Say what you want about behemoth bookshops. Barnes & Noble has been quite good to me over the years, if only for the fact that they have provided me with opportunities to exchange a laugh or two with people who completely inspire me.
(Note to self: tell the story about meeting the graceful Susan Egan in a New York City BN and how she subsequently, divinely, and synchronistically sent you the elusive sheet music you had been seeking out for months. Well, actually, that’s pretty much the story.)
Last Monday, Barnes & Noble sent me Elizabeth Gilbert.
Yes, I’m a big Eat, Pray, Love fan. Who isn’t? Who didn’t read that book and all of a sudden treat themselves to luxurious artist dates consisting of solitary brunches and meditative labyrinth walks? Who didn’t follow her journey and repetitively conjure up friend after friend who would appreciate this section or that? “Oh, Suzanna would love this part about Italy,” I would think to myself while reading, and “I wonder what Stacia would think about this part in the ashram?” or “I can absolutely see Lisa and Tatiana and I having this conversation over dinner at French Roast.” And on it went. Book clubs happened. Copies were wrapped in Christmas paper and sent to the post. It was, and still is, at the top of my reading recommendation list.
But I think the appeal of that book is more than the fact that it’s a good read. I think the appeal comes from the fact that it’s so incredibly relatable. The voice is not an unfamiliar one. And as we watch the author “Frankenstein” her way through her experiences, as she might say, we get a sense of how to go about unpacking our own journeys, or at least perhaps how to summon the courage to try. (Please note: the word “Frankenstein” can only be used as a verb if it is accompanied with the proper Frankenstein’s monster-ish walk, a proper illustration of what it is like, sometimes, to do “new and scary things.”)
“Writing is the thread that has sewn my life together,” said Elizabeth Gilbert at the Barnes & Noble event space adjacent to the loudly colorful children’s section. At least, I think that’s what she said. In a moment of haste, regretting the absence of a notebook in my purse, I busted out a pencil and started scratching in the back of my copy of her latest offering, The Signature of All Things. Anyone who knows me has witnessed those moments when I am caught scrutinizing my own writing as if it were a secret message from Orphan Annie and I am sans a decoder ring. (Yes, my life revolves around Christmas references. Get over it.) So, bear with me.
I think anyone who calls herself a writer would recognize that notion of not being able to truly understand things until they’ve been… I was going to say “written down,” but actually I think “written through” is the more accurate preposition. To “write something down” has such finality. To “write through something” implies work, journey, understanding. Joan Didion said it so many times in her personal essays: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Even now, I have a dear friend who is Frankensteining her way through unpacking her childhood abuse, writing through her experiences, bringing light to the dark corners.
I don’t know if Liz Gilbert feels exactly this way, but she contended that she even after the great success of EPL, she knew she couldn’t leave writing behind, get a big house, and “raise Corgis.” And so it is. Writing as necessity. In her own “Thoughts on Writing,” she says, “I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write.” Joan said, “We tell stories in order to live.” Indeed.
Of course, this blog is about the not writing, the question of what happens when that is true and yet the words/space/time/healthy psychological headspace don’t seem to come. Liz had some things to say about this, too.
Starting with something like “stop trying to find your passion.”
Instead, she said, seek out curiosity. “Passion” is a word so fraught with anxiety, she said, that it becomes yet another weight to bear sometimes. Follow curiosity, that “small tap on the shoulder that makes you turn your head just a quarter of an inch. It’s smaller, quieter, and less intimidating.”
Cue the cumulative sigh of everyone in the room abandoning their stressful adherence to “finding their passions.”
I love this about Liz. (I can call her “Liz,” because we are obviously BFFs now.) She completely dispels the idea of the tortured writing process. “Artistic torment is a really romantic idea,” she said in an interview with Globe and Mail last month, “but it’s not very conducive to output.” In other words, she admits that her artistic process “would not make a very good biopic.”
Since she was raised on a farm, she says, her writing process is seasonal: the season for inspiration, the season for research, the season for writing, editing, and finally, for rest. Sometimes these seasons can take days, and sometimes they can take months. Sometimes, like winter in Westeros, they can take years.
The Signature of All Things was written from a 70-page outline, which was constructed from the index-card fruit of three years in the research season. (Shout out to her West Civ teacher, Mr. Kisco, and his index card research methodologies.)
Three years of research. Three years of preparation. Three years of curiosity. After that, writing was like painting a room where the the furniture had already been moved and the windows pre-taped.
“I feel sorry for the girl I was in my 20s,” she laughed, who would often try to paint only to realize there was a couch in the way. She spoke of sitting and staring at the blank page wondering where the inspiration was going to come from. She would later discover the way of the creative warrior.
“Inspiration is like a one-night stand,” she said. “Creativity is a 40-year marriage.”
Of course, we’ve all seen her eloquent TED talk, where she outlines the potential parameters of genius, inspiration, and creativity.
But the counterweight to creativity? Compassion.
In a discussion about women and artistic pursuits, Liz pointed out that we are very likely a “new species.” We have no role models, no history, no mythology to reference as we go about our lives making decisions about family and career and balance. Never before have we had such freedom of self-determination. Here, she referenced Martha Beck, fans of her Facebook page, and also her sister as examples of the one thing that will enable us to truly embrace who we are and shine appropriately – compassion, for each other, but most importantly for ourselves.
