When I was a kid, my dad made up a bedtime story every night. I still remember one about this skunk who was always ditched by his friends because he smelled so bad. They liked him, but they’d hang out and eventually the stench got to be too much. So, then the skunk’s birthday came around and everyone felt guilty because, hey, he was a decent guy, they knew they should throw him a party, he always went to their parties, etc. But what about the smell?
My dad built up to the climax really well. He got in to that skunk’s mind and how insecure he was. How hopeful he was that he wouldn’t be passed by on his birthday, of all things. My anxiety was through the roof by the time the big day came around.
And…we weren’t disappointed! The local owl (who, of course, was super wise) organized a surprise party and EVERYONE EXCEPT THE SKUNK WORE NOSE PLUGS SO IT WAS PERFECT FOR EVERYONE. God I loved that story.
I must have developed a thing with the oral tradition of storytelling, because when I got a little older I rode my bike up and down the street and made up stories to tell myself out loud. I still remember the creative daze I was in as I rode down to Swift’s tree (it had this amazing, distended area of trunk that looked just like a chair.) I circled past it in to the driveway and looped back out. Then I’d head down the block to Beaumont’s house, my other street boundary, and back again. Loop after loop. Barely cognizant of my surroundings. Talking out loud the whole time.
Now that I think about it, I’m sure my neighbors thought I was a strange child. Murmuring to myself, aside, I had a penchant for wearing a short, curly-haired black wig, a shawl around my waist, carrying around my Easter basket as an accessory, and “training” moths to sit on my finger for long stretches of time. I like to think of it all as artistic madness, even back then…?
A real game changer in my writing aspirations came in third or fourth grade when I (along with a boy in the class) won a contest and got to spend the day at another local elementary school doing writing workshops. The story that I wrote to win the contest was a complete rip off of Alice in Wonderland, but apparently the teacher didn’t catch the ‘fell down a rabbit hole’ reference.
We rotated from room to room for short workshops with ‘real’ writers. The author/artist of the Buffalo News comic “Color Me Happy” was there, and I couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually convening with a real live celebrity. We discussed how writers come up with ideas and eventually designed our own “Color Me Happy” columns.
I wrote my first official ‘book’ in sixth grade, and it was aptly (if not so creatively) titled My Year As a Sixth Grader. I can still quote one killer line from it that involved a dance I went to at the local CYS (Christian Youth Services.) A young stud named Jason asked me to dance. We put our hands on each other’s shoulders and swayed to Journey while our friends jabbed us, waved, laughed, and watched somewhat insecurely from the sidelines. I described the moment by saying, “There were stars in Jason’s eyes and I’m pretty sure there were stars in my eyes, too.” Ah, l’amour!
That same year, my friend Jodi and I saw that the Kenmore-Tonawanda Library was having a writer’s workshop. We signed ourselves up and walked over with Bic pens and spiral notebooks.
I’ll never forget entering the room and seeing twenty something chairs filled with much older people. Like, people with actual grey hair. Mortified, we were about to turn and walk out when the woman hosting the thing asked if we were there for the workshop. We nodded. She indicated chairs in the front row and her kind smile both assured us we belonged there and made us feel trapped, so we sat.
One of the exercises was to free write about a picture of a clothesline. In the photo, the sky was heavy, ready to erupt. Jodi and I wrote in our large, studied cursive. I tried as hard as I could to put myself inside that storm, to hear the whipping of the line and capture the way the air seems to break in to a warm sweat just before it rains. After we were all done writing, the instructor collected everyone’s work and read it aloud.
Although she decided to keep the authors of each piece anonymous, I’m pretty darn sure that it was obvious whenever my or Jodi’s work was read back. We were still taking weekly spelling tests that included words like ‘cinch’ or ‘stallion,’ after all. But I remember how the people in the room murmured things like, “That’s very good…simply amazing” and shut their eyes, overcome by the power of our imagery.
I left that library a new person. That was it. I was hooked. Hooked!
On sort of a funny/embarrassing note, Jodi and I had this one summer (maybe a year later, in seventh grade?) where we did lots of writing in the kitchen of her apartment. Our subject matter of choice? Porn. We sat at her kitchen table with notebooks and literally wrote down the filthiest things that came to mind. Then we traded work, red faced. Jodi’s tended to have a Harlequin Romance inspired plot and lots of romantic euphemisms for sex. I remember one story described a woman’s “perfect triangle of pubic hair”—which I found both impressive and intimidating. It struck me as such a knowledgeable description. Was I going to have a triangle of pubic hair in the near future? It was hard to imagine.
My stories, on the other hand, were over the top. There wasn’t much lead in to the good stuff. In one, a man walked in to his home to see his girlfriend waiting in the living room, wearing nothing but a T-shirt that said ‘SEX’ on the front (hint! hint!) So,naturally, they got busy right away. At the end of my stories, the couple often died from having sex for too long. (Considering the plot of some of my stories, it wasn’t that outside the realm of possibility.)
