By Jose Paz Soldan
For the past few weeks, I’ve found myself unable to properly write creative fiction like I’ve used to. The drive that pushed me forward seemed to have fizzled out, and I found myself staring at a blank sheet of paper or an empty word document, fingers slamming on the backspace key every time I manage to write a single sentence. To try to snap out of this funk and find that writing spirit again, I thought back to a meeting I had with an author whose novel I admired.
In early October of 2019, acclaimed writer Justin Torres visited the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut. For the occasion, the Creative Writing Program held an event where students would submit a piece or an excerpt of their work to be judged for one-on-one sessions with the visiting author.
I was quite overwhelmed at the fact that I had managed to win this opportunity, so I eagerly signed up for the first available slot knowing I would have to skip a class lecture for it, but I didn’t care. I was both excited and anxious. Nonetheless, both Torres and the day soon arrived, and I found myself waiting in front of the office where we would meet.
When we sat down, I saw the manuscript I had sent on the desk: about 20 pages of a rough draft of a novel, with the first page looking like a rushed essay an irate teacher was handing back to me. All over the place were notes and questions that looked more like doctors’ signatures to me, and my anxiety grew.
The first thing he asked of me was to explain the whole plot of the story. Still, with an ocean of stuttering and lots of “uh”s and “umm”s, I managed to stumble my way through an explanation of the plot. He remained silent, just nodding along and letting out “hm”s so I knew he was listening. In a way, it was refreshing to finally speak to someone about this whole, nonsensical story I had plotted out.
But, Justin Torres was a man who had written a strong, award-winning story We The Animals, he was on another level from me. In that tiny office, I felt quite small, because I was writing genre fiction about vampires with a melodramatic protagonist. For the first time in a while, I felt embarrassed about my genre.
Once I finally finished with the plot description, he told me I was a gifted storyteller. It was praise I never imagined I would hear when I stepped into my office. To be honest, I was half-expecting shredded pieces of my manuscript or maybe even some dismissal?
However, he punctuated that with a bit of advice: I needed to improve on the technical side of writing. Pointing his pen to various parts of the manuscript, Torres read out loud the parts where the prose had gotten quite stuffed with far too many similes and metaphors. Listening to my story out loud, hearing the exaggerated language that I had thought made my writing sound more ‘adult,’ I realized what I was writing was an overwhelming filler. It was something most readers wouldn’t care to trudge through because it lacked interesting details and it lacked a good sense of flow. I needed to tone it down and choose my words carefully. Otherwise I would never improve.
A few months later, my writer’s block showed up. I still understood that I needed to find a way to improve, but I simply found myself unable to get my act together and put some words on the page.
Then, I got the idea to look through some old writing of mine. Composition notebooks from all the way back to seventh grade, when I was a 12-year-old boy simply trying out something new because speaking about my feelings was beyond me. I flipped through them, looking at the childish sentiments and run-on sentences. It was silly of me, but I started to crack a smile as I looked over my old work and what I had been able to accomplish.
Six notebooks. I had managed to fill up six notebooks. Some had poorly-drawn doodles on them and others had a few pages left blank because I had finished writing out the section of the story I wanted them to hold, but I still managed to write enough that I could be considered a hazard to trees. It’s a bit funny that I had written so much but I still wasn’t at the level that I wanted to be. But even though I laughed at that thought, there was still a part of me that felt as though I had stumbled onto something important.
I kept reading over what I had written and how much I had gotten done, and I think that’s when the compliment Torres had given me finally struck. For the first time in years, I realized how far I had come. I had improved so much because of all the work I’ve put into my skill, and now I needed to keep on going. I remembered the pride I had for my work.
Torres was correct, I understand that I need to get better. If not for me then for that middle school boy that opened his first notebook and never put his pen down. Lately, I’ve been working hard on short stories to submit. I was never going to improve on my skills if I didn’t send my stuff out there for rejection and criticism, so I’m glad I’m doing this now. My confidence is slowly coming back, and I wish I could say thank you to Justin Torres for helping me with that.
I definitely feel like keeping a notebook and just putting myself out there really helped me out a lot when finding my passion for writing. Keeping these old notebooks and just thinking back to those days when I was first starting out might just be the key to remembering why someone even began to write in the first place. And I feel like this could apply to just about any sort of artistic endeavor. Holding onto those memories and even sharing them through one’s passionate creations is one of the most amazing things an author can do.
Jose Paz Soldan is the Long River Review scholarship contest coordinator and a fiction panel reader. He can be reached at email@example.com.