I never meant to become a novelist.
While pursuing my creative writing degree, I took the stance of an archer and aimed my arrows at poetry. Sure, I took a semester-long class in fiction and even one in the writing of young adult literature, but when the time came for me to set my goals for my senior project, it was all poetry and creative non-fiction.
Years later, in the throes of an intense, prolonged obsession, I found myself jotting down tiny thoughts here and there. Just chicken-scratches really. I was heartsick and frantic and depressed, and I couldn’t handle much more than a thought here or there. Perhaps a month or so later, I looked at that collection of lines and thought, What if I collected them into a book? Thoughts, poems, short stories, all related to OCD. Someone would want to read that, right?
For six months or so, I collected stories from life: my thoughts and experiences, poems I wrote about my obsessions, little stories from life. It was more like a journal than a manuscript, but it felt great. I was writing every day, a regular at the coffee shop near the university where I work, their very own “writer-in-residence,” as the baristas would tease me and ask me to include them in my book.
It was a mess of thoughts, with little order to it. I printed off the whole shebang, cut all the parts up, and quite literally sorted each into various categories, trying to force some semblance of order onto it.
After it was all re-grouped, I gave it to my friend Anna for her review.
She said, “Yeahhhhh … it doesn’t work. Why don’t you ever include real dialogue from your life?”
“I might not get it exactly right,” I told her. ”And that would be like lying.” It could have become an obsession so easily; instead I avoided it completely by not including dialogue.
“It needs dialogue,” she said. ”It needs to be more of a story and less of a collection of random thoughts.”
But I was months away from the therapy that would give me that kind of freedom, and I knew that I couldn’t make it my own story because I wouldn’t get every detail right, and that would be wrong. So I decided to make it fiction, which would allow me to invent as much as I wanted.
It took years to transform that original journal into a novel. I had no idea what I was doing. Anna kept telling me I was still writing like a memoirist instead of a novelist, and I thought, What’s the difference? I honestly didn’t know. I plowed through that like someone wading in a foot of water with cement blocks strapped to her feet. It was really hard.
But somewhere in the midst of those years, something both incredible and strange happened: I became addicted.
Addicted to writing fiction, to the limitless creativity available to novelists, to the act of creating something out of nothing– trying my hardest to in a small way mimic God in those earliest days of earth.
One year ago, and hooked beyond rescue on fiction (and with no desire for such a rescue), I started a young adult novel. I gave myself six months for the first draft, and when six months was over, I was shocked that it was a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. At the end of six months with the first story, I had a jumbled collection of journalled thoughts.
So I was learning.
Now, a year into this writing, I asked for help from an editor. Sometimes my life feels like it’s on repeat: he said, “Yeahhhhhh … it doesn’t work.” Essentially.
It’s okay. I know that I can massage it into something workable, something publishable, something excellent. It’s just going to take a lot longer than I first thought. I want to plead the excuse, “Well, what did you expect? I’m a poet.”
But not really. I still love, read, and write poetry, but it’s not the right descriptor anymore.
I am a novelist.
On accident, but a novelist nevertheless. A clueless one, but learning every day. Discouraged, but never enough to stop.
I love this identity.