20,000, overwhelmed

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I’ve been writing. A lot.

I’ve been trying not to judge myself too harshly. It’s progress to get anything done at all, and I’ve probably written 20,000 words since I committed to writing again a month or so ago. 20,000. Twenty THOUSAND.

I’m proud but… not. I don’t know. I’ve always been a fast reader. I can read a book in a day; I just often choose not to. Writing is similar. I can write very, very quickly. I can make coherent sentences all day long and not get bored. But sentences are just sentences. Meaning: when I say I can write all day long and not get bored, I mean I can spend a whole day translating what’s happening in my head into writing. “Translating” makes it sound important. It’s not. It’s more like transferring. If I spent all day, every day, transferring every thought in my head into writing, I’d have way more than 20,000 words. But none of it would mean anything.

The 20,000 words I wrote in March aren’t necessarily the kind of words I could’ve “transferred” straight from head to page, but they aren’t essays, either. I’m struggling to stay focused on one subject. I’m struggling to complete a draft. I’m struggling to care about a single thing long enough to even consider it a complete section. I know it’s victory enough to have written at all, to have maintained this excitement for a whole month. But I’m frustrated that my writing isn’t going anywhere. I’m not sure how I ever reigned myself in before.

Also, I’m cheating on creative nonfiction. I started buying short story anthologies and books of poetry. I started thinking horrible thoughts, like: what if I was only good because I was writing in a genre that not many people specialize in? What if I’m wasting my time trying to perfect the craft of the essay when real writers only care about fiction and poetry? What if being a good creative nonfiction writer means nothing at all?

I think it’s really just an issue of focus: I’m so excited to be writing again that I can’t even settle on a genre, let alone a topic within a given genre. I love creative nonfiction, but I’ve been away from poetry and fiction for just as long, and it’s so exciting to feel like I’m a part of this world again. Literary magazines are waiting in my mailbox when I come home from work. Each day I read short stories and poems and essays and I can barely finish one before finding another I want to start. It’s overwhelming.

I want to learn and forgive myself and write complete pieces all at the same time, and it feels impossible. It probably is. It’s only been a month.

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Some thoughts on grad school (fifth time’s the charm?)

I’m thinking about grad school again (cue extensive groans). I know, I know. You’ll believe it when you see it. When pigs fly. When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, when the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves…*

I keep telling myself I’ll lose interest any day now because, honestly, that would be easier (and expected). But when I think about the reasons I lost interest in years past – fear, doubt, lack of motivation – I don’t feel hindered in the same way. Not that I don’t still have fear and doubt or am particularly motivated, but still, it seems different this time. I was doomed to fail every other time because, in hindsight, I was not emotionally ready or responsible enough to make such a big decision, and as such I didn’t spend enough time thinking about the things that really mattered, like funding, location, faculty, and what I would do when the program ended. Until now, the only thing I based my decision on when it came to choosing a program was how much praise I’d get when I told people I’d been accepted. Which is another way of saying that all I cared about were the schools’ rankings.

I’m older and (hopefully) wiser now, and choosing which schools to apply to – choosing to apply at all – is much more complicated. I’m already $80,000 in debt from my undergraduate education. This debt has impacted almost everything I’ve tried to do, get, or buy in my adult life. I wouldn’t trade the education I got through the Writer’s Institute at Susquehanna University for anything (except maybe a winning lottery ticket; I’m not an idiot). But I also won’t ever make the mistake of taking out a student loan, not even a small one, again. So with that in mind, some of the best MFA programs for creative nonfiction are already out of the question. To know that I will never study under Phillip Lopate or Jo Ann Beard – or even find out whether or not I could have – hurts. A lot. But I (literally) cannot afford another $80,000 mistake. And that’s why the fact that it is March 16 – well-past even the latest application deadlines for Fall 2016 admission – is a blessing, and an indicator that I might actually be serious this time. With nearly a year to think about it, I might actually have time to get a portfolio together AND ask for recommendation letters (tail firmly between my legs) AND do the important work I’ve never bothered to do before: make a sensible list of fully-funded schools located in cities I can afford. With stipends. And fellowships. And a publishing component. And faculty members who write books I actually want to read. And a website that proves the program thinks creative nonfiction is a real genre rather than something any fiction writer or poet can pull off without having to study it (I’m not bitter). 

