The Mid-Life Writer’s Crisis

I’ve chosen to drop my shields for a moment and show you my gooey center to give you some insight into why I don’t publish my fiction. My apologies if I’m oversharing–I usually don’t open up like this until something like the 17th date.

Writing as a grownup

When I finally got a job writing for a living, my fiction productivity dropped nearly to zero. While I was cranking out 25-page stories once a month in my teens and twenties, by the time I hit 30, the stories were shorter and more infrequent. Now I shoot for 50,000 words once every year or two as part of National Novel Writing Month.

None of my fiction has been published. Why? Quality. Or rather, lack thereof.

I enjoy the first draft. That’s one thing my employers have counted on for 20 years: I am nearly fearless when it comes to writing about a subject that’s never been covered before. Sometimes those drafts are crap, but it gives the bosses something to work with and kick around to crystallize their ideas.

Of course every good writer knows that the first draft is crap. You have to tear it apart critically and extract what’s important, like pulling meat from crab claws. I was 26 before I learned how to take editing and criticism well, and frankly I needed to learn that if I wanted to eat. So I learned how not to take editorial improvements (or even arbitrary changes) personally so I could make a living as a professional nonfiction writer.

I never learned that in my fiction. My joy is in that first draft. Writing…and rewriting…and rewriting…gawd, it’s painful. Plus, unlike business writing, fiction writing is about my thoughts, my ideas. Who the heck wants to hear that their “baby” is ugly? Raising that baby into an entity that can stand on its own in the face of adversity is work. Work can be a drag. A story that I loved the first time I wrote it becomes tiresome after the third draft, boring by the fifth, and nearly intolerable by editorial session #10 and beyond. I want to move on to the next thing. Isn’t it perfect the way it is? No, it’s not. Thinking that way is the thinking of an amateur.

An argument over my journalism prose style got thinking about my fiction again. To get my head right, I picked up Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book by a writer for other writers about writing–specifically, fiction writing. It’s been like getting some tough-love advice from a peer I respect. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, or so I heard in a movie once. Some things I’m getting out of the book include learning what I’ve not been doing with my fiction.

Identifying my faults as a writer

So here goes the confessional part. To write well, a fiction writer needs:

  • Something to say.
  • Interesting stories, told well.
  • Characters that live, speak with their own voices, and come alive on the page.

I might have the first bullet worked out and half of the second bullet. However, my writing is not always particularly interesting–a holdover from the emotionless tone I’ve developed in my nonfiction, I suspect. But there’s more. If I want to be a good fiction writer, I need to do the following:

  • Take my writing seriously, not just “write for fun.” Writing is work.
  • Do my work well, imaginatively, and interestingly, not just half-assed.
  • Be willing to put my characters in jeopardy and increase tension for the reader.
  • Be willing to take criticism.
  • Be willing to rewrite.
  • Be wiling to sell my work publicly.
  • Be willing to take rejection and believe in my work enough to try selling it to someone else.

This is very different from how I’ve written in the past. It will be a learning process. Learning can be painful, especially if you have bad habits to unlearn, as I do. Learning also can be humbling. Yet here I am, contemplating a major change in how I approach a major part of my life. Proof positive, I suppose, that it’s never too late to grow up, even as a writer.


4 thoughts on “The Mid-Life Writer’s Crisis

  1. I think you need to press ahead. Use an analogy from your rocket life, define your 3-5 primary flight test objectives and make everything work off those. If one of those is “give voice to Y science through fiction”, then you gotta go for it.

    Liked by 1 person

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