Thursday, January 05, 2017

Why I Write: Finding Joy in the New Year

The following was also cross-posted on the writing blog, Finding Wonderland.

We've been talking about writing goals in our WritingYA critique group this month, and I've been thinking a lot about that over the past few weeks. One of the ideas I keep coming back to is reconnecting with what brings me joy in writing.

It's a tough question, and one I find particularly difficult to consider during times when ongoing anxiety and depression issues rear their ugly Cerberus-like heads and distract me from seeing an answer. In part, I think I keep obsessing over this particular question BECAUSE it has been so hard to answer. The easy, pat response is, of course, that the writing itself, the act of crafting words and bringing stories to life is a joy in itself. That's what everyone wants to hear, right?

There's more to it. It isn't solely about the joy of putting words to page. That particular joy is something I've felt ever since I was a child, but here's an admission: it was not sufficient to tip me over the edge into wanting to make writing my life's work.

If you know me IRL or have been reading my blog and other social media for a while, you'll know that I was focused on a visual art career from about middle school onward. If anything has ever been a calling for me, that felt like it. I liked writing, but art owned my soul.

It turns out that maybe woo-woo soul searching questions—am I still an artist? Is writing my new calling? Can they both be my calling?—are sly distractions from the question of what brings me joy in writing. And once I've been distracted by those questions, I end up sliding down a rabbit hole of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

But, as I started really focusing on the idea of what brings me joy in writing, it was much more concrete and real-world than I expected. I looked back on what caused me to make that initial decision to try writing freelance articles on the side for my then-employer, which is what led me to take that first writing class through the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. What was it that made me so happy, so elated, so motivated to write those arguably quite ridiculous pieces of writing?

Besides the fact that I got to visit weird websites and make jokes about them, got to humorously explicate pithy quotations, and got paid a teeny bonus for doing so, this was my first experience of the sense of connection that writing for a public audience can create. Not just a SENSE of connection: an actual connection, because people would email me with suggestions; they'd send me comments. I was basically blogging before there were blogging platforms, because this was 1999-ish. I was lucky to have an insta-audience (albeit a small one) because I took over someone else's columns on an already-established site, and it was an incredible feeling to get those responses to what I wrote—sometimes from the very websites I was writing about. (And I learned a lot about the fine line between jokes and gratuitous hurtfulness, because I was a very sarcastic twentysomething.)

This is interesting, because I have mixed feelings about the IDEA of connection—my social anxiety and introversion comes into play more and more the harder I think about it. I start thinking about all the blogging and writing I've done that does NOT make me feel like I've managed to connect. And the stakes feel higher, too, because I've accepted the decision to make writing a major part of my career, not just something I'm doing on the side.

So then I get lost in the thought-hole of "I'm doing this for my job, so I can't afford to think about FUN anymore." The very idea of joy seems irrelevant. This is the mire I get caught in, over and over.
Where that train of thought has gone off the rails, I believe, is that I've created a false dichotomy between work ENJOYMENT and work EFFECTIVENESS. The truth is that I'm NOT as effective a writer when I am not in touch with my reasons for doing it. When I'm distracted by extraneous worries that fool me into thinking they are the real problem.

And so that brings me back to what my intrinsic rewards are, and besides satisfaction in a piece I enjoyed writing and worked hard on, and laughing at my own jokes, I keep coming back to writing as an act of connection. Some corollary truths here: When I am more fully engaged in a piece, I think it is ultimately more effective in making me feel connected. I am engaged in this because I feel like I am talking to YOU, right now. The writing itself makes me feel connected, if I engage in it fully.

That feeling has little to do with any comments or responses the writing might generate later, but I wonder: is there a sense of disengagement in some of the posts I write that actually somehow discourages connection and leads to fewer comments? By disengagement, I don't mean a lack of honesty or an unwillingness to spill my guts (though I am definitely guilty of the latter; I'm not a person who is forward with my opinions)—rather, I wonder if I'm inadvertently creating a feeling of distance. In my magazine writing course, in graduate school, I was repeatedly pegged as sounding too academic, and I wonder if that plays into it.

So I have been thinking of ways to connect, to engage. Different ways to approach my writing on a more day-to-day level.

I'm still thinking. More on that later…

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Canned Goods I Can't Live Without

I find this somewhat disturbing.

Hey, that almost sounded like clickbait. Oh, you clicked it? Read and weep, suckers.

