Writer’s Musings: Let the Light In

Seasons change, and with it, memories resurface. This time of year, I get introspective, as winter hits and the ground is blanketed in white. It’s a sign for me that life will get dark before it gets light again—and isn’t that the way of things?

I want to tell you all a story, because I don’t think I tell them enough. I let my mind meander on the page, but not often do I pull off the roof to the house and let you all see in.

It begins about a year past my wife’s sudden death. The grief felt like caustic vessels, pinpricks of iron in my blood, leaving me feeling anemic and frail. Family was visiting—to cheer me up? See how I was doing across the country? I can’t remember—but I do remember this moment so clearly.

It was night, cramped in my small one-bedroom apartment. “I’m not really a fan of stand-up comedy,” I’d said as we huddled around my tiny television. And though that’s what came out of my mouth, what I meant was, I don’t know if I can laugh right now.

She was certain, though. “You’ll love it,” she said, typed ‘n,’ ‘a,’ ‘n,’ in the Netflix search until Nanette showed up. Pressed play.

I’d watched the first fifteen minutes with apprehension and belief that I would not, in fact, like it, with all the certainty of someone ready to prove a loved one wrong out of misaligned spite (what good does that ever do?) But as the comedian continued, I became more and more immersed, and something my loved one had said earlier became clear.

This “wasn’t simply a comedy special”. This was a transformation.

Anyone who has seen Nanette, the stand-up performance by Hannah Gadsby, knows that it is as much a confessional and spoken word poem as anything else. It is a transformation of all a stand-up performance can and should be, taking everything that makes comedy and breaks it down to its elements, making it into something completely new by its end.

And just as powerful as Gadsby’s performance, was the why of it. As she explains in the special and in her TED Talk, Three ideas. Three contradictions. Or not. transformation is necessary because she no longer wished to be the punchline of her own story. Comedy needed to change in order to fit what she needed to tell.

Not a lot changed for me that night. I laughed. I needed to, there’s no doubt about that. And I look back on that night with fondness and love. But it’s not until looking back on Nanette, after listening to Gadsby’s TED Talk, that I realize the depth of what she was trying to say, and the impact it can have on more than comedy.

I look at literature and publishing as it has existed over even the past ten years, and realize that it has to change. It can no longer fit the stories it needs to carry. I think of all the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, disabled, and neurodiverse voices that are either not represented or underrepresented and I think, traditional publishing needs to grow, and how we view what’s right and wrong in literature needs to change.

No longer is it enough to have stories where minority voices only exist to inspire or become token representations of their identity. We need stories with diversity as the norm, characters that have multiple minority identities, plots that don’t just revolve around discovering identities or traversing minority issues.

We also need to be aware of our language and how it affects minorities. For example, the complexities of how to tackle non-binary characters, including ‘they/them’ usage, or even the use of alternates, such as Spivak pronouns. The industry is beginning to see a change, but there are those who are standing their ground.

And the crux of it is this: so long as we hold literature, publishing, and writing as a sacred thing that has rules and gatekeepers that are above reproach, these things won’t change fast enough or agilely enough for the stories that need to be told. 

We come back to the beginning, in a way. With news of the Big 5 becoming the Big 4, and on the back of the beast that is Covid-19, it seems like we head into a dark and dreary winter of publishing. That change would be impossible when most publishers will be making their safest bets.

My friends, maybe the best thing, the only thing we can do is the same, then, as when I started. Pull back the roof of the house and let others see in. Keep telling your stories. Don’t let yourself become the punchline of your own joke.

There’s always light in the end.

Writer’s Musings: A New Year of “Raw, Strange” Fire

“That was the place from which I hoped to work, headed in the only direction worth going, the direction of myself, trying to help us all refuse the awful bargains we’ve been taught to take.”
– Casey Gerald, “Embrace your raw, strange magic” TED Talk

2020 has been a ride.

It’s been a year of transformation. At the beginning of 2020, I had this little nugget of a story, Daylight Chasers, and on a whim, decided to self-publish it and see where it went. It opened up the world of Twitter’s #WritingCommunity to me, and I’ve met so many wonderful, amazing people there that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

I also wrote a novel, The Fable of Wren, which I’m currently querying—something I never would have imagined I’d have the bravery to be doing a year ago!—and I have another novel, Origami Bones, which I’m currently writing.

