When your brain says, “No!”

I’m writing this shortly after midnight, Friday. I’ve had hours to get to my writing today—especially since I got off work just before three. And yet twice I’ve sat down in front of the computer and had nothing come out.

There was a time when this would have freaked me out. There was a time when I would have panicked, worrying that this meant I wasn’t a “real” writer (whatever that is). In truth, I do still worry about that sometimes. I could, I know, force some writing out tonight. And there are arguments for that being the correct course of action. But instead, I’ve decided to respect my brain’s desire to not be pushed around tonight. And I’m not even going to count it as a day off. I’ve been sitting here, I’ve been thinking about things—I just haven’t committed those things to the page. A day off seems like it should be a day when you don’t feel that weight hanging over you. And I’ve had it today. Still have it. I’m just choosing to put it down for a bit, to give my brain a rest. I think that’s okay.

Instead, I’m going to work on my French and maybe do some pleasure reading. And tomorrow, I’ll be ready to write again. That, I’m not worried about.

Another try at this

Today I commence on 100 Days of Writing—Take Two. This time around, I’ve decided to change things up a bit. I’m giving myself 14 days off instead of 10, hoping that it helps with the quality of what I’m writing. Last time there were days when I just wrote something (usually a blog post) so that I could tick off another day. And there is something to be said for making yourself write, but 14 days off still amounts to, essentially, writing 6 days every week. This, I think, is a bit more realistic to what I have going on in my life, what with work and all (i.e., I already spend 35ish hours every week in front of the computer).

Also, this time around I’m eliminating the time and word count requirements for counting each “day” of writing. I know what a good amount of production is, and sometimes it doesn’t conform to either of those requirements I’d set for myself. Some days, for instance, I’d rather spend brainstorming and jotting down notes for a story or my book. Some days I’d rather go back and reread a particular story or passage because what’s getting me down in my writing is something I’ve seen somewhere else. Both of these things are, to me, essential steps in my writing process. I don’t need to do them often—writing is usually better for me—but some days those things are needed.

I’d like to eventually add a reading requirement to all this, too. Maybe the same requirements for writing: 6 out of 7 days each week. After all, reading (anything) is vital to improving as a writer, but I’m not ready for that yet; I have a hard enough time tracking one set of requirements.

Anyway, so this marks my first day of this next 100 (or, 114 if you want to get specific). My specific goals for this iteration are as follows: write a new book review, clean and submit a new story for publication, start and finish a new story, and work 20 days on my book.

Here I go!

And I’m back

After nearly three weeks away from this blog (I can’t believe it’s been that long!), I’m back. I can hear my adoring public cheering; I just need to tilt my head a certain way, and the wind has to be right.

Yeah. Anyway. My absence was unplanned and really not all that fun. For the past few months I’ve been having pain in my shoulders (first one, then the other), and just over two weeks ago it got so bad that I couldn’t lift my right arm without massive amounts of pain. This resulted in me trying to do everything with my left arm (including vacuuming, which was a time consuming disaster), and let me just say now that if I ever lose full function of my right arm, I’m doomed. Doomed!

After a week of this, I went to my wonderful physical therapist father and got the diagnosis of tendonitis (yes, at 26) caused by too much time on the computer. I took half days at work on Friday and Monday and gave myself a no-computer-at-home rule, which I am only now lifting.

The worst part about this is how it’s affected my writing. When I enacted the rule I was at day 90 in my 100 Days of Writing challenge. I had missed 9 of my 10 days and was perfectly on schedule. Now I’ve missed something like 30 days and I still haven’t hit my 100. And so, as I said I would, I’m declaring myself a 100 Days of Writing failure. I think I might start again though, once I’m sure that this whole problem isn’t going to start anew.

But other than not meeting the goal I’d set for myself, I’m also now majorly behind on various projects. Until my hiatus I was on a role with this story, and now I feel sort of stalled. Playing with things in your head is, for me, not the same.

Anyway. I’m back. Yup.

Things do balance sometimes, even when it seems they shouldn’t

In just a few short hours, my dog Jack will have been dead for a week. I was in Florida when my parents went to take him outside first thing Sunday morning and found him dead in his cage. There’s no official word yet, but the general consensus is that he died from a blood clot—a complication from the immune mediated hemolytic anemia he’d been suffering from the past two to three weeks. I cried on and off for two days, and even now, a week later, certain things still push me toward depression. We’ve lost animals before (I’ve never had someone close to me die), but none of those deaths ever struck me with quite so much force.

