Mistake # 121: Write My Essay, They Say…

21 Aug

Do you know that students don’t write their academic papers today? I did not know that, until one of them had written me a letter, asking to write his essay on a particular topic. What’s going on here, you may ask… and you will be right.

Actually, it was my first question after I’ve got a letter with such a… strange request. Yes, I am a writer (well, some people believe that, I suppose), but it does not mean I write all kinds of writings about everything for everyone who just asks me to do that and believes it’s ok for me to drop everything I do and just sit and write some piece of paper on a topic I do not understand at all. Well, string theory for example, or the reasons why Marie Curie decided to forget she was a woman and devoted her life to radioactivity research. Well, whatever!

Ok, to make a long story short, I declare with my full responsibility: I do not write essays! Fine, I write essays sometimes, but it does not apply to academic papers which, I believe, all students are asked to write in college or university. So, dear fellows (yes, I say “fellows” ’cause there was time I could call myself a student as well. I am old but not ancient, you know), if you do not want to get your butt in gear, pit wits and do all assignments, you can always ask professional academic writers to do that for you. Yes, you heard right: ask those pointy-heads who consider themselves so cool, clever, and able to do your writings for you. Thanks to God (or anyone out there), dozens of such smarty pants live on the Web today. Do you need any? Keep on reading.

When I got a letter from that chair-warmer who asked me to write his essay, my first thought was to curse him. But, being a good girl who is here to help everyone and not to judge anyone, I banished the thought about the curse and just tried to understand the reasons this loony did not want to write his assignments and was ready to pay me for doing his job. Ok, he could have no time to do that because of million other tasks to accomplish; he could be a poor writer unable to express his thoughts clearly (well, I must admit that the probability of this version was quite high, taking into account the words and phrases he used to present his request in the letter); he could hate the topic of that essay (frankly speaking, I would hate it too. It should have been about how ozone holes affect pandas’ organisms), whatever… In the end, I even felt sorry for this guy. My light side won this time, and I decided to help him the only way I could.

When I search the Internet, I try to save all the interesting info I find there, you know. And when I found the cool infographic about the bookshelves of famous people, I could not think that I would ever need the information about its creators once again. But now I see that these writers would fit the needs of my pen friend (I hope you still remember the student who asked me for help) perfectly! So, my dear readers, if you are among those lucky – or not so lucky – guys who need academic help, you are welcome to contact this website and leave me alone with such requests, because I WILL NOT DO YOUR JOB FOR YOU.

If you are still interested in what I do, be clever enough to open your eyes and read the info about who I am, what I do, and why I manage this wonderful blog.

When you are a writer, your mistake can be a strong belief that you are able to write everything, including academic papers. I will open the ugly truth now: YOU CAN’T WRITE ANYTHING, if you believe the above mentioned shit. Yes, your friends, fellows, relatives, colleagues, Mr President, the Pope, and dozens of other cute guys (do you still remember the student from the first paragraph of this story?) may ask you for writing help, but it does not mean you can help them all.

The most wonderful thing about being a writer is having your own voice and style. Do you write novelettes? Great! Do you write poems? Awesome! So, how the hell you would be able to write academic papers, historical novels, scientific works, etc.?

What not to do as a writer is trying to write about something you do not understand just because you were asked to do that. Help them, but do not do their job for them.

Mistake # 120: But Dave Eggers Doesn’t Use Dialogue Tags

1 Sep

While I was on vacation, I picked up a copy of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. And it is heartbreaking, and staggering, and all of those things. It’s hard not to scarf down this book as if you’re a starving person who just had a plate of steak and potatoes set before them. It just goes and goes and goes and you’re there, hanging on every word like a life raft. At least that’s how I feel when I read it. It pulls me along and before I know it I’m a hundred pages down the road and an hour has passed.

One thing I’ve noticed about this book and come to love is that Dave hardly ever uses dialogue tags. And yeah, some writers don’t. But a lot of writers don’t write long dialogue back and forth strings that take up two pages. Dave does and the tags are absent.

And this is where, if it were anyone else, people would be jumping up and down, screaming, “You can’t do that! How do we know who’s saying what? WE’RE SO FUCKING CONFUSED.”

