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October 1, 2013

The Thing Beneath the Story by Robin Wasserman, Author of THE WAKING DARK

Posted by tbrliz

Robin Wasserman's latest book, THE WAKING DARK, follows the story of a small town that is taken over by a force that causes good people to murder. Only one killer from killing day survived, and she doesn't even know why she killed...or if she'll do it again. In this blog post, Wasserman explores her insecurity with finding an idea --- or rather --- finding something to say.

I’ve come to believe there are two kinds of writers: the kind who whine-brag that they have more ideas than they’ll ever have time write, their poor heads bombarded by a steady stream of brilliant story starters they’re forced to file away for a rainy day…and the kind who want to punch that other kind in the face.

Not that I’m advocating anything but metaphorical punching. (Now that I’ve written a book filled with murder, mayhem and a variety of creative dismemberments, I thought maybe I should clarify.) But you can imagine how frustrating it is for those of us who have one good idea per year, if that, to imagine these more fortunate souls cackling upon their heaping pile of ideas. And, unless you are one of those more fortunate souls, you can imagine how terrifying it is to sit at the computer, fingers poised on the keyboard, waiting, hoping, praying that you come up with something --- anything --- to write.

The summer I turned 16, I took a class in fiction writing that changed, if not my life, then at least my conception of what my life could be. At the start of that summer, I had a distant dream of becoming a writer, someday. When I grew up. But over the course of those weeks, I stopped waiting around. I decided to be a writer. Not someday. Today. It felt good…right up until the end of summer parent-teacher conference, when my teacher, who’d watched me bash my head into a wall for hours and days, every time I was forced to come up with a new story idea, delivered his final verdict: “Robin is a great writer. But she’s got nothing she wants to say.”

That hurt. (As evidenced by the fact that after all this time I’m still holding a grudge.)

I think that guy kind of hated me, and for good reason (I may have led a tiny classroom coup). Even so, I’m sure he didn’t mean to put a name to my deepest, most secret fear and deem it true.

But that’s what he did. I carried around those words with me for years. I believed them --- because deep down, I’d already worried they were true --- and I believed it meant I would never be a writer, not for real. Because what kind of real writer can’t come up with something she wants to write?

It took almost 10 years to shake it off (and clearly, I still haven’t entirely managed). A decade of learning to write down any scrap of an idea that floated into my head so I’d always have a list in progress, of overcoming my fear and accepting that there’s no such thing as the “perfect” idea, of realizing that not having a million stories I wanted to write didn’t make me any less of a writer. Writers write. I didn’t need a million stories qualify: I just needed one.

I found it. And after that, though it took some time and plenty of head-bashing, I found another. Somewhere along the way, I figured out what that long-ago writing teacher was trying to tell me --- or at least, what he should have been trying to tell me. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. The problem was that I had plenty to say --- it just hadn’t occurred to me that writing fiction was the way to say it. I didn’t understand back then that the thing that makes an idea the right idea isn’t some ineffable quality of creative genius. It’s the connection between the story idea and the thing beneath the story, the thing you’re dying say. Any idea can be the right idea if you can find your way into it, if you can wrap it around the story underneath, the real story you need to tell.

THE WAKING DARK, my newest novel, is a lot of different ideas mashed into one: killer babysitters, vigilante football players, evil children, quarantines, lost love, meth dealers…if you listed every scrap of an idea that’s ever grabbed me over the last couple years, you’d have a good sense of what’s in this book. But I couldn’t string them all together --- I couldn’t recognize them as an idea for a story, and then write it --- until I figured out what I wanted to say. That I wanted to say something about the claustrophobia of adolescence and the terror of letting circumstances define your fate, about religious zealotry and the power of addiction, about the secrets we keep from the people we know best, about being angry and sad and hopeful and afraid.

In a perfect world, now that I have all this hard-fought wisdom, it should be easy for me --- or at least slightly less terrifying --- to face down the blank page. But it’s never easy. It’s always terrifying. And at the end of every project, I’m always a little afraid that I’ll never come up with another one, that the idea well is dried up for good.

The only thing I’m no longer afraid of is that those fears mean I’m not a “real” writer, whatever that means. Writers write. As long as I keep doing that, there’s nothing to fear.

I’ve always wanted to track down that teacher again, though I’m not sure whether I’d yell at him, thank him or just apologize for leading a class revolt. (And for making fun of his dancing. I’m really the last person who should make fun of anyone’s dancing.) Maybe I’d just hand him a towering stack of all the books I’ve written and inform him: Here’s what I have to say.

I’d like to think he already knew that, and was just waiting for me to figure it out.