I’ve always created stuff, from comic books to screenplays to novels, as long as I can remember, and it was in tenth grade that I knew I wanted to be a writer. Fast forward to me at 31. Most of my adult life had been working part time, and using that other space to write. I got a BFA in creative writing, and started an MFA. I had written numerous short stories, worked on a few novels, took an uncountable amount of workshops, and was running the Boston Book Blog. I was 31, had been doing writing for fifteen years, and had made no money off of it. Only three or four stories of the many I had sent out got picked up for publication on little-known websites, some of which shut down after a few “issues.” Rejection letters were more than I could count. The blog was gaining traction and attention, but it was still something that wasn’t bringing in any income, nor would it. I was exerting all of my effort and talent in an industry that doesn’t reward you on effort or talent. I was told by professors that my work was great but it didn’t translate in the real world. I was reading absolutely terrible stories in the publications I was sending to. It got frustrating to say the least.
In the meantime, Harvard was basically handing me a full time project management position that would take all the skills I possess and allow me to use them, and actually make good money doing it.
So I walked away from fiction writing. I did go through all the necessary identity freakout stuff, but ultimately it was a relief. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever go back, and I was Ok with that.
It’s been an interesting year. I’ve written no fiction, and have barely read any fiction. I focused on my work, which is writing-heavy (I ironically manage a blog for Harvard, too), and focused on friends and experiences. I also started exploring the role of creativity and storytelling in business, a new interest for me born from the combination of my past and present. But something was off, and I couldn’t articulate it until recently: I had no outlet. I had no space in my head for creation. I wasn’t passionate about a personal creative project. I had no vehicle with which to make sense of my world. I had a difficult year and no way to process it.
This past September I started taking classes again for a master’s degree. I was just going to take one, but in order to get my loans deferred I needed a second class, last minute, and found this class that didn’t fit any requirements for my degree program but is called “Creativity: Geniuses, Madmen, and Harvard Students.” It’s a psychology class on creativity, and one of the assignments is to read a biography on a creative luminary and then do a case study of them. I, of course, chose Herman Melville. In reading about him I was reading about the writer’s life and processes, something I hadn’t experienced in a while. Melville wrote to figure out his world, and address the big questions of existence. I used to do that through my writing too, but where I was having questions about my life, I had no outlet for that, and I was having a lot of questions. It made me miss writing. And in learning about creativity and creative people, it made me remember that I am one.
Then I went to Texas, where a novel I wrote two years ago takes place (the only non-Boston setting novel I will create), so I was thinking about that. Something was stirring.
Then I went to the Story conference in Chicago, and everything fell into place. It’s a conference for “creative professionals” (however you define yourself), and brings together writers, creative directors, musicians, filmmakers, multimedia specialists, and more to not only talk about the creative process but to inspire you in your own creative process through stories, music, talks, etc. I had the conference on my radar for a while, and was able to go this year because work generously sent me (props to how rad my bosses are!). I went expectant; I knew something was going to shift in my life. And as if they knew, here’s what I found on the first page of the program:
Every good story comes from an inciting incident. And this event is packed full of them. Not just the ones on-stage. Of course you’ll hear from the top creative experts in the world. You’ll be swept into the imaginations of storytellers, musicians, and artists. But the moments between those sessions will impact you as well. … I want STORY to be the inciting incident for a bold new narrative that unfolds in your life – one that includes bravery, taking bigger risks, venturing into new territory, and fighting the status quo. This event is meant to separate your before from your after. There are plenty of events that drill into the how-tos and should-dos, but this isn’t one of them. This conference is about rekindling your imagination. No matter what job you have or what organization you work for, you are a creator, a dreamer, and a storyteller. The world is unmoved by facts and figures. What they crave are stories.
Needless to say, I was moved. And then the first speaker was Jonah Lehrer. I remember his book Imagine: How Creativity Works coming out, and I remember hearing about the plagiarism scandal he had been involved in. He was existing in the in-between, having been forced to leave writing for an audience and others, his book pulled, his engagements dropped. He said he’s at home now learning how to write again, and finding that when there’s no audience you learn to write from a place of loving the work for itself, loving the work for the pursuit. I felt like he was talking to me.
That was the first day of the conference, a Thursday, and I was inspired. I took an epic walk after we got out down by the waterfront of Chicago, and prayed, and got excited, and thought, “Can I write again?” The answer? Yes. And so I picked one of my novels (I have ideas for three of them in my head), and let myself back into that world. That night I wrote the first fiction I had written in over a year.
The next day I actually woke up with new plot points in my head! I went to the second day of Story, feeling on a cloud, and heard more speakers and writers and artists talk about what it means to create. I was excited, moved, inspired. They closed the conference with a scene. They actually opened the conference with this scene, of a guy in bed, dreaming, film footage flashing across the screens, music swelling. His alarm goes off and everything ends, but when he grabs his backscratcher he hears the music again, and sits up to conduct the swirling image and music-filled adventure of his dreams. At the end of the conference we find the guy in bed again, but all is silent. His alarm goes off, and he gets up. He sees his backscratcher and remembers, getting excited, but when he conducts nothing happens. He tries again. Nothing. It doesn’t work. So he breaks the backscratcher over his knee in a huff, and goes to get dressed for the day. He pulls on his jeans in a fluster, and puts his hands in his pockets when he finds something. He pulls out a pen. And the music comes back, as he rushes to a notebook and begins writing. When he pulled that pen out of his pocket, I knew that’s what I need to do, in the deepest part of me.
I’ve been awash in writing since I returned, characters and research and daydreaming and writing, all the stuff I remember and all the stuff that makes up who I am. Glad to say I’m back! And more to come.