Category Archives: Blog

On Showing Up, or the Year I Lost My Fear of Writing

Some 1.5 years ago, I walked into a therapist’s office and said a bunch of stuff that can be summed up as “I can’t work on my art because I’m too stressed and/or depressed, so can you please fix what’s wrong with me so I can work again.” What followed was a very productive six months, in which not only did I get better, but also became able to see what was wrong with my original request.

Then came the hard part. Teaching myself to work on my art again without repeating what, with the benefit of hindsight, was a five-year-long spiral into a burnout. I’m not saying it was all bad: during those spiraling years, I’d conceived a series of six novels and wrote 2.5 first drafts, two of which got edited to different degrees of completion. I even got two manuscript requests for the first novel: in one case, I proceeded to revise on request but was still ultimately turned down; in the other, I got signed to a small publisher, but they went out of business.

Looking back, I now realize that if I ever wanted to quit writing (or, quit trying to become a published novelist, anyway), the autumn of 2017 was the perfect time for it. I had just moved house. First-Novel had been returned to me after the publisher folded, without as much as an editing note. The first draft of SecondNovel had been untouched for months.

I didn’t quit in the autumn of 2017. Instead, I opened up First-Novel and decided to give it a quick read-through and polish before starting to submit again. A couple of months later, still in the early chapters, I came to realize that it would take more than a quick polish. It would take months of consistent work.

It was around that time that I chanced upon Growing Gills, a book by Jessica Abel, with the very relatable sub-title How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life. I’ll talk about it in detail at a later date. For now, I’ll just say it was a great help, and probably the most useful thing it had taught me was to plan for the life I had, not the magical time-managing unicorn life in which I half of every day writing, and the other half on paid work, while remaining sane, healthy and in functioning relationships. Another uber-useful trick was weekly reviews, preferably with an accountability buddy (a ritual in which I was eagerly joined by a friend of mine, an inspired yarn artist).

A lot of things had happened since autumn 2017, and the novel edit was going unimaginably slow – but I persisted. (Almost) every week, goals would be set. Some weeks I’d meet them, some weeks I wouldn’t. It didn’t matter, because there were then the next week’s goals. My goals changed based on my ability to handle them: from “target wordcount to edit” (quickly abandoned, as some parts needed much more work than others), to “hours to spend editing” (abandoned at first because even that felt as too much pressure), to simply “open the file and do some editing on X days”.

It was probably the first time in my life that I consciously adjusted my ambitions downward and, well, kept calm and carried on. Even as it became obvious that the edit I was working on would take many more months than expected. In mid-2018, I said I give myself to the end of year. Now it’s December, and it looks like I’m only halfway done, and I unanimously ruled that it’s okay.

Also, for the first time since I’d decided I was going to be a published novelist, I had come to accept that perhaps I’m not going to be a published novelist, or, won’t have a career as a full-time writer, at least. Perhaps I would simply continue working on my books a few hours a week, and enjoy it. Maybe I could just dabble. Maybe, just maybe, I didn’t have to be a capital-w Writer after all. Weirdly enough, none of those thoughts were very scary. (Confessing them right now is, though.)

The whole “maybe I don’t have to be a writer” thing was sitting really well with my brain. I looked around for other things I could do, including a distance learning course in psychology. I seriously considered a few interesting job offers that came my way – and while they haven’t led to anything (yet), it felt very liberating to actually consider them, not shoot them down as a knee-jerk reflect because “I can’t have a full-time job, I’m trying to make it as a writer!”

When sharing these sentiments with a close friend with whom we have shared history of making art, I said something like: “You know, even if I had all days in which to write,I don’t think I can do writing as a full-time job. It’s just not something I can handle for more than a few hours a day. ” It felt very true at the time. Over the years, writing for me had become so wrapped up in Meaning, Identity, Purpose and many other capital letter words, that I’d need to battle anxiety at the start of every writing session. Even when I was free to set my own goals, the best I could do was “do some editing on X days.” It was clear that I could only handle this stuff in small doses. And that, I have decided for myself, was also okay.

