Writing as Self-Care

The reason I haven’t written much lately is also the catalyst for my thoughts today. In early July, an immediate family member suffered a bad break (well, three breaks…pretty nasty stuff) to the leg. As the one with the most flexible work schedule, I stepped into a role I haven’t attempted before: live-in caregiving.

I hold ZERO resentment. I’m thankful I get the chance to give back a fraction of the love and care I’ve been shown by this person. But I will say, it has pretty much shot my writing schedule to hell.

The first few weeks, there were a lot of round-the-clock hours spent in ERs, hospitals, and surgery waiting rooms, a lot of hours spent cooking, doing laundry, timing distribution of meds, fetching ice, positioning pillows, refilling cups, calling doctors, and bathroom trips. When you’re in survival mode, you don’t have the brain space, capacity, or the time to write.

A couple of days into this new reality, I realized this would be a problem. I have trouble writing when I may be interrupted. I need to have control over my environment in order to engage. I also have this thing where if I go too long without writing, I begin losing my humanity, the will to go on, etc. I need to write to survive.

I don’t tend to acknowledge or verbalize my needs until they’ve been so neglected I’m angry, and then I pick a fight. I especially try not to “need” things if there’s someone else in the situation who has what I classify as a more “important need.” But after coming back from the Novel-in-Progress Bookcamp in May (read about my experience here), I’ve been trying to take writing more seriously like I would a regular job. Those around me don’t necessarily view it this way, as job usually means income, and I have none to speak of. I have to defend my writing time, and, in this situation as a caregiver, I knew I also had to defend my personal well-being so I could do a good job of caregiving.

I talked this out with my family, who, of course, were very understanding. I got out of the house on a Sunday and wrote for three hours. Even though I wrote in a public place, going somewhere where I wouldn’t be asked to do something, even something small, was crucial; I knew I could concentrate.

As soon as you find a way to balance, the world shifts around you…

Now, as the routine of caregiving has become easier, and my family member’s overall health and mobility has improved, I’m working on getting up early to write before the day begins. This is totally foreign to me. I’m certainly not a night owl, but I’m definitely whatever the antithesis of a morning person is. I’m setting the alarm a little earlier every day, hoping to eventually get between two and three hours of writing in before tackling other daily responsibilities. I’ll definitely keep you updated on how this goes…..

Anyhow. Point being:

If you are a writer*, make sure you get time and space to write. Whether you actually put any good words together depends on you, too, but you won’t even get close to bad words unless you get to the desk, the notebook, the laptop, put on your headphones, shut the door. Tea is optional but recommended.

You get me? Take time. Make space. Write like your life depends on it.

It probably does.

*one who writes to survive


Novel Plotting: The Problem with the Hero’s Journey

There are two kinds of writers. Plotters, those who plan out the events of their stories before they write, and pantsers, those who write without knowing where they’re going.

I have been (and probably always will be) a pantser. This is fun for me while I’m writing, but hell when trying to put together a novel. So, I thought, I’ll give plotting a try.

I can see the allure. You know as much as you can about everything. You get everything organized and figured out up front. Of course, all of that can shift when you go to actually write out your grand master plan, but you’ll have avoided many mistakes and plot holes before putting any words together.

But how do you plot a story?

(To the Google Machine!)

I ran into the Snowflake Method, the Save the Cat method, and, among others, the Hero’s Journey. As a recovering English Literature major, I was already familiar with the Hero’s Journey. Here’s a rough explanation. It’s a theory posited by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that all stories in all cultures can be reduced to the same seventeen stages. His book explains the stages and provides examples from a wide variety of classic, mythic, and folk tales. It is super dry, but interesting, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 17.00.34

Writers make use of this by structuring the events of their stories to match Campbell’s seventeen stages, which generally results in a satisfying story that is recognizable to the general population, but (ideally) different enough that the general population isn’t bored.

I attempted applying the hero’s journey to Nora, my protagonist without success. There seemed to be more to her story than the stages were allowing. The hero’s journey didn’t fit.

In 1981, a student of Joseph Campbell named Maureen Murdock asked him about how the hero’s journey applies to women. His answer was deeply unsatisfying to her–essentially, that women don’t need to make any kind of journey. They’ve already “arrived” and simply need to realize it. So she began writing the book that in 1990 would become The Heroine’s Journey: Women’s Quest for Wholeness. Based on her experience as a woman and a therapist, Murdock created her own stages and compared her theories to myths and the stories of modern-day women.

