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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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A Gregarious Introvert’s Guide to Writing

As a tween and early teen, I spent a lot of time alone. Everyone in the family was busy but me, and I got sick of joining them. There were no structured activities that interested me, certainly not sports. In early elementary school, I had tried gymnastics and was the only boy in the class. Once the girls started on the uneven bars, they more or less kicked me out, probably afraid I’d end up odd. (Resisting the obvious follow-up to that.) They didn’t understand that I wanted to give it a try anyway, nor did they care.

I would have gotten into theatre if there had been a program, but there wasn’t. So once I was old enough to stay by myself, I stayed at home most every evening of the week, arriving at my house by bus after school and hanging out until my parents and sister came home, usually 9 p.m. or after. During all that tween time, I did homework, mastered the preparation of boxed macaroni and cheese, discovered the fleeting distraction of masturbation, and organized my life around the prime-time TV schedule. The TV had to be on and blaring. When my hands weren’t otherwise occupied, I wrote in my journal a lot, mostly about how lonely I felt, how I felt I was being punished for something I didn’t understand, sometimes creating abstractions that I wanted so badly to be arty. When my family came home, I didn’t know what to say to them, so I usually grabbed my journal and went to my room. It was about time to go to bed anyway.

In high school, I got into visual art, which was a relatively social experience compared to my experiences with writing. I got to study at the Kansas City Art Institute for three semesters in their high school program and spent a lot of time around black t-shirt-wearing, Cure-adoring teens. Besides being artists, we also had in common that we revised our own clothing with paint and graffiti. Whereas they went for morose colors and patterns, my hacked-up sweatshirts looked like they’d been distressed at a Skittles factory. My arty acquaintances were as kind as they could allow themselves to be without losing their status as non-conformists. They liked my artwork, though, and that was the point.

Socially, it wasn’t much different than being in school. When we weren’t elbow-deep in our art, we stood outside, where they smoked and I coughed. In The Breakfast Club terms, we were overstocked on Ally Sheedies and Judd Nelsons. Meanwhile, I was Anthony Michael Hall’s dorkier younger brother who wasn’t cool enough to get detention but who sneaked in anyway. I waited for something to happen that would make them want to be friends with me, because trying and failing would have devastated me. All of this went into my journal, where I attempted the textual version of the cool, nonconformist thing, albeit while listening to Duran Duran.

Near the end of high school and a few years after, I did theatre. I was constantly around people and usually the backstage dramas didn’t interfere with the feeling of family that develops when a group of people spends a ridiculous number of hours creating what we hoped were works of art. If the audiences and critics hated a show, that was almost better, because then the group could rally around itself, with plenty of self-deprecation and martyrdom to go around. The experience made for war stories our little ad hoc family would share for years. I loved that I was never alone, that I had the luxury of so much time with people that I got sick of some of them, and I even enjoyed the discomfort of missing them when a production ended.

But even then I was writing, and much more compulsively. Even though I was rarely alone, I felt lonely. Filled with angsty ideas, I had to get them out of me. I jotted ideas and played with them in my journal until I had a sloppy mess of words and slash marks and arrows that were the plan. Then I would type it up on my word processor–still a luxury in the early 90s–and the poem was finished. They went in a binder that I showed to few people. Those poems was my accomplishments, and that’s all I cared about at the time.

My compulsion to write made me want to get serious about it, so I did. I went back to school, a relatively non-traditional-age student, to finish my bachelor’s degree. What pleasure I had gotten from following through with my compulsion became difficult to experience once writing became task-oriented. I was told by my name-dropping professor that a real writer writes every day, no matter what. I’d never worked that way, and never had to work at writing, so when I put in my time (sound like incarceration?), I couldn’t produce. I had to psych myself up, either finding inspiration or faking myself out so I could get to a point of feeling pleasure as I wrote.

What bothered me more than anything was being alone, which I was, constantly, and by my own choice although it didn’t feel like a choice. I had to write, and if I really cared about writing, I should learn how to do it better, to communicate effectively to readers instead of just writing to myself.

