The important thing is just to go

When I was debating where to move after college, I instantly ruled out New York City. I’d gotten a car as my graduation gift and I didn’t love the idea of going someplace where I couldn’t have it – where I couldn’t have the freedom of getting in my car and running away for a weekend at the drop of a hat.

But in all the years I spent not living in New York, I never did that. I never just picked up and left for a day or an afternoon. It never occurred to me to try it.

I don’t know why, but this morning I felt like I had to get away. Being in my own skin was claustrophobic and I needed to dig my fingers in and pull it apart, to feel fresh air hit the hidden parts of me and sun-warm my soul. So I left.

I grabbed my keys and my bag and went someplace I’ve never been. But being there didn’t calm me down – going there did. Just getting out of this place made a difference. I got a chance to be quiet in the way that’s best for me: to be in a crowd of people and not speak to anyone and feel their energy around me. I got to see the first bare branches of the year and feel the way winter is sneaking up on the South. (It’s coming in with a whisper this year, like it can sneak right by us and pretend we never saw it, but I’m not fooled. I’ve seen the signs, I know it’s on its way.)

So often I feel as if I need to force myself to be happy ways that don’t feel quite right as if doing anything unnatural will actually help. Maybe it’s time to accept that often the easiest way to make me happy is to be on the road to somewhere with my music playing and letting my mind wander to wherever it needs to go. The only way I can write is by being places that make me question everything – how and why we do what we do. How to get from A to B. The more I question, the more I write. The more I write, the more I understand.

But I don’t question things here. I know how things work, I know what’s around, I know what each day is going to look like before it happens. So I need days like today – I need to remember that sunlight and autumn breezes exist in places that are not here and that I can go find them on my own and sit in the quiet of everybody else’s conversations and let go. I need to fill myself up with questions and play with them over and over, to see the tiny cracks in them where more questions live, and I need to find answers. Because I’m worried that if I don’t I’ll never write anything that scares me again.

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A confession

Sometimes I wander into bookstores for no apparent reason. And when I do this, I know before I walk in that I won’t leave without a book. I know I won’t leave without a book, and often I don’t leave without many books, and it doesn’t matter how impractical it is for me to buy it (especially if I’m buying my fourth copy of a book I know I will probably have to leave in a fourth country), I just know I need that book and I need it for my very own and I need it right that very instant.

Sometimes, when I wander into bookstores to buy a book that I probably don’t technically need, I stop at exactly the same section. It doesn’t matter what bookstore it is or if I’ve ever been to that particular store before. I go to the fiction section and I stop right at the end of the Gs and just before H begins. I stop and I find the exact spot where my books will be, and I see the names that would be on either side of mine.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I technically don’t need and look at the books that would be surrounding my book, I pick them up and read the backs and sometimes I’m disappointed. They’re often normal, much like all other books in the store. They deal with normal people having normal problems. My stories, and you’ll know this if you’ve read them, are not normal. I have tried to write normal ones, and they’re fine – really, they are. But normal stories don’t excite me. I am constrained by reality enough in day-to-day life, why have to obey the same rules in fiction?

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I technically don’t need and I am disheartened by how normal the books are that surround where my book would be, I go and I touch the covers of books I love. I find the books that stick with me, that give me hope that strange books and literary books can be the same books, and I left myself remember them. I remember the moments that they touched me, I check out the differences between hardcover and paperback and US vs Commonwealth editions and I remember all the things they’ve given me, these books. I cling to them.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I don’t need and am recovering from my disappointment in the normalcy of books by visiting books I think of as old friends, I remember the authors. I remember the way they talk about their stories and the silly conversations I’ve had while vaguely tipsy in a bar (often about them, but sometimes with them) and I smile. I smile because I know this is my world. I smile because I know these are my people – that we have friends and hobbies and passions in common.

Sometimes, when I stop in a bookstore to buy a book I don’t need and have spent time visiting old books and remembering authors I love because the disappointment about how normal life can be is just too crushing, I stop and remember how lucky I am. Lucky that this is my life, lucky that I have a safe haven that I can escape to, lucky that I already feel that this is my world. That there is no barrier to entry because I can already see a crack of light where the door is open and all I have to do is figure out how to open it the rest of the way.

