General Ramblings

Mission Control: Writing Isn’t Supposed To Be Easy

My boss comes in today with one of my blog posts for the company website and smiles. “This is so, so good. It is so nice to have someone who knows what they’re doing when it comes to writing. This is just fabulous.”

And I smile, and take the paper back, and wonder what it is about me that makes people think I know exactly what I’m doing when it comes to writing.

I don’t. I don’t, and I sometimes pretend I do. I sometimes write something that I think is amazing and I think, I’ve got this in the bag. But the truth is, it’s very rare that I know exactly how a story is going to go, or have an outline ready, or am able to predict exactly what’s going to happen. Because I don’t. I’m not organized and I don’t know what I’m doing.

I’ve never written a novel. The reason for that is because I’m lazy and impatient. I’m good with short stories that tie up nicely into strong endings. I have little patience for the process – I want to jump to the final product. I’m good with poetry with images and feelings because I know that I’m strong at creating moods. I can make people cry. But I don’t know what I’m doing, and that sometimes scares me.

People say that they were born to write. I believe them. I was born to write, too. I’ve been doing it since I was tiny. I used to narrate stories as we played outside. My sister would beg me to play Barbies with her because “I love the stories you come up with”. And I’ve scribbled poetry on restaurant napkins, and murmured snatches of dialogue as I walk down the street. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night with descriptions running through my head, and I’ve missed my subway stop because I was thinking about old-time diseases related to a story I was writing at the time.

And yet, I wonder why it’s me that hears the voices and the stories. Why it’s me that needs to be the one to write them down, to tell the tales, when I have no idea what the hell I’m doing most of the time.

Most stories are simple and true in the telling. I tell myself that every time I sit down to write. Yet sometimes my characters have the consistency and depth of a mud puddle. And I listen for their voices to hear flat monotones that aren’t interesting when yesterday they were sparkling, they were pleading, they were plaintive and they were beautiful. I have this beautiful idea and you won’t behave! How can I write your story when you won’t tell me what it is?

I live in a city with millions of stories. I only have to pluck them out of the air. And yet sometimes, it’s so tiresome. The research and the nagging at my mind constantly, looking at old buildings and wondering who lived in them, getting my breath taken away at statues and churches and the feeling of hundred-year-old stone under my hands. The poring over websites and books, reading people who’ve told the stories before me and probably told them better, reading books for fun and ending up in a spiral of shame and envy and inadequacy, because these books are amazing and those authors clearly knew what they were doing, right?

The truth is, none of us knows what we’re doing. That’s why everyone’s story is unique. If we all knew innately how to outline, to find the characters’ voices, to sit down and be disciplined – I’m going to write 3000 words a day, no, today I’m going to finish a novel, no, today I am writing a novel that will win a Pulitzer Prize and the respect and admiration of the world! Yes! I’m going to do it! – then all of our stories would sound the same.

There are a billion once upon a times and we all write different ones.

Writing comes naturally and it doesn’t. It’s like breathing, except it can be hard to breathe sometimes. It can be hard to eat sometimes. It can be hard to walk, and after setbacks like illness and injury, sometimes you have to learn to do it again.

I was told yesterday to be fearless. And when I listen to my characters talk today, I realize that the reason they weren’t talking yesterday was because I wasn’t letting them. I realize that the words I typed yesterday were stilted because I was throwing up walls all around me, trying to make it good before I could make it live. And I paralyzed myself, the way I used to in choir when I’d try to sing so beautifully and well that my jaw would lock up under the pressure. I paralyzed my mind and my heart and my writing flow, and they couldn’t speak because they couldn’t get through.

“I can’t do it. I can’t do this. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I don’t know how,” I muttered and I kicked at the base of my chair. I went outside and stalked around my postage-stamp front yard. I put my hands on my hundred-year-old apartment walls, knowing even here there are a thousand stories, a thousand voices, a thousand thoughts and words and emotions. And I wanted to scream with all of this locked up inside me and there seemed to be no way to get it out.

I live in a world of history. Sometimes it’s hard to live here. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes I wish I knew how to navigate it better.

But I don’t know what I’m doing. And as awful as that is, that’s what makes me able to pick the story back up, close my eyes, and listen.

It’s not supposed to be easy. Life isn’t easy – why would something that’s such a huge part of my life be easy, too?

I have never written a novel – but I will. I have never published a book of historical fiction – but I will.

