In the past eight months, I have started writing two novels. I have yet to finish either of them, and until now, I thought I knew why.
All this time I’ve thought I was stalling their conclusions because I was overly attached and didn’t want them to end. Or I was too emotionally drained to endure the effort it would take to compose those final pages. Or maybe I was stressed beyond belief and just didn’t want to finish what I’d started.
But it turns out my unfinished projects have nothing to do with an unwillingness to deal with my emotions or uncontrollable life stressors, though those are certainly factors that make finishing a book probably much more difficult than it needs to be.
No. I’m just afraid that the stories I’m telling will reveal way more about myself than I’m ready to shove out into the world. At least, I have yet to admit I’m getting closer to being ready. I think.
Forcing yourself to be vulnerable is not a prerequisite for good writing. But in my experience, it does completely change the writing experience. For better or for worse, I’m still not sure.
I can’t explain why, within a span of five months, I started writing two completely separate stories that spoke directly to the most sensitive areas of my life. These are topics I do not talk about publicly and have deliberately separated myself from. At this point, I’m still not quite ready to talk about them in a way that associates them with me directly.
I started writing these stories not as a way to “come to terms” with these issues, but instead because I felt pressured by my own ideas to turn my past pain into a narrative. No one forced me, and I suppose if I really didn’t want to listen to my gut, I wouldn’t have had to. But these stories were calling to me, almost begging me to write them. I don’t think I could have said no if I’d tried.
Why am I scared of being so open about these things, even through my fiction? Because I’m a human with feelings. Uncertainty terrifies me. I don’t know how my life might change if I decide to be fully honest about the things I have never talked about to any of my audiences.
It’s not: “I don’t want anyone to know.” It’s probably more along the lines of: “I want to tell this story but I want to tell it right, and I don’t know if I’m doing it right.”
Which isn’t any easier, don’t get me wrong. But still.
You might argue that if you don’t want to tell a particular story you don’t have to. And I’m not going to disagree with that stance. Just because something happens to you doesn’t mean you have to turn it into a story, and just because you have an idea for a story doesn’t mean you have to actually sit down and write it.
But in my life I’ve encountered some stories that I did not choose: They chose me. I think there are some stories that just attach themselves to you and never let go, and one way or another — publicly or privately, however you want to go about it — you have to give them the chance to unfold and be told.
Some stories just need space to grow.
If you don’t want to be a direct part of that growth — if you don’t want to be at the center of it — you don’t have to be. But if you are the one telling the story, being “in it” at least a little bit is inevitable.
Technically, it’s impossible to write without leaving pieces of yourself behind. As a writer, you are present in everything you compose whether you want to be or not. This is true even if the trace elements of you are only visible to those who know you. You’re still there. You can’t avoid it.
And not just in your unique writing style or your perspective on particular issues, but in the way you see the world and the things you have witnessed throughout your life.
Real-world events big and small inspire stories all the time. That’s why I make it a point to remind you, as often as I can, that experience is the only way to write good stories. You can’t just sit at your desk and expect to grow — not as a creator and definitely not as a person. You have to Do Life. You have to see things, hear things, learn things. Talk to people. Explore.
Maybe a lot of us are afraid of opening ourselves up to the world because we don’t know how. I could very easily post a Tweet that reveals my unspoken truths in less than whatever the current allotted number of characters is, but that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel like enough.
Also … it doesn’t have to be formatted in a way that says, “I am X.” “I experienced X.” “I live with X.” It can be. It doesn’t HAVE to be.
I’ve always believed that you don’t necessarily have to tell “your” story to tell your story. It doesn’t always take a carefully constructed personal essay or a YouTube video to get a point across. If you want to personalize it, that’s your call, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But there’s no rule that says you can’t put a fictional character in similar circumstances to yours and expose your readers to the events and associated emotions you experienced. Some people prefer to do it that way. It’s not the right way or the wrong way or the best way, it’s just one way.
In case you weren’t sure, it is one hundred percent okay to realize you are still figuring out who you are and/or who you want to be. If stories help you do that, embrace them. If creating helps you do that, go all in. Always remember that if you’re not ready to share what you discover, you don’t have to. You can keep your creations, your revelations, your self-acceptance, private.
But if one day you do decide you’re ready to open up, you don’t have to do it alone. I’ll support you, even though I don’t know you. And I’m sure other followers of this blog, fellow writers who might have some idea of what you’re going through, will too.
Be who you are, or do what you have to do to find out. Don’t be afraid. No matter what you do, there are always going to be people who disapprove. Those people don’t matter. You do.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.