Champagne/Lava

I haven’t written in months. My head is starting to feel like the cork in a champagne bottle. The pressure of unexpressed things is building steadily. First it manifests as a nagging need unmet–the perennial itch I can’t scratch, or at least won’t scratch yet. Then it becomes an annoying flood of ideas. Half-baked images, random notions, elusive dust of stories sometimes floating sometimes ramming into my mind; then the dust becomes a snowball, and gathers momentum: story potentials nag me, they poke at my consciousness, they try to get my attention. I tend to wait for this pressure to become near unbearable. If there is other stuff in my life, like an impending move, distracting me from my writing, the pressure becomes volcanic, painful to my psyche, and then in a moment of torment, I finally surrender.

Today, I am writing something new again. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.

The Death of Procrastination

I have finally killed procrastination for good. Allow me to qualify this statement by adding some specificity.

I have finally mastered a student’s enemy: schoolwork-related procrastination. I’m still quite the procrastinator when it comes to several other important life arenas (cleaning, you know who you are and i curse you), but I feel that as a student, I’m making rapid headway.

Here’s my trick. I love being done with assignments ahead of schedule and not having to worry anymore far more than I love goofing off until the last possible second. I rather be calm. I rather feel a bit smug and have a cool summery beverage. I rather watch TV with lovely boyfriend in state of relaxed joy and indulgence.

It’s kind of amazing how different I am as an adult student compared to how I was as an undergrad. I think this is due to several factors. The most important factor being: I know exactly what I’m giving up in order to pursue my studies: All that time with friends and family. All that time at the movies. All those Center City Sips outings I’m not going on. All those story slams I can’t participate in. All the Free Library author events I can’t attend. They have a price. So I’m going to be as responsible to myself as I can be, and I’m going to try to reduce the stress on myself and all those I love as best I can by getting ahead whenever I can. Plus, it’s kind of fun. Yes, I also happen to be a total nerd.

New Editing Eyes, Old Writing Sins

here’s a quick list of my writing sins (likely incomplete):

  • I say all cool things I think of twice, or more.
  • My narrative pacing requires tuning–I either rush or linger too long
  • My plots (do they exist?)
  • I underwrite certain key points, or bury them
  • I leave awkward phrasing lying around
  • I like ideas and have too many extraneous bits

and here’s a quick list of my fixes (still under development):

  • I have to pick my favorite image (sometimes, I just toss a coin)
  • I’m cutting down that which does not move the story forward
  • I focus on introducing conflict, or at least suspense, and unforeseen developments into the story
  • I try to make evident the central point(s) of the story
  • I read and reread and make others read out loud, each iteration, so I can figure out what language is confusing or awkward
  • By having a storyline, and focusing on momentum in the beginning and end, I can kill the extras

I’ve massively revised three stories in ten days. It’s been a luxurious stretch — I’ve been indulging in a slight, but growing feeling of mastery over my words and storytelling. Ladies and gentlemen, this is as exciting as writing gets.

Here’s a bonsai metaphor–as a writer, you keep trimming and guiding the growing thing and you hope you don’t end up with a horrifying shapeless garbled web of a bush, and you try not to trim down until you have a stick, but both are tempting avenues. The big trick is to somehow visualize the emerging shape before it’s actually there and then encourage its emergence — on paper. [You have to imagine a ghost of a story into being.] (You have to terrify the page into surrender.) I’ll stop my metaphors here, but you get the picture: Gardener, warrior, Voodoo priest, these are the components of authorship. Let’s throw in monastic novice as well, because although this post is lofty, my writing experience is one of extreme humility and short lived aha moments.

The turning point was watching a brilliant editor, in my case Ellen Parker of FRiGG Magazine, edit down my sleeping beauty story–she helped me increase the narrative speed, cleared the brush of unnecessary ideas, and unburied the ending. It was great observing someone else at work on my text. It liberated me to rework my other texts. Her approach to polishing my story gave me insight into my writing sins and how to move beyond them. I’ve been frantically practicing these skills, and now school starts again.

 

Plot for the Plotless (like me)

Sometimes I look in the mirror of craft and this is what I see: Too many notions, concepts and fancies oozing out of my brain and too few finished stories. There’s good reason that I started my writing career as a poet–I’m full of atmospheric images, but I’m not so good on the plot thing. The plot thing I’m told is largely the point of storytelling. This makes me feel a little bit sad, but it’s also something to strive for.

I tend to get lost in the weeds of images or moods, or possibilities. I hate to define too closely, I want lots of room for my reader to embellish what’s on the page. Or maybe this is laziness. My limitations explain my tendency to re-write fairy tales. Fairy tales give me something to imagine against. Even when I end up writing something wildly different, at least I had a starting point, an arc to reference. This also explains my creative non-fiction habits. I like to re-purpose what exists.

