When I started graduate school, everyone around me seemed to know what they would write for their thesis. One third semester student said, "Know what you want to write right away. If you don't start your thesis your first semester, you're going to fall behind."
I was fresh off my application interview, where I had stammered through an answer to what I would write for my thesis. I spit out scattered words about nature and sense of place and examination and analysis...good old fashioned B.S.
"I just wondered if you wanted to write a memoir or essays," my interviewer said.
"Oh, well in that case, essays." I couldn't imagine writing a book-length anything.
I ACCIDENTALLY WROTE A MEMOIR
Then came time for my first assignment. I wrote about a trip I had taken to the Yucatan Peninsula with my then husband because I wanted to be a witty travel writer--Barbara Kingsolver meets David Sedaris, if you can imagine such a combination. I did not want to write about marriage or relationships.
But a funny thing happened every time I tried to write: a subplot crept in. I was unhappy in a lie-in-bed-and-wonder-if-I-was-dying kind of way. And because I didn't want to admit it, I wrote 30 pages of slop to arrive at the 15 pages of mess I turned in.
Luckily, my professor was patient. He sifted through my pages and took the time to figure out what my story was about--a woman trying to make sense of her life, not just a trip to Mexico.
By the time I finished grad school, I was divorced. And instead of writing travel stories, I had written a book about marriage and relationships and starting over. My mentor told me it was time to start using the M-word. And you know what? I was okay with that. My writing and my life had both evolved into what they needed to be.
THE SECRET TO WRITING: BEGIN AND LET GO
Now. The lesson in my story is not that writing will upend every aspect of your life (insert sigh of relief). Most often, you will sit down with the intent to write about marriage or travel or cooking, and that's what you'll write about. And after you've written about it, you'll still be married or single or live in Minnesota or Colorado and the basic tenets of your life will remain intact.
But writing that memoir taught me two very important things: if you want to write, simply begin. Then let go of the outcome.
No matter how convinced you are of your topic or your story--be it novel, memoir, essay or something else--it will take on a life of its own. It will morph and grow and change as you write it. Your job is to shepherd the piece through that process. To guide that story, not control it.
And (here's the best part.) If you don't know what that story is yet? Write anyway. You'll find it through the simple act of putting the pen to the page--it will reveal itself.
LET'S PRACTICE: WRITE A STORY WITH ME (AND MAYBE WIN A BOOK!)
Letting go is not always easy. Neither is starting--especially if you're a Class Act Procrastinator like I am. So let's practice together.
Below you'll find the first paragraph of a short story I wrote. It's your turn next. Write the next paragraph in the comments section. If someone beats you to it, write the third paragraph. If one paragraph seems to end the story, start another. It doesn't matter if you're a fiction writer, a playwright or an essayist. Don't worry about good or bad writing. Just have fun. Begin and then let go.
Once you participate, I'll enter your name to win a free copy of a book by a dear friend of mine: Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood by Kate Meadows. Kate saw me through grad school, standing by me during a time of great change, and her book is a testament to bravery and courage and figuring out who you really are. Tomorrow, I'll polish up the story and post it on the blog, and announce the winner. Here goes (it's a bit dramatic. But let's just be dramatic together):
Seta had gone into the closet once, nine months before, to show Bethany the box where it sat on the shelf. They were on their second bottle of wine.
“Don’t you want to put it somewhere nicer?” Bethany asked.
Seta didn't respond. Just turned off the light, walked to the kitchen and corked the wine.
Now, a thin layer of dust coats the grey plastic box. She pulls her sleeve over her wrist and wipes it clean. For a moment, she feels guilty for keeping it there. Then she picks it up.
(See the results of our story HERE.)