My Writing Journey: Part 3- Trial & Error
In the previous part of My Writing Journey, a well-timed airing of an animated Batman movie gave me the idea to use the fiction genre to write about my experiences in the mental health field. I started brainstorming ideas for various adventures that a therapist protagonist could go on that were engaging without going over the edge into fantasy. Speculative, yet grounded fiction is what I was aiming for.
After some experimenting, I ended up with a concept that held my interest, and in November 2020, I began the first draft of a book (I won’t share the content because I may end up going back to it at some point). For this book, I did what I would later learn was called “pantsing,” or writing a story with minimal outlining, just letting everything develop on the fly. It didn’t take long for me to realize this wouldn’t work. What in my head was an idea for a full novel, probably would have ended up being about 20 pages. Also, the plot I was developing for the protagonist seemed like something that would happen later in his overarching narrative. He needed an origin story. So, by December I began another book.
While I liked the direction that this second book was taking with my character’s origin story, I was still a relatively new writer. I hadn’t practiced my fiction writing skills in years, so hopping right into writing a novel (typically 80,000 words) was a challenging task. Writing often felt like pulling teeth. At the pace I was going, I was convinced I’d never finish even the first draft.
It was March 2021 when I decided to make yet another pivot and put aside the novel writing for a moment to try creating short stories. I did this mainly as a way for me to feel a sense of completion as I was developing my writing skills. Finishing a 5000-word story gave me a sense of accomplishment that was missing when slowly writing a novel scene by scene. I also tend to come up with several ideas at once, so short stories allowed me to explore multiple characters and storylines, avoiding the thought that I needed to start a new book for each concept. Over time, I noticed a theme tying several of my stories together and began planning out a short story collection. As I worked on more stories for this collection, I wanted to take time to hone my skills in a more formal way and signed up for a writing class in October.
The class was called, “Introduction to the Short Story,” offered online by The Writer’s Center. This class excited me because I wanted the opportunity to branch out thematically (my stories so far were all related to mental health in some way) and get feedback from other students to see if my writing was actually worth reading. It turned out I wasn’t too bad! Throughout the class, my fellow students and I were challenged to write in different forms, like a 100-word story and a 500-word, one sentence story, all to learn the essential elements of crafting short stories.
The final assignment of the class was to write an anecdote. I felt like this was a good opportunity to go back to mental health related topics since I had so many stories from my professional experience to tell. Of course, I couldn’t tell any actual client stories, so for the anecdote I created a fictional client and scenario that reflected a lesson I’d learned in my work as a therapist. I received positive feedback on the story from other students, but it was the critique from the instructor that sparked a bigger idea. He left this comment:
“To make this feel like more of a story, you would have to deepen the narrator, show us more about him, his outside life, and then why this particular incident is being recounted.”
My first reaction was, “Damn, he’s telling me this isn’t even a story!” and “I’m recounting this incident because you told us to write an anecdote!” Once I gave more thought to the critique, I realized I had something special on my hands. The short story collection I had been writing was coming along okay, but I knew I could easily write at least ten more of these anecdote-like stories inspired by my professional experiences. This was what I had been trying to do all along—share the lessons I learned along the way so that others could get a feel for what working in the mental health field was really like. There may have been other books I wanted to write, but this was the one I needed to write.
Taking the advice to deepen the narrator, I immediately thought of a book I was gifted for my eighth-grade graduation, Hill Harper’s Letters to a Young Brother, in which he shares life wisdom with a fictional Black, teenage boy through a series of letters. Harper’s book is one of several based in structure off the classic Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke’s letters were real, written in the early 20th century to a young, Austrian soldier who aspired to be a poet, and were filled with advice on creativity and life. Still, neither of these books told the stories of what happened to the narrators in between the letters. That’s where I wanted to be different. I wanted to craft a novel with an overarching narrative where the protagonist’s anecdotes would be interspersed throughout to deepen the story. Thus, Tales of a Black Therapist was born. At the top of 2022 (4th time’s the charm), I began the first draft of TBT and never looked back.
As always, you can follow me on Instagram @chris_thecounselor