Where the F*ck Does Inspiration Come from, Anyway?

It was sunset and I was sitting in a park when it happened, caught somewhere between panic and defeat. In forty-five minutes, I was expected at a packed venue to read never-before-heard work at arguably one of the most high-stakes poetry shows of my life thusfar, and I had absolutely nothing good in my notebook. For the past two weeks, while trying to produce new work for this show on a daily basis, every single image I’d written had been utter garbage—weak, flat, nowhere near interesting even to me. The entire day had been spent in pursuit of a solution. I’d started out writing at my desk at home, and crossed out each phrase moments after penning it. I went to the library, and stared into the abyss of my own brain with a dumb hopelessness you would think could only be achieved through blunt force trauma. I stuffed headphones in my ears and tried to gut it out in three different cafes, and all I had to show for it was crumpled receipts for coffee and the words, “WHAT AM I EVEN DOING???” writ large across a spread of pages. Nothing was working. Nothing felt right. I’d come to the park to sit on a bench and wallow in my talentless, bleak existence before faking an emergency to cancel my performance. And right as I was treading water in the sea of stress hormones that was my blood, a stranger walking by misused a colloquialism and it caught my ear, so I decided to try again. I wrote down my response to what I’d overheard, and stared at it—not bad, certainly the most promising start of the day. Then I followed it with a question, and suddenly I was in it. The poem unspooled ahead of me like an intricate underground tunnel, as though it was already built and I was just running through it for the first time. Every time I wondered what I would write next, the path ahead of me turned wickedly, and I was shocked again at what I was producing. I could barely write fast enough to keep up. Twenty minutes later, I had a rough draft so urgent and dear to me, it suddenly made the past two weeks of struggling worthwhile.

We were at a party. I’d brought together friends from disparate communities all over the Bay Area in the hopes that they would start to make friends with folks they wouldn’t otherwise hang out with. The music was a little too loud, and everyone was talking about how delicious the food was. The social worker who’d brought baked brie kept insisting that my poet friend try a bite. You won’t be grumpy ever again after, she promised. When he finally relented, something both broke open and lit up in his face as he chewed (which he did slowly, like he was praying). He looked her in the eye with this unexpected tenderness, wiped his mouth with a napkin, and said I’m going to disappear with my notebook for a half an hour, but I’m coming back to hug you. You have no idea what you’ve done. And then he was gone.

We were talking over breakfast. It was a fumbly, getting-to-know-each-other conversation. My new friend was saying something about his childhood, and his language was so hyperbolic that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. You really feel like that’s what it was like? That would make a great novel. He’d responded bashfully, Yeah, you’re right. How would that even happen, anyway? And without missing a beat, I’d answered, Well, obviously… and I can only describe what my brain did next as what it must be like to watch an entire forest blossom full grown from barren sand. The idea exploded with richness and an immediacy I’d never experienced before. I actually dropped my fork and stared open-mouthed at the air over the table, watching it unfold. I’m sorry, would you excuse me? I need to write something down. When I came up for air, all I could talk about was what it would take to build a fictional world that could support that story. I am still talking about it (and writing it) every single day.

There’s more to writing than whether or not you can find time to do it (and we all can, even if it doesn’t look the way you expect it too—a thing I’m telling you as a person who teaches six-week workshops where some of the busiest humans alive commit to writing every single day). There’s the (very real and understandable) fear of not knowing what to write or how to get it out. Sometimes there’s just this inexplicable sense of I have to say something and no words for it yet. Sometimes there are ideas—big, lofty, perfect and exact ones—and every attempt to pull them to the paper falls clumsily short. It’s a vulnerable and scary thing to grapple with inspiration, to wait for it to arrive. It’s where the real work of becoming a writer happens, though.

For every story I have like the three above, I have a dozen mediocre poems, essays, and stories. I have drafts on drafts where the idea I was reaching for just, well, stunk. And without the skills I was honing by producing work without the “eureka” moment, I don’t know how I’d get there. If I hadn’t spent two weeks sitting down daily and coming up with dissatisfying drafts, I don’t think I could have written that poem in the park. I’ve had baked Brie before, and it’s delicious, but if my friend hadn’t been practiced enough with imagery to capture it, that would have been a sweet moment and nothing more. Writers are training constantly to be prepared for these moments. We need practice.

After years of learning my own process and facilitating for others, here is what I know: Inspiration is what happens when you have the tenacity to show up and listen. It’s the combination of life experience and whatever habits you can build up for observing and capturing your unique perspective as it arises. The longer I’m at this, the more proud I am of the moments where I have had the presence of mind to make space for the process and let myself be surprised. It happens eventually, one way or another. We just have to keep coming back to let the lightning strike.

(If you’re looking for a way to build structure for your life as a writer, The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab is starting tonight! Click here to register. If you have any questions, please contact the Lab Director.)

Waiting for the Dinosaurs to Die

In my darker moments, I imagine all of my fears and excuses as enormous prehistoric monsters terrorizing the wilderness of my mind. They wreak havoc on the vegetation, make the ground quake with every single step, and scare the delicate ideas I was hoping to work on back into their caves. Every hour I spend watching Netflix and taking deep breaths to quell the anxiety these beasts raise in me is another feast for them. They grow more threatening, and my tiny, fragile, fuzzy ideas quiver in their hiding places at the thought of sharp reptilian teeth slicing them apart.

I’ve sat with these images of the world inside my skull long enough to understand their appeal—and it’s more than a little self-indulgent (though it has nothing to do with Jurassic Park). First of all, the fantasy matches the feeling. When I’m wrapped up in it, the fear and dread associated with being paralyzed in the face of my writing goals runs roughly parallel to being hunted down by a massive, fanged lizard.

The other reason I keep returning to my fears/excuses-as-dinosaurs metaphor is much more insidious: the meteor.

We all know now that dinosaurs ruled the Earth until a giant meteor struck our planet and wiped them out all at once. Nowadays their closest relatives are chickens (and other reptiles, too…but the chickens are the most important part of my fantasy). Because of their demise, mammals had a shot at taking over this planet. That’s why we’re here. The dinosaurs were stripped of their dominance by an external force, and (after a few billion years of evolution) taaaah-daaaaah!  Humanity.

