I had an epiphany this week: no one cares that I have an MFA.
Another epiphany immediately followed: no one should care.
It all sounds much more dramatic than it was, really. Sometimes after shows, visitors ask us, “So…did you, like, go to school for this or something?”
“I went to theatre school!” inevitably draws admiring murmurs and follow-up questions. “I have my Masters in Creative Writing!” not so much.
It’s a silly thing. I hate the small, venomous part of me that bristles at it. But you know what? We all have our vanities and our arrogances, and I want to be honest. It is such a silly thing, but sometimes it really sucks.
What helps is remembering why I got an MFA. I didn’t get it for glory. I got it so that I could become a better writer. No other reason. Degrees and workshops and grants are all very nice—but having them isn’t what matters. What matters is what you do with them.
Forging new opportunities.
And writing isn’t full of much glamour anyway. We tend to be paid last and least. We’re generally the silent partner, drafting proposals in the basement. Like good sound editing, good writing is often invisible, which doesn’t help if you’re after recognition.
GOBLIN 1: The Snow Queen doesn’t make any sense without goblins. We’ve got the most important part: there’s no story without us.
GOBLIN 2: But after this, we’re never seen again. No glory, no thanks, no nothing!
GOBLIN 1: It could be worse. (Pause) We could be playwrights.
The Snow Queen: a Pantomime, by Me (2016).
So if not for fame and fortune, why write?
Because we must; because we’re artists. But I’m not going to say, “Forget external validation.” That’s not realistic; most humans like praise. When you’ve worked really hard on something—put your heart and soul into it—pulled off the impossible on sheer grit and nerve—of course you want a clap on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to counterbalance that craving, we need an even stronger core of self-assurance and self-knowledge. Because the praise won’t always come. The kudos won’t. The appreciative murmurs won’t. And when that happens, an inner, steely kernel will keep you going. That’s your compass: external validation is a nice boost, but you don’t want to steer by it.
At the end of the day…yeah, I have a hungry ego. And I’ve worked to temper it, because it doesn’t have any place in the creative process. What good is praise and validation if you don’t value what you do? “Believe in yourself” sounds so cliché, but if you don’t, who will?
I think it’s one of the hardest things we face, as artists. Putting the mitts back on, wiping our faces, and striding out into the silent ring. But if you can know—if you can know, deep down—that what you’re doing is good and worthwhile—
Then the fight is already won.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I found “Dacw ‘Nghariad” by accident and immediately became obsessed. It’s one of those pieces that make stories flash before your eyes. Pretty sure this is a lullaby for my new novel’s protagonist… Of course, she’s not Welsh, but we’ll forget about that for now.
If you’ve not heard the news—my story “Wendigo” has won first place in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest! (You can read it here!) Now in its 38th year, this is considered one of the largest such contests in Canada, so that’s very exciting. Especially since while “Wendigo” asks a lot of difficult questions about art and artists…it’s also a straight-up fantasy story about cannibal ice-monsters.
But hey, “Six Stories” is also straight-up fantasy about faeries and folklore figures—and it got Ontario Arts Council funding. I seem to be doing well with Canadian cultural institutions this year.
It’s interesting—in the three (?!) years since I finished my undergrad, I’ve gotten a taste of the creative life’s feast-famine cycle. Admittedly, it’s a baby taste. Full-time writing with training wheels. Still, it’s good practice.
This has been a feast year, and I’m VERY grateful. So far in 2016…
- I got three full manuscript editing gigs
- Plus one partial that still helped
- The OAC funding came through
- This contest totally surprised me
And that’s the work I’m getting paid for now. It feels weird listing it all out. Talking about the business end of things feels uncouth, sometimes. But the business end is important. If you want to be a full-time writer, you need to face it eventually. At the end of the day, you need to ask, “Can I live off what my writing brings in? If so, how? If not, what can I do?”
Most people take dayjobs. I’m lucky enough that mine directly feeds my writing. I’m also lucky that I’m happy there. It’s a double-edged sword, though, because it’s seasonal.
Eight months = guaranteed paycheque.
Four months = KT makes a go as a full-time writer.
As long as my year-round writing can cover that off-season, I’m happy. Partly, it’s a matter of pride. I want to be able to say that my writing keeps the rent paid and the fridge full. And the uninterrupted four months of creative time are important to me. I don’t want to have to take a serving/retail job to make ends meet. I’d write less, and the goal is to write more—to eventually hit the point where I don’t need the museum.