Why the random topic? Who knows? Why not? I'm posting this for no real reason at all other than, if I don't, this blog will languish quietly into sweet oblivion. So, basically, no reason whatsoever. Just like 99% of all blog posts ever written. Whoops, did I say that out loud??

Actually, I feel like I am somewhat of an expert on the topic of pointless daily web content, having been an early provider of such in the prehistoric stone age of the internet. (I mean PREHISTORIC. You have to look on the Internet Wayback Machine to find it.) So maybe I DID say that out loud.

Okay, so yeah: I decided to make a list of the canned goods I like to have in my pantry (and by "pantry" I mean a cabinet of inadequate size and an ancillary shelving unit in my office) at all times, thus providing you with an unsolicited and thoroughly pointless glimpse into my daily life vis-à-vis my cooking tastes.

  • Canned, diced tomatoes. Totally indispensable for chili, pasta sauces, curries, stews, soups, whatever.
  • Chicken broth (technically in a carton, but I'm listing it here anyway). See above. Rob likes to cook it with ramen noodles.
  • Two, if not three, of the following kinds of canned beans: kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo. Chili! Tostada salads! Minestrone soup! Bean dips of a multitude of varieties!
  • Tomato sauce. We really do make a lot of pasta.
  • Tuna. Which is actually for the cats, mostly.
  • Beer. I guess that's not really a food. Nor is the extensive amount of diet soda in a can.
  • Canned goods I occasionally stock: corn (in the off season), Ortega chiles, tomato paste, pineapple chunks, water chestnuts, coconut milk.

I'm sure there are a few others I'm missing, and I didn't include rarer purchases like beef broth or bamboo shoots, or weird shit that is on our shelves for reasons I can't remember like conch meat and a can of chipotles, but that's the majority of it right there. Bully for you!

I suppose if you want you can weigh in on your favorite indispensable canned goods in the comments, if you are one of the select* (*possibly tiny) group of people reading this. I know some of you probably have different and exciting canned goods. Go nuts. (Oh. I do also stock cans of nuts. Almonds, usually...)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Heartbreak of...Chronic Hives

I just have to vent about this. You can read it, or not.

I always wondered what the heck people meant when they referred to "the heartbreak of psoriasis." Now that I know what it's like to have a mysteriously recurring autoimmune skin condition that is essentially an enigma to modern medicine, and apparently continues to be so in the 13 years I've had to live with it off and on, it IS a little heartbreaking.

Okay, I'll correct myself: there have been two new things since the last time I obsessively researched this online (during my last bout, maybe three years ago). Firstly, some people respond to the asthma medication Xolair, although so far in the small number of studies conducted, the hives slowly return after medication is stopped, so...yeah. Secondly, there's been a name change! Oh, yay. Now "chronic idiopathic urticaria" is "chronic spontaneous urticaria."

It still means the same thing, though: recurring mystery hives, cause unknown.

And it's more than just hives, at least in my experience. The hives might itch furiously, or a little, or not at all. They might go away throughout the day. Or not. Antihistamines might help, or not. A course of steroids usually ultimately kicks it in the butt, except when it doesn't, like this time. (A new and unwelcome development.) My personal least favorite is getting a hive on my lip or eyelid so it looks like I got smacked in a barfight, although having welts up and down my legs is no picnic either.

And then there are the vague non-hive symptoms. Feeling like I've swallowed air and it's causing pressure in my chest, like heartburn or gas pain, moving around in there for hours, sometimes during the night so it's hard to sleep deeply for long periods of time. Zantac: it might help, or it might not. (Bet you didn't know it was a histamine blocker. The things you find out when you have hives.) The fatigue and general malaise that make me feel just kind of tired and yucky. The anxiety that some unlucky day I might get swelling in my tongue or throat and have to get rushed to the hospital, though that hasn't happened yet, knock on wood.

Exercise is always supposed to be a cure-all. Exercise helps reduce the stress hormone cortisol, etc. etc. If I'm feeling okay enough to exercise, it might help--sometimes it seems to help me metabolize whatever medication I've taken, and the hives will start to go down. Sometimes my own sweat seems to irritate my skin and bring out new hives. Sometimes I just don't feel well enough to exercise, or I have hives on my feet that make it really uncomfortable to wear running shoes. Or run.

