It Doesn’t Matter What You Write

by Elizabeth Engstrom

When I was young, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a writer.  I always knew that some day I’d see my name on the spine of a book, but it wasn’t until I had a little life under my belt, a few gray hairs, a few credits from the school of hard knocks, a little life experience and something to say about the hope for mankind, that I was ready to sit down at the keyboard and pour out my mystifications.  The “message” that burdens every writer had finally floated to the top of my psyche.  My message had gelled.  It was time to write.

But everything I wrote sounded pompous or opinionated or biased.  I couldn’t make good fiction out of my message for mankind.

Then science fiction great Theodore Sturgeon came to town to give a workshop.  I had grown up reading his work; his influence on me as a young reader had been enormous.  I paid my fee, mailed in the manuscript he agreed to read as a part of the workshop curriculum, and I sat down to bite my nails and wait for his judgment.


The incomparable Theodore Sturgeon

During this time of waiting, it occurred to me that over the two-week course of this workshop, he and I could run into each other at the coffee machine or something, and actually speak to each other, one-on-one.  The thought left me star-struck.  What on earth could I possibly say to the great Theodore Sturgeon?

I could ask him a question.  I knew the prospect was not likely; surely there would be thousands of people at the workshop.  Nevertheless, I set out to prepare myself so I wouldn’t be caught flat-footed if the opportunity came to speak with my hero privately.  I wracked my brain and spent sleepless nights, torturing myself over this idea.  What would be The Definitive Question to ask Theodore Sturgeon?  In retrospect, I think this was my way of not dwelling on the fact that he was reading my first attempt at novel writing.

My musings came down to one question that seemed to synthesize all that had been troubling me.  The question was: “What do you do when you want to preach?” I had the urge to write, I had a message to disseminate, I had the time, the space, the knowledge, and a teensie bit of talent for the task.  But everything I wrote sounded preachy.  Every time I reread what I had written, it felt as if I ought to be writing Op-Ed pieces, or essays, or how-to books.  At one point, I even talked with my minister about actually preaching.  His response?  “My collar closes the door to 90% of the people in the world.  You, as a writer, have no such boundaries.”  Wow.  A fiction writer has such opportunity.

Such responsibility.

So what do you do when you want to preach?

Satisfied that I would not only find out the answer to that question, but that I would have something intelligent to talk over with Ted Sturgeon, I set about to wait with calmer heart.

The first night of the seminar, I was astonished that there were only about ten students.  This was going to be an intimate setting.  I would probably get to know him over the course of the two weeks.

And I did.  He and I became friends in the limited time he had left on this planet, but I never had the opportunity to ask him that question, because the first words out of his mouth on the first night of class were these: “It doesn’t matter what you write, what you believe will show through.”

I was stunned.

I’m not sure I heard anything else Ted said that night, because this was so clearly the answer to many of my questions, and it was so simple, and tasted so strongly of the truth that I was awash with the possibilities for my future career.

Did he mean that I could write a vampire book and my message would come through?  I could write a romance novel?  A western, science fiction, horror, a comedy about dogs?  A blog? And still, that which had been shown to me, that which had been given to me, the life-saving philosophy that I had developed (and that surely would save the world) could still be served?

Of course.  I have only one story to tell, and that’s my story.  I can’t tell yours.  But mine is large and encompasses much, and it can be sliced into myriad tales of truth and fantasy.

I realized that it was the message showing through in the writing of my favorite authors that attracted me to their work.  Singly, a book may not contain impressive spiritual insights; but over the entire body of work of a certain author, a reader cannot help but get to know the writer’s heart.

When I realized the truth of what Ted Sturgeon said to me that night, not only did my career spread before me like a vast playground, but I was filled with confidence and questions.  Before he died, Ted Sturgeon and I spent a lot of time together, and in fact he wrote the introduction to that first book, When Darkness Loves Us, which went on to be well published.  But more importantly, I could relax.  My job as a novelist needn’t be unnecessarily complicated; it is difficult enough to tell the truth within the fiction; I don’t have to consciously worry about what message the reader is receiving.  That isn’t my job.  I don’t have to save the world.  I only have to ensure that the reader enjoys reading what I’ve written.

