Milestones

Standard

What would we have done if we had only eight fingers instead of ten? Would we have lost eight and nine and gone straight from seven to ten? How would we have marked significant milestones that we now note in terms of fives and tens?

These are the questions that popped in my head with so many milestones happening in these current months. I know… How fascinating is it to be inside my head?

Today I turn 43, a nice prime number. Divisible only by itself and one. But less than a month from now is the 25th anniversary of my high school graduation — something that requires five hands to count.

About the same time is the 20th anniversary of me tucking my tail between my legs, dropping out of grad school, and lighting a few bridges from Rock Hill to Greenville as I moved back home.

Then last month, this blog observed its tenth anniversary. No, you didn’t miss the party; I’ve been late throwing one.

Ten years ago, for the second time, I got shuffled out of the writing department at my job because The Powers That Be wanted production instead of creativity. When the creative department was all but dissolved, I got moved back to producing newsletters, again.

When emailing back and forth with a former coworker who had moved to Asheville, I noticed a link in his email signature. I clicked on it and wound up on his own website. I didn’t know it was called a blog, although it was hosted on this site called Blogger. I could have my own website. For free! I could post my own writing? Sign me up!

I felt energized and showed my new site to The Husband and shared my triumph about how I would show them.

And then The Husband said, “You can’t write about work on here?”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he is the big, fat safety pin to my floating, pink balloon.

“Wha-huh?” I asked.

“You start bitching about work on there and someone finds it and you’re fired.”

So with my bubble burst, I found other things to write about. I had a book of writing prompts, and that was a main source at the beginning. Eventually, I posted other stuff I’d written and talked about my struggles with writing my own fiction, but then this blog sort of turned into a chronicle of my life as well — when I had my gall bladder removed, when my grandmother passed, when I lost my job, when my dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, when our sweet dog, Domino passed, and when Dad lost his battle last summer. From the time I was a teenager, writing was an outlet for frustration and sadness. I suppose it should be no different now.

However, for my 43rd birthday, I have given myself a present. Last night, I posted a very early draft of a story on Wattpad. Yes, I’ve posted some of my own original work on this site before, but Wattpad has thousands of users who will see this story and be able to “like” it as well as comment on it. I have metaphorically split myself open for a public feast, and it’s pretty freakin’ scary.

Click here if you want to read it. It’s a young adult/teen fiction kind of thing, so if you have teenagers, they might like it as well. It’s got language (sorry, Mom). I’d give it a strong PG-13.

It’s a present and a commitment to myself that by the time my 44th birthday rolls around, I will have finished a rough draft of this book that I will edit and eventually put up for sale as an ebook. Because screw the whole traditional process of getting published. I’m tired of waiting.

And I’m sure as hell not getting any younger.

The Self-Pity Party Pooper

Standard

Last Friday I threw myself a little self-pity party out of frustration over my inability to finish writing something I deem worthwhile. Fueled by pepperoni pizza and a couple of bottles of Woodchuck hard cider, I rattled off several paragraphs of grumbling that I planned on posting so that you, too, could party with me — and perhaps bring some cheese to go with my whine.

Wanna read it? It goes a little something like this:

Sometimes I wish I were good at something different. Sometimes I wish I had the natural talent to draw. The Husband and I go to the Heroes Convention in Charlotte every June, and I watch these artists create amazing images that people will plop down $20, $50, $100 and even more to take home. I know this because we’ve done it ourselves.

Owly — the cutest freakin' owl you'll ever see — created by Andy Runton

Owly — the cutest freakin’ owl you’ll ever see — created by Andy Runton

Sometimes I think it’d be easier if I were good at numbers and math — if I weren’t bored by science — and had some lab job somewhere making big bucks for scientific discoveries.

Sometimes I’d love to be able to make gorgeous crafts by hand — piece together stunning quilts, sew stylish frocks, carve wow-inducing wooden creations, and sell them all in an Etsy store. Instead, I have these mediocre attempts at stationery.

See? Medicore attempt at a daily planner.

See? Medicore attempt at a daily planner.

Sometimes being good with words is just frustrating because it seems so underappreciated. Everyone doesn’t mind paying to have a newspaper or magazine delivered to the front porch, but people balk at paying for content online. Millions of women would rather read a degenerate “love story” about a college grad who is basically an older man’s sex slave. We’d rather watch a barely-out-of-her-teens kid strip down to her plastic lingerie and bend over in front of a dude on a stage than someone who can belt a song a capella with no microphone and bring tears to our eyes.

