Welcome to Your New Mantra: “I Know How”
I have a confession to make… for all my talk about becoming an author, drafting manuscripts, and building a social media platform, most of the time I sit down to my computer to write and find myself thinking, “I don’t know how to do this.” My husband can attest to the fact that when I am procrastinating writing, I will often say (OK, I admit… it’s more of a whine) “I don’t know how,” as an excuse.
I stare at the blinking cursor on my manuscript document and start panicking. There are times when I can’t write a single word because I over-think everything. How much do I put in? Am I info-dumping? I’m telling more than showing. If I don’t say that she opened the door before I say that she walked outside, is the reader going to know what’s happening???
Now, keep in mind that I am a recent college graduate and until December 2013, I had spent my life in a classroom learning. And education is all about learning how, isn’t it? Even if your field is saturated with material that you need to know, eventually the classes turn to application of that knowledge: the how.
Let me back up a little bit and give some personal history. I’ve been writing stories for practically as long as I remember. I decided I wanted to be a writer somewhere around age 7 or 8. A few years later, I joined FanFiction.net (no, I was not the requisite 13 years of age… I’m a rebel!) and posted works there. When you’re that young, you just write. I had no conception of whether my writing was good or bad. It was just something I wanted to do, and so I did.
Skip ahead nine years or so and I’m 17, taking my first ever creative writing class, Poetry Writing I. At the time, poetry intimidated me, but the baby steps structure of the class was appealing because I just had no idea what I was doing. Over the next several years, I learned how to write poetry. I presented poetry manuscripts twice at the conventions for the International English Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta. (Yes, it’s shortened to STD, and yes, we joke about it.) I even won an award for my poetry in 2013.
Fast forward a bit further. Fall, 2013. It’s my last semester and the course catalog at my very small college has finally circulated so that Fiction Writing is being offered. I’d been waiting for it since freshman year. After all, my writing career goal is and always has been to become a novelist. During every semester of poetry and creative nonfiction, this fiction class had been in the back of my mind. I was thrilled at the idea of the class.
I had imagined it as the catalyst for my awakening as A Novelist. (It wasn’t.) I’d dreamed of learning the inner workings of plot structure, scene construction, character development, dialogue — all of the mechanics that go into fiction writing. (I didn’t learn any of those things.) The class was filled with first-time writers and those taking the class for an easy credit, and the professor was unsure how to balance class assignments so that everyone would be comfortable. Within the first few weeks, it devolved into a book club. We scarcely wrote until after midterms, and even then we were encouraged to write creative nonfiction, drawing on our own lives and experiences, as opposed to fiction.
Needless to say, I was frustrated. Here it was! My chance at unearthing my inner novelist! It slipped away from me faster than I could ever have imagined and I ended the class, cranky and disappointed, with only a few tiny scraps of fiction. The class was supposed to be my on switch, Fiction Writer Mode Activated. Instead, it just activated my inner Overly Grumpy Sourpuss.
Fast forward one last time. I am now past my wedding and my college graduation and can finally focus on writing. I am hunkered down to start my serious, all-or-nothing pursuit of Writing as a Career. And I feel utterly and completely paralyzed. Why? Because I don’t know how to write fiction.
I have realized that I had been very successfully trained to only do something after I’d learned how to do it in a classroom. Writing fiction felt impossible because I had never learned how. I didn’t know any of the mechanics! I didn’t know how to put together a plot, how to structure scenes. My characters felt flat, vapid, and predictable. I read dozens of books from my shelves and fell into a depression, because I could never possibly do what those writers had done.
I slogged through the July camp for NaNoWriMo and came out with a completed draft that I felt was terrible. The excitement I should have felt over finishing a draft was completely overshadowed by the fact that the draft was just… crap. I had second-guessed most of my choices for the last half of the book because this shadow of not knowing what I was doing hung over me.
Since then, I’ve drafted another manuscript and tackled revisions for both of those manuscripts. I’ve been reading and scribbling and clacking away at this keyboard. And I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about being a writer and becoming a writer.
Somewhere in the midst of all this musing, I had an epiphany in two parts. Part one: I have learned how to write fiction. I have the best teachers in the world, and their names are stamped on the spines of every book on my shelves. I’ve been reading voraciously since I was 6 years old. 15 years of non-stop reading, spanning time periods and genres. That’s got to be worth something, right? Mechanics will come with practice. I’ll learn to write my plots and scenes and characters the way that I want to through trial and error.
And part two: I do know how. It took me nine post-college months of flirting with writing and winning Camp NaNoWriMo to realize that I know how to do this. The more I’ve thought about it, the better I grasped that what I don’t know how to do is to be Toni Morrison or Stephen King or Jeffrey Eugenides or J. K. Rowling. I don’t know how to write what they write. I don’t know how to be them.
But the coolest thing is this: they don’t know how to do what I do. No one else would tell the stories in my head exactly the way that I would. No one else knows how to write my sentences or shape my characters. Name your favorite writer. Name your top five. Name every best-selling author out there — it doesn’t matter. None of them can write what you can write.
I encourage all of you authors out there to take this on as your new mantra: I know how. It certainly is mine. Take ownership of your ability, get out there, and write!