I used to compare myself to other authors. I would read a book, fall in love and think ‘this is the kind of story I should be writing.’ Then I would read another book and say ‘No, this is the way I want to write.’ And so on, until eventually every time I sat down to write it mimicked my thought process; a bunch of words strung together that made absolutely no sense.
Sometimes, I would veer completely off the original idea because it did not “fit” the mold of whatever genre or trope I was into at that time. Note to my writer self: Just because I like to read mystery does not make me a mystery writer. Just because I like steamy sex scenes does not make me a writer of erotic fiction. Just because I am obsessed with The Hunger Games does not make me a YA Diaspora writer.
I was lost. I was fearful. Worst of all, I was not true to myself.
About a month ago I was invited to a group forum for women writers of color. We made intro’s, gave each other virtual high-fives on our ideas and successes. A couple of days later I asked the women to go further into what they are writing and in what genre. There were so many exciting stories, I am telling you the publishing world is going to be lit when they are all published.
One of the ladies asked what I worked on and I answered generically, at first—I write mainstream fiction (even now I’m thinking what does that mean, right?). Then I tried to expound by adding I write contemporary women’s fiction. That I wanted to be the African-American Kristen Hannah or Jodi Picoult. As my fingers typed those words, I suddenly paused, added ellipses and said: “OR, actually be the First Me.”
What struck me the most about my response was that it came as an epiphany. Shouldn’t I have already thought this, believed this about my writing?
The simple answer was, I didn’t. There were two things I lost along the way of my writing journey and it stalled me, created self-doubt and made me wonder where I fit in.
I lost honesty and courage.
When I say honesty, what I mean is telling the truth in my words. I found that I made up characters and situations based on what I thought would sell or what was wildly popular. Because I was interested in everything, I pretty much wrote anything. I was all over the place. I had to ask myself some serious questions, and I needed to answer them honestly. I have experienced heartbreak, disappointments, humiliation, love, sadness, and dysfunction. I knew what it was like to be on a moral precipice looking down, hoping not to fall. I knew what it was like to experience inequality at work, to be a black woman in America.
Everything I needed was right there in my life’s experiences. All I needed do was to implement that truth, as I saw it, onto the pages. Truth is not conforming. When you write you have a responsibility to tell the truth. Yes, I write fiction, but fiction is still truth. Your characters are the conduit, your plot the rolling wheel.
What I learned not measuring my work by other authors and being myself is that my characters are all my own. The stories I’m writing I haven’t read anywhere before.
I believe as writers, we relate a story in one of four categories: Love, Hate, Good, and Evil.
How we interpret these categories in our works of art determine the writers we are. No matter what the genre or sub-genre, no matter how simple or complex the storyline is. What we’re doing is finding our place on the facet of the writing prism and that’s where we live.
To speak of courage, I must admit I did not have a lot of it in my writing. Even now it’s still a little bit of a struggle.
In recent months, I looked back over the stories I’d written and asserted that there was something missing in all of them and that one thing was the same in all of them, true grit. I literally read the fear in my words across the page. I didn’t push where I needed. I didn’t hold back where I needed. I didn’t put out my truth. What was I afraid of?
Yet, it’s what each of my stories needed. It’s what I needed.
What I know for sure is that courage is not always a bravado and a lack of vulnerability. It’s the strength in showing both in your craft.
I’ve become more comfortable in my writing skin. It’s a slow and steady race but in order to be the First Me and not the African-American version or somewhat like (place author name here) I had to stay true to myself and conquer my fears head on.
You can too and you will. Be brave in your writing, be honest in your writing, be the First You.