Writing on Auto-Pilot

Dear you,

 

Always, when I move to a new location, I stake out the spot for the garden. This year seemed especially urgent that I have one — new place in a new region with a long, forgiving growing season, and desperate times of the country called for desperate measures, which is how I ended up with a worm farm and homemade yogurt, among other things.

After the election, I gorged myself on homesteading books all through the winter. I called representatives and then read about seeds. I marched in protest while the bread rose. I shredded newspapers with horrifying headlines about new awful things I couldn’t control and bedded them in the compost for the worms to eat. I planted a tree started from a single branch and celebrated each leaf as a form of resistance.

In my zeal to right the world within my control, I started seeds too early. I needed to create something new, something that cared not about the state of the world aside from how much light and water was available, so I planted seeds in February knowing I was doing it for my own selfish distraction.

I grew the seeds in little rows under a growing light next to my desk. Every morning, I would switch the lamp on and we would all bask in the sun trying to make something work. They grew; I wrote. They grew root bound (still too cold to plant them outdoors) and I still wrote, though I felt like I was writing in circles.

I mentioned that I am re-writing my book. I have re-written it several times and every time I finish, I feel relief. Until I think of the story and still have the nagging feeling that something is not correct.

Every book and story is personal for the creator, and this book is no exception. In the making of it, it always feels far more personal than it should because it requires the writer to dig deep on memories and emotions they would rather keep hidden. And again, this book is no exception.

There are several scenes in this book I do not want to write. I have been writing around them in a diminishing circle. I feel closer after each draft and after re-reading the draft I feel no closer at all. At the worst of it, I can see where the shift occurs and I begin writing on auto-pilot to get through the parts I don’t want to deal with.

But now, everything outside of those last few scenes is said and done. There is nothing else to focus on and yet the book will not be complete until I do these last few things. It seems easy and yet every time I sit down to do it, there is always some other more pressing thing to do, like write this blog post.

At the DFW Writers Conference, my dear friend Kelsey Macke led a workshop on writing with conflicting emotions, how to dig through our own experiences and find the empathy needed to do justice to what the character feels on the page. And sometimes that requires an excavation of our worst pain. There is a point, Kelsey said, when you just have to close the door and cry.

And that’s where I am. I spent this week filling a notebook with more versions of how I could circle around the real pressure point. Post-it notes of ideas leading to nowhere litter my desk. Another dear friend, Annie Neugebauer, listened to me go round in circles until I landed back to the storyline my subconscious gave me in the first draft, but that I tossed out because I was too afraid to go any deeper with it.

The seedlings I started too early mostly ended up in the compost. The embarrassing part is that I actually cried when I uprooted them and reburied them for the worms. I grew these living things knowing they were doomed because I grew them before they were ready. And I grew them anyway because I wanted to ignore something else.

There are a few seedlings that did make it to the garden. I transplanted them once, twice, and a third time before their final homes because I refused to have done all this work for nothing, forgetting totally that everything is a learning experience.

It feels the same with all the drafts written that went to nowhere. How could I have done all this work only to throw it all out? Those seeds were planted as a salve for my own broken heart over the world; they were a way to distract when I really needed to heal. And so it is with all the scenes I wrote on auto-pilot; place-holders until it was time for the real thing—time to switch off the auto-pilot and steer through the storm. That time has now come. There is nothing left to do.

The few seedlings that lived are now large, almost full-grown. I visit them everyday and coo over them in a way that alarms my husband. I count their flowers and pick off the bugs. I wait and watch the bees do their work, lean back in my chair and smile. There is nothing left to do but bear fruit.

 

 

 

The Authority to Write

Dear You,

I am writing my book again. This is the third time I have written it and the third year of working with it. In draft one, the story went in one direction, took a turn toward another in draft two, and now seems to be going back to the original idea with some tweaks.

