Big Magic

I hadn’t read any Elizabeth Gilbert before now, but some of my writing friends were reading this book, and it looked intriguing. I’m always up for a nonfiction about the writing process, since that’s the best way to procrastinate from actually writing.

Through a series of loosely connected almost-vignettes, Gilbert talks about her writing process, Inspiration (with a capital I), and whatever blocks our creativity (namely fear). It’s interesting stuff, hearing about how other writers work. They make it sound so magical, you know? Well, except for Anne Lamott, whose Bird by Bird is still the best book on writing that most young writers could read.

Gilbert has some useful ways of looking at creativity and inspiration. She talks about fear like they are old friends. She talks about inviting her fear and anxiety to tea, so they can sit together amicably and still get the work done. I like that.

Sometimes I found the prose a bit too—patronizing. Keep your day job is practical advice, but a little hypocritical, coming from someone who wrote a book that hit the New York Times Bestseller List in such a big way. Not that any big-time author should mislead aspiring authors to believe that it’s always possible for them to hit the big leagues. But it comes across as patronizing when I hear people like Gilbert or Sanderson talk about the “odds.” Writers can be adults and make their own damn decisions. Besides, not everyone is in it for the money and glory. Sure, that’d be great—but most of us write because to not write is to slowly go insane.

Anyway, Big Magic was light, and a fairly quick read. There are some interesting ideas in it, and some cool anecdotes. It’s worth a read if you’re looking to procrastinate a little by reading a book about writing. I would probably go with Pressfield’s The War of Art if you’re looking for something more motivational. Which isn’t to say I didn’t want to write by the time I finished reading Big Magic. That’s the beauty of books about writing. Glamorize the process a little bit, make it feel like magic, and you can inspire a reluctant writer to hit that page again.

Writing with a New Baby

Babies sleep a lot. Except, it seems, when you want them to. My daughter will sleep in the car on the way to the grocery store, in the stroller the whole time we’re at the grocery store, and then for about two minutes after we get home. Which is just enough time to put away half of the groceries—the perishables, basically. Does she sleep at night? Sometimes. Does she sleep for long stretches of time? Sometimes.

The problem I didn’t think about before she was born is that whenever she’s asleep when we’re at home, I want to be sleeping, too. Or cooking, so that I can sate the ravenous hunger of a nursing mother. Or cleaning, so that all the burp cloths around the house get into the hamper before we do laundry again. Add in a full-time work schedule (which also adds: time spent cleaning breast pump parts + commute + putting on non-pajama clothes and brushing my hair + cooking/packing a lunch to bring + frustrating blocks of time where I have to beg her to wake up to feed before I leave in the morning…)—basically my time for writing has disappeared. Does this mean I can’t ever have a stolen minute or two to write? No. She’s on my lap right now squirming and I’m typing away. We just won’t mention that time she spit up onto my laptop keyboard, or how uncomfortable it is to lean at this awkward angle so that I can reach the keys with both hands and still keep her from falling off.

It’s frustrating, actually, how many minutes you recognize as “Oh, I could have been writing” minutes just as your little one begins to wake up and need you again. Supposedly breastfeeding even gets easier eventually, but at three months old it’s still pretty necessary for me to hold my boob in place for her, so she isn’t slipping off or smooshing her nose into it until she can’t breathe. Ever try to type with just one hand? I could probably get good at it eventually, but by the time I did she’ll have outgrown this phase and it won’t be necessary.

The point, really, is that even with the eight weeks of maternity leave, even with the naps she takes, even though she can’t talk yet and is only starting to be vaguely interested in toys—something always comes up. Writing always gets bumped down the list. It’s easy enough to do the dishes when you’re out of forks and the breast pump parts need to be clean again by tomorrow. Not so easy to put off those dishes and just write.