We choose spectacle over substance time and time again, and it’s maddening and depressing because I don’t do spectacle. I want to write stuff that’s got more meat than a chicken raised on hormones. But I feel so far behind — like it’s all out there in front of me, this huge tsunami and all I’ve got to cling to is a damn surfboard.

Oof, that’s painful to read. However, earlier this week, I rifled through some of my Evernote “notebooks” — mainly the one where I “clip” online writing articles — and I found this gem from Ira Glass:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff; it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Yeah, and that deflated my little black, self-pity party balloon. So I post this for anyone feeling the same way, and to remind myself that it takes as long as it takes.

The Occasional Writer Part 3: Cult of (Split) Personalities

Standard

Previously on The Occasional Writer, I told you how in her book Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about writers having a creative genius side and a workman/critic side, and writers must train themselves so that the two sides cohabitate harmoniously.

Hearing someone encourage you to develop split personalities sounds weird. I know it’s not literal, but talk about an odd defense.

“You see ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the defendant was working on a novel about a woman who caught her husband cheating, so she cut off his penis.”

Of course, Brande is not talking about going all Sybil on someone:

There will be a prosaic, everyday, practical person to bear the brunt of the day’s encounters. It will have plenty of virtues to offset its stolidarity; it must learn to be intelligently critical, detached, tolerant, while at the same time remembering that its first function is to provide suitable conditions for the artist-self. The other half of your dual nature may then be as sensitive, enthusiastic, and partisan as you like; only it will not drag those traits out into the workaday world. It distinctly will not be allowed, by the cherishing elderly side, to run the risk of being made miserable by trying to cope emotionally with situations which call only for reason, or of looking ludicrous to the unindulgent observer.

Some of this hits home right now because I’ve tried to figure out how I want to arrange my professional life. A couple of months ago, I met someone who is supposed to be starting a local professional group, and someone else had recommended me as someone who could do content. Flattered, I met with the guy, and while everything sounded impressive, the more I thought about it, the more I didn’t want to do it.

For one thing, I’m not in a position to leave a full-time job and take a chance on just freelance writing. You’ve got to have your ducks in a row for a leap like that, and my ducks are all over the lake quacking and flapping and leaving feathers and poop everywhere, and I don’t have a way of herding them altogether quickly — unless I win the lottery.

Second, I’m not so sure I want to leave a full-time job and work strictly from home. Going through ten months of unemployment from mid-2008 to early 2009 showed me that. I have to have some sort of human interaction.

My pen bag... I might have a problem.

My pen bag… I might have a problem.

Finally, since I have to have a full-time job, I have a limited amount of time to write. Yes, I know all the techniques about finding time to write. Have you forgotten that I mentioned how I’ve read book after book about writing? I take a notebook and my Bag of Many Colored Pens with me to work in case I get time to write on my break.

What I’ve come to realize is that when I’m not at my day job — or on Monday and Wednesdays, my afternoon-to-night job — I want to work on my stuff, my stories. Look, I’m 41 years old now and I’m done waiting. People say there’s no perfect time to have a kid (even though I maintain that some times are better than others). Well, there’s also no perfect time to start a novel or short story or graphic novel.

I believe I’ve found where the split personalities go — the sensible one goes to work, helps students, occasionally answers the phone, comes home, cooks supper, gives the dog her insulin shot, pays the bills. Then the creative one gets to come out and play.

With my dad now fighting cancer, keeping those personalities in check is a little more difficult because my emotional side wants to go curl up in a ball and worry about whether all that is going to be okay. I suppose that’s also where the sensible persona becomes the taskmaster and tells the sensitive side, “Buck up. Shit happens. Go sit your ass on that chair and write.” However, Brande does say that the sensible side is also good for handling criticism.

It should not be your sensitive, temperamental self which bears the burden of your relations with the outside world of editors, teachers, or friends. Send your practical self out into the world to receive suggestions, criticisms, or rejections; by all means see to it that it is your prosaic self which reads rejection slips!

The important thing is to not let one side dominate:

For one thing, your writing self is an instinctive, emotional creature, and if you are not careful you will find yourself living the life that will give you the least annoyance and the greatest ease…. The “artistic temperament” is usually satisfied to exercise itself in reverie and solitude, and only once in a long while will the impulse to write rise spontaneously to the surface. If you leave it to the more sensitive side of your nature to set the conditions of work and living for you, you may find yourself at the end of your days with very little to show for the gift you were born with.

