On Writing and Grit

In my opinion, one of the key benefits of being a writer is that you develop grit. You have to. Consider the novelist. When you write a novel, you are embarking on a project of many thousands of words, where you have to employ different skills—an ear for dialogue, an eye for description, a heart for story. It's quite the task, and, at first, it can seem impossible. At least it did for me. I knew I wanted to be a novelist ever since I was a young girl in love with books. But it took me a long time to actually finish a book. I didn't know about craft. I thought that you just sat down and wrote a story, and I kept abandoning my projects.

So there were times of excitement that led to a moment of abandonment and then silence, as if that story had never existed. In my case, I tried many times to write a book, but every time you try, it can feel more dangerous. How many times can I fail? What's the point? I spent years not writing anything. If I couldn't finish anything, why even try? Over time, I realized that, for me, writing fed my soul. I figured out that I would not feel happy unless I was writing and that I didn't want to just write things for myself. I wanted to complete projects. I wanted to write novels. I wanted to share my books with the world.

I finally came to an understanding where I knew I had to do it. And if I failed again, it was hard for me to imagine that I could ever try again. So I set out on my course. It was a process that would not receive high points in style with the judges. I spent an entire retreat crying because the way I wanted to figure out how to write did not fit in with the teachers' approach, and they tried to dissuade me off my path. At the time, I hated my fight. I don't like to cry in public. I don't like not being a Hermione. But there was finally a voice that said, “They don't see me. They don't understand me. They're trying to tell me that I can't do it, that I'm not ready, and everything they're saying goes against what I feel in my heart. And I'm grieving right now over how I have ignored my muse over the years, and I'm mourning how much I have tried to please other people, and I'm angry that they're treating me as if I'm an ant on the ground, when I'm actually a writer with things to say.”

I quit my writing group. I fired my teachers. I lost friends. When all this was going on, I was well aware that many people thought I was unstable at best, crazy at worst. But I couldn't care. My book was at stake. My whole writing life felt like it was connected to me with the slenderest of threads.

First I read. When I had said no to my teachers, my group, my writing friends, I walked into my office, and a book stared out at me from a shelf. I had purchased it years ago but never studied it. It was called The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. I opened it up. It said something to the effect of, “You're about to embark on one of the hardest journeys of your life.” That seemed right. For that week, I read that book and took notes and started dreaming up how my book could work.

When I did start writing, I kept that book on the table next to me so I could always see it. I called it my guide book. If I felt anxious, I knew I had my trusty maps right there. And every time I sat down to write, I would write a scene list. I would see if I could remember the sequence of my story. I would comfort myself with these numbered items that would eventually make up my novel.

And then I wrote it. I often wrote by hand. Sometimes it felt like the words were edged with rust. I often had to rewrite my scenes many times before I would not cringe with embarrassment over my words. And I did it and published it and started another one.

It still isn't easy. I don't think it ever will be. But once I had that first novel written, I had a sense that I could do it. Even though the route may look circuitous and foolish, but I would eventually find my way and my people. And that happened. Once I started writing for myself with resolve, other writers and editors and readers started showing up in my path. I found they had just the right level of toughness and kindness. I felt clear that they loved me and understood me and supported my work.

The great thing about writing is that you can then transfer it to other aspects of your life. When you're faced with a challenge, you can say, “Hey, I wrote a novel, and at the beginning, I didn't know what I was doing. I bet I can figure this out, too.” Or “Yeah, this feels lousy at the moment, but not as horrible as when I didn't think I could write a book, and then I found these resources within myself to do it. I'm willing to ride the rollercoaster. I believe I will come out the other side.”

Those are the muscles that I have started to develop through having a writing practice and producing books: I believe I can do things. I trust my process (although many others think it's weird). I do not try to do what others do. I focus on what works for me. I help others, and I let others help me when it's appropriate. (I have to do the first draft alone. For me, the first draft is the number of iterations I can do on an evolving manuscript before I can't see it any more, and I have to turn it over to someone else.)

