Rough Draft

I am a rough draft of an unfinished story.

More scribbles and scratch-outs than fully formed pages.

Rearranged and torn in two,

Rewritten and crossed-out and written anew.

I am wrinkled nights and broken mornings,

Blackened fingers and crumpled words.

Half-thoughts and almost-ideas left for tomorrow.

I am a page, bleeding ink,

Splotched with tears and tea-stains.

Spiral bound with bent wires and torn covers.

Loved and hated, fiercely possessed and easily discarded.

I am guarded secrets and hushed truths,

Hidden beneath layers of fiction.

I gather dust on the bottom shelf of an over-stuffed bookcase,

Forgotten indefinitely.

I am a burst of inspiration,

A frenzy of black and white smudged with gray fingerprints.

I am midnight mac-n-cheese and ice cream for breakfast.

I am candle smoke and flickering flame.

I am the cramps in fingers

Squeezed too long around an unforgiving pen.

I am every ache along every vertebra of a bent body.

I am drooping eyelids and lengthening shadows.

I am hope—caffeine-fueled and desperate.

I am defeat—emptiness and melting pillows.

Scalding showers washing sobs and ideas down a drain already clogged with shattered dreams.

I am pride and I am shame.

I am everything that could be and nothing that ever was.

I am a half-formed story, waiting for someday.

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The Dark Side of Writing

This is about to get really real. Maybe too real. “Over-sharing”. But it’s been inside me for a long time and needs to get out. And maybe someone else needs to hear it. Maybe we aren’t alone, after all.

Sometimes, my dreams of getting published seem hopeless. And not because “so many people are trying, why should I succeed?” or “I’m just not good enough.” Maybe a little of the fear comes from the second, but not for the obvious reason that I think my writing is crap. Semi-objectively, my writing is decent. I’ve written some brilliant things I’m super proud of, and some really awful things that make me cringe just thinking about, but most of my writing falls into the category of “good enough” to be published. I notice weak writing — recognize my own short-comings — in published books all the time, so why not me?

No, I’m hopeless because I hit these blocks that are so much more than “writer’s block” the way I understand it. I don’t know how other writers experience it, so maybe I’m not as alone as it feels. The term “writer’s block” seems so benign. Like “eek, I’m stuck, time to brainstorm” or “wrote myself into a corner” or “let’s take a walk to clear my mind and come back fresh.”

That’s not me.

When I hit a block, words desert me and I tumble face-first into a rock-strewn canyon. It’s dark and frigid and lonely, even walking hand-in-hand with my lover in the sunshine. A revelation smothers me, replacing the marrow in my bones with a certainty that I am nothing and will never amount to much more.

It’s not so much that no one will care what I have to say. That fear is quiet and constant, like a cat sleeping at my feet, occasionally hopping onto the table to flick my nose with its tail.

No, the writing depression is darker, more personal. It assures me that I do have a story worth telling; it encourages me that someone — maybe even just one person — needs what I have inside me, but I’ll never find the words to tell it. I am my own worst enemy and the only thing standing in the way of greatness.

If only I could shed the weaker parts of me. If only my brain could leave my damaged heart and trembling fingers for a stronger body. Or maybe it’s my heart — tender and full — that needs to escape the dictator in my brain, unfeeling and inconsiderate of the words trying to bleed freely. Maybe my skin is trapping the story, pressing it against muscle and bone instead of allowing it to burst into the world. If only I’d been born someone else, I wouldn’t have this problem. My imagination inside a stronger vessel would find its purpose.

In this dark place, I sit on the cold ground, my back pressed to the ravine wall, staring at characters I love more than life. Apologies whisper past my lips: “You should be real,” I tell them, “not me.” It isn’t fair — they have words to share, but a worthless creator who can’t hear them.

The hopeless void stretches in front of me, with no end in sight. I read other people’s words and know I could have said it better, if only my brain worked harder, if only my heart felt more (felt less?), if my hands held the pen with more authority, if my soul didn’t smother my words.

My chest aches, dull and hollow, like an empty mussel on the beach at low tide, picked over and baked. I hunker down to wait it out, desperately clinging to the fragile hope that — someday — words will return, and it will feel as if I could never fail.

I’ll ride that high as long as I can, until, inevitably, I tumble to the ground again. I could walk away from writing, but in the words of Anne Shirley: “I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset… almost pays for the thud.”

 

Writing Soundtrack

I’ve read so many books and articles and blog posts full of writing tips. Tips to focus, tips for time management, tips for character development. So many of them recommend silence while writing. If you must listen to music, it can’t have words, or if there are lyrics, they should be in a language other than one you speak.

I’ve made playlists on Spotify for every work-in-progress, and some for specific characters. If I hear a song that evokes a certain feeling or perfectly describes something a character is going through, I save it to the playlist and use it for inspiration later. Most of the time, I listen to these playlists while I’m driving or sunbathing or cooking or packing. They enhance the story I’m working on and help me see characters and events in a new light, the same way music changes my perspective in my own life.

