a note on the “d word”

Currently, I’m working against a low level of anger and frustration–most of which is directed at myself because I haven’t been as productive as I’d hoped to be. I haven’t hit my stride yet. I haven’t been disciplined enough. When I notice that I’m directing my frustrations outward and turning into an unbearable asshole, I take a deep breath and finally recognize it as my trusty old friend: depression. Ah, Resistance at its finest.

Even though I can fake my way through an hour or two at a time, it can be hard to shake because it manifests in so many different ways. Sometimes the songbird just can’t bring itself to sing. I think I often find things to be critical of in order to protect myself, to put a shell around myself because vulnerability is hard (and there’s another reason why writing is freaking hard, because it’s sharing a part of yourself and inviting rejection and criticism).

I know that pouring into other people and getting out of my own head is a way to beat depression, but the ugly thing about depression is that it makes you feel like other people can’t/don’t benefit from your existence. Something (or a variety of things) in your experience has caused you to believe that your feelings, your efforts, your presence, whatever abilities you think you have, the things you put out into the world—none of it matters. You feel small. Inconsequential. Useless and unwanted.

In spite of carrying around that feeling all the time, it hurts to type it. And from the outside, to those who haven’t truly wrestled with actual depression, it must sound incredibly selfish. I can say with certainty that how it sounds could not be more different than how it feels. It’s not hunger for approval, it’s a deep need for meaning. (Any fellow INFJs out there can tell you how exhausting small talk can be, as there is a longing for substance and depth and connection.) And it’s not circumstantial. It doesn’t change with your environment and you can’t will yourself out of it. This isn’t a defeatist attitude, it’s an unwillingness to take the placebo (“just shake it off and get over it”) and prolong the real problem.

I think it was Charlotte Bronte who said that “a restless mind makes a ruffled pillow.” Depression keeps your mind always wandering, which is probably why the thing a depressed person wants the most is to just sleep. It steals restful sleep, and that leads to a whole host of other problems. It’s a seemingly endless cycle. And most people will either not notice or will just think you’re an unpleasant person. The depressive is generally not an unhappy person. Happiness is a state of a soul content with finding a balance of virtue and pleasure in life, not circumstances or merely a feeling. A melancholy exterior can misrepresent what’s going on inside. Sometimes you’re just exhausted and have to turn down some functions because you’re feeling everything.

I find beauty in a lot of things and am easily moved. I think that’s a common trait among creative types, that they see beauty in things that most others assume shouldn’t contain beauty, so they don’t look, and those who do see beauty in dark places seem melancholy or strange. With that comes very low lows—lows that people who live in the middle struggle to relate to. We notice everything, so maybe it’s frustrating when other people seem oblivious to the things that seem so evident to us. For me, that often results in frustration with other people. I have to check myself and remember not to hold everyone to my own standards, or hold it against them for not understanding what I’m feeling.

I have to also remind myself that life is worth living because it is so dynamic. I personally prefer to stay away from chemical antidepressants  (*standard disclaimer that I am not a doctor and this is not a good choice for everyone) because I’ve never had any desire to live in the middle all the time. I’d rather know that lows are part of the game (as much is it sucks) if I can experience the highs and notice the little beauties that often get overlooked. I have to remind myself that this very trait means I have something to offer, a perspective that I take for granted. Contrast–darks against the light–breaks up the monotony and makes people take notice. No two people see the world the same, and even if others see your take on it as weird, maybe it’s the extremeness of it that illuminates something that no one else would have noticed. So hang in there; you will feel like singing again.

feel like quitting? you’re probably about to hit your stride

I was ready to call it quits yesterday. I was frustrated and beginning to wonder if the things in my head are worth putting out into the world.

Names and titles are things that are hard to write around when they don’t exist yet, and I’m terrible at coming up with titles. Especially the further in I get, I don’t like writing without names for my characters. I would at least like to have placeholder names until I come up with the right ones, because having “father” and “girl” all over the page, knowing that I’ll have to replace them all later, is distracting. The genericness of it bothers me. I like writing with a distinct person in mind, and without a name they aren’t as real as I need them to be.

This time around I’m going to need to be able to live with a title and character names for an entire series. I can have working titles for each individual book, but once I have the series name and put the first one out there, that’s it. That’s the name it’s gonna be.

I was feeling a bit stuck, so instead of wallowing in it, I reached out to those in a writers group on Facebook. The encouragement I received from a couple of the writers there was enough to get me out of my funk. I hadn’t shared that I was ready to quit, but they assured me that this is something I have to finish because there are people out there who are dying to read it. And they offered their help with this mountain of a molehill that is coming up with a title.

Sometimes it sounds incredibly stupid to say ideas out loud, and it gets embarrassing to keep sharing the unrealized things in your brain. But with each imperfect reiteration of the goal, my vision becomes a bit more streamlined and I can cut out what the book and series are not as much as I can communicate what they are and what I want them to be.

But for a long time it didn’t feel like anything I could do would be worth doing. I had to get outside myself. Not to seek validation, but to know if I was serving a need. It felt good to know that someone was rooting for this thing to come into existence even when I wasn’t.

Now that I have a renewed sense of “well maybe this thing does deserve to exist,” I need to be careful to keep perfectionism from getting in the way and keeping me from getting to the finish line. I know I will need a whole lot of help from an editor, so the sooner I get it into the hands of a professional the better. I have to believe that it will be good enough for people to want to read, good enough to be on shelves more broadly than a tiny, dark corner of Amazon’s self-published e-books. I need to believe that it’s worthy of spending money on professional editing and marketing and cover design. And I believe in hiring professionals to do what they’re good at (and I’m not).

So now this begs the question: am I prepared for many rounds of rejection? How am I going to keep going after hearing “no” over and over? Maybe, like my heroine, I have to bravely take steps beyond what I think is the border of my world. I have to take a leap of faith and not be afraid to disappear into the abyss. There is no abyss, there’s just trying again and again until one of those attempts sticks.

I’m excited about that process. A little scared, but mostly optimistic. But I can’t get ahead of myself. I have to do the hard work of getting it written first. I have to fall in love with that process first. I’m longing to get into that state of flow, when the rhythm of the words takes over and my fingers trip trying to keep up with my brain. When I’ve gotten far enough into doing the work that I hit that point that I imagine is like a runner’s high, knowing I’ve plugged away enough to wear a groove in the process, leaving resistance in the dust and finding myself well and truly in my element.

That flow is always after the point that you’re ready to quit. You have to push through the most daunting part.

I remember that feeling. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but I know what it feels like. And it is sublime. There’s nothing like it. It’s that feeling of knowing that what you’re doing is what you’re born to do, that in spite of the rough road to that pocket of joy in the doing, that you have truly found your medium.

I’m neither a runner nor a mother, but I imagine it’s also a bit like childbirth. You carry this thing with you for months, not really knowing what it will turn out to be. Then you push through the labor, wondering if you’ll ever get through it. You have doubts all along the way about your abilities. But then you’ve pushed through the toughest part, and you are in love. You get a rush of endorphins and it brings you joy like you cannot begin to describe, a joy that makes you forget how hard the struggle was. A joy that makes it all worth it and makes you willing and able to do it all over again.

That’s how I know I love writing. As much as I doubt my abilities and fail at putting words to the page, I can’t imagine not writing.

I have to remember to write what I would want to read. I think about that when I’m watching a movie or trailer or TV show: “I wish it went like this instead.” I often imagine where I think the story will go or what decisions the characters will make. (“Downsizing,” for example, was an entirely different story than I expected. It wasn’t what the trailer presented at all. The high concept of the story wasn’t exploited in the tone that was advertised. It became a hugely character driven, humanitarian story about a Vietnamese activist. She was a character I fell in love with, but it was a direction I could not have imagined the story taking.) A fun exercise is to watch the beginning of a show or film that I haven’t seen before and know little about, and write the rest of the story. Here’s the problem presented, now what are the characters going to do about it?

So I must ask, how am I beginning my story? We’re in the middle of things. I don’t need to explain how we got there. There can be backstory later, but I don’t have to (and shouldn’t) explain everything about how the world we find ourselves in got the way it is. We watched “A Quiet Place” last night. There’s no explanation of what the creatures are or how they got there. We’re just in it with this family, dealing with the problems currently at hand.

