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The agony of taking one step toward writing/literally anything potentially icky

"Bewitched Park" by Leonid Afremov

“Bewitched Park” by Leonid Afremov

My gig for the summer is working as a reading instructor for kids and adults. I’m teaching students how to tackle textbooks, how to improve their reading speeds, how to care about a book that seems totally outside their life experiences, and how to talk about great fiction. This job is exhausting. I never realized how draining teaching could be. Most nights, I immediately collapse on my bed in whatever I wore to work for the day, smelling like Expo markers and book glue.

Despite the general exhaustion, here’s one thing that I’ve pulled from this experience that has benefitted me entirely: the idea of taking one step forward.

In the classroom, it looks like this: If I know a student is struggling, or if I know I should speak to that student directly, or if I need to step in and talk about a behavioral issue or something else potentially icky, there are two paths I can take. One, I can avoid the situation and hope it resolves itself. Or, the better of the two, I can take one step toward the situation. I trust myself to know how to handle most classroom situations, and at bare minimum I can flub my way toward a compromise, but taking that first step is the hardest part, because it’s the first step in committing myself to trying to figure out a problem. It’s opening up the potential for failure, too, and the longer I delay that step, the longer I can delay potentially failing in my duty as a teacher.

But if I take that first step, I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone and into the situation at hand. Usually, I realize something like this: Oh. I didn’t need to hesitate. I do, in fact, know how to work through this situation.

This is important.

This is the part where I bring the point of my introduction into the topic of writing.

I’m experiencing a lot of false starts in my writing. I currently have three windows open to three different projects I want to work on, but they’ve been largely untouched because every time I sit down with the intent of continuing their stories, I end up freezing up in some way. I’ll write endless To Do lists, spend time “researching” (read: Facebook/Twitter/Reddit), or just write an outline of ideas instead of actually bumping up the page count of whichever story’s first draft.

But today, I took one step forward. And it has made all the difference.

It’s so easy to perpetually exist in a state of I’ll-get-this-done-eventually. And a lot of the time, once I actually, seriously, actively focus on writing, I can get work done. The difficult part, of course, is taking that first step and committing myself to a project that I’m afraid of seeing fail — or something I’m afraid won’t matter to anybody but me.

(Those are bad thoughts. They’re normal thoughts, but they’re also toxic. I have to remind myself that, when I’m writing a first draft, I’m writing it for me, not an audience.)

I have to sit down and take a step toward my goal — writing 1,000 words per day, finishing a scene, adding four more paragraphs — because, however small or large my goal may be, taking one step is just part of finishing that first draft, and getting closer to understanding what my story might be. That’s what I did today — I told myself I’d write one page in one hour, and I sat down during a free block of time and took one step toward continuing where I’d left off. I wrote a sentence. And then repeated. And repeated.

And I reached two goddamn pages. #murica

It’s a rough scene and it doesn’t totally establish what I want it to establish just yet — but it’s moving my story along, and helping me realize its larger purpose. And that’s a success.

The potential for failure is terrifying, and it’s so tempting to listen to that voice in the back of my mind telling me that I should have been literally anything but a Creative Writing major. But then I remind myself: I have a story to tell, and the only way it is going to be told is if I take one step forward.

And then I step.

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Revision, as opposed to destruction, also known as avoidance

From "The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball," Wired

From “The Cutting-Edge Physics of a Crumpled Paper Ball,” Wired

In one of my intro classes last year, my writing instructor had us hold up the first drafts of our stories and crumple them into paper balls. She’d told us it was representative of the power of revision, and the necessity of our willingness to recognize that the first draft is never the last. I don’t agree with the crumbling analogy, though — I feel like I would have gone with something less destructive. Because, really, beginning revision can be one of two things:

  1. Surface-level line edits, in which a few commas are placed and some sentences rearranged
  2. Total, annihilating, apocalyptic destruction of the original story

I’ve been guilty of #2 for a while. I’d bring a story into workshop, gather notes, and decide I needed to totally switch the story because I’d suddenly realized that this should be told from the supporting character’s point of view, you guys, obviously. Fitzgerald did it, why can’t I? Or I’d completely alter the character; same name, but now this guy is like, super tough and angry, when before he was too much of a pushover, you know? Or, a little more commonly, I’d dump the idea altogether because “I just lost interest in it,” moving onto another story idea and waiting until the last moment to write it for a class deadline.

I realized something, though. With some of those stories I’d written and forgotten, I hadn’t “lost interest” in the story — I was just afraid of revising it, endlessly, forever, never quite knowing when it was finally done.

