Raise your hand if you’ve heard this: I have nothing to write about. I bet every writer, at some point, has said those words to themselves. I know I have. I have damned myself for being too middle class, too white, too female, too boring. I’ve berated myself for thinking I have anything worth telling anyone and I’ve told myself to just go get a job more suited to the ordinariness of me. And I have also given myself the mental equivalent of a bitch slap and reminded myself that every life is beautiful and every life has stories worth telling.
Here is what I want you to understand. I don’t care if you grew up in a ghetto or on a farm. I don’t care if you are rich, poor, woman, or man, you have stories. And here is why they are worth telling; because you lived them. Each of us has unique lives. Even if we were to walk the exact same road together, none of us would ever see it exactly the same way. Some of us would notice the flowers, some of us would notice the color of the asphalt. Some of us might even think about that dog we had as a child that ran out into a road like this and died. Your life is all about you. It is full of beautiful tragedy and heart-stopping joy. And this tangled web of experiences has come to you for a reason. If you are a writer, you learn to see it all as material. And, sometimes, if you happen to be me, you forget this lesson.
There are days when I’m struggling along, just trying to figure out where the hell this story or that one was going and I think ‘who the hell do I think I’m fooling?’ There are days when I forget to bring my personal sight to my writing and everything starts to fall apart. So take this post as half lesson, half me reminding myself why I do this.
I’ve got a lot of passion. I see beauty in things others find ugly. This is why I began writing in the first place, to show people what I see when I say the cornfields are beautiful. I began so I could make people see the dawn through my eyes and know the pain of loving everything that lives. I began so I could tell stories that feed the soul, above all else. In the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling to come back to this, back to the point where I thirsted for my writing the way a man dying of starvation longs for steak. I began just trying to capture the world around me in all its messy, grimy, perfect beauty. I began because I loved everything around me and I just wanted to convey that into words.
Lately, I’ve returned to some of my old writing books. Natalie Goldberg is always at the top of this list, of course. Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and, a new one (new to me, that is), Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want To Write’. It was Brenda that really got me moving again; her insistence that every single person on the planet has a story worth telling just because they are them and nobody else can or ever will be them reminded me. She reminded me of the stories I wanted to tell in the beginning, before this became a job. She reminded me of what it was to write before I worried if the words were right or if anyone would like it. She reminded me of what it was like to pull out the beauty of being me and put it on the page.
So I’m going to share a little of her wisdom with you, a few things that, honestly, I feel we forget right around the time someone suggests that art should be a struggle and that we’ll have to fight for every inch.
This is not a job. If it is a job for you, a chore to be completed, then it is time to take a step back. It is perfectly fine to have ideas about where you want to end up. It is fine to set goals for yourself. But it is not okay to kill your creativity by expecting it to behave itself. Behaving never has and never will work in any form of art. I don’t say this because it is impossible to make money off your writing. I am saying this because you should never hold that expectation. It taints the whole process and lays a shadow over you; when you are worried about what other people will pay for, you aren’t worried about telling the truth.
Which brings us to point two. Writing is about truth. Even fiction writing. Especially fiction writing. Any story that does not contain the shadow of truth will ring flat and dull. We tell stories to teach lessons. Our brains crave it. So, if you don’t know your own truth, then how can you know the truth behind your stories? Recently, I’ve realized that I’m too open to the ideas of others and that I had lost my way a little bit. I used to know what I believed about everything and, suddenly, I was shuffling around wondering what would happen if someone told me I was wrong about something I believed. Spoiler alert: the world would go on turning, the sun would continue rising, and it is unlikely that anyone would die.
And there is point three. Pardon my French, but fuck everyone else’s opinion. Everyone has one and you are entitled to yours. You could say it’s part of the job description. You cannot write if you are scared of what others might think about it. Adopt a pen name if you have to. Move into the basement, lock the door, lie and tell yourself that nobody else will ever get to read it. I don’t care. Just stop letting the judgement of others guide your writing. If you tell the truth, you are going to offend someone. Get over it. I could offend a whole lot of people right now by pointing out that Putin is a child killing tool of evil. Their outrage will not change the fact that it is absolutely true and that our president thinks he is a standup guy. He’s outright said so. Look at that. Pissed off a bunch of people, didn’t I? Yet facts are facts and I am not here to stroke anyone’s ego. DO NOT marry your fear. Others will judge you because that is what humans do. If you lose friends because you voiced truth, then they were not your friends. Stand up for what matters to you and don’t let anyone, even your best friend, tear you down.
A little aside, here. There is a big difference between telling the truth and being malicious. If you are telling a truth that you know will devastate someone emotionally, then I suggest you don’t write it. If Betty Sue’s husband is cheating on her, don’t be a big mouth and write a blog post about it. Go have coffee with Betty Sue and break it to her gently. And keep it off your blog. There is nothing more disgusting than spreading idle gossip – especially about someone else – for your own gratification.
The final point (and what this post is really about): love your life. Look, I’m as guilty as the next person. Sometimes I write characters that are closer to who I wish I was than to who I really am – which is different than building a character that isn’t based on me at all. These heroes are pretty easy to spot. They fulfill every single fantasy, from being the perfect weight to knowing the right answer to every question. They are never wrong, never scared, never lost, and they are goddamned boring. I will spot them the second I start reading through a story and every time I am startled by it; I always think they are pure gold until that readthrough. When I do this, it is part of a pattern. Right about the time one of my characters starts marching around, only one step short of a god in their perfection, I have started feeling trapped. Not trapped in the sense I’m in a rut and need to escape, but trapped in the sense that I’m me, I’m a screwup (I’m not, but that is the first of a negative thought cycle), and I can’t do anything right. This can be the side effect of someone else’s opinion or just me choosing to walk down the road of self-damnation. Either way, poof. Instant superhero so damn straight and good that they ought to come with an obligatory halo.
I wish I could tell you that there is a one-time answer for this. There isn’t. I wish I could tell you that there is a button to push to reset your attitude when this happens. There isn’t. However, there is something you need to remember and I think it will help. Your life is unique. Nobody on earth has the exact same life as you. Nobody on earth thinks exactly like you or dreams like you. All your experiences are there, waiting for you to tap into them and they are fascinating to the rest of the world just because they are yours. Don’t believe me? Go look up personal journals on ebay. There is a huge market for them because humans are nosy. We want to know how other people see and think and live. And this is where I tell you to use that. Nobody wants some super perfect hero. They want relatable flaws. They want a life full of pain, joy, love, and loss. They want to read about someone that could be them and know what it is like to be elsewhere. You have that. So every time you start thinking you have nothing worthwhile, remember. You have your life and we all want to connect to it. If this fails to shake you out of your imposter syndrome, then take my final advice. Just keep on writing; this will pass. All you have to do is keep writing, even when you think it stinks like manure. As Brenda says, ‘you can fix crap.’