For the Love of a Good List

I don’t know if any of you have caught on to this by any chance, but I’m not a particularly organized person as a rule. Things scamper into my brain and if I don’t capture them on paper, there’s no hope of them not scampering right back out again.

I have a great deal of faith in The List. When I was preparing to go off to my freshman year of college, I was going to a school where I knew absolutely no one. Not a single one of my friends was going there, or even a vague acquaintance. As much as this terrified me, I also knew it was an opportunity that may or may not ever come again- the chance to be exactly who I wanted to be, no baggage, and no history except for what I chose to share.

So naturally, I made a list. The qualities I wanted to have, the things I wanted to participate in, goals I wanted to achieve, they were all in there. And the crazy thing is, it worked. I wasn’t exactly shy, cashiering and theatre had knocked that out of me, but I didn’t love meeting people either, and I was perfectly content to not say a word to anyone. Once I went to college, I purposely went out and talked to random people. I went to meetings, lectures, events- I’d hunt out the people who looked as awkward as I felt and sweep them under my wing. I can safely say that list played a huge part in becoming who I am now. Without it I would never have hung onto all those things about who I wanted to be and how to get there, or why it was even important to me in the first place.

So what does my lovely little coming-of-age tale have to do with writing? Let’s go back to the list.

What do you know about what you want to write, how you’re going to get it done, and what you’re going to do with it? I’ll freely admit I’m not great about this myself, usually I’m lucky if there’s a submission date scribbled on a post-it somewhere in the heap of notes and outlines. But how can you really measure where you’re going and how you’re improving if you don’t have much to compare it to? How do you keep your goals for learning and improving, for querying and submitting, and for getting words on the page front and center?

It can be easy to just write, write some more, occasionally edit, and all the while have some vague ideas about things you’ll do someday. If you want to work with purpose, making conscious improvements and taking calculated risks, I suggest you set aside a few minutes to write some things down. Think about where you want to go. Who you want to be as a writer, what you hope to achieve. Let these ideas simmer and, when you’re ready, commit them to a list. Then, come slow days or addictive tv shows or rejections, keep true to the list and stay the course until you reach your goal.

The Writing is the Living

Anyone who has ever put words on a page has probably struggled at one point or another with that oh-so-glorious question- am I a writer? They say that to call yourself a writer, you simply have to be writing. That seems pretty straightforward and easy to grasp- but don’t be fooled. The doubt monkeys- well, mine comes as monkeys. I don’t know about yours.- they still crop up again and again, still over this question of identity, of whether you have the “right” to call yourself a writer.

I’d like to share with you guys a few things my doubt monkeys say to me, and how I try to answer them back: maybe some of these will resonate with you. Feel free to use the arguments I do, if you need- and when that doesn’t work, there’s always coffee ice cream with chocolate chunks.

Guilt Monkey Argument #1: You Don’t Have Anything Published

I’m not saying never ever, because through youth and young adulthood I’ve had various small pieces out in various small venues…but I have yet to be PUBLISHED-a story in a magazine, or a book on a shelf with my name on it. What I always come back to is that, essentially, “writer” is a name and title we assign to someone who puts words on a page. Sometimes I think we imbue it with this particular holiness: Behold, a Writer! But frankly, writer is no different than teacher or lawyer,or even blonde, tall, or pudgy. They are all just words. They come with particular meanings, yes- we expect a teacher to have a classroom perhaps, or a lawyer to have some knack for public speaking. We expect a blonde woman to have hair in some shade of yellow, and someone tall to reach things we- or I, at least- can’t. We expect that a writer is a person who, when other people are watching tv, or taking naps, or doing their laundry, is instead sitting with a pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard, putting words in lines. Whether these are good words or bad words, orderly or a disaster, seen by many or only their creator, this is essentially irrelevant. If you string one word to another word, most often followed by a third, you’re a writer.

Guilt Monkey Argument #2: You’re Having Neither an Epiphany Nor A Dark Night of the Soul

I see people all over the place endlessly saying they shed tears over their work, or it was like ripping their hearts out to put the words on the page. Other people go on writing journeys that seem to lead them to these moments of wonder, awe and amazement- at what, I’m not totally sure. Please don’t get me wrong, if you find that much of your heart and soul in your writing, then I am quite glad for you. That is the power of words after all. But me, I rarely feel that way about a story. I feel struggle, yes, when I can’t get a section right, and I feel definite triumph every time I reach the end. But for me, writing a novel is very much like performing in a play. I adopt the story, the skin and bones, of the person to whom that world belongs. I write what they see and hear and feel, hopefully well enough so someone else can have the same experience. But I am always between- conscious of myself, aware that the story is inevitably changed simply by the fact that I am the one writing it. There’s a sense of deliberate removal from the events on the page- an impartiality that, for me, is the only way I could tell a story truly. All of us write differently, just as no two stories are the same. That style doesn’t make us any less a writer.

Guilt Monkey Argument #3: (my personal frequent-flier nightmare) You’re Not Writing At This Moment

Sometimes I go several days without writing even a small section of whatever novel I’m in the midst of. This is frequently the result of one too many pots on the stove: work, school, volunteering, managing my disease and all the ripple effects of muscles that occasionally break out into their own song and dance routine, long distance family events, friends and adventures, etc. Other times, I simply don’t write. I have the time, but I use it otherwise. And every single time I do, this little monkey surfaces again. But being a writer is more than that very basic definition we established earlier-stringing words together. Writing is living with open eyes. Writing is a constant awareness of the thoughts in your head, the beat of your heart, the sound of your footsteps on pavement. Writing is noting how the sun falls as it crests the hill, the smell of your morning coffee, the whispered gossip in the cubicle next to you. Writing is more than words on a page- writing is a kind of living. You might do it so naturally you’ve never stopped to note it, but don’t be mistaken- not everyone lives this way. You may not be mid-project at this exact moment. You might even be a few months post-project and not sure what that makes you. But as long as your silence is deliberate…a silence of waiting and nurturing ideas, deliberating lines and soaking in all the world has to offer, a break in the rush where you take time to just be alive, so you can imbue that vibrancy into your work, then my friend, I am pleased to tell you: you are indeed a writer.

Radio Silence and Song

You guys are still here!

Me too.

Let me recap the last approximately two weeks for you, and maybe you can forgive the absence. My sister stayed with me for an entire week, which was absolutely amazing, but wow! I knew it must be extremely difficult to work, have kids, and even think of watching one of your own shows, let alone get some writing done, but I didn’t realize just how hard. I adored having her here, but my admiration for any parent that is able to write, especially single parents, but all parents writing novels, maintaining blogs, etc, skyrocketed as a result of that week!

This was followed by an extremely busy week of playing writing catch up. I did, at long last, finally finish the rough draft of my novel! You may assure yourself there was great rejoicing- I wasn’t positive I could pull that thing together, but in the end, there it was! I spent the several days after that revising,polishing, fussing with and, at last, submitting a few short stories to various places…

And here we are.

So. Some takeaways for today, because this post would just be nonsense without them. First thing: there is never NO time to write. If you have to scribble 200 words on a notepad by flashlight in the dark, you can find five minutes to put something down, keeping your mind drenched in the creative. Second, while you’re at it, a busy life may include only short and small bursts of production, but you can live in the center of an observing and embracing mind- always keep all your senses attuned, ask questions, go down the side trails. There are many adventures to be discovered.

Third, and finally, don’t give up just because your progress is slow or frequently interrupted. Embrace time with those you love, because you don’t know how long you’ve got them, and keep all those ideas and dreams and emotions bottled so that when you do sit down to create, it’s all right there waiting for you. After all, life is the stuff stories are made of.