A friend said to me a while ago that going to writing school ruined my writing. I said, no, I knew how to do that, I had to learn a lot of other things as well. Lately that conversation has come back to me as I begin and abandon writing projects.
After writing school I wrote four books. Yes, four. Full length and complete. Two of them got published. The thing is: I wrote the first book just to prove to myself I could actually write a story, beginning, middle, end. It was published, a publishing contract I won with the manuscript in a competition. In truth, I dislike that book. Part of disliking it is that I learned how to write a story as I wrote it. Or should I say, reading it at events after I wrote it showed me how much I had learned. Some parts of it I like, some parts make me cringe because I could do so much better with them now. But I had to write it to learn how to make them better, and the how doesn’t happen in the moment. It happens later. Just like they told us in that writing year at The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. They said it would take a year or two to absorb and use what we’d learned. It did. And with each writing project since, it become clear that it takes a while to see what I’ve learned.
One other book I wrote got published. That one I wrote because I was angry. Some twat of a US politician was withering on on CBC radio about repealing abortion laws, and how abortion was wrong. My impulse was to yell at the radio, yes, useless, but an often practiced uselessness in my house, sometimes it’s the TV that’s responsible for out loud yelling when I’m totally alone, but there it is. Later I got to thinking about how god and religion is used, about how groups can use it to chivvy us to do the ‘right thing’, and the question is how the heck do any of us know what the right thing is? We can do what is, by our own lights, the right thing and have very wrong results. And then I got curious about that and wrote a book exploring that theme. That book led to a publishing contract where a possible second book was mentioned, and there I was covered in expectation that a second book would happen. Possibly one just like the one I’d written, or similar enough.
I found that expectation wouldn’t do at all. I knew how to write that book. What I wanted was a challenge. Something new and stimulating. So I took courses in screenplays, then playwrighting. I wrote a couple of mini scripts which I enjoyed doing. The limitations of each form stretched me as a thinker and a writer. Figuring out ways to get what I meant across absorbed me. The courses ended, as courses do. Then I began and abandoned many stories, some complete, some not. All of which didn’t quite satisfy me to spend time on. As many explanations as stories surfaced as to why. I was old and a novel seemed like a long undertaking, short stories were not my forte, and on and on and on. I sold up and moved to Europe for five months, then came back and settled in a new, quieter city. Wrote and abandoned more stories. Then the pandemic hit.
It is true that I am a dyed in the wool optimist. I can’t help it. No matter how dark things or I get, I bubble back up to the surface. There is no great credit due to me for this fact. It is my nature. And so it seems to be with the pandemic. It hit me smack around the head and woke me up, but I woke up reluctantly, with incredibly slow wit. Of course, I had worries the same as we all had. What did this mean in the big picture? Would I ever see family again? Would we all be wiped out, or most of us? How does capitalism fit in here? What is our social contract with each other? Why do we think it’s ok to underfund and warehouse citizens who are old and frail? Why do we expect the least well paid in society to carry us through? And nature, oh my, nature. In our initial withdrawal nature flourished. How do we respond to that?
No writing happened. None at all. Not even journal writing, a thing I’ve done consistently, though not every day, since I was about fifteen years old. Instead I took long, solitary walks. I sat in nature observing and just being. I gave up any and all expectations of normal life and lived with whatever presented itself physically before me. I connected much more deeply with family and a few friends. In short, I didn’t actively think at all. I was content in the moment. Happy even.
Yet. And yet. In those quiet, solitary moments, there in my deeper self, things were going on. Whole continents were shifting, clouds were forming and clearing rapidly, storms built up, exploded and were gone, epiphanies presented themselves and left if they were ignored and thundered now and again for attention. Somewhere in the turbulence the words of my friend came back to me, she preferred my writing before I went to writing school. Could this be the root cause of my impatience with writing? Could it have something to do with why what I was writing these days bored me?
Desperate for stimulation and occupation in my solitary state I turned to the internet. So much was going on. So much I had no real interest in. Then one thing caught my eye: a course from and Irish site in flash fiction. I signed up.
