The Bearable(?) Loneliness of Writing

I’m sitting in Panera, having finally decided to force myself to sit down and write. It’s busy here–college students studying, friends chattering, nurses and medical professionals from the nearby hospital enjoying a lunch break. The busyness seems to complement the t-shirt I threw on after last night’s shift, a black background with white outlines of Castiel and Dean from Supernatural and the phrase “you are not alone.” The shirt supported a mental health charity, not that I need a reason to support Supernatural actors of course, but I love knowing that I can give to others while spoiling myself. I love that little piece of connection.

But in the midst of all the bustle, I realized something. I miss connection. I am lonely. It feels weird to say so, because I am never really alone. I don’t mean that in a metaphorical sense but a literal one. Other than a few spare hours here and there, I spend nearly all of my time away from work with my husband. Often, that time is shared with some of our six American nieces and nephews, a rough-and-tumble bunch that I love more than life itself, or spent skyping with my sister and four (five any day now) Irish nephews. It is a busy, hectic, full existence, and I love it.

However, I find myself missing my writing tribe more and more. I had a near-perfect undergraduate experience at Indiana University Southeast, then went straight into Spalding’s MFA in Writing program. I didn’t realize how much I counted on deadlines and assignments and fellow writers until I graduated and had to try to strike out on my own. And I have to realize now that I am just not as good on my own.

But I am learning. And finding my way into staying a tribe member without the attachments of coursework. I had lunch with a local writing friend a couple weeks ago, and am meeting another later today. I have an ongoing group chat with a group of fellow writers and amazing women, and they sustain me.

The biggest lesson in all of this is, as important as my tribe is, I have to learn to strike out on my own, too. I have to somehow hold myself accountable, and somehow keep writing and submitting and revising even though no one is holding me to a due date. And, I have to let go of my perfectionism and celebrate even small steps. Like writing a blog post, or drafting a chapter, or sending someone feedback. Or even just reading.

One step at a time.

In which I meet one of my literary heroes

I worry a lot that I am becoming jaded with the writing process. Since graduating from my MFA program, writing feels like a chore. Part of that is because Spalding is full of magic, part is because of all the stuff going on in the world, and a big part is because I am off my medication for ADD. All this means that sitting down and trying to concentrate is like herding cats, only herding cats sounds like a lot more fun.

This all changed a couple weeks ago, when a friend and I made the three hour trek to Purdue University in Indiana to hear Margaret Atwood speak. I have loved her writing ever since first reading The Handmaid’s Tale in high school, and each subsequent book has made me even more in awe of her gift. Of course, most of her books are hard to read right now (The Handmaid’s Tale and the MaddAddam trilogy don’t seem as much like fantasy now that women’s bodies, the environment, and freedom from corporate control seem in more danger every time I turn on the news), but I still love them.

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I admit to some nervousness, not just because I would be breathing the same oxygen as MARGARET ATWOOD, but out of fear that she would be different than I had imagined. Writers are human, of course, and have their flaws (I have countless!), but there have been situations where previous idols turned out to be quite problematic. Some (unnamed) examples: a male memoirist/poet was lecherous and skeezy in person, and a feminist writer made some terribly transphobic remarks. So I had some concerns; I didn’t think my heart could take Ms. Atwood becoming problematic.

I needn’t have worried. She stood on stage and spoke as if she owned the place, reading from some poems and a novel, all unpublished, all needing to be published as of yesterday, and answered questions with grace, respect, and humor. She was delightful. And she was inspiring.

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I came home with ideas and plans buzzing around in my brain. A few days ago, I sat down and jotted out a chapter for what I hope will become my first novel about a subject too close to my heart and life for me to write nonfiction about.

I am no longer jaded. I still can’t concentrate, but I rekindled my love for writing. We need our heroes. I’m just glad mine live up to the title.

The Great Work Begins…

(Sorry in advance for the political post)

It has been forever since I’ve updated, I know. I would offer excuses, but they don’t matter. Here’s what does matter: not posting is no longer an option.