“Martha Beck defines the mystic as the woman who chooses family, or career, or both, but has enough compassion for herself not to constantly berate herself for not choosing the other path,” said Liz, sort of. She then told a tale of her sister and a significant gesture of compassion she extended towards another mother who was spiraling into an oblivion of unworthiness after witnessing the gingerbread houses that her own kids had put together while being babysat by Liz’s sister. That conversation started with “You’re a better mother than I am” and ended with, simply, “Let’s not do this to each other.”
The Facebook has become an extension of this compassionate community, aka “Tribe Liz,” and visiting her page is like a run-in with someone offering free hugs. But, the cool part is that she is quick to return the embrace. She keeps track of her people, reaching out to them when necessary, tethering them to the font of support which that space has become. There is the story of the young woman on the other side of the world who has shared her hardships on the page, who was sent a copy of The Signature of All Things, who responded in broken English with “You care on me!”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth Gilbert. “I care on you.” And, the funny thing is, in this world where our heroes are constantly disappointing us, she really does.
Check her out on book tour now.
Typically, I feel as though I have two kinds of dreams. One is some sort of processing activity – random images and feelings that are actually a decompression of my life experiences. The second are the dreams that seem to be something a little more. You know what I’m talking about: The dreams that seem like intricate stories or movies in your mind. The ones that come complete with sounds and colors and smells. The ones that actually seem to mean something.
Recently, I’ve been having some income work/creative work balance issues. That is, I am challenged by the time I spending on my writing obligations to others and my writing obligations to myself. I have blogged before on this topic, settling on the 10% theory, as a way of guaranteeing my creative funtime. But the 10% wasn’t working. I ended up spending way more time on my creative writing than I did on my income writing, or vice versa, and I was feeling deeply anxious about keeping up with everything. I needed some sort of plan beyond the 10% to help me right myself on the page. This was on my mind as I fell asleep a few days ago.
That night, I dreamt about a creepy insect. It would not leave me alone. It was everywhere: this giant beetle-like creature that I did not recognize and could not name. It infused my dream, like some sort of gruesome action sequence out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Upon waking (and resisting the urge to vomit into my pillow), I pretty much assumed that this was some sort of stress dream. Still, I was so perplexed by the pervasiveness of this insect in my dream that I had to sketch it out (which is an odd impulse for me since I draw like a worm). As I drew, I found that I kept wanting to add some sort of long appendage to the insect’s nose. I kept picturing it in my head, this black beetle with a…trunk.
How strange, I thought as I sketched. I wonder. Is there such thing as…an elephant beetle?
Google taught me a lot about the insect world that morning (and freaked me the frak out). I did actually discover the existence of said Elephant Beetle, an insect I had never seen before and probably would not be a fan of actually encountering. (I can’t even look at this image for very long without cringing in my desk chair).
The Elephant Beetle was a perplexing discovery, as the picture is remarkably close to my own kindergarten rendition of my dream beetle. My logical mind had been under the impression that dreams could only consist of images I had actually experienced in my waking life. This must be some magical message from the universe, I decided. Maybe it was a warning of danger to come. Maybe it was a sign to pay attention to where I am walking. I decided to delve further.
I paged through the Google listings, discovering oodles of information on Elephant Beetle native habitat (not California, thankfully), flight activity (WTF, these things fly?), and their potential to be weaponized (“future sci-fi thriller material,” I note in my journal).
Then, Google eventually led me to a hit on YouTube which caught my eye. It was entitled “The 6 ‘P’s to Overcoming Procrastination.” I was intrigued. Why in the world did this come up on a search for information on Elephant Beetles?
I started watching the video. It was good, full of interesting techniques to deal with procrastination. Okay, cool. Just when I was about to switch it off, at about the five minute mark, there it was.
All of a sudden, I knew why I dreamt of this creepy critter.
According to Kirsty O’Callaghan (who has the most amazing Australian accent, by the way), if you are having trouble balancing your necessities with your funtime, the first order of business in the morning is the thing you don’t want to do. There’s always that one thing that you have to do but you would much rather put off. Do it. Because after you do it, you will be free from the burden of it for the rest of the day, leaving your mind open to enjoy and explore.
She calls this “eating an Elephant Beetle.”
When I read this, something clicked in my head. Was this the answer to my balance frustrations? I thought about her advice. Yes, I could still spend my first 10% creatively – journaling, meditating, whatever I needed to do to wake up and feel grateful for the day. But the next step was not necessarily to delve into my creative funtime projects. The next step is to eat an Elephant Beetle.
It makes a lot of sense. Part of the reason we creative types resist the urge to indulge our projects is that we always feel the weight of something more pressing in our list of obligations. We try to compartmentalize, but sometimes it bleeds into our work without us being able to stop it, and all of a sudden we are making a “To Do List” in the margins of our morning pages. Perhaps if we spend the first task of the day eating our Elephant Beetles, they wouldn’t come creeping and crawling into our creative writing (or in my case, my dreams).
Maybe I will keep this Elephant Beetle picture by my computer each day until I actually finish whatever it is that would qualify as “eating” one. Then, I will give myself permission to turn the picture over and get to the things that fill my soul. Because, honestly, this picture terrifies me.
