Now That You Mention It…

The other day an old friend asked me about my writing. We hadn’t seen each other in many months, so a lot had happened. As you can imagine, I was off like a shot, talking about progress on the nonfiction book project.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, five or ten minutes later. “I’m going on and on, aren’t I? It’s just occupying a lot of my brain lately.”

She smiled. “No, it’s interesting.”

I believe it is interesting to her–but even if it weren’t, it would probably be hard not to at least start chattering about it. It runs so close to the surface these days. Last month I met a friend-of-a-friend at a party and ended up rhapsodizing at length. Again, he seemed interested, but was he just being polite? I can’t be sure; I’m biased.

Truth is, I don’t want to restrain my enthusiasm about my writing projects. I feel like they’re the most distinctive thing about me at this stage in my life. And they represent what I have to give in terms of outreach to the addiction and mental health communities.

So yeah, it’s going to come up when you talk to me for any length of time. It’s inevitable. Your only hope is to steer the conversation to specific topics and not ask open-ended questions.

Tear It Apart

So I’ve written something. Do I have the guts to rip it apart and put it together a new way? Or more than one new way?

The workshop I went to a few days ago talked about this. It was interesting to hear–although I’ve read a lot about revising poems, I’m not as exposed to writers talking about how to revise a short story or book. Joshua Mohr, the instructor, wasn’t shy about suggesting big changes instead of just small ones.

Chop out the first 600 words of this scene and start here instead. Move this scene and do this other scene first, then put in some of the first scene with suitable alterations. Shuffle the chapter order in your book. Cut a chapter that no longer fits with the arc of your story. Take the whole damn piece and rewrite it in a different voice.

I notice that, even when I’m excited about the possibilities a change has, I’m resistant to some of the big ones. One reason is I cling to the version that exists because it’s been around long enough to be my baby. To change it, I have to say goodbye to the previous version–or at least shove it into a smaller area of my brain to make room for the new one.

Perfectly normal. But the other reason change is hard for me is one that’s more problematic: it’s an attitude of scarcity.

Wait, I spent time and effort writing this. Maybe every word was an ordeal if I wasn’t in a good place at the time. If I rewrite a scene, or drop it completely, all that effort has been wasted! Oh no!

This flawed logic leads me farther into the land of scarcity: I only have a certain amount of time, strength, focus. I have a limited amount of words in me! If I don’t use every single one I manage to squeeze out, I’ll never write the things I want to write!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t write very well when I have this attitude. Nor do I enjoy it very much. My first book’s an intimidating project, but I must make room for the happy preschooler with her scissors and paste.

Cinderella

I spent yesterday in a fairy-tale world, feasting on delicacies and dancing with handsome princes and princesses. But the ball had to end, and I departed without leaving so much as a shoe behind.

Okay, so it was really a one-day writing workshop at the office of ZYZZYVA magazine in San Francisco. They accepted my piece for the event, and I’d promised myself that if I got in I’d go. So I did.

I call it a fairy-tale world because it’s so unknown to me; I had never been to that type of workshop before. I compare it to the ball because I associate it with having more money than I have; the cost was such that I don’t expect to be able to do such a thing again any time soon. Let’s just say I got my Christmas present early this year.

I enjoyed myself very much. The author who led it, Joshua Mohr, had insightful things to say about writing personal narrative. Here’s a distillation of what I feel was the most valuable reminder for me as I work on my book:

When you write a narrative that’s about yourself, you still need to treat the “you” in the story like a character. You need to pay attention to the same things you’d look at when working with a fictional character you’re creating: Are they interesting? What am I doing to let the reader get invested in them and want to know more? Is it clear what they want, or think they want? What are their obstacles, internal and external? Am I building complexity; giving the reader new perspective on them with every scene? Do I avoid either idealizing or demonizing them?

This kind of perspective will help me as I make choices about the structure of my book: order of chapters, what to keep and what to cut, and what isn’t written yet but needs to be.

I’m aware of a part of me that feels envious when I think of how many workshops and classes some of my fellow writers go to, or that focuses on my wistful desire to be someone who can do the same (or, for that matter, who can submit a ton of stuff without worrying about how those submission fees will add up.)

But that’s my baggage talking. It’s understandable that I want these things, but focusing on what I don’t have is toxic. I create things when I am focused on what I do have, what I truly want, and what I can do to move closer to it.

The Deadly Reflex

Have you ever won something, or been chosen for something, and immediately started playing a negative tape in your head about it? Coming up with reasons it’s no big deal instead of just being happy and honored?

Two weeks ago I sent out a piece applying for a narrative writing workshop. I thought getting in was pretty unlikely, but decided to give it a shot. Well, I’m in.

Any bets on how many seconds it took that part of my brain to go from joy to rationalization?

