When I Realized I Was Scared To Write

Sad and terrible happenings had never made Frankie cry, but this season made Frankie suddenly wish to cry. Very early in the morning she would sometimes go out into the yard and stand for a long time looking at the sunrise sky. And it was as though a question came into her heart, and the sky did not answer.
—Carson McCullers, “The Member of the Wedding”

I haven’t always been a writer. I was 16 when I signed up for my high school newspaper class; before that I’d wanted to be a pharmacist. It’s been seven years since then, and when I look back I can see how that one decision changed the whole trajectory of my life, how the first time I saw my name at the top of a story catapulted me into my future. When I left for college I chose journalism as my major, and I’ve never looked back.

For years I felt confined to writing what was assigned to me—as a young reporter for a big campus newspaper I took what I was given and was grateful, trudging my way through board of trustees meetings and professor obituaries. I got hired at an on-campus magazine and the stories got a bit more fun; I was given freedom to be creative, to talk to and write about some really interesting people and groups and organizations, and I’m grateful for that. I’m still writing for magazines, and still loving it. I take assignments from my editor and shape them into strings of paragraphs I can be proud of, full of clear writing and correct grammar and imagery I’ve fought hard to master over the years. But I’ve also taken another step: I’ve started to write fiction.

I’m not one of those writers who has been penning their own plays or novels or newspapers or poems since age 7, whose every birthday gift was a new pack of pens and a notepad, who dreamed of being a best-selling author from the moment they first cracked the spine on “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Not that my childhood wasn’t filled with words—it was, to the brim, so much so that I sometimes still feel as though I am swimming through those same sentences. It’s just that I rarely wrote any words of my own. I remember starting a few detective mysteries, here and there, an interest which, I’m assuming, blossomed mostly from my childhood obsession with Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew, but that was it. No screenplays, no hand-scribbled short stories, nothing.

I began writing fiction about two years ago with trepidation, because in the only real writing I’d ever done, I’d had all the pieces handed to me. I’d gotten my writing career off the ground simply by taking someone else’s words and stacking them up in the right order, sometimes with skill, sometimes with luck. Nonfiction, in a lot of ways, is easy—there is a freedom in being bound by what others tell you. After all, there’s only so much you can do if you don’t get the quote, right?

A writer friend of mine, SFF author Andy Duncan, told me once that if you wanted to write fiction, all you had to do was take something that had happened to you and write it down, and when you got to a part that you wish had gone differently, write it differently. I’ve tried that. I’ve tried scribbling down my dreams in the middle of the night and weaving them together in the waking hours. I have ruined two notepads making sure I get down those stellar ideas that come to me only in the shower. I’ve tried writing literary fiction, science fiction, horror, fantasy, and I’ve been successful, somewhat, in at least getting words on paper. What I’ve never done, though, is finish a story.

I’ve read essays and articles and books on writing. I’ve implored my writer friends and author mentors to, please, just share the secret. There’s got to be a puzzle piece I’m missing. I am a grade-A certifiable lunatic when it comes to finishing projects—never in my life have I left something undone. Good or bad or ugly, I always finish. But never a story. Never once.

I can’t tell you how exactly I realized why my stories would never shape up into exactly what I was looking for, why, despite my obsession with New Yorker fiction and short story collections and science fiction novels, I could never write an end to any of my work. All I know is that one day in the last week of July 2014 I was sitting at my desk in my office when it hit me: I’m afraid. I’m scared to write.

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shallow focus of letter paper

Every author I have ever loved has had a purpose: to expose a secret, discuss an issue, confess a love, teach a lesson. They all had something to say. And what they had to say mattered. But what if I, as Hemingway would say, bleed over my typewriter for hours upon end, leaving my feelings and ideas and best sentences upended on a page for it not to matter at all to anyone except me? It’s not even that I require validation from anyone to know my own worth as a writer—it’s just that the best writing I’ve known has had a purpose, and I don’t want to just add to the noise.

I know I have a gift. I know that writing is what I’m supposed to do. To be honest, I’m not really good at much else, unless you consider being a hermit and making a mean marinedo pasta a legitimate set of talents. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. Because I am. I know I can communicate words and ideas effectively and clearly and beautifully. I don’t want to waste my skill on saying nothing. But what if I never think of anything important? What if I write five thousand, 10 thousand words, only to get to the last sentence and realize I haven’t said anything? What if none of it matters? What if I never have anything at all to say?

I was 16 when I signed up for my high school newspaper class. To be honest, I was counting on writing to be easy. It wasn’t.

I guess it still isn’t.

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