But it doesn’t scare me as much as not actually getting to write today.
Do you have any suggestions for links to dream interpretation? Please comment below.
Bridget looks at me, her big eyes filling with tears.
She’s right. I look up towards the crest of the canyon and the fence we hopped a half an hour ago.
Then, I realize: I don’t care. Because I am four-years-old. And I have just staged a prison break from my preschool.
I was never a rebellious child. Okay, I did start that petition in the fourth grade denouncing mandatory recess activities. So, political? Maybe. But, rebellious? Never.
This preschool prison break was special, a moment of divine timing. Sitting on my stiff scratchy school cot the day before, prepping for naptime, I noticed that the teachers did not check to see that all of us kids had made it in from the playground.
My mind began to race, the escape plan formulating quickly.
The next day, I approached the playground with a very specific agenda. Phase #1: Act natural. Phase #2: Take cover. Phase #3: Wait. And that was as far as the plan went.
I played tag that day like my life depended on it, so as to not arouse any suspicion. I carefully watched the teachers out of the corners of my eyes, tracking their positions.
After what seemed like an eternity, like, ten minutes, the bell rang.
It was naptime. Phase #2 was a go.
I sought cover. My fellow munchkins were now picking up sweaters, juice boxes and big red bouncy balls. I waded through them upstream as they filtered back into the classroom. I knelt behind a rock.
Time for Phase #3. I pretended to tie my shoe. A good cover story. All I had to do now was wait. The playground was emptying. Almost there…
Bridget’s voice startled me. She wore a pink sundress and stared down at me from behind dark, mousey hair.
“You’re gonna miss naptime.”
“I’m coming,” I said, hoping she would take the bait and run along ahead of me. She didn’t. She waited. Staring. My time was running out.
I hadn’t planned on taking hostages, I mean, on having an accomplice. I considered her.
“What’s your name?”
“Bridget,” she said.
Hmm. I glanced at the classroom door where a teacher was ushering the last of the preschoolers inside.
Bridget would have to play ball. Right now.
I grabbed her hand and pulled her into hiding.
“It will be fun,” I told her, because that is how you convince anyone to do anything when you are four-years-old
Bridget looked at me dubiously, but did not protest. Minutes later, the rest of our classmates disappeared and the teacher shut the door, without a second glance outside.
And in that moment, we were free.
It was a feeling of freedom I would later come to recognize as the first-day-of-summer-vacation free. Or the I’m-in-love-with-someone-who-actually-loves-me-back free. Or the yay-I-have-health-insurance-again free. And on that day, in that moment, with my accomplice Bridget, on the precipice of an adventure, it … was … glorious.
And then it was…confusing. Now what do we do?
“Let’s hop the fence!” I suggested.
The preschool was perched on the edge of a canyon, a cavernous wasteland, full of strange adventure, portals through time and space, dinosaurs and aliens.
I yanked on Bridget’s arm and we darted across the empty playground. She hesitated.
“What about the crows?” she whispered.
The teachers would sometimes take us on short walks through these badlands and if there was one thing we all knew for certain, it was that the canyon crows would eat you alive.
“I think they made that up,” I told her. “So we wouldn’t run away.”
A few rusty metal scratches later, we were on the precipice of a new world.
The thought that we might get lost hadn’t occurred to me. However, I wasn’t concerned. At four, I would often ask department store clerks to announce my name over the loudspeaker because I had spent too long hiding inside a circular rack of dresses, pretending it was a fairy woodland, and I’d lost my mother. I knew how to handle myself when things got dicey.
But, Bridget was about to lose it. Thankfully, that’s when we stumbled upon a canyon oasis: a creek!…which was actually storm drain run off, but to us, an exotic swimming hole. When you are four, your undergarments can always double as a bathing suit. We immediately stripped to our skivvies and dove in.
And we swam. We swam and dove and jumped and frolicked…right up until the point when the cops showed up.
My mother had come to pick me up from preschool, and for the first time the teachers realized that Bridget and I were nowhere to be found.
I tried to make conversation with the burly policeman who wrapped me in his big puffy jacket and carried me back up the hill.
“Hi, how are you? What’s your name?”
He didn’t answer me. For the very first time that day, I wondered if I had done something wrong.
I look back on this now and my first thought is always the same. Who WAS that four-year-old in that canyon? And, more importantly, when can I get her back? Because if there is any of her courage and confidence left inside of me somewhere, I’d really like to harness it and channel it into dating and job interviews, and I don’t know, taking over the world?
But that’s what’s great about childhood. That’s what’s great about four-years-old. When you run across these moments of truth, you do nothing but listen and believe. The world has not told you any differently yet. It will, eventually. Eventually it will teach you about self-doubt and insecurity and the limits of your own safety. But maybe not yet. Maybe not at four.
This piece was written for So Say We All‘s April VAMP
“It Was Just a Phase,” performed on April 25, 2013
at the Whistle Stop in San Diego, CA.
Okay, so no one thought that the world was really going to end. However, many believe that this is the dawn of a new shift in energy – when the extraneous elements of life will be abandoned for the truly meaningful ones, and we will begin to find balance.