But I do like to write new things, stories that have never existed before (in as much as that’s possible for me, someone who loves stories and has spent her life absorbing other story tellers’ narratives). When I write original fiction, I have to write it in layers. I have to re-write and redirect, edit after edit, isolating each particular strand of the narrative I want to explore. It takes me some time to refresh my ideas. So after each edit, I need to leave my story alone for a while. A few months later, I can revisit, identify a new strand of story to explore, and layer that in, and re-balance what’s already on the page to accommodate this new idea of mine.

As you can imagine, this is a lengthy exploratory process–why did I write what I wrote in the first place, what was I trying to say, which of the many narrative doors I’ve opened do I really want to wander into? But the process does eventually get me to some kind of movement in the story. My characters do change over time, as I do while writing them.

The bad news is that it takes me years to write my way through just one of my stories. Oh well, on with writing.

Ryan Gosling Cheer

I find it fascinating that professionals, okay mostly women, of all stripes are using the Ryan Gosling meme to remind themselves that the work they do is important, or what they’re learning is important, or that being a feminist is important. It’s great to see popular culture re-purposed for personal cheer rather than commercial goals. Special bonus when that culture happens to have dreamy blue eyes (though I’m not one for blonds).

I love re-purposing, repackaging, re-imagining life, and if takes Ryan Gosling’s face and body to get a few more PhDs minted, then yay for them, yay for him, and yay for this online world where people with blogs can transform mass culture into something intimate, funny and unexpected again.

Conflicting feelings/Imaginary Cat Bonding

I would probably feel better about being so lazy today if I had a cat. The cat and I could nap together, in solidarity, and awake and eat together in solidarity, and engage in some light grooming, a few stretches, some prancing about, and finally, more triumphant, self-satisfied napping. This is basically a summary of my cat-less day one of my luxurious two-week vacation. I haven’t been away from work for two weeks in a year. It feels weird and full of potential.

Maybe this imaginary cat idea is a fantastic notion–if I come to terms with my cat-like irresponsibility/laziness, I will be able to enjoy my professional grade goofing off without the typical guilt. Also, as a non cat with catlike tendencies, I get to enjoy great things like reading novels. Cat-like humans really have it all.

Maybe I need to get more structures and schedule my goofing off? Make it an official part of my vacation time. What would a good ratio be? 2/3 goofing off, 1/3 productive use of time/chores/writing/visiting with friends?

I’m entitled to goofing off. I’ve earned it. So why do I feel so guilty? Perhaps it’s because my xmas presents are un-wrapped. Maybe it’s because my final xmas package has not visited the post office yet. It could be that I’m under attack–my dormant, on-hold to-do list has awoken from its slumber and is acting like a starving angry Godzilla in need of attention.

The Godzilla is roaring while I nap. My napping powers are strong, and To-do Godzilla is ambitious, but has a mute button that I’m pushing repeatedly.

Some of the guilt (of course) is writing related. I got excellent feedback from my clever writing group on Monday on my latest iteration of my fairy tale retelling of snow white, and I have a lot to do. So much to do. I’m looking forward to tackling the revision, while being full of apprehension. Nothing fills me with so much excitement and trepidation as the looming revision process. For now, my proactive focus on napping means I’m going to let my trepidation fill me up, like a battery, and then deal with it.

It’s all about the diversion processes (at which I so excel). Good luck to all of us in facing off with the holidaze and our December To-do Godzillas.
Merry merry.

India!

I originally wanted to call this blog post, India will have us by the throat (I’ll explain later).

My first day here I thought that everyone was incredibly nice. That as much as I’ve been kindly treated and welcomed in Rio and Hong Kong, by far, people in India have been kinder and more welcoming.

What I noticed in my second and following days was that the people I ran into in India were incredibly ambitious. There is a hunger for advancement and hard work in this country which I have rarely seen in the western world. Delhi puts Manhattan work standards to shame. Everyone I’ve run into here is putting forth their dearest personal best, seeking a touch of recognition. A billion smart, kind welcoming people, eager for their share of the middle class, and willing to work six days a week, 12 hours a day to get it, versus Westerners and their comfy standards of living. Oh my. There’s an education gap to bridge, but it won’t last forever.

I always supposed the 21st century would be fascinating. And the hype on India is off the mark, but not wrong. There is a wonderful pool of cosmopolitan, tolerant, flexible, sophisticated people here.

Everyone talks about the poverty in this country. That was brought home for me when I saw a very poor person on the side of the street very lovingly shake the dirt out from a stretch of burlap sackcloth, which was obviously his most treasured property, and then fold it with great care.

There’s always more to say, but I’ll leave it here for now.

The Business of Writing: A New Hope

I’ve been quite the bee tonight. I sent off my query letter and memoir excerpt to several agents. I also finished a short, 12-page, book proposal to accompany my query, should an agent require this.

I’m expecting a flurry of thanks but no thanks, which is as it should be. But I have to start somewhere, and I’m starting to look for that place tonight.

I should be a) reading about the New Deal for class, or b) packing for my one week work trip to New Delhi, but instead I am c) blogging, while what I really wish I were doing is d) watching a new episode of the BBC’s Sherlock.

No wonder I feel so tired.

PS: yes, the Star Wars reference in my title is totally deliberate. My geek credentials are Platinum.

