Why I Stopped Trying to Write Fiction

How I Became a Writer By Not Being a Writer

I can still remember the day I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I was seven years old. I wrote a story. It was about two horses that escaped their paddock together and realized, to their chagrin (no, I didn’t use the word chagrin — I was an odd child, but not that odd), that the world outside was dangerous, unpleasant, and seriously lacking in free food.

More important than the contents of the story though, was the fact that I had neatly written it out on 8.5" x 11" paper, illustrated it with pictures, and then, folding the papers in half so as to make two pages out of one sheet, stapled it all together. To my eye, it was a book. I drew a cover and put my name on the front: Rachel Oja (this was before it was Darnall). It was an intoxicating feeling.

The image of my name on the front of a book became a siren’s song that went in and out of my life through childhood, teen-hood (which spell-check informs me is not a word), and young adulthood. I picked it up and put it down too many times to count. It was always fiction. I wanted to write a story. I wanted to create the same kind of reading experience that had caused me to hold my favorite authors in reverence. I wanted to be like my heroes, and my heroes were fiction writers.

It felt good to write the words. I loved to find a way of saying something just so — to describe just that particular kind of a person. To paint a scene of many colors with a palate of black and white. That part, I could lose myself in. But somehow, the story part of it never seemed to come to life. I knew that stories weren’t just a parade of pretty words. They must have structure, like a building. They must have design. They must have direction. Mine did not. I figured that I just needed to try harder.

After getting married, I left my job where I had worked as secretary, bossy administrator, vendor baby-sitter, and chief bottle-washer for a small manufacturing company in Yakima, WA, to move to Portland, OR, where my husband had found a job a few months before. We knew we would probably get pregnant before too long, and I wanted to be a SAHM after we had kids, so I didn’t worry about finding another job. I suddenly had something very few other aspiring authors do: time. I could write. I could write basically full-time, without worrying about making it pay. I decided to jump on the opportunity.

I began to read all about fiction writing. I joined several online forums. I even plunked down money to attend a writing conference (a real sign of commitment from this notorious cheapskate). I chose my target audience: I wanted to write books like the ones that had made me want to become a writer, so I chose middle-grade fiction — often called the “Golden Age” of reading. I worked on writing every single day. I met my 500-word goal consistently. But the more I wrote, the more I felt I was digging myself into holes that would only need to be climbed out of and filled in later. I was frustrated that my plots were weak, and my characters, weaker. The words were not the hard part.

As I interacted with other writers, I observed — finally, painfully — what they had that I did not: they had a story that needed to come out. They had something to say that would hurt if they held it in. I had finally found the problem that all the encouraging peer review, the articles and forums, and even a disastrous online mentor-ship had not taught me. My problem was not my words. My problem was that I was hiding behind them because I didn’t know what to say. I felt very young, and very silly.

It was a study in putting the cart before the horse. I wanted to “be a writer”. I wanted that end-product: to see my words looking back at me from the pages of a “real” book. I put to death my shallow, self-centered dream, and grew up a tiny little bit.

Eight months after we got married, we were pregnant. A man named Donald Trump announced he was running for President, and was laughed at, then not laughed at, then embraced, and finally nominated. I had to decide what I thought about a whole lot things in a very short space of time. I wrestled with my thoughts in my journal. Sometimes, I shared them on Facebook.

In February of 2016, I gave birth to our daughter: my proudest accomplishment. Birth was a life-changing experience. New motherhood was like a second birth all in itself. I wrote in my journal. I wasn’t thinking about publishing, I just needed to.

The 2016 presidential campaign happened. My husband and I spent many nights talking long after we’d turned the lights out, disbelieving what we were seeing happening. I could not keep silent. I wrote. A friend had told me about Medium. It was a simple platform, easy to use and easy to share. I didn’t really intend to be read there. I wrote and shared my pieces to my Facebook page. All I wanted was to speak to to my own circle of acquaintances, hoping that they would hear what I had to say because they knew me, and knew that I, at least, was not a spy of Hillary. Some people clicked. Many were angry. A few agreed. One or two said that it made them think.

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016. I cried. I knew it was not the end of the world, but I couldn’t help but release the pent-up emotions that had surged through me the last year and longer. I couldn’t share in the joy of many of my friends who thought the election’s outcome was bringing hope for America. But I didn’t belong on the other side of the fence, either, and I knew it. It was an incredibly lonely feeling. I wrote some more.

Soon, I found there were other things to write about. But now I was writing without that old, familiar feeling of futility. Writing was a release — a way to unravel the very tangled world around me. It hurt to keep it all inside. Without realizing it and without necessarily trying to, I had become a writer. Not because a few people were now actually reading what I was writing, but because I had something to say, and I was saying it.

I am not without hope that someday I will have a story that needs telling in the fiction world. But now I have a rule: if I don’t have anything to say, I don’t say it. It doesn’t have to be profound, but it has to be something worth breaking the silence for. Even if that means that I go a day without writing, or longer.

Lately, I haven’t had that problem.

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