By far, this is the most common question I get from friends and family about writing: “How did you get started?” I hope this post answers some questions and inspires you to get started on whatever it is that makes you tick!
Here’s something I’ve learned over the past five years: You can’t run from who you are.
I’ve only tried to totally reinvent myself once, during my first two weeks of college, I had the now-hilarious idea that I’d be a biology major and go on to make the big bucks in the sciences. It was interesting enough, sure, but it wasn’t who I was. After two weeks of pretending I understood what was going on in class and then going back to my dorm room to read and re-read my textbooks while obsessively pulling at the arch of my eyebrows—my nervous habit of choice to this day—I auditioned for the school play, got a part, and never turned back.
I love storytelling. I’ve journaled since I could write, blogged since the internet came into our homes, and carried a book around with me since I can remember. For some people, the thing that lights up their souls is music, or helping others, or even biology (I don’t understand it, but they tell me it’s true) but for me, I love a good story well told.
So writing a story of my own was always a goal but something I didn’t have the discipline for, especially after many false starts. But then two things happened:
The first was that after I graduated from college, I went to China and lived there for two years. I was a sheltered kid and really didn’t have any experience outside of my own little world. But one of the biggest lessons I took from my time there was just how much government policy affects individual lives. Some of China’s policies seemed strange, even unbelievable to me as a lifelong westerner, but after the first year, I started being able to see America’s policies objectively too. I started to recognize how many of my values and assumptions—things I thought made me ME—were actually decided long before I was born by men in suits in Washington DC. And I started to change once I saw that.
The second was that I was accepted into Teach for America and got a job teaching kindergarten at a high achievement urban charter school. I loved the people I worked with and I really loved the kids, but I was concerned about the rigid structure. Honestly, lots of kids thrived under the constant snapping, barking, and demanding. By that, I mean that they seemed happy with structure and, when the end of the year came, they could complete the tasks we’d trained them to complete. But one kid didn’t thrive. He was an artist, and every picture drawn by his little 5-year-old hand was…good. Attractive, with confident lines and bold colors and intuitive placement of everything on the paper. Here he was with his extraordinary talent, and because it wasn’t one of the boxes that needed to be checked, it wasn’t valued. He was given five minutes to draw as a reward for good behavior, but other than that, we didn’t have the time to care about what made him so special.
The day this kid was pulled out of school was an early spring day in 2014. My stomach hurt with the painful knowledge that we’d done him an injustice. But I wanted him to thrive, even in under the most terrible circumstances. So I started writing.
I opened a blank document and wrote these words:
Bristol Ray did not exist.
After more than an hour of writing, I saved it to the desktop, and came back the next day. and the next.
I didn’t have an outline; I just went by intuition. I wrote chapters until they seemed long enough. I named characters as they appeared. I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel and I wasn’t even sure I knew what this was, but eventually I considered what it would look like as a book, and looked up the minimum word count for novels and was blown away by the answer: 40,000.
I realized I could not just write this in my spare time with any hopes of finishing. I put it aside.
A year later, I my husband and I were on a road trip. We fantasized about our dream life (is there anything sweeter than dream-talk with people you love?) and brainstormed steps we’d need to take in order to get closer. And that’s where it really sunk in: in my heart of hearts, I wanted to write fiction.
So I got serious. I made a writing schedule and stuck to it. Every day, I willed myself to write 300 words. Then, when that became easy, I made it 500, then 1000, and changed the schedule. And on the day I had declared that the book would be finished, guess what?
The book was finished.
I’d dreamed up a whole new world: an alternative America, meticulously structured, and within it, four people from four different classes. Bristol, a street artist in the lowest class; Denver, his sister, sympathetic but resigned to her place; Samara, a starry-eyed teacher turned savvy political scientist, and Jude, in the highest class but shamefully low-performing and imprisoned for it.
When it was finished, I felt a completely unique sense of pride. I’d done hard things before, but nothing before this had been a lifelong goal. Now, here was something that I’d put my hands on in the world. I created it from my mind. I finally had something in common with the hundreds of authors I admire: I had finished a book.
Over the next year and a half, I workshopped it, pestered beta readers with it, rewrote it more than dozen times (really—but that’s what working without an outline will do), and turned my sights to publication.
Stay tuned for a new post next week—How I Got Published.
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