Writing Without Hope

I feel, and have for some time felt, that I’m not a writer. As I’ve written in the past, I have always been hesitant about laying claim to the title of writer. In the past, it was a feeling of simply not achieving something yet, but that there was some actual thing I could achieve. Once I achieved that thing, I would be able to claim the title. I felt that I just needed to keep writing and submitting, and eventually I would be a writer. I knew that, despite whatever milestone I crossed, it would never be enough to let me feel like I was a writer. Still there was a sense that this was a goal worth working towards and that it was a goal that was achievable. Even if I was never satisfied with my achievement and kept pushing myself further, I still saw the effort as worthwhile in and of itself.

More recently though, I feel like a fraud. The very act of putting words on the page, for me, is a lie and a waste of time. Not that I’ve stopped enjoying writing—I still love it. It’s just that when I do write it’s a transgression or a sin of some sort. There are better and more honest things I could be doing with my time like binge watching Netflix. True nothing productive would come of it, but I would no longer be perpetrating the lie that I had something to say.

In the past, I believed that I had something worth saying, that I could say it in an interesting and artful manner, and that there was an audience for my words. I no longer believe any of that. I have lost my faith in my words. In fact, this feeling towards my writing is the same feeling that I had when I lost my faith in God, but this loss is much more distressing to me. When I try to sit down to write, some part of me—the part that, when I am particularly depressed, would bring up suicide—whispers that I should wipe my hard drive and burn those overstuffed binders filled with my poems. I can’t tell if it’s good or bad that the voice of my self-destructive, malfunctioning brain chemistry now wants to kill my writing rather than just myself, yet this change in self-destructive ideation points to how wrapped up my identity is with writing. In losing my faith in my words, much like when I lost faith in God, I am left without meaning and purpose. Now you understand why I haven’t posted anything on this blog for so long.

I keep thinking of this year as a year where I didn’t write, but that isn’t true. I didn’t write as consistently nor did I create as many new pieces as I’ve done in other years. I don’t find myself filled with as many ideas for poems and stories. Still it would be a lie to say I didn’t write. Over the year, I’ve dismantled my first manuscript of poetry, set aside half of it, and combined the other half with newer poems to create a completely new manuscript. I’ve revised many of the poems in that new manuscript. Despite my gnawing self-doubt, I’ve recently requested that some friends read and critique it. During the summer, I was struck by inspiration and wrote several short stories. I joined an online poetry workshop for which I wrote a few new poems. I even got a couple of poems published. This is not the year of someone who hasn’t been writing.

Still it hasn’t been a particularly good year. This year I started to weep upon receiving rejection letters. This year several people said to me “but I’m a writer” as explanation for why I couldn’t understand their ideas. This year an acquaintance, who I had been in the MFA program with, exclaimed, “I didn’t know you write” when I mentioned working on some short stories. Perhaps what has changed was that before the doubt had always been that internal voice, which I’ve long ago learned I should, for my health, ignore, but now the outside world was telling me that I am not, in fact, a writer.

I’ve stopped submitting my work. I’m waiting for one last rejection letter, and then no more of my poems or stories will be “under consideration.” As my husband pointed out, it is alright to take a break from submitting. I can use this time to focus on my work and get it to the place where I want it without worrying whether or not X or Y journal would even consider publishing it. For the past seven years, I have consistently and frequently submitted my work. It is alright to put that on the back-burner for the moment. Still there is a part of me that wonders if this is just the first step to giving up.

I’m not sure what to do now. It is December and the days are short, which means that my outlook is bit bleaker than normal. The part of myself that urges me to quit is a part that I’ve learned needs to be ignored. In the past when it spoke, I would remind myself that I needed to endure until spring and everything—without actually changing—would be better. It’s amazing the effect sunlight can have on a perspective. Maybe I need to have a bit of a fallow period, to rest, before I can submit again? Maybe I need some time where I’m not preoccupied with finding a home for a poem? Maybe writing is nothing more than a hobby, and I should stop trying to define myself by it. Maybe this is as good as I’m going to get. Maybe if I endure, this feeling will pass, and I will have faith in my words again. Maybe I’ve just wasted several years of my life.

