One stranger who understands your experience exactly will do for you what hundreds of close friends and family who don’t understand cannot. It is the necessary palliative for the pain of stretching into change. It is the cool glass of water in hell. ~Laura McKowen
In my last post, I mentioned that I’m working on a book, and I’ve been avoiding writing about this project here because I’m not sure if I can do it. I suffer with all the known unknowns of this process, but the more I talk with other writers, the more I realize this feeling of “I might really suck at this” is pretty normal. I can’t see the forest for the trees because I haven’t been sure which forest I’m in for a very long time. Seeing 2019 to a close has helped me learn a few things about myself and my process as a writer. Here are a few things that I’m taking from 2019.
Being An Undergrad Didn’t Help Me
Contrary to what I dreamed about with going to college, it didn’t help me become a writer. Not one bit. Really. I did fall in love with the idea of being a teacher, so that was productive, and in my most naive moments, I thought I’d become a college professor who lived the life of the mind while writing the next great American novel during my sabbaticals. So cute, right? Would I advise a young person who wants to be a writer to skip college these days? No. I think everyone deserves an affordable college education who wants one. But let me tell ya, if you are filthy fucking rich and never have to worry about money ever again, take that gap year or five, write like crazy while you’re on the road and read and meet interesting people and then choose your college. But yes, go. If you’re poor, then yes, go immediately to your local community college and then try to transfer to the best school that pays most of your way. You’ll need that credential to find The Jobby Job that keeps you fed and living in doors in order to write. Don’t take private loans and floss everyday, Young One.
Being a Graduate Student (Twice, FFS!) Didn’t Help Me
This was another lie that I believed for almost a decade. If I could only find the right graduate program, I’d become a writer. In order to live the life of the mind as a college professor (hardee har har), you need to earn a masters degree or a PhD, I believed, and yes, that’s true, but again, unless you’re filthy fucking rich and never have to worry about money for the rest of your life, take a gap year or five between undergrad and grad school again (why not?), and then choose your grad school wisely. If you’re poor, skip that PhD. Definitely skip the MFA. Floss everyday for damn sure. Unless you have a full-ride and you never ever ever have to get into debt to be grad student, do it, Poor One. Telling people that you’re not that kind of doctor your whole life is confusing and hard. Just try to find a job you love.
Graduate school twice (gulp) taught me how to read All The Things. I’ve always loved reading, and I’ve had a public library card since I’ve been a kid (thanks, Mom!). Reading for graduate school taught me how to read, write, and dish it up for the professors and the people who publish academic work and for an audience who might be interested in my brain and it taught me you can write a run-on sentence and it can qualify as “creative writing” (see what I did?). Conceptual and technical writing is a skill, and one that takes years to hone. A lifetime.
Was it all worth it for the job that I have now? You bet. My last three gigs wouldn’t have happened without that Twice Grad School Experiment, and I’m grateful. So thankful.
But it didn’t help me become a writer.
Creative Writing Classes Didn’t Help Me
Hell is other people, and I’m pretty Sartre wrote that while sitting in a room with a bunch of poets competing for resources like fellowships, teaching assistantships, publications, and grants. Did I ever hate creative writing classes, the few that I took! Good grief, those sensitive souls. I’d listen to them in class and I sat wanting to peel off my skin. I’d work so hard to stop my eyes from rolling (this was really hard, I didn’t want to anger the teacher) while they complained about our reading assignments because it took away time from their writing. OMFG Who are you people? I would think. I wanted yell, “Get over yourself! Nobody fucking cares! You’re not that special or interesting. Really!” I quietly died inside every time a teacher wrote to tell me that I had book inside me on my assignments. Each time I would drink myself blind-to-blackout as I read those well-meaning and lovely comments from teachers. They were trying to show me a map to a destination I could not find on my own.
Write Drunk, Edit Sober
This was the biggest lie I told myself. I hugged this truth so hard it sprouted leaves and grew around me like kudzu until I disappeared. I drank and wrote in bars, hotel rooms, hotel bars, airports, restaurants, cafes. Any place where I could type and somebody would walk by and bring me another. I relished in the fact that I wasn’t that waitress anymore, and I wrote and wrote. Then I would stop, sometime around the third drink, and I’d watch the waitresses and remember how much I seethed with rage when I did that job. I’d feel that anger all again, and it became more vines of kudzu. And the next thing I knew, the drink was gone, and I hadn’t written any words. The cursor would blink as I said, “Sure, I’d love another drink.”
