On Doing

I just logged into WordPress for the first time in a while and decided to start a post. Then I saw a draft I had saved three months ago, unfinished and never posted. Here is how that draft starts:

It’s tricky for me to write this, because I don’t know how to start. If I had my way, I would start it with just incomprehensible screaming and crying, but this is a written blog post and I don’t think you’d really get the picture that way. Basically, I am feeling really overwhelmed in my life right now. It’s bleeding into everything, from work to my personal life to the way I wake up in the morning – usually stiff in the jar from clenching and feeling like someone has beat me up. There’s a lot going on for me right now; and yet, whenever I say that, I feel like a fraud. I start counting responsibilities and then I feel like a liar and a lazy pathetic waste of space, because how can I really be as busy as I feel? Other people can handle this and so much more without freaking out so often. But, every day I have a mini panic attack – not about failure or stress or depression but because I keep worrying about time. “Time” is the word lately that can send me into a crying fit like nothing else. Because, well, I just feel like I don’t have enough of it.

I meant to post that draft, called the “DNF Chronicles”–mostly to discuss books I had left unfinished, mostly to discuss Lincoln in the Bardo–but I forgot about it. I guess you can say I forgot about it on purpose, because I have begun to try and take back some of my time. I decided to focus on my top priorities and cut back on everything else until I felt like I had more time, but I had a hard time with that. Basically, everything in my life is a top priority – work, writing, my future library career, running, my boyfriend, my family, reading. I couldn’t imaging cutting any of those things out, but I had to cut something out. So I decided to take a step back from regular reviews on this blog to free up some time, and mostly to just take one thing off my to-do list. But I knew it wasn’t forever.

This break has given me time to think about what I really want to do with this blog, and I realized I don’t really have any great passion for reviewing books. But I do love writing, and I love discussing the impact stories have on my life. I’m starting library school in the fall and recently I’ve been reading library focused blogs and bloggers, and I want to be part of that conversation, too. I also want to write more about my life, even though that can be very hard.

I don’t see this blog ever not being a book blog. I think it could be more, too, but the only way for it to be more is for me to figure out a way to write about my life and work and reading and writing in a way that makes it worth sharing. That last part is the hard part. I don’t have any answers right now. I toyed with big announcements for my come-back post. NO MORE BOOK REVIEWS, I thought about proclaiming — but let’s be real, I will still be posting book reviews from time to time. I’d like to write more about my writing, and where I am with certain projects, but recently, “massively blocked and crying to an audio version of Stephen King’s On Writing” is my current writerly state and that’s just not interesting. I thought about renaming my blog to signal a page turn, and maybe I still will.

I still don’t have the time I’d like to devote to this blog, but I’m slowly learning how to breathe more and take time for the things I love the most. I’m feeling a new sense of urgency around my writing that I’ve never felt before and I know that needs to be my main focus this summer, before I get swept away with grad school. I either make time for writing now or I never will. I hope I will write about this more eloquently in the months to come, but for now I’ll have to accept these keyboard smashes as what I’m working with.

November, 2016

I’m happy to the report that for this first time since 2012, I won National Novel Writing Month. My total word count was 50,114.

The stats:

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I wrote literally every day. I don’t think I’ve written every single day for 30 days…ever. Some days I could only manage about 150 words, out of exhaustion or busyness, but 150 words are better than nothing and I’m really proud I was able to keep that streak. As you can see from my stats bar, I was around 5,000-15,000 words behind the target word count for almost all of the month. I think the momentum of forcing myself to write every day made me realize that I could and was going to win this no matter how behind I was.

As for my story: it’s sort of finished as a draft, but it’s also a hot mess that I think will need a complete rewrite. I’m considering rewriting it as a series of short stories, focusing on different characters, but I took the rest of last week off and plan to give it a reread this week. I woke up on December 1st still wanting to write and I can’t wait to get back to my story.

I’m proud that I was able to put my writing first this month, but between studying for the GRE in September and October and writing my story in November, I haven’t been reading as much. I’m doing a lot more non-fiction and article reading than usual, and now I’m craving a really good novel. I’m giving myself permission to relax and read as much as I please in December.