Conversely, if you can’t control the sensible side during the writing process, “it will be forever offering pseudo-solutions to you, tampering with motives making characters ‘literary’ (which is often to make them stereotyped and unnatural), or protesting that the story which seemed so promising when it first dawned in your consciousness is really trite or implausible.”

So I finish reading about splitting my personality, and my mind is clicking with all the advice she’s given so far; However, it’s as if she’s once again looking into my future recognizing that I’m about to dive head first into all this when I’m really a jump-feet-first-while-holding-my-nose sort of person. So she says, “Hold it! I know what you’re about to do!” Well, not exactly:

We customarily expend enough energy in carrying out any simple action to bring about a result three times greater than the one we have in view.

Seriously, it’s like she went and talked to my therapist.

Whenever you come across a piece of advice in these pages I exhort you not to straighten your spine, grit your teeth, clench your fists, and go at the experiments with the light of do-or-die on your countenance. Save your energy…. If you notice yourself on such an occasion, you will see that you must make a slight backward motion merely to retrieve your balance.

She advises going slowly because reversing old habits is not easy. In fact, she gives the best description for old habits that I have ever read:

Old habits are strong and jealous. They will not be displaced easily if they get any warning that such plans are afoot; they will fight for their existence with subtlety and persuasiveness.

How true is that? I’m telling you, this book is more like therapy for writers instead of instruction. Just the end of her “On Taking Advice” section offers another favorite gem for any unpublished or beginner writer:

Consider that all the minor inconveniences and interruptions of habits are to the end of making a full and effective life for yourself. Forget or ignore for a while all the difficulties you have let yourself dwell upon too often; refuse to consider, in your period of training, the possibility of failure. You are not at this stage of your career in any position to estimate your chances justly.

Once again, she’s the voice of reason — saying, “I see you wigging out about your abilities. Chillax. You haven’t even finished anything yet.”

Coming up on The Occasional Writer: I tiptoe into the shallow end of Brande’s advice and exercises by tapping into my subconscious and writing on a schedule. Stay tuned…

Stream of Consciousness at Its Finest

Standard

I had a shitty day on Tuesday. Actually two out of the three days this week have been shit days, and last night my mind raced and raced — unable to settle on anything. From a writing blog I follow, I’ve learned a technique of channeling those scattered, frantic thoughts into writing, so I picked up the pen and paper and followed an instruction on writing in the present moment. I chose a physical thing to describe: the light that hangs over the breakfast nook in the kitchen — and just started. I decided to share it with you to show you the inner workings of this writer’s brain. 

It’s darker than my usual self, but as I said, I had a shitty day. In the end, the writing helped.

The chain in the pendant light over the breakfast nook has a loop Mark1 made to raise it higher because Nanny kept bumping into it on the day we moved in. A circular, brass plate clings to the ceiling with a chain link extending from the center and stretching down to the frosted plastic dome trimmed in bright brass.

It illuminates the area where the dog eats and shits because we never had any kids to feed in that corner of the house — no chocolate chip pancakes served on Saturday mornings, no sugary cereal spilled in a rush to eat before getting to school.

We’ve lived in this house almost eleven years and never really made it a home. We’ve hung pictures on flat white walls and mowed a yard full of weeds. We talk of redecorating but never follow through — not enough money or not enough time. We should do this first or that, but we never do. We put off or wait until the perfect time that never arrives while our house sits with echoes and dull canvases of what could have been.

[1] Mark is my brother.

Why Do I Write?

Standard
The Literary Ace and I go way back...

The Literary Ace and I go way back…

I’ve seen this question going around the blogosphere over the past couple of weeks, and then a survey I took for a writing website I subscribe to inquired about my reasons as the lead-off question. That’s just a deep question to put on a survey in my opinion. I had to answer the other questions first and then come back to it.

I started with a simple answer of, “Because I have stories I need to tell.” I was making up stories in elementary school, usually using my Barbie dolls as actors. (Hmm, perhaps I should try directing as well.) and the ideas never stopped coming. Books and movies only spurred my imagination, as I would read and watch things that made me say, “I wanna write like that.”

In the sixth grade, I repeatedly checked out Requiem for a Princess by Ruth M. Arthur from the school library. I read Judy Blume and I loved John Hughes movies. Later, I discovered Nora Ephron and Cameron Crowe. In high school there was To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby; my freshman year of high school I read Rich in Love by Josephine Humprhies. Then I took a southern literature class and could not have felt more at home than if I were sitting on the squeaky glider on my grandmother’s front porch.

