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Home: The Toast

Last week, I finished writing a book about Nikola Tesla. That sounds impressive, right? Except for the part where I churned the manuscript out in eight days and sent it to some guy in New Jersey who’s going to slap a male pseudonym on the cover and rake in the profits from the Kindle sales. The Tesla book will be the sixth work of historical nonfiction I’ve sold in the last six months. I’m a working writer: hastily researched e-books pay my rent.

Searching the internet for my real name gets you my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. But a search for my fandom pseudonym leads to page after page of glowing reviews and excerpts from my fanfiction, including an article from the London Review of Books. Ph.D. candidates, journalists, and translators are interested in my fanfiction, but part of me still gets self-conscious about admitting that I write it.

Then there’s my original writing. This includes a blog, a few published essays, one unpublished novel that my agent spent a couple of years trying unsuccessfully to sell, and two partial manuscripts. At the age of 34, it’s hard not to feel that I should have more to show for myself.

Writing is difficult. That’s the truism that gets people through the hours of staring at a blinking cursor and a blank screen. Back in college, my fellow creative writing students and I moaned constantly about the difficulty of crafting taut, exquisite prose. But it wouldn’t be art if it was easy, we reassured ourselves.

Here’s my dirty writing secret: writing isn’t hard for me these days. I’m not talking about the time, effort, and revision that good writing requires, but about fluency, the simple ability to produce any words at all. Pervading the culture of my university writing department was the idea that good writing was sheer emotional torture, while worthless, commercial writing was more or less effortless. And I bought right into it. Like everyone in my creative writing classes, I used to beat my head against the barrier of writer’s block. I empathized when my friends complained about the sheer impossibility of finishing the novel they were “supposed to be working on”. Occasionally, though, I thought wistfully of high school, when I’d written most of two novels and never once struggled to get words down on paper.

*

Here’s an interesting thing I learned while researching the life of Nikola Tesla. When he was a kid, he struggled with what he called his “peculiar affliction”. He had visions, of the literal rather than the mystical variety. Things that he had seen superimposed themselves on his eyeballs. Blinking, even shutting his eyes, couldn’t make the pictures go away.

As an adult, Tesla concluded that human beings are essentially sophisticated automatons—meat robots, if you will. He believed that he had visions because everything he’d ever seen had been programmed into his memory as images, which were later retrieved by sensory triggers. From this, he hypothesized that every thought, action, and desire we have is programmed into us by the influences we’re exposed to. Free will, he decided, is merely an illusion created by the sophistication of our sensory processors.

Goofy as it sounds, I remember thinking, when I was about twelve, that my brain was also a lot like a computer. I’d read hundreds of books, from the Baby-Sitters Club to Wuthering Heights, and I felt like all those millions of words I’d consumed, all of that vocabulary, syntax, punctuation, description, and dialogue, were swimming around in my brain like numbers in a calculator, waiting to be retrieved and recombined in original ways.

Still, I lacked something more fundamental to writing: I had no idea what I wanted to say. Probably because expressing myself honestly was not a safe thing to do when I was growing up. But that changed when I started high school. For the first time in my life, I had eight hours a day when I could be myself. And I finally had friends; the desire to connect with them helped me find my voice. Once I started writing stories to entertain them, I had trouble doing anything else, including homework.

My best memories of high school are of being besieged in the hallways by people who were so invested in the fictional world I’d created that we got into fights over the romantic destinies I intended for my characters. “Raven’s going to end up with Edouard, right?” my friend Rachel asked me over IM one night. “Are you kidding? Edouard is an asshole,” I told her. I pretended to be affronted, but I was thrilled down to my toes by how much she cared.

My ability to sit down anywhere with a notebook and a pen and lose myself in writing for hours was something I took for granted as a teenager. I knew not everyone could do it, but I figured most people just didn’t want to. Then I got to college, where I learned that good writing was difficult, and by extension, writing that comes easily can only be crap. Only occasionally did it occur to me that there might be another reason I’d contracted verbal constipation—that I’d been plunged into a literary culture that didn’t value my voice.

*

Reinforcing the idea that valueless writing was effortless compared to serious writing was my secret success as a writer of fanfiction. My idea of a party in college was taking a bottle of wine and a bag of chocolates back to my dorm room and huddling over my laptop to read and write Buffy the Vampire Slayer fic. In fandom, I enjoyed a guilty pleasure unknown to the guys in my writing seminars: audience demand. From my readers, I received both generous praise and the helpful criticism I wasn’t getting from fellow students who saw me as competition.

In 2003, Maxine Kumin came to my university. I desperately wanted to win one of the spots in her masterclass. Not only was she a Pulitzer Prize winner, she had been friends with my literary idols, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. So I worked my ass off on a short poetry collection and submitted it. On the day of the workshop, I sat chewing the ends of my pink hair, getting more and more anxious as she gave feedback on other people’s work, explaining patiently that images are essential to the construction of poems.

