Monday, July 25, 2011

I Love Reading Fiction, Why Can't I Write Fiction?

Last week, we learned about one of my literary successes: the 10-year-old reading journal list. (As comedian Jim Gaffigan tweeted yesterday, "I have to give it up to myself for being so humble.") Today, though, let's talk about my most shameful literary failure: writing fiction. Or, more accurately, not writing fiction.

Every reader endeavors to write, right? But in 11 years since I graduated with a degree in Writing Intensive English (Marquette's English lit degree with 12 additional credit-hours of writing classes...pretty cool, eh?), I've produced precisely one short story. And it wasn't great — one of my workshopmates called it "pretentious," and it's hard to disagree with that. (Because I'm a glutton for punishment, you can read it on the "Mason" page I just put up, if you're interested.)

I've always been a reader, and always seen myself as a writer. As a trade magazine editor, I actually do write for a living. But when it comes to fiction, it wasn't supposed to be this way. If you'd have asked my 23-year-old self, I'd have predicted I'd have cranked out dozens of stories and maybe even a novel or two by now. Just hasn't happened.

Thomas Mann famously said "A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." I've always thrown that quote around ruefully when I have trouble with a magazine article for work or a blog post or whatever. Of course, if you think about it literally, it's absurd. Writing is a lot easier for those who see themselves as writers than it is for, say, structural engineers or computer scientists or underwear salesmen. But I get the spirit of the quote — that writers are often perfectionists, take writing way too seriously, and spend weeks on a single paragraph. And, frankly, that's one thing that's prevented me from writing fiction — I do take it too seriously, try to make it perfect, and that prevents it from being fun.

And here's another thing. My senior-year (actually, my second senior year, but who's counting?) creative writer teacher A. Manette Ansay, constantly bandied about her favorite Flannery O'Connor quote: "A writer is someone who can't not write." (or something to that effect — my second senior year is bit of a blur). What's frightening is that apparently it's been pretty easy for me to not write fiction. Does that make me not a fiction writer? Sh!t! Every once in a while (now, for instance) I'll be wracked by that question and with it the guilt that I haven't written fiction forever. But it usually passes, and I go back to reading and critiquing others' fiction.

One more thing: At the risk of eliciting eye-rolls, there's the ever-constant fear of failure. To me, that fear manifests itself more as a fear of wasting time. What if I spend 30 hours on a story, and then nothing happens? That's 30 hours I could've been reading instead.

So what's the answer? Well, the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem, right? I just need to re-discover that writing fiction is fun, and carve out some time to actually do it. Lately, I've been half-assedly researching online creative writing MFA programs. I'm not sure that's the right move, but it's been fun to think about.

And of course, I'm hoping you can help me with your ideas. What has gotten you out of a writing funk — even (especially!) if it's more than a decade? How do you make writing fiction fun? How do you get over the "fear of failure" idea?


  1. I feel the same as you -- exactly! Only I'm not itching to get back to writing yet. Truly, ignoring the urge is my best answer. When it's time, it's time. That goes against all those "write every day or you're not a writer" quotes, but goodness -- that's nothing but categorizing anyway. Every writer is different, I reckon.

  2. Unfortunately I can't offer up any advice, useful or otherwise, as to getting out of a writing funk as I can't remember the last time I wrote any fiction. So this comment is mostly a waste of space. Sorry about that, but if you figure out some good ways to get over the fear of failure I want to hear them.

  3. I can totally relate. I spent years after college fancying myself a writer, but I wasn't writing. I wrote, just not much, a couple of short stories and some truly lousy poetry. At the beginning of this summer, I decided that I was going to take myself on a writer's retreat by just going somewhere by myself for a week and writing as much as I could everyday. What I learned is that I could write everyday, but not much. So, when I got home, I made the reasonable goal of writing two pages a day, at least five days a week- 10 pages a week. The result? I've written 120 pages of a novel that I have been writing for two years, and before my retreat only had two chapters that had been workshopped in two different classes.