But you know what? With Dave, you aren’t. Here’s why:

By the time you reach a conversation string, you’ve read a walloping paragraph/page that has forced you to read at higher speeds. It’s nearly manic. His voice is so audible, it’s like he’s talking to you, flinging his hands around, trying to make a point. So when you come upon the conversation, you’re already a little used to speed, to mania, to some confusion, to feeling. You have already been listening in on Dave’s thoughts — now you’re listening in on a conversation.

Everything’s back and forth most of the time. Toph says something and Dave responds. We know enough about these people (I feel weird saying characters) to know what they sound like when they speak. We’ve spent enough time in Dave’s audible head to know what he’s most likely to say. So when there’s a conversation between him and someone else, we always know where Dave is, even without tags.

And the beauty of this whole thing is that without tags and without exact back and forth, (exact back and forth being that Dave says something and then Toph says something… sometimes Dave says something and on the next line, he’s saying something again) you feel as if the conversation is even more real and authentic. Because when people are talking excitedly to each other, or scratch excitedly — just talking, they don’t say something and then wait for the other person to respond. We frequently talk over each other. We interrupt. We correct ourselves, just change our minds mid-conversation and make a new, opposite point. And in this book, we hear that. And we hear it without being confused.

One of the things I find myself saying most while editing or working in a critique group is the phrase “dialogue tags.” A lot of people don’t like to use them. Which is fine. Obviously you can not use dialogue tags and everything will be fine. No mobs will hassle you.

But here’s the thing: Missing dialogue tags only work if the speakers are clear. And usually, if someone asks you to use dialogue tags, it’s not because you’re being a rebel and breaking the rules and this person can’t handle that — it’s because your dialogue is just confusing and your reader is simply asking for clarity.

The thing is, you can obviously break rules. Fuck rules. Who needs ‘em? The greats sure don’t. But the fact is that the greats aren’t just breaking rules willy-nilly and laughing at their own genius. Their rule-breaking is a kind of give and take. They find something new to do — and they find a way to clarify and qualify it.

Eggers couldn’t have had his long, tagless strings if he hadn’t first set the stage with his voice and characterization. Cormac McCarthy goes one more and doesn’t even use quotation marks — not because he thought it would be cool, but because when you read without quotation marks everything sounds just a little more silent, just a little more lonely.

So sure, break rules. But make sure you’re making all the considerations.

Mistake 119: Talk About Writing

29 Aug

The thing about blogging and tweeting and facebooking and all this stuff is that it breaks the cardinal rule of writing. And the cardinal rule of writing (like Fight Club) is that you don’t talk about writing.

But— NO. NO TALKING.

You see, we must imagine that every time our mind conjures up an idea for a project, an idea that it just so fucking perfect your fingers are just itching ITCHING to write it all down. There’s a lot of energy buzzing in your head and we all know that buzzing energy creates a lot of hot air that expands and expands and expands and is just BURSTING to be released. It wants to be released so bad it pushes against your teeth, wrestling your lips apart, pulling pulling pulling, and the trick is to open your mouth right above the paper.

But you know, we’re all a little addicted to our smart phones and the internet and what not and by the time our minds are buzzing to bursting, we’re most likely not above a paper — we’re above a Facebook status, or a tweet, or a blog post, or email, or even another person, and next thing you know your mouth splits open and all the hot air is released upon the world in little spurts — a tweet here, a status there, an email to an editor, a talk session with a critique group — and before you know it, all the hot air is gone and your brain is deflated like a balloon sinking. You sit down at your computer, crack your knuckles, and wait, and ask, “What the fuck?”

All the craft books, all the authors, all the people say that you should never talk about a project. Obviously.

So we don’t talk about the project. At least not openly.

No, what we do is we hint. We tweet, “New project bubbling up!” We Facebook, “Does anyone around here have a stash of medieval swords and/or other Middle Age instruments of torture? Just asking.” We blog about an outline — no outline in particular, just an outline. We email an editor and ask for a hypothetical quote of a hypothetical 90,000 word project — once again, just asking.

The hinting is just as bad as the talking. It’s our corporate loophole and it makes us bleed.

It’s tempting, god is it tempting, when you’ve got all these avenues of communication, and let’s face it, when your confidence is lower after the honeymoon phase of a new project, to reach out and hint to others, to look for support, anything to respond to your efforts and say, “Yeah! You’re doing it!”

