A unstressful beginning
Freedom can be found in many ways. For me, putting pen to paper without previous thoughts or ideas used to be one of them. The action of writing drove me to express myself, to get what was struggling inside me out into the world. In those moments –as long as they turned out to be– I had no worries, no second thoughts, no judgments. I was, simply put: free.
As a child, unknowing of the judgment and criticism works of art are subjected to, writing short stories meant hours of fun. What new adventures Tigresa, my white and grey striped cat, is going to have today? I would ask myself, and yet, although I thought about my character, no thoughts occurred to me about how good or original my idea might be. I felt no fear when I wrote; I only saw the emotion, the freedom of creation. Beginnings, middles, and ends: what were they? I also had a complete disregard for tension and theme; I didn’t even know what they were. Sometimes I had an audience for my short stories–my doting parents, my grandma – but I didn’t care about that. I wrote for myself. I wrote for the magic my mind could create.
The moody and high-strung middle
When high school struck, I learned of the difficulties of finding my way in a world I felt didn’t mash-up with my beliefs. The theme of my writing changed in consequence, turning darker and blue to fit my emotional state. My ideas – perhaps naïve at the time– of what fun was or what mattered most started being challenged and I faced judgments about them. Yet, despite those critics to myself and personality, I still found freedom in the unplanned writing I did. I was writing for myself. I had no judge or jury putting a price on my work, allowing for the creation of ideas with no pressure or worry.
At that same time in my life, I realized that short stories were not what I wanted to write. I liked reading novels; I lived for those long, complicated works of fiction that sent me on a journey of emotions before they led me into safe port. I decided I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to be a creator, and I wanted to share it with the world. I wanted to have an audience and bring to others the happiness books had given me.
I failed. I failed so miserably.
It wasn’t a lack of ideas that led to failure. My imagination had, in fact, even managed to book a visit to the shrink once. No lack of characters or of difficult situations to for them to face stopped me. I had so many ideas; I would have to force myself to choose one. Only then I would sit down to work on my story.
Facing the blank page wasn’t the problem either. I had too much motivation to be worried about a page that only represented endless possibilities. With each idea, I would sit on the couch, laptop on my lap, comfortable cushions at my back, and I would start typing the first sentence of what would be my breakout novel. After all, if I was going to put in all the effort and time into the work, I wanted to make my living with it.
Each time, after my fingers rendered words on the page, I would reread the first sentence and ponder what was missing from it. The opening line would never seem exciting, or even appropriate. Fidgeting in my seat, pulling softly at my ponytail, I would put my hands back on the keyboard, and I would rewrite the sentence. Still unsure, I would move forward to the next one. Once again, after deftly typing the words, connecting one idea to the other, I would pause. Cocking my head, I would read and reread the two sentences.
Each time, even if I managed to write a full paragraph or two, the verdict would always be the same: the sentences were no good. Shaking my head, I would think the sentences needed to be more exciting, to grab attention and hold it. These sentences were boring. They lacked that something that made you want to read more.
Each time, I would press the delete key and start from scratch. Sometimes I would even start a new document: a symbol of new possibilities.
Each time, I would start thinking about how my character would be perceived by my audience. I would ask myself, what was I showing about the character? And I would realize I needed to write something about that. I would start pondering:
Maybe the character should be a loner. No. He needs to have at least a friend. No, what am I saying? Not a ‘he.’ A ‘she.’ She’ll have a cat. No, that’s so clichéd. She’ll be dreaming at the end. No, that’s stupid. What about it being a whole new world with elves. Wait, everybody uses elves. That’s so unoriginal. I’ll have her save the world. Alright. How? Completing quests? Yes, quests. Mmm, no. I don’t want to write about the hero’s journey. That’s so overused. Ugh, is there anything that hasn’t been done already? I have nothing new to show.
Each time, the hours would go by, clock ticking. By the end of the day, shoulders slumped, I would put away my computer with the torturing knowledge that my idea was so unimportant, so obvious, so uninteresting, so unoriginal, that there was no reason to for me to write the story.
Each time, I would look at my bookshelf and compare my work with the books of famous authors. Those comparisons weren’t very flattering. I could say in my defense that I had no concept of what the writing process actually looked like, or of what those authors had gone through before their books hit the bookshelves. My high school teacher didn’t care about content; she cared only for grammar, for naming the parts of the sentence and putting them in the right order. I hadn’t learned that no matter how good a writer a person is, he or she works through several drafts, improving the ideas, the flow, and the writing. I had, instead, the movie/fairy tale expectation of writing. My mind flowed with images of watching writers sit down to write and, suddenly, as if with no effort on his or her part, the story would be finished and the golden “The End” phrase would be written.
