Treading Water

Last week’s post was for my fellow fiction writers. Today I’m reaching out to my fellow depressives.

The last few days have been challenging for me. This has been another one of those weeks where I’ve felt like I’m mostly treading water, and not always keeping my head above it. Professional goals seem far away, life feels like a waiting game and I’m angry with myself for not achieving more, faster. Not a particularly constructive or useful way to think, but it’s an easy trap to get sucked into.

This summer, I’m scheduled to teach a new course at our local community college. It’s a course I designed which draws on my two artistic loves: writing and music. The plan is to use classical music – its structures, historical contexts, and creators – as fodder for writing prompts and exercises. The group will have writing time, discussion time, craft talks: the usual components of a writers’ workshop, but with the added element of music as a way to get the creative juices flowing and as a new and interesting world to explore.

At the time I put the class together, it felt like a great idea. Now, though, as so often happens when I put together something of my own, I’m not so sure. It’s too different and strange. People looking for writing classes aren’t looking for something like this. Signups have been slow, I’m not sure if I’ll get enough of a quorum for the class to go ahead, and the goblins in my head are getting loud. This was a bad idea, they tell me. Your ideas tend to be bad. What were you thinking? Nobody wants what you have to offer.

When I get into this kind of place, it’s very hard to get out. If you’re like me, and depression and anxiety are a regular part of life, you know how that spiral can suck you in and drag you all the way to the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Suddenly it’s not just about one challenge, whatever the challenge is. It’s not just about that one goal you didn’t quite make, that one thing you hoped would happen and didn’t, that single bump in the road or disappointment or – dreaded word! – failure. Suddenly it’s about everything you are. The depressive voice, the one that you rationally know isn’t your friend but somehow always, always forces you to listen to it, says things like Who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing? How dare you try to create/do/be that thing! And it tells you that whatever you hope to achieve with your life or yourself, you never will.

It’s an ugly place to be in. For me, the worst part of depression is the way it can suck all the wind out of my sails so quickly. On good days, I feel fine. So fine, sometimes, that I think I’ve finally shaken that shadow, I can’t even remember why it had power over me or what that felt like. And then something will happen – the disappointment, the bump in the road, the “failure” – and I’m back at the bottom of the pit again.

ocean view 3

What do we do? Of course there are many ways to push back against depression itself. Therapy, medication, exercise, diet, meditation: there are many ways we can build up resistance against that enemy voice in our heads, and many ways that we can work to “fill in” the pit we drop into, so that the bottom isn’t so far down, and the climb to get back out isn’t so steep. Right now, though, what I’m most focused on is the question of what to do with those overarching messages depression can give us. We know depression isn’t our friend, we know it lies, but we’re used to listening to it – we’re trained to listen to it – and it hurts us every time. So how do we counteract that?

For me, the message you don’t have anything to offer is by far the most insidious and destructive. It can take the joy and excitement out of anything I want to do, or am trying to do. It can make me feel like nothing I’m doing is worth it.

That’s where my head has been over the past few days. To work against that, I’m trying a few things:

  1. I’m reminding myself of all the things I have managed to achieve and accomplish, in spite of what the depressive voice has spent years telling me. I can recommend this. If you’re struggling with those internal messages, you might find it helps to look at your most recent resume or bio. Not because accomplishments give you worth, but because a look at a quick summary of the things you’ve done can remind you of where you started (for me, that was ten years ago, when I first got seriously into creative writing) and how far you’ve come along your path. You can take a moment to celebrate that.
  2. I’m holding onto my work – in this case, fiction writing – as a way to keep my head above water. Fiction writing can be a welcome escape from depression’s angry messages. When I visit one of the pieces I’m working on, whether to dive in seriously or just to sit for a while with the characters and their situations, very often I find it clears my head. Right now, I’m writing a short story and also very lightly sketching some scenes for a future book. Some of my characters are dealing with intense fears and doubts. Watching them work through those is healing for me. Most of all, though, the process of the work itself, and of engaging with these characters I love, is profoundly helpful. I recommend finding that aspect of your own work that gives you the most joy, and taking a while to sit with it.
  3. As much as possible, I’m trying to hold onto the “larger picture” of what I hope to do with my work, both as a writer and a teacher. For me, that big picture is using my skills however I can to build bridges between people and help foster communication and understanding. Sometimes an overarching goal can be daunting, and can feel impossible, but sometimes it becomes a helpful thick rope to hold onto when the pit starts to open up under my feet. I’m trying to remember my big picture and think about how, each day, to take one small action toward it. One little bridge, or the beginnings of a bridge, in one particular situation. What is the overarching goal for your own work? How might you aim for one small step toward it today, and another tomorrow?