I don’t really know if I’m wasting my time with writing or if this is just an off-year. All I know is that there is nothing I love as much as writing. I’ve often read articles that advise aspiring writers to write for themselves and not for others. Surely that should be enough for me. I should just work on my poems and stories until I’m happy with them and then put them away in the drawer for no one to read. Why can’t that be enough? What vanity and egotism drives me to try to find an audience? While I agree with the intention of that advice—don’t try to change your writing to please someone else—the implication that you should be happy even if you never find an audience is distressing. The idea of writing for myself alone is about as appealing as talking to myself—I’ll always prefer an actual conversation to a monologue. I don’t speak for the sake of the air pressure applied to my vocal cords, I speak to be heard. I don’t write for myself alone, but I write to be read. Still I’ll talk to myself, if no conversation is to be had.

It’s strange that, unlike I did with God, I’m not willing to give up on my writing. All I can do is sit down at my desk every day and try to get words down on the page—even if sometimes I weep at my fraudulence. All I can do is endure. I tell myself that maybe my faith in my words will return, that this is just a rough patch that will pass. I don’t believe myself for an instant.  I can only hope that I, once again, am wrong.

The Morning After the Deluge by J. M. W. Turner

Days Without Writing

At what point is one allowed to call oneself a writer is a question that I’ve spent far too much time contemplating. When I was younger, I would shy away from calling myself a writer because my writing wasn’t serious, wasn’t good, wasn’t published, wasn’t published in a paying magazine, and myriad of other reasons. I now say that the only thing that makes a person a writer is that they write (something I’ve heard a lot of other people say for a long time before I accepted its obvious truth). As long as I spend a good portion of my time getting words on the page, I am a writer. Maybe not a good one, a successful one or any other qualifier, but I am inarguably a writer, though there is always a little (or huge) part of me that doesn’t think I can call myself one. Part of the problem is that people tend to define me by my day job instead. Still, I tell myself, I’m writer first—I write everyday after all.

This past semester, I agreed to teach five Freshman composition classes. I was busy to say the least. Many of the books that I read where actually audio books I listened to on my commute. I was having a long distance relationship with my husband, even though we lived in the same house. And for the first time in years, I wasn’t writing everyday. Worse a whole week could go by without me writing.

I worried that maybe I was letting go of my dream. After all, I’ve read countless essays about how academia stifles writers and about how working as adjunct crushes one’s will to live regardless of one’s field. I hadn’t heeded their warnings, and I’d become another cog in the machine of academia. I wanted to throw myself down a green hillside during a rainstorm in despair and cry out about my wasted genius, but I had papers to grade (and I live the desert where rain is scarce and cactus is plentiful).

Now that my winter break is over and I’ve been able to catch up on sleep, the last semester no longer seems such an epic failure. Yes, I could have managed my time better, and, yes, I didn’t get as much writing done as I usually to do. I did revise quite a few of my poems, and I put together a chapbook that I’m quite proud of. I didn’t produce a ton of new work, but revising has always been the majority of my process. In retrospect, I did write quite a bit, but I just felt like it wasn’t enough, which is how I always feel.

But during last semester, I wondered if I selected the right day job—in part because my day job, teaching college English, is a career in and of itself. I’ve always known that if I was forced to choose between teaching and writing, I would drop teaching without a second thought. The problem is if I were to stop teaching, I would still need a day job. I know that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with money, but having regular meals and a roof over my head are luxuries I’m not willing to do without. I’ve worked since I was sixteen years old and having gone from fast food to retail to offices—teaching is the first job where no matter how bad it gets, I don’t sit in the car before my day starts and think, “Maybe I’ll get fired today. Wouldn’t that be wonderful.” Being an adjunct is the most stressful job I’ve ever had, but it also allows me to be a little selfish. The hours are flexible and the majority of work is grading papers and class prep, which can be done at home at 3 a.m. in my pajamas. Also, I get to focus on things that concern writing. Teaching grammar has helped me understand it better. Yes, none of my students care about the comma, but damn it I do.

There are many good reasons why writers shouldn’t work in academia, but I suspect those reason are more true for some individuals than other. The biggest reason, I’ve come across, that writers should get out of academia is that it isolates them from the larger world. It is an ivory tower that allows them to ignore what is happening on the streets. Yet I’ve found the opposite to be true. When I read students’ papers, I read about their experiences with financial hardships, crazy families, war, illness, death, birth, betrayal, abuse, friendships and joy. I discover more through talking to my students than I’ve ever encountered in the small talk in an office or a store.

