Sunday, June 29, 2014

Redefining Myself as Writer: When I Was Young(er) - June 19, 2013

Despite the constant reminders of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles that I still have youth on my side, I don’t often feel young anymore. Going to school and working as close to full time at two jobs as that endeavor allows seems to suck away much of my youthful vitality, leaving me feeling mostly exhausted, cranky, and just this side of sane (maybe).

These are all first world problems, of course. I have two jobs while many are unemployed and with a spectacular blend of dumb luck and sheer bitter spite I have managed to thus far avoid the crushing tuition debts which many of my friends are already enduring. Nonetheless, there is a certain spunk which I once had that is no longer with me and which I sometimes find myself missing pretty intensely.

What is this spunk of which I speak? It’s hard to identify, because I wasn’t aware of it at the time, or even after it left. I only became aware that it had ever existed in the past year, when I heard a song on the radio that took me back to a dance party in the basement of a hotel in Washington D.C. It came on the radio as I was pulling into the parking lot at the art center where I work, and I found myself sitting out there in the dark bawling in the most pathetic fashion. I didn’t know why I was crying exactly, but I knew it had something to do with no longer being the person I used to be.

The person I used to be went to D.C. and fell in love. On that first night she walked with her classmates against the frigid freaking D.C. wind to the Vietnam memorial and she stood at the foot of Lincoln’s statue and cried because her country’s history is so brief, bloody, and horrific but once in a rare while great. She wore a lot of gaudy, vibrant colors and her fingers were decked out in an array of silver rings that clicked together when she gestured. She had a passion for music, especially classic rock, and she’d spent many a sleepless night writing through hours of The Beatles. She felt things – everything – with the kind of abandon that me as I am now can only dream about.

I’m not entirely sure what happened to that adventurous zest for life which was once my defining feature, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s just exhausting to make it through this world, with everything that’s happening in it, sustaining that kind of optimistic enthusiasm. In the face of all of the ugliness, all of the ignorance and blatant, unabashed cruelty so often sanctioned by governments and religions around the world, I feel very small and impotent. I know I’m not the only one – I’m one of an entire generation of people who have been repeatedly made to feel disposable and then shat upon for being lazy and narcissistic.*

Before the spunk left me, I cranked out a lot of work. Hundreds of pages of short stories, novellas, and novels, and in a very short span of time. Looking back now I see that most of it was, to be quite blunt, sloppy bullshit (everyone has to write the sloppy bullshit out before they figure out what it takes to be good, I guess). Early on it was pointed out to me that I had (still sometimes do) a tendency to drift into melodrama. I had a lot of things to say about a lot of subjects, damn it, and not enough time to write a different story for each thing! Who has time for such things? Bah. But at the time I was writing and figuring out how to write and I loved it, and I suppose that’s all that mattered.

Even amid all of that hurried, self-confident (maybe even arrogant) melodrama I can see some pretty solid nuggets of good ideas. I would love to revisit some of those things – the first story I wrote about cancer (why does cancer pop up in so many of my stories?) a story very loosely inspired by a number of events in the life of my favorite artist, Vincent van Gogh. I’m not terribly concerned with the certain something lacking in my old works (like I said, pretty much all writers must write the bad writing out before they can turn out something truly, beautifully meaningful). I am, however, rather intimidated by the horrible execution of those ideas when it comes to the possibility of revisiting them. How does one go about revising something like that?

Now that I’m attempting to recollect some of that spunk, I think it’s worth considering that I may not be able to revise what I wrote then…but I could rewrite. Within a (hopefully) more mature and grounded framework I might be able to reclaim some of those ideas and run with them.

It might be an adventure – a new quest line, you could say. The accompanying side quest? Reclaim some of my younger self’s enthusiasm, hope and energy and bring them into the now. Maybe I could use them to help drive away some of the self-conscious uncertainty and the near crippling fear that has crept in to fill the void they left.

Yeah…an adventure.

That sounds good.

