On Not Writing

Blanco died on July 25th. It was awful and sad. The weeks that followed were also awful and sad, but I don’t want to write about that right now. I want to write about not writing.

After B was diagnosed with cancer, a lot of people advised me to write. Some suggested it as a distraction. Other writers encouraged me to use the emotion. A therapist, upon learning I was a writer, assigned me to write a poem or tribute to him for our next session, so I chose not to have a next session. It’s not bad advice; it just wasn’t the right advice for me at the time.

By the time I was hearing a lot of this, I’d found that the best thing I could do was rewrite sentences and rearrange words. I could be analytical. I could be an editor. For the life of me I could not free up enough energy to create. Even the last blog post took days to write.

I spent the weekend after Blanco died in a grief stupor. I watched Gilmore Girls. I played Tiny Wings and Tap Words and Running With Friends until I was sick of them. And I beat myself up about not writing.

When you’re a writer, especially one with the goal of publication, you feel the pressure of writing all the damn time. Of using every experience to fill the emotional well of your fiction. It’s drilled into you by teachers, writers, and even cheesy tumblr memes. I know very few writers who willingly take a vacation from writing, which is why I was back at the computer after a long weekend, staring at a deadline and feeling bad about wanting to immerse myself in Stars Hollow instead of the novel I should be revising. During that time I read an interview in Texas Monthly, wherein one of my favorite writers, Benjamin Alire Saenz recounts how, during a terrible time of his life, writing Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club saved his life. You read something like that and you think, well, gee, I should really get back to that manuscript. And maybe I could if I wasn’t so sad.

Sometimes I think the hardest part of being a writer is recognizing when it’s okay not to write. It took some time and a couple of conversations with friends for me to admit that it’s okay if the writing does not pick up this week or this month. It’s okay if I need to push words around for a while and it’s okay if I need to do nothing but read.

I went back and reread some stuff I’d written just before Blanco died. It was pretty awful. Stilted and boring and well, you could just tell that neither my heart or my mind was in it. I know some writers that say push through at all costs, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t. Otherwise, I’d be scrapping a whole first act today instead of a few measly paragraphs.

It’s been almost three weeks and I’m just now getting to the point that I even want to think about writing or revision in a serious way. I’m not quite okay with that, but I’m learning to be.

Linkage: Writers on Post MFA despair

A friend posted this on Facebook and, since it’s relevant to my last post, I thought I’d share it here, too.

What’s the Point? Five Writers Offer Lifelines for Post-MFA Despair.

Maybe you thought there would be more by now. Maybe you thought, by this time, you would have “arrived”—whatever that means to you.

Ha.

Call this the “falling into the crevasse” experience. Like the tumble off that first mountaintop, it’s going to claim some (professional) lives. But some writers will climb on out. How do they do it? Are there any lifelines out there?

Spoiler: yes.

More personally, I found myself in a mini-funk about a week and a half ago. I left the Sara Zarr workshop inspired and excited, and used that to fuel a week’s worth of revision. Then I hit a stumbling block. My plot holes seemed too big to overcome. My prose sounded flat and uninspired. Watching a Nashville marathon was way more appealing than facing  the page.

Even through I’m climbing out of that crevasse now, many of the linked tips resonated with me. I’ll be hanging on to them for next time. And wondering…

How do you recover from a writing funk?

After the MFA

Dear 2003 Me,

Congratulations! You survived your MFA program. It wasn’t always easy and there were plenty of times that you were sure you were going to quit, but you hung in there, defended your thesis, and you are done. DONE! Go celebrate. When you look back ten years from now, this accomplishment stands out more than any other.

Don’t think I don’t see you side-eyeing that last statement. It’s been a rough journey and your future as a writer doesn’t seem any further along than it was three years ago. There are not a lot of Monster.com job listings in dire need of a fresh-out-of-school fiction writer. The New Yorker, much to your surprise, has not yet begged you for an exclusive. Instead, you got dubbed “Most Improved” at your last workshop and don’t even try to deny you got a little huffy at that.

In time, you’ll come to see it as the compliment that it is. No, you weren’t the best writer when you started, but you worked hard, you kept writing, and you got better. Get used to it. You will never have that moment of epiphany that immediately “fixes” all your prose. The writing journey is a long one and requires hard work. When the changes come, they will be small, seemingly inconsequential, but each one will make your writing a little tighter, your voice a little richer, and your stories a little more structured.

