Why I Write

After a tumultuous year spent writing a thesis, I came to wonder why I started writing in the first place. Apparently, I love writing enough to get a Master’s degree in it. There were times in my life where writing something was a necessity to get through the day. Yet because of thesis, I’ve stopped writing. All writing has become a chore. My blogs are suffering because of it.

So why did I start writing?

I started writing because I wanted to be heard. As a kid, I never really felt that people listened to what I had to say. I was told an infinite number of times “you talk too much” or “stop talking.” I was silenced. I had no outlet for my musings, thoughts, or emotions. They had no place to go. Furthermore, I had feelings that most perceived as irrational. How could I talk about something that most people didn’t think was worth talking about? I had some friends growing up, but really, who wants to listen for hours on end to a rambler?

Diary

For instance, I got a pink diary with a lock for my 9th birthday.  I still have the key in an old jewelry box in the top of my closet. The first entry says:

August 9, 1995

Today is my birthday. Ths my friends S slept over. They were being mean to me. Yesterday my friend said “Just becuse tomorrow is your birthday means you can have the light on.” (Flashlight on seling) Then I had ters in my eyes.

Apparently, this was a painful experience for an oversensitive nine-year-old on her birthday. Darn it! I wanted to play with the flashlight on the ceiling when we were supposed to be sleeping.

And still, I’m an oversensitive adult, at present, lacking an appropriate outlet for my, at times, emotional overflow. So I’m forcing myself to go back to writing. No pressure to post every week on a certain day (sorry guys), but I have to write something everyday.

When I was in high school, and the first year or so of college I maintained a diary at freeopendiary.com.  Do you remember that site? (Don’t bother looking for my diary, they went on a deleting spree a number of years ago, and it is gone).  I wrote any and all of my business online for people to read, and I would hope and pray for comments and advice. I’d hope that people in the internet world would care about how I was doing.  Needless to say, they didn’t.

I have found in my course of study there is some debate going on about whether writing for others to read is a truly, justifiable reason to write.  I always get the feeling that “true” writers feel that it is taboo: that a real writer writes solely for the craft of writing– like any other pursuant of the arts. It’s true we certainly don’t do it because we expect to make lots of money– but we do hope that we can reach people on a profound level while making lots of money. That would make us really happy, knowing that people give a enough of a crap about what we are saying to actually pay us.

I used to write for myself. I enjoyed when I came up with a particular line, passage or poem that I loved for the sheer way it sounded. Once upon a time , I wrote just to organize my thoughts, or figure something out. I’d write because I was bored. My teenage years were filled with angst and drama: I needed an outlet.

Working for a movie theater when I was sixteen, I’d often find myself in the unfortunate position as the ticket taker on a slow night. I’d flip over the back of movie schedules and just write and write. About what, I can’t remember.  I have so many notebooks and random papers stashed away, you’d think I’d had an addiction to writing.  I’m not like that anymore. It seems that life has gotten in the way.

Right now in my life I’m dealing (barely) with all sorts of stress. And instead of expressing myself the way I used to, I’ve been bottling. At this rate I’ll burst like mentos in a coke bottle.

So now, I write to be heard. Blogging is such a public activity– I mean, I can’t tell you everything. I would like to have a job one day. But I write for you guys/gals out there reading. It’s nice to know that someone out there is listening, and that someone can hear me. (And I hope you aren’t judging me.) I spent a lot of time in my life hurting (as nine-year-old me can attest to), and I just want to be able to communicate, and work through my fears and insecurities.

Goodbye… For Now

ImageIt is with sadness that I write this post.  I’ve decided to take a hiatus from writing this blog. I know I’ve been hit and miss with posting, but I’d like to do much better.  However, I can’t do better until I get some things settled. Currently my priorities are out of alignment and I need to spend some time getting them back on track.  Less stress is the doctor’s orders.

I will, however, still be working on my thesis.  I figured that blogging about writing my thesis isn’t quite the same as actually writing my thesis.  But when I come back I will have plenty to talk about in thesis-land.

Of course, I cant stay away from blogging entirely so I will be focusing on Slow Paced (Living) in the United States.  I’ve just started that blog, but it his helping me adopt a minimalist, slower paced lifestyle.  If you are interested in doing the same, please join me there.

Thank you for tuning in, and I will be back in 2013.

Writing Black Characters

I’m not sure how much I’ve told you in terms of specifics about the characters in my thesis. Probably nothing because in general I like to keep everything about my stories a secret until I’m satisfied with them. But I will say this: my main characters are black.  Race does not determine my characters’ personality attributes, but I wanted them, on some level, to be able to relate to me and relate to a largely  underrepresented (and inaccurately portrayed) population of people.

In the United States we have this normalization of the white character.  If you start reading a story, and there are no pictures of people on the cover of the book, or no mention of race, you will automatically assume that character is white.  Why wouldn’t they be, right? It annoys me, sometimes, that I have to mention how dark the character’s skin is, or the curly-coily texture of their hair, or describe some other distinguishing feature that makes them “black,” when in fact, race is irrelevant to the journey the character must experience.  Still, if I want to give a voice to those invisible, black characters, I have to deliberately make them so.  Black characters will never be normalized in any genre of American Literature except in that Urban/African American Interest that I’m not too fond of.