(Although I suspect that I’d cut back my time, rather than bail on them entirely. I love it too much. It’s good for my writing. It keeps my social skills from rusting away. It’s home.)
So, you lay out what’s important to you. What you’re willing to compromise on (I’ll take on extra responsibilities around the house for cheaper rent) and what you’re not (I really don’t want to take a serving/retail job). For me, I’ve made the current arrangements work for three years.
But I’ve been crazy lucky. This was a feast year. 2014 was a feast year (Yeti’s Parole Officer and the East o’ the Sun libretto saved my bacon).
Last year was a famine.
There weren’t really any editing gigs. No major projects. No big sales. I’d squirreled some of my libretto paycheque away, so I survived, but I’ll admit that the wolf got a little close to the door. Then last fall, a number of things hit at once (I’ll miss my Stonecoast pals, but not the tuition) and I heard stealthy paws under the window again.
Feast and famine. For a long-range planner—a planner who needs a back-up plan, always, just in case—it can be maddening. Creative work is uncertain by nature. You can’t predict when the next feast will come, how long the next famine will last. Even when you do get lucrative projects, you can’t always guarantee when you’ll see the money. Advances come in lumps. For freelance gigs, I usually get paid half upfront, half on completion.
Uncertainty is the nature of the beast, but you can prepare as best you can. I have an emergency fund: rent and living expenses for a few months. Beyond that, I’m careful with money when it does come; always anticipating another stretch of famine. I’m thinking about what I could jump on right away—what contacts I could tap, what gigs I could land, what I could pull together quickly, if needed.
And yes, I’d totally pick up another day-job if necessary. Of course I would. I like eating and paying rent.
It’s another part of the writing life, one that bears careful pondering. For other takes on the business/monies end, check out these posts by my former Stonecoast mentor Theodora Goss and my pal Marie Bilodeau. They’ve much more experience at this than I do!
Hopefully, your feasts are long and your famines of inconsequential duration. 🙂
What I’m Listening to This Week
After all that talk about full time writing, I’m insanely close to returning to work. While I love gallivanting about like a bohemian artist, it does feel like it’s time to go back. I miss our shared desk. I miss the brewery. I miss gallivanting about like a Victorian guttersnipe. I miss walking through the village in the early morning, when the air is clear and dewy and everything feels brand-new…
So here’s a sentimental little piece, based on Dvořák’s New World Symphony. It always starts running through my head, this time of year.
I’ve been thinking about pride lately. Alas, as they occasionally do, my thoughts began spinning. Oh God, am I secretly an awful person and no one bothered to tell me? Am I really awful, like seriously un-talented, and I haven’t been able to hear the sniggers over my own pride ringing in my ears?
It’s been a fun week.
And of course, as many writers are wont to do, I got sucked into a Second-Guessing Spiral of Doom. Well, if I’m not as good as I thought at one thing…maybe I’m wrong about EVERYTHING ELSE. Maybe I should just put my head down and not call any attention to myself at all.
Except I have HEARTSTEALER coming out next month, so that’s not really an option.
And therein lies the paradox many authors face: we have both insane self-confidence and crippling insecurity. To even dare submit a story – heck, to even show it to another human being – you need to think that it’s good. If you don’t honestly think, “This story is so good, people I’ve never met will give me money for it,” then why are you wasting your time? Not to mention the editors’ time?
That’s not all, either. When you have sold things, you can very rarely get away with proceeding to sit quietly in the corner. Doesn’t matter how good your books are – if people can’t find them, they’re a whole lot less likely to buy them.
All of which means: if you are overly self-deprecating – because, hey, I’m just some Canadian kid who hasn’t actually done all that much – if you never speak up and out, if you deflect all attention away from you, if you don’t aggressively seek opportunities… Well, it’s still possible to have a career, but you’re setting up a lot of roadblocks for yourself.
So we can’t do away with pride. Great. That doesn’t help my roiling anxiety.
But then I thought: is taking pride in one’s work different from being proud?
Google didn’t have an answer. I wonder, though, if maybe we should be talking about respecting one’s own work. So not inflating one’s ego by extolling its virtues, but simply giving it the time and attention it needs. Part of respecting one’s work – and I think this is the key difference – is being able to accept criticism to make it better.
Because the difference between egoism and respecting the work is this: what’s it about? If it’s about YOU, and how it makes YOU feel, and why isn’t anyone paying attention to YOU – in other words, if it’s entirely personal – then we may be looking at pride.