Isn’t that an appealing story? Forget that dinosaurs are awesome for a minute and think like one could catch and eat you right now. Wouldn’t it be lovely to just have that kind of threat erased for you by a solution that literally fell out of the sky?

If some part of you is waiting for the right external shift around your writing practice to get to work (and believe me, I’ve been there), I have some bad news: The meteor isn’t coming.

Our dinosaurs aren’t going to die out from their own bad luck. We also don’t have to kill them, because (and this is the bit it’s taken me years upon years of writing professionally to learn) aside from keeping us from writing, they can’t actually do us any harm. We just have to learn how to work past them. It’s a daily practice, but it’s a manageable one.

The catch? You have to start now. Not tomorrow, or at the next commercial break. Now.

Whenever I catch myself cowering before my imaginary dinosaurs, I decide to do one thing to get myself moving again. I don’t try to kill fear, or set out on a new and too-ambitious project. I do one small thing that reminds me that I’m capable of becoming the writer I mean to be.

One step does not make you a writer. It’s continued applied devotion, but that is built out of many smaller choices. Here are some examples:

“I know I feel like I have no appropriate language in my head right now, but I’m going to write for 20 minutes with no expectations and see how I feel after.”

“That phrase I’ve been toying with in my head all day­—the one I’m now scared I’ll ruin if I type it out? I’m putting it on paper. I’ll write it over and over again until I know what comes next.”

“I’m reading three chapters of this book by a great writer and seeing if my brain feels dumb after that.”

Once I’m moving again, I remember that writing is infinitely more rewarding, engaging, and (believe it or not, if you’re scared right now) pleasurable than thinking about writing. When you are terrified, pick one thing and do it right now.

If you want more fuel for becoming the writer you mean to be, join me for the free teleclass, The Post-Excuse Life: Care and Training for the Feral Writer tonight at 6PM PDT. Click here for more information (and to sign up at the bottom of the page).

 

 

 

 

Kill the Procrastination Bug Today

Procrastination is my superpower. When it comes to doing what must be done, no one in the world is better at both waiting until the absolute Last Possible Minute and somehow pulling passable words from mid-air. You probably think you’ve got me beat, and that’s cute and all, but I’m writing this blog post on the drive to my vacation. The Editor’s notes to the first two anthologies I published were both written within 12 hours of being sent to the printer. For well over a year, the only way I could write a half-decent new poem was by composing it in the audience of the show where I was expected to read it and literally writing the final words of the first draft in an adrenaline frenzy as I took my final steps towards the microphone. I procrastinate like I invented it.

I used to think of these last-minute miracles as proof of brilliance, like it made me really extra hardcore as a writer to be able to handle that kind of pressure. While I do occasionally pull off a last-minute save in a pinch or as a party trick, it’s not really a source of pride anymore. I’m not ashamed of myself now (and I don’t advocate shaming anyone’s creative process unless it involves, you know, murder), but I have a different perspective on this skill of mine nowadays. I recognize how I developed the ability to write under red alert conditions, and that, in order for my career to amount to more than me burning out, I need to take a more measured approach.

(Selfish request: please let it sink in if it sounds like I’m describing you below. There’s no point in me getting all vulnerable on the internet otherwise.)

For me, procrastination (especially on writing I either really want to do or really don’t want to do) is about being intimidated by my own expectations. I want the thing I’m making to be genius from the first word, so I can’t make myself start until I’m either certain I’ve got it exactly right (which happens roughly once every five years) or the demand to have SOMETHING OHMYGOD ANYTHING ready to go cancels out my need to produce massive volumes of flawless text.

It’s important to see the two parts of my expectations as distinct. I don’t just demand brilliance from myself, I demand a lot of it.

In the past, in search of discipline, I have set outrageously unrealistic goals (“I’m going to write 30 poems in two weeks, and then I’ll have my new collection settled!” or “I’m going to finish the first draft of this novel by the end of the month!” when starting from no daily writing practice). And then I’ve blamed myself for it not working. I must be too lazy. I must not want it enough. My ideas must not be worth the effort.

Ever wondered why the plan to get up at 6AM and run three miles every day when you haven’t even visited a gym this decade doesn’t work? It’s the same principle—too much, too fast. If your goal is to get up once and run, maybe you’ll make it. But the real magic happens when you come back for day two, and day three, and three hundred. It’s both who you become and how much better you get with each individual practice. It doesn’t matter if you start out doing something tiny so long as you keep doing it.

And with writing, like with any habit where you build momentum, the process is by its very nature transformative. With enough patience and the steady application of incremental effort, a version of what I mean to say arises that is richer and more satisfying than what I can force myself to produce last-minute. If I’m writing a manageable amount every day, I can look back on my work after a month or seven and see a greater version of myself unfolding. I surprise myself with the patterns and themes that are revealed over time. And no matter how good the endorphin kick of making it to the microphone might feel in the moment, it just doesn’t compare. (I’m speaking for myself here, but I’m confident the same will be true for you.)

So set a goal that seems embarrassingly small—something you know for sure you can do every day—and then pursue it bit by bit. See who you become when, day after day and week after week, you make progress without procrastinating.

If you’re looking for more insight into how to take the dream of “becoming a writer someday” and turn it into clear and exciting results, sign up for my free teleclass, “The Post Excuse Life” on August 4th. It’s a free!

Mean Editors are Full of Crap (And Other Things I Wish I’d Known about Great Writing Communities)

This past April, when The New York Times lauded the incredible grit and genius of Young Adult powerhouse editor Julia Strauss-Gabel, my stomach twisted itself in knots before I’d even read the article—with good cause. I woke up to an email from a client on the East Coast with the subject line “Maybe you should be a little tougher on me?” and nothing but a link to the piece and a winking smiley face in the body of the message. Coupled with the article’s title (“Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Best Sellers”), that emoji read as downright ominous to me.

