Writing from life, or to escape from life

This past week, I’ve had several things present themselves that have made me think about childhood in general and my childhood in particular. Once I got somewhat older, I realized what an odd childhood I had. Let me rush to say that my parents never did anything to hurt me, and in fact did the best they could; they had odd, neglected, emotionally barren childhoods themselves, and really did not understand children. I responded by withdrawing, at a very early age; I also tried very hard to fit in with my older siblings, by learning to read very early, by helping my oldest sister with rote exercises in high school French when I was four. I tried to be invisible; when very young, curled up reading in an overstuffed chair; when older, by outfitting the box our new couch came in for a retreat in the attic, complete with cushions and lamp for reading.

My aunt was one of the adults who connected with me, teaching me embroidery at age five, knitting the next year, crocheting the next, and tatting when I was eight. She was brought up in the Southern tradition of keeping one’s hands busy. I heard a statement this past week about how young girls in the nineteenth century were taught to knit at age four; while the crowd around me shook their heads sadly, I realized that I wasn’t much older. Childhood was certainly not a concept in the early nineteenth century, but it wasn’t a concept in my home in the late twentieth, either. I remember when I first tried to play with my step-daughters, who were five and three at the time. I was at a loss how to play with dolls or hide and seek, to swing high in the air or slide in slippery freefall. I don’t think I ever told them that they gave me a childhood that I never had.

As a child, I read and wrote. Once I went to school, I got into trouble constantly for my “vivid imagination.” I observed the popular girls, the other families. I wrote about lost children finding their parents, of girls with friends and the parties they would have. In high school, I wrote about imaginary boyfriends, in terms that, although really quite innocent, horrified the nun who was teaching English. I learned then to be very careful who saw my work, and most of it went straight into the file drawer. More recently, as I said in an earlier post, I write about misfits who manage to conquer their oddities. Perhaps “misfits” is too strong a word, but people who have to work at getting what they want.

Writing has been my escape for the greater part of my life, but I am slowly working around to being able to use my experiences as well. I don’t think I’ll ever abandon the escapist writing, but I’m finding deeper corners to explore as well.


The compulsion to write

This evening I read Anne-Mhairi Simpson’s wonderful guest post on Carrie Mumford’s blog here . It gave me a lot to ponder about dreams and success and writing. If I am honest, I would like to have more time to write about things I want to write about; I would like to have enough money to travel to visit friends and places; I would like to be known and respected as a writer. This last is far above the others as a dream. I think of the books I’ve read that reached inside me, saw me, changed me, stretched my thinking. My dream is to write books that would do the same for other people. I don’t think that adds up being a famous writer, or even one that can afford to travel or quit the day job. It really is a far more prideful goal.

No matter the cost in sleep, brain function or attention span, I am happier when I write; when I don’t take the time, I stop thinking. That realization just slammed into me. When I was asked in elementary school to spell a word, I mentally wrote it on the ceiling. When asked to do arithmetic problems, I did the same. Teenage angst? Poured out in page after page. I look at my life and the pattern is rather astounding. I write to figure things out, to put my dreams into words, to connect with some part of myself that hides from the daylight and conscious thought.

This revelation applies to more than my personal memoir, morning pages sort of writing. I write about characters who are strong enough to change and grow and win against all the odds, hoping that I can borrow their strength and commitment.

I’d be very interested in anything you’d care to share about why you write.


What animal am I anyway?

Organizing my electronic and paper files took up a lot of my writing time this week; while comparing saved dates and amount of bytes is totally fascinating, I found myself thinking about the pantser versus plotter debate. Before you think to yourself, “not again!” I was trying to pigeonhole my own behavior.

I am both, or neither, I suppose. I have the grand scheme in mind, boy meets girl story, or fairytale character meets human or something of that sort. What happens after that, I don’t always know. I write in spurts, with long planning sessions intertwined. I write a rough outline, but I don’t always write in linear time. I might really want to write a later scene, then an earlier scene. I’ll think of a scene that would work well, but that may be pages ahead from where I am at the moment.