If it’s about the work…accepting criticism that might hurt your feelings in order to make the work better, making the writing (not you and your awesomeness) the main focus, doing what you can to make sure the work gets what it needs…that might be a different matter.
Remembering too that no work is perfect. We can strive to make it so. We’ll never get there, but that’s no reason not to try. But when criticism comes a-knocking…it may spur your future works on to be even better, and future works need just same amount of respect. (And if your ego is a bit, uh, puffier, you may find people less inclined to read your future works, so there’s that angle on this whole “respect the work” thing too.)
There’s another word I’d like to throw out: audacity.
No, not that Audacity. The actual dictionary definition of audacity, which is, “the willingness to take bold risks.” This is a term that’s become very important to me, and not just because of the sound editing program.
It’s a good counterpoint to pride. Recently, I had a conversation in which it was suggested that if I’m self-publishing HEARTSTEALER, I must be very proud of it.
I have worked very hard on HEARTSTEALER. I believe in it. I believe there’s a place for it out there. But what this whole endeavour boils down to is audacity. This is a bold risk. Every time I’ve reached out to people for help, that’s audacity. My relentless pushing at the dayjob? Audacity. Also, sheer stubbornness, but that’s another post.
And podcasting. To have the sheer audacity to suggest to people that they might really like to spend their afternoons recording dialogue, and no worries, you’re totally going to figure out this whole audio editing thing before it goes live…
I like the term audacity because of the element of risk. Someone who is too over-confident doesn’t see any risk involved in these activities. Why would they? They’re awesome, so clearly, everything will work out. And when you don’t see the snakes, that’s when you get bit.
Creative types who push the envelope, who suggest new things, who pull other people aboard—they may not have any idea if it’ll actually work. Hence, it’s a risk. Being proud means assuming the dangers will never touch you. Having audacity means you see the dangers, and you’re willing to try anyway.
So respect your work. Be grateful with criticism, gracious with praise.
And above all: be audacious.
What I’m Listening To This Week
Oh, man, I love me some Verdi. La Traviata was the first opera I ever heard, and it’s still one of my favourites. Courtesan meets guy, courtesan loses guy, guy briefly reconciles with courtesan, courtesan dies of consumption.
Yeah, I consistently cry through the third act. Sue me.
Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora takes place after a party at Courtesan Violetta’s house: the dawn is breaking in the sky, and it’s time for the guests to go home. I love the exuberant, galloping introduction here. Also, Verdi writes really, really well for choruses: the lower and upper voices pass the melody off, back and forth, getting progressively louder and more intense, until we burst into a triumphant climax at 0:36, complete with crashing percussion.
The melody becomes almost march-like, nearly militaristic, and then the original light, peppy tune ushers us out. Sidebar: this modern production looks super interesting. Love where they placed the chorus, and how Violetta is left all alone…with a spinning clock, because her time is running out, get it???
So, in order to get time off for Stonecoast this July, I traded a whole bunch of shifts at work…which has resulted in me working eleven days straight. Right before that, I worked ten days straight—I had a day off in between the two stretches. Plus, I write at night.
I shouldn’t complain. I know people who work more hours, longer stretches, more stressful jobs.
But darn it, I really just want to sit alone by myself for a day. In the dark. And silence. Without people. Alone.
Huzzah for introversion!
As most people know, introversion isn’t about shyness or anti-sociability. It’s about energy production. Introverts generate energy within themselves, and lose it during social interaction. Important caveat: the energy loss varies from person to person. Chilling with friends takes energy, but significantly less than dealing with irate customers or dozens of strangers at a party. By contrast, extroverts generate energy through social interaction, and lose it when they have to be alone.
So ideally, for an introvert, life should look something like this:
And for an extrovert:
Energy loss more-or-less equals energy generation. For introverts, that means that they get enough alone time to balance out the social interaction (which, while fun, is expensive, energy-wise). Extroverts get enough people time to compensate for the times that they’re alone. Everyone is happy.
It doesn’t always work this way.
Sometimes, like at cons, the creative environment and awesomeness of seeing everyone face-to-face masks the energy loss. That’s why so many introverts collapse after conventions; we’ve been steadily losing energy all weekend, we just haven’t really noticed. Adrenaline does the same thing. We had a fairly busy weekend in the brewery recently—and man, I was flying.