But the thing is that even just hinting about a project, even putting a veiled idea of it out there into that wide, wide world still diminishes the possibility of that project ever becoming a reality. Because once you put out hints, once you start announcing and asking questions, there are radars up around you. We writers are a paranoid people. We are self-centered and are certain that everything we do makes the earth shift. And while they’re probably not paying any attention to us, once we put out hints of a projects to other writers, we will feel that those writers are watching us. And when they’re watching us, we start to shrivel up. And when we shrivel, the project shrivels, tinier and tinier until —————— gone.

And we never once told anyone what the project was about.

While I was on vacation, something wonderful happened: I didn’t hear/see anyone say/type a single word about writing the entire time I was gone. It was glorious. I took walks in the woods. I read books (still like a writer, but without all the pressure.) I dreamed up potential projects, thought about other projects, and just wandered around in my mind with no one else in it.

I wrote in a fucking notebook. You know how odd that is for me?

And what’s weirder — I liked it. I fucking liked writing in a notebook like I had a beret on my head or something.

And I thought — How lovely! I’m writing old school style! No internet! No buzz! Nothing to distract me, no others telling me they’ve finished their deadlines, others telling me to read their posts, others sending links of other books, other stories, other articles I should read because it’s all GOLD JERRY IT’S GOLD.

You know how hard I slept on this trip? Fucking hard. That’s how hard.

Like magic, the second I’m not surrounded by writing banter is the second my head clears and I get to actually think about things. You know, set some goals, plan some shit, get some shit done. It was quiet  and I already miss that quiet.

I’m terrible at taking my own advice. So consider this a hint.

I Got Nothing.

11 Aug

Yeah, that’s right. Nothing.

Well, I do got some things — I got a defensive driving course to take because some cop caught me in a speed trap. I got about 174939 editing projects to make headway on. I got a buttload of library work just waiting for me there. I got a book that won’t let me stop reading it. I got another book that’s fighting that book.

And I got nothing that I’ve been writing lately.

It’s true. I haven’t written a lick since August started. Well, this is not true either. I’ve written a shitload of stuff at the library. I got a few blog posts out. I’ve written some letters. But no projects which is silly because a project shouldn’t really weigh that much anyway.

I got other stuff to be thinking about. Like the fact that one of my clients got yet another piece accepted at a great publication. My friend, if you’re out there — this one’s for you. (And you know what I mean when I say “this one.”)

Or the fact that my library job is just fabulous lately. Really. Watching Sesame Street videos changes everything sometimes.

Or the fact that I’m going on vacation this next week. Starting Monday the 15th through Wednesday the 24th with all posts on hold until the 29th at the latest. That’s a long fucking time. But I think it might be absolutely necessary.

Point is, I woke up this morning with absolutely no idea what to write about on this blog. I had one post going yesterday but it was totally serious and ridiculous and I didn’t think you guys would take it. It was like… weird. So I said, “You know what, Lisa? Just stop.” So I did and here we are.

I can’t believe you’re still reading this rambling mess. That’s cool, I guess. I’m gonna go read this book and edit some shit.

::shuts door::

Mistake # 118: Overcompensation

8 Aug

When I was a young laddy in college trying to impress my English professors, I wrote a lot of big words. I took all the big words I knew and stuffed them into really long sentences that made some really fucking dramatic points. I looked at other student’s papers and saw the same phenomenon. Everyone had a massive vocabulary, mostly full of words I didn’t know while I was stuck with my favorite word — facetious. I would look at their papers and say, “Shit! I need to bone up on the GRE vocabulary,” and then get down on myself for being such a blonde ditz.

Except when I really read their papers and started listening to their answers in class (I’ll admit it; I’m a wait-to-talker more than a listener), I quickly realized that the words coming out of all of our mouths consisted of a lot of hot air. I would listen and listen and listen, and I’d think, “I have no idea what this person is talking about — they must be talking about something really smart!” Until I realized, no, they were just talking. We were all trying to impress the teacher, trying to one up each other, trying to overcompensate for the fact that we had no idea what the hell was going on in Go Down, Moses.

