The more I write, the more I think about the craft of writing, and the more I think about the craft of writing, the more I think about how badly I screwed up by not thinking about it more when I was just starting.
Of course, when I was just starting, I hadn’t thought about it all that much, so I couldn’t have done otherwise… and yeah, thoughts like that are ultimately pretty useless.
The point of this is that I’ve got this story idea that I’ve been kicking around for a few years now and I’ve just started actually putting words to paper (or, y’know, words to pixels or whatever, you know what I mean) on it, and … I mean, the idea is nifty and all, but… okay, I have to digress further.
With my other stories, it sort of felt like, from the premise, the story just wanted to get up and go. Like the conflict started up and took off immediately, like a cat startled out of slumber by a zucchini squash.
With this one, there’s less of that immediate impulse to action. So it feels like the story needs something. It needs guidance. Or, I dunno, maybe it’s not fully formed yet and it needs more time to incubate.
So I spent my session today doing something I’ve never done — in advance, anyway — for a story: outlining it.
That’s right, I went back to high school and I made an outline.
The outline sucks, it’s vague as heck and it reads like every action / spy / thriller movie you’ve ever heard of, but y’know, it’s an outline. And once I had it down, I started fleshing it out with possibilities.
And man, it’s weird. Because in my other work, I usually don’t plan all that much. I just strap a lead on the story and try to hold on while it rushes off to wherever it’s gonna rush off to. But what I noticed is that, in my other stories, they end up wandering around, feeling lost in the middle.
I don’t want to get lost on this one. So I’m trying something new.
Will it work? I don’t have a clue.
Anyway, here’s another cat gif, because cat gifs are awesome and it’s Friday and that’s awesome.
I know, I know! I start these things and go off them, and start and go off, like a chronic yo-yo dieter with short-term amnesia, like a kid climbing on and off the high dive pretending he’s really gonna do it this time. I’ve tried bullet journaling (god, I hated it so much) and plain ol’ page-a-day, write-about-what-happened-today journaling (not bad but felt more like a chore without a payoff than anything beneficial). They only lasted for a few weeks each. But I actually think I might stick with it long term this time, and I think it’s because I found a journaling system that seems to be working for me.
Here’s that system.
What I’m doing for my daily journaling (well, 5-6 days per week journaling, a man deserves his weekends off, don’tcha think) are Morning Pages, popularized by Julia Cameron. Some time ago I actually wrote a post about how I was given one of her books about process and creativity: I got frustrated and annoyed with her endless romanticization and frippery about writing and gave it up. But the more I read into the habits of the successful (and especially of the successful creative), the more I heard Morning Pages mentioned. So I re-looked them up and gave them a try. I’ve been doing them for a solid six weeks, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that you need thirty days to form a habit, so obviously I’ve got this one sorted.
Anyway, a brief explanation. Morning Pages are not journaling per se.
Sorry for the detour. WordPress apparently doesn’t recognize “journaling” as a word so it’s underlining it in red all over my draft, which is really futzing up my zen for this particular session. I’m irked, but I hereby release the irkitude. Carry on.
You know how when you wake up in the morning and the first thing you have to do is head to the bathroom? Me, (not that you asked but I’m in that kind of mood) I like a nice feisty deuce in the morning. Partly because physiologically it has to be done, partly because I guess I’m conditioned. Anyway, I like getting it out of the way early. Cleans me out, lightens the load, I can go on with my day. Morning Pages are like that, but for your brain.
In short, you wake up, do your bathroom thing, and before you let too much time pass, you sit down and write. You can write about whatever you want, whatever’s to mind, but you have to write three pages. And you have to write longhand. No typing.
It’s a brain dump. And it’s working for me.