I spent a great deal of last year in a haze–a good haze: finishing my MFA, getting married, spending time with my sister and four beautiful nephews while they were visiting from Ireland, and a bad haze: volunteering for campaigns that didn’t succeed, reeling from disbelief as someone was elected to the highest office with no experience and no willingness to learn–and the haze meant that I wasn’t writing. Not only was I not blogging, but I wasn’t creating ANYTHING. Not sending out my memoir. Not revising or writing new pieces for my essay collection about living as a bisexual liberal feminist in a red state. Not working on a novel about addiction. Nothing. Nada.

Then the inauguration happened. Then the executive orders began, and the nominations for deplorable people in ill-fitted positions. And I was still reeling. Then the discrediting of the media, labeling outlets such as CNN(!) as fake news, and calling lies “Alternative facts.” I did my part, I thought–I made signs, I marched, I rallied.

But then I remembered a quote from Angels in America:

“We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”

Silence is no longer an option. I cannot allow my writing to die a secret death, no more than I can allow others to silence it. When the media is silenced, it will be up to the rest of us to speak out, to share information. And it works–a potential LGBTQ discriminatory executive order was not signed. Many of my more conservative friends and family members are speaking out.

And I am writing. I am creating. This is my task in the great work. And I am beginning.

Always Keep Fighting, But Also, Love Yourself First

I know it’s been awhile since my last post–I was taking some time to finish my memoir, which is being sent out to publishers as I write (ack!), gearing up to graduate in June (ack again!), and planning my upcoming July wedding (double ack!), so time has been limited.

But, being busy isn’t the only reason. I’ve also been struggling, a lot, with my own issues. I have a slew of alphabetic diagnoses (PTSD, ADD, and GAD–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from domestic abuse, Attention Deficit Disorder from birth, I guess!, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder), and sometimes keeping up with everything, or anything, is hard. I hit some snafus with my health insurance, so I was off my ADD medication for a couple months, so even getting through a day without falling apart was hard. I think sometimes people assume ADD means just being flighty, but that isn’t the case. It means that everything is a distraction, a roadblock to completing a goal, whether that goal is writing a blog post, editing an essay, or just washing some dishes. It means day-to-day life is exhausting, because willing my brain to focus on anything other than a video game or a chapter in a YA novel (thank goodness for YA on my ADD days!) wears me out. And then you add anxiety, which means that any failure to focus is magnified a thousandfold, and my PTSD, which means that I assume that messing up will result in my fiancee hating me (thank goodness he is a good, patient man, or I would not be getting married), and it gets hard.

I’m not writing this for pity, or for attention, though. Well, not for attention for me. I am adding a new section to my blog called “Pop Culture Matters,” and this is the first post there. I started watching Supernatural a few months back, after the urging of my fiancee and my dear friend Shannon, and fell in love with the storylines, even the more outlandish ones, and the characters. I mean, Charlie (played by Felicia Day) is everything I want to be! But, more importantly, I fell in love with the actors. Not romantic love, of course–sadly, haha!–but the kind of love you find when a group of celebrities uses their fame for good.

That brings me to Jared Padalecki, who plays Sam Winchester and who I first discovered as my least favorite Rory guy on the Gilmore Girls. Anyway, I have been following one of his campaigns, #AlwaysKeepFighting, even before I started watching Supernatural. When you are diagnosed with mental illness, sometimes every day feels like a losing battle. I’ve lost some dear friends to their own battles, and I miss them every day. Padalecki’s message of always keep fighting, to not give in to even the worst pain, has been a life saver. We expect celebrities to be perfect. We put them on a pedestal and make them our idols. But by admitting his own struggles with mental illness, he has provided a guidepost to fans who may otherwise feel alone. (And two other actors, Jensen Ackles and Mischa Collins, just rolled out the #youarenotalone campaign, which I will discuss in a later post).

