Writing from the Bottom of a Black Hole

numendil-664154-unsplashI’ve never been here before. Usually, I lay awake at night thinking of a million things I need to do until my brain finally exhausts itself enough to fall asleep. Lately, I’ve been laying awake at night thinking of a millions things I need to do until this little voice cuts through and whispers: why?

I know what doubt feels like. It’s awful but it’s not this. This deep dark thing that feels cold and endless. But it isn’t endless. It comes in waves, knocking the breath from my lungs, and for twenty, thirty, forty minutes I tread water when all I want to do is sink.

I know what it feels like to worry, to be anxious and on edge. I know what it feels like to second guess and not be sure. To be afraid.

I don’t know what it’s like to wrestle with this hopelessness that comes and goes and doesn’t listen to me when I demand that it leave, when I intellectualize it and contextualize it and call it a liar. It doesn’t listen. It stays.

So even though I’ve never been here before I have to figure out how to navigate this new territory. I have to figure out how to create in a space that is constricting and so incredibly cruel. While also battling all of my other fears and anxieties.

I think the first step is coming to terms with the fact that I will never be able to separate my work from my mental illness. There will never be a day when I can just sit down and crank out ten thousand words. There will never be a time when I’m staring at that blank page and won’t hear those vicious voices in my head. I will never approach a project anxiety-free. I will never have that ideal creative experience that is painted for us in media and online.

After coming to terms with my “normal” I have to get honest about the specifics too. If I can’t write 10,000 words a day, how many is reasonable for me? What goals can I set for myself that will be realistic enough and accessible enough for me to feel successful? What kind of creative process can I cultivate to help me build confidence?

When you suffer from mental illness your creative process needs to be as much about building yourself up as building a book or a song or a painting. You cannot pour out more than you put in. Some people can run on empty but not me. And I have to stop pretending that I can…that I could if I just did this or tried that. That is not my brain. That is not my life.

My life, my creative process looks different and that’s okay. But it takes work to be okay with that. Work that I must be as devoted to as my creative work. Work that is just as worth it. Because my health is worth it.

And because when you’re at the bottom of a black hole, trying to summon a flame, to bring a spark to life, that light has to come from somewhere. The more I nurture that place, the more I learn to accept all those bright specks and (especially) all that darkness in between, the more fuel I’ll have to burn. The brighter everything will be.

Advertisements

Microagressions: The Critique Partner

Let’s talk about the microagressions experienced by POC authors from their white critique partners. Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten feedback like this:

“If you want to appeal to a whiter wider audience, I think you should use less Spanish. They’re switching back and forth a lot between English and Spanish and its jarring to read/understand.”

“I know your MC is mixed-race but there’s a lot of focus on her Latin culture and not really on her American culture.”

“Your MC’s internal dialogue is really different from her dialogue with other characters. She’s described as being really intelligent and her internal dialogue is really elevated. But this isn’t coming across when she talks to other characters.”

“The MCs have a lot of internal dialogue about racism in their neighborhood. They make a lot of commentary and it feels a little heavy-handed. I’m not sure if they would actually think about it this often.”

After almost 7 years of searching for solid CPs (and kissing way too many toads in the process) I could go on and on about the small comments I’ve gotten with giant, white-supremacist implications.

To address the comments on language: Lots of POC authors are using more and more code-switching in their writing for a myriad of reasons. It more authentically reflects our multi-cultural experience living in the U.S. It’s a survival tactic often used to protect ourselves in white spaces. It’s a form of creativity and expression. But it’s also a phenomenon that a lot of white people just don’t understand. That’s okay. But maybe instead of being critical of it in a piece of writing or when you observe it in real life, use it as an opportunity to educate yourself. Ask your CP more about it–why/how it’s being used; how it contributes to character and setting.

