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

The Years Needed to Read a Book

I’ve just finished To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and, as a surprise to no one, I loved it. I loved it so much that I didn’t just break the spine, but, to my horror, ripped the book in half. Thankfully I had some Scotch tape on hand.

What is really momentous is that this is the first book that I’ve returned to after giving up on reading it, because it was “too hard.”

I’ve always been a reader, but somewhere around my Sophomore or Junior high school year my reading habits changed. Before then, I tore through escapist literature—I was particularly fond of the Star Wars extended universe. On whim, I picked up All Quiet of the Western Front. Instead of escaping on a grand adventure, I faced a horrifying reality. Yet, at the end of the book, I felt that I understood the world—the beauty and the tragedy—a little bit better.

At the time I was ignorant of what the Canon was and the problems inherit in it, all I knew was that All Quiet on the Western Front was considered a classic, and that I wanted to experience that sense of clarity and catharsis again. I thought I could only experience it through “the classics.” As you can tell, I had only vague idea what any of this meant or what authors to seek out.

I started to wander the library stacks picking up books that I’ve heard mentioned in class or whose covers made them look like a classic (the only reason I knew Madame Bovary was a classic was because of its leather cover). Sometimes I discovered books I loved (Calvino’s, Camus’, Austen’s, Gaskell’s, and so many others), sometimes I discovered books I hated, and sometimes I discovered books that overwhelmed me.

When I selected a book that overwhelmed, I would often read a few pages, but find that I couldn’t follow what was happening or, in some cases, the syntax. To the Lighthouse was one those books. I started reading it, but I didn’t know what was going on. I was left wondering who the main character was, what were all these people doing, what conflict was pushing the plot forward. I would reread whole pages, but the words became no clearer.  Eventually I gave up—I felt that I wasn’t smart enough to read it.

I encountered Woolf again in a college literature class, where we read Mrs. Dalloway. Once again, I couldn’t follow what was happening.  Woolf’s narrative switched from character to character without warning.  I kept wondering why we were spending so much time with boring Mrs. Dalloway and not more time with Septimus Warren Smith, who I found more interesting. I figured that I just didn’t like Woolf’s writing that she was just to hard for me to read.

This all changed when I saw the film, The Hours. I quickly tracked down the book by Michael Cunningham. His book made me question my initial reading of Mrs. Dalloway, allowing me to read it once more. It is strange how point of view can affect our reading of a book. When I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I’d firmly believed that literature should be about grand ideas and grand passions. When I read The Hours, or maybe because I read The Hours, I was starting to wonder if literature could be about the little things that made up our days. I started to wonder if the trifles that I had been so quick to dismiss were just as important to our lives. In Mrs. Dalloway, and really in much of Woolf’s writing, she shows how the grand and small connect, how our lives are made up of both wars and the errands we run on a busy afternoon. She shows how what we would dismiss as insignificant can make life worth living.

Since then, I’ve read The Voyage Out, Night and Day, Orlando, The Common Reader and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is one of my favorite writers. Yet when I picked up a copy of To the Lighthouse, I was intimidated. Here was one of the great books that I had failed to read.  Here was a book that I was not smart enough to read. This feeling of doubt is, of course, familiar: I feel it every time I sit down to write.  It asks me who I think am. I’m not that important; I’m not that smart; I’m not one of those people who will finish To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, or Swann’s Way. Perhaps that is why I sat down with the book; I needed to prove something to myself.

When I finished To the Lighthouse, what surprised me most was just how easily I could read it. I could follow the narrator as she switched focus from one character to an other. The action was clear. I wondered if this was the same book that had so overwhelmed me before. But it was, I had simply grown as reader. I was now more familiar with Woolf’s syntax. I had read more complex, sometimes frustrating, experimental writing. Stream of consciousness following multiple characters was familiar; I was an old hat at it.

In some ways my journey to finally reading Too the Lighthouse oddly suites one of the book’s main themes—the relentless march of time. People die, houses fall to ruin, books and paintings are forgotten, nothing lasts. Yet there is comfort in that change. A painting will be finished, and books will be read.

In Too the Lighthouse, Woolf questions  the traditional view of art—an avenue to immortality for the Great. In one scene, we see Lily Briscoe remember Mrs.Ramsey taking her and Charles Tansley to the beach.  Lily thinks:

But what a power was in the human soul!…That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rags; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite…something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.

Mrs. Ramsey had gone to the beach with two of her friends and created a day that causes Lily to question her views and had truly moved her. We tend to think of the duties of hostess as inconsequential, but that day, because of Mrs. Ramsey, transcends and works like a piece of art. Woolf has shown us that those “inconsequential” moments can carry consequence.

Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it speaks directly to my artistic endeavors. I have known several Charles Tansleys who have told me that I couldn’t write just as Charles told Lily that “women can’t paint, can’t write.”  I too have looked at my writing, much as Lily looks at her paintings, and thought it will be forgotten.  Yet Woolf’s final paragraph in To the Lighthouse reminds me that it does not matter:

she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture.  Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred.  With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

As I read those final lines, I feel I can go on writing.  Once again I feel that I know something more about this world. I again feel that catharsis I felt at the end of All Quiet on the Western Front and so many times since with many other books.  It was worth all the years it took me to finally read those lines.

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!

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.

What is the Etiquette?

This morning I read an article from The Missouri Review’s blog called “Three Ways to Improve the Editor-Writer Relationship.” The advice was helpful particularly the first piece: email writers and editors when their work moves you.  I think letting people know that “hey this was great” is a wonderful way to build community and encourage writers (this may even be a News Years resolution for me). I’m not going to follow all the advice though—in particular number three, I just don’t see myself starting a magazine anytime soon. But the lack of relationships between editors and writers is something that I’ve been very much aware of recently.

Long ago, I learned that just because your work was rejected by a magazine that doesn’t mean you should stop submitting to them. Some of my favorite magazines have rejected me many times, and I hope they understand that the reason I keep submitting is because I love them.

However, I’ve recently realized that I don’t submit to magazine that have accepted my work. When I made this realization, I thought “That’s silly. Those places have already shown that they liked my work, I should submit again.” But I didn’t.

When writing the cover letters to these magazines, I suddenly became self-conscious of my formal tone—was I being insulting by not being more casual since they already accepted my work, or would I be acting entitled by assuming the previous publication put us on informal terms. Some may think this is silly, but I find conversation through technology particularly stressful. I hate making phone calls because I can’t see the other person’s a body language, and every email I write I imagine how the person receiving it reads it and must think I was being sarcastic. All this is with people I know.  Now throw in the fact that when I’m contacting an editor, I’m basically communicating with a stranger, who I want to publish me and who knows that I want them to publish me, and I become frozen.  It all comes down to the fear that they will dislike me, because I failed at some internet etiquette.  Obviously, I’m over thinking this situation.  I should just submit.

As you all obviously know, technology is changing how people connect and friendships run, and I can’t help but feel it is for the better.  But Lord, I’m bad at this internet thing.  I get so worried that I’ll stick my foot in my mouth, I often remain silent.