I prefer to write with one of my playlists going. Usually, I’ll start with whichever song most recently spoke to me to jog my memory of all the pre-writing I’ve done in my head, and the rest of the songs fade into the background as my writing picks up. Then I’ll hit a snag and search for a new song to prompt another scene.

It’s worked for me as long as I can remember. Sure, I catch myself singing along sometimes, but I don’t think the lyrics are as distracting as the pros warn about. I mean, I’m also the type of person who needs to mindlessly rap along with T.I. or Eminem while driving through a snowstorm or torrential downpour or other traffic situation that makes me uncomfortable.

I’ve tried listening to the soundtracks of epic movies and shows and games like Thor and Game of Thrones and Assassin’s Creed. I’ve tried creating my own mix of lyric-less songs pulled from soundtracks and classical composers and string quartet covers of popular hits. I’ve tried the Russian Rap playlist I found through Spotify to give me the sound of human voices without the words I understand (although my four semesters of Russian come rearing up and cause excitement when I do recognize a word or two).

What it comes down to for me is this: I have a lot going on in my mind. Maybe it’s quiet, constant anxiety that makes my brain spin in a thousand directions at once. Maybe everyone’s mind runs things in the background and foreground at once. All I know is I need the lyrics to pull the background focus. If the behind-the-scenes-processing part of my mind is stuck in familiar songs, the rest of my thinking can focus outward. Whether it’s keeping control of a vehicle on an icy road or pouring my heart into a half-formed story, the music — with lyrics I can learn by heart — is imperative to my writing process.

Writing vs. Typing

I’ve made a commitment to myself to write 200 words or more each day. For the past two weeks, I’ve kept it. Most days, I’m able to write a lot more than 200 words, which is great. But on those days where I’m busy or exhausted or not feeling it for whatever reason, 200 is a pretty small number I can reach fairly quickly, even if I end up scrapping everything in a revision. It’s a way to hit a goal no matter how great or blah I’m feeling each day.

When I say I’ve done it every day, I should clarify that some days I hand-write and other days I type, so I don’t get an accurate count on the hand-written days. My husband and I share a computer and he has school work to do, so we have to take turns and the computer isn’t always available when I’m feeling most creative.

I used to hand-write everything for a first draft. I have entire novels in smudged ink and loose-leaf pages, packed away in boxes. I’m not sure if it’s laziness or efficiency that has shifted my preference toward typing. It saves time — I’m not writing essentially the same thing twice — and makes editing, tracking progress, and fitting together story bits so much easier.

But this week, being “forced” to return to handwriting parts of my story has reminded me of the art I fell in love with. There’s something beautiful about the connection between ink and paper, the power and vulnerability of a creator.

For the sake of time, especially when I have a long scene developing in my mind, I’ll choose typing into a computer, but when I have the time to let my mind — and pen — wander, I’ll indulge in the art form of my predecessors and carry the inkstains on my fingers for days.

Mockingbird

“I was like a well trained pianist who knows which note to hit, but can’t make the music his own.”
― David Benioff, City of Thieves

I’ve come to discover I’m something of a mockingbird. My art is often more mimicry than original.

My funniest moments usually entail bringing up something that has already been deemed hilarious, the memory even funnier in a new context. I have decent comedic timing and quick wit, but most of my jokes are not my own.

I’ve noticed it in my writing, too. My personality is a bit obsessive so once I get into a show or a book I can’t stop until I’ve absorbed it entirely. I start thinking in terms of the story, using similar vocabulary and diction as the characters, and when I try to write my own stories, this mimicry flows through.

I got the full series of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman for Christmas one year, and I wasn’t halfway through the box-set before my characters were using words like “ma” and finding rugged, outdoorsy ways to occupy their time. While reading Robin LaFevers’s His Fair Assassins trilogy, my own writing stopped using contractions and took on the elevated diction of a medieval noble.

Usually upon editing I can get back into my own character’s heads, my own story’s voice, and I can make the necessary word adjustments to return to my own style.

There are a few writers whose actual style lingers deep in my subconscious, though. Mark Zusak (The Book Thief, I am the Messenger) is probably my favorite. Every so often, I’ll write something oddly poetic, and I’ll have a burst of gratitude for Zusak and his impeccably beautiful prose.

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Mark Zusak, The Book Thief

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And like a child watching her world with awe-filled eyes, I am easily shaped by the words and experiences I’ve immersed myself in. I only hope I will continue to tug out my own, original voice from the web of adoration I gladly weave around myself with each new book, with each beloved movie.

The Painful Joys of Writing: Research

My current WIP (that’s work-in-progress, Mom) is a historical fiction novel set during WWII. I’ve always been fascinated by that time: the beauty and the tragedy, the resiliency of the people and the fact that those generations can laugh after the horrors they witnessed.

My other stories have been completely imaginary, so it’s been refreshing having a number of sources to go to with questions rather than having to make everything up. The Internet is an amazing thing, with just a few clicks, I get more knowledge than I ever needed.