The same thing happened when I first started working with copywriting. I’d stare at the emails, at the market reports, at all the notes, and I’d rub my hands to my face and want to cry. I had never taken any classes in advertising. My young self at the time thought I was halfway evil for writing ads anyway, and I was totally intimidated by the woman I was working with who was only a few years older than me but unbelievably talented. Laurie would tell me to come up with 10 taglines  and pulling those ten taglines out of my ass was like pulling teeth. And as to be expected, they weren’t even good considering they came from the nether regions of fear and desperation.

I would write a complicated tagline, thinking myself real clever once I made it make sense, and Laurie would take one look at it, cut it down to size and then come up with 10 simple taglines that were clever and catchy all at once right off the top of her head — just like that.

A lot of this had to do with experience, growth, maturity and all that shit, but really, it all comes down to intimidation.

We overcompensate because we don’t think we’re smart enough. We overcompensate because we’re afraid our work won’t be accepted. We overcompensate because we want it to be better than the rest. We want so desperately to prove that we deserve a spot on the stage along with all the other people up there as well. We’re no hacks.

So we try too hard.

And what sucks about trying too hard is that it just smacks of desperation, of a desire to be in, to be one of the crowd. We can spot an overcompensator a mile away like lions searching for the weak elephant, but we can’t spot it in ourselves because no one wants to admit to being weak. That would be scary. That would be doing the wrong thing when you are actively trying to prove that you are right, goddamnit, you’re fucking right.

But we’re not always right; we’re just control freaks. And we can’t control another person’s perception of us no matter how hard we try. But we still spend our time paralyzed by fear, trying to figure out exactly what should go on that page, exactly what’s going to make the agent say yes, exactly what’s going to make the readers fall in love. We sit and sit and sit, and we come up with a really big flourishy sentence that essentially says nothing.

We pulled out so many stops on our tagline that the consumer doesn’t even know what they’re getting. We spent hours trying to dream up just the right plot twist that the whole point of the novel is thrown out because of it. We’re trying to people please when really the only person we need to please is ourselves. And it can be hard to please ourselves because we don’t trust ourselves to make the correct decision. But what’s funny is that while we can’t trust ourselves to make the correct decision, we’ll trust a complete stranger to decide whether or not we’ve done something correctly or made a good point or are smart.

Overcompensation most often rears its ugly head when you’re trying to write to or for someone else that frightens you. Whether it’s sending an email, writing a letter of introduction, creating a resume, overcompensation wiggles its way in and compels you to say more in less words, to add more here because they’re not going to be impressed yet, to be more clever, more intelligent, to be something other than yourself, because deep down, you think yourself just isn’t good enough yet.

Clear your mind. Imagine yourself pulling out all that black, negative stuff. Erase everything. Think about what you’re trying to say in the simplest possible terms. Come up with simple questions and give them simple answers written in your own voice, not the voice you think you need.

Develop your gut; trust it. And when you’re staring at a blank page totally confused, just remember it’s only a fucking page and it just needs some fucking words.

Mistake # 117: Progress

3 Aug

The other day I got an email from a writer who’s been updating me on the progress of his first series of novels. He had contacted me originally a few months ago to see about editing the first novel, when we both realized that he wasn’t quite ready for editing yet. Since then, he’s emailed a few times to let me know how things are going, that he’s not packing it in, and that things are getting done.

I love getting these emails from him. I love getting any follow up email from any writer that tells me they’re still going at it. When I read about his progress, it gets me all giddy and bubbly because I had just a tiny little part in helping him keep that train going and besides — this shit is hard!

But on the latest email I received from him, there was this peculiar sentence at the bottom. Something along the lines of, “I’ve been keeping up with your blog. Sometimes I worry that I’ll open it up and see something you should never do as a writer and it’ll be something that’s prevalent in my own work, but so far so good!”

Oh no. Oh no no no. No good.

Because really, what is this blog or any other blog or any article or essay or book anywhere? They’re just words jumbled together. Maybe the words make you feel good. Maybe they give you hope, make you feel like you’re on the right path. And maybe they don’t agree with you. Maybe they don’t validate you or make you feel important and good. Maybe they make you feel like a hack, make you feel like you’ve been doing everything wrong.

The person behind this blog is writing this blog from her perspective, on her own terms. The person behind this blog is sitting at a computer, pushing buttons until they make a message. Then she hits publish. No magic, no voice from god. Sometimes the message works, sometimes it doesn’t. Most times, it works for some and not for others all at once.

