What is the first thing you think of when someone tells you they are a writer by trade?
I know what I think of:
A hunched body with bloodshot eyes (insert gender here), pounding feverishly at their typewriter, floating ghost-like amongst crumpled papers, a stack of books nearby, open, lined journals within reach, empty coffee cups and even more empty liquor bottles surround the desk they’re bent over in a room with one window facing the back garden to which they occasionally gaze out and towards wistfully.
I never saw myself in that role, even when I was saying I wanted to be a writer. It feels positively stifling to feed that romanticized view, to become the stereotype.
Writing – for me – has always been about creating worlds. I am a short fiction writer, so I get even less space than novelists do to tell my story. It’s a great exercise in restraint.
I create these fantastically absurd worlds within my overarching theme of cinematic absurdism. I have an entire literary-like theory about it in my head, which I will share once I figure out what I want to say about it.
But when do you get to call yourself a writer?
The moment you wake up in the morning and say, “there’s nothing else that I want to do but write. This is what I was born to do. I will sacrifice goats to the pantheon of gods if it means that I get to put words on a page.”
Every story you write, you create a tiny world of flora, fauna, animals, vegetables, minerals, emotions, colors, feelings, and so on. It doesn’t matter if it’s placed in a fantastically magical world, or if it’s in real time, in the real world. This universe’s time stream is entirely dependent on me. I can put up the Great Wall of China, I can tear it down, I can have wars fought, ships launched, hearts were broken, all with the flick of my fingers. I can fall in love, I can fall out of love, I can examine the reasons why love is love is love.
I’m of the mindset that freedom is born out of sadness. Sadness doesn’t have to be a bad thing but you’re freed once you realize where it comes from.
As a writer, worldbuilding is massive for me and a huge part of why I write, even if it’s a story set in the “real world” (whatever that is). I write short fiction. You must create tiny worlds in a finite amount of space regardless of the genre you write in.
It does tend to work against me, because all the novelists who critique my work whine and say, “this feels like a novel! Wah-wah-wah.” Well, it’s not, so give me feedback that I can actually use. Just because you think the world I created is massive does not make the finite room I used any less important. Which is what I felt like they were saying.
There is something powerful, God-like about thinking back on the hundreds of worlds I have created over the course of my life as an author. Some of them didn’t get past the preparation period. Some of them were too grandiose even for a novel-length piece.
I would plot out a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not actually foresee the end. I’m confident that the lack of an ending kills most of my stories in the planning stages. I love frolicking in these worlds but I get to maybe the middle part and have to second-guess myself. I’m like, “uh, yeah, this story is the pits.” My hands hover over the page and I mutter to myself,
I think that’s how God feels. You send these beautifully flawed creatures created in your image out into the world to do whatever they want, and all you can do is guide them and let them know in small ways that they exist. They’re real because they want to be.
I hold onto my stories in my vise-like grip a lot.
Like, a LOT.
I’m trying to be conscious of it and let it go. There is beauty in letting those stories and characters breathe and make their own decisions.
Talk to a writer. Any writer at any point in their career: fledgling, published, J.K. Rowling. Each and every one of us will tell you a different thing about the writing process. One stickler that jumps out to me is to create an outline.
Outlines offer us an illusion that we are in control, that we know where we’re going. And while this may be comforting, it is also antithetical to the process of making work that lives and breathes.
There are so many arguments FOR outlines that reading her advocating AGAINST them was refreshing.
Other writers insist that any writer worth their salt MUST always have an outline. They tell you to use index cards, post-it notes, smoke signals. Use whatever you can, but write that outline!
I have found that outlines work against me. I use them, though sparingly. They’re not something I depend on as part of my writing process. As of this post, I have 11 outlines for different stories.
I’m not big on traditional outlines, with bullet points, Roman numerals and all that shit. I write it like a screenplay pitch. I paint enough of a picture so that my future self knows what I was thinking about doing in the first place. They’re not very long, maybe one or two pages. My longest pitch was for a trilogy of novellas at a whopping 4 pages.
I put enough words on the page to trigger memories of what inspired me to believe it would be a good story. I include barebones character descriptions, like names, ages, gender, relationships to the other characters, and their initial role in the story. I give myself a beginning, middle, and end to work towards, with plenty of room to veer off course as necessary.
I have yet to begin any of these 11 stories. I have no urgency to write to them. An outline to me is something to be studied and built on, but not right now. Procrastination is strong in me, as you can tell.
I like staring at a blank page and going completely nuts on it from beginning to the end. I’m confident enough in my abilities that writing this way works best for me. Is that first draft good? Hell no. First drafts are crap, everybody knows that. Fix it in post, as they say in the movies. Revision gives me life.
Hearing that another writer does it this way too made me feel less alone. Whenever my professors in my writing program gently insisted that we should write outlines because they do help, I shrank into a dark corner, thinking I was weird. I’m having a hell of a time incorporating what I learned there into my writing life.
I came out of my writing program with so many new, inventive ways to burn the toast that every writer before me has perfected in their own way that it’s these small reassurances that tell me I’m on the right path.
Today’s question: do you or do you not outline? Let me know in the comments!
Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out how to stay creative. Us creative folks easily say, “I make things, yay!” But maintaining that vibe all the time seems like a job unto itself. This list has been helpful to me over the years, and I hope it’s of some use to you too.
Carry a notebook everywhere
Get away from the computer
Quit beating yourself up
Sing in the shower
Know your roots
Listen to new music
Surround yourself with creative people
Don’t give up
Practice, practice, practice
Allow yourself to make mistakes
Go somewhere new
Watch foreign films
Count your blessings
Get lots of rest
Break the rules
Do more of what makes you happy
Don’t force it
Read a page of the dictionary
Create a framework
Stop trying to be someone else’s perfect
Got an idea? Write it down
Clean your workspace
Save the image below to your computer and print it out. Post it up on your vision board. Put it in your notebook. Do what you can to incorporate it into your daily writing life. And I do mean daily.