I don’t know what I’m doing – but I will.

This is for real. I was born to do this. And I will.


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8 thoughts on “Mission Control: Writing Isn’t Supposed To Be Easy

  1. Oh, god. All of this.

    I mean, I am writing a novel, but who am I to be doing that? I think I was born to write, too, even though I’ve spent most of my life until now not doing it. But otherwise, why do I hear and see the things I do?

    So many times, I’ve fought it, too. And I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve thrown my hands up and said, “I quit. This will never be finished.” I have been working on the same book since last September now. I’m only 6 chapters into this draft (though I did complete the first one). It takes FOREVER and it kills me.

    I don’t know if you saw my blog post from today, but it’s about something similar. Or the beginnings of it. Funny, I didn’t know we had so much in common as writers. Because from the outside, you do look like you know what you’re doing.

    Everyone knows I don’t, and that’s kind of freeing sometimes. 😉

  2. Not easy for me at all. You must give yourself some space to write I reckon. I couldn’t write for someone else because I too don’t know what is going to come out the other end.

  3. Writing is a very lonesome activity – so of course most writers who start think they are the only ones with doubts and with shi..y first drafts (not my choice of words, blame it on the author of “bird by bird”).
    It takes some creatve writing courses, writing groups, blogs, books about writing to realise, you are not alone out there – and other writers face the same problems. Even the most famous ones. It’s just when you gain experience with your own writing, that you learn how to handle your doubts, how to postpone them to the second draft-time – and that the outside world, your readers, judge you by your output – not by the process till you have that final draft you are cool with.
    Though I have to admit, I might never ever leave that beginner’s level phase … I don’t write often enough.
    And I can relate to that impatience. Even if I have the idea of a longer story I never finish it – there are so many others luring me to them to tell them instead of that long one – and I am soo easily distracted.

  4. Wow. You are right, you can make people cry. This made me cry. Perhaps because it has been my dream to write a historical fiction novel since I was 12, and I’ve been living in my imagined historical scenes since I was younger than even that. And what you’ve illustrated here with the at times self-doubting but ultimately determined dialogue has managed to capture exactly how I feel too. I tend to look at the top of the staircase, where all my dreams exist, and an overwhelming feeling of discouragement washes over me. All of the steps I have to climb! It seems I’ll never get there, because I don’t even know where to start. But hey, writing in this blog is one step. And you only fail if you stop taking the steps. As Ray Bradbury once said, “you only fail if you stop writing.” 🙂

  5. I related to so much of this. And yes, yes, yes: you were most certainly born to write. You have a gift, and I look forward to reading all your future works.

  6. Yeah, I could relate to so much of this. I think the part I worry about most is the research, like I do a lot, but what if it’s not enough, and someone picks me up on it? Or what if I intentionally make a change to history, since I write speculative fiction and that’s allowed (it is sometimes semi-alternate history stuff, I mean, I have fantasy elements as “reality” for starters), and someone doesn’t like the way I changed it? That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so hesitant to look specifically for fans of pirates, because I’ve already had one pirate author pick me up on things in my unpublished novel. I suppose the up side of that is that it wasn’t published yet so I have been able to fix things.

    It would be really nice to know what we as writers do right, but it’s so subjective that readers are going to admire us for different traits of our own writing anyway. The only thing I feel like I can claim to know what I’m doing when I write is dialogue. I suppose then it makes sense that it is the thing I get complimented on most!

    As for the novel – it’ll come to you. I didn’t think I had the patience to sit down and write one. I didn’t think I even had it in me to sustain a story over that length. But then I shared a short screenplay online that people were asking for more of, and it turned out I was able to expand on that initial scrap of an idea and make it novel length. Your breakthrough might come to you differently, but I know you definitely have at least one novel in you somewhere.

    I also tend to want my writing to be perfect immediately and I generally hate editing my own work. I find it hard to pick up what could be improved on my own, and require reader feedback. On the other hand, after spending over a year writing the first draft of my first novel and getting a ton of great feedback both helped and paralysed me. The flaws I agreed with, I could fix near immediately. The other stuff led to me having to sit on the rest of the novel until I was personally ready to go back and chop out anything that I might have previously loved but wasn’t working. I finished my first draft in September last year. It’s only now, in May, that I’m actually able to go back and make certain changes that I realise need to be made to make the story so much better. I am glad I waited, but damn is it still hard!

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