Ever thought, “I could never publish this while my mother’s alive” or “in a magazine where someone who knows me could see it” or “because my kids would think I was a monster”? Or maybe “I’m not telling the full story because it would hurt X, so I’m only going to tell this small part [which is not really a story but a tantalizing yet unsatisfying crumb]”?
Write it anyway.
I said write, not publish. Too often we leap ahead to the nightmare scenarios—“Everyone will see it and never speak to me again!”—that scare us off from the story that wants to be written. Funny how we seem to assume our most sensitive, potentially hurtful stories WILL be published—yet are plagued with doubt that anyone will be interested in the equally well-written but non-life-ruining ones.
Write it, then decide if you even want to seek publication. Maybe you’ll feel more confident once you put the words down and get feedback from readers you trust. Or perhaps you’ll decide you were right all along and aren’t ready to go public. But here’s the thing: You can learn something from writing it—about both the story and writing itself.
So write it. It won’t be wasted time.
Writing daily or once a week or on some other schedule is great. It can only make your writing and your commitment to it stronger. But if you can’t manage to sit at your desk with anything like a routine, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a writer. Those who say otherwise are ungenerous and, by the way, utterly ignorant about your life.
People go through periods when they can stick to a writing appointment. Then there are stretches when work, children, relationships, aging parents, illness, other projects, or myriad distractions prevent them from doing so. You might write occasionally, often but in snippets, or not at all (even so, you’re still thinking; something is happening you can use later). Then your life changes: You get a new job, you move, you take a class, you make friends who are also writers (encouraging ones), your kids get older, something in your right brain—or your calendar—just clicks. You rearrange things and find you’re sitting down to write every Wednesday morning or for a half hour before bed every night.
Someone tells you, “I wish I could write that often. Maybe I’m just not a real writer.”
You say, “If you write, you’re a writer.”
If it’s an expression “everybody uses,” it’s a cliché.
If it’s the first phrase that comes to mind, it’s probably a cliché.
“It’s a cliché because it’s true” is no excuse. And it’s a cliché.
If a sentence contains a cliché, no one will ever remember you’re the one who said it.
I tweeted those lines a few months ago, without much forethought, probably triggered by coming across a stale expression one time too many in something I was editing. It was no shock to me how I felt—I’m constantly telling students, “You can always do better than a cliché.” (Actually, that could be the fifth point.) What surprised me was the admonition that if a sentence contains a hackneyed phrase, no one will ever remember you’re the one who said it. The idea you’re trying to express, that is—plenty of people may remember you’re the writer who settles for clichés!
We all want our writing to be memorable. For the right reasons.
Just because it happened or is there doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
I hesitate to say that because it wakes up every writer’s doubts—even mine—that the story we have to tell is worthwhile, whether it be a personal narrative, a profile, an opinion piece, or a mystery we think merits investigation. On its own, the truism can sound like a mean-spirited obstacle to creativity, not a spur.
But the second, key part is this: You have to make something of it.
Just because it happened or is there doesn’t mean it’s interesting. You have to make something of it.
That requires, first and foremost, asking questions—either of yourself or someone else or through research. Keep asking them, even if it makes you deeply uncomfortable. That’s when you’ll get to the answers—or possible answers—that transform the idea from essentially a dinner-party anecdote or mere statement (this thing happened, this person exists) into something genuinely interesting.