To address the comments on the MCs’ commentary on white supremacy in their neighborhood: We actually think about racism quite often. Especially in this current era of wokeness where many of us are trying to dismantle our own white supremacist thinking and rediscover/reconnect with the thinking and practices of our native culture, we think about it almost constantly. Depending on the neighborhood we live in, it might be impossible to look in any direction without seeing evidence of its domain. But even more dangerous than your assumption that a person of color would not be plagued by these thoughts “that often” is the assumption that you can know/understand anything about the POC experience enough to criticize the way we think and/or what we think about. You’re infringing on the intimacy of our own minds, which for some, is the only thing that still truly belongs to us.

Let’s just make a hard and fast rule: If there is a culture-specific aspect of the text that you know little to nothing about, avoid criticizing it altogether. Most writers have multiple CPs for this reason–so that people with different perspectives can provide feedback on the aspects of the text they understand best. You might think you’re being helpful by providing feedback similar to the comments above but you could also end up harming that POC author much more than you ever intended.

The CPs who made those comments may not have intended for me to feel invisible, invalidated, wrong, or like human garbage. But that’s what they did. And not just with their words but with the deep rooted beliefs and values behind those words that at their core are incredibly racist and dehumanizing.

Just remember, being a good ally extends to being a good CP. I know because I’ve had amazing white CPs who were supportive and always willing to ask questions about things they didn’t know. This is such an important aspect of allyship–having a willingness to learn. If you’re a good writer or even just a good person you are doing this constantly. The more we learn about experiences different than ours, the wider the lens becomes through which we see the world. Widening your lens can be scary. Realizing how narrow your lens was in the first place can be scary too. But it’s necessary. Bottom line.

So next time you feel compelled to critique an aspect of the story you’re not familiar with, ask yourself if you’re seeing with a wide enough lens. Ask yourself if it’s the story that needs work or if it’s you.

Finishing

matt-botsford-610989-unsplashThe first 10,000 words of something is always the easiest, which is why in the past year I have started four different manuscripts and finished none of them.

Not being able to finish something is new territory for me. But I’ve been in this weird funk for a few years now where I struggle to find my flow and when I do find it, it never lasts for more than a few months. So I write something else and all of the sudden I’m inspired again and making progress again and it feels good. It feels like the tides have changed. Like I’m back to being my old self. And then I get in another rut that only a shiny new idea can save me from.

When I was working a normal 9-5 job in my early twenties it was easy to write because 1) I wasn’t using up all of my brain cells during my 8-hour shift 2) Writing was my escape from the drudgery 3) I knew I needed to finish X number of projects in order to make X number of dollars so that I could eventually escape that drudgery. But now that I’m teaching, there is so little of my brain left at the end of the day to actually create. Also, I haven’t been teaching long enough to be burned out and therefore looking for an escape.

My life has changed and I need to figure out how my creative practice should change with it.

Right now, every time I open this particular WIP, I feel instant discomfort. I have an outline to guide me all the way to the end. I’ve been polishing chapters as I go. It’s not a complete mess, which means it should definitely not be inducing as much anxiety as it currently is. But something’s wrong. I can feel it. And that wrongness has permeated all of my other projects. Because I can’t get this one WIP right I can’t focus on anything else.

When I first started writing this story, I used some techniques for fast drafting from other writers. When that started feeling off I switched to an outlining method from another writer. When that started interfering with my progress I switched to a beta-reading method and tried writing with the “door open” for the first time. It wasn’t until I sat down and really examined all of the roadblocks I’ve been facing with this novel that I realized I actually placed them there myself.

There is so much good that can come from reading the blogs and social media posts of other writers. I’ve learned so much more online from other writers than I ever did in my writing program in college. But why I decided that after almost eight years of doing this that suddenly my own instincts aren’t good enough I have no idea.

That’s what’s been missing from this project–me.

So I’m going to stop trying out every tip and trick I’ve read about online and instead I’m going to listen to my own instincts. I’m going to trust them. I’m going to believe that they will not lead me astray. And then I am going to finish this book if it’s the last thing I do.