It has been my fortune to have a challenging career as a writer, teacher, editor and publisher.  Through my relatively brief association with Theodore Sturgeon, I learned that the surest way to make my own dreams come true is to help others achieve theirs.  The fate of empires does not hinge upon my work or upon any one piece of work.  But those of us to whom this gift has been given have a responsibility to be persistent about writing and publishing our work until a sufficient body of work has been assembled.  Our message is important.  The world needs it.   That’s our job.

Never forget: It doesn’t matter what you write.  What you believe will show through.

(Note: An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul.)

Don’t be weird all by yourself

By Elizabeth Engstrom

It could be that I’m preaching to the choir here when I talk about the benefits of attending writing classes, writing conferences, retreats, joining and becoming involved at the volunteer level of writing organizations, and engaging in writing activities with other writers.

If you’re the classic introvert and eschew those things, I beg you to reconsider.  Because I can’t speak for anyone but myself, let me share a little of the value these activities have given me over the years.

  1. Attending writing classes. My first writing class was with the inestimable Theodore Sturgeon. Needless to say, I stood in the presence of greatness, and he not only helped me launch my career, but gave me advice on my career and my writing that has served me well all these years. Since that memorable workshop, I have taken dozens of writing classes, and each time I do, I learn something new, or I remember something I had known once but forgotten.
  2. Attending writing conferences. There is energy at a writing conference that starts with the buzz about the presenters and what they might say, and continues with the people who attend. Friendships are forged, and relationships among introverts are sometimes intense and lasting. At the very least, it’s good to see a friendly and familiar face in the crowd, not to mention all the amazing things to learn from a wide variety of presenters. Sometimes we can hear the same thing over and over again, but it doesn’t register until we hear it from just the right person from just the right point of view when we’re at just the right point in our story or character development.  Plus, conferences are a boatload of fun. There are local, regional, national, and international conferences. Find one that appeals and go to it every year. When you make your reservations, make three goals that you intend to achieve at the event, and then go about achieving them. Needless to say, I highly recommend the Wordcrafters conference coming up in March.
  3. Attending writing retreats. This is where the rubber meets the road, as they say. This is intense learning and putting into practice immediately that which you just learned. This is a way to cement the policies and procedures into your overly-heated, plot-crazed brain that helps you make sense of it all. When you sign up for a retreat, commit yourself to do what the retreat leader tells you to do and don’t argue about it. Put your personal agenda aside and allow the wisdom of that person to engage the magic in you.
  4. Joining a writing organization. Writing is such a solitary endeavor that it is always good to feel as if you are a part of something greater. There are writing organizations for those who write romance, science fiction, thrillers, westerns, horror, fantasy… and on and on. Join one. Get the newsletter, go to their events, volunteer for a committee. It won’t hurt you and it just might help your career.
  5. Engage in communal writing activities. Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) wherein I wrote a 50,000-word “novel” during the month of November. It wasn’t exactly a novel that I ended up with, my experience detailed here. But I wrote in coffee shops with other writers, went to the Thank God It’s Over party, and I enjoyed the camaraderie of it all. I’m glad that only happens once a year, but I have a friend who writes in coffee shops two to three times a week with other people, and I have discovered that with a nice pair of headphones, that’s a pleasant activity. I haven’t done it enough to know how it affects my work, because no matter how you do it, writing is a solo adventure. But it’s good to get caffeinated with other people, no matter what you’re doing. And sometimes a group of writers renting a house in the mountains or at the beach is a good writing activity, too. Get inventive.

There’s no need to gnash and thrash over your writing all by yourself. There is inspiration and strength in hanging out with other writers. There is comfort in knowing that you are not only weird, but in the company of other writers,  your weirdness is understood and accepted—even admired.

So be weird. But don’t be weird all by yourself. That’s no fun.