Now that I’ve caught you up with that…should we talk about the election? I know this isn’t a political blog, but I think it’s naive to see politics as something impolite to talk about when it has such a big impact on the world. My country elected a man who is arguably insane, unstable, and wildly ignorant. He’s a racist, misogynist, hateful little man and I will not call him my president. I’ve spent the month thinking about what I could do. I’m trying to have productive conversations with the people I love about how this is not normal, so that we won’t forget. Otherwise, I’m sort of at a loss. I feel powerless, because my country has elected a man who treats women like dogs, and women voted for him. We elected a man that has neo-nazis feeling victorious. I have trouble stomaching these things, but I know now is not the time to lie down in defeat.

I’m finishing up the application process for grad school to become a librarian. Going forward, we will need librarians, teachers, and writers that will promote information literacy, education, and free speech, and I plan to be one. I will continue with my life as previously scheduled, with a renewed fire beneath my feet. I will use this blog to promote reading, because books are the most valuable resource we have in fighting ignorance. The election was a wake up call that I can no longer be complacent or silent in my feminism or my belief in justice. I will encourage the women, girls, and other marginalized people in my life to never shut up, even when the backlash against our voices is strong. I hope you’ll join me.

My Top 5 Tips for Winning (and enjoying) National Novel Writing Month

I still feel like a rookie as I embark on my 11th NaNoWriMo project, but I think I have a little bit of wisdom to share. Big projects like this are all about finding what works for you and leaving the rest. The catch is that in order to find what works for you, you need to try the things that don’t work first.

Tip #1: Think About Your Story Before You Write It

I can’t tell you whether you should be a planner or a pantser – that’s a very personal choice. Do you write better with an outline or a plot summary, or do you find that hinders your creativity? You won’t know until you’ve tried – so I recommend trying a brief outline first, which will at least prevent you from being one of those people who signs up for NaNoWriMo but never writes a word because they have no idea what their story is.

I naturally lean towards pantsing in my writing, because no matter how hard I try I can never stick to an outline. For years I just started November with just a one-sentence story idea. After years of losing more years than I’ve won, I’ve decided that doesn’t really work. I need to grapple with my story at least a little bit if I want to write 50,000 decent words of it.

Tip #2: Try to Write Something Good (to an extent)

Many people advise that you shouldn’t worry about the quality of your writing during NaNo, and I think that’s mostly true for people who haven’t written stories before. The number one problem I see brand new writers face is this idea that writing is something other people can do, but not them. You have to show yourself that writing is actually all about making it up as you go along.

Those of us who want our NaNoWriMo drafts to succeed as partial first drafts that we can keep working on in the months to come may need to take a different approach. To keep your story cohesive, I recommend setting aside time before or after each writing day to reflect on what you’ve written, re-read and do basic edits. November is not the time for deleting or rewriting, but line edits are helpful. I also think re-reading what you’ve written after each day helps to maintain flow and continuity in your writing. In a past November I’ve accidentally switched from first to third person without realizing, mostly because I was forcing myself not to reread my work. This is a mistake that completely fucks up a manuscript and is pretty disheartening, BTW.

Revision also gives you a chance to catch plot holes before they turn into novel-destroying black holes. If you plan to continue your draft post-NaNo, you should try to fill them in before they get out of control or else you’ll end up trashing it all.

This advise goes against the general spirit of NaNoWriMo, which is to keep writing, don’t edit, and never look back. I’ve realized that that advice isn’t helpful to me, so I don’t plan to follow it, and you may find yourself feeling the same way.

Tip #3 – Write Something You Will Have Fun With

I am a bit loose about my outline this year, because, well, I never seem to be able to follow an outline. For this year’s project, I’ve prepared a sentence or two per chapter, with the chapters divided into parts. I have left a blank page for Part III, because I don’t have the ending clear yet, and I think I will have to write the first part before I do. How detailed your outline will be is up to you. I choose to give myself a little room to have fun with it. I want to be able to go off into tangents and spontaneous story lines if I want to.

