Yesterday, I went to the 3rd annual Cleveland Inkubator, a free, day-long writing conference put on by a local nonprofit Literary Cleveland. This organization began about two years ago, and in a sense, I’ve been there from the start—though I’ve only taken one of Lit Cleveland’s paid workshops, I’ve attended all three Inkubators and participated in workshops on fiction and non-fiction with a number of local writers whose work I enjoy. My face is even front and center on their marketing materials (see above). Yet sometimes I still ask myself: am I truly a writer? Or is that just what my business card says? If I’m feeling particularly flat on any given day, I follow that up with: and why did I list “writer” on my business card in the first place?
This year at the Inkubator, there were a number of suitable workshops for “agnostic” writers; that's how I like to refer to people who can’t decide if they’re writers. Another workshop could stoke my interest in the paranormal and occult. I started the day with a workshop on “Facing the Blank Page” a.k.a. the true story of my every effort to write fiction. I followed that up with “The First Page of Your Novel”—this workshop focused on how good the first pages of famous novels are and how to make your first page good enough to convince a publisher to keep reading. The last workshop I did—“Tarot for Writers”—suggested using tarot cards as a tool when you’re stuck. Not as a crutch, but as a way of brainstorming from one choice about a character to the next. All of the instructors gave practical exercises that could be applied in any situation, and they also gave advice for continuing along a writing path.
Around the time that I was in middle school, a local independent bookstore near my town sponsored a yearly short story contest. My middle school English teacher had us write short stories for the contest every year—she would choose the best two or three stories from the class and then submit them to the store’s contest. I’ve written before on this blog about how, as a small child, I wrote stories all the time, but this contest was different. We came to expect it. We let ideas marinate over time knowing when the contest would again become the subject of our lessons. The most beautiful part? We were allowed to write about whatever we wanted, and this teacher, like many other writers I’ve met since, encouraged us to write what we knew.
What I knew as a fifth-grader was that I really loved my cat, Mayflower, and I wanted him (yes… him) to be some kind of superhero. So I wrote a ghastly short story about an alien cat with superpowers, to which my heroic teacher responded with unmerited grace and kindness. It did not make the final cut for the store’s contest.
What I knew as a sixth-grader was my then very active passion for medieval history, the remnants of which now mostly serve to inform my consumption of Game of Thrones. This knowledge, combined with an especial interest in the Black Death, meant that my protagonist was a young girl, about my age at the time, who began the story by walking the streets of her village as a cart rolled by with a man yelling, “Bring out your dead!” This, too, did not make the cut, but was more successful as a story.
And what did I know as a seventh-grader? My tremendous interest in grisly moments in history remained, and this time I wrote my story about the Salem Witch Trials. Again, my protagonist was a girl, around my age, forced into nearly impossible circumstances. And this time, my teacher chose my story to move on to the store’s contest.
The bookstore has since closed, and I am not aware of any similar opportunity for kids that age in the area. But while it lasted, it meant that there was at least one time a year when a routine could be followed, a story cranked out and put up for review. It meant that, when my high school English teacher made a similar demand for a short story, it was a matter of flexing a muscle that’s already in shape. When she asked specifically for historical fiction, I wrote a story about a little boy who accidentally becomes embroiled in the Black Sox scandal—in that case, baseball was what I knew.
My point here is this: writing is a habit, and one that you need to practice and hone. Anyone will tell you that, but it’s one thing that I knew for certain when I was writing my dissertation. I didn’t always fool around with daily word goals, at least not until finishing was almost at hand. I did, however, make sure that for as many days as possible I was in the library trying to write between 3pm and 8pm—these were the hours I did best at writing. The words usually flowed the best when I had been reading all morning and could actively rework the thoughts and concepts I had just read.
Today, in my morning workshop, I had a long-needed moment of epiphany—a moment so clear that I can’t even remember what triggered it now. But I understood that I do, truly, know all the habits and techniques that it takes to write, whether that’s a novel or a non-fiction book. Or blogging on a regular basis. Or finally admitting that maybe it's time for me to go back to that dissertation, which I loved. I just need to get that muscle back in shape.