Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Doldrums (Jillian)

This winter has been hard, I’ll not lie. You might have sensed it in the gaps between my posts, hovering there like some solemn, unspoken word. Michelle and I decided long ago that Daedalus Notes was a place to talk about writing, not to spill out the minutia of our private lives. But there are a few things, more personal than the norm, of which I’d like to share here today, because they are relevant to the writer’s life. Painfully relevant.

Long story short, this was my second time applying for MFA (that is, Master of Fine Arts) programs in Creative Writing. For years now, I thought the best way I could use my writing would be in academia, as a teacher of creative writing, as part of a creative think-tank alongside other writers. This is also my second time weathering the unpleasantness of rejections from the list of those universities: dismissals in the form of one-page form-letters, some more sympathetic and truthful than others. It is the same bitter taste of rejections from publishers, from potential employers. Not only is it a rejection of me, but of my life’s work. And in this case, indifference makes a deeper impression than outright dislike of my writing.

I write about this today because this is a reality for writers and artists. We write and bleed our souls out onto paper, poke and prod, knead and sculpt, and nip and tuck away at it for years until we have a manuscript or a substantial writing sample, a finished product. And when we send it off, we may be brimming with hope, but it is very rare that publishers or fellowship committees will snap it up with wild enthusiasm, offering a book deal with splashy cover art and an advance on our next endeavor, or an opportunity to dive into a writing community teeming with the world’s freshest wordsmiths – all by the time we’ve reached twenty-five. It almost never happens. And it hurts like utter hell. Like a door slamming shut in our face.

Last year, the MFA affected me in the most perverse way imaginable: I didn’t work on my novel very seriously for four months. I say perverse, because not writing is unnatural, paralysis for a creative being. Yes, I filled three legal pads with journal musings and anecdotes, but it was not my heart’s desire. There was a sort of transparent but rigid layer of shame around my will to work on my novel, to approach by beloved characters. It would take well into the summer before I began to trust myself again. During that time, my novel sat idle, and I had no energy. It was the Writing Diaspora. I called it doldrums. Or, as it is better known, writer’s block.

This year, having been through these waters once before, I am determined to take another course, and steer around the placid-but-dangerous doldrums. I do so by diving into writing, instead of struggling away from it.

Novel. Blog. Journal of seasonal musings. My collection of words. My emails. Little seedlings of stories and proto-novels. Write, write, write until the calluses on my pen-hand ache, until my eyes strain from squinting at the computer screen, until I collapse of hunger! WRITE! And don’t look back!

This is one thing that cannot be stripped from me: my identity as a writer. The MFA is not a license to write. I am not one who happened to catch the eye of a top creative writing program; I am one who earns a quiet living as a receptionist and retreats home to her creations. That is my little story. After all, we cannot all have glamorous beginnings. Nor must we. Our calling is to write, whether or not the world can see us.

I write knowing that sometimes I must create my own wind to fill my limp and lifeless sails, stir up lively waves to pull me back onto the open sea. And there I go.

So there it is, friends. Write out the doldrums. Make them your blank canvas. Fill it with life!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wordsmithery (Jillian)

I've been away for longer than intended, still in the throes of Diaspora from my computer. Again, it does take a lot of effort for a (stubborn) writer to adapt to a new way of doing things (i.e. writing by hand), and that has been the way of things since last we met.


One of the most fascinating aspects of writing is the words themselves, how they sound and the images they bring. Recently, my appreciation for words has grown into a ravenous hunger. I will gobble-up, per se, any word that sounds mysterious, interesting, archaic or multi-faceted.

What, pray tell, is a grimalkin? Why, an old domestic female cat, of course. (Elder spinster-cat, in other words.)

What about a state of acedia? It sounds like it could be a serious mental condition or an illness, but is really a name for "boredom" or "apathy," in the same vein as another of my favorite words ennui. In the 16th century, it was used to describe the sin of sloth.

Another word is chthonic (pronounced "thone-ick"), an adjective which means "dwelling under the earth" or "pertaining to the underworld." Have you ever seen another word with such a combination as chth?

And polyonymous? The antonym of anonymous that seems strangely neglected: "having or known by various names." One literary example: Gandalf the Grey, Gandalf Stormcrow, Mithrandir.

I've also reveled in the fact that writers are not mere arrangers of language, but creators of words. We are wordsmiths engaging in constant tinkering, firing, cooling, hammering, sweating, and more hammering: hard work to form something beautiful and functional. To that end, I'll use the word bellwether.

Bellwether, the title of a Connie Willis novel, is a word that always sounded mysterious, and I could not resist exploring it. Nowadays the word means "an indicator of trends" or "one that takes initiative." Its origins point to the medieval practice of shepherds putting bells on the lead sheep in a flock. Simple, no?

Because I am always thinking (never about "important" things like where I left my keys or whether or not I remembered to feed the cat), I came up with a new connotative meaning for bellwether. If one changes the spelling slightly, it becomes bellweather. In fact, this is what I thought the word was before I saw it spelled out. My mind instantly imagined "weather for/of bells." And I thought of medieval church bells ringing out in superstitious hope to ward off approaching storms and plagues. Bellweather then has a potentially darker meaning than its parent word: a harbinger of doom or hard times, a jeremiad (prophesy of doom).

It's discoveries and accidental creations like these that keep me writing. Language is magical, hardly set in stone. It is both new and old and deeper than the seas.


to a blog by three people who write, for anyone else who wants to write. It's a cruel world for creators, and here we promise support, whimsy, and curiosity that will hopefully keep your pen moving and keyboard tapping!

To read more about why Daedalus Notes exists, click