Since retiring from teaching Hampstead sixth-graders almost two years ago, I’ve visited the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. I’ve stared into the abyss, and was thrilled to do so, when my wife, Betty, and I stopped at the Grand Canyon on our way back from Arizona, the land of cacti, palm trees, and Gila Monsters.
I hope to always find time to travel in this new life I’ve created. There are always other vistas to explore, including in the realm of writing.
I’ve read hundreds of works of fiction during my life — novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. I’ve watched countless dramas and comedies on television and in movie theaters. I’ve always wanted to give these genres a try.
I know I can write. Nineteen years and counting as a columnist for this newspaper — and others — proves that. So what’s stopping me? Fear.
I have all the time in the world now to develop a writing routine. The desire is there, but lately it’s been mostly talk and very little action.
While we were in Arizona, I mentioned to our friend Lainey, retired chiropractor and working artist, that I wanted to try some fiction, but I didn’t know if I could do it. My prior attempts fizzled and died.
She didn’t understand. I remember she said something about how I tell little stories in my columns all the time. So what’s the big deal?
Fear that I’m not good enough. Fear that no one would want to read anything I produced. Fear that some writers were born to write fiction, and that others just don’t have the knack for it. And they’re the ones who become newspaper columnists.
But I finally did take a step or two. I bought a book on fiction writing, read it, and did all of the writing exercises on its pages. One of those exercises gave me an idea for a short story. So I wrote a first draft. And it was terrible.
Stilted characters, wooden dialogue, overblown description. Paint-by-numbers plot. Dumb.
But then I remembered what Donald Murray, the late Boston Globe columnist and University of New Hampshire English professor, told me what he did when he felt like a failure. He looked for guidance from writers who’d all been there before as well.
I pulled out “Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. I underline passages as I read, so I knew it wouldn’t be hard to find inspiration.
Gene Fowler, noted journalist and screenwriter once said, “Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”
And the following quotes from the authors of Art and Fear are just what I need to tame the negative voices every artist hears when the creative process begins: “One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential...The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.”
“Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.”
“Your desire to make art — beautiful or meaningful or emotive art — is integral to your sense of who you are.”
“In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.”
The truth is, even though I’ve written hundreds of columns for this newspaper, I’m never quite sure I can do it again the next time. But somehow I always do. Fear is part of the writing game. I’ll stare it down and overcome it again. One word, one sentence, one piece of fiction at a time.
John Edmonson writes from Londonderry.