Why do you write?

I’ll get to the pressing question above in just a moment, but first: a recap of my writing life since I dropped off the blog in May.

  • I’m published! Granted, it’s a critical essay, but I’ll take it. Sidenote: Mason’s Road is a great way to get your stuff seen and possibly published without any submission fee! Reading period opens soon; in the meantime, check out the awesome stuff in this issue.
  • My writing class at the library ended in May, and they’ve asked me to teach two workshops this summer: one on found poetry, one on horror/thriller writing for teens. The best news of all: this will be my first paying gig as a writing teacher. I hope to pick up the fiction class again in the fall with compensation as well. Fingers crossed!
  • My favorite memoirist and I have made a pact. At least once a month, we have to send out a story or essay to literary journals and magazines. I’ve never actively tried to get published (except for my above credit), so this is a somewhat scary and exciting endeavor. I’ve tagged her blog here in hopes that she’ll feel inspired and/or pressured to update.
  • I’ve just returned home from my last summer residency in the Fairfield MFA program. I graduate in January. Holy hell.
  • All of this excitement coincides with my final semester; I have to write and polish my creative thesis–the first 135 pages of my novel–by Halloween. No pressure!

I think that’s all. Now, for the question of the hour.

“Why do you write?”

One of my favorite writers and teachers, Rachel Basch, posed this question during our residency workshop last week. She said we should determine the answer, distill it down to one sentence, and paste it above our work space at home to keep us motivated. A great idea, no doubt.

For me, though, “Why do you write?” is one of those questions that, as soon as it’s asked, wipes my brain clean of any answer; the same is true for “What’s your favorite movie?” and “What are you thinking?”. I’ve had some time, now, to think about this, and I figured my groping for an answer would be a great way to get back up on the blogging horse.

Blogging horse.

I write because I always have. I was raised in a house where my parents pushed me and my siblings to do whatever we desired. I tapped, I skated, I sang, I acted. If I’d cared enough, I could have pushed myself to make a living out of most of the things I tried as a kid, but none of them stuck. What was always there, what I never even realized I’d been doing all along, was writing.

The first thing I did when we got a computer was figure out how to do columns in WordPerfect and make a full-color newsletter for the kids in the neighborhood. I would force my brother and sister to take my reading and handwriting classes after school, with the help of a mini-whiteboard and old schoolbooks. I wrote a multi-chapter murder mystery in elementary school that beat out the middle school for best story and an essay about my hero–my dad–that landed me a meeting with Ruby Bridges. I typed up letters to the editor for my father and went on to write controversial editorials for my school paper on abortion, same-sex marriage, and our high school civics program.

I never put two and two together. I went off to college and all but forgot about writing. It wasn’t until my father passed away that I remembered. When something like that happens, it clears your decks of anything superfluous and leaves you only with what matters most. French and politics fell away, and writing rushed in. I wrote everything down: every memory, every question, every fear, every dream. It hurt, but it felt good. For the first time, my brain and heart were working together. A light bulb switched on somewhere, and I found my soul again.

So, that’s why I write. Why do you?

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On procrastination.

Yesterday after work, I had a lot to do. And none of it got done. This loss of eight hours’ work time has put me in the all-too-familiar position of needing a miracle or an all-nighter, or both, to save my ass.

I’d love to blame this on work. Sure, it’s hard to come home after staring at a screen all day and sit down in front of another screen. It’s difficult to generate creative prose or thoughtful literary analysis after your day job as a drone. But most writers have day jobs and manage to crank out story after story. I only have myself to blame.

I’ve always been a procrastinator. A big one. In college I had to research and write my final exam–a ten-page paper, en français–in one night after having months to do the work. In high school, same thing.  When I would finish, it was always good work, but it wasn’t my best; how could it be? I’d wonder what I could have achieved if I’d worked on it every day, like everyone else in the class, but that possibility for greatness (or, at least, better-ness),  never held my attention long enough to impact future work.

Procrastination, for me, has become  a full-time job and a very real means of self-harm. While others drain a bottle of whiskey or stick a needle in their arm to escape real-world responsibility and consequences, I sprawl on the couch and watch hours of sitcom re-runs, all the while gripped by this growing panic that I do everything in my power to avoid facing. The longer I put it all off, the more the panic takes over. Eventually, it paralyzes me.

That’s what happened last night. I sat down to write a ten-page paper and realized it terrified me. I’m great at literary analysis; why was I so scared? Because after that paper, there was another paper, and my fiction, all due this week. I was suddenly tired from the blur of thoughts and panic and decided to lie down for a bit. Next thing I know, it’s 11:30 PM and time to go to bed, for real.

