Thursday, February 26, 2015

Blue Writings

Self-Doubt, Self-Reliance, and Sad Inspiration

This, surely, is the greatest test of my writing.

I am not, officially, a depression patient. (The time at the doctor's office where I failed the test doesn't count -- who the hell circles "never" instead of "sometimes" for Do-You-Ever-Feel-Sad questions?) There is no clinical diagnosis attached to my mellow, melancholic nature. No significant presence of tell-tale signs to link my off-days with WebMD-listed symptoms. No daily feelings of worthlessness (since age 19), regular insomnia (unless it's writing-spree-induced), or impaired concentration (well, aside from ADD-esque tendencies). The Thinking Frown is misleading; in general, I am a happy person -- easily pleased, easily awed.

Yet, some strange little anguish has been seeping its way into my system lately. Much of it is likely a simple case of Senior-Year Blues -- graduation denial, job search bargaining, the usual stages. But this little anguish has nestled itself in other areas. It's found the guilt-producing sector of the brain and choked out the geek-on-steroids motivation that I'm used to. "Where is your inspiration?" it's whispered. "What are you going to write now?"

I had no idea how much of a transition this semester would be. I have a significantly lighter academic load (una clase en espaƱol), and thus a lot, lot more free-time. It's the first time since my sophomore year that I haven't been in a writing course, with some kind of paper or creative work due every week. As a hardworking student, I thought the transition from deadlines and scary professors to independent writing would be seamless, even welcome. Think how much more time I'll have to write, I thought, and how much more freedom to write what I want. I was foolish to think that. I'm beginning to realize that, for the first time, I'm on my own. I have no threat of a lowered grade, no one to hold me accountable but myself. And oh sweet mother of Faulkner, it sucks.

It's a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, but whether strange little anguish caused it or vice-versa, inspiration has been scarce these days. Who would have thought that those nasty deadlines were actually helping to force the ideas to come? Now the ideas have laid low. Ghosts of them flicker by every so often, long enough for me to jot a few words in my notebook, but nothing more. On a recent blizzard night, I fled the house and discovered pieces of the sky crumbling in white, and thought: I have something now. But returning indoors to my laptop,  the resulting strained phrases were disheartening: they were words only, not life, not flame.

This, surely, is the greatest test of my writing. To still feel dependent, to survive a dry spell, to make my writing entirely my own.

When inspiration came at last, it was through somewhat unusual means. An open invitation to students popped up on social media for participation in a small study, involving three days of writing flanked by two in-depth surveys. "Why not?" I thought, wishing to assuage the guilt of being unproductive. I didn't know what to expect, especially after submitting the 20-minute pre-survey of psychoanalytical proportions. The rules were simple: you get one prompt for all three days, then write deeply about it each day for 15-20 minutes. (Diary time. Whoopee.) The evening before Day 1, the prompt came: write about the most upsetting experience in your life.

Oh. Something erupted. Strange little anguish temporarily lost its hold, and glimmers of inspiration were flashing wildly before I was even prepared to write. Oh, I realized, I can do that. The next morning, I got up earlier than usual, grabbed a notebook, and wrote the first day's work. These were handwritten notes, not prettied-up. No delete button, no stopping to look up words in the thesaurus. No limitations except to explore my feelings deeply. When I finished, I hesitantly put down the pen and sat back, looking down in shock at the scrawled notes.

Oh my God. I just wrote something good.

Feeling like I'd stepped off a roller-coaster, I glanced over at the clock, wondering where the time had gone. Oddly, in the rush of energy, I didn't question the possibility of what just occurred. I didn't ask how I was finally able to break the cycle after months of wordlessness. Because somehow, in the settling calm, I knew the answer.

This, surely, is the greatest test of my writing. To write about sadness.

Inspiration doesn't want to come to me in pretty things, not right now. With strange little anguish in my skull, I could only write by indulging it (in it?), by channeling that despair toward the page. I was forced to dig deep through that despair and find it in past forms -- my age 19 feelings of worthlessness, my writing insomnia miseries, the trenches that carved and twisted me into a sad little person who needed writing (and eventually, into the easily-awed writer I am today). Is it a sorry predicament that pain is the easiest thing to write about? No, not right now. That's what's growing and growling most strongly in me at the moment, so best to feed it while it's here.

This, surely, is the greatest test of my writing. To live with despair a little while. To ride out the storm.

Grace and peace to you.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Publication Alert: "When Truth Hurts"

Dear Reader,

You saw it here first, and now it's featured on a national blog!

I am thrilled to announce that one of my AntDes posts (yep, I just shortened that) is now showcased as an article on Writer's Get Together. You can check it out here.

WGT is a website that features blog posts and articles submitted by writers all across the country (even the globe, I think), serving as a networking base for writers to discover each other as well as to market their work. I loved working with them. The editors were extremely kind and encouraging, something I don't always encounter in the publication world. It makes an enormous impression when editors make that extra step to connect with their submitters on a personal level (even in rejection letters). What an amazing feeling it is to have a stranger across the internet to show genuine interest and excitement about my writing. I can't wait to submit to them again!
About the work: Of all the posts on AntDes, this is among those few of which I'm most proud. Written in the form of a letter to author Franz Kafka, it bemoans the inner dilemma of a writer who is attracted to the drama of reality, yet sensitive to the idea of hurting one's nonfictional subjects. The inspiration came from an encounter with classmate I had in a Writing Poetry course. I can picture her so clearly -- lovely young woman, with pink-streaked hair (or was it purple then?) and tattoos poking out from under her sleeves. Marvelous writer, too. In conversation she mentioned how her writing was influenced by a quote from Kafka, which she had tattooed on her shoulder: "Follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly." I admired both her and Kafka's boldness for exploring the ugly sides of people in their lives. But for a coward like myself, it made me wonder -- what are the risks?