This is a wonderful video in response to the negative things people say about millennials. It paints in broad strokes, like any generalization about a whole group of people, so for that should be taken with a grain of salt, but I think it communicates the point quite well.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Redefining Myself as Writer: The Mystic - June 19, 2013

I mentioned before that for some time I was operating within a spiritual framework that allowed me to justify the admittedly heartless way in which I began to approach writing. I don’t think the framework was necessarily to blame, despite this particular flaw in my relationship to it. Quite to the contrary: I feel much of the spiritual work I did in the two years leading up to that “Aha” moment I had with N on the sidewalk between classes prepared me to accept that “Aha” quickly and efficiently.

Let me tell you a story:

There was once a guy who walked into his adopted brother’s house to find that his brother and all his brother’s friends were having a rip-roaring party and hadn’t invited him.

Now, this guy had a bit of a temper. I have a rather long history with rage-induced bad decisions myself, so maybe I can understand how he felt, though I won’t try to justify his response to it. He had at times done a number of things to help the people at this party – unfortunately a good number of those things were in direct response to a mess he’d gotten them into to begin with. So maybe it’s understandable they didn’t invite him, or maybe they could have been more gracious. Perhaps he had a right to be angry. Probably he should have handled it better than he did.

This guy, you see, storms into the party and demands a drink. The party-goers all get a little bristly, but at the order of their gracious host, the man’s adopted brother, he is given some mighty fine alcohol and they all proceed to drink. You might think all is fine and well in the world of the partiers, but the drunker this man gets the looser his tongue gets. He begins to insult all of the partiers. He calls a number of the women loose while calling the men womanly if not stupid and sometimes both. Each accusation he makes is handed easily back to him and each time this occurs he gets angrier and angrier.

The words exchanged become more and more harsh, until the man is kicked out. He is eventually tracked down, fished out of a river, tied to a rock with his dead son’s intestines, and forced to watch his wife laboring steadfastly to keep a snake’s burning venom out of his eyes.

If you’re not familiar with Norse mythology I just told you the story of Loki’s binding, and Loki’s not really a man at all. He’s one of the Jรถtunn, a race of deities that are often called demons in the Norse pantheon. Despite the whopping step back I’ve taken back from the mystic’s life I still identify this slippery, snarky-as-fuck trouble maker as one of my patrons.

There are a number of lessons that people have taken from this story. That’s the thing about mythology: anyone can read it in any particular way they need to at any given moment. How they read that story will be shaped by the background they’re coming out of, the experiences that have shaped their lives, how they view themselves and their own small piece of the world and the implications of their existence and their roll on this planet.

As a mystic I’ve had a number of daunting experiences that have really tended to tie my mind up into a brilliant cluster-fuck of knots. I have often doubted my experiences but right now I seem to be feeling fairly confident. Even if it’s just something happening in the chemicals and electric impulses between my neurons, those things are very real and they’ve had some pretty solid repercussions in my life. Most notable are the lessons regarding honesty that I have learned, or perhaps re-learned, from my interactions with this most gloriously devious of fellows.

When I read that story, I see a story about honesty and tact. That story has influenced my relationship to this patron to a great extent, as He has been very big on my total, unabashed honesty. When doling this out to the people around me I must learn how to select my words carefully (no biggie – I do that all the time. I am a writer, after all, and have to believe in the power and importance of the words I’m using otherwise what’s the point?) and be careful to use the right tone. If you don’t do these things, if you just go crashing into the party and pointing accusatory fingers at people, no one is going to listen to you. They’re going to beat your ass and kick you out.

In dealing with the self, however…

That’s a whole different game.

Before I can be trusted to be honest with anyone else (so the logic goes, and so I believe to this day) I must first be able to be honest with myself. Since being easy on yourself to the point of fooling yourself is such a real risk while attempting to be honest with yourself (no kidding – it’s hardwired into your brain. There’s even a name for it in psychology: the self-serving bias. Pretty straightforward and on the nose there) I was forced to take the gloves off. I got very good at being very brutal with myself, which has had its benefits and its downfalls.