That answer, however, wasn’t enough, so I tried, “It’s the best thing I can do.” I can do math, but I’ve always been a better writer. I wrote sappy poetry in my ninth-grade science class. I’m horrible at sales — just ask my boss from the telemarketing job I had in college. I’ll never paint a masterpiece or perform a life-saving surgery, and I’m okay with that.

What I can do is string words together into an article or ad copy or a story, and I do that rather well. That might sound conceited, but I’ve done this professionally for almost 20 years, and people keep asking me to help them and others do read my work. Obviously, I’m doing a better than average job, and if I am, why not focus on that? Why not try to improve?

What I finally decided on for my answer was a combination of the two responses. Because I have stories that I need to tell and because writing is the best thing I can do, I don’t know how to NOT be a writer. I can’t imagine my life doing anything else.

A few years ago, not long after I started this blog, I found a quote from Ranier Maria Rilke that truly applies:

Ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write? Dig down deep into yourself for the deep answer. And if this should be in the affirmative, if you meet this solemn question with a strong and simple, I must, then build your life according to this necessity.

Jarlath Conroy on left; Freddie Highmore (all grown up) on right

Jarlath Conroy on left; Freddie Highmore (all grown up) on right

Along those lines of why I write I discovered a statement that sums up WHAT I want to write. Two years ago an indie movie called The Art of Getting By was released. The Husband rolls his eyes when he catches me watching it, but I do so for a couple of reasons: (1) I like it. Is it the Best Movie of All Time? No, but it is well-acted and has a quiet charm to it, in my opinion. (2) The main characters are teenagers, and a couple of stories I have in the works center around kids in high school and college, so I’m sort of “studying” these flicks.

Last night I found the third thing I like about it: an art teacher’s description of his assignment. Jarlath Conroy’s surly art teacher Harris McElroy challenges George with one final assignment and his description struck me as something I — and any writer for that matter — should aspire to achieve with my writing:

I don’t believe that dumb, lifeless assignments are the measures of a person’s soul. I want one, one meaningful work from you. I want you to look in the mirror, listen to your gut, and make an image that speaks to the real you — what you care about, what you believe. It can be big, it can be small, it can be painted in bat shit — as long as it’s honest and fearless.…Something you’ve never had the courage to say before.

So now that I’ve got that figured out, cranking out that book will be a cinch!

If only…

Four Decades

Standard

I turned 40 almost a year ago. That’s right; I’m almost 41 — less than two weeks away as a matter of fact. It still feels weird to say and see in type — not because I necessarily feel old. Although I sometimes do… like when I heard one of my coworkers say she graduated from high school in 2005, I had to sit down and let that sink in. Then I used a cane to get back to my desk.

I started THIS BLOG in 2005 — in April as a matter of fact, so happy eighth anniversary to Sappy Chick.

I suppose I still hold on to the belief that many people do when they hit their 40s — that they should have accomplished more. Sometimes I feel regret that I haven’t worked harder on my writing and pushed to get more fiction published, but I know that there are writers who never published their first novel until they were in their 60s.

Harry: And the kitchen floor? Sally: Not once. It's this very cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile.

Harry: And the kitchen floor?
Sally: Not once. It’s this very cold, hard Mexican ceramic tile.

When I was a teenager, I thought my adult years would seem more glamorous. I was 17 when I saw When Harry Met Sally, and I thought Meg Ryan’s character was so sophisticated — even if she was also quirky and  OCD. I wanted to be that woman: living in New York, writing for the New Yorker, strolling around those iconic NYC neighborhoods, having the guy I was friends with but also harbored deeper feelings for confess that he couldn’t live without me — on New Year’s Eve at midnight, no less. (Faking an orgasm in the middle of a crowded deli was an act I was never brave enough to do, though.)

That movie, as well as most others, don’t show the less glamorous side of being an adult — the humdrum of grocery shopping, watching your bank account dwindle down after paying the bills for the week, the job interviews you go on and never hear from again. All those scenes end up on the cutting room floor — or a montage.

Eventually, I realized that I’m not the NYC type. I like my mild winters with little snow, and when we traveled to Chicago in 2004, I realized after four days that I missed looking out the window and seeing a back yard. Nora Ephron, however, remained a writing hero of mine.

I’ve entertained the idea of grad school for the past couple of years. I think my interest peaked when I started working in a post-secondary setting. I told my mom some of my goals of trying to attend a low-residency MFA program for creative writing — what was involved, what the program was like, why I wanted to go, among other stuff — and she said, “Don’t you wish you had done something like this ten years ago?”

