A Narrative About Storytelling

I spent part of the weekend engaged in analyzing my creative writing journey. What has yours been like? Strangely, mine has gotten more difficult as I’ve gotten older.

My Writing History

My family has home movie footage of me reading a book when I was less than two years old. Given my hypothyroidism, which was not diagnosed until age 1, I struggled with my physical development. It is, therefore, entirely possible that I could read before I could walk. I was drawn (so to speak) to those black symbols printed on bound white paper. Apparently I was also interested in trying create my own. Grandma Leahy claimed I told her at age five that I wanted to be a novelist. (Is it possible that I’d even know that word at that age? Yep.)

The first piece of writing I had “published” was a set of “alphabet stories” we were assigned in second grade or something. It went into my elementary school library, and I fished it out of the shelves when I learned that the school was closing. In one story I wrote about Wally the Whale, who wanted to swim from one U.S. coast to another, so he swam through the Panama Canal. Because, yes, 8-year-old Bart was interested in transportation. In another of those stories, I wrote about the D word–divorce–that had happened in my home the year before. It was accompanied by a rather dark crayon image of a dead man’s corpse burning in a garbage dump. Guess who got to spend some time with the social worker soon thereafter?

As I progressed, I started writing Star Wars stories, transmuting my play time with my friend down the street into typed stories. Eventually, in my teens, I started writing fiction in my own world(s), which alternated between mainstream and science fiction. I got an IBM PC Jr. sometime around then and started writing more. A lot of my story writing was cathartic. Writing in the heroic mode in the Star Wars universe, I would transmute my adolescent (ages 11-20) struggles into wish fulfillment fantasies, in which I was a person with authority and respect. A person who could make an impact. A leader.

At age 18 or so, I got my own Smith-Corona typewriter with maybe 100 KB of memory. I bought a pack of paper and started cranking out short stories in between class papers or over breaks. It would be difficult to say that I wrote stories so much as character sketches or situations in which the main character learned something–I was in college, after all. After college, when I was in Florida and working for Disney, I had plenty of unencumbered time and wrote a startling number of short stories (narratives?) throughout my 20s (29 of them in just two years). Did I submit any of them for publication? Of course not. I was writing for therapeutic purposes. Plus, I also recognized that I was not writing stories so much as fictional narrated experiences. No antagonists, no concrete plots, no character development, etc.

I tried my hand at science fiction here and there. Again, I was writing about characters gaining insights or experiencing strange effects from technology. Conflicts and actual storytelling continued to elude me. I was 30 when I finally wrote my first novel–a Star Wars story, of course, rooted in those stories that were born out of my childhood playtime. That novel continues to be modified and improved right up until the present. I would not write another one until I was 42. I decided to try National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write an actual story, an historical romance, for a change. Did a bunch of research, threw in a little character development, and everything. The problem was that the book just wasn’t very good (“Everyone writes a sh!tty first draft,” according to Anne Lamott) and I didn’t enjoy the writing process enough to make any revisions to it, probably because it was written as a way of venting my feelings about a previous romantic relationship. Draft? Written. Revisions? Neglected. Into the files it went.

My shift to novel writing and more serious, structured narratives coincided with finally getting work as a technical writer in the space business, a primary career goal of mine. I’d learn the mysteries of launch vehicles, crank out conference papers and other products. As a result, when I came home, I had two things happening in my mind when I sat in front of the computer: I was tired from work, and I was painfully aware that I needed more professionalism and quality in my work.

Two years later, I tried another NaNoWriMo experience, this one science fiction again. And, while more promising than the previous novel draft, this one also lacked traditional conflict, structure, or character development. I gave it to friends (one a published author), seeking inputs. I got the inputs…and then left them to rot in my files with all the other unpublished dreck. I didn’t want to do the work. The work filled me with loathing, self- or otherwise.

Despite this, I still wrote short stories here and there and tried another SF novel for NaNoWriMo four years after the last one. I ended up finishing it a year later because NaNoWriMo got interrupted by a vacation. I had a few people read that one as well…got zero feedback, and let it drop into the files with the others. My joy at writing was diminishing as well.

I met a new lady friend around the time I turned 50 and started writing short stories/anecdotes for her for fun as part of my courting ritual, but the relationship soured and with it my desire to write anything creative, for that matter.

So now I’m 53. I’ve written a lot in my career, from corporate training classes to conference papers, engineering documents, public speeches, news articles, and marketing/outreach materials. You could say I’ve done a few things, most of them without much fear or anxiety. So what’s going on with my creative writing?

My Current Problem(s)

It turns out that I am much more comfortable writing content for other people–customers, bosses, what have you. It’s writing for myself that creates anxiety in my typing.

My fears and excuses for not writing multiply and grow more complex the longer I consider them.

  • Fear of writing something terrible, scientifically incorrect, stupid, etc.
  • Fear of not living up to expectations (education, background, etc.).
  • Fear of criticism/mocking.
  • Fear of offending the always-angry Twitter mob and the perpetually offended. Will I say the wrong thing(s)? Will I be accused of portraying someone different from me insultingly? Will I express the “wrong” point(s) of view?
  • Will the angry people start attacking me online?
  • Will the angry people start threatening me online?
  • Will they not stop there, but show up at my house and threaten me or my loved ones?

Et cetera.

I even have some fear of success, on occasion.

So this morning I asked myself: Is writing something I even want to do anymore? Is this still a ‘passion’ that I need to pursue to feel complete? Is writing the way I will make my positive mark on the world? My legacy? Is there something else I should be doing instead?

One of the books I read to try and nudge me back into creative work was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield calls all the doubts and fears I expressed above “resistance.” He says:

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Sounds great, in theory. In reality, I’m somewhere between feeling ashamed about not doing the work but also feeling ashamed about trying to write when I feel like I’m forcing myself to do something I ought to be doing, like a painful obligation. What the hell am I supposed to do with that no-win scenario?

My Path Forward?

I tried to imagine what writing without struggle would be like:

  • Not caring about scientific or engineering accuracy (at least in the first draft).
  • Not caring about how others might receive my work.
  • Not focusing on critical or monetary success or failure, just writing something that makes me happy.
  • Writing the truth fearlessly according to my lights, not the prejudices of whatever mob might find it objectionable.
  • Apply the skills and knowledge I do have to put together something good.
  • Be as ambitious as I care to be, even if it turns out that ambitious is not something I want to write.

A younger Bart remembered how to do most of that, even if his skills weren’t too polished. My older self has learned how to write better but is now afraid to share whatever’s in his head…or worse, won’t write because he has nothing to say.

Writer’s block sucks.

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