PPS: Reasonable Girl demands that I get my act together and read. While Grad School doesn’t worry about me, I must worry a bit about Grad School.

Reasonable Girl Vs. Buzzee Bee

So I have a new alter ego in my life: busy bee, or for marketing purposes, Buzzee Bee. Buzzee Bee is frantically roaming the world, going from project to project, trying to suck up all the inspiration before the season’s up.

Reasonable Girl, who would like to take a measured, polite assessment of what’s doable and get a good night’s sleep, is still in there, but she’s getting shouted over by Buzzee Bee.

I was trying to embrace Reasonable Girl, but I find myself staying up later and later, pushing myself to get more and more done, and constantly feeling preoccupied, slightly overwhelmed, and often (and most lethally): unfocused.

I’m hoping that my assuming the guise of Buzzee Bee for Halloween will somehow be an act of healing exorcism and that on November 1, I can cut off my wings, put my Reasonable Girl cape back on and get a bit more sleep.

One Hour of Reading Explains Two Years of Writing

Tonight, I’ve been reading about (big words coming, so don’t freak out and abandon me here) Applied Symbolic Interactionism. It’s a social work theory formulated from 1890 to 1910 (stay with me…) and it freaking answers every question that drove the writing of my memoir. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It only answers or speaks to half the chapters. The chapter where I write in the second person, and my story about Frenchness and Identity–this theory can handle these questions. This theoretical framework specifically deals with multiple identities–internal and external, past and future, and across multiple clubs (e.g., France/America). Holy shit. That’s what my memoir is about: The imaginary, and the differences between the labels you inherit or are given and those you select for yourself. It’s deeply weird to have my narrative, story-based pieces explained in a structured theoretical framework. In one hour of reading what took me two years to write was explained. Can you guess how weird I feel right now?

Maybe I should be relieved that practitioners have been refining the theory for 120+ years. Does the existence of an explanatory theory nuke the need for a storytelling work? I don’t think so. But it’s a little bit like living in colonial Philadelphia with some back pain and being handed an x-ray of my spine. Several social work theorists can explain in elegant symbolic grammar what my brain has been toying with. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

It does confirm my decision to undertake these studies–I’m studying the right field which asks exactly the kinds of questions my brain likes to toy with. That’s a terrifyingly sexy turn of events. I have been enjoying the intellectual, moral and emotional stimulation of my schooling. But tonight I feel a little bit like Moses reading up on Exodus in the King James Bible.

I’m not sure what to with all this, or how it will impact my revision process, but I’m pretty freaking psyched and amazed, and with that, I’ll go read some more.

Tonight’s reward

Tonight I get to read. What I want: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
I figure I don’t have to be perfectly structured and achieving at all times. (Right?) I’ve got homework covered for the week. I’ve updated my blog site. I’ve submitted memoir chapters to nine literary venues in two days. I’ve done laundry and dishes. I’ve attended class. I’ve napped and tried to take it easy so I can return to work. Tonight, I made miso soup so I could finally drink something other than tea and juice. I’m coughing pretty badly, and feeling sorry for my sick self. So I get to read. There. More interesting blogs to follow in the ripeness of time.
(PS: I’m trying to be Reasonable Girl, because I don’t have a choice. I sound like an old smoker when I hack and cough. I’m all mucus and viscous across multiple facial orifices. It’s pity party and distraction time.)

Mind blowing homework

Last night I did some homework and I’ve never had such an intense, reflective, and enthusiastic response to academic reading. I’ve landed on a planet of like-minded thinkers. My very own secret society. My brain is being stretched in good ways, really hard and really fast. Emerging notions:

1) I magically happened upon the right academic discipline–the books I’m reading are reflecting my values back to me, but in a really structured, theoretical, thoughtful academic way. It’s like there’s an alternate dimension where all my values and concerns about the structure of society are taken into account, and that dimension (for me) is called Social Work. The downside is that my homework makes me question the memoir I’ve just spent two years writing. I realize that in another three years, at the end of this training, I would write a totally different book. But maybe that’s something to look forward to–a new memoir about becoming a social worker.

2) I’m begin forced to ask some really big questions about my values and my core beliefs about American society and human life, and what I believe is the best way to go about helping society change. These questions can’t be asked without a measure of pragmatic skepticism. Caught between idealism, professionalism, and pragmatic skepticism, I feel really vulnerable. My new professional orientation speaks to a set of beliefs that will need to be examined and defended. I’m realizing my own mixed feelings. I want to help, but I am skeptical of the helping orientation because it has a such a spotty history.

3) I’ve stumbled into a conversation about theory. After a lifetime of avoiding theory, the time has come to immerse myself in theoretical mapping. I’m being pushed in my formal social work training to take theory into account and try to have a lively relationship with it, moving back and forth between theory and practice, letting each realm inform the other in an endless feedback loop.

These are the thoughts provoked after exactly 2.5 hours of class and 2.5 hours of homework. My mind is gonna get blown on a weekly basis. I guess I better get used to it.