Yes, writing is hard. It's a challenge. It's humbling. There are always ways to improve. But isn't that great? I'm embracing the journey.

Me and My Phone

I just came back from a trip to New York, where I realized a few things.

  1. I now know there's a bulldog in this world who I adore.

  2. New York bagels are the best.

  3. If I'm frustrated, it's best if I make up a quick song and sing it half under my breath a million times until I'm cheered up again.

  4. I rely too much on my phone.

For today's post, I'm going to focus on Item #4, although I may revisit #3 next week. So here's the deal. As a writer, a cellphone can be incredibly useful. You can make notes on it while you're out in the world. You can read books on it. You can listen to books. You can store your manuscript there. In short, a phone can be an incredibly valuable tool to use.

But then it happens. For me it was on the first flight of a two-flight day on my return home from New York. I was reading a book when my phone started, let's say, freaking out, because that's how it seemed to me. It wasn't a mild technical hiccup. This was a flat-out technological demonic possession, complete with pages flipping and apps launching and me holding my phone by my fingertips thinking, “But you can't do this to me! I never carry books with me anymore!”

When it first started, I tried to turn it off. I thought that maybe I could just reboot the crazy out of it. But it would not let me. I would get to the screen where I needed to swipe to turn it off, and the phone would do nothing. It was crazy. But what was more insane was, after that occurred, every moment or so, I would pick up my phone to see if the results this time would be different.

It made me realize some things:

  1. Phones are expensive. I've had this phone for twelve years. I took it for granted. I never thought about replacing it. I never imagined how much they now cost.

  2. I knew that I spent a lot of time on my phone. But I'd never felt it before. How in a moment of anxiety or boredom, what I do is pick up my phone and look at something. From that plane ride until I got home, I didn't have my phone. At first, I felt panic. Then I reached in my purse, picked up a notebook and a pen and started brainstorming for a new writing project. Once I figured that out, I felt content again.

UPDATE: When we returned home, I chatted with an Apple rep, and ended up backing up my phone and restoring it. So far, so good. Fingers crossed. But something has changed. I'm no longer so cavalier about my phone. I see it as delicate, vulnerable. And I don't want to rely on it as my favorite tool anymore. I want to let it rest. We'll see how it goes.

On Sleep

Lately, I've been thinking about sleep. Sleep has often been complicated for me. When I was young, I was afraid to fall asleep. I thought once I closed my eyes, I could die. One of my parents had to read outside my bedroom door. Surely they could vanquish any demons of death that would dare to try to enter my room. In addition, I listened to Broadway musical recordings as I tried to go to sleep. Anyone who could sing and dance would be a righteous defender of my life. Some of the songs were so beautiful, it was hard for me to imagine that anything bad could happen while they played.

As I grew up, I decided that I was an early morning person, and I didn't need much sleep. In college, when they told me that in order to have a show on the radio, I would need to take the 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM shift, I readily agreed. Sleep was a mere footnote, something around for my convenience, not something I cared about much at all.

Then, when I started my work life, I noticed that there were days when I would feel extremely tired, and no amount of coffee could save me. (All through these years that I declared I couldn't care less about sleep, I drank tons of coffee.) On those days, I would say it felt like I had been run over by a truck. It was hard for me to be around people. I felt like I had no skin. It was hard to function. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, I would feel particularly exhausted. But, even though I knew all of this, I didn't examine or try to change my sleep life.

Things got worse. I was working at home now, but I was still going to bed late and waking up early. I was waking up to an alarm, but I had grown so accustomed to this regime, that I often woke up before the alarm rang. This helped reinforce my notion that this is when I wanted to naturally wake up. Since I now worked at home, when I would grow that exhausted, I would now often take a nap, but it was difficult because I had scheduled my work in such a way that it was difficult to reach my deadlines if I also had breaks in my day.

I was dating my now husband then, and I started falling asleep when we watched TV at night. It could happen any time after 9:00. I would feel wide awake, and then all of a sudden I would be asleep. When I went to movies, even matinees, I had to start taking in a cup of coffee with me that I could drink throughout the show. Otherwise I could easily miss things. At this point, I could drink coffee at 8:00 at night and still go to sleep.