The point is, the words you read on blogs, essays, articles, writing books — they’re all just words with different agendas from different people with different experiences.

Finding an good essay on creativity is like finding a good therapist. There can be people with credentials, people that handled huge clients like stars and politicians. There can be people with the ink still wet on their degrees with no clients other than the ones they took on during graduate school. There are so many therapists to choose from and the one you think might be perfect for you usually turns out to be an asshole. And worse, it’s an asshole you believe to be correct. And still worse, you don’t just believe them to be correct about life, but correct specifically about your life.

And that’s when you regress. Because this asshole says your mother babied you when you were a kid and now you can’t cope with shit. Or this other asshole says no no, it was your father who was the problem in your childhood. He didn’t love you enough and now you feel intense insecurity. And then there’s this whole other set of assholes who say fuck those guys, your parents were great — it was actually that time in middle school when all the kids made fun of you in the locker room.

Is anyone ever really right? No. Does anyone really have authority over what works for you? No. So don’t give them that authority.

One article says you should kill all your adverbs; another says you should use them sparingly and well. One says that scene breaks are a sign of weakness; another says they’re a sign of writing prowess.

Who really gives a fuck anyway? If it works in your WIP, then it works for you. Adhering advice that seems wrong to you simply because it came from someone you believe to have “authority” can be detrimental. They’re not the right therapist for you. They’re going to set you back a few years. In the end, searching for the right therapist will be therapy in itself because for once you’ll have to get honest with yourself, like all bets off turn up the lights honest, in order to find the person who understands the real you. Not the “you” you project; the one that’s hiding down there, chained up in your stomach and waiting.

And you know, it’s funny. We all get so angry when we read a piece on creativity or writing that doesn’t set well with us. It makes us feel bad so we lash out at the writer. We throw the feelings of insecurity right back on them.

“Oh that guy? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Fuck him.”

When in reality, you didn’t know what he was talking about because it was something that didn’t work for you. It doesn’t mean the writer is wrong. And it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. But the anger, the frustration, the feeling ofsomeone here must be a hack has to be dropped. That’s an unreal feeling. That’s a gut reaction, a fight/flight reaction.

Reading articles, essays, and books on writing when you’re not sure of who you are as a writer is a lot like gambling. You’ll pick up one book that validates you, and then you’ll pick up another that makes you feel like a pile of shit. One can give you the motivation to keep writing and the other stops you in your tracks.

And really, why would you take that chance anyway? Because it’s tempting. Because you may get that little zing! to your head when you read something that agrees with you. But the zing! is temporary. It’s ephemeral. Fleeting. Fragile. And it leaves you feeling fragile when you can’t get that zing! out of every piece you read.

So fuck that zing! It means nothing. What means something is where you are this week compared to where you were last week.

What matters is the progress, good or bad.

Mistake # 116: Scenery

1 Aug

Sitting at my desk lately has been a problem. Even looking at it has made me feel a little nauseous. My appetite is curiously missing. Everything is the house is dark and wrong and back in that one corner, I can see the light of my computer glowing away.

So I go outside and sit on the swing. And miraculously, things are fine. I sit and think and wonder and I don’t feel any of that pressure I feel in the house. Out there, swinging back and forth, nothing matters.

I swear it’s because my body is in motion. When I was in high school, I used to do the typical high school thing where you’d just get in your car and drive the back streets as long as you could. I would take detour after detour through every country road imaginable, going speeds my mother would never care to hear about.

And for some reason, whenever something was bothering me — a boy situation, school shit, any other number of problems a high school girl can develop — I would concentrate on them in the car as if I were confessing to a priest. Gripping the wheel, I’d have conversations out loud with people that were bothering me, or with myself over whatever irrational thing my mind had linked on. It was as if I were in a safe place, where I could think uncomfortable thoughts and as soon as they entered my mind, they exited out the window of the car, left somewhere on a road no one knows.

But gas prices are high and there aren’t really any good roads around here. Mostly gas prices are too high. So now I sit on the swing. And I go back and forth, back and forth, while my mind goes back and forth with it wondering over money, over relationships, over life, over anything. I swing forward and gobble up a thought; I swing back and relax. Always in motion, always in motion.

I’ve been doing my plotting and wondering on the swing. I think about style, about how I can make an essay work, about what’s missing where. And the faster my physical head is moving, the easier it is to shove out the things that don’t matter. Fears. Doubts. Confusion. Anxieties. All gone with the wind whistling in between my ears.