My response to my client (an aspiring novelist still cranking through his first draft at an astounding rate) was a slightly more diplomatic version of, “AHAHAHAHAH…no.” And, dear reader, if you’re serious about writing, I hope you’ll take on a similar philosophy.

I have nothing but admiration for Strauss-Gabel’s vision (not to mention her tremendous body of work), but I find the idea that her results are based on cruelty laughable at absolute best. After all, if all you had to do to get someone to write a Critical Success was hurt their feelings, we’d all have written at least ten before getting through puberty. And we’d be thanking our bullies in the acknowledgments.

Being a mean editor is a cheap power play. 

There was a time when I thought being able to take brutal critique was a sign that I was tough, or that I was really “committed” to my craft. Some of this was my enthusiasm for having any kind of conversation about writing in my life, as well as an earnest desire to improve. Some of it was the insecurity and vulnerability that comes from taking risks. These are healthy, ego-balancing reasons to listen to critique. If you’re going to revise (NOTE: EVERYONE NEEDS TO REVISE. REALLY ACTUALLY EVERYONE. NO EXCEPTIONS.) and get better, I generally think it would behoove you to be open to criticism.

 If all you had to do to get someone to write a Critical Success was hurt their feelings, we’d all have written at least ten before getting through puberty.

But if I’m being perfectly honest (and this is the unhealthy part), some of my “toughen up” attitude was that I was working with people who kind of got off on being mean to one another.

I would bring new work to the folks I was writing with, and they would mock my core concept, tear apart my execution, and try to keep me in my place as a young writer. I actually received the note, “don’t get clever” on a draft at one point. And the longer I listened, the less capable I felt. It got harder and harder to get started writing something new. When I looked around, I realized the people I was listening to weren’t writing much or submitting much anymore, either. Most of the satisfaction they got from the writing/editing process was in pointing out what a bad job they or someone else had done.

Leaving that community was difficult—especially considering the doubt that had been instilled in me—but ultimately I realized it was more important to feel inspired to challenge myself than it was to prove I could take a beating. And I’m so grateful I made that choice. I don’t think I would still be writing if I’d stuck with that community for even another six months.

Real editors listen carefully and build trust.

When I first met Sam (one of the most important writing relationships of my life), he was so unabashedly kind and enthusiastic about my shitty poems, I just assumed he was faking it. We kept running into each other at a few local poetry shows, and he always made a point of reaching out after I’d read. Nothing about his tone matched what I thought I was supposed to need to improve my writing (bullying, essentially). But his unwavering kindness was paired with a thoughtful, gentle listening that would be impossible to fabricate week after week. And it turned out I really enjoyed his work, so I decided to take him up on the offer to write together.

I realized it was more important to feel inspired to challenge myself than it was to prove I could take a beating.

I cannot overstate the importance of finding people who take the time to understand your work and offer perspective on what might make it more effective. Nor can I overemphasize the importance of spending time with writers who produce work you find mesmerizing. Sam fit both of those roles flawlessly for me, which made him feel like a miracle. The more we wrote together, the more I felt both challenged and supported. And the more I trusted his critique. Once I knew got that he believed in me and had the best interest of the work in mind, we could really dig in. There were a few things I’d fight him on, but (even if it took me years), eventually I’d have to admit he had a point.

Perhaps the most unexpected part of getting to write with Sam was watching him meticulously build collaborative relationships like ours over and over. I realized (because of him) that writing in community was an art, not an accident. I got to meet and collaborate with a ton of incredible writers. When Sam moved to Austin to pursue his MFA, I still had people to write with even though I missed him terribly (still do).

An editor’s role is to advocate for great art, not to make you feel terrible.

I don’t pretend to know the motivations behind Julia Strauss-Gabel’s scathing, 20 page editorial letters. But I’m going to venture that they actually work well for all parties because of a strong foundation of trust and mutual high regard. If you’re getting a letter like that from a woman like her, you are also getting a declaration that she finds your work worthwhile. (Which is probably also evident from, you know, the contracts you both signed.) Once you both understand that, it’s hard not to dig into making the work great.

I realized that writing in community was an art, not an accident.

Want community? Follow these simple steps.

  1. Go to a place where people are making art together (be it a local spot or online), and listen until you find something that moves you. (Don’t try to fake this. It won’t work.)
  2. Think about why the piece in question resonated as it did.
  3. Tell the author of that piece what mattered to you about their art and why.
  4. Ask them a question related to the piece.
  5. If the conversation that arises from Step 4 feels good to you, invite them to talk more/ask if you can share some of your own work with them.
  6. Repeat (both with the same person and new people) until you’ve got a cozy nest of appreciation and encouragement from writers who get you.

The question in Step 4 doesn’t need to be aimed at constructive criticism, just inviting conversation. Warm, sincere enthusiasm goes a long way when it comes to building trust.

If you’re hungry for a chance to build your own collaborative writing community, check out The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab this summer. You’ll have writing buddies all over the country, and tons of chances to edit and work together.

How to Quit Wasting Your Time on Facebook and Start Making Cool Stuff

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when humans felt unproductive before we’d invented screwing around on Facebook (and Tumblr, and Twitter, and Instagram, and SnapChat, and etc). I seem to remember it in my own life from middle school. And I imagine, throughout history, there were many things our ancestors did when they meant to be painting their cave walls, or discovering the atom, or what have you.

And yet, most anyone who has wished they were writing more (myself included) has also had to admit that the internet in general, and compulsive social media consumption in particular, is our greatest weakness. For a contemporary aspiring (fill-in-the-blank), there is no timesuck more serious than Facebook and its ilk—a position we’ll often lament in a status update. I know this because I asked on Facebook.

For some people this problem is a source of permanent discontent, but as a freelance writer, figuring out my Facebook addiction has been a matter of paying rent. And so I’m happy to present to you my well-tested approach to Getting the Hell off of Facebook and Starting to Make Stuff. I hope it serves you well.

  • Limit your access.

