Writing is Hard

(I wrote the following in November of 2013 with no intention of publishing it. However in looking at it now, I realize that this might be of some interest to a few of my readers.)

I have one and only one cure for writer’s block. Sometimes it will take me a while to realize I even have writer’s block. I like to mull things over in my head a lot before I write them, so I can easily stare at a screen for awhile without being truly blocked. But occasionally I will find myself staring off away from the screen after having sat in front of the computer for several minutes. I’m not thinking about writing anymore because whatever I’m trying to write isn’t working. So my brain goes off in other directions. What’s funny is that I am still writing during these times, I’m just writing off-task. Rather than mulling over the thing I need to work on, I’m mulling over what makes a person good at cleaning or how television transitioned away from the single-season-with-summer-break schedule. I write dialogs of imagined conversations I wished I would have had with people I was previously angry with. I imagine how I might introduce myself were I to become a Wall Street consultant, or the many things I would say to congress were I ever given the chance. These are tiny, separate essays that I write in my brain all the time. I have no where to put them, which is why I continue to mull instead. And they are the things I escape to when writing isn’t happening.

After an unknown period of staring into space while I write one of these lost essays, I realize that I must be stuck. There is a block between what I know I must accomplish and the act of accomplishing it. And that’s when I employ the only means I have of getting unstuck from this particular problem. I write about why I can’t write.

It may go something like this: say I want to tell a story about someone close to me, but I’m afraid of casting them in an unfair light. I know I don’t think poorly of them, but I worry that I won’t have the craft to convey the facts in a way that remains both true and positive. And I get stuck. I try to think through my writing and I can only think of explanations that are unfair to my friend. I may not realize this unfairness is why all the words sound wrong, I just know they do. And so I begin to type out my reasoning. I drop whatever voice I’m using, I ignore any sense of time or space. I start typing as though I am directly addressing the page, and therefore the problem. And I usually can’t get through more than two paragraphs before the problem is solved. Either I have eased myself into the problem and started on the path towards my intended topic, or I have stumbled upon something even more interesting to write about. Either way I am writing. When I am done I typically go back and trash those first two paragraphs and, like magic, my story starts exactly where it ought to.

Writing through the problem is in fact what I am doing right now. The thing you are currently reading is an example of me getting over writer’s block. It’s National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. The goal is to finish a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days. I did it last year and had a lot of fun. Since I still have a lot of trip to write about, I decided this year I would make my 50,000 words go towards getting the rest of the journey down on paper. This means that rather than writing a blog post every other day, I have to write 1-2 posts every day, depending on their length. It’s tiresome and difficult to do NaNo anyway, but I’ve managed to back myself into an especially difficult corner: I’m not allowed to suck.

That’s the phrase: Allow Yourself to Suck. I credit Mur Laugherty with those exact words, but the sentiment is true for everyone during NaNo. Your goal is to get a lot of words down on paper. Not all of those words will be great. It doesn’t matter. Editing is for December. For now you must keep writing.

But I can’t wait until December. I need to produce 13 fully edited posts before November is over. And considering it often takes me as long to edit a post as it does to write it, and considering many of my blogs have gone over the 1,667 words needed per day for NaNo, I have been writing with a NaNo-level time commitment for FIVE MONTHS. And for four of those months I was also trying to figure out where I was going to sleep every night.

I know there are professional writers who will easily crank out 4,000-10,000 words a day all the time. But I am not there yet, and as I understand it that kind of production takes many people years to reach. And so I’m left with my only recourse, my only solution. I write out my problems. Perhaps tomorrow I will be able to get back on track. Maybe I’ll have to write through some more problems first. But for now, I can clock the rough draft of this post at 864 words, which brings me over the edge for how much I needed to write today. It’s a long way to December. But it was a long way across the country and back. And just like hiking up the Grand Canyon or driving through Oklahoma farmland, sometimes forward is the only direction. Walk, walk. Drive, drive.

Write. Write.