Now, I’m not hyper-adherent about it. I do mine when I arrive at work, when I have a little time to myself. I’ve gone for a run, gotten the kids off to school, kissed the wife goodbye. (Technically you’re not even supposed to do all that stuff — you’re just supposed to roll off the mattress and embrace the blank page. Fargo that, I say. You take a thing and you make it work for you. I’m already waking up before 5 AM on run days, I ain’t waking up thirty MORE minutes early.) I come in, set my stuff down, start a bit of music on the computer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHW1oY26kxQ is my playlist of choice the last few weeks), start the electric kettle for my cup of tea, then I crack open the notebook, ready my pen, and set about writing.
I write about my worries for the day (and boy do I have a lot of those! Speaking of which, I’m still scaling back on the meds. That’s going great. Maybe I can post about that later). About what I’m thinking about. What irks me. What excites me. Sometimes a story idea will bloom in the middle of writing and I’ll noodle that around, invent a character and let her splash around in the tidal pools of my brain farts for a few lines. I’ll roll in other journaling ideas, like jotting down things I’m thankful for, things to focus on for the day.
You notice that the things I write about are diverse. They sort of have to be. Because to just sit down and write three pages without having a central topic to write about is … well. It can be tough. Inevitably one starts to doubt one’s self: This is dumb. Why am I even thinking about this, much less writing about it? Who even cares about this? I’m literally just vomiting words onto the page. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. (I’m pretty sure I actually wrote two lines of just the word “blah” once — that’s how stuck I got.) But that’s kind of the point. One of the only rules about Morning Pages is that you’re not supposed to stop writing. Don’t stop to think about what you’ve just written. Don’t stop to think about what you’ll write next. Just press on. And in that regard, Morning Pages become a mighty tool.
When you take away the ability to stop, to pause, to critique and evaluate, then you must embrace the necessity of writing literally whatever comes to your mind. Mind’s a blank? Write about how your mind is blank. Distracted by an odd smell coming from the next room? Write about how it makes your nose wrinkle in disgust. The process is meditative, in its way. You express what’s front-of-mind and tune out the rest. And when you have to fill three handwritten pages, well — your mind tends to wander a bit. Morning Pages allow you — nay, force you — to wander with your thoughts, to explore what’s lurking in the subconscious brain, to get down on paper what’s clanging around in your skull so you can move on from it.
Further, there’s a concept in exercise called “greasing the groove”. In short, it entails working out at a capacity significantly below what you’re capable of to improve muscle memory, so that when you do go hard, the muscles are better tuned-up. Morning Pages are that, all over. The stakes couldn’t be lower, as I’m certainly not sharing them with anybody for proofreading. It doesn’t matter if I make grammatical mistakes or swear my entire face off on the page (something I actually try to be careful about here on the ol’ blarg). Writing a whole bunch where the stakes don’t matter gets my brain tuned up for the more important writing where my plot, characters, and general goodness or badness of the story do matter.
The first few times I did Morning Pages, it took me about half an hour. I kept stopping and starting, second-guessing myself and the process, allowing myself to get distracted and zone out. Lately, I crank ’em out in about fifteen minutes, which is basically as fast as I can reasonably write them. And yeah, I could certainly finish faster by typing, but there’s something that’s almost, but not entirely unlike, magic about actually creating words through the motion of your hand. It’s slower, but I like it. (Especially since I got my new pen.) It forces you to connect with the words more than typing does. It’s hard to explain.
Anyway, I write my three pages, then close the notebook and don’t think about it again for the rest of the day.
And it’s incredibly freeing! For one thing, the process triggers that same “I DID SOMETHING” dopamine rush that exercising first thing in the morning does. You get that zing of having written three pages, and hey, the rest of the day seems that much easier to face. Plus, it stimulates the brain like hooking up jumper cables to a dead battery. Writing about my worries, my to-do list, my whatever — it forces me to focus thought on those things, and often, answers and motivation are the result. More than once has it happened that I poured out a problem into my Morning Pages — a snag in the story, something that was bothering me about a colleague, a messed-up situation that was driving me nuts — and an answer takes shape just from writing about it.