Having spent some time now writing other stories, I’ve come to find that this is a pattern for me. Three drafts is what it always takes (so far) for me to get to the story I am sure I want to write. The first draft is always a mess of spewed words, snippets of images and conversation that won’t go away but don’t seem to have any purpose, all stitched together by sheer will of I MUST FINISH THIS THING. The second draft is always out of left field; I’ve read the first draft, confused myself and what I think I’m trying to say, so I write something that, using sound-ish logic, works plot-wise but reads like shit and leaves all the characters’ needs and wants aside. This one is stitched together by sheer will of I MUST MAKE THIS MAKE SENSE. And after reading it, it never makes sense, ever.

So then we get to the third draft. I have usually let a gulf of time pass, not out of some smart reason of resting or allowing time to help things gel in my mind, but usually because the second draft is such a train wreck, it hurts to have to think about putting another draft back together again. There are always casualties in the third draft. Whole plot lines are re-worked, characters invented, scenes I liked before disappeared into the upside-down to happily never be retrieved again. I know this will happen and because I expect it, I dread it.

But another thing happens after I’ve read the second draft and absorbed the mortal blow of its exquisite shittiness on my level of confidence as a writer and human. The story begins to write itself. Once I get up the courage to actually sit down and do it, that is.

It’s an amazing feeling; one of those times that writers talk about when they say that the characters are telling them the story, that a “muse” is whispering into their ears, etc., etc. It really does feel like magic and it’s the whole point of doing the work because it’s as exhilarating as the feeling of publication or even a comment from a reader saying “I loved this.” It’s hit a nerve and it’s correct and you know it.

While I love the idea of magic and do bask in the feeling of mystical fairy dust when this happens, it’s, sadly, not magic. Or any kind of natural artistic talent finally rearing its head after all this goddamn time. It’s simply the fruits of labor. It’s the recognition of work.

I have spent years in critique groups with writers in various stages of their craft. I have seen heavy hitters come in with work that sings and watched them sweat as we peons flip through their pages. I’ve seen newbies come in excited and confident and seen the little flicker of hurt in their eyes when the critique really begins. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a newcomer ask an old timer, “But how do you do that?” As in, how do you weave in backstory so seamlessly? How do you come up with characters that read readers minds? How do you write a story that reads like a secret being shared only with you?

Hilariously and tragically, the newcomer always think they’re reading a first draft when they ask this question. It’s never a first draft. It might be a first draft of a complete rewrite but it’s not your typical “I woke up like this” draft. (And if it is, then they are in the presence of someone who either has been at the craft diligently for years and have learned to write a draft the way they flex a well-toned muscle OR that mother fucker really is magic.)

What they’re really asking is: How do I gain that level of authority in my work? How do I make it read like I actually know what I’m doing? Like I’m a goddamn literary force to be reckoned with?

Answer: You toil away until it does and you are.

Just like the story that finally reveals itself, gaining that level of authority in writing takes the kind of sweat and tears that must be suffered with time and diligence. It requires taking your dedication to the writing craft from a giddily stupid first draft stage, through that shitty second draft stage which will beg you to give it up, and into the third draft stage where you can come to your craft clear-eyed, seasoned, and ready to work.

And that’s just the overhaul we’re talking about. At this point, I can predict that it will take me three drafts to get a story in the right direction. But it takes god knows how many more to get it just right. And it never, ever feels just right. It feels right enough to send it out into the world.

There’s different tricks to getting the story right, getting the words on the page, discovering what exactly it is you’re trying to say, just as there are different paths in writing careers. One person toils longer than another before feeling validated in their craft. Another feels validated even if they weren’t seeking it. Others never feel validation, even when there are other literary heroes validating their work on a regular basis. And none of it matters anyway; while respect from peers is nice, none of us followed the rabbit trail of a story idea solely because we thought it might lead to someone we admire admiring us. We do it because it’s interesting and fun and we want to.

