What I Learned While Writing a Novel

What I Learned While Writing a Novel March 13, 2019
Source: pexels.com

The title may sound self-congratulatory, but it’s truly not meant to be. It’s just that this morning I finished a work of fiction I have been working on since I was 18, and needless to say I have all the feels.

When I started this novel, I was in between high school and college, struggling with my identity in every possible way, and found this beguiling plot-line (much more of which remained the same even to its final version than I expected) as the lifeline keeping me afloat in the turbulent ocean of my life. Writing out the outlines, starting on scenes, writing the first three or four chapters felt like a fantasy that would never flesh out to anything further. I didn’t give myself permission, or authority, to be a writer simply because I wanted to be. I wrote what felt good at the time, and stopped for many years. Truly, as the years went on and I began to forget about that original outline that I’d dreamt of and wrote down (no, that’s not a joke; I literally dreamt what would become my story), the idea of finishing it in any kind seemed as fantastical as it was to call myself a writer.

It’s funny how life has a way of throwing us crumbs of the bread we long forgot about, and once we find it, we’re overjoyed and saddened that a meal was left to waste for so long. It may have grown a bit stale, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be salvaged, or used to make something better. As it was, that was what happened with me–I came across a scene from a completely separate story I’d tried to get off the ground (a bad habit of mine as a writer–easy bait for someone overwhelmed by the possibility of those accursed twenty-six letters), and suddenly found a connection between those scenes and my earlier ones–and my novel was born anew.

Having found my footing again, I started writing. And, for the first time in many years, outlining. There were so many things happening at once, I couldn’t possibly remember them all, so I started jotting it down. (I may or may not have done this in college classes that bored me to tears while I was pretending to take notes, but I digress).

But it wasn’t until after life really struck me low, when I was left at the worst of myself, scraping at the dirt and the soot for something to hold onto, to keep me alive, that I found the energy and the will to give to this novel to take it to its completion.

And, along the way, I learned a few things.

One of the hardest and the most sobering for me was the reality of how little I thought of myself, or my writing, and that my self-hatred stemmed far beyond my physical appearance or my social misgivings. Many writers I know struggle with perfectionism–I wasn’t an exception. And, like many others, it kept me from writing. But worse, it made me hate myself when I did write–I could hear in the back of my thoughts (whether it was simply me abusing myself or something darker abusing me, I still don’t know for sure) all the nauseating things about my words–all the terrible ideas my words would cause–that I was throwing my penny into a pond full of quarters, not noteworthy enough to be noticed apart from the rest, but similar enough to the competition to simply be seen as a cheap mockery, or an imitation for flattery. Too dramatic, too rambling, too short, too in-depth, too clichéd. My eyes burn even listing these things, because for years that’s all I ever heard in the internal dialogue of my thoughts when I tried to write words to a page.

The second life lesson that the journey of this novel brought me through was a lesson in charity toward myself. Even describing my failings and misgivings in the last paragraph, it’s clear to anyone how little I thought (and, unfortunately, still think) of myself, and that leaked into my writing, but not in the way I expected. One of my characters (who took much more after me than I’d intended, and poor thing did she suffer for it) was constantly berating herself, belittling herself, putting others ahead of herself to the point of self-harm, and never allowing herself even the basic comforts in order to function as a whole human person, and ultimately, as a woman. I found myself placing her in situations where she was forced to confront this destructive part of her behavior, and instead of having them punished, she was comforted, and reminded of her worth, her loveliness in heart and in spirit, and her unique person that she had forgotten about–all of which I desperately needed, even if it was through witnessing someone else’s healing.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say walking this journey with my characters, but especially her, didn’t leave me in tears over my keyboard more than once.

Confronting past traumas, righting wrongs done me, and finding my own happy ending in the eyes and the hearts of my characters was truly one of the most therapeutic and comforting things I’ve ever encountered in my life. That is not to say that my characters (or their individual, or coinciding plot-lines) fall into Mary Sue territory or simple wish fulfillment. On the contrary; when good things happen to my characters, there is almost always something monumentally worse that follows which makes them have to fight even harder for the good that they’ve found. But when they find the good, it is VERY good. They bask in it and enjoy it (usually) and live their pleasure in the present moment, which is an incredible thing to witness for someone who lives in perpetual PTSD fog and struggles to answer the phone most days.

Ultimately, however, the most incredible thing about this journey has been the family in my characters I’ve found. There something to be said for the cliché in the creative life that says, “The characters seem so real, you wish they were!” Anyone with a true fandom (I’m hollering to my own fandoms here–Supernatural, Lord of the Rings, X-Files, Doctor Who, Disney) will understand this feeling, but if the creative notion (as in creation) is foreign to you, this may be confusing. But the characters, when you’ve sat with them long enough, take on a life of their own as they develop their own flaws, their own joys, their own hearts and minds that sets them apart from (and yet somehow mimics) the lives of the people around you. They become a part of you, until you feel each of their pains, their worries, their joys as though they were your very own.

As I neared my novel’s completion, the last thing I expected was the grief and the mourning that would consume me.

When I say consume me, I mean that I subconsciously used life stress, work stress, and other excuses as a roadblock to finishing the work that held so much of my heart. I was so terrified of coming to its end that I didn’t let myself reach it for months. If I’d realized this sooner, this post would have been written about six months ago. But I realized this and forced myself to confront the pain I felt, and boy did it come in waves.

I began to grieve the process that I had become so accustomed to–the mystery of the character’s interactions, their lives unfolding before my eyes as though I were the only one privileged enough to witness it, and living my own heart’s wiles in the hopes and dreams of characters I wished I could only know better. When I reached the final three chapters, I started tearing up while writing, mourning already the thrill of the unexpected, and fearing the different kind of work that would begin after I was done.

But then, all of a sudden, I was done.

I had even typed the words. “The end.” I hated them, but I knew they were lying to me. I was far from being finished with this project, knowing full well that formatting and editing would take up more than my fair share of time over at least the next year (if not longer). And yet, beyond the anger and the hatred of the finished work, beyond the sorrow and breaking heart I now had to nurse (and am still nursing), I had done it.

I had done what I had told myself, both outright and internally, what I couldn’t do. No, this isn’t the first novel I’ve written, but it is the first one I’ve finished that had all the markings of being another forgotten creative work, just another long lost Word file tucked away until I happened upon it, just to regret not having taken the idea to fruition.

The novel itself may be TERRIBLE (and, as in most first drafts, it probably is), but it’s completed. And my journey in this world is only just beginning, and now I know for down the road when I convince myself I can’t finish something, that I can’t write something, that I know I can. I have proof of it. Even if I’m never able to publish it, even if every word is trash and throwing it out would be an easier task than editing, I can at the very least look back at all these pages and be comforted by their reality.

I’m so grateful tonight for the gift of tears, for the heartbreak and excitement I now get to indulge, and for the markings of the journey of the last two years of my life that I can pinpoint as I read my draft.

I’m so grateful for the words on a page, whether written or typed, and the life that comes from them.

Tonight…I’m just so grateful.



Image source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-hand-paper-pen-261470/

About Jennifer Riley
Jennifer Riley is our co-leader. She’s an emotional writer, engulfing people in her tidal wave of life experiences and interpretations. She’s a bad Catholic, a good sinner, and a pernicious writer who tries to find who she is to herself and to God through her words. You can read more about the author here.
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