This might sound ridiculous, but delete the app from your phone. Turn off external notifications and log out every time you leave the site. Make it so Facebook doesn’t get to tell you when to look at it. Do it right now—fast, before you can decide against it. Don’t wait or make excuses. Come back to this article when you’re done. I’ll wait.

Now, go download the SelfControl app, which will block you from the sites you most waste time on, for as long as you tell it to. Why rely on your own self-control over time when technology can set you up to win here? (But definitely come back when you’re done. That’s only the first step!)

The real trick is recognizing that Facebook is not an inevitablity—it’s a choice, every time you use it. And when it’s not inundating you with reminders and tempting you to use it, you end up more in control of your time.

Many of my closest friends will tell you that the Fear of Missing Out (or “FOMO” for short) is a guiding principle in my life, so believe me when I say I understand this might not sound fun. But it works! And in the long run, it’s so much better to feel worried that you’re “missing out” than to feel panicky or stressed out or sad because you’ve done nothing but stare at Facebook and you regret it.

The real trick is recognizing that Facebook is not an inevitablity—it’s a choice, every time you use it.

  • Know why you’re using it.

Look, Facebook isn’t objectively evil. Sure, it’s been carefully designed to inspire compulsive use. And it’s full of people you used to (or barely) know humblebragging about their perfect dinners/relationships, glamorous adventures, and all the awards they’ve won. So if you’re not careful, you might end up curled in a little ball under your duvet at 4AM, quietly weeping as you click “like” on every single one of your college girlfriend’s engagement photos. (Ugh, a photoshoot on the beach? Seriously? How cliché is that?? I mean, you know…for example.) That version of Facebook can feel like nothing short of torture.

But there are reasons to stick around—relationships that wouldn’t have been built or rekindled any other way, conversations that inspire and push their participants to learn and grow, and countless chances to laugh and feel less alone. It can be nutritious for creative people, if we know what we’re looking for and how to get it.

When you’re about to get on Facebook (which is a choice now, right?), ask yourself why and be honest about it. If your reasons feel constructive (“to post a research question,” “to wish an old friend a Happy Birthday,” “to show my friend I’m catching up with a photo of the new person I’m dating,” or “to make a memory”), go for it. If you’re doing it because you’re bored or feeling vulnerable (“to see if my ex went out last night,” or “because I’m stuck on this project and it’s freaking me out”) put your energy towards something that will actually make you feel awesome instead of just eating your time.

  • Remember the great stuff you’re doing instead.

Sad as it is to admit, time is both linear and finite. So you can’t actually be writing your novel and staring at Facebook at the same time. With that in mind, finish this sentence for me: With all the time I used to spend on Facebook, I will _____ instead.

Change your FB password to the title of your current project, or “InsteadofWriting” and (since you’re having to log in every time, right?) see how bad you really want to stalk your crush from high school compared to that. Surround yourself with reminders of what you’re choosing to make, and why you’re excited about it. Focus on that excitement instead of the threat of guilt.

…put your energy towards something that will actually make you feel awesome instead of just eating your time.

  • Make your own rules.

You may have noticed that, while this article has five tips/suggestions in it, it is not called “5 Steps to…” or some other variation on the formulaic list-article titles that so prolifically crowd your newsfeed. I didn’t make this into an official list article, because I am not allowed to read them. It’s for my health.

I realized well over a year ago—while reading a list article entitled, “34 Celebrities that Totally Dated in High School,” no less—that if I wasn’t careful I was actually going to die without writing another meaningful sentence…but instead having filled my head with lists of crap I did not care about.

List articles are my kryptonite. Without a strict rule against reading even one, I know me well enough to know I’m about to lose at least two hours of my life to a chain of “65 Times Keanu Reeves Ate a Bagel in Public,” and “10 Superfoods are Actually Marsupials,” all the way through “10 Conspiracy Theories I Just Made Up to Publish This Article” and there will be no stopping me. None.

But that’s me. I have friends who can withstand the slings and arrows of list articles just fine, but their willpower melts when it comes to watching YouTube videos of folks playing World of Warcraft (which I find completely unfathomable).

We’re all special snowflakes when it comes to distraction. Some of my other favorite rules I’ve heard from clients and friends include:

-I’m only allowed to check Facebook once I’ve written _____ words in my novel that day.

-For every _____ articles I post on Facebook, I have to write one of my own.

-I’m only on Facebook for ____ of minutes, ____times a day, and I set timers/alarms to make sure I don’t overdo it.

-I have a buddy who checks in with me if they see me posting/liking stuff on a day when I’m supposed to be off/writing.

-Before I post an angry rant on Facebook (or pick a fight on the internet), I call a close friend and see if talking it out makes me feel better.

Be honest with yourself about your weaknesses. Name them, and make rules that explicitly support the writer you’re working to become.

  • Put your status update urges to good use.

Ever find yourself thinking in status update drafts? Have you spent your commute imagining the exact way to phrase your feelings, or the perfect image from your day to describe it so lots of people will “like” it? That’s one of the genuinely great things about social media—the inspiration that comes from an invitation to create. The desire and ability to share things is the most basic possible encouragement for writers and artists at any stage in the game. It’s a constant reminder that you have a voice, and that using it is a joy. It gives us all practice being heard.

Be honest with yourself about your weaknesses. Name them, and make rules that explicitly support the writer you’re working to become.

But (even if you’re enjoying participating in community or conversation on Facebook) there are plenty of instances where the thing you want to post isn’t just a status update—it’s the start of a poem, or an essay, or the inspiration for a piece of fiction. And if you only engage the process for long enough to post an update, you’ll never get beyond the immediate gratification of “likes” and shares.

So next time you find yourself fanaticizing about the Facebook version of what you want to say, write it in a notebook or a blank document window instead. Write the bit you can’t stop thinking about, and then keep going until you feel spent. Walk away for a few minutes and see if the idea has changed, if there’s new stuff you want to add to it. Then write some more.

There’s a lot more to it (and I’ll be happy to take it apart with you in The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab next month), but if you’ve gotten as far as your notebook, you’re well on your way. And if you’re looking for more insight into how to take the dream of “becoming a writer someday” and turn it into clear and exciting results, sign up for my free teleclass, “The Post Excuse Life” on August 4th. It’s a free!

