How Manga Changed My Writing

How Manga Changed My Writing August 5, 2019

For years, I just thought I had something akin to ADHD.

I could not focus on one thing for long to save my life. It was like that for years (and still is; I have two other pages open on my browser that I’ve switched to multiple times while writing this). I would bounce from my laptop, to my tv, to my phone, to the nearest book, to the music on my headphones in a matter of minutes. When I went to college, I found a way to make this work for me–if my professors knew how many times I’d stop mid-paper and browse Facebook, they would have reconsidered how they graded me.

I still got done everything I needed to, and when the need pressed, I could ignore that urgent, anxious voice in the back of my head that told me to bounce from song to song, from book to book, and power through what I had to. But even then, it was like holding a hand over a screaming mouth, a voice that never allowed myself to enjoy the moment, the present, in what I was doing and what I genuinely wanted to become enthralled with.

It was an anxiety and fear of even daily activities like listening to my car radio and brushing my teeth.

It was an expectation of terror and trauma in things that normally had nothing of the sort.

But I realized as I grew older that it wasn’t just an inability to focus–I had hyper-vigilant focus when I had the mind–it was a terrifying fear of the stillness.

Of being still, and letting the world speak to me, in whatever I was doing. In facing in the daily interactions of my life the Divinity that spoke to me in the silence that I’d often encountered in meditation and contemplation.

To be able to sit and breathe in the air without trembling.

To let my heart break over a film, or a book, or a song, without fear that I would drown in that pain and end up in a heaving panic attack. Which, admittedly, has happened before.

As silly as it sounds, I didn’t realize how often this affected the quality of my writing, especially my fiction. One of the profoundly difficult, and incomparably beautiful, parts of fiction, (especially relational fiction which is my sweet spot), is having to be in the moment–in the stillness and the reality of that moment in order to fully capture what the characters are doing, feeling, thinking, and to be able to retain that and portray it to the reader.

Naturally, the anxieties and terrors of my daily life spilled into my writing, in more than just subject matter.

I had a grasp of basic character concepts, of plot details I wanted to include, but the daily interactions–the moments when you really get to know your characters beyond the shell of them you start out with–were beyond me. I could not pin them down, and it took years for me to be able to flesh out anything substantial. Your characters speak to you in that silence I was fleeing far more than they do in their words, or even their actions–in those moments when they are alone, or even just silent, and your grasp what their being is. If you cannot find that stillness in the world of your characters, it will be a lot harder to figure out who they are.

Now, that is not to say that this the only way to do it–writers tend to take well-meaning advice or anecdotes as sure-fire lists of how to write, and use those as baseball bats against other writers who have a different process that works for them. That is not what I’m doing here, and I’m thrilled if you’ve found a way that works for you. But I still want to share what I’ve discovered, because it changed how safe I felt in my heart while writing, and how I finally felt brave enough to sit with my characters, in their place, in their world, without fear and without anxiety.

Often, I’ve found that these moments of stillness didn’t make it into my final draft–but while editing, I discovered how grateful I was for these scenes, even if I removed them from the original narrative. I discovered that I could get to know my characters, let them speak in their own voices in their own ways, far better when I let them be themselves in their daily moments that I wasn’t able to do for myself in my own life.

This didn’t happen overnight, however, and not in the way I expected. And I didn’t even realize it was happening when it was.

Here’s where the title will start to make sense, I promise.

Manga, or Japanese graphic novels, are popular around the globe. They can be all at once incredible works of fiction, creative insight, artwork, characterization, plot, and are as addicting, and as popular, as American superhero comics.

What makes certain genres within manga different than superhero comics, for instance, is their emphasis on the moment. 

The glance, the sigh, the shaking hand, the held breath. The stare out the window–the gentle touch.

And what’s more, you can’t just skip these panels in a manga; if you do, you will miss subtle, but vital, moments and attentions to detail that have a lasting impact on the story. You have to live in the moment to make it through the plot, which gave me far more healing than I could understand at the time.

There are plenty of manga that are much faster, that pace differently so as not to bog down in daily events or in subtle, unspoken character development or plot twists. But, ironically considering my daily personal difficulty, I prefer the ones that hone in on the daily life, the often-missed interactions and details of body language, eye contact, etc.

In my opinion, the best manga are the ones that have both–seat-grabbing, nail-biting action and heart-wrenching, sob-inducing emotional moments of exchange in the times of stillness.

Manga, like candy, is hard to stop once you start. Especially when you find manga apps that give you English translations for free (MangaRock is fantastic, by the way). I’ve read through SO many over the years; so many haunt me in their poignant beauty and heartbreak.

The more I read, the more my heart felt free to be—and to feel the moment, the sacred stillness of a world I was suddenly a little less afraid of.

And I found that my writing was changing.

I found my character’s were full-blooded, living creatures, just waiting for me to write them down.

They were there, in the daily moments, in detail I could see and comprehend and portray.

They weren’t fleeing me in rushes of action or tragedy that were forced or outside of the storyline–they were real, as real as they could be, and I noticed that I could see their facial expressions much clearer than I ever could before.

I could pinpoint their moments of quiet fidgeting, their hesitations, their reactions to others around them, in ways that had eluded me for years.

Not only had manga given me the ability to focus on the daily moments with my characters, but I could finally picture them in my thoughts because of the plethora of facial expressions, emotions, moments of interactions that manga flourishes in.

What is that old phrase? “When the pupil is ready, the master will appear”? I guess my teacher in these subtle moments I needed so badly for my writing was far different than expected, but I am not any less grateful for it.

I guess it also speaks to the reality that all us writers face, all day, every day: finding that drive to keep going when writing is the last thing you want to do—which can come to you in the most unexpected of places.

If you’re in that place right now, I hope you find your drive soon.

Don’t give up.

Keep going.

The world needs your creation and your work.

And don’t be afraid to be open to the strange ways the world likes to show us more of ourselves, both in our words, and out of them.



Image source:

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 find her writer page at You can read more about the author here.
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