Waiting for the authority to write, for goddamn literary hero stardom to shine upon you, is like waiting for magic to happen. It might — but it’s faster to simply sit down, take a deep breath, and do the work over and over again. Instead of magic, it will feel like nothing at all. Just another day where you’ve written your words, submitted your stories, until you can look back and see the full breadth of a body of work, and how it ebbs and flows with practice. Maybe you’ll recognize your authority then. (Maybe, but unlikely.) You’re too busy doing the work.

Authority may come, but it will not announce itself. Rather, it will be a sudden awareness, much how a story’s ending is a conundrum one moment and finished the next. It won’t feel like you’ve arrived even when you already have. It will always take longer than you think.

 

How We Save Ourselves

Dear You,

My mind has been preoccupied with cycles as of late. Winter both wants to shove off and hang on. Sunshine breaks through and I set out the plants; a front blows through and back in they go. Winter isn’t close to being over, this cycle isn’t yet completed, but I still get ahead of myself with hope.

As much as I pine for the warm days of spring, I know I can’t have them (and wouldn’t appreciate them) without cold winters. So I busy myself with other things: planning various gardens, making lists of what I will need, buying seeds, starting (much to Husband’s dismay) a worm farm.

And always, always, there is this time when winter can’t make up its mind that I begin to get anxious because I see the spring coming but I can’t feel it yet. The cycle moves at its own pace.

And this is why I have been preoccupied with cycles. Abundance versus scarcity, happiness versus sadness, fear versus calm. All exist for every person in nearly every day sometimes even at the same time. We want to speed up and get through an uncomfortable moment and at the very same time bemoan the fact that time passes too quickly and our children have grown without our noticing. We love the idea of abundance and fill our lives with as many people, experiences, things as we can manage and still walk away feeling like nothing and no one (including ourselves) is ever enough. We get a raise, we get laid off. We are in love, we are heartbroken. We go up and we go down.

All of the world exists in cycles within cycles within cycles and we are the gamblers foolish enough to believe that every day will end up with a jackpot. The jackpot rarely comes, but it will, some day and some time, because it always has. The hope found in even the smallest of payouts is enough to keep us going.

It’s this addiction to the payout that keeps us scrolling through Facebook and news feeds looking for any kind of information that will give us the lift we want. It keeps us refreshing an email inbox looking for good news, checking our phones. It keeps me staring out the window wondering when the sun will break enough to set out the plants.

And right now, with the world gone small and the issues around it looming large and terrifying, it makes perfect sense that we are looking for some kind of positive payout, a definitive moment of yes, everything will be okay. Your world will stay unchanged. 

Our emotions are hovering near the edge of every precipice. Fear is a constant presence, infiltrating even the smallest of interactions. Some of us are in a state of shock. Some of us are so hopeful it nears hysteria. I myself feel as if I am grieving. News comes and goes so fast, we all feel the perpetual ache of whiplash. (Cue the pick up of the phone to see what has changed in the last hour. Cue the national pining for everything to just be alright.)

All of it combines to create a community of extremes, where everything is both too close and too far, all talk reduced to a shout or a whisper, nothing in the middle, no hand to hold on to.

So we bury ourselves in news headlines searching for anything that will give us a lift. We scroll through Facebook looking for a meme that understands us. We binge on Netflix because the people behind the screen are a safer bet than the neighbors next door. And all the time we are waiting.

What we are all waiting for, ultimately, is the thing that will save us. The text from a loved one, the email containing a job offer. The critical piece of news confirming that, yes, we were right all along regardless of what the other side says. We desperately want that intervention from on high, the deus ex machina. We require miracles because we’ve spent so much time with our heads down pulling the lever of external hope that we’ve forgotten what it takes to save our souls.

