One Foot After the Other: writing when things are generally shitty

from here

from here

I posted a couple of quotes on writing the other day, to accompany a Difficult Writing Time. I think everyone can sympathize with this, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves “writers”, because although too many writers like to get misty-eyed and emotional about how very differently important writing is from everything else, when you get right down to it, it’s work, and everyone reaches points with work wherein they just cannot even anymore, where everything is going wrong and nothing is easy and it all just seems unbearably crappy, and motivation has been eaten by a sullen cloud of horrible. But in those moments you don’t actually have much in the way of real options besides the simple task of dragging yourself onward, one foot after the other – not in front of, because that implies more momentum than you actually have – and trusting in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that things will get better, that they will somehow maneuver themselves back into where you vaguely remember them being.

Yeah, that’s me right now.

I should say at this point that I honestly haven’t once suffered from writer’s block in the half decade I’ve spent trying to write for money. I have not yet been locked into a period where I wasn’t producing anything at all. But I do go through long periods where I’m convinced that none of what I’m producing is very good, and often that feeling is actually correct, though it’s still something to be regarded with healthy skepticism. Interestingly, these periods often also coincide with the completion of large, long-running projects – usually novels – and I think that makes a degree of sense.

I used to think I would feel a sense of accomplishment upon finishing a novel, but as it turns out, at least for me, that’s not true at all. What I feel after typing the end is instead a kind of exhausted hollowness, an utter lack of any sense about what to do next. To be sure, there is a bit of YAY I’M DONE, but it never lasts more than a day or so, and then the blankness asserts itself. I had no idea what to make of that, until I took – and passed – my doctoral qualifying exams, and suddenly it all made sense. When you’ve spent months doing something very difficult – maybe doing it every day, maybe for hours – your brain, on a fundamental level, has no idea how to deal with the prospect of not doing it anymore. It panics and shuts down. It’s so burned out that continuing is more than it can deal with, but it’s forgotten how to function without that daily energy suck around which to orient itself.

I fell apart after my qualifying exams. It took me a few months – mostly because I had a semester of teaching to provide structure – but once that was gone, I broke down. We’re talking nearly-paralyzing-anxiety-with-sensory-triggers-trip-to-the-ER-back-on-meds-after-15-years level of breakdown. The point is that we need to be ready – as writers, as workers, as human beings – for our brains to be assholes, and for that assholishness to bleed into all aspects of our work, as well as to come from the work itself. Sometimes even from what looks, on the surface, like major productivity.

I don’t think that’s exactly what I’m going through now – though I did just finish not only a novel but the final novel in a trilogy – but I recognize something similar. Thanks to the loss of my departmental funding and some other things that fell through, I’m not teaching this semester. Next semester is also doubtful. I remain uncertain regarding whether I can finish my doctoral dissertation. I’m very angry at my department, my university, and academia in general, because I think that last is devouring itself and I hate being in a position to watch it happen. I’m now unemployed, and so far the job hunt is less than encouraging. On paper a lot of my life is still pretty good, but almost everything on which I’ve relied for structure and momentum and security – for nearly a decade, counting college – is going away.

That’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself.

It can be very difficult to write when you’re wrestling with emotional and mental issues – I think many people find it almost impossible when things are at their worst – and it’s certainly true that it can be so much harder to produce your best work when your head and heart are not at their best. But I’ve also found that writing can be a refuge when everything else is difficult, because at least writing is something over which I can exert almost complete control. I may not feel like I’m doing it as well as I can, but I can still create a world of my own populated by people I’ve made; I can invent my own escapism and retreat there, tell myself a story and – upon emerging – have something concrete to show for it. It helps. Sometimes it’s almost the only thing that does. Sometimes it’s what you need.

But then sometimes even what you create doesn’t feel like the right kind of escape. The joy fades and it just feels like work again, and it doesn’t feel like work you’re doing well enough to take real pleasure in.

And that’s where I am now: this thing on which I rely to keep myself together isn’t doing what I need it to, which means it’s just one more thing that feels like it’s slipping away, and that is so, so terrifying. Everything else I’ve accomplished in the last months and years – the books sold, the short stories published, the good reviews, the people who have said nice things, even the goddamn money – all fades into the background and provides no comfort at all, because none of it makes the words work any better.

So what do you do?

If you’re a writer – if you’re a person – you have two options: a) go fetal and cry, and b) suck it up and, to the extent that you can do so and still take care of yourself, keep going. One foot after the other. Drag drag drag.

I’m writing another novel right now – one of three currently waiting to be written. I have no idea if it’s working; I thought it was but now I’m really not sure. None of the prose feels like it’s smooth. None of the pacing feels sharp. The direction is hazy. I’m hoping that this – finally – will be my Agent Book, but I’ve also written less than stellar novels before, and I’m filled with dread that this might be one of those. But what else is there to do? I’m 41k words into it; I can’t really stop now. Drag drag drag.

I was talking to my friend and Long Hidden ToC-mate David Jon Fuller about this on Twitter the other day, and we were commiserating about the feeling that nothing is going right and none of what we produce is good. I said something to the effect of why the hell did we ever start doing this, and he said something that isn’t necessarily a big secret but is therefore one of those fundamental truths so obvious that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it now and then:

He’s right. Nothing beats it, when it’s really happening. When it’s happening, it feels like the most amazing thing in the world. Get a taste of it once and you’ll never stop wanting it; call us addicts chasing the next high if you want, because that probably isn’t very far off. And maybe it does have some kind of deeper, broader significance as an act, maybe it has some kind of grand universal meaning, and maybe it really is something worth getting misty-eyed and emotional over, but me, I think it’s ultimately about healing, about getting well, about being alive. It’s about you, and me, and really no one else, not at its core. It’s about being reminded that there’s something good about existing, and that you can find that again, no matter how shitty things are, because your head is a house of treasures.