Yesterday, on the one year anniversary of #AlwaysKeepFighting, Padalecki rolled out a new campaign in a live chat on his facebook page:#LoveYourselfFirst Video. I missed the live chat, but watched the video a few minutes ago, and had a long, necessary cry. When living with mental illness, especially on bad days where all you can do is keep fighting to not give in, it is easy to hate yourself, to think you are defective or wrong or damaged. What is so hard, and what we need to be reminded of, is that even in our worst days, we are worthy of love. Even when we feel our most alone, we must remember to love ourselves first.

I struggle with this. I hate my ADD a lot. I hate that I can’t focus, and that when I’m not on my meds, small tasks feel impossible. I hate the anxiety that makes me feel like a failure, the inner voice that says “this is not good enough.” I hate the PTSD that makes me feel damaged, dirty, and unworthy of love. But those, while a part of me, are not ME. I also work in mental health, and know that when our lives are centered around helping and protecting others, it is easy to neglect our own self-care.

I needed to see the video above. I needed the reminder to care for myself. To love myself, or at least try to, before trying to love others. Self-care is important.

And, to any of you out there fighting, I love you as well.

 

Yeah, TOAST! (Because sometimes writing is a right pain in the…)

I am currently hard at work on my memoir. It has been slow going for the past year–partly from good old-fashioned procrastination, but mostly because it hurts to write. Not the emotional kind of hurting (although there definitely is that!), but the physical, hands cramping, wrist and thumb feel like they’re on fire type of pain. After several doctor’s appointments, my general practitioner thinks I have some radial nerve damage from my day job (I work at a psychiatric hospital and she thinks the pain is from the physical management we have to do). But, whatever the cause, I have had several days where I’ve sat down to write and had to stop because my hands hurt too much to hold a pen or press a key on the keyboard. I could get small bits of relief from wrapping a heating pad around my hands and wearing a neoprene brace, but those are temporary solutions and neither is much help when I have a looming deadline.

Because not working and not writing are not options, I had to find other solutions. My first solution was switching from predominately using a laptop to a desktop computer with an ergonomic keyboard (see below).

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Rocket and Groot approve of this keyboard

I went to several stores and “typed” on the tester keyboards before settling on the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000. It took a little while to adjust to the different key placement, and I am still slower on it than on a traditional keyboard. It’s also much larger than my laptop keyboard, and the spacebar is less sensitive than the other keys, but I can use it for longer (around a half hour) before my hands start to cramp too badly.

Still, a half hour is not long enough when I have to have half the memoir completed for my first packet of this MFA independent study, so I had to get creative. That’s when I stumbled upon these little gems: Smoko’s USB Handwarmers.

Yay for toast-y hands!!!

Yay for toast-y hands!!!

Meant for people who work in cold office environments, the handwarmers are small heaters that wrap around your hands and plug into your computer’s USB ports. I like fun, toy-like office supplies (as evidenced by Rocket and Groot above!) so these are perfect! When they’re on, my hands are free to type without restraint (I am wearing them as I type this post, for example) and the constant heat makes for a pain-free writing experience. I may have to dedicate my memoir to Smoko!20150711_06543520150711_065414

What about you guys? What solutions have you found for writing pain?

“Words and Ideas Can Change the World”

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”–Robin Williams as Professor Keating, Dead Poets Society

When the clock struck midnight–well, flashed midnight; in our digital era, clocks don’t really strike anymore–and everyone was kissing loved ones, my mind turned to my craft. I had a few grandiose plans–write every day, finish my memoir, etcetera–and while the memoir might still happen, writing every day has not. After all, the real world still comes crashing in at unfortunate times. However, those were not my only resolutions. My biggest one, and most important one, was to make sure that I use my craft “for good,” to mean something more than expressing my own inner angst or whatever emotions I happen to be feeling at a given moment, but to somehow make an impact.

