How I started Writing Again…Almost twenty years passed since that day in high school when I unceremoniously quit writing fiction. Then one day I was reading a lesser known Chesterton, I’m not entirely sure which one, and encountered the line:
“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.”This was kind of a big deal. Growing up in my house, the line ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well’ was a top ten aphorism. But that framework doesn’t really allow you to start anything. Because unless you are a savant, you can only do something well after you have done it poorly...for, say, about 10,000 hours. So I started writing again, poorly.
…and then stopped…
A couple years into my writing experiment, I passed a story along to one of my friends who is an English Professor. She had a number of very helpful comments. The most memorable was ‘I’m not sure you love your characters.’ But the most practical was ‘I feel like you might need to read more good fiction.’ This was an embarrassingly obvious suggestion. Until that point I had limited my fiction to classic works. The way my argument went was that my writing time was limited and I only had time for works that had proven worthwhile by the test of time (e.g. I read very few novels less than 100 years old – mostly by dead Russians). So I took a four year ‘sabbatical’ to lay the ground work for a real shot at fiction by:
1. Getting an ecology degree. This seems counter intuitive, but my kind of science is hardly the kind you need for world building. Ecology (and modern physics, which I studied recreationally during this time as well) is the stuff science fiction is made of.
2. To read good, contemporary fiction, and develop and calibrate my literary aesthetic senses.
…and then started again.
It worked….incrementally at least. When I started writing again this year, my writing was much improved. But the issue of motivation has been a sticky one. I had to address a couple questions first:
1. Am I too old? – This was the easiest to answer. All it took was reading a little (ok a lot of) George RR Martian. What makes Martian so good? He world builds like a grown up. His world feels lived in because he has experience living in a world. Reading Martian made me realize that I had 10,000 hours to go before I knew if I was good at this thing, but in 10,000 hours I’d just be hitting my prime as an author. I have come to believe that authors are not like rock bands or mathematicians. You don’t age out at 30.
2. It the risk reward worth it? Obviously, no one writes a novel for themselves. I don’t care who they are. Everyone who tells a story wants to tell the story, not just write it. And publication is silly rare. I have a hypothesis that I am good at this. It is a hypothesis that I won’t fully test for 10,000 hours. But let’s say my hypothesis obtains. Let’s say that after a few bad novels and a few mediocre ones, I write a good one...or two. Let’s say (with absurd optimism) that I’m top 5% good. Well, the stochastic and probabilistic nature of the industry means that might just give me a 3% chance at being published, and a 1% chance of very modest commercial success…IF, even after 10,000 hours, I don’t suck (which is by far the more likely possibility). Now, the value of getting to tell a story into our culture is incalculable. It is the fabric our culture and the stuff the conversation is made of. That is the extrinsic motivator (not money, I'll never quit my science job) that captures my imagination, the privilage to tell a widely heard story. But the extrinsic motivators are not enough to sustain the experiment. The risk/benefit analysis fails. So writing is going to have to have intrinsic motivators for me to take on the 10,000 hour experiment.
3. What are the intermediate intrinsic motivations? And I think that this is what almost every writing book or blog I’ve been reading means when they say, “You can’t write for publication. You have to write for you.” I think what they are trying to say, in language I can understand is that the stochastic and probabilistic structure of extrinsic motivators are not sufficient to sustain the experiment. You have to love it. Here’s the thing. I do. But it is for very different reasons than I suspected.
Why I love to write
I love to write stories for precisely the same reasons I love to read and watch them. It’s pretty simple. I love great stories. And even though I am a charter and a mapper and an outlineer and won’t take on a project seriously until I know how it ends (see next post), writing plays out like a longer, more intimate, more visceral version of reading or watching a narrative. Just like sitting down to a brand new episode of a great show, when you sit down at your laptop, there is a sense of anticipation. What will happen to these imaginary people I care about? Where will they go, what will they see, will they survive, will they fall in love, who will they become?
Here’s a simple anecdote that made me realize why I write fiction. Every few weeks we have the ‘what are you watching’ conversation at coffee break at work. People make recommendations about stories they are following (film, television, and even, occasionally, novels). Besides my repeated attempts to get them to watch The Wire or theirs to convince me to watch Breaking Bad, we often pitch new stories we are enjoying.
So a few weeks ago we had the ‘what are you watching’ conversation and I kept thinking, ‘I’m watching something I am really enjoying.’ But I couldn’t think of it. There were characters and events that had knit themselves into my consciousness. Imaginary people who had captured my imagination. A story I was totally invested in. But as I reviewed the videos we had been watching and the fiction I have been reading, none of them matched up with my passion for the story I couldn’t put my finger on…until I realized, that the story I wanted to recommend to them, only existed in my mind and in a word document on my computer. The characters I loved so much were mine. The story I was invested in more than Ice and Fire or the BBC Sherlock was the story I was writing. The thing that surprised me about writing fiction was how much story telling was like a more intimate, more visceral, more fun version of the reciprocal experience.
So, I’ll see you in 10,000 hours and a couple million words and we’ll see if the stories I am writing have a transitive or communicative property. But until then, they don’t have to.
This post was written while listening to…still Imagine Dragons.
Next: Writing Fiction – Things I’ve learned so far
 Being old enough to have friends who are English professors is a little disorienting.
 This morning I just wrote 500 words about the energy and water infrastructure of my city. I found it enthralling. What do you think are the chances of that making a second draft. 20%? 10? And I have yet to write a single fictional sentence about sediment, which is science that literally builds worlds, and the only thing I could be said to be an expert in. But world building is more about building the culture than the geology. And ecology is the key to building social words of organisms (human and otherwise). Often in an Ecology class, when we would learn some new process of oganismal interaction I would start speculating about how that would mediate the interaction of fictional organisms.
 There are five reasons I got the ecology degree, in order of importance: 1) I do a lot of restoration river engineering and it helps me do my job and steward the God’s world and tax payer resources better 2) I think ecology is enchanting and I was super curious, 3) a rigorous evolutionary education helped me to sharpen and articulate a Christian theology of origins that takes the best scientific synthesis and orthodox theology seriously, 4) It would make my science fiction better, 5) it might provide unusual and interesting job opportunities.
 Well, besides his crisp believable sentences and his mercilessness with his characters that gives his stories actual risk and emotional resonance...and two dozen other things.
Turns out Roth is a Christian. I just finished the first novel in her Divergent series (I refuse to start a trilogy until it is finished) and it was good…actually, it was remarkable for her age. Most of the other girl-in-a-dystopic-world stuff I’ve read was lesser and written by older women. And I think that the complexity of her moral themes emerge from her world view.
 And of course, extrinsic motivators are not sufficient to sustain any creative work, including science and engineering. This is in no way peculiar to writing. (See Daniel Pink’s TED talk for a popular statement of this, but the research is well attested and well documented). If you want to be a creative and lyrical engineer, you can’t be motivated by the contract or the paycheck, you have to be motivated by the discovery and the rush of problem solving. Writers are not as special as they think.