I envy the writers who’ve always been free. The ones who eschew the market constraints of the publishing industry. The ones who don’t check the bestseller lists before deciding what to write based on what may sell. The renegades who smash the guardrails of genre and predictability to carve out literary roads of their own.
The first draft of my novel-in-progress drives me mad sometimes as I revise the climax, fill plot holes, and psychoanalyze my protagonist while second-guessing the story itself. I believe in it but wonder if anyone else will. Am I trolling in familiar tropes? Is this one of those “big books” that will catch the attention of agents and editors? I often long to climb into the minds of writers who shrug off convention to write without boundaries. I wonder if I’ve given myself permission to create without restraint.
If you want to read a novel that tackles the issue of race with equal parts tragic and comedic genius in a Richard Pryor and Chris Rock type mash-up wrapped in literary elegance, then check out The Sellout. Last month, Paul Beatty became the first American to win the coveted Man Booker Prize for that novel. The book is unabashedly unconventional and so is he. Eighteen publishers rejected his novel and a friend once told him he must write for weirdos, an assessment he dug in a way because it meant you needed unique literary tastes to dig his work.
There’s something reckless and unafraid about the way Beatty handles weighty issues of racism and tribalism, yet he has such expert command of language that you recognize right away you’re in the hands of a literary master. In interviews he’s given, Beatty talks about writing five pages and then revising multiple times and not being able to move beyond those pages until he gets them right. Knowing he labors over every word and doesn’t effortlessly crank out award-winning novels gives me solace. Still, I’m jonesing off his mojo, reading his work and trying to understand how he grew into his fearlessness.
The other creator I’ve been obsessed with lately is Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ever since I experienced the musical, it’s been all about the Hamiltons for me. He took a man often glossed over and usually forgotten in the history books and breathed new life into his story, his legacy. Just like Alexander Hamilton, Miranda brings fresh ideas and innovative thinking to everything he touches. A traditionally told musical about the early years of our country with white men in white wigs portraying the founding fathers would have been passable, but probably not provocative and transformative. Think of the limitless creativity of Miranda who imagined telling the story through hip-hop music with all the swagger of men and women about to change the game through the vessels of African-American, Hispanic and Asian actors. Now that’s revolutionary.
In every literary pursuit, there are conventions of the genre. I know that the type of novel I’m writing should be around 80,000-90,000 words and since this is my first one, I plan to stick to those guidelines. Miranda, however, wrote a nearly three-hour musical that critics warned was too lengthy, but he chose not to shorten it and advises writers to trust their instincts.
Another lesson Miranda teaches us is to open our eyes to see our stories in new ways. Sometimes, we have to go deeper into our characters’ lives to fully understand their histories, their motivations, the desires that consume them and the flaws that cripple them and ultimately make them human. If we wrote about Hamilton in our fourth grade social studies class or for American History in high school, we’d likely spin the tale of a founding father who established our economic system that led to our current banking structure. That’s true, but it doesn’t explore the nuance and the complexity of the man. Miranda told the rich story of a scrappy immigrant from a broken home, a brilliant man whose ambition and stubbornness would be his triumph and his downfall.
Slowly, I’m unshackling myself as a writer, learning the rules of the craft and the business of publishing so I can break a few along the way. Not to be different, but to give myself the freedom to create stories and characters that surprise and delight me. Stories that may never sell, much less win awards, but ones born of my full creativity and imagination.
Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.