So, Uh, It’s Been a While

And this time I’m not just blaming it on the fact that I can never remember any of my passwords, including for this blog.

For the past two weeks, we all know that the world has almost come to a total pause as we social distance and quarantine ourselves in the name of flattening the curve. Kids are home from school, all but essential workers are working from home, restaurants and bars are shut down. Quite the appropriate time to start reading Station Eleven.

As an introvert, I joke that quarantine isn’t much different than what my daily life looked like before the coronapocalypse of 2020. But it feels different when everyone else is in the same situation. As tough as these days have been, I think it’s forcing us to reckon with what we do with ourselves when we don’t have as many distractions, when we don’t have places to go. Maybe God or the universe or (gasp) aliens are making us take a good long look at ourselves.

It’s made us get more creative about how we connect. I’ve made more FaceTime calls and video chats over the past week, both for my online graduate school classes and for fun chats with friends, than I have in my whole life.

And I’ve been learning that more forced time at home doesn’t have to mean more productivity. I thought I would spend every free moment working on my book, but it’s hard to focus in these challenging times, especially when there’s no clear division between work time and chill time. Or, you know, apocalypse-anxiety time.

One of the scariest things about the pandemic is we don’t know how long it will last. My hope for all of you is that not only do you and your loved ones stay healthy, but that you emerge from these seriously weird days with a renewed understanding of what it means to connect even if we have to be apart.

Sending love, and poems.

You Are a Writer

This is my entry for Positive Writer’s “Your Calling, Your Story” contest.

I’m not the picture of a successful writer. So far, I haven’t had a novel published by a major publisher, let alone become a New York Times bestseller or await a movie/TV adaptation. I don’t yet have an agent, and my social media following is still relatively small. My writing credits are a smattering of articles and poems here and there.

But none of this bothers me. In fact, I’m proud of where I am.

Comparing my journey to those of other writers is fruitless and unproductive, a mere distraction from the real task: writing. Even more importantly, in the last few years, despite more rejections than I can count, I’ve worn more confidently the “writer” label. And I believe you can, too.

Who am I? Why does a counseling graduate student have anything to say about writing? As a child, I loved stories and books. Since I was three, I’ve been basically reading and writing nonstop. But when I was going to college, I couldn’t figure out how to turn my passion for writing into a productive career. I believed, like many other people, that you needed extra-special talent and extra connections to become a full-time writer, and you probably wouldn’t make much money unless you become a household name.

I was debating between a major in English or psychology. I could’ve doubled and done both, but I didn’t want to overload my schedule. So I went with psych, thinking then at least I could help others in a concrete way and not have to deal with blank stares when I said I didn’t want to become an English teacher.

I loved my major (I still love it enough to get a master’s in it), but I still persisted in my writing hobby. By my sophomore spring break, I’d completed the first draft of my first novel. I learned everything I know about writing novels (and revising them, and revising again) from reading blogs and websites about the writing craft. I learned the importance of story structure and external feedback, two elements of the writing life I still swear by today (and I think most other writers do, as well).

All along, I had been hesitant about taking formal writing classes – who can really teach creativity? But when my junior year rolled around, I wanted to formalize my writing education a little so I would force myself to take it more seriously. I picked up a minor in creative writing, and my first class was in something I had never tried: playwriting.

This was really the first time my creative work had been open to critique from my peers and friends, as well as a qualified professor. This was also one of the first times I felt validated as a creator. There were bumps in my story to smooth out, times when I really didn’t know what to do next. But by the end of the semester, I was proud of my finished product, and much more confident in my identity as a writer.

Around this time (well, I might have known it all along, but this was the first time I was able to put it into words, ironically enough), I realized the overlap between writing and psychology. I knew journaling was commonly used in mental health practice. I knew I felt better after writing, and I knew the stories I had written often showed me truths about myself that I hadn’t even intended to face. Now, I’m always seeking ways I can integrate my passions, and I don’t intend to give up on either.

“Writer” doesn’t have to be in your job description for your words to matter. If you have something to say, you’re already halfway there. I didn’t have to wait for any publication credits, milestones, or validation. I became a writer when I became comfortable calling myself one.

Writing is Not Life

Even though I routinely got mistaken for an English major right through my last semester of college, I’ve always struggled to balance the time I spend writing with the time I commit to my other pursuits.