    I think it is really hard to let go of the perfectionism and just write (without going back and rereading the whole thing, everyday). But, it is possible, and I know I'm going to feel good when it is finished, even if it isn't very good.

  4. "What if I spend 30 hours on a story, and then nothing happens?" is exactly the question you should never ask, because it's a foolish question. "What if I spend 30 years married to a woman I love, and then nothing happens?" It's the same thing, sort of. To spend 30 hours writing a story is not wasted time, even if the story never gets published. The creation of art is an end to itself, etc and other cliches that are nonetheless true. Anyway, I'm a lot older than you are and I spent the bulk of my 20s and 30s thinking about writing but not doing it. Now I spend more time writing than reading, and I miss the reading time, but the writing's a hoot and a half, as they say.

    ~scott bailey

  5. Well,after being out of work for so long,trying to make it as a writer seemed like the best road for me to take-if not now,when right?

    So far,I've written one book and working on a couple of others(one of which is a follow-up to the first)while still seeking out an agent. Fear of failure does haunt me but at least I can say that I made a honest effort at obtaining my dream.

    Having a concept that you firmly believe in helps when you want to tackle writing-for example,I entered a couple of Jane Austen related short story contests this year and was chosen as a runner-up for one of them,which means that my work will appear in a published book this fall. Being a Jane Austen fan really paid off there!

    My best advice to you,Greg,is don't worry so much about not having written fiction sooner-I waited a long time before I even attempted to do so,being a long time reader like you-and just focus on an idea that you'd really like to share with the world.

  6. The hard part in all this, I find (I don't know if you'll agree with me) is to offer your guts to the reading judgment of somebody else. And you have to make your work live up to it. What you took months to craft can be called "lame" and "boring" or "pretentious" but somebody else...and it sets the worth. I don't know about you, but I find that terrifying. Paralyzing even.

    Every time I want to sit down and write, I have to brush off thoughts that sounds a bit like this: "Wait a bit" "Wait until you can free a few hours", "Wait until you feel fresher"...I try to just sit down and do it. And it's hard. Very hard.

  7. I think lots of readers would love to be writers. I used to want to be a writer myself, but have come to the realisation that I'm definitely a reader, not a writer. I just don't have that compulsion to write ...

  8. I completely understand where you're coming from. I did a pseudo double major in creative writing as a way to keep myself sane while I was working on a sociology major. I wrote all the time in college, fiction and poetry. I won't even lie, I was pretty good. I was the EIC of the literary magazine for 2 years and performed with a spoken word group on campus. I taught fiction and poetry in the summers, and did an inordinate amount of outside workshopping with my fellow CW students.

    But when I graduated, it all just stopped.

    One of the things I've come to understand is that what I most enjoyed about workshop was not the writing, it was the editorial piece. Working with authors to make their work better. I always feared as a writer that my ideas had already been done before, and done better. It is absolutely crippling to feel like you'll never be as good as someone else. I wish I had words of advice for you.

    But maybe a hint from the author of the book you're reading: it took Marlantes 30 years to write Matterhorn. Maybe you shouldn't count yourself out of the game yet. And every bad story is one more bad one until you get to the good one. One of my professors used to say that writing was like anything else: you can't get good unless you practice. So maybe that means stepping back and just doing writing exercises that maybe don't lead to anything. But every little bit helps.

    And if you ever need an editor, you know where I am :).

  9. LBC is right, get rid of the perfectionism, it's not helpful at all.

    I don't want to be a fiction writer, but I can relate to it in a painterly way. I guess writing and making art are somewhat alike.
    My two cents... just do it! Don't think too much about it, don't make it important, make it fun.

