Let Me Tell You a Story #30: The Fear of Failure

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Early yesterday morning, I woke up from a nightmare.

I’d been taking a test. My high school physics teacher paced the front of the room, while all around me, the other students were talking. Nothing my teacher said would quiet them, and he was growing increasingly frustrated.

Behind me, a guy was alternately asking me for answers and mocking me. Beside me, my husband was taking the test as well, and he whispered, “Don’t say anything.”

I didn’t.

But the students had gotten too noisy again, and finally, my teacher snapped. He ordered us all to turn in our tests and he would grade them unfinished. Then he left the room, slamming the door on the way out. (Not very logical on his part, but remember, this is a dream. Mine are rarely even this coherent, narratively speaking.)

Instead of taking mine up to the desk, as the others were doing, I filled in the blank bottom of the page I was on with a combined plea and complaint, that I should be allowed to finish the test or retake it, because I hadn’t done anything wrong, and collective punishment is a war crime.

Then I set my test on the top of the stack on the teacher’s desk and left the empty room.

What happened next is fuzzy, but at some point, I’m walking outside the school with my husband, silently fuming about that class and trying not to cry. Before I reach the school buses, my physics teacher calls out, and I turn, and he’s there. He’s got my test in his hand, and he tells me I can’t retake it. He tells me I was the one talking. He tells me I was the one asking for answers. I turn to my husband, and he nods.

I start to cry, and that’s when I wake up.

I’ve never believed in dream symbolism in any mystical sense. My dreams, weird as they can get, never seem so hard to analyze that I need to rely on something esoteric to understand them, like the idea that seeing a hamster in a dream represents “underdeveloped emotions.” (Yeah, I just googled that. Weird, right?)

When I woke, I took a few moments to examine the nightmare. An authority figure and a loved one conspiring to gaslight me while simultaneously denying me the completion of an accomplishment? I don’t need to dig very deep to see that dream was all about failure. I failed to finish the test, I failed to convince my teacher his treatment of me was unfair, I failed to find the support I needed elsewhere. (No real-life shade thrown at my husband, though–this is my subconscious talking, not at all an accurate depiction of him.)

With it all cut and dried before me, my next thought was, “Ursula would have this dream.”

Ursula is a minor character in the novel I’m failing to rewrite. Every day I should be working on it–every day, something prevents me. Not enough time. Not in the mood. A mountain of dishes, a string of errands that needs to be run, staying late at work, meaning to set aside half an hour to sit down and write but never quite getting to it.

Yes, Ursula would have this dream, and in a flash, I knew exactly why. I had already imagined her struggling with inadequacy issues because of her family, because of her mundane line of work clashing with her lofty ambitions of power and influence.

This dream I had, this nightmare of failure, has connected me to a character who otherwise is wholly unlike me. This is the small piece of my soul and my self that Ursula will inherit when I write her story. Because every character of mine gets at least one.

Having a revelation like this doesn’t entirely erase the underlying fear I have of failure. I’m not sure that anything ever will. But finding this small spark of inspiration has already pushed me to work again, when I had temporarily misplaced my motivation. It’s a small silver lining from a pretty big cloud, but you’ve got to take what you can get, however it shows up.

 

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Let Me Tell You a Story #29: Writing is Like Making Horcruxes

Someone I know, who hasn’t read any of my work, asked me something rather rude a while back when they found out I wrote romance novels, and it’s been on my mind ever since. “So which one of your characters is you?”

Plenty of authors (especially of the Old White Male variety and/or in so-called “classics”) write themselves into their novels blatantly. Hence the joke, What do you call a male Mary Sue? The protagonist.

But this question, in the particular tone of voice it was delivered in, was a piercing arrow that I had to pretend didn’t hurt me. The assumption that, because I am a woman writing romance, my heroines were all somehow “me” struck me as crass. It’s not an uncommon attitude towards writers in the genre–that we’re all lonely single women or unfulfilled housewives who write escapist fantasy lives for themselves.

Here’s the thing I wish I could explain to these critics and naysayers: All of my characters are, at least a little bit, me.