I tend to be more self-deprecating than most people I know. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I’m more brutally self-deprecating than most of the people I know. Where they slap themselves on the wrist I give myself a solid ten minute flogging. I’ve gotten very good at figuring out when I’ve made a mistake and I’ve gotten even better at prostrating myself and putting forth the effort to fix what I’ve broken (my skill at actually fixing those things is totally up in the air – you would have to talk to the people who I routinely share space with for that one). All of this has as much potential to be positive as it does negative, and as I’ve been dealing with a lot of negative repercussions lately I’m in the process of finding a way to balance the brutal honesty to the self with some of that aforementioned tact and gentleness (while it’s good to use on the people around you, it shouldn’t only be saved for them, it would seem).

All of that said: I am well prepared to recognize a frying pan when it smacks me in the face.

Though I allowed myself to pull the wool over my eyes and pretend that everything was good all the while using my relationship to Divine to justify it, that did not last. It was never meant to last. And even though the ability to look at myself and say “You’ve been kidding yourself, making excuses, blubbering and hiding under the blankets because you have so little faith in yourself” has ultimately taken me away from the spiritual path which taught me how to look in the mirror and say that, I can’t help but believe that that’s exactly what needed to happen.

I was a mystic. For a long time I loitered in that world, looking for something else, trying to reach “the other side,” pretending that’s where I was supposed to be, making up reasons to stay. I learned a lot while there. I can be brutal with myself when I need to be, and tender with others. I’ve learned so many stories and have stored some away to share at later dates. When I take a deep breath and remind myself to look, I can recognize spirit and Divinity in everything around me – in the bonds between chemicals that hold us all together, in the amazing miracle of our very existence against all the outrageous, impossible odds.

I’m glad I spent some time there, but you know what? It’s also pretty good to be back.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Redefining Myself as Writer: Spring Term, 2013 -- June 19, 2013

In recent months I had the very strange experience of breathing after being under water for a very long time.

I had not realized that I was under water. We very rarely do, I think, just like we don’t realize how bad a particular relationship was for us until we’ve so thoroughly removed ourselves from it that we can look back and say “Sweet baby Jesus what was I thinking?” It was particularly hard to identify because it still seemed like I was doing the things I loved. I was writing again after a long period of not even turning on my computer. I was doing yoga. I was meditating. I was spending time with friends.

All the while I had no idea I was so sedated, to borrow the term from Lester Burnham. I wrote like it had been assigned to me, and I operated within a spiritual framework I had constructed around myself which justified my doing so. The characters were flat and while I was frustrated with my inability to figure out why, I put minimal effort into trying to fix it. I glided through the world not much caring and I did my best to look everywhere but there.

While registering for spring term classes I discovered, with no small amount of agitation, that the class I needed to fulfill my comparative literature major requirements was full. No need to worry, though – there were other credits which needed filling, so I found a creative writing class that would do the trick. It was the only creative writing class which I hadn’t taken before, which I had the pre-reqs to get into, and which wouldn’t overlap my Swedish class. It was four hours after Swedish got out, however, which put a bit of a dent in my availability at work, but I needed the class so I bit the bullet and registered.

We were twenty plus one GTF crammed into a tiny corner room on a floor filled with professor’s offices. The corner of the room was constructed of windows which looked over a little courtyard below and peered into the green yard outside the library. Though it was crowded and we could never fit enough chairs around the table for everyone in class, I liked that room. It was, I thought, a good room.

Teacher passed out the first piece of short literature we would be reading that term: Pet Milk by Stuart Dybek. We read it in class and discussed it, in much the same manner we would later discuss our own writings. Teacher’s enthusiasm for the literature was not only obvious and exciting, it was infectious and invigorating. Hearing everyone else in the room join in that conversation with him – what made the story work so well, what parts stood out, the beauty of the language, how that one phrase, “She had lovely knees,” says so much about the narrator, how closely he’s looking, how much he loves her because only someone who loves her would look closely enough to notice the loveliness of her knees –

How was this real life? How I was accidentally trapped in this tight, close room overlooking the green and talking about the magic of words with twenty other people? I felt like I was in love. It was the kind of overflowing feeling I hadn’t been particularly interested in feeling in almost a year and, before that, in almost four.