At Audre’s Feet

If you ever want to miss a flight out of Atlanta, visit the Spelman College Archives and burrow through a few boxes of the Audre Lorde Collection on the day you’re supposed to leave. Someone who loves and knows me very well took me there to cap off a weeklong visit, and (much to my surprise) I’m writing this from the plane home. I miss my own bed and family, and some of my absolute favorite commitments await me in the Bay, but I’m not entirely sure I shouldn’t have forgotten about the airport and made camp on a library cart to read until they kicked me out. This irresponsible, wiser me would come back the next day (and the next, and the next) to read more.

On the off chance that don’t yet know Audre Lorde’s revolutionary body of work, I now have the honor of inviting you to fix your life and read her. (Black Unicorn and Sister Outsider are two of my favorites, but most folks I know who started with Zami say it’s a solid introduction. Really start anywhere. Just keep reading.) She is one of the bravest, sharpest, most loving minds I’ve ever encountered in print.

I could spend several thesauruses writing an in-depth description of everything I admire about Lorde’s life, thinking, and body of work, but the reality of the Collection at Spelman’s Archives really says it all: Thousands upon thousands of hours have been spent cataloguing, analyzing, and preserving all of Audre’s writing, filing every paper she touched while she was alive, so that curious and devoted students could still study at her feet in the decades since she died. Torn scraps of paper with her scribbles, drafts of articles typewritten with full margins of notes, and sheafs of notepad paper containing her speeches, all carefully tended because of the teachings they hold. There’s a whole staff of folks devoted to making her work accessible to researchers around the globe. Audre’s brilliance and vision merit the effort. If that’s not a good enough reason to read her, I don’t think I my praise will be better.

I didn’t get to spend enough time there. I’m going back. But what I learned (and was reminded of) by briefly sitting with Audre’s thoughts was profound.

In terms of being reminded of good things by Audre Lorde, there needs to be a word for the vindication, inspiration, comfort, and challenge that comes from reading a stranger articulating your position better than you can. Here’s some of what Audre has said about art (taken from drafts of “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” one of my all time favorite essays by her):

“The function of art is to make all of us, the artist and the participant, more who we wish to be. The function of art is to create, maintain, and encourage those visions that provide the power by which we change the world around us.”

“Art requires a constant scrutiny of our lives. As we learn to bear the intimacy of that scrutiny, and to flourish within it, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their power over us.”

And here is another couple sentences I can’t seem to stop reading and rereading, because she gets it exactly right. This is Audre talking about the importance of living in your body instead of just your head (and, more broadly, the importance of honoring sensation/feeling as a central part of being alive and becoming liberated):

“The white fathers have told us, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The black mother in each one of us, the artist, whispers in our dreams, ‘I feel, therefore I can be free.’ Our art charters this revolutionary awareness, implements this map of freedom. “

Reading Audre Lorde’s work has always felt like waking up to me, like years before I was born, there was someone who could explain my mind and why I keep working as a writer and educator. I knew that she can be an antidote to burnout, but in visiting the Archives I got to learn more about her process and so come to respect her craft even more deeply.

I think it’s easy to think of ideas springing intricate and full-grown from their creator, especially when reading with admiration. So until holding her notes, I hadn’t ever considered that Audre did anything but write wholly conceived first drafts. Her work has a warm and conversational tone, so I always pictured her chatting out her theories in some café, the genius lazily rolling out of her mouth. Her footprint tells a different story—one with typos and cross-outs and epiphanies so pressing, her handwriting blurs words together.

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See? She revised!

 

I walked out of the archives with a thick pile of Xeroxes of Lorde’s various drafts that eventually became “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” There were several speeches on related topics, some notes on creating a general article, and then a series of freewrites on various concepts. Reading through allowed me to witness Audre piecing her broader vision together. She riffed, and let her inspiration spark in multiple directions, and toyed with turns of phrase until they felt right. She played with the order until the flow made sense, which took a couple different tries. And since she was writing most of the time on a typewriter, she had to go back and retype whole sections anytime she felt like moving a paragraph to another section of an essay—each retyping containing slight shifts in phrasing as she fine-tuned her craft. The final product was more whole and gorgeous to me after witnessing it—in no small part because it meant that she’d honored the compulsion behind her work with such devotion.

One of the first documents I opened in the Audre Lorde Collection was a small handwritten note about how difficult it was to set aside time to write as a mother. Audre had two children, and between parenting and working to support her family, her writing had taken a backseat consistently enough that one of her students had actually asked her why she’d  “quit poetry.” The note documented the act of will it took to set aside 2 hours to sit at her desk the next weekend, and how much more like herself she felt after doing it. I am still reeling in gratitude from her honesty, what it means to know that the struggle to get to write is that palpable for everyone. I am beyond grateful that Audre Lorde kept pursuing it, even when there were so many urgent obligations in her life. I believe that someday the gratitude I feel towards her may be felt towards people reading the words you and I both fought to get to write. And that the people feeling that gratitude will live in the world we wished to create.

There’s still time to sign up for the Summer Edition of The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab (starting on June 15). Register here. You’re also welcome to sign up for TMSWL’s free newsletter (and get a free book of 101 Writing Prompts) here

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When “Have to” is Real

I wrote yesterday about how “having to write” can be a pointlessly toxic obligation to carry around when you’re trying to write consistently. Today, it seems only fair to admit something more vulnerable (and honestly scary) than I’ve ever published in this space: There are times when I have to write.

I don’t mean, “This draft is due on Tuesday, and it’s Tuesday. So I HAVE TO write it.”

I mean that sometimes I do not have a choice, it has nothing to do with an audience. It is a compulsion. I either write or something in me (maybe even all of me) breaks.

I suppose a claim that enormous deserves backing up, doesn’t it?

