What Kind of Fiction Do You Write?

I was attending the North Carolina Writers’ Network spring conference, held virtually, and this question came to me during the “picnic lunch” where we were divided into break out rooms. I had just met the woman who asked this question.

I was not prepared for this question and felt at a loss. It has stuck with me over the following days. I realize now she probably wanted to know if I wrote novels or short stories. I could have easily answered yes to both. It seems silly now that I didn’t say that, but I am new to thinking of myself as a writer. I learned in an NCWN workshop how to answer: what is your novel about? with a one sentence pitch. But this question flummoxed me. I even forgot to say I write poetry.

In my forty years as a clinical social worker, I had gotten my spiel down pat. My answer to a similar question would have been I do psychotherapy for individuals, couples and families. I specialize in Imago Relationship Therapy. I could then speak for twenty minutes about the theory and practice of what I offer. It did take a long time for this description to evolve into something I could recite in my sleep. I gradually came to view myself as a psychotherapist, experienced and confident in what I did.

In 2016, I retired and entertained another question: who am I now?

This inquiry had begun three years earlier as retirement approached and I began seeing fewer clients. As an English major at William & Mary, I had always loved literature. I was always reading a book. Fiction, non-fiction, best sellers, mysteries, sci-fi, memoirs, I read them all. And always the question bubbled up from inside. Could I write something like any of these? In 2013, I went to a five-day silent retreat at the Southern Dharma Retreat Center in the NC mountains, something I had never done and wasn’t at all sure I would like. I mean, five days of silence? My intention was to carve out time to contemplate what I wanted to do in retirement. The experience started out strange but by the end had begun to feel like a luxury. I loved it. I came away clear that I wanted to write.

After I got home, I took a Fiction Writing class then a NovelWriting class. The novel writing class morphed into a writers’ group that met every two weeks. We named ourselves Novel Gazers. I found a folder with three chapters I had written long ago and forgotten about. I reread them and was surprised to find they were pretty good. I began to write chapter four. And I was off.

Instead of therapy conferences, I began to attend workshops and conferences of the NC Writers’ Network. There, I met other writers in the local literary world. I read books about writing. I learned a lot.

My former consulting room turned into a writers’ nook. On one desk, I kept my laptop. There I could gaze out at green trees and bushes in the back yard, my eyes glazed over as words, phrases, and scenes materialized in my imagination. On another desk, I had my desktop computer for household bills and accounts and everything else. In between, I had a rolling chair.

There was a third desk I didn’t need. It had two file drawers and several other drawers that hadn’t been sorted and cleaned out in years. On the desktop were slots full of cards, envelopes, and other miscellaneous items. As I opened drawers, pulled out folders and went through them, I found poems I’d written and didn’t remember. I stumbled onto stories I’d written for a Fiction Fundamentals class I’d taken in 1995 that I’d forgotten about. I found stories and poems friends had written and with them memories of sharing writing over lunches and evening glasses of wine. I found the first poem I had ever written, dated the year I turned nineteen. The answer to my inquiry could not have been clearer.

I am and have always been a writer.

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