As I write this, I am flying over the Pacific toward Dallas, and ultimately, in a few days time, I will arrive in Taos, N.M. With support from the Richter Fellowship and the Unbridled Learning Grant, I will spend the month of June at SMU-in-Taos writing my first novel.
From way up here (35,007 feet according to the monitor), I can see the beginnings of a sunrise. There is a yellow tinge developing on the horizon, like a banana that is beginning to ripen. This is cliché, but I feel like a green banana, waiting to ripen and become a delicious snack. I have written short stories, and have attempted to write longer works of fiction, which in my opinion petered out. AKA, it was terrible, like worse than PB and J without any of the ingredients, and only rocks to eat.
This time things are different. I am finally “writing what I know” and for the first time in my fledgling writing career, I know where I am going with my fiction and what I need to do in order to get there. Before I began working on this novel, I would begin a piece of fiction with an idea, or a line, that I especially liked, and from there I would begin to write, letting my words lead me where they would. I lacked direction. While this is not a terrible thing, and can be useful when writing short stories, when writing a novel, this process would have doomed me to failure.
I started this novel with the goal of writing about what I know, which would give my work a solid foundation to build on. So, I took a bunch of objects from my childhood (in the house I grew up in), which were paintings, furniture, toys, etc, and put them in a new house, with a new family. Then, everything made sense, and the story arc became instantly clear. I knew exactly what had to happen and when. I knew each character intimately. I know what I have to write and I am ridiculously and severely excited to start writing in Taos.
I see Taos as an opportunity to take the next step in my educational development. College is a place where young people transition from learners to doers, and I hope to make this experience the catalyst for my development as a writer. During a typical SMU semester, I take one creative writing class and four unrelated classes, each of which demands time and effort. My writing gets put on the back burner. You wouldn’t want to write a short story after chugging through an 8-page essay about variance of theme in Jane Austen’s Emma, would you? I thought not… It is difficult to devote myself to fiction writing when there are so many other things going on. It takes discipline and until now, I do not think I had it. I found myself writing only when I had to, when I had something due. In Taos, I will have no commitments, only a commitment to myself and to my writing.
The Richter Program and Unbridled Learning have given me an opportunity to take the next step in my development; to develop my discipline and to devote myself to something I hope to do for the rest of my life as a profession. Most college students get that opportunity, through internships with the accounting firms or through research assistantships with the geology department, examining ancient whalebones. I have yet to find an internship that asks me to write fiction for an entire summer, though if you know of such a place, please contact me immediately.
I am looking at this experience as an opportunity to develop a skill every successful writer has: discipline. Discipline, in writing terms, is the ability to sit down, every day, and write. This does not mean sitting down and saying you will write whilst furiously stalking your old high school classmates. No, this means sitting down and writing until you have reached your goal. For my purposes, I will be writing 1000 words a day. I say, “I will” for a reason. I WILL be writing 1000 words a day, no matter what. I will develop discipline so that when the fall semester comes around, I will be able to sit down and write, even when my writer’s block is trying to fit into my writer’s cylinder. I will make it fit.
This is not to say that I do not enjoy writing fiction. I do. I love it. It is my passion. However, it is not easy and it never will be. Writing is incredibly difficult, and many times, I find myself struggling to come up with the next word, much less the next sentence. I doubt everything that I write. I sometimes sit down and “it” happens, which is when I literally can’t type fast enough to put all of my thoughts into words. Then, when the flurry subsides, and I look at what I have written, I realize that it is a load of… well… garbage. Something that looks great to me on Tuesday could, on Thursday, be reread and judged to be the worst thing I have ever written. It is a struggle to write something and not doubt what you have written. I think the biggest reason for my doubt is the knowledge that someone else will be reading my work; that someone else will be judging the very thing I work hardest at. What if my mother doesn’t really like something I have written? What if I offend my roommate? What if no one likes what I am writing? I have heard from countless people that the sooner I detach myself from my work, the sooner my doubts will begin to subside. I put so much of myself into my work that sometimes I forget that when people constructively criticize, they aren’t criticizing me. All of the frustrations, doubts, and even fears of ultimate failure, are not enough to get me to stop. I enjoy it too much to do something else.
I am incredibly excited to begin my ripening process. (Do you see what I am doing by going back to my opening banana metaphor? Quality stuff here…) I am on the cusp of becoming the real deal, a real banana, if you will. I guess that after spending a month in the mountains, I will be able to call myself a “writer” and extend my pinky finger whilst I sip wine in Paris. With only one year left at SMU, I think now is a good time to begin the transition from learner to doer. I want to begin the ripening process. Unripe bananas are green, bland, odorless, and hard, so let me convert my starches into sugars and develop into a yellow, tasty, soft, and smelly writer. Hopefully when I finish up my novel this summer I won’t feel as Truman Capote did when he said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” I won’t be doing that. Promise.