I also started this newsletter, which is now over 6 months on, sent bi-weekly with only a few delayed sends (but never completely missing a week!) I’ve done 16 book reviews and interviews for indie authors, and have more scheduled through June of this year (wow!)

And yet I have this undercurrent of dissatisfaction in my work. Part of it is the writing slump I’ve been in the past few months. I’ve struggled to get anything on the page. But after rewatching “Embrace your raw, strange magic” by Casey Gerald, author of There Will Be No Miracles Here, I have an inkling of why I feel unsatisfied with my progress.

In Casey’s TED Talk, he discusses the personal sacrifices he made to fit the mold in order to achieve his successes, and how in the end it wasn’t actually enough to take him where he thought he needed to go. Being gay in Texas, there were some sacrifices even he wasn’t willing to make in order to achieve the dreams that were prescribed to him, and it was after a failed Congress run that he decided enough was enough and embraced his ‘raw, strange magic.’

I can relate to Casey. I started 2020 with a whim, and went in the directions that I was told were ‘right’ for a writer. And in some ways, it aligned with my own wants and needs, but in other ways, it hasn’t. I don’t regret what I’ve achieved in 2020, but I think 2021 needs to be a time of self-discovery where I decide where my own writer’s path will take me, based on my own wants and goals rather than a prescribed path. I need to embrace my own raw, strange magic.

There will be changes coming in 2021, to align more with who I am. I hope you’ll stick around for the journey, and I thank all of you for being here through the thick and thin of this rollercoaster of a year.

Writer’s Musings: Fanning the Flames: How Ideas Are Born Part 2

“You have to do stuff that average people don’t understand because those are the only good things.”
– Andy Warhol

In Fanning the Flames Pt 1, I talked about how our conscious and subconscious minds process information to form new ideas.

In a nutshell, our brains are not unlike a computer: we have so much mental capacity, like RAM, that allows us to process information at a certain pace consciously. But our subconscious minds are like supercomputers, able to process information literally faster than we can think it.

So we know in general how our brains work. But how do we translate that to action?

The first phase of my creative process is information gathering. This can start long before I even know I’m going to write something, because it comes down to a habit of consumption: of books, movies, music, television, podcasts, anything. This means to be creative, I need to be inputting information into my brain as much, or more, than I output. It doesn’t even matter the subject, just that it’s a variety of content that I find fascinating. One of my favorites, oddly, have been science podcasts.

When I have a project, this bevy of creative fuel comes in handy in a process that is my absolute favorite technique: remixing. Essentially, taking two disparate things or concepts and mixing them together for something new.

For example, my short novella Daylight Chasers is essentially the trope of a road trip filled with ridiculous location-specific activities, combined with quasi time travel. For Reset, a short story you can find a podcast version of here, I combined the trope of the end of the world with the very human wish to start our lives over, or ‘reset’ everything. Once you add in the emotional aspect that is the foundation for the story, you have an idea you can work with.

But I only have that vat of knowledge of known story tropes, emotional concepts, and bits and bobs of curious turns of phrase because I’ve consumed enough that the whole thing mixes like a stew in my brain. (Not my best metaphor, but you get the idea.) This is why input is so important, and why often if you hit a block, experiencing something new can often unblock you.

My process seems a bit unconventional, but it works for me. It’s taken trial and error, and I’m still learning some ins and out of my process as it applies to writing, as much of my knowledge relates to my original love, art.

Besides, who decides what’s a conventional way to be creative? It’s a bit of an oxymoron. My way may not be the solution for you, but I hope some insights into my own process help you feel willing to experiment with what makes you creatively tick.

Writer’s Musings: Old Flames Meet New Flames

“Look directly into every mirror. Realize our reflection is the first sentence to a story, and our story starts: We were here.”
– Shane Koyczan

It’s been seven years since it came out, but it’s a video that sticks in my memory. A reminder, not of a time when I was bullied (I was) or of a time I was the bully (I have been.) Rather, a reminder that in seven minutes and thirty-six seconds, you can change people’s minds. Not with facts, graphs, or funds. But with stories.