And to be reminded of that, I think, is worth the price of a book.

Writing is a strange beast

The first time I tried to write a novel, it was NaNoWriMo and I had a vague idea about writing something. Mostly I just wanted to see if I could write that much and possibly string together a narrative. I had a (terrible) idea and I got to writing.

(It didn’t go well, if you’re wondering.)

I have it somewhere, I mine it for parts when I need to, but for the most part? It sits there, doing nothing. But I learned from it – I learned the dedication I’d need, I learned to let myself just write and let it be shit sometimes (all the time), I learned how to enjoy watching the word count stack up. It was a vital exercise, but that’s all it was. An exercise.

Now I’m writing the book I want to write. Now I’m writing the story I’m passionate about, the story I’ve lived with for just over two years. (I’m not kidding about that, by the way. I got this story idea in July of 2013 when a friend put out a call for kind of creepy stories for a magazine she was starting.) I know this story backwards and forwards. I know where it starts, I know where it ends.

If anybody has ever written a book before, they’re laughing at me. I know they are.

You know how I know they’re laughing? Because novels do not do what you expect. Characters do not do what you expect. They have minds of their own and you just have to sit back and let them do what they need to do. You might have a plot point in mind, and it might be the right thing, but they have a totally new way of getting there.

I tried explaining it to my friend Jen a week or two ago. Jen is kind of the perfect person for me to try to explain things to when I want to get really concrete images because we think really differently. She’s also basically the biggest cheerleader I have when I’m working on a project, so even though I don’t really talk about big projects while I’m working on them (people don’t seem to accept “I don’t know yet” as an answer, nor do they love “Well, it’s kind of about arranged marriages, corrupt societies, what happens if you separate justice from mercy – or if you even can – feeling out of step with your surroundings, anger management, the Japanese space program, and the line between love and obsession”) and I was trying to explain this phenomenon to her.

“It’s like you’ve been given directions and somebody told you where you were going, but you got distracted and didn’t totally hear them. So you’re following the directions and you see where you thought you were going and say, ‘Oh! I’m going to New York! I thought I was going to Newark.’ Same basic direction, totally different destination.”

That’s what this is like. I think I understand things, I think I understand the characters and then I have these all-caps revelations (no, seriously, my notes in Scrivener are often in all caps because I just can’t get over the shit I’m figuring out about this society) and suddenly I’m as surprised as anybody else about what’s going to happen. I mean, sure, I know it a little sooner, but dang. Daaaaaaang.

But, as my friend Stuart tells me, first thoughts are wrong thoughts. Projects should change and grow as they develop, and that’s reassuring. I’d hate to think I had everything figured out – if I did, there’d be no reason to write things down.

Two more weeks to the end and the beginning of everything

So there is this thing coming up called a dissertation deadline and it’s really putting a cramp in my style. It’s also making me panic in a million different ways.

You’ve heard me talk about how much I love Scotland, right? The dissertation deadline is the thing that says, “Hey, that reason you’re here? Doesn’t exist anymore. Figure something else out, stat.” Which freaks me out, because to be honest, I love it here. I almost kinda sorta never want to leave. I mean, for trips and stuff, sure. But man oh man do I love it here.

But two weeks from now could be the beginning of something, too. Well, actually, a little less than two weeks. You see, I don’t know if I said this before, but I’m reading at the Book Festival. As far as these things go, this is a big deal. This is the largest book festival in the world. I’m reading on opening day. Am I scared? Yes. Am I going to do it anyways? Heck to the yes.

In truth, I have no idea what my life is going to turn into in the next few months. I have an ideal scenario, and it’s surprisingly modest. I want a job that will enable me to stay here. I want to keep writing and become a known face in writer-type events around town. I want to keep making good friends and meeting cool people. I want to publish a book in the next few years. I’d like a serious relationship.

I think there is space in the world for big dreams, for people who want to change everything and have everything. But the more I think about it, the more I want a life that has all the things I care about (family, friends, writing, travel), without too much craziness. Maybe because I’m on the edge of a change I don’t know that I want, I’m craving stability. It’s weird for me, I know. Maybe the wanderlust will come back if I get a job and I can stay here for a while. Maybe the ache to go away and explore for a while will rise up and overwhelm me and I will choke on all the places I could have gone and didn’t.