No piece of news, no change in world events, no gift from on high will change the fact that right now in this moment many of us are more comfortable with strangers behind a screen than we are with our own neighbors. We are too afraid to talk to their own closest family members for fear of what will be said or revealed about the other — a fear that deals no more and no less with the potential loss of the other’s love. We don’t talk because we’re too afraid to see just how wide that gulf has become. And the longer we let it go, the more shit that gets thrown into it. Stories we make up about each other. Perceived slights grown to monstrous proportions. A long gone memory suddenly back and rearing its ugly head of how unfair.

All of this requires a mind firmly rooted in fiction and not at all rooted in truth. It requires an eradication of memory. You are less to me now because of the stories we have allowed ourselves to tell of each other. I fear you because I believe that you fear me.

The thing about cycles is that they do not exist without ups and downs, positives and negatives. For every summer, there is a winter. For every love gained, there is a love lost. For every birth, there is a death. The story will always end with our deaths.

Knowing the end, and knowing that it’s the same end that each of us will meet, why would we spend our final hours (because all hours are final) cloaked in rage instead of love? We are dying. Let’s make ourselves comfortable.

But, you ask, what about the people who seem to want to accelerate our death? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to stop them?

You’ve already forgotten the end of the story. You are clinging to something that can’t be held as much as they are trying to spin the cycle in a way it won’t go. To speak with hate, with contempt, to walk through this world as if it is infinite, that your actions do nothing to end or enhance another’s suffering, is to miss the entire point of life.

You are not a body separate from the rest of the world. (How lonely a thought.) You are the body and they are the body and this world is the body. And this world, with its many cycles and it’s proclivity for balance, is nothing short of a conscious being making conscious decisions to either bring more suffering or live within the peace. Which would you like to do today?

There are people who seem committed to making more suffering. They feel the world merits this because their world feels out of balance. So be their balancing arms. Commit to make more peace. Let’s correct the story.

Resisting the School of Should

Dear You,

When we first decided to move to Nashville and were making all these big plans about how we would do it and dreaming all these big dreams about what we would do once we did do it, I had this back of the mind idea that maybe I would become a winter person here. The kind of person who revels in layering on sweater after sweater and scarves and all the hats and who would even be willing to go for a nice leisurely walk in this crisp, cool winter of my dreams.

It made sense; I would be in a city with nearby mountains, a geographic area where four seasons do indeed exist (or so I was told), and besides, Tennessee was just more north than Texas so surely there would be the kind of winter that came with snow and snow boots and general life lived during snowy weather. (A white Christmas, maybe? Just this once?) And I, having been transplanted to the middle of it, would somehow become a person who wouldn’t just live in it but look forward to it.

We are in day three of snow on the ground (patches of snow, but snow) and we are both just a little miserable. Oh, it was wonderful waking up Friday morning and watching the snow come down, sure. It was even a little fun when I thought I might get to walk in the snow to the nearest library branch for work (the branch closed and I still ended up driving.) But the heater has since broken and we have been wearing the same fleece-lined pants and socks for the past week and I’ve done as the song says and gone country wearing my old work boots over my jeans because it’s too cold to cover my feet any other way.

The best part is that the winter here is no worse or even different than the winters I had in Texas — it just seems like it should be. The other best part is that Christmas was a perfectly sunny seventy degree day and I loved it because I always have been and always will be a hot weather sun person. Please just let me sweat right now, I beg you.

This is no surprise. (Although I’ll be honest, I am really loving wearing my old cowboy boots mostly because it seems to really perturb my husband — Boots? Over the jeans?? Yes.) Of course, I would be miserable in the cold weather — it’s not in my nature to be comfortable in it.

Which oddly makes me think of the fact that I haven’t set any New Years resolutions. Mind you, I love a good New Years resolution. In fact, I love anything where I can make a change off a seemingly clean slate and pretend that all past transgressions are null and void, that life begins tomorrow, that the present will take place at an agreed upon time between past me and future me and everything between now and then is just mardi gras.

I argue with my husband over his lack of resolution-making, his seeming aversion to self-improvement, but really, he’s just always been a little more honest than I am. It’s in my nature to make the goals. And it’s in my nature to abandon them the moment I fail to adhere with perfection. I know this about myself. And yet.