I think the first big change in my sleep happened after I started taking anti-anxiety medication. All of a sudden, I was sleeping to 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning. I would often get up in the middle of the night where I would read until I felt tired, then I would go back to sleep. I didn't set an alarm. I could se how much better I felt during the day. I made allowances in my schedule so that could happen.

I could see a big difference in how I felt during the day. I no longer felt tired in the afternoon. I had a consistent flow of energy for my work. I felt more grounded in my emotions. I felt more creative for my writing. It was all good.

But then I started considering taking a job out of the home. I would have to be on a schedule. I might have to be there early in the morning. If that was what I was going to do, I wanted to do it in a way where I continued to feel refreshed and revived each day.

At this point in the process, I learned a great deal. The first is, worrying about falling asleep is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If I'm scared that I won't sleep, I often won't. So I tried other things. For a while, I took melatonin. That worked, but not on a regular basis. I drank valerian tea. That didn't seem to help me fall asleep, but once I did, I slept deeply. I decided to not read on my phone any more in bed. (I don't like to read from hard copy or paperback books because I don't want to have the light on while my husband sleep.) First I tried audiobooks. I love audiobooks, but I found that I would fall asleep while listening to them, and then I would have to go back. I also found it self-defeating in another way. I was trying to stay awake to hear the stories, and I would get mad at myself when I fell asleep. So that was not the best plan.

I tried listening to music. Sometimes that works. Other times I've gone back to old music that I've loved as a teenager, thinking that the old familiar favorites would be fun to fall asleep to. But I've found that some of those old favorites no longer hold up, and I am wide awake, wondering how I could have fallen for that before. But I've discovered some Pema Chodron lectures on YouTube. I like her voice. I like listening to what she has to say. I figure if I fall asleep, my subconscious will pick it up, and it will just be furthered embedded into my brain. I'm happy with this solution.

But why is this in a writing blog? Because I believe sleep is so important to us all, maybe especially writers. You have to pick up the pen each day and write that story. Don't you want to be at optimal levels for such a task? For me now, sleep falls under self-love. I want to take care of myself that way. If I do that for me, I have more to give to others and to the world. That is what I want to do, and sleep is a n important part of that journey. Three cheers for sleep!

On Writing and The Loudest Meow

For today's post, I thought I would link a presentation/reading I made at the Wild Rose in Jamestown, California. (The writer sitting patiently beside me is Matt Peller from the Sonora Writers Group, a wonderful person and writer.) If you haven't read The Loudest Meow: A Talking Cat Fantasy, it will give you an opportunity to hear some of it. You can also hear some of my thoughts on being a writer. I love going out in the world and talking about being a writer because it's brought so much joy to my life. I find there's always one or a few writers in the audience who want to talk, and I try my best to listen and support their dreams.

My husband and I moved to Sonora, California a year ago, and one of the smartest things I was to join the Sonora Writers Group. It's wonderful to know other writers in your community. The writing life is a particular kind of existence that not many can relate to. It's nice to sit in a room once a month with other writers and hear what they had to say and share information and work. We are fortunate to have a president, Jill Klajic-Ryan, who is always booking us into events and helping us get known in our town. I wouldn't be at this event without Jill and the Sonora Writers Group.

So I hope you enjoy the clip. Happy trails until next week.(

Binge Watching and Writing

This week, I have to make a confession.

During the winter, when I had free time, I watched all six seasons of Gossip Girl.

And now you've met my inner snob, who thinks that I should be watching Bergman films and reading Tolstoy instead of a TV show about rich teenagers. But when I can't sleep at night, I don't think of Crime and Punishment. I turn to Netflix. And during that one fateful early morning when I clicked on the first episode in the first season of GG, I wondered if I could even get through ten minutes of this show before I abandoned it. Then it turned out I loved it. I wanted to say “kind of loved it,” but let's be real. I watched all 121 episodes of this show.