But maybe not.

This bottle of beast is taking me home

A few years ago (okay, okay, 10 years ago) my friend Nicole made me 4 mix CDs of songs to get me through the summer and the start of college. They were pretty typical of that era – Dashboard Confessional, The Starting Line, The Used, etc. – and I listened to them so often that I heard them in my sleep. They got me through what still goes down as the hardest break up I’ve ever been through (sad, but true) and I can still remember the first time I could listen to “Best I Ever Had” without crying. It was a moment.

I’ve been in a weird place musically, probably because I’m in a weird place emotionally. I’m all over the map, listening to blue grass one day, folk rock the next, rap, alt-rock, late 90s girl bands, and, of course, mid-2000s pop-punk. I’m remembering North Carolina, I’m remembering Virginia, I’m remembering Singapore, I’m remembering Thailand, I’m remembering California. The good, the bad…mostly the ugly.

The dissertation is going well enough. I’m on track, but my characters need depth. They need emotion. And because of how I’m telling this story, that requires remembering – vividly – what it was like in all of those phases of my life. It’s unpleasant sometimes, to remember what it was like to be awkward and nerdy and bullied and nervous. But it’s also weirdly empowering. I got through all of that, I get to own it. I get to take it and make it work for me. Take that, middle school!

I’m trying not to think of the hard things. I’m good at pushing them out, at ignoring them and trying not to feel them. But this story demands them. My writing (and in my writing, my life) demands them. It is a greedy beast, it wants to feed on everything. It wants to make a seven-course meal on my emotions, with misery as the main course. I can’t starve it, but sometimes I think I won’t survive. It’s my writing or me. We are the same and we are mutually exclusive, and somehow we’re both at the same time. Just try to wrap your mind around that.

But instead of contemplating this, I’m going to dive back into my story and see what happens. Because if it has to happen, it might as well happen quickly and late at night, right before bed, when I can go into my big, empty bed with nobody to snuggle or make me feel better about things.

On second thought, I could have planned this better.

Sometimes motivation is really hard to find, y’all

Why is it that right when you want it, motivation runs and hides? It buries itself under a rock in the garden like the spare key you hid years ago that you suddenly need and can’t find. You know it’s there, it’s lurking somewhere, just not where you’re searching.

I am meant to be working on my dissertation. Right now, this very second, while I sit here writing this blog post, I should be writing my story. My story that I’m excited about, that I think about, whose characters I love getting to know. But I’m not. I’m looking at the sunshine (can’t be outside, have to work) and beating myself up for not writing.

Partly it’s because it’s slow going right now. I know where things are headed but I’m full of questions. Partly it’s because my dissertation supervisor (the nerd in me loves to be able to say that) has tasked me with writing in a new way that will be very, very beneficial to me as a whole but is not how I write naturally. Partly it’s because I’m scared. I’m tacking some big questions, I have things I want to ask and things I want to answer, the plot and my kind of belief about human nature are all wrapped up together. (I was described by somebody I admire as being a “puir wee Calvinist” last night, and in this context I think it’s accurate.)

As with any artistic endeavour I’m split between being so excited about this project I can’t stop thinking about it and so petrified I’m going to screw it up (which I will! That’s what a first draft is for!) that I’m worried about starting. And then there’s the fact that writing it just feels like a slog. I knew this day would come, when writing would move from excitement to work but I wasn’t expecting it to come with this story.

Happily I just got a message from a friend asking what a bunch of us are up to because it’s “criminally nice outside.” Maybe I’ll procrastinate in the sunshine after all.

(Pssssst! I also had a ridiculous moment on a plane the other day. Check Love.Writing.Adventure. for details!)

I Am Not A Poet, Except For Maybe Sometimes?

About a month ago, I went to an open mic night I’d heard about. I like open mic nights. I like the combination of experience and knock-kneed newbies, the featured poets and the new storytellers. You’ve got five minutes and a mic, and whatever happens, happens.