As I sit here about to launch into full blown holiday mode, having just finished three weeks of production on a film for San Diego’s One Billion Rising Campaign, juggling three writing jobs and attempting to make plans for the future, balance seems farther away than the point where the sun’s elliptical apparently crossed the equator of the Milky Way this morning.
However, leading up this End of Days, I have admittedly noticed a shift in my own life and the lives of those around me. Light bulbs seem to be popping up over everyone’s heads. I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations with friends about their choices to do Plan B instead of Plan A, for no other reason than it felt more authentic to who they are. These new plans don’t make them more money, don’t grant them a path to fame or fortune or success, and often don’t even seem logical in the typical “way of doing things.” And yet, there my friends are: moving from New York City to Portland, Maine for a better quality of life, quitting jobs that don’t serve them, taking off for teaching assignments in foreign countries, going back to school for degrees that would just be enjoyable to earn rather than a guarantee of a career path. Seemingly crazy decisions – or are they?
When I started writing seriously this year, I experienced a balance I had never felt before. Thus far, my life had consisted of working really hard at school and jobs and feeling that if I didn’t have my hand in 50 activities simultaneously, that I wasn’t really living. How is it, then, that when I sit down to write a blog post to all of you lovely readers out there, I feel more balanced and energized and fulfilled than when I’ve done anything else?
A paradigm shift began to occur.
What if I did things that made me feel balanced…all the time? Or, at least…more often? What if I actually redirected my life to include more time for…this?
Of course, it’s one thing to recognize what makes my spirit sing, but it’s another thing to actually carve out the time to do it, and do it well. Thus began the Angst-Ridden Dilemma Decisions of 2012: Do I accept this part in this play, or do I make time for writing? Do I stay in this job that isn’t entirely serving me, or do I make time for writing? Do I allow myself to get distracted by errands and invites and day trips and doing for others, or do I make time for writing?
I soon began to realize that my levels of commitment to anything OTHER than writing were an addictive tendency I clung to in order to mask the one thing that was truly driving me: my fear of what would happen if I just did the thing I need/want/love/have to do.
And when I say “addictive,” I mean seriously addictive. Like, time for intervention and rehab kind of addiction.
Who could have thought that involvement in “stuff” and “things” could be as toxic as guzzling booze? But, there you have it. When I have thirty things on my to-do list, my mind is occupied, numbed in its busy-ness. It doesn’t have to go to the places of quiet solitude, where I am faced with a reflection of who I really am. I can avoid that NeverEnding Story Magic Mirror Gate moment because, after all, who knows what I will find there? The girl who is not doing enough to honor her authentic self? Or worse: the potential for greatness.
Doing stuff is so much easier!
The funny thing about the universe is that when you take one small step in the right direction, you get all sorts of kudos. Strike that. When you even turn your head in the right direction, the universe is like “You rock!” and you get all this fun stuff. Whether this means choosing a new thought, or saying no to a play, or doing whatever the “good for you” thing is that seems hard in the moment, it is when you take a leap of faith and honor your authentic self that the net appears. Truly. I knew what I had to do.
My first “no” happened in late September, shortly after I wrote my “Dark Spots” piece. I was offered a part in a play. I agonized for a week about accepting the part, which typically would have been a no-brainer. I upset myself to the point of nausea. The thought of saying “no” seemed nuts to me. Why would I do that? Why would I deny myself this artistic opportunity? Was I totally crazy? But deep down, I knew I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t prioritize writing and work on this show simultaneously. I looked ahead to the fall and winter months and began to hyperventilate.
But…to create blank space in my days with which to fill with writing seemed…completely frightening. I began to experience what would be my own personal brand of withdrawal pain: Oh, God. What would I do with hours free to sit in front of my computer? What if I wrote crap? What if I lost my way? What if I wrote and wrote and wrote and nothing came of it – ever? How would I ever find the tenacity and persistence to see it through in the first place, whatever that meant? What if I spent hours alone in my room or in some cozy coffee shop away from the world and people…forgot about me? Panic ensued. I needed hot chocolate, stat.
The thing about writing is that it takes time. For me, at least, it takes time. Thoughts and ideas have levels. The more time I spend with them, the deeper they go. Unless I granted myself that time, they would not manifest. (David Lynch wrote a nice piece about this for GOOD.)
And so, I made the call. I said “no.” And an amazing thing happened. No one hated me. No one ostracized me. No one condemned me for taking the time to shut my door and get to work. And so, I did it again. I said “no” to a job that I needed to let go of, the alarm bells of civilized society going off in my head the whole time. And yet, strangely, because of various freelance opportunities that immediately came my way, I found myself more financially stable than I had been in a long time. And also: I had time. All of a sudden, I had time.
Of course, honoring this new paradigm takes time as well – nobody’s perfect. As I said, I just finished producing a film, so yeah…not a lot of writing happened this month. However, here I am today, putting words to virtual paper, contemplating the apocalypse, and finally feeling more like myself again. I guess every day that the world doesn’t end is a new opportunity to figure out why it’s worth being here in the first place.
Do the thing.
Engywook: Next is the Magic Mirror Gate. Atreyu has to face his true self.
Falkor: So what? That won’t be too hard for him.
Engywook: Oh, that’s what everyone thinks! But kind people find that they are cruel. Brave men discover that they are really cowards! Confronted with their true selves, most men run away screaming!