After several tries and too many discarded ideas, I became self-conscious about what I was trying to write. I started to triple –not just second– guess what I wrote. I was afraid. I had a fear of not being good enough, of being dumb, of not having anything to say at all. Even short stories became difficult to write. I couldn’t go back to my unplanned writing, too aware of the failings in my ideas. I stood still with a mind full of ideas, and now they were afraid to come out. My thoughts, when on paper, were no longer destined to be my private property but public exposure and, therefore, found themselves under pressure to shine.
I needed the help of an expert. Who best to ask about how to write a novel than a published author? The woman led a small writing group I used to frequent. In the workshop, we never edited any of our writings: our work was finished the moment we wrote the dot at the end of the last sentence. When asked the question how do you write your novels, this author replied, “I just write short stories about the character and then glue them all together.” The method didn’t seem irrational or too hard. It didn’t seem like an insurmountable task. I knew already how to write a short story. So I grabbed a new, shy idea and gave it a try.
It didn’t work – at all.
I couldn’t find the glue. I realized that this author had given me the raw material (words) but no recipe, instruction or technique about how to turn the words into the glue I needed. How would I put the short stories all together with no glue? I needed more schooling about the subject. At the time I was finishing high school, so I turned my sights to college.
In my circle –or maybe even my country– the culture of learning the craft of writing wasn’t openly discussed. Writers were the blessed that, somehow, be it by smarts or even by arcane magic, were able to write. In most schools, teaching correct spelling and grammar, along with the definition of what a novel or story is, were the only aspects that we saw about writing. Not even in college I could find degrees that would give me the tools I needed to become a creative writer. All the wannabe writers that I knew that went on to study literature stopped wanting to be authors and ended up studying the hidden meaning beneath the prose. After that education, the usual fate of the student was that of a researcher of the written word, or of a high school teacher of grammar and language. Neither of those futures fulfilled my desire for writing.
Nowadays the solution to my problem would have been simple. With a few keystrokes on the computer, I could have found my answers. The internet could have been my teacher, my library, filled with the knowledge that I needed to learn writing.
It could have, but it wasn’t.
At the time, although we had the internet and it probably contained many web pages that taught about writing, the culture of learning by yourself online wasn’t by any means ingrained in my surroundings. Also, to figure that I could have learned on my own, I would have had to know that writing has craft behind it. I didn’t. To me, either you could write or you couldn’t. There was no middle ground, no improvement possible.
For the limited knowledge of writing I possessed at the time, I expected too much of myself. I expected every word I typed to be the perfect and final one. What was the use of writing a passage if it was wrong and had to be discarded? Why spend all that time and effort in something that was wrong? It had to be perfect from the start, or at the very least, I wouldn’t move forward unless the previous parts were perfect. With such an uncompromising attitude, my unplanned short stories marked the limit of what I could do. Discouraged and frustrated –maybe too fast, too soon for some– I turned my back on a writing life.
I knew I had to earn my living–preferably doing something I liked; therefore, when college started, I went into the safe, already known legacy of my parents: science. With arms wide open –and my mother’s relief– science welcomed me. I thrived between readings of anatomy, chemistry, and physiology, between labs, Krebs cycles, and new life experiences. I had found my place in life, and as college turned into a Ph.D. scholarship, I knew my future would be bright and shiny. I only had to work hard, and I would get where I wanted to be.
I forgot my writing in an old drawer – never looking back, even when nostalgia struck me. Yet even as I used writing only for school purposes, my mind longed for the freedom of expressing itself. My mind refused to remain still. Stories would rise from their prison and would clamor to be heard, to be given life. I quietly silenced them, my mind busy with too many science facts. Still, one idea was more stubborn than the rest and surfaced every couple of months, fighting to be recognized, yet failing to achieve victory.
I feared. I feared that I would try once more to put the idea into words and fail. I loved my idea too much to go through the same process I had subjected all the others. I knew I wouldn’t do justice to it, that I would disappoint myself, that it just sounded better in my head. So in my fear, I did nothing.
Fast forward to the finals moments of an exhausting, frustrating Ph.D. degree: the writing of the thesis. The final product was meant to be the size of a novella, with a story that had to be told in a certain way: dry of language and filled with facts. Yet, unlike a novella, gone was the flowery, emotional speech so beloved by artists. Instead, the text was filled with dry, arrogant sentences. The text forgot about the people behind the work, about the hours and sacrifices needed to find those facts. Gone were the texts that trapped my imagination, making me forget about the passing of time as I read them. The thesis meant cramming facts together, citing ideas all throughout the text. As with many scientific papers, the end result forced the reader to read each paragraph twice to remember their main idea.
In contrast to my previous writing process, my thesis had to be planned. It had a beginning (Introduction), a middle (Methods and Results) and an end (Discussion and Conclusions). The beginning made me write about the ideas of others; while the middle showed my actions for those past four years and what numbers had come up as a result. The ending, though, was different. The ending had to talk about my conclusions, about my ideas.
