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.

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!

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.