Writers are routinely portrayed as lonely hermits who churn out the contents of their souls in isolated rooms (perhaps a cabin in the woods) and when inspiration hits, don’t have time for anything as mundane as a day job to pay the bills. Maybe they don’t have bills. Teach me your ways?

But that’s not my life. I decided not to go to school for writing (even though I did minor in creative writing) because I knew I would have to write, and could write, without having a degree sanctioning it. If I had to prioritize writing after my regular job, that would demonstrate an extra commitment to the craft.

And I’ve always loved diversifying and connecting interests. My lifelong love of storytelling was probably what got me into psychology in the first place.

Earlier this week, I read author Jennifer Weiner’s advice for writers. What struck me the most was her emphasis on getting life experience to become a stronger writer:

“Go do something that’s going to take you out of your comfort zone, putting you in contact with different kinds of people, perhaps in a different part of the world. Be a waitress… Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny…. You’re looking for challenges, for adventure, for new faces and new places.”

All creative types need experiences in order to keep fueled, and experiences involve going out into the world and letting it change you.

So that’s my inspirational writing tidbit of the week! Tomorrow’s my birthday, so I’ll be mainly relaxing and probably spontaneously breaking out into a certain Taylor Swift song.

Writing, I Love You, But I Think We Need to See Other People

This week is my spring break, and while I’m enjoying the week off from classes, I struggle with letting my brain take breaks.

Writing looks like work in so many ways. It’s fun work, yes, but still a form of expending brainpower. And I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m always on.

*cue this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdIBxhONpC0

Or it’s like the IFC slogan: always on, slightly off.

A few weeks ago (I don’t know why it took me years to realize this, but alas) I was wondering why I felt so frazzled all the time. For many of my friends, downtime looks like binging a new series on Netflix, napping, or going shopping. For me, it’s been attempting to meet self-imposed writing goals, and then flogging myself mentally for not reaching those goals, or for simply needing a break.

I talk a lot about how our productivity doesn’t define us, but I’ve been finding it hard to put that principle into practice.

Maybe writing itself has become a bit of an obstacle for me. If it starts draining me rather than sustaining, I say it has to go.

Today is the first day of Lent, so I think it’s perfect timing for me to re-frame how I look at things. I might benefit from giving myself structured times to write, say an hour max, instead of composing a list of tasks that balloon to fill my entire day and make me an unsmiling, sour pretentious “artist”.

I’ve also been thinking that I need to have new experiences and go on adventures with new people in order to refill my creative well, and that’s why I want to make this summer before grad school as fun as possible.

So in summary, I’m just trying to cultivate downtime and not get mad at myself if I don’t, like, write a whole new book in an afternoon. Sounds reasonable!

Have you had any major life revelations lately? Feel free to share in the comments!

Six Months

In October, my friend reminded me we had exactly seven months until graduation. After telling her to stop because that’s a banned topic, I started thinking about how much I still want to grow during my remaining time in college, and how I want to keep growing even after I walk across the stage.

The past four years have transformed my heart. But in order to get some perspective, I don’t even need to look that far back. Freshman-year-me feels like a distant memory (and it’s not just because of my haircut).

Six months ago, I was a mess. A nervous wreck. I didn’t know how to see my own value, I didn’t know how to speak up. Maybe you can relate.

In the intervening time, I’ve become more self-assured, more confident. Better at being honest. Better at walking away from situations that don’t grow me. Better at recognizing my God-given identity.

I’m writing this post now because I’ve grown a lot in the last six months, but in my last six months as a college student, I want to grow even more.

This semester has been more jam-packed than any other. As a senior (getting more comfortable with that word too), I’ve been thinking about my future more and more and that’s something we don’t get enough credit for.

Six months from now, it will be May again. I’ll be graduating from college. Embarking on my next adventure.

The months have flown by like pages in a book I still have to write, flicker second by second as if word by word and then the whole dictionary is gone. We can rewrite our dictionaries and create new references through which we define ourselves.

A lot can happen in six months.

Why I Write

Today, October, 20th, is the National Day on Writing. I’m not sure who decided that, and I wholeheartedly believe that we should reflect on the value of the written word every day of our lives. However, having reserved a national day seems to be a good way to step back and remember some of the reasons we devote so much time to this activity that can be a hobby, a passion, a craft, or a job.