    What works for me, and it's all the advice I can give you: limit your options. A blank canvas or page might give you the creeps. If you limit yourself to a subject or theme, you can play as freely as you like within those boundaries (or cross over consciously).
    And then, just start and keep going without judging, just create. It will be a battle when tweeking and altering, but that can be fun. Something will emerge, let it evolve and continue. If the flow comes in, that's the best... :-)

    Thinking about writing and waiting for the muse to kiss you is like waiting for Godot. It's not gonna happen that way. It doesn't matter if you are fine without writing. Such decisions can be freeing as well.

  10. Same boat, basically. I don't really worry about failure though- I am more concerned about never trying, rather than trying and failing. And I continue to put it off...

  11. Greg... I'm a writer; however have yet to be published. But then, you don't have to published to be a writer. You just have to love the written word; right? Right - now we have that established, let's get your writing.

    First, let's see how good you are at working at word puzzles. This is a good one I use when I'm bored and really need to get myself writing:

    Write a paragraph - that makes sense - without using the letter 'E'. It sounds easy, but really it's hard; as the letter 'E' is the most used vowel in the alphabet.

    Another one I word exercise I use is Automatic Writing. Get a pad of paper and just start writing (or your computer if you're more comfortable) about anything. Whatever pops into your head. It could be that you have nothing to say, what you dreamt about last night, to what you're thinking of doing on the weekend and how you're going to do it (like how you're going to repot some plants or trim the hedges). Whatever you write will somehow get you motivated into writing something.

    Music is another thing. Soundtracks from movies usually are something that can trigger memories of those movies; and how you know what happened in those movies. Now, instead of using those plots from the movies, invent your own plot with the same backdrop; with different outcomes... fun, huh?

    The muse will never help you with anything like these. Mine usually sits in the back of the room and helps me with editing... nothing else.
    I remember when I met Wilbur Smith here in Brisbane, he told me to write with my heart for my first draft and my brain for any following drafts. It's because if you ask your heart a question, it'll give you one answer straight away; but you're brain will give you dozens.

    I hope I've helped you get back into writing. Another thing I find is handy is to have a notepad and pen with you all the time... in case you get an idea for something; a story, poem, a description. You never know what will trigger your imagination... sometimes it's a smell, music or something you can only see in one place outside town, but once you're home, you can't remember it. Photographs are great too... so carrying a camera with you is another great thing to have.

    1. Your quote by Wilbur Smith triggered a semi profound understanding for me. Should be up on :)

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  13. There's nothing wrong with being a good reader and a damn fine blogger. That's huge. We ofen have desire where we have little or no talent. I say embrace your calling: read, blog, repeat.


  14. I have to agree with the above comment. I used to dream of being a published novelist. It was practically all I thought about, but I had tons of trouble writing and actually being happy with the result.

    Then, somewhere along the line, I became a music blogger and my life completely changed. That sounds cliché, but it's true. Blogging is a difficult job as it is and more work than a lot of people could imagine. Some people (like me) just aren't born to write fiction, I suppose. But that doesn't mean we aren't true writers.

    - Chantelle Moghadam

  15. I feel like I'm reading about myself, only my writing break is more like half a decade. Same idea. I find it pretty easy not to write, but I continue to entertain this image of Future Ellen the successful writer. When I look back on stuff I wrote during high school (I mean a very limited selection of what I wrote back then - two, three stories out of god knows how many) I regret not having worked harder on my writing after graduation, because there was real potential there. There still is, I guess, but it's hard to rekindle it after so long. One of my friends told me something similar to what Kevin said, when I started talking about this a few weeks ago...that maybe I shouldn't push myself to write fiction when I'm already pretty decent at writing about other people's books. I don't find the same satisfaction in writing a blog post, though (whether it's about my life or a book I'm reading), that I find in polishing off a story, so I guess I'll keep going with the dream of writing fiction, on & off as it is.

  16. @Jillian - But how will you know when it's time? I kept telling myself that, too. At some point, a story will root itself into my brain, and I'll have to tell it. Isn't that how it works for writers in movies and in interviews? (Okay, maybe not.