I feel better immediately after writing my Morning Pages. And that helps me set a good trajectory for the day.
In that vein, I want to posit: it’s no mistake that I’m back to working full-steam on my current novel in the weeks since I started doing Morning Pages. Just reminding myself that, yes, I’m capable of the physical act of writing, seems to have, if you can believe it, reminded me that I’m capable of writing, of fixing this story, of pushing through a roadblock.
In short, writing my daily Morning Pages sets the stage for a good writing day, and anything that does that is welcome in my world. Julia Cameron may be a bit of a ridiculous hippie but I think she’s got something with this practice.
Have you tried Morning Pages? Do you journal in a similar way? I’m always curious to see how other people are making it happen.
I want to talk about my contributions here of late, partially to make excuses for myself, but also partially to justify myself. And I know, justifications are basically excuses, but I’m coming to understand that what I once thought of as excuses for myself are actually perfectly reasonable and acceptable justifications.
Here’s the critical worry in my mind over the last several months: I’m not writing enough. I’m not! For a guy who fancies himself a writer, I am decidedly not writing enough. A few years ago I was writing every day, bragging about it in more writing here on the blog, churning out short stories almost every weekend … I was capital-W WRITING. And then in the last several months here, not so much. My current novel project is stalled (I’ll circle back to that, but it’s totally mud-stuck and has been for a while), my blog posts have been rarer than Bigfoot sightings, and as for short stories, well, let’s just say I’ve come up short.
The obvious net result of all that is: I’m not writing enough. And I had something of a depressive episode several months ago — which I did write about — that I think must have been triggered, in part, by my feelings about not writing enough. It gets to me. It burns me up. Makes me question myself.
And I know I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Feelings of inadequacy, I wager to say, are rampant in the writing community, if not an understood part of the package. I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I’m special for going through it. But I did want to think that I might be special by dint of finding a way to overcome it. (Spoiler alert: I’m not over it yet.)
Which brings me back to those justifications.
I was at work the other day, taking a little break. We (my students and I) had just gotten finished hanging and focusing lights for our spring musical (I have an incredible group of students who always want to give up their time to come down to the theater and help out, and we were working during their lunch periods.) Hanging and focusing is tiresome and tedious work (up the ladder, down the ladder, forgot the wrench, find a burned-out bulb, up to the booth, up the ladder, remove the instrument, down the ladder, replace bulb, up the ladder, re-place instrument, focus, down the ladder, repeat). So they were on the stage listening to some music and I was parked on the backstage sofa just sort of watching and zoning out before heading up to write cues for the show.
And revelation struck, as revelation tends to do, while I was lying there not thinking too clearly or too intently about anything: that this is where my creative energy has been going.
I’m a fairly convinced believer in the school of “you only have so many Fargos to give in a day” (Fargos of course is a stand-in for another F-word I shouldn’t be using as a government employee paid to educate children), and I think that goes double for your Fargos related to creativity. Being creative is hard. At least, I should say, doing something with your creativity is hard (daydreaming is easy). Sitting down to write is hard! Laying down a blog post is hard. Working on a novel is hard. Editing a novel is … well, don’t start.
These things suck up all the creative Fargos. And, well, when I started this writing journey, I was an English teacher. There’s an element of creativity in that, but mostly my job then left my creative Fargos untouched, so I had a lot of them left over.
But my job now? Teaching theater? I’m tapping deep into my creative Fargos just to get through an ordinary day of class, let alone to do work on the musical, or help an actor find their motivation, or coax a design out of a scenic painter, or collaborate with my techs to find the right look for the lights, or work with my props crew to wrestle the bloody plant prop that we’ve fixed five times already but somehow, somehow keeps finding new ways to break. By the end of the day, my creative Fargos are tapped out — and I’m already overdrawn on tomorrow’s balance as well.
Which, here’s where I circle back (finally!) to the point of this post — leaves me utterly exhausted and unmotivated to write. Because I have no Fargos left.