And yet, even while dealing with this (and a few other family medical issues that will not be discussed online), things keep happening to me that are, well, good.

My second book review for The Collagist was accepted, and this time it seems that I wrote a stronger first draft, which means I’m demonstrating what I’m learning. The revisions for a short story I’ve been working on are going well. I had a lovely time in Florida. And, finally, just tonight I found out that PANK has accepted a guest post I wrote for their blog.

The trouble, though, is that if I let myself dwell on either the good or the bad, I end up feeling crappy. Life goes on, yes, but I can’t help feeling that our dog, Jack, who was so full of love, deserves more of a reaction. Maybe if he were a person I could apply the logic that he’d want me to carry on, to let go, but I’m finding that I just can’t in this situation. And yet the world, minus the weather, seems to be throwing things at me for which I should be happy and grateful. Balance, we call it. Or, perhaps we should call it: Life.

Insomnia and storytelling

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had trouble falling asleep. Not all the time—sometimes I’ll go months with no problems—but regularly enough for me to think it’s something more than stress, drinking caffeine before bed, or something like that. I’ll often lie awake for hours, sometimes not getting any real sleep all night (though that’s relatively rare). As someone who gets easily bored with sitting lying around doing nothing, it’s pretty miserable just lying there, and it tends to stress me out, and then I lose all hope of sleeping.

So I tell myself stories. I always have. Lying there, with my eyes closed, I make up stories, sometimes more like daydreams when they pertain to my life, but usually these stories don’t feature me, or anyone else I know. Sometimes they’re of the conventional sort—imagining what happens in books past the ending, or in the gaps the author left—but sometimes they’re totally unrelated to any story I already know, and sometimes (of course), I tell myself my own stories, possibilities for what will happen next in the ones I’m actively engaged in writing down. However, as I get more advanced (for lack of a better word) in my storytelling, I’ve begun to notice a disturbing trend.

Sometimes, rather than sleeping, I stay awake so I can continue the story in my head.

This does not help me get adequate sleep, as you might imagine. Still, I’m sure it’s helping me improve as a writer, as a storyteller. Now if only I could get my brain to output like this when I sit down in front of the computer.

Changes, changes

There have been quite a few things in the works for me lately, no small number of which related to writing. Some of which, such as my coming reentry into book reviewing, were planned and, hence, expected (the book I chose won’t be published until next month, so I’m still waiting, though I actually just sent off a request for an ARC; we’ll see what happens). Others have come as more of a surprise.

First and foremost, I found out last week that I will be taking a 50% cut in my hours at work. This is not unexpected with the work cycle I’ve seen in our office, and with the State budget issues, but the accompanying 50% cut in my paycheck will be depressing. However, I’m trying to look on the bright side, to think of how much time this will give me to devote to my own projects. When I do look at the move in this light, I really can’t see it as a bad thing.

Which brings me to my next item. I received my first ever personal rejection a few weeks back. It came right in the middle of a serious dip in my writing self-esteem, and I can’t say how much those few sentences have done to re-energize me. I had submitted the story on a sort of whim, mostly because I’d found out that a fellow graduate of mine had recently had something accepted somewhere, but since then, I’ve gotten serious about polishing and submitting work. It’s been difficult to balance this with the work on my novel, but no one ever said the learning stops when you get your degree.

Along with the rejection also came an invitation to submit a guest blog post to the journal’s blog. I sent something off last night finally (there were some issues that resulted in the slow turnaround time on the project, issues that I hope I’ll be able to talk about someday relatively soon but can’t right now), and now I just wait to see if they are going to accept it as is or if they want some revisions (or something completely different). When I get a final say so, I’ll post a link here.

I also signed up for a creative writing evening class. Not because I expect the class to substitute for the classes I had at EWU but because I miss the community of writing, of sitting around a table discussing work. I’m also thinking I might start a writing group. I know a few people who might be interested. The main thing that’s holding me back (that pushed me to this class before starting something on my own) is that I’m not sure how much time and energy I want to invest in something. But now that I will only work 20 hours each week… Well, it might be the perfect time.

Of course, eventually I’ll have to find some work that pays to fill those hours, but I think that, for the time being, this arrangement might work out to be something better than it first seemed.

Finding that character-life balance

If you watch V, there are spoilers in this post. And for the Wheel of Time book Towers of Midnight. And Mockingjay. And now to the post.

