What kind of writer are you, and what do you have to change or improve to be where you want to be?
Wherever you are in your writing career, self-reflection and the ability to change course is always a useful vehicle for improvement. I ran across some notes I’d written to myself a few years, lifted and repurposed from an ACT therapist’s manual about the different categorizations of therapists. The manual asked the reader to imagine that choosing which category they wanted to be in (Good, Very Good, or Excellent) was as easy as selecting items off a menu. Everyone has intrinsic ideas of what category they are in, and which category they want to be in. I decided to repurpose this idea for my own profession – writing.”
When the dream meets reality, you have to deal with real problems that the dream could never actualize. Many days I romanticized about being able to spend all my time writing, living in a solipsistic wonderland inside my brain, sipping coffee and vodka while I wore turtlenecks and a disdain of all worldly things. But right now I’m on about year four of a long-term writer burnout, a time in which I often wondered exactly why I was writing when seemingly most of the joy had been sucked out of it for years. Since I was 19 years old I’d been writing daily, with hardly any breaks except to work to earn money or to practice being miserable. “Real writers write every day,” I told myself, and so that became a chain around my neck that I used to hang myself.
There will always come a moment when the joy of discovering a new artistic medium (I.E, writing) is eclipsed by the fear of not being good enough.
The amount of courage required for a task does not necessarily equate to an equal amount of compensation, success, or satisfaction.
You are right to be afraid of the writing life. It is lonely and often without prestige. The amount of time and effort put into improving your writing or creating a work of writing is rarely rewarded with a satisfactory amount of praise or money. But at the same time, if you’re a writer and you’re reading this, this probably isn’t a deterrent to you. You probably understand that the reward of the writing life isn’t in the reward, it’s in the thing itself. The reward is in the moments alone when the words flow outward and inward, connecting you to the entire universe.
Nobody wants to pay you what you’re worth. For anything. Ever.
You don’t get into the business of writing because you wanted a quick way to make some cash. If so, day trading and prostitution would have been much more viable options. But you wanted to write, because it seemed like happiness was the most viable option and money wasn’t necessarily the way to achieve that. But like every other human being currently living in a Capitalist society, you need money to pay your rent and maybe enough to go to the hospital if you need your appendix removed. Anyone can start up a magazine, and even without offering any pay they usually have writers clamoring to submit and have their name in a byline.
I haven’t written anything in nearly two weeks. I needed to take a break, but sometimes even when I feel like I don’t have the energy to write the engines keep burning. It makes it difficult to accomplish the goal of relaxation when you’re ready to spring at any time. I could sit down with a beer and a pizza and watch “Rich Kids of Instagram” on youtube to try to relax, but my shoulders would feel the tension of work unfinished and when I pressed my thighs together I’d feel the roughness of a match ready to ignite. Then I’d dream of upheaval, the hours would go by as I “relaxed” and then I’d haul my body as it smoked to my computer, to feel I was even more tired than I was before.
For one of my essays I wrote for my UT admissions (I did get accepted, by the way, but California called to me instead) I wrote about how important it was to have playtime, not just in a philosophical sense, or that it’s “nice to take care of yourself”, but because of mental processes that are taking place when the brain is disengaged from its task. Something called the default mode network, which is only active when you’re not focused, solidifies memory and enhances creativity. It’s not noble to work yourself to death, it’s inherently foolish. Think of the brain as bicameral, bifurcated. It needs dreams and waking, night and day, elation and sadness, stress and relaxation.
It’s easy to forget, that every process is purposeful.
Even the ones we don’t want.
Sometimes I wake and cling to a cup of coffee because I feel like if I don’t have something to hold onto, I’ll be thrown off the Earth.
Some days there is no center to me.
I drink gin and brush my hair and I try to force the Californian sunlight to make me into something better than myself.
Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of state, coined the phrase “Unknown unknowns.” There are known unknowns, things we don’t know, and unknown unknowns, things we don’t even know that we don’t know.
I know that I could improve upon my Spanish, I know that I write too much about crazy mothers and small-town prophets, I know that I panic and freeze in moments of crisis, I can snap at people I love when I feel irritable, I don’t take enough time to appreciate consciousness.
I can work on these things, because I know that they’re there.
But I also know there’s a dark side I can’t yet comprehend just behind me, something mysterious, a void glinting in the shape of my shadow.
And that -thing- whatever it is, might be crucial to the years coming forward.
Except, I don’t know what it is.
That’s where the default mode network becomes crucial. It fills in blank gaps, makes connections that you cannot while you’re stuck staring intensely at a problem.
I know that once I started actually searching for the answers then I found them – epiphany upon epiphany unearthed themselves, like a shower of rainbows that came bursting from my dirty clawing fingernails. Even when I’m not working, the subconsciousness is set upon the answers. There are things I know now that a year ago would have been incomprehensible to me, that if someone had explained them to me I wouldn’t have understood, not until I felt their shape.
I think one of the most difficult things to write about is a character experiencing epiphany. Knowing something you didn’t know before, because all the pieces that you’ve acquired throughout the time before have suddenly converged into a full understanding. Written poorly, it can seem like magic, like the writer trying to force a plot point forward, shoving the character through a hole in the pages. That’s because epiphany isn’t really a conscious process. It’s something underwater and deep, but still, crucial to our understanding.