And I was upset with myself about that. (Still am, actually, but I’m getting better.)
But the revelation I had, lying on that couch backstage, had another revelation hidden within it, like the gooey center of a Cadbury’s egg (the caramel kind, not the gross frosting kind, you monsters).
And that revelation is: It’s okay that my creative Fargos are going into my job. In fact, it’s good that I have a job where I get to use my creativity. That’s an enviable spot to be in.
After all, I get to work with young minds, helping them tap into their creativity, helping them find ways to express themselves, giving them the freedom and the safe spaces to explore who they are and how they experience and create art. And that’s pretty Fargoing awesome. And not to take anything away from how awesome that is, but I think it would be selfish of me if I continued to be uptight about spending my creative Fargos in that way.
So I think I have to be okay with maybe not writing as much as I was. Which is not to say that it won’t upset me — it surely will, as critiquing myself is one of my favorite pastimes. But I’ve now got what I feel is a perfectly legitimate excuse — no, a perfect justification for my slackitude, which isn’t slackitude at all.
It’s just a re-distribution of Fargos.
But here’s the other delicious secret: making this realization? Shedding light on this re-distrubition of Fargos? It’s a little like hacking the Matrix.
Because as soon as I made the connection that this is where my creative Fargos has been going, I started finding myself, shockingly, with more creative Fargos. I’m filled with desire to work on my current novel again, whereas for months I dreaded the prospect. I’ve been writing in the mornings again for the last two weeks, pages at a time — writing not fit for human consumption, mind you, but writing nonetheless. And that’s creating even more Fargos.
Overcoming and accepting my hangup with my own productivity has actually opened the gate to more productivity.
Or, viewed from another angle, the roadblock to my creativity was mostly just me thinking there was a roadblock.
The problem, as they say, seems to have been located almost entirely between the ears.
Luckily, that’s a space I seem to have plenty of access to.
The new Lego movie has a funny moment (I should say, it has dozens if not hundreds of laugh-out-loud funny moments — seriously, if your kids want to go see it, do yourself a favor and take them — but this one in particular has lodged in my grey matter) at the end of the second act. It’s your classic all-is-lost moment, with the heroes (no spoilers) THROWN into a situation that seems ultimately beyond recovery. BOXed in. No way out.
Because it’s the Lego franchise, and the Lego franchise is nothing if not ridiculous and snarky and meta at every possible turn, with fourth-wall breaks and winks-and-nods to the audience on every page, the characters break into song at their plight. They negate the ubiquitous “Everything is Awesome” theme and lament that “Everything’s Not Awesome.” Of course, this is the turning point — “not awesome” is okay, they realize, everything can’t be awesome all the time, etc, etc. But during the song, before that turn, one of the characters claims that “I finally get Radiohead.” My wife, hearing that, turned to me with a chortle: I was, once upon a time, quite a big fan of Radiohead. (Back in the days of mixtapes and mix CDs, I made one for my wife on which half of the tracks were by Radiohead. I don’t remember her exact response — it was over a decade [help!] ago — but it was something along the lines of “I like it, it’s great, but … are you okay??”)
Flash back to my college days, when my good friend who introduced me to the band was doing so by explaining, “yeah, Radiohead is that weird kind of band that’s great to listen to when you’re feeling down. Somehow it can really make you feel better, but sometimes it makes you want to slit your wrists.” I mean, just look at this album art.
I haven’t actually listened to Radiohead in some time, but, of all things, The Lego Movie 2 has me wondering why. I’m cranking it right now as I reminisce a bit, and, damn. The emotions are high, and it ain’t just nostalgia. They’re a weird sound — more so the more recent the recording, it seems — but no matter the era, there’s a sort of delightful melancholy about their music and lyrics. Somehow, it is both uplifting and depressing at the same time. It’s the odd track from them that doesn’t juxtapose mood and tone — either the words are happy and hopeful against a somber melody, or the words are a march to the noose while the tune is jaunty. This is a band, after all, that stopped playing their biggest commercial hit, Creep, precisely because it was too poppy. And it’s a great song! Listen to the melody, and it belongs right there with the mindlessest upbeat pop songs of the 90s, but the lyrics tell another story:
I wish I were special
but I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo
what the hell am I doing here
I don’t belong here.