When I started this blog, I thought it would be a great place to catalog my creative musings, my challenges, my inspirations, and my understanding of the writing process as I experience it.
(Insert eye roll…here.)
While these things have made for some interesting, if not relatively entertaining, writing, and I have received some amazingly supportive feedback for which I am extremely appreciative, I have recently realized that these goals that I had in mind are really all just pretense. There is, in fact, only one reason why I’ve started this blog, and it’s taken me 26 entries to figure it out. Basically, it is this:
I am a writer who is not writing.
I want to know why.
These past 26 posts have therefore been a surreptitious journey of self-discovery, or as I now like to call it: throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. My secret hope, I think, was that if I could publicly display my inner sanctum of creative wrestlings, then maybe, just maybe, I could hold myself accountable long enough to actually finish writing…something. So, out on the wall has gone my list of three, my heroes, my mentors, my places of inspiration, my strategies – each a perfectly valid ingredient of my creative process.
But nothing has stuck.
Except for the idea that I am sort of fooling myself.
Because every post is really just dancing around the issue. The main issue. The one issue. The only issue.
As a writer, I am struggling with more than just time crunches and inspiration wells. There are more barriers to my creative output than just figuring out when I can actually sit down and write or what to write about. My struggle, as I’ve mentioned, is actually how to keep going.
But, more truthfully (insert deep breath here), my real struggle is why I should keep going.
Yes, I mean why on a rather large, rather dark, sort of scale.
We seem to understand each other better these days.
Maybe it’s because I’m stalking him. I don’t know.
I don’t have malicious intentions. I just want to know him better.
I ask him, “Hey, Death. What’s up?”
Sometimes, we sit next to each other at Starbucks.
We don’t say much, just sip our coffee and share space.
Sometimes Death asks me, “Why do you want to know me so badly?”
Sometimes I answer, “I just want to try you on sometimes.”
“How do I fit?” he asks.
“Too easily,” I say.
“Well, that won’t do,” says Death. “After all, you like things extra complicated.”
It’s true. Death knows me well.
Finally, I say to Death, “Let’s go home.”
Someone said to me recently that it is necessary go into the dark places so your light can shine brighter. While this may sound cliché (and a little bit like science!), it has lately become an insistent and overwhelming theme in my own morning pages: “Write them out! Write out the dark spots!” my pink handwriting scolds me over coffee and strains of Josh Groban.
My first reaction: “What dark spots? I don’t have any dark spots. I’m sunshine and blonde and smiles. There are no dark spots here. Why are you looking at me like that?” Then, I think of Susan Aston, my first year acting professor, who quietly regarded me after one of my monologues before simply stating, “You have rage.”
So, okay, maybe there are some shadowy places, but even so, no one wants to hear about that. Not my parents, not my friends, not Smile Scavenger, not the anonymous readers out there in the blogo-dark. This blog is supposed to be at least 10% inspiring. How inspiring could discussing that possibly be?
If I really want to get to the bottom of why I’m not writing, I have to address this. As scary as it may be to say aloud, the truth of my unwritten-ness lies in these dark spots, the ones we don’t talk about at parties, as Col. Jessup says.
But more so, the truth of my actual writing is that it is always about this darkness, whether I like it or not. Because in not acknowledging it, everything I produce is merely an avoidance of it. This avoidance, even unconsciously, colors every word I write, makes me less truthful on the page, and severely limits any skill I may possess. Sooner or later, if I am going to continue on this particular path, I have to face these demons. And, unfortunately, I can’t fake them out with fairy dust and glitter bombs. Or year-round Christmas music, for that matter.
I find Death in the bedroom where he is hanging curtains.
“Death,” I ask. “What do you think of Christmas music?”
Death doesn’t stop what he is doing, but he looks over his shoulder and watches me, my head bowed in concentration, spinning through my iPod playlists.
“I like Christmas,” Death says. He goes back to hanging the curtains.
“But what about the music?” I persist, looking up at him.
Death stops hanging the curtains. He turns around.
“Why are you asking me about Christmas?” He is stern.
“I just want to know,” I reply.
“Do you like Christmas music?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Then why am I here?” Death asks.
I stare at Death for a moment and then I leave the room quickly, cheeks burning.
Shut up, Death, I think. What do you know?
So, what are those demons, exactly? It’s a valid question. I don’t have an answer.
All I know is that they come, fast and furious, swooping into my mind and body like shadows of freezing rain. I stop writing. I stop smiling. I wake up in the morning surprised I am still here.
Those who know me may be a little surprised at this point that any dark thoughts at all go through my head ever. Those who know me really well are aware of my struggles with questions like “What is the point of all of this?” – struggles that have often left me crying in random places like workplace bathrooms and libraries.
As a person, in life, I generally present as happy and life-loving and that is not a lie. But, just like artists who don’t paint and singers who don’t sing and – insert any creative type who doesn’t fulfill her inner calling here – , writers who don’t write are not complete people. And when I’m faced with a blank page, the darkness creeps in so easily. I wonder, if I’m not going to fulfill my potential today, then what am I doing here in the first place? And the more my thoughts spin on these meditations, the more painful it can be just being in my own body. And that’s when the darkness can become…well, really dark.
