Writing in the midst of life

After graduating college early, I devoted a year to writing. I decked out my office, bought a new desk, and attended my first conference. I wrote a middle grade novel that…wasn’t really about anything. While I had all the time in the world, I lacked experience, the kind that would make my stories mean something.

Enter life.

I met Shawn (my husband-to-be), moved to another city, got a full-time job, and started becoming a grown-up.

I still wrote—until we had a baby.

Although I occasionally found a burst of motivation and a pocket of time in which to put it to use, my focus lay elsewhere.

Now almost seven, Ellie has grown more independent, and I’ve reclaimed enough brain space to yearn for a creative outlet. So when the time for New Year’s resolutions came around this past January, I decided to recommit to my writing. Seeking time that would be free from distractions, I set my alarm for 5:15, prepared to chip away at my work-in-progress an hour at a time.

Then a funny thing happened: I loved that time so much, I found other opportunities to write. Working in a crowded dance studio waiting room or hearing My Little Pony in the background might not be ideal, but I wrote within the realities of my life today.

I was surprised by how quickly I finished the first draft of Dell’s story. Partly, it’s because the idea stemmed from something I do every day. Undoubtedly, I would not have written a story about a girl with cancer if I hadn’t taken a job at an oncology-focused advertising agency.

Similarly, when Shawn, Ellie, and I starting performing random acts of kindness throughout the year, it was because I wanted to offset the pile of gifts I knew Ellie would get at Christmas with regular reminders to be grateful for what she has and to do things for those who might not have as much. I didn’t anticipate these experiences making their way into a book, but my next YA novel centers on exactly that.

I named my blog Writing in the Midst of Life because I recognize that I have to carve out moments for writing now. But it’s not just about finding time to write; it’s about what drives my stories—what I think about, the questions I need to answer. Life gives my writing its heart.

Why I write: it starts with a question

At the heart of my best work is a question I’m compelled to answer for myself.

Sometimes it’s a challenge of craft. With my short story “Going Up,” I wondered if I could write a piece in which characters interact without speaking. I used different fonts to represent the distinct thoughts of eight people sharing an elevator and to illustrate how we can find connection simply by opening ourselves up to those around us.

Other times, the question is a matter of perspective. In “The Apple Tree,” I wanted to find out if I could surprise readers by revealing the true nature of the relationship of the narrator—a father—with his daughter.

And lately, with Dell’s story and others that are percolating, I find myself striving to delve into characters’ pain with the goal of pulling something positive from their struggles.

When I think about my projects, I ask myself, “What is this story about?” I don’t mean the plot—that’s the superficial answer. Because there’s a bigger issue I’m grappling with, what the story is about is why it means something—why I have to write it and, hopefully, why others will want to read it.

I think great stories answer questions we all have in some form or fashion. That’s why they resonate. I want to answer the questions that keep me up at night, in a way that lets me sleep tomorrow. Writing is cathartic—I’ve experienced this many times as a reader, and by using it to face my own emotional demons, I’ve seen that it’s true on the other side as well.

Not everything in life has a happy ending. But if I can write books that celebrate hope, gratitude, kindness, and love—in spite of, and often in the midst of, hardship—I am encouraged to live my life the same way. Because ultimately, happiness is what it’s all about.