The whole time I was there, I was kind of in awe. Poetry is not my forte. I like prose. I like the way I can go on and on and on or keep things short and simple. I like the look of a paragraph, the indentations on the page, the way thought after thought can string together. Poems intimidate me. They’re so visual, every line break adding meaning, enjambment giving emphasis or double meaning or….well, yeah. Poetry is hard and scary and beautiful and wonderful and I rarely try to write it. Mostly out of respect for the form, but also because I hate failing at things, and I think I would fail as a poet.

But something about that open mic made me say, “Hey. I’m gonna give this a shot.” So for the last month I’ve been working on a poem. Yes, you read that right. One poem. Sometimes people get confused and think that poetry should just flow out, that it’s all emotional and not about storytelling at all, that poetry is some kind of lazy form that just gets spouted out and left alone.

Wrong.

I have stared at some of these stanzas far, far longer than I’ve ever worked on a paragraph. I sat for two hours one night and changed three words. And then I changed two of them back to what they’d been originally.

So last night I let people read them for the first time. I went on a killing spree yesterday, you see, I killed all my darlings, every line I loved from the very first draft of this poem is gone. And I needed to see if it worked. I was completely terrified, I’ll admit it. You see, I’ve gotten to know a lot of really talented poets over the past few months, and I’ve seen incredible performers. What makes me think that I can do that? What makes me think I deserve to be a part of that world? Aside from arrogance, that is. Aside from some part of me saying, “You’re talented, too.” I mean, it’s just 5 minutes and a mic. It won’t kill me.

I sent my scary little poem off to two trusted friends, caring people and talented poets, and I waited. I’m in the middle of submitting stories to contests and sending out job applications and waiting for grades, and this terrified me more than any of those things. And the crazy thing is, they liked it. They liked my poem. My poem with its month of revision after revision, the poem that I have recorded myself reading over and over, that I have painstakingly read out loud and listened to over and over and over again, looking for a faulty rhythm or a repeated word…they think it works. They like it.

Now I just need to figure out how to read it in public without dying of stage fright.

Storytelling Lessons from Unexpected Places #1: The Ballet

Last night, my friend and I went to go see Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake. Neither of us is really familiar with the traditional Swan Lake, but this version was incredible. The dancers were amazing and the combination of modern setting and traditional music was incredible – if you’re at all familiar with ballet, you know the theme from Swan Lake. Now, imagine that playing while the prince is sitting outside of a club, dejected, with a neon sign reading “Swank Bar” glowing above him.

But one of the things that interested me most as a writer was seeing the way various issues I have with writing came to life onstage. There was always something to watch, and often you needed to be able to pay attention to multiple things at once. There was a beautiful moment where the prince, the queen, the girlfriend, and the queen’s aide/secretary/whatever were watching a more traditional ballet. The ballet itself was beautiful, but the story is in the box with the four characters. The girlfriend cannot do anything right: she cannot sit at the correct time, she cannot be still, she cannot keep her purse in her lap. Often I’d be so distracted by the ballet the characters were watching that I’d miss the character development happening onstage. But the dancers managed it so carefully, if I did watch the main characters, I could see exactly how their relationships were developing.

As writers, it’s a bit easier to force a reader to shift focus since sentences (and writing in general) is much more linear than dance, but it’s a challenge many of us need to face up to. In our scenes, we need the reader to be interested in everything going on, but all scenes need to develop character/further plot. It does not need to be the focus of the scene, but nothing can exist simply because we want it there. Everything needs to do work. We can write a beautifully crafted scene – and we should! – but it also needs to be a point at which something happens for the story. Scene and plot are not separate, they are parts of a larger whole, and if we forget that, we cheat the reader out of an important connection.

That said, if we restricted a story to just the main characters, we would have a very dull book. We are all immersed in a world where the people around us have their own lives, their own goals, and sometimes they help us achieve ours and other times they hinder us. Things happen simultaneously, and some people are happy and some are not. Swan Lake handled this well – in every group scene, each dancer and each group of dancers knew their story, and every move they made furthered it. Anywhere you looked onstage, something was happening. Relationships were forming and crumbling all over the place, and all of it echoed the struggle the prince was going through. Scene and secondary (and tertiary) characters brought emotional resonance to the prince’s plight by showing the audience everything he could not have, and showing us exactly why he wanted it.

