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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