Then there’s the flipside, one of my favorites, Pyramid Song, (pictured above!) which sounds as dire and dreadful as anything you could imagine, but centers on the delightful mantra:
There was nothing to fear, nothing dark.
And I used to listen to Radiohead all the time, just constantly. Walking to class, driving to work, while working, falling asleep … Radiohead was the soundtrack of that time in my life. All the same, I never (at the time) thought of the music as particularly depressing. I guess it just reflected what I was feeling at the time, which was the more or less typical disillusionment and disdain for all things of an introverted college kid. Now, of course, I view it differently. Sure, we go through phases in our lives, and our tastes change as we get older — I can’t tell you the last time I listened to Iron Maiden for example, which I’m sure brings my parents no shortage of joy, because that’s ALL I listened to from ages 15-18 — but I think it’s more than tastes. I’m listening to it now and digging it hard. Rather, I think it’s that Radiohead no longer feels like a reflection of me.
I think about the music I listen to these days and … well, basically all of it is devoid of much emotional content. It’s either airy and ethereal (for writing or reading) or intense and repetitive (for exercising) or poppy and vacuous (when I just want to turn my brain off). And I listen to music differently now, too, than I did in my Radiohead days — I focused on the music more, I internalized it, I identified with it. Now, mostly, I want to ignore it; just allowing it to set a mood. It’s a means to an end, setting the mood for something else I’m doing, rather than an end in itself. I usually steer away from lyrics because lyrics demand concentration. I don’t want to focus on my music, I want it in the background. Setting a mood. Not taking up mental real estate.
So, what? I don’t listen to emotionally charged music. What’s the issue?
I can’t help but wonder. It was while listening to that particular soundtrack during that particular part of my life that I had the first creative ideas that really caught fire for me. Radiohead — and other artists less, what, ignorable, like my current fare? — were the background music as I wrote the play that would later become a novel, and dozens of sketches that, okay, are currently collecting dust, but were arguably part of my current trajectory (minus the last couple fallow months, that is).
It seems, then, not unreasonable to think that an infusion of the same kind of soundtrack might turn the creative screws again, in much the same way as it did once upon a time.
The question, though, is one of time. Hours in the day are fixed, and listening to music like Radiohead isn’t quite as mindless as what I like lately. Do I have the time to engage in active listening like that at the expense of other things I could be doing? And/or, by indulging in such music, do I encourage myself to sink into a depression (because that’s what I now recognize that part of my life as, even if I didn’t know it at the time)?
Well, there I go spinning myself in circles again. I’ll end this with another lyric that seems fitting given the spiral Radiohead has put me into:
Hey man, slow down. Idiot, slow down.
I dunno. I think I owe it to myself to give Radiohead and bands like them a chance again, as an experiment in creativity if nothing else.
I have devised a method for a budding author to stop himself cold, lose all momentum, and give up the thing he loves over the course of just a few months. To freeze his writer’s soul in ice like a caveman out for his morning wee, caught in a blizzard and entombed until the 90s.
Evidence? Not only have I ground to a halt on the novel(s), but I’ve run out of steam on the blarg too. For that matter, I’ve barely given a thought to myself as a storyteller in that time. And it’s all — probably — or at least partially — well, fine, there may be many reasons, but a not-insignificant one is — that over the last year or so, I went and did a dumb thing.
I learned too much.
It started when I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing and a lovely little tome called Wonderbook. Enjoying those, and thinking I was really doing myself some favors, I added a bunch of other reads about character arcs and storytelling generally and characters and motivations and basically anything else you could think of. Great stuff, really. Hard to over-recommend On Writing and Wonderbook especially.
