Originally published in Writers of the Future Volume 29, this article written by Nnedi Okorafor provides useful writing tips on how to start writing and even more specifically how to start a story. She discusses her personal story beginning with a career as a professional tennis player and how this provided her greatest writing lesson learned. Nnedi explains the battle she fights when beginning a new story, when facing the dreaded blank page and her ultimate triumph that has made her one of today’s most successful fantasy writers.
“The Writers of the Future experience played a pivotal role during a most impressionable time in my writing career. Everyone was so welcoming. And afterwards, the WotF folks were always around when I had questions or needed help. It was all far more than a mere writing contest.” —Nnedi Okorafor
When I was sixteen years old, I learned one of the greatest lessons I could learn as a writer. This was four years before I wrote my first creative work, so I didn’t know this at the time. I was barely paying attention, really. I was too busy trying to win. I was in San Diego, California on the hot tennis court, Wilson tennis racquet in hand, Reebok tennis shoes on my feet. These were from my corporate sponsors, but I loved their products, too.
I was playing in one of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) junior national tournaments. These were where the top young players in the country battled it out. I wasn’t a top seed. Neither was my opponent. I don’t even remember her name. However, she and I were evenly matched and for this reason, our match was long. Where most tennis matches took about an hour, ours had stretched to five and a half.
I’d lost the first set 6–7, won the second set 7–6 and because of this, we had to play a third. The score was 6–6 and we were playing a tiebreaker. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky or a person on the sidelines. We had no audience. Both of us had flown to California alone, so neither of us had parents there to watch.
Regardless, we were two teenagers at war, slugging that ball back and forth, diving for drop-shots, acing serves, really digging into the root of the sport.
All the other girls had finished playing their matches. Everyone but the officials at the front desk had gone home for the day. Finally, after about five hours and forty-five minutes, I won the match. There was no burst of applause. I hadn’t advanced to any namable position like the finals or the semifinals. I didn’t scream or fall to my knees with elation. And if I had, there was no photographer to catch that moment.
Nevertheless, I felt I’d reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro; I experienced the purest form of success. This had nothing to do with winning and everything to do with loving the game and playing it well after being blessed with a formidable opponent. She and I shook hands and then sat in the shade and drank lots of water. We didn’t talk. We had nothing to say. We went to the front desk and reported our score. That was it.
Nearly a decade passed before I realized the lesson in this experience. Just as in sports, when writing creatively, if you don’t love the craft and art of it, you’ll never experience this pure form of success. Yet when you do have this love, you realize that pure success does not come from fame or fortune, it grows from that love.
Too often athletes and writers are seen as being on opposite sides of the spectrum, culturally, socially and in practice. The seed of this separation is planted early. In elementary and high school, there are “the jocks” who are the athletes and “the nerds” who are the academics (this group more often than not includes those who seek to and will become creative writers). Writers are stereotyped as sedentary people who loathe exercise; their movement is in their heads. Athletes are stereotyped as being anything but academics and thinkers. It is brains versus brawn.
How to Start Writing
Both groups miss out on valuable lessons by being so separated. The fact is that there are many parallels between the worlds of sports and creative writing. In my experience, they are nearly interchangeable. They are both forms of craft and art. Since I am speaking to writers, I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned from sports that are perfectly applicable to writing.
One of the greatest lessons is how to gracefully, bravely face fear. I remember vividly those matches where I had to play against someone ranked just below me. These were matches where I had nothing to gain and everything to lose. One of the unique things about tennis is that it is a very mental sport. The best player does not always win. All it takes is a small distraction and next thing you know, you’ve lost.
For example, I was playing a girl in a tournament when I was about fourteen. I was winning easily. I’d won the first set 6–2 and I was up 5–3. I was about to wrap things up. Then during one of the changeovers (every two games you switch sides), I noticed her left hand. It was prosthetic. I was only about fourteen years old and this killed my concentration. I went on to lose the match because I couldn’t stop looking at her hand and marveling at the fact that she could compensate so well.
Loss of concentration is not the only type of mental struggle when playing someone ranked below you. I was immature and highly competitive and such matches sparked sharp nervous fear. Despite this, I had to go out there. The walk out to the court was like a death sentence. The warm-up was torture. When I began playing the first point, I would find that I had to either curl up and lose or stand up and fight.
This is a battle I fight when beginning a new story when facing the dreaded blank page. There’s a voice in my head saying, “There’s nothing there! How can you create something from nothing? Where do I begin? There’s no instruction manual or guide I can Google.” That blank page is like the opponent who has everything to gain from me and nothing to lose.