Sample! Growler! Growler sample growler! RETURN GROWLER SAMPLEGROWLERSAMPLESAMPLE!
And then I went home and promptly crashed.
Since Balticon, however, my own graph has looked more like this:
It’s out of sync. My alone time isn’t enough to pay for the energy I’m spending on work, writing, and various other things. Think of a bank account. If my paycheque is suddenly slashed from $500 to $100/month (I’m using round numbers, bear with me), I’ll go into debt if I keep trying to pay my $200/month rent (again, I am pulling these numbers from the air).
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, your energy source is just as important as food and water. Extroverts need people. Introverts need solitude. Force them to go too long without their generator of choice, and bad things happen.
All of which explains my own exhaustion and irritability. Yeah, I’ll own up to that—I’m trying very, very hard, and I feel terrible after snapping at people, but it happens.
But what can we do? After all, at some point, every one of us will go through stretches like this.
Setting boundaries and limits helps, I think. I am protecting my few off-days. Communication, as well: explaining to people that you love them, AND ALSO need to sit alone by yourself in such solitude that you cannot even sense the presence of another human being.
And of course, knowing yourself and maybe planning for those stretches. For me, some of these extra shifts were unexpected; I’m trying to roll with it, but having strategies in place—carving out time with/without people, allowing yourself breaks, getting enough sleep and such, which I admit I struggle with—might have made this easier.
Ah well. Only a few more days. And then—
Cool Thing of the Week
Apparently, I’m getting a reputation as a lush! My ten-year-old self would be horrified. Two people sent me the same link to 18th century drink recipes—I raise my eyebrow at the ones with egg and cream, but some of them actually look quite good!
So, my laptop died.
It was never quite the same after I mailed it home from New Zealand. For a while, I had one consistently good USB port, one which was dodgy, and one dead. Then the other day, I noticed that my laptop wasn’t charging…even though it was plugged in.
Unplugging, re-plugging, and all sorts of fiddling did nothing. To make matters even more fun (whee!), I’m currently in Virginia on a three-week interning spin with my dear friends Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. So, a bit far from home.
Fortunately, Pip and Tee are wonderful people. They drove me to Best Buy and waited while the Geek Squad determined that they might be able to ship my laptop back to Canada, where Future Shop might be able to possibly replace the power port to maybe extend my laptop’s life another couple of weeks.
And then they patted my shoulder as I coughed up the money for a new laptop.
There is never a good time, but this could have been better (oh hai, MFA tuition). But the most striking part of this whole experience was transferring the files from the old machine to this new one. The issue wasn’t one of space (again, wonderful friends that Pip and Tee are, I had the use of all the external drives I could ask for).
No, the main issue was time. Once that battery goes, the old machine’s done.
(And yes, I know about pulling hard drives…but I’m in Virginia. I’m not sure how or if I can get the old laptop home.)
So it was like standing in a burning house, wondering, “What do I save? What do I grab first? What can I leave behind?” All the while knowing that every second of indecision brings you closer to that final shutdown.
It’s probably the historian in me, but I like having links to my own past. Detailed records, a personal archive that is there, even if I rarely dip into it. Maybe it’s a security thing, knowing that I can always reconstruct things if necessary.
Obviously, getting the writing to safety is always top priority when things get squirrelly, which is why I’m actually pretty good about backing things up.
Pictures and music vied for second place. A 2011 family trip to Costa Rica, the last we took before my dad died. My New Zealand photos. Even just images for Black Creek and this blog – more a matter of convenience and posterity, but still.
iTunes is fine, so I grabbed whatever extra stock music and sound effects I could. Luckily, I pulled the raw Hapax files ages ago (they were large and numerous), precisely because of this fear of, “What if I need to go back in one day?”
That’s a fear I face now, with the videos. I got the final cuts of all my Black Creek videos, but very little raw footage or sound files. I can’t see why I would ever need to rebuild those videos from scratch, but if ever someone asked, I probably couldn’t. That worries me, even though it’s completely irrational. Again, I blame my historian streak.
But at the end of the day, the important things are really the things that are me. The writing, the music, the photos. Most other things can be found again, edited again. Music is challenging to replace; writing and photos can be almost impossible.
Which is why I will give the customary “Back your stuff up” speech. When my laptop died, I already had the entirety of my fiction backed up elsewhere. I did go back for a few university essays, but the writing was safe.