The workshop was nearly over, and I had resigned myself to being overlooked, when Kumin produced my poem. “I wasn’t surprised when you said that you read the work of serious poets,” she told me. “Your poem is clearly the work of a mature writer.” She proceeded to analyze my poem like it was something she’d pulled out of a Norton Anthology; if she found any flaws in it, she didn’t mention them.

I walked out of that workshop in a daze, leaning weakly against the elevator wall, holding my poem against my chest. I did it, I thought. I wrote something that matters. But while I could show off my poetry to my fandom friends, I would rather have sporked myself in the eye than let on to Maxine Kumin that I wrote fic. I felt like I had to make a choice: keep writing for fandom—that is, for myself and my friends—or concentrate on writing for the literary fiction market.

Here’s what I see now when I look back at that period of my life: trying to write the kind of fiction my professors would approve of was giving me writer’s block. At 12, I felt the same paralysis: I was dying to write stories, but I was afraid of saying something that would get me into trouble. Consciousness of Authority looking over my shoulder produced voicelessness. Only the writing I did in secret allowed me to unleash the enormous store of words in my head onto the page.

*

After college, I committed seriously to writing novels. Friends of mine who had also written popular, novel-length fanfiction in the early 2000’s were starting to get their original novels published. They were publishing in the newly-burgeoning YA market, which still felt like a deviation from the career expected of me. But by then I was finally beginning to get suspicious of the white male influences that had shaped my career expectations. I started writing a YA urban fantasy novel with fairy tale themes; fairy tales, I reckoned, were inherently literary.

That novel took up the next five years of my life. A tower of manuscripts sits in a stack on my bedroom floor, a monument to the dozens of scraps and rewrites that transformed my simple fairy tale into what I saw as a more sophisticated novel of magical realism and domestic dysfunction. The final draft, all of my beta readers agreed, was powerful but uneven, a palimpsest of my ambiguities.

During the summer of 2007, with my novel foundering, I started my most ambitious project yet: a 90,000 word Harry Potter fic that was so personal and revealing that I didn’t plan to let any of my friends read it. Under a blazing North Carolina sun, I sat for eighteen hours a day in the grass of my parents’ backyard, screened from their eyes and questions by the thick growth of their vegetable plot. I chain-smoked, breathed in the spicy scent of growing tomatoes, guzzled cans of Coke Zero, and wrote longhand in a moleskine balanced on my knees. I didn’t feel hunger, thirst, my stiff back, or mosquito bites. By tapping into the horrible stew of emotions and experiences that I’d kept segregated from my literary writing, I produced 70,000 handwritten words in about three weeks.

It soon became obvious that I had stumbled on something powerful. I was getting ecstatic, heartfelt comments by the cartload. More importantly, I’d rediscovered the fluency I commanded in high school, when only the want of free time prevented me from writing thousands of words per day. It had to do with all those messy emotions, I decided. So about a month after I finished my first novel, I started writing another. This time, I gave myself permission to work with the same stew of ugly feelings that had fueled the Harry Potter fic. I finished that novel in four months; my beta readers agreed that it was like nothing I’d ever written before.

A month later, that second novel was in the hands of a literary agent. A month after that, I got the phone call: he wanted to take me on as a client. When the call ended, I found myself leaning against the wall outside my apartment, blinking stars out of my eyes. It was even better, I thought, than Maxine Kumin telling me I’d written a mature poem. This time, I knew that my book represented the fusion of my full skillset: the words I’d absorbed as a child, the careful attention to language I’d cultivated in college, and the voice that had finally struggled free from the constriction of other people’s expectations.

*

The great thing about writing shitty e-books for a living is that I can do it at all. After being unemployed for years while I struggled with health issues, I was desperate to find a way to support myself by working from home. I’ve amassed an impressive proofreading portfolio, but proofreading jobs aren’t always plentiful. The e-books provide me with a reliable monthly lump sum that covers my rent.

I couldn’t have produced 35,000 words of prose per month back when I was struggling to string sentences together. Only after writing literally millions of words of fiction could I have hoped to make a living this way.

God knows, I hope to one day support myself with writing that’s nearer to my heart. But for now, I’m grateful. My parents worked all their lives doing jobs they hated, that wore them out physically and emotionally. I’m spared that. And my fiction writing benefits from this work. I used to shy away from stories that required research, and now I’m confident in my ability to quickly and competently research pretty much anything.

I’m still working on my novels, and I’m still writing the occasional piece of fanfiction. I spend a lot of time thinking about something that I wrote in my LiveJournal back in 2010, when I was immersed in the last draft of my first book:

“This—what I’m feeling now, and have felt for the last couple of days—this, not publishing, not selling, is the holy grail of being a writer. This confidence that the work I’m doing is my proper work, and that I’m doing it well.”

The success I’ve achieved doesn’t look exactly like the success I imagined. But when does it ever? The market has changed since I was a teenager; the world has changed; I’ve changed. The words deep in my databanks keep coming, and I keep putting them down.

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Brittany Harrison writes fiction about scary children and blogs about faith, memory, and survival. You can read more stuff she's written at Language and Light or follow her on Twitter @bnharrison.

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