The list had haunted me.
Upon finishing university, I made a list of writing goals. Fifty poems, twenty short stories, one stage play, one full-length screenplay, and one novel (minimum 100,000 words). The idea was that after writing in a variety of formats I would know which I was best suited for and where I should put my writing efforts.
On my forty-second birthday, I checked my list and found eighty poems, forty short stories, three stage plays, and three full-length screenplays. And I still did not know what kind of writer I wanted to be when I grew up. Missing was the novel.
I had done plenty of writing, so my day job and family life were no excuses for not writing the novel. I simply hadn’t figured out how to do it.
The following day I visited Powell’s, my favorite bookstore. My daughter had gone to live with her mother for a few months, and in her absence I often went to the bookstore–as much to hang out in a comfortable place as to browse or buy books.
Ruminating in an overstuffed chair among the stacks, I decided it was a good place to write a short story. I bought a notebook and pen at a nearby grocery store and returned to the comfy seat.
Something strange happened. All the advice about writing fiction disappeared. No narrative arc. No plot points. No character development. Just start with a character who has a problem, and then make everything worse until it finally gets better.
“The man woke up.” I had started.
“The man woke up and opened his eyes. He closed them again and rubbed them.” I had to keep him busy while I figured out what was wrong in his world.
“The woman was not beside him.” And there was his problem. Where was the woman? An hour later I had written four pages. It was a good first session. Two sessions later the short story had turned into a first chapter. Twenty-five chapters later, that small seed had germinated, sprouted, and grown into the accomplishment of my life: the novel, BECOMES THE HAPPY MAN.
The list was complete. Those ghosts silent. But more importantly, the voices of many more ghosts began haunting my imagination. The list had fulfilled its purpose of revealing my writing specialty. More novels have followed in the years since, and now I can’t imagine ever not having one in progress.
The man woke up. He did indeed.