Day 7: I’m Tired of Wanting to Be a Writer

2CE6792C-76FA-43D4-81E5-A84601A3F39C.jpegWhen I was in I think first grade, a gym teacher tried to teach my class baseball. I had zero experience with team sports, had never watched a game, and I guess wasn’t a great listener: I didn’t get it. I tapped politely at the ball, and understood, with the urging of classmates, that I needed to run toward first base, a fraught, tense experience. Safe on first base, I figured I might as well hang out there a bit. Which I did. Other members of my team went to bat and visited first. Some of them then went on to second or third and on to home runs. Others I was able to convince to stay with me at first. “I’m pretty sure you can’t do that,” someone told me, but I assured her it was fine, kind of the way you can stay on base for as long as you want in tag. By the end of the inning seven or eight of us were hanging out on first. I’m not sure what the teacher made of that. It wasn’t much of a game.

I’m tired of wanting to be a writer: toying with it, talking about it, dabbling in it. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but I’m missing out on the best parts of it. So how do I take my writing off first base?

Moving forward, I’m going to set a monthly submission goal: every month send out a new piece for publication, with the goal by the end of the year of having at least ten pieces of fiction under consideration. (So far I have six.) I’m going to get this novel draft submitted to an agent–by end of summer, I hope. New deadline! Finally, I’m going to keep up daily notebook writing, and hope to find inspiration for my next book-length project. And I’ll post once a week or so here, to keep myself honest.

And maybe finally get the hell off first base.

Day 26 of sobriety, page 171 of rewrite draft. Getting there!


Day 6: The Conditions Are Always Impossible

607819E3-0574-4130-AA72-43E4D9A88C1E.jpegThis is a quote from Doris Lessing, one of my favorites: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” Today I woke up nearly two hours earlier than I’d hoped and couldn’t get back to sleep. Rather than lying there, tossing, etc., this time I got up and wrote. When I had a window of time before my daughter’s soccer game, I squeezed in another quick session in the hot car, a wool sweater hanging from the window to block the sun. I had the same option yesterday but told myself–“nah, too hot, you can do it later; you can even stay up all night! who cares? It’s summer”–and later never came. Today Doris Lessing was in my head–do it now, do it now–and also the realization that I was going to have to reckon with YOU if once again I fell short. So thank you, you: you’ve helped me.

Today I met my goal: 3 hours on the project, bringing me to page 170 of my project rewrite. My current draft is 422 pages, including a lot that needs to be excised. Some more unpleasant reckoning: this won’t be finished tomorrow. I see it—you see it–you probably saw it a mile off. I could lop off 200 pages, run spell check, and call it good, but you and I both know it wouldn’t be. I guess what I’m trying to say here is: I can already see that I’m not going to make my overwhelming goal: to finish this rewrite in seven days.

I may just be uniquely bad at estimating time. Maybe I willfully deceive myself for strategic reasons, sort of the way I deceived myself, looking back, about what childbirth and the early months of parenting were like when I made the decision to have a second child.  No matter: I’m still determined to see this thing through. I will just have to bring this project with me to the husband’s-side-of-the-family reunion/vacation and find a way to keep the progress going while also trying to act like an ordinary person, one who doesn’t neglect husband and children, one who shows up for meals and sometimes cooks them. I hope not, but maybe I’ll still be doing this when the school year starts, and groups of teenagers begin appearing in my classroom expecting to be taught things.

The conditions are always impossible.

Readers! How about you? When and how do you fit in your writing practice? Or, to frame it the way Alexander Chee does, how do you fit your daily living practice in and around your writing?

Still day 25 of sobriety, page 170 of project rewrite.

Day 5: Slog On

76BA230E-5B0C-4695-A51C-13DA517DD167I hate to admit it–it gives me no pleasure–but I’ve once again failed to meet my goal.

Now I’m kicking myself for making this goal. Three hours of work on this one project every day for a week during my summer break seems like it should be achievable. Sure, there are birthday outings, soccer tournaments, scheduled dinners with friends. I only need to write for three hours, right? Surely I don’t require twelve free hours in order to amass three hours of work!

Ah, but I do.

I’m also kicking myself for committing to post about my progress. Accountability sounds great–except when being accountable means confronting failure. Publicly.

So why, when I start getting into the flow of the work, do I suddenly feel the need to hear a song, make a cup of tea, check one quick thing online–just one quick thing? Why do I let myself distract myself this way? It’s not that I don’t want this. It may be that this part of the process–rewriting–is really really hard for me. I don’t really know what I’m doing. And I guess I haven’t developed the stamina to sit with that uncertainty and discomfort and work through it. Yet.

I also do a heck of a lot of lying to myself. I’m noticing it. Stuff like: I’ll get right back into it after this. I’ll just take a quick break–it’ll probably help my concentration. Really, I’ve got this: it wouldn’t hurt to step away. I’m so in it right now! Really, it doesn’t matter what I do for the next 5, 10, 15, 30 minutes. I’ll be able to get right back to it.

That kind of thinking isn’t getting me far. Neither is any sort of proximity to my phone. God, it’s so obvious I hate to say it. I can’t have my phone in the room when I write. I simply lack the discipline not to mess with it.

