Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write

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I would say it’s been a long time since I finished a story, but that’s not exactly true: even with how slowly I write, and with grad school and my first few years teaching on top of that, I can think of about four stories I’ve both started and finished in the past five years.

The problem is, the first three didn’t work. The first two were unsalvageable, so fundamentally flawed that almost immediately after finishing the first drafts I wrote them off as extended writing exercises. The third one almost worked, and I might still go back to it someday, but I finally had to admit to myself that I just didn’t have enough of a handle on who my characters were as people, and until I figured that out their story would continue not quite working.

It made me nervous. All of the stories I’ve had published before — all the stories I’ve been able to revise to the point where they worked — I first wrote in college. Sure, I made all of the important revisions for “Lily” and “The Castle That Jack Built” during or just after grad school, but I’d had the basic material for both while I was still an undergrad. What if I couldn’t do it anymore? I couldn’t help wondering.


Over the summer I fell in love with Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s art, especially this poster. I even did a little bit of freewriting inspired by the counting rhyme and the feeling of her art, if not the specific images. I wrote one scene, and I read it over afterward and thought, “Hey, that’s really neat! I have no idea what it means!” and then I more or less put it aside until suddenly, a couple of months later, the rest of the story came to me.

At that point I made a deal with myself: finish the story, and you’re allowed to buy the poster.

It turns out that was a really smart deal to make, and I wish I could take credit for having realized that in advance. Mostly, though, I was worried about what would happen if I bought art that I associated with a story, and then the story didn’t work or I just never finished it. Wouldn’t that just remind me of my failure? Better to wait, and be sure, and then I could buy the art as a celebration of my success.

Really, though, that poster is what kept me writing. At first the story came quickly and easily, almost as if it existed already and my job was just to record it. Then I kept rethinking what it was about, and who my characters were, until dozens of small shifts had turned it into something a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult to write. (The fact that it was better than the version I’d started out writing was not as great comfort as you might imagine.) Whenever I got frustrated, though, I’d find myself looking at that poster online and thinking, “I really want this on my wall,” and I’d sigh and get back to work.

I’d like to think I would’ve finished eventually anyway, but I’m not honestly sure, and even if I had I’m sure it would’ve taken a lot longer.


I finished the first draft of my magpie story, and then I had a decision to make. You see, my deal with myself was that I had to finish the story before I could buy the poster, but I had deliberately left “finish” undefined. Did “finish” mean “finish the first draft”? Did “finish” mean “finish the first draft and revisions and be ready to submit it places”? Did it mean something in between?

Really what “finish” meant was “finish enough that you’re sure it’s going to work,” and I hadn’t defined it further because I didn’t know when I would feel that way. Certainly I didn’t know when I finally typed the pound signs at the end of my first draft, already sleep deprived before staying up until nearly two in the morning writing, whether it worked. At that point I was just excited to have a beginning, middle, and end.

It’s funny, though: I’ve been looking back through old e-mails and online posts to try and figure out when I bought the poster and what, if anything, prompted me to decide I was ready. I thought I remembered waiting a day or two, but as I looked at timestamps I realized that actually I waited about twelve hours. It couldn’t have been based on critiques/feedback, because I didn’t have any until a week later, and I was much too anxious at that point to have read it over myself.

What I do remember is that I still had doubts. I told myself that yes it was a first draft and it probably had problems, but it was a solid first draft, and I sort of believed myself. I still worried, though, that somewhere out there was a shoe with “this sucks” scrawled all over it in permanent maker just waiting for me to build up my confidence before it dropped.

I ordered the poster anyway.

This morning I worked a little bit more on the revisions for the second draft before deciding to switch gears and (finally) write this blog entry. I’m more confident now that the first draft was pretty solid (as far as first drafts go), and that the second draft will be even stronger, though I’m pretty sure I’ll need at least one more draft after this one. We’ll see if I manage to finish the second draft before I have to go back to work on Monday, but even if I don’t that’s okay. I’ll keep working at it, and the work will get done.

I’m still nervous about it, of course, but I’m also pretty happy with where it is and where it’s headed. And I’ve gotta say, that poster looks pretty damn good on my wall.