Depression can make it so hard for us to believe in ourselves and our work. If you’re like me, and you struggle with this shadow every day, today I’m reaching out for you. We can help each other along. We can keep our heads above water.

ocean view 1

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

Advertisements

Why Should Anybody Want…

[Note: the illustrations in this post are the sketches I drew when building the fictional world of my second novel. Disclaimer: I’m not and never will be a visual artist. 😉 ]

Recently I read a short article about Neil Gaiman, legendary author of American Gods. In the article, his agent, Merilee Heifetz, reminisced about having met Mr. Gaiman when he was young and first getting started. He told her that he knew he could write bestselling books. Looking back on that, she said something to the effect of, “I’m glad I believed him.”

The bravura in his statement takes my breath away. I can write bestselling books. Really, who says that? Who has the guts to believe it? If it was anybody but Neil Gaiman, a bona-fide artist and one of my heroes, I’d write him off as an unbelievably arrogant jerk…or at the very least, as someone who doesn’t mind selling out his art in favor of pandering to some common denominator. But you can’t say that about Gaiman. His books take risks, break new ground, challenge readers – American Gods might be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read – and offer uncompromising and startling beauty and darkness, as well as incredible twists of imagination. And yes, they’re bestsellers.

Where am I going with this? If you’ve been following the blog, you know that lately and often, I’ve been tangling with the question of what my work is for, what it’s about. Why do we do this? And for many writers, especially fiction writers, I think there’s a constant, maybe unspoken but always present, question in our minds. That question is: why should anybody want my words?

Fiction writers, you know what I’m talking about. All artists tangle with this question – why should anybody want my work, the product of my thoughts and imagination? – but I suspect that fiction writers wrestle with it maybe longer and harder than many. After all, the words we put on the page come out of the created worlds in our minds, where we wander and experiment and dream. Some, maybe a lot, of what we write does derive in some way from our real-life experiences, but it’s couched as not-real. I’m not telling you a true story about my life, or someone else’s life, or some real problem happening right now in the real world. I’m making up a story, weaving a thread that comes only out of my own mind, and I’m asking you to catch hold of it and follow it.

Circle House layout
Creating a fictional world: schematic of a building used in Fourteen Stones

What arrogance! Right? How could my imaginary worlds and people be so important? Why should anybody pay attention to them, or care that I’m creating them? One of the writers in my library workshop recently summed it up very well. Explaining why she hadn’t had time lately to work on her novel-in-progress, she told us about her various family obligations – she’s the oldest of a large group of siblings, with a core role in the family’s ability to get through the day-to-day – and said that she couldn’t ask her family to give her more time to herself to work, because she knew that her writing time was only “playing with my imaginary friends.” She’s an incredibly talented writer, and she herself knows that her talent is worth taking seriously. Even so, she described the act of writing as something barely relevant, maybe even childish, and around the table, every one of us knew exactly what she meant.

