I've always had a fascination with nuns. Growing up in a large French-Canadian family, I viewed my two aunts who had taken the veil with curiosity tinged with fear (what is it about the habits that make them seem unapproachable?). I read the Dune series with delight at the Bene Gesserit's machinations. Recently, I devoured the Warrior Nun and Mrs. Davis television shows. You may not have realized it, but nuns hold a powerful place in the Western imagination.
I started seriously pursuing creative writing after studying and teaching medieval religion and literature at university. At first, I thought I needed to write historical fiction to use my academic studies to full effect. With nuns, of course, since everyone would share my obsession with these figures.
The story idea had some promise--strong female characters, a community with secrets and interpersonal turmoil, and cool historical details. But I couldn't make it work. Like Marcella (see her post here), I tried to shove everything into the story. There were secret babies (more than one!), a kidnapping and a murder, a mystical prophetess, a snooty Duchess, and an evil bishop... I could go on, but you get the idea. It was full of cringe (the common theme this week), yet it still holds a special place in my heart.
I learned a great deal about writing from that unpublishable project (it was no The Other Boleyn Girl). The closed setting of a nunnery was a great way to explore character dynamics. I identified a slew of genres and tropes that I loved and wanted to use (just not all at once). And I realized that historical fiction was too limiting for my purposes. I got caught up in historical details rather than letting my imagination take the helm.
Too much time was spent looking backward instead of forward when I first started writing creatively. It was only when I opened myself up to integrating all the parts of myself--all my weird and wonderful obsessions and knowledge--that I found my voice as a writer. Whereas academic writing requires the author to subsume themselves and create an "objective" perspective (with many many rules and limitations on what can and should be said - and don't get me started on the fallacy of anyone having a quote-unquote objective perspective), creative writing asks us to embrace our whole selves. We pour in our creativity, experiences, and interests. We take the books we've read, the passions we've felt, and the questions we have, throw them into the cauldron, and stir them up into a wonderful new potion.
My favourite cauldron is fantasy literature. It took me some time to get there, but it's where I can bring my whole self to my writing. Where I look forward, even as I look to the past. Where I have limitless options to play as I create. Where I can bring in my fascination with religion and the supernatural, my desire for stories with strong women characters, my love of heist movies and spy stories, my fondness for romance and feel-good relationships, my lifelong reading of fantasy and science fiction novels, my penchant for fairy and folk tale themes, and anything else that moves me at that time!
It can take some time to find our way when we begin writing. And that's ok. All the writing we do takes us further on the journey to find our voice.
All the best,