_________________

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The Anderson Center

I wasn’t sure I belonged in the Anderson Center. I’d read about it on one of my National Geographic road trips. The site described it as “A writers’ and artists’ retreat that has a small but worthwhile collection of paintings by Warhol, Man Ray, Matisse, and more.” It sounded vaguely interesting and I had some time to kill on my way up to Minneapolis, so I decided to stop in.

Chair ArtIt took a while to find the front door. I accidentally turned into the wrong lot and wasted a few minutes wandering around the outdoor sculpture garden. Had the heat been more forgiving or the track a bit shorter, I might have walked the whole path to see all the art. I certainly liked what I did see. Abstract sculpture tends to be pretty hit or miss with me, but the stuff at the Anderson Center was thoughtful and interesting. I snapped a few photos of the outdoor pieces before the temperature got the better of me and I made my way to the main parking lot.

The Anderson Center is a complex of several attached buildings. Some of the doors were locked, but not all of them. Some of the lights were off, but the sun was bright in the windows. Once or twice I saw a person, and briefly considered hiding. There was every indication that the public was allowed to be there, yet it wasn’t especially inviting at the moment. I was afraid if I was seen I might be asked to leave. When I was spotted, I tried to look as confident as possible. It was clear that the people walking the halls were artists, and I felt sure that they wouldn’t all know each other. I suppose I was under some ridiculous impression that I didn’t look like a complete tourist.

White WallsI started with the gallery spaces – the rooms clearly intended for outsiders. I moved into the halls, which were functional yet still dotted with sculpture and paintings. Then I started to see the signs. “More art downstairs” they proclaimed in colorful, hand-painted script. I found myself in empty workshops, much like the River Arts District in Asheville, NC. The whole building still felt unfinished, with boiler pipes running along the ceiling and cement under the hodgepodge of rugs. I turned a corner and found myself staring at a solid white door, painted over with line after line of Biblical scripture. I walked through it and found more scripture, painted on every wall like the scene from a movie where we meet the madman. I kept looking over my shoulder. Surely I was not welcome in this very private space.

Water TowerBack outside I set my eyes on a freestanding water tower. There was a door at the bottom, and on a whim I reached for the knob. While plenty of doors had been open in the center, it felt especially strange for this one to be unlocked. A person shouldn’t be allowed to simply wander up into a tower. It feels too dangerous for a litigious society like ours. Just inside the door was a long, spiral staircase that led up to the top. Like the rest of the center, it was dark inside. I couldn’t resist.

There’s something inherently dramatic about a spiral staircase. No one ever felt comfortable going up or down a spiral staircase. The triangle shapes of the stairs puts one instantly off ease. Not only is one altering altitude (a dangerous endeavor in its own right), but there isn’t even the stability of equal footing for each leg. One doesn’t casually walk on a spiral staircase – one does it with purpose.

At the top of the tower I walked through a door and the disconcerting blackness gave way to sunlight. It poured in from all sides. Outside the perfectly round room was a balcony for taking in the view. Inside the room was a large table with a single chair. There were papers everywhere, organized in neat stacks with unknown rhyme and reason. Some were on the table, others were on a nearby bench. I recognized the scene instantly. This was a writing room.

Table and CeilingApart from the table and chair, the room was beautiful but sparse. There was a sink and a fan and not much else in the way of furniture. The ceiling was painted like the night sky, and the floor was a rich, dark wood. To me it was heaven on earth. Such simplicity, such privacy, such dedication. Whoever this writer was, she never stumbled on to her work day, and she didn’t get “accidentally distracted” from it either. She climbed up to the top of the water tower on those dark and dramatic stairs. She looked out her window and no one was on her level. Standing alone in the writing room, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of permitting I’d need to install a water tower within the Seattle city limits.

Some time ago I applied to a local writer’s retreat made especially for women. Participants would have a week or more in the island retreat center, far away from hummanity. The point was to be in nature, to have your meals cooked for you from the on-site garden, and to have an entire week of uninterrupted time to focus on your work. I was sure it was what I needed to write my next play. I hadn’t had such a retreat when I wrote my first play, but somehow I had convinced myself that I required solitude in order to write the second one. My application was rejected.

Sky CeilingIt’s true that art needs to be nurtured, it needs to be cultivated. Places like the Anderson Center are important because they remind us that if we don’t work for it, art won’t happen. At the same time, we have to be careful as artists not to assume that without an Anderson Center, art can’t be made. Perhaps less will get done. Perhaps it will be more difficult. But it can still happen. That same day in Minnesota, long before I stumbled upon my dream writing tower, I had managed to write all on my own. I had managed to write while sitting in a cafe in a rather unremarkable town an hour south. In the days before, I had managed to write while sitting in someone’s guest room, and while crammed in my car hoping the rain would stop. I’ve managed to write late at night and early in the morning. I went through five Starbucks gift cards to get my trip posts out on time. And these days I write in my home at the same little computer I had on my travels, just with a bigger monitor and full keyboard. I hem and haw about writing and editing a lot, but I still manage to get it done. By the time these trip posts are finished, I will have managed to get it done for more than a year.

And I didn’t even have my own water tower.

A Real Writer

Library FountainA strange thing happened while I was visiting Boston. Regular readers of this blog will know that these posts are no longer in real-time, and that by the time you read about an adventure here, I have long since moved on from it in the real world. This means that I was in Boston the day I published my post on the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.

Occasionally I will get nervous before publishing. There are lots of reasons for this. Sometimes I worry that I’m making too bold a statement, and that perhaps I haven’t thought it through enough first. I worry that people will read it and instantly point out all the holes in my argument I never considered. The WBC post was my first big post of this nature, my first post to really make an argument. It was also about a very controversial subject. A subject that inspires the worst in people. And I was suggesting a position I hadn’t heard put forth by anyone else. I was very worried.

Words and PhrasesBecause I almost always publish between 7AM and 8AM Pacific Standard Time, the post didn’t show up until after 10AM in Boston. By then I was on my way to the Boston Public Library near Copley Square. I had been told by friends that the library was worth checking out, and I found it to be a large and lovely place in which to get lost. After wandering in and out of the hallways for some time, I made it my mission to find the rare books section. It was somewhere up on the third floor and in a corner. I went back and forth, up and down. Not all of the elevators reached all of the floors. Not all of the floors were continuous. As I walked I started to wonder how people were reacting to my post. I finally reached the reading area right in front of the rare books section and pulled out my phone to check the responses on Facebook. A few of my friends had hit the Like button. Whew. At least I wasn’t completely crazy.

PuppetsThere were different levels of rare to the rare books section. The first seemed to be books that were generally interesting and old, but not fragile. The room wasn’t remarkably different than others in the building. Off to the side was a collection of old marionettes in glass cases. To get to the next section, I had to go through through a glass door. This was no ordinary door. It was the sort that seals completely when closed in order to maintain the temperature of the room behind it. This was the main section of rare books. The lighting was very dim. A woman was seated at a desk, explaining in whispers what they had in their catalog to a pair of patrons. Everything was delicate. Everything was unusual. They were featuring works by Daniel Defoe, including first editions of Robinson Crusoe from 1719. Behind another glass door was a third room, but this one was available by appointment only, and only to researchers. You couldn’t casually look at the books in that room. You had to prove yourself first.

I left the rare books area and went back out into the reading section. I couldn’t help it – I checked my phone again. There were a few more Likes, and now some Shares. My friends were saying very complimentary things about the post. What a relief.

Copley SquareI walked back out of the library, taking a quick detour to the map room because maps are great. I walked across the street into Copley Square and took a photo of two women taking photos of a turtle sculpture. The square was a nice open respite from the large, imposing city buildings. I saw a small fountain off to the side of the square, the shallow kind that kids will jump around in when the weather becomes too hot to bear. I sat on the edge of the fountain to take in a bit of sunshine. I pulled out my phone again. I read more feedback, now from strangers. People I didn’t know were sharing what I had written. People I didn’t know were complimenting me on it. I laid down and smiled.

Reflection

I know many writers suffer from a sort of perpetual doubt, myself included. No matter what people say or how many times you hear it, there will always come those days when you think what you’ve written is not good enough. One might even say it’s what makes you into a good writer – the obsessive need to improve what you’ve created for fear that it is secretly worthless. I have received compliments on my writing before, and I can only hope I will receive them again in the future. But on that post, I actually got people talking. I got people arguing. Shirley Phelps tweeted about me, which was something I didn’t even realize was on my bucket list until it happened. No one pays me for what I do. I’ve never had anything traditionally published. I am still a beginner, an amateur. But on that day, leaning back onto the warm stone of Copley Square, I felt like a real writer.

Made In and Outside of Carolina

I’m beginning to forget.

Close followers of this blog and those who are good with math will know that I am no longer on the road. I got back home about a week ago, but there is still a lot of journey left to write about. I write a post for nearly every day of the trip, but I only update three times a week. So with each post, the things I’m writing about drift further and further into the past. Details begin to slip away and the words are harder to muster. I wonder sometimes if I’m writing a memory or an invention. Was her hair brown or red? Was that how he acted or am I confusing him with the guy I met two days later? Did I visit the museum before or after lunch?

ChurchI have notes of course. But while traveling, the notes were just one more thing I had to write. So when time was short and days felt long, I would only jot down what I mistakenly thought would be enough to recall an event. Today I’m trying to write about Charleston, South Carolina. I have a note that reads, “St John the Baptist Church where the organ is playing and it’s just me and the man wiping the windows. Even he stops to listen.” I remember this, but not well enough. I went to visit the church, and I remember it was empty. I took a photo so I also know it was dark. That makes me imagine the air was cool. I don’t remember where the organ was, but I think it must have been up near the front, because I think I remember an old woman turning pages. She was practicing, probably for the Sunday service. I have the date in my notes so I know it was a Friday, and it must have been around 1PM or so because it was after I toured the old urban plantation home. There was a man with a cleaning cart. At least I think he had a cart. I know he had a rag. He was washing the inside of the stained glass windows, and I sat in a pew to listen to the organ. I could tell that I had happened upon something slightly special and unusual, but I can’t tell you what made me think that. It must have been series of details I can’t remember. After I had been listening for awhile, the old man stopped and turned towards the organ, and he listened, too. It was a lovely moment. I know it was. I can remember that much, even if I can only see it through a sort of haze. I don’t remember how it ended. Maybe she got to the end of a song and he turned back to the windows. Maybe she began collecting her papers to leave. I’m not sure, and the more I try to remember the more I realize that the act of remembering is in fact the creation of the memory itself. The more I try to picture the old man turning back around at the end of a song, the more it seems like it must have happened that way. And I can’t see truth from fiction.

I didn’t know anyone in Charleston, and after a few hours I realized that I had exhausted all the items on my TripAdvisor list. I was planning to stay two nights in the city, but I clearly only needed one. I decided I would get a motel room just outside of town and start on the road towards Asheville the next morning. But on my way to the motel there was one more stop – Magnolia Cemetery.

BridgeI really like cemeteries. At this point the only things convincing me to be buried rather than cremated are my love of cemeteries and a slight fear of being accidentally burned alive. It’s odd that the thought of being buried alive doesn’t seem to bother me, but that’s not really what I was focusing on while in Magnolia. It’s a gorgeous cemetery. There are ponds with little bridges over them and so many fantastic monuments. I love seeing old headstones in mid-decay. It reminds me of the ways in which we all can have a lasting effect on the world, and how both the markings of that effect, and the indicators of its source, vanish over time. It’s like a centuries old game of telephone. With each passing day the message gets a little fuzzy and a little lost. But the message is there. And no matter how distorted it is by the end, at least you started something.