This will all go must faster for the two of us if you keep writing. I know it’s the least of your priorities right now. Writing, you think, can be done later, after you’ve secured a job with decent wages, health benefits, and maybe a flexible vacation schedule. These are all well and good, but are you really longing to sit at a desk and write other people’s letters all day long or are you running from your insecurities? Insecurity over whether you are really meant to write. Over whether you’ll ever be published. You think that if you had a typical 9-to-5 job, then maybe your whole self-worth wouldn’t be wrapped up in the rejection letters that appear in your mailbox daily.

Let me calm your fears:

Yes, you are meant to write.

Yes, you will be published.

You will get over the self-worth thing. Kind of.

You’ll get a job and then another and another and they’ll be fine. But no job will ever fulfill you the way that writing does. You’ll get busy. You’ll take breaks. But every time you’ll come back to writing, either through blogs or story starts or the crazy whim to try NaNoWriMo. It’s in your blood and you won’t be happy without it. So keep on. Quit wasting our time.

One more thing. You’ve been bombarded with opinions about what it means to be a successful writer. Among your classmates it was publication in certain esteemed literary journals. A book deal. A fellowship. For your family, it’s measured by the kind of books you write. One day you will have to tell your mother that, no, you don’t want to write Chicken Soup For The Soul stories and this will be disappointing, but you will both get over it. And finally, society measures success with money and fame. If you’re a writer, go big or go home — NYT bestsellers, movie deals, Oprah, etc.

The thing that you are going to have to learn is that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of success. Buying in to other people’s definitions might make you temporarily happy, but more often than not, it’s just going to leave you with the empty, bitter bite of jealousy and disappointment. Haven’t you had enough of that?

In the end, only you can decide what success really looks like. Now for the confession: I’m not 100% sure we ever really figure it out. Some days it’s enough just to write and be proud of what we’ve written. Some days you ache for publication, for readers, for someone to really get what you are trying to say. But the one thing that continuously makes you feel successful, makes you feel worthy of calling yourself a writer is (surprise, surprise) writing.

So keep going. Write daily. Write blogs. Write shitty first drafts.

Whatever else you do, just write.

Signed,
2013 Me

Workshop Recap: Sara Zarr on Emotional Pacing

At the beginning of the year, when I realized I was going on my 10-year anniversary (!!) of completing my MFA, I made a deal with myself: 2013 would be the year of continued education. There was no better way to kick off this year’s learn-fest than with an Advanced Writer’s Workshop at the beautiful South Austin Writing Barn with an author that I go positively fangirly over — Sara Zarr, author of the forthcoming THE LUCY VARIATIONS and STORY OF A GIRL, a National Book Award Finalist.

Writing Barn Exterior

The Writing Barn
photo by Sam Bond

The event began on Friday with a welcome party hosted by author, Writing Barn owner, and workshop teaching assistant Bethany Hegedus. Over wine and snacks on the Barn’s Party Porch I had the chance to meet lots of local and non-local kidlit and young adult writers. Texas was well represented with authors from Austin, DFW, Houston, and San Antonio, but writers traveled from all over — San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Toronto, to name just a few — to attend the workshop.

Saturday morning was the lecture portion of the weekend. Sara gave a brilliant presentation on emotional pacing, discussing both the macro (beginning, middles, and endings) and the micro (paragraphs, punctuation) elements of pacing. As a writer currently working through the middle of a draft, I most appreciated when she asked how many people enjoyed writing the middle of a novel. When not a single hand was raised, Sara said that middles should be just as excruciating for the characters as they are for writers. An authentic emotional journey is hard. It’s a tug of war between the person a character is at the beginning and the person they’ll be at the end. She described the micro elements as the tools we use to compose a symphony of words. Scenes, sentence length, paragraph structure, and punctuation are used to cue the pace and convey how the story should be experienced.

