This has been an odd couple of weeks on the writing-sphere of my life. I wonder sometimes if I have multiple personalities, a short attention span, or just a cranky "artist-child", as Julia Cameron would say. The fact is, despite my daily visits to the blog and to Twitter, I have been in a dry spell since I finished my novel in September.
I remember looking forward to this period, journalling about the "free-time" I'd have to work on the blog, to pursue smaller projects, to experiment with other crafty things. This was supposed to be a break, a wonderful time to regroup and recover and rebuild my creative energy. And yet... having been deep inside this novel, in the minds and hearts of my characters, for the last year and a half, I found the post-novel experience to be frighteningly empty. Perhaps, even lonely. It's that moment when you realize, suddenly whilst swimming in the ocean, that you can no longer touch the bottom, and you begin to panic and sink.
Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital.
I didn't understand why I felt so bereft, empty, melancholic, etc, etc. I came up with a variety of self-diagnoses (like a psychological version of House): I need a big project to fill the void; I need to work on something new: those stories that have been sitting in limbo forever; I need to stop whining, stop beating myself up and read, read, read. These diagnoses were met with many a vacillation and excuse from my unappeased and unsatisfied "artist-child."
1.) The next "big" project would be the sequel to the novel I'd just finished - the novel which is in back in limbo, waiting for an agent. At first, I thought - of course! The characters are still fresh in my mind. I want to return to them so badly... And then I keep worrying about the state of the first novel - whether anyone would really want to represent it, or if it needs another wash-through altogether. Conclusion was that working on novel #2 would only make me worry about novel #1.
2.) Working on the limbo stories is absolutely fine. I have two of them: a scene where a historical character jumps from the tower in which was being held captive, and a sort-of fantastical bent on Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." Awesome ideas. Really! But I couldn't (and still can't) figure out why my attention span and enthusiasm about these projects wavered from day to day. Fear? Yes, maybe, but isn't that obvious? But fear doesn't always keep me running in the opposite direction. It was torture to sit and stare at the partial drafts, having ideas in my head but being unable to bring them any further. Finish them, finish them, part of me said. But I was/is too tense to do so... as if suddenly an enormous amount of pressure was on my shoulders, trying to convince me that the only way I'd be taken seriously as a writer would be to fill up my portfolio with a variety of things... and didn't these make the most sense?
3.) Not writing on any story was the other option, a complete surrender. It's comparable to the glee of a child let loose at the end of the school year. Yayyy! I wanted to give myself a break! Here's a break! I'm going to watch as many episodes of The X-Files, Farscape and Star Trek: The Next Generation (yes, I'm a nerd, but you knew that) as I possibly can while I wait for Downton Abbey and Sherlock to air! I'm going to devour more books! I'm going to make all of my Christmas gifts by hand this year! I'm going to become proficient in Latin!
And then the euphoria faded once again. I was still empty. Still hungry, perhaps that's the better term. The story that was still vivid in my mind was... the sequel to the in-agent-limbo novel, even though I'd authoritative told my "artist-child" no. "No. It will only make you nitpick and stress out about what you have to fix for novel #1. You're too anxious as it is, trying to come up with the plotline for novel #2. Go play with Fantastical Bartleby. Or, do your Latin. You like Latin, remember?" And my artist-child instead took none of those options and chose to sit in the corner, pouting.
As much as I like Julia Cameron and the "artist's way", I don't want to attribute this to being "blocked" and try in vain to "unblock" myself. Blocked feels like such a negative, unproductive term. I don't respond well to diagnoses like that - as I do struggle with anxiety on a daily basis. Blaming myself for not writing isn't a cure. And making myself write what I don't want to write is hardly a solution, either. And... journalling and blogging have been a part of my daily routine since before the novel was finished. Is that blocked? No.
So... I've come to several conclusions from this massive wallow in the writing black hole.
1.) Anxiety about my first novel and whether or not it's "good enough" for an agent to want to represent will always be there. I'm not the only writer to struggle with this, I know. And how could we not be anxious? This is our brain-child! We want the best for him/her!
