Writing In the Margins #3: Ideas

I’ve had this problem with my writing over the last couple years – I had no ideas. I thought and thought and still no ideas. Sometimes I would come up with small ideas, nothing big enough to sustain whole stories, but ideas, still – usually of half-imagined characters. I can come up with characters no problem, and snippets of dialogue, and maybe half of a chewed up plot line, but actual story – this has been impossible to come by.

Which is I guess why I haven’t finished a short story in around two years, though I’ve started plenty. I kept chalking it up to laziness. Why couldn’t I take half an idea or a character name and turn it into a freaking novel? A lack of discipline, of course.

I am currently working on two short stories. One of which is a half-formed idea that I think if I punch enough will finally start to look like a story. Another one, the more recent one, came from an idea that feels larger. I was sitting in Starbucks, forcing myself to write, and it came to me.

Is it a good idea? I don’t know. But there’s characters there, and a plot, and even a sub-plot, and CONFLICT! How did it happen? Well, I squinted at my computer screen in boredom for long enough that my brain was just like, “Okay, enough, here you go – do something.”

For the first time in a while I think about my story when I’m not writing. That’s how it used to be – like my mind couldn’t rest until the story was finished and all written down. But this is still a small idea, and an idea is not a story by itself. So what happens when you finally have an idea? If you don’t keep working on the story, there’s a chance it’ll leave you, and you’ll forget why you were excited to write it in the first place.

I am living in fear that this will happen. Right now I am busy – I am learning how to admit that without feeling lazy. While I write this it’s finals week, but I still wrote a little bit today. I am getting better all the time at this writing-with-a-day-job thing. It only took me a few years to have an idea. Hopefully, in another decade, I’ll have finally written something good.

The point of this post is mainly just to check in, and because I felt like I have to update this blog every once in a while or else it goes to the blog graveyard to die. But also I wanted to say that I’ve finally taken the writing advice that I’ve heard so many times, and it worked. You can’t wait to feel inspired, you just have to sit your butt in the chair and get to work. I was always all for the sitting part, but once it got to the work part, the blank word processing document with its cursor going blink blink blink always filled me with a bone-deep exhaustion. It didn’t make me feel especially creative. On the day in Starbucks when I got the idea for the story I am currently working on, I had a backpack full of grad school work I should have been doing instead. But I wanted to try and write something. I put a timer on for 25 minutes, and opened up a notebook, and after a few minutes of that familiar, no-fun feeling of having nothing to write, I eventually did. For every writing session that goes like that, I’ve had a bunch of others that have gone the other way, where I clam up and then go take a nap instead. I’ve heard it gets easier the more often you do it.

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Writing in the Margins #2: Choices

Last July I wrote a post called In the Margins, which was intended to be a series on being a writer with a day job. So where am I at now, a few months later?

I’m okay. I haven’t written anything I’ve liked in a long time. I lost NaNoWriMo, but this past week I’ve started re-writing the story I started with it. My goal is to write a series of short stories this year, hopefully some I like enough to submit for publication, but since I haven’t written anything I think is good enough in so long, I sort of feel pessimistic about it.

I took part in a Coursera class offered by the creative writing faculty of Wesleyan University focused on writing for NaNoWriMo, and I enjoyed it. The best things I wrote last year were a few hundred word prompt exercises I wrote for those classes. I guess the lesson there is that I should be doing more writing for writing’s sake, i.e. practice writing, rather than stressing out about not particularly having any stories I like. Eventually, a prompt could turn into something more.

And how is the work-life-writing balancing act going? Better. I spend less time stressing out about time than I did. This time last year, I was so drained and overextended and stressed out. My commute is shorter now and work doesn’t sap my energy as much and I’ve learned how to rest better. Do I sit down and write for an hour every morning? Well, no. Am I happier person? Yes.

In mid December of 2017 I decided I wanted to do a 100 day streak of meditation. I’m on day 26 now and I’m enjoying it a lot. Throughout the past year or so I’ve been hoping to get back into meditation, but I couldn’t make it a daily habit; I just couldn’t force myself to sit down and do it. But when I told myself I was going to do 100 days straight, no excuses, I knew I could do it. No day is too busy that I can’t take 10 minutes to sit down and make sure I didn’t break my streak. The lesson in that – and, luckily, the meditation itself is making me realize this as well – is that the difference between doing something and not doing something is the choice to do it, and we’re the ones who are in control of our choices. I need to choose to spend more time on my writing if I’m ever going to be any good.

Let’s make this a monthly check in post. I’ll be back next month to let you know if I’ve written anything good.

I Quit NaNoWriMo and You Can Too!

It’s November 24, 2017, I have written 20,081 words of fiction this month, and last night I made the decision to throw in the towel on NaNoWriMo 2017.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo every year since 2005, and I’ve lost more years than I’ve won, but usually when I get this far in the month without quitting, I keep going. I won last year. Every time I win, I think, “This is it – I’m going to win every year from now on! I’ve got it figured out!”

