I used to write a blog. This blog. I started it anonymously during my second year of law school, I think. Maybe my first year, actually. I can’t really remember when, but I remember that I was having a lot of feelings and needed to write it out. Anyway, the timeline isn’t that important. What is important is that looking back, I see a pattern in my creative life: I have this urge to write, and I follow it, and then I get scared.
Now maybe the urge to write, maybe that is just a distraction. I doubt this urge a lot, find it quite silly and a little embarrassing. If I really want to write, then shouldn’t I have some kind of clear idea what to write about? I struggled in my college creative writing classes because I couldn’t really choose a topic. I was very critical of my creative self and felt that all of my ideas were stupid and weak. I was afraid people would think what I wrote was lame. (I named all of my characters Jess for the entire semester. My professor wrote on my final portfolio something like You were the smartest person in this room and you could have been the best, if you had tried a little harder. It was my first B.)
It’s hard for us, I think, to really know the difference between what we are supposed to do, what we want to do, and what we are afraid to do. I read something this week that reminded me of this feeling – that we sometimes doubt our “callings” because they don’t always feel like we have been told they will. And sometimes the things that I am most afraid of doing are the things that, once I take the plunge and give it a try, are the things I am most proud of accomplishing.
So anyway, back to this pattern. I followed the urge. I started a blog (and it was really terrible, and oh, the graphics – so horrible) and I kept at it, bit by bit. I was nervous and afraid each time I hit “publish,” and yet I really loved what I was doing. I had only a handful of readers for years, and then I took on a blogging challenge where you posted each day for an entire month. It was fun and also terrible, and I wasn’t sure how healthy that experience was for me so I wrote about it. That post was selected for the front page of wordpress.com. And then – I had thousands of views in a few days and I was on top of the world. It was a rush: I had written something that someone important thought was good, and had shared with others, and those other people thought it was good and helpful too. I was in love with blogging.
Somewhere in there I connected my anonymous blog with my real-life facebook profile. I was proud and wanted to show my people what I had done, but I was also afraid that “people” would “find out” and think I was “silly” or “over-indulgent.” I felt that writing on the internet would be a source of personal and professional shame for me. I went through periods of excited writing followed by periods of absolute fear. (Hey other writers out there – do you feel this way too?)
I didn’t want for my blog to be silly or indulgent or a professional liability or something people would make fun of me for. But I also think that those fears originate from something I shouldn’t let control my actions. We shouldn’t have to feel guilty about the things that give us pleasure. And as a woman, I shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed that some stereotypically female activities like journaling, blogging, crafting or cooking make me happy. I get to be a fully integrated person, who is serious professionally and yet still totally me, and I shouldn’t have to feel nervous that if the internet reflects my true personality my professional reputation will suffer. (I mean, seriously, it’s not like I’m doing anything weird.)
But I do worry. Just because I think intellectually that a thing should be true doesn’t mean that my secret inside person is fully there, all the time. I’m still nervous that waking this blog back up, after letting it sleep in maintenance mode for over a year, is the wrong choice. I am still afraid that my boss or my colleagues would find it and be like Ahahaha you are so silly and ridiculous, look at this blog with purses and makeup and feelings everywhere!
But I miss writing to you. I want you back. And I might get scared and go dark again in the future, I can’t promise that I’ll consistently be brave. But I am here, on October 1, turning my little blog-project back on and saying hello.
In her book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg recommends keeping a list of topics for you to focus on during your writing time. (Page 26.) If you have a list of subjects for your writing time, then when you have time to write you can pick up and begin instead of sitting around trying to find something to write about. She adds random things to the list each day.
I’ve been struggling to find something to write about. I dug up my list from last year to jump-start my fingers, and I found these words from my friend Natalie.