Most good stories don’t explain too much. The audience just needs to feel like they’re in a world they can believe to be real for as long as they’re in it, and to care about the characters making the decisions. And the problem needs to be clear, compelling, and urgent. And they need to know in the first ten minutes what the problem is and what’s at stake. It needs to be love at first sight: they need to know at the introduction that these are people and a world they want to get to know better. They need a reason to be invested. They need a reason to care. Most stories that don’t work for me haven’t given me enough of a reason to care about the characters. The stakes may be very high (the survival of the human race, for example), but if I’m not crying when another character is crying, or if their struggle seems inconsequential, I’m not invested in their journey.

I will also say that it’s difficult creating a dystopian world when reality isn’t that much less crazy. The world I’m attempting to create is one in which the written word no longer exists. This feels a bit like creating a hell in which I have to put people I care about and make them live in it. Anything my imagination can come up with is really not that fantastic by comparison anymore. Good literature reflects truths about the climate in which it exists, though. I guess that’s the silver lining.

And the biggest silver lining of all in writing is that you can create any world you want. Unlike reality, you can take that bonkers situation and create your desired outcome. You wield absolute power with the written word, and that is both thrilling and daunting. The trick is to not let that freak you out and to enjoy the act of creation. If the creation of it is exciting enough to keep you going, if you’re writing something that you would want to read, then there’s hope that someone else will, too.  So don’t quit. Push through another mile, because the flow state on the other side of that struggle is so worth it. You might be about to hit your stride.

but first, plan to succeed

This is it. Day one of my writing “staycation.” I’ve made a goal of writing 3,000 words per day over the next twenty days. As there is little hope of a vacation in the near future, I’ve selfishly requested this time off from work to finally knock out book one of a young adult fiction series I’ve had in my head. There just isn’t enough time or energy left in a day to get real, meaningful work done on projects outside of the day job, so to get this thing off the ground I needed some clear-cut time and parameters.

Preparation

I’ve done everything I could think of to eliminate distractions beforehand because I know my tendency to procrastinate through organizing. The house is clean, sheets are washed, kitchen cabinets are organized, my car is detailed, meal planning and grocery shopping for the duration of my time off is taken care of. I ought to have created a more detailed editorial calendar, but am going to see how it goes just reaching a daily word count goal to start. Getting the ball rolling is half the battle.

INFJ-ness

I had a week chock full of social engagements, so hopefully that stores up some extrovert time to keep me from being lonely for a little while. Although, the mere idea of being gone for three weeks has me, upon waking to my first day off, missing some people already. I have to include some margin to go out and be amongst people periodically. I could easily be a hermit for three weeks, but I’m not sure that would be a good thing.

Accountability and motivation

Now that I’ve told people that I’ve taken this time off to write the first draft of my first novel, it’s public; there’s social pressure now. This is good, as self-imposed deadlines and goals don’t carry much weight in my world. I’m a little afraid of what that says about me. Does that mean I don’t respect myself enough to be my own boss?

I’m driven, but I’m also sort of okay with letting myself down, so I need external circumstances keeping me motivated. I desperately want the work ethic I apply outwardly to kick in for my own projects. This is why I needed a set amount of focused time. This time needed to be a little bit uncomfortable (I feel guilty about taking this time off work, for myself), it needed to be public (so I don’t chicken out), it needed to be a solid chunk of uninterrupted focus time (twenty days with no other plans), and it needed to have clear-cut goals (a first draft of about 60,000 words by April 21st).

Focus

The temptation to avoid is the perpetual “but first…”. I’m going to write 3,000 words, but first, coffee. But first, shower. But first, that blog post. But first, I need that perfect inspiring-but-not-distracting playlist. But first, I’ll make a batch of scones. But first, which essential oils are good for focus and concentration?  No, V! Get your ass in that desk chair and move those fingers!

But speaking of asses in chairs, there should be some planned time for getting outside and moving. I plan to start my days with writing a few hundred words before the sun comes up, then taking my dog Marty for a brisk walk. Then perhaps some yoga and cardio in the afternoons. An undisciplined body makes for a foggy mind working at less than optimal capacity. And goodness knows I crave some fresh air and sunshine. Having the plan for the day written down and scheduled keeps little things like “but first that second cup of coffee” from derailing a day’s productivity. How easily one can fritter away a day with “but firsts.”