When it became clear that I was in it for the long haul, I tried not to judge. I grew curious. What was it about this show that made me want to watch it? If I figured that out, I thought I could perhaps write better books. I was hooked on this story. Why?

So here's my thoughts on why I stayed with Gossip Girl. (Warning: Spoilers abound.)

Visual stimulation: The actors are gorgeous, and they wear beautiful clothes. It made me think about the need for character description. We want to imagine what a character looks like. And clothes say a lot about a character. These details makes the stories more compelling.

Character development: On this show, the characters changed and grew. At the beginning, I thought Chuck Bass was revolting. By the end, he became a beloved character and “I am Chuck Bass” became my favorite line. What happened? They changed his hair. He had the audacity to wear bow ties and violet shirts and I want to say tunics, but now I'm wondering if I’m imagining that. We learned about his past. We saw his vulnerability and his heart.

The same is true with Blair. When the show started, I thought she was less interesting than Serena. But she grew on me. I started to love her gumption, her ambition, her love of detail, her realization of her calling. By the end, I was rooting for her, too. How did the writers do that? We saw her fail many times. She was often humiliated. She learned things and grew more lovable as the episodes went on.

I think the take-away I would try to remember from both these characters is the idea to allow your characters in the beginning to have a great many flaws and to let them take pratfalls. Do not be easy on them. Let them make huge mistakes. We will cheer them up, as they stand up again and somehow persist.

Family History: As I was growing up, I used to love to watch soap operas, specifically Days of Our Lives, with my mom and my sister. Watching Gossip Girl, I was often reminded of those summers, when we tried to watch our episode every day. If we were out during the early afternoon hours, my mother would take us to a restaurant that had tiny television sets in the booth where you could put in quarters, and we could watch our show. I can't remember very many specific details from the story, but I do recall there was one story arc one summer, where there was a character who, unbeknownst to the other characters, had gone mad. I can't remember if the insane person was a man or a woman, but I do know that character was an artist and was painting a portrait of Julie, a beautiful black-haired woman, one of the stars of the show. The painter would never let Julie see the work. But the viewers knew what was going on. This was not a standard portrait. This painting was a distortion, where Julie's face became a fun house mirror of the painter's anger and insanity. But when would she find out? What would happen then? I think I knew before summer ended. Watching Gossip Girl, I realized my love for these types of stories, complete with dramatic entrances and exits, outrageous behaviors, betrayals and mysteries. I have now given myself permission to go as operatic as I want to in my work, knowing that these are the stories that I have loved ever since I was a child.

Obstacles and Dreams Come True: Watching this show, I also recognized the pitfalls of a six-season series. Pacing is difficult. Early on, the viewer wanted two things to happen: Dan and Serena needed to be together, and Blair and Chuck had to be together. That had to be the end result. Today I was trying to figure out today how many times Blair and Chuck almost reconciled and then at the last moment, didn't. I think it may have been six, but that's just off the top of my head. As the series went on, the reasons why they couldn't be together became increasingly ridiculous. The writers did a greater disservice with the Serena/Dan story, sullying their connection to a point that by the end, I had to strain to believe that they would ever want to even hang out together any more. With Chuck and Blair, that wasn't a problem. Despite all their dysfunctions, they still seemed true to each other. I was happy that they did marry, although I was a little bemused by the journey they took.

So in terms of writing, it made me think that you really had to pay attention to the ways that you stymie the eventual outcome. Do the obstacles increase in dramatic importance? Do they make sense? Are the stakes legitimate? Have your characters retained their honor, or can you show why they acted in dishonorable ways so that the dream isn't spoiled by the end? All of these things feel really important to me as a writer.

So there you have it. I do feel I learned a lot from watching Gossip Girl. We had a lot of snow this year, and we were housebound. I would get my exercise and relieve my frustrations by pacing around the room with my headphones on, watching yet another episode of this show, and I was glad I could. If you have had a similar experience with a show you've binge watched, I would love to hear about it in the comments