Natalie Goldberg also recommends gathering up your “first thoughts,” which are your unedited, original ideas at the first draft stage. She suggests timed writing activities — you know, like the ones you did in that creative writing class, where you walked into the room and there was a quote or prompt or something written on the whiteboard that you had ten minutes to respond to, and if you were late to class you wouldn’t have time to finish — to practice getting the words out. Just sit down for ten or fifteen minutes and write about something on that list, making sentences one after another. Stay loose. (Page somewhere around 24 to 29.)
Apparently, if you keep a list of writing topics and spend some time writing about those topics, your first-draft thoughts will become something worth sharing with others. At least, that’s what Natalie Goldberg says. Lately I’m struggling to find this.
I have never traveled so much as I have these last few weeks. I’ve been chosen by the TSA Pre-Check Randomizer five times out of six in the last two weeks, which would be lovely if it didn’t mean that I’d taken six flights in the last fourteen days. I have enjoyed hearing so many other people order McMuffins from the Burger King at the airport. (There are no Mc-anythings at Burger King.)
I keep forgetting to search for the hotel receipt from my business trip. I know where it is: the outer zip pocket of my wheeled carry on bag. But I haven’t yet found the time to unzip that pouch and pull it out. The thing is, I could do it now, but my husband is asleep because we woke up at 3:30 a.m. today to fly home from Nashville. I should be sleeping too, but I don’t feel tired, so much as numbish or empty. I hope I remember to get the receipt tomorrow morning, but I won’t be surprised if I forget again. Wednesday is the very last day or else my travel privileges could be suspended.
I might be maybe somewhere inside okay with that.
I think that Leo has forgotten that he loves me more than H. I’m giving him a lot of treats so hopefully he will remember.
Somewhere between page 31 and page 44, Natalie Goldberg writes that the details of our lives are important, and that we should write them just as they are. Not the beautiful pieces, but the real things of our life: whether we are a few (several?) pounds overweight, or the weather is grey, or whatever, we should just say yes to real life because there are too many noes already. We should say “yes” to the lives we are living, so we can keep living them.
And so, in the spirit of Natalie Goldberg’s beautiful hilarious truth-telling, I am starting again, telling myself “
Natalie MB, you planned to write. Now write. I don’t care if you feel nuts and lonely.” (Page 105.)
I woke up at 3:30 a.m. this morning in Nashville, flew to Chicago, worked eight hours at my office, went to an office lunch-event to celebrate a coworker’s promotion, cooked dinner, ate dinner, watched the season finale of SNL (very disappointing Mr. Sandberg, and what in the world was that musical act thing?!), edited a friend’s 1000 word draft down to 825 words so she could get a fresh start, and then wrote this mess of words to you. I brushed the cat and gave him four treats and am about to do the dishes and head to bed.
Tomorrow is Tuesday, and I’m going to eat breakfast and go to work like I do on every Tuesday. Hopefully I’ll remember to find that hotel receipt so I can finish my expense report.
Today I’m scheduled to join an online blog tour, to share a bit about my personal writing processes. You can read prior submissions by:
I’m trying to put my finger on what feels so odd about these questions and answers, but I’m struggling to identify and edit out the awkwardness and so I’m going to share where I am at this moment. These answers may feel odd because I’m still identifying exactly what kind of writer I am and what kind of writer I want to become, so while I’m posting the middle of the story today, six months or a year from now I’ll be able to look back and see how far I’ve come. Anyway, let’s get to it:
What am I working on?
In advance of the Festival of Faith and Writing, I chose a topic to focus on for 50 days and spent some time each week (mostly on Sunday afternoons at a local coffee shop) writing. By April 10 I had about 15 pages of a draft non-fiction book proposal: a 80% research/20% memoir on leadership and career development and being female. I’m not sure I’m ready to write about that topic yet, so I’ve put it on ice while I regroup. I thought that FFW would leave me inspired but instead I’m a little frozen up by the multitude of options I have. (Also, because I have been completely swamped with other things). I’m excited to wrap up a few big projects at work so I can free up a little mental space and jump back in.
