By Mel Lake
My first novel is sitting in a folder in cloud storage, waiting for me to summon the courage to open and revise it. Without the sixth volume of The Sandman comics, it wouldn’t have been written at all.
I’m a writer for a living, but probably not the kind you think of when you think of a writer. If you’re like me, you picture a writer as a harried white man pecking away at a typewriter, probably chain-smoking, pouring his agony onto the page. I am white and often harried, but not a man at a typewriter. And instead of the Great American NovelTM, I’ve made a living writing the documents you get when you sign up for an insurance plan. You know those long documents with so much legal language it makes you wonder if they’re written that way just to confuse people or to make the insurance company pay as little as possible? Yeah, those. (The answer is no, the people writing those booklets really do try to be clear, insurance is just complicated.)
For six years after getting an English degree, I worked shitty customer service jobs and flinched when anyone asked “What do you do?” because I had no idea what to say. While I worked as a medical office receptionist, patients coughed on me and handed me germ-filled dollar bills for their copays and I felt like a failure. I didn’t write. In the evening, I peeled sweaty scrubs off my tired body and fell onto a thrift-store couch to watch television. I didn’t pour my depression onto the page. Now and then, I felt the flicker of something like inspiration and I tried, desperate and alone, to write something, but never finished.
Later, a woman with a short haircut and a brusque manner gave me a job processing insurance claims, then remembered I like to write, and put me in charge of writing those dry legal documents. I still wasn’t a chain-smoking man at a typewriter. But I excel at taking complicated information and breaking it into bits, then reassembling it in different ways for different audiences, and thanks to her, twentysomething me happened on a career in technical writing. I still thought being alone with a typewriter, pouring out my pain on the page, was the only way to be a real writer. Thirtysomething me signed up for a mortgage and a car payment, though, so I embraced being good at writing legalese and gave up on the rest.
For a long time, I lived without my own stories and lacked a community of people committed to telling theirs. I developed other parts of my life, centering my identity around things other than words. Then, in the summer of 2019, while making my way through The Sandman comic series, which is itself about the stories we tell each other consciously and unconsciously, I had an idea for a novel. Ten minutes into swimming laps, between one freestyle stroke and the next, a world appeared in my head. The overall place doesn’t have a name like Panem from The Hunger Games, but it has cities, mountains, rivers, and a cliff’s edge that falls sharply into the sea. When I got out of the pool, I wrote the idea in a notebook and shoved it in a drawer. I kept it hidden away like a tell-tale idea, beating its heart until I couldn’t ignore it any longer. Several days later, in the bread aisle of the grocery store, my main character introduced himself. He told me who he was, all the horrible things he’d done, and what he was seeking. Days later, while scooping my dog’s poop into a plastic bag half a block away from my house, I found out his name.
My world would’ve stayed in its drawer had I not been reading The Sandman. At the beginning of volume six, there’s a mini-story about a playwright who gives up before seeing his words come to life on stage. Every night after rehearsal, he dreams of falling from a great height. And every night, he either dies a gruesome death or desperately tries to wake up and avoid his fate. When Morpheus, the lord of dreams, tells him that dreams in which he dies are real, he blanches, his face drawn with visceral horror. Morpheus doesn’t smile. But after spending hundreds of pages with the mercurial entity drawn in many different art styles, you can feel his moods through the tilt of his head and the flash of his starlike eyes. He wears smug satisfaction like a cloak made of otherworldly ego. Morpheus tells the man that, yes, when you fall in dreams, you die. But there’s another possibility, too. He says, “Sometimes when you fall, you fly.”
Reading those words sitting comfortably on my couch, I cursed beloved fantasy author Neil Gaiman. Because I knew that my tell-tale story wouldn’t leave my head until I wrote it down and it was time to leap, as the playwright in the comic had. Being a writer was more than pouring pain out onto a page, alone in a dark room. It had little to do with channeling some innate inner ability and didn’t require the clicking of a typewriter. Being a writer was leaping with an idea and hoping that instead of falling, you would fly. Goddammit, Neil Gaiman, I thought, and got to work.
Ten years after creating a NaNoWriMo account, I logged back in. I lurked on the forums, not quite brave enough to speak but buoyed by the hopes and dreams and bitching and moaning of the people there. I did Save the Cat, and the Nine-Step Plot Dot, and tried to fill out world-building worksheets. I talked, tentatively, hesitantly, about my plans to write a novel. What happened when I did was astonishing to me, though I suspect it would not be astonishing to beloved fantasy author Neil Gaiman, who wrote a seventy-five-issue comic masterpiece about the stories people keep hidden from the world. Like-minded people with stories beating their tell-tale hearts in drawers were everywhere. My lap-swimming friend, who accompanied me to swim aerobics classes and chatted in the jacuzzi afterward, was a writer, too. We spent heady mornings in the hot tub talking about character arcs while our hands wrinkled and the steamy pool room of our big-box gym transformed into an incubator for ideas that I furiously typed on my phone in the parking lot while my hair dried. Several of the women in my comic book club were writers, too. And a guy in my sci-fi club. People with stories were everywhere if you looked and shared the fact that you had stories to tell, too.
While I was plotting my novel, Amazon premiered its adaptation of Good Omens, based on a story cowritten by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in the 1980s. It’s a cheeky comedy about the biblical end of the world. I was hooked from the moment the demon Crowley, watching the crucifixion, asks what Jesus Christ said that got everyone’s knickers in a twist. His frenemy on earth, the angel Aziraphale says, “Be kind to each other.” The demon nods, resigned, and says, “That’ll do it.”
After watching the miniseries, I devoured the book. It’s more acerbic than the adaptation and feels a little outdated, but it contains the same irreverent English humor delivered by a lovable cast of weirdos. The Good Omens fandom exploded that summer and continued during the terrifying days of 2020 when the world felt like it might be coming pretty darn close to an end. In an interview, Neil Gaiman called Good Omens fans “yogurt starters” because they are the raw ingredients from which new fans are made. The fan community starts other things, too, though. They start journeys of self-discovery and then share them with supportive groups of fans all across the world. They write and draw and create, filling one corner of the internet with their flavor of yogurt. I joined them, sharing stories and basking in a glow of positivity and support while writing my novel, never alone and never at a typewriter.
Since I wrote the last words of my novel, trying not to let everyone at Starbucks see me crying into a notebook, I’ve written more of my own words than I ever thought possible. People I met due to a common love of Good Omens regularly share snippets and give each other positive feedback, creating an endless cycle of support for writers of all different kinds of stories. My friend from the pool and I text about plot bunnies and how hard it is to stay focused on one idea long enough to see it through to the end. I write longhand, on my laptop, and even on my phone. I’m still a technical writer. But I know now that as long as I keep writing, buoyed by the support of writers all around me, I’m a real writer.
Reading The Sandman gave me the courage to take the leap and write creatively again, and reading Good Omens connected me with supportive people all around the world with stories of their own. Sometimes when you fall, you fly, and no one can make that first leap for you. But it’s so much easier to keep flying when you join a flock.
Mel Lake lives in Denver with her partner and a very good dog. She has an English BA and an MS in technical communication. She is a technical writer in the corporate world by day and a creative writer the rest of the time. Her work has appeared in The Mark Literary Review and is forthcoming in The Human Touch, Capsule Stories Second Isolation Edition, and Land Beyond the World. Mel is on Twitter at @melofsometrades.
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