I can’t tell you much about my day job, but I will say that it’s stressful, unpredictable, and full of drama. The characters I work with bring their baggage with them every day; it’s the nature of the job. I think academic types call our work “emotional labor”: we struggle not with physical tasks or stubborn machinery, but with the problems of the people around us.
We lash out at each other, not out of spite, but out of frustration and desperate concern. We love the people we work with so much that we have nightmares of them falling into harm’s way. We try to get better at our jobs to minimize our failures, but usually, something or someone stands in our way.
I started writing more frequently about a year and a half ago, when the turmoil at work reached a fever pitch. I had been in that office less than a year, yet I had been tasked with one of the most difficult projects our team had seen in recent years. Spoiler alert: I’m 23 years old. I was 22 at that time.
I had no idea how to handle the stress, so I wrote my way into new worlds, which could distract me better than any friends or lovers ever could. I wrote thousands and thousands of words each week, and it was isolating but therapeutic. I simply didn’t have the energy to relay my problems to friends, or the money to go to counseling, so I processed my turmoil by channeling it through people who didn’t exist.
It was through writing, though, that I began to improve myself. My main characters would take on a tough situation and win. I would see the things that they had done well, scratch my head, and ask, “Why don’t I do that?” When it was time for my characters to make a mistake, I would cringe as I wrote it, knowing that it was forcing me to look at my own flaws.
I wrote strong characters who spoke their mind, and suddenly, the idea of speaking my mind didn’t seem so scary. When I wrote characters who cared about each other, the idea of investing in the people around me seemed less foreign. Instead of simply writing about the kind of friendships and personal growth I wanted, why shouldn’t I put some effort into making those things exist?
Looking back, I see myself reflected in my characters – but not because I based them on myself. I wrote who I wanted to be, and it made me stronger. I designed worlds I didn’t know based on challenges I did know; I spun stories of problems that no individual could solve on their own; I wrote leaders and reckless fools who stumbled through trials with their principles intact. I didn’t even finish all of those stories, but I felt their impact.
I viewed my colleagues differently after I started writing. I would see them handle something poorly and think, “Wait, that’s a perfectly human mistake, because that’s something [character] would do.” Writing gets you out of your own head and into someone else’s, and that empathy can’t be taught – it can only be learned.
Of course, simply writing isn’t enough. You have to absorb other people’s characters as well, because your own writing will only expand your views so far. Go out of your way to read diverse books, and it will make you a better author, as well. At the end of the day, though, writing your own experiences into your stories will change your life. It’s like troubleshooting a long, complicated problem with a friend who’s an amazing listener: you might eventually talk yourself into a solution. You just have to be open to it. It may take months or years, and you may never see a paycheck for it, but that time you spend will be more valuable than gold.
Ria Fritz is a 23-year-old Midwestern queer author. She likes cats, science fiction, diverse characters, strong and flawed women, and characters with substance abuse/mental health problems. She hates committing to things and talking about herself. Her current projects include Maywitch, an urban fantasy web novel; and Chasing Falling Stars, the second book of the Quicksand series. Rising From the Sand, Book One of the Quicksand series, is currently available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other retailers. You can find her on her website!