Last weekend I found myself in the throes of a writer’s crisis. It’s similar to a midlife crisis but without the sports car and body piercings. But I can’t deny that age factored into mine.
I’ll be 32 in June and I keep getting told that I’m still so young and have my entire life ahead of me. I can’t help feeling like that’s not true. Some days I feel the years pressing in on me, weighing me down. I see the next decade rushing by as fast as the last one. And what do I have to show for it all? What will I have to show for it all?
Then my mind starts in on the math. It’ll take this much time to write a story and probably this much time to publish it. And that’s once I figure out what I’m going to write. JK Rowling planned out all 7 Harry Potter books before she began writing them. How long did it take her? Like 5 years? Oh my gosh that would put me at 36. I don’t want to wait that long. I start imagining myself stuck in the same job for that long or bouncing from one miserable job to another.
It’s like a black hole. It sucks you in and there’s no way out except through. All you can do is hope you end up in another dimension full of ideas.
I keep a big plastic tub in my closet full of old stories and ideas and notes on writing. When shit hits the fan, I drag it out and leaf through that massive pile of paper. Some of it carries a whiff of nostalgia with it which makes me kinda sad. Some of it is so shitty I think about lighting the whole mess on fire right then and there. But there’s always one gem or two that I dig out. A story I’d completely forgotten about. An idea I tucked away because it didn’t seem good enough at the time.
There was one story in particular that pulled me out of my crisis. I wrote it years ago on a whim. I don’t even know where it came from. It’s not a fantasy which is what I typically write. It’s about a 44 year old woman named Charlotte and Charlotte has a secret. Her husband was abusive and now he’s gone, presumed dead. The kicker is a detective shows up unannounced to tell her that no, he’s not dead. His finger prints have been found at a crime scene. Charlotte faints though she’s not really the fainting kind. She’s more of the if you ever touch me again I’ll kill you kind. She’s wise and reserved and has been humbled by life’s trials. I like her instantly. I settled into the story, waiting to see what happened next. Of course, I never finished it. I’m not sure I ever knew how to finish it. But it was good, damn good.
Not because of the writing. That was average. The setting was kinda boring. But the characters, my Lord the charcters, were so real to me. They were good.
That’s when I realized that I do have the ability to write a good story. I’d just gotten off course. I’d begun worrying more about plot and setting and time and not enough about the most important piece of the puzzle: characters.
Characters separate the good stories from the bad. The boring ones I’d tossed aside in disgust didn’t have a good character at their heart. The leading boy or girl was lifeless and flat. Someone I didn’t want to know or care about for that matter.
That’s the difference. The Charlotte story was rough and badly written in some places but Charlotte was interesting to me. I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to know what had happened to her. Where did she come from? How did she end up with such a crappy husband? How did she get rid of him? Did she kill him?
We read to find out what the characters will do and what we would do in a similar situation. Yes we want to go to other worlds and find out what it’d be like if magic was real or the apocalypse actually happened. But without characters, those things mean nothing. They’re just things that happened. It’s characters that give stories emotion and meaning just as it’s people that give our lives meaning.
So what did I learn? I’m not a crappy writer. I just sometimes forget the right way to write a story. I’m also not JK Rowling and it does no good to compare myself to her or anyone else. My writing journey is my own. Hopefully that’s a good thing and it’ll take a lot less time to plan my stories.
When you’re in the middle or your own writer’s crisis, take heart. You aren’t a bad writer, you’re just a struggling one. It’s normal. And if you weren’t really a writer, you wouldn’t struggle and you definitely wouldn’t find yourself on the edge of a nervous breakdown now and then.