This is hard to write about. From an outside perspective, I understand these feelings as selfish, whiny, and, of course, ones that should not be indulged. More so, this sort of darkest dark has gotten the better of at least one person close to me in my life. I know it as a very scary, very helpless place to be.
Nevertheless, there it is. Ever-looming, ever-present, ever-daring me to run past it if I can and actually create something amazeballs. And honestly, sometimes I just don’t have enough energy for the Red Rover.
My mother wants to stop in and see my grandmother at her retirement home.
I ask if Death can come.
She looks at me, smiles awkwardly, and gets into the car.
I look at Death and shrug.
“That’s okay,” says Death. “You know how I hate that place.
Everyone is always staring at me like I’m out to get them or something.”
“Some people are just bigots, Death,” I tell him. “You can’t take it personally.”
Death nods. He goes into the house.
After a moment, I hear the sound of the television.
It was on one of these days of feeling too tired to fight that I started writing “Creepy Little Death Poems.”
I have no idea why exactly, but that day, while I was crying in a library, I decided that instead of trying to write in spite of the darkness, I would instead write about it. “Tiffany, just do your work,” was also something that Susan Aston used to say and, in that moment, that was the only work I could do. I’ve never been sure of anything in my life except that I’m a writer. So, I wrote. Now, it seems like a no-brainer. Then, it was a quiet revelation.
Charged with addressing what was in front of me, I began to personify my darkness – the looming, ominous, oppressiveness that holds me prisoner from my own creativity. Eventually, I gave my darkness a name. I called it Death. (Not very creative, I know. Thinking back on it, I probably should have called it Carl, or Albert, or Francois.) Unshockingly, as I started to describe Death, I couldn’t help but picture The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come from A Muppet Christmas Carol.
Once I had my darkness described, I could start talking with it. My conversations became little poems. And the little poems actually made me laugh. And because I started laughing and stopped snotting on library books, my darkness called Death in that moment didn’t seem so vast and incomprehensible and oppressive. He became sort of a pal. Admittedly, not a very, you know, comforting pal. But a pal, none the less.
In this forum, I felt courageous enough to address my feelings and ideas about the darkness that I would not be comfortable talking about with actual people. Because, you know, Death wouldn’t judge me for having dark places. He’s Death. He totally doesn’t care.
The more I began to write about my own dark places, the less I became afraid of them, or ashamed of them, or more depressed because they existed in the first place. Instead of passively experiencing them, I could, instead, actively explore them. Within the bubble of my creative work that day, I felt powerful instead of powerless.
For the first time ever, I experienced my own writing as transformative.
Plus, it cracked me up to think of this large, lurking figure just kicking it with me over mochacinos.
“Where’s Death?” my mother asks.
I look around. I spot him out back.
“He’s out by the pool,” I say.
“Well, see if he wants a sandwich.”
I wander through the sliding glass door.
Death sits with his feet dangling in the pool. He is lost in thought, watching the sunlight dance on the clear, chlorinated water. He looks up at me as I approach.
“Mom wants to know if you want a sandwich,” I say.
“No,” he says quietly. “I’m good.”
There is an awkward pause. Then, I sit down on the hot cement next to him and stick my feet into the cool water. We sit in our familiar shared silence for a moment. Death keeps staring at the deep shimmering water. I watch Death stare at the water.
After a moment, I ask. “Do you ever think about…”
“Sometimes,” says Death.
“But you wouldn’t ever…”
“Probably not,” says Death, quickly. He looks at me. “It’s a little redundant.”
I look down at my feet through the water and swirl them around.
I knew he was going to say that.
I’m not going to lie. It’s extremely uncomfortable to be writing about – let’s call it what it is – depression – in a public forum. I certainly am not presenting any sort of quick fix and even this strategy does not work for me all of the time. But “writing out the dark spots” turned out to be a literal task, and a good one, sort of like cleaning out the corners of a room I was so used to seeing filled with dust that I never realized they didn’t have to be like that. And frankly, it is a relief to admit the stark reality of my own creative blocks, instead of just opening a giant can of whitewash.
Sometimes we have to write about things in order to understand them at all. Joan Didion taught me that.
Let’s be clear: I do not think that my death stories will be my literary legacy. But, the writing feels – maybe for the first time? – truthful. So, maybe if I “write out the dark spots” for a little while longer, I will understand more fully what it is to write truthfully. Then, maybe, I won’t have to write about the darkness anymore.
A long time ago, I said to a friend of mine that I thought my writing would one day save my life. When I said that, I was thinking that it might bring me fame and fortune, or at least a sustainable income. I didn’t think it would bring me “Creepy Little Death Poems.”
But, nevertheless, I was right.
Gentle Reader – I have always been fascinated by the specifics of a creative’s life. As one who seems to handle no less than four or five employment or volunteer opportunities simultaneously, I have found that the nuts and bolts of accomplishing my personal creative work sometimes seem elusive. In short, I dread making routine out of what I feel should be reserved for the realms of inspiration. Cut to my unfinished novel. It is therefore my intention to grill First Friday writers mercilessly on their particular writing habits in hopes that, one day, my muses and I may agree on a somewhat habitual appointment schedule for our meetings. – TT
Five Questions for Dominic Carrillo
1. Novel writing takes tenacity. What keeps you/kept you coming back to the page?
What helped at first was the illusion that it wouldn’t take very long to finish a novel. I imagined a few weeks of getting it all on the page, and then maybe a few months of revising. I was also forming To Be Frank Diego by piecing together some stuff I had already written, so I thought I had done maybe half the work and the rest would be easy. So, I was delusional, really. I naively believed it would be a much easier and shorter process. Once reality kicked in though, I still believed I could and would finish the novel—and thought I had finished it on at least three different occasions.
