Filling the Void

(Or, Why We Don’t Write When We Finally Have Time to Write)

I never thought I’d be the type of person who hates being home all the time. When I had school, or work, or something to focus on, all I wanted was a couple days to stay in my pajamas and write. I never minded if some weekends turned out to be less full than others. The more time I had to myself, the better.

These days I have all the time in the world to stay in my pajamas and write. This drastic change in schedule alters my perception of what’s “work” and what’s “play.” Writing a novel and creating blog posts are now the things I should do, not the dreams that get me though the day. Focusing so much on hobbies then puts more pressure on producing an actual result. Without external motivation, or milestones achieved, it’s harder to delude myself into thinking my hobby will lead anywhere.

The absence of external stimuli creates another problem. Writing becomes much harder when thoughts calm. I think it’s why a blank page intimidates us. An average day provides us with menial tasks and responsibilities, so when we find something shiny to distract us (like a story idea), we grab onto it. That motivation is nowhere to be found when we finally get home and sit in front of our computers. Again, writing becomes the responsibility, not the distraction. We want to relax, and in that particular moment, small accomplishments like chores feel more satisfying than a few pages that probably won’t be any good anyway.

Hell, maybe this is just my version of “writer’s block,” aka “I don’t want to put real effort into my writing so I’m blaming the world.”

It’s partly because I’ve been writing for such a long time. I feel like I should have several stories published already, if not a novel. Once in a while I have to step back and remind myself there is no “deadline” in life, that everyone achieves at their own pace. A couple months ago I posted some of my original work to Scribophile. This might not seem like an accomplishment to anyone else, but it is for me because I never sought out constructive criticism like this before. Sure, I’d post on websites where I barely got readers, or send it to friends. Scribophile was the first place where I submitted my work for professional-quality criticism. All readers had good things to say but they also made me see that publication was a long way off, even further away than I’d thought.

But then, I suppose you could call that a milestone. It only took more than fifteen years to submit my writing for detailed feedback. Maybe I’ll submit to a publishing house in another fifteen years. I’m sure tons of writers are published for the first time in their 40s. How old was J.K. Rowling again?

This uncertain time in my life is messing me up. It looks like a chance to start over and finally start a career in writing, but in reality, it’s whatever I make of it. If I’m not ready, if things don’t work out, I have the rest of my life to try again. A writing practice happens without formal guidelines and restrictions, so I think sometimes our brains settle into a rut. We hold ourselves to outdated standards and forget to re-evaluate our goals. To use a smartphone analogy, it’s like we’re trying to operate a new phase in our lives without updating the software.

Going back to the blank page after a busy day, I think self-imposed timelines tie into  the “work vs. play” dilemma. It’s easy to fantasize about writing when we can’t actually sit down to write. When we do sit down in front of a computer to type up a masterpiece, we subconsciously pressure ourselves to write something good. We have limited time so we want to be productive when we do write. What we don’t realize is that, when we aim for perfection, we don’t write at all to avoid failure.

Maybe we should redirect this pressure. Maybe it’s time to view the blank page as a bigger failure than bad writing, that typing out crap is better than not typing at all. If we make an effort to write crap on a semi-regular basis, we might eventually produce non-crap on a regular basis. So for the moment I’m forgetting about publication, ignoring all my experience,  and aspiring to crap.

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The Sweet Spot

Usually I get post ideas by overthinking everything. Over the last few weeks, life has become so boring that I’m trying not to overthink everything because it drives me crazy (in a bad way). Seriously people – all I do is go to physical therapy or do my exercises. I socialize a bit but not enough to take up most of my week. So in my effort to not obsess, I’ve deprived myself of my main source for blog post ideas.

This isn’t all bad though. Boring can be positive, just like “exciting” can be negative.

Focus on my writing projects has drastically improved. I actually finished the first novella in my series and started the next one. Define Reality 2 is going well thanks to my outline. Meanwhile, a random burst of inspiration led to the outline for a short story. I’m going to enter it in contests when it’s written. I’ve said this before, but when my Define Reality series is complete, I also plan to query agents for the first time ever. This is the first project I’ve felt comfortable enough to send into the world (as in the world of publishing, instead of just posting online).

Recently, I wrote a post listing all the writing techniques I’ve accumulated over the years. I think it’s finally blended together to form a sustainable writing practice. The ideas I build on lead to full outlines, and I spend more time worrying about character voices or themes. I finish first drafts then still want to edit them. I’m still not comfortable volunteering details about my work “IRL” (because who honestly cares?) but I would send it to people if they asked to read it.

