Writing Therapy

These last several weeks, I’ve felt mostly horrid. It’s been a rather hectic fall semester, with new projects to complete as well as new fires to put out. My students are either going through Senior-itis or studying abroad, so all the work they would ordinarily do falls to me, too. This isn’t actually that awful – what takes my students twelve hours to do, I can do in half that time – but it does mean tasks pile on through the week. Add to that my sleeping schedule is wonky due to changing weather and light, and I’ve felt sluggish and unmotivated.

I’ve also been working on a story edit.

When I edit, I try my best to concentrate on that story. It helps me keep overall voice and continuity better than notecards or Scrivener can do. I still read while I edit, because I learn more by example from my favorite authors on what’s important in a story, how to keep plot threads moving, and when to dangle, when to pull up, and when to trim loose. But the only writing I’ve done for the last month or so has been rewrites of an already-finished draft. Rewrites are good: I changed two whole chapters, cleaned up more than a half-dozen more, and had one character do a near-180 flip on me. It’s all better for the story as a whole, but it was sucking me dry.

I discussed this with my husband, who reminded me that “[r]ewriting is still writing.” But, he is much more comfortable working from what’s already on the page. The blank page doesn’t bother me; I just start writing words off the top of my head. In fact, it’s hard for me to find blank pages in my notebook when I need one, because so many of them are filled with first lines, initial ideas, or jots of dialogue. For some people, that’s all the writing they need to keep going. For me, all of those little notes and ideas are merely warm-up, like stretching before a workout. Have you ever just stretched and not followed up with the real workout? My body reacts poorly to that. It wants to work hard and make a sweat. Why couldn’t I see what that stretching-and-not-working was doing to my writer’s brain?

On my Thursday morning commute, I decided to open up a blank document. I just couldn’t face again one of the annoying scenes in the edit I was trying to make work. I began typing off the top of the head…and, over the next two days, I typed out over 4700 words of a new free write.

I haven’t felt this good in a long time.

Friends and colleagues – real writers – supported this, with cheers like, “Writing is therapy!” and “Writing is the best medicine.” I had apparently forgotten how sapped I get when I don’t allow myself the freedom to write something new and for fun.

Editing strengthens a story. It’s an integral part of making the story the best it can be. And, I do enjoy it, especially to see the finished product. But, sometimes, I have to let myself just write, for the pure joy of the story, the characters, and the process itself.

“Breathe, another ‘Finding Mister Wright’ short-fic”
[~4750 words/16 pages; PDF]

Clicking the link above will take you to the latest chapter in my “Finding Mister Wright” slice-of-life series. It’s about love and family, fatherhood and brotherhood, and the big and little changes those things cause in us. It’s a free-write, so it’s choppy in parts and rambling in others, but I decided not to edit it despite that. Part of what brings me back to these characters time and again is how much joy and love they have for each other, and how much of the same I have for them. I doubt they’d be so therapeutic otherwise.

How is your writing journey progressing? What do you do when you find yourself in a writing or editing funk?

A moment of writerly hubris

I think all writers are protective of their characters. We’re told to kill our darlings, and the idea of making our characters face hardships, including death, is important, because conflict drives a lot of life. It certainly drives drama. As much as I love talking about my stories and characters, I always try to rein myself in, because I’ve realized over the years that nobody has or ever will care as much for my characters as I do. I can hopefully entertain with their stories, and maybe – if I’m lucky – I can even make a reader feel something for one of my characters, whether that’s compassion, disgust, fear, or just a simple interest to see what happens next. But, sometimes, I find myself becoming too attached to these characters.

I have – more than once, I’m ashamed to admit, mostly for the silliness of it – cringed at a misspelling of a beloved character’s name. Not everybody gets persnickety about names the way I do, probably because most people didn’t grow up in the environment I grew up in with a name like mine. For many years, I simply gave up correcting people over the pronunciation of my name, because it just seemed pedantic of me to do so. But not too long ago, a colleague asked me straight-out:

“What’s the correct pronunciation of your name? Is it MAY-you-me, or MA-you-me?”

I gave my standard answer at the time, which was a shrug and a dismissive, “I answer to both.”

He came back at me: “Yes, but it’s just as easy for me to pronounce your name the right way, if you tell me.”

That simple logic slapped me in the face, and I remember thinking, You know what? That’s right!

Nowadays, I introduce myself with the proper pronunciation, and I’ll correct someone if they give me that quizzical I-didn’t-quite-get-that look. For the most part, I let it go, mostly because I don’t want to sound like a pedantic ass. But when it happens with my characters, I still feel a little flare of defensiveness for them. Because I’m the only one who will ever care enough.

The following “Finding Mister Wright” short (link opens in a new window) came about with the pedantic ass portion of my personality in full force. I think it’s fitting, though, for the moment. And, it was fun to write, which I think is the most important bit.

“Always Daniel”
[another “Finding Mister Wright” fic – ~2100 words/7 pages]

Do you have an easy name? If not, do you school folks on the proper pronunciation? Or, do you let it go? If you could change your name, what name would you choose?

Extra question: If you read the story above, what name do you vote for, for little baby Wright? (Orville and Wilbur are not options.)