Most of my photos are on Facebook (though there are always strays). I’ve used Google Drive more and more lately; it holds the music for the kids’ opera, the videos, and a few other random documents. I have my own intern Dropbox now.
It’s easier than ever to protect your data. Yes, emergencies happen. Yes, the unforeseen is…well, unforeseen. But if you can take any steps to mitigate potential disaster (knowing it’s not always possible)…then please, save yourself the heartache later.
Here are some photos that I would have been sad to lose.
With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, word count and pace-of-writing has been on my mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month challenges writers to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s 1667 words per day.
Word count’s a really personal thing. Some people have bigger ones, some have smaller ones, but as long as yours works for you and gets the job done, it’s probably fine.
(Yes, I’m twelve. Why do you ask?)
I’m a fast writer and I can slog. In my third year of university, I made the wonderful discovery that armed with a decent outline, I could write a paper in a day. A hard, brutal, brain-numbing day, but a single day.
When writing Strix 2.0, I was motivated to push it out very quickly. I rewrote the novel essentially from scratch from late April to late June: 80,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day.
Then I wrote the Victorian Dark Fantasy. There was no pushing involved with this book. It gushed out (*snerk*) from late July to late September: 100,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day with a few 5000-7000 word days.
I’m not convinced this way is better.
After all, here we are in late October, and what have I done since then?
Pretty well nothing. I rested for two weeks while my betas read, and then I’ve spent the last two weeks editing. I’ve written a few blog posts and such for the day job. Looking at my Whiteboard of Doom, I see several things due in the next two weeks, all of them hitting just when I’m really, really tired.
This is the thing: writing is draining. Not just in terms of long nights, it’s draining in that you’re pulling out raw emotion, distilling it down, and putting it on paper. For me, this was particularly true of the Victorian Dark Fantasy. In one sense, it was an easy book to write, because the words wouldn’t stop flowing. In another, it was incredibly difficult for precisely the same reason.
When I was a little kid, I ran a lot of cross-country. My strength lay in pacing—I understood that if I went off the start line like gangbusters, I’d be too tired to finish. Far better to take a steady pace and pass the early leads later on.
I don’t seem to be very good at that while writing. I charge out of the gate and sprint the whole way, and I think the only reason I haven’t collapsed so far is that I’m young and spry and excessively caffeinated.
It’s a weird balance, though. On the one hand, yes, I’d love to take things slowly and not feel exhausted by the end of every project. I’m reminded of Spoon Theory: you only have so many spoons, so you need to consciously choose how to spend them. But at the same…there are so many things I want to write. There are so many stories to tell. And frankly, writing’s been pretty important to the ol’ budget this year.
I guess finding the happy balance between WRITING ALL THE THINGS and not dying is another aspect of professionalism. Full time authors can’t burn out, because then their circumstances become very precarious. If you don’t write, you don’t eat—so it’s probably best to ensure you can write consistently for years and years to come. The secret I need to learn is that word count means very little if it kills you.
So to all of you starting NaNo tomorrow: best of luck, have fun, write as much as you are able—and take care of yourselves. We’re all here cheering!
Originally, this was going to be a post about Thanksgiving, and how my warm-and-fuzzy love for my friends and families (biological and otherwise) overcame my knee-jerk reaction of “Screw. You.” After all, I have a lot to be thankful for.
But then I was still feeling sad, so I left it. And then I wondered if I still talk about grief too much, and why can’t I be an adult and keep my feelings inside? And then I started panicking about being a burden and a Negative Nellie. Then I wrote a really long post about my absolute dependency on work/writing as a means of distracting my mind from itself, but I deleted it.
So, anxiety isn’t fun. Neither is grief. Mix the two of them, remove every distraction, and you have yourself quite a party.
And now I’m here, wondering if writing about the grieving process is brave or just irritating. Does it shine a light into the dark spaces to discover that none of us going this is alone? Or does it just shine it into the eyes of everyone else, making them throw their hands up and cry, “Owww!”
It’s a question of public vs private processing, I suppose. And it occurs to me that I can drag history into this. Last year, during one of our special Halloween weekends at the living history museum, I was assigned to be “in mourning.” I got to wear a special black dress, a veil, and gloves, park myself in front of a casket, and talk about mourning customs (in character). It was some of the most fun I’ve had at work.
I’m never doing it again.