So how do you get from a mindset that questions the validity of sitting at the computer, “playing with my imaginary friends,” to a confidence and certainty that says I can write bestsellers? And, for a moment, let’s step away from the specificity of that word bestsellers, which suggests that the value of a given book depends on how many copies its publisher can shift. I’d make the case that Mr. Gaiman, as a gifted artist, wasn’t just talking about an ability to write a strong hook and fill a book up with whatever “stuff” would keep people turning the pages, like making a meal that tastes good but doesn’t really offer nourishment. Instead, I believe he was saying, My words matter. I can write books that will make a difference.

All art is an act of courage. All writing is an act of courage: and here I’m looking at you, my fellow fiction writers. How do we hang onto the idea that our words can make a difference, that the time we put into crafting our imagined worlds and characters is time well-spent?

Lassar Namora map
More time spent in the imagined world: rough map of the major countries in Fourteen Stones

If you’re a fiction writer, or any kind of artist, take a minute right now to think about a project you worked on that gave you satisfaction. Maybe it was a project that turned out beautifully well, that impressed you and others who saw it, that helped you see what a strong artist you really are. Or maybe it was a project you struggled with, stepped away from, came back to and wrestled with again, maybe over and over, and when you finally got to a stopping point you weren’t really sure it was done, but you had done the best you could and the process had taught you a lot. Maybe the process itself was full of joy, or maybe it was threaded with frustration and many moments where you just wanted to abandon the whole thing. But whatever project it was, whatever experience you had with it, when you look back on it, you know how much it mattered to you.

Here’s the thing. Maybe you had the chance to share that project with a lot of people, or a handful, or maybe you’re the only one who’s seen it. But remember how working on it made you feel, through joy and struggle, through the days when the words or music or images came easily, and through the days when you had to fight for the smallest milestone. No matter how it went, that project was your motive power. It got you out of bed in the morning and it filled your thoughts last thing at night. The energy you put into it suffused everything else you did: your other work, the time you spent with your family, the meals you made and shared, the errands you ran. Your life was forever different because of that project.

And because your life was different, so were the lives you touched. If you’re like me, your work can give you joy even on the worst days. That joy isn’t only confined to you. The sense of direction and purpose your work gives you can reach out far beyond the constraints of your own mind and body. Even if no one else ever sees that project, yes, it matters. Yes, it makes a difference, because it matters and makes a difference to you.

So artists, be proud of your work. Fiction writers, be proud of your imagined worlds and people. Weave your words with confidence. Every step we take along this complicated and challenging path makes us stronger and happier people, and that matters. Every piece of art we share with others gives them something new to think about, some new place to inhabit for a while, and every piece of art shares a piece of our energy and love for our work too. All of it adds up. All of it makes a difference.

Namora map
Rough map of Namora, Fourteen Stones’s main setting and my favorite fictional place

Honor the Path

Thinking about paths today. Where have I come from? Where am I going? What has the path looked like so far, and when I look back on it, what do I think?

Artists have an unusual challenge. Because what we do is essentially original, and comes from us in a way that isn’t true of every type of work, we often have to make our own decisions about where we want to end up and how we want to get there. The “career path” of an artist isn’t as clearly defined as in other professions. In some ways, building an artistic career can feel wide open, as if there are infinite possible paths: overwhelming, in fact, in their possibility. In other ways, it can feel like there’s exactly one “right” path, and a great big roadblock in the middle of it.

For instance, writing. This road has plenty of destinations on it to want. What type of writing do we do? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry, some combination? If we’re fiction writers, do we write genre work or are we strictly literary? Short fiction or long? Who’s our audience? If we’re short-story writers, do we have some bucket-list journals we’re determined to see our work in before we die, so we submit and get rejected by them over and over? (Spoiler: I’m guilty of this.) If we’re novelists, are we looking for a Big Five publisher, or an indie press, or do we want to go it on our own and keep the royalty money? How do things like publisher reputation and clout weigh against the challenges inherent in the system, and against the seemingly-infinite possible reach of the Internet? And if we get right down to it, is publishing our biggest goal at all, or are we teachers, editors, consultants, or some other type of wordcraft specialists?

