Why I Write

ink jar and quills (image by Charles Stanford)
(image by Charles Stanford)

I have been dealing with what I’ll call anxiety induced malaise of late.

As such, my creative work has stalled.

There is a school of thought out there that says anxiety, depression, and the like drive the creative person to make better art. I’m not going to say this is 100% wrong. When a person is sensitive and able to feel things deeply, that can be a gift. I have experienced that. However, it can also be paralyzing. Lately, I have been paralyzed.

I have especially struggled with my writing. I had a number of projects in the works, but suddenly that shifted. One novel I was working on (a sort of companion to Sideshow) seemed frivolous and unnecessary. Another novel seemed precious and overwrought. You get the picture. Each time I sat down to work, it all seemed to be without purpose. I wanted to do something important, but nothing seemed important enough, so I did nothing.

I’ve been here before. It’s far from the first time. I have always been a person deeply affected by the world around me and my effect on it (or lack thereof). I often struggle with being productive when I think that what I’m doing isn’t useful or helping anyone, and at times, it paralyzes me. Who am I? What do I have to give? When I run through my talents, I usually find myself coming up sort (blame the anxiety and some lingering threads of that teenage angst), but there is one thing that still remains: stories.

I write historical fiction not simply because I love history.  I do love history, but more importantly, I love the stories of history. So often in a history class we are taught to memorize names and dates, but we see these people as far away and nothing like us when in reality, we have so much in common with them and knowing their stories helps us to see that. Knowing their stories helps us to understand our own world as well.

When I wrote Sideshow, I initially struggled with trying to explain why I set the book in the in the time period that I did. The 1950s are a polarizing time to write about. They are so easy to romanticize, what with the poodle skirts and roller skating car hops and the birth of the American teenager, but under the surface of all that, there is a lot going on, most of which would bubble over quite fiercely in a short amount of time. I wanted to address these issues in a story of what is often portrayed as an “idyllic” time. I wanted to write a story that talked about some of the parts of that time that still ring true in our world today.

Additionally, I included the flashbacks because just as I do not exist solely in 2017, but also in 1992, 2001, 1988, 2010, etc as the years I lived through helped shape who I am today, the same is true for the people of the past.

Take for example the flashback to the incident with Abby’s mother. This is a history that Italian-Americans did not often talk about or acknowledge to their descendants. I myself had to learn about something similar happening to one of my own ancestors from archival documents and not from anyone in my family. This story as well as the others included in Sideshow were important to me because just as these events shaped Abby’s perception of her own identity, there were events happening in the world around me that I knew where shaping the identities of myself and everyone else for years to come.

So…the telling of stories…

It may not be much, but this is what I have give the world. So…I suppose I must find a way to continue.

Are some of my projects frivolous or precious? Yeah, probably.

Do I feel weird mentioning them on social media when so many more important things are happening? Definitely.

Do I think my words are even close to enough to change anything? No. Not really.

But deep down I know it is one of the few things I have that can help anyone (as self-centered as that may seem), so I have to keep trying.

2015 Classics Challenge! A Look Back at a Year of Classic Reading

In January, I happened to come across a post from the illustrious Stacy of Pretty Books. She had decided (3 years ago, I was late to the party) to challenge herself to read 1 work of “Classic” Literature a month for an entire year and had dubbed it the Classics Challenge. Inspired, I decided to do the same.  It was not easy and it definitely kept me from reaching my “read 45 books this year goal” as I have become an increasingly slow reader the older I get, but I enjoyed myself and may try again next yet. I thought, since I just finished my December Classic, that I would give a little run-down and sum up the past year of classic reading.

Classics read: 12 (see full list below)
Classics I’d read before but figured it was okay because I barely remembered reading them: 3 (The Awakening, Prince Caspian, A Little Princess)
Classics I’d started 5 or 6 times in years past but never actually finished: 1 (Great Expectations)
Classics I thought I’d read before but actually had probably just seen the musical:
1 (The Scarlet Pimpernel)
Classics not strictly part of the “cannon” but probably should be: Well….

When I decided to do this challenge, I initially set out with a broad definition of “Classic.” I didn’t want to end the year with a list populated solely by dead, white, British guys, which, let’s face it, comprise a really significant portion of what is considered “Classic Literature” by today’s literature teachers. I did not make this attempt to discount the great literary achievements of England, and you’ll notice a number of English Classics on my list, but I did want to choose books with a diverse range of authors, genres, and literary periods. Because, I only really could work with works that were accessible via my local library (or borrowed from friends, or already in my collection), I don’t know that I fully succeeded, and if I do this challenge again next year, I can guarantee I will be making better use of Inter-library loan and will definitely be seeking out suggestions from others.

The Full List:

January: The Awakening by Kate Chopin: 1899, widely considered a landmark work of early feminism. I first read this novel in my sophomore year of college, but I definitely think it deserved the reread so that I could look at it through different eyes. My Goodreads Review

February: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: 1919; One of the earliest works of modernist literature. I read this one because apparently I wanted to cry a lot, which is exactly what I did while reading it. And, when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. I specifically selected it because I wanted to talk to grandfather and no longer could. My Goodreads Review

March: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: 1962; A novel by the uncrowned, but absolutely deserving of the title, Queen of Horror, Shirley Jackson. I adore horror stories like this one, full of creeping suspense and unease but little all out gore, and let me tell you this book was everything I ever dreamed it would be. Ladies do not get enough credit in the horror genre. My Goodreads Review

