Friday, March 11, 2016

Strategizing the Mess

MFA Semester 2 and Adapting to My Flawed Process

March already. Halfway into my second semester as an MFA student. Strange, the only suitable response that comes to mind is an arms-outstretched, juvenile yell of "Craziness!" (In my mind, of course.)
What I will say, here, is that it's been a great semester so far. I'm in two workshops this spring -- graduate-level prose and undergraduate-level poetry -- and LORD is it fun! I've sorely missed writing and learning about poetry in an academic setting. There's something very freeing about poems, maybe because they allow my overcrowded mind to tackle the world in bite-size; moreover, the attention to language, to moments, never fails to reinvigorate my enthusiasm for sentence-level writing. The prose workshop this semester ain't shabby either: I'm impressed by the quality of work, response, and support from this group, and the over-observer in me also revels in the experience of silently cheering my classmates on when I see their craft developing. I'm also happy to be taking a third class at my old stomping grounds this semester -- a cross-cultural lit course at my undergrad alma mater. In addition to the great reading, it's always uplifting to be back at the place I still call "home."

Clearly "somebody up there likes me," because my weekly schedule also has its major perks. During the week, I'm fortunate to have writers as coworkers: we've made a ritual of devoting 15-20 minutes semi-weekly to creative writing, sometimes sharing what we've written when we're done. Talk about Nerd Heaven! I also somehow ended up with a four-day weekend in my schedule -- which translates to ample hours to develop some new productive habits. Working out, for instance (a nice way to reverse some of those sitting-at-a-desk-all-day effects), but more importantly, an Unapologetic Writing Day (yes, it's capitalized). One full day to put all other work aside, close the door, and focus exclusively on my writing.

Or drinking tea.

Or pacing around my room.

Or despairing over writer's block.

Well, Unapologetic Writing Day has its issues. Mainly, this has to do with the convoluted mess that is my mind and, consequently, my writing process. I've mentioned before on this blog that I sometimes deal with ADD-esque symptoms, something I've always attributed to my introversion and easily-stimulated brain. Lately, though, the presence of these symptoms when I write is downright disheartening. Sometimes I think I have the attention span of a squirrel. (See what I did there? Oh nevermind.) My mind wanders, or freezes up, or feels like its grasp on words has dissipated like smoke. Not being officially diagnosed, I suppose I have no right to call these symptoms straight-up ADD. It may simply be subliminal stress, self-doubt, damned procrastination -- nothing that any other writer has not experienced as well. But the results are disturbing. I'm lucky if I can get one paragraph in four hours on some days.

I think one of the scariest things on the planet is not understanding your own mind. I could spend all day coming up with theories for why my writing stamina feels like it's deteriorating. Perhaps the size of a prose/fiction project scares me, because unlike a poem, there's no way to predict how long a story might become; perhaps I'm paralyzed by my own reservation, afraid of accidentally writing about myself; perhaps I've just become too comfortable, lazier. But at the end of the day, there's no way to really know. All I know is I have this problem, this mind-wandering mess, and it could ruin my writing.

My process, my natural writing inclinations, are flawed beyond question. But I learned a long time ago that I can't always eliminate my weaknesses, I just have to work around them. I believe that self-improvement often has little to do with changing who you are as it does with applying your natural self strategically. So how does one strategize one's writing flaws?

Step 1, I can observe and acknowledge my weakness. Be this a temporary or permanent issue, I know now that unless I'm writing a really short story, I can no longer write a story in a day. I can't -- or at least, any attempts to makes me miserable, and misery makes work harder. So, step 2, I work around that flaw: I break up the drafting process. Against all inner voices yelling for perfect completion ASAP, I've forced myself into a system of working on a story's dialogue one day, action another day, description on another. Sometimes, the only type of "writing" I can get done for a story is the thought behind it -- the brainstorming, the planning, and not a lick of it on paper -- and I tell myself consciously (despite sulking emotions) that it's absolutely fine. That brings me to Step 3, I guess: doing what works right, not what feels right, in a writing crisis. There will be many times in writing where our heads and emotions disagree: my emotions want to say that adapting my process shouldn't be necessary, that I used to write whole stories in a day, that one-sitting writing is the only way to get the "flow" right, dammit. But if that's what my current situation isn't letting me do, if that's what's not productive right now, I have to ignore those feelings. I have to adapt to the problem at hand, and that means being comfortable with one part of me being at odds with the other (at least temporarily).

If I've learned anything this semester, it's that my writing will never be consistent, neither in quality nor productivity nor method. There will be periods where it comes easily, others where it will struggle, still others where previous joy-inducing exercises will become painful as hell. There is no sure-fire formula to writing, simply because I am a fickle, moody, ever-changing human being. My writing flaws will always evolve as I do, so I have to make my process evolve with them.

Thanks for enduring the long and rambling update, which I will conclude with one belated bit of news about change, in the words of my favorite literary heroine:

Reader, I married him.

(Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte)

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