I just finished the season finale of V, which was amazing, full of mind-blowing twists and turns, and quite a few deaths (though apparently ABC won’t confirm any of the three deaths that I saw on screen tonight, nor the one that looks to be coming at the very beginning of next season). If you don’t watch V (why don’t you watch V?), it’s interesting to note a different format to the episodes, especially after I recently finished my love affair with six seasons of LOST. With the exception of the two season finales, the episodes don’t really leave viewers with cliff hangers. They answer questions, and usually pose new ones at the beginning of new episodes, which are then addressed. The episodes feel, in many ways, like mini movies (which sometimes doesn’t work for the format, but I can appreciate it all the same for this type of show).

But what I really want to talk about is the fact that the writers for this show have no problem killing off characters. Main characters. When the main cast isn’t an ensemble like LOST. Of course, I suppose the writers could bring the characters back next season (those Vs do have some crazy healing powers, though why they would heal their enemies I have no idea), in which case I would have to eat my words, but let’s assume that these deaths really did happen. Dang. No fear of losing the audience in these writers. (As an aside here, is 5 million viewers considered enough to get a show renewed? If it gets canceled after tonight I might cry.)

One of my favorite book series, the Wheel of Time, has the opposite problem. The good guys NEVER die (and the bad guys keep getting reincarnated). Well, Hopper dies, and Birgitte has been forcibly ripped from the pattern, possibly never to be reborn, and some very minor characters have died, but that’s it. It makes the bad guys look pretty ineffective, actually.

Neither approach quite works for me. I have to suspend disbelief in the Wheel of Time (which is saying something, considering I’m already reading fantasy) because when I stop and think about it. the fact that all the Super Boys and Super Girls are still alive, not to mention the twenty or so other main characters, I really don’t buy it. But then when a series just seems to start drawing names out of a hat to see who will go (the last season of LOST felt like this at times), I get sad and depressed because, hey, I was cheering for these people. And now the story needs to find some way to fill their holes.

So now I’m trying to think of stories (television or book or whatever) that have found a balance that I find agreeable. Despite the huge death toll, I think the Hunger Games trilogy does pretty well in this respect. It would be perfect if either Prim or Finnick made it out alive; I really struggled losing them both in that last third of the book, especially with how unceremonious they both are. And…I can’t really think of another one. I mean, obviously there are hundreds of books with no deaths where that totally fits the story, but that’s not really what I’m getting at. Suggestions?

My literary double life

I’m coming clean. I have a literary double identity. In some crowds I’m the high-literature loving MFA grad. I put books by prestigious authors on my shelves (the types of authors that might go on MFA thesis or class book lists, not those that necessarily sell gazillions of copies). In this life I balance my reading load, trying to fit in fiction (both short stories and novels) and nonfiction, and I’m even working myself up to some poetry. I subscribe to literary journals (though I’ve let most subscriptions lapse due to budgetary issues; I should amend this). I write book review. It’s in this life that I’m working on my book.

In my other literary life I inhale Wheel of Time books, various YA novels. I listen to Harry Potter on audio book (every night before bed; it’s helped with my insomnia and also keeps me distracted when I’m in bed recovering from a headache). It’s this side of my literary character that recently drove me to dig through the boxes of books in my basement to pull out a Clan of the Cave Bear book and the two books in the Island of the Blue Dolphins series thing.This side of me wants to write a YA book some day and is tossing ideas around in the back of my head. Heck, I’ve even been known to write some fan fiction.

Now don’t get me wrong here. One of these isn’t the real me while the other is a front. I love it all. I love a good, tough read as much as a quick lighter one (and I’ve been known to walk around the house, talking to myself as I analyze both). I love the time I spend working on my book (even if it is hard as all hell), and so far I’m really enjoying exploring the new (to me) genre of book reviews. When I got the new issue of Willow Springs last week I devoured it, then tore through 600 pages of YA the next day.

But I can’t help feeling, as I switch back and forth, that I’m somehow doing something wrong. You see, I don’t know many (any?) people like me. I know genre lovers who will pick up the occasional “meatier” book, and I know literary fiction readers who will read genre from time to time, but I have yet to meet someone who feels like he or she is being torn both ways. It’s as if, when I’m reading one, I can’t wait to finish so I can get back to the other. There really just aren’t enough hours in the day for my reading apparently.

