This Too Shall Pass… I hope

Last week, I got involved in a conversation on Twitter about the challenges of writing while attending school. It was past midnight, so I let out a lot of feelings I normally try to keep tucked away. Now, in the light of day, I’m trying to crystalize what we were talking about into something coherent and at least a little bit constructive on the challenges of writing while you’re a student and, because this is how those challenges have manifested for me, overcoming cosmic writer’s block.

 

To be completely honest, all through college and the few years after college before I started law school, my friends considered me something of a writing wonder. I write a lot, and I write fast. And in college, I always found time to write. But at the same time, I was steeped in creativity. My friends were the same people in my writing group. We would set aside hours for quiet writing time. We were so involved with each other’s stories that we talked about them all the time, formulating theories, helping each other work out plot holes, and so on. And when we weren’t writing or talking about our projects, we were disecting books we were reading and shows and movies we were watching. It was a really great experience, and if you have a group like that in college, then I totally agree with anyone who says that college is the best time to get writing done. But I’ve also heard a lot of college students say that it’s hard to get writing done in college because of all the other things you have to balance, and while I didn’t really get it as an undergraduate, I’m definitely getting it now.

 

Since I left college and I’ve lost that constant, in-person writing support group, writing has become a struggle for me. I kept going through my first year of law school, partly because it was the only thing that was keeping me sane. But it wasn’t easy the way writing used to be easy. Just the other day, I saw a Facebook post from last year where I was saying that I was going to do Camp NaNoWriMo in April because I was tired of a paragraph feeling like a victory. And in my second year of law school, it’s only gotten worse. I was told my second year of law school would be easier than the first, but this has turned out to be a big fat lie, at least for me. The only real difference is that I chose all the things that are making me busy. Still, I managed to get some short stories written in the fall, and even about a third of a new novel during NaNoWriMo in November, at least before the work really hit, and I had to write a two hundred page paper and edit it four times with a partner in a month, and I stopped writing. And anything I’ve written since has been like pulling teeth and doesn’t even feel like a victory when it’s on the page.

 

I’m calling this cosmic writer’s block. It’s not like writer’s block as you would traditionally think of it. I’m not stuck on a specific story or a specific scene. I’ve tried switching projects, and now I just have about fifteen unfinished projects floating around, which of course just makes me feel worse about the whole thing. I’ve tried all the things the internet recommends for combatting writer’s block—taking walks, taking showers, just powering through because writer’s block isn’t real, and—but nothing helped. I remembered the distinction Anne Lamott drew in her book Bird by Bird, the distinction between blocked and empty. But even her suggestion to do things that normally inspire you, like reading books or watching movies or TV shows that inspire you to write really hasn’t made  much of a dent. I’m just exhausted, and the idea of writing right now feels more exhausting, and when I can’t write, I’m even more discouraged and exhausted. So even though I’m fully aware that I’m spiraling, I can’t stop it. I just have no desire to write, and since for so long writing has been the only thing I really want to do, this is really scary to me.

 

I don’t have any answers to this, except that maybe I just need a week-long nap. But that’s part of the point of this post. I’m not here to tell some story about how perseverance makes everything okay, because I can’t say that right now, and if you’re feeling anything like me, you don’t want to hear that. I’m talking about writing, but I could be talking about any number of things in my life in the past few months, and any time I try to talk to someone about how I’m feeling, they come up with some baloney about how your twenties suck and “this too shall pass.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard those words in the past few months, I could probably pay back a big chunk of my student loans, which would be a lot more useful than that advice. Maybe it will pass. I really hope it does pass. But right now I’m in the middle of it, and it feels like it won’t ever get better, and just saying “this too shall pass” is the least helpful thing anyone can say.

 

So I don’t want to hear that this will get better. I don’t want you to present me with all the examples of other writers who have overcome this kind of block or received hundreds of rejections or who have struggled with writing as a student. What I want is to know that I’m not the only one struggling with these feelings. What I want is to have a productive conversation about these feelings and how we, the young writers and students, can deal with them. Because as far as I can tell, these conversations aren’t happening. To write about rejection and confidence issues and writer’s block and the unique challenges faced by writers who are also students, to some extent we need to talk about failure. Nobody wants to talk about their own failures. And nobody wants to come across as whiny or bitter or incapable. If you’re trying to be a professional writer, it’s not the image you want to present to the interwebs. Even I struggled with whether I wanted to write this post, but I can’t be the only one struggling with this. And if I’m not alone, then maybe writing a post about these challenges will help someone else, even if it just lets them know that others are out there dealing with the same things.