Was my brain working in overdrive last night? Definitely. But it was doing so because I was so enthralled by what I was watching, I couldn’t help but try to learn from it, to take some of its beauty and some of its genius home with me and hope to find a way to let it impact my writing. And that’s the best thing the arts can do, I think – give us something to make our day-to-day lives more beautiful and more exciting than they would be otherwise.

I geek out

Confession time: Sometimes I realize what a massive nerd I really am, and I revel in it.

When I was 15, my friend Garrett told me about a book. Well, he told me about a lot of books. And movies. Garrett was the guy I went to for that sort of thing. But this one book in particular stuck with me. We were hanging out at his house one day and he said, “Hey, you know what you need to read? House of Leaves.”

I’d tell you what it’s about, but the best way I can describe it is by saying that at the reading I went to last night, Mark Danielewski said, “It’s a book about a movie,” and the audience cracked up. I mean, sure. But it’s about more than that.

All of this is to say that last night I headed off to Blackwell’s to listen to him read and I had major butterflies. I’ve been reading his work (what little of it is out there, the man has a long and intense creative process) since I was 15. House of Leaves is, to this day, the only book to scare me so badly I still get chills when I think about it. He takes on simple moment – a book falling off a bookshelf – and makes it so scary I am freaking out a little right now just because I thought about it.

One of the things he was talking about last night was the way he wants his work to really play with media and form, how he wants it to exist in the space between image and text, the way he wants to challenge the basic idea of what can be done with text. His work is often called experimental, but he really sees himself as part of a longer tradition of writers who seek to use visual cues to clarify and intensify the reading experience (including the likes of Faulkner, before anybody thinks he’s only referencing obscure, avant garde writers).

And this is where I get to the part about me being a massive nerd. When I go to readings (and I’ve been trying to go to as many as I can lately – that’s one amazing thing about Edinburgh, there are readings just about every week), there is always a question and answer period that I do not participate in. You see, for as extroverted and social as I am, inside I’m the nervous little girl who got picked on in school. I worry that I’ll say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, ask the stupid question, and so I let this weird pressure from 12 year olds that only exist in my memory anymore stop me from asking a question I find interesting. Last week I heard Eleanor Catton read from The Luminaries and refused to ask anything because I was so nervous I’d be judged for asking a simple question, rather than something literary and complex. I just wanted to know how she handled her process – the book is meticulously plotted, the structure is intense, so was there room for surprise? Did anything in the book happen before she realized what was going on, and did it make her worry about the structure at all?

But this time I refused to be nervous. Okay, that’s a lie. This time, I refused to let my nervousness keep me from asking a question. When the floor was opened up for questions, I raised my hand. I asked my question. And nobody laughed. Nobody judged me. In fact, another girl in the audience (who had written her dissertation on House of Leaves so you know she cares deeply about his work) complimented me on it.

And this is what I realized – I’m here because I care about writing. I’m here because I want to be around other people that care about it as much as I do. I chose Edinburgh specifically because it’s a city with a deep literary tradition. I chose it because it’s the center of Scottish publishing. I chose it because every day of every week of every year there is an event going on that’s related to books. To literature. I chose a city where I could immerse myself in things like this, and the other people at these events probably feel the same way I do. The girl who wrote her dissertation on House of Leaves was truly excited to have him sign a copy of the book. I was so nervous about asking my question I had butterflies in my stomach, and when I got my copy of his new book signed and we chatted about Singlish, I had an adrenaline rush for an hour afterwards.

These are the celebrities I care about. People talk about movie stars and musicians, and I understand how they’d be exciting to meet (especially musicians that write their own music, not the people who are solely performers – what can I say? I value creativity). The people I want to meet don’t have their pictures everywhere – I wouldn’t have recognized Mark Danielewski if I saw him on the street – but they care deeply about the things I care about, and they’re passionate about their work, and their minds work in ways I want to understand.

