I am thrilled to welcome Elizabeth Bridges, a first-time fiction writer whose short story “Breathe” will be featured in the upcoming anthology Athena’s Daughters 2. You can back Elizabeth’s story, and all of the other stories in the Athena’s Daughters 2 anthology, by clicking here. Now, without further ado, I give you Elizabeth Bridges.
Unlike a lot of the other writers to be involved in Athena’s Daughters 2, I am a first-timer in the fiction arena with my story “Breathe” in this collection. In fact, this story is the only piece of my fiction writing that has ever come under the eyes of another human. That’s not to say I’ve never written or published anything. In my day job I’m a professor, and the name of the game is “publish or perish” in this field. My ability to obtain and now – knock on wood! – keep my job has depended on a steady output of academic publications, however esoteric the subject and however small the audience. The stakes in academia are thus extremely high, but so is the bar for acceptance of my work into the “right” journals, so the intricate process of research and writing tends to cause me quite a lot of anxiety.
Reading fiction has always proved a welcome antidote to those career anxieties, and before that, to those other angsts we all experienced when we were young. The thought of actually writing fiction never occurred to me until a few years ago when I attended a writing workshop presented by Michael Stackpole and the late, great Aaron Allston. I showed up because it dealt specifically with the topic of writer’s block, and I found myself with some extra time and some available event tokens. The typical anxiety/writer’s block/paralysis cycle had gotten the better of me that summer, and I had the crazy idea that perhaps a couple of fiction authors who knew a little something about consistently banging out high volume a quality work might be able to help me.
And they did. Indeed, I got all kinds of gems like, “You can’t edit what doesn’t exist.” Sure it’s a writing cliché, but sometimes people say something at just the right time and in just the right way so that it fully sinks in, and you suddenly “get it.” I went back for more of these seminars, ostensibly for further tips that might apply to my academic writing.
But oddly enough, somewhere in the midst of “21 Days to a Novel,” I thought, “Hey, what if I were to write fiction as a way to make writing fun again? As a way to keep writing even when I feel blocked in my work-related projects? No one will ever have to read or judge it. It’ll just be to see if I can do it.” I like challenges. My whole career may, in fact, be the result of doing things just to see if I can.
So I determined that I would do NaNoWriMo that coming November as kind of a writing palate cleanser, if you will. I got the book No Plot, No Problem! by Chris Beaty, founder of NaNo, and applied his methods along with the Stackpole/Allston material to set about coming up with the story. Shockingly to me, I managed to churn out 50,000 words of something resembling a novel with a beginning, middle, and end. There are some chunks in the middle that I’ll have to reworke if I want to take it anywhere, but the fact that I was able to do it at all blew me away.
There were moments in that month of churning out word count that were, dare I say, transcendent. I didn’t edit, didn’t censor, didn’t judge what was coming out of my hands onto the screen. I even switched to pen and paper after a while because then I physically couldn’t edit. I just wrote. No petty, pedantic reviewers there to tear me down, no one looking over my shoulder. I just wrote. And it was fun. And there are passages from that so-called novel that I still can’t believe came out of me, or through me, or whatever happened while I sat there. I have to say, I’ve rarely if ever had that experience with my academic writing. Not sure what that says, but there you go.
And I have continued writing fiction from time to time after my NaNo experience, but when I do, I don’t tend to create completed pieces because I don’t have the pressure of the contest to give me that structure. So I have notebooks and computer files of various ideas in various stages of non-completion.
When Silence in the Library announced open submissions for the AD2 collection, I got the same feeling I did when I decided to do NaNo. I just had to do it – one of those challenges fueled by the desire to simply see if I could pull it off. In fact, I came up with an original idea that wasn’t from the stash, so I wrote the story specifically for this volume. Although not as expansive as a novel, it really gave me the opportunity to study the components of storytelling and worldbuilding in a much more compact and easily controllable form. Echoing in my head were the words of Allston and Stackpole: “A story isn’t so much a work of art as a construction project.” While I think art and feeling and intuition play more of a role than that statement suggests, it’s true that carpentry is a huge part of the process.
Writing fiction for me is freedom – particularly speculative fiction – because I get to ask the question “what if?” and pursue the answer wherever it leads, without the strictures of citation guidelines and the parameters of my job description to dictate what I write. I get to live for a time in worlds that, on my best days, almost seem to create themselves. Sure, in the case of AD2 I wouldn’t have submitted the story if I didn’t have some hope that it might make it into the volume. Indeed, the fact that it did delights me to no end and gives me some validation that I should keep doing this fiction writing thing. I thank the crew at SitL for giving me a chance, and I hope you all enjoy reading the story as much as I enjoyed writing it.