I want that love, that life

This is not a real post. I was going to talk about keeping balance in my writerly life, but I can’t manage it right now. This was a rough week all around – at work, at home, in my head – and I just needed to take a break with people who care for and about each other, even if it’s only in my stupid, self-indulgent fiction.

“Two Dads”
[Another “Finding Mister Wright” free write] ~3200 words/10 pages

I wrote this in a day, between work, emails, cooking supper, and everything else, and I’ve never written from Paige’s perspective before, but it’s part of my writing effort and I have to support it for being that. A story based on personal experience, just not the part I would have wanted.

Love and Death and Love Again

I think about death a lot. Not mine, so much, because there’s little point in that. I try to eat well, exercise, look both ways before crossing the street, that sort of thing. Beyond that, we’re all basically at the mercy of fate, and stressing over when my time will be up won’t change the ticking of the clock. I still think about it a lot, though.

I think a lot about love, too. The love between a parent and a child, between siblings, between lovers lucky enough to find each other in a great big world full of so many different individuals. How love can divide but also unite. How its grace can fill our lives with happiness, from the most mundane interactions to the most life-changing.

I also think about love and death together. How one can make the other sweet or terrifying, and how that can go either way, for both. Because I think so much and so often about death and love, they come up again and again in my writing. Sometimes, their place is blatant in a story, sometimes not. I think the former applies to my latest “Finding Mister Wright” short:

“Thirty-Nine”
Another “Finding Mister Wright” story
(PDF will open in a new window; ~2800 words/9 pages DS)

I can’t always explain why I write the stories I do, but this one – looking at aging, love, and death – came to me as I spied a “Frozen”-themed birthday cake in a bakery window and thought about the kids who won’t have another birthday, this year.

I don’t apologize for where this story goes, for the love or the death, because I like to think both make us stronger, in their own ways and eventually. Whether you read the story or not, and whether you agree with me or not, keep in mind the significance of love and death in your own lives, both the fantastic ones you put to the page and the true one you build around you.

How has love or death affected your stories?

My Sweetest Rejection

In my freshman year at university, I loved a boy. He wasn’t particularly handsome, suave, or heroic. But, he had a rolling laugh, and bright, clear eyes, and a smile that would jump eagerly to his face, even for things I had said. And, I wasn’t handsome, suave, or heroic, either. He was ahead of me by a year, but we shared some classes. That meant sharing walks to lectures, study sessions, and dinners, sometimes, to discuss assignments and theories. We worked together, too, in the theater: he drew designs and schematics while I plugged and played, tilting lights and dragging cables up ladders. I came to long for the hours spent in the rafters above the stage, when he’d lean his head close, to peer down my sight-line to teach me about focus and shadows. I still remember those lessons.

Near the end of that first semester, on a night crisp with a chill, we walked back to the dorms from the theater building. He told me about the pretty, stylish senior girl who got all the accolades but who never seemed to notice him, and I told him…something to make him happy:

“Maybe she’s just shy around you.”

He laughed a wobbly laugh that showed off his smile, but it had no happiness. “Yeah, maybe.”

We got to my dorm then, and he opened his arms. To this day, I swear I fell into them. In a story, we might have kissed and found each other. In reality, awkward teenagers that we were, we stepped away, said good night, and that was all.

I thought about him a lot over the next several weeks, through winter break and the return to campus the following semester. By that time, shooting stars shone in the background whenever he smiled at me, or whenever we shared a talk or stroll. I was sinking and had no clue what to do, until another friend of mine – who also happened to be a friend of his – told me:

“Write to him.”

“Like a letter?”

My friend shook his head. “Write him a story,” he said. So, I did. That’s what you see below, unedited and unaltered from my melodramatic eighteen-year-old self.

DecemberNight

This was the very first story I’d written from my heart that I showed to anybody. I included with it a note, asking him to meet me. He came to my room, but there were people hanging out there, so we went to the stairwell, a quiet, neutral place where we could talk. Which we did, though not about anything important: theatre schedule, a class paper, some acquaintance on the fringe. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I asked him:

“Do you really not know why I wanted to talk?”

He looked at his shoes, then looked at me, and said, “No. I know.” He didn’t laugh or smile. Instead, his face seemed serious, sad, and my heart sank. “I’m really flattered,” he began, and the next few sentences I can’t recall and barely heard anyway, for the loud, scratchy swallow of my pride in my ears. Somewhere in his gently compassionate monologue, he told me how, a year earlier, he’d stood where I was and listened to this same speech from somebody else. And, that, somewhen down the line, I’d probably give this speech to somebody, too. I never did, but I have always remembered how he stood up at the end and asked, “Are we okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, because I couldn’t say no, not even then. Not even now.

He smiled, and started down the steps. But he paused past the curve of the landing, turning to look up at me again to say, “Please, don’t be sad.”

It was, at the same time, both the sweetest and the most heartbreaking rejection I have ever been lucky enough to receive in my entire life. No slip of paper from any editor, publisher, or reader will ever fill me with such pain – or such strange grace – as that moment.

I don’t know why I’ve shared this story, now. Except maybe to say, wherever you are, Chris, thank you for that moment. I wouldn’t be the writer I am without you.