In April of last year, my mother and I had a series of extremely painful, short phone conversations that reshaped much of what I thought I knew about my childhood. It’s a common sentiment, but my mom really is one of the most foundationally important people in my life. It’s not just the fact that I love her ferociously (which is only a mirroring of how she has loved me); I actually don’t know where I would be now without her—if I would have survived this long.

She saved my sisters and I from a violently abusive domestic situation at a very early age, and then supported us mostly single-handedly through to adulthood. What I know about bravery and sacrifice, tenacity and creativity, generosity and grace, I learned almost exclusively at her hands. And so, when she casually admitted many of the details of her sacrifice to me (her adult daughter) so she could feel less alone, she accidentally broke my heart.

My mother and I live on opposite coasts, and it was only three or four phone chats where these realizations were spread out, but the shift in perspective was profound. I could see all the ways systemic sexism and what my mother had been taught to think of women (especially women in her position) had made her suffer silently, unable to ask for help. I had to admit that, though she’d given everything she could to make my life better, she had also passed down a few key destructive tendencies that were hobbling me still.

The magnitude of the grief I felt over this literally knocked the air out of my lungs. She was too far away to hug or yell at or sit and cry with, and to top it all off, I had to go on tour alone four days after our last call. For a month. And the majority of it would have me traveling by bus across the country, saying poems in bars for money. I had no idea how I was going to cope with that.

In the end, I did the only thing I knew I could count on: I wrote.

That month on the bus, it’s no wonder no one sat next to me unless we were at capacity. I was probably a terrifying sight to my fellow passengers—curled up around my notebook, weeping and silent no matter the time of day or night. When I wasn’t writing, I was staring out the window, searching the landscape for the next poem, waiting for it to strike. Something sharp would erupt in me, some flash of memory or realization, and I’d document it. I can’t tell if it was an exorcism or a birth, but either way the release was larger than the words on the paper. Sometimes what I’d written wouldn’t all the way make sense until months later, after careful editing. But I knew that if I didn’t keep my pen moving, I’d go crazy then and there. On a Greyhound. And maybe I’d never come home.

The poems that came out of me that month were what made up the vast majority of the manuscript I sent in to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in order to be considered for the 2014 Rona Jaffe Scholarship (which I found out I won a few weeks ago). They’re the core impetus for the book-length collection of poetry I’m still working on today.

It hurt, and it was an act of survival, but my bus poems weren’t therapy. I have a therapist for that (and I couldn’t recommend finding the right therapist for you more highly). Writing then was about bearing witness to the process as it happened, and myself to name each step along the way. They were a kind of compulsion, the result of feeling the sky inside my head go bright with lightening. I’m pretty sure I would have needed to write as a reaction no matter whether or not the poems themselves had been very good at all.

My “have to” write moments aren’t all tragic or heavy. At the end of that same month of touring last spring, I found myself in Oklahoma at a dear friend’s wedding. As it is with poets at weddings, I’d been asked to write to the occasion. Upon arriving at the ceremony, I decided the draft I had was crap and that I had to start over from scratch. Just at the base of my throat, a knot formed—panicked and urgent—not at the stress of having to write under a tight deadline, but in response to one idea of what a marriage really is: the commitment to let yourself be loved all the way and no matter how dark or scary things got. The vulnerability of that decision landed in my body so intensely, I had to get it out on paper. I was writing literally the entire way to the stage. It was what I had to do to say it like I felt it. I’m pretty sure the bride didn’t mind.

Sometimes I think I hone my craft so that when the need strikes, I can do it justice. I create for the sake of the work, but also for the increased capacity to hold on in the face of inspiration. I think we all have moments where silence is too costly. I write, and teach about writing, so that the world might be more full of people who know what to do when they need their words.

 

There’s still time to sign up for the Summer Edition of The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab (starting on June 15). Register here. You’re also welcome to sign up for TMSWL’s free newsletter (and get a free book of 101 Writing Prompts) here. 

“Have to” vs. “Get to,” or The Toxic Myth of Should

Guilty silence is contagious. It takes less than a minute in the presence of one person scared of getting busted for not doing their homework to reduce twenty or so responsible adults to a gaggle of shoe-staring, nervous children. Grownups get way less grown when they think they’re about to get in trouble. I should know. It happens at least once whenever I teach The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab.

It’s the same every time: We have our first hiccup week as a class (a few people hit a hectic patch at work, somebody ends up needing to go on a trip unexpectedly, someone else’s kid gets sick, and so on), and there’s a little less participation in the daily writing exercise than usual. Thus begins the guilt parade from everyone and anyone worried that they’re not doing a good enough job to stay in class.

Trying to write every day is hard, so I both expect and celebrate the whole falling-off-the-wagon-then-getting-back-on process. It’s a rite of passage of sorts. You can’t really know how dedicated you are until you’ve felt what failure does to your insides and chosen to fight back. Folks in The Lab, on the other hand, all plan on being impeccable. They think this is what being “serious” about writing requires. So when I check in to offer encouragement, I’m usually met with mortification and copious apologies. And when our weekly call rolls around, and I ask if anyone feels like sharing about their writing process for the week, we hit guilty silence head on and just wallow in it for at least a minute and a half.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to enjoying this a little bit. It’s the silence that brings about some of the most essential learning any student does while in The Lab.

Sometimes I wait for the groveling and mea culpas before easing the tension, but usually I’m speedy in saving them from themselves. I ask my speechless class if they’re treating participation in The Lab like a homework assignment from middle school or college—or whatever it was that they first faced the consequences of missing a deadline. There’s more silence after that, but it’s thoughtful now instead of terrified. I point out that I’m not their mean teacher, this isn’t high school, and there isn’t any consequence to “failing” the class. I ask them if they feel like their guilt is making it harder to write, and (with some amazement) they all admit that it has been. I listen as the adults in The Lab quit acting like embarrassed children. And then I get to explain the difference between “have to” and “get to” when it comes to creative work.

