Having Faith in Your Fiction
My uncle Mike used to tell me, when I first began writing fiction, that story writing isn’t anything more than a testament of faith. This was hard advice to take when I found myself stuck, unsure of where the arc of a story would take me, or—worse yet—when I would question why I’d even bothered starting a particular piece in the first place.
“An idea popped in there, right?” he’d say.
“And you started writing, right? Well then trust that. You’ll get to the other side
“What if I don’t?”
“Believe in the idea, and you will.”
The advice, at the time, seemed infuriatingly simplistic—the kind of rose-colored optimism that works for other people, but not for me. This has always been part of my make-up—personality, disposition: call it a coping mechanism—the idea that I can protect myself by not surrendering to anything too whole-heartedly
, to anything that may or may not work out. I used to think it was a smart kind of restraint. Don’t believe in anything too much, and you won’t be disappointed. There won’t be pain or heartache or the need to cry. You’ll save money on Kleenex and chocolate and hours of endlessly surfing the internet asking “why.” For me, this was a good plan. Or so I thought.
This has nothing to do with fiction, but when I was a little girl, I wanted nothing more than to climb to the top of the orange tree in the backyard of our Florida suburban home
. It seems an odd thing to wish for, but at five-years-old, the top of all that green was a kind of heaven. The oranges were plumper, golden even; succulent orbs that would surpass the Turkish delight of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia
. I had tried to climb—scraped knees and palms and bouts of Neosporin—but I couldn’t reach the top. The branches seemed to inspire a kind of paralysis; my arms and legs would somehow freeze, tangling in the bark and leaves. And then there was the voice: “you’ll never make it.”
I never did make it to the top of our orange tree, and to anyone (but me at the time) it seems obvious as to why: I didn’t believe in my arms and legs. I had no faith in the journey upward. I didn’t believe that I would, come bang or bruise or broken arm, get there, and so, I never did.
This isn’t a new story; it isn’t an interesting one: but it is one that all too many of us face in life—be it in marriage, or ambition, or health, or economic difficulty.
I suppose, in hindsight, this is perhaps why I’ve always been drawn to fiction and storytelling—the sheer act of creating a story requires faith; an origin requires a belief in its ending. In its existence. If you don’t believe in your idea, you’ll never write. Of course, this is always the case, isn’t it? As writers, we come to a crossroads: we have an image that won’t leave us alone, a narrative voice that haunts us, an ending to which we have no beginning.
It is here that we have a choice: keep pursuing that thunderclap of inspiration—clawing and clawing your way to enlightenment—or abandoning it altogether. Certainly, there are moments when it’s wise to walk away and give inspiration room to grow. But then there are other times when abandoning it will shatter the kernel of something altogether. I know I have done this—too many times. My computer folder marked “Limbo”, full of story nuggets and lines and scrawls, are evidence of this.
The moments of success I’ve had in my fiction writing, I’ve had to put aside my doubts and fears; I’ve had to take my initial inspiration on faith—blind, pure, stinging faith—and see it through to the end. Years ago, I had an image of a two girls poking at the ground with a willow stick. I have no idea why I found this image so profound, so beautiful.
For years, I left it alone. I told myself there is no story here; there is nothing inherently interesting about children antagonizing dirt with a fallen tree branch. And yet, it wouldn’t leave me alone.
Two years later, I pushed aside my orange-tree-climbing-paralysis ways, and took a leap: this image was about two girls finding solace, grief, hope. The girls were digging for ants, for a magical connection they’d imagined to the mother they’d lost to tragedy. The image unraveled itself, a kind of unspooling began, and six months later, I had a story called “The Blue-Eyed Ant” that was later published
, and that would not have happened without the belief that I would, eventually—despite my doubts—make it to the other side.
From a distance, this is all seemingly obvious: believe and it shall be. In our modern world, this premise populates self-help books and top 7 keys to success, and while we know this, we think it doesn’t apply to us, and yet, it comes down to that simple building block of being human, of being a writer: faith in the inklings of your subconscious
. Faith in yourself.
Allyson Armistead is a graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and has contributed writing to Narrative Magazine, Bellingham Review, Ruminate, Coal City Review, and A River and Sound Review, among others. Her short story “Oasis” was awarded the 2011 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize. She writes and lives in the Washington, DC metro area with her husband and young daughter. You can visit her website at allysonarmistead.com and on Twitter @AllyArmistead1.
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