Screenshot 2018-06-03 17.01.05

The problem with the hero’s journey is the same as that of any novel-plotting scheme that claims it works universally. It doesn’t encompass all stories. Campbell’s “proofs” (all the sample stories that match up with his stages) were written or recorded in patriarchal cultures by those who had the privilege and gender to write. Popular methods like Save the Cat that create mainstream content do just that. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my content is particularly mainstream. And I don’t think I want it to be.

Have you been to the movie theater lately? Watched Netflix or Hulu or HBO with real discretion? Our stories are sick and suffering and dying. Maybe because they’re inbred versions of the same old hero’s journey. Maybe our most successful storytellers are just throwing half-assed stories out there trying to make a quick million. Maybe our stories are being forced into a mold they just don’t fit.

The hero’s journey doesn’t fit the story I’m trying to tell, and I suspect, doesn’t fit many of the stories I’ve loved. It might not fit your story, either. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t, or that if it does, it’ll be a bad story. I’ve read some amazing hero’s journey stories.

But if you’re plotting out a story like I’m trying to do (with the sweat, blood, and tears of a true pantser), know that you don’t have to tell the hero’s journey. There are other stories out there, and they need to be told.




Writing in Community

I just got back from a week-long novel-writing retreat in Wisconsin. After recovering from the shock of stepping out of the airport into 95ºF with 80% humidity (and it’s not even June God help Kansas), I thought I’d share some reflections from that experience.

We often think of ourselves as solitary creatures of coffee shops, basements, closets, and libraries, ink stained, prone to eye strain, our preferred writing utensils now just another extension of our bodies. Popular media portrays writers this way, too, and to an extent, it’s accurate. The work we do involves the page and the brain. This caricature is the bare minimum of what we need to do our thing. I don’t know about you, but bare minimum has never been appealing to me.

Working intensely in isolation may be productive for a while. I need these times, when my ideas are mine and nobody else’s opinions are in the mix. But it gets…exhausting. The task takes on Herculean proportions. Everything is endless and impossible.

Change of scenery is medicinal in and of itself. Being surrounded by people–writers!–who are passionate and determined about their own projects? Inspirational.

Never imagine you can’t learn something about the craft. Even if you have every upper-level degree and tons of industry experience, hearing another writer describe their process in their words can open up new ideas and ways of understanding your own work that you would never have come to by yourself.

I’ve also come away with a greater sense of pride in the work of writing. Because it is work. It is a job. Getting published is an entirely different animal. It’s always nice, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the work of writing. We write. We’re writers. We do our work.

I had the chance to practice pitching to three agents. All of them were taken with the premise of my novel-in-progress (hugely encouraging!), and talked to me about next steps. Step One, finish the book. And they talked about that step so matter-of-factly. It wasn’t a matter of whether I could finish it, but of HOW and WHEN.

So I’m working on my self-discipline. I’m working to keep to a stricter daily routine, to spend increasingly longer periods of time writing, and to always write at my desk. In the end, writing is really up to me. Though some of my fellow retreaters might get after me from time to time, no one will hound me. If I give up, no one will make me start again. It’s down to me.

So I’m plunging back into the solitary part, refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to finish this dang book.



Why We Need Disturbing Stories

Though I’m a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale (the novel by Margaret Atwood and the Hulu series), I wouldn’t say it’s easy to watch. It is violent, brutal, and traumatic. I cry at least once every episode. Season One gave me nightmares twice.

When Season Two started streaming, the people who care about me couldn’t understand why I was so excited to put myself through that again. Often, when I ask friends or acquaintances if they’ve seen it, I get answers like, “It’s too disturbing.”

Yeah. It is disturbing. And that’s exactly why I watch it.

I’m not a sadist. I think that’s important to note before moving on.

I believe that there is value in experiencing disturbing stories. Not that all disturbing stories are inherently valuable. They’re not. It depends on why we feel disturbance.

For me, one of the reasons The Handmaid’s Tale is disturbing because I am female. Watching strong women suffer because of their gender is traumatic. However, in many parts of the world, and all over it historically, women have gone through horror because of their gender. The fact that I am only experiencing these things via story means I am privileged. And I hate that. It should be a basic human right not to experience sexual or physical violence or torture or forced subjugation because of one’s gender. But that’s not how things go. Not historically, and not now.