All of these possibilities can feel impossible to sort out. Too many options, too many side paths that shoot off in all directions. But on the other hand, it can feel like you finally settle on a direction, you think you can see that path running straight and clear all the way to the horizon…and then a chasm opens up in the middle of it. Maybe you can’t get that book published after all. Maybe it’s too long/too short/too genre/too literary/too slow/too jumpy/too not-quite-appealing-enough. And if you can’t do that, after all the work you’ve put in, what are you going to do instead?

Ice pic 3

Roadblocks can take many forms: job we thought was going to work out, the conference we felt sure we were eligible for, the grant that really seemed like a good chance. The chasm opens up in the path, and maybe we start wondering if we were right to take this road at all. Maybe it’s led us exactly nowhere.

Especially at these times, I think, we need to take a minute to turn around and look back at the path behind us. How have we gotten to this point? What have we struggled with and triumphed over, what obstacles have we dug out or climbed around, and what beautiful moments have we taken in along the way? They’ve been there. But maybe we’ve been so focused on that ultimate goal – whatever form it took – that we forgot about the rest of it.

Lately, I’ve been taking time to think about this. If you’ve followed the blog, you know I’m often extremely goal-oriented. I don’t like mistakes and I don’t like not being able to point to a list of achievements…so writing is an interesting profession for me, to say the least. ( 😉 ) But lately, I’ve been looking back on my own unusual path, and realizing I’m pretty proud of it.

Because I didn’t start writing seriously in high school or college, I had maybe an even less prescribed career path than other writers. I didn’t have a map of the next right steps: what degrees to get and where to get them, which conferences or residencies to go to, which journals would possibly take my first short stories. Along the way, I pretty much figured out what I wanted to learn and do, and what resources might best help with that. I’m anything but self-taught, but it was pretty neat to look at the pastiche of education I cobbled together. It’s turned out to be pretty much exactly right for the kind of writer I want to be.

waterfall pic

There has been any amount of rejection and disappointment. But last week I had the pleasure of teaching two brilliant short stories (Lee K. Abbott’s “The Valley of Sin” and “The View of Me from Mars”) at my library writers’ workshop, and it was exciting and wonderful to see how those pieces inspired the group. Last week also, I checked in again with the agent who seems most serious about my novel Fourteen Stones, and learned it’ll probably be a couple of weeks longer before we have an answer. I’m not at all sure the answer will be what I’d like, but I realized that no matter what happens, Fourteen Stones is a good book that I’m proud to have written. I was even able to promise myself – and mean it – that I’ll do whatever it takes to see it published sometime. And finally, I got to thinking about how much my writing style has changed over the years and how I’m settling into this literary/fantasy/magical realism crossover stuff that I love both to write and to read. I used to think I couldn’t write that kind of thing, but I’m starting to think I might be pretty good at it.

All of which is to say: it can be hard to remember to stop and look back on the path you’ve been on. Especially in those moments when you feel like a roadblock has sprung up to keep you from the one thing you want most, and you start thinking that maybe everything you’ve done so far has just been a waste of time and trouble. But those are the moments when you most need to turn around and look back. Let yourself appreciate, all over again, everything you’ve done and accomplished and taken in along the way.

Right now, take a moment to honor the path that’s brought you to where you are. It’s worth it. You are worth it.

alta lakes colorado

 

Photos by Paul Faatz

The Work We Leave Behind

In my post last week, I looked at what it’s meant for me to come into writing “sideways,” and find my own path in the profession. This week’s post will continue and hopefully expand on that subject, while also picking up some thoughts I’d originally wanted to write about last week.