It’s one thing to write a story and feel like it’s so utterly full of promise. It’s a false success; you feel like you’ve accomplished something and can set it aside. And yes, you can, and should, but the hardest thing to accept about creative writing is this: the first draft is only the beginning. It’s easy to look at something and say that it’s just rough right now, but in a few drafts, it’ll really shine.

The hurdle, of course, is actually getting revising the damn thing. And the biggest thing that has been holding me back is fear.

I experienced my first truly successful revision a few days ago. I had written the first two chapters of a novel in third-person narration, set in a place like my hometown, involving a big cast of characters reacting to a robbery. My protagonist is male, and I had decided to stick to omniscience because, as I realize now, I was afraid of writing a character whose gender is not my own. In my workshop, my classmates had told me that the narration was too distanced; it felt counterproductive, and like we were spending too much time seeing what was happening in the landscape instead of getting to know the characters.

So, on a Sunday, twenty-four hours before its deadline, I rewrote the thing. I allowed myself to enter the mind of my character and wrote it from his point of view, constantly asking myself if I was writing lines that felt like his, or just writing them because they sounded pretty. I wanted to avoid being authorial; I wanted to let my character dictate the actions, movements, and focal points of the story. And, by the time I handed it to my professor, I felt proud — I’d actually revised the story, and hadn’t demolished it entirely. I’d listened to my classmates and my gut, and had cut out the flowery prose that had initially come from my own heavy hand. I’d taken my time with the characters and world, and condensed two chapters into one introduction.

And it’s still so rough. But that’s okay.

With my earlier failures at revision, I was always drawn to scrapping my initial attempt entirely, which is absolutely a form of avoidance. I wanted to avoid the slog of having to go back into my story and really look at my weaknesses, and where I’d failed. And, really, I’d also wanted to avoid the realization that I wasn’t going to receive instant gratification with whatever project I was working on; writing, as I’ve come to understand, is a long-term thing. And to do it successfully, you have to stick with it for the long haul. You have to look at your rough drafts and maintain the willingness to polish them.

It may take twenty more drafts until I feel legitimately solid about this story I’m trying to tell. One of my professors told me that she revises projects at least one hundred times, which is terrifying, but also something that a part of me understands. After my first successful revision, I’m closer to the story I want to tell, but I’m still along way from really understanding many of the characters and what makes them tick. And really, it’s kind of like getting to know someone for the first time. Rarely do you know everything about them after you first meet; you have a first impression, but to really know someone, you have to spend time with them. Each revision is my attempt to spend time with my characters, world, and story, and right now it feels like it’s going to take forever.

But this time around, I’m not afraid.

Well, okay, I’m still terrified. But I’m writing.

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Ends and beginnings

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bank_vault#mediaviewer/File:WinonaSavingsBankVault.JPG

Courtesy of Jonathunder

I finished my undergraduate career today. I still have one project to complete — a revision, as part of a final submission packet — but everything else is done. My coursework, and everything leading up to this point over the past four years, is finito. Complete. Terminado.

Although, I wouldn’t quite say I’m finished.

I majored in Creative Writing, and although I’m walking out of UC Riverside with just one completed story and a bucket full of first drafts, I’m leaving with ideas. I have dollar store notebooks scrawled with blue and black, both covers stuffed with scraps of paper where I jotted down a line or image that caught my eye.  I have authors and stories that inspire me, and infuriate me, and get me thinking about the stories I’ve started and forgotten. I have writing friends to whom I can say, “Ugh,” and they know exactly what I’m talking about.

I have beginnings.

And, really, that’s the most important thing for me to have. I have story ideas and characters and images I legitimately care about, which is more than I could have ever asked for at the beginning of my undergraduate career. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I first switched into my major, and I didn’t know what I wanted; one of the questions I kept dodging was, “Why do you want to write?” I didn’t know. I still don’t really know. I think it’s because I bought a Moleskine, and I feel like I need to write something important in it to justify the expense. (It cost, like, $10. On sale!)

But I do know that I finally have stories and settings that I’m passionate about exploring. I guess that’s why I don’t feel like I’m finishing my degree — really, in a lot of ways, I’m just beginning.

And that’s endlessly exciting.

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The weight of words

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This was my final column in the Highlander newspaper at UC Riverside, written as a goodbye to my term as an editor and the people I grew to love along the way.