But this year, with all the changes whiplashing us both around, my godawful yearning to just be able to go to the grocery store while daydreaming, January 1st came and went without me even making so much as a list of what I’d like to do with myself.

I realized this yesterday. Appalled, I quickly dashed out some uninspired ideas — meditate daily, buy local, eat organic, exercise three times a week and so on and so forth and god, how boring.

Meanwhile, I have a stack of books next to my chair in the living room that I am supposed to read, that I wanted to read at one point and now that I’ve checked them out, I must read them even if they have since lost their luster. I sit in the chair and begrudgingly open the one on top. My mind wanders to a Texas Monthly article a dear friend suggested I read last week, that I did actually read instead of dooming it to some “for the future” list because I was stuck in the car for several hours and to have physical entrapment at the same time as mental entrapment is too much even for me. (I do let myself live sometimes.)

It was a story about Larry McMurtry, an author I know I would love if I just read his stuff , whose book, Lonesome Dove, has always been a book I’ve wanted to read. It’s been on my to-read list since 2009 when I hit my first must-have wilderness and cowboys craving and has been somewhere near the middle of the list ever since. It always gets beat out by the newer, shinier, must-read books that have been published this year, despite the ever-present longing to read it.

The article told me what I already knew — that the man was a Texas legend, a true native son, that I would love him if I read him, that I want to be like him when I grow up, and that he has a bookstore not two hours away from my old home in Texas that I knew was there and that I neglected to visit because I always had other things to do (like drink beer and spend whole days reading books I don’t even want to read anymore. Le sigh.)

I spend so much time making lists and goals and then shackling my own feet to the fire to meet those goals that I don’t even feel the burn coming on until it’s too late. I already waste enough time doing the things I have to do to live (like buy food and brush my teeth) — it’s nauseating to think of all the other ways I force myself into commitments and rules and plans that make no whit of difference to my contentment.

It’s odd how much we equate seeking contentment with actual contentment. If I just meditate every day, I’ll be happy. If I just exercise three times a week. If I just do the 30-day yoga revolution, the cleanse — if I just clean out my closet. But the truth is that we’re rarely any happier. We’re rarely happier because there’s always something else to change, to improve on, to erase about our lesser selves. There’s always something else we should be doing.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to better ourselves — I’m all about making a conscious effort to not be an asshole. But to create a mission around self-improvement that feels more like a military drill is to lose the point of the goal. It too easily becomes a lie you tell to yourself.  I love winter weather, you say between shivering teeth. I’m content, goddamnit, as you reach for the disappointing kale you never wanted to eat.

So confound it with the lists. No more of them. I am hereby resisting the school of should. No more “I will do” and “I must do.” Only “I want to.” This has never been an easy feat for me, doing what I actually want to do. (Let me know if you’re the kind of person who can just do they want — a beer for your skills.)

If that’s a New Years resolution, then I apologize. But not too wholeheartedly. I’ll be too busy finally reading Lonesome Dove and planning a visit to Archer City.

Playing The Long Game

Dear You,

There’s a little known phenomenon that happens after finishing a draft of a novel. (I’d like to say it’s just me but I have confirmed it with several others so maybe it’s just us.) When you finish and have to put the work away for a time, a strange kind of sadness settles in.

For some, it’s the loss of the daily time spent with characters or a story that has become embedded in you. It’s like watching a good friend leave and not knowing when you’ll see them again. For me, it has more to do with the disruption to my routine and the sudden lack of what feels like forward momentum.

Every day when I sit at my computer and add another thousand words or answer a question that had me stuck, I can see clearly how I’m working toward something larger. I can rest in the remainder of my day and sleep better at night knowing that I have done good work toward a goal that makes me happy. But finish the work and I usually have one day of pure celebration before the darkness sets in. I go to my computer, antsy and unsure of how to proceed.