I find that the character has to be real to me, has to inhabit my brain in a way that if I weren’t a creative writer, would have me in a comfy room in a quiet place where I could talk to my imaginary friends all day long. Once I know the character, I know what they are going to do, and so it flows. I’ve also had characters do the equivalent of striking, sitting right where they are, saying, “If you think I’m going to do that, or say that, you just do not know me.” That’s when I realize I don’t know the character well enough.

I’ve written pieces that may be memoirs, although they may still be too painful, and may have to be fictionalized; what is strange is I wrote those the same way I write fiction. So what animal am I anyway?


What genre to write?

Since emerging from the cave of anonymity, I have been reading some advice posts/books/articles on how to choose what to write. Recently, I saw the advice to write what one likes to read. It makes perfect sense, but I like to read very nearly everything; that doesn’t narrow it down for me. I adore YA fiction; I also adore fantasy; I adore mysteries, but I think if I tried to write any of those genres, I would be awful at it. Sure, every so often, I’ll think to myself, well, I could write this better than he/she did! But could I really?

An author I admired once told me to write what I know. Hmm. What do I know? I know a lot about medieval literature, history, religious thought and philosophy. All right, then. I’m observant, and describe things well. This isn’t getting any better, is it?

I like finding authors that no one reads anymore, or works by well-known authors that no one reads anymore. It’s analogous to how I absolutely love reading debut novels. I will go to the library to get books from newly-minted authors, because it’s uncharted territory.  I find wonderful books by wonderful authors, many of whom I follow for years, long after they are well-established.

I suspect that my inability to find a niche genre is rooted in fear. Fear and perfectionism. What if I can’t write what I want to write; what if I can write it, but it stinks? Better not to try. While in college, I entered a poem in a regional contest. The finalists had to stand one by one on stage while three published poets, comfortably seated, “critiqued” the work. The quotation marks are included because I did not hear one, single, helpful comment for any of the works, not even the one that won. Notice I didn’t say positive; even that early in my pursuits, I knew helpful was not always positive. One of the other finalists was helpful to me, by asking, why did I write a blank verse poem? I replied that I did not know how to rhyme. She suggested that I try to write a sonnet, or some other highly structured form, just for fun. I managed not to goggle at her, thinking that writing a sonnet was not fun. Regrettably, I didn’t try it either.

So which direction do I go? I’m reluctant about what I know, to be totally honest. Shall I jump head-first into a genre I enjoy, and damn the torpedoes? I’d love to know the process that others have gone through, and the decisions made.


Breaking with Anonymity

Although I’ve been writing for a long time, only my academic or professional writing has gone out into the larger world.  My creative writing, with a couple of soul-scarring exceptions, has been shared only with a very small group of friends (thank you all!). Therefore, it is taking a nearly visible girding of the loins to leave the cave and proclaim myself a nascent author. I thought about using anonymity to make writing this blog easier, but I have been hiding for a very long time, and honestly am tired of it.

However, I’m not sure that I want my name to be on the title pages of my work. Certainly there are examples from myriad paths in the whole anonymity/nom de plume question. Actually, I have to admit that “Anonymous” on a title page makes me think of erotica, so I don’t think I can go that direction in its entirety. However, academic writers often use a nom de plume for their creative writing, to separate it from their professional writing; in many cases, such as Ralph McInerny’s Monica Quill, everyone knows the real name of the author. Many creative writers employ different names for different genres, so that their readers can easily find more works like the one that interested them. Finally, there is the centuries-long tradition of women writers hiding their sex by using male names or initialisms, so as to be taken more seriously.

Due to the amount of professional writing that I have to do in the near-term, I needn’t come to any conclusions about what name would go on my creative work. It is perhaps enough that I have come out into the light.

I’d be very interested in what you think, what choices you have made and why.