The year is young–only 25 days old–but I am off to a decent start. Last Saturday, I was blessed enough to be able to read my essay, “When Mountains Were Mountains,” as part of a celebration for the 2014 New Southerner Literary Edition. (The essay can be read online at www.newsoutherner.com). “When Mountains Were Mountains” was written as a response to the first time I saw a mountain that had fallen victim to mountaintop removal mining, how it seemed like its soul was sucked out along with the coal. It’s a terrible practice, resulting in deaths, cancer, loss of natural waterways, and severe environmental damage that can never be recovered. People have been forced from their homes, sometimes at gunpoint, so their ancestral land can be destroyed.

It’s a controversial topic, especially here in Kentucky where you can purchase a specialty license plate for “Friends of Coal” but not one for any of the groups fighting to end mountaintop removal. But it’s an important topic, as well. As a result of the reading, I was able to talk to people who had no idea that mountaintop removal was a thing, or who didn’t realize how detrimental it is. And, something I am still in shock about–a woman in the audience pulled me aside after the reading and asked if she could use my essay in a class she is teaching. I cannot express how honored I am to have been asked. Of course I said yes–not because of the exposure of a classroom of students reading something I wrote (although exposure is always good!) but because maybe those students will decide to act against MTR as well.

Words feel small sometimes, especially surrounded by so much white space on a page. But they’re important. They have power. And I want my power to count for something.

I’m Writin— Wait, look, a shiny!

First off, it has been forever since I’ve added a post here–sorry. I was teaching last semester, on top of working on my MFA and working third shift full time, so a lot of things fell by the wayside. Unfortunately, the blog was one of those things. I’m back, though.

“To pay attention, that is our endless and proper work.”

–Mary Oliver

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have Attention Deficit Disorder. I take medication twice a day to stay focused, and generally do quite well, but sometimes I get overwhelmed and wait too long before something is due, and my ADD kicks in full-gear.

This semester, I’m writing an extended critical essay–essentially a research thesis–and was still teaching around the time the first draft was due. I worked on it when I could, but one of the symptoms of my ADD is that when there is a lot to do, I freeze up and do very little. So the ECE got put off until the week before the due date. I’d been working on it–researching and outlining and all that jazz–but hadn’t put in the steady writing and revision time that I like to do. However, I did finish and was able to submit a draft on time.

Then I got feedback on the draft. Much of it was positive, but toward the end of the draft–i.e., where my medication was wearing off!–there were several sentences that made little sense. There was one entire paragraph where even I couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say!

This is why I love revision. If it wasn’t for the revision process, I wouldn’t be able to be a writer. Or, rather, I could write–I will never NOT write–but there’s no way I could publish. Nothing would be readable.

I used to hate my brain. I hated how I would know what I wanted to write inside my brain, but it never translated on the page. I hated how I would hit a good flow, and something would distract me, and I would lose the flow of what I was trying to write. I hated that I came across as scatterbrained and ditzy (well, sometimes, I still do!) But I’m learning. I’m learning that I need to give myself time to complete a writing project, and that I need to forgive my imperfections and shortcomings; otherwise, I’ll never improve. But most of all, I need to allow shitty drafts early on, and ample time for revisions.

I have another week before the next draft is due, and I’ve revised twice already. Here’s hoping this one makes sense!

“Excuse me, my Kentucky’s Showing”: A Writer Sinks Her Toes in Bluegrass

I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky

–Abraham Lincoln 

 

Cliches become cliches because they’re true, and for me, “sometimes you can come home again” is that cliche. I’ve lived my entire life in Louisville, KY, and I spent a great deal of my adolescence and early adulthood despising my home state. Tired of my accent marking me as ignorant, and of saying “yes, I’m wearing shoes” to not-so-funny jokes, I tried to exorcise the twang from my voice and the bluegrass from my blood. Longing for a home to make my dreams come true, I thought I needed to flee. 

You see, I’m a writer. And when I was growing up, local history wasn’t covered in schools, and local authors were never read. I was in college before I discovered Robert Penn Warren, Wendell Berry, and Bobbie Ann Mason, and even then I thought they were anomalies. I thought that in order to be a writer, I needed to be where “culture” was, somewhere like New York or at least somewhere with an appreciation for the arts. I never moved, but I dreamed of the day I’d leave it all behind and find the place I was meant to be.

