A Creative Crisis in Storyland

Last Monday evening I found myself in a creative crisis. I was attempting to write my first piece of fiction in fifteen years. For those keeping track, that was fifth grade. In hopes of challenging myself creatively, I set my sights on a short story contest at the local, independent bookstore. The only requirements were to stay under 1200 words and include some element of a non-traditional family. Easy, right?

After a few repetitions of slowly composing opening sentences followed by prolonged periods of my middle finger gouging the delete key, I decided it best to put away my computer and turn things over to a scrap piece of paper. My brainstorming would start from there.

I have vivid memories of myself from kindergarten through second grade taking a handful of colored pencils, a stack of handwriting paper – the sheets aimed at helping penmanship with their dashed lines centered between two solid bumpers – and unleashing the reins to my imagination. It was effortless. I would place my pencil on the page and explore. I wrote of daring adventures, drew colorful pictures, and stumbled upon unique worlds of my own creation.

Why was this so hard after all these years? For most of the night, my eyes were transfixed on a blank piece of paper. Eventually, I dove far enough into the confines of my mind to reveal brief flashes of that creative spirit…much different than creative brilliance. Creative brilliance demands years of dedication and careful practice before she blesses one with her presence. Nevertheless, despite the muse’s absence, I had uncovered what I needed to begin the creative journey.

Ideas began to ebb and flow. First idea, never. Second idea, I think I just stole the plot of Frozen. Third idea, possibly. Fourth idea, there’s something. I wanted to avoid the type of story I imagined everyone else would tell which made things that much more difficult. The theme of “non-traditional family” reeks of divorce, infidelity, and conflicts between spouses/exes. My inner hipster wanted something unique.

As I caught hold of ideas, I would jot them down. The process in my mind was similar to chasing fireflies on a summer night. I’d see a momentary glow in the distance and run over to catch it. This was followed by a period of darkness, then another glow in a different direction. I was careful not to become near-sighted and latch on to a single idea before it had time to evolve. The primary concept for my short story morphed about ten times before it settled into its final form.

By late Tuesday night, I had pieced together a rough draft. Once I hit stride in the creative process, it was amazing how satisfying it felt. Hours went by like seconds. I threw my characters into situations and explored right beside them. It felt like playing a video game where you have multiple actions to choose from and each decision shapes your character in a unique way. Every door I glanced behind offered a different scenario and challenged me, as the writer, to discover an imaginative solution.

The rest of the week was spent editing and polishing the basic story. This is where I learned more about the intricacies of writing fiction. The vulnerability of submitting my work was a strong motivating factor throughout the process. It forced me to craft the story to a point of total completion and see my work through to the bitter end. This is the only way to get better and further develop any skill set, especially when it comes to writing fiction. I’m proud to report that after a brief period of mental anguish, everything came together and the story has been submitted.

Earlier I asked how creative writing could be so hard, take that in a bit of a rhetorical tone. I can churn out academic and non-fiction papers like a machine. The formula has been beaten into my brain since middle school. Unfortunately, creative thinking isn’t valued as much as it should be in our current education system, indicative of a larger societal issue. The fact that I’ve written hundreds of papers since I was ten and not a single one forced me to challenge myself creatively should be a red flag. The solutions to some of our greatest dilemmas require imagining beyond the realms of current possibilities. Creative thinking.