 

So here I am. I am trying to write while attending law school. At this moment, I am struggling with writer’s block on a level i have never experienced before. I’ve published a few short stories, yes, but I’ve received way more rejections, and right now my predominant feeling is that I am somehow a failure and I will never be a successful writer.

 

I hope that someday soon I will be able to write a blog post about how I’ve gotten past all this. But right now, I’m in the middle of it, and sometimes I feel like I’m not going to get past it. If there’s a magic bullet to kickstart my creative brain, I’d love to hear about it. But while I don’t have a magic bullet of my own, I do have some inkling of the roots of the problem.

 

First, I need to work on setting reasonable goals for myself. I had this crazy idea that I would write an entire novel during NaNoWriMo last November and then spend the rest of the school year editing it to perfection, all while keeping up with all my classes and clinics. This was a ridiculous goal, but it was still what I wanted to accomplish this year. And when I failed, I couldn’t pick myself up and press on.

 

As a student, you’re juggling a lot of things: classes, including homework, projects, and exams; extracurricular activities; summer internship and post-graduation job searches; having a social life; and any hobbies you want to keep up. You also have to eat and sleep. Throw consistently writing into that mix, and it’s a little mind-boggling that one person can handle so much. If goals and deadlines motivate you to accomplish things, that’s great. Set goals. But don’t set crazy goals. And when things get out of hand and you don’t accomplish your goals, you can’t beat yourself up over it.

 

Obviously, I really need to work on this. It usually works for me to set goals for myself, but when I fail to accomplish them, I beat myself up and just make the situation worse. I have realized this is a problem, and I’m working on solving it. I considered doing Camp NaNoWriMo again this month and setting a small goal for myself that I felt would be a challenge but would still be something I could accomplish. But I also recognized that I have two fifteen-page papers due this month, as well as a final play to write and perform for my french class and a final exam. I also need to get everything in order for my summer internships. And in the place where I am now, even setting myself a small writing goal would be setting myself up for failure, which wouldn’t help the situation at all.

 

This goes for goals for publication too. The publication market is so subjective, and so much of it is outside your control, that beating yourself up over success or lack-there-of is just counterproductive. The most you can do to pursue a goal of getting published is to keep writing and keep submitting. Yes, rejections suck, but remember why you are writing. For me, I’m writing for myself, because I have a story inside me that needs to be told. Beyond that, I have a close group of friends who want to know what happens next. I hope  that someone, at some time, thinks that others need to read my stories too, but if an editor thinks that’s not the case, I’m not going to let that stop me from writing, because first and foremost I’m writing for me. I’m writing because it makes me happy.

 

Finding what inspires you also helps. Generally reading inspires me to write, and in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been reading a lot in the past few months. But this year I’ve been reading books that I haven’t read before. A couple weeks ago, I picked up The Hunger Games books and started rereading them. And for the first time in a long time, I felt like I might want to sit down and write. I first read The Hunger Games back in college, and it was a big inspiration for my memory-wiping academy novel, which I’m now editing and expanding into a series. So maybe, if you’re stuck, don’t just do things that typically inspire you. If you can pinpoint it, specifically target what drove you to write this story in the first place and revisit it. It might also help to reread what you’ve written so far and remind yourself that it isn’t complete garbage and there’s a reason you’re writing this story in the first place. Basically, find what will inspire you now, which may  not be what usually inspires you, and tap into it.

 

Remember that there’s time. Along with setting reasonable goals for yourself and not beating yourself up if you have to change those goals, remember that there’s time. Yes, it would be fantastic to write, edit, and publish a novel before you’re twenty, or twenty-five, or whatever age you pick. But you’re in school for a reason, and even if you’re studying creative writing, that reason is to learn, not to write the next Harry Potter. Also, all your experiences in school and beyond school will inspire your writing and contribute to the stories you tell. I really, really wanted to get my novel published before I graduated college, but now I’m glad I didn’t, because my experiences being on my own, separated from my family and friends, and adulting for the first time in Italy right after college really informed my characters’ struggles and decisions, and ultimately made that story stronger. So don’t freak out. There’s time.

 

And because there’s time, it’s okay to take a break to recharge. School is exhausting, and it is also constant. You are surrounded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, with school. In a lot of ways, I feel like law school has taken away everything I love to do, one by one: reading books in Braille, playing the clarinet, drawing, and now writing, mostly because I’m just too busy and too exhausted to keep it up. I’ve clung to writing, saying oan more than one occasion that it’s the only thing keeping me sane. But now I can’t even muster that up. So if you’re just burnt out, which I’m feeling like is a large part of my writer’s block right now, it’s okay to take a break, let the creative part of your brain reboot, and get back to it when you feel ready.