    @Red - I like the way your mind works. Sometimes, no advice is the best advice, right? ;)

    @LBC - Wow - congrats on getting that far. Two pages a day seems like a really reasonable goal, but good on you for keeping with it! That also amounts to the No. 1, overarching piece of advice any writer will give you, I think: Write every day and don't stop until you've reached a particular output goal.

    @Scott - It is, indeed, foolish, I grant - though if you've spent 30 years married and nothing's happened, I'd warrant a bet that you've got bigger problems than "wasting" 30 hours writing. But I get your point - no time spent writing is wasted time. It all adds something, whether it's just practice or learning about a trick or story that didn't work. At least you got that one out of your system, right? I hope it someday clicks for me like it did for you. But thanks for offering your perspective!

    @lady T - " least I can say I made an honest effort at obtaining my dream." That's well-said and really important piece of advice / interesting perspective. Congrats on the runner-up in the Austen contest - that's awesome! and thanks for your last bit of advice too - you always think you have tomorrow, until you don't.

  17. @Ben - I do agree with you - I tend to have thin skin when it comes to my own writing (no matter what type of writing it is), which I fully recognize as a huge flaw into developing further as a writer. That's why many writers write just for themselves, I think. They love the process of writing and don't care whether anyone ever sees what they've written or not. I wish I was like that.

    @Sam - Nothing wrong with that. I'm not totally positive I have the compulsion to write either. But when I read stuff I did in college, I get really excited again, and realize how much I miss it. Hence, this post.

    @Home - One of the most resonant quotes from the Simpsons of all time is when Homer tells Bart "No matter how good you are at something, there's always about a million people better than you." And Bart says "Can't win, don't try. Got it." That's how I feel about stories sometimes, too - as you say. Yes, practice is key - and so, actually is being a good editor. Seeing what doesn't work in others' work helps you avoid that in your own - whether a press release, magazine article or novel! Thanks for offering to edit, too - don't surprised if I take you up on that.

    @Superheidi - I know the perfectionism isn't helpful - it's annoying. But how do you be perfect?! ;) (Kidding...) And I'd say that writing fiction IS making art - so you're right, they are alike. Yeah, the very best writers seem to let their work evolve on its own - that whole thing about "following characters around to see what they do." But, of course, there's another school of thought that says you should have everything worked out to a "T" before ever sitting down and hitting that first 'tab.' But I know what you mean - the same thing happens in much less creative work, like writing a magazine article. Sometimes, I'll spend hours fumbling around on the first paragraph, and then suddenly, something will catch, and the whole rest of the article will just spill out and I'll be done before I know it.

    @Christine - Ha - that's an interesting point. I guess you'd say I"m worried about that too. Maybe it's as simple as a New Year's Resolution. Or not....

  18. @Mozette - I love the suggestions for exercises - I'm going to try that. Thank you! I remember similar types of exercises in college - like writing an entire story with one-syllable words. It's not easy, but it really gets the blood flowing. And the notepad/pad thing is very important, I agree - that's one thing I do already, for blog ideas, magazine article topics, or even just humorous Facebook status updates or tweets.

    @Kenneth - Dammit, why'd you delete that?! I was looking forward to commenting on your use of "flying wet duck's ass."

    @interpolations - Thank you for the kind words - you really know how to encourage a fella. I still have this voice in the back of hops-adlled brain, though, that says "your calling is to write fiction." That voice needs to be sated in some way or another.

    @Chantelle - Sure, I agree that the world needs bloggers, and I really enjoy this, as you do your music blog (what's the URL for that, btw?!). But I haven't gone through the process yet of getting frustrated with writing fiction and realizing something else is more fun (though, as I say, this is a lot of fun, too!), and I need to before I give up on fiction all together.