But here’s where I’m going to make the connection (and adopt my Interpreter Voice). See, in the Victorian era, grief and mourning were hugely public displays. There were strict codes and timelines, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Dress was particularly prescribed. Widows wore full mourning—black clothing: especially crape, since it doesn’t combine well with anything—for a year. Second mourning followed for nine months. Widows still wore drab fabric, but with some trim and the veil worn back over the head. Finally, this all lightened to half mourning, a period of three to six months characterized by a gradual return to colours (greys, mauve, browns, etc.).
Children mourned their parents for a year.
Among the upper classes (and those aspiring to the upper classes) the grieving process was incredibly intricate and elaborate. This is where we find hearses drawn by black horses wearing black plumes, ornate headstones, long wakes with the body lying in repose…. During those first, numb days, as we were scrambling to make arrangements, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like for the Victorians.
After all, you’re not thinking clearly. You’re in shock. It’s very much like being in a dream; you look back on it later and wonder how any of it seemed to make any sense at the time (I remember showing up at choir rehearsal Tuesday night—two nights after—and being very confused as to why people were surprised to see me).
But I digress. My point was that while the outward display didn’t necessarily match what was happening on the inside, Victorian mourning didn’t hide itself. Somewhere along the line, we became uncomfortable with grief—our own and others’. We started shunting death aside. After the funeral, you’re kind of left to stumble along as best you can, never quite sure if you’re “doing it right.”
Of course, there is no right way, not really. That can be comforting, but sometimes, it’d be nice to know that the feelings at any given point are normal. Does this mean I prefer the Victorians’ mourning?
Not necessarily. It’s funny, though. Last fall, as I brightly responded to visitors’ comments about the casket’s small size with, “Wellington was big where it counted…in his heart!” I felt sorry for widows having to still wear mourning clothing two years on, because surely they’d be over it by then?
Now, I feel bad for the children, given only a year to mourn their parents. At least on the outside.
I guess no one, Victorian or otherwise, really knows how to handle grief. And perhaps that’s comforting. If no one knows what the heck is going on, no one expects you to have an answer.
But yeah, Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. I’m intensely thankful for all of you. Lots of hugs.
For a number of years, I Should Be Writing has been both one of my staple podcasts and an inspirational mantra. Personally, I’ve found it useful in re-directing my focus. Facebook’s hold is a lot easier to break when you can exclaim out loud, “Wait a second—I should be writing!”
It’s a principle we hear a lot. Writing every day keeps you writing, every day. A writer is someone who writes. Write or die. Don’t break the chain. The first rule is write. BIC: Bottom In Chair.
Again, all good ideas. If you’re spending your time on the Internet, TV, and random chores that really could wait a few hours, and getting a few hundred words every few days, your chances of finishing that story/novel/script are about nil.
However, this write-at-all-costs mindset overlooks the fact that sometimes, you really shouldn’t be writing.
I learned this the hard way. Looking back through the archives, I realize that I have been blogging about Strix/The Next One for far too long. This book has taken me too long. Partly, this is because I couldn’t find the way into the story. Partly, I realize in hindsight, I was writing when I shouldn’t have been.
Let’s rewind. Exactly one year ago, I was in New Zealand, starting Strix. I was experiencing culture shock. I was homesick. I was adapting to a new university. I was in a somewhat-difficult living situation. Then I was backpacking, never in one place for more than three days, writing in noisy hostels after being outside from sunrise to sunset.
The book I wrote was not very good.
When you look at how it was written, that’s perhaps not terribly surprising. Of course, I don’t want to pin all of Strix’s problems on the circumstances—realistically, I just didn’t do a very good job—but they certainly didn’t help.
While I was editing Strix, a lot of family stuff was happening. At one point, I was overwhelmed enough to stumble into a priest’s office.
A week after that, my dad died unexpectedly.
And yet, I still tried to edit the damn thing. I gave myself an extra month, ignored everyone telling me to take it slow, and churned out a first pass before fleeing to Virginia for a few days.
My first real, slow sinking feeling occurred when I realized I’d forgotten to include chapter twelve…and my first readers hadn’t noticed.
I sent Gabrielle an apology, and worked feverishly on a new first pass. A few weeks later, I got this DM: “I finished Strix. Can we chat?”
End result? I’m all but starting from scratch. And yes, Gabrielle was absolutely right (I cannot stress enough just how fortunate I am to work with her). It will be a much better book this way, and where before Strix felt like an obligation, now I’m actually excited to write it. And yes, she not only gave me permission to share this, she suggested it.