And now I’ve become spoiled. Sitting still frightens me. I must always be moving. So this desk isn’t really conducive to work any longer. (Except for when I turn the chair in circles really fast, scream wheeee!, and get really dizzy.) I need to get out of this half-assed office and find a new place to work.

So I’ve been weeding this weekend. There are 37498378923 tiny bramble bushes growing all around our house and I’m finally doing something about it. I put my gloves on, take out my scissors and snip away until nothing is left. I pile leaves and take them around back. I’m clearing out the excess, the leftovers from last season choking out every piece of green. I should have done this in spring; now it’ll be fall again by next week. (Or so it feels.)

And as I clip away, pull things aside, rip them out of the ground, moving, moving, moving — my mind clears and suddenly I know exactly what I need to do. I write in my head, run to my desk, spit it out, and run away again.

I don’t know when my desk became such a problem for me. I don’t know when I started to hate it. But I do hate it. I hate it so much right now. I have had a lot of great thoughts at this desk, and I’ve had a lot of shit thoughts at this desk. And whenever I sit down to this desk, the shit thoughts always surface first. Like when you’ve lived somewhere long enough to let it leave a stale taste in your mouth?

That’s why I’m boycotting this desk.

Until further notice, I will be doing my writing on a swing on my front porch, or perhaps while I’m pulling the weeds.

Mistake # 115: Underbaked

28 Jul

Today I’m gonna talk about a thing that I’ve seen a lot of people talking about lately, but you know what? I’m gonna talk about it anyway. Because it’s near and dear to my heart and I’d like to add my own two cents, okay?

Okay.

You know that saying about how it takes 10,000 hours to get good enough at something before you’re proficient at it?

I love that saying. I worship that saying.

Because whenever I screw up in my writing or a piece doesn’t go over well with my critique group or I’m just feeling really dumb that day, I mentally wonder how many hours I’ve actually spent at this writing venture and I remember that my 10,000 hours are not yet completed. The little writer person in my mind is still baking in the oven and right now, she’s still cooking. She’s not done yet. I don’t know when she’ll be done; I don’t exactly have the right toothpicks for this kind of measurement.

I think back to the days when I was a sad, squishy pie dough writer who used to string together sentences like, “It was the worst day of her life,” or “She had mountains to climb,” and honestly, this makes me smile. Because DAMN, those are some bad sentences and I’ll never write them again. But at the time, I couldn’t think of anything better, even though I knew I needed something better.

The thing about being an underbaked, doughy writer is just what Ira Glass says; you got into this because you have good taste. You know what sounds and looks good and you want to do the same.

But the fact of the matter is that no one comes rolling out of their writer womb as a fully-formed genius. You may have a great idea for a story, but until you go through the act of actually putting that story together, you really have no clue what you’re doing. And you’ll put the story together once, twice, thrice, four times, five times, six times, and on and on and on, and you know what?

It’s probably still going to sound like shit.

And that’s completely 100% normal.

The first draft is always terrible. The first story is always terrible. The first novel is always terrible. It’s just the way things are. Embrace it.

This doesn’t mean that you just go ahead and vomit out a first draft because hey! it’s a first draft. You still have to take the time to write the best first draft of the best first novel as well as you can. You have to make active decisions. You still have to try and cry.

And when you’ve tried your best and given it your all, you have to have the objectivity and sensibility to realize that in ten more drafts this first attempt is going to be a sad, silly drop in the bucket of where you could potentially go.Imagine that in ten more drafts, you’ll piss your pants laughing at how terrible the first attempt was. You’ll even be a little embarrassed (probably because you pissed your pants.) But only if you realize that the first, second, and third drafts are not stopping points.

You know those idols out there, the people we so want to be, those we admire so fully? They suffered for their work. And I know that sounds kinda silly, so oh, poor little writer-y. But it’s true.

Behind all of those beautiful, pristine stories, novels, books, and portfolios is a lot of self-doubt, self-loathing, and blood, sweat, and tears. There are hours of frustration, of anxieties, of despair, of time spent writing a draft they knew would end up completely torn apart and rewritten while their kids and loved ones went out for dinner and movies. There’s a lot of loneliness, a lot of time spent mired in their own judging minds. There’s a lot of their life that feels wasted and unlived. And that’s not counting what they went through after receiving rejections, after feeling laughed at, after enduring feedback that was harsh but true.