There’s a quote by writer Gary Provost about the musicality of writing, and the way lines can bunch or fall or meld together to create many wonderful, panicked things. Short sentences? They suggest immediacy. Or jolts. Or monotony, if they’re used too often. Longer, flowing sentences can carry you like a riptide, twisting and curling into deep fathoms and forcing you to hold your breath until the pause, or full stop. But even then, writing can’t have too much of either; it needs to strike a balance, somewhere between abrupt and flowing, so that every single line matters in a way that feels incontestable.

We use so many words. We use them to greet each other for the first time, sometimes haltingly, sometimes like we’re already falling into a rhythm as old friends. We use them to say goodbye to those chapters of our lives that have carried our hearts into reverie. Sometimes we forget to use them, sitting around desks and laughing too loudly, reaching the point where our cheeks ache and friendship feels like forever. But all of these words carry a weight of their own — a weight that feels as intangible as the lyricism of the perfect line. When you strike gold, you know it. When a string of words feels like nothing could be more beautiful and true, when it sings or murmurs or echoes in the back of your skull, you know it — and everything about it matters tenfold.

I like to think we can hear that musicality beyond the page. Lyrical weight exists in our life experiences, and in the things that form and shape us as burgeoning individuals, shifting between quick moments and drawn-out adventures. When you’re in a good place in your life, you know it. Relationships flow. Words are pleasantly weighted. And even though all things in life must move on — by virtue of time, changing places or both — the music of those experiences can never be lost. Not after you’ve felt them in your bones.

On the repetition of short sentences, Provost said, “It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music.” I have heard that music throughout my college career. I heard it as I walked through campus lawns for the first time and felt my feet sink into mud. I heard it when my friends and I tried to scale the Bell Tower during a power outage. And I hear it now — moving forward, letting the tide carry me into Provost’s crescendo, happy and grateful and relieved to have felt, now and ever, the weight of those words.

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My 14,000 word weekend

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Inspiration: Leslie David, “Ornette”

I’m proud of a thing I did this weekend. I wrote 14,000 words in about two days. With chapter breaks and double-spacing, that translates to about 50 pages of the story I’m working on for my writing group. It’s my first draft and it’s a horrible mess with undeveloped characters, a wonky timeline, and lots of variations of the phrase “she looked,” but it’s there, and it’s done, and it’s the most I’ve ever written.

I had seven weeks to write this piece. I waited until two days before its deadline.

I read this article on the Atlantic about why writers are the worst procrastinators, and it resonated with me on a deeply emotional level (aside from the parenting tangent the author takes toward the end). Consider this quote by Alain de Botton from the piece: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

God, that’s me. And I feel like that’s a lot of people when they’re faced with the monumental task of creating something out of nothing and proving their worth.

For seven weeks, I sat thinking about my story — no, I sat thinking about anything but my story. About week six, I started sketching out an idea, and spent an hour working on my opening paragraph. I came up with what I thought was the perfect working title. I wrote sentences with semicolons, and then removed the semicolons, and then replaced them for artistic flare. I cleaned my fridge.

I did these things because I feel like I have something to prove. I feel like I need to write the very best I possible can every single time, and if I don’t, this major and this degree and every single saved bit of fanfiction on my computer’s “Archive” folder, hidden behind the “Taxes” folder, will be for naught.

That’s terrifying. And also hugely unhealthy.

Once I sat down on Saturday to write the brunt of my 14k, I entered this zone where I knew that everything I was typing was circular and unpolished and just not pretty. But aside from the frantic tick-tick-tapping of my fingers against the keys and knowledge of my looming deadline, a part of me understood that there was no possible way this could be something completely ready yet, because it was a first draft.

The author of that piece via the Atlantic, Megan McArdle, points out that we don’t see the ugly first drafts of great novels. We see the final product, after it has been labored over for a decade and editors have slashed bits of it out with red pen. And since I knew what I was writing on my first go wasn’t pure gold, I kept comparing myself to the writers I admire, and figuring that if I couldn’t compete with George Saunders or Amy Hempel or Benjamin Percy, why bother?

As I woke up early Sunday morning to write out my final two scenes, I realized why all of these gross first drafts matter. In the process of writing my first, complete, long-form story, I learned more than I’ve ever learned in two years of study. I was given a practical understanding of the idea that I still have a long ways to go in regards to character development, pacing, motivations — and I still have a lot to learn about confronting the emotions and experiences from my life that I want to incorporate into my stories.

It’s hard, and it’s messy, but it was goddamn worth it, and I think that’s why I’m proud of what I did. I waited until the last minute, sure — but when I finally did it, in two leg-numbing, blood-clotting sittings, I got a true sense of where my weaknesses lie.

And that’s a pretty great deal.

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