Last year I was much more detailed, with scene spreadsheets and character bios (I used the Snowflake method). When it came time to write, I drew a blank and realized I had absolutely no connection to my story at all. I didn’t win last year, and I didn’t enjoy any of the 20,000 words I did write. In this way I realized strict outlining before I get a chance to write anything kind of kills my excitement. I much prefer to write the first few chapters in order to figure my story out.

This is maybe the most important tip I have about winning NaNoWriMo: make sure you enjoy your story. If that means you’re writing fanfiction, erotica or a memoir about all the people you hate – do it. You’re spending your free time on this because it’s something you want to eventually be proud of, but that doesn’t mean you need to write the next great American novel. Don’t be Jonathan Franzen – be you. Write something you will want to come back to day after day, and don’t be afraid to deviate from your outline and do something different if you notice you’re not in love with your story.

Tip #4 – Figure Out Your Tools Now

This year I will be using a combination of a paper notebook and Scrivener. I will use the notebook for my base outline, list of characters, and writing log. Scrivener will be used for my actual manuscript. I will also use the notebook for writing in during the day when I may not have my laptop.

I used to use Word and that worked fine, too. Scrivener is nice but not necessary. I like it mostly because it enables me to easily make my chapters separate documents and one big document at the same time. If you want to try it, they have a special NaNoWriMo free trial. I suggest you spend a little time fiddling around with the software and watching tutorials before you start writing, because it can be a little overwhelming.

You may end up writing with just a pen and paper. No method is better than any other, and what works for you is probably completely different. Take the time now to consider what will help you work efficiently in November, so when it’s time to write, you won’t have to think about it.

Tip #5 – Inspire Yourself

Finding inspiration helps make things fun. Some people like to make novel playlists for inspiration. These can be full of songs that remind you of your characters and follow the emotional arc of your story, or just music you enjoy writing to. Mostly I plan to have my favorite public radio station on as background noise, so I don’t have to distract myself by being picky about which Bon Iver song I want to hear at the moment. But, also, Bon Iver is really great writing music.

This year I made a Goodreads tag of books that I think relate to my plot or general themes. You can see mine here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/778055?shelf=novel-research. I obviously don’t plan on reading them all this month, but if this project turns out to be something I want to seriously pursue, this list of books can help me with ideas.

I also made sure I have copies of all my favorite writing books on hand, just in case I need prodding. My favorites On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and The Writer’s Notebook series by Tin House.

If you find yourself completely uninspired, my best advice is to go for a walk outside. This may or may not help you come up with fresh ideas, but at least you’ll get some exercise.


Let me know if you have any other tips. Add me as a buddy on NaNoWriMo if you plan on participating this year, and we can check in with each other about what’s working and what’s not. Good luck and happy writing!

On Failing, and A Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Next month is NaNoWriMo month, as always, which reminds me that I’ve participated every year since 2006 – I was 15 and thought for sure I was some sort of wunderkind who would be published before I graduated college. These are the sorts of goals failures regularly have.I lost my first NaNoWriMo, and I never stopped trying again after that.

After I made it through college without publishing anything (I was notably rejected from my own school’s literary magazine, of which I was an editor my senior year), I had a new goal: be published by 25. I had been humbled by my failure to succeed right out of the gate, but I was still sure of my talent in the way only the young and/or truly untalented can be.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, along with a lot of other people – there’s a whole section on the TED website about the matter, and one TED talk on persevering through failure is now a popular pop psych book.

I’m 25 now and I’m rethinking what my success will look like. It’s no longer a matter of time but of shape. How will I fit writing in at the corners of my real life? How will I create work I find satisfying? How will I use writing to communicate with strangers, and tell the stories of the people I love with compassion? How will art change me? Everything else seems small in comparison.

