Writing fiction and finding myself, or is it the other way round?
Indiana Jones: “I’m going after that truck.”
Indiana Jones: “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
When I was a kid, up through middle school and into high school, I wrote a lot. Short pieces. Long pieces. Articles for the school paper. Stuff for classes. Stuff just for me. Some was fiction, some was not. Most of the fiction I wrote at the time was short stories, but when I was about fifteen I completed a sci-fi novel that went on for over 250 pages and took up at least five 5 1/4-inch floppy disks that I backed up obsessively, worried that my beloved documents would one day disappear — which, sadly, they have. That book was great fun to write. Back then, I was able to make stuff up, and it seemed like I didn’t have to do much to make that happen. Ideas came; stories came; I just wrote them down and tried to make what was written mirror what I was thinking as well as I could.
I was lucky to go to a middle and high school that taught writing in an inviting, conscientious, thorough manner, and I thrived there. In ninth grade English, we spent some time studying mystery novels, and I fell in love with noir classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. I loved the terse language, the grit, and the human mess of those stories. My teacher assigned us to write a short mystery story, and I cranked out a little noir piece of my own. I don’t remember anything more about it, but I do remember that my teacher wrote only one thing on my paper: “You should be a writer.” I glowed and thought to myself, “Yes! That is all I have ever wanted to be.” I felt understood and encouraged. Her words fit with who I thought I was.
In 10th and 11th grade, my English teacher drilled us in sentence structure and challenged us with literary analysis. She had written a book on grammar and usage, akin to Strunk and White, and she made absolutely sure we knew our way around a sentence. My writing improved. I loved that teacher, and I was lucky to have her for two years right before she left the school for new adventures. As a junior, I joined the student newspaper, which was a serious thing at my high school, and learned new ways of researching and telling and editing stories.
Yet even as I continued to write, my dream of writing professionally was slipping away. It was too unreliable. It wasn’t safe. What if I failed? Safety was valued in my family. Professionalism of a certain kind was valued — a safe, preferably prestigious professionalism. It’s not that the messages were so explicit. Rather, they spanned generations and were transmitted in life choices, family stories, and side remarks, and those beliefs became my own.
I have been in safe professions for a long time now, first as a psychologist and then as a lawyer. I have taught and practiced in both fields and currently teach in a law school clinical program. In the course of my education, teaching, research, and practice, I learned a great deal about technical writing, and I published academic articles. For many years, I wrote little else.
I’ve been privileged to do interesting, meaningful work that genuinely helps people, and I’ve been lucky to do that work with wonderful colleagues. What told me something was wrong was that I still felt stuck and unfulfilled. I was in danger of descending into the doldrums and losing the energy I needed to do my work well and to be happy. I felt irritable and, sometimes, depressed, even as my work went very well by any objective measure.
So I spent some time — well, a lot of time — listening to myself. I would sit in a quiet place, or walk in nature, or go for a bike ride, and listen. I would talk to my wife, and she and I would listen together. What I eventually heard, when I finally let myself hear it, was that I needed to write, that there was a yearning in me that hadn’t been fulfilled in a long time.
I started writing again. Yet for many months after I heeded this call, it didn’t seem that any stories would come, so I wrote short essays for my blog. In writing those, I sorted out some things about my family, my sense of the world, what I most love to do, and where I fit in. Eventually, a colleague and I started a writing group — it’s just we two, over beers, exchanging short stories and essays and fragments that we noodle around with. Every couple or few weeks, when we meet, I like to have something new for him to read. It’s driven me to put words to paper regularly.
In response, the floodgates opened, and stories started peeking around the corners of my mind. I’d spot them as distant, fleeting visions, like seeing someone skulking in an alley and slipping out of sight, but then some decided to come out into the open, inch closer to me, and stay awhile. Many started as fragments of scenes or dialogue or character, and then some of those grew beyond fragments. I started to write fiction again, and in doing so, I welcomed back a part of myself that I’ve missed.
As my stories have grown, I’ve been enjoying my job more, in no small part because it no longer bears the burden of my identity being built upon it. Instead, my sense of identity has become more about what I most enjoy doing and my values, which includes things like giving myself the space and time to be creative and being fully present for my wife and kids. My job, on the other hand, is what I do each day to help clients, teach students, and make a living. This letting go has made me better at my work. I haven’t let go of the need to work hard at it and do it to the best of my ability. Instead, I’ve sorted out what my job actually means to me. It has an important place in my life, but it’s not as prominent a place as it once had. And what I’ve found is a greater ability to focus in my work on what my students need from me in order to grow and achieve while helping our clients.
Meeting my better self, a younger, more creative, more free and loving and whimsical self, has been powerful and liberating. My wife has noticed. My kids have noticed. Friends and other family have noticed. I feel an ease and new sense of energy that shows. In those alleyways of my mind where the story ideas were hiding, I’ve found what is truest about myself, even though I’m making stuff up.