The Handmaid’s Tale emphasizes with alarming clarity how close we are, right now, to this level of repression. This too is disturbing. But we must remind ourselves where we have been and where we could wind up if we aren’t vigilant, outspoken, and strong, if we don’t take action when we encounter discrimination of any kind.

The eeriest component of the governmental takeover described in Atwood’s dystopia–as well as an infamous real-world example: Nazi Germany–is the willing blindness of citizens to the signs of oncoming horrors. Living in comfort, undisturbed, humans desire to continue to be undisturbed.

Our distractions are abundant. We carry them with us in our pockets, in our palms, on our wrists. Meaningless celebrity interviews and cat videos are a click away. We can choose oblivion, to self-medicate with a comedy that’s a little sexist/racist/whatever, but it’s so funny, we give it a pass. We would rather be comfortable in our privilege than deal with the implications of a rape joke. We would rather not think.

If we sleep walk through our lives, we won’t notice injustice or discrimination. The realities of The Handmaid’s Tale could become our reality.

Musician and composer Tod Machover said,

Works of art should be stimulating. They should wake people up rather than acting like a sedative.

Our level of sedation is so high, we need to be shocked awake. We need to be disturbed, affected, and changed.

The Handmaid’s Tale wakes me up. It’s a challenge, and a call to arms. If I opt out because of my discomfort–the discomfort of identifying with characters and imagining going through their pain–what will I do when confronted with suffering in the flesh?

Do You Have Anything to Offer?

I recently had the privilege of being able to hear one of my favorite opera singers perform live.

Maybe not a sentence you expected to read today. Believe it or not, I was an opera singer in a past life. It didn’t work out, which was probably for the best. Anyhow, I still sing, teach voice lessons, and take huge delight in seeing professional musicians at work.

This was Joyce DiDonato, a fabulous mezzo-soprano, singing with the Kansas City Symphony. I had tickets in the second row. Spit-zone close. I could go on about how amazing it was to watch her back breathing, the shape of her lips, etc. etc. But that would be a different blog.

Joyce DiDonato, Photo: Simon Pauly

In the afterglow of the concert, I was searching around for her online and came up with a lovely interview she did with Living the Classical Life. She told the story of how, as a young singer, a prominent and established musician told her she had nothing to offer as an artist.

Can you imagine?!

After some time passed, DiDonato started to try to figure out where this criticism had come from. And she realized something that totally revolutionized her approach to music as an artist. She was portraying perfectly what an “Opera Singer” should look like, walk like, talk like, and singing her arias like “Opera Singers” should. She had left herself completely out of it. There was nothing of Joyce in her art.

If we are trying to be what we think is expected of us, to produce what is expected of us, we will have nothing to offer. The writers I consider important (Dickens, O’Connor, Lovecraft, Fitzgerald, Calvino, Dillard, LeGuin, Peake) all sound so incredibly like themselves. This is their strength: not that they can write a fantasy trilogy, a shocking short story, or invent a new form of fiction, but that they are doing what they do. What they want to do, what they can do, and they are saying it in their own voices.

DiDonato took several years to figure out what she wanted to say. Now she is celebrated internationally for her skill and for her activism. She consistently emphasizes the humanity of the characters she portrays. She holds masterclasses with young singers. She works with prisoners at Sing Sing. She is trying to bring peace to the world. What she wanted to say is, I think, that everyone deserves compassion.

And she earned the platform to say this by choosing to forgo the image of who she thought she was supposed to be. She is Joyce, 100%.

I think this question of identity, especially for a young artist, is super important. We can’t create anything new if we’re trying to emulate another artist. We can’t create anything interesting if we’re caught up in the imaginary rules we’ve made for ourselves of what a “real artist” should do, say, think, or feel.


Questions To Think About

What does the market want?

What would be an instant classic?

What would people think is “cool”?

How can I be more myself in my work?

What persona is getting in my way?

What is stopping me from believing who I am is enough?

What do I want to say?

What do I have to offer as an artist?

Novel Writing, Consumerism, and the Skill of Waiting

We belong to an impatient culture. We don’t wait for anything if we can help it, and if we have to wait, we tap our feet, sigh, and complain.  Sitting and thinking that doesn’t lead to immediate action is “wasting time” or “naval gazing” or “daydreaming.”

We have lost sight of the value in waiting.

You know how sometimes it seems like the universe contrives to make you notice something by bringing it to your attention multiple times in a short span of time? (For example: After not hearing it or thinking about it for YEARS, I heard the phrase “like putting lipstick on a pig” three times from three different places, in one day.)