I don’t plan on being published anytime soon. I’m just not there yet. My 15 year old self would be devastated – if being a writer is so important to me, and I’m not producing work good enough to be published, what does that say about me? I think, after all, it doesn’t say much. I could miss every deadline, and fall short of every expectation I have for myself, and no matter what the drive to write is still there. That’s the kind of passion they make TED talks about. I’m really excited for this November – I always am.


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I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, which is a retelling of the The Tempest by Shakespeare. It got me thinking a lot about failure, too, because the main character, Felix, is a failed director who ultimately triumphs in a wacky but heartening way.

Felix is fired from his job as the artistic director of a theatre company right in the middle of a production of The Tempest, which is cancelled shortly after. Felix is upset at losing his job, but what especially pains him is that he had been planning The Tempest to be a sort of tribute to his three year old daughter, Miranda, who passed away. After he is fired, he moves away from civilization and isolates himself. He lives with the memory of his daughter in a literal sense; she is like a friendly ghost that he lives with like a real daughter. After a few years he decides to take a job teaching literacy at a local prison. He does this, of course, by teaching the inmates how to put on Shakespeare plays.

When he gets a chance to seek revenge against the people who had him fired all those years ago, he does it by finally putting on his Tempest. Even in a prison, with inmates for actors, with a heart desiring nothing but revenge – Felix puts everything into his work. He’s a somewhat strange and flawed character, but I fell in love with him nonetheless.

Truthfully, I know nothing about The Tempest, except a vague recollection of reading it in 8th grade English class. Luckily, this novel doesn’t require any knowledge of the play or Shakespeare, and it does a good job of not carrying on as if everyone reading the novel is familiar with the play.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood remains a patron saint of this blog.

Currently

Hello! I always find it so awkward to begin a post when I haven’t posted anything for a while. I’m not going to apologize, because I’m trying not to apologize for things that don’t actually bother anyone. For instance, I have this habit of apologizing when I almost bump into someone on the train. When I do bump into someone on the train, I apologize twice. When someone else bumps into me on the train I also apologize. Last year I was on an Amtrak to Boston and the girl next to me dropped her notebook, which I had nothing to do with. The exchange went like this.

Girl on the Amtrak shifts a little bit, and the notebook on her lap falls on the ground.

Me: Sorry.

Girl on the Amtrak: That’s okay, you didn’t do anything.

She picks up her notebook.

Me: That’s true. Sorry.

Doing this isn’t endearing, it’s wishy-washy and annoying. So, ladies: let’s not apologize unless we actually do something wrong. If you’re anything like me you probably have enough to apologize for without apologizing for all the stuff you can’t help.


I turned 25 in July and I have since been in an everyday panic where I wake up clutching my to-do list and groaning. I am planning on applying to grad school this winter. I am studying for the GRE, which is hard because I essentially forgot how to math. I am worrying that the people who I will ask for recommendations are going to be all, “Who dis?” I’m worried that I will study and apply and be recommended and still not get in anywhere. I’m worried I will get in, do well, and graduate only to never find a job in my field. I am worried as I always am that on top of all of this people will also laugh at me! It’s a lot to be worried about all at once.

Right now I have a job as a paralegal. I am good at it and it’s not horrible. These facts plus health insurance somehow aren’t enough for me, because I’m greedy and I want a job that stimulates me. Sometimes when I’m frustrated with my day job I remind myself that both Lorrie Moore and Gary Shteyngart and probably a lot of other writers started out as paralegals. Cheryl Strayed was a waitress and Kurt Vonnegut sold cars. Writers can be found in basically every profession. I don’t mind writing on the outskirts of a day job, but I want a day job that will make me happy, too. It is pure and disgusting greed.


In January I signed up for Net Galley with aspirations to post a new book review every week. The problem is that I hate everything I write for this blog and I miss when writing felt like rolling on a skateboard downhill – fast and triumphant and you wind up with bugs in your teeth. In comparison it often feels clunky and strange to write book reviews.

I took an online class in February with GrubStreet and I remembered what it felt like to write with exhilaration again. I am never more productive than when I have an audience. I wanted to write about my experience with GrubStreet for a post but I never found the time and now it’s one of those things in the back of my memory, all foggy. Did I really write those stories? I never turned them into anything more than flash fiction for a class. But I did it, on top of my day job and my real life and everything. I made time to write. I could do it again. I could keep going.