Most of us learned to get shit done under circumstances that are toxic for creativity: shame, guilt, terror, and rigid expectations. This is not to say that we’re all special fragile snowflakes who need to be liberated from structure in order to set our true genius free (can you sense the sarcasm here?). But rather: when you’re trying to make something awesome, one of the worst things you can think to yourself is “OHMYGODEVERYONEISGOINGTOBESOMADATMETHISISLATEANDITWON’TEVERBEANYGOODIMIGHTASWELLJUSTDIE.” If you force yourself with “I have to” most of your energy will be spent on feeling stressed out and trapped instead of focusing on your work. And that’s the kind of thinking most folks pick up in industrialized education. It’ll kill great art dead if you’re not careful.

The truth of the matter is most of us will not die if we fail to follow through on our artistic intentions.  We’ll continue to live in a world without the products of our creativity, but time itself won’t stop. Your bills will still need to be paid. Your obligations will continue to require your attention. Life will go on, until it doesn’t. Signing up to take a writing class won’t change that.

Here’s the thing that makes me write more than school guilt ever did: I get to. I get to pull words out of my brain and shape them on paper. I get to hone and stretch and delight myself. I get to watch other people read my thoughts to themselves and react to them. There is no one forcing me to do this! Every word, each development in my ability is my own choice. I own it myself, and become more myself every time I return to this process. So the person I’m becoming by choosing to write over and over again is, in a way, entirely self-made.

This is what I tell my students when we get to Guilty Silence Day. I do it as an invitation to the real process of becoming a writer: the choosing of it. After the have to/get to talk, at least one person who hasn’t written for a week ends up finishing out The Lab with what we call “perfect attendance” (a 50 word story for every day of the course). Many of those students have gone on to massive projects—novels and poetry manuscripts that otherwise wouldn’t exist.  I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think it’s the testing ground that makes them decide to be writers no matter what.

 

There’s still time to sign up for the Summer Edition of The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab (starting on June 15). Register here. You’re also welcome to sign up for TMSWL’s free newsletter (and get a free book of 101 Writing Prompts) here. 

For Dan (Part III), or The Hundred Year Trust Fall

“No one is EVER going to read this. The world is WAY too noisy. How could I ever possibly hope to cut through the overwhelmingly deafening din of the 21st century media landscape?”

This is the final installment of a three part article series that I’m hoping will respond to the fears/roadblocks to creativity elucidated in my dear friend Dan’s quote up above. If, even for a moment, you’ve ever felt the same way, please read on (you can also read Part I and Part II).

 

Hey Dan,

I feel so old whenever I try to write about how social media and the massive uptick in information consumption have affected contemporary life. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, but when I share mine I’m pretty sure it sounds like I’m seconds away from saying, “newfangled” in earnest. It’s kind of embarrassing.

Don’t get me wrong, the increase in literacy and the propagation of otherwise avoided conversations (issues of systemic oppression, for starters) often leave me feeling an unsinkable hope for the world to come. We are reaching and imagining in ways that make actual progress possible in real time, and even though it’s painful sometimes, that amazes me. But when it comes to the human attention span and the economy of “sharing” media, maybe I’m just shaking my cane threateningly at the hip kids with their loud parties late at night across the street.

Which is to say: Between the list articles (I refuse to write “listicle” outside of quotations, because I respect myself), and sites like Distractify and ViralNova…Good god, there’s a lot of crap out there. It can be fun crap, sometimes. Occasionally it’s even interesting. Often it’s effective at mobilizing people to voice opinions and/or care about things (and that is a part I really like). But, as far as I can tell, the primary currency in that particular corner of “the 21st century media landscape” is whether or not you’ve already seen it.

“Thanks, seen it.” is one of the most common responses to viral media. If you discover something good early, you get to watch your friends be wowed by it—and that does feel nice. But, as much fun as it is to always have a new video to show someone, I’m fairly confident the barrage of new information isn’t capable of drowning out lasting creativity/thought any more than commercials are. And unless they manage to be exceptional in some way, commercials fade into static almost immediately.

Here’s my real point: Exceptional craft is not going out of style. The frantic pace can’t drown it out, nor can the cacophony of voices. The noise won’t make you forget brilliance once you’ve been touched by it. Hell, there’s a lot of brilliance carried in that noise that we would have never otherwise seen. So if the goal is to be exceptional (see Part II), basically nothing has changed.

When I step back from Facebook/Twitter/basically my phone for longer than five minutes, I notice that the world doesn’t fit inside it. There are still trees. With birds in them.

And hey, there’s my bookshelf, with all that craft too delectable and complex for sound bite servings. There’s James Baldwin, reinventing the way I relate to art and class and race in America—and in more than one sentence photoshopped onto an image of him. There’s Octavia Butler and Kate Bornstein and Patricia Smith, all of them just waiting to hurt my feelings in that good way and pull my heart a little further open before I put the book down.

And even online, there are literally hundreds of poems, articles, speeches, albums, films, and performances that I keep returning to year after year, compulsively. The list is too long to really name, but I revisit them because they’ve changed me unforgettably. I know you have those, too. Do you think another Twitter scandal could really drown that out?

It’s the same old risk creative folks have been dealing with since the beginning, but that doesn’t make it any less scary. There’s a reason so many artists and visionaries posture bombastically about their work: We’re compensating for the crushing uncertainty that is not knowing if anyone will care about all this hard work we’ve done a hundred years from now. Or ten. Or tomorrow. We don’t know, and we can’t. Because—as is the nature of artist and audience—once the creation is out of our hands, it is out of our control. And now is really, really big. So who has time for remembering stuff that’s already been made?

But we do, somehow. Just yesterday I got an email from a woman who’s been showing videos of my poems to all her friends nonstop for the past five days. I have fallen in love with moderately unpopular writers from the 19th century based on sheer coincidence. I’ve stumbled upon articles that were more than two years old and wept at the genius of their composition and message. There are cult classics that don’t find their following until their creators’ bodies have fully decomposed.

We speak to people we could not imagine, in worlds we can never see because of this. We have always been messages in bottles. This is how we save one another’s lives. I don’t know how or why it works, but it does.

