A Multitasker in All But This

Recently Stephen King wrote an essay for The New York Times in defense of prolific writers.  For every Barbara Cartwright, whose 700 books argue that quantity is inversely related to quality, he cited an Agatha Christe (91 books) and an Isaac Asimov (500+) whose body of work begs to differ.  Some writers, he explained, simply have so many stories in their heads that they can’t help writing a lot of books.  Writers like himself, cursed with “a thousand ideas, but only 10 fingers and one typewriter.”

Poor guy. With a mind like that, it’s a wonder he’s only managed to write 55.

If I sound a little defensive, it’s because am.  After all, I’ve only written one novel, and that one took me six years. I’m no Marilynne Robinson or Jonathan Franzen, either, who spend a decade writing Pulitzer Prize winners. I simply don’t have a lot of ideas. Even the one I’ve had — the one that became Once We Were Light —  had to be practically beaten out of me.

It started when a friend invited me to join her writer’s group. I’d talked about writing a novel forever, so it seemed like a great opportunity to finally start one.  But for six months I contributed nothing to that group but critiques of the other women’s work. I didn’t even bring the muffins when it was my turn to bring the muffins. I was, quite possibly, the worst writer’s group member ever. At home I stared at my computer in despair.  What was wrong with me? The other writers had stories practically falling out of their pockets — blogs, short stories, essays, novels, memoirs, even poems. Not me. Maybe, I thought, I just didn’t have the creative spark required to write a novel.

Eventually the writer’s group had had enough.  They told me to go away and not come back without ten written pages.  And muffins.

Well.  I don’t know where Stephen King’s thousand ideas come from, but for me, that was what did it. Two days before the next meeting I sat at the computer and told myself to write something. Anything. And, to my amazement, a scene slid out of my fingers like butter from a hot pan. In it, a woman stood on a dock with two girls, waiting for a school bus to drive across a frozen lake. It was totally made up. It was fiction.  I was elated:  I could do it, after all.  Apparently, all I’d ever needed was a deadline.

It was terrible, of course. In fact, six years later, I’m still not a good enough writer to describe the subterranean levels of terrible those pages plumbed. But there was a story in there. How did the woman get to that frozen lake?  What did she want?  As I told her story, another emerged, the story of the great-aunt who’d left her the lake house.  Through these women I began to explore themes that have always mattered to me.  The complicated bonds between mothers, daughters, and sisters, enriched by loyalty but fraught with rivalry and sometimes the cruelest of betrayals.  The way our family legacies shape our lives.  Most of all, how (and whether) women find the power to save themselves.  Years passed.  My children grew from elementary schoolers to high schoolers. The cat got old and died.  Then, when I couldn’t make the book any better, I sent it to New York, where it got me my wonderful agent, Michelle Brower.

Along the way, I learned that how I created this book was not so unusual after all.  Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light We Cannot See from a single scene, where a young German soldier, trapped beneath rubble, turns on a shortwave radio and hears something that changes his life.  It took Doerr ten years to tell the story that scene begat.  One of my teachers, the brilliant Alice Mattison, spun her book Nothing Is Quite Forgotten In Brooklyn out of a scene in which four women sit in bathroom stalls at the opera, and one of them has an epiphany.  It took her years, too.

Of course, there are many writers with the fertile imagination of Stephen King.  But it’s comforting to know that there are also plenty of writers like me, who glom onto one rare and fleeting idea and, through sheer doggedness, delve into as many of its nuances as we can until we manage to wrangle a novel out of it.  As King said, all writers work at different speeds, all of us have different sources of inspiration, and “in the end, none of us is prolific. The creative spark dims, and then death puts it out.”

Okay, so that’s kind of depressing. But it also gives me a strange sort of hope. Because for six years, I wrote one book. I wrote it as well as I could, which is better than when I started, but not nearly as well as I would like. Soon I’m going to write another. I will sit at the computer, and I will write a scene from a new story. One that will be told all in its own time, and all by itself.

All I need is a deadline.

