In honor of hitting my 200 blog post milestone, I wrote this post in response to the question: “explain how you write and what inspires you.”
A little over ten years ago, after saying for years that I wanted to write fiction, I decided to make it happen. In 2003 I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month. The point of NaNoWriMo is to force the aspiring writer to throw off the constraints of the internal editor and just write. The goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November.
I like goals, so I got it done, and in this way I realized that indeed I can write, a lot. I learned how to sneak past my internal editor and just get the words down. I did Nano again in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 – and hit 50k in each of the last three attempts. It was in 2008 that I wrote the first chaotic, stream-of-consciousness draft that was to become Raising John. I knew I wanted to write a story about a “what if” situation with a drunk driver. I knew that I wanted to talk about addiction and how it siphons away the ability to truly engage with life. And, I wanted it to be a love letter to children – the children who are given short shrift because addiction is insatiable in its need for attention.
The first draft had all the elements of the story, but the narrative was a mess, and most of my scenes were told, not shown. After two rounds of major revisions I thought it was ready – beta readers and agents disagreed. Then after another round of revisions, I thought – yes, I have it now. Still, readers and agents disagreed. So, in 2013 I tackled it again, then hired an editor to help me shape the part where readers kept getting stuck and losing interest. The editor was amazing and very persuasive. She had me remove several repetitive scenes about one character and then write quite a few chapters to show the growth of another character I had only told about. The end product of that process is the version of Raising John that I published.
People often ask me where I get my ideas. The short answer is that some of them are pure imagination and some of them come from my life. The plot for Raising John came to me when I thought about my family of origin, then went on to think “what if?” Most of my work is like this – I’ll have a germ of an idea springing from an event or an observation in real life, but then that will spin out into a larger narrative – usually because I went on to think “what if?” Or I encountered a person I didn’t immediately understand and set about trying to figure out how they got that way. The backstory I create for them can become a large part of a narrative.
I have tried a few times to have characters that are almost directly based on me, and they fall flat. Originally Raising John contained some scenes that were more closely taken from real life, and they were the least popular scenes among my beta readers. It’s hard to say why, but I think it’s because when I’m writing about myself, I zero out parts of myself that I take for granted – because I don’t notice these traits any more, I don’t include them in the character, and as a result, the character seems flat to the reader, even if to me, because I mentally fill in the parts I unconsciously leave out of the writing, they remain interesting to me.
Lesson learned – I write what I know, but not exactly what or whom I know.
Another aspect of writing that I wouldn’t have known about if I hadn’t experienced it is how painful it is. I don’t mean physically, I mean the emotional pain. The way I describe it is that I sit for hours, dredging my subconscious, pulling up all matter of unpleasant things. I need to do this, for my writing, and it helps me produce work that resonates deeply with my audience, but geez it’s hard. So hard. Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit. I know this and it fits my temperament, especially during those rainy Seattle months that seem tailor made for long days inside with limitless cups of tea and hot chocolate, and limitless production of words.
It’s not the physical solitude that I mind – it’s the emotional solitude. It’s setting up Freedom to cut off my internet for hours at a time, then going down, into the depths until it seems that I’m the only person left on earth.
It’s hard, but it’s worth it. I used to work for a high-tech company and while I enjoyed my work, if the pay had stopped my work would have stopped too. So far I haven’t earned anything from writing, and yet, I can’t imagine not doing it.