And the next day, I reread what I wrote, and it was total shit. Complete garbage. Like so fucking bad you wouldn’t think that I had gone to college much less completed several years of graduate school. I’d repeat the same stories that I thought I wanted to tell, or I’d jump off a cliff and rage my brains out about whatever-the-thing-was-that-made-me-angry-that-day. Shit nobody wants to read.
I had to work so hard to edit what I did write during those “writing sessions,” that I would just start all over.
I’ll write about this more another day. Not today.
So what does work? What is working?
I started last year to dabble with community-education classes, and the minute that teacher bored me, I started to write in class. Rude, I know. I used that time to just draft my thoughts. Normally, I’d sit there thinking of a million ways I could help the teacher improve, but instead I focused on me and my story. I also signed up for this class-like group, and I’ve committed to nine months of this process with meeting with other people about my writing. It’s been super-hard. My job can be very unpredictable, I have big responsibilities with my volunteer work sometimes, and sometimes at the end of the day, I’ve got nothing left in the tank. Luckily, the people in this program are generous, kind, and gracious even though I feel like a shitty student and a really awful participant. But I’m writing. And writing. And forgiving myself for not being the best student I can be. I clocked another 10k of words since I last published here, and I can see my second book way in the distance. So it’s working.
Talking To Writerly People Who Aren’t My Friends
This isn’t to say that my friends aren’t super-helpful and brilliant because they are. But they also know me and my bullshit too well. Or they lived alongside me during the stories that I’m writing, and they have their own versions that I want to ask them about when I hit the editing part of this process. So I don’t talk about it a whole lot. These new writer-strangers in my life (who are becoming friends as a result of this group) are really invested in themselves and their own stories, so they are an empathetic ear. The only thing we have time for is our writing, so that’s all we talk about. Writing. Reading. They are also giving me hope by their sharing their own processes and struggles. It’s one of the most surprising experiences for me.
Chatting Up a Person Who Is Coach-Like
I’m working with a coach-like person, and I’ll write more about this another time, but man, oh man, is she dissecting my work in ways that blow my mind. She’s younger than me, and she’s in the process of discovering her talents as an editor while writing her own book. She’s fucking brilliant. I’ve worked with a lot of editors and my work always gets better in the hands of somebody else. It’s one of the core principles that I love about Open education (the remixing and revising) so the editor-writer relationship is really important to me. When the right editor has my words in her hands, that’s where things get really amazing.
Reading A Shit-Ton
Last year, I filled a lot of non-work hours by reading books. More than usual. I set out to read a book a week, and then I did that sometime around August, so I changed the goal to 75. Then I hit 85 books on New Year’s Eve. Thank goodness for libraries and used books and e-Books that you can check-out from the library. After every book, I wrote something about that book. Not a book review, though sometimes I did.
Dissing All The Writerly Advice
I love books about creativity and I’ll slurp up any memoir you lay in front of me from writers, but I really detest this new-ish strand of advance that tells you that you have to have platform (FFS), a “why” and that helps you “brand yourself” and “market” to your following. The advice that tells you that unless you have over 10,000 “friends” on Facebook that you’ll never get a book deal. Welp. Fuck all that. Maybe that’s true. I’m just not going to chase that path. I love what brings me a paycheck and that whole business of trying to influence your market (so exhausting) with your brand as writer (so gross) gives me the same feeling as being in those Creative Writing classes (ugh). If you use the word “Influencer” in earnest within ten feet of me, I inwardly start to hope I can spontaneously combust and disappear.
Quick side-note: I reserve the right to change my mind about this advice above if a book deal should ever come down the pike, but I’m just not going to worry about building an audience while I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing. I do what I do on social media and it’s enough for me.
I’m A Writer. Who Knew?
I told a bunch of teachers this week who were very overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving their traditional textbooks that they should just worry about their own houses and then they can worry about their neighbors and their city and their states and the country and the world later. Just focus on your students. I asked them to write about the one thing that their students struggle to learn—not what they struggle to teach—what their students struggle to learn. Boy, did they write. It was an experiment, and I think the teachers got something out of it. We returned to their answers as they explored courses and resources. I totally dug it.
As I stood at the podium while they wrote, I realized that my biggest struggle with becoming a writer is feeling comfortable saying that I am a writer. I’ve struggled with saying I’m writer because I don’t really know what that means. But if I focus on my own house–this little room of my own that Ginny Woolf taught me to care about–then that’s it. That’s it. So simple. You just have to sit down and do the work. Yes.
A writing teacher shared this easy advice recently: Words becomes sentences. Sentences become paragraphs. Paragraphs become scenes. Scenes become chapters. Chapters become books.
And I believe this. I see this with my own work. That’s the change I’m stretching into.