Hindsight is a powerful tool. Again, I take responsibility for Strix’s problems; I chose to keep writing in the face of advice to the contrary. However, it’s possible that if I had waited, I might not have found myself in the current situation.
Sometimes, it seems like we think we can push through anything, write through anything. After all, suffering feeds art, right? We can write through pain, turn it into grist for the mill, and ignore all stress and exhaustion in the name of our art.
There’s a guilt that builds up around not-writing. It can be blessing and curse: it keeps you writing, but sometimes it creates anxiety over “not being a writer” where there really isn’t cause for it. As regards to turning hardship into story…yes, this can be done. Writing is cheaper than therapy. However, there is a caveat. One of the best pieces of advice that I received (which I nodded at, agreed with, and then promptly didn’t act on) came from my ever-wise friend Blythe:
“You shouldn’t use things until you’ve dealt with them.”
Homesickness in Dunedin and grief in Toronto. Both colour Strix—neither did so in terribly effective ways. Mentally, psychologically, spiritually, I wasn’t ready. And that’s ok. If you are not ready, if you are not able, it is ok not to write. In fact, you probably shouldn’t be writing. It is easy to think in absolutes and hold writing above all else, but it can be damaging, and that hurts the quality of your work.
If you are in great physical or emotional pain, you may not write well.
If you are undergoing major life changes, you may not write well.
If your environment lacks stability, you may not write well.
If you have other major upheavals happening—work, family, whatever—that must be dealt with and require a great deal of energy, you may not write well.
Really, it’s ok. It’s natural, it’s human. But it’s worth recognizing. Know your limits, and know that waiting in the short term may save you lots of work in the long run. Sometimes, admitting, “I can’t” is braver than saying, “I’ll try.”
I’m still not functioning at 100%, but I know that I am functioning well enough, and that my current circumstances are peaceful and stable enough, to try Strix again. For reals, this time.
Best wishes to all of you on your own journeys—and remember to rest, if you need to.
I saw something like this, somewhere. I don’t recall where, now, but I thought it’d be fun (or at least, interesting) to chronicle my progress as I beat this paper into submission. Due to a combination of an even bigger paper, Ad Astra, and exams, this paper basically needs to get written today. Preferably before 10:00 pm.
7:36 am – Crawl out of bed. I’ve been semi-conscious for about an hour, having spent most of the night tossing and turning and dreaming of far too many people demanding beer tastings.
9:17 am – Apparently checking library hours would’ve been a good thing. My usual haunt doesn’t open for another hour, so I’ve relocated. I’m ok with that. Thanks to my ability to bike one-handed, I have a travel mug of coffee at my left. There’s no outlet nearby, so we’re going on battery power. And the essay starts now.
10:41 am – We’ve relocated again, as my usual library is now open and my battery died. Now I have a proper carrel and outlet. Essay is approximately 1.5 pages long…I got distracted by reading the news, and also by a friend’s editing job that seemed much more interesting and pressing than St. John.
11:11 am – I wish I could be done this essay.
12:02 pm – Essay is four pages long and has two pretty pictures. In one of nature’s cruel jokes, I feel both low-blood-sugar-y and nauseous. I need to eat, but I can think of only a few things less appealing right now. Braving the dining hall to see if I can stomach anything.
12:20 pm – An English muffin and hot chocolate with a side of awkwardness. Awesome. So glad to know I’m putting my few remaining free meals to good use. In other news, I think my stomach hates me. Oh well. Back to St. John.
12:27 pm – Screw it. My body really hates me. Calling a short break to mindlessly surf the web and wait for it to stop this nonsense.
3:06 pm – Closing in on 8 pages done. This is the first time in my university career that I have included pictures in an essay, and I like it. However, I am thirsty.
3:38 pm – The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Going home to rest. Will resume soon.
5:40 pm – I slept. There was also dinner. Bracing myself for another attack.
8:07 pm – Ok, so I got distracted. BUT I AM WRITING THE CONCLUSION NOW. FEAR ME, ESSAY! (Side note: Saint John is the patron saint of theologians, writers, and people at risk of burns. I am sometimes all of these things, so he’s totally got my back on this. Right?)
8:19 pm – DONE THE CONCLUSION. But…I still need a bibliography.
8:43 pm – DONE DONE I AM DONE!!! At 3661 words, four pictures, and 52 footnotes, we are done! Haha! Now I only have one giant paper to go!
But first…baking pretzels!