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.”

 

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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.

A New Beginning

Do you ever get really into something, then life comes along and distracts you just long enough that returning to that thing feels a little awkward? You start to wonder if you really loved it, since you haven’t really missed it, but at the same time you feel like you should really get back to it?

It happens to me all the time, especially with blogging. I’ll be on a roll for maybe a week or two then something else pulls my attention and the next thing I know, more weeks have passed without a single post. I start to feel guilty, but rather than motivating me to write, it shifts into a bundle of anxiety that I shove to the back of my mind. I’ll get to it, I tell myself, as the anxiety builds each day. Maybe tomorrow I’ll think of something brilliant, I reassure myself, as the anxiety drips down my throat and curls around my chest.

The longer I give it free reign to grow unsupervised, the darker it gets. I tell myself there’s a simple explanation — not as simple as “life gets in the way”, but something more damning — I’m lazy. I’m a dabbler — not a true writer. I don’t belong in the blogging world, I don’t belong in the writing world. If I’m so easily chained to everything but writing, why bother keeping up the facade? Just give up already.

You already have.

It’s a metaphor for my life lately. My thoughts are scattered, too jumbled to untangle, too time-consuming to fit into a blog-length ramble. My life is on the precipice of some huge changes, both exciting and scary. And I know I should cut myself some slack, even though it’s hard.

I’m leaving my current job at the end of this week. My husband and I are moving halfway across the country so he can go back to school full time. And even though I’ve been relatively silent on the blog for the better part of this year, I want to share the adventure with you. I want to be better at making time for the things I love, and I’m hoping these changes will bring with them a shift in focus. A way to make time for things that can be hard, even though they’re enjoyable. A kick-start to get out and experience things worth sharing. An incentive to pause the Grey’s Anatomy Netflix marathons and take time exploring — either my community or my inner self.

I want to be better at this. And I thank you for sticking with me and my sporadic posting.

A Too-Public Apology

I’ve gotten carried away on Facebook. This election was ugly and contentious and it stirred up a lot of “yuck” on both sides. After the shocking results (or not so shocking, if you’re that one professor who’s always right about presidential elections), everything came to a head.

Going into Election Night, I knew a lot of friends and family voted differently than me–and that was okay. One person — whom I love more than my own life, and who did not vote my way — posted her “I voted” sticker to Facebook, and someone else commented “I hope for the right one!” Now, this could have been a statement of solidarity, like “so did I and I hope we made the right choice.” But I saw red. I almost typed back something along the lines of “who are you to judge if someone’s choice is right or wrong? She voted for the right person for her and that’s all that matters here.” I was ready to throw down, all in defense of someone who basically canceled out my vote, because I loved her more than a stupid vote or a stupid four years or eight years or whatever it will be. (Instead, I raged to my husband and settled in to watch Hillary #crushit). And then I lost sight of that completely.

I’ve always known I’m very competitive and not the best loser, but this was not some game I could shake off the way I should have. I’ve written before my reasons that I personally could never support Trump; I didn’t realize until he won just how much my own understanding of my immediate world was wrapped up in this election. Suddenly, I didn’t see family, I just saw betrayal. I felt confused — probably because I never took the time to sit down beforehand and explain face-to-face with people what it is that drives my thinking, and therefore how I believe they must think, too. I was — and am — terrified of what this can mean for a country already so divided.

I lashed out on social media, in a defiant show of love behind a veneer of anonymity, a soapbox once-removed. And I hurt people with some of the things I’ve “liked”, some of the posts I’ve shared. I didn’t take the time to put into my own words my terror and my angst and my confusion. I won’t apologize for fearing for my country, or for feeling hurt or betrayed or confused, because this is how I feel, and I am allowed to process this in my own way.

But I do sincerely ask forgiveness for the hurt I’ve caused through a careless, too-public post, or the words I’ve endorsed without explanation or attempt to make them my own. Because I’d like to think that while I shared some of the same sentiments, my own words could have held more love and less accusations. It’s too easy, when one is hurt and scrolling through a newsfeed, to say “yeah!!” and just click ‘share’ rather than sit and think and scribble out her heart. It’s vulnerable and difficult, especially when that heart is already bleeding from wounds others don’t realize they’ve made. Wounds that might have been avoided, if we’d shared our hearts sooner.

Because the people I love — those who want to Make America Great Again and those who were #WithHer and those who chose neither — they feel the same as me. They fear for America, they want what’s best and they didn’t intend to hurt me anymore than I wanted to hurt them personally.

And maybe this whole post shouldn’t be public, either. Maybe it would be better served individually, but a public harming deserves a public acknowledgement that while I’ve been screaming about “love” for almost a week, I haven’t done a good job of connecting through love with those I care about. And maybe I’ve hurt someone without even realizing it, and I want them to know I’m sorry for that, too. Love is not a weapon, but a shield we should use to defend what’s precious against a ravenous world. I lost sight of that, and I’m sorry.

I love you.

Stoplight: A Snapshot

 

The light clicks from yellow to red.

A mud-splattered truck stops short at the line, its driver blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd. He openly scopes out the blonde in the Jetta beside him. She pretends not to notice as she taps out a mortified text to her BFF of the week. Behind her, a balding businessman strums his fingers along the dashboard of his leased Mercedes and frowns at his knock-off watch. The ’06 Subaru next to him rocks with four teen boys’ motion as they take turns playing air drums and ironically head-banging to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” while the dusty new Honda behind them houses a woman’s quiet sorrow. Tears roll over her chin as she sobs silently into the steering wheel.

The light turns green. The snapshot becomes a picture in motion.

The truck engine revs.

The Jetta driver drops her phone into the passenger seat.

The business man reaches for the shifter only to remember he now drives an automatic.

The boys burst into the intersection with shouts of laughter.

And the woman drags a hand down her cheeks, blows out a heavy breath, and swallows the rest of her pain.

Until the next stoplight.

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.