Relearning an Old Skill

I have been writing stories since I was eight years old. I have the hard copies to prove it. For the next twenty years after that, I was writing a lot of fiction. It was a mix, really, though mostly mainstream and science fiction or somewhere in between. Once I started writing to pay my bills, my fiction productivity dropped off tremendously. More to the point, I began to lose interest in storytelling at all. The reasons for that are a bit complicated, but I’ll give it a shot here.

Why I wrote fiction

Some people write for the sheer joy of using words, for the magic of the sounds the hear when they read the stories aloud. Or they feel a magical rapture from bringing new people or new worlds to life. And yes, there was some of that, I won’t lie. However, I had a more direct and constructive purpose for writing stories: it was therapy.

I was a weird kid: small for my age, clumsy, sensitive (the politically correct term for “cried easily”), and bright, but also so inept at some things that I alternated between the “gifted” class and the learning disabilities program, with a social worker and speech pathologist thrown in for fun. And all that was before I left elementary school. Throw in a little hypothyroidism slowing my growth and muscular development, a parental divorce, and the usual bullying that targeted the weak and the weird, and I probably had all sorts of free-floating anxieties floating around in my head.

However, I learned an amazing trick somewhere between the ages of eight and ten: I learned that if I wrote down my playtime activities (usually running through the neighborhood pretending to be in the Star Wars universe), a) I enjoyed it and b) I relaxed while writing them.

It was only with an older adult’s eyes that I eventually realized c) that these stories were helping me sort out whatever fears or inferiority complexes or other problems I was having in my life at the time.

It was fun, but like I said, it was also therapy. I wasn’t exactly writing to create Great Art or The Great American Novel. I was writing stories to make myself feel better.

The problem with fiction as therapy

Once I become conscious of point c), my stories began to fall into a predictable pattern:

  • The Bart-like protagonist had some sort of problem–personal, social, or otherwise.
  • The protagonist encounters a friend, counselor, or other character who talks him out of his funk.
  • Conflict and plot be damned.

This is not to say I cannot write other types of fiction–I’ve managed to complete three novels with National Novel Writing Month–but my short fiction quickly falls into the “therapy” pattern and quickly becomes predictable, static, and boring, even to me.

So I’ve set myself to re-learn many of the storytelling lessons and writing exercises I put myself through in my teens and twenties, in and out of school. The only way I’m going to get better at this is through practicing the craft, telling stories, editing and rewriting well, and maybe trying to create something approaching art, not just emotional catharsis exercises for myself.

Lots of work ahead.


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