Dear Story Nurse,
I wrote a lot growing up and in my early 20s—some poetry and also some short stories and novels (most of the latter never finished). In my mid-20s, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for several years and stopped writing, and I think part of the reason was because I wasn’t ready to face up to what was happening so I didn’t really want to explore my inner world through writing. There was also an element of feeling like I ‘ought’ to grow up, either commit to writing as a career or find something else to do, etc. Still, during this time I worked as a translator, transcriber, summary-writer, editor, proof-reader, etc—all of which involved writing or working with text in some capacity.
I left that relationship and quit my job to do a master’s and a PhD, pursuing a passion for food and environmental activism. I had a few, short periods where I tried to get back into creative writing, but in general I was so busy studying and freelancing to support myself that I didn’t have much time or energy. In particular, I found that after a day of sitting at my laptop, reading and writing, I wanted to do other things with my downtime that were more physically active or used other parts of my brain. Towards the end of my PhD, a toxic combination of stress, lack of money, and physical and mental health issues meant I basically stopped doing anything outside of essential academic or paid work except crashing into bed and watching Netflix.
I finished my PhD earlier this year and am at something of a crossroads, career-wise. I found a job as an academic editor in my field, which is part-time and was supposed to be short-term, but I am slowly realizing that I am finding this fulfilling and satisfying in a way that I wasn’t feeling about my PhD towards the end. The translator/editor/person-who-does-things-with-text identity is one that feels a bit more comfortable to wear than my researcher identity. I’m also enjoying having a flexible work schedule so I can do more of the self-care and hobbies that I was seriously neglecting while studying. With this time, I have started writing fiction again for the first time in years, and am increasingly feeling like this is important to my well-being and sense of self.
My project is a novel, set in the future, in the area where I grew up, and exploring some of the themes I studied during my PhD. Perhaps “climate fiction” is the closest genre description I can think of. Kind of post-apocalyptic but where the apocalypse is less zombies and more, “How do I care for my aging mother/disabled child in a country where the social safety net is being destroyed? What happens to working-class people in rural areas when floods and storms and heatwaves make farming even harder than it is now, and all the land is owned by the super-wealthy?” I have only written a few thousand words so far. I have some ideas for the main characters and plot, but nothing really developed yet.
I guess I have two questions.
1) Where do I even start with this new project? So far, I have been focusing on just allowing myself to write and trying to turn off my inner editor/self-critic. My editing/analytic brain has been massively validated by doing a PhD and now working as an editor, and I feel that right now, the best thing I can do for myself as a writer is encourage myself to have ideas and explore them a bit, and just write some words even if they’re terrible, and be okay with the fact that they’re raw and unpolished. Still, if I ever want to get better as a writer, I can’t keep doing this forever. I have taken out a subscription to a magazine for women who write and will try some of their writing prompts and exercises. Apart from this, what are some ways I can start working on making this an actual novel and not a stream of words? How do I turn interesting ideas about climate change and politics into a plot? How do I write compelling characters who aren’t just versions of me trying to work out some of my issues/thoughts?
2) More generally, my two most likely career options—continuing in academia as a researcher or pursuing work as an academic editor and translator—involve a lot of writing, editing and critical analysis. In the past, when I have done these things full-time, I have found it difficult to do creative writing as well. Is this just a problem of available time? Of having the wrong mindset/priorities? How can I make time for my own creative writing alongside jobs that involve a lot of sitting at my computer and working with words and ideas? Or should I get a completely different job that uses other skills, to leave my writing brain free for creative projects?
Dear Story Nurse,
My question is regarding writing peer reviewed journal articles. I really struggle with the theory section of the paper—as two panels of reviewers on two separate papers have been pretty blunt about. (I mean, my advisor had told me before more politely, but it hadn’t sunk in.) I’m still a graduate student, so I feel like I just don’t know the literature well enough to even know where to start with strengthening the theory section. On one paper the reviewers were nice enough to mention a few authors to look at, and sometimes my advisor does that, but more often they don’t and they all just say “you need to say why this is important,” or “you need to reference Theory X” (which is so broad there’s hundreds of papers on it).
The thing is, even if I were a full-time graduate student, I wouldn’t have enough time to read all of those hundreds of papers. But I’m also working on another really important project for my PhD, and preparing to teach a class in the Fall that I haven’t taught in more than 5 years, plus other classes I teach every year but need to revise, plus struggling with motivation due to some jerky stuff an ex-advisor did to me. Even when people suggest “well, just read a few random papers and see who they all cite,” even “just” seems like an insurmountable hurdle, when each individual paper can take me more than a day to understand. And even if I don’t read each one all the way through but jump straight to their references section, it still takes time to decide on which papers to even look at in the first place, and it’s also time consuming to get ahold of the papers.