It was just what the doctor within ordered. Stimulating and difficult assignments that my first impulse always decided were impossible for me to do. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d been writing flash fiction for years before writing school. Had even published some. It was a form of writing I was into long before it was a thing, and so I had dismissed it as valid. In this particular course I found challenge, stimulation, and passion. I was bereft when it ended.
Once again my friend’s words came back to me. It took me a long time of foostering around mentally, trying to write and boring myself to death, finding other things to do, anything, except write, to realize that my friend was not entirely wrong. I had, in a sense, lost my writing way.
Writing had become a task. It had become something I did that wasn’t entirely for myself. If we are not careful, the urge to publish can do that to a writer. Some writers thrive in that world, and some can’t. Or they can if they stay true to their own interest and desire. I had strayed from mine. In my desire to learn ‘how to write’, I had misplaced the passion I had for writing, lost touch with that wild joy of following a line or a thought wherever it may lead, fallen into the trap that it needed to lead here, or there, rather than wherever it wanted to go. That glorious, thrilling tremble in the soul was being ignored for the ‘proper’ story.
Recently a friend challenged me to write a short story. I took up that challenge with a preconceived notion of what a short story might be. I tried my damnedest to write one. I even had a whole idea for a book of short stores. One which, incidentally, I conceived as part of writing school. I shared it with a friend who was wildly enthusiastic about it. So I sat down, opened up my computer and began. I even set up the stories I had in mind as Scrivener projects. My inner writer rebelled. Shite! she declared, I’m not joining in with this. I coaxed, bribed, demanded, got stubborn and wrote, and it was just dead. No life, no joy. Nothing. Just writing that was as flat as a pancake.
By now my inner writer was impatient. She was screaming at me that I have many pieces to put together into a book, to add to, to immerse myself in and make something of. Finally I listened.
Listening may have something to do with the fact that I was fully vaccinated, and that some semblance of normal life could resume because the day I heard my inner writer speak was the first day I’d gone to a coffee shop and written my journal in one in over a year. A little tiny slice of life before. Whatever in me used to be alert to that inner world woke up, and at last heard my inner writer speak. My task was to work hard to marry together in harmony the way I used to write and all the wonderful craft I’d learned at writing school. In other words, create my own voice for my own stories. Because all that work I’d done was to get me to this point, the point where I had a myriad of tools at my fingertips, where I understood enough about craft to actually consciously create the stories I want, be they tiny or huge.
There may be writers who arrive fully grown. They have it all, language, story, craft and dedication. But I doubt it. Most writers toil away for a long time learning what works, finding what they want to express, reading and writing constantly with drawers and notebooks and backup discs full of discarded work. If they are lucky, like I was, and get the chance to attend a supportive and great writing school with talented and wonderful mentors, at what is really a minor cost as these things go, they can get there a little faster. But nobody arrives full blown. Dig into any lauded ‘first book’ sensational writers and you will find oceans of manuscripts half finished, badly finished, published without a splash, or abandoned incomplete. You will find files of stories that few people have seen. You will find a world of patient, supportive people who have read, given feedback and helped clarify what that writer wanted to say. And you will find centuries of writer’s who paved the way with works to be read and learned from. Nobody arrives fully grown. Not in life, not in art. Growth is longer or shorter, but it is integral to the process. It is active. It is full of error, of elation and dejection. It must be worked at.
Have I reached, or will I ever reach fully grown? I have no idea, but I intend to keep growing, to keep creating stories I want to tell, whether they are fashionable, publishable or not. Whether a handful of people respond to them, whether I ever hit publication again, or not. Writing for me is not about that. I have woken up and remembered. Writing school has given me tools to use, introduced me to different ways to shape and colour stories I want to tell. It cannot be done like a paint by numbers picture, no matter how pleasing such pictures may turn out. I must use these tools in concert with the skills that I already had, and have. I must uncover my own voice, my own style of telling tales. It is part of me to express my own vision of the world, unadulterated, comprehensible to other or not. Writing is who I am as much as anything else about me. I am a writer. Even if no-one else notices.