Thinking (stressing) about this first blog—getting it started, struggling, scrapping it, and starting over again—has me thinking about other firsts. Like when I first started writing stories ten or so years ago. Let me tell you how that felt.
The agony surprised me. I didn’t expect it for two reasons. One: I already was a writer—a poet (or I liked to think of myself as one, anyway). I’d practiced poetry writing in college, studied under a few great wordsmiths, like Ruth Stone and Paul Muldoon, and continued to pursue that passion after graduation. I was used to paying attention to words, staring at the sky for long periods of time, and (whenever a bit of imagery or a neat turn of phrase popped into my head) scrambling to find a pen and a piece of paper to jot down the words before they fluttered away. Writing poems was like catching fireflies. The verses already existed, hovering over the goldenrod and chicory like an earthborn constellation, decorating the darkness with their mysterious glow; I just had to act quickly enough to nab them.
I figured the fiction-writing process would work in a similar fashion. It didn’t.
The firefly needed a backstory.
A family. And friends, foes, a favorite ice cream flavor, a special spot in the weeds to hide and cry, a mercurial firefly pal he wishes he could kiss, an overheard secret (a personal matter so terrible, it’s about to wreck the poor firefly’s life), and some asshole poet who keeps chasing after him with a net. Plus, in the god-awful, group-activity project his teacher assigned (worth fifty percent of his fourth marking period final grade), the firefly can’t get along with his firefly partner who buzzes nonstop. And the firefly and his partner have to argue. Talk! And this talk has to sound genuine, convincing, compelling. And my firefly needs peculiarities that distinguish him from the millions of other fireflies—a tendency to twitch his right wing whenever he’s nervous, a way of laughing at his own jokes (so hard no one knows what the hell he’s talking about), and a horrid inclination to replay in his head the bad thing that happened in gym class two months ago. The firefly has to fear and obsess and loathe. Fail, falter, prevail. Hope and dream. Love. Change.
Turned out, coming up with a story entailed more than just grasping and growing a seed of a thought. Fiction writing required building a world. And I was daunted.
The second reason the pain of the process came as a surprise? I read a lot.
I’d bet money that every published author whose advice has been sought would tell the aspiring writer to read. Read and read and read.
This is excellent advice. I would never disagree.
But reading doesn’t cut it. If a person wants to become a writer, she actually needs to write. This may sound obvious, but honestly, I’ve met plenty of people who tell me they want to become writers but who don’t actually, um…write. No doubt because it’s difficult and awkward. (See reason #1.) Reading novels, even reading books on how to write novels, can help a would-be writer enormously. But (for me, anyway) avid reading didn’t translate directly or seamlessly into expert writing. In fact, before giving fiction writing a whirl, I’d read gazillions of books. This did not prevent me from producing whole novels’ worth of crappy prose.
The good news? Failed writing still counts because it’s writing. And the more you write fiction, the better—and the easier—the writing gets.
Remarkably, sometimes now, I find it happens in the way my poems used to: moments of mindless muse-channeling, brief glimmers of magic. The firefly doesn’t even need to be stalked and captured. It floats out of the thicket, wobbles through the night air, lands on my shoulder, and introduces himself. (His name is Fred.)