The Next Chapter

There’s something I want to get off my chest. This has been weighing on me for a long time, making me feel guilty for something I don’t think should be guilt-inducing.

I haven’t written fiction in nearly a year.

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About this time last year, I was finishing up my work-in-progress (WIP) to send off for critique before I left for my two week honeymoon. Two weeks without email, or work, or responsibility. The two weeks disconnect would let me come back refreshed and ready to finish up the WIP to start submitting. In theory.

Instead of coming back to a list of suggestions and  edits, and a renewed enthusiasm for my WIP, I faced a list of concerning plot holes, “this isn’t working”, and questions I couldn’t answer. Questions about the WIP I thought I had answered that had only opened up more holes. Gaping plot holes. Holes I didn’t know how to fill… and that I wasn’t sure I wanted to fill.

Discouraged, I cried. How long had I been working on this WIP? Would it ever be “out of progress?” Would it ever be ready to submit? At that point, I didn’t think so. So I thought maybe a break would do me good. Step back from critiques. Think about plot fixes. I’d revisit in a month with a fresh perspective, ready to tackle the problems.

A month became two. Two became three. Work responsibilities increased, stress increased, free time disappeared. I kept finding excuses not to write, things to do instead of face my broken book and the characters I was letting down.  I felt myself pulling farther away from something I thought I loved, facing questions I didn’t want to think about.

Did writing make me happy? Was I serious about pursuing a fiction career? Why didn’t I work harder? Why didn’t I spend more time writing? What would Younger Me say?

I’ve always wanted to write. 6 year old me wanted to be published by the time she was 16. 16 year old me wanted it by 21.  I wrote short stories and bad poetry and Harry Potter fan fiction through high school, waiting for inspiration to hit for my own novel. In college, I finally wrote that novel. It was awful. The plot was all over the place, character motivations unclear, but the important thing was that I finished it, start to finish, proving I could do it. I would write more.

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 6.21.32 PMSince then, I’ve written three other fiction manuscripts (and countless beginnings of more), having rewritten two top to bottom at least once. I didn’t think I could stand facing rewriting any of them again. The thought brought tears, stress, and an important question…

Why do I write?

I journal (not as extensively as I used to but I’ve had a journal since 2001); I plot; I invent characters; I rewrite bad scripts in my head. I write a lot for work, and long emails to my friends. There a dozens of reasons I write, why you write, why we all write. Most importantly, I write to share a part of myself, to tell stories.

I don’t write to become the next JK Rowling. I don’t write to influence people or persuade someone to my way of thinking. After watching what some of my friends go through in publishing, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to submit myself to that kind of scrutiny. (Though it’s been a blast to celebrate their successes with them; I am so insanely proud of them!)

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Writing used to make me so happy, but I had lost the joy. After talking about it a lot, I realized I felt GUILTY for NOT WRITING. I felt like I was letting someone down — whom? My parents? My fellow writer friends? My characters? A little bit yes to each of those, but mostly I felt like I was letting myself down and was punishing myself for giving up on a dream. A dream that’s persisted for 25 years. A dream I wasn’t sure I still wanted to achieve.

6-year-old, 16-year- old and 21-year- old me wanted to see our name on a book shelf, to feel accomplished, to show all the cool kids how far a dork can go. But they had no idea of the other things we’d accomplish. They couldn’t have predicted what our new dreams might be, that we’d be in Nashville, or married, or working for the family business. They could never have known how satisfied we’d be, or that our original dreams might not always fit.

A franglais book for my future children

As it turns out, my new dreams don’t actually include being a published fiction writer, anymore. My new dreams: taking our company to new heights of success; traveling the world with my husband; giving a speech without wanting to vomit. Spending more time getting to know family; teaching my future child(ren) French and Spanish; visiting every US state.

It’s hard to let go — of ideas, of people, of loves lost. I’ve let go of other things — 7-year-old me wanted to be the first female baseball player; 13-year-old me wanted to be prom queen; 17-year-old me wanted to get married in a castle. But letting go of those things didn’t make me feel guilty like this.

Letting go of what has driven me to this point in my life has been a struggle. The thing that makes me journal. The thing that pushed me in English class. The thing that gave me an incredible community of writer friends. The thing that has taught me more about myself than nearly any other experience. The thing that’s introduced me to others like me, who feel compelled to write, and read, and share their stories. That thing stuck its claws deep into my heart, refusing to be pushed aside or forgotten.

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But how could I ever forget? Telling stories is part of who I am, flowing through my family’s blood. I finally was able to unclench the thing’s claws, reminding it and myself that there is not just one kind of story to tell.  Maybe fiction and novels just aren’t my thing. I still need to write, though. Allowing myself to let go of an old dream and say “not now” to the fictional voices in my head has cleared my conscience. For the first time in nearly a year, I feel compelled to write again.

Part of what’s helped, besides the unwavering support of my husband & my local writer friends, was finding my grandmother’s memoirs. Unpublished, typed on a typewriter, yellow pages, bound in a 3-ring binder, my father’s mother, Mary Bell, wrote 2 memoirs – one about travel, and one about her childhood. One of these, she wrote for me. She didn’t write to be famous, or to end up in a bookstore. She wrote to share her life with her grandchild. She wrote them because she loved writing, sharing part of herself and telling stories. I must do the same.

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So I’m not giving up my old dreams. They are just taking on a new form, giving me a new drive. While I set aside my fiction manuscripts, my mind overflows with stories I want to tell. Stories I want to share with my friends and family. Stories of my past & my family. Stories from experiences I’ve yet to have.

I’m beginning with a travel blog, sharing stories from all the trips I’m fortunate enough to take and have taken. I want to share stories from when I was a kid, first discovering Europe and getting my hair braided in the Caribbean. I want to share stories from my year abroad, when I had to grow up and start figuring out what I wanted out of life. I also want to share my grandmother’s stories, digging through our family history and her life experiences. Who knows what I’ll find? I want to share stories for me. I’ve always loved documenting things, chronicling adventures through journals and photos. At the end of the day, I want to create something for posterity, not a best-seller list, but to sit on my own grandchild’s nightstand.

I’m going to continue writing — not fiction, not YA, not sci fi, at least not right now — and not for the reasons I thought I was writing for. I’m going to write down my stories and those of my family, to save and savor. I’m going to travel, chase new dreams and live a life worth writing down, and when I do write it down, I’ll remember that I’m writing it for me.

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