This might be the worst, though: knowing that stress and anxiety is a major component, perhaps even the long-term ultimate cause--and still being unable to control the fact that the condition itself causes me additional stress.

Like anxiety and depression, issues I'm also far too familiar with, it isn't something that will "just go away." Seems like there's about a five-month minimum, in fact. So...it's been almost a month now. Four more to go? We'll see.

Monday, June 22, 2015

On Plot Structuring

Cross-posted to Finding Wonderland.

I'm finally back to having time to devote to my WIP--or I should perhaps say, I have seized time back from the ravening bitch-goddess that is unexpected work. Not to mention the slightly less ravening bitch-goddess that is EXPECTED work. And what I realized was that my WIP has the extreme need for some attention devoted to structure. (And also that I wanted to change the title again.)

I've been spending a lot of productive time lately looking at screenwriting books, or at least books written with screenwriters in mind but which are also quite helpful for us novel writers. I've gotten a huge amount of thoughtful and practical advice from Story by Robert McKee and The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, even though I haven't finished reading them yet. But possibly the most directly useful book has been Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, which was recommended by fellow author and member of our writing group Sara Lewis Holmes (of the lovely and poetic blog Read Write Believe). Snyder uses a method called the "beat sheet" to lay out plot structure in chunks--or maybe a better word than structure is "dynamics," because it isn't so much a matter of specific THINGS that have to happen at certain times, it's the rhythm of the thing.

I had done a beat sheet for this project last year, but that was before I decided to split it into two books, so it was long overdue for me to try to revisit my "outline" (or what passes for one) instead of just working on individual chapters and going into denial about major stuff like the book as a whole. I kind of like the beat sheet because it gives some structure to the story beyond just outlining the scenes or chapters. But I was starting to feel overwhelmed because what I have is this old, bloated beat sheet from before; a partially-rewritten manuscript with a bunch of scenes and changes not included in the old beat sheet; and a stack of index cards with plot points on them that I'd been attempting to shuffle around. What I decided to do, with the help of the Save the Cat Beat Sheet for Novels Spreadsheet that I found on Jami Gold's website, was create a set of Beat Sheet Cards, one for each beat listing the name of the beat and a short description (cut and pasted from the spreadsheet) and an approximate page count goal.


I did this by printing them onto big Avery shipping labels and slapping those onto the index cards. (I love office supplies.) Then I spread those out on my living room floor and aligned my plot points underneath them--reshuffling in a couple of cases, and inserting a couple of new ones as I found out there was kind of a gaping hole in the plot. Once I had it all laid out, I then went in and rewrote the beat sheet.

And changed the title again. *Shakes fist* TITLES!!!

Anyway, this was a helpful exercise. I was having trouble visualizing everything because of the fact that there are two POV characters that alternate, and because a third character is taking on a bit more of a role in this rewrite. This made it easy for me to pinpoint where I still needed to add in that third character's arc. It also made me realize I really need to do something about the ending....

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Three Breaths

I've spent more time than I care to admit reading inspirational articles on sites like Zen Habits and Tiny Buddha; neurotically perusing stress reduction techniques and "how to know if you're burned out" checklists on WebMD and HelpGuide and Psychology Today. I've read books on mindfulness and wistfully wished I could go to UMass for the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. I've read and re-read books by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I haven't always been great at implementing the techniques in any sort of regular fashion, though I know I would be healthier if I did. The excuses are increasingly ridiculous: "Who has time to lie down for a 30-minute body scan?" turns into the ludicrous "Who's got time for the Three-Minute Breathing Space?"

Evidently there is a very persuasive part of me that thinks I can't simply sit there for three minutes, never mind the fact that I may spend thirty or forty minutes reading internet articles about sitting meditation or stress or whatever. This makes no sense.

BUT. I came up with a nearly foolproof (the fool being me) method of centering myself and slowing myself down, of stopping the mean mental voice that likes to castigate me for every little thing. I can't really take credit for this, since it's basically distilled from all that reading I just talked about. But here it is.

Three breaths.

You really can't rationalize away the time it takes to breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out. Because look! It's already done. Sometimes it actually IS challenging to sit in mindfulness and serenity for three minutes. Or there's some external situational reason that makes it difficult to do. But surely I can do it for three breaths. Surely I can stop that inner mean voice for the space of three breaths. Surely I can follow my breath in and out, slowly, without criticism, three measly times.

Sometimes that's enough.