In one class last semester, a student decided to read “Sins of the Father” by W.D. Ehrhart (you should definitely read the whole poem here). In the poem, the speaker’s daughter comes home from school crying because she’s being mercilessly teased. When the speaker says “It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone/ to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes/ me think of things I haven’t thought about/ in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman/ ‘Barn’” the whole class gasped at this revelation of the speaker’s own past cruelty. I wanted to jump up and down and tell the class that, “What you just felt was what poetry is supposed to do.” Though most of them treated that moment of empathy like an anomaly—it was still there. Selfishly, I use such moments to remind myself why I write.

When I was getting my MFA, one of my biggest fears was that my classmates and professors would realize that I wasn’t suppose to be there and that I was just pretending to be writer. Other writers have assured me that this feeling is universal, but those reassurance have never made those feelings of inadequacy go away. Sometimes writing does not seem enough to be a writer. There is barrage of contradictory cultural messages about what one is supposed to do to be writer—move to New York, renounce materialism, experiment with drugs and alcohol, meditate, listen to jazz—and no matter the choices I or any one makes, someone will mention how what we are doing isn’t part of the writing life. Of course, that is all BS, because the only thing that matters is that you’re writing.

I realize that no matter what day job I have it would be the wrong one, because all day jobs will, from time to time, keep me from writing. I’ve just been lucky enough to find one that allows me to obsess over writing even when I’m not, and I think that is what a writer should look for in a day job. In the end, I didn’t stop being a writer last semester, I just slowed my pace.

Woman Writing Letters by Charles Dana Gibson

Stories about Stories

Before I get into my car, I check to see that no one is in my backseat. Other than revealing the sad state of the world where that is not a uncommon habit for a woman, it also reveals the hold that stories have over me. I check the backseat not because of the countless bits of advice that I’ve been given when I’m reminded that it’s my responsibility to not be targeted by a sociopath, but because I heard an urban legend at a slumber party.

You’ve probably heard this story too. A girl drives home late at night and notices that she is being followed by a car that turns its high beams on at odd intervals. Regardless of which turns she suddenly takes or if she runs a red light that strange car follows. Finally, she can’t stand it any more and drives home, where she makes a run for her front door. The other driver gets out and starts screaming that there was someone in her car with her. She goes back and sees an ax laying across the backseat. Whenever the ax-murder raised the weapon, the driver behind her would turn on his high beams to keep the murder from killing her.  Late at night when I get into my car, I inevitably think of this story and look into my back seat.

Often we think of stories as something that we grow out of. One person may say that he or she is too old to believe in fairy tales but still expect their romantic life to follow the lines set by the Disney films. How many us who don’t believe in ghosts will still stay away from those famed haunted houses? Even though many will still turn up their nose at superstition, they’ll still hold their breath when driving past a graveyard, knock on wood when they talk of possible tragic outcome, or remain silent on their wishes after blowing out the candles of a birthday cake. I know a few skeptics who were able to rid themselves of these habits entirely, and I envy them at times. But even though I know that nothing will change the chance of the universe, I still throw split salt over my shoulder. Just because I know, without a doubt, ghosts don’t exist, doesn’t mean I’m not turning all the lights on after hearing a particularly good story.

Perhaps that is why I enjoy magical realism so much. It is just realism where spilling salt is serious business, where breathing in the graveyard air is dangerous, and where folklore isn’t hidden away but a living, breathing presence. Perhaps this is why I write so many stories and poems that deal with fairy tales and myth, because I can’t explore my poor body image without thinking of Cinderella’s two ugly step sisters, I can’t think of aging without thinking about the queen in Snow White, and, when a strange man asks me for the time and stands a little bit too close, I can’t help but think of Little Red Riding Hood. Gods, monsters, princesses, and witches make up a large part of the fabric through which I emotionally view this world.

One book, which I recently read, that does a wonderful job illustrating how stories color our view of the world is The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The book follows Natalia, a young doctor whose Balkan country has been divided by a civil war. She is crossing the new border to give vaccinations to people who view her, in general, as an ancestral enemy. On top of this she discover that her grandfather has died after also crossing the border for unknown reasons. There is a constant tension as Natalia, a lone woman, wanders this angry territory. Obreht does a wonderful job of showing how the threat of violence, while not necessarily overt, is always there. Natalia is reminded that she shouldn’t go to certain places alone—though she doesn’t always take the advice.