Sending early drafts out on submission undermines the hard work of your idols, and honestly, it undermines your future self.

Remember those awful middle school years where your hair was frizzy and you were all baby fat and maybe you had braces and glasses and PIMPLES? That’s a first draft of you. And that’s not how you want to be defined. So why put your manuscript on the chopping block as a helpless, hopeless middle-schooler? That’s just cruel, y’all. CRUEL.

You deserve more. You deserve more from yourself.

When someone reads your piece, they should be able to look at it as a war veteran, not as a naive teenager. They should see it stoic and ripe with age.

Because like any teenager who pretends to be older than she actually is, the second she opens her mouth to speak is the exact moment everyone knows her age. And every time a piece is sent out on submission, the author is giving that piece the authority to speak loud and clear.

So how do we know when our writing is perfectly cooked?

Like I said, I don’t have toothpicks for this kind of measurement so I really don’t know. While I feel pretty confident writing personal essays, I’m still mired in sticky, gooey problems when it comes to my own fiction. It’s just not there yet. And no one really tells me this — it’s just something I can feel.

But here’s one thing: Finish your work and finish it well. Send it to your critique group. Have a beta reader read it. If the feedback you’ve received feels like your heart got ripped out of your ass, but this doesn’t stop you from rewriting the entire piece?

Consider yourself on the path to being a well-cooked writer.

Mistake # 114: Proof

27 Jul

There comes a point in every writer’s life where they finally stop dreaming of writing and actually write something. And as soon as they write that something, they want someone with “authority” to read it and tell them if it’s any good.

Actually, the most used phrase is “Tell me if I’m wasting my time.”

They send their work outwardly asking for an opinion and inwardly pleading to be legitimized.

Tell me I’m good enough. Tell me I’ll get published one day. Tell me I’m a writer.

When someone emails me essentially asking this very question, I respond the same way my elders responded when I sent them work and asked them whether or not I was wasting my time:

No one can tell you whether or not you’re wasting your time. You have to tell yourself.

There’s no magic moment when you feel “real” as a writer, no time when you just know you’re doing well.

90% of being a writer is feeling like shit about it; about whether or not you suck, whether or not you’re wasting your time, whether or not you’re offending people, whether or not you’re making a fool of yourself.

This feeling doesn’t go away. It doesn’t magically disappear. I still wonder this about myself even though people laugh and ask why I would ever wonder something like that in the first place. Nothing anyone says will ever make you feel 100% legit. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll over-analyze every nice statement until there’s nothing left. You’ll find a way to undermine every legitimization.

Oh, that person was just being nice. They just gave me this job because all the other candidates found better positions. He just doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.

My search for proof came in the form of writing jobs. I’d already made the mistake of having a professor read my early shit and tell me it was … well… shit. So instead I went out searching for jobs that required me to write. Because if I was getting a paycheck, I’d certainly be for real, right?

I worked as a “music journalist” where I got paid a laughable $8 to write 250 to 500 word online article about random fledgling bands. I got a job as an “editor” at a phonebook publishing company where I “edited” (read: double-checked) telemarketer-collected contact information to make sure the info we had was actually correct and the names were spelled right. I freelanced writing ads and emails for a family friend and got a job as a junior copywriter for an insanely talented freelancer in Dallas.

And did these jobs ever give me the proof I needed that I was for real?

No.

In fact, my plan backfired and all the writing I was required to do at work made me hate writing at home. I didn’t feel legit. I felt burned out and lazy all at the same time.

So how do we find that proof we so desperately need?

Stop looking for it. Just stop. Because no one is going to give it to you. Not your professors, not your critique group, not your bosses, not even a lit journal acceptance.

Asking someone whether or not you should continue perfecting your writing is like asking a guidance counselor whether you should be a doctor or a lawyer. All they’ll do is look at you blankly and ask you which classes you enjoyed the most while checking their watch.

As with everything in life, there are no guarantees or easy answers. One person may love your work; another may hate it. It just depends. Which is why whether or not you should continue writing depends on whether or not you can handle not knowing.

Here’s my motto:

Detach like Buddha and do whatever the fuck you want.

