Then you edit.
This is what I say to my students over and over:
1. If you are writing, you’re a writer. Period.
2. Forget perfection and go for glorious fecundity: fill the page, with your editor turned off.
3. After you’ve no more to say on the subject or story, turn on your editor.
4. You have two hats: writer and editor. The first has to happen before the second goes to work.
5. Be wild! Be unrestrained on the page!
6. Editing can do wonders to bring shape and form to writing. But it cannot work with a blank page.
Many times, students who tell me they suffer writer’s block are afraid to tell their truth on the page. I understand. I’m still struggling with an issue or two I haven’t yet been able to handle. But I’ll get there. You will, too, if you keep writing. If it takes therapy, that’s a good idea.
Our greatest works often came through trauma. Alice Walker wrote on this subject beautifully, as did Audre Lorde. Maya Angelou wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because she lived it. Toni Morrison dove deep into African American history and channeled family stories to arrive at Beloved. James Baldwin, nearly all of his work, for heaven’s sake, is steeped in tragedy. Mary Karr has also written about another kind of trauma. Sue William Silverman is the queen of writing difficult stories. Look them up.
It’s no accident that some of our great writing on trauma came from Black people, but every person, even the white stay-at-home mom with 1.5 kids and a middle class income, has conflict and tension in their lives. That conflict, that tension, is the hook on which many stories are built. I love Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, because, yes, it has trauma, but she writes against the poor Black folks stereotype, and there is also joy in her story.
This is not to discourage you from writing joy. Joy is the other side of our will to live. Both are needed in our literature, as in our lives. But some tension attends even the greatest joy, because that’s the nature of our world. While I am sipping coffee with foamy milk and eating a bagel, someone else is suffering, is dying, and not that far from me. How I process that fact is everything. Sometimes we snatch joy from the jaws of trauma, so trauma does not win.
This is all to say—write the whole story, as best you can.
Getting your story down, even if it’s difficult, is a fabulous feeling. When I wrote the scene in Eve’s Garden in which Evangeline dies in childbirth, I walked the floor for weeks at all hours, wrestling with my memories of my own mother’s stories about her first pregnancy, which ended tragically, though not in her death (which had been close at hand). Evangeline’s story is the flip side of my mother’s story, a tragic tale that happens to many women the world over and is happening before our eyes right now due to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Whatever you’re dealing with, take the time you need to get it down and get all the help you need while processing it.
I know you have it in you.
Write the outside edge first. Then work toward the center. What’s the big idea? Whatever it is, commit to it, rake over its coals for the tiniest spark, and make the page sing it.
Turn yourself inside out on the page! You’ll be glad you did, and someone out there needs to hear it.
If you have a favorite story that you find incredible, that you can hardly believe could be written, let us know in the comments below. We all need inspiration!
Love and all the angels in heaven help you. I’m out.
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