I have this vision of a Highly Effective Me in my head that gets me through the day. This version of me gets home, gets the house in order, makes dinner, and does her writing straight away. Beside that is this terrible fear that I will let this version of myself down, so I never even try…until I have no choice. And this is where I find myself today: the land of sudden death, my second home.

Fear = awesome.

The only time I can ever even think about updating this blog is after I’ve submitted a packet, in that golden few days where there is no urgency and my mind is slightly less harried than it is during the rest of the month. Needless to say, my packet is on its way to my fabulous mentor.

I wrote a little bit about fear in this most recent packet. It’s such a pure emotion, when you think about it; every other thought and feeling takes a back seat if you’re terrified. Your senses are heightened, and you are nothing but present in the moment. It is fear, I’ve decided, that was missing from last semester.

There’s nothing scary, per se, about my mentor. In fact, she’s lovely: caring and kind, supportive and positive. But ever since I saw her at the first residency and heard her read, I’ve been scared of her, in the way I was scared of my French professor from Marseille who made us read a novel a week and speak only French in class: I’ve never worked harder.

Just knowing that she is ridiculously well-read and an uber-close reader of student work had me anxious and terrified to work with her. I’d wanted to put her down first semester, but I’m glad I didn’t. I wasn’t ready. I had no idea where my story was going. Now, knowing that her eyes will be on my every word, I push myself further than I thought possible. I realized after our first phone conversation that her input was really going to help me, if I put in the work. That rush of organization that I talked about in my last entry was directly fueled by my fear of wasting this semester, and her time, with four more packets that got me no closer to my end goal. I was scared she’d figure me out and realize I had no idea what I was doing. Instead of faking it, I dug deep for the first time in years and did the hard work. And my stuff is getting good, guys.

This particular mentor also happens to be a total stickler on our craft essays (I’m going to take a moment to brag here). She’s been known to send back essays to students for them to re-do. On our last phone call, she said one of my essays was “stellar” and a “model craft essay,” and she was thinking of talking to the director of the MFA program about it; I guess they may make a packet of model essays to help students who are struggling with them. From this unexpected praise, I landed on the idea for my fourth semester presentation: a how-to session on craft essays. What new FUMFA’er wouldn’t attend that, especially if it’s titled “What the F%!# is a craft essay?

My fear has also focused me so much that I’m finally noticing a pattern to my writing and what works best. This is the first time I’ve taken notice of any such thing, and I guess the first time I’ve really considered myself a writer, with habits and everything. Here’s what I’ve found:

  • I need nearly-deafening commotion to focus: a coffee house or other crowded place, for example. It’s when I’m the most introspective. Though, in a pinch, solo piano radio on Pandora will do.
  • For editing, I need complete silence.
  • I used to think the afternoon was when I did my best work, but now I know it’s late at night. My ideal routine: brew a strong pot of coffee at 10 PM and burn up the pages until 3AM, crash until noon and start again. I’ve realized this is my natural tendency, and there’s no shame in not being a morning person.

In short: fear is awesome. Without even knowing it, and by just being plain intimidating to me, my mentor has taught me more about myself as a writer, and my story, than I ever thought I’d learn.

Oh, and DIBS on doing her intro this winter.

Bidding good riddance to the Packet From Hell.

It’s shorter than I wanted (by 3 pages), but it’s done. DONE.

Now that it’s signed, sealed, and on its way, I can reflect on the paralyizing fear I’ve experienced since April while trying to write this damn thing. After a glowing review of my second packet, I was stopped in my tracks. Looking back, I realize I was scared to let my mentor down, scared that the third packet wouldn’t live up to the second. It became so late that I had to eventually sit down and push through this irrational paralysis and just…write. Write whatever came out of me, whatever part of the story that happened to be hanging around inside my head. In the process, I discovered that a) I’m not out of ideas and b) I can do this, and it doesn’t have to be perfect or even better. After all, I can’t learn if I don’t try and make mistakes: a sentiment that sounds great on paper but is terrifying if you’re a perfectionist.

I still have one more packet, but it’s going to be a revision of my first one, which seems pretty crap at the moment. I was hoping to have written 100 pages by now, but I’ll take 71. Especially since I’ve never written anything longer than a 10-page short story in my entire life. For now, though, I’m going to bask in the temporary relief that comes before actually sticking the packet in the mail and fearing the return.