When describing The Tiger’s Wife to friends I’ve called it magical realism, but that category doesn’t do the book justice. As Natalia describes her current actions and remembers the times spent with her grandfather, she doesn’t witness anything that couldn’t happen in our mundane world. There are moments that seem magical, like the time she saw an Elephant walk through the city under curfew in the dead of night. It is a beautiful moment, but it’s not literally magical. Even the story that she reconstructs of her grandfather’s boyhood involving the tiger and the tiger’s wife can be logically explained—though there are many moments that seem to come straight out of a fairy tale. In fact throughout most of the story everything exists in our logical mundane world, it’s tension coming from us wondering if she will come across some of that magic she has only heard of in stories. Whether she does or not, I won’t spoil for you. For most of the book, it is only in the stories that Natalia remembers her grandfather telling about his encounters with the deathless man where we see something literally magical happen. Of course, we are hearing Natalia recalling stories her grandfather told her. There is a good deal of distance between us and what may have actually happened—like all good folk tales and urban legends.

Yet for all of this world’s reality and logic, it is still defined by these old folk stories and beliefs. Natalia’s grandmother doesn’t want to move her grandfather’s things for forty days after his death lest his spirit becomes lost.  People leave coins for the dead. We see a group refuse to get their children medical care, as they dig up a vineyard looking for a corpse of a relative, who they believe has cursed them for not giving him a proper burial. Many of these people know those old stories are just “fairy tales,” yet their actions are still dictated by them

In the United States, we tend to pretend that we have moved beyond these stories. Yet, they still color how we approach death, birth, love, and myriad of other actions. To ignore these stories in the name of logic is dangerous, because these stories are still coloring our actions. If we put the folk tales, the fairy tales, and the urban legends, where we reasonable adults can’t see them, we can’t analyze how they are affecting our views.

I suspect that you can go anywhere in the world, point to a bit of geography and ask the locals “What’s that place’s story?”, and they will have one to tell you. Landscapes that are the bodies of giants, the result of a hero’s triumph, the scars of a god’s wrath, or echo with the body-less voices of miner’s buried alive. Even as children, my friends and I tried to create stories for our neighborhood. A small swell in the earth in an empty field became the haunted grave where a murdered baby was buried. The grove of cottonwoods where we rode our bikes was filled with century old ghosts that you might catch a glimpse of if you were alone, and a house that was falling apart belonged to a witch. When someone asks me what I’ll do when I’m done with my fairy tale poems, I stare confounded. I’ll never be done with them.

I’ve Been Busy This March

At the beginning of this Month, I told you that I would be participating in A Writer’s March.  It has been going well so far. I have set myself the goal of writing for one hour a day, which, surprisingly, I’ve met.  One way that I’ve been meeting this goal is that I will do a writing exercise to generate a first draft. I then put the first draft away; when the month is over I’ll start revising these exercises.

The Most Frustrating Puzzle Ever

I’m also revising my poetry manuscript. This is the largest revision I’ve made to the manuscript since I graduated. I’ve removed poems, added poems, rearranged whole sections. I have the suspicion that it’s turning into a completely new beast. This type of large-scale revision is often frustrating, because I’m usually just standing over a section of poems that I’ve spread out across the table and thinking. I may move a page, but then I have to reread not just that poem but the poems before it and after it to see how they work together. I’ve reread my poems so many times that I’ve become convinced I only just write the same three poems over and over. However, I seem to be slowly uncovering the book that these poems want to be. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Another way that I am participating in A Writers March is that I’ve written a guest blog post, where I discuss traditional forms and revision, and I use Victorian underwear to make a point. You should check it out along with the other posts. I’ve been using much of the advice found here in my own writing.

Also, I should have mentioned this earlier, I was interviewed by Miss E over at Looking for Pemberley—you can read that here.  I’ve always found Miss E insightful, you should check out the rest of her blog as well.

 

The Return of March

Last year I participated in A Writer’s March, and I’m going to do so again this year.  What is Writer’s March you ask?  It is where you set an achievable goal in your writing and stick with it.  In a lot of ways it is like NaNoWriMo, but more relaxed.  Instead of focusing on generating pages, which  you can still do, the focus is on creating good writing habits that you can continue once the month is over.

Last year my goal was to write three hours a day and for the most part I met that goal.

This time around my goal is to write an hour a day.  On the surface it looks like my goal may have shrunk, but in reality my life has changed.  No longer do I have every morning to myself, and I’m working quite a bit more than I did last year.  Unfortunately, as my life has changed the writing habits that I had developed no longer work for me.  My focus this month is to develop new writing habits that I can expand on.

Go check out A Writer’s March here, sign up and set yourself some goals!