Yes. We were extremely far off from losing our virginity. I wish so much that we’d saved those notebooks and could read, now, what we thought it was all about back then!
Throughout high school I wrote your typical Emo rants about family or love or pontifications on ideas that I thought were super philosophical at the time. My favorite book was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and I took to highlighting all of the sentences that I thought were especially deep. No kidding—three quarters of the book took on a yellow glow.
In college, I continued on with the random journaling and whatnot, but for the first time it bothered me that I didn’t have anything to show for that I considered to be my passion. I’d tell people I loved to write and they’d say, “Oh, cool! What sorts of things? Short stories?” And, I didn’t know how to answer. No, not really stories—just unstructured journal entries about personal things.
Sometimes I’d get someone who would go as far as to ask, “Can I read something, sometime?” and I’d say “Sure!” but knew I had nothing to offer aside from a free-flow journal entry about my love life. And, I’d never hand that over.
It was only when I did a Master’s degree in London that I finally devoted myself to the writing creatively and attempted to actually finish something. I wrote a good chunk of a novel about a socially inept girl named Challis who bites her would-be rapist in the neck. It was fun to write and I learned a lot, but somewhere along the way I realized fiction wasn’t quite my genre.
After my Master’s program I landed a teaching job in London, during which time I dated a writer who I credit with teaching me a lot about craft, including finding the right tone, learning it was okay to write creatively about real things, and the culinary benefits of writing in Starbucks.
But then, at the height of our relationship, I was kicked out of England due to a visa problem and found myself living back at home with my parents at the age of thirty.
It was a rough time. By thirty years old I had expected to be employed, married, and to have a child or two. I had none of those things. So I fell in to a depression and cried all day, could only manage half-coffee cups full of Cheerios for dinner, and developed obsessive behaviors when it came to searching the internet for the answer to the one question that consumed me above all else: Was I banned from England? Several lawyers said I was. (I will be blogging about this whole experience next week. It was quite a time.)
An upswing came when my mom made me go to the doctor for antidepressants. And, once my head cleared, I came back to my thing–writing.
For the first time I felt more than just a playful interest in craft. This was what I had to do! It was the solution to everything! It could be what I did! Full time! I could take this as an opportunity, solitude that I hadn’t planned on having, to write my book. Finally. I was going to job hunt, of course, but also devote myself once and for all to the one skill that had always drawn me in.
Every single day from 7 a.m. until noon, for months, I went to the nearby Panera Bread with my laptop. I ordered the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad without fail and wrote a series of creative nonfiction pieces about expat life as I’d experienced it so far.
It didn’t take long to fill no less than 450 single spaced pages. It was massive. To put it in perspective, some of these “essays” were 56 pages long.
And since then—so, going on six years now, YIKES– I’ve, shall we say, paused.
To be fair, a lot happened. Shortly after finishing the first draft, I fell in love with my husband and ended up moving back to Heidelberg, Germany to be with him. I started teaching again, and developed the attitude that being a teacher and a writer is a little like being a dentist and a lawyer. How can you possibly manage both?
I can’t say how many times over the years since then I’ve had people say to me, “FINISH YOUR BOOK.” My parents said it, classes of students I teach said it, my husband said it.
I suppose I must seem ridiculous to have been so prolific about a topic, and then to just let it sit after writing a first draft. But telling me to finish it brings out this incredibly juvenile stubbornness in me. The more I’m advised to do the book, the less I want to. It has this sudden flavor of being a task. It’s like being encouraged to be passionate about unloading the dishwasher.
But, even more than that, when I look over those pages I wrote in heat over Hazelnut coffees, I feel seasick. I can tell exactly who I was reading at the time because there are cheap imitations of several writer’s styles in there. Let’s see–I blatantly stole David Foster Wallace’s extensive use of footnotes idea, and the fact I was reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers is abundantly clear in my random uses of experimentalism (playing with text format, pictures, etc) and the way I aligned my dialogue in to paragraph form.
I also had no sense of how to put things succinctly (surprise, surprise!) The chapters are sprawling, disorganized, and my voice is, as I said, uneven.
For the past few years I’ve wanted to write, but I’ve felt like my only option is to go back to that book and try to edit something out of it. And, it simply isn’t happening. At least not yet. At the same time, I’ve been too afraid to move on to something else because it’s a shame this long manuscript is just resting on my desktop. But, when it feels like torture to open it…why not move on?
Am I alone in this? I would love to know if anyone else reading this blog started some major project they were obsessed with that just…petered out. That eventually likened itself to unloading a dishwasher. Is it a bad thing to just let something like that go?
And now I’ve discovered blogging.
Well, actually my mom discovered blogging and said I should look in to it. I was resistant at first, even using the bizarre excuse that I was “too happy to write” but at the same time I checked out WordPress because my mom is usually right.