Maybe what I should do is look at this as an opportunity. I may be just one person, but maybe I can bring about a bit of change. Maybe I can get the literary fiction people to enjoy and find real worth in more genre work, and maybe I can get genre readers to turn more of their attention to those books by small presses, those books that I have to order specially from the bookstore. I’m just one person, but I figure there have to be more people like me out there, and even if there aren’t, hey—one is still better than none.

In the meantime, I’m reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog (in translation from the original French, definitely literary fiction). At the top of my figurative to-read stack I’ve got a few YA books, three adult fantasy novels (two of which I’ve borrowed and should really get to soon), a nonfiction reportage-type book, and two books of short stories. Then there’s the novel I’ll be reviewing when it’s published in April (unless I can get an ARC sooner). And the question I always ask myself is: What on earth am I going to read next?

Some problems take a long time to solve…

…and that’s really quite all right.

Some background: During my thesis meeting, one of my committee members asked me what I would say if she told me that everything I had was great, but that the real story for the novel started three months (to toss out a random number) past the events that I was writing about. I looked at her and said, “Honestly, Natalie, I think I’d cry.”

But that’s been in the back of my mind ever since, because what was clear was that something wasn’t quite clicking with my story, and hadn’t been for months leading up to my defense. Oh, I was doing work that needed to be done—and this was really the first time I was seriously working with the novel form—but I kept running into problems around page 40, right around the time the book should have been taking off. At first I thought I just needed to rewrite those particular pages (and what came after), but in the eight months since my defense I’ve been considering another possibility: that things have been falling flat because I picked the wrong starting point. Continue reading “Some problems take a long time to solve…” »

100 Days of Writing: Update

I’m checking in at my one fifth point. Unless I’m remembering incorrectly (the official count is written down on a sheet of paper about five feet away and my sadness over not being at AWP is making me too lethargic to go get it), I’ve done 20 days so far (out of a possible 21). The biggest step so far? Diving back in to my book (formerly my thesis).

I pulled it out, for the first time since turning it in prior to my defense, this past weekend. I’d been preparing myself for this move by writing short shorts featuring my characters, but Friday night I decided to stop putting off the big step and to just go for it. And it’s been fun. Right now I’m in the middle of a reread looking for the things I like and the things I don’t. I know that the next big step is going to be a reorganization, so I’m hoping this does two things for me. First, I’m hoping it helps spark some inspiration as to where the next iteration of the book should begin (I’m quite sure it will start at a different place in time, maybe a month or two past where it’s currently set). But also, I’m looking for scenes/threads that are salvageable and those that aren’t. I’m looking for holes in the backstory and possible directions the new story can go. I think I’m getting quite a bit.

However, this has led me to reevaluate the initial rules I set up for this 100 Days of Writing project. The farther I get in, for example, the less fulfilling blog posts seem. But they fit the criteria. Tonight, for example, this will be my writing. On the flip side, I’m spending a lot of time in my car, in bed, in the shower, at the kitchen table, etc., thinking about my book. I’m trying to work through problems, to answer questions, to consider solutions. This, however, does not count as official writing time, and no matter that it feels so much more important to me in the grand scheme of my writing career.

So I’m trying to decide if I’m going to adapt the rules or if I should just finish this challenge the way it was intended—its limitations certainly haven’t been hurting my creativity. If anything, being forced to sit down and produce something has been a good thing for me. (Plus, if there’s one thing that’s hurting my book and short story writing, it’s the writing I do for work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to be doing creative writing for work, but I haven’t yet found a way to partition and separate the two types of creative writing in my brain yet. My book is not appropriate content or style for developmentally challenged 5th graders and on the flip side, the type of writing I do for the specialized reading passages does not mesh well with what I do in my book.)

Maybe I’ll keep the rules I have but sort of loosen up a bit. I’ve already stopped obsessively timing my sessions—as long as I have found myself dwelling on my book throughout the day. It’s funny how even though I have a deadline, I feel very free to play and experiment. I don’t feel stressed when I sit down to write each day (even when, as now, I’m writing 90 minutes past the time I said I wanted to be in bed). This is a very good thing for me and my writing, but I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed that I didn’t get here sooner. I think this was something Sam (my advisor) was always trying to get me to understand. “Don’t think about the thesis,” he would say. “The thesis doesn’t matter.” And only now that the thesis has been removed as a stumbling block am I really able to look at this piece of writing as my book.