Category Archives: Whose idea was it to write a novel?

Creative process meets information she can’t ignore

Oh, dear readers! How I have neglected you and this lonely dusty blog!

I would apologize, but . . . do I really need to? Whether or not I’m typing here doesn’t improve your digestion or bring a luminous quality to your skin. My favorite memory from Writer School applies: I learned that the world doesn’t need my book. There are plenty of books and book writers out there – the only way my book will make any difference to anyone is if I need to write it. And, then, maybe it will still only matter to me. There are even more blog writers than book writers, and personal blogs matter to their authors much much more than they mean to anyone else. It’s a big internet out there.

So now that’s established, here’s what’s up. I’ve been busy. Full-time high school teaching, late after school sessions with Yearbook twice a week, and a “let’s grab dinner tonight” social calendar filled with awesome people without whose face time and stimulating conversations I’d be completely bereft. Busy with attempts at some sort of regular spiritual practice time and feeling like a Little Dutch Boy trying to plug the leak of November darkness and dancing with SAD, often going to bed earlier than my best friend’s toddler. I’ve kept my head above water, because the alternative isn’t an option.

What all of this means: I haven’t been writing. I haven’t written anything significant to me since my show in August of 2010. I’ve been feeling terrible about that, have written a couple of little articles and short essays that haven’t been satisfying, and generally feeling like a not-writer. Imagine a 1960s era hospital waiting room with white walls, fake plants, overflowing ashtrays, and ugly orange furniture. Creatively, that’s where I’m languishing: the “I’m so busy, I can’t ever finish anything” artist doomface creative timesuck waiting room. The worst part about this room is that the cookies in the vending machine don’t taste very good and I can’t stop eating them anyway. Cookies do not offer creative satisfaction. They offer only a temporary comfort and expanding waistline. Stupid cookies taking away my skinny jean wearing abilities!

Anyway. I signed up for NaNoWriMo and was GUNGHO for two days. Then, I caught a bad cold, started feeling really sorry for myself, felt like a jerk for being behind schedule, then started to let depression* eat my face off for the past two weeks. All those anti-artist vampires started swooshing around me and I let them win. They said things like:

You can’t write. You’ve had your MFA for four years now and haven’t accomplished anything. You aren’t growing as a writer, you’re moving backwards. Plus: You’re not funny. You’re a hack. Nothing you write will ever make a difference in the world. Why would you even bother to write a novel? Who is going to read it? God, you’re such a waste of space. (blah blah blah ad nauseum.)

But the truth of what really happened is this: I got spooked. 3,470 words into a new story, I felt my heart open up and really start to fall in love with a new character – one whose story is finally not mine – and as soon as I closed my computer that morning, I was terrified that my heart was about to be broken. My last extended project, a memoir about living with an alcoholic, broke my heart. Why would this project be any different? Plus, I’m busy! Doesn’t that artist in me know there’s a LIFE to survive out here? Sweet spinning Jesus on a turn style, what do you want from me??

Then, today I read this article: If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong. It presents research about the difference between elite/high-achieving musicians and average ones – and how the difference between the most “talented” and the “average” performers was not how much they practiced or whether or not they were “gifted” but how they structured their practice time AND the rest of their lives. Here’s a brief summary from the post:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin.

Therein lies the reason I feel so stunted and underperforming as an artist: I’m not writing every day. I don’t have a rigid schedule within which I do the crucial and deliberate practice of putting words on the page. Therefore I am not improving.  No wonder I feel like crap about my (not)work. Then, THIS:

Also consider relaxation. The researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of their subjective feeling of relaxation. By this metric, the elite players were significantly more relaxed than the average players, and the best of the best were the most relaxed of all.

Essentially, I know there’s nothing wrong with the busy life I’m living. I know that teaching eats up a lot of my time. But I could create some rigid, non-negotiable practice time to improve my skills at my creative practice. I could remove an activity or three from each week. I could practice letting my heart fall into something new and not breaking. It’d probably feel pretty good. So, you know. Let’s see what happens with that.

*For the advice-loving and suggestion giving among you, you should know that I’m doing EVERYTHING that I need to do to take care of my mental and physical health. I’m in no danger, I just like to complain sometimes.

PLUS: I’m up for LOVELINKS this month. You should totally vote for me.

layered revelations

I started writing a novel this week, because fighting off a nasty virus wasn’t nearly enough entertainment on the day I stayed home to get well. I have no idea how to write a novel, and I’m excited to see how the process unravels.

One of my former students went to Corsica and took this photo for me.

Consider this fair warning: I’ve given myself permission to write self-indulgent posts that ring with Dear God! What have I gotten myself into this time?!? I’ve finally accepted the unpleasant parts of my creative process: The sinking feeling in my stomach that I’m the dumbest fool ever to pick up a pen, the memory slideshow of failures and regret that remind me of all the projects I’ve dumped before their desired outcomes, the conviction that just because the last project turned out alright, I must be the worst idea-have-er in the universe.

I brunched today with some of my favorite women in Minneapolis. While talking about how easy it is to freak out about creative projects, I admitted that I love the adrenaline. I do my best work when on a deadline. It’s like running all out in front of a train, just a foot ahead of it. Like jumping off the tracks at just the right time. Falling over with exhaustion. Laying in a ditch and panting and feeling my body prickle with sweat and my heart pounding and thinking, “Holy crap I almost died. That was really hard.” Like thinking after, “That was the most fun I’ve had in ages.” And immediately after that, “Let’s do it again!”

So I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year, which will probably annoy the hell out of some of my readers and make them stop coming back, but whatever. This website is my corner of the internet where I get to twirl around in a glittery, self-interested frilly skirt and pretend that there isn’t bad news happening on every other corner of the internet. It’s a creative process blog. If you want to see me react to world events on a daily basis, follow my Twitter feed.

What will I reveal about the upcoming novel? For now, nothing beyond this little announcement that I’m writing something big and fictiony. I’ve learned that my book and essay ideas are too fragile to be shared before they’re committed to paper in some sort of complete draft. I’ve ruined my desire to write a number of essays because I talked too much about them before my fingers could excavate the story.

TRUTH: I’m relieved to have a new thing. I was getting kinda nervous that there wouldn’t be a gigantic project this winter to alternately revel in and complain about to all of my friends. Stay tuned for freakouts of the holy crap, this is hard, I never learned how to write fiction kind.

Should be fun. Hope you’ll follow along, if only to remind me when I complain that I once thought writing a novel was a great idea.