Confederate SoldierThe South is, unsurprisingly, big on memorials to confederate soldiers. In Magnolia there was a field of military grave markers, the kind that all look alike and appeal to my orderly aesthetic. There were cannons, flags, and a tall statue of a proud but bedraggled soldier. I was taking pictures when a pair of hispanic men drove up in a car. They each walked over to a flagpole and began to hoist the flags down. It was uncomfortable. I think there is an artificial sense of reverence we get from watching flag ceremonies on TV, and while I don’t mean to say that these men treated the flags poorly, they had a casual demeanor that was off-putting. They were just the groundskeepers, after all. This was just part of their job. One of the men tossed the American flag over his shoulder and moved to the next flagpole. I suddenly felt strange for trying to take well-composed photos of headstones. Maybe I was the one being disrespectful.

Hunley CrewI drove and walked for some time. There were grave markers for babies, which always puts a lump in the throat. My photos tell me I saw the crew of the H.L. Hunley, who died after completing the first successful act of submarine warfare. My memory says that I turned around and saw a beautiful view of the suspension bridge over the Cooper River, but that may not be right. Perhaps it was the gravestones a little ways down the path that could see the bridge. I’d have to go back to Magnolia know for sure, assuming I could find the spot at all.

FountainAnd perhaps that’s the lesson. Memory is imperfect and it will ultimately fail you. Return trips allow for course corrections in those memories, but some experiences will fade away permanently. Occasionally on my trip I felt inspired to write about something the moment after it happened. Those stories will be full of rich and accurate details. Others were lazy days marking off items on a list, and those memories are likely to disappear over time. If I try to write them, I am likely to invent them. I’ve been asking myself a lot lately what kind of writer I should try to be. I could write blogs. I could write plays. I could write short stories or novels. But whatever I write I can’t help but combine my own experiences with the world as I imagine it once was. A little memory mixed with a bit of invention. In the end, I imagine that no matter the form, I can and will always write the same thing:

Historical Fiction.

The Deep South

I got the idea for this trip from my older sister and her friends back when I was in junior high. They would talk about taking a similar route around the United States, and I would overhear their conversations. For whatever reasons their plans never manifested, and the whole thing just sat in the back of my mind.

In my sophomore year of college I got an idea for a novel, following the adventures of the main character as she wandered around the United States (hiding from her past, unable to go home, that sort of thing). I wrote small bits of the story whenever I got inspired, but never really focused any effort on it.

My senior year I was suddenly filled with inspiration for the novel, and made a conscious effort to sit down and write more. There was one particular section of the story I felt sure was best placed in the Deep South, where things would be hot and sticky and rural and racist. But as I sat down to write, I had nothing. I couldn’t picture any details. Everything looked generic. I realized that my hot sticky rural racist South was based entirely on movies and books. I was setting my story in someone else’s novel.

It’s been pointed out to me before that being in the southeastern United States in July is going to be miserable. That is, generally, the point. If I want to write about that misery I’m going to have to experience for myself. I’ve been accused before of being too autobiographical in my writing, which to me is a silly accusation. Every writer is writing her own story. Every writer is writing the relationships and settings and characters that she has seen inside herself and in the world around her. Some just disguise it better than others. In my experience, the more you disguise it the more like your real life it ends up being anyway, but that’s a story for another time.

My point is, the Deep South is on my must see list so I can see and feel and taste what it’s like to be there. Unfortunately being there is the only thing on the list.

Deep South MapAs I mentioned before, I’ve been keeping track of possible U.S. attractions in Evernote. When I go to my notes on Mississippi and Alabama, all I’ve got on the list of possible places to see is the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, and I’m not even sure I want to go there. These two states stand as a single, solid block of “I’m sure I’ll find something.”

I can’t help but wonder what this is implying. Is it that I don’t know anyone who has visited either of these states? Or is it just that they don’t have any good news to report? I know I want to spend some time on the Mississippi river, so that’s a start. But what then? On all my maps thus far I take a straight path from New Orleans to Jacksonville. While I’m sure the gulf coast is nice, it seems an awful long way to go just to stay on the edge the whole time.

Perhaps I should just do what my main character does: head towards Alabama and get myself into trouble.  I don’t know if it worked for her, I haven’t written that yet. But I suppose that’s true for both of us.