Add to that a heavy dose of writing podcasts, chock full of helpful tidbits and discussions about all the hidden gems tucked away in the dark crevices of the literary caves. (Writing Excuses is my perennial favorite.)
Sprinkle with a series of savvy, snarky and OTHERWISE youtube channels dedicated to dissecting masterworks of film and literature and illuminating how they get it right and wrong.
Then, top with a really crushing sense of inadequacy.
This step is crucial, and it can’t be overlooked. It helps that I had a natural tendency to doubt myself to begin with, but I imagine it would work for anybody. All you have to do is read a lot of excellent books by excellent authors and allow it to sink in that the odds are you will never be as prolific or successful as them. It’s simple math, really. It can’t work for everybody who tries it — it can’t even work for most people who try it — it probably won’t even work for a quarter of the people who try it. (“Work”, here, is subjective, but let’s be broad and say that it means writing books — or for that matter, creating any sort of art — that’s well received and financially worthwhile.)
This is the feeling, that “how is it even possible” sense one gets from standing at the foot of a gargantuan skyscraper, looking up toward where its apex stretches into the seemingly endless sky. Or the mind-shattering smallness you come by while staring up at the multitude of stars in the heavens on a clear night.
Too much looking up, too much contemplation, too much analysis.
The end result of all this is that I’ve felt like writing — creating — is something I just can’t do, or at least can’t do well. And because I can’t do it, I shouldn’t do it. And because I shouldn’t do it, I don’t do it. (I’m nothing if not a follower of rules, after all, even — if not especially — when the rules in question come from the authorial seat of dubious legitimacy, i.e., my own particular brand of non-expertise.)
Which has meant a creative drought quickly turning to desert. Even the cacti are withering up or folding in the doldrums. (Okay, yes, doldrums are a sea phenomenon while cacti are decidedly not, but whatever, it rhymed.)
And, then, it’s comforting not trying to write everyday. Certainly it’s easy. Leaves more time in the day for other things that aren’t as taxing, aren’t as stressful. Like disappearing down a video game hole for a month or two. Or endlessly hate-watching the news.
But it also feels empty. Like I should be doing something and I’m just stubbornly not doing it, like a kindergartner refusing to eat her vegetables. Except that analogy doesn’t work, because the kid doesn’t innately want to eat vegetables; the kid wants to eat grilled cheese and pizza and french fries at every meal. So it’s more like a kid refusing to eat pizza because she’s not the best pizza eater in the world, as if pizza eating were a thing that could be done well or poorly (the only way to eat pizza wrong, and this is scientific, is to NOT eat it until you’re sick). A dereliction of duty, if only to myself. A failure of the natural order.
I feel better when I write. It cleans out the mental pathways like running a Neti-Pot through your sinuses. It gives that sense of accomplishment, like waking up early and doing the dishes before your wife is awake so she doesn’t have to worry about Tuesday’s lasagna turning to red, craggy concrete in the pan.
And then, also additionally too, I look back at the catalog of this site and the stories I’ve written and the novels I’ve finished and partially finished, and dammit, I did those things. However inexpertly and imperfectly, I did them, and surely I was less expert when I did them than I am now while I’m not doing them because I’ve read and learned so much. And, if I may say so myself, I don’t think it was all that bad. So who am I to tell myself I can’t or shouldn’t spend my time doing these things,that I don’t deserve them, that they are a waste of my time?
I reached for a pen this morning while sitting in my classroom waiting for my students to arrive and all this came pouring out. Like the evil flowing out your other nostril as you inhale the witches’ brew in your Neti-Pot.
Which means, at the very least, that there’s still something like a drive to create stowed down in the depths of my whatever, somewhere.
I mean, it’s February after all, and we’re already getting seventy-degree days here outside Atlanta. Maybe a spring thaw is on order.