Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Starting from Scratch and Writing My Own Story

My favorite TV movie is called My Sexiest Mistake, and it stars Sabrina Lloyd as a romance novelist who is suffering from writer's block. It's hinted throughout the movie (and she doesn't realize it until the end) that the reason she's struggling to finish her latest romance novel is because she doesn't really want to write it; she wants to write her own story. When she finally does, the words flow out of her, and she finishes her book.

I was watching the movie again recently (it's no longer being shown on TV, but fortunately, I taped it) and it was something that I could relate to because I finished writing the manuscripts for two chick lit novels months ago. There were several good scenes in both stories that I am proud of, and I am fond of the characters that I created. But it took me years to finish both stories, and even after all this time I am reluctant to send them out because there is something about both stories that doesn't ring true for me. I finally realized why.

I realized that although I enjoy writing fiction, what I enjoy most of all is writing creative nonfiction. When I go to bookstores, the authors I am drawn to most are the creative nonfiction writers: authors like David Sedaris, Dave Barry, Mindy Kaling, Jen Lancaster, and so on. I especially like the ones who write funny stories about their own lives, and sometimes, as Ruth Reichl put it, they "embroider" the truth in order to make their narratives flow more easily. I've always admired (and occasionally studied) the ways they can make something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store or taking their dog for a walk sound hilarious and interesting. It's something I've always tried to do in my own writing: make the ordinary sound extraordinary, by making it funny.

Last year, I took a one-day writing workshop at The Porch, which is a writer's collective in Nashville. One of the writing prompts that the teacher gave us was to write about "home". I'd been living in Small Town for a year and a half at that point, but I was still homesick for Chicago, the city I'd lived in and loved for more than a decade, even though it's also the city where a guy picked his nose and wiped his hand on my coat when we were both on the El. So in that class, I started writing down bits and pieces of what I remembered

After the class, I put away what I'd written and tried working on my novels again. But it wasn't until recently that I pulled out those pages I'd written about Chicago. The words started flowing again, and I wrote more and more.

I wrote about how one way to distinguish the tourists from the locals in Chicago is that the tourists often pause and remark about how loud the El is as it rumbles on the tracks above them, whereas the locals don't even look up, because the sound is a natural part of their urban soundtrack.

I wrote about how isolated I felt in graduate school because it was like junior high all over again: cliques that I couldn't join or fit in with and parties that I wasn't invited to.

I wrote about how it took me almost a year to realize that my best friend of more than a decade no longer wanted to be my friend. They kept saying that they were too busy to hang out, until I finally stopped asking. I wrote about how crushed and sad I felt, but eventually I understood the reason for this former friend's withdrawal from my life: we had outgrown each other, and there were things that we both did that bothered each other. I couldn't forgive that friend for what they did, especially since they never apologized or acknowledged how hurtful their actions were, but I understood why they did it.

I wrote about how I never stopped marveling at how beautiful the city was, and how I would go for bike rides by the lake, walk around the Loop, or visit a neighborhood like Chinatown and Greektown and eat the food while listening to the different languages being spoken around me.

One common theme that connected a lot of these memories of Chicago was the loneliness I felt for years, and how I sensed that it was a feeling that many Chicagoans felt, despite the millions of people around them. That theme helped me pull those sketches together into a story that flowed more naturally.

I found a literary magazine (I think it's called Creative Nonfiction) that is hosting a contest where the theme is "Home", and the deadline isn't until May. I'm planning to revise my Chicago story and submit it to the contest. It probably won't get picked, but I figure it's worth a shot.

I've also been writing about the dates I went on with guys from online dating sites, and that turned into a separate story that I realized I also wanted to write: a memoir about my experiences as a member of seven different dating sites (not at the same time, of course), as well as my attempts to meet guys through a church group, a speed dating party (in hell, you have to go to a speed dating party every night), and other social events. I started writing about how if you look back on my dating record, what you'll find are a series of bad dates, failed relationships, and unrequited crushes on guys who just weren't that into me. I wrote about how I wondered if the problem wasn't the guys but me: that maybe I was incompatible with everyone, and how each unsuccessful date made me feel more and more alone.