And hey. It’s possible that a program like that doesn’t exist. In which case I won’t be going to grad school. 

More to come.

* Quote courtesy of George R.R. Martin, in case you thought I was actually trying to be poetic.

An Oreo would be great right now, actually: learning to write again

I’ve been pushing myself to write, and it’s hard. People kept telling me I had to actually write to get things written, and I know that the same way I know I’m supposed to exercise for 30 minutes a day and schedule annual dentist visits, but that doesn’t mean I do it.

I haven’t written a successful essay since 2009. The two I wrote then were my personal best. The next semester, I could not duplicate the eerie calm of “Convalescence” or the outrageously well-timed section breaks in “Everyday Things.” Nothing I wrote sounded like me. I couldn’t stuff my memories into neat little paragraphs, I couldn’t create meaning by leaving things out, I couldn’t write anything that made my professors praise my bravery, and I couldn’t think of a creative way to talk about any of the stupid thoughts in my stupid head. Everything I wrote came out in fragments. The pacing was off. I don’t think there is a single semicolon in “Convalescence,” but all of a sudden my sentences took up half a page and had punctuation marks I didn’t even know I knew about. The pieces I finished for my portfolio were indulgent and emotional and entirely one-note. I didn’t write at all over the summer. When I came back senior year I couldn’t finish anything I started, if I started it at all. I jumped from one project to the next, writing a big block of text about something and then never looking at it again. Everything was vague and expository. Where a semester before there’d been too much emotion, here there was none. My voice was flat and dull and could have belonged to anyone in the world, and I no longer had any interest in listening to it.

In 2012 I took a job with the largest investment company in the world and moved in with my boyfriend and stopped drinking on weeknights, and my friends and family were so proud of me – they kept saying I always knew you would turn out okay and thank god you finally got your shit together – and there were plenty of times I felt proud too. But other times it wasn’t enough. I felt like I was operating at 50% all the time, keeping myself from totally unravelling, yes, but the effort it took meant I was never fully present. There were places I would not allow my brain to go. Writing was one of those places. The guilt that I was letting myself down, and the fear that I might wake up in fifty years with that same guilt, was overwhelming. I thought of quitting my job at least once a week, but I could never justify walking away from my salary and my health insurance for something I wasn’t even sure I could do anymore.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to read at least 75 books in 2016, which broke down to 5-7 each month. I read 10 in January and then completely stopped caring. This would not have been as embarrassing if I hadn’t already told everyone I know about the resolution and recorded it with a bright pink pen in my extremely expensive planner. The worst part was that it felt so familiar. I remembered announcing to my family that I was going to start making my own jewelry a few years ago, then spending hours walking up and down the bead aisle at Michael’s and poring over The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beadwork before shoving the book under my bed and forgetting about it. I remembered being so obsessed with buying new makeup one summer that I drained my entire savings account. I remembered that last year I wanted a degree in nutrition and would not have eaten something that contained high-fructose corn syrup if you paid me, but if there were Oreos in my apartment right now, I’d eat a whole sleeve.

I have many flaws, but a lack of self-awareness is not one of them. And yet I somehow never noticed that I couldn’t commit, not to a relationship like a normal commitment-phobe, but to my own interests. I’m sure there are many possible explanations for this, and maybe I should have explored them, but instead I registered for a writing class. And then, instead of waiting for it to start, I started on my own.

I cannot explain what this has been like. That’s a lie. I definitely can. It’s like when soldiers come home after years overseas and their dogs don’t wag their tails so much as they wag their whole bodies, or the dogs curl up on top of their graves. Except I’m not the dead soldier, I’m the dog. If that sounds dramatic to you, maybe you’ve never spent seven years ignoring the most important thing about yourself.

I’m a different kind of writer now. I edit most things half to death before they ever make it onto the page, which is a shame, and I have fears I never used to have. I’m scared to share too much. I’m scared I’ll get stuck. I’m scared I won’t ever write an essay I’m proud of again, or that I’ll start one but get hit by a bus before I finish it. But there are good things too. I discovered that some things are blog posts, not essays, and that’s just fine. And I remembered that even though “Convalescence” and “Everyday Things” were written just weeks apart, they have vastly different voices, and both of those voices are mine.