Writer William Faulkner is credited with the phrase “in writing you must kill all your darlings”. What Faulkner meant is that when editing their work, writers must be brutal in eliminating any words they love but that do nothing for the story. I was intrigued by this concept but it wasn’t until I recently read Stephen King’s book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that I ‘got’ it. Anyone who has ever entered my house and seen my bookshelves knows I am an admirer of Stephen King (although for some strange reason, when people notice all the SK books, they always assume the ‘reader’ is my husband). I love King’s writing style. I love how he draws me in. His writing is always fresh: I am in awe of his ability to come up with a seemingly endless supply of story lines. I love how he makes me care for, root for and often love his characters.
So… to ‘sit down’ with my favourite author and benefit from his words of advice on the craft of writing? Well, I had to trust that he knows what he is talking about.
I recall with so much clarity the first writing contest I ever entered. I was in Grade 5 and I just knew that I was meant to be a writer. All my teachers said that I had talent. All my friends loved to hear my fanciful stories.
My entry was entitled To be There…and Back (and no, I had not yet read Lord of the Rings, or even The Hobbit, so I had not plagiarised the title, although plagiarism is nonetheless a theme of this post).
My story was about a little girl who gets pulled into the world of Mer People. She falls in love with a prince and has to choose between remaining a human but losing her one true love, or losing her legs forever and growing a fish tail, knowing she will ever be in physical pain because of her choice. Yes, I’m sure this must sound oddly familiar, although I swear my eleven-year-old plagiarism was purely unintentional. There were no Disney movies about little mermaids back in the early seventies when I wrote this story, but being an avid reader, I had indeed read – nay, devoured – Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid (and pretty much everything else he wrote).
I didn’t win the contest of course, and when I saw the imaginative, clever titles of the stories that did win – ever so much better than my own – I resolved to put my dream of writing on the back burner and find another career path. The thing is, much of my career did involve writing: grant proposals, action plans, strategic plans, training manuals, etc. And I loved every second I was writing: even the technical stuff.
Having put my dream of becoming a ‘real writer’ firmly behind me all those years ago, becoming a blog writer wasn’t even something I had thought of. I have no idea what prompted me to start a blog back in early 2018. Once I did begin, however, I couldn’t have stopped writing if I wanted to: the stories simply poured out of me. I never did gain a huge readership but the people reading my entries encouraged me; gave me confidence; buoyed me up. And in return, I gained so much as I read their blog posts and connected with like-minded writers.
Eventually, I began shyly – proudly – referring to myself as ‘a writer’. I even printed up some little business cards (which all my family members have dutifully – and lovingly – put on their fridge doors). Honestly, I glowed with pride every time I published a new post.
There were a few challenges, of course. I tended to use a lot of adjectives. I always struggled with my titles. And my endings. I tried and tried, to absolutely no avail, to write fiction worthy of my favourite author, Stephen King. I reluctantly came to acknowledge that fiction will likely never be my ‘thing’. These weren’t so much obstacles, however, as fun puzzles to be solved. I was nonetheless writing. And oh, I was enjoying the process.
Then I committed the cardinal sin of any new writer. I started counting the ‘likes’ (or more accurately, the lack thereof). I started watching for my favourite bloggers’ comments – or wondering what their silence meant. I especially began noticing all the bloggers who were publishing their work. Worst of all, I met (gasp) a few published local writers. I read, with some awe, their books. With a growing sense of failure, I wondered why I hadn’t yet managed to do the same.
And suddenly, being a moderately successful blogger just didn’t seem ambitious enough.
For two years, I crept away from the blog I loved writing and I tried to be a ‘serious’ writer. For two years, I tried to write a ‘publishable book’. My computer files are now full of a great number of hopeful (but mediocre) starts under the sad heading of ‘potential books I hope to publish’. For two years, I became focussed on becoming ‘known as a writer’ rather than on just…writing. This is such a shame because the thing is: I truly love writing. Writing is my happy place. Writing is how I stay in touch with my spirit. Writing is how I figure life out.
As usual, I struggled a lot with how best to end this. I knew that ‘ambition’ was the main theme. I knew I had let ambition rob me of something I love. I found it supremely ironic that this should happen to me, of all people, because I have never been particularly ambitious (driven to put food on the table, yes). But then I remembered that little girl who wrote a bad and inadvertently-plagiarised story of Mer People. And suddenly, I understood: that little girl was ambitious. She did intend to become a writer. But she let her first setback become not just an obstacle, but a wall.
She gave up before she had even left the starting block.
The nice thing about getting older is that you get to go back and take those earlier versions of yourself by the hand and lovingly guide them in a better direction. I am holding her hand now.
And we sit together at this computer screen, our fingers poised to just…write.