Observations from my writing desk: December 28, 2015

Location: The saggy but well-traveled couch in my living room, currently shared with a three-legged Siamese cat from Arkansas and a goldendoodle who lunges instead of walks and enjoys burping in human’s faces while making uncomfortably close eye contact with them.

 

Time and time again, I’ve been encouraged to “develop my writer’s platform” by creating and maintaining a blog & Twitter.

Time and time again, I’ve tried to get this thing going, but then I feel like a narcissist and abandon the whole thing. What do I write about in this thing? Who even cares? Shouldn’t I be doing something more productive, like exercise?

But no, no, I shouldn’t be doing exercise. A lot has changed, once again, since I last wrote in here. The last 15 months has been the most productive writing period of my life, and I have a few quality short stories to show for it, one published, and one nearly-completed draft of a novel (plus another that’s been shelved, but I’ll get to that someday. maybe). This novel is one that I started three years ago then abandoned during one of my “everything is useless and I am nobody” phases, but I’ve been working hard to quell my nihilism and have produced quite a lot as a result.

So now this blog will take a different turn, especially since I can no longer use the subtitle “The ramblings of the unpublished” BECAUSE I’M PUBLISHED, SON. I’d rather focus on the process of finishing, revising, and submitting a finished novel to agents. I expected it to be a painful process, but also thrilling since I’ve never been this close to finishing something so big before. This feels bigger than my 13 years of public school, 4 years of college, 1 intensive year of graduate school, and all of my working years since. Even bigger than the dog sharing the couch with me, mounting my $50 Crate&Barrel pillow.

This week I’m on winter vacation from school, and this week I’m finishing a shitty first draft of a novel that I care very much about.

Back to work

Oh dear, it’s been a while.  I have a few excuses, which I’ll list here:

1. I got a new job, one of those 9-5, 40 hour a week jobs.  I like it so far, and I’m pretty sure I’m kicking ass, but it has definitely taken a large chomp out of my writing time.  By the time I get home, I need to start working on dinner which takes me a solid two hours because I’m not good with time management and am too stubborn to cook more simple meals.  This doesn’t mean that my cooking always tastes good, however.

2. We adopted a cat!  A beautiful, Siamese, 3-legged cat from Arkansas.  She’s the most affectionate creature ever to be birthed, which is why she holds the spot as Excuse #2: Whenever I sit in my pink writing chair (which Trinity, my cat, has comandeered as her own), Trin jumps into my lap and sprawls out across the keyboard.  I’m not exaggerating when I say she does this every time I sit down with the computer.  It’s adorable, but alas, progress has been slow.

3. Writer’s block.  I never believed it was real, but maybe this is it.  Also, I’m tired of my story.  I’ve been stuck on the first third of it for so long, and now I feel it’s just waving in the wind, moments from being torn off to fly away into the stratosphere, far away from my brain.

4. I’m most productive when huddled in my desk cube at the library, but it gets dark so early now that I’m afraid to walk to the library from my apartment once the sun goes down.  I know, I’m a pansy.  And yes, I could drive, but I’d rather not.  Bad news goes down on bike paths after dark, and my town in particular has been victim to some really horrible tragedies in recent histroy.  I’m a worst-case-scenario type of person, and I don’t want to become a headline.  Unless it’s for the terrific new book that I’ve published.  Or my cat becomes the new youtube sensation.  But only then.

So, I’m back to the library nice and early today thanks to a few sick days I’ve had to take due to a stomach flu.  This virus is a blessing in disguise–first, because it helped to rid me of the half of a pizza I ate Saturday night out of sheer gluttony/pizza glee.  Second, it’s given me time to read and focus back on my story.

But of course, before I can do any of that story stuff, I have to ramble on in here a bit. To work!

Observations from my writing desk, Friday 10/18/13

Writing desk location: Same row of desks in the library, but different desk.

Observations:

  • It’s still too warm outside today, in one of those hard-to-dress ways. It’s about a mile walk from my apartment to the library, and while walking in patches of shade I feel chilled and regret not bringing a hoodie, but then as soon as I step into the sun I start to overheat and regret not putting my hair up. At some moments of overlap, I am both sweaty and goosepimpled. These changes in temperature make it hard to think of anything else along my short walk to the library. Life is so hard.
  • I stopped at a local coffee shop that has terrible hours that don’t coincide with my internal clock. Coffee shops should stay open past 3 p.m. They favor the early risers, the morning people, the folks who don’t brew their own cups each morning. Bah. Anyways, they have a huge selection of iced coffees, and I got a pumpkin. I hoped it would help regulate the tiny heat waves I walked through on my way to the library.
  • Someone opened the giant window next to the desks that we aren’t supposed to open. I see the librarian glaring over toward me, assuming I’m the troublemaker who dared open the window. It wasn’t me, but I’ll be damned if I let them close it. The breeze feels amazing, and I’m pretending it’s blowing in straight from the ocean that’s just over 2 miles away.
  • I thought writing in here was perhaps more of a waste of time/opportunity to procrastinate, but I actually got a lot of work done on my draft yesterday after rambling here. Here’s hoping I have the same success today.
  • Today is my last day of unemployment, and I’m determined to make use of it by finishing another chapter. I already finished a book this morning, made oatmeal for maybe the first time in 10 years, showered, shaved my legs, scribbled down a grocery list, and made the arduous walk over to the library, so I feel like it’s been a pretty good day so far.
  • It’s so sunny at my desk that I’m tempted to wear my sunglasses.
  • Still only have one finger nail painted.