This is also a drawback.

Sometimes, I get too hung up on stupid tiny details that are only important for making the story authentic. My characters are going dancing in D.C.? Let me just Google what clubs might have been around in the early ’40s (spoiler alert: this was not as simple as it sounds. It took me days of research to scratch out a number of dance clubs my characters might have attended).

Wikipedia is helpful but not completely trustworthy. Its hyperlinked words make it too easy for me to wander, too. For example, my characters need a summer activity to be doing (or on their way to doing) when they run into another character (at which point, said activity no longer matters). Still, I can’t just say they’re eating ice cream at the waterfront. Today’s DC waterfront is nothing like 1940s DC waterfront (was there even much of a “waterfront”?). Google tells me the area I’m thinking of (now near the AMC Loews theater) used to be the site of the Georgetown incinerator. So…people probably weren’t hanging around where they were burning trash. So maybe they went to a museum. Or just hung around one of the monuments or memorials. The Wikipedia page for the National Monument takes me through the Lincoln Memorial page to the the Reflective Pool (not built yet in their time), to the Tidal Basin, to the WWII Memorial, to the grafitti “Kilroy was here” and the next thing I know, I’m reading about rationing in Great Britain during and after the war.

Also, my interest to know whatever I can about the ’40s is a drawback during quick-research time. In this example, I figure the Tidal Basin is probably a good area my characters could end up, so I leave the page open to read in a second, but first I want to continue reading about Marian Anderson’s epic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after she was not allowed to perform at the DAR (because she was African American). And in reading more about Anderson, I find out she was good friends with Albert Einstein. He was really big in the Civil Rights Movement (and referred to himself as a devout anti-racist). One thing leads to another and two hours later I’ve somehow ended up reading about the U.S.O. in World War II.

Now my brain is full to bursting will all this barely-necessary knowledge and I’ve completely forgotten what I originally set out to look up. Forget about the actual story I wanted to write around that little detail–it’s gone. I leave the story for the following day, only to wake up and find the blank I’ve literally drawn to remind myself I need a relevant detail, and the process starts all over.

The Painful Joys of Writing: Oblivion

Writing is both cathartic and stressful. In my mind, I see a story unfold or envision an excellent conversation or picture a vivid scene, but when I’m ready to translate the images into words, many times I end up frustrated with the result.

But there are times, glorious times, when the perfectionist in me can let go. I draw a blank–literally, a blank on the page–to be filled in later, I’ll put big question marks over something I’m not sure of or at the end of an awkwardly worded sentence and just move on. My writing picks up and the world melts away.

I ran cross country in high school. (Stay with me–this is related). It was hard and painful and I told myself and my parents and coaches and friends that I did my best but honestly, I’m not so sure I ever did. My brain and my lungs and my legs were all like “yep, that’s all I’ve got,” but looking back, I don’t think my heart got there. See, everyone talked about this idea of a “Runner’s High,” where a person pushes herself beyond the pain and the struggle and the fatigue and suddenly, it all disappears. I never broke through that wall with running. I ran for a lot of reasons and a lot of people; I ran with the varsity team during several meets my sophomore year and all of junior year, I medaled at a meet (once), and I did push through shin splints and stiff knees and sore ankles, but it was never for me. I never ran just for myself, and so I never really experienced that promised high.

I get it with writing. My hand cramps up and my eyes strain and my back aches and my neck pops. But I keep going, sinking further into the words coming out of me, the life swirling inside of me, until there’s nothing and no one but my characters. My handwriting turns nearly illegible, or my typing is filled with those obnoxious red squiggles, but perfection can wait as the letters and words tumble out faster than my fingers can form them.

When this happens, time has no meaning. I’ve sat at a desk for six hours after work without noticing the sun setting. I often have to be jarred out of this trance-like state if there’s any hope for me to rejoin the land of the living in a timely manner. And don’t expect me to be pleasant if I’ve been pulled away just when my story is flowing well. In general, it is usually better to let me taper off.

My husband is getting very good at this. There have been times when he’s come home to me furiously typing or scribbling and I’ve told him there’s no dinner and I’m not sure when there might be (side note: I’m the cook in the family. He can boil up some rice like nobody’s business, sure, but dinner is my forte). He’ll remind me I need to eat, too, before going across the street for sandwiches. Then he’ll return, gently trying to coax me away to eat something. I tell him just a little bit longer and I’ll grab something. The next thing I know, all the lights are off and the apartment is silent and it’s past midnight, and I’ve completely forgotten that I was supposed to eat.

I’ll show up at work the following morning bleary-eyed and ravenous, but the worst part will be struggling to pick up the fast-unraveling thread of a story from the night before. Too often, it slips through my stiff, swollen fingers.

But the promise of another Writer’s High keeps me going. Because I’m doing this for me. And nothing energizes my spirit like a solid night of bleeding my story onto the page.