Help! It’s just so overwhelming. This feels like something that in 10 years will be a non-issue, but how do I get from here to there?
—Writing Grad (they/them)
Dear Writing Grad,
The key word in your letter is “overwhelming.” The straw of needing to read up on theory in your field has sent the proverbial camel to the proverbial chiropractor. I do have some suggestions on that front, but first, take a few slow deep breaths and sit with your feelings of overwhelmedness. You are doing a lot right now, and anticipating a lot more to do in the fall semester, which may be starting in just a week or two. All of those obligations and responsibilities feel even bigger than they are when you look at them collectively, and thinking of one just leads to the next—look at how a letter asking for help with a relatively specific writing concern turned into a litany of everything that’s on your plate. I am very glad to be someone you can recite that litany to, but there’s more going on in your life than an advice columnist can help you with, and it sounds like you’re really struggling. So please seek support from what Captain Awkward calls “Team You”: friends, family, partners, your advisor (who is hopefully less of a jerk than the ex-advisor was), mentors in your field, a counselor or therapist, whoever will be kind and useful when you ask for help. Your school may be able to help you access counseling resources. As far as I can tell, anyone doing a PhD should be getting significant professional mental health support; my first attempt at undergrad study sent me into a massive depressive tailspin to the point where I had to drop out, and I can only imagine how much more emotionally and psychologically challenging graduate-level work is. So please do reach out for what you need.
Dear Story Nurse,
My problem in a nutshell: I don’t know what kind of climax my story needs!
Details: I’m working on a fantasy novel, mostly secondary world with a little magic thrown in. It’s between 80k and 90k long. This is the first novel I’ve really plotted out seriously, and I can tell that it helped a lot in keeping track of the threads and in keeping the story moving when my tendency is to stop and gaze for way too long at the scenery.
A little bit about the story: There are four (thinking of cutting it down to three) POV characters whose plots intersect and come together toward the end of the story. There’s one character in particular who is sort of central to everything, and everybody else’s arc in the story is directly or indirectly pulled by her—some to help her and others to potentially harm her. Of all the characters, she probably has the most growth as a character.
(This letter is on the longer side, so it’s continued after the cut tag.)
Dear Story Nurse,
All my writer friends talk about plotters vs. pantsers. I seem to combine the worst of both worlds. Whenever I go to outline a large project (anything longer than a short story, even if it’s just a mid-length novelette—but most notably novels), there’s always a hole in the middle. It usually says something like “more plot here” or “book goes here.” I know what comes before it. I know what goes after it. But not only is there this hole, I almost always find that I have to write a bunch of prose and then put the file away for months before I find what goes in it.
How do I fill in the map sooner? What is my brain even doing here? This has been okay, if frustrating, when I was just writing for myself, but now that I’m facing actual deadlines it is terrifying. I can always finish things eventually, but eventually is not always soon enough! Do I just have to build “2–3 months fallow period” into every contract? If so, can I ever make anybody else understand that?
—Here There Be Dragons (they/them)
I’m going to get a little Freudian on your choice of pseudonym. When cartographers of yore wrote “Here There Be Dragons” on a map, what they meant was “DON’T GO IN THERE!” Whatever was in that place was so terrifying and fearsome that it couldn’t even be named. That region of the map was not for exploring; it was, to quote a very obscure Monty Python sketch, for lying down and avoiding.
Hi Story Nurse,
So, I’ve been “working” on a novel for a couple years now. Which is to say, I’ve written around ten pages and haven’t been able to force myself to do any more, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success writing short stories, but this novel just intimidates me. I’m not sure why, but it does—plotting and keeping track of all the details and characters at such length is kind of intimidating.
I think that part of the reason is that this novel is set during and around the Holocaust, and I’m terrified of the research I’ll have to do. I have plenty of books, I know where to find more, but the prospect of reading about all that suffering and horror… well, I haven’t been able to sit down and make myself do it. But nor do I want to start writing when I am ill-informed, because it’s important to me to get this right and not mess it up.
Do you have any tips on how to get myself to work on this novel, write and do the research? I can go into more detail about the plot if that would help. And I’ve researched terrible things before, I’m not sure why I have a block on doing this.
This sounds really hard. Really, really hard. I think just about any novelist would find it intimidating and difficult to embark on a book-length project and have to do a ton of research and spend both the research and the writing immersed in a time of horrors and feel tremendous moral responsibility for conveying history accurately in a work of fiction. All the more so if you have a personal connection to the Holocaust or reason for writing about it. You don’t say whether this is your first novel, but if it is, that’s going to add to the feeling of intimidation; just about every debut novelist feels that way when starting out.