One of the million, zillion temptations for us as writers is this:
We're tempted to be someone else when we write.
Tempted to be an edgier, cooler, more "interesting," or more "accepted" human being when we come up with story ideas.
I can't tell you how many times this has happened to me. Without knowing that I was doing it. Without knowing it was a bad move.
I wrote plenty of poems, essays, and fiction that came from a person I was imitating, not the person that I actually was.
Not the girl who cared about what I cared about.
Ever have that happen to you? That when you sit down to write, you somehow develop a façade?
It's totally understandable: I mean, it is crazy hard to spill your guts onto a blank page.
And one of the ways to make that easier is to be a little less yourself. Or maybe, a different person entirely. And so you try to spill someone else's guts onto a page.
Wait a sec--how can I say that? It's all fiction, right?
So what does it matter, façade or no façade? If we're not writing memoir, then who cares? It's all made up anyway!
Oh, but it does matter.
Fiction that comes from a real soul will always feel different from fiction that rests on other people's ideas. One will feel truthful, even though it's fiction. The other will feel faked. (And you know you can't fake your writing, right?)
I spent four years writing my first novel. Four years, five massive drafts, a TON of work, millions of words. The last draft was over five hundred pages.
And most of that novel never really came out of the real me.
Parts of it technically worked. I'm a good enough learner and hard enough worker. So yes, there are scenes that work pretty dang well, dialogue exchanges that are whole and clever.
But the guts of the book--they feel faked. Like I borrowed them from every other book like this I had read. I sewed together dozens of books like this one, and regurgitated them all into "my" story.
Maybe that's why I never could figure out how to fix it. Maybe that's why it never felt like a real book to me.
Maybe that's part of why that process was so miserable, and why that book is mummified in my closet.
I was writing scared, trying to prove myself. And so I didn't take the time to really be my whole self at my writing desk with that story. I hadn't made sure that that story was really mine to tell.
I never really listened to myself while I was writing it. I panicked. I scrambled.
And I never wrote out of my own material, my own self. Me.
Heather Sellers calls this material--this stuff you write from--your compost.
Here's how she explains it in Page after Page:
So many of my students want to write about anything but where they are from or who they are--anything but their own terrible, lovely, banal, fascinating lives. ... Compost is where everything fascinating and good is. And it's under you. It's in the backyard of you. Stop going across town. Stop importing stories that aren't really yours.
If you aren't dreaming down deep into your own history, your own passions, your actual true, real, daily concerns and obsessions and the shapes of your lived life, you aren't going to be able to improve as a writer.
Whoa, right? Doesn't she totally nail it? Any of that ring true for you?
To put it another way, Willa Cather said, Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.
Where are you standing, lionheart? What went into making you? The extraordinary ordinary you?
What is it that you know in your core? Not your head, not your ideas from other books and movies, but your center? Your exact middle?
That's the stuff that will translate into your best work.
Seek it out. Accept it. Listen to it.
Here's what I know: My stories became MUCH better when I accepted my material. When I accepted that, yes, this is me: I am this kind of a person, with these values, this worldview, this childhood, these fears, these passions.
When I didn't fight that, when I sat down with dead-on honesty at the keyboard, I wrote stronger, truer, richer stories.
Does that mean I started writing memoir and autobiography? Heck no!
All the work I've done since then has been full of the bizarre, quirky characters that I adore. Plenty of the fantastical.
But all that fantastical has its roots in my compost. Everything strange in my stories is balanced by everything I honestly believe, everything I know as truth.
Embrace your material and write from it. That means that no matter what kind of story you are writing, there is a YOU present in the story.
A sense of your very real heart, your real experiences, your real take on the world--beating there like a pulse under your fantastic, extraordinary story.
Accept your material for what it is. Treat it with respect and honor, because that's the soul of what you'll write. That's the center of your best work.
Celebrate your compost.
In the mood to keep reading? You might also like: Are You Ridiculously in Love with your Writing? and Refuse to Feel Sheepish about How Completely Odd You Are.