I give one character my hair color, and a different one my eyes. Another gets my need to hug something (a person or a pillow or a stuffed animal) when I’m really upset. Someone else gets my sarcasm, yet another character gets my tendency to stammer when I’m flustered.

One character likes yoga, another likes running, quite a few like to sing in the shower. One wishes she had enough time to really, really devote herself to improving her art instead of dabbling.

They’re all me.

At the same time, they’re all someone else, too, because the best way to avoid the dreaded self-insert character is to mix up your own traits, those feelings and drives you know so well as a part of you, with observations and knowledge taken from other people in your life. A close friend, who has read my work, said she can see where I stitched together myself with other people in Paul, the hero of my What We Need series. But he’s only a little bit me. (Which is good, because there’s no way anyone would mistake me for a six-four man who can play piano. I am none of those things.)

Fortunately, splitting up pieces of your soul for writing doesn’t involve painful and horrific sacrifices–the Horcrux metaphor doesn’t hold up that far–but with conscious effort (in rewrites, when necessary!) any character that you find is too “you” can be dialed back, and any character that feels flat can be fleshed out with a little piece of your soul, to give them authenticity they may be lacking.

Let Me Tell You a Story #28: Wizards and Dragons and Death

One of my favorite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin, passed away yesterday.

I was going to post something else today, but I postponed it (you’ll see it next Monday) because I wanted to take a little time to reflect on what I’ve learned from Le Guin, and what I still have to learn.

I first heard about her when I was seventeen and touring colleges during the spring break of my senior year of high school. Some of my classmates were in Florida or Mexico having the tropical spring break experience, but I was slogging from interview to interview all across the Midwest, trying to make a good impression.

At my first-choice school, my interviewer asked right away about what I liked to read. When I started throwing out then-current Big Fantasy Names, he asked me if I’d ever read the Earthsea Cycle, and when I replied that I’d never heard of it, he proceeded to tell me about what were (as it turned out) some of his favorite books he’d ever read.

I took that kind of book recommendation seriously, even twenty years ago. Before we left campus I had checked the college bookstore to see if they had copies–they didn’t.

I got them from my local bookstore two days after I returned home, and within a week I’d read all three of them (the original trilogy–Tehanu, the fourth, had been published then, only I didn’t know it.) I had never read anything like them (this was pre-Harry Potter, so a school for wizards? Not an old or tired concept to me.) I had only read fantasy where magic was easy, or trivial, or powerful but relatively consequence-free; what Ged went through during his studies, and after them, and the price he paid fascinated me.

And I had never before read anything with such an original and nuanced take on death–both the death-worship cult in Tombs of Atuan, which both intrigued and terrified me, and the journey into the dry land in The Farthest Shore.

At that age, I hadn’t thought much about death at all. Even though these were middle-grade/YA novels, they were an important part of my transition to adulthood, when the bigger questions started to plague me.

I still have those copies, I will never get rid of them.

Sadly, though they accepted me, I didn’t end up going to my first-choice school, as my second choice gave me a substantially better financial aid package. I never got to go back to the man who introduced me to Earthsea and thank him. I absolutely would have, and spent another hour, like we did in the interview, talking books with him. There’s a good reason that’s the only interview from that week I actually remember!

Even though I’ve read and loved so much of her work, there’s still so much left for me to read. On my trip to Portland last fall, I scored four more Le Guin books, none of which I’ve gotten to yet–but I had plans to read the entire Hainish Cycle this year, as well as her book on writing Steering the Craft.

I hope her works continue to be an inspiration to me as I read through them this year. I hope I can keep recommending them to new readers, as they were once bestowed upon me. My heart hurts whenever I think about how there will be no more books from her, but then it hurts less when I realize just how much she left us to ponder.

Let Me Tell You a Story #27: Procrastination

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” Ray Bradbury

I’ve been a big proponent in the past of the axiom “write every day,” but I can only rarely fulfill that goal. I’m not a full-time writer–I have a day job. I have family responsibilities. I like to play video games.

During NaNoWriMo each year, with a clear goal in mind (50K or more) and a huge community of support around me, I have no trouble pounding out the word count daily.

