Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Doing Prose, Audience-Free

I want to talk about audience today, but I'm not sure my ideas on it are completely settled. So come along with me on this jaunt; no guarantees I know what I'm talking about or won't change my mind.


A friend is in the process of figuring out how to write what she wants to write. She says that she needs her pieces to land, or to be received, for them to be whole, and her feelings have been echoed by other writers I know. I get it. There's a way in which a lot of my day-to-day seems imprecise and fuzzy until I talk it over with Matt. Writing is often the same way; until I loop Matt in on what I'm doing, and then ultimately give him the finished product, it feels like a secret that I don't want to keep.

I'm not sure I was very helpful when I gave my friend my $0.02 about this.
After eight years of taking my writing seriously, and thinking about audience and who would like it and the importance of putting my stuff into the world and etc., this year I just stopped caring about that and started doing it for me. And everything has changed.

That's not to say that I don't ever have audience in mind (especially when revising), but just that I'm finally more interested in what I think of the work as opposed to what someone else will think of it. Not being married to whether the work is suitable for others has made it SO much better. I was waaaaaay wrapped around Being A Writer and what that meant and whether I deserved it, and now I'm invested in the process of writing instead. The process of making something with which I am satisfied. And the process is what keeps making me better, instead of some magic key or combination that means I can write a perfect MFA story suitable for The New Yorker.

For me it took the bottom of despair about writing to hit this point (and, again, years of effort and carrying on when a lot of the world told me not to), and I really hope it doesn't take that for every writer. 
The thing is, it's not actually true that I don't care about audience at all. I do. I care about writing such that others can understand me, and about publishing, and about other people one day walking up and saying "Your book mattered to me." I just no longer care about those things so much that all my joints freeze up before (and while) I put words on the page. I no longer care such that I'm thinking my way around every street corner before I even put my characters in the stroller to go for a walk. And I no longer care enough about the potential end result of a piece that I'm willing to rethink my method or style or interpretation of storytelling in order to make my work more saleable, or palatable, or any other adjective that depends upon external reception.

I'm still open to feedback (for heaven's sake). If the story doesn't have internal logic, it needs revision. If I give it to Matt and Matt says "Huh?" then it probably needs revision. But I suspect - forgive me - that it's kind of like parenting. If you think every other second about how your kid's going to end up after you've sent them off into adulthood, you're going to lose your mind, right? Way too much pressure, too much fretting about a future that's so unwritten as to be irrelevant until the kid's a certain age. If instead you just parent them to the best of your ability, day-to-day, I imagine you'll do a better job. The act of parenting, today, matters a lot more to the kid, now and on the future therapist's couch, than a consistent push toward Yale or a good marriage or whatever.

Whether I'm wrong or not about actual parenting, the conclusion works for writing. In my opinion, for my type of writing, the act of sitting and doing prose matters more to the long-term avocation and concerns of a writer than the act of considering what will happen to that prose once it's done. I respect the need for an audience when writing in other genres, and the need for a reader for the sake of closure, but I have learned that to be satisfied with one's own work and, importantly, to reach higher when considering the next challenge, is a far more profitable enterprise than starting with "Who will want to read this?" and working backward.

Writing this blog has been a practice like that. I used to care so much about who was reading this blog, how many hits I got. I used to try to make the posts tidier in subject so they'd be more easily shared. At some point I just stopped caring about all that, and I started thinking of the blog as a resource for myself: a library of my thoughts and experiences related to writing. I would like it if other people found the blog helpful, or if the blog found a wide audience, but that's not my goal anymore. A goal like that depends on too many variables, too many unpredictables (or too much selling out). I'd prefer to build something for myself, which is a goal for which I know how to aim. When gathering friends and followers along the way becomes anything more critical than a side benefit, I find that I lose interest in blogging.

So. I'm not sure where that leaves my friend, or, again, whether I'm going to change my mind six months from now. (After my next horrible depression, ha ha. Ha.) But like I said, everything has changed since I figured this out. I reread some of the secret project yesterday (while I was trying not to hate the new story I'm writing for my workshop in a week and a half), and I was amazed that I had written it. It's so good. It needs work, but it's so free and fine, so much better than I remembered. And I know it's because I care almost nothing about whether that work is going into the world. It matters more to me to write it for myself, and as a tribute to what I've enjoyed about Ceremonials, than it matters that the book is long enough to be a novel or the stories can be submitted for publication on their own or the content is too queer or whatever the fuck. To me, it's so good. That's all I give a damn about.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Your Friday Yes: It's Just a Ride

I got pretty frustrated recording Your Friday Yes this week. I did a take I really liked, but it was 7.5 minutes long, was unkind about Jem and too revealing about work, and had weird color problems. I did another take that was ruined because a plant-killing squirrel kept dancing around on my balcony, taunting me, and I was so angry at the thing that I couldn't be appropriately lighthearted in the video. I did more takes that I screwed up for other reasons. I ended up with this one, which I like less than the 7.5-minute one, but which will do, and anyway by the time I was finished with it I was out of time to do any more.