But this year is different. I can’t catch up. More importantly – I don’t really want to. I don’t have any 7,000 word days in me at the moment. I have work, I have school, and you know what? I like my story too much to do that to it. Binge writing days are sort of fun, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that binge writing days in NaNo are the same as shooting a nerf gun at the paper tower that is your story. You might get words, but come December, you won’t be able to stomach looking at them.

So I’m going to keep working on this story, and I’m going to spend the last week of NaNo  focusing on finishing the semester strong. I might even add a few words to my NaNo count, but I’m not going to push for 50,000. I’m happy with 20,000; 25,000 would be amazing. Not just because I’m being gentle with myself – it really is a good amount to write in a month, as a graduate student with a full time job.

NaNoWriMo: I will see you in 2018. And now that it’s officially Christmas time, and the semester is coming to an end, I’m turning my attention to 2018 and what I want from it. What I want most of all is to work hard without being too hard on myself. I want to remember that good things are possible, but they take time – and they might take a little bit of failure. But if you can take failure, and find the tiny successes hidden underneath them, eventually – well, eventually you’ll probably end up writing a novel one day. Maybe. I don’t know. I haven’t really figured it out just yet. And I’m okay with that.

So, NaNo writers: how are you doing? Have you won already? Are you a quitter like me? What are you going to write in December?

in the Margins

Dear blog, I have been trying to write this post for a long time. A month or two maybe. The main subject of this blog was going to be How to Write With a Day Job and it was going to be a series. I was going to call the series “Writing with a Day Job” but then I read a book called Writer with a Day Job as research and I didn’t want to steal the title. So I am going to call it “Writing in the Margins” which is a little more cute and less literal but it is really how I feel. 

Writing is the most important thing to me, sometimes. Usually, though, there are more important things. Getting 8 hours of sleep every night is more important, because I’m useless when I’m tired. Keeping my day job is important, because I don’t want to be a starving artist or a starving anything. I really like eating 3 meals a day and having dental. That’s why I feel like I need to write in the margins of my life, with whatever space and time and tools I have to spare, and that will have to be enough for now. And I wanted to write a blog series that talks about how that is going for me. It is not instructional; I am not here to tell you how or why, because I don’t know yet for myself.

I turned 26 last week. I used a PTO day and spent the day wandering around New Haven, and drank two coffees. One latte in a bookshop/cafe (there are multiple in New Haven) and one giant iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. I think they cost the same but the latte was much smaller. I went to two bookstores and didn’t buy any books, even though I fully intended to buy books. I don’t buy books anymore because the guilt of the fact that I have never read The Art of Fielding, in particular, after it has sat on my shelf for four years, is crushing me on a daily basis. I went to the Yale University Art Gallery and it was massive and beautiful and I enjoyed being alone, although a voice in my head kept telling me I would need to bring my mom there sometime. It reminded me of when I was in college and sometimes I would wake up on Saturday mornings with nothing to do and feeling quite depressed and alone I would take a walk over to the small campus art gallery and stand in front of art. I liked being in places where it was normal to be alone. I hated being in dining halls and eating meals alone while everyone else had roommates and friends and boyfriends to eat nachos with. It didn’t stop me from eating nachos, but it could get sad sometimes. Museums, libraries, book stores. It’s okay to be alone in these places. In fact, it’s better. Don’t you hate when you’re visiting a museum with somebody and you’re trying to concentrate on the art but your friend keeps saying, “Hey, come over here and look at this one.” I remember feeling peace when I went over to the art gallery on campus and sat alone with nobody but the student worker in the corner standing guard over the paintings. I remember finally being able to think, to let go of the constant fear and sadness that was fogging my brain and just feel like myself. I would still feel sad, because at that point of my life sadness was part of being me. But I felt at peace.

Last week at the art museum I felt 20 years old again, even though lately I’ve been feeling very old. I thought, this (starting silently at art by myself) makes me feel like myself. And I hadn’t realized until then that I hadn’t felt like myself in a very long time. Years, maybe, so actually “myself” might have turned into a different person along the way, but there is still the old me lurking in the back of my brain that only comes out in libraries and art museums. I felt at peace. I realized that being 25 was awful and I hadn’t felt at peace once. I felt exhausted the whole year! I felt pressed like a piece of zucchini stuffed into a juicer! But 26 is a different year, and all the things I had to work for last year are now here or about to be here. And I have days off sometimes, where I can go wander around an art museum and think this all over.

Alas, I didn’t write anything on my birthday even though it was all I wanted to do. Or, once upon a time, it was all I wanted to do. Now I want to do so much with the time I have left. And everyday is a series of choices and compromises. Every day I need to make the choice – will I write or will I not write? Sometimes I choose something other than writing that is still a good choice – I choose to meditate, I choose to go for a run, I choose to see my family. Maybe I am running out of time to be the writer I always wanted to be, but that is just something I don’t have the time to worry about. And maybe when I stop worrying about it and just write, I will finally start being the writer my 10th grade creative writing teacher always thought I could be. I guess that is what this blog series will be about, once I figure out how to write a blog post about it.