At some point, after discussing my story with Teacher and feeling the terrible kind of curiosity that makes you a little bit stupid, I asked Teacher about himself. He was leaving after this term, I recalled – why? Well, because he was graduating. I hadn’t realized until that moment that he was a GTF. What was his degree? Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing.



You can do that?

Apparently. And I wanted to do it, too. I was excited to write again – I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to let that feeling go. It was precious and rare and I’d forgotten how nice it was…how it made life thrilling and exciting, like around every corner I might definitely find the end of the rainbow at long last. It made me want to dance in the rain again – it really had been too long, after all.

But what can you do with an MFA? I scoffed at myself, as I have become so good at doing in the past couple of unnoticeably gray years. There would be no point. It would be investing more time and money into school which I couldn’t afford. I barely believed in the legitimacy of the education I was all ready paying for, let alone something like that.

So I talked myself out of thinking about it. But somewhere I was hoarding away this little nugget, snuggling it and petting it and keeping it tucked safely away.

Then I ran into N, one of my fellow classmates. We’d never talked before but we struck up a conversation there on the sidewalk (perhaps the most bizarre first conversation I’ve ever had the pleasure of indulging in, covering everything from how workshops were going and favorite authors and stories cigars and great drinks you absolutely have to try to World War Two and Holocaust deniers). At some point I mention the MFA, telling N that it would be so cool to do something like that, but I just can’t…

“Why not?” he asked.

When I opened my mouth to reply, all of my excuses seemed stupid. So I closed my mouth and didn’t say anything.

Sometimes I feel like being so invested in story telling might hinder my ability to function in the world. I see stories where, logically, there is only randomness and chaos and I read meaning into every little gesture, every little word. I am often afraid that, because I do this, my ability to function in the world might be (or must be) hindered. Interactions become infinitely more complex and difficult to navigate when you’re constantly trying to read between the lines.

But then moments like these happen.

Teacher said, frequently, that the function of a story is to force the character to look where they don’t want to look, to see what they don’t want to see. A successful story should change the character, even if only by a near unnoticeable fraction. Take a (proverbial, of course) blind man, he said, and turn him just a fraction of an inch and send him in a straight line, he’ll end up somewhere vastly different than he would have had you left him alone.

That was one of those moments for me. For a second, life was a story, and it didn’t involve reading between the lines or trying to finding meaning where there inherently was none. It was a passing, nothing of an interaction – but it made me look at something which, left to my own devices, I probably never would have looked at. (Thanks, N.)

As class continued my courage mounted. I decided to stop talking about studying at Uppsala University in Sweden and actually do something about it. I made an appointment with the Uppsala guy and ended up walking him to coffee. I asked Teacher about the MFA program, if he thought it was worth it. To sum up his response: “Most definitely.” Going above and beyond the call of his GTF’s duty, he helped me figure out what my first steps in getting into a program are.

Most importantly, I’m writing again.

And I feel it.

Here’s the thing about me: I have always told stories. Before I could write I asked my mom to write the stories down for me. It’s something that’s in me, something that’s a part of me, something which I cannot separate from myself. If I am anything, I am a writer. How weird is it that writing that makes me tear up? As though the joy of rediscovering this is so overwhelming that it’s about to tear me apart.

I’m writing again, and I’m loving it. I’m passionately in love with the stories I’m telling and the characters struggling through them. I might be even more in love with writing than I was before. The process of revision isn’t the horror it once was. Now it’s getting to re-imagine the characters to make them stronger, more vibrant, more alive, to make their stories all the more worth telling, and now I don’t only have the tools to do that, I also know how to use them.

It was like waking up from a long dream.

Like breathing after being underwater too long.