It was a project headed by poet Shane Koyczan, but featuring dozens of animators around the world. An animated video of his poem, To This Day, focusing on his own and other’s experiences with bullying, and how it affects them even today (though, as he says, they were lucky ones. They survived.)

When the video came out, I was in awe of the strength of his voice, his words, the images on the screen. I still am. And isn’t that the power of our stories? No matter the vehicle, through creativity we can change hearts and save lives.

It’s been seven years, and a lot of things have changed; others not so much. I can’t draw as much as I used to with my chronic pain—not nearly enough to my liking. But I manage a few times a week if I’m careful. (Not enough.) My dreams of becoming like those animators have come to a painful end.

But what I can do is write. I wrote Daylight Chasers to try and help others understand the whirlwind of grief from both inside the storm and outside looking in. I wrote The Fable of Wren as a reminder that though we cannot predict outcomes or hold close the things we love without losses, we can still find joy. I write Origami Bones to remind myself it’s okay for there to be a tomorrow without her.

(Sometimes, I can’t write at all. And that’s okay too.)

It’s been seven years, but I’m still in love with stories. I still watch that same video once in a while as a reminder, and to relive that moment.

Maybe it’s time for my own stories to take shape.

Writer’s Musings: The Temperature At Which Books Burn

“I never made one of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking”
– Albert Einstein

When I first started writing, I had no plans to publish. In fact, I was terrified to do so. I thought somehow that when I did, the critics would come out of the woodworks, and I would be inundated with naysayers decrying my work as unsophisticated garbage. I would be cast away from Twitter to the hole of my private Facebook forever, only every coming out to post the occasional cat meme. (This is of course an exaggeration, but that’s how the mind of someone with little self-confidence works.)

But as Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her book Big Magic in the chapter, “In Praise of Crooked Houses,” there is something to be said about done being better than good. Like in Gilbert’s example of when she published The Signature of All Things, when I published Daylight Chasers in January 2020… not much happened. There were no four horsemen of the apocalypse that swooped down, no natural disasters occurred, and for the longest time, I didn’t even have a single review.

Not much happened, because, at the end of the day, not many people cared. That’s not to say that friends and family weren’t excited for me, or that there aren’t people who enjoyed the book. But in reality, most people are very much focused on their own lives, and can’t be bothered to cut down a seedling author in their publishing infancy.

Because of that, I gained confidence in my ability to write and publish something that I could be proud of. This led me to finish writing The Fable of Wren and begin the arduous task of editing and querying it for publication. I became more involved on Twitter, wrote more, started posting my writing online and developed a website, wrote some more, and finally started this newsletter. And oh yeah, wrote a little bit more after that.

But the unintended by-product of my publishing journey threatens to stutter my writing to a halt. It’s something than many of us fledgling (and I daresay, some professional) authors struggle with. When the pressure to publish and write to a market becomes too great, the well of creativity can dry up.

As the author Julia Cameron explains in her interview with The Ones You Feed Podcast, when writing we’re drawing from our inner well of creativity. But we need to ‘restock’ our creative images in our well periodically, and to do so, we need to focus on ‘artist states’ that promote play and observation. Music, walking, film, and other pleasurable activities are all things that refill our creative wells.

The problem is that the concept of artists states, or play, can be incongruous with the work forward strategy that is sometimes pushed in publishing spaces. We’re expected to perform quickly, consistently, and not waste too much time on projects that aren’t going to go anywhere.

It saddens me to see authors that I admire become inundated in a game of make-believe where they can’t be authentic to themselves and ultimately sabotage their own writing in order to achieve their dreams. It is something that I have to consciously and continuously remind myself, that I don’t want to become enveloped in a trap where publishing kills my creativity. To my readers, I hope for you to stay true to your path, and remember that at the end of the day, it’s the love of the process, not the results that will feed your soul.

Writer’s Musings: Too Many Candles to Burn

“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
– Anne Frank

I have a confession to make, dear readers. I haven’t written on any of my novels in over a month.

Sure, I’ve written the occasional flash fiction, and the necessary content for my newsletter. But as far as sitting down with the express purpose to write on any of my novels or serial fiction, it hasn’t happened in a long time.

It’s not that I don’t want to, nor that I don’t think about it. I do. Constantly. And yet there’s a block like a stone wall in front of me that feels impossible to scale.