If I’m lucky, there’s a kernel of an idea for something I’ve wanted to work on. This time, I finished a long draft two days before the election so my mind was a little preoccupied the weeks following. The writing group that got me out of my funk in Texas sadly did not choose to relocate with me to Tennessee and I’m still trying to gather a new handful of writing friends here. Couple all this with the cruel fact that the sun sets in this town at 4:30 in the goddamn afternoon and we haven’t even reached winter solstice yet and you better believe I’m struggling to put words to page.

What’s that, you say? Take a break? Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the healthy thing to do. I promise that I’m currently on one now (with the exception of this blog post and the fact that I have a half draft of a story that I really need to finish but, I guess, maybe, for sanity’s sake I can let it go until January.)

But see, the problem lies around that forward momentum I mentioned earlier.

I have never been a patient person. I run high on impulse and low on willpower. I have been described by many different people at many different stages of my life as passionate about the various causes and interests that cross my radar, passion I am thankful for as it has pushed me to do things I thought highly unlikely.

But my affinity for impulse sometimes far outweighs the level of passion I can claim for any one love. If it doesn’t stay interesting, if I don’t feel like I’m always on the brink of discovery, if I’m not winning whatever game I’ve concocted for myself– I lose interest pretty quickly. (Hence, the lack of willpower during hard times.)

And when I’m not writing, when I can’t put a gold star stamp on the day in the form of creation, the day can sometimes feel like a loss. And day after day of feeling like I’m losing sure does make you feel a little funny.

Yes, I know I sound obsessive. Yes, I have seen a therapist about it. I blame my grandmother, who had such a sense of routine (or possible obsessive-compulsive disorder) that she had a breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu based on the days of the week that never changed in the twenty years I knew her as a cook. (Seriously, biscuits for breakfast on Tuesday and Eggo waffles on Friday without fail.)

I’m learning to recognize the off days as gold star days too. I took a rest because I needed it = gold star. I chose to sit on the couch all morning and read this fabulous book by a wonderful new author that inspires me = gold star. I checked my Duotrope account to remind myself that, yes, I have in fact written a lot and put a lot out to submission this year = gold star. In fact, I may just take up Annie Neugebauer’s Joy Jar idea as if my life depended on it.

But mostly, I’m trying to focus on the long game. I took a writing break from 2012 to 2015 to focus on finishing my master’s degree, get married, and just generally take better care of myself. During those years, I hung my hat of all this, convinced I just wasn’t meant for writing (even though I kept writing poetry and essays and started a novel).

So the past two years, especially this year, have felt a lot like playing catch up. This definitely contributes to the “I must DO something every day” feeling I’ve been trapped in. But I’ve finally been able to recognize even those years as essential triple gold star years. Many of the poems I wrote are now the ones being plucked for publication. The essays incubated a novel that I’m still working on but that definitely has a lot to say and required (still requires) a ton of personal excavation.

The past month may have felt like it did not hold a lot for me in terms of creation — the two stories I’m working on feel dead in the water, I haven’t line edited any poems, and my novel is out for a beta read that leaves me both terrified and restless — but looking at the year, I can see clearly how much I have to celebrate. The novel draft is finished and I’m still excited to get back in come January and keep working at it. I threw may hat back into the submission ring this year and have enjoyed a fair amount of success. My husband and I did the scary thing and moved to a new city where I didn’t have a job, friends, or writing connections, and now I have a job, some cool, new friends, and a writing group that is small but mighty.

As the year comes to a close, I am focusing on gratitude, both for the fact that I have been able to write and simply for allowing myself to do so. Stepping back and taking the long view to see the forest for the trees is essential, especially during the more barren weeks. I am working hard to give myself the space and the grace to see what I can’t when I’m nose down into the mud of the work. But right now, the time for work is done. Right now is a time for dancing.

Because all told — this has been a gold star year, and really, a gold star writing life.