Maybe one day I’ll sit where he was sitting, maybe not. But if so, I hope that when somebody in the front row is sitting there, too scared to raise their hand all the way for fear they actually be called on, I give their question as much consideration and respect as he gave mine.

A tale of two crows (and other random goals)

Once upon a time, a very active girl had a very bad injury. She hadn’t listened to her body, she hadn’t rested it when it needed rest, and the punishment was severe. After surgery and after a lot of pain and rehab, she was given the green light to start yoga. She’d never done yoga before, but she was finally allowed to do something with her body again, so yoga it was.

Intimidated, she walked into the yoga studio and asked to go to a class. She was shaking, but she didn’t know why. She had a cheap mat like every other newbie, she had yoga pants and a tank top, she had everything that could mark her as Somebody Who Had Done Their Research. The woman behind the desk – a woman this girl would eventually practice with, be friends with, spend hours on a mat with – was very kind and welcoming and told the girl not to be afraid. She’d love it.

And she did.

From February – August of last year, yoga was part of my life. I was in the studio three times a week, taking hot yoga classes and Pilates classes and aerial yoga classes. I learned about inversions and arm balances and spinal alignment. The first time I saw somebody do crow, I thought, “No way. There’s no way I’ll ever be able to do that.” And then, a month later, I got it. Not for long, just long enough to say, “Oh!” and fall. But I got it. I worked at it over and over and over, until I could goof around in the climbing gym and do it. So I did. Often.

July Crow

When I moved to Edinburgh, I was so overwhelmed I did not go to the gym the first four months I was here. I joined it, but I didn’t go. I didn’t find a yoga studio. I didn’t climb. I did nothing. And then, after more drama than I could take, I realized my body desperately needed to move. I was sitting in my favourite bookstore shaking because I had so much pent-up energy racing through my body, and I realized I needed to climb. I needed to boulder. I needed to move. So I did. My friend Hayley and I started climbing together about 3 times a week. I put all of my workout eggs into that pre-paid basket, and I progressed. I progressed in a major way. From January-April, I went from being a 4+ climber to a 6A+ climber (soooo for my American friends, that’s going from about a 5.8 to a 5.10c).

But I’d forgotten about yoga. I haven’t even unrolled my mat since leaving the US. It’s funny, because yoga was such a calming experience for me, but it was a challenge in the same way climbing is. You have to focus on what you’re doing, think it through, experiment with body positioning and balance, and be willing to fail. Be willing to fail over and over and over again until you don’t fail. When the guys at the gym set new routes, they’ll ask Hayley and I  to test them out. “Fine,” I’ll say. “But you’re going to watch me fail a few times.”

Their response? “Good.” Every time.

The thing is, it’s not fun if it’s not a challenge. It’s not fun if you don’t have to work at it, experiment, think your way through. It’s why we continue to climb harder grades – it’s no fun when things are easy.

So yesterday, after a really successful day climbing and finding a new project (a route I couldn’t complete that I want to be able to climb), I wanted to try something.

I wanted to try crow again.

Like I said, I haven’t done yoga in ages. I haven’t tried crow in ages. I haven’t paid any attention to make sure my body could move the way I wanted it to move, but I wanted to try it anyways.

April Crow

Well, will you look at that?

I came to this program with a story to tell. I have a book in my brain that nobody has written, and I desperately want to read it. I’ve tried to write it a few times, getting a few thousand words in before giving up. It’s a tricky book, a scary one, a book that I believe in so badly but have never been the kind of person who could write it. Since getting here, I haven’t tried to write it once. I haven’t let myself go into that world.

But I’m ready now. Or, if not, I’ve spent so much time thinking about other stories and other characters that it’s time to revisit the big one. The important one. Because the thing about trying crow at the gym was getting it prompted me to try a few other things I’ve never tried before. I tried side crow. I tried dragonfly. I failed at both, but I’m energized to keep trying. I’m going to write this story and it’s going to be clumsy at first and it’s going to be awkward and I’m going to fall on my face in front of my friends and my professor, but I’m going to get it written.

This book of mine will have a birthday. This body of mine will do a handstand. And these things will happen because I know what it feels like to fail – it feels energizing. It feels scary. And it feels more exciting than anything each time I get just a little bit closer to success.