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.

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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.

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 jaw 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.