I loved being an English Major. It was amazing. I read so many unique books that I’d never have thought to cross paths with. I had intense workshops that pushed me out of my comfort zone and provided me a lot of great feedback – some of which still races through my head every time I sit down to right; some of which I’ll neglect out of pure stubbornness. Not every tip works for every single author.
You don’t have to say it outright, but we all know it.
Regardless of how much I loved what I studied, school was still school. Not to forget: I’d spent a little longer than most to graduate, so towards the end I was taking summer classes and jamming in too many at once. I had days in my final semester when I was just completely zoned out. No focus.
I was sitting in a fiction workshop – a wonderful class, albeit 3 hours and 30 minutes long, ending at 8:15pm. Looking back, it was awesome, but, man, was it grueling. Mid-summer, stuck in a claustrophobic room.
We’d just finished reading an amazing collection of short stories by Dan Chaon called Among the Missing. These stories were equally as breath-taking as they were heart-breaking. I fell in love with all of them. I found out that night that Dan Chaon was from Cleveland, OH – where I went to school at Cleveland State University – and he actually taught locally. My teacher and Dan had become close friends, and he’d made time to come chat with our class, to get a perspective on the inside world of writing.
I was stoked. Needless to say, my wife – fiance at the time – got pretty sick of hearing me talk about “Dan Chaon coming to class!”
The day rolled around, and I was stuck in between a rock and my computer in my personal writing life. I’d grown up reading fantasy novels: Tolkien, Salvatore, etc. Adventure novels by Clancy and Cussler. Thrillers by Stephen King and Dean Koontz. I couldn’t handle it anymore; my computer was getting cluttered by unfinished stories: thrillers and fantasy and horror. I never felt satisfied. What genre fit me?
At that point I knew what I wanted to ask Dan Chaon.
Class rolled around and Dan Chaon rolled into class, fashionably late. His hair was longer and curlier than the photograph on the inside cover of his book. His beard scragglier, unkempt. He was…normal. It was a little off-setting.
He introduced himself, talked about his background, his writing, his hobbies. Eventually, he opened up the floor to questions.
I let a few others go first, so I could gauge the theme of the questions. There’s something about school that makes your good questions feel dumb. I found a lull and popped up my hand.
“Hey Dan, thanks for coming in. My name’s Mike. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and adventure, something a little off the path from what we read in class. I found myself falling in love with Among the Missing.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I wrote from a really deep emotional spot with this one.”
Something about that hit me, made me feel stupid. I’m writing tales of elves and dwarves, nighttime horrors, fast cars and guns. How can I match up to a response like that?
“I get a lot of mental strain over-thinking genre,” I continued anyway. Then I fired the question. “Would you be discouraged, based on the genres you’ve written currently, if one morning you woke up and said to yourself ‘I’m going to write a murder-mystery?”
I waited for the laughter. And it actually came! But not for the reason I expected.
Dan looked awkwardly to my teacher, who smiled uncannily.
“He actually just did,” my teacher laughed. “He called me a few months ago and said, ‘Hey, I’m writing a murder-mystery. Will you workshop it for me?'”
That’s when the class laughed. I did, too. And it felt great. It was a loosened pressure valve inside my head, and I could feel all of the pent-up stress, confusion and over-thinking seeping out.
I realized I didn’t care anymore.
So why do we care so much about the small things? The word-counts, the genres? Why do we get so set on image and consistency? Because it’s in our heads. But what Dan Chaon helped me realized is so are our stories. They all come from inside our heads; the buildup of ideas and characters, worlds and settings.
Funny thing about the stories in our heads: they all want to come out – so let them.