Time to Brag About Myself and My Friends

I’m excited to announce that I got two more poems published in the sixth issue of the wonderful magazine The Mas Tequila Review. You can find a copy on amazon.  The two poems are “Rescued from Carmilla,” a reinterpretation of Sheridan Le Fanu‘s famous vampire tale, and “Three Texts: a Girl and a Wolf” an exploration of the difference between the Grimm’s “Little Red Cap,” Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Story of the Grandmother.”

Illustration by D. H. Friston to Carmilla

I’m excited to be published alongside other poets such as Linda Hogan,  Pam Uschuk, Tony Mares, Merimée Moffitt, Julie SuZaNNe BröKKeN,  Rich Boucher, and Jennifer Givhan.

I wanted to highlight my friend Casandra Lopez who is also included in this issue.  She is the co-editor, along with another friend Tanaya Winder, of the new online magazine AS/US: A Space for Women of the World.  Particularly I want to to share their V-day issue featuring great poetry, fiction, essay, and even dancing dealing with the issues of violence against women.  You should follow this link and check out their magazine.  Or you could always buy their fist issue as as well.

The Unexpected Voice

I just finished reading John Dies at the End by David Wong. The book is creepy, surreal, psychedelic, manic, absurd, sarcastic and crassly funny—all in all a good read if you don’t mind an occasional (or frequent) dick joke or a major plot point revolving around dog poop.

The cover to both my copy of the book and the film adaptation.

John Dies at the End reminded me of several books I especially loved during my late teens and early twenties: The Invisibles (a graphic novel series about a group of guerrilla fighters battling an evil government conspiracy involving magical/ inter-dimensional beings), Tank Girl (a graphic novel series about a girl with a tank who drinks too much, kills things, and shags kangaroos), Transmetropolitan (a graphic novel series about a drug fueled, violently insane, manic reporter and his two filthy assistants who topples a ruthless and corrupt president in the distant future), Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (a graphic novel about a homicidal maniac), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (not a graphic novel…and I shouldn’t have explain it to you). My taste ran to self-destructive manic characters who either saw that the conventions of polite society were B.S. or saw that those conventions masked evil parasites (both metaphorical and literal in their respective universes). My taste made a certain amount of sense for an angst ridden and depressed young adult.

During that time I tried to write countless stories with similarly insane weird protagonists: a fraudulent medium who reads fortunes from the crumbs of potato chip bags and is always right, or a girl who after being turned into a hungry monster is pissed off that she been turned back into a human and is still hungry. Fun ideas maybe, but I never could get the stories to work. All I knew was I wanted to write in a mind-bending and profanity laden voice similar to those authors I loved. But with each attempt that I made, I only ended up writing bad copy laden with cliché. Maybe it was because I didn’t have the attention span required of those longer works, or maybe I didn’t do enough drugs.

But because I had a short attention span, I was writing poems the whole time. As I struggled with a story, I would get an idea for a poem and in an hour I could have the first draft down, and return to that frustrating story.  At the time I treated the poems like I treated journal entries—an expression of current emotion—that I was slightly more likely to share with my friends. I never thought it would develop into anything—though to be fair at that time in my life I assumed I’d be dead in the gutter by age of 30 and only went to college out of spite. I took a fiction class and wrote horrible stories involving sarcastic vampires then I took a poetry class and wrote horrible poems with some good lines. By the time I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Creative Writing, I’d given myself over completely to poetry. After all my poetry improved by leaps and bounds, while my fiction was still a sad weak little thing. It was only in the last year of graduate school that I dared to start submitting my fiction, which by then had radically changed.

I think my focus on poetry is what changed my voice. Oh, I could still be creepy, sarcastic, surreal and even a little mad at times, but the focus shifted. I became interested in motivation, in images, in sound. I even wrote poems that were quiet and took their time. I still have a lot of anger in my work, but it is calmer, more focused, more self-aware, not the self-destructive manic energy I once so admired. And of course, this voice that emerged in my poems infected my fiction.

As I read John Dies at the End I couldn’t help but think, this is the type of book I once wanted to write. The moment almost tasted like failure—a goal I did not reach—but I’m still writing.  I’ve published work, and I and currently submitting my manuscript to publishers (fingers crossed). I simply did not meet my goals in the way I thought I would when I was 19 and 20 years old. So my writing now owes more to Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, and Ai than it does to Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Jhonen Vasquez, that does not mean failure.

In the end it just turns out that I had different things to say, but isn’t that the nature of writing. You sit down with a blank page and head full of ideas, and by the time you finish covering the page with words you have something completely different from what was in your head. I may not write in the voice that I’d once wanted to, there are already writers doing that far better than I could, but I write in voice that is my own.