Recently, a writer passed away who was – in addition to being a master of the short-story form – a teacher and mentor to countless students, including me. Lee K. Abbott taught for many years at Ohio State University and at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops, where I worked with him during two summers. During his last illness, students and colleagues posted tributes to him on Facebook. It was amazing and powerful to see how many lives he had touched, and how profoundly. Many of his students are now professional writers themselves, but one tribute in particular stood out for me. A former student of his wrote that she didn’t know if she would ever publish anything else, she wasn’t writing much anymore, but she was still teaching high-school students. She wrote that she had learned a lot about how to be a teacher from him and she hoped he’d be proud. Other people quickly replied that they knew he would be.

Reading those posts, and thinking about them, got me thinking about the question of the work we leave behind. Some fellow-writers and colleagues of Lee’s commented that his own writing hadn’t gotten the broader attention it deserved, though he was always well-respected and admired within the profession. Certainly he leaves behind a great body of work, short stories that can inspire and educate in themselves, even if they aren’t as widely read as they might be. But it seemed to me that even for a master writer, a legacy might involve more than the words on the page. And maybe the rest of the legacy can be even more important.

Brevard dawn pic

I’m used to thinking about publication as the highest goal. Every short story that makes it into a journal is a win. Getting a book out is a serious win. It’s what writers do, right? It’s what we’re for. All those hours we put in at our solitary desks, spinning worlds out of imagination and experience and love and grief and everything else: we don’t do that just for ourselves. We put the stories out in the hope – often an aching and scared hope – that they will reach out and connect with someone else.

And I’m used to thinking that the writers who really did the job, who made it work and got things right, are the ones who can point to the long list of bylines. Hopefully there are stellar reviews too, and strong sales, and maybe some grants and residencies and so forth in there for good measure. But the biggest legacy, the most important achievement, is the writing. Right?

Lee’s legacy has made me think about that again. He was a master of the craft, and he wrote in a strong and compelling voice that is uniquely his own. He knew how to take the small moments in a character’s life and turn them into immersive experiences of startling significance. He did a lot of what I’ve always thought of as “getting it right.” But he did a lot besides that, too.

When it’s time to go, what do you really want to leave behind? Sometimes we ask ourselves that in a kind of hypothetical way, not wanting to think about an “ending” as real. Endings are hard and scary. But maybe sometimes it’s worth looking that question in the face, not as something to fear, but as a challenge and a friend.

river 1

Lee’s former student who didn’t know if she would ever publish again, but who works with and, I bet, inspires kids every day, will leave something beautiful behind. Words can last a long time: after all, we’re still reading Shakespeare. But let’s say you give someone a piece of knowledge they never had before, and it fascinates them. Or let’s say you help someone accomplish something they hadn’t thought they could. Moments like that can feel small at the time, easy to forget, but in some way they’ve changed the life they entered. For the person to whom you gave that gift, things will always be different.

This past weekend, I had my last session of the school year with a group of high school students who have had creative writing workshops with me once a month. I asked them each to write down what they’d thought of the class, what they liked or would change, or anything else they wanted to share about their experience. One of them wrote, “I thought I wouldn’t like creative writing. But it’s been really fun making myself think of wild, funny stories and having other people’s stories to piggy back on…Thank you for helping me wake my brain up.” That young woman is a talented writer who has written some excellent “wild, funny stories” in class. I don’t know if she’ll keep going with writing, or do what we might call “something serious” with it, but I’m glad she had the experience and found joy in it.

Publication is and always will be a major goal for me, but I can see that a legacy can be broader than that. Whether we’re professional teachers or not, we as artists can share our experiences and our joy in our work with others. Those things can change lives as powerfully as the work itself.

The tributes to Lee’s life left me feeling great gratitude for a life so well lived. They left me thinking, gladly, about what I want to leave behind.

mississippi river

 

Photos by Kris Faatz

Sideways Writer

Apologies for the slightly later blogpost this week. I had something I especially wanted to write about, so I took some extra time to think it over…and it still ended up being too hard for now. Today’s post is the easier option. Hopefully next week I’ll be able to take on the bigger challenge.