Mistake # 113: Force Your Niche

25 Jul

You guys want to hear a funny story?

Okay, here it is:

When I went to college, I started reading short stories. I had the good fortune of taking a class with a brilliant professor (the same professor who would later break my heart and tell me that my stories were terrible) who loved the art of the short story as much as I did.

I sat smack dab in the front center of the classroom, right in front of his desk, and if I covered my ears and ignored everyone else (which I frequently did because I was the typical, snobbish, English student), I could imagine that it was only me and him in the room, talking blissfully about Raymond Carver’s cathedrals and Hemingway’s clean, well-lighted cafes.

I loved these simple but rich stories. I loved the thoughts they made stampede through my mind. That whole year, I went through an intense creative development that matured my mind, made me think about everything in a completely different light, and forced to read more analytically than I ever had before, and I attribute it all to that class, that teacher and those stories.

From that point on, I was hooked. I wanted to write short stories just like those. Nothing else would suffice.

But of course, short stories don’t sell (at least that’s what I was told), and what I really wanted was a book-length work. So the goal was to either write a novel as tight and powerful as those short stories, or write a book of short stories deep, strong, and memorable enough to win a hell of an award.

Like I said — snobbish.

So I wrote. And I sweat. And I stuffed a lot of shit into a folder labeled “Scary.” A lot of drafts and days went by and nothing ever got finished. I cried a lot. Sometimes it was torture sitting at my desk, extracting words like stitches from my mouth. I did this thing where I could write a great first paragraph describing a wonderful character, but as soon as my character had to do something, it was like he was up shit creek and he didn’t even know what a paddle looked like.

There were a lot of casualties. And casualties and tears and frustration were all a daily part of my writing life.

Every once in a while, a shiny idea would pop into my head, something that involved humor, or was lighthearted, or would be heavily written in the voice that appears on this blog (my personal one.) These ideas would waltz in and I’d rush them right back out. Maybe I’d entertain some of them just for a little while — but they just weren’t bold enough, big enough, or (the worst one) seriousenough.

Sure, I like being funny just as much as the next guy. But if I was going to go gung ho with a project and send it to agents and try to introduce myself properly onto the scene with it, I wanted it to be the thing people would know me for. And I wanted people to know me for intense, probing fiction that gave you shivers and made you question yourself.

Now let’s stop here and consider how ridiculous this all is.

1) I like being funny.

2) I’ve read funny fiction, non-fiction, and memoirs that have made me me shiver and question myself.

3) The voice on this blog comes easy and still gets the job done (or so I’m told.)

So why am I not writing something funny? Why do I insist on only writing something serious as if anything else I write wouldn’t be taken seriously?

Shit, y’all! I don’t know! I write funny, irreverent shit on this blog every week and every week someone tells me that it’s gold. (YOU ARE ALL LYING TO ME, AREN’T YOU?) And I enjoy writing this funny, irreverent shit. I enjoy writing funny, irreverent personal essays. I’ve got two fun projects on my plate, one of which is an intense, probing novel and the other of which is a highly irreverent personal memoir. Guess which one I love working on more? Guess which one I actually look forward to working on?

And I feel like I hear this sentiment echoed frequently. Someone really wants to make a career as an adult fiction novelist — but can’t help it if middle grade novels come rushing in more often than not. Someone else wants to write really scary, bloodthirsty horror novels — but instead, all their best ideas are chick lit romances. Even Stephen King, who loves his horror genre, wanted to write something serious and literary. But he didn’t. Fr him, horror is serious and literary because he makes it so. He took his natural niche and turned it into gold, pure, historic, literary gold.

Life’s too short to force yourself into a certain niche. Sure, you may love one genre and read it constantly. But what exits your fingers is what exits your fingers. And frankly, we really can’t control internal excitement over certain projects. No matter how cool I think my serious novel is or how badly I want to complete it and send it out — it’s not the same excitement I feel over my funny project. I’m not faking it with the funny one. We’re actually in love and we’re going to get married, y’all! We’re going to elope!

I’ve stood in my own way long enough. If I want to write funny, then I’m going to write funny, love every second of it, and drop the guilt at the door.

What have you always wanted to write but told yourself you shouldn’t? Or am I the only guilt-ridden, anxiety-driven insane person that has this problem?