It was hard to call myself a writer back then. True, I loved putting words on paper, and yes, I was eager to express myself through language. It was my art, but, like a novice painter, I was rough with my brushstroke; verbose, dry, the words rarely capturing the true depth of what I was saying.
The worst thing was, I’d never actually finished a piece.
I started writing my first book in 7th grade, bitter after my family moved from Seattle, where I was very comfortable, to Kansas City, and the story reflected that. I wrote a hundred pages and then stopped. I started several other books in those years – a science fiction novel about a city where everyone’s parents worked for a single corporation, and everyone was strangely conformist, an escapist story about a kid who chooses to stowaway on a cargo ship with an unknown destination with a mysterious, eccentric girl, a novel set in the future where a system that ensures immortality is circumvented, leading to innocent for the first time in generations. What I wrote varied in length, from 30 pages to 150, but at some point, I stopped. Always.
So when I returned from my trip around the world back in 2007, I had one goal. This time, this book would be finished. Nothing else mattered after that. I didn’t care about getting it published, making money from its sales, none of that. I wanted to finish the book, hold it in my hands, and feel the sense of accomplishment that only a true writer can feel.
I told myself: one year.
It took me six. The sense of accomplishment I thought I would feel was fleeting, but the amount of growth I’ve felt since the summer of 2007 is immense. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can justifiably say that, yes, I am a writer.
It took me nearly two years just to figure out what the book was about, and two more to realize that it was about too many things. Three years is what it took to build real discipline, to get over many weeks and sometimes months with no writing.
Part of it was a sense of urgency within me. I wanted to properly remember and honor this trip, and its effect on my life. I also had this fear, that if this book ended up being another half-written, forgotten deep in my hard drive piece, that I would never become a writer. I was getting older, relatively, reaching my late 20’s, my dreams still intact but fully aware that they couldn’t be put of into the future anymore.
While on in Southeast Asia, at the end of the trip, I was driven by this powerful sense inside that I had changed, but that travel was no longer the space to exhibit that change. Here, I could learn, and yes, it was true that I was volunteering, trying to give back to the world which has given me so much, but even those experiences enriched me far more than they aided the locals. To prove myself, to make my impact on the world, to help would require me to return home, and be truly productive. I was driven, from my heart
To fail to write would destroy that drive. It would destroy the progress I had made during the trip. I was not going to fail, not this time, this time, I would finish the book.
My goals were inner goals, from the heart, the true source of power. My soul was driving me forward. During those early years, when I sat in front of my computer typing words about different experiences, having no idea how they all fit into a larger story that still was just a dream, I rarely thought about getting the book published. I never thought about royalties, book tours, New York Times bestseller list, none of that. I told everyone that I was writing this book for myself, and once I held it in my hands, that would be plenty of satisfaction for me. Anything beyond that was icing on the cake.
I was helped greatly by a fantastic writing group I discovered in San Francisco called Shut up and Write (and subsequently organized in NYC and San Diego). The point of the group was simple and fit my goals perfectly – it was a space to come and write, nothing more. I went once a week, wrote for an hour, and tried to build discipline from that small start. It was amazing how much I finished during those short, weekly sessions. Soon, I helped organize marathons, daylong writing sessions which drove my word count to numbers I’d thought impossible.
Writing became part of me. The high from sitting at my computer or putting my pen to paper for an hour and letting the word stream out was a tonic to my brain. The high I felt after a Shut up and Write session, or a productive evening at a cafe, became addicting. When I stepped out into the cool, San Francisco air, I felt, for the first times, a sense that I was fulfilling the desires of Southeast Asia, being truly productive. My soul felt enriched.
Today, I feel strange if I don’t write for a day or two, and deprived if its any longer. Writing is a fuel that keeps me doing. It is in my blood now, part of who I am.
The book is better for it. Now, I read what I wrote six years ago often cringe. The story I can tell now, with so many years of reflection and growth, is so different than what I was said five years ago. The goal of finishing it in a year seems ridiculous – how could I have known what to write about in just a year? And how could I have grown as a writer, in both skills and scope, to really finish a book that quickly?
Yes, I finished the book. Three times, in fact. And I’ll likely finish it again soon.
When you’re a writer, you’ll know what I mean.