinosaur and Sarah's Unicorn. As I got into the middle school and high school years, however, I was tortured by the fact that I could never come up with topics to write about. I would start stories, and abandon them after just a page or two because I had nothing to say. Occasionally, this problem was alleviated by school creative writing assignments; under deadline, I always came up with something. I also found it very easy to hand-write hundreds of pages in a journal about the boys I liked and all the friendship dramas of my teen years. But I really struggled to write fiction, while all the while feeling like writing fiction was what I must do.

When it came time to apply to colleges, I wanted to attend a school where I could either major in creative writing or major in English and take creative writing classes. I ended up at Vassar, which does not have a separate writing major, but does have a very strong history of producing creative writers. (Graduates include Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Ruth Stiles Gannett (My Father's Dragon), Jane Smiley, Scott Westerfeld, and Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me), to name just a few.)  I was thrilled to be accepted at Vassar, but completely naive about what a liberal arts creative writing program really cared about and focused on. Up to this point, my favorite authors were mostly not writers of literary fiction. I was 17 for the first few months of my college career, and I loved YA books by Sarah Dessen, the Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun, and had only given up reading The Baby-sitters Club a few years before. I aspired to write the kind of books I liked to read, and I was disappointed to realize that, in college creative writing classes, students and instructors alike look down on anything which isn't "literary." (I was also really uncomfortable with how much time creative writing workshops spent discussing sexual topics. It was a lot of time.)

I spent the next four years trying to conform whatever raw talent I might have had as a writer to the mold of what my professors considered "worthy." My classmates commented often on how much they wished their rough drafts could be as polished as mine, and one professor told me she liked to save my writing submissions for last when she was reading papers because they were "like dessert." She and another favorite professor really encouraged me to apply to graduate schools without ever making it known how unlikely they thought it was that I would get in, or how foolish it was to apply to more than one or two programs. Eventually, when I asked for letters of recommendation, they both kind of turned on me, accused me of being rude for asking for letters for so many schools, and actually made me cry in one of their offices on my 21st birthday. Later, when I happened to read their supposedly confidential recommendation letters, I found out that they didn't actually say many positive things at all. One said I was too quiet during workshop discussions and the other called me "offbeat."

At the start of my senior year, I was rejected from the prestigious "Senior Comp." seminar, in which I would have been allowed to write a creative project for my thesis. In the spring, I was rejected from all six graduate schools to which I applied. (This prompted the professor who called me offbeat to say, "Well, if all you wanted to do was write, why did you even go to college?" Just imagine how happy it made me to hear that.) Finally, a third professor, one with a much more practical outlook, told me that I should really pursue a back-up plan and that even if I was a good writer, it was still not wise to plan on just writing. I was so grateful to her for her honesty, and so hurt by the fact that the other two professors hadn't had the courtesy to be as truthful. At that point, I put down my proverbial pen and applied to library school.

Librarianship was clearly a vocation for me, and I excelled in it and enjoyed it. Working in the library renewed my love of reading which had been destroyed by the demands of English classes I did not want to take for a major (English) that I did not want to pursue. Because of my work in libraries, I started blogging, and because of my story time blog, Story Time Secrets, I was given the opportunity to write two textbooks for librarians which were published and even earned me a small royalty check. I have no doubt at all that the career path I followed after college graduation was the right one. For a while, I even thought those two textbooks would be enough to satisfy my urge to write, even though they were nonfiction.

Now though, I haven't worked in a library in five years. I haven't done a story time in about 18 months. It's been over a year since I turned in the manuscript for my last book. I'm still reading, and still blogging, but without library work to occupy my energy, now I'm back to thinking about writing fiction again. It has been nearly 15 years now since I graduated college, and all the shame and disappointment I felt at 21 has largely faded. Looking back, I see the superficiality of academia for what it is, and I know without a doubt that I would not have been happy in that environment in the long-run. I also recognize that I am never going to be a writer of literary fiction. I don't even like reading much of it! As I read more and more of the books I enjoy - cozy mysteries, realistic children's novels, clean romances - I find myself realizing that my writing style is better suited to those genres. My imagination is frequently sparked into action while I'm reading, and I dream up characters and settings and consider the stories into which I might place them. The only thing I don't do with those ideas (yet) is write them down.

This coming new year, I really want to start putting words to paper again. I don't have specific goals in mind just yet, because heading into a new year with lots of big plans always seems to end in failure for me, but my hope is that, by the end of the year, I will have completed a piece of fiction writing: a single chapter, a short story, a novella, a picture book manuscript - something. Until I have done that, I won't know for sure whether this is a calling I need to pursue or a pipe dream of which I need to let go.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes we have to get to our dreams in a roundabout method. Sometimes our dreams change. I'm glad you're taking the time to figure out your path, and I wish you good luck wherever it leads you!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction