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.
Note: You can read the first part of the series here.
The woman writer was, for most of human history, a novelty. For every Sappho, Enheduanna, or George Sands, there were scores of men writing and defining our history and our culture. It’s not difficult to see why women did not have the same opportunities to become writers: For much of civilization, women were treated as either pretty chattel, nursemaids, wives who were enslaved to their husbands, or were expected to give up their person hood to bear children. In essence, sub-human. Unless they were prostitutes or rural workers, women were not expected to work in business. They were often confined to the home, having nothing but their children and husband and the occasional family member or social visit to define their worlds. Women who managed to be writers often had to be affluent enough to have the time and education to be given the space to write. Only a few woman, in comparison to their male counterparts, managed to achieve this with the restrictions they had on their person throughout our human history.
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.
I think if I could give my younger self advice that I probably wouldn’t listen to it would be to actually learn to enjoy life. Which when said out loud seems silly and self-evident. But I spent a lot of time refusing to do anything that would sway me from the goals that I had (I remember becoming furious at a boy in college for wanting to spend time with me, because it was taking time away from writing), unaware of the reason for why I was doing such things, or that refusing to take a break would burn out the enjoyment for anything.
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.
It’s difficult to be human, but we all have very important jobs perpetuating the human race, and making ourselves better to contribute to the betterment of all humankind and ultimately the universe, probably shouldn’t be an easy job. Whether you’re a corporate executive, a coal-miner, or a kid who dropped out of college so he can fish all day and roleplay a werewolf on an IRC channel at night, it doesn’t matter. Your task is still critical – be human.
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
The act of writing day to day is such an isolating experience. I rarely leave my little den except to take my puppies to the park, or maybe go to the grocery store to pick up more chicken jerky and k-cups. Mostly I enjoy my quiet. It gives me the focus to take the everyday deep-dives into the snarled web of my consciousness, and occasionally bring back something useful. But it can also be derealizing – you can lose touch with reality, with the idea that what you’re doing has any use or value. Live too long in a dream, and the dream begins to warp you.
The moments when you can actually see the effect that your writing has on the outside world are rare. Going into a reading and meeting with other writers often seems to give me shellshock. Everything is actualized and real. You get to see the writers themselves, projecting forth the creations they made inside their isolated neurological soup. This past Friday I was asked to participate in Laura Lee Bahr’s “Bahr Crawl,” in which she travels across the country taking part in readings with other bizarro authors.
I read an except from my short story, Skin Suits, which will be out this year in A Breath from The Sky from Martian Migraine Press. You can see my transformation – from the protagonist in black, to the suit of “Sara” in the blue fur. I hadn’t really practiced my transition – so I think there were a few seconds where everyone thought I was stripping in the middle of my reading. Gabino Iglesias said he thought I’d finally snapped.
Laura read from her short story collection Angel Meat, out from Fungasm Press this year. Everytime I step into a room with Laura, she seems to make the air brighter. She’s radiant and vulnerable and open. I think the cover of her new collection manages to accurately capture her likeness
I write a lot about transformations – women turning into butterflies, into glorious skin-filleted vampires, into robots that carry their memories through hollow unconscious wastelands. I don’t think I’ve written a single narrator in a novel that hasn’t carried a wound that begins to warp them, or travels on a journey that fills their mouth with the blood that begins to redefine them.
And now I’m transforming too – not in the way that I always imagined I would, abruptly, immediately, with the tearing of skin, like a howl ripping through the center of a tornado, or some kind of eucharist machine. My transformation is deliberate. It’s purposeful. I change with a heaviness that feels like everyday I roll out of bed so that I can walk miles across a windswept desert.
But there are things happening in this transformation that I’m not aware of. The human brain has a processing power of about 30 quadrillion calculations per second. For reference, in 2011, the K computer built by German and Japanese scientists to attempt to mimic the human brain, with over 83,000 processors, was only able to mimic one percent of one second of the human brain’s capability – and that took 40 minutes.
It’s easy to forget how extraordinary complex we are, how even the most simple of actions is a glorious culmination of millions of years of synaptic music. There is a lot going on under the surface that we’re unaware of. Subconsciousness, underwater processes, that shift and move the pieces of us around to accommodate a whole shape.
When the werewolf transforms, it does not deliberately and with conscious effort control the new homeostasis of its body, or its newfound hunger for human flesh. Its brain and body shift to eaccommodate its new skin in ways that it’ll never really understand.
Every deliberate action has an unquantifiable amount of data and pathways that was made to get to that action, and the ways in which it transforms the entire system may never be completely known.
I was talking about shame today. Specifically, shame that is used as a motivation to compel action. For years I’d get myself out of bed by calling myself lazy and useless. I’d whip myself mentally to write. And if I did something, but didn’t find it to my satisfaction. I’d castigate myself, say that I was worthless. I thought it was fine. I was getting the results I wanted, or so I thought, so I surmised it didn’t matter how I achieved them. I worked on the video games, I wrote the books, I got the money, the boy, the job offer, the contract, the invite, another motion, another circle, another check-box, another day in which I survived hurtling around the sun without falling off the side of the planet.
I even shamed myself out of not killing myself – calling myself weak and worthless for even thinking that it was an option. So I’d hunch over my laptop in a cafe, drinking an americano, trying to force myself to keep working on my novel, to keep going, clinging to my coffee like it was the only thing keeping me grounded to reality.
To this day sometimes when I smell an americano I’ll get this bitter sharp Pavlovian thought of suicide.
In today’s culture, self-hatred is an acceptable vehicle of growth. Just yesterday on Facebook someone deridedly made fun of women who “loved themselves,” and took duck-faced selfies, indicating that self-love was some kind of character flaw. And it does often seem a little self-indulgent, a little unaware, for people to take pride in themselves. We’re still under the Puritanical influence of our ancestors, and it’s sinful to be prideful in our bodies that are the objects of such sloth and indignities. So we often look down on self-love, without even really understanding why, and so perpetuate this cycle of self-flagellation.
So result of those years of shame-induced movement was that when I achieved something, I never got the satisfied feeling that I was expecting. I feel dull, empty, hollowed-out, looking onward to my next goal with glazed-over eyes. No matter how much I achieved, the internal voice was still whipping me as it screamed into my ear.
Because I’d used shame to try to achieve growth, I was operating under the idea that whenever I achieved something, I shouldn’t be proud of myself, I should be ashamed for not achieving it faster. I was working on the karmic balance of my evil birth – no tabula rasa for me – and every achievement, every good thing I ever did, was only trying to tip the scales toward achieving balance.
Everything we do is important. Not just what we do, but why we do it, and the processes that we use to motivate ourselves. Because everything in the machine is constantly working to achieve internal balance. The consequences of what we do today, may not be seen until years later.
But if you think those things are not reverberating through you right now – building the frequency of dreams – you’re wrong.
In my transformation, I begin to shed the body that hate itself. I can’t quite conceive what the thing underneath looks like, but it’s building itself toward achieving a new kind of efficacy.
Slime, and werewolf blood, and something coiled that glitters. I’ve been writing about this moment for years.
Sometimes I sit for hours inside myself- listening to Chopin or Dvorak or Massive Attack. I look at the trees outside, or the pretty girls on Youtube, and in the spaces between the notes, I begin to hear something. It’s difficult to describe what I hear, because, it’s not a sound, not exactly.
It’s a new way to live. My mind, learning a new rhythm, shifting synaptic waves to build an ocean of gold blood inside of me. An ocean that will carry me through worlds yet unknown.
Because everything we do is transforming us, in every moment, in every space. How we think, feel, breathe cascades into every future moment. Every motion we take, is building us a scaffold down into hell.