But writing well takes a lot of time, and I just wanted to get done with my assignments and not feel stuck alone, as I’d already had too much of that. Extensive revision was not something I felt eager to practice although I recognized the need for it and delighted at the possibilities I found when I summoned the courage. My contact with others occurred in workshops, where I got to hear what was lacking in my work.  I expected criticism, but I also expected my intentions to be acknowledged given that it was a presumably educational situation. Since I didn’t care a lot about trends in publishing (e.g., “this gay couple is interesting, but will it sell?”) or how my classmates would have changed my work (“Couldn’t he be living with a woman instead of a man?”), I didn’t feel part of the group very often. As Judd Nelson said in The Breakfast Club: “demented and sad, but social.”

I learned a lot about craft (the noun), but almost nothing about the mind-numbing, soul-sucking psychological obstacles that get in one’s way while trying to craft (the verb). I’d been fighting depression and anxiety since fifth grade. (Who put the C in OCD? ::Raises hand::) I’d used writing as a way out, a tool of escape. Using writing to find a way in, to enter something or some place good, was a set of skills I needed to learn. I’ve spent the last decade working on that.

The stakes are higher now that I’m writing a novel. It’s good to have a goal I created for myself, even though a lot of the problems aren’t much different. I’m in the middle of my second draft. As journeys go, I’ve come a long way and have a long damn way to go. That metaphor encourages a linear view of my writing process, which leaves out all the circling around that I’m doing; I’m making up a lot of the route as I go. Thanks to a writing coach and many friends who are writers, I’m figuring out my own way of doing things. When I feel too overwhelmed to write, I don’t. Breaks are good, and they don’t stop the compulsive engine. Ideas and feelings build up, and eventually I have to start up again. My configuration of all the complexities is unique, but really, I’m not too different from other writers. I understand that this is how it goes.

As much as I’m striking a balance of independence and support, writing is still lonely work for me. The lonely feeling throbs out of reach, not always distracting. Whether I’ve been wired this way from the beginning or rewired by conditioning, I’m not sure it matters now. Being alone still feels like punishment, like I’m being left out (whether intentionally or by negligence doesn’t matter). Just sitting down to write requires an extraordinary amount of self-talk. No, I’m not being punished. No, I won’t emerge to find I’ve been abandoned. All of my related fears are pretty irrational, I know, but they’re palpable enough to feel convincing. Not addressing them for years caused me to avoid making a commitment to writing. That I’ve stuck with it for so long makes it hard for me to deny I’m doing what I’m meant to do. I’ve just had to find how to do it and sustain the practice.

Every day, I feel absolutely certain my work in progress is shit and not worth my time. I question what I’m missing out on by spending so much time on it. Blah, blah, etc., etc. But if I sit down with it for fifteen minutes, I’m back into it, and I’d rather be with the characters than with anyone else, at least for a while. For those minutes or hours, they’re as real as anyone I know. My friend Alex and I talked recently about how we have memories about our fictional characters. A mix of confusion and clarity, they’re not false memories. To the contrary, they’re quite true even if they’re not real. It’s one of the frustrating pleasures that keeps me writing.

The goal of fiction writing is to make that world so convincing that it rings both true and real. It’s important that I feel convinced as I’m writing, that I feel pleasure for myself while I’m working that will translate to readers. It’s not all just for me anymore, but I shouldn’t leave my needs out of the process. If I’m writing a letter to the world, I should include who to write back to.

3 Responses

  1. As a writer, I sympathize with you.

    To a very high degree I have internalized my world. It is very, VERY real to me, definatly more real than the world where I type this message to you.

    It is good to know that someone else has felt much the same as I often do, and has overcome it to a heartening degree.

    “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Right?

    Wish you luck on your writing project!


  2. That idea of having memories for your characters really rings true to me. I often find myself thinking about these “people” as other beings in the world, not just wondering what I’ll make them do next or what their motivations are for a particular action. And even though I crave and enjoy all of my alone time, maybe my degree of success (or lack thereof) at making these people seem real is what keeps it from being lonely for me.

    (I try not to talk directly to them while writing in public spaces though; the looks one gets….)

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