Me. An adult.

I’m not giving up, though. I’m holding onto that image of my kid-self: that writer-to-be, that girl on the swings, lost in her imagined world. That girl needs to finish her book. And she will. She will.

(She will.)

Fellow writers! Please feel free to jump in here. What are your struggles? What works for you?


Day 25 of sobriety, page 159 of rewritten draft.

Day 4: Six Tips to Tighten the Grip of Necessity

E5237799-901F-443A-95B0-E044D9618864.jpegAll right, people: I failed. Yesterday I did not meet my daily goal: work for three hours on my current draft.  I started this blog to hold myself accountable. I had SEVEN DAYS to finish a draft (an artificial deadline–yes–but without it, why not let seven more years go by?). So, dear reader, I’m telling you, because I need there to be a you:  I did not meet my goal.

The excuses and reasons don’t matter: there’s life to get through, even in summer. Alexander Chee’s advice on writing regimens: “What I recommend for my students is a daily living practice, where they try to act like ordinary people and also get the writing done.” I tried to act like an ordinary person, one who celebrates, say, birthdays–and didn’t quite get the writing done. Tough balance. But onward.

I did, however, come close to meeting my goal, time-wise, and I made it nine pages farther into the rewrite. While this was not as far as I’d hoped, I worked on heightening the conflict in this section of the text–and raising, somewhat, the stakes. From the writer Charles Baxter’s tips and quotes on plot:  “You have to live in the grip of necessity.” I like this tip so much I’ve got it pinned above my writing desk, and I’m going to try to keep it in mind as I work and rework these pages. How can I tighten the grip of necessity? Instead of letting one of my fairly major characters wait quietly for the other one to come around, why not lean into the conflicts in and around him a bit more and leave him in peril? Why not play up the dramatic irony by having the other character completely oblivious to the peril in which she left him? It took no extra scene work–I mean, no more pages–just some reconfiguring.

How else can you tighten the grip of necessity?

Baxter suggests:  “A good story will usually have a demand and a deadline.” Also from Charles Baxter, six questions to ask yourself as you write:

  1. Where are your request moments? Moments when someone is requesting something of someone else. Use them to heighten conflict!
  2. Where’s Captain Happen? There’s often a sidekick character who will say or do anything, and whose presence kicks up the conflict and makes things happen. Do you have one? Can you add one?
  3. Where’s your Iago? Do you have a villain? How present is your villain?
  4. Where’s the one-way gate? To keep things good and tense, can you add or heighten a moment of no return for your protagonist?
  5. Where’s the ticking clock? What’s the deadline built into the narrative?
  6. What’s the time bomb? What happens if the protagonist misses the deadline? What’s the overwhelming threat?

How are you doing in meeting your goals?

Day 3: The World Might Not Actually Need My Novel

8C81FC7F-ECE5-45FC-A0C4-851B76A38AC0It’s Day 3 of my 7-day challenge:  to finish my years-old novel draft now, before I leave town for a husband’s-side-of-the-family gathering–a sweet event, necessary, but one that will take me almost up to the end of the free part of my summer. Pressure is on. I have time, there’s an end to it in sight, I have a concrete task, and it’s achievable. Honestly: making the novel picture perfect? Really finished, as the agent requested? Not so much. But I can cut off the vestigial limbs. I can make this patched together thing whole, graft over the seams. I can tighten up the saggy middle–to the tune of 20- to 30,000 words. I can put my characters, their backstories, their motivations and goals on lockdown, and make sure it feels like the same writer who wrote the beginning also wrote the end. It’s not going to be easy, but I can conceivably make the end feel earned: both surprising and inevitable. I’m not saying I will, but it’s conceivable. I know my work. Send in the clowns.

The clowns?

Call them something else. The goon squad. Goonies. Bogeys. Haints. Doubts. Negative thoughts. A writing friend of mine puts a picture of her monster above her writing desk–I think so she can externalize it. When negative thoughts burble up, she can id them, ascribe them to it, not to her. It helps to know what your enemy looks like.

(The photo I include with this post comes from the Museum of Popular Art in Mexico City: great place.)

Here’s the worst of mine:  You’re being selfish.

You’ve heard the quote, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers.” You’ve seen it used as metaphor for self-care, possibly for writing. Maybe you haven’t, but trust me: it’s out there, and it’s not the fresh original insight I’d hoped when I almost made it my title. It makes sense, though, to me. I can’t help you if my soul is dead. Except maybe as a cautionary tale.

So why does my soul require immense stretches of poorly focused “writing time,” while in the same stretch of time my husband, say, cleans the roof, does the laundry, and pulls up two full-size trash bins of weeds? I don’t know. Luck of the draw–mine?

If you’ve done Nanowrimo, which I recommend, you’ve been told a hundred times, “the world needs your novel.” I’ve said it to students: the world needs your story. The truth? It does and it doesn’t. The world needs stories, but does it need my story? Does it need a complicated YA dystopian thriller about climate change? Maybe?