I’m ready to query agents. I’m ready to consider criticism and edit a piece until it works. Maybe, when my knees are taken care of, I might look into writing classes with the intention of actually taking them. Hell, maybe I should look into online programs now. (Though I can’t help feeling creative writing courses are a waste of time at this point – I’d rather just write.) This might be the boredom talking, but I’m ready for the next step – whatever it turns out to be.

 

Where Do I Start? (A Would-Be Freelancer’s Freak-Out)

Freelancing seems like a good option for me this summer. If everything goes according to plan I’ll be in a cast for months, so why not make some money from home? Between my journalism degree and creative writing experience, I can apply to a variety of gigs. Maybe I’ll even be a copy editor.

Then I actually looked for these writing and editing gigs. I’m finding plenty of websites for freelancers, but when I Google the names, articles tell me to avoid them. “Value your work even if you’re a newbie!” they say. “Don’t write for peanuts!”

Okay fine, thanks for the warning. Here’s the problem though – where do I apply if every company has a red flag attached to it? How do I trust instincts I don’t have yet?

I’m so confused. Help!

 

Why I Haven’t Taken a Real Creative Writing Class Yet

First, let me clear up what I mean by “real.” This isn’t a debate about online classes versus college programs.

I’ve been writing fiction since middle school, but I didn’t apply to my college’s creative writing program. The thought terrified me even at an age when it’s easy to be braver about something like this. I applied to the journalism program instead because hey, it was still writing, and I worked on my high school’s newspaper for two years (the most you could do at my school). I will say now that my journalism degree did help sharpen my skills.

In the back of my mind I planned to take whatever creative writing courses I could. There was no set minor, but they did have an “Intro to Creative Writing” class. I took it as soon as possible.

Big mistake. Huge. Julia-Roberts-telling-off-that-saleswoman HUGE.

Worst thing I could have done. The professor was out of his mind. While it might be normal for a class like that to switch from one form of writing to another (poetry…not my forte…to short stories, screenplays, etc.), I didn’t enjoy it at all. He insisted that I put more emotion in my assignments but offered no guidance on achieving this. How could I pour my heart into vague assignments that weren’t my favorite in the first place? He’d tell us to “write a poem” or “write a short story,” then give us a minimal critique before moving on. After a while I stopped trying altogether. Made me feel stupid for thinking I had an edge because of how much I’d written over the years. By the end, I felt like the worst one in my group.

The group critiques were useless by the way. The first five people would say something different, then the rest of the class would either agree or disagree with them.

(That’s what I meant by “real.” There’s this type of class, then there’s classes that focus on novels  or short stories. Taught by a professor who actually teaches.)

I mostly wrote fanfiction for years after that disaster. I’ll give Professor-What’s-His-Name (really can’t remember) that it was always difficult for me to connect with stories/characters emotionally. Maybe that’s why I never went the extra step to improve my writing in high school. At first glance I was better than average for my age, and I constantly thought of story concepts. One of my flaws – in writing and in life – is that sometimes I don’t follow through. Dozens of novels and short stories weren’t finished, or if they were, I didn’t go back to edit much. At most I showed a few short stories to very patient English teachers.

It was safer to write stories than to edit…or actually show them to people in my life. I’d rather do what I loved than have others tell me I should quit while I’m ahead.

This “secrecy” is probably why I haven’t published anything yet even though I’ve been writing for about fifteen years.

As for my current writing practice, I have gotten better on my own. Things finally clicked for me on that “emotional” level. Instead of focusing on the surface elements (plot, setting, characters), I started thinking of what I wanted to write about. What topics held my interest? What message did I want to send to readers, if anyone ever read what I wrote? How can you build a story around that? What characters do you need for that story, and what kind of plot would draw them together?

finally get it and it feels amazing now.  About damn time.

Maybe I’d have gotten my act together sooner if I’d taken some real creative writing classes, branched out, improved my craft instead of letting it plateau. I do regret it in hindsight.

Believe it or not, I’m still reluctant to take real writing classes. These days it’s because I’m stubborn and jaded. I don’t want some random “professor” or “expert” telling me what to write, or how I’m doing it wrong. Maybe that’s the wrong perspective but I can’t help it. Then there are my old insecurities. What if the class I pick turns out to have a crazy professor and indifferent students?

I might reconsider this if I find the right class. For now, I’ll keep working on my first draft.