There is an old story that says, there is a fight going on inside every writer. A battle between two wolves. Or maybe they’re foxes? Whatever. One is named Steve, and Steve is the manifestation of fear, and the other is named Jerry, and Jerry is love and light, and Steve and Jerry are fighting over a
*checks ink-smudged notes, squints*
a bag of Hot Cheetos? Wait that can’t be right.
Never mind that story.
(Sidenote, before anyone jumps in and says something about this being a Cherokee story and I’m a jerk for mocking it, please be advised, it ain’t. Billy Graham made it up.)
So. I meet a lot of writers. I met them on book tour. I meet them at conferences and conventions. I meet them in dank basements where we trade story ideas trapped in jars like little fireflies. I MEET THEM IN DREAMS
And when I meet the writers, I often recognize something instantaneously, and that thing that I recognize is fear. Now, I don’t mean a kind of general fear; anybody with two molecules of common sense waltzing around their brain can look at the news and recognize this is a peculiarly fucked up era, and so fear about *gestures broadly* all of that is fine and sensible and trust me when I say I get it, and my writing is fueled in part by that. Putting your anxieties on the page where they can be managed and fought like summoned demons is *chef’s kiss.*
Rather, I’m speaking about a specific kind of fear, which is, fear as the first step of writing. Fear about market. Fear about audience. Fear about how no one will read your stuff. Fear about how you’re never going to be as good as [insert other author name here]. Fear about voice, fear about genre, fear about ideas. You set out on the journey of being a writer and already you have a choice about what direction you choose, right? You get this instinctual pull, as if all your intestinal flora are trying to move you in concert toward something weird, something wonderful, something uniquely your own, but — that way lies grave uncertainty. The other direction, well, that’s more sensible, isn’t it? Other writers have trod those paths. What’s popular right now is [insert trend here, like “YA medical horror featuring canine protagonists” or “grimdark geriatric erotic fantasties”]. Your voice surely isn’t as good as other voices.
So, your foot wavers. And instead of pointing yourself in the unknown direction, into the dark forest, into the layers of fog — you set forth onto the well-lit, well-marked path. The worn path. The trod path. And it’s fear that put you there. It’s fear that’s walking you forward.
Now, a caveat here that nothing I say here is particularly true, or universal — you can, of course, choose the well-trod path as a matter of fuck yeah I wanna do that, but the concern here is a lot of authors take that path less as a true choice and more as a desire for safety.
But what I want you to know is, that way isn’t safe.
It seems safe.
But it is not.
Listen, a writing career is stupid as fuck. I don’t mean choosing to be a writer is stupid — I do mean that the career itself is a hot cup of batshit. It doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense. It is Non-Euclidian in its proportions: a blueprint made of incomprehensible angles and imaginary numbers. A writing career is a procedurally-generated labyrinth, and trying to walk it with a pre-conceived map in hand is foolishness on par with letting a toddler drive a car on the Autobahn. It’s like using cheat codes for the wrong game. You start furiously tapping UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT and your little 8-Bit avatar leaps into a pit of acid and dies.
There are writers, other writers, many writers.
And there is the writer that you are.
We grow deeply concerned as storytellers that the story we’re telling isn’t original, and truly, it isn’t. No story is truly original, but there are two places where originality shines through: the first is the arrangement of unoriginal elements. It’s like how in a song, all the notes are the notes. Or how in a painting, the colors are colors. You can’t make up new notes. You can’t make up new colors. But what you do with those sounds and those hues is where the art is made, and so too it is with story.
The second original thing has to do with the first.
The second truly original thing about any story is the teller of that story.
(Psst. That’s you.)
The problem is, if you choose to ignore the latter — and, say, try to follow the writing path of other writers, or of the market, or some other fear-based trajectory — you will also miss the former. Because that unique arrangement of elements comes from who you you are. It comes from the things you love, the ideas you have, the mad stuff that comprises your mind and your heart. You’re a product of an unholy host of elements: your parents, your friends, your upbringing, your genetics, your experiences, the books you’ve read, the stories you’ve loved and also the stories you’ve hated. You are a fingerprint. That curious combination cannot be replicated.
What that means is:
When the time comes to write something, don’t move forward with fear in your step. Move forward with love. With eagerness and excitement. Love the story you’re telling, tell the story that only you can tell. Rest in peace and power, Toni Morrison, who said: “If there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This career is already fraught. It’s already weird and uncertain. The safe path is a lie — and a boring one, at that. The books that work, the books that matter, are the ones that didn’t try to do what was done before. They were a unique formulation from the author. They came from a place of excitement and interest, from love and ideas. They put aside fear and safety and ran into the dark.
That is what you, too, must do.
You must run into the dark, chasing what you love.
Tell that story. That’s the one we all want to read.
* * *
WANDERERS: A Novel, out now.
A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”
A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.