I've sent out stories to literary magazines before, and one thing I've learned is that they consider blog posts as "previously published" material, which is why they refuse to consider them for publication. It doesn't really seem fair, especially since I'm lucky if I get more than a few dozen hits on my blog every week.

But I don't think there's a rule about using those same blog posts for a book. After all, that's what Karyn Bosnak did when she wrote a book about being in debt, and that's how Jen Lancaster started out as a writer after she lost her job and started blogging about unemployment. It made me think that maybe I could go through my old blog posts, pick out and revise the ones I like best, and turn them into a memoir or a book of essays and title it (wait for it) Obsessions of a Workaholic.

I'm not going to throw away those novels I wrote, but for now, I'd like to focus on writing and sending out creative nonfiction. It's made my writer's block a lot easier to deal with. I also figure that since this is a new year, it's a good opportunity for me to get a fresh start on writing my own stories.

What about you? Have you ever shelved (or thrown out altogether) a story that you'd worked on for a long time? Which genre do you prefer to write in?

10 comments:

  1. Blog that have turned into books are pretty big at the moment. I love the way to write about your personal life - home, dating etc - with a perfect blend of humour. I think that contest sounds right up your street (Is that a UK saying, I'm not sure?) Doesn't it feel great when you find your niche?

    I've just finished writing a novel that I first started when I was 18-ish - a VERY long time ago now. The characters, story, and location changed, but the premise is the same :-)

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    1. Hi Annalisa,
      Some of my favorite books were based on blogs, like the Broke Diaries, which was written by Angela Nissel. She wrote a blog about what it was like to be a broke college student, and she made things like buying ramen noodles sound entertaining.
      I think it's interesting to go back to a novel that you wrote when you were a teenager, especially because it's like a time machine that takes you back to when you were eighteen.

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  2. If you've found your niche, I'm super stoked for you. It took a lot of experimentation for me to settle on my area of focus. That "all alone in a crowd" feeling? I totally had that while in NYC too. I called it the living-in-a-closet mentality. You can be rubbing elbows and still stuck in your personal closet of the city, completely isolated.

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    1. Hi Crystal,
      I've only been to NYC once, but I like your description of the living-in-a-closet mentality. It was different in Small Town, where it seemed like everyone's closet doors were wide open to each other, or at least they were expected to be.
      And I think that creative nonfiction might be my niche, especially because it comes more easily to me than fiction.

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  3. I can relate to this. I thought i wanted to write paranormal romance, but where my heart really was was fantasy. I might even try more genres. I think go for it. You are a great writer. Your posts are always entertaining and I always laugh when you tell us about some of the bizarre things people do around you, though I guess you don't mean for us to laugh at them. But definitely write the stories that resonate with you. You have so much potential. Cheering for you.

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    1. Hi Murees,
      Thank you! You are an awesome writer too, and I'm not just saying that because we're blogger friends. :) And I'm glad that you're laughing at what I wrote because I want people to laugh; I like comedy writing . And I think it's fine to write in more than one genre; a lot of writers do. For example, Judy Blume writes both YA novels and books for adults.

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  4. This is great!! There is nothing better than writing from the soul, unforced. I wish you luck, my friend!!

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    1. Hi Tammy,
      Thank you! And that's the thing about fiction writing; some of my writing did feel a little "forced", like it wasn't believable to me. And if it didn't ring true for me, it probably wouldn't for readers either.

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  5. I did a little creative non-fiction for Flaming Crimes. I gave all of my experiences and memories to my characters. It was a lot of fun and so much easier to write. Now I have to write about a blizzard, something I’ve never experienced and now I’m stuck. I’ve experienced hurricanes, so Hurricane Crimes was easy. And I’ve had many nightmares about tsunamis, so Tsunami Crimes was surprisingly easy. I never realized that could be the reason why I have writer’s block for this last book until now. Huh...

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  6. Hi Chrys,
    Hmm, although it does snow a lot here in the Midwest, I've never experienced a blizzard either; if I did, I'd tell you what it's like. :) I like the idea of giving your experiences and memories to your characters; after all, they are part of you, so in a way it makes sense that they would share your life with you. I think it would be tough to describe a tsunami; I have no idea what that would be like.

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