Then December hits, and the holiday frenzy begins, and I’m kicking myself for not having time.

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This is what my current progress looks like. And the longer I go between writing sessions, the harder it is to make myself sit down and do it. Why? Because I feel like a failure for not writing every day. Because I’m so far behind I don’t believe I can catch up.

But that’s nonsense, and I know it. When I can make the time, I can pump out the words like my fingers are possessed, flying over the keyboard almost without volition. I’ve written over 7K in one day before (this year’s NaNo); I’ve written 10K in a weekend (when I started the original draft of What We Need to Survive); I once wrote, rewrote, and edited a 12K novelette for a contest in six days, start to finish.

Writing isn’t the problem. It’s the motivation to write that’s coming hard. Even now, I could be working on my project instead of this blog post, which I could just as easily do tomorrow. Or even when I wake up Monday morning, because who would know if I hadn’t just given away that it’s actually Saturday afternoon when I’m writing this?

And the farther behind I fall, the harder it is to feel like the effort means anything.

I don’t think it’s bad to write every day, if it’s something you’re capable of, or something you need to do to keep yourself writing. This isn’t me slagging off at writers who have dedicated writing time each day.

But the longer I try to keep up that sort of discipline myself, the more stifled I feel by it.

Write when you can. If that’s five minutes while dinner is on the stove, or five hours when you have the day off your regular job, it doesn’t matter. Write when you can.

Let Me Tell You a Story #26: The Power of Asking for Help

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I went to the library yesterday, after receiving a notification I had a book waiting for me. (I’ve been on hold for A Court of Mist and Fury since just before its release two months ago.)

I took my writing journal along, because I hadn’t done an observational entry in the library yet, but I ended up writing about how nervous I was to be there.

That’s not a typical reaction to a library for me. Yes, I’m an anxious person in general, but libraries? One of the best, most soothing places on earth to me. All those books.

I wrote myself a pep talk, to work up my nerve to go to the desk and ask about the process of getting my novel into circulation.

I’d already read numerous articles on the Internet about the process, and they all offered various forms of advice, from sending a formal query directly to the purchasing department, to having friends and family request the book through the system until enough attention accumulated to prompt the library to make a purchase.

Most didn’t recommend walking in with a copy and handing it over, because even if the book is a donation and doesn’t cost them money to purchase, it does cost them time and money to process and get on the shelves–not all libraries have that extra bit of time and money.

But I’m not my best via email, even worse on the phone (anxious, you know). I’m great in person, when I can see who I’m talking to. Especially since I’m a regular at the library, if not on a first-name basis with any of the librarians yet.

So I took a copy of my novel, just in case, and told myself I was on a fact-finding mission.

I happened to have the head librarian wait on me at the desk, which made my mission even easier. While she was checking out ACOMAF for me, I asked, “If I were an independent author and wanted to get my book into circulation, how would I go about doing that?”

She answered, “Bring in a copy, tell us it’s for the collection rather than the book sale, then we look up all the information on it we need to make the bib, and get it onto the shelves.”

I blushed (I know I did, I could feel it) and pulled the copy out of my tote bag, explaining that I hadn’t counted on it being so simple, because of the Internet articles, but I’d wanted to be ready.

We chatted a bit about the process, and she offered to talk my book up at the next branch meeting, and I thanked her profusely, probably a little too profusely, but she understood. She said, “It’s harder sometimes to ask for help than it is to get it.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Fellow authors, I know it’s hard for some of us; self-promotion isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone. But make friends with your librarians. They’re generally lovely people, and they do want to help.

(She also brought up the idea of me hosting a book talk at the library, “not promising anything yet” but recommending I think about it, maybe in time for the holidays when “hordes of grandmas come in and want to know what books to send off to their college kids for Christmas.” I’m not at all ready for that now–I didn’t even know I’d get my book on the shelves that easily–but libraries love events, and they love local authors. I’m nervous, but if I can, I think I’d like to do it.)

Let Me Tell You a Story #25: The 29 Rules for Proper Comma Usage

When I was in seventh grade, waaay back in the early ’90s, I had an English teacher who is almost single-handedly responsible for everything I know about commas.