I’ve Made a Decision

fre-sonneveld-259-unsplash

For the past few months I’ve had this ball of crisscrossed wires at the pit of my stomach–shocking me every time I tried to take a deep breath, pricking me with metal fingers every time I tried to relax. Like a nudge only much more aggressive. The kind of nudge that says, “I’m not going to let you sleep or think or be until you listen.”

So I started listening.

At first, I had no idea what was wrong. I was making progress on the companion novel to Pen & Xander but it was mostly in fits and bursts. No drafting process is ever smooth so I didn’t suspect that was the source of the tension. I have a Bookbub coming up next week so any stresses about money should have been somewhat alleviated. I can always depend on the longtail to help me make it to my next pub date. I’ve written two new children’s books and am working on two more so I’m not lacking in inspiration.

But this itch was still there, still nagging at me every time I tried to sit down to work and every time I tried to do something else.

Then I looked at my calendar, trying to see the big picture, to figure out what looming event was causing me so much anxiety. I scrolled through page after page of upcoming projects and self-imposed deadlines and I realized…I wasn’t feeling anxious because something was about to happen. I was feeling anxious because nothing was about to happen.

On my calendar, I’ve noted a date when I plan to query my fantasy WIP. That date is ten months from now. In the meantime, I’m working on the companion novel to Pen & Xander, which I had planned to publish sometime in February. That’s six months away.

Then it hit me. I don’t want to wait six months or ten months to take the next necessary step in my publishing journey. I’m not talking about self-publishing the companion novel sooner or moving up my query date for the fantasy WIP. I’m talking about taking a leap. A risk. A giant step into the BIG SCARY UNKNOWN. I’m talking about querying a novel I’ve already written. A novel I already love and believe in.

You may notice that Pen & Xander has been removed from all platforms, including my website. That’s because that nagging feeling that’s been driving me nuts for the past few months was actually my dream of seeing that book on shelves, of getting it into readers hands, of getting it into my students’ hands. That’s who I wrote it for. Nacho’s Tacos isn’t just a fictional restaurant, it’s my classroom. I want those voices out in the world. I want my students to be able to point to something on the shelves and say that’s there because I matter.

Self-publishing has brought me so many amazing blessings. Amazing readers who showed me that the voices of POC writers and characters do matter. Fellow authors who are as generous as they are fearless. And the financial freedom to go back to school and become a teacher.

But I think this book has a different destiny. I think this book needs to be out in the world in a way I can’t do on my own. It’s good enough. I know it is. And I’m no longer afraid to say that it’s important enough too.

So I’m going to query this novel. I’m going to shoot my shot. Because I fear what that nudge will become if I continue to ignore it. I fear what will happen to me if I keep putting off this dream. And it may not work out. It may not find a home with an agent or a traditional publishing house. Or it might change everything. That possibility is good enough to hang a hope on. It’s good enough to try.

Writing is writing

jess-watters-483666-unsplash

A few weeks ago I was struck with the idea for a children’s book. I tried to jot down a few bits & move on because I was still trying to create momentum on my novel in progress. Then I stopped fighting it, wrote the children’s book, and then added 1K to my WIP.

Writing is writing. Sometimes the shiny new idea isn’t as dangerous as we think it is. Sometimes it’s the spark that illuminates something new in something old, leading to the breakthrough we desperately need.

Or it may lead to new love. I’ve had ideas for children’s stories before but I’d never actually gotten one down on paper, start to finish. Now, I’m finding myself waking up in the middle of the night with another voice in my head, a couplet, a beautiful image. My favorite part of writing for children so far? The fact that it doesn’t take eight months to finish something and another six to be satisfied with it.

I can just get the words out and then adjust those moving parts in tandem, not having to skim hundreds of pages to remind myself of the big picture. The big picture is still big. I’m still exploring ideas that are leading to meaningful revelations. I’m still growing as a writer. But it feels so much lighter. Like the story isn’t tearing me down at the same time I’m tearing it apart.

Maybe that’s what I really love about writing these children’s stories. They are building me up. They are mending me somehow. And then I take that wholeness back to my big scary WIPs and they’re not so big and scary anymore.