There are many, many reasons for this. Being in a global pandemic on a scale we’ve not seen in my lifetime for one. Living through history in a nation full of political unrest is another.

But these are circumstances beyond my control, things that I have no way to effect. Rather than focus on unattainable solutions to these worldly problems, what I can do is focus on the problems I contribute to my being paralyzed.

I have too many candles to burn. That is to say, I have too many ideas, and the indecision of which to light is causing me to work on none.

It seems like a good problem to have—better too many ideas than none, right?—but there’s an irony because I have the freedom to choose which projects I work on, it puts the onus on me to make what I see as an important decision with limited input. It becomes a festering pressure to make the right decision, because in this global landscape the looming of my own mortality is front and center. Why waste what little time I have left on something that won’t bear fruit? This is where the things I cannot control and the things I can collide.

So what advice do I have for my dear readers to help myself and you make it through this paralysis?

The truth is I don’t have a concrete solution, only a metaphor.

What are candles meant to do but provide light? We’re in dark times, 2020 being one of the most challenging years I’ve experienced, and I’m not alone in that perception. What we need more than anything is some light.

Pick any candle, any story. Pick it at random, flip a coin if you have to. The important thing is to have a candle to shine through the night, not for any other purpose but the light it gives to you. The right one is the one in front of you. Let it keep you up late into the night writing by the candlelight to ward off the demons that would haunt your sleep. Don’t worry about what the morning brings, because there may not even be a morning. Enjoy the warmth of it’s glow for what it is, not what it can become.

By enjoying the journey we go beyond what could be and cherish what is, even during times when the world wants nothing more but to swallow us whole.

Be well my dear readers. And when the night grows cold, light a candle.

Writer’s Musings: Finding Fuel for the Fire

“Because you are defined not by life’s imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. Because there is joy in embracing—rather than running screaming from—the utter absurdity of life.”
– Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

This week finds me wrung out like a sponge and set out to dry. Between some personal events that took precedence this week and writing-related events, I am out of gas.

All of the writing community on twitter was awash with excitement over PitMad this past Thursday, with most of us experiencing a collective hangover in our respective Friday mornings per whichever time zone we were in. And yet some Twitter users seem to have bounced back with a vengeance that is near-inhuman.

While some of this may be excitement because of an event gone well, I have to wonder how much of it is performative. As writers, artists, musicians, makers, or content creators, it feels like the light is always focused on us with the call to be at one-hundred percent at all times.

Yet the creators I love are the ones that are so authentically their imperfect selves that they’ve built their brand on being below or at normal. Jenny Lawson, or The Bloggess as she’s known as on her blog, wrote two NYT best-selling memoirs on being her unique and self-proclaimed f*ucked-up self. Sarah Anderson’s comic strip, Sarah’s Scribbles, puts the ‘M’ in millenial and makes me feel less of a trash human for spending an inordinate amount of money I do not have on books and about my own infinitesimal amount of self-esteem.

I love these content creators because they are unapologetically themselves and that has become their strength rather than their ball and chain. It takes an absurd amount of bravery and what I would term self-resilience rather than self-confidence. These creators know they’ll always be the same person whether they win or lose, and there’s a strange sense of security in that.

I aspire to be one of those content creators someday. In the meantime, here I sit, a dried out heap of bones recharging for another week. Tomorrow, dreams. Today, Netflix.

Writer’s Musings: Warmed by a Dying Light

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
– audre lorde

There was a time when writing was the only thing that made me feel alive.

I was working several jobs, attempting to find a full time one that would provide me with the health insurance that I needed, and dealing with full-body chronic pain that would often leave me completely debilitated. I would go to doctors appointments where health professionals would brush off my concerns, leaving me feeling unheard and without options.

I was in so much pain that I would pace or sit in one position with ice packs on my arms and back for hours trying to get the pain under control. But when the pain eased just enough for me to use my hands in some small way, I found myself writing. I couldn’t really draw, which had been my go-to for so many years. But I could write poetry, I could write short stories. I could still create.

Writing became my saving grace, something I could use to work through my pain. It became part of my treatment when near everything else had failed me.

Over a year later, my situation has changed, but still I write. Only, I find that my reasons have changed as well. I’ve felt hesitation at admitting it, because it has been an exercise in healing for so long that for it to be anything else feels almost like a betrayal.

Today I write because I want to. Because I find it exciting. No longer is it a crutch for me because I have no other choice, and that is both freeing and terrifying. To write not because I have an impetus or a need but because of a want feels dangerous, selfish even. For now, I work to remind myself it’s okay to do something not because it has a purpose but because it makes me feel good and balanced to do so.

Writer’s Musings: When Burned By Friendly Fire

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
― Anais Nin

With the pitching event, PitMad, on the horizon, I’ve been working on getting my manuscript and querying materials as polished as possible. This includes going through my manuscript over and over (and over) again to fine tune every little word to near-perfection.

This has put me into ‘editing-mode,’ where every little flaw in my writing pops out like it’s highlighted in neon, and my manuscript begins to look like a mishmash of colors in my mind for all the changes that need to be made. This is great for getting my writing to be the best it can be—not so great on my self-confidence.

The problem with editing for me is that it clashes with my personal anxieties and lack of self-confidence. I see the extent of changes and edits that need to be made, and take it as a reflection of my personal capabilities. In some ways that’s true, but my character is not necessarily defined by my technical writing abilities. Even so, the more I edit and the deeper I go, the more fatigued I get and the greater the hit to my self-esteem.

The conglomeration of this is that I feel like a small fish in a big pond, that I’m kidding myself by letting what I write be seen at all. Despite opinions of others to the contrary, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: I don’t edit my work to its fullest, because if I don’t feel like I am capable of editing my manuscript to where it needs to be, why would I go through the work of doing it at all?

I was reminded by a close friend who is also a writer to have patience with myself, and give myself the kindness of acknowledgement. Two years ago, I never would have believed I could write a novel. I never would have dreamed of being at the level to query one to an agent. They reminded me that growth is something to have pride in, not a detriment, and that recognizing it is a key in building confidence

Another writer reminded me that sometimes you need to be okay with not being sure of the future but have the courage to try regardless. That you’ll never know if you don’t try at least one more time. There’s truth to this: the only thing I have to lose is time, and isn’t that time I’m spending growing and learning? Where’s the drawback in that?

I have no way of knowing if the PitMad event will be a success or flop for me. What I do know is that the time I spend now and in the future can only help move my knowledge forward, and that in and of itself is something I can take pride in.

Writer’s Musings: Candlelight Vigils & Blank Pages

“Some things cannot be fixed; they can only be carried. Grief like yours, love like yours, can only be carried.”
– Megan Devine

I approach this week with a sense of dread, heart heavy. This Wednesday is the anniversary of my wife’s passing, three years past the day.

I know that I’ve struggled this week to write, to express myself in both fiction and fact, on the page and out loud. And so I try to unwind the emotions like woven fabric to its threads. Maybe it’s not possible, and I have only to see it as its whole, to know that it feels wrong but it’s what I’ve been given to bear.

The temptation for me, for any creative person who’s been through something traumatic or heart-wrenching, is to give advice on how you should approach your craft in these times in order to keep creating. To use your skills as a tool to process your emotions.

The truth is, when my wife passed away three years ago—when I was an artist by trade—I didn’t create any artwork for myself for a year. To this day, I stand by my decision and my need to step away from the craft.

I’m not the person who’s going to tell you to work on your craft despite all signs telling you to stop. Grief, suffering, pain, loss, trauma, it’s more than what you create. It eats into you, down to your bones. If your craft isn’t serving you, then drop it until it does. Don’t infect the wound to explore its edges; if it doesn’t help heal you, it’s not a priority.

On the other hand, if writing, drawing, painting, singing—if any of that becomes a way for you to express your emotions and dig into the parts of yourself you can express in no other way, absolutely do so. If you can let life’s struggles be part of the process instead of a detriment, that’s lovely. Do it with intention.

Know that both are correct to different people, and you’ll only know for yourself if you observe your own emotions and needs consciously and non-judgementally.

For those of you hurting, I’m sorry for your pain. I’m in the ravine with you watching the mountain and wondering how we could have fallen so far and how we can get back up. I wish you the strength to carry your pain until it becomes a part of you.

I wish you peace.

I wish you love.