A couple of weeks ago I finished the first draft of my novel, and paused to take that single breath of victory before diving back into battle. At first, I’m nervous to use the word battle, because I fear someone will tell me to relax or not to struggle. I myself used to say I preferred effort to struggle. But I love telling stories, and in telling the most meaningful stories, I find that struggle is not a bad word. A good story always has a conflict, and a conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. So when I write, I create battles and feel battles and communicate battles of one sort or another. Actual war does play a role in my book, as does family betrayal, sexual violation, and racism. So the idea of storyteller as warrior might make some sense.
I’ve been accepted to a juried workshop at Aspen Summer Words—juried, meaning I had to compete with other writers for a slot. I almost hate to use that word, compete, because whenever I meet other writers I always feel a sense of kinship, even when we write about different things. I also believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. Still, there were only so many slots and I filled one of them.
Now I feel this strange responsibility as I work on my submissions to present in the workshop and to present to the agent and editor I’ll meet with at the conference. I want to continue earning this slot, and whatever achievement lies ahead, through hard work, experience, and the skill that comes from those things plus true love—for I do truly love this battle called writing. Yet I also want to be authentic, not catering to my idea of what others might expect, but just striving to be the best of me. I thought I would spend a few hours polishing the pieces I wished to send, but it has now been days and I’m stuck on the same chapter. The chapter’s conflict needs to be clearer, so I expand it. The pages need to be fewer, so I shorten it. I can’t decide which parts the reader needs to know, and which parts only I need to know. So I find I am in conflict with myself.
This is all okay, this apparent lack of peace. Such is the career I’ve chosen. I write about conflict, and in so doing I face my own conflicts and the valuable lessons they have to offer. Plants compete for sunshine, animals compete for food, humans compete for work and opportunity. This all contributes to conflict. We also face conflict within ourselves as we make choices in our lives. Writers take that a step farther as we make choices in our stories. I find myself revisiting many of my past real-life conflicts as I make choices for my fictional characters, because in many ways they are extensions of myself—even the bad guys who rationalize evil deeds, which can be a tough thing to accept. As I write about them, I discover what I believe and what I myself have learned from conflict.
What is it I have learned from conflict this time? I’ll let you know when I finish the story, but right now it seems to be about the importance of having a sense of home, and how when we lose or leave our homes we still have the power to create a new idea of home for ourselves.
Though I find value in taking workshops, sharing my story with fellow writers and readers for feedback, and working with agents and editors, it turns out that the story is still up to me. I stand in the midst of a fictional world full of people, yet I fight their battles alone. The characters look up at me when someone hurts them or when they hurt someone else, and they ask me what to do. Often I must give them bad advice for the story to keep going, for it is in their missteps and their losses that I remember and discover all I have learned from mine.
I finished my first draft and enjoyed that victory in battle. But the war isn’t over yet.