I didn’t realize I was here all along. 

A couple brief examples from my most recent MFA residency: in workshop, any time my accent “slipped out,” I apologized. “Excuse me, my Kentucky’s showing.” It was a joke, but not really. Another example: One of the faculty members, Fenton Johnson, related that when he travels throughout Europe and says he’s a writer, he is immediately given respect. In America, it’s the opposite–he gets the question “What do you really do?” As if writing is just a hobby, and one cannot really write as a lifestyle. There’s one exception to this, however–Kentucky. This is the only place where he has seen writing receive any respect in America. So I guess we’re doing something right!

I’ve also been fortunate enough to sit in lectures and readings by Kentucky writers like Crystal Wilkinson, Frank X. Walker, and Silas House, all of whom are proud of their Kentucky heritage. By hearing their Southern voices drawl out words that ring with beauty, I began to hear my own accent as less embarrassing. 

This past Friday night, I emceed a reading at Louisville’s Local Speed Art Gallery, “Spalding at the Speed: A Gathering of MFA and Community Writers.” The series was my brainchild but I’ve never emceed it before. It was scary, especially when there were so many writers who I deeply admire reading (Kirby Gann, Debra Kang Dean, Sarah Anne White Thielmeier, Bernard Clay, Sean Patrick Hill, Justin Dobring, Kimberly Crum, and Bobbi Buchanan). I should mention that any time I’m nervous, “my Kentucky slips out.” “I” becomes “ahh” and not “eye,” “get” becomes “git,” etc. 

Normally, I would cringe. 

Normally, I would be embarrassed.

I wasn’t. 

I heard my twang, and I realized something: I am proud. My state is not perfect. We’re blowing up mountains for coal, and there is discrimination here–but we’re also working to save those mountains, and I watched as a small Appalachian town passed a fairness ordinance. There is poverty and illiteracy, but there are grassroots organization, a concern for one another, and so much literature. 

My Kentucky’s showing, and I’m damn pleased that it is. 

Wait, wait, wait… Come back here!!!

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(Comic from http://phdcomics.com/comics.php–my favorite way to waste time, err, I mean, laugh about procrastinating. Something like that).

So, let’s talk about my biggest struggle lately–motivation. I’m not working on a thesis, per se–I still have two more semesters before my thesis semester–but I am working on pieces that may become part of my creative thesis. My MFA program is low-residency, which means that each semester, I work with a faculty mentor. Every three and a half weeks, I send her a packet of around 35 pages of creative writing, two short analytic essays, and miscellaneous assignments. This is a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it means I receive feedback from a well-accomplished, talented writer in my field, and because it forces me to write; a curse because it FORCES ME TO WRITE.

I’m a writer because I love to write. But sometimes, it’s so damn hard. And lately, I feel like I have a million things on my plate: work, MFA responsibilities, submissions for publication, organizing a reading series, an assistantship, running a writing group, and trying to somehow fit in time with my boyfriend (who is wonderful and supportive and understanding) and keeping the house in order. I admit, I usually fail at the housekeeping part. But recently, I feel like I am not giving enough of me to any of these things, and then my motivation to work on ANYTHING suffers. I have a packet due in less than a week, and I still need to draft one analytic essay (it is, for the most part, outlined at least) and finish the book for the second one. I also have a reading that I am emceeing on Friday that I need to prepare for. I am woefully behind. This is not like me–I am a perfectionist and am usually really motivated. I get everything done early and then agonize over revising it all until I turn it in. But the past couple weeks, I have found myself hating the sight of my computer or my notebook, because they remind me of everything I’m not doing. And I get farther and farther behind.

I know, rationally, that I will pull it together and get everything done. I just hate this feeling of wading through jello to get there.

Anyone out there struggle with a lack of motivation? I would love to read how you manage to stay afloat. Leave me a comment below!