Armadillos, Chinchillas, and Writing Something New

I spent Labor Day reading over stuff I wrote a long time ago to see if any of it was salvageable. It was very encouraging to see how much better I write now, yet dispiriting to see places where I haven’t changed. Many of the characters are very similar to each other, structural weaknesses are unchanged, and I even used some of the same phrases. My brain has this box of things that go in a novel, and I keep picking the same ones. It’s like always getting chocolate ice cream at the ice cream parlor. Even though chocolate is my favorite, I really ought to try something different. Comfort reads have their place, and comfort writings do too, but they shouldn’t be exclusive.

This is one of the reasons I’ve decided to try writing a science fiction novel. Given a different environment and a different social structure, my characters have to behave differently, and I can’t rely on things I’ve described a hundred times before. Habit has less power over me, because I am actively challenging it. This should force my imagination to stretch. It’s why I’m glad I wrote a sequel to Moth and Spark; I forced the characters to live in a different set of circumstances, which taught me a lot. I’m also writing the SF book in the present tense, which definitely changes my style and makes me more attentive to the effects of my language.

But at a deeper level, there’s another thing that’s troubling me more than my reliance on habits. I can come up with all sorts of setting, plots, and themes to work on, any number of stories that interest me. But those all come from my head; I’m wondering a bit right now if I have very many stories in my heart. Are my writerly passions a few narrowly confined ones? And if they are, is that a bad thing for me? If the only stories I can put all of my self behind are ones about armadillos fighting in bars, should I give up on writing stories about chinchillas stowing away on clipper ships? Should I try to write the very best armadillo story, or should I try to fall in love with chinchillas? If I get sick of or bored with armadillos, is my writing life over?

There are plenty of writers who repeat themselves in one way or another, and plenty of readers who want a story they are familiar with. This is not just the case for series books; William Faulkner’s novels are set in Yoknapatawphna County and have interlocking casts of characters. Many of the themes are similar. Jane Austen’s novels are all love stories. Yet Sanctuary is a very different book from Absalom, Absalom!, which is itself different from The Sound and the Fury, and Emma is quite distinct from Sense and Sensibility. I haven’t yet found ways to take the same material and make a different story of it.

I don’t want to write the same story over and over, but sometimes when I try new things the result has a hollow feeling to it. It’s an exercise. It’s like having a crush on someone, and when the crush wears off there’s nothing left.

One obvious way to deal with this is to take more risks and to go places in myself that I don’t want to go. Another way is to extend my empathy, to try to feel what it really is to be a chinchilla instead of an armadillo. A third way is to consciously do more exercises, to practice writing when nothing is on the line and see what happens to come out. These activities are all challenging, sometimes painful, often exhausting, but I think they’re necessary. I have a hard time letting go, not staying in control, and that gets in my way at times. I need to get over this. There will be more stories that come from my heart if my heart is freer.

This is hard; it has little to do with words and much more with identity. But it has to be done.