Say yes to imperfect yes videos.

Another story to be workshopped is due in six days. I have about 200 words of it. My mental image of myself is of a Hanna Barbera cartoon character in deep trouble.

This is not to say that I've done no writing in the recent past. I wrote an essay last week that was serious business, something I'm quite proud of, but it's too short and probably way too personal to be workshopped. The story I have in mind shouldn't be a serious trial to write, but, natch, finding the time is going to be a challenge.

But hey, it's just a ride.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Blessed Unrest

Nothing has slowed down since last week. People I love are in trouble. I'm about to go out of my skin from not writing (tomorrow I will sacrifice all things to get some words on the page. ALL THINGS).

Yet, there is love. There is light.

Here's what I actually want to tell you today, something I mentioned in passing back in late July. This is a quote from an interview that Brad Listi did of Lidia Yuknavitch on his podcast, Otherppl, on July 15.
Brad: Has it gotten any easier?

Lidia: Oh! [laughs] Here's why it doesn't get easier. So, you know, you hone your skill set. And you sort of become a stronger writer, let's say. But then what happens is the creative questions you're interested in, you reach for more challenging ones. So then you're really back at a starting place of jumping off a cliff, because innovation puts you in that novice place - back again. So there's really never a "it gets easier" point. If, if, your goal is to change and grow as you write forward. I don't think that's every writer's goal, but it's some of our goal. And so do you see what I mean? As you reach for weirder questions in your writing and you press on different artistic explorations, you're continually remaking yourself as the novice, or the space monkey, as Chuck [Palahniuk] would say. 
At some point around "really back at a starting place," I moaned aloud, noisily, and said "No no no nooooooo," and then backed it up and listened to it again and moaned some more and, later, once out of my car, I shook my tiny fist at the sky and cried why, little baby Jesus, whyyyyyy.

Because FUCK. I don't know, like from experience, but I'm pretty sure, that she's right. That there's never a point where you feel like you know what you're doing, because instead you keep twisting and turning into new and different creative places and it's always, ever, until the end of your life in letters, hard.

Which is kind of another way of saying this

The writer here is Agnes De Mille; the Martha is Martha Graham.

, but in a much less arty-farty airy-fairy way - a way that makes me actually understand what I'm in for rather than thinking Yes, let me please be good enough to feel like Martha Graham at some point.

Unrest. Evolution. Starting over as a space monkey. Challenging creative questions. Wailing out at the unfair Whatever who built me to do this job.

Why couldn't I just be a tax attorney?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Let Go or Be Dragged

Hey, I managed a second Your Friday Yes!


I still feel a little funny about putting my face on the internet like this after such a long time in resistance to it. But I'm also glad I waited until I had something to say before I started making videos.

In other news - possibly more relevant to you, the reader of this writing blog - an essay I wrote about my Labor Day experience was published on Jennifer Pastiloff's Manifest-Station. It's personal, to be sure, but I hope it's not embarrassing. You can read it here.

I'm gradually working my way through the to-do list in my last post. Naturally, new things are coming up. But that's why I said yes to life just being busy. Email me anyway. <3

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ceci N'est Pas une Blog Post

click to embiggen, but the clearly readable top text is the point
(Calvin & Hobbes is obvs drawn by Bill Watterson, not me)

The number of strategies I have in my pocket for when I can't sit down and pour out prose in a beautiful river continues to grow. One I learned about two years ago still fits extremely well with my personality: make a list. To-do lists are a daily part of my life (otherwise I forget everything), and incorporating them into creative work is useful, too. If you can't write a paragraph, you can write a list. I'm certain of it.

Like, for instance, today I can't write a blog post. And the reasons why fit conveniently into list form. This week's tasks:
  • Get going on second story for workshop class 
  • Write response to yesterday's workshop of first story 
  • Put together facilitation for another student's story for next Monday 
  • Read Foucault 
  • Reread Lacan 
  • Write detailed, specific summary (like 2,000+ words) of Caleb Williams, which I hated 
  • Finish The Age of Wire and String, one of the most baffling books I've ever read (I see what he's up to, I'm pretty sure, but it's not a breezy read) 
  • Write comprehensible response to The Age of Wire and String 
  • Finish setting up new computer, a process which is alarmingly slow this time around 
  • Set up new webcam 
  • Do Friday's Yes video 
And within the next month or so:
  • Complete and workshop second story 
  • Get back to the last two stories of the secret project before the spirit of them leaves me 
  • Write nine-page braided story (started, very curious to see where it goes) for Labor Day workshop homework (I don't think I can use it as the workshop story, for various reasons) 
  • Prepare detailed presentation on "the theories of Rubin, Irigaray, Cixous, and Kristeva" as applied to The Piano, which I've seen, but not in years (note: I have never read three of those theorists) 
  • Either throw large and fun St. Crispin's Day party, or ditch the idea 
  • Read three or four more experimental books 
  • Workshop other people's stories 
  • Do more Yes videos 
  • Live life, in there somewhere, like meals and vacuuming and sleep 
If you're not going AAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHH just from reading that, either I'm not doing the writerly work of engaging you especially well, or you're not actually imagining the work involved. My brain just keeps saying "I am so fucked."