Then I went on a writing retreat. Three days in a beautiful country house with quiet rooms and catered meals. No workshops, no feedback sessions, no structure aside from optional mealtimes. I was free to write all days – or not write all days. Among the fellow writers I shared the house with, some would lock themselves in their rooms and hit word targets, while others would freely admit to spending an afternoon napping or reading, instead. There was no shaming or pushes for productivity.

So, for three days, I was in a quiet, relaxed atmosphere, with nothing to worry about, and free to do anything I wanted. I could nap, read, walk in the country, play on my laptop… What I did was work on my book. For three days, I worked for 5-6 hours a day, and was genuinely shocked at how natural it felt. There was no “cold start” anxiety to overcome. There was no watching the clock to see if I’d done my hours yet. No arbitrary targets I had to hit before I could go and relax. I just wrote and edited. Full time. And it was great.

Upon return, I had to resume work on a large paid project with weekly deadlines that I could only hit if I spent 2-3 hours every morning working on said project, and nothing else. Having wrapped it up and taken some time to unwind, I ran an experimental day in which the same 2-3 hours before lunch were dedicated to writing. It went swimmingly. Even without the country house, I edited comfortably for hours, and could’ve continued after lunch, too, were it not for the paid work needing my attention.

So, inspired by that success, I made plans for the week, this week that I’m at the start of right now. Spend the first half of the day writing, the second half, on paid work. Even with a few hours’ exercise budgeted into every other day, this schedule lets me finish work by the time my partner gets home, so we can spend evenings together. Somehow, after a year of planning for the chaotic life I had and doing my best to just show up, I’m now looking at a schedule that looks suspiciously like the magical time-managing unicorn life I had dreamed of, but knew I could never actually have.

So… let’s see how it goes?

Analog Stuff is Sexy

During the latest chapter edit, I found myself googling a lot of analog audio devices, mostly to make sure I was using the right words for stuff. And I’ve got to say, one of my favorite aspects of writing about an amateur radio station set in a post-apocalyptic setting (so amateur it makes Fallout 3’s Three Dog and his Galaxy News look cutting-edge) is the sheer sexiness of the things involved in it.

I’m also in the middle of reading The Revenge of Analog by David Sax, which is a truly fascinating account of the revival of such things as LPs, physical film,board games, and, of course, paper notebooks, with my dearly beloved Moleskine front and center in that last section.

But before you run off to read about analog or purchase new notebooks, join me on a quick tour of my novel’s radio station, Cloud FM. All words are mine, while the pictures are scavenged from different corners of the internet, proof positive that many people out there agree with me: analog stuff is sexy!

On the desk, there are two pairs of headphones, some boxes and wires I don’t know the purpose of, and a record player, stacked with a handful of black LPs.

There’s also a console with lots of sliders, like you’d see at the side of a stage, where the sound guy does something mysterious while a band is rocking out.

The headphones,the proper over-the-ear kind, with brown leather earpads, cracked but still soft, are plugged into a large reel-to-reel player.

And one more, just because I was really happy to see that people still make these things…

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A light bulb hangs from the ceiling, in a weird black lamp shade. It takes me a moment to see that the lamp shade is made of a molten vinyl record.

 

Photo credits, in order: GratisographyBjørn Egil Johansen via Wikimedia Commons, Pxsphere, Pascal via Flickr, Everfalling via Flickr, and TheLightStore on Etsy.

Air Wavy Dudes and Devils in the Details

One of the things I’m dealing with in my current editing run of my novel is descriptions. When it comes to descriptions, I tend to err on the conservative side – at least as far as my current POV character is concerned. One thing I tend to forget, though, is that just because I can picture it all in my mind’s eye doesn’t mean the reader will. My narrator rarely describes anything in long-winded terms unless he’s making a specific point, and if I don’t keep him in check, he’ll give me pages of dialogue interspersed with beats of smiles, gestures, cigarettes and coffee mugs – while conveniently forgetting to mention what the person he’s talking to looks like (even if it’s their first time on the page).