I have trouble seeing my accomplishments as accomplishments. I forget them as soon as I do them, because I’m too busy thinking about what I have put off, what I was hoping I’d have accomplished by 25 vs where I actually am, and everything that is ahead. I dwell on all the ways I’ve screwed up. And I start to feel worthless, like no matter how hard I try I’m not good enough. But when I have time to screw my head back on I realize that I’m on my way, and I’m right on time. Those bad feelings and experiences and mistakes are supposed to happen to help me get where I’m going. 

I’m trying to ease up on myself and at the same time be better. It’s a balance beam sort of thing. I don’t want to force myself to keep up with a post schedule, but I want to keep going with this blog, and I want to write things I’m proud of. I want to keep reading and engaging with what I read which is why I’m here in the first place.


P.S. – Let me tell you about two books I’ve read recently.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff – I read this because I heard somewhere that Barack Obama liked it. It was released last year and as far as hyped up books of 2015 go, I think I like this one more than A Little Life, although the reading experience of A Little Life was more immersive throughout. Fates and Furies won me over only in the second half. The book is about a married couple, and the first half is the husband’s story, leaving the wife’s perspective somewhat mysterious. In the second half, for reasons, her perspective takes over. I loved the wife’s character; she reminded me of a Gillian Flynn narrator.

WE EAT OUR OWN by Kea Wilson – I received this as an ARC from Net Galley. This is a strange first novel from an MFA graduate, so naturally it was somehow both overwritten and vague. I can’t blame Wilson though; she’s definitely talented enough that it mostly worked. It’s based loosely on Cannibal Holocaust, an exploitation horror film from the 80s that caused a huge stir because of it’s horrific realism. This is a narrator-jumper, but the main character is an unnamed American actor who is told to fly to Columbia to star in a film which he discovers has no script and a crazy, moody director. The story is sliced up in bits divided with court transcripts of the trial that follows the release of the movie, when the director is accused of leading his cast and crew to violent ends. A lot of crazy stuff goes down and it’s pretty fascinating, although I felt it hard to follow because of some of Wilson’s techniques. For every character there seems to be a chapter in their point of view. Also, the chapters where we follow the actor are told in second person perspective (“you feel like this”, etc) which is my biggest pet peeve. Wilson explores the dissociative aspect of acting with this character and uses the technique to highlight it, but I still rarely like second person POV – it feels like a cheap trick in a desperate attempt to make a story more interesting.

In Progress

I had this post planned out this week about Books on Writing, but I kind of lost heart about it. I’m sick of reading about writing and not writing, and I’m sick even more of writing about writing but not writing. If that makes sense.

I’ve been having trouble settling on something concrete to write about, but all these little story ideas keep coming to me. I scribble them down on post-it notes and then look at them later and feel like I am actually the dumbest person on earth. I remember what it used to feel like when I had something I wanted to say, that rush when I felt elevated enough by my own voice to say it. Things have gotten difficult, because the voice that used to tell me to write it down is now telling me I have about a million other things to do.

I am, however, nothing if not resilient in the face of my constant nagging neurosis: when I feel most pathetic is when I am most likely to be quiet and listen to what is going on around me. I have a creepy need to sit back, do nothing, and observe. This is how I became a writer in the first place. I have always had a knack for feeling like a fly on the wall, and an ugly one at that, and this has served me well. But it’s not just that-sometimes you need to be humbled to see what’s actually going on around you. You need to be knocked down before you can actually see what the story is, that the story is not about how you are a Great Talented Successful Person. The story is about what you saw when you sat down, shut up and listened.

It’s self-indulgent for me to read Stephen King’s On Writing for the fourth time instead of writing a story. There’s a time where you have to set aside the noise and decide for yourself how to write.

