This week, I wrote a short story. It isn’t just any short story. It’s the first piece of fiction I’ve completed in over four years.
The words “four years” leave me breathless. In that I nearly passed out when I first realized it had been that long. I started writing fiction about thirty-five years ago. This was by far the longest I’d gone without finishing a novel or short story.
Reader, during most of the past two and a half years–when my inability to do anything but revise work I’d begun long ago began to feel like a serious problem–I couldn’t even talk about writing. In therapy, or talking to close friends, I would feel a physical block in my throat. My therapist would have to remind me to breathe. My friends, patient and kind, would wait until I was able to speak, after the tears came. I even avoided talking to my wonderful agent, because I was embarrassed that I had no work for her.
As a working writer, I’ve never believed in writer’s block. Writers can get stuck, and I’ve gotten stuck at some point on every project I’ve ever started. But saying “I’ve got writer’s stuck” doesn’t have the same dramatic ring, does it?
For a long time, I thought that I was inchoate, that inchoate meant unable to speak. At least it sounded like that’s what it should mean. Then I looked it up. It actually refers to something undeveloped, crude, or unsophisticated. Given the number of books and stories I’ve written, my writer’s voice is anything but undeveloped. So I wasn’t inchoate. I was just plain speechless.
I imagined that the writer in me was bound and gagged. She couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t speak for her.
When I think of that image, it’s still hard for me to fathom that I could do such violence to my own creativity, my own voice. It’s hard not to judge myself, to tell myself that I wasn’t just being lazy, or cowardly. The judge in my head is a bitch on skates, and she is very, very loud and well-spoken. She has all the reasons why I shouldn’t and can’t write. She demands surrender, and she doesn’t have my best interest at heart. In therapy-speak, at some point I needed her protection. But she eventually went all Cruella DeVil on me.
What happened four years ago that I stopped, you might ask. Oh, honey, I have REASONS. Professional rejection and disappointment, grief, taking care of other people, life, life, life. If I were a different sort of writer, I would enumerate them here for you. But I’m not that writer.
When young writers complain to teachers that they don’t have anything to write about, they’re often told to “write about not being able to write.” Personally, I think that is useless advice. There may be a chance that the young writer will stick at the exercise long enough to write into something interesting, but I’m skeptical. Yet, despite my skepticism, last summer I took a stab at writing a short book about not being able to write. I did an outline with essay titles like shame, desire, tears, feeling invisible… I even wrote a few 1000 word pieces. It didn’t help my fiction writing at all. I felt like I was whining. I felt like I was dwelling on the emotions and all the reasons I was feeling them. It seemed like it was all ground I’d mentally covered again and again. And it seemed like I was pushing it, rather than just accepting that I felt miserable. Acceptance is a thing that has to happen if one is to move forward.
I could see no transformation in that book. Books that don’t have some kind of journey–to the good or the bad–are no books at all.
Reader, I just stuck it out, praying that I would be ready to write again.
How did I get to finally writing and finishing a story? In October, I was at breakfast with two brilliant writer friends–part of a group of compassionate, smart, talented women I feel so privileged to know. The subject of Christmas short stories for publication in 2024 year came up. I knew I had a choice to make. If I committed to writing a story, I would have to finish it. I would have to want to finish it. And I realized I wanted to. I confess that I also didn’t want to disappoint my dear friends.
I will share one important thing I have always wrestled with in my work as a writer: I have never been a writer who just wants to write for herself. I suck at journaling. Journaling doesn’t have the forward movement in it that I need. It doesn’t feel reflective to me, but redundant because I’m writing down things I’ve already thought. There are rarely surprises, and my ADHD brain thrives on novelty. Or, perhaps I’ve just always done it wrong (is that possible?!). If I’m going to spend time and energy writing, I want it to feel that it 1) has a purpose (I don’t mean a moral lol) and 2) is a creative act. I am much happier keeping a journal of my story and essay ideas than other thoughts.
When I write a story, I want people to read it. I also like getting money in return for my work. (I know. Shocking, right? In the middle of my writing drought, I asked a respected editor–who was also a friend of long years–to pay me an agreed amount of money for a story he’d published months earlier. I’m kind of shy, and it was really a tough ask. He paid me, grudgingly, with a rather mean note appended, and has refused to correspond with me since. My feelings were hurt, and I felt embarrassed for asking for what I’d been promised. And I hate, hate, hate losing a friend.)
But being in the marketplace of words means that one’s feelings about writing get tied up with feelings about money and approval. Money can seem like a measure of the work. And if you know anything at all about publishing, you know that the quality of the writing usually has very little to do with the amount of money a writer gets. (It’s mostly about what readers and the market are looking for. There are fashions and trends and politics and so many other variables.)
The problem for me is that, like so many writers, I really, really like approval. When someone reads my work, I want them to shout, “That was the BEST BOOK/STORY EVER, Laura!” It makes me laugh even to type that. While I’m very good about taking professional edits in my work, outright, or even soft-pedaled rejection kills me every time.
At least it did.
As I wrote this Christmas story, I gagged the judge in my brain. I thought about all the good advice I’ve gotten over the years about making my main characters more sympathetic, and that (kind of) happy endings aren’t necessarily a bad thing. (Who knew?!) Most of all, I just had fun with it. Yes, I’m optimistic that someone will want to buy and publish it. If they don’t, well, I may put it away for a while until I hear someone is putting together a Christmas horror anthology, and I’ll spruce it up and send it out again. Or I’ll give it away in a newsletter, or publish it with my Gallowstree Press. Who knows? It’s mine. It’s done. And I am celebrating!
Next week, I have another project to work on. It feels so exciting again to write that I couldn’t stay asleep last night. I am excited to share my work with you, because you all are the other half of the writer I am.
Thank you! Happy New Year!