Today’s post comes out of some thinking I did while driving home last night from a rehearsal. I don’t know if you find the same thing, but driving can be wonderfully meditative and very helpful in untangling mental knots. Especially night driving over peaceful back roads; I make a point these days to take the long route home from my Wednesday evening rehearsal, because I love the rhythm of these particular roads and how the yards and side streets slip past in the dark. It creates a good space to let the mind open up.

I was thinking about what it has meant to me to come to writing relatively late, and in a way I think of as “sideways.” Specifically, I was thinking about the experience of learning what sometimes feels like the invisible rules of the writing world, the things we’re “supposed” to want and achieve. And what it’s like to realize that not all of those things on a perhaps more typical writing path make sense to me.

Why that word “sideways”? Mostly because I didn’t start out to be a writer. It was my earliest ambition when I was a kid, but it’s easy to get away from those first ambitions. I came back to writing after finishing grad school, starting to work professionally as a musician, and getting married. Life was on a particular track and I thought I understood the whole shape and direction of it. And then I decided to get back into my old childhood interest…and, like you find in a good story, there was a plot twist.

Brevard clouds
photo by Kris Faatz

While learning about the writing craft, I’ve pretty much only done things because I wanted to. I started working on a Master of Arts in fiction writing because the coursework looked so interesting. Then, partway into that program, I decided to try a summer writing workshop because that seemed like exactly the kind of intense immersion that I needed…and afterwards, I decided to leave the MA program and save money instead for more of those summer workshops. I went to my first conference because it felt like the kind of growth that needed to happen at the time. I never had any particular strategy with any of the things I did, other than to learn as much as possible, in the ways that made the most sense on a gut level.

It hasn’t been a traditional path at all: thus, sideways. I didn’t train as a writer in college or grad school; I don’t have – and never will have – those three coveted letters “MFA.” I was a strictly-literary writer for a while, because I liked telling real-world stories and, let’s be honest, those are the kinds of stories the big-name literary journals like best. Literary writing has a certain legitimacy that genres – crime, mystery, fantasy, etc. – don’t always equal. It’s never been my favorite kind of work to read, though, and eventually it made less sense to write only that. As I’ve gotten deeper into this world, I’ve run into more invisible rules about the kinds of things we’re supposed to want and do. More often than not, they don’t mesh with the sideways writer I am.

I like to follow rules. Rules are safe and make the world look orderly and predictable. Funnily enough, though, I can be very quick to rebel against them if they seem to push me into a shape that doesn’t feel right. Rebelling is uncomfortable and scary. Sometimes I feel like I’m just being stupidly stubborn, but some piece of my internal wiring demands it anyway.

ocean view 3
photo by Paul Faatz

As I’m figuring out who I am as a writer, it feels more important to me all the time to stay on my own sideways path, doing things my own way. I don’t necessarily want to go to a conference or a workshop because it’ll look good on my resume; I want to do it because it can make me better at the craft. I don’t necessarily want to write only real-world stories: my writer-voice is settling into a blend of literary and speculative, where my characters are real people but the worlds they move in are somehow infused with magic, and I love that. I don’t necessarily want to try to create what other people might expect or want from me. As daunting as it feels, I want to find those readers who are eager for what I have to give, and on a good day, I believe those readers are out there.

It’s scary. Often, I can’t help but wonder if being so boneheadedly stubborn means I’ll never really get where I’d like to go. Sometimes, though – like last night on the quiet dark roads – I look back over how things have gone so far, and feel better. I have a long way to go, but this path is meant to be a journey for life. I have a lot to do, and some of it feels very big and far away, but I’ve learned a lot already and had some fun and done some things I’m proud of. That counts.

It’s easy to get caught up in what the world tells us to do, especially if we like to follow rules. But Bill Watterson said it very well:

“To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.”

Sideways people, let’s celebrate our unique paths and know there is nobody else just like us. The world needs us the way we are. It’s challenging to make our own rules, but I do think we’ll be happier for it.

5.2.19 post pic 3

photo by Paul Faatz