My current technique for handling this without overloading the narrative is the trick of relevant details. In the paraphrased words of Chuck Wendig, whose writing advice chimes with me very frequently, if one of the chairs in the room is broken, that’s the one I want to hear about, I don’t care about the rest of the chairs.

Here are some examples of descriptions that I sprinkled into the story during my yesterday’s edits.

The machine coughs two pre-war dollars’ worth of coffee into a paper cup. It tastes like it’s overpriced, but gets palatable after three sugars.

The garage work floor is a familiar symphony of smells, concentrated after being locked inside for the night: grease, solvent, new tires, and, without fail, the shockingly chemical banana air freshener over the break room door. Inside the break room, the coffee is still kept in the bottom cupboard, and coffee filters, in the top.

I spend most of the hour dragging various junk out of my bedroom, aka the closet under the roof. Gary leaves his office to observe the pile growing on the work floor: a couple wooden pallets, an empty toolbox, some cracked jerry cans, a bright blue air wavy dude missing an arm…

P.S. Fun fact: the official names for the air wavy dudes include “air dancers,” “skydancers,” and “tube men.” Google’s suggestion guessed what I was looking for as soon as I typed in “air wavy.”

Photo by Lynn Friedmann

Inner Critic Investigation, Day 7

The week of prompts has reached the end, and I can’t believe how eye-opening it has been. It’s not like I didn’t know the things my inner critic has been saying, but the main breakthrough, for me, was being able to separate this voice from the rest of my thoughts, and acknowledge that it’s up to me to heed or ignore it.

Now, for the last time, the recap of the questions I’ve asked my inner critic this week:
Day 1. What’s your story?
Day 2. What are you trying to protect me from?
Day 3. What do you treasure?
Day 4. What should I be doing instead of working?
Day 5. What makes you happy?
Day 6. What’s the worst thing you have ever done?

Now for the finale:

Day 7. How to annoy your inner critic: a list

– Write random stuff for fun, even if it doesn’t end up being a project

– Set/move other people’s deadlines to accommodate for your own projects (they’ll live, I’ve checked)

– Turn down projects that you don’t have the time for

– Make art without making a big deal out of it

– Take pride and pleasure in your work

– Submit your work to markets and competitions way out of your league (and within your league as well, if you want to)

– Take care of yourself

– Listen to your body’s and mind’s needs, and act on them

– Get up and go to bed at the hours that make your day productive, not when productive people are “supposed” to

– Reach out to people and make connections

– Ask for help

– Clear up things you don’t understand, ask questions (no, you won’t ruin your reputation)

– Look for writing advice if you feel like it

– Apply or ignore such advice as you feel appropriate in your given situation

– Go with your gut

– Be vulnerable and real, screw “what will people think”

– Write blog series like this one

Inner Critic Investigation, Day 6

Questions asked of the inner critic, archive and background:
Day 1. What’s your story?
Day 2. What are you trying to protect me from?
Day 3. What do you treasure?
Day 4. What should I be doing instead of working?
Day 5. What makes you [the inner critic] happy?

In today’s question, it’s terrifying how easily the answers came.

Day 6. What’s the worst thing you [the inner critic] have ever done?

I’ve made you settle for things and remain in situations when you were unhappy, unsatisfied, and thought you deserved better.

I made you let people string you along, whether that meant continuing to work for the guy you knew wasn’t going to pay you, or waiting on the editor who had obviously ghosted you after promises and unanswered emails.

I made you wait for months before demanding answers from another editor who strung you along before admitting their operation was going bust and they weren’t going to print your book. I’d also made you stick with them in the first place, despite their poor communication and long wait times, instead of letting you look for a different market (because it’s a miracle anyone at all wanted your work, you’d be a fool to look for anyone better).

And I also made you stick with that nightmare of a gym trainer who had no idea how to work with you and gave you all the wrong advice, even after you’ve injured your back in her program.

Because when things don’t work out for you, it’s only ever your fault. You don’t deserve better!