Writing Barn Workshop

Workshop
photo by Sam Bond

After the lecture and a break for lunch, it was time to get down to the business of workshop. The event description touts a workshop on par with MFA workshops and it was. The other participants brought terrific work to the table and insightful comments to the discussions. At the beginning of each author’s workshop, she/he was asked to talk a little about where they were in the work (first draft, submitting, etc.) and also how they were feeling that day. Just a basic question, but one that really helps ease the workshop experience. After two intense days of lecture and workshops, I left feeling exhausted and exhilarated.

This recap truly doesn’t do the weekend justice. It was an amazing experience that I am so lucky to have been a part of.  Writing can be lonely, so weekends like these when I can learn from and share ideas with other writers are so necessary. I plan to blog more about Sara’s craft lecture and other things I learned from the weekend, but came home so inspired by the lecture and workshop that I’ve pretty much buried my nose in revision ever since.

If you’re looking for a an experience where you can study craft and get feedback on your work in a beautiful setting, I highly recommend the Advanced Writing Workshops. Or, check out the Writing Barn’s other events here.

*Photos courtesy of Sam Bond and the Writing Barn.

Wrestling with the Real Writers

My productivity last week centered on typing the first draft of a story I wrote last month. I write longhand. My very first writing teacher said that was a huge waste of time and thus began a long string of advice from writing teachers that I have ignored.

For me, writing longhand is soothing. There’s something about putting pen to paper that allows me to shut off the editorial noises in my head and just write. Typing is for revising and editing. But most importantly, notebooks do not have the Internet and so I can’t click off my story and onto Facebook or Good Reads or chat or any of the other million ways the Internet tempts me to not write.

It’s probably a good thing that most of my work is taken up by mere typing because last week kind of sucked as far as creativity goes. It seems I have some demons to deal with and I’ve been facing them pretty much anytime I sit down to write.

My MFA program cultivated a certain amount of elitism amongst its writers. Between the 40 or so of us in the fiction program, there were unspoken guidelines about what made you a “real” writer[1] as opposed to someone who would leave their MFA and go work in technical writing for the rest of their lives. (Since I have already lost my “real” writer status by doing just that, you’d think I have nothing else to lose.) Real writers, for instance, wrote literary stories. They were usually about drugs and sex and parents and death. The stories were edgy, sometimes violent, and usually involved taking drugs at 12, midgets, monkeys, and other extraordinary elements. They read Borges and Lovecraft and nothing else published after 1975. They didn’t come to readings because they were too busy writing (or thinking about writing while down at the bar). Generally, a lot of the stuff they wrote was very good.

If you didn’t fall into this category, they didn’t quite know what to do with you. When I started the program, I tried desperately to fit into this category. But I developed my love for reading and writing through contemporary fiction and (cough, cough) chick lit. I didn’t grow up with drugs or violence and the story I most enjoyed writing was the anti-love story. In the autumn of my first year of the program, one of the “real” writers who was in her last year at the program suggested I look into romance writing. She did so after she’d sat in on one of my workshops and in a tone that left no question about how little she thought of my work.

I went home, cried for a little while, read through my New Yorkers and Best Americans and resolved to write a better workshop story. I don’t think I ever earned the approval of my peers, but I improved my sentences and my characters. I became a better writer, even if what I was writing wasn’t what I loved. In the end, I liked the stories I was writing and I thought I was doing a pretty good job at them.

And now? I was at a reading a few months ago for the winner of a local short story contest. As the first place winner read, I grew increasingly annoyed. There was the down-and-out protagonist. There were the drugs. There was the fantastical event that existed more in obscure imagery than in clarity. It wasn’t a bad story, it was just the exact same story that I’d spent three years reading in the program. And the epiphany here is more about me than about the story I was hearing: I am simply not interested in the literary genre anymore.

The struggle comes, though, that literary writing is pretty much all I’ve ever known. Prior to the MFA, I had three stories in my name, one of which, I still work on from time to time. I’m having a hard time letting go of what I should be writing and focusing on what I want to write. Of course, the minute I start thinking about what I want to write, I find myself drowning in my own prejudices and elitism.

I’m starting small, but I’m changing that. Last night at the bookstore I bought a couple of books that looked good. They aren’t on any literary lists. They will probably not win any major awards. But dammit, I’m going to start reading what I enjoy again. With any luck, it won’t be a long path back to what I enjoy writing.

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[1] For the record, I hate the term real writer. Do you write? Then you’re a writer. I have no idea what qualifies you to be real.