Observations from my writing desk, Thursday 10/17/13

Writing desk location: Desk cube at the library, second floor, in front of window overlooking library lawn and pond.

Observations:

  • 70 degree weather in mid-October is uncomfortable, especially when your writing desk is next to a giant window the librarians won’t open.
  • The only other patron sharing the row of desks with me is an Asian man with very greasy hair and too many layers of clothing. He’s a quiet neighbor though, which I appreciate. He is currently passed out at his desk, his head resting uncomfortably against the shelf on the desk. I’ve seen him here before, and a friend of his comes and gently wakes him right before the library closes. I wonder if he’s homeless. I wonder if he’d like one of the bags of fruit snacks I brought with me.
  • Sometimes Spotify is awesome and plays songs that put me in the perfect zone, until it plays some terrible song that makes me feel angry at having had it interrupt said zone, then it takes a few minutes for me to recover from the aural intrusion.
  • I only have one finger nail painted. Decided to test out a new autumnal blood-red hue on the pinky finger of my left hand. Really going for the eccentric writer look.
  • I only have one more day of unemployment after this…one more day of freedom from cubicle tyranny and the 8-5 work day drudgery. I should be making the most of it by working on my novel, but instead I’m writing in here.
  • Maybe wordpress is proving to be more of a distraction than a benefit to my “writer’s platform”. Oh well, at least I’m writing something, right?

“the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really sh*tty first drafts.”

…quoth the illustrious author Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, her guide/scripture on writing.  The chapter this quote comes from, appropriately titled “Sh*tty First Drafts”, completely changed how I write.  Before reading this chapter, I would just sit at my computer, paralyzed by the fear of writing a terrible, incoherent sentence.  As a result, my fingers would dangle idly above the keyboard, and I would feel like a complete failure.  I’d then eat a snack or three, feel bad for myself, and watch something embarrassing on Netflix.  This chapter, and the rest of the wisdom Lamott packs into her ESSENTIAL book on writing, helped me to realize that it wasn’t writing crappy sentences that would make me a failure.  Not writing at all, with my back crooked over the keyboard like a fleshy gargoyle on my Lazy-boy perch, is what would make me a failure.  The gist of this chapter, as Lamott writes, is this:

All good writers write [sh*tty first drafts]. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.

I know, none of this is breaking news for others like me, slogging through a draft of something that may or may not be publishable.  However, as I’m riding the wave of revising my very, very sh*tty first draft, It’s helpful to remember that it’s OK, there’s still hope; I just need to keep my fingers moving.

[Also, quick tip: it helps to paint your finger nails wild colors to keep things even more interesting as you spend hours staring at the computer.  Every now and then you’ll look down and impress yourself with how good your finger tips look.  This positive feeling will course through your body, up and down every limb, making the neglected stubble on your legs stand on end, your ears lobes warm, and your lips to spread into a small, smug smile.  (These are all great things, trust me.  I know.)  Hopefully, if you’ve painted your nails well enough, that good feeling will wash across your brain and release some more positive waves.  Before you know it, those waves have unlocked some hidden crannie of creativity, thus causing new material to surge back out of your head, down your goose-bumped limbs toward those fabulous finger nails which are frantically typing out all of those great ideas.]

In the chapter, Lamott writes:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions
come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go — but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

In my copy of Bird by Bird, I drew an arrow to the “Mr. Poopy Pants” line and wrote “hahaha!” But it’s true.  No one has to see what wild ideas you scribble into that draft.  Feel free to get weird.  In the first draft of my current novel, I really struggled with character names, but I tried not to let it slow me down.  I figured I would meet a cat or a coworker at some point with a name that just clicked.  So for the duration of the first draft, the antagonist is literally called “bad boy” while the love interest is simply called “boy.” And ya know? It worked fine for me.  I’m happy to say that boy and bad boy have since been christened real names.

While Ann Lamott’s book is still hugely relevant to the writing life almost 20 years after it was published, her sentiment of allowing oneself to let go and write terribly was echoed in an interview Karen Russell had with The Daily Beast recently. Russell, who is currently my favorite contemporary writer and author of the amazingly original Swamplandia and assorted short stories, fessed up that she too must strive to write without self-censorship in order for the story to progress:

 “I feel like I’m groping my way forward line to line. Writing badly is also hard—you need to give yourself permission to write badly, just to get something down…I think [my writing’s] bad so much of the time. The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare. But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy: despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly.

Karen Russell’s writing is some of the most beautiful, lyrical prose I have ever read.  When I read her stories,  I’m constantly asking myself how she comes up with her descriptions, so vivid and textured.  Based on this interview, which I’m assuming was done in person, she is also naturally articulate and poetic in her speech.  I feel equal amounts of admiration and jealousy for the skill she has with language.  I might paint my nails green tonight to match my envy.  Or, maybe I should take that green-eyed monster and bludgeon him to death by revising a chapter in my sh*tty first draft, and writing some sentences worthy of Lamott and Russell.

Throwing out 90% of the first draft would have sounded ridiculous to me had I read that immediately after finishing my first draft, but as I’m hacking my way through it with my second draft, I’m realizing she’s completely right.  A lot of that crap needs to go in order for the healthy bits to flourish.