I was on the subway this morning and suddenly the kernel of an idea slipped into my mind. Naturally, I got very excited about it and thought of an anecdote of Elizabeth Gilbert’s from “Big Magic,” when she turned a real life experience, as my kernel was, into a short story. I’ll turn it into a short story! I thought. I began to think how to expand it.
And here’s the thing. I couldn’t think of much. Wouldn’t this be better expressed in an essay, I thought, a personal essay?
Wait a second. I just passed up the opportunity to write fiction. And I realized, I’ve been doing that a lot lately. Years, in fact. In college I kept a blogspot blog composed completely of essays. This is a blog composed completely of essays. Essays were always my favorite part of school.
Why did I want to write fiction again? Did I want to? I dialed back a bit.
My love of writing started with Roald Dahl. I identified and revered Matilda. I remember Quentin Blake’s illustration of her surrounded by a pile of books. As I got older, I learned about Dahl, the man, and an echo of Matilda was in the photograph of him in his den, surrounded by papers and books, only instead of Matilda reading a book, it was Dahl writing a book.
I liked his writing, I liked his attitude. He died the same year I was born. I wanted to be like him.
Although Dahl wrote short stories as well, I didn’t grow up with him that way. I grew up with his novels. I guess an exception would be Esio Trot, but those who know Roald Dahl would concede to that adorable exception.
So I became obsessed with the concept of writing a novel, more so than writing fiction in general. The day I wrote a novel would be the pinnacle of my being, I thought. I must be a novelist.
Then I proceeded to not write anything like a novel for years.
In my young adulthood I came up with a novel idea that I held on to from 2010 to 2016. I wrote very little of it. Most of what I did was world creation. It kept changing faces over the years. Finally, I decided to abandon it as permanently as my heart would allow. IT was a tease. It would not settle. Something was wrong.
This summer I stopped my job search to spend 30 days writing a new novel a la NaNoWriMo. I enjoyed myself, was unimpressed by my work, and exactly seventy-five pages in, with a week left to go, it occurred to me that perhaps I should have cashflow and I set it aside to resume my job hunting.
I have now been working for a few months and I have thought about returning to that novel, but in the end I decided there wasn’t enough meat in it to be worth my time. It was mostly fluff. So I abandoned it too, this time with much less regret.
Then I decided I would take a break from novel writing and just work on my writing skills. For some reason, this consisted of journaling and essay writing (see a pattern?). I even reserved a private online blog for fiction exercises and proceeded never to use it.
This was avoidance. But of what kind?
Writing fiction is hard for me. It’s hard for everyone. But this morning, as I saw platform after platform swish by in the subway windows, it occurred to me that I’d spent more time feeling guilty about not writing a novel my whole life than actually writing a novel. I read countless books about writing and still I never touched pen to paper. Writing a novel became an obligation. A difficult obligation.
So of course I avoided it.
I got a seat at the subway two stops before my stop. I can’t wait to write this essay, I thought, it’s going to be great!
On the short walk from the station to my work, I called my boyfriend and told him my intention.
It wasn’t until I sat down at my desk and turned the computer on that the thought came to me.
I don’t want to write novels.
I don’t want to be a novelist.
I want to write essays.
This made me think of Dahl. Was I abandoning him? Is personal essay and analytical essay writing a shallower or lower form of writing?
But more importantly, it struck me how incredibly obvious this fact was. I had struggled so hard against writing fiction, but I’ve been writing essays for years, with a flowing voice, glad to put in all the effort I could.
Isn’t that how all those writers described their writing lives?
I was reminded of the moment I realized I was bisexual. The obviousness. I had been obsessed with women for years. Why hadn’t it occurred to me how completely attracted to them I was? The years of declaring I loved backless dresses particularly made me cringe.
It additionally dawned on me that I didn’t have to give up on the dream of publishing a book. It would simply be a book of essays! Not only that, I didn’t have to wait five to ten years before submitting to publications. I could do that this year!
But Dahl. I’ll return to Dahl: was I leaving him? Was I leaving that comfy den of his, with his customized chair and overhanging light? Was I never going to be like him?
I’m still thinking about this, but one thing I am sure of: Dahl himself would totally support my decision. He was all about pursuing your passion.
And Dahl wrote memoirs.
And I’d still be a creative person.
This is all still very new, but I thought I’d write a little about it. I’ll write more soon!