Once I started really “seeing” the story, it did become easier to write and want to finish it. What I mean by “seeing” is that as I kept writing and revising, visual images of the scenes in each chapter became more and more vivid, which made the writing more enjoyable too. I saw the story unfold in a certain way—kind of like a movie–to the point where it felt as if I were simply retelling a story that actually happened. Towards the end, about a year and a half into it, my motivation was mainly in finishing it and making it better. The homestretch wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pretty, so I had to set deadlines for myself and seek professional editing help. I’m by no means dependent on the encouragement of others, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t help too.
2. Is your writing style different now from when you began writing the novel?
My writing style is different now than it was two years ago, yes. I find myself self-editing more as I write because I know my tendencies and bad habits a little bit better. For example, I know I can be redundant. I’m also more aware that I sometimes overwrite, or make sentences more complicated than they need to be. And the list goes on. But the point is that now I edit as I go in an effort to make my voice clear, simple, and occasionally funny. I think when I wrote my first draft, I used a lot more grad school type words (ubiquitous and repudiate and such) in an effort to prove my literary chops, or intellect, or whatever you want to call it. After re-reading it I thought, “Not only do I not talk that way, but I don’t really like it when people talk to me that way either.” So the tone of my writing has come down to earth a bit more. It’s less academic. I’m no longer trying to impress anyone with my word choices. Now I’m simply trying to tell a story that flows, feels authentic, connects to people, and has some sense of humor.
3. What is your typical writing schedule? (time of day/duration/location/music?)
I don’t know if I have a writing schedule. When I begin a big writing project—and this is a grand total of three times in my life so far—I isolate myself for at least a week. I get obsessed with an idea that’s been marinating in my head, and dive into writing about it with little regard to the time of day, my food intake, other humans, etc. Once I emerge from my cave, I let the story sit for a week or so, and then return to it for a few hours each day. I’m not a morning person, so I like writing in the afternoon or at night, either in silence or with instrumental music on in the background. And I need to be alone at the beginning of the process. For re-writing or revision, I like to go to a coffee shop like the one I’m sitting at right now.
4. Did you have a vision of what this project would be before you started? Did the book fulfill that vision or depart from it?
I wanted to write a novel for maybe seven years, but I had no strong vision of what it would be. About four years ago, the idea of Frank Diego’s story began to develop. At first I visualized only a few scenes, then (about two years ago) the story concept came together and I wrote 80 pages in two weeks. Since then the story and its characters have evolved quite a bit. Many chapters have been added and cut. But I knew from the time I wrote those first 80 pages that it would become a novel– mostly because I knew of the online self-publishing industry, and I knew anyone could “publish” a novel these days. Now that it’s in printed book form, it’s just a question of: Is it decent and interesting enough to be purchased and read by a large audience? That still remains to be seen. So, the initial vision of To Be Frank Diego has been fulfilled and has evolved far beyond my first concept of the story. But the project itself will not be finished—or fulfilled– until I’ve promoted it far beyond my friends and Facebook contacts and had some anonymous critical feedback.
5. Who was your most influential teacher? Author?
I have flashes of many good teachers who’ve influenced me. First, there was Dr. Bennett, who somehow made me feel like I was smart back in the eighth grade when I felt pretty dumb. He was encouraging and inspirational. I also remember my first writing teacher my freshman year in college. When we met and discussed my creative writing assignment, he sounded very sympathetic and told me he was sorry about my traumatic childhood experience I’d written about. He explained that he could tell it really happened to me. When I told him it was pure fiction, he was a bit embarrassed, but it gave me an indication that I might be a decent writer.
Jervey Tervalon was my creative writing teacher at UCLA. He was the first published author I’d met, so when he encouraged me to write more, it meant a lot. He also advised me to write what I know about most, based on personal experience, and that’s stuck with me. But the most influential teachers over the last ten years have been, hands down, my own students.
How to avoid general wonkiness in everyday life.
I’ve had to ask myself this question a startlingly frequent number of times over the past few weeks while driving:
“Wait, where am I?”
Not good. Even worse, sometimes it takes me a moment to focus on the streets and landmarks before I remember where I am and where I’m supposed to be going. In essence, one could say I’m a little off kilter these days.
It is in moments like these, or in other moments when I’m inexplicably angry or sad or uninterested in life, that I default to my list of three.
There are three things, I’ve now come to realize, that I need to include in my life on a pretty regular basis in order to maintain a state of well being and balance. If one of these things has been absent from my routine, everything starts to get a little wonky. Usually I sense this wonkiness before I realize that my habits have been out of practice. Diagnostics of my daily activity then confirm that, lo and behold, one or more have been seriously neglected.
