When we choose a writing career, naturally we want to find our footing quickly. But this can cause us to pay too much attention to what other authors are doing in hopes of finding the magic of success. Michelle Barker is here to remind us why looking within is actually the key, so please read on!
When I first started writing, I was fresh out of university with a degree in English literature. I was determined to be a literary writer. To me, this was what being a writer meant. Never mind writing about the things that suited my personality. I would write big important novels for adults, and short stories with lots of sentence fragments. And never mind finding my own voice; I wanted to sound like Margaret Atwood.
Well, the short version of this story is: I am not Margaret Atwood. It turns out, big important novels for adults are not my thing at all. I write young adult novels, because the voice that most suits my personality is a teenage one. It took a long time to reach this point, however. I did not understand the wisdom of Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter’s world, nor would I have accepted it. But like it or not, Mr. Ollivander was right: the wand chooses the wizard.
Flannery O’Connor had her own version of the wand merchant’s wisdom: “The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live…” I tried writing two important adult novels. They were utter failures. There was no magic in them, no spark. They weren’t me.
Seeking Your Own Inspiration
Having misconceptions about writing serious literature is one aspect of this problem. You will also no doubt encounter well-meaning friends and family members who advise you to write about vampires because they’re popular right now. Or you’ll have that uncle at the Christmas party who corners you with a story that would make a great novel and you should write it.
Writing what you (or other people) think you should be writing simply doesn’t work. Unless vampires are your obsession, unless your uncle’s story made all the hair on your arms stand up, chances are you’ll only be writing with half a heart.
Besides that, jumping on the market bandwagon is a recipe for disappointment. By the time your book is ready to meet the world, there’s a good chance the fad—whatever it is—will have passed and the market will already be glutted.
Uncovering Your Passion
What do we bring to life most effectively? The things we are passionate about. The things that keep us awake at night.
These are not always easy to pin down. If you had told me even ten years ago I would be writing historical fiction, I would have laughed. I’m not a history buff. But I have a mother who lived in Germany during World War Two and then in what became East Germany. I grew up hearing stories about her life. When I finally realized I needed to write about East Germany, I didn’t care if novels about East Germany were popular. I had a protagonist with a story that was bursting out of me, and I had to write it.
We don’t usually choose our obsessions. They’re built-in, ready-made. You don’t need to justify a love for dragons or aliens or cowboys. You just need to own it.
People used to ask Stephen King why he was “wasting” his talent writing horror. Why? Because horror is what he loves. And what exactly is being wasted? He is arguably the best horror writer in the world. Should he have ignored his obsessions and tried to be a literary writer? Would he have been as successful if he had?
Finding Your Wand
But what if you stumble into Mr. Ollivander’s store like the young Harry Potter, unsure of who you are and what you might be good at? There are a few things you can try:
- Pay attention to what you like to read. That’s often a good clue about what you might like to write. Include a list of your favourite movies and TV shows. Keep an eye out for what they all have in common.
- Try Ray Bradbury’s exercise of making lists of nouns to see what floats to the surface of your mind. What might these lists consist of? Memories. Things that frighten you, or amuse you, or puzzle you. He contends that this exercise was what lifted his work from imitation into originality.
- Do some journaling about the ideas you find yourself circling. If you look at many writers’ bodies of work, you’ll see they keep coming back to the same themes like a dog worrying a bone. Chances are you’ve got a few of those lurking in the background of your thoughts.
Above all, don’t apologize for what you write and who you are. Anything true, anything original and authentic, comes from this deep place.
Michelle Barker is the award-winning author of The House of One Thousand Eyes. She is also a senior editor at darlingaxe.com, a novel development and editing service, and a frequent contributor to its blog for writers, The Chopping Blog. Her newest novel, My Long List of Impossible Things, comes out in spring, 2020, with Annick Press. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.
Set in East Berlin in 1983, The House of One Thousand Eyes is a young adult historical thriller. Seventeen-year-old Lena’s beloved uncle, a famous author, has disappeared.
Lena will stop at nothing to find him—but she must do so in a society of ruthless surveillance and control. Who can she trust to help her find out the truth?
Have you ever found yourself writing something that “wasn’t you?” Let us know in the comments!