This idea has been haunting me lately:

A very common mistake in novel writing is to start writing before you are ready.

And (like “lipstick on a pig”) it’s coming at me from different places…

In his book Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, Benjamin Percy writes that he sits with his novels for a year before doing any actual writing. He creates character boards, takes notes, makes maps, and thinks–for a year. When he does actually start writing, he knows his characters and their world inside and out.

Ursula K. LeGuin claims that writers get “grabby” in her book The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Writers get the first notions of an idea, seize the idea, and begin to write too soon. She insists on the importance of waiting to discover the rhythm of the piece you’re working on. This has to do with discovering your protagonist fully (LeGuin knew she had discovered her characters when she could identify ways they were different from herself…an interesting idea…), the syntax of your sentences, and the overarching pattern of the larger story. Once you have the rhythm, she says, it’s almost impossible to write a wrong word.

LeGuin waited. She sat at her desk, listening for the voices of her protagonists, their cadences. From the outside, it looked like she was being lazy. Wasn’t she a writer? Why wasn’t she writing? She was wasting time. Daydreaming. Put some words on the page, already!

In my typical process, the early stages of any piece are writing: experiencing events as the sentences unroll themselves into scene, dialogue, and description. The kind of sentence and its quality don’t matter much. I write only what’s necessary to spark an idea in my mind.

I don’t want to plan it out, I want to live it, right now, in this moment. I don’t want to get to know the characters, I just want to know everything they do. I want to peel them open like cadavers, not understand them as humans.

I want the story, and I want it now.

I write half-assed dialogue, skimp on description, and pay no attention to mood or subtext.

This mindset is all about my experience. It’s selfish. Impatient.

I could make a case that it’s a result of living in this fast-paced, hyper-consumeristic society, in which convenience trumps quality. But finding somewhere to place blame doesn’t help me be a better writer.

I can see the negative effects of not waiting before writing clearly in long pieces I’m working on. My lack of understanding–my lack of respect–is like anemia: it’s weakening everything in the story.

I wish I had come across this idea years ago.

I also wish there was a more definite way to know when you had done enough sitting in silence, listening to the echoes of your imagination, a way to know when you were ready to put aside the markers and glue and pick up the laptop. I wish there were steps to follow or bumpers, like in bowling, to keep you moving in the right direction.

If wishes were fishes, we’d all swim in riches.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

If wishes were stories, we’d all be Stephen King.

LeGuin says that writers must be able trust themselves. We need to know our own skills, our intentions, and believe in our ability to carry them out. We must also be able to trust the story, that it will emerge as something greater than we could have planned.

Maybe if we learn to trust our work, and ourselves, and ignore the howls of society (hurry hurry do write finish sell publish market fame fortune repeat) we’ll be able to sense when we are prepared to enter into a long story.

Waiting is doing something.

This is a countercultural idea. This is a countercultural writing process. But I wonder if the more we listen, the more sure we become. The less noise we allow in, the more we can hear of what counts. With patience, the profound.

I’ve been sitting on a really cool cyborg pirate story for a while now. Rather than grabbing it by the horns, I think I’ll try sitting with it first. Getting to know it. Building trust and listening and waiting.

Write it? Maybe next year…

In the wake of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing

As testimonies, tributes, and memorials flood the internet, many refer to the product of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing career, her art, as a body of work.

I am fascinated by the phrase.

In leaving her physical body, Le Guin draws attention to that other body, the one she built with words. The body she created, the wake of her living, is extensive, dense, gorgeous, precise, urgently important, and breathing.

In library shelves, old hardback novels, stained by the fingerprints of generations of readers. On bookstore displays, pages crisp and fresh, smelling of new ink. Dog-eared on bedroom nightstands, piled together with co-conspirators of every genre.

It is right to mourn the passing of a person of such integrity, wit, intelligence, talent, dedication, discipline, someone who has influenced whole generations, and worlds, with her art. We should be grief-stricken. We have lost a giant.

And yet, she is not gone. Not totally. Her body of work now stands in for her person. It is not a fair trade, bound pages for a soul, but it is a glittering legacy. Every time her words are read aloud, mentally, heard, understood, pondered over, she grins and winks. She whispers in our ears words of power, passion, truth, and imagination. In this way, she is not dead at all, and never will be.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die. 

“Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” Mary Elizabeth Frye