All I know for sure: I need my story. I need it. Because I’m not a full human being–for whatever reason–unless I’m telling it. I need it because I’m still the ten-year-old kid in 19-I’m-not-going-to-say, who won’t come off the swings late Sunday night, school and schedules and worksheets waiting for me the next morning, the sky pink and orange, imagining worlds. It’s easy to lose faith in myself. Can I really do it? Outlook, honestly, to quote the Magic Eight-Ball, not good. Not if you look at my track record. My history. My current age. But can she do it–that kid on the swings?

I have to believe that she can. To her, then, I dedicate this next three-hour slog.

To whom or to what will you dedicate yours?

Day 21 of sobriety. Draft rewrite page 140.

Day 2: Play, Look, Fix

F70DECEB-7E82-415B-BA9F-3B96E09F0441Oh my God, it’s a slog! I’ve done it, though: yesterday and today I put in three hours of work on the project. I’ve kept myself honest by using my timer, stopping it when I stopped to take breaks. And I took enough breaks–made enough cups of tea, clicked enough links, refreshed Facebook and email enough times–to stretch my three-hour writing stint into an entire day.

This is far from ideal, but it’s where I am right now: distractible. Unfocused. My own worst enemy.

I’ve had writing teachers who talked about abandoning projects that felt like a slog, finding their way back to work that came easily to them, but I don’t trust myself enough to follow their example. I know this is how the work feels to me when I’m really in it, especially when I’m revising. Even short, fun projects, once I get past the fast flash-drafting story-discovery stage and have to make the thing work. Maybe it’s my essential laziness. Maybe it’s indecision: I resist finalizing things, bringing them around. Whatever it is, I know that if I only write when and what feels good, I will write a lot of loose beginnings and have no finished pieces to show for it. I have to slog on.

Still, I really admire those writers who approach their work without a bag load of hangups and bad habits. One writer, Ramon Isao, quoting someone else whose name I can’t find or recall, said this is all you have to do to be a writer: play, look, fix. Play with characters, words, ideas. Look at what you have there on the page. Fix it. Then play some more.

Tomorrow, day 3 of my 7 day challenge, in which I try to finish this baggy monster of a draft before leaving town in–God–now five days? I’m going to try to make the work feel like play. Which is kind of impossible, if I phrase it like that. What I mean is, I’m going to play. If it kills me. And, likely, it will.

Day 20 of sobriety. Page 140 of my revised novel draft. Yay!

Begin Again: Day One

CA5905E3-CF31-4263-BEC4-966D779802CC.jpegIt’s been YEARS since I posted and vowed to finish the novel. Years ago, an agent gave me feedback on some pages and asked for right of first refusal on the completed manuscript, if I was willing to make a few (massive) changes. I said sure! She said just send it along when it’s really done! OK, that was a little weird. I mean, if she really liked it, how about a contract, not a gentleman’s agreement? But agent interest is agent interest, and I was grateful. I buckled down. I made a novel playlist including “Lose Yourself,” which I often began a writing session dancing to. I started a blog and wrote two entries for it. It has one reader (Hi!). Now seven years have passed. Seven years.

I can say what threw me was that word, “really.” Really done? Like, really? Is anything ever really, really done?

I can say that.

The thing is: I want this SO MUCH. More than anything. This–writing–is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life. I’ve wanted this since I wrote novels based on cartoon characters as a kid, since I spent hours on my backyard swing looking up at the sky and dreaming my own Star Wars spinoffs. But I’m weak. Mortal. Lacking courage. In the habit of seeking easy outs. Employed. Subject to alternating bouts of self-love and self-loathing. Deluded. Forty-something. Shallow. Lacking self-confidence. In a writing group of people who are wealthier than me and go on lavish mid-work-week retreats they don’t try to align with my teacher holidays because it’s inconvenient for them. Bitter. Tempted to blame others. Prone to jealousy. A small person, one who drinks too much.

Now I’m in the midst of a messy rewrite. I need to cut 30,000 words–probably. I need to nail down major plot points that have been hazy to me even as I’ve drafted around them. I need to force myself to make decisions about things I’ve kept maddeningly vague. And I need to cut through all the bullshit in my head and spend the writing time I do have actually working on the draft.

It’s summer: I’m lucky, still, to have almost a month off from work. However, I have a husband’s-side-of-the-family reunion in exactly one week, and after that my summer days fill up with pre-school-term planning and meetings. Sure, there’s still TIME to write, but terror, anxiety, self-recrimination, hope, energy, and mind space start getting sucked up into school planning. It gets hard to live in the world of the book, to face all the terror, anxiety, self-recrimination, hope, etc., surrounding and built into that.

I can’t rely on my writing group.

I can only rely on myself.

So here’s the seven-day plan:

  1. Quit drinking. Period. It isn’t helping. It wrecks my evening work, sucks up time and motivation, and interferes with sleep. (Actually I’ve already started this one: no drinking since 7/5. Day 19 of sobriety.)
  2. Work on the draft for a minimum of three hours a day. Set a timer for three hours and pause it every time I take a break.
  3. Check in daily on this blog, just to keep myself honest. Make new goals as needed.

Thank you, imaginary, potential, or actual reader, for existing, if only in my mind. I dedicate this first writing session of the new beginning to you.