The following two tabs change content below.
After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

Latest posts by Heather Young (see all)

This article has 15 Comments

  1. Dear Heather,

    Its so nice to read your story of how you got started writing. One scene, a lady waiting on a dock for a school bus that had to cross a frozen lake sounds to me like a very interesting beginning. I can’t wait to learn more about your book that took you 6 years to write.. Hmmm so you needed a story scene deadline and made the muffins for your writing group, or they said don’t come back – that’s tough and a great start! I am somewhat of an artist, with a block that has lasted for years since even before my husband died two years ago. A good online FB friend just sent me some motivation and a push that I need to get started. …So everything happens in time. Welcome to the Deb Ball, and I want to hear about your book! Best to you ! :)!Carol

    1. Thanks, Carol! I’ve always been fascinated by how creative people (artists, writers, etc.) find their inspiration, especially since mine has come so infrequently. Sometimes, I find, creativity needs a hand from the mundane — in the form of a deadline, or muffins!

  2. It’s fascinating to hear a different side of the challenges of writing, the tormented muffin-less side. I’ll be intrigued to hear how the writing of the next novel goes, what kind of scene from which you conjure it. In the meantime, I hope you learned how to bake a muffin!

  3. I love the blog topic this week– it’s so fun to discover where everyone’s story was born. Six years in motherhood time is nothing 🙂 Can’t wait to read it!

  4. I love that you also didn’t bring muffins–the ultimate act of rebellion!
    This is an excellent example of how helpful writers groups can be.
    I cannot wait to read it!!!!

  5. Heather, as a plotter, I am FASCINATED by the idea that a novel could start from a scene. I can’t speak for the Stephen Kings, but the way it works for me is that the novel comes out whole. Like the whole idea in a paragraph. But if you blow it up to novel size, it’s all pixillated. The hard part for me is SLOWING DOWN enough to tell the story at a novel pace. Describing a scene, a character, creating a mood. It’s like pulling teeth!! And anything that includes muffins has got to be a good thing…

    So looking forward to the book!

    1. Isn’t it interesting how differently we all work? I stretch the novel out from the scene, but when I do, it’s thin and watery. I think of it as a broth to which I need to add vegetables, meat, spices, noodles — all the density and flavor that will take it from from broth to soup to a nice, chunky gumbo.

      Ironically, I’m a terrible cook.

      And don’t get me started on the elaborate analogy I’ve concocted between editing and delousing.

  6. Am loving hearing how you all came to write your novels this week! And it will be interesting to see what happens with book 2 for you … My first novel took 6 years. It was a mess, and is still in a drawer. But it taught me HOW to write a novel. What it takes to create something from a germ of an idea. My second? First draft = 3 months. My third (and first published)? Four months. My fourth (and second published) = Four months. I’ve now sorted out a process, which involves a crazy detailed synopsis before I even write a word, and that works to get a first draft out quickly. Of course, none of this is counting revision time, which on occasion has taken twice as long as first draft. So there you go. And if you want it, I have an easy banana muffin recipe 🙂 (I’m a stress baker!)

    1. Karma, I am astounded at the speed of your first draft process!! I tried at one point (maybe about two years in) to create a synopsis in the form of a giant posterboard full of little rectangles representing each chapter, with colored lines representing different themes and causations and characters running between and through them, and it looked like something so Beautiful Mind that my husband told me I should burn it or the NSA would raid our house just on principle because anybody that strange had to be plotting against the government. I learned from this that synopses are just not my way. I wish they were, because I can see how they would make things go faster.

  7. Yes. And no. I need a deadline to begin. But a deadline to finish? No way. In fact, I had already decided to tell my agent to reject any two-book offers that came in from publishers, because I’m sure I’m going to need at least three years to write my second book and I didn’t want the pressure to get it done sooner. Crazy, right? Fortunately, nobody made me a two-book offer, so this was never an issue!

    Also, Karma, I forgot to say I would love your banana muffin recipe!!

Comments are closed.