Peas and Potatoes

Over the past year, I’ve transformed my reflection. In the mirror, a writer – not aspiring but living, breathing – stares back at me. I study the written words of others, then write and reflect on my own writing, drowning imposter syndrome each day. When I come across new words or syntactical structures while reading, I step into the shoes of that author and try on their style for size.

Stephen King once said, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

So I have – read a lot and written a lot.

My train of thought is quite linear, achieving things in steps, completing one project in its’ entirety before moving onto the next. Even at the dinner table, I stare in horror as my husband combines his peas and mashed potatoes into an amorphous blob. After gawking, I wonder how you can not take the time to enjoy each taste and texture independently, then resume to eat each, individual pea one at a time (yes, I’m one of those people). Naturally, this means, in the past, I read one book at a time and wrote one thing at a time, which afflicted me with severe reader’s/writer’s block in certain moments. If I didn’t love a book, I still felt obligated to finish reading it and found myself setting it down for longer intervals, going without reading entirely. A chain reaction, leading to days, then weeks gone by without creating.

Realizing this particular character trait (flaw?) has hindered my productivity as a writer and reader has propelled me to push myself outside of my comfort zone – to try blending my peas and potatoes. First, I read Red Rising, by Pierce Brown, simultaneously with The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls. (I try to pair fiction and nonfiction.) I didn’t love Red Rising, but I did push myself to finish it. I did not finish reading the series, something that my linear brain bugged me to accomplish (baby steps, right?). The Glass Castle, however, could not keep me away. When I couldn’t bring myself to  pick up Red Rising, I reached for The Glass Castle and found myself writing a memoir. Thanks to Red Rising, I experimented with creating my first dystopian world, an aspect of the novel that I respected.

Currently, I’m trading time between the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, and Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne, and the result has been a whirlwind vortex of inspiration. Reading Outlander has made me want to test the waters of historical fiction, and Empire of the Summer Moon has led me to research even more about the Comanches abductions and assimilations of young white girls. (You can probably see where I’m going with this.) The point is that stepping outside of my linear mentality has led to changes in my writing, inspiration, and world-view altogether.

I’m learning to be more relaxed and, in turn, learning more, about myself and life, in general.

At the end of Outlander, I read a Q and A with the author and found what she had to say about writing the book relatable and influential. Here are some excerpts that resonated with me (with extraneous bits omitted):

“Q: Where did you get the idea for a time travel novel?

A: I had meant Outlander to be a straight historical novel, but [the main character] wouldn’t cooperate… At this point I shrugged and said, “Fine. Nobody’s ever going to see this book, so it doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do.”

Chuckling as I read this, I reflected on my own emerging protagonists and how it takes me a while to even name them because I don’t know them – an interesting concept when you are the person writing the story, but you have to learn who your protagonist is as you go; it can’t be mapped out in a perfect line, to my initial dismay. Like Gabaldon, I have to tell myself that “nobody’s ever going to see this book” and that it “doesn’t matter what bizarre thing I do,” which allows me to take calculated risks that someone may or may not see, but either way, I’m achieving my goal and progressing my story.

Q: Why did you choose Scotland during the Jacobite period as the setting for your books?

A: Well, like almost everything else about these books, it was an accident. I was looking for a time in which to set a historical novel, because I thought that would be the easiest kind of book to write for practice … I happened to see a rerun … in which the [character] had a young Scottish sidekick, picked up in 1745 … I was sitting in Church the next day thinking … Well, you’ve got to start somewhere, and it doesn’t really matter where, since no one’s ever going to see this – so why not? Scotland, eighteenth century. And that is where I started – no outline, no characters, no plot – just a place and time.”

Her own imposter syndrome peeks out in each of these responses, and it helped me see that accomplished authors didn’t see themselves as actually becoming accomplished authors. They eventually just said, “well, no one’s going to read this anyway, but I want to do it, so here goes nothing” and then had the courage to undertake something wholly for themselves and the sake of art. I also enjoyed seeing that her idea was the fruit of watching a television show – that it’s okay to be inspired by other things, to take that inspiration and mold it into something entirely your own. It further reinforces my need to step away from my linear modality of thinking – the need for an outline or plot diagram prior to writing. I just need a place and a time, then I can build the world from there.

“Q: Have you ever been to Scotland?

A: I had never been there when I wrote Outlander, and did that book entirely from library research.”

This statement shattered my preconceived notion that I’ve always been told – “write what you know.” That misconception has trapped me, caging me within my limited physical breadth of knowledge. It’s freeing to understand I don’t have to simply write what I know, but what I am willing to learn and explore. 

All in all, I’ve realized that, as great as peas may be on their own, combining them with mashed potatoes creates a new, delicious texture, and I need to step out of my comfort zone and just enjoy the mush I create (rather sticking to what I think I know) and fly free.

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