 

I’m only just starting to feel the itch in my subconscious calling me back to my writing projects. Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about my stories more than I have in a while. I haven’t really gotten to the actual writing part. So I could be completely wrong about these strategies for how to write while being a student or how to overcome writer’s block. I’m still in the middle of all of this,  and I’m hoping that it will get better and I can tell you for sure that these things worked for me. I hope that these strategies work for you, too, if you’re having a hard time, and I hope it helps to know that you’re not alone in your feelings. And I would love to hear others’ opinions on how to overcome this cosmic writing block and how to successfully manage being a student and writing.

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It’s Getting Eerie What’s This Cheery Singing All About

The other day, I was listening to David Arkenstone’s “The Painted Seals” on my iPod, when I looked up and said to my parents, “If I ever have a book that gets made into a movie, I want this guy to do the score.” This struck my parents as an unusual thing to say, until I pointed out that many of my writer friends pick out their ideal casts for the possible movie of their books.  Having an ideal cast for your novel does a lot of things.  It gives you visuals for your characters, and it can also help you narrow down some basics about your characters’ personalities—if you pick an actor who always plays a certain type of character or a certain role in a movie, then you’re saying something about your character.  But creating an ideal cast for the hypothetical movie of my novel has never really worked for me: Besides the fact that I can never remember actors’ names, the visualization is sort of a problem, but that’s an entirely  different topic.

 

So I work with music.  I create soundtracks and scores for my projects, and I listen to them while I’m writing.

 

I’m a very musical person: I sing in my college’s community choir, I’ve played clarinet for twelve years, and before that, I played piano for ten.  I also come from a very musical family.  Everyone in my family can play an instrument and sing.  My older brother was the lead in all the musicals in high school, and don’t even get me started on my cello prodigy younger brother.

 

But being a musical person and coming from a musical family is only part of it.  Yes, I identify with music as a tool to help me focus my writing, but I’m certainly not the only one.  This Writer’s Digest post about writing routines that work talks about using music as inspiration and focus.  There are projects like David Arkenstone’s album Music Inspired by Middle Earth or The Hunger Games Music Project.  And most of my friends make playlists of some kind or another to listen to as they write.

 

What interests me is that there doesn’t seem to be one tried and true method for this.  What sort of music inspires you really depends on who you are and also on what sort of project you’re working on.  I know people who have playlists for specific characters, and I know other people who have playlists of songs that capture moods, themes, or specific moments in stories.  Some of my friends use solely instrumental music, or don’t use instrumental music at all, or use a mix.

 

What I do honestly depends on what I’m writing.  At first, I thought that I always did the same thing for each project, but I’m starting to realize that’s not true.  My playlist for the memory wiping academy novel is a mix of instrumental songs and songs with words, while there are no strictly instrumental songs in my playlist for the small child wizard novel.  For both playlists, I have arranged the songs in such a way that for me they tell the story.  I never shuffle these playlists and always listen to them in order.

 

For the World War II Italy novel, on the other hand, I have a giant collection of all the Italian music on my iPod in one playlist, including Italian pop and light rock, Italian Disney songs, the soundtrack to Life Is Beautiful, and two albums of fascist marches—oh, the glory of what you can find on iTunes! I almost always shuffle this playlist, and I listen to it more for the mood than for specific plot points.  This might be because my outline for this project is still pretty sketchy, and maybe I’ll go through and make a more coherent playlist as I flesh out my outline and start to write, but right now, this works.

 

There are so many good things about using music when you’re writing.  For me, songs contain little stories and moments in themselves.  Specific songs that I associate with specific points in my work can help me focus in on what I’m trying to accomplish.  What is the ultimate mood or arc of this chapter or scene or even this moment? What are the characters doing or thinking or feeling here? What part of the ultimate theme should come through?

 

It’s hard to describe exactly, but on a larger scale, I feel like my playlists for my two fantasy novels have a sort of continuity in the type of music and the feel of the music, and if a song jumps out as not quite fitting with that, maybe that says something about what I’m trying to do at that point in the novel.  I’ve even discovered repetition of earlier themes in my playlists that I hadn’t noticed before and decided to play up in the actual writing.  For example, in the small child wizard novel, the first song in the playlist is “One Jump Ahead” from Aladdin, and later, its reprise represents another character’s point of view.  Beyond helping me focus in on parts of the story I already know occur, I’ve sometimes even been inspired by songs.  I included “Do You Hear the People Sing” on my memory wiping academy novel’s playlist because that specific song and a joke someone made about the implications of my characters going caroling ultimately helped me figure out how my climax will play out when I get there.