Sometimes you have to indulge, if only to find little bits and pieces that will lift you up and remind you to keep your eyes open and your fingers ready. This week I saw this video of George Saunders on the Atlantic that did that for me. He makes writing seem holy and life-affirming (“when you pay attention to those sentences, your better nature rises up”), but also like a skill to be honed, which is what I needed to hear. Stories are important, great stories are holy things, but writers are not holy things. Stories aren’t just delivered pre-written from the heavens. It takes equal parts practice and empathy, just like everything else.

My goal for the new year is to practice, not preach, and I am looking forward to shutting up about this topic in a variety of ways. Thanks, as always, for reading.

All I Do Is Win: NaNoWriMo 2015

I didn’t win. I had been planning that title for a while and I don’t know what else to call this post.

I finished November with 23,163 words of a “novel” or, let’s just say, a Piece.

In my creative writing classes in high school and college, we would always call every thing Pieces. Poetry, short stories, essays about your dad – all of it can be called a Piece. Now that I am out in the real world, stranded and alone, I prefer to call my writing the thing that it is: if it’s a poem, it’s a poem, if it’s a story, it’s a story. This here is a blog post. During my years of schooling the word Piece had taken on a sacred tint in my eyes. “Piece” meant something. A piece of your writing, like a piece of pie, was a gift you brought to your fellow writers, even if they all secretly hated you. Writing lately is more of a lonesome endeavor, but I will call this thing I wrote in November a Piece. Simply because I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a story.

The piece I wrote for NaNoWriMo was about a woman, her husband, their five year old son, and a dead body. I planned ahead of time this year, which normally I don’t bother with. I chose the Snowflake Method and worked on it all October. I had big dreams for this story. I was thinking Olive Kitteridge meets Gone Girl. It was going to be the creepy yet heartwarming tale of a small, scenic town and the dead bodies and unstable wives who reside there.

Once I started writing, I really hated my story. I hated my characters, and most of all, I hated writing so fast, because I was getting my own imagined facts mixed up. I kept forgetting what the town was called, what my main character’s mother was like, etc., and I could never go back and check because that would be against the rules of NaNoWriMo, namely the rule Write and Don’t Look Back. I kept running off the rails I had laid for myself the month before, so all my planning was for nothing.Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 10.36.56 PM

The triumphant part is that I both started and finished the month writing – I didn’t give up once it became obvious I would have trouble winning (See above: Picture me hanging my head around Day 16) . They are some days I skipped, but this year I successfully beat the syndrome that usually ruins November for me. Usually, I write all the way up until the middle of the month, have an off day, and then stop writing for the rest of the month.

I have been participating in NaNoWriMo since November 2006. I have done 10 whole NaNoWriMo projects. I spent some time yesterday reflecting on this…and realized, to my horror, that I almost always lose. It’s not something I really own up to, because every year I am so newly excited to start. But, yeah. Out of the 10 Novembers I have participated, I have only won three times. And one of those was Glee fan fiction.

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Most of 2011 was a blur.

So, why do I like participating every year? Rush writing doesn’t seem to result in any brilliance or enthusiasm from me. I guess I like the idea of working on a project in a month with a bunch of other people trying to do the same thing.

I wrote at least 20,000 more words than I wrote in October, and I feel excited to keep writing this month. That’s the most valuable part of participating – it helps me remember to make writing a daily practice. It’s not about winning or losing, or even making a specific word count. It’s simply about doing the work, and making it a priority.

Now, onwards. Let’s talk December Write Lots Please. DeWriLoPl. I made a spreadsheet to keep track of words, and my goal for this month is 5,000 words a week. The first thing I’d like to work on is rewriting my NaNoWriMo piece as a short story, because as a fiction writer I love redemptive arcs.


 

Here is what I read in November: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont (re-read), Revival by Stephen King, Little Girls by Ronald Malfi on audiobook, and The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m currently in the middle of re-reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, and the Welcome to Night Vale novel.

Expect reviews soon on two of those. It’s a surprise which.

How was your November? Did you write anything? DID YOU WIN? Or did you just read something really good? Let me know, because I could use some inspiration.