By William F. Wu
I’m writing this with two longtime friends of mine in mind. I’ll call them Carol and Rick. Both were close to my age. Carol died in her sixties and Rick died some years later in his seventies, both of natural causes.
They were published writers. Carol had poems published and Rick was an author of science fiction and fantasy short stories. They met briefly through me but did not really know each other, as they lived in different parts of the country. What they had in common in my view is that neither came close to reaching their creative potential.
I’m not using their real names because I want to focus on a point about writing. Even so, I find passing judgement on other people’s lives uncomfortable. If they’re somehow watching over my shoulder, I hope they don’t mind too much.
Carol and Rick talked to me often about their interest in writing. For many years, however, Rick did not write fiction at all and Carol wrote poetry very rarely. I still considered them writers and sometimes asked if they were working on something.
Sometimes Carol would mention a notion she had about a poem. When I asked if she was working on it, “I’m not ready” was an answer I often got. When it was not said specifically, they sometimes made the same point in a roundabout way. Rick liked to talk about premises for short stories. If I asked if he was going to work on one, he would say that he wanted to write, but made clear he was not going to do so soon.
I’ve spent my adult life around creative people, not only writers but artists, singer-songwriters, and jewelers among others. All of us have plans in various stages of development that we’re not working on yet. Yes, I have projects I’m not ready to write. I usually start with notes and develop a story of whatever length – novels and short stories -- over time. Sometimes a story comes together pretty fast, while others might sit for years. The difference compared to Carol and Rick is that most of us are working on something else while we consider those projects.
Carol and Rick, after a certain point in life, weren’t ready ever again for any particular project.
Obviously, none of us has any obligation to do creative work. What I noticed with Carol and Rick is that neither would accept the fact that they did not want to write. They always insisted they wanted to do so, and would at some point, but they just “weren’t ready” at any given time. Sadly, they were never ready for the remainder of their lives.
I spoke at a weekend-long writers conference at a particular college a couple of times. Many attendees were writing, of course, and submitted finished work for critiques. I met others who were studying concepts about writing – how to plot, how to make a character come alive, and so on – in earnest. I also sat in on classes and lectures by other speakers. After one, I was making small talk with a twenty-something woman who was taking copious notes and asking pertinent questions at every talk she attended. She mentioned a genre in which she wanted to write.
I asked, in a conversational tone, if she was working on a story. She flinched, straightening up in her chair, with a startled, “Oh!” No, she had not started a story.
Because I had not meant to put her on the spot, I assured her I was just making small talk. Even so, I was surprised that she had been studying so hard without starting a story of some sort. And I was surprised that she was so surprised when I asked.
And, yes, she said she “wasn’t ready.”
She was in a very different stage of thinking about writing compared to Carol and Rick from middle-age forward. I wasn’t being critical of her in asking if she was working on something, just wondering. However, the writers of fiction I knew, including me, had started writing before and while we were learning about story concepts. In my first year of writing and submitting to professional publications, I sent off stories that, I realized before too long, were nowhere near the level of story-telling that might sell. (I did sell a short story to a regional magazine fairly quickly, but it was a one-time thing for quite a while.)
Of course, learning any skill requires starting. To play a musical instrument, pick one up. To sketch with charcoal, get the charcoal. The learning curve is different for everyone, but we can only prepare in advance to a limited extent. After all, writing isn’t like jumping into the deep end of a pool when you can’t swim. In fact, you don’t have to show your writing to anyone unless and until you choose to. In other words, sharing and submitting your work obviously can only happen after you’re writing and finishing your work.
The same issue applies to trying something new. Some writers work in one genre only and sometimes the plot, characters, or tone remain similar. Writing about very different characters and plots, and especially trying a different genre can also raise the question of being ready.
I also have friends who used to write fiction, and some who had work published, before deciding that writing wasn’t for them. Some of them were very successful. I’ve never had a problem with anyone making that choice. My concern for people who intend to write but “aren’t ready” is that they may be fooling themselves about their intentions or, no matter how supportive I try to be, they might not want to be honest with me.
The latter doesn’t matter. Whether someone writes or not isn’t my business. As a friend, however, I was concerned that Carol and Rick might be happier either writing or accepting that they did not want to write. Carol and Rick lived with the ongoing contradiction of wanting to write but not doing it for many years and they never resolved it. I should add that in a larger sense, they seemed less happy with their lives than most people. At least part of their unhappiness was related to the issue of writing. However, I have no way to know if they did not write because they were unhappy or whether they were unhappy because they couldn’t resolve the contradiction. I still believe they would have been more comfortable with their lives by deciding one way or another.
And, of course, the issue of rejections can be pertinent. Ongoing rejections can be discouraging , certainly. I still have work rejected frequently. Writing creative work in and of itself can be very personal and whether we submit it in the hope of having it published is a separate matter.
For Carol and Rick, as the years accumulated, the issue of time became obvious. At some point we run out.
For those people thinking about starting who haven’t yet, the message is simple: Get to work. Be willing to write the best you can even if it doesn’t turn out as well you want, and then do it again. And again. And remember the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall.
By the way, in writing this piece, I wrote the first paragraph and then did nothing for several days. I was thinking about what to include and how to express it – yeah, I wasn’t ready.
Then again, here it is.
If you are writing, what helped you get past the "I'm not ready?" feelings?
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William F. Wu is a science fiction, fantasy, and crime author whose traditionally published books include 13 novels, one scholarly work, and a collection of short stories. Regarding his more than seventy published works of short fiction, he has been nominated for the Hugo Award twice, for the Nebula Award twice, and once for the World Fantasy Award. His novels Hong on the Range and The Temple of Forgotten Spirits are available in paperback, ebook, and audio book editions through Boruma Publishing. His science fiction collections Intricate Mirrors and Ten Analogs of the Future, the latter being ten collaborations with Rob Chilson, are available in ebook editions. For more information, see williamfwu.com.
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