And that doesn’t make you special. It just makes you human.

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Writerly quote therapy

This is what I’m doing when I should be finishing my editing pass on the draft of Rookwar.

Today is a Tough Writing Day, mentally. I’m guessing that any of you who write at all regularly – fiction or nonfiction, pro or not – are familiar with this feeling, that all your best work is behind you and that work was “best” in only a very relative sense. That you will never be the writer you want to be (this one is honestly probably true) and trying to be so is a bad joke and a fool’s errand (this one is probably not true).

I like this quote at times like this. It doesn’t make it stop but at least it’s a good articulation of the problem.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it. – Anne Lamott

And this one.

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. – Stephen King

Back to work.

Meaningful choice and The Walking Dead: an addendum

thewalkingdead-part2-poster

After I wrote yesterday about some of the ludonarrative problems inherent in a game like The Walking Dead, I kept thinking about why the finale of Season Two didn’t work nearly as well for me as the first game. The conclusion at which I arrived wasn’t simply that Season Two’s penultimate choice couldn’t carry the narrative weight it was supposed to, but that the first game actually gives you no choice at all.

Spoilers follow.

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Thoughts on ludonarrative difficulties and The Walking Dead: Season Two

Note: This is all my interpretation of a game and a story that allows for a multiplicity of interpretations; that’s one of its strengths. So when I say “the game is doing X” or “the game meant Y” that’s not meant to be a conclusive statement of fact. These are things I think, results of my experience as a player and as someone who constructs narratives professionally. Take them for what they are.

HUGE SPOILERS, NATURALLY

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On The Walking Dead S2, Sarah, and why it all matters

the-walking-dead-game-season-2-episode-3-clementine-screenshot

I just sent this to feedback@telltalegames.com, regarding episode 4 of The Walking Dead: Season Two. Massive spoilers for that episode within.

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Words and scar tissue

IMG_0787This past Wednesday, my story “Singing With All My Skin and Bone” came out in this month’s issue of Nightmare. I’ve written before about the place out of which that story came – my experiences as a child with a mental illness that manifests in compulsive self-injury and the bullying that resulted from it. I’ve also written about the process of digging into that old pain and finding a way to turn it into a story, how one takes something so ugly and humiliating and shows it to the world.

A few people have told me that it resonated powerfully with them, that it touched a similar kind of pain in them. Which I’m… I don’t know that I want to say I’m happy, but there’s a part of me that’s glad, because you know you’ve written something true when people connect to it on a deeper level. And I know that reading something like that can make one feel less alone.

But I’ve been thinking about something else, in part in connection with an article my mother sent me a while ago about the fear inherent in putting your writing out into the world. It’s a generally accepted idea that the more personal the story, the more frightening it is to have it out in public.

And I didn’t feel that. Having it published wasn’t frightening for me. Submitting it to editors wasn’t even all that frightening. Once it was written, it was done, and in a lot of ways I didn’t think much about it anymore, except in as much as I took satisfaction in the feeling that I had written it well.

For me, the writing is the more frightening thing, in the fear of not doing something justice and – even more – in the fear of opening old wounds in the first place. We’re told we shouldn’t make ourselves vulnerable, and having such a personal story published is a kind of profound vulnerability, but for some reason, for me, the vulnerability of writing helped. It was a stretch. It made me more flexible, and it made stretching again less painful.

Brené Brown has a wonderful talk on the power and strength of vulnerability, how it has the ability to make one feel joy and peace and a deeper connection to others. To feel more of everything. I think that in order to write true things you have to find a way to feel things truly, and that can be terrifying and painful, but what you find under the terror and the pain is something that goes beyond writing a good story.

I’m happy with how my story turned out. I think it’s a good story. But ultimately, for me, the story is incidental. It was the process of writing it that was the most powerful.

I hope I can find a way to keep that process going.

I finished writing a book

8870200266_3104ed4d7f_o-220x330More specifically, I finished writing Rookwar, which also means I’m done with Casting the Bones. This is the first trilogy I’ve ever completed. It’s also the tenth book I’ve written, and it will be my fourth published (since Labyrinthian doesn’t come out until January). At the moment it’s a little over 110,000 words long. That’s hefty. It’s about 20,000 words longer than I expected it to be, but none of it feels like filler. I think it’s about as long as it should be.

It feels very strange to finish a trilogy. I’m not sure exactly how it’s different from finishing a book, or finishing the second book in a series. But it’s different. I suppose part of it is that – although there will be editing and such – I’m truly RavenfallCoversaying goodbye to these characters and this world. I probably won’t see them again, at least not for a long time. There are a lot of other places to go and a lot of other books to be written, and for now we’re parting ways.

So goodbye, Mica and Mori and Yavon and Sene. Goodbye, Ava and goodbye, Turn. Thank you for letting me spend some time with you, and thank you for letting me tell your stories. This feels like a good ending. Which is about the best you can ever hope for.

For those who care about such things, I was listening to this on repeat for the last few hundred words, and it is the perfect piece of music for the end of the book. Eerily so.