April: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskill: 1851; It would be doing Gaskill a disservice to call her “a female Charles Dickens” but their works both fit into similar niches. Also her usage of “middle class dialects”  for her characters (and her defense of this use as it being a language used to express concepts just as much as upper class “proper English”) was remarkable for the time period. Initially I was resistant to this book, but I found it to be quite clever and witty in the end. My Goodreads Review

May: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: 1861; I can’t count the number of times I had tried to finish this book and bowed out about a 1/4 of the way through, if that far. No idea why. I just never connect with this book. This time I powered though, and can fully admit I had been missing out on a quality piece of literature, even if there were some parts that made me remember why I never want to live in Victorian England (among other reasons). My Goodreads Review

June: Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden: 1982; I wanted to read something with LGBT themes for June and what better than the groundbreaking work in which the lesbian protagonists actually got to have a happy ending? My Goodreads Review

July: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; 1945; I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but I’m going to say it: What Great Gatsby is to the 1920s, Brideshead Revisited is the 1940s. I went into this one expecting something completely and utterly different than what I ended up with, which, as far as I’m concerned, suits the book quite well. Needs more Aloysius. My Goodreads Review

August: Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis: 1951; Oh C.S. Lewis. How I love you and how I loathe you, all the same. Someday, I plan to do a post on Narnia much like I did with Anne of Green Gables (in fact I want to do a lot of these, hence the “Rereading My Childhood” shelf on Goodreads), so I doubled up the Classics Challenge with my efforts to get that reread done, and hoooo-boooy did I forget how stressed this book made me. Seriously, C.S. Lewis, telling kids they can get too old for Heaven is just mean. My Goodreads Review

September: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy: 1905; Who doesn’t like a good superhero story? And, thanks to Baroness Orczy, we all get to enjoy them. My Goodreads Review

October: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, 1859; I wanted to read a ghost story for October. A friend suggested Wilkie Collins. I thought, “Oh yeah, the songs from that musical sounded super creepy!” There were no ghosts. Just a lot of fainting and evil plotting. My Goodreads Review.

November: Paper Fish by Tina De Rosa, 1980. November, like February was a hard month for me this year. November is often a hard month for me. I miss the huge Thanksgivings that we used to have at mi bisnonna’s house. I miss my cousins. I miss everything about my family. It often comes into this harsh, desperate focus in which I despair about being so shy when I was young that I didn’t really cultivate lasting relationships with anyone. So, I chose a novel about the Italian immigrant experience. It turned out to be immensely more beautiful than I even thought to anticipate. My Goodreads Review

December: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1905; Another childhood reread, but this one charmed me just as much as it did when I was small. Well, almost. My Goodreads Review

Powering through moments of Self-Doubt

TW: I wrote this to discuss a anxiety spiral I deal with.

 

I sometimes get these weird moods when it comes to my writing. I refer them as my “Fitzgerald Fits” because the first time I read a biography about everyone’s second favorite alcoholic expat author I really recognized a lot of his complaints and concerns (definitely not all of them, but…I’m tangenting now…) They’re something I’m sure every writer gets from time to time, though. Let me break it down for you.

  • Halfway through a project I start to worry about it, doubt it, wonder if it’s actually coming along the way I envision
  • I start looking at other things I’ve done and the poor response, low readership numbers, etc (assumed or actual, keep this in mind. Anxiety is a lying liar and tells me things sometimes that aren’t necessarily true.)
  • I decide, “Well, if I’m not popular, that’s okay. Lots of great writers weren’t popular in their life time, but they wrote works that stood and shaped our society.” (In keeping with our Fitzgerald theme, I often remind myself about how during most of his life Gatsby was his poorest seller.)
  • Then I look at my work again and decide that it’s not literary enough, serious enough, important enough, to stand this required test of time. I mean…A LOT of what I write has supernatural elements. Beyond Frankenstein  and Dracula how much of the cannon really does?
    • Well, Wuthering Heights kinda does…and Shakespeare…I suppose. Okay, I’m making myself feel a lot better, actually, wow…
    • But still, I start telling myself how I’m not like those great authors. My work doesn’t have those lasting, serious elements.
    • Well, at least my early work doesn’t. I’m only in my late 20s. I’ve got time to write my masterpiece!
  • Someone posts something online charting the relative age that authors wrote their first masterpiece. I ignore the actual ages and see how often it was their first or second book. Often it was. Anxiety makes me pretend that the nature of the publishing industry in different time periods has nothing to do with this.
  • Anxiety tells me I’m too old to write anything great or accomplish anything because I’m no longer an ingenue and the world keeps looking toward younger and younger people for genius. And, of course, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
    • I’m really close to 30!
  • The panic spiral continues for awhile until I decide to just power through the project I was halfway done with. I reread what I’ve written, decide to change some things here and there, but usually I do get excited about it again!
  • Process starts over at the first point at least two more times  on average before I finish the project, with other nuanced and project specific steps added it.

It’s a struggle that I think a lot of those in creative professions can relate to and I don’t have the answer*. I can spout empty platitudes about how you should “write the story you want to tell” and ignore any other considerations, but that’s not going to stop you or I for doubt our talents or whatever else we’re doubting. The only thing I can direct you to is the penultimate point, the one where I decide to power through. It doesn’t work for everyone. Some people can’t reread their own work without trashing it. I am lucky to not be that way (I think it comes from being trained as an archivist…aka another story about lack of fulfilled ambitions, but we’re not going there today)…most of the time. There’s something that works for you too. I promise you’re a better artist than your brain thinks sometimes. I believe in you.