(Also, Netflix is evil. You sit down to nurse and you think, “I don’t want to type away super slowly with only one hand while I do this…” and so you turn on Netflix. Except an episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Is 45 minutes long, and you aren’t going to stop it halfway through just because baby girl is done eating. Even worse? Finding out you have HBO Go access through your in-laws cable subscription and finding 20 movies you’d love to watch…)

I thought, before I had her, that I would find plenty of time to write. It seemed inevitable. I would be healthy and whole again, after a very ill, soul-wrecking pregnancy. I failed to calculate all the extra minutes spent folding and unfolding that stroller, taking her for walks so she can see the world, staring at her cute face and talking to her to make her smile. They’re essential, all these extra moments. Even the hour you have to spend walking her up and down the hallway, bouncing her a little in your arms, while she fights off sleep because she just doesn’t wanna. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Truly. It’s just a sad consequence that I can’t write as much as I’d like to. I miss it, and sometimes that makes me really sad. She’s worth the trade-off, for sure. And yet…

Restless Legs and Alien Parasites

Arguably, the chances that I’m carrying an alien parasite a la face-eater are pretty slim. We’ve had two ultrasounds, and it looked pretty human at the second one (this doesn’t, however, rule out werewolf, because it wasn’t a full moon on the date of that ultrasound…). Still, when something at the crown of your enlarged belly seizes up and feels like you think it would feel if someone were to punch you and then just hold that force in place… Followed a few seconds later with a swift jab to the inside of your ribs that reminds you to start breathing again… It’s a little unsettling.

We already know that I’m not one of those women espousing the “joy” and “wonder” of pregnancy. Sure, I think it’s cool in a sort of weird way, that we can create life and all that. And since I believe in souls, I spend some of my time wondering how the hell the soul gets in there, and at what point in the procedure it enters, and whether I would be able to feel another soul inside my soul, or if they could even occupy the same space at the same time, though they probably wouldn’t have anything to do with the physical plane as I understand it… So yeah, mystical process of creation and all that. Women’s bodies are miraculous and whatever.

But dark humor is really how we’ve survived this pregnancy. You kind of have to, when your body is basically allergic to being pregnant, and you and your poor parasitic fetus almost die a couple times. If you’re not laughing about it you’re neck-deep in despair, and that’s not very productive or helpful. Heap on top of that the scorn from the rest of the world who sees you “making light” of this whole miracle of creation, because they’ve never gone through HG and probably never will, and therefore don’t understand an iota of your emotions or experience at this point…

The truth is, I’m probably going to be a great mom. I don’t say this out of arrogance (well okay, I can be pretty self-assured, but still). Being so sick, and so close to death, it gives you an interesting perspective. You realize what matters and what doesn’t. All the WEIGHT of society’s expectations, imaginary concepts like “career success,” it just starts to slough away. I don’t shower much when I’m this ill, but every time it feels like more and more layers are being scraped away. The surface stuff that doesn’t matter. The walls we’ve built up or had placed on us that are supposed to help us fit in with everyone else, protect ourselves and make “progress” in this strange world.

The fact is, everyone is always telling us what to think, how to behave, what to feel. Very rarely are we left to our own devices to discover what is unique and intrinsic to our own cores. I realized today that the first time I told the world I wanted to be a writer, the message I immediately got back was, “You’ll never be able to support yourself with that.” There are two implications there. 1) I’ll never be a good enough writer to make a living at it, like some writers are able to do. That’s an interesting one, and probably due more to the psychological baggage of the person saying the comment than an actual reflection of my talent (it was seventh grade, no one expected me to be a Hemingway or King or Rowling yet). And, 2) The way to measure “success” as a writer was connected to monetary reward.