Goals

In addition to using Forest–an app in which you plant a virtual tree and if you do anything else on your phone for a set amount to time that tree dies–I found an app that will help me keep track of my word count goal. To finish a 60,000 word first draft by April 21st, I need to be writing about 3,000 words per day. That’s about double what I do on any given day of morning pages, so this should not be as daunting as it sounds (emphasis on “should,” but I know me and I need some wiggle room for such goals).

Having the skeleton of a cohesive manuscript is more important than word count, but in order to make concrete progress, I need to have concrete goals. So there’s a widget on my phone’s home screen that will track my daily and overall word count progress. Meanwhile, I have to focus for set chunks of time without going near my phone, or my tree will die. (Coincidentally, with the word count tracker, you earn guavas for some reason when you reach your goals, so in being productive these next two weeks I will also be producing a myriad of virtual vegetation.)

I have never successfully completed a NaNoWriMo, and I want this time to be different. I’m hoping that April will prove to be more productive, as the day job and holidays will not be part of the equation. I have to plan not to fail. Not failing, at the moment, means showing up every day and writing.

Backup

We should almost never rely on our brain for storage. I’ve already written what I thought would be the opening scene of the book, but the other day I had another idea of how I’d like the story to begin. But, like a dummy, I didn’t write it down. Now I’ve completely forgotten.  It always seems so obvious at the time that you think there’s no way you’ll forget something so basic, but writers should always write down their ideas, no matter how trivial or obvious they seem at the time…because like a vivid dream, it can very easily disappear, the memory of it gone forever.

It would really suck to do all this planning and work only to have it disappear like a fart in the wind, so I need to make a habit of saving my work in more than one place–not only on a flash drive, but also on a cloud, such as Google Docs.  I’m also a fan of Evernote as a catch-all for organizing thoughts and digital clutter.

Do it!

I’ve taken the first important steps of planning the time, then getting up early and getting my fingers typing. Now I have to write about three times what I’ve just written here in meaningful content to reach today’s goal.

Then I need to do that nineteen more times.

Coffee’s made. Let’s do this thing.

trail markers

Isn’t the beginning of spring lovely? To me, spring feels more like the beginning of a new year than January first does.

I have to say I’m happy to close the book on 2017. Not that it wasn’t great on the whole, but certain (ahem) factors made it feel like one big mess. I hope in 2018 there are fewer things to protest and more positive things on which to focus our attention. The year became a bit of a blur, so I consulted my calendar as a reminder of how great my year actually was. Here are the highlights:

  • Vended at three holiday craft fairs and my first Urban Hive Market
  • Saw “The King and I” at the Pantages
  • Saw comedians Chris Hardwick and Mike Birbiglia
  • Concerts: Sigur Ros (twice), Nick Cave, Eric Clapton, Gorillaz, and Ben Folds (with Tall Heights)
  • Did live painting at the Irvine Children’s Museum Pretend City
  • Had Dad over for the first time
  • Spent three days in San Diego with Mom
  • Got a logo/branding system professionally designed
  • Went to a conference in Austin
  • Went to Pittsburgh for a weekend to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary
  • Completed the first half of an educational coloring book
  • Started my first YA novel
  • Learned more about politics than I ever cared or intended to
  • Created a VLB Facebook page
  • Curated my Instagram (and started another one…and another one)
  • Published 21 blog posts
  • Had zero sick days from work
  • Joined Jeff Goins master class; completed the Intentional Blog course (but have yet to implement what I’ve learned…oops)
  • Was a student of Lauren Hom’s inaugural Passion to Paid course

I’m often so focused on where I need to go (metaphorically speaking) that I tend to forget where I’ve been.

Living by to-do lists can do a number on your memory of the trail you’ve blazed thus far. Looking back at the trail markers helps bring things into perspective when you feel like you’re always on the go but not really getting anywhere, to sit and appreciate the progress you’ve made and the times you’ve stopped to smell the roses.

I’ve been out of the habit of writing weekly blog posts, and it honestly makes me feel like a bit of a failure. I know I’m not providing value to hundreds of people eagerly anticipating a new post, but even if no one notices but myself, consistent output makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere.  The habit of leaving markers, even in the form of an inconsequential blog post, may have its value somewhere further down the road.

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