My list of three:
3. Morning Pages
Okay, I like the alliteration. And, yes, these words are representative of larger concepts:
Meditation: Yes, this could actually (and ideally) mean sitting in lotus for 20 minutes, twice a day, and practicing primordial sound. But it doesn’t have to. For me, I’ve noticed that my own thoughts and ideas tend to develop with quiet time, time without distractions or noise, when an idea can marinate for a while and be allowed to blossom. It is usually when I allow myself the time to be alone with my thoughts – in meditation, or just doing seemingly mundane activities in the house or yard, or on a walk – that the brightest inspirations tend to come. Maybe it’s just me – I’ve noticed that I tend to operate on a slower pace than the rest of the world. But it’s my pace. And I know it well. So I also understand that I should never underestimate the power of giving my thoughts time to grow.
Movement: Yes, exercise. But also stepping away from routine. One of the best things about my time living in New York was the opportunity to see something different every day. There was always a new stimulus, a new experience, crazy things happening on the street corners. In other cities, it has been more of a challenge to lay eyes on new things. So, yes, for me, practicing yoga, running, and surfing are regular habits in my ideal schedule, but also taking those activities into new places – a long walk at the end of a road trip, for instance, or a hike in that place I’ve always wanted to check out – these are things that fill the well. For me, movement – both sensorial and physical – is inherent in finding balance.
Morning Pages: Yes, Julia Cameron. We love her. If you haven’t worked through The Artist’s Way, I really recommend it. (Yes, I have three copies. No, I’ve never worked through the entire thing. Yes, I keep meaning to go back to it. Actually – thank you – it is now coming with me to the cabin next week. Packed!) Anyway, morning pages. Writing. Journaling. It is not the most startling revelation that I actually have to write on a regular basis in order to maintain sanity. But I think this one acknowledgment is also the defining moment of a writer’s life (or an actor’s life, or an artist’s life – fill in the blank). It is that moment when we realize that we have to do what we are meant to be doing, because if we don’t, life gets wonky and we all go batshit crazy.
These are my three. For someone else, I am sure they would be entirely different. But knowing yourself well enough to know what you need is part of the process. Now, finding the time/space/opportunity to honor those necessities…maybe that’s a different blog post.
How focusing on one task at a time can improve our writing and decrease our frustration with life in general.
When I was a kid, (and yes, even today) I had a weird eating habit. I would eat in what my mother calls “courses,” meaning I would start with the vegetable and finish it entirely before turning to the protein, then to the potatoes, then to the bread. It was even rare that I would even interrupt this process to imbibe beverages until they were up in the rotation.
I also had this thing about food with different flavor profiles touching each other (please do not put the applesauce next to the spinach, for the love of Pete), but that’s an entirely different blog post.
The reason this is relevant, and I promise there’s a point here, is that I have come to realize that this is reflective of most aspects of my life, and maybe yours, too. It’s very difficult for me to fully consume – or get good at – one thing while I am taking bites out of three or four other things.
This is true in big and small ways. Reading, for example. Some people can read three or four books at a time. Not me. I read slowly and deliberately, soaking in every word, every nuance, every sentence construction. I explore every elicited emotion I experience while I’m reading, and I can only do this with one book at a time. Full immersion. No distractions.
I won’t even talk about how this relates to my love life.
The point is that I can’t expect to get good at writing a blog or a book or a series of short stories if I can’t give these activities the proper focus they deserve.
I was talking with my friend, Lisa, while I was staying at her apartment in New York this past week (Blog Expo debriefing post on the way, I promise!). She, of course, is going through the same thing in her life, because we are the same person, after all. We are both very helpful, supportive people, with a lot of heart to offer to activities and organizations that make us happy. This is an admirable quality. However, we are also both people who have singular goals in mind that are wrapped around very specific passions which also require our time. So, what happens? At the end of these days full of helpfulness, we find ourselves completely pissed at the world. Why? We desperately would like to focus on “A,” but instead, we find ourselves splitting our time amongst a handful of “B”s. Our “A” is sitting at home, waiting for our attention, but by the time we get there, all we want to do is crawl into bed mad because we haven’t had the time to focus on it. Rargh!
So, we made a pact. No New “B”s! No New BEES!! I joked that I would draw a picture of a giant bumblebee with a line through it and send it to her for her bathroom mirror. We both knew it was a joke because I can’t draw. (Thank you, The Watermelon, for creating an image representing your satirical rant on banning bee pollination!)
No new bees!! Focus on “A.” I stare at my dinner plate and think about how it all makes sense. Commitment to our passions and to the goals we want to accomplish with our passions requires a giant scaling down of the activities and concerns that do not directly support this cause. It seems so obvious now. Eat your fracking spinach, Tiffany, I tell myself.
Stephen King calls this “writing with the door closed.” To me, this now means turning off the phone, saying NO, and prioritizing the 10% when I can’t say no. It’s not easy. When someone calls to ask me to organize something or participate in something or volunteer, my heart aches to be useful. But I exercise restraint, at least just for now. For now, I eat my spinach. For now, I write.
So, my message this morning: Pick A. Pick your spinach. Eat it. Love it. Don’t feel bad about saying no to the bees until you’ve fully consumed the spinach. It’s your time. There’s nothing worse than feeling pissed at the world because you didn’t get to do A today. Do A today. Find a way.
That is all.