It’s the last week of July, the end of an official heatwave (three days of 90+ degree temperatures in a row), and for me the summer has just begun. I’m down to just two official jobs until I start teaching creative writing again in September. This means I have some time in the early mornings — usually between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m — to sit at the small table outside behind our house and try to write.
About ten days ago, I finished the latest fiction short story I’d been working on for several months. The story went through four “final” versions before I felt satisfied with the result, and then I spent one of my morning writing hours submitting it to three journals I thought might be interested. Now that it’s sitting in three separate electronic slush piles, it’s time to start something new.
This is always the hardest part of writing for me…trying to get my mind to land on the seed of an idea that will inspire the start of a new piece. Some writers free-write to help find ideas, others use writing prompts or exercises. Almost every writer or instructor I’ve ever spoken to, however, talks about the importance of just “showing up.” That means sitting down in front of your blank page or computer monitor no matter what, keeping that appointment with your writing time even on empty days…until something, anything, begins to happen.
For me, admittedly, history has shown that I write best when an idea comes to me before I sit down to write. Sometimes that idea is prompted by reality — my last story, for example, came from a comment one of my elderly neighbors made several years ago when I lived in another town. His comment always stuck with me, and finally I based an entire story around it. The characters in the story are based on this neighbor and his wife, and the setting, in my mind, became the street where I used to live. One other character in the story was loosely based on a man who lived on the opposite side of the street. Those are the only elements of the real world that entered into the story — the entire plot and the dialogue are all fiction.
The story I wrote before that one is more surreal and impressionistic…not one character or event in that story was based on anything from my real-world experiences. Ironically, of the two stories, that is the story that is written in first person, even though the narrator bears no resemblance to myself. That story was inspired by a simple thought I had one day, an idea about life that was bothering me. I built an entire story around that idea as I experimented with creating something more mysterious and perhaps suspenseful than my usual work. In the end, I tried to bring out something in potential readers that might surprise them, the way the ending might. I’m not sure I was quite successful, but two of the four early readers of that story felt really affected by it, so I’m giving it a try out in the world of journals.
When I was writing creative nonfiction essays, which I do hope to get back to as I continue to experiment with fiction, the essays were prompted by a memory or current observation of an event in my real life, and a desire to find meaning in it.
So for me, free-writing doesn’t work particularly well. Still, it’s important to “show up” for my writing time and try to be present and stick with it, even when the daily stresses of life feel overwhelming, and my motivation for writing or being part of the writing world are in question (as they were during a somewhat exhausting early summer).
What I do to “show up” is write journal entries. I muse about everything from my surroundings on any given morning to a general recording of daily or weekly events, and the thoughts or feelings they inspire. Journal entries are much less interesting and thought-out than personal essays; as with daily life, they can be filled with boring, disorganized details or unimportant — even unflattering — thoughts. But those entries keep me writing, thinking, recording, and practicing the basic craft of producing sentences….and I’m lucky to have a friend I have been sharing journals with since our 7th grade teachers assigned journals to us, read them, and handed them back to us with comments or questions. That teacher might have been my first real “reader” (besides my parents, who had been reading my very bad childhood poetry and pretending it was good). Having a reader to think about while I write my journal entries helps them feel like more of a conversation, and that in itself is a good exercise for a writer — to remember that good writing is a dialogue that takes the reader into account, not a monologue.
So that’s what I’ve been doing lately while I wait for an idea that says, “Write a story/essay about me!”
In the meantime, I have one personal essay and two short stories out being read at journals. The usual rejections will likely arrive as I wait for just the right editor and journal to say, “Ah yes, this one is for us.” If that doesn’t happen, I’ll file the work away for a while and re-read it down the line with fresh eyes…just as I need to do with the half-novel I wrote a year ago that I want to return to at some point with a different approach.
After 7 a.m., though, it’s back to real life…work at my jobs, chores and errands, battling the heat and humidity of Boston in the summer.
And reading, when I can. Reading. I thought I would spend my summer reading, but the need to take on more work sidelined the hopes for that, too. Time for reading seems so limited now, but part of the reason is that I have a hard time sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time. I’ve always been that way. Thank goodness for audiobooks I can listen to while I walk to and from work.
I hope your summer is filled with fresh mornings, gentle rains, chattering birds, fulfilling work, good friends, kind moments, and cool water against your skin.