Have you caught on yet? How silly that second implication is? It took me a while to see it. How much money we make tends to be all wrapped up in our feelings of self-worth, because, hey, America. Couple that with a generation like mine who’s fighting tooth and nail with the baby boomers for their jobs, and more often than not failing due to lack of experience because hey, we’re still young, and you’ve got a dangerous cocktail that plunges you into mad despair. Except, look at the writers I most admire. No, I take that back. Look at the people I most admire. They tend to also be writers. But they are people first. I think of my middle school English teacher. She saw the passion in our fumbling attempts at poetry and prose. She encouraged us, praised us, pushed us to open up that well of creativity and let it pour out through the pen. My 11th grade English teacher, who had us write essays on what we thought was important to the human experience. Who let us pick feminist books to read, and told us that our opinions mattered and that we were people, valid and important, regardless of the teenage hormones raging inside. My undergraduate creative writing professor, who realized how fragile a college student’s ego could be, who would couch criticism in encouragement just to see a student keep writing, because as soon as we stop, there’s where despair lies. My graduate professors, who realized how necessary and timely it was to deliver swift kicks to the ass when your dialogue was boring or nothing was working dammit.

What’s interesting about all of these people? They have day jobs. Teacher salaries, sure, which are woefully inadequate in America. But a lot of them are writers. Published writers. Hell, my graduate thesis professor has written so many books and short stories that his Wikipedia page lists only “Selected Works.” I’d say he’s pretty impossible to keep up with, the pace he writes at. So why teach? Along with a healthy appreciation for the profession, I imagine there’s some desire in there for many of these people to have a slightly more stable, reliable income. Maybe health insurance, if we even offer that to teachers (we do, right? Please tell me they get health insurance…).

So, is it true that the measure of a writer’s success is in how much money they make? I’d say no.

Is it true that the measure of a writer’s success is in whether or not they’re published? Again, I’d say no. There’s a part of us that wants to be heard, to connect with someone out there in the faceless multitude. It’s why we write. But does it have to be through traditional publishing, or does it have to happen within a certain time frame? No, and no.

I’m 25. I’ve got a graduate degree, but no completed manuscripts I’d be ready to send to agents. I’m about to have a baby, which people tell me will take up a lot of my time and energy for the next 18+ years. Should I be down on myself for not being published yet? Or should I use this time to reclaim my natural love of writing, the mysticism and passion that I felt back in the seventh grade?

Because, to me, that’s so much more important than money. Writing used to be so much fun. It had a sense of wonder, of discovery and adventure and exploration. I want to feel that again. And that means, for right now, separating “being published” from my definition of success as a writer.

So on these long nights, when the infuriating, mysterious cases of Restless Leg Syndrome descend and keep me from sleep (not for any proven reason, but just because I’m PREGNANT, like that’s a specific medical, chemical, hormonal, genetic reason for something…), maybe I’ll be here, trying to reclaim that sense of wonder.


You can find the other posts in my series on hyperemesis gravidarum here.

I’ve Forgotten How to Write

I’ve been blocked for a while on the novel I’m writing. Ask me any time in the past six or seven years if writer’s block is a real thing, I would say, “Nope.” I acknowledge that there’s a balance between inspiration, imagination, dedication and application. “Filling up the creative well” is what some people call it. I always liked the lyricism of the “my cup runneth over” line when I was a kid, and I always pictured it like love. When you give love away, you don’t feel empty. You feel filled up. The way I feel when I give my time to the suicide crisis lines, or when I hold off on getting up because my cat is in my lap and comfortable, or when I tell my husband to go to sleep even though we’re in the middle of a conversation, because he’s tired and having trouble staying awake.

Except, I can’t figure out quite how writing fits into that. It isn’t just that you can write and write and write and keep being filled up. NaNoWriMo kind of supposes that, but then most writers end up burning out when they have to write that much more than they normally would. And some people theorize that artists need time away from “creating” in order to fill up those creative wells. Like when you’re mulling over a problem, and you take a shower or do the dishes and stop thinking about it, and then the solution comes to you. Or when you sleep on something, and your subconscious works out the kinks and you wake up knowing what to do.

I did a Google search for “I’ve forgotten how to write.” A curious number of hits were actually referencing the physical process involving pen and paper, which I’m sure someone who wants to vilify technology could turn into a big deal. Something about how we can type on keyboards but the fine motor skills of manipulating pens are degrading, and the art of handwriting is going to be lost. Whatever. I was able to find some other posts from people who share my misery. People who are probably just as paralyzed by perfectionistic goals as I am. The most common advice tends to be, write anyway. As long as you’re writing something, no matter how awful it is, you’re still writing. And it will come back to you.