    @Ellen - Future Greg the Successful Writer still seems like an utter certainty, too. Maybe he and Future Ellen will meet up at MOMA for drinks. ;) Yeah, I'm within you on the regret of not working harder on it in the last several years than I have - and like you, it's also triggered by looking back at stuff I've written, and somewhat not-humbly thinking to myself "Hmm, you know, this isn't half bad." And I'm with you - I love writing this blog, but I imagine the sense of satisfaction from a published fiction would be much greater. Keep the dream alive!

  19. Greg, I was one of those kids who daydreamed out of the classroom windows when the teacher tried to get my attention, didn't do all my homework (only because the English homework was more interesting) and was the first one to pick up my pencil and... well, the teacher had to confiscate my pencil when they said: "Pencils downs!" and tried to go onto the next topic.

    That was in primary school. In high school, they were willing to wait until I finished the last 4 sentences and knew it was worth the wait.

    Now, I've been writing seriously with a writers guild (which I was with for around 12 years until I took a break for a couple of months, went back and was treated like a 5 year old; not good), then once I was on my own, I found my own groove... and loved it! :D

    Writing has been an obsession of mine since I taught myself to read aged 4. And once I did learn to write, I found that reading became a lot easier to do; and writing was something I could expand upon to make reading less of an escape and more of an education (as I was a sick kid and used it as escapism at first). As I left school, I attended Creative Writing courses at night (as I worked full-time) and found they were okay; but didn't really teach me anything except to do my research better. So, I just kept on working on my writing until I found the Logan Writers' Guild (which I told you about above).

    I've never lost the passion. However, at first, it was about the need to get be published and make money; now it's just about the joy of writing. I can't live without writing a book, short story or book of poems; it's in my blood. :)

  20. Hi Greg, new follower here. I know exactly what you mean. I've decided that I'm just not creative enough to write fiction. Though I have pretty good control over language in general, I haven't been able to make up a story since my early college years. I actually posted about this problem a couple of weeks ago when I finished reading Mentor: A Memoir by Tom Grimes (which was all about writers and writing).

  21. Excellent question and one I have pondered many times over the last couple of years. For me the problem has two elements - 1) I have a very active critic/editor in my head who keeps telling me what I'm writing isn't good enough and 2) I haven't had a story in me waiting to bust out onto the page. Hopefully when the story comes I can gag the critic long enough to get something out onto the page.

    Having said that, you are a writer. Look how awesome your blog is!!! Feel the fear and write the fiction anyway. I'll bet it will come with a bit of time :)

  22. I just came across this video on Beth Revis' blog and thought it was really sweet and encouraging:

  23. @Mozette - Thanks for sharing your story. Inspiring.

    @Julie - Enjoyed your post. My problem hasn't so much been no conflict as too much and too ridiculous conflict. I tend to bite off more than I can chew when I write. And it was a senior-year creative writing class that also put me off writing for a while, too - but for different reasons. And I'm going to keep my eyes pealed for a copy of Mentor, too - that sounds great.

    @Kath - That same critic lives in my head, too - I've been trying to kill him with beer for a decade, but he's bulletproof! ;) And I'm starting to think that notion of "story that just had to get out" is a myth - or not precisely how it happens when other writers claim it. Thank you for the kind words - much appreciated!

    @mummazappa - Your taste is still killer. That's great - thanks for posting that!

  24. you're welcome! it's like a hug from your grampie i reckon :-)

  25. Greg, I've struggled with a lot of the same issues you mention. Recently I've taken two fiction writing classes through Gotham's online program. One was fantastic, one was okay, but the combination got me writing again. The deadlines, the community of writers, and the encouraging teachers (all different from what you'll find in an MFA program) really helped.

  26. I think you ARE going to do this--you are talking yourself into it right now. A friend of mine did the low-residency MFA at Warren Wilson and loved the program. Let go of your perfectionism. Carry a notebook. Fall in love with words. Be a silent observer. I have a very strong feeling you are capable of this.