But oftentimes, it’s really the only way to learn – great effort yielding nothing but dirt and more dirt, and then suddenly-
Jewels and blood, showering you with resplendence, gnosis.
I want to learn how to write about that moment. I think it’s one of the most beautiful human experiences.
And I want more of it for myself.
To turn the unknown unknowns at least into known unknowns. That’s all I’m asking for now.
Tomorrow I go back to write, back to the page with all its mysterious terrors, turning over stones. The perpetual questing machine. Maybe it will yield nothing – but searching always has a way of turning up more answers than inertia – doesn’t it?i
Someone told me a few days ago that they thought happiness was a form of self-delusion, or at least was heavily leaning toward that idea. (He’ll know who he is when he reads this, but I don’t think he’ll mind.) I used to think that was a valid idea, and I’ve seen it repeated often enough. If I have to be honest it made me feel smug and self-satisfied in my unhappiness. If, after all, my unhappiness was a result of my intelligence and inability to deceive myself to the cruelty of the world, then I couldn’t be blamed for my inaction or the ways in which I perpetuated my own misery.
The execution of happiness can be extraordinarily complicated, but the premise is simple: Find things that make you happy, and do things that make you happy, and happiness will result.
Not what other people say will make you happy. Not what you -feel- should make you happy. Not what’s easy, and not what’s right. But what will legitimately, assuredly, speak to the little creature that rests in your heart, and stirs at the sight of something wonderful.
There are children starving in this city and if you stab me I will die, but sometimes my boyfriend will get me Redbull and smile at me and I know what it feels like to be warm between two sleeping puppies.
If nothing makes you happy, then it’s not because you’re just so intelligent that you see too much. It is a processing problem. Plain and simple. If you go out to eat your favorite meal and someone is rude to you in the parking lot or someone is talking too loud and that ruins your whole experience – That’s not being smart enough to see the world for what it really is. That’s being stupid enough to focus on an aspect of something that makes you unhappy instead of the fact that you just ate something you enjoyed.
If I look at my dog and instead of seeing how much he makes me happy in that moment and instead, I see the moment when he dies or worry about him getting sick or focus on how he smells weird – I’m not being smart – that’s a fundamental processing problem. That’s an INABILITY to focus.
Maybe that’s why I’ve had so much trouble reading and writing horror lately. Some people write about ugliness like it’s revealing is a profound thing, but I want to write about more than ugliness, or the supposed evil inherent in all men, or how everything beautiful carries a little dark seed of dissent. We know people murder. We know people beat their wives. That tells me nothing profound about the world we live in or why any of it matters.
I get that terrible and sad things happen – and they should make us feel sad. That is good and proper.
But wonderful and good things happen as well – and they should make us happy. That is good and proper as well.
If a sunset or a cup of coffee doesn’t inspire a flutter of appreciation at being alive, that isn’t because the world is inadequate. It’s because you’re just not looking at it.
In order to be a writer, one must build a life that is conducive to writing.
For most of my life I found scraps of time to write, moments of soft isolation inbetween work, relationships, the everyday minutiae. I wrote pieces of The Crooked God Machine on the bathroom floor of an apartment, parts of We are Wormwood when I was a video game tester at Zynga. But as time went on, writing kept getting pushed further and further back in priority, and I stopped submitting, stopped promoting myself. Everything I wrote felt muted, flat, like I was forcing each word through a little keyhole.
I arrived back in Austin in 2014 feeling broken. I never thought I could reach a point where I felt drained of all creative energy – it seemed impossible to me to feel burn out, so I never treated the possibility with the respect that I deserved. Here I was, coming off of my antidepressants, feeling zapped, bewildered. I was angry, and I wanted to murder people for existing in my space on planet Earth. And all of that directed energy was not going into writing. So when I came to the page, nothing felt genuine. It was like I was a sleepwalker, going through familiar motions.
I wondered for a long time if I just didn’t want to write anymore.
But it’s easy to ignore all the work I put in, throughout my life, to prime my brain to be productive. And how such a machine may run for quite a long time, but without maintenance or proper care, would eventually break down.
Writing is a full time job. The work doesn’t happen once you arrive at the page – it starts from the moment you wake up, and has to carry itself with you throughout the day. The brain has to be working on these problems constantly. You have to synthesize your experiences, test creative problems. Writing is a record of sensory data, distilled into stories. If you don’t do the prerequisite work, to understand and analyze your experiences and what you want to convey – you may have nothing
I think a lot these days about how to create for myself a life that would best enable me to accomplish my goals. For the last several years, I’ve struggled to find a cadence with my writing, and I’ve tried to understand how I want it to define me, and how I want to approach it.
Now I have the time and the freedom to build something wonderful, but building something takes time.
I want to taste books like big meals, and make big meals to taste the universe. And I want to refine, test, and experience more of the world so I can bring that knowledge back to my quiet room. Not to get back to where I was post burnout, but to make something even more wonderful. A beautiful infrastructure, in which I can live, and write. I’m already seeing flowers growing along the back of my spine