 

I don’t want this to come across like I rely on music exclusively for these things.  I don’t.  I do visualize scenes like a movie in my head.  I’ve tried drawing my characters, which hasn’t gone very well.  I’ve considered writing a chapter in script form to see how it would be different—though I haven’t actually done this.  I did once translate the first few paragraphs of a story into Italian, which was a really interesting exploration of words and what words mean and the ultimate meaning I wanted to get out of the beginning of my story.  Most of the time, if I have a problem, I find myself talking my way through it rather than turning to my music.  On the other hand, listening to my playlists while I’m writing helps put me in the right mood and get ready to crank some words out and have fun doing it, which is ultimately the reason I write.

 

(Title Quote: “I’ve Got a Theory/Bunnies/If We’re Together”)

My Shiny Teeth and Me

When I pictured myself blogging about writing, I never imagined I would write about where ideas come from.  Why should I? Everyone does, and everyone says the same thing: Ideas come from anything and everything.  They come from books and movies and things you witness on the street and scraps of information in the newspaper or a textbook and anywhere else you can think of.  Be observant, everyone says, pay attention to the world around you, even eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, and voila! You have an idea.  The point is, as 2011 Alpha guest David Levine told us, “Ideas are like neutrinos—they shoot down from space and you just have to be dense enough to stop one.”

So I never pictured myself writing about it, because I honestly don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  I have not, much to my chagrin, found a secret well of ideas or a failsafe method to find inspiration for that novel that you just know you have inside you.  What I mostly have is a testimonial to the bizarre way our minds work and the truth to the fact that ideas are all around us and we just have to know where to look.

A week ago, if someone were to ask me where I got the idea for my current project—what I’ll call the memory wiping academy novel for simplicity’s sake—I would have listed a collection of books and TV shows that mushed together to influence the book.  The Hunger Games, Never Let Me Go, Hogwarts, and River from Firefly are just a few.  My dentist’s office would not have been on that list.

To give you some necessary information, in the novel, the students in the academy have their memories routinely wiped by an ear-piercing screeching sound produced by brightly colored rooms.  A week ago, I assumed that the idea had come from somewhere, but I didn’t know exactly where.  My fear of surgery and the Spongebob episode with the padded yellow room might be factors, as well as my desire to find something that was thematically connected to my protagonist’s affinity for music.  But then I went to the dentist.  As I was sitting in the waiting room, reading my Italian history book and waiting for my name to be called, a hygienist came out and called a little girl, and as she got up, the hygienist said, “You’ll be in the yellow room today, honey.” My immediate instinct was to jump up, grab the little girl, and protect her from the horrible fate that awaited her in the yellow room.  It’s funny now, but I was seriously freaked out then, and a few minutes later, as I was being led to the white room, I honestly felt like I was going to scream.  Right then, I was positive that this was where the idea for my colorful memory wiping rooms came from.  At some point, my subconscious stored the idea of the new colored rooms at the pediatric dentist’s office, and when I was looking for a way to wipe my characters’ memories, it presented this to me.

I’ve been thinking about it all week, and at this point, I honestly don’t know if I originally got the idea from the dentist’s office or if I’ve just recontextualized the yellow room or the white room so thoroughly that I caused myself to have that reaction.  There’s no way to prove it now, but it is a distinct possibility that the dentist’s office did give me the idea, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.  Ideas are like neutrinos.  But how do we become dense enough to stop them? If the dentist really was my inspiration, how come I didn’t realize it then? How can I become more open to the world so that I can not just absorb potential ideas to use at a later date but recognize that I am doing so? And if ideas are so prevalent, I guess the question becomes not so much how do you get one, but how do you know what’s worth using? And then how do you use it?

I’m certainly not the only one to consider this, and I don’t have any answers.  There are books upon books about the craft of writing, how to get inspiration, how to turn your idea into a story, and then how to write that story.  I’ve been writing for years, so I have plenty of experience, but I’m obviously no expert.  I didn’t even want to start blogging about writing with ideas, but then I had one, and I just had to write about it, which seems to be how it works.  But after my experience at the dentist’s, I’m interested in further exploring this path from subconscious absorption of ideas to a full story.  Right now though, all I can say for sure is that I’m switching dentists.

(Title quote: “My Shiny Teeth and Me”)