Turns out when you study your craft you have to look inward a lot and say nice words about why you subject yourself *ahem* choose to do that thing you do. Here's my story.
Finding the Path
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I found my calling. And I ignored it.
As a teenager if you told me I was going to be a career student I would have slammed my door in your face. Well, to be honest, I might have done that anyway. Like most teens I was moody, and you were likely interrupting my precious reading time, or keeping me from writing endless sappy poems and stories about someone else’s childhood. School was something I tolerated, though my grades would tell you otherwise. The liars they are. I enjoyed English and History, worked in the school library between classes, spent time at the public library after school. The universe put out the call. I pressed mute, assuming it was spam. I wandered Santa Monica Community College for a year, taking everything from Psych 1 to English to Math and some things in between. Got a job in accounting and then quit the college life. At least that was the plan.
As it turned out college was not done with me. For several years I would get jobs, they would end, I would return to my education looking for the answer to the proverbial question: what do I want to be when I grow up? Technically, I hold two degrees, and am currently working on my third. In reality I’ve gone back to school four times. Got my Associates in Business Management, got another job in accounting. Job ended, went back for my Bachelor’s in Business Management, got another, bigger, better job in accounting. You can see what’s coming next. Job ended. Went back to school for a Bachelor’s in Visual Communications, never quite landed a job after that.
During that time, I continued to write. Mostly non-fiction, for an online publication centered around pop culture and entertainment, and for the Paramount Pictures Employee Newsletter. It was when my job at the studio ended that I decided not to turn to continuing my education. Not right away, anyway. At Paramount I worked in the Motion Picture Marketing division where I was exposed to creative people and their varying creative jobs. I was dealing with numbers and invoices, while all around me people were designing posters, others were writing clever taglines, writing and editing teaser trailers and designing web sites. When my job was eliminated due to a merger I decided, for the first time in my life, to stop pressing mute on the universe’s calls. It did not go well.
The ‘industry’ as it were, is full of nepotism and favoritism and I had neither on my side. After six months of struggling to find trailer and film houses who would allow me to flex my writing skills with no prior experience and no one on the inside who would go out on a limb for me, I went back to my default plan. That’s when the Visual Communications degree came into play. If I couldn’t write the poster’s taglines, maybe I could design the pictures that went on them instead. It was a flawed plan. Unlike the other times I’d gone back to school, a new degree did not result in a new job.
A short diversion, if you will allow. Somewhere between the ages of nine and thirteen I began showing signs of an underlying disability which had previously not been prevalent. It started as muscular weakness in my right leg and has gradually turned into my reliance on a wheelchair and a speech impediment that makes it hard to understand me, and not just because I’m weird. My family did whatever they could to keep my life as normal as possible. I went on countless camping excursions with the YMCA, went to school like any other kid, got made fun of and experienced life as normal as humanly possible. I am very lucky. My family has the means and the willingness to let me succeed and fail at will. My reluctance to become what I was meant to be rests solely on my own shoulders.
Reading and writing were, and continue to be, my escape from reality. Because of this I turn to fantasy, horror and science fiction, both in what I choose to consume as a reader, and what I choose to write. As Orhan Pamuk wrote in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, “…in novels…we find the sensations and experiences that are missing from our own lives” (123). I grew up on Stephen King and cemented who I want to be today by consuming copious amounts of Young Adult fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian fiction. For some, including Mr. King, this may be considered a fault in my fiction writing education, the classics are the gold standard for a reason. As a young woman I was molded by Star Wars movies and horror novels, as an adult I took full shape reading Dystopian YA Fiction. My fictional friends are Katniss Everdeen, Bella Swan, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Tris Prior and Clary Fray. I had a brief encounter with Holden Caulfield at some point in my life but have never made the acquaintance of Fanny Price or Anna Karenina.
Whether by choice or by design, my long-term memory is foggy, at best. When I am able to access memories of my reading life, there are two that stand out clearly. In one, I am sitting in a small trailer on my aunt and uncle’s property after an explosion rendered their house temporarily unlivable, during the hottest summer in Colorado’s history, reading Misery. The other comes much later. When a friend suggested I read Twilight, I brushed her off. I was much too old to be reading about teenaged vampires. Shows you what I know. Not only was Twilight the beginning of my journey as an avid YA reader, the series reminded me about my desire to be a writer for the rest of my life. Though I understood what critics were saying about Stephenie Meyer’s writing style, it afforded me the ability to say, out loud, for the first time in my life “if she can do it so can I.” As Pamuk pointed out in his collection of lectures: “We write novels not because we feel we understand life and people, but because we feel we understand other novels and the art of the novel, and wish to write in a similar way” (183).