The gears in my head turned, and the rest is history. Grace and peace to you.

P.S., maybe I won't stick with that title nickname. It looks a hell of a lot like I'm saying "Aunt Des" in a hillbilly dialect.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Revision of Re-Vision

Why, Maybe, There is No "Right Way"

Dare I employ that juvenile platitude of internet lingo? *sigh* Oh well: #TBT

Reader, you may recall a post from a few months back detailing my painful relationship with the revision process. In said post, I described the challenges of being a writer who shuns the "rough draft" and prefers polished work from the start, when the writing flows more naturally. In spite of making revision analogous to disfiguring babies, however, my desire to be optimistic compelled me to conclude that post by gently chiding myself for being such a narrow-minded perfectionist. A sort of "Silly writer, one-and-done manuscripts are for egoists."

I thought that was the appropriate response then, but I was surprised to find that several of my readers were confused by my ending. In addition to the sheer incoherence of praising revision after denouncing it, my turnaround didn't seem honest. And after giving it some thought, I've decided that the discussion is worth revisiting. Yes, I am completely aware of the irony of this post. I wrote a post about revision, where 90% of it lamented that the revision process doesn't work for me then suddenly shifted to a rallying cry of "Yay revision!", and am now solving the inconsistency of that post by revising its conclusion.

Yes, I am positively drowning in the rolling, crashing waves of multilevel irony here.
But it also proves my point exactly. I couldn't revise that post the traditional way. I had to write it, put my heart and soul in it, then let it be dead for a few months before even touching it again. By then, with relatively little technical input from others, I could deduce on my own what I needed to make it better. That's what worked for me, but I realize that that's not what I was taught by other writers (whoa, am I being defiant?). Typical revisionary strategies, at least as I understand them, would have me producing multiple drafts of varying polish. The process would look something like this, I imagine:

1. Brain-dump: just write what comes to mind, in whatever order it comes to mind, without stopping to consider coherency or grammar.
2. Rough draft: go back and spell-check, grammar-check, and broadly rearrange as necessary to make it readable.
3. Passable draft: refine for more artistic and detailed elements, like distinction of voices and lyrical prose, so that it looks more like an adult's writing and less like an adolescent's (*cough* E. L. James *cough*)
4. Polished draft: after receiving feedback from others, cut, add, rearrange, or rewrite to fill any holes, solve any efficiency issues, or create more symbolism, using steps 1-3 again as necessary.
5. Final draft: tie any loose ends and clean-up transitions, then proofread and refine details until it is in publishable form.

. . . And that's an extremely simplified model, not taking into account the indefinite amount of times someone could redo, reorder, or overlap these drafts. Essentially, the goal is to be writing constantly in short, relatively close spurts, valuing the frequency and quantity of writing over quality, at least until the final revisions. A worthy goal -- but, for me, it hasn't worked too well. My brain is so wired for detail and conscientiousness that producing "rough" material doesn't come naturally; in some ways, it's more difficult. It's not that I'm not revising -- it's that I'm revising as I write. By the time a sentence makes it onto a page, I've already mentally written and crossed-out rough versions of it a thousand times. Yet I'm also always thinking ahead to consider how one moment of wording will impact the rest of the story (e.g., repetition for symbolism). Essentially, the steps of typical revision are not so much eliminated as they are condensed. Where there are less physical drafts, there are more mental reworkings and planning to produce a final draft in fewer -- albeit, longer and more infrequent -- tries. I'm more content to spend 20 hours straight producing a polished draft in one take than to write a few hours each day revising a brain-dump.
Perhaps it is my conscientiousness for polished writing that makes any kind of change difficult. Whereas other writers might move relatively quickly from one draft to another, I find it excruciating to try to alter something I've already refined so meticulously, even when I know there are holes. I've found that it's easier to put my work aside for a considerable amount of time before going back to it, when I am not so stuck in the rhythm I had when drafting it.

I don't claim that my way of revising is in any way more efficient than traditional models. Granted, I've only worked with relatively shorter works, so spacing out revisions to every six months is probably not conducive to finishing a book within a decade. My habits will probably change in the future as I risk experimenting with other strategies. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if traditional revision models fail to take into account differing minds.

Am I suggesting that some writers need never revise? No. What I'm saying is that, if traditional revision methods don't work for you, it's okay. If taking more time or skipping a few steps is what makes you write at your best, then by golly go for it. I'm aware that my own process is a rather slow one, in terms of individual writing sessions, but I use it because I've found that I'm more likely to make mistakes when I write quickly -- even with proofreading (I guess because I'm not in the flow?). You may need to experiment a bit (in a low-consequences setting) to figure out what rhythm of writing works most efficiently for you. Once you've found it, embrace it. Don't fret if you have to cram your work in one weekend while everyone else writes snippets throughout the week (or vice-versa), or if you have to move on to start new projects before refining a previous one. What's important is that you remain consistent in your (efficient) habits. At the end of the day, while we can certainly learn from other writer's strategies, our process should be our own.

New conclusion: revise as you wish, there's no right way to do it.
Grace and peace to you.