Friday, July 23, 2010

Summer Project Plan B: Attempting to Write Fiction

This was not supposed to be my summer project. Every year, I choose something large and somewhat scary to learn over the summer break. I was determined this summer to learn how to be moderately athletic. My general clumsiness and profound fear of looking foolish in front of the very muscular has prevented me learning anything more athletic than basic walking for several decades now, and even that is sometimes a wobbly affair. So, I decided this would be the year when I turned that history of clumsiness around. I would learn things and practice and emerge with the upright, squared shoulders and air of indomitable capability of the 'natural athlete.'

Despite those brave plans, a newer tradition reared it's ugly head, and I am in a cast this summer. For the third time in three years. Friends have declared that next year they will -- forcibly if need be -- wrap me in bubble wrap at least two weeks prior to summer solstice to break the pattern. This plan strikes me as a perfect way to break an arm rather than a pattern, but they mean well.

So, there I was with a summer to fill, mobility heavily limited, and no reasonable plan for learning in the face of a haunting fear. I hate that. I cast around for fears I could face heroically from a comfy chair and footrest, and lighted upon fiction writing. It is a shameful secret that I regularly ask my students to put aside their fears of inadequacy and try fiction writing as a way to engage with words and ideas in a fun and creative way, yet avoid the practice myself due to my own similar fears. I, Fraud. Filling in an empty spot where moral fiber should always have been seemed a plausible enough heroic journey for the summer, and I declared I would write something.

Almost immediately, memories of the last time I attempted to write fiction began to crowd in. I was twenty, and earnest, and arrogant, and painfully naive. I had written some letters to a favored uncle, and he approved of my style and encouraged me to try my hand at writing for real. There's very little that twenty year-old me wanted to hear more than that I could be an artist. I became perfectly awful almost overnight. I sat with my manual typewriter (Old School!), and my cigarettes (Daring and Tortured!), and put my Mr. Coffee on permanent duty (Dedicated!), and proceeded to type out the most humiliatingly transparent, precious dreck I could muster. My own mother read it and declared it 'kind of cute.' That chapter of the Great American Novel That Wasn't was quickly relegated to the back of a closet somewhere in favor of piano lessons, which I also took very seriously, and at which I also achieved little in the way of skill or artistry. We won't discuss the horrors I inflicted upon the poor, innocent bastards who trusted me to try my hand at cooking.

I think I kind of suck at everything artistic or in any way generative, folks. Yet here I am, with a proper computer this time, attempting to write a short story. (Start small, Heo!) You'll notice if you look to the right of this blog that I have approximately 250 words and have had since I put the widget there. In fact, I have managed a first page of three separate stories: a barely disguised autobiographical story that makes me cry too hard to write reasonably, a science-fiction story meant to use science to explicate a moment in biblical narrative (written by a humanities person and atheist), and some other pile of amorphous bullshit that I can't quite describe. They vary in quality from the merely humiliating to suicidal ideation-inducing.

I like to think of myself as the kind of person who can set her jaw at something and have it happen. I have managed many things in my life by employing just that strategy, and so I generally think of everything I haven't accomplished as stuff that I haven't adequately attempted. I think this may be the summer I find out what it's like to face a fear, do my best, and have that fear kick my ass anyway.

I wonder if it would be cheating to reframe the fear I face as "working my hardest only to find that I really do suck" and call it an odyssey already.

1 comment:

magistra said...

Very belated comment - because I was at your site reading your post about the rebellious nuns of Poitiers. I almost entirely gave up writing fiction when I became a medieval historian, because I found I actually had something interesting to say about the past. But for the last few months I've been writing fanfic as a hobby and really enjoying that. I think that can work as a kick-start to get into fiction writing (if you can find a fandom you like), because you have a toolkit of characters, tone of voice etc, with which you can start playing immediately, you don't have to build then up from scratch. But you can still do some quite interesting writing effects. (Some of the fanfic writers I've been reading have just started National Novel Writing Month).