They must not have received many submissions. The submission process was probably just a marketing ploy to make the workshop seem more exclusive and therefore more desirable. They’re really taking anyone who is willing to pay the fee.

It has to be something like that, right? Surely they couldn’t have really liked my writing and chosen it over some actual competition?

Yeah, I do this. When I won a couple of prizes in a local poetry contest last winter, I told myself the contest must have had very few entries. When I shared the happy news that one of my poems was accepted for a gallery show project, I always emphasized that it was a small gallery!

The weird thing is, not all of me is this way. I’m capable of the opposite. I can admit that I really like how I write; that I think it’s good. (And why not? Of course I like my own style, and work toward improving it in ways that make me like it even more. It’s mine.)

But that other voice is eager to chime in, and I need to recognize it. “Oh, you again. Hi. Uh-huh. Really. All right, you’ve had your say, now fuck off.”

We Shall See

Yesterday, I sent about 2500 words of my nonfiction project to be considered for a day-long workshop on personal narrative writing.

“Which piece should I send?” I asked an experienced writer who has heard many segments of the project. “Which works best as a stand-alone?”

“Doesn’t matter,” they replied. “You won’t get in.”

I was surprised, but not offended. I knew he wasn’t saying my work isn’t good. He likes my work (or he’s been doing a really good job of faking it.) He’s just of the opinion that my style doesn’t match what they are looking for, based on his perception of the people and publication behind the workshop.

I decided to give it a try anyway. Going through my binder, I considered and rejected many segments. From what I had heard, I had an impulse to choose one that included my time at MIT or some other attention-getting intellectual thing. But many of the segments don’t work well as a stand-alone, because they’re far along in the book.

In the end, I chose an early chapter. The protagonist is not at MIT, or studying to be a therapist, or having an edgy time in rehab. She’s a preadolescent torturing her toys. It’s often funny, sometimes sad, and very authentic. I like it. Don’t know if they will.

Pain 1, Me 0

Chronic pain sucks.

This week I am receiving a reminder of this. I did something to my back 8 days ago; thought it was no big deal at first but it got worse as the week went on. It’s been hurting at the level that used to be going on all the time for me.

I’m spoiled these days; often pain free with occasional flareups. I haven’t had one this bad in four years or more.

So right now I’m being reminded how much pain screws me up–and I’m getting to see how it screws up parts of myself necessary for writing.

One: Pain makes me afraid. I future trip like crazy–what if it doesn’t get better? When can I go back to my regular activities? How am I going to function when sometimes I can barely function without pain? Writing in a state of fear tends to be joyless and stripped of its usual juice.

Two: Pain makes me stupid. Even less sleep than usual, fatigue from stiff muscles; it all leaves me cloudy. Writing is slow and awkward.

Three: Pain triggers bad memories and cravings. Back pain will always be associated with the worst time of my addiction. The physical sensation triggers memories of standing in line, filling out forms, and talking to doctors in order to get more painkillers. Even though I know all that is in the past, my body isn’t sure. Writing is harder because it’s difficult to stay in the present.

Four: Pain ups my level of depression. Understandable. Limited mobility leads to boredom, which makes me more vulnerable to depressive content from my head. Writing is harder because the grayness of depression works against my creativity.

Five, and most dangerous of all: Pain makes me self-absorbed. I regress, as many in chronic pain do, to an ego state where I lose perspective and my pain becomes the center of the universe. Writing is hard because I lose touch with why I write.

I really hope this won’t last much longer. But if it does, I need to remember that the imperfect writing I can do in this state is still approximately ten thousand times better than a blank page. So what if it’s not quite up to my usual standards? That’s what editing is for.

Hurricane

“I’ll write my way out, write everything down far as I can see. I’ll write my way out, overwhelm them with honesty, this is the eye of the hurricane, this is the only way I can protect my legacy…”

So, my 18 year old daughter has infected me with the “Hamilton” virus. I’m not one of those lucky rich folks or lottery winners who have actually seen the play, but thanks to her I’m nearly letter and note perfect on the soundtrack.

The words above come from the song “Hurricane,” in which the Hamilton character recalls how his writing after a hurricane’s destruction helped him win support from the townspeople to get to New York and an education. Now he’s resolving to use his writing skill to find a way out of a scandal threatening his career.

At any rate, I think most writers identify with parts of this song. I certainly do. The power of writing, of storytelling, is sometimes the only power I think I have. Maybe some writers don’t feel this way; maybe they feel powerful and successful in other aspects of life too. But when we’ve failed at other things, when we’ve been to some dark places, we can start to believe that our creativity is the one power we possess that no one can take away and its products are the one unique thing we have to offer the world.

In the end, our best shot is to “overwhelm them with honesty.”