Trying to write

Going to college did a lot of great things for me. I met a lot of absolutely wonderful people, I had the privilege of training with one of the best collegiate cross-country ski teams in the country, I ended up going to London, Greece, and Turkey and seeing and experiencing hundreds of amazing things there that I otherwise would never have done. I had a lot of fun learning physics and doing physics research, and did well enough with it that I had more choice in graduate programs than I knew what to do with. I got to take some really interesting classes outside of physics that have fundamentally changed the way I perceive the world. I learned a lot about how to interact with people, as a leader, a follower, a colleague, a teammate, and a friend. I was intellectually challenged and pushed to improve my critical thinking skills and my techniques to express my ideas in an academic setting.

My four years at college also killed my creative writing.

As a middle-schooler, I started creative writing because I was under-challenged and kind of bored. In 6th grade, my first year at a brand-new charter school with a focus on the arts, my homeroom/English teacher assigned a packet of vocabulary exercises each week, containing a variety of exercises for a list of about 15 words. Most of these were words I already knew, since I had spent basically all of my free time up to that point reading every remotely age-appropriate book I could get my hands on. Additionally, we had to use each word properly in a written sentence, staple that to the back of the packet, and hand the whole thing in the following week.

The first round of sentences I wrote started out pretty boring:

1. Max absconded to Canada with the entire contents of the hallway vending machine.

2. Jonathan aspires to be a massage therapist.

I didn’t want to come up with 15-ish different names, so I re-used some of them when I saw a connection between words:

3. The police were baffled by Max’s mysterious and sudden escape.

4. Unfortunately, Jonathan bungled his practical entrance exam to massage school and has to wait a whole year before  trying again.

By the end of the sheet, most of the sentences had something to do with Jonathan’s quest to become a massage therapist (I was doing my homework while carpooling back from ski training, and my friend mentioned at the start of the drive that, yes, he might want to become a massage therapist). As it turns out, making a coherent story using only sentences with the week’s vocab words in them is kind of hard. I asked permission to write a few extra sentences in between, if I wanted to, so I could make future stories flow better. My slightly bemused teacher granted this, and the next set of sentences I turned in ended up being five double-spaced pages of the musings of an RAF pilot between bombing missions.

If that sounds like an odd choice of a focus, I have to confess at this point that my family had been watching a lot of Hogan’s Heroes, a very silly 1960s sitcom set in a German POW camp in WWII. One of the characters was a British RAF pilot who had been shot down and ended up in the camp. Guess what happened to my hero a few weeks later (after bombing Dresden, which I had seen as a site of WWII bombing in our family dictionary and written into the story with the help of some very depressing research; having recently read Slaughterhouse-Five, I can say that 11-year-old me didn’t do the event justice)?

Yes, I got my writing start in fanfiction. I did change the names of all the characters (not by much, in some cases), and I never wrote about anything that happened in the show. This is partly because my protagonist spent a lot of time thinking about how the war was going in general and whether his family was doing well (because those topics seemed to work well with the vocabulary words that I had to keep including in the story), and partly because I had some self-respect, and I didn’t want my teacher to think I was just copying down stuff from TV and passing it off as my own story.

In the middle of April, the teacher announced that she was handing out the last vocab packet that day. I believe I went up to her after class and asked if there were any more packets that I could do on my own and keep handing in, please, since I wanted to keep writing my story. She said no.

The last chapter of my story about this silly POW camp had the commandant find out about the protagonists’ involvement in an escape plot, report it to the Gestapo, and ended up with them all getting driven out to the countryside, made to dig a mass grave, and then shot. (Or, as my father and I are fond of saying, “they all got run over by a truck.”) I was disappointed with my ending, but I didn’t feel motivated to continue writing without the packets, and everything had to be resolved somehow.

When I sadly handed in my last chapter, the teacher encouraged me to write my own story over the summer.  I got started with world-building right away, deciding that I really wanted to do a fantasy novel, laboring over a map of my fantasy world (I’m so bad at drawing that I ended up just tracing parts of the coastlines of Ireland, Australia, Cuba, Spain, and Russia as the outlines of continents), coming up with names for cities and characters, and desperately trying to come up with a plot. I even wrote a couple of chapters, but then I stopped. I had realized that everything I was doing was incredibly derivative and unoriginal. The names of my characters were mostly from a giant book of world mythology, the cities were barely-changed names of actual cities, the name of the continent was “Aminor,” which I was my favorite scale at the time. I didn’t really know what I wanted to happen in the plot and the parts I had actually planned out were basically a Lord of the Rings ripoff. I didn’t write anything else that summer.

This is getting to be kind of long, so I’ll just say that I got over it eventually and kept doing creative writing for school whenever I could, which was pretty consistent in middle school but pretty much stopped entirely by high school. I moved on to writing long and elaborate backstories for my Dungeons & Dragons characters, and yes, I realize how ridiculous that sounds, but it was all good fun. I had discovered the Legend of Drizz’t books by R.A. Salvatore (courtesy of my friend who had aspired to become a massage therapist, actually) and decided that if this guy could make a career out of writing D&D fanfiction, then I had nothing to be ashamed of. My group’s dungeonmaster, with whom I still keep in touch, recently sent me the backstory I wrote for one of my last characters, a drow warlock named Shivra. It’s not exactly good, but it’s not abysmal, and it gave us both a good laugh when he brought it up again. I envied the other members of the group, who seemingly came up with lively characters without even trying: the psychopathic dragonborn warrior who fought with a lightning spear and wore a child’s skull as a hat. The mischievous halfling rogue who stole half of the party’s gold while he was supposed to be keeping watch. The chronically depressed bard. The ice-climbing dwarf who fought with two picks. The samurai-ish warrior who didn’t speak Common, so he communicated with the party via a magical book. I loved playing elves too much, so Shivra (an ex-prostitute who killed her last client due to a personal vendetta and went on the run from the law) was about as interesting as my characters got.

At any rate, I haven’t really written anything since I went to college. I’ve had plenty of ideas (especially during finals week, for some reason) and jotted down outlines and notes, but there’s always been too convenient an excuse to leave it for later, and when I come back to them, they seem as stale and unoriginal as my first attempts at writing about Hogan’s Heroes and Aminor. I read Neil Gaiman’s excellent essay on inspiration and writing yesterday and it was both interesting and inspiring.

This is a resolution. I’m going to pick an idea and write. Even if it’s unoriginal. Even if it sucks. Even if I feel silly doing it. I don’t want this part of me to die.

So here’s my response to the title of this post:

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