2.) I am not blocked. Period. I'm between projects and enjoying a rest. I am blogging and tweeting and using my brain. That's good, right?
3.) I don't have to work on Fantastical Bartleby if I don't want to. He can wait until a better time. There will be a better time for him. It's just not now.
4.) Work on novel #2 if I want to. The characters are still vivid and beautiful in my head. They're close to my heart. I love them. The most foolish thing would be to push them away. And even if novel #1 needs another wash-through, that doesn't necessarily nullify my work on #2. (If anything such revisions would be on language, not on plot or story.)
5.) After so long without the "need" for watching tons of television, I am gorging myself. I need to go on a Netflix diet but not completely deprive myself.
Already my unruly "artist-child" is feeling better. I might still vacillate a bit about what to do next, but I'm not going to flagellate myself whatever I decide. At this point "artist-child" wants novel #2, and we'll see where it takes us... but anything is good if it gets me out of the black hole and back into a better mind set, to fill the void left by that novel.
On another note, I'm glad I decided not to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. It would have had me stressed out on day one!
It has been a crazy month, I will admit. May saw me out of town to visit Michelle. Then the first week of June, I was ill and unable to enjoy life for a while. Now, I am back, painfully aware that the blog hasn't been touched since before my adventure.
I've learned little things about myself in this month - things that help with the writing, and allow me to better enjoy the act of creation. I'll share:
* I've taken artist datesto Michaels and purchased a lantern (for candles), a new journal, candles, and fake ivy to drape over my other-wise very boring, very cheap book case.
* Going to visit Michelle gave me a nice change of venue, which was refreshing and at some points adventurous. You may not know it from our work here, but we operate from different parts of the United States: the East Coast and the Midwest.
* I was glad also to spend so much time with her, my creative compatriot. We artists need a circle of support, or, as Michelle and I call it, a mutual appreciation society.
* Try new things... or do things you've never done before. Par example, I boiled lobster for the first time this May! Also, I believe there is something to be said about branching out, using new brain cells... discovering new music, new television shows, a new favorite spot in the garden. Now on my list of inspiring things are BBC's Sherlock, the music of the Beatles and drinking lattes. (Thanks, Michelle!)
* Dive in before it's too late... in other words, don't think yourself out of something. In my case, I often over think my writing, and as a result, get scared or freaked out about its nascent uncertainty, and any hope of writing - just writing - dies a guilt-ridden death. We call that writer's block. Julia Cameron is very helpful about this: "Art is not about thinking something up. It is about the opposite - getting something down."
* And last but not least: sleep. Let's face it, the world is task-driven and we drive ourselves to the brink of exhaustion. We need to sleep: to recharge our batteries, to realign synapses and memory pathways, to allow our bodies to heal. This week I learned my lesson about staying up late to "watch just one episode of Doctor Who" (insert various other excuses): even one hour has severely reduced my ability to focus on my projects. This weekend I will sleep and enjoy it. No regrets. None at all.
Last week, I embarked on the chapter in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way that emphasized... reading deprivation. It is exactly what it sounds like, plain and simple: don't read for pleasure, don't read to kill time. Don't read.
Bibliophile that I am, my first reaction was that this exercise was unnecessary self-torture, especially coming so soon after Lent. Here's what Julia has to say about it:
For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried... It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions, we are actually filling the well. Without distractions, we are once again thrust into the sensory world... Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some one us begin to immediately fill with new words - long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist's inspiration, above the static. In practicing reading deprivation, we need to cast a watchful eye on these other pollutants. They poison the well. (p. 87)
Hard as it is to believe, I found this to be completely spot-on. You can imagine with a job as a receptionist, I find many windows of ennui in which I am tempted to while away the hours with a deep perusal of internet newspapers and/or with a good novel. But when I relinquished said distractions it was a very clear indication of how addicted to this unhealthy media chat and extraneous stuff I'd been.
Those days as far away from a novel or the internet as I could get, I did actually find myself focusing on my art and filling the time (not killing time) with those introspective, creative thoughts. It was helpful. And it is still very eye-opening to know how much of the outside world is let in, and how much I don't actually need.
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!
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!
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