While Pamuk was most certainly not referring to books about supernatural teen romance, it was when I discovered Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters series that I truly felt ready to do the thing they do. Clare’s ability to create compelling characters and her adept worldbuilding skills pushed me further into hoping someday I could to do that too. It was at this point I found BookTube, a community of YA readers and writers, which then led me to NaNoWriMo and finally to this moment in my writing career.
It may seem as if I am down on education and have turned to continued learning as a way to avoid any real life. That is not the case. I crave education and have enjoyed every moment of my time as a student. The crux of the issue is the lengths to which I went to avoid what I now know is a viable life choice for me. Pursuing my Master’s in Creative Writing is the final step on that path. It is no longer just a fantasy or that thing I’ll never achieve. Today, the words I could not say out loud flow like water. I want to be a writer. Ursula Le Guin put it in better terms than I ever could in Steering the Craft: “To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it” (Introduction).
Taking the Path
Now that we’ve established how I got here, let’s talk about the project I am currently working on. Hell on Earth is the story of Tyler Jones, a young man who is the key to saving the world from certain doom at the hands of Lucifer, who is determined to find a way back to the mortal plane in order to lay it to waste. Tyler is a reluctant hero who is angry at God for both abandoning him at a crucial time in his life and for allowing bad people to do bad things to him.
The story originated from a writing prompt which suggested the writer think about having to rescue a friend or family member from Hell. I took the idea and worked backward. How did that person get to Hell and who were they before they got there?
Just like my choices of reading material, there are clear themes to all my writing projects. They contain but are not limited to end of the world scenarios, and there is always a hero with an ability he is either not yet aware of, or not yet in control of. Reluctant heroes are my life blood.
Hell on Earth began as a NaNoWriMo project and turned into a ten year effort that spans four books, each written for the yearly event. It combines my love for the supernatural with my questioning of God’s existence, my anger at his ignorance to the pain and suffering in the world, and my own life as a person dealing with a disability with no name. NaNoWriMo is the perfect writing exercise for me. Although many people spend the months leading up to the November event plotting and planning out their stories, I do not. Thankfully there is no right way to write for NaNo. It’s not how you write, it’s that you write.
Tyler’s journey allows me to explore several themes I have been fascinated by over my lifetime. Religion, good versus evil, and blurring the line between what all that means. Two of my favorite book series explore these themes in their own way. Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy explores the world of angels and demons while also exploring the idea of what it means to have a soul. While Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series centers around angel/human hybrids who are tasked with keeping the balance between good and evil intact, it also reminds us that our definitions of what it means to be one or the other can be blurry.
Both Taylor and Clare have an admirable ability to weave beauty into their words, and both are extremely adept at worldbuilding and character description. In revisiting their work, I am reminded that my use of sarcasm and humor to defuse what my main character is really feeling came directly from their influence.
From Daughter of Smoke & Bone:
"Brimstone didn’t approve of her tattoos, which was funny, since he was responsible for her first, the eyes on her palms. At least Karou suspected he was, though she didn’t know for sure, since he was incapable of answering even the most basic of questions." (Taylor 44)
Where Taylor writes Karou as a teen in a world she’s unsure of, Cassandra Clare’s Jace Wayland is a seemingly strong, sure of himself Shadowhunter who turns out to be just as damaged as the rest of us. It is exchanges such as the following that I turned to in order to make my character seem like he has a better grip on life, when he really doesn’t:
“Have you fallen in love with the wrong person yet?” Jace said, "Unfortunately, Lady of the Haven, my one true love remains myself." ..."At least," she said, "you don't have to worry about rejection, Jace Wayland." "Not necessarily. I turn myself down occasionally, just to keep it interesting.” (Clare 345)
Like many before me I started my writing career as a reader who dabbled in storytelling in my free time. My passion for young adult dystopian fiction lit a spark in me that my education in fields that were not my true calling never could. Although I didn’t spend a lot of time in the classics section of any library or bookstore, I spent a lot of time with authors who were right for my particular journey.
My thesis project is inspired by the curiosity, experience and influence from my personal life and the books, movies and television shows which have shaped me. Storytelling, in all its forms, has been my way of both escaping the world and making sense of it. Though I used to believe writing was something other people did for a living, today I am taking steps to ensure it is the thing I do for the rest of my life.
Clare, Cassandra. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. New York, McElderry Books, 2007.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.
New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015.
Pamuk, Orhan. The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist. New York, Vintage Books, 2011.
Taylor, Laini. Daughter of Smoke & Bone. New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2011