Growing Up a Writer
I started writing when I was ten years old. Before that it was lots of make-believe involving Pokémon figurines and My Little Ponies. I remember mapping out spaceships and then making up scenarios to tell my stories. Then, one day, I decided to write them down. I don’t know what the prompt was, but I have a vague recollection of people telling me to write them as a book, so they didn’t have to put up with my hour-long waffling (that isn’t hyperbolic).
My memories of childhood aren’t happy ones. Try as my family liked, my undiagnosed autism had far-reaching complications, with roots in every single avenue of my life. How I absorbed and expressed information was, as far as I saw it, wonky. It felt like a complete uneven footing with my peers and my siblings (no one’s fault). The only place where I felt I had any control, or anything positive to contribute, or any semblance of a normalcy that I perceived in the people around me, was in my writing.
I often started projects but never saw them through. It would be pretty obvious to state that I was vying for escapism. These different stories were places that my mind could hide and explore and experiment without failure. The reason I had so many stories, I believe, is because I was searching for the world that felt right. Most of them felt a little off, and so I’d move onto the next story. Sometimes I remember fixating on the idea that my story worlds were unwanted by others, and I so desperately wanted to please these others that I’d scrap my own stories to write something akin to what I thought people wanted of me.
From what I can recall of my last eighteen years of writing, I have always written more when I am unhappiest. Like a habit, when I feel injured in some way or another, I recoil from the real world and spin out threads of narrative to embed myself in. Sometimes, of course, this has failed. The darkest times, when I cannot fathom a thought, let alone a dream.
In my teen years, I experimented with storytelling like most of my peers experimented with their sexuality. During this period, I was more likely to have the people around me placed in my works. Their names. Their relationship to me. It would be here that I could bounce around and play with banter, get out the zingers that I hadn’t managed in the day, and make my best friends out to be heroes. My boyfriend at the time, his character at least, was sometimes literally separated from me by dimensions and whole universes—the way I wanted it to be. Looking back on it now, my character (who sometimes died, say about that what you will) never had the urge to chase him, while he stalked her through the galaxies. Maybe I thought it was romantic at the time, or maybe I knew then what I know now.
As time went on and I grew, my writing evolved. I cannot pin-point the exact moment it changed, but I can say that it more than likely correlated with my expansion of the world. University, maybe? My novel about superheroes on another planet levelled up. The characters, their dynamics, and the systems of society were now thoroughly being explored. I’d stepped into adulthood and the rose-tinted glasses I’d used for predicting the future now had cracks. My characters, wholly original, were now avatars for exploring things that I’d managed to keep my nose out of, such as politics, social dynamics, and class warfare. I had stories to tell from my perspective, even if no one was ever going to read them. I needed to get the information out of my head. I was using storytelling to experience the world and to process information. The times I’d stopped writing were sometimes the darkest times of my life, and sensory overloads were unstoppable.
Creating structure as writer has been quite difficult. We can’t all afford to take that comfortable break from work to pursue that monetary risk. Writing for a living is a lot like gambling and sometimes I cannot bring myself to admit that I do want to be an author. That would mean admitting that people’s opinions of my work mean something. It would also require a sacrifice and another long lesson in writing.
After, say, twelve years of writing, I finally opened up my work to outsider input. That is to say, I had readers that weren’t related or family friends. Or friends, for that matter. I joined a writing group that worked for me; for a long time it did, but I pride myself on my honesty.
Sometimes you can outgrow your group.
It is possible to reach a point where a group is hampering your work rather than helping it. This distinction can be minimal in nature, but the hard lesson here is working out when to leave.
Choosing to leave a group or move on doesn’t mean that your time was wasted, and I’d like to stress that here before I move on. I learnt to write for an audience as much as I learnt how to perfect my own style there. Without this group, I probably wouldn’t have picked up my courage to go all out on a degree (but more on that later). That being said, I fell into some pitfalls that come to lots of new writers. I know I said I’d been writing for over a decade at this point, but I was new to putting my work out there.
This part of my writing career came in step with my autism diagnosis. My identity had shifted, and a new retrospective added new layers to my writing. I could suddenly explain all the weird quirks a lot of my main characters had. Why so many of them were autistic as well, for a start, even if I hadn’t outright said it to myself. Yet, I also developed a bit of a complex. I stopped managing to picture myself as an accomplished author, and the stereotypes that I’d managed to side-step, by virtue of a late diagnosis, were now sidling up to my other insecurities.
Long story short, I tried to be a neurotypical author, and this meant trying to please my readers who offered critiques. I changed a lot of my story ideas to suit their feedback, even if that meant I was sacrificing the story I actually wanted to tell. I focused far too much on trying to be mainstream and digestible. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe my story already was, without deforming it to suit someone else’s tastes. I’d convinced myself I had to do this if I wanted it to be readable. That isn’t true.
I will stress again: no one’s fault.
I’m returning to my work with this lesson thoroughly learned. Adulthood has brought a greater understanding of myself, and I’d like to believe that has meant I now understand the story I wanted to tell, and why I’ve struggled to return to it in the shape it is in currently. I was being told that if I can’t find a story I wanted to read, to write it myself, but then being told how to change it. But then, it wouldn’t be the story I wanted to read, would it? Maybe the story I wanted to read isn’t publishable? Maybe it is just the story I want to read.
With this greater sense of identity, I have also noticed that I struggle to write more. I’m not as overrun with plot bunnies as I used to be in my younger years, and I believe, today, I have realised why. I finally found the story world that suits me. I am not writing as much because I have conditioned to write when I am sad, scared, frustrated, or lacking control in my life, but those elements have all but gone since I finished my bachelor’s degree. Since I was diagnosed. I no longer need to explore why I don’t fit, because I know why. My characters are no longer my mouthpiece asking, “What is wrong with me?” because I know that I’m okay. I am safe. I am loved.
Now, I can’t exactly wish for instability to help ramp up my writing. In fact, I doubt I will recoil quite like I used to as I’ve spent the last five years whittling away toxic coping mechanisms. Instead, I am aware that I am building momentum, even if slowly, and I am creeping towards a truer version of myself as a writer than ever before. I’m not as pressed about getting published, even though I saw it as a true badge of honour, because I know I’m not ready—yet now it feels more possible, no, more probable than ever before as I have accepted myself and gone on a 360° journey to discover what I lost.
It may seem strange, but I would like to try to write like I used to tell stories: off the reins, free range, without the politics and insecurities of whether it is good enough. I told the stories I wanted to hear. Yet, now I am writing the stories I want to read with the experiences of an adult, a little less wisdom, maybe, but a lot more knowledge. I wonder what my stories will tell me about myself in ten years’ time.
Do you ever wonder what your stories reveal about you?
© 2020 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.