Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Path to Nanowrimo: Part 1 – Why I Stopped Writing Fiction

People have been asking me, “So what will you do with your extra time now that you have finished your 5th degree.”[1]  The correct answer is “my kids are getting older, I want to have more time available for them.”  And this is where most of the time will go.  My kids are amazing and I am thrilled to have more time for them.

But there is another answer “I want to take a real sustained shot at fiction."[2]  But there is a story here.  And since the blog will go uncharacteristically[3] quiet while I try to move a novel forward in November, I thought I’d tell the story.

First, three events made me stop writing 20 years ago. 
1.     In Junior High I wanted to be an author.[4]  A teacher took an interest in me and started working with me on my stories after school.  In 8th grade I entered a large national writing contest and got second place.[5]  This should have encouraged me.  It didn’t   When I read the winning story, it was just so much better and more adult and more original than mine.  I thought about how this young man would be competing with me in 10 years[6], and I thought about how I would lose (and have no ‘practical’ skills to fall back on).

2.     I wrote one more story.  For an English class.  I got a 98, and he asked another student to read her story out loud.  This compounded my insecurity.  “If I’m not even the best author in my class, I’m going to get worked.”

3.     About that time I was reading a book about writing.  More precisely, I read the introduction.  In the opening pages the author said “You want to be a writer.  Sit down at your typewriter,[7] don’t move, and in 10 years you will be a writer.  I never thought of ‘becoming’ as a process.  I figured great writers were born, not made.   And I didn’t want to put in 10 years only to find out I wasn’t good enough.   That was the moment I was done.  I didn't write another story for 20 years.
So I took the math, science and engineering track in college, which I do not regret.   I love my vocation.  Science is art.  But rehashing that story is, frankly, embarrassing.  It reveals unformed ideas about the world, the workplace, and the arts that set my trajectory.  And it took a couple decades but I grew up.  Unlike the standard story, I didn't grow out of my dreams, I grew into them.  And about 8 years ago, I started again.  Which I’ll take up next time.

Next: Why I started writing again.

This post was written while listening to the Daughter station on Pandora

[1] Which I contend is my last, which means the answer isn’t “well obviously, my next degree,” but no one seems to believe me.  For the record, if I was to do another degree it would either be in economics, neurology, or literature.  And for the record...I am not getting another degree. 
[2] I’m not sure that an English sentence has been spoken that is more pretentious than “Now that I have finished my 4th graduate degree I want to dust off my novels.”
[3] That there was irony
[4] Fantasy.  I was in to Peirs Anthony and Terry Brooks.  So yes…before it was cool.  I'm killing the irony today.
[5] Actually, I got third place, but the first place story (which, embarrassingly, was published) was dq’d for plauguism.  But, I am kind of glad I didn’t win, because my plot was a little too close to the film War Games to stand up under the real scrutiny of publication.  I won a television, which was kind of a big deal.  I remember staying up late and watching the world series on it.
[6] My parents had impressed upon me how impractical my vocational goals were.  I do not remotely hold this against them.  Helping teens, pre-teens, and recent post-teens understand the stochastic nature and probability structure of the market place they are preparing for is part of a parent’s job.  But some  of the stuff I’ve been reading about education in privileged environments – where the fear of failure is the driving motivation stifling risk that generates innovation – hit pretty close to home.  If you think great writers are born not made, you will take every event as a test of the 'am I a writer' hypothesis and a little adversity will return the null hypothesis (as it did with me).  But if you think that writers (or scientists in my parallel life) are made, failure is an opportunity to learn and get better.  To "Fail better."
[7] Yup, it was a long time ago.


Justin Bower said...

I am eagerly looking forward to whatever comes of it. I have always wanted to write something substantial. Like a lot of people, I think the more I read and experience, the more I want to write but at the same time, the more I think I can't possibly compete. Bit of a viscous circle. When I was young and arguably stupider I would write with great confidence, linguistically tromping around like a toddler with a wooden sword for lack of any perspective of others' writing. Now that I am relatively older and at least nominally less stupid, I am better equipped to write, but have a far greater understanding of the excellence other people create, and have far less confidence myself. As an incredibly odd sort of compliment, reading what you write is a great source of the latter for me. At some point, though, I think part of the success behind successful writers is realizing a good portion of the success and drive is wrapped up in the process, not the ranking of the final result.

stanford said...

Hi Justin,

Thanks for your kind words. I agree that it is pretty discouraging when asthetic and self awarness grows faster than ability, making my net assesment of my work deflate even as I improve. Let's call it Zeno's paradox of creativity. And maybe I'll never catch the rabbit. But Zeno was wrong. The reality is improvement.

And I totally agree about intrinsic motivation. I have a whole section about that in the second post.