So I dropped my youngest off at college this past week.
You’d have been proud of me. I didn’t really cry until the shuttle pulled away from the airport terminal, taking me to my plane. I tried to hold it together for him, and all in all, it went well. We set up his dorm room. Coffee pot, check. Bedding, check. Assorted paranoid mom cold and flu medications stuffed into a drawer, check. A lamp to read by, check. A quilt my friends and I made, from a pattern and fabrics my son picked, check.
The word ‘bittersweet’ was made for days such as this. The happiness that comes from seeing someone launch into a new life that they are ready for, and a bit of pain, knowing that the days of bandaids on knees and watching soccer matches are over.
I was excited and fearful. Excited that he was in a new city, at a school that will challenge him on many levels. Fear that, with this new experience, would also come pain and moments of doubt and heartache.
So how does this relate to writing?
As our plane took off, I started thinking about how writing a book or screenplay is often like going to college for the first time. You’re dropped into an unfamiliar environment and may have a vague idea of who the characters will be, but often can’t control what they do. You may have certain preconceptions about the place where you’ve chosen to set your story, but there will be things you will have to learn the hard way, and struggle with. You may think you know what the story is about, but come to discover its themes are totally different than you expected.
You may have to hold two very different parts of your main character in your heart. The part where she valiantly fights to save the world, and the part where she makes stupid personal choices. The part where he lashes out in anger, and then comforts his child. You may be in flow, where the words spill out of you quickly, and also be stuck, some days not knowing what to put on the page.
You, like any person starting a new experience, should be scared as you write. You should feel like you’re falling off cliffs, that you’re not in control.
You should be standing on the steps of a new “campus.”
This is, in fact, the only way you will grow as a writer.
We said goodbye to our son, and watched as he moved up the stairs toward his dorm. He didn’t look back.
I’m sure he was nervous. But he took each step, one at a time, heading into this new adventure.
Take Action! Are you playing it safe in your pages, or are you going somewhere new? Are you telling a story that holds both light and dark elements? Are you scared (you should be!) How can you be open to what you don’t expect or know (both good and not so good?) Are you leaving space for struggle and the unexpected but necessary moments of doubt and grace? Are you listening to your characters, making “friends” with them as they slowly reveal themselves?
I know I will never be 18 again, and setting off from home for the first time.
But I can try. In my pages.
I hope you will too.
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