Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.
Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Librarian, reunited.”
Alise reaches for her mug of tea, brings it to her lips, braces for the scalding bite. It doesn’t come. She looks at the digital desktop clock; an hour has passed, and she’s barely registered it. She looks around the empty aisles, sniffs the comforting, musty air, swigs her cold tea, grimaces at the cool grainy mix sticking in her teeth. She stands up.
Seems like her bones crackle and pop and creak more than they did even a week ago. She presses a hand into the small of her back as she begins her familiar plod through the library. This she can do without thinking, and with a glance she confirms that all is as it should be. Too many years spent making this circuit, too many years without a change. The biographies have always been there, the kids’ section there, nonfiction there. Why not switch it up?
Because she doesn’t have the energy for it anymore, she tells herself. As she has told herself before. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not going to happen. At least she has the place to herself; no unshelved books to sort through, no messes at the card catalog station, no strewn toys in the kids’ section. Not unusual for a Thursday, but welcome. Ah, but it’s Thursday, isn’t it? She goes to check on Gary.
She likes Gary. Likes him a lot, actually, which she tells herself must be a little odd since Gary is homeless. But she does. He’s good at conversation, he smiles when he speaks, and he looks at her in a way that makes her feel actually seen, which is a nice change from most of the people she encounters. Still, liking Gary is the problem, because in fifteen minutes’ time she’s going to have to send him away, back out onto the street, knowing that whatever is in his backpack is all he has to get him through the night. And it’s getting colder. Maybe she has enough in her purse to offer him a few dollars for a sandwich, at least. But maybe he’d bristle if she offered him money. She’s thought about it before, but never done it. Doesn’t seem right. Might ruin the relationship they have, whatever that relationship may be.
But Gary’s not here.
His backpack is, though, leaning like a storm-smashed tree against the internet station (ten cents a minute, but she lets Gary use it for free). She looks around — he’s nowhere to be seen.
With a note of worry in her step, she visits all his likely spots — the restroom, the periodicals, the stoop outside the employee entrance — he’s not anywhere.
He must have just forgotten it.
Forgotten his pack that contains, presumably, everything he owns?
She returns to the backpack, eyes it like a dieter eyeing a piece of cheesecake at a buffet. She takes it to her desk, has a brief moment of doubt, and unzips it.
The first thing that hits her is the smell — an unmistakable fog of spoiled food and rain-fouled clothing. She shoves aside some hastily-folded shirts and balled-up socks (slightly damp, she shudders to notice). And then her fingers close on a book. A hardback book with a distinctive plastic covering.
A library book.
Gary never checks anything out, he just reads in the library. For hours at a time. Books would just be more weight to carry around. She lifts it out.
And immediately drops it, her breath catching in her throat.
With trembling fingers, she reaches to pick it up again.
It’s a bit weathered but in good shape for riding around in Gary’s pack. Good shape for being impossible.
It’s a first-edition copy of her unpublished book from twenty years ago. Same title, the same cover she had always envisioned, the pen name she’d planned to use emblazoned on the bottom. Impossible. She opens it, reads the opening lines. Her opening lines.
Lines she never shared with anybody.
“You weren’t meant to see that,” Gary’s voice says behind her.
So I still have this blarg, apparently, even though I’ve neglected it for a few weeks. Which is a nicer way of saying it than to say nearly a month.
But it’s not a desolate moonscape in the creative real estate of my brain. Far from it. In fact, it’s something like kismet that has me writing today on the topic of this post: the word “wrap”. It’s almost like Linda somehow psychically reached out and tapped my headspace and picked up on the juju I was giving off. Because this week — Wednesday, to be specific — I wrapped the first edit on my current project.
You know, the one that, along with a few extra responsibilities at work, ground me first to a halt and then into an anxiety I couldn’t shake to save my life. Panic attacks and existential doubt. A fog of doubt obscuring everything like a thick London pea soup. I didn’t touch my project for something on the order of seven or eight months, which, for a guy who’s always blathering on and on in his online space about the importance of momentum and the good feelings that creating brings, is, to put it lightly, a problem.
So to get back to the project — as I did toward the end of the last school year, in May — and even simply to start getting words on paper again, to be creating the story again, to be making clear, measurable improvements to the work again.
And now it’s done.
Well, not done. There are still fixes to be made, plants to be planted, narrative threads to be sewn up or trimmed, fluff to be excised. But if this novel-writing journey were a walk to Mordor, then this feels perhaps like arriving at Osgiliath. Not quite “almost there”, and certainly there are obstacles — and perhaps some of the hardest obstacles — ahead. But there’s more ground behind me than there is in front. And there’s a feeling about arriving somewhere, even if it’s not the last stop, that clears the head a little, that lifts the spirits. You stop, you relax, you stretch your legs. You check the map, survey the road ahead, start to realize that it’s not so bad, that you’ll be there before long if you can just keep pushing.
That’s where I’m at right now. Wrapping up a first-pass edit is a huge milestone to pass, and for a project I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish, it’s a milestone I am more than happy to commemorate.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is that I have taken a step back when it comes to the ol’ blarg here, and while I’m not particularly happy about that, it’s a tradeoff I can live with. The website has always been something I thought of as a diversion, a pressure release valve, a place to write to clear out the cobwebs or when I need to clean the slate after working on the novel. And, well, there just hasn’t been all that much pressure to release, because I’ve allowed myself to be okay with writing days that don’t go great. With missing days here and there. With spending a little time foundering around, letting ideas marinate, spending writing time just thinking about the project.
