It’s almost 2 a.m. and I’m staring at a blank piece of paper. My pen hovers over it, then slowly draws a single letter. I continue to write until I’ve written a paragraph, but when I look back, I feel unsatisfied. I scratch the paragraph out and turn the page, where I can still see the imprints of the previous words and the lines that covered them.
I haven’t written anything in almost a year. Well, I have written some things — assignments and essays for classes, news articles and even columns for The Daily — but I haven’t written fiction for almost a whole year. Fiction is where my love of writing first came from, as the desire to write was created by books I used to devour in elementary school. I would read everything from fantasy to historical fiction, but always stayed within the most exciting part of the library — the fiction section.
As a child, fiction was not only a form of entertainment, but also a form of escapism. Nothing ever happened in the Midwestern suburbs where I grew up, so fiction added some sense of intrigue into my daily life. I would read about kids who were my age defeating crime lords in London, about underground fantastical worlds full of mystery and excitement while I waited for my mom to pick me up from school. And as I kept reading, I started to want to write as well, trying to craft the worlds that the authors seemed to do so easily in the books that I read.
I started to write my stories in a pink composition notebook that I used for school. I don’t remember much about these stories — written when I was only eight years old — but memories of forests filled with blue-leaved trees and haunted graveyards still influence my writings today. It’s in every child’s nature to create something, and storytelling was my way to channel that creativity and communicate with the world around me. I would reread and edit the stories that I had written and give them to my older sisters, who would point out things that I could fix or add on to. They would always make sure to praise my work and as I grew up, writing became something that I was known for within my family and school circles — it was the first thing I became good at.
I lost the pink notebook sometime in elementary school, so naturally I graduated from handwritten fiction and resorted to typing things down. Stories felt better if I typed them, because the flow of creativity seemed to come more naturally.
I wrote my first long-form piece on a computer when I was 12 — a novel about space politics. Even though I was in middle school, I wanted the piece to follow the conventions of science fiction by commenting on real world inequalities through the lens of a fantastical world. It was influenced heavily by the dystopian novels that were popular at the time, and therefore suffered from their pitfalls (mainly predictability), but it was something that I devoted myself to for years.
Now, the plot makes me cringe — a president trying to improve the class standing of the laborers on the moon while a universal war looms overhead — yet I can’t help but remember how I would run to the computer lab to work on it after school. Writing a fantasy like that, while creating a whole new world with its own set of rules, felt like a puzzle that I had to design and solve. I obsessively crafted maps and timelines and planned entire character trajectories out in a notebook, eagerly awaiting to type them on the page.
After almost a year and a half of working (and two rewrites), I gave up on the story. I don’t know when the breaking point was, but I remember giving up during the editing process, around page 100. The plot, I realized, was unforgivable and the characters were boring. I even got bored writing about them, so I buried the document in a “previous works” folder and never looked back.
I didn’t write for a long time after abandoning the project — my creative impulses stuttered to a stop as the storyline (the only one that I had thought of for years) was no longer interesting or profound to me. Many YA fantasies featuring politics and rebellions were written every year, and my story blended in with the rest of them. Coming to this realization marred my experience with the project, but now I know that it’s a natural process when it comes to writing. Not all stories are meant to be one-of-a-kind, poignant pieces. But in eighth grade, I didn’t realize that the work I produced as a teenager didn’t need to be my magnum opus.
My whole life has been spent in these cycles of high and low creativity. I’ve constantly struggled with wanting to write something without having a concrete idea. I know the drill by now because I’ve heard it countless times — that in order to get better, I need to at least put something on the page. But sometimes even that little step seems impossible. Writing fiction is different from all the other types of writing that I do; it’s different from the writing that I’m doing now mostly because I haven’t developed a formula for it. I’ve been writing columns for years so I generally know how they should be structured, what my tone should be and if there’s a mistake, it will be caught and fixed by the amazing editors at The Daily.
With fiction, though, each story is a different challenge, and each character has its distinct tone. The difficulty comes with writing as something more than myself. I have to keep in mind that characters do not think like me, that they have backgrounds and thoughts distinct from mine. When writing fiction, I need to make sure that I am doing that fact justice and separate myself from a character that I am writing.
Part of my writer’s hesitancy also comes from my own expectations. I have always wanted to write something profound, something that will move people — a feeling that I know that many other writers share. I can’t just write anything; I want to write something genuinely good. And with these expectations, it’s almost impossible to put anything on the page, because chances are that idea isn’t good enough. I always think back to the untitled, unfinished novel I wrote in middle school, an idea that I didn’t deem to be good enough after 100 wasted pages.
During these moments of uncertainty and doubt, I force myself to remember why I started writing in the first place. Writing something for it to become a ground-breaking piece wasn’t an expectation I always had for myself, but rather it occurred gradually over years as I thought it was one of the only things I was good at. In the beginning — when my work was as simple as a character running through a forest with mysterious leaves — I only wanted to have fun creating a new world. I want to write like that again, eagerly and without care for how the plot or characters will be perceived. And yet when I try to write again, I feel the same doubts creeping back in. The only way to stop them is to keep writing, resisting the urge to scratch out the lines I’ve written. Once I’m able to accomplish that, I know that I’ll be taking a step into becoming the writer that I want to be — one that can write something in the first place.
MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be contacted at email@example.com