(There’s a lot to be said for building platforms, and for who has accesses to what resources to enhance message broadcasting, but you know something crazy? The basic premise holds even for random, poorly trafficked blogs. We still find our audiences somehow, when the work is excellent. And the process of becoming excellent while in conversation with an audience is something worth talking about, but maybe in another post or over coffee?)

After I publish this article, my words could fall into anyone’s lap with an internet connection and a screen. Maybe there’s someone reading this by chance in 2024. It’s not my job to tell them how to read me or whether or not my opinions should matter. It is my job to do the only thing I can: Trust that someone, somewhere might catch me, and that by some stroke of luck I will be exactly what they needed.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a(n obvious) way to guarantee that no one ever finds you in this overwhelming media landscape: stay silent. If you’re not writing, I promise no one is reading you.

With hope,

Tatyana

 

 

For Dan, Part II (or, The Real Reason I Write)

“No one is EVER going to read this. The world is WAY too noisy. How could I ever possibly hope to cut through the overwhelmingly deafening din of the 21st century media landscape?”

That’s what my friend Dan wrote to me last fall, when I was studying the reasons people face writer’s block. I’ve been a little scared of the answer I knew I had to give him ever since. Sometimes the truth is brutal, and this is one of those times. It’s also liberating. So this might sting a little, but in the spirit of all the possibility on the other side of these questions, here we go:

Hey Dan,

If the deepest reason you have for writing is that a crowd of random strangers might pay you some attention, do yourself and everyone else in the world a solid and stop. Never pick up a pen or sit down in front of a keyboard again. I’m dead serious. The world has enough approval-seeking fluff pieces in literally every possible genre. Quit writing now/just never start. Please and thank you.

I am telling you this out of kindness, dear friend. If you’re pursuing something more real and lasting than fifteen seconds of Twitter fame, you’re going to need better fuel than I want people to notice and like me to maintain the constant transformation process that honest, original writing requires. Without that deeper meaning, the product of your labor stays weak, or you turn into a manic narcissist, or (if you’re extra lucky) some combination of the two previous options befalls you. It’s ugly. I don’t recommend it.

Everyone wants to feel approved of and admired. That’s called being human. You don’t need to change or starve that part of you to stare down the blank page and start making things (otherwise no one ever would). But to really get up the courage to tackle Enormous Writing Projects (like the ones I know you have), there’s got to be something that brings you back to the table even when the work is terrifyingly difficult. That “something” must be a hunger harder and more satisfying to feed than the desire to be liked.

You must write for yourself, for the person that the act of writing (and editing, and reimagining, and exploring) forces you to become.

I am not advocating for writing as masturbation here. Nor am I telling you to forget your potential audience, or the issues of accessibility/readability that your relationship to readers must create. Rather, I’m saying that the deeper satisfaction of a creative life begins long before anyone has recognized your efforts—especially if you demand excellence of yourself.

Creation is a two-way street. We are never not changed by performing alchemy on the chaos of our own random thoughts to produce something worth sharing with the world. So when you dig in to the great and scary task of producing, examining, and then refining your own words, you are necessarily also refining yourself. Even if no one except a few trusted editors reads a single word you write, the person you will be when you put the final period on the final sentence is worth the journey.

It is painful to get vulnerable enough to write a line and then have to admit it doesn’t work—probably more humiliating than a person who just wants to be liked could ever really stand. It requires of the writer a fundamental reshaping of the mind, and ironically enough the satisfaction that comes with surrendering to this kind of growth is beyond words.

The struggle to write better and better with every draft is humbling, and awe-inspiring, and the single most surprising source of hope I’ve ever encountered. It is an experience that justifies itself, when taken on in earnest. So do I want approval as a writer? Absolutely. But when I come to the page, I cannot write because I’m hoping lots of people will read and like my work.

I write because to do so is survival.

I write because it makes me become myself.

I write because even the goofiest collection of syllables is an acceptance letter to the Me of the Past who never believed she could come this far.

I write because the act of fashioning phrase after phrase, sentence after sentence with my eyes peeled for surprises and places I could do better pulls me back into my own existence as nothing else can. Because when I land inside my body after reciting a line I can’t stop wanting to say even years after I’ve written it, it is a homecoming to a full and ripened garden—a harvest of my own best truth.

Part of this is because discipline is its own magic, and part of it is that language is a core component to human thought. When the initial act of writing and editing is finally done (or as close as it can get), before I even consider technical issues like publication or performance, a part of me is renovated. I know who I am a little better, because I laid the foundation and built the walls and painted them. This kind of change radiates out into every interaction and experience I have after the writing is done. I am sturdier for it. I feel it in my bones.

(This is not to say that writing naturally makes everyone a better person. There are plenty of suffering artists and talented assholes in the world to negate that claim. But creation is a tool that can be mindfully leveraged towards liberation and compassion, and has been used as such for as long as humans have existed.)

You know I want to live in a world where more people believe in their ability to create, so I hope you understand I’m not really saying that you should quit. I just know that—for the sake of your potential—you’ve got to engage bravely, and for the right reasons.

Write because you want your children to get tucked into bed by a parent aware, playful, and alive enough to write novels.

Write because you want to be able to say “It was scary, and confusing, and unspeakably hard, but I kept going. And look what came of it.”

Write because the process amazes you, because you can delight in the adventure.

Write because each sentence pulls you closer to the world you want to build.

We’ll talk about how to relate to your readers tomorrow, because (okay, fine) I’ll admit that’s important, too. I just felt like we had to get clear on why writing matters first. I know this isn’t an easy set of ideas to swallow, but I hope it helps.

With hope,

Tatyana

If you want to spend 2014 (and possibly every year after) becoming a great writer (and you’re maybe looking for a manageable way to build momentum), The Mad Scientist Writer’s Lab is still open to new students for it’s June Session. Registration closes at 4pm on June 9th. You can still register by clicking the big “BUY now!” button at the bottom of this post, by the way. (You can read the course description for TMSWL here, but Dan–who took TMSWL in October–made me promise to make it easy to register from this post). If you’re curious about what else I have to say to Dan (especially if it feels like this stuff applies to you), hang around for another article on the morning of Wednesday, 1/22.