I'm happy! I really am! Life is awesome and full of friends and good prose and bountiful ideas and joy! But still. Augh. I need to stop sleeping, maybe?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Less Curation

I set out on a new endeavor this morning, one that is only related to writing in that everything in my life is wrapped around writing. Otherwise it's pretty unrelated. I made this:

I know that the sound and video quality kind of suck, and that the lighting is problematic (if you want to find a solution in my tiny apartment with walls colored such that my skin looks bizarre in reflected light, I'm taking bids), and that I got an audible text near the end, and that I say "um" too much. I wish I were more photogenic. But it was a scary thing to do, to record this video, and I'm proud that I did it at all. This is the face I have, and I finally thought of something to say on YouTube, and I didn't want to let fear stop me.

I hope to have more Your Friday Yes every week. I'll post them here, and do writing-oriented posts on Tuesdays. If my luck holds out.

Oh, and I'll probably buy a webcam in the next couple of weeks. :p

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Secret Project Revealed!

I know you've been scouring TMZ, stalking CNN, trying to catch hints of what this mysterious secret project could be that I've been writing on and off for a year. Wait no more.

From a post on April 11, 2013:
Lately, with no concrete story ideas, I've been thirsting to write about ghosts... Also, like going around and around the same jogging track, I keep mentally returning to Florence + the Machine's Ceremonials, an album that is just packed with ghosts and ghost stories, whispered and half-understood. Since first listening to it, I've wished I could write a novel that somehow accompanies the album, the way House of Leaves and Poe's Haunted go together. I'm not Flo's sister, though, and I really haven't the foggiest idea what she had in mind when writing the songs on that album, so it's a pretty impossible notion. The songs are just so evocative, of dark hallways and fluttering dresses and the wind through chimes and things half-seen in mirrors. I want to evoke in words and story what's evoked in music there.
That is the secret project. It's a story cycle pegged to the twelve songs on Ceremonials. It's not just wild song-tales, though; it has an overarching story about two girls at a boarding school who fall in love with each other but are not meant to be together. Not in life, anyway. Beyond the stories and characters, and even a little bit beyond honoring and echoing the music, the point for me was to experiment in manners both technical and mystical. To learn how to evoke, the same way Florence did, rather than speaking directly.

Unfortunately, I had to halt my work on it when school started. (Schoolwork has become completely overwhelming, and it's actually freaking me out a bit, but that's not what this post is about.) I've drafted ten stories out of twelve, but I know, I know, I'm going to go back and rewrite some of them partially and others totally from scratch. So my work on it isn't just beginning, exactly, but it's hard to know how far along I actually am. Nevertheless, I'm doing it, and I can't hold down my excitement about it.

I used to think this idea was stupid or weird, or that even if I did finish it no one would want to read it. I believe I was wrong on both counts. I've told a small handful of people about it and they have all been enthusiastic, even those who don't know Florence. Ekphrastic art is not an uncommon thing, so it's really not that weird. Although I've never heard of a book tied to an album like this, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Or that I can't write it. And I finally decided that if no one wanted to read it except me, that was fine, because then I could write a book that I wanted to read, something I made that I could love, instead of making allowances and sacrifices for readability.

Writing this book/story cycle (it's not shaped up to be book-length yet, but I'm pretty sure it will be eventually) has allowed for a series of breakthroughs. Lots of things have been changing in terms of how I think about writing over the past year, but without the secret project, those changes wouldn't have been grounded in anything. The project has helped me believe, genuinely, that there is no writing for others without writing for me. It's helped me trust that I understand syntax well enough to mess around with it intensively and see what happens. It's helped me just not care about writing in ways that are too murky to explain well; of course I still care about writing, very very very deeply, but I'm not wrapped up in what's going to happen to it later to the exclusion of what occurs when it goes on the page.

Toni Morrison says that if you look around for a book you want to read, and it doesn't exist yet, you must write it. I said this to a sculptress friend and she hit me back with the words of one of her teachers: "Just make whatever you want to make." These may seem like laughably idealistic proverbs in terms of paying bills and publishing gatekeepers and how long it takes to do creative work and whatnot, but...my sculptress friend makes these fantastic outdoor installations that you can visit in public city spaces and parks. I'm writing the book I needed and badly wanted to write, and everyone who's heard about it has said I want to read that. Everything this idea has done for me has been good. It helped me seize Fictator power. It forced me to let the hell go. It saved me, this summer, from never writing again. Whatever happens to this project in the world, putting it into the world has been invaluable.

So make whatever you want to make. That's how inspiration ripples from Flo to me, from me to you. Sing out. Write on. Go.

never knew I was a dancer till Delilah showed me how