And as for writing about something that’s not the novel, well, I’m doing that now with my Morning Pages, where I drivel out a solid 7-800 words every morning, but without the added pressure of feeling like I have to polish and shape those words and keep them on topic for the purpose of posting them online.
Like I said, it’s a low-pressure environment, and it’s working.
And while that makes me think that maybe I need to reexamine what I’m doing with the blarg here, I kinda don’t want to go making new commitments or thinking too hard about something that’s just meant to be a bit of fun.
So I’m going to let it be what it is for now, keep shooting for a post or so per week, but keep my focus on the novel. Because getting a taste of a milestone like this has me wanting more again. I want to wrap this project for real, and I’ve already started the next edit.
All of which is to say, thanks for reading. Sorry I haven’t put as much here lately, but it’s only because I’m putting the words where they count, where (I hope) they’re doing the most good.
I owe you something extra for my half-post last week — so here it is!
A teacher finds their student at work in the library and approaches them.
Teacher: Chaucer, huh? Canterbury Tales. I remember reading that when I was your age. What, you don’t think I was young once? World’s full of surprises, huh? (Looking at the book.) You know, I never got The Canterbury Tales. I still don’t. And I have to teach it. (Beat.) But you get it. You’re smart. Good head on your shoulders. Which is why I know you’re going to come through for me. I know you’re dealing. (Student stands up.) Uh-uh. Don’t. Sit down. Nice and easy. We’re just talking. Don’t worry about how I know. Just know that I do know. Now, relax. I’m not here to turn you in. I’m here to help you. You’re good in English, but you’re struggling in math. You need a tutor. I need a new supplier. You take cash, right?
I’m at a theater educators conference this week, and one of the workshops I took was in monologue writing for students. Part of the work was — you guessed it — writing monologues!
I wrote three over the course of the hour – this one in less than ten minutes – but this one was my favorite.
I don’t usually do this, but I was editing and adding a much-needed section to my novel-in-progress and enjoyed it so much I just thought I’d post it. (Incidentally, it allows me to update the site and prove that I’m not just wasting time over here. Well… not all the time, anyway.)
It may not make the cut in the final version, but it was fun to write, and, you know, sometimes that matters.
“This place really needs a name,” Dina says. Linc peeks out around the potted ficus he’s managing. “What do you mean?” “I mean, it’s lame to just go on calling it ‘the hideout’ or ‘the lab’ or whatever you’ve been calling it. You’re a proper villain now. You need a name for your place. You know. Fortress of Solitude, or whatever. But for bad guys.” “That’s stupid.” “No, it’s practical.” Tonya sets the couch down in the corner, blinks to the fridge for a soda, and blinks right back onto the couch, kicking her feet up over the armrest. “Besides, I agree. So that’s two to one. We gotta name it.” Dina shuffles off to the kitchen herself, kicking her shoes off on the way. “Two to one.” Linc wants to point out to them that this isn’t a democracy, to remind them that this place is his, that Vector is his, that the plan to bring the Academy low is his, but it doesn’t seem worth it. “What do you have in mind, then?” “You’re a nerd, so it’s gotta be nerdy sounding, you know? Strike fear into the hearts of everybody with an IQ below 150. Something like … The Motherboard.” Dina tosses Linc a soda. He fumbles it before catching it by his knees. “Why The Motherboard?” “Because it’s where we keep our chips.” Dina rattles a bag of tortilla chips at him before gashing the bag with her ring and spreading a thick layer of chips on a plate. “That’s terrible.” “I kinda like it,” Tonya says. “It’s got some kind of ring to it.” “Nope. The two of you can vote to name it, that’s fine, but I’m holding out veto power over the name. We’re not calling it The Motherboard.” Dina has sprinkled cheese over the chips and tosses the plate into the microwave (stolen, along with the 70-inch television, from a Best Buy a few hours away). “That’s okay. I got a bunch of ideas. How about The WreckTangle?” “The Rectangle?” “No, the WreckTangle. As in, Wrecked Angle. Get it? Because math, right? Plus, you know. Get wrecked.” “Nice.” Tonya lifts her soda can in salute. “I dunno.” Linc leans against the counter, scanning the bank of monitors for news, or updates. Vector’s display shows the robot cheerfully making rounds on the mountainside. “I got one,” Tonya says. “The Trapezoid.” “I don’t —” “Ooh, I like that.” Dina flings the microwave open for her plate of nachos. “Right? Because it’s a trap. Plus…” Tonya glances around. This sounded cleverer in her mind. “Plus it’s got that z in there. That’s cool.” “There’s nothing in here that’s even trapezoid-shaped,” Linc points out. “And by the way, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what a trapezoid is.” “I don’t know that.” Tonya crumples her can in one hand and tosses it at Linc. “Who even needs to know that after high school? Or in it, for that matter?” “If you’re going to call your hideout The Trapezoid, you should at least know what a Trapezoid is.” “It’s your hideout, not mine, damn!” Dina raises her voice around a mouthful of nachos. “Vector, what’s a trapezoid?” Vector’s screen types out an immediate response. Trapezoid: a four-sided shape with only one pair of parallel sides. “That. It’s that,” Dina says, pointing. “You owe me a dollar.” “That doesn’t count.”
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.