In figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up, the journey took many twists and sharp turns. In addition to merely considering many different fields, I worked more jobs than anyone I know at my age. At the tender age of 34, I’ve crossed more occupations off the list as “attempted, not quite right” than other people will attempt in a lifetime. (And more power to them. I sincerely believe it’s possible to graduate high school, know exactly who you are and what you’re good at, and find success in that career for a lifetime. In my experience though, it’s not possible to do that and also be me.) I’ve been great at a lot of things, I’ve done a lot of introspection and reflection, but I’ve never felt sure-footed on my career journey until recently.
Other people seemed to know my path long before I did. It’s a consensus I’ve heard since I was literally 5 years old, back when I thought I’d grow up to be an Egyptologist, or an architect, or a dancer. Many people pointed to me and screamed “You’re a Writer!” I was chosen to write and speak for groups, chosen to receive writing awards, pointed at by veritable strangers who heard me talk for a few minutes and declared, “You should write a book.” Many teachers requested acknowledgment when the then-imaginary book was published. On any number of subjects, people indicated, “If you wrote the book, I’d read it.” The constancy of their collective belief made it impossible for me, rebel with 1,000 causes, to agree and declare “I am a writer. I will write a book.” It seemed ludicrous that I should admit that everyone else, strangers even, knew me better than I knew myself.
So I finally did it. I wrote a children’s book, a picture book, about starting something new, setting a goal, and working to achieve it. I turned a poem I’d written about crafting into a story about a girl with a dream. I hired an illustrator to see my vision through. I self-published and advertised. Instantly, I had big dreams for the book and for the universe it insinuates. I created a brand, I set up at festivals and fairs, and I talked about my motives and what I know to be true with everyone I encountered.
The resounding, unanimous response was “This is the book? Is this all you have?” Disappointment and confusion were evident in their incredulity.
I do indeed have other kids’ narratives ready to go, stories that need editing, illustrating, and querying, stories that I still hope to air out and share with the world.
Amidst the constant inner turmoil of “Finding Myself” in my late 20’s, I conceded. I thought back on the words, wise and otherwise. I remembered the picture book series I’d invented when I was a kid, the many hours I spent running my fingers down spines in the library stacks, and how I’d often pass the time by improvising radio plays starring multiple people and a Foley artist, all played by me and my indeterminate accents.
Unfortunately though, this first book left me, and my readers, unfulfilled. I demonstrated my way with rhythmic meter, rhyme scheme, and teaching empowerment – a lifelong pursuit – but it did little to encompass the creative waterfall crashing down in my brain. I was getting more out of talking about my values with adults than I was out of creating books and resources for kids. I began to wonder if I had a novel in me, a novel to be enjoyed by the adults saying “I would have loved this picture book when I was kid.” Rather than writing for the next generation in a wistful way to make up for lost time, perhaps I could write to their parents instead – give them the love letter to our existence that encompasses my thoughts and feelings about life itself.
A lofty goal, to be sure.
The Scientist and I, searching for ways to pass the quaran-time together, began to talk about writing a book – but the subjects varied. He’s more comfortable in the realm of (who’d have guessed it?) academic nonfiction, and we may have a joint project in us yet about neurodiversity and the natural world. Neither of us was very motivated to write it, though, and the idea was shelved.
Then, one day, we started with the What Ifs of fiction – what sorts of books do we love? What sorts of stories do we crave? What hasn’t been done? A speculative, fantasy world which existed within and expanded upon our own called to us- a story of one man, that evolved into an epic battle, that began to cross time and existential planes. We stuck post-its to a posterboard and drew circles, connected by arrows, which became webs. I doodled in the margins of our collective, creative brain and he drew more tethers across environments and ecologies. We tried to explain to mutual friends but it wasn’t something that could lend itself to a this-then-that narration. They needed more. They wanted more. We had based our idea in our mutually shared interests and dedicated the themes to our values and suddenly we knew we had a trilogy on our hands.
A year passed and the idea stagnated. It would come up when we were hiking or on a road trip, but the actual process was mysterious and elusive.
I’d sit down to write a scene from the trilogy and feel overwhelmed by the scope of it.
I’d start on page one – I must have written 12 different page ones.
I’d bounce ideas off the Scientist who would look at me dumbfounded for reaching the story further and further outside our original scope. Was it fantasy or science fiction? Was it comedic, horror, speculative or historical? Was it intended for young adults or more mature readers? Was it a novel, a graphic novel, or something else entirely?
I’d awaken in the middle of the night (or somesuch) and think – it’s not THIS kind of story, it’s actually a parody of THIS kind of story, and I’d scrap every short piece and description, and start it all over again. Maybe it wasn’t a trilogy – it was a series of short stories. Maybe it was scifi, not fantasy. Maybe it was 2 separate ideas that don’t actually work together.
And so, as I’ve done with every bit of spiraling doubt that surrounds every project or interest I undertake, I researched process. How-to’s and what-for’s. For nearly another year, I took notes on saving the cat and creating a screenplay, looking for tropes in every movie and series, learning about arc, plot, and character development, and revisiting some of my favorite fictional works for clues as to how they were put together.
One answer kept coming up: There is no right way. There are no right answers.
There’s no one way to get a story of this magnitude down on paper. It won’t be written from start to finish. It can’t be outlined like an academic work or written in a single draft. Much of what is written first won’t be included in the final edit at all.
It isn’t like building a house – get the pieces, put them together in a reasonable order, stand back and admire the work. I could watch and read all the house building tutorials I wanted, but no one had ever built THIS HOUSE before.
Writing a story like this one is more like growing a garden of wildflowers. Start with the idea – I want to grow flowers – sculpt out the general flower bed-fertilize and aerate the soil, plant seeds and nourish them – then see what grows from there. What thrives and what outcompetes the others. What attracts the right insects and meshes well with the natural ecology. What would do better transplanted into another garden patch.
To paraphrase the great Neil Gaiman who was paraphrasing someone else he considers great, You never learn how to write a book, you only learn how to write THIS book. And to paraphrase Neil Gaiman again, you write the story to find out how you feel about the story.
And with that final burst of confident steam, I know, I’m writing this fantasy trilogy. It may take years. It may look and feel entirely different from where it is currently. But the more I write, the more I confer with the Scientist, and the more I speak about it, the more confidently I feel that I have something here. I am writing a story that needs to be told, a story that feels important, a story that keeps me going back every day, to take notes, to read research, to create settings and scenescapes and tonalities.
I’ll keep track of my journey here under the subheading: Writer, Meet the Internet.
Hey look Mom (and all the others out there who said so) – I’m a writer!