I write because it forces me to observe the world around me and take in the little details, appreciating every moment. I write because my voice is small, but it won’t be silenced by life’s storms. I write to make beauty out of pain and to immortalize beauty. I write to learn about myself and about reality through the lives and lenses of fictional characters.

I write because sometimes talking is hard and it’s easier to put my thoughts on paper. I like having a written record on which to reflect and look back, to tell the story of how I got here and where I’m going.

Why do you write? Or if you don’t, why do you read? Share your love of words, and maybe go write some today!

Take the First Step

I’m entering Positive Writer’s You Are Enough writing contest.

Before I started taking my writing seriously, books seemed impossibly intricate works of art that must have just sprouted from their authors’ fingertips. Surely I, a psychology major armed only with too many notebooks, a laptop, and an imagination, could never create anything approaching art.

I now have a draft of a novel on that laptop. It’s nowhere near perfect, nowhere near my own standards, but it exists. I created something. It’s a piece of my heart. Your story deserves to see the light precisely because it carries a piece of you.

If you’ll forgive me for straining a metaphor, your writing goal may seem like an insurmountable mountain. You stare at its majesty in awe, unsure of how you, little old you, would ever be able to tackle it. I’ve been there.

You might be tempted to turn around, get in your car and go home. I’ve doubted.

But I dare you to keep climbing that mountain.

You might turn down a wrong trail, trip over a boulder, or need to take a break from time to time. But I can promise you that the view from the top will be worth it. Your perspective deserves to be shared.

The journey, with all its twists and turns, will enrich the story’s final incarnation.

It will take all the inner strength you can summon, discipline that lasts beyond the initial burst of inspiration. You will doubt that writing can be as easy and as difficult as pouring out your feelings and your observations onto the page. But it’s true: our art is that simple and that hard, all at once. There’s no special secret, and certainly no shortcut. The only way you can improve is to do it.

At the end of the road, you’ll be able to take a satisfied deep breath as you reflect on what you’ve accomplished.

 

 

My Playlist, Condensed

By now, you might have heard about my insanely elaborate 12.5-hour-long Spotify playlist for my novel (which has also undergone a name change and is now titled Woman of Words). I have not been able to listen to the whole thing all the way through–the closest I came was while stuck on an MBTA train for four hours, but that’s another story. I’m proud of this creation, but it’s also almost as complex as the novel itself.

So in today’s post, I’ll highlight a few key songs that were, and continue to be, particularly inspirational or conducive to my writing along the way, and maybe shed a little light onto exactly how. That way, you can still get a sense of how the playlist works and what it contains, without having to sit through thirteen hours of alternative, indie, and classic rock.

I wanted to only pick five songs, but then I couldn’t narrow it down, so please enjoy the bonus pick. And forgive me for not being able to embed; I wrote this on my phone (yes, a sad update: my laptop’s motherboard fried, and Lil Charcoal, as I fondly called him, is now in laptop heaven. You will be missed).

And before whoever is in charge of copyright comes after me, I never claimed to own any of these. If you want to listen, the links are in the titles.

1. Florence + the Machine, “Drumming Song”

Fun fact: a long, long time ago, one of the novel’s working titles was “The Echoes”. As in, “I couldn’t wash the echoes out”. Now that’s the title of a book my main character wrote, and she certainly can’t wash the echoes out. Nor the bells, nor the drumming noise inside her head that starts when a certain someone’s around. This song is so tense, I love it.

2. Green Day, “¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)”

The song describes a lost girl running from her past, probably into drugs and other dark places. I can imagine how forlorn she is. Also, the line “there is no place like home” reminds me of The Wizard of Oz, and both Dorothy and my main character love their red shoes. It’s almost like we planned it. But that’s crazy, right?

3. Lord Huron, “Lullaby”

My main character is an insomniac, and she definitely has a fire in her eyes and blood on her hands. I love this song’s relaxing vibe, and you get the sense that, despite the singer’s attempts to calm the person down, everything is not going to be okay. Or maybe that’s just me and my story butting in. Particularly, the line “dream of when you were innocent / dream forever” helped me solidify what I was going for in terms of theme.

