Several years ago, when I was faced with unexpected time off between jobs, I sat down at the computer, opened a blank document, and set out to write my first story.
Okay, I thought, this is your chance to show your stuff. I had assumed I’d get an idea, be carried away by it, and end up with a short story or maybe even a book. Not in a few minutes or hours, of course. But with a few false starts and a little writer’s block, I expected to get going and land in the zone where you space out in the world you’ve created. Like most beginners, I thought the key to writing a story was uncovering it.
After waiting for a few minutes, my thoughts going every which way and the cursor still sitting on the top line, I laughed at my naivety. Up to that point, I had never read a book on writing nor formulated a plan for learning the craft, but I had three sisters-in-law who had been published, and I was hoping their success would rub off on me.
My first misconception was that writing fiction would be easy, without the need for study, discipline, and problem-solving required by professionals in other fields. I didn’t give much thought to whether or not I could do it until I actually tried. I’m reminded of two grade school girls I knew who begged to make a hot breakfast for us, their families, one Saturday morning. They seated us around the table, poured juice, and served elegant platters of toast. When the girls returned to the kitchen, we overheard one say to the other, “Now then, how do you make scrambled eggs?”
My second misconception was that writing fiction required the same skills as nonfiction, for which I had practiced all my life by writing letters. My mom wrote letters to her mom while traveling the world with my dad, and I followed her lead when my husband and I moved from place to place. Reporting our experiences was as close as I’ve ever come to journaling, in that I described unusual, stressful, adventurous, or humorous moments, many of which would have been forgotten except that she kept my letters. (Thanks, Mom!)
So I continued staring at the computer screen wondering why I wanted to write fiction versus nonfiction in the first place. Perhaps I needed to convey how the world looked from where I sat, how I coped with regrets, discoveries, joys and grief. What had worked and what hadn’t. I thought creating stories might also be therapeutic, a way to let fictional characters work through issues we all face.
Okay, I thought. I’ll go with that. But I needed a main character. Being an original and highly-creative person, I chose someone of my own age and gender for that honor. She needed, as it turned out, a name. During book-writing daydreams in childhood, I had spent hours trying on character names and thought it would be fun to finally wield that power for real. But I wearied of weeding out names of family and close friends (and my husband’s old flames) who might think I was writing about them and settled on “Ivy” for the sole reason that I liked the sound of the name.
I didn’t have any idea for a plot. Surely I could think of a scenario that intrigued me. I remembered driving with my family in dense fog on a central California freeway that, devoid of landmarks, seemed to go on forever. What if someone who was driving in the fog for hours and hours didn’t see anything familiar and didn’t run out of gas and just kept going? The idea had a Twilight Zone feel.
I quickly typed a couple pages of Ivy’s thoughts as she set out in the fog and meandered, as I did, to a conclusion. Although her only conflict was the fog, I felt a wonderful surge of accomplishment at having written my first short story. Which brings me to misconception number three, that I would know if what I wrote was publishable or not. Wrong. My delight in creating a piece of fiction overshadowed my objectivity, for which I hadn’t yet learned any analysis tools. Years later, I came across experts who advised, “Whatever you do, don’t start your story with the protagonist thinking alone in a car!” Now I know. But it makes me wonder what else I don’t know.