Much love to my mother — who I know did not necessarily mean her question to sound as if she thought I was too old to go back to school — but ouch!

Sure some snot-nosed teenager is always going to be around scoring some multi-million book deal off some from something they posted on the internet (Jealous? Me? Heavens, no…), but I believe that my life experiences are helping me (and will continue to help me) write deeper stories. I think there’s something to the ability to look back upon what’s been gained and lost, loved and hurt, accomplished and failed that adds much more relatability. (Yes, I know that’s not a real word.) The advice of writing what you know doesn’t always apply to the main plot.

It’s not such a stretch to think that I’ve got lots of writing years ahead of me. Nora Ephron had the bulk of her movie making years in her late 30s and beyond — including an Oscar nomination for When Harry Met Sally, and writing the classic Sleepless in Seattle. So at 41 (almost), I definitely wouldn’t mind having what she had.

The Occasional Writer, Part 2: There Will Be Setbacks

Standard

A couple of months ago, I diagnosed myself as The Occasional Writer — then proceeded to relapse back into those occasional habits. But I still believe I’m on the backside of those struggles.

lens8851771_1262747185becoming-a-writer-dorotheMy buddy Dorothea said in Becoming a Writer that once I’ve “begun to see what it is to be a writer, after you learn how the artist functions and also learn to act the same way, after you have arranged your affairs and your relations so that they help you instead of hinder you on your way toward the goal you have chosen, those books on your shelves on the technique of fiction, or those others which set up models of prose style and story structure for emulation, will look quite different to you, and be infinitely more helpful.”

Indeed, Dorthea’s book has become very helpful to me, and I believe that fact is because her book does not mean to teach the technique of fiction.

This book is not even a companion to works such as those; it is a preliminary to them. If it is successful, it will teach the beginner not how to write, but how to be a writer; and that is quite another thing.

According to Brande, writers have to foster split personalities — not to say that we need to start walking around talking to ourselves and answering our own questions — but we need to develop the artist’s side as well as the critic.

Brande describes the artist’s side as “‘the innocence of eye’ that means so much to the painter.” And I love the rest of her description:

The author of genius does keep till his last breath… the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new; to see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted from the hand of God instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeon-holing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word “trite” has hardly any meaning for him; and always to see “the correspondences between things” of which Aristotle spoke 2,000 years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.

Who’s with me on this one? Who’s been hit upside the head with a memory long forgotten and been inspired to write it down and relive it as a story? There’s those wonderful instances where you wake up from a dream with a fabulous story idea that you have to outline. Right. Then. Or, standing in the shower, you realize something that would make your current story click.

I cherish these moments as a writer; they help me realize, “Oh yeah, I guess I am supposed to do this after all.”

But Brande describes the other side the writer has to cultivate — the personality to keep the artist’s feet on the ground:

It is the side of the artisan, the workman and the critic rather than the artist. It must work continually with and through the emotional and childlike side, or we have no work at all. The writer’s first task is to get these two elements of his nature into balance, to combine their aspect into one integrated character.

And then one last awesome description:

There is always the workaday man who walks, and the genius who flies.

That genius helped me hammer out just under 2,500 words of a short story first draft a little over a month ago. It also helped that I had a friend reading excerpts I spit out over four days and who kept saying, “More!” and “Finish it already!” I know that a lot of writing advice says to keep the first draft to myself and send the second draft out, but I wasn’t it sending it to her for deep critiquing. There was a general disclaimer that I was just putting it out there and planned on rearranging lots of stuff in the next draft.

After I finished the first draft, there were some celebratory high-fives and chest bumps in the mirror, but now the less glamorous part of the writing life — revising. Luckily, I found an excellent series on deep revising from Sarah Selecky, and I’ve done part one of those exercises.

The second part, however, is more intensive, and while part of me looks forward to sitting down and doing it, those perfectionist tendencies start creeping in — the ones when I start saying, “I really want to have the whole day to do this.”

But I rarely get “a whole day to do this,” and I’ve been putting off the revisions long enough that I’m recognizing my pattern, (Thanks, therapy!) and I know I need to break the task down to do one or two pages at a time.

Does this mean I’ll never again go weeks without writing? Pffft, noooo… I’m not that naive. There will be setbacks, but having the ability to recognize when I’m stalling and finding new ways to develop my writer personalities, I’ll be able to tap into my inspiration’s milkshake and drink it up.