4. Fleetwood Mac, “Rhiannon”

*cracks knuckles and sighs* Where do I begin? A couple of my characters will get triggered if they ever hear this oldie again. And yes, I linked to the live version, because it’s better (those alternate lyrics, and that big old moon on the stage). Rhiannon is a magical, untethered woman who flies away from her problems. So is Renee, in my book. But, you see, neither of them are exactly what you would call real. There’s another freaky coincidence involving the book that inspired the song way back in 1973 (a whole 24 years before I was even born), but that might give away too much about my own story. I promise I’m not a time traveler (or is that what a time traveler would say?). Spooky.I even managed to reference it but without including any lyrics, so Stevie Nicks can’t sue me.

5. Lord Huron, “Cursed”

I first heard this song the morning after I wrote the chapter to which it corresponds, which freaked me out a little. My story features a character with eyes like “the endless night”, and at first I thought the lyrics were “there are moons on my skin” rather than “runes”, which freaked me out on a whole other level. If you’ve read a bit of the story, you probably have a clue as to why. 😒

Bonus: Panic! At the Disco, “Northern Downpour”

I apologize for triggering any PATD fans, but this one’s beautiful, bittersweet to say the least, and even references the moon (what more could you want?). It did so much to set the mood during one of my book’s scenes on a beach that I think I wrote the lyrics in brackets in the first draft.

The Best Writing Tip Ever

Writing advice is everywhere, and it can be overwhelming to sift through. A lot of what you can easily find on the Internet is also contradictory – some writers meticulously plan out every last detail before they even write the first draft, others drift along the story’s current to see where it takes them. Some people swear by writing a certain number of words every day.

Ultimately, every writer has his or her own process for getting words out. But no matter how you personally work, how do you know all your efforts are worth it?

My favorite advice doesn’t have to do with one’s actual method of writing, but rather the mindset behind it. I hope it changes your writerly life, as it did mine. I don’t remember where I first heard it, but it is part of K.M. Weiland’s Wordplayers Manifesto:

Two little words, towards the right. Surprisingly, I’m not talking about “dream big”, as anyone who knows me might first guess.

No, friends, I mean “write scared”.

It doesn’t mean that the thought of putting words down should fill you with uncontrollable anxiety, or that you should write twisted, uncertain tales of death and depravity (unless that’s your thing, of course). To me, this little phrase proposes a challenge: shatter your comfort zone, and write what happens in the process.

Sounds about as scary as the moon falling on us, right?

I’ve been there.

But comfortable stories are stale. Go an inch outside of your comfort zone, and you’ll get acres of growth for the story.

An example from my own experience might clarify what I mean. Before I had a solid draft of my novel, I had these two little plot lines. Both of them were doing OK on their own (that’s being generous), but they certainly weren’t thriving. And for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to weave them together. I can’t get any more specific because, well, spoilers.

I know, what a tease.

But when I finally came up with the solution, it terrified me. I tried to avoid it the way cats avoid cucumbers. It was dark, and messy, and more than a little uncomfortable. I was about 18, and I thought I could write a realistic depiction of this complex, mature thing? It seemed too adult… no, too human.

For stories to resonate, to have any hope of connecting with another human person, we have to dig way down deep into the pit of despair human emotion and experience. And somehow come back alive.

Next time you have a stuck story, take a risk with it. Make yourself and your characters uncomfortable, and you’ll all grow. You’ll probably get a raw, honest, supremely human piece of art.

It might be intimidating at first, and messy, but so is everything worth doing in life.

What are some of your favorite writing tips? Feel free to share!

Don’t Let Your Dreams be Dreams, Kids

My dad really likes voicing his opinions, to put it mildly, on different topics. He often jokes around that he should have a TV show, or a radio show, or some kind of platform or outlet to use to express his opinion. I always tell him that he should write a book, at least. But he usually says something like, “Oh, they won’t let me.”

Never mind that he never specifies who “they” are. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, no one’s gonna come down from heaven and hand you a contract to make a show or write books. You have to go out and do whatever it is you want to do, and convince other people to like it.

You’re only limited by your own actions, what you do and what you don’t do. Now, my dad’s fine with not having a show and just ranting about current events to me and anyone else who will listen, but I hope he does eventually try and act on some other things he’s been saying he wants to do.

There happens to be just about an hour left in my mom’s birthday, and she always tells me, in not these exact words, to make the life I want, and to work hard to accomplish what I want. And lately I’ve been seeing how right she is.

Even if you’re trying really hard to get that dream job, bring up your GPA, get that story published, or whatever, and it doesn’t work out, don’t blame some mysterious “other” trying to keep you down. Regroup and move on, try something new. Just always try.

Of course, that’s just my opinion.