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They Just Won’t Understand

Flickr Creative Commons: Dave Morrison Photography

Let me guess.

Ideas distract you and scratch away at your attention so much that sometimes it’s tough to be present, really present, when you’re with other people.

Maybe the scent or sizzle of burgers on the grill at the neighborhood BBQ takes you back to your childhood, to a story waiting there that you haven’t thought about in years. And suddenly you’re no longer there with your friends, but someplace else. Somewhere in your head.

The people you’re with will notice this, of course, and might think that you’re either rude or aloof. So there’s that. But there are also those times when you are present, listening to your friends in a way that others don’t—grasping the hard truth and soft emotion and life and love and passion hidden beneath their words.

And so people don’t know what to make of you.

You’re a writer. You believe in once upon a time. You channel your dreams. You wrestle with words in ways that are hard to even define. Angels and fairies won’t leave you alone. Thoughts of the bogeyman still keep you up at night.

Writing a book devours your time—and since time is life, that means it’s consuming huge, unrecoverable chunks of your precious, momentary, miraculous life. But for some reason that doesn’t bother you. It inspires you. And drives you to write even more.

Unless you’re a prodigy or a literary genius, it probably takes you about a month to write what it takes people an hour to read. So you might legitimately be investing a thousand hours or more into a novel—a thousand lonely hours in solitary confinement.

But it isn’t so solitary. Because when you’re alone with your story, you’re never really alone. The characters keep you company. The story gets the best of you and time races by.

You know what it’s like to wake up at  2 AM with an idea, and slip out of bed so you don’t wake your partner, and then tap away at the keyboard in the basement for four hours until you make your way back under the covers to try sneaking in a little more shuteye before you need to get up and go to work for the day.

Which you do.

In order to pay the bills.

Until this writing thing takes off.

Even if that takes forever.

Your family and friends don’t get it. They don’t know what it’s like to be talking with someone over coffee and hear a phrase from the people in the booth beside you and then smile and nod your way through the rest of your conversation as your mind races along, threading the idea through the needle-eye of your imagination until you see where it might be leading.

Insight. Epiphany. Jolt.


They don’t know what it’s like to be driving along the highway and have an idea catch up with you and then scramble desperately to find your phone so you can record a reminder to yourself before the idea is gone—and before you crash your car in a ditch.

Or the idea might hit you during a run. Or in the shower. Or while having sex. (Yes, well, it’ll happen.) And others don’t know what to make of that. Of you.

They haven’t seen the raindrops easing down a window and realize that the drops are refracting the world to you upside down. And a poem about rain rises within you. Where did it come from? Where do any ideas come from? You don’t know and you don’t care because it’s there now and that’s what matters and you’ll never look at a raindrop, or the world, the same way again. And that matters too.

You care about the right word, the only word that’ll make that sentence ring true. And so you wrestle with that phrase for half a day. Not because it makes any practical sense. Not because it’ll pay off in bigger royalties. But because you can’t help it.

You live with your heart attuned to other people’s pain. And to their laughter as well.

You listen. You see. Yes, you do. And you find that you can’t help but marvel at the pain and mystery and grace of life. At times you find yourself wondering how anyone makes it through a day without either weeping at the horrors of our world or shedding tears of joy at the glory.

And so, you write.

You force yourself to craft and edit and rewrite again until your story takes your breath away. And you wonder for a minute if there’s something wrong with you.

And there is. But there’s something right with you too.

You have ideas itching away inside of you, and keeping them trapped there drives you nearly mad, and so you write. It isn’t something you can turn off. When people ask if you have trouble coming up with ideas you don’t know what to tell them because your problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it’s keeping up with them.

And so, you write.

You put up with the long hours in solitude, the emotional turmoil, the constant self-criticism, and the bouts of heart-wrenching disappointment because there’s a story there, a poem there, and you feel compelled to set it free.

To set yourself free.

To set us all just a little bit more free.

And so, you write.

Thank you, dear friend. You are not alone. We’re all in your tribe. We’re your people.

Don’t worry, you’ve got this.

About Steven James [1]

Steven James [2] is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of more than fifty books, including seventeen novels. Publishers Weekly calls him “[A] master storyteller at the peak of his game.” His groundbreaking books on the craft of fiction, Story Trumps Structure and Troubleshooting Your Novel both won Storytelling World Awards of Excellence. When he’s not working on his next book, he teaches fiction writing at conferences spanning the globe and hosts the podcast The Story Blender. For all things Steven James, click to stevenjames.net [2].