I open up Scrivener to my novel-in-progress, though, and I’m faced with my caps-lock silent screams of frustration marring my usual writing field: “UGH STILL WRITING IN PRESENT TENSE” and “HOW DO YOU WRITE IN PAST TENSE?”

I’m overthinking it. The whole process. My brain gets stuck on there being some magical code. I’m all trained up to be able to analyze a story, an arc, a sentence. If I can point at a piece of writing and say “that’s good,” doesn’t it mean that those sentences, that arc, that story, contains something that is objectively good? If I can say that tense shifts in the middle of a paragraph are “bad” writing, that means there’s clearly identifiable “good” writing. And that means that I should be able to learn it, probably by studying other good writing.

The problem with this is probably pretty clear to a bunch of other people. And my logic brain can point to it exactly: art and the pleasure we take from it is subjective. ALWAYS. His Dark Materials rocked my world and continues to do so any time I read or listen to it. I come across an article by Philip Pullman and I can’t stop sighing over the beautiful cadence of his writing, like a lovesick teenager. So if his writing is so damn good, how is it that a friend of mine quit reading The Golden Compass, because he just wasn’t that interested? That shouldn’t be allowed. It shouldn’t exist, in this universe in my head where Philip Pullman is objectively the best author ever. BUT THERE IS NO OBJECTIVITY WHEN IT COMES TO ART.

And my brain has trouble accepting that.

I’ve written the beginning of this novel more times than I can count. The names of the protagonists, as well as the scenario for the apocalypse, haven’t changed. Everything else is unrecognizable. I’ve tried past tense with a limited third person POV. I’ve tried snarky third person narrator. I’ve tried first person, present tense, I’ve even delved so embarassingly deep into free indirect discourse that I might as well call it stream of consciousness. I read Hunger Games and think that must be the secret. First person, present tense, emotionally scarred protagonist just concerned with survival and protecting her loved ones. I read The Name of the Wind and I think first person is still the trick, but with an older, wiser narrator, slightly nostalgic and sometimes contrite. I read The Magicians and think that third person is classic, it’s Harry Potter, it’s Lord of the Rings, it’s tried and true and why would I ever consider abandoning it.

There’s no mysticism in the process for me anymore. There’s no moment when my characters speak to me, and the purpose of the story stands out, and one tense and POV shackle themselves to the core of this creation so that I can’t imagine it being expressed in any other way. The magic leaves, when you’re trying so hard to figure out where it resides and how to capture it for yourself. I should have learned something from Kvothe and how he learns the name of something.

Even now, my brain is saying “Okay, so the trick is to let yourself go more often, let the subconscious work it out.” I’m still trying to think it through. Trying to rationalize something that can’t be rationalized at this stage. First drafts are the CREATIVE part of the process. Editing is all well and good. I know how to edit. I know how to tweak and twist and somehow create better writing than what was originally there. But to get to that stage, I have to actually create the first draft. And I’m so paralyzed with fear about how awful it will be that I make excuses and over-analyze and get stuck in my head. It’s the only time I could wish I hadn’t got that MFA that makes me so “qualified” to judge relative quality. If I didn’t know whether writing was good or bad, I wouldn’t have to worry about which category my own fell into.

The internet, lovely thing that it is, assures me that I’m not alone. Other writers face this same problem. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block. I don’t believe that writers can only create when their muse is in the house, so to speak. But I would call it standing in my own way. Self-sabotage on a grand yet intricate scale. And I don’t know how to shut it off. I don’t know how to reclaim the mysticism and the magic. I don’t know how to step out of my own damn way and let the creativity out. I don’t know how to stop being so damn scared, all the time. Scared of success.

Gods, maybe I need to go back to therapy. *Sigh*