This month I’ve been working on the technical side of my blogging, including converting this space to a self-hosted blog at wordpress.org and going through some blogging bootcamp workshops created by Julie at www.fabulousblogging.com.
Why do I write what I do?
My best skills are wrapped up in my writing life, but I don’t always know how to use them, and I really struggle with how to use them creatively. This may sound weird, but I love writing project reports, shaping policy proposals, and building persuasive documents that let me dig into the pros and cons of an idea. I like to read, research, and consider a topic until I understand how complex ideas or systems fit together and can begin to see places where ethical questions or institutional incentives come into play. That sounds incredibly nerdy, but what I mean is that I like to pull ideas apart and see where they are weak or inconsistent, and then think and write about ways to strengthen the foundations or resolve any conflicts. It takes courage to examine your own core beliefs and see if they can hold up under pressure, and this is one of my favorite things about my brain. (It can also be a bit of a bummer. Just saying.)
How does my writing process work?
I’m always thinking about something — usually about a few different things all at the same time. I have a notebook where I jot down what I’m thinking. Writing it out helps me begin to sort my thoughts and bring some organization to what’s going on in my head. I’m a huge believer in diligent editing, and I will edit and re-structure and then edit again. I’ve never understood when people say that they wrote something and that the first writing of it was cathartic or therapeutic and then they post it online in that form. I’m fine with that for more casual life updates, restaurant recommendations, and that sort of thing, but the more personal or controversial a topic, the more time I like to let pass between my first, second, and third drafts.
How is my work different from others of its genre?
I really enjoy writing this blog, but I have a full-time job that uses up a ton of brain space and I’m not trying to change that. I love working and I don’t think of this blog as a way to get a book contract so I can quit my job and write forever — that whole idea sounds pretty terrible to me. Instead, I write to keep family and friends up-to-date and to learn to use my words creatively. My words need a less-serious outlet and writing here keeps me sharp and free and makes me happy. I think that’s what makes my writing here different from other bloggers in my “genre.” Also, I don’t know if I actually have a genre.
Okay, that’s where I am. If these answers seem a little awkward to you, then we are on the same page! I’m excited for the next writer on this blog tour because I know she is for real and will have insightful and uplifting answers. Be sure to stop by Marvia’s blog next week for her version of the writing process tour.
And, I don’t say it enough: thanks for sticking with me through these transitions. We’re almost at the finish line. Do you like the new header and layout? Missing anything? Let me know.
As I’m typing this post, it’s the middle of the twenty-fifth day of my 5o-Day commitment to thinking of myself as a writer. This won’t go live and you won’t be able to read it until sometime Monday morning, which is technically past the half-way point of this journey and eight hours into Day 26. Let’s agree to ignore the actual math involved in defining the “middle” of a journey the way we agree to accept that television chefs always have perfectly baked final products ready to pull out of the oven and taste at the end of their thirty-minute episodes. The middle of a journey is really whenever you end up stopping for lunch, isn’t it?
I’ve learned a few things about myself, written words and paragraphs in my journal and on my computer, and wasted a lot of time during these first 25 days. I’ve been focused on my writing but also completely absorbed in my actual job, which is keeping me so incredibly busy during these early spring-ish months. My brain is buzzing with stress and deadlines and ideas, and that seems like the perfect mix to me.
- I tried a few coffee shops/writing locations near my apartment in Chicago and have adopted a location three blocks away. There are outlets everywhere, the espresso drinks are delicious, and the coffee shop is operated by some church so I feel better spending $5.00 on something I could make for myself at home. I’m here now, and a poster from an event at the Ryman Auditorium is hanging on the wall that faces my table. I’m sitting in the sun, looking at the words “Nashville Tennessee” and drinking a latte with chocolate, hazelnut, and cayenne pepper. I can’t think of a better way to nurture my creative insides.
