The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

19 February 2018

The joy of writing

This was my last 12|12 submission. The prompt was joy, and as I knew by then that I wasn't going to continue the challenge in 2018, I wrote a reflection on what the year of short story writing had been like.

It began with a thought: could I do this? Should I even try? It was going to take time. It was going to take effort. It was going to demand commitment, and that always makes me squirm with resentment when I’m not a one hundred percent believer in a thing.

The challenge appealed to me, so I couldn’t dismiss it outright. It called to my competitive streak and asked if I had the goods to see it through. Did I have the courage to say “I am a writer and these are my words” to a whole group of strange writers? (By strange I mean unknown to me, not that they were writers of strange things, though that did turn out to also be true at times.) What if it turned out my love for writing was better used as a creative hobby to occupy spare moments rather than something to be shared with others? Publicly? With my name on it? That was a scary prospect: my name on my words out there for all to read, with no way to hide that I thought of myself as a writer.

In the end the decision was made without a whole lot of thought or deliberation. It seemed obvious: of course I was going to participate, take up the challenge, join the strange writers in a year-long journey of storytelling. And so we began. I knew it would be difficult, but not as difficult as it was. I expected it to be fun, but not as fun as it was. I thought I would learn a lot, but not as much as I did. For example, I learned that when I’m given a deadline, I become constitutionally incapable of finishing the assignment - or sometimes even beginning it - until right before the assignment is due. I wrote one story in a two hour window of opportunity I had before submitting it on deadline day. I would often have an idea, a strong idea even, not long after learning prompt and word count, but could not seem to find the time or the will to wrestle the idea into a story until a day or two before the deadline.

I also learned that I have a definite process, instead of the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, inspired-by-the-muse approach I thought I had. I free-write ideas, one liners or quickly sketched paragraphs, in a notebook until I have one with life to it. The few, spare words on the page are the shadow of an image, a scene, a line of dialogue, an ambience, or a character, and I know there is a story to be told about it. Then I begin writing in whatever notebook I have on hand, sometimes roughing out the details I want to capture. I don’t erase, because I often change my mind to include a phrase or entire paragraph, only to decide to leave it out in the end. Or maybe I’ll keep it?  Instead I cross the bit out or wrap it in parenthesis, and use symbols like *, $, or % to reposition a block where I think it will work better.  Usually once the writing has some momentum, I will use a word processor to do the bulk of the work, particularly when it gets to editing and polishing (when there is time!  Time, I learned in this challenge, may be a luxury, but a necessary luxury in storytelling.)

More than once over the course of this 12/12 challenge I was frustrated by my inability to convey the idea well, leaving it an incomplete suggestion of what it might have been. One month I knew the characters, I knew their situation, and knew there was a powerful story to be told, but I got bogged down in unnecessary details leaving no room for the story itself. I plan to go back and rework it because it has real potential. In another instance I derailed the idea to the point it had no resemblance to the original at all. I’m not going to renew its misery by revisiting it… we - the idea and I - will both be happier if it is left in peace in the past. There was a story or two that had good beginnings, strong foundations, but there wasn’t the time needed to nurture them into maturity. They remain in infancy, hopefully to be polished later. Perhaps some stories are like wine… they need to be left alone in a dark cellar for a time in order to fulfill their promise.

But more than once I also experienced the joy of being able to put into words exactly what I wanted to say, to convey precisely the idea I had, to tell the story that came to life in my imagination. Four times I posted a story I was proud of, and was pleased to receive feedback that let me know the strange writers understood what I had accomplished. I used the word ‘joy’ in that earlier sentence because, well, that is the prompt this month, but also because joy is exactly what it feels like when my words tell my story in a way I am happy with. I don’t think there is a more satisfying moment for a writer than when she realizes her story does not need to be tweaked, massaged, or polished, but she can let it stand on its own and she can be proud of it. What a feeling of accomplishment comes from constructing a story that engages the mind and awakens the imagination of the reader, that somehow they get it. That is joy, indeed!

I discovered writing requires time. I don’t write well with a few minutes here or there carved out of a day filled with other occupations. I need time not only for the act of writing, but before I can even come to that, I need time to allow my mind to come to rest, to let the noises and distractions of life seep away. Before I undertook the 12/12 challenge, I was writing only when I felt disposed to do so, so I didn’t realize the extent to which I need silence of the interior variety, and the vigilance required to maintain it. I must be intentional about writing if I want to continue writing regularly with a goal in mind. I haven’t figured out how to fit it into my daily life, but I have learned that I want to do so, somehow. Tips and tricks are appreciated!

As for a goal, I do have one. With the 12/12 challenge I discovered that I like writing short stories, and I have an idea for a couple that I’ve written to become part of a series that may one day be published as a collection.

I also learned what a remarkable thing human creativity and imagination is. Every month I thought I knew what most of the stories would be about, but the strange writers were never predictable. They never disappointed with their ingenuity, crafting moving, compelling, startling, beautiful, horrifying, surprising stories each time. I was intrigued by where the ideas come from with such diversity considering we all start with the same prompt.

The level of craftsmanship I found in the group of strange writers was inspiring. It issued its own challenge for me every month to aim higher, to work harder, to write better. I like knowing there are other people like me out there, people who love to write, want to do it well, but maybe struggle a little with the practicalities of writing in the midst of daily life. It was encouraging to witness the willingness to stumble in the attempt and the wanting to keep on learning to write well, and the openness to receiving critique whether good or instructive. I was inspired by seeing so many strange writers show up every month with another story even when life was a challenge or technology was uncooperative, or time raced by at an astonishing pace.

Not to be overlooked is the generosity of every writer who shared their work in the 12/12 challenge. Having access to so many short stories in one place gave me insight into the technical craft of constructing a good piece of writing. It would be interesting to witness the process behind how each writer arrives as their completed story, wouldn’t it? Even so, the finished work on its own offered something to learn from, be inspired by, and get enjoyment from. It was like taking a master class in short fiction. And then, because actually writing the stories isn’t the end of it, each contributor then took the time to read other stories and offer thoughts, praise, and suggestions. That is a wonderful gift to receive from another writer.

2017 has been a challenging and rewarding year of writing. I’ve learned a lot, been inspired, and greatly encouraged. Thank you, all, for your part in it. Happy 2018!