Now, I can’t say I hadn’t noticed the rules of proper comma usage before. I read, and I read a lot. But some of the niceties had undoubtedly been escaping me.

I will never forget that class, because it was the first and only time my tests have been blank sheets of paper.

The teacher was already elderly, nearing retirement, when I had him twenty-odd years ago, so his teaching methods seem antiquated now–even by the time I reached my senior year of high school, teachers were moving away from strict memorization to applied learning.

For the most part, I think that’s great. But I am forever thankful I learned punctuation “the hard way.”

We had spent the week going over the rules for commas in our grammar books. (I’ve tried and tried to remember what textbook it was, and I thought it might be The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation–the teacher called them “your blue books,” and I remember the awful baby-blue cover with ’70s-esque font in darker blue. But quick research turned up that TBBoGaP isn’t old enough to have been my textbook. I’ll probably never know what it truly was.)

On Friday, we sat at our desks, bare except for a single pencil, and waited for the blank sheets of paper to be passed out.

Then we wrote down every rule we’d learned for comma usage, word for word.

I don’t remember exactly how many there were–my mind jumps to 29, but that could be because I’ve been telling this story to my friends over the years, and hyperbole has crept in. It was probably closer to 20 than 30.

Any student who didn’t get them perfect had to take the test again the following Monday, while the rest of the class read the next short story we’d been assigned in our other textbook.

Most of the year went like that–a week of intense focus on a single grammatical concept or the rules of a particular type of punctuation, then a week of reading. (Oh, and we had to do a 500-word “persuasive” essay every week. I laugh to think how hard 500 words was, back then. I’m pretty sure one of mine was “People Should Grow Roses.”)

Fast forward to now. Could I write out all 29 (or however many) rules again, word for word, like I did in seventh grade? I’m sure I couldn’t.

But every time I read a book that never sets off forms of direct address in dialogue with commas (“What are you doing Ted?”) I cringe, and remember how I know doing needs a comma after it, and think of those blank sheets of paper.

Let Me Tell You a Story #24: Another Running Analogy

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When I started this blog last summer, I wrote about my running. A lot. More than I probably needed to.

But I’m heading out later today to go on my second run of the new year. The first was on an unseasonably warm day back at the end of February, when spring peeked its pretty head out for a day then retreated again for six weeks.

I know I’m going to get blisters. I always do when I haven’t been running for months–I don’t run in winter for two major reasons:

  1. I work on my feet at my day job and don’t want to risk a slip-and-crash on ice;
  2. I run barefoot-style, and look at those shoes! I’d get frostbite!

So it takes my body a few runs to adjust to the running routine again.

And apparently, the same thing has happened to my brain.

Remember how I said I loved that new rewriting method I tried out?

Apparently, it made my brain forget for a while how to write entirely new bits of story. Over the past week and a half, I’ve been struggling through the space left by five chapters I had to cut 90% of, to rewrite that entire plot arc from the foundations up. And in some cases, the foundations, too.

It might be the hardest slog I’ve done on this book thus far. I felt slow and stupid and sluggish.

And then, yesterday, I was presented with the cherry on top, figuring out how to transition back into the original draft, picking up (mostly) where I left off after the cuts. It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped, and this morning, I toughed it out, writing the bridging chapter to bring my new storyline back to where it needed to be.

I was hoping I’d be done with this rewrite by now, so I could go back to the beginning of the new draft and work on the technical edit–spelling, filler words, repetition, all that fiddly stuff.

I’m not. And it’s frustrating.

Now, I need this run. Even though I know I’ll be slow and sluggish, and my body will ache like hell tomorrow. Especially because I know that.

If I can retrain my brain, then I can retrain my body, and in a few weeks when I’m back in the running habit, it will be something I look forward to instead of The Dreaded Exercise.

Struggle is good for us.

But so is taking a break from rewriting, when the words go fuzzy in my brain and I need music and the feel of concrete under my feet.

Work hard, my fellow writers, but not too hard. Go enjoy the sunshine!