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.

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Time flies when the earth goes around the sun

I know. I’m lazy. But I made myself a New Years resolution that I would write myself something really special. Which means I have ’til December, right? – Catherine O’Hara

Maybe it’s a casualty of having a January birthday, but I’ve always found myself a little bit delayed when it came to reviewing my past year and thinking about the next one. I can never seem to get up the energy to do that on January first. I always think to myself, “That’s a birthday thing anyway.” This year especially, because, despite my best efforts to think of new years and birthdays as nothing more than ephemera, it’s hard for me not to acknowledge that I’ve got a whole decade to look back on. Not just a year.

2015 was a weird year for me. There were moments of sorrow and joy, just like any year, but I think this was the first year that I truly began to consider myself “an adult” (sort of). Several events stand out as the reason why, but I think I’m going to highlight one in particular.

In February, my beloved grandfather passed away at the age of 93. He had lived a long and loved filled life and looking back on this has caused me to reevaluate a lot of my priorities. For a long time, at the top of my life goals list, were fame and admiration of others. I wanted to be liked, but not because of who I was, but for what I had accomplished. I thought that the only way to get people to like me was to be the 100% absolute best at what I did; to have a high profile career, etc. My grandfather worked in a dairy. None of you know his name. But there’s nothing wrong with that. His life was still a beautiful story of love, struggle, and triumph. From this I have two new goals for 2016 and the next decade of my life:

1. Better cultivate and care for my relationships with my family and current friend groups and be more open to making of more friends and joining of communities. 

Even if that means I have to start using facebook again.

2. Do the things that make me happy. Live life with joy and be less concerned about the perceptions of others.

I realize that both of these things sound tremendous wishy-washy, and believe me I do have a large set of more specific and concrete goals taped above my desk. I just want to highlight that January is a lovely month. It comes with its own refresh button.

Also, sometimes, it snows.

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.

I Suppose My Freckles Have Faded Now: Rereading an Old Friend

[This book is over a hundred years old, but…this post does contain spoilers for it, fyi.]

Anne sat long at her window that night companioned by a glad content. The wind purred softly in the cherry boughs, and the mint breaths came up to her. The stars twinkled over the pointed firs in the hollow and Diana’s light gleamed through the old gap.

Anne’s horizons had closed in since the night she had sat there after coming home from Queen’s; but if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it. The joy of sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship were to be hers; nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams. And there was always the bend in the road!

There are so many books in the world, so a reread is a rarity for me. Sometimes though, it occurs to me that I either don’t remember much of a book I had read years ago, or the book may have something new to say to me at a different age and place in my life. The latter was the case with The Jungle, for example. I can’t recall having a positive thought about the book when we read it in my high school history class, but when I reread it on a whim a year or so ago, I couldn’t put it down.

My decision to reread Anne of Green Gables was more of the former. During a discussion with a coworker, I realized I couldn’t remember much more than the fact Anne had red hair and lived on Prince Edward Island. I was always more of an Emily girl myself. I believe I read that series 10 times over back in my “youth”, but despite my own red hair (though mine has always been more strawberry than carrots), freckles, and imaginative nature, I think I read Anne only once, and never any of the sequels.

Upon rereading, I think I figured out why. I may have looked like Anne, but personality-wise, I was an introvert like Emily. I identified more with Emily’s moody dreaminess than Anne’s exuberance, though they both had the ambition and drive that I both wished I had and had in spades depending on the day of the week.

This is not to say I have any dislike of Anne. On the contrary, I think Anne actually has more to tell me as an adult than she did when I was a little girl. It comes in the last half of the book.

As Anne grows, it is mentioned, she begins to talk less and keep her dreamworld confined to her mind. The story club is shut down and now she is reprimanded in class for including “fantastical” elements in her writing. She matures and though it seems a pity, I relate to that aspect of her character. How often do I take walks and make up stories with my friends anymore? Rarely. I write of course, but gone are the imaginary games in the woods with my friends, and part of me often wonders if by writing fantasy I’m not writing works of actual literary substance.

I felt genuine sadness reading some of these passages. There was a loss of innocence to be mourned. It only grew stronger…and yet…

During the last few chapters of Anne of Green Gables, everything seems to be going Anne’s way. She is well-liked with many friends, decently pretty (even her much maligned red hair has started to darken), and she has won a scholarship to attend college (an amazing achievement for a young woman during this time). She is living a charmed life no matter how many stereotype laden peddlers she has bought green hair dye from in the past. Then tragedy strikes.

Matthew’s death is hard enough. It is then quickly followed by further setbacks: Marilla’s own health troubles and a bank failure. Anne decides to give up her scholarship and stay home to assist Marilla. No longer will Anne be achieving her coveted B.A. It’s a small thing, really, and was probably expected then, in a time when most people didn’t attend college at all, but I was struck and profoundly affected by this in ways I didn’t expect.

Quoted at the beginning of this entry is the last paragraph of the novel. Anne is reflecting on all the has happened and how she has grown. She is still, deep down, the romantic and imaginative little girl she always was, and though her life is not longer laid out before in a straight line, she welcomes the possibilities of her future. It meant a lot to me.

The cart that is my life has gone a little off course of late as I struggle to get my career going. Reading Anne’s reaction to her setbacks, which are even more significant in many ways, hit home hard. Reaching forward from a childhood in which I had given her a slight, Anne says to look forward to the bend in the road. There could be interesting things around it.

Hunger Games Trilogy Hits Home For Me

The Appalachian region of the United States, while abundant in natural resources and rich in potential, lags behind the rest of the Nation… its people have not shared properly in the Nation’s prosperity. -The Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965

“The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only: education or extermination.” Editors of the New York Times, 1912. [Lovely. Thanks a lot, NYT.]