There’s a lot I like about the genre and how it might help guide me right now. I like that I can experiment—there can be posts that are lists, letters, galleries of pictures, or whatever else. I’m free to experiment with style and content, and there’s the possibility for immediate feedback if anyone takes the time to check out what I wrote. I also appreciate that I can explore whatever is most interesting to me on any given day. (This might help what I like to think of as writing ADHD.) The fact that I’ve made it my goal to post twice a week will kick me in to high gear in terms of avoiding maximal lengths (sort of) and to actually finish something here and there…i.e., like I said…twice a week!
Another plus is that I’m on the hunt for community, these days. It will be great to connect with others through their blogs. I’ve already checked out quite a few in the past days and, though I haven’t done it yet, I can’t wait to comment.
Finally, this is the type of writing I’m interested in. Personal stories. Contemporary situations. Creative nonfiction.
As I enter in to this project, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing in general. What type of writing grabs me, personally? What do I admire in a writing style? What is the best advice I’ve received on writing and how can I integrate that in to my own posts?
Well, one thing that I notice and appreciate (and that works particularly well with blogging) is when a writer is utterly honest. The most difficult thing might be to write in a way that is as vulnerable as it possibly gets.
Because, let’s be honest, we’re all assholes sometimes. We hurt people. We hurt ourselves. We all do embarrassing things that we’d rather forget about (i.e. like the fact we wrote really bad stories about sex when we’re in seventh grade.)
If I could reference my favorite show—The Bachelor—(no judging! It’s a great show! It’s also a testament to why I cannot or should not watch more than just one TV show at a time. I get completely obsessed…case in point, I may or may not have joined Twitter for the key purpose of following current and ex-contestants and that number may or may not be at 212 at the moment.) Anyway, if I could just reference my show for a minute, the people on there are always struggling with “letting their guard down.”
I think the same is true for writing a personal blog. It seems important to be willing to write about things you’d rather not admit. You have to write as if your audience is that one person in the world you can sit down with and bare your soul to on a daily basis. No covering things up. No censorship. I think your audience has to be someone you find it impossible to be anyone but yourself, with. That person you leave and say, “Oh damn it, I didn’t mean to say all that!”
And, it’s hard to do that. Sometimes I imagine who might read this blog. I’m pretty sure Jodi, still being the type of friend she is, will read it and support me. But then I think of total strangers or, worse, people who I don’t feel comfortable completely sharing with giving this a read…I want to reel myself in. But then the writing suffers, doesn’t it?
So my goal is to imagine that I’m writing for that one audience I’m totally comfortable with. I’ll try not to think about the audience that might intimidate me. Or be shocked by what I say. Or find me boring. Because those people are out there and will close me down.
As for writing advice I like, I the best book I’ve read on the topic is Stephen King’s On Writing. He uses a brilliant metaphor where he compares writing to excavating a fossil; in other words, as we write we are carefully digging out/clearing away a message.
I like that idea because so often I’ll set out to write something and think I’m headed in one direction, but if I allow myself the journey my mind takes and perhaps even switch topics of thought, something even more meaningful or interesting comes out.
It’s all about writing as discovery. (If the writer is discovering something as they write, the reader will be more likely to discover as well.) That’s another piece of advice I agree with. I can’t remember off the top of my head who said it, but the ideas is that if the writer isn’t really interested in what they write about, the reader will be doubly bored.
If I could reference King’s book again, I like how he condones a plain style of speaking. He says, if the word you meant to write is “shit,” then don’t write “excrement” or “poo poo” or “number two.”
I like his idea that there’s truth in words, too. I find that in the writing I gravitate to. It’s not that I don’t appreciate figurative language—imagery is a writer’s greatest tool, and I’m also not one to pass by a brilliant, fresh metaphor by any means. But, I don’t think a writer’s message is necessarily more powerful if it is coded in language that is all flowers and veiled truth.
Maybe this is just my own struggle. But, I somehow find it harder to write in the style that I enjoy—which is to say in a way that I feel like the writer is speaking to me, rather than floating above in some separate stratosphere I’m trying to view. Does that make any sense?
I’m most myself when I write emails to my parents. The words flow, my sense of humor comes out, I’m relaxed. But when I go to write creatively, I often clench up and whereas in an email to my parents I might say something like, “Today was freaking terrible” I write, “Today was the day the gray Gods tethered my soul to a dock.”
The latter might be prettier to read…but the first sentence gets to the point. It’s more honest, somehow, and it’s the type of conversational tone I’m drawn in by when I read.
But these are just my preferences. What type of writing do you gravitate to? We’re all different on this, I’m sure.
A final piece of advice that rings true is from the writer Elmore Leonard: Try to leave out the parts that people skip.
In conclusion, I’m thinking about writing and language and style because it’s my goal to find my authentic voice in all of this. And, as I move forward as a blogger I want to be utterly honest, even to the point of embarrassment. I want to be real and let my guard down. And, I want to use the best, most “right” words at all times.
It just isn’t always easy to do.
I suppose I should also work on being more concise. Are there word length rules for blogs? I’ve read contradictory advice on the Internet. Any clarity is appreciated. 😉