If this thesis had been a work of fiction, the ending would have been the place where I would have gotten stuck. I would have started questioning my ideas and, finding them lacking through my writing process, I would never have finished my Ph.D. My salvation was the fact my ideas had already been validated by many experiments. My ideas had also had a four-year thought process behind them and many, many conversations with my advisor during the time. All I needed to do was make use of the knowledge I had accumulated over those years and write about it. My advisor would also go over the text once I finished. All these certainties freed me, to a certain point, from the worry about the value of my ideas, giving me a safety net I hadn’t known I had needed when it came to writing.
When I sat down to write this time, my only worries were about self-imposed deadlines and grammar, about citing the ideas of others correctly and about making sure the figure legends actually explained what they showed. I worried about needing a 500-words long abstract and about translating it into Spanish later to a text of similar length. Formatting options were a point of disagreement with my advisor, and I worried about those too. Yet all those worries didn’t stop me. I wanted to reach the goal: the so desired Ph.D. degree.
Underneath it all, my writing was free once more, like a prisoner released after years of incarceration. Writing in the Sciences had provided me with the key I needed to the door I had closed when I decided that writing wasn’t going to be just a fun activity for me. My thesis had provided me with the click I needed to write again. I was writing about my validated ideas, which gave me permission to just put the words onto the page without worrying about the words themselves, just like I used to do as a child. I had proved myself that I could write longer pieces; I could get my word count to be longer than just a thousand words.
Having that safety net, though, wasn’t going to be enough to get me through writing numerous works of fiction. Even if I could now write longer pieces of work, I still had to resolve my fear of confronting my ideas.
During these nine years since I had given up on writing, the culture of learning by yourself online had permeated my surroundings. I had also acquired years of experience in searching for knowledge. Both these facts started me on the path to relearn to write fiction. In a matter of moments, I opened a browser and typed “how to write a novel” in the search engine. The moment I pressed the return key never registered. A flood of websites appeared and directed me to all sorts of sources. I was offered advice, and a new world opened to me–the idea of the craft of writing.
No one had ever introduced me to the idea of writing craft, but once I knew about it, I could do anything. Being an avid reader, I turned to books about the craft, and I started learning and accumulating knowledge.
As I learned, the persistent story idea made a comeback. This time, strengthened by the freedom I had found again in writing, the idea wouldn’t let go. It rooted in my head and wouldn’t let me think of anything else, tirelessly going round and round, whispering possibilities in my ear. I had to find a way to give this idea the right beginning, middle, and end.
But I was still afraid of ruining the story, and disappointing myself. So I thought of another idea and decided to tackle that one instead.
It wasn’t long until I felt I could give the enormous project of writing this new story a shot. I sat down and planned it. At the same time, I learned about the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) event, happening every November. This time when the month of November arrived, I sat down in front of the keyword, ready to spill out the 1667 words a day the challenge demands. I did –for 30 days straight– and at the end, I had the first rough draft of my very first novel, 50,000 words long.
That story won’t see the light of the for many, many years. I was too new to the craft of writing, and the holes in the plot could take me to China and back, but that didn’t stop me. I kept learning and writing all throughout the next following years, and this year I actually finished as published a book (see the post here) and released it to the world (buy it here). I, the one that couldn’t write more that a couple of paragraphs, had managed to do the unthinkable.
An Unfinished Ending
Looking back to the NaNoWriMo experience and my finished novel, I know that I still haven’t finished addressing my fears at all. I still fear that my ideas aren’t sufficiently good. What these experiences have done, instead, is to give me valuable tools.
NaNoWriMo has taught me that a large word count deadline per day doesn’t leave time to judge the value of your ideas. It forces me to write, to put the words on paper, just like when I was writing my thesis knowing my advisor would read it afterward did.
Water Thieves, my first finished novel, taught me I can write. It taught me to be patient with myself and to persist. To keep looking for plot holes and fix them. To go over it once, twice, thrice, or as many times needed. To get together with friends and read my work out loud and shudder at the errors, but be grateful I kept looking for them so I could fix them.
After having those 50,000 words of raw material combined with all that I have learned about the craft of writing and finishing a novel, I know now that I can improve on my ideas after I have the first draft, that I don’t need to be perfect right away. This knowledge lets me write again, even without a safety net.
My big detour into the science, later into the NaNoWriMo world, and finally into my own novel taught me that, to write, you first have to learn how to manage the fear of the value of your ideas. The fear that our ideas are unworthy can and should, in some measure, come back, but only after, only when the revision process starts. If the fear gains momentum before the words are written, we become blocked and whatever any of us could have said will be muted and lost.
Even now, three years after I started writing again and with a novel under my belt, I second guess myself; I am still unsure about myself, my possible readers and of what the future may bring. I fear that my novel could be improved or what other possibilities I didn’t see at the time. Yet when I pick up the pen or face the blank page, I have learned not to fear my own ideas. I write, then I worry about them later. They can always be fixed.