Though I feel this fear every time, I have never walked away from it. I stand and face the monster, then I dance with it and it is exhilarating. “If you fear something you give it power over you,” says a North African proverb. And if you conquer that fear, you are rewarded with power and joy.
For one year, between the high school tennis season and my first (and only) year playing college tennis, I joined my high school’s track team. I went on to win over twenty-two medals and compete and place in the state championship in multiple events. My best event was the 400m. This race was once around the track; it is the longest sprint. Whenever I ran this race, something peculiar happened. I’d black out from the hundred-meter mark to the three-hundred-meter mark. Then I’d return to myself in that last hundred meters. The sound of the crowd would burst back into my ears as if it had been on mute and I’d speed up all the way to the finish line.
How to Start a Story
At first, I was disturbed by this blacking out. These were moments where I had no control of what was happening. However, after winning a few races, I learned to stop questioning and just trust in it. This is something I’ve applied to writing many, many times. Practically every successful story I’ve written grew from a “blackout” moment where I would fall into a creative zone. During these times, no matter how hard I try, I cannot recall how I came up with what I wrote. When I first began writing, these moments scared me. I didn’t like the idea of not knowing precisely where something came from or how I wrote it. Nonetheless, many novels and short stories later, I’ve learned not to question, fear, deconstruct or try to remember these blackouts.
There is a side of creativity that defies logic. This is the side that is no longer craft, but art. Imagine driving your car. Now, remove your hands from the wheel. Or imagine running. Now, shut your eyes. Now trust that you will not crash or fall. These are mystical moments for a mystical practice. Both athlete and writer are better off accepting these moments, welcoming them, even seeking to evoke them.
When life happens, certain emotions can cripple progress … like rage. There is one particular tennis match where I was being eaten alive by rage just before I went out onto the court. It was the state championship and I was tired of everything—the constant matches, nosy reporters, trash talking and pressure.
I felt burned out and generally angry at my existence. I just wanted to go home and sleep.
Instead, I had to play a girl who was just below me in rank, one of those “everything to lose and nothing to gain” situations. However, instead of letting that hold me down, I went out there and focused my rage to a razor-sharp edge. Then I used this weapon to demolish my opponent in a half hour. I beat her 6–0,
6–0, acing nearly every serve. I didn’t care about winning; I just wanted to get off the court so I could go relax.
Rage and writing can be enemies or friends. One can be so angry that she walks away from the page because she can’t focus enough to write. The words fall apart when she looks at them. Her eyes cloud with tears so that she can’t see them. The angry throb in her head is too loud for clear thinking. Or one can use that rage to sharpen her pen. Rage can be a great blade sharpener. It doesn’t feel good but it’s burning inside you, so you might as well use it. Don’t let it stop you from producing; channel it into your work instead. Let it serve a purpose. Produce something positive.
My Greatest Lesson
Possibly the greatest lesson that I took directly from sports and brought to writing was stamina. The stamina needed to practice day in, day out and then prove one’s worth in a tournament or track competition is the exact same stamina needed to navigate one’s way through the mental and physical obstacle course of finishing a novel. My days of training for the nationals and state championships helped me tackle the challenges of my first novel, Zahrah the Windseeker. Right after I sold this novel to Houghton Mifflin, my editor asked me to change it from third to first person.
On the tennis court, I’d tell myself, “One point at a time.” When writing, I tell myself, “One page at a time.” One of my favorite Nigerian proverbs is, “Little by little the bird builds its nest.” I used this proverb to create Nnedi Rule Number One: Don’t look a novel in the eye until you are done with the first draft. Focus on the journey, not the destination. This is the best way to reach your destination. Understand that the journey will be tough, perilous and sometimes painful. Never give up, but be willing to change and listen. Finish what you start. I’ve written over twenty novels and there has only been one that I have not finished.
The body and the mind are deeply connected. Writing is a mental and spiritual art but there is a physical side to it, too. One must have the stamina to sit and focus for long periods of time. There’s the physical act of the fingers flying across the keys or the hand holding the pen as it dances across the paper and the mouth moving as it exhales the story. Part of my own writing process includes working out at the gym. My muse sends me many of my finest ideas while at the gym, sweating and breathing hard, blood pumping. Exercise keeps my body fit and I therefore have more energy to burn writing.
It’s all connected.
Dr. Nnedi Okorafor is a speculative fiction novelist of Nigerian descent. Her novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the Parallax Award). Her children’s book Long Juju Man won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. Her short story “Windseekers” was a Writers of the Future Contest finalist in 2001 and was published in Vol. 18.
Dr. Okorafor holds a Ph.D. in literature and is a Full Professor at the University of Buffalo, New York (SUNY). She became a Writers of the Future judge in 2013.
Find out more at: nnedi.com