I’ve been super excited for the new Hunger Games movie and today I was asked why.

“It’s a kids book,” I was informed. “Love triangles for teenage girls…”

I shall save the rage about the dismissal of the YA genre for the moment (that’s a whole post in and of itself) and give you a reason for my love of this series that you probably aren’t expecting.

I could get into the fact that it addresses the crazy celeb culture or desensitization to violence caused by reality tv or elitism, all those deeply important issues that I love to see addressed, but it’s simpler than that.

I love this series because they are the first pieces of media I have ever consumed that take my home seriously.

I don’t know if I can give proper voice to how that feels.

You see, I come from a place referred to as Appalachia, a chronically depressed and exploited region of the United States. The history of my home is a long story of being servant to outside companies who come in to take the resources that should have made the region and its people quite wealthy. In the past that meant dangerous mine shafts and black lung. It still means those things, but now we also have the added benefits of ritualistic destruction of our mountains, piles of coal tar left haphazardly about, and the paying of criminally low amounts to put poisonous natural gas wells in our back yards.

I went to graduate school to study about information management in communities and one of the papers I did while there focused on the effect of digital divide on the rural poor. I had a professor argue the entire concept of the digital divide with me. He would not believe me that the entire world was not covered by a 4G network.

I tried to argue. Plenty of the worlds people (including some where I grew up) do not have smart phones; or cell service; or computers in their homes; some do not have running water. He would not believe me. 

But living here doesn’t just mean extreme poverty, lack of access to technology and resources, and absurdly high cancer rates, it also means cultural shaming almost every time your home region is shown in the media.

Appalachia is, believe it or not, rich in history and culture. I mean, have you ever heard a song played on a mountain dulcimer? It is a true melting pot region, every bit as much as New York City. We have music, folklore and dialect that is influenced by a huge variety of ethnic groups as well as a flavor all it’s own. Our culture makes me proud to be from this region.

But whenever I see Appalachian culture mentioned in movies, television, or other places, it is always the same: banjo playing “hillbillies” with no teeth and a shotgun aimed at intruders.

[imagine an image of Fuzzy Lumpkins from Powerpuff Girls here. I loved that show, but…yeah…that guy made me uncomfortable.]

There used to be a joke between my mother and I that whenever the state or national news came to interview someone from our town, they would tell them to put on the worst thing they owned and to pretend they were high on meth before they would agree to talk with them about current events. People in my town were poor and struggling, but their conditions were constantly played for a laugh.

When  I read Katniss’s annoyance in The Hunger Games that people from District 12 were always sent out in coal miner’s uniforms, I couldn’t help feeling a sting of familiarity in my gut. The people of District 12 were my people. I recognized their world and the ridicule that they knew.

As I read this trilogy, I could see that the home I love despite all it’s flaws being portrayed in a new way. These people weren’t bucktoothed half-humans hopped up on moonshine, they were strong and scrappy. They sang mountain airs and healed with the herbal medicinal traditions that we’ve passed down for generations. They struggled with their exploitative jobs and the trilogy even portrayed very real and troubling “please, sir, can I have some more?” attitude of a region that has been kicked so many times that it will take whatever it can get.

I love The Hunger Games trilogy because it did the one thing I had been begging media to do for as long as I can remember, even if I had never actually voiced this desperate plea: portray my home with the respect it deserves.

Reading to Cats

My recent radio silence in the online writing the community can be explained in two ways:

  1. I am working on a side project that demands I complete it before I can rest or work on anything else writing related.
  2. ImageImage

My recent adoption of two shelter kittens has probably been one of the most enriching things I’ve done in a long time. My two new babies have required a lot of work and attention (especially since one must be hand fed), but they are both worth every second.

Until I went to college, there was a cat solidly in my life from the age of three when my mom brought home her aloof and somewhat temperamental orange tabby, who had been living with her parents. Since then, many a feline has crossed my path and taught me about love and life in different ways: from the fat cat who had to tame his wild ways, the orphan rescued from abuse who would only respond to me, the cynical and emotionally bruised calico who could never love another cat again after her best friend’s death, the orange baby whose survival instinct knew no bounds, the clingy calico diva, the regal tabby who played fetch and hunted like a king, to the splotchy tabby with an odd interest in clothes.

Out of the roommate life and on my own, I knew I wanted a cat for my companion, but I struggled with feeling ready for it. Now here we are. I sit on the couch, reading Devil in the White City with a cat on my lap and in the crock of my arm and I find myself reading out loud. I know that may put me firmly in the “Crazy Cat Lady” camp (a moniker I could rant about for a variety of other reasons), but they seem to like the sound of my voice even if they don’t know what the words mean.

…which considering what I’m reading is probably best. No need to give them nightmares for goodness sake.

Rejection and Making Decisions

I’m currently in that “just moved” limbo. I turned over the keys to my old place today. Things are all -in- the new place, but mostly strewn about. Slowly, they’re getting into a settled order, but I find myself having to make a lot of decisions about what goes where. In the old place the coffee mugs had a place automatically. Of course I put the coffee mug on the second shelf in the cabinet to the right of sink. They’ve always gone on the second shelf in the cabinet to the right of the sink. Well…now there is no cabinet to the right of the sink! The horror.

I can, however, go to IKEA and, semi-homemade style, build my own cabinet to house the coffee mugs and sundry other currently homeless home-goods.

*

I have queried The Black Guard Chronicles to ten agents since January and have gotten back nary a word aside from a few form rejections. Let me tell you, years of religiously following the Query Shark has given me the strange belief that a form rejection means that you have in some way offended the agent, so that doesn’t help matters much.  I know that The Black Guard Chronicles is good. I believe in this series. Unfortunately, it seems like there is no shelf to the right of the sink. The question becomes now: do I build one?