- During a ten-day bootcamp with my writing group, I chose a topic for my writing project (even if I’m not quite ready to call it a book), told my writing group what my topic was, and felt the soothing coolness of positive feedback and acceptance calm my nerves. I also mustered the courage to reach out to a few friends about my
sillydream, so I’ve taken the first few steps toward using the “w”-word [writer] with my real-life friends and family.
- I have 4,000 words, notes, and research in a highly rough and scattered word document that has the headings and pagination of a non-fiction book proposal. It’s not actually a book proposal today, but I’m using that structure to sketch out my project. Working in this format is oddly comforting, because it is exactly what real writers do for every book they write. I’ve found the language of the world I’m walking in, and I’m ready now to meet people without feeling like a fraud: I can spend the next five years saying that I’m “working on a book proposal” before anyone that doesn’t know me well might become suspicious. It’s completely normal for that process to take forever and for “real” writers to get distracted for months, discouraged for years, or otherwise lose focus for a long while before getting a final proposal together. I know how to introduce myself and vaguely describe my project, so I’m ready to rent a car and drive to Grand Rapids and meet other writerly people. That goal is officially accomplished.
- My friend Abby has scheduled a public event at the end of the conference in Grand Rapids where my writing group will take turns reading our work out loud. To strangers (and worse, to our friends). While the pre-#50days me would say oh, no, I’m not really a writer and so I will just cheer the rest of you on, the me that is 25 days into being a real writer has [unfortunately] accepted the challenge and promised to find something, anything really, to read. I’m much more driven by external expectations of those I love than my own secret dreams, so I think this is actually the perfect thing to push me during the second-half of this journey: I have an idea and some draft-quality words, but now I need a chapter-ish length piece that is good enough to share, along with a gallon of confidence and a cute new outfit. In the next three weeks I need to finish a draft piece so I can edit it, and then prepare to present it with/to my people.
This effort hasn’t been on my mind every minute, and for the last few days at work my brain has been swimming in deadlines and spreadsheets and official communication materials, but I’m here on Sunday afternoon, as scheduled, thinking about this project. I’m thrilled with how far I’ve come in these first three and one-half weeks and am proud to share with you that I am working on a book/something proposal and preparing a mystery piece to read at my first ever reading as a [writer]. Nothing really has changed just yet, but I am starting to believe my own truth.
Thanks for joining me on this adventure.
Oh, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Lucky Family! AOT
Last Thursday I started on a personal journey, if you want to call it that. I committed to think of myself as a writer and to act as if I believed that I was a writer for fifty days, so that when those fifty days are over I can comfortably wear the label. It’s the fifth day of this adventure, and it doesn’t feel very natural yet.
I asked you for tips, tricks, or suggestions for feeling more writerly. I thought you would tell me to wear a tweed vest or smoke a pipe or drink whiskey in the evenings; to enter into fights on twitter [you know who you are, bloggers of America]; to light a candle and read the New York Times with my coffee each morning. You didn’t. Instead, you all said the same thing: to be a “real” writer, just stop talking about it and get it done. Sit your butt down and write. There were variations in responses, of course, but only in levels of frankness on this common theme.
It seemed unhelpful and obvious to me at first, but already I’ve realized how valuable this advice really is. After five days of intentionally thinking about, talking about, stressing about, or considering the writing life, I’m not actually spending very many minutes putting words on the page. I’ve only written a few hundred words, I still haven’t chosen a project for this period, and I haven’t received any supernatural inspiration. Yet.
According to my research [casually googling variations of “what writers do” over the last week], this is pretty normal. J. Robert Lennon for the L.A. Times (2009) reported that real writers spend around 2% of their lives actually writing words. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t being writers the other 98% of the time. They are just living: thinking and working through the social interactions and complex critical thinking skills that eventually become the building blocks of what they create. Writing requires living.
