Apologies for the slightly later blogpost this week. I had something I especially wanted to write about, so I took some extra time to think it over…and it still ended up being too hard for now. Today’s post is the easier option. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to take on the bigger challenge.
Today’s post comes out of some thinking I did while driving home last night from a rehearsal. I don’t know if you find the same thing, but driving can be wonderfully meditative and very helpful in untangling mental knots. Especially night driving over peaceful back roads; I make a point these days to take the long route home from my Wednesday evening rehearsal, because I love the rhythm of these particular roads and how the yards and side streets slip past in the dark. It creates a good space to let the mind open up.
I was thinking about what it has meant to me to come to writing relatively late, and in a way I think of as “sideways.” Specifically, I was thinking about the experience of learning what sometimes feels like the invisible rules of the writing world, the things we’re “supposed” to want and achieve. And what it’s like to realize that not all of those things on a perhaps more typical writing path make sense to me.
Why that word “sideways”? Mostly because I didn’t start out to be a writer. It was my earliest ambition when I was a kid, but it’s easy to get away from those first ambitions. I came back to writing after finishing grad school, starting to work professionally as a musician, and getting married. Life was on a particular track and I thought I understood the whole shape and direction of it. And then I decided to get back into my old childhood interest…and, like you find in a good story, there was a plot twist.
While learning about the writing craft, I’ve pretty much only done things because I wanted to. I started working on a Master of Arts in fiction writing because the coursework looked so interesting. Then, partway into that program, I decided to try a summer writing workshop because that seemed like exactly the kind of intense immersion that I needed…and afterwards, I decided to leave the MA program and save money instead for more of those summer workshops. I went to my first conference because it felt like the kind of growth that needed to happen at the time. I never had any particular strategy with any of the things I did, other than to learn as much as possible, in the ways that made the most sense on a gut level.
It hasn’t been a traditional path at all: thus, sideways. I didn’t train as a writer in college or grad school; I don’t have – and never will have – those three coveted letters “MFA.” I was a strictly-literary writer for a while, because I liked telling real-world stories and, let’s be honest, those are the kinds of stories the big-name literary journals like best. Literary writing has a certain legitimacy that genres – crime, mystery, fantasy, etc. – don’t always equal. It’s never been my favorite kind of work to read, though, and eventually it made less sense to write only that. As I’ve gotten deeper into this world, I’ve run into more invisible rules about the kinds of things we’re supposed to want and do. More often than not, they don’t mesh with the sideways writer I am.
I like to follow rules. Rules are safe and make the world look orderly and predictable. Funnily enough, though, I can be very quick to rebel against them if they seem to push me into a shape that doesn’t feel right. Rebelling is uncomfortable and scary. Sometimes I feel like I’m just being stupidly stubborn, but some piece of my internal wiring demands it anyway.
As I’m figuring out who I am as a writer, it feels more important to me all the time to stay on my own sideways path, doing things my own way. I don’t necessarily want to go to a conference or a workshop because it’ll look good on my resume; I want to do it because it can make me better at the craft. I don’t necessarily want to write only real-world stories: my writer-voice is settling into a blend of literary and speculative, where my characters are real people but the worlds they move in are somehow infused with magic, and I love that. I don’t necessarily want to try to create what other people might expect or want from me. As daunting as it feels, I want to find those readers who are eager for what I have to give, and on a good day, I believe those readers are out there.
It’s scary. Often, I can’t help but wonder if being so boneheadedly stubborn means I’ll never really get where I’d like to go. Sometimes, though – like last night on the quiet dark roads – I look back over how things have gone so far, and feel better. I have a long way to go, but this path is meant to be a journey for life. I have a lot to do, and some of it feels very big and far away, but I’ve learned a lot already and had some fun and done some things I’m proud of. That counts.
It’s easy to get caught up in what the world tells us to do, especially if we like to follow rules. But Bill Watterson said it very well:
“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”
Sideways people, let’s celebrate our unique paths and know there is nobody else just like us. The world needs us the way we are. It’s challenging to make our own rules, but I do think we’ll be happier for it.
photo by Paul Faatz