I wish there were some magic formula for being
comfortable in your own skin a writer, but it turns out that the cape and tights won’t feel right until you pull them on, tuck your feet into those bright red boots, run outside and save someone. Otherwise, you are just sitting around wearing spandex. As a thinker, an analyzer, a “but what about this?” problem solver, getting started isn’t how I like to begin. I want to be ready: to gather together all of my tools and complete all of my training and calendar the milestones and targets before typing that first word. This isn’t going to work like that, but that’s okay. I can take my time and do this however I want to, so long as I’m doing it.
If you’re on a similar journey of finding your voice and style as a writer, or if you just want to watch me fumble around as I do this weird thing I’m doing, I’m using instagram and twitter to catalogue my random writing activities, with the hashtag #50daysawriter. (Is that redundant? Did I just write hashtag twice there? I’m still learning twitter grammar.) It’s mostly awkward so far but kind of fun too.
A guest post by Hilary Murdoch at The Gift of Writing, telling her own experience with journaling. Journaling is something I’d like to do a little more, and this really reinforced why — so many of these sentences could have been written by my own heart.
But for me there is another barrier to this vulnerability, in addition to the fear of what people think of me. In order to share how I truly feel, I first need to know how I truly feel.
And often I don’t.
Often I am blissfully unaware of my own emotions. People ask me how I am and I answer that ‘I’m fine’, or even that ‘I’m really well’. And I’m not lying. I genuinely think I am.
Sometimes I’m aware of some discomfort under the surface but I’m not sure what it is. It’s in my journal writing that I am able to access that disquiet; see it, explore it and hopefully face it and deal with it.
The Ploughshares Round-Down: “The Wolf of Wall Street” and Its Backlash, by Tasha Golden.
As writers, we could choose to write only moralistic narratives, or to hold our readers’ hands into ethical resolutions. But by doing so, we would strip readers of the opportunity to exercise their own ability to respond imaginatively. And we may also strip the public of the productive (if contentious) discourse stimulated by questionable material.
Indeed, criticisms of The Wolf of Wall Street both devalue viewers—by assuming they can handle only moralistic tales—and esteem them, by providing immediate evidence of their astonishing critical thinking skills. The film’s critics affirm the necessity of moral-ethical conversations while simultaneously proving we’re capable of having them. This irony is ridiculous.
Abby Norman’s Swimming in the Deep End. Abby has been killing it on her blog lately. I identify with her on so many levels.
I have heard the calls of more real, more vulnerable, less safe. I have heard them from the women in my community. I have heard them from my own heart. I am doing this crazy thing in less than a month, where I invite all the people in my life who are usually carefully separated, to come and commune on my couch, at my table, in my backyard.
And if I am totally honest I am scared that by the end of the weekend, if my online people and my real life people and my I signed up for this on a whim and now I am here people all hang out, that no one will leave liking me.
Jenny Lawson [The Bloggess] with Strange and Beautiful.
If you’re sad or lonely or feeling like you’re one of the misfit toys, know that you are part of us. And remember that those misfit toys always were always far more interesting than the normal ones.
Tell someone that you love them, or that they’re important. And tell yourself. Because it’s true.
And to wrap us up this week, a recipe that I really want to make: Classic Lemon Bars from Joy the Baker.
Super tart fresh lemon juice adds all of the kick to these lemon bars. Fresh lemon zest is the very hard-working backup. These bars feature a wonderfully buttery crust, and a sweet and tart lemon custard. Topped with a generous amount of powdered sugar, these bars are exactly as they should be. Classic.
How to Write: A Year in Advice from Franzen, King, Hosseini, and More, by Joe Fassler in The Atlantic.
Modern Mrs. Darcy’s favorite books of 2013.
A 9-Step Guide on How to Dress for Winter, written by a Djibouti resident helping her kids adjust to Christmas weather in Minnesota.
A wrap-up of the year’s writing prompts over at Ploughshares (a new literary-focused online magazine I’ve recently begun following): For Those About to Write (We Salute You) #16: Bring on the New Years.
David Marshall’s short essay on Christmas wishes: All I Want at Signals to Attend.