That being said, I have very few models of “normal” black characters written by authors of any race. Nor have I found stellar advice on how to write amazing black characters whose race isn’t their most distinguishing feature. (The most recent character  I can think of now is Rue, from the Hunger Games. Granted she isn’t a main character, but I bet you didn’t even realize she was black until you saw the film, did you?)

And then, there are all these rules for portraying black characters. Skin color, hair texture, and dialect, to name a few, always matter. Why??!! Because many people on the internet are worried about appearing racist or racially insensitive.  I can’t blame them because there are no prototypes. For instance you can’t use words like “nappy” (especially if you’re white) because somebody will be offended.  And that may be true, but I think we are missing the point here.

I think the challenge with portraying race, without it being a story about race, is that many non-white people (and characters) have had their race influence their life experiences and perceptions about the world.  That’s simply a difficult fact to get around.  But you have to remember, not every story is about race.  The love story you may be trying to tell may have nothing to do with race. The story of a young woman trying to repair the relationship with her mother also may have little or nothing to do with race. I struggle, sometimes, not to make it about race if I don’t think race is an important factor.

So here is my advice to black writers, or any writers of color (white people, this may help you too, but no guarantees). Think about the last time you were writing or telling a story about yourself, and the moral or punchline had nothing to do with race. Remember how you portrayed your actions, the things you said, how you reacted to them, and what was going on in your environment that you responded to? You weren’t thinking about being a “person of color” the whole time, were you? You were thinking about yourself and the situation.  You were just a person with a particular problem, just like any other person with their particular problem.  You portray a black character the same way you’d portray any other character: as a person who just happens to be black.

If you find that your mind is so enmeshed in stereotypes, and you have no other perception of black people then the pitiful stereotypes seen on American TV, watch the UK TV show, Misfits, watch the web series Awkward Black Girl, and the Unwritten Rules.   Watching these shows has given me a bit more confidence as a black writer portraying “normal” black characters. Despite almost every movie, play or TV show we’ve seen in American history, there can be “normal” black characters. Beware, if you are uncomfortable with black women being portrayed as beautiful, strong, intelligent and attractive to men of all races, stay away. Yet, if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, maybe these shows can inspire you too.

Writer Confidence (or lack thereof)

I am an insecure writer.  99% of the time, I think whatever I come up with is crap, especially in terms of creative writing.  I bought a new notebook (with actual paper) this week and I haven’t used it because I  know, unequivocally, that anything I try to come up with will be awful.  After updating my personal homepage I sorted through pages and pages of poetry I’d written in undergrad.  I got so excited, that a friend suggested that I get back to what I love.  So recently, I’d been feeling inspired to write again.  However, I can’t bear to put pen to paper again.  I want to write poetry so badly. Yet I don’t want to reveal to myself, or anyone else for that matter, how unpracticed I am.

Here’s the thing about writing.  It’s an art that must be practiced.  If you don’t do it, you are going to suck.  If you haven’t done it for a while, whatever you come up with is probably going to suck. And when you first start doing it again, you are going to suck.  But the only way to get past the sucking part is to just do it and suck at it, until you don’t suck any more.  Got that? If not, all I’m trying to say here is that practice makes perfect. So for me, the only way I’m going to get past that place where anything I come up with is awful, is to first come up with all the awful, cliched, and corny sounding crap I wrote when I was 15.

To overcome this, here are some things to consider:

You aren’t the only person who thinks that everything they come up with is crap. What I’m saying is, most of us writers think that our writing sucks.  When I’m sitting in a peer review session in class, I may be commenting and making suggestions for other students, but I’m usually quite preoccupied with what people are going to say about my work. I have a lot of anxiety about my own work that I’m not concerned with yours.   And even if other people actually are concerned and serious about making critical observations and suggestions in reference to your work, remember

Not everything you write is pure genius.  And if you think it is, it’s probably pretty crappy. There are so many ideas and thoughts that bombard our conscious and subconscious mind day in and day out.  Every book you’ve read, television program you watched, and advertisements you’ve seen, flood your brain with information.  When you first start writing again, your brain is clogged with all of this crappy information. Are you writing too many cliches?  Stop watching TV!  Television is so formulaic and cliched, it is only natural to replicate this. It is a socialization machine. That’s why I’m a huge fan of free writing; we must get all of this information out so we can get to the good stuff.

Also, know that your first draft, isn’t your final draft. Know that when starting a writing project, the words that you initially put down on a page aren’t the final words that people will see.  The first thing you come up with isn’t going to be good.  The second thing you come up with probably isn’t good either. As writers we have to work through many drafts before we even consider calling something “good.” Please just accept this.  How many times have you written an email and gone back, deleted a phrase, and rewrote it differently? That’s the whole point of writing.  Getting your words to a place where they are acceptable to the general public.

Don’t become attached to any words or phrase on a page. They may be best taken out  There is probably a paragraph or stanza you think is so awesome, but it longer fits in the context of the whole piece.  Who cares if it is beautifully written and edited to perfection?  It will be awkward, clumsy and bulky if it doesn’t belong.  I had to take some clever phrases out of this paragraph right here that I really didn’t want to remove, but had to for the sake of the blog post.

That being said, when a teacher asks for a first draft, turn in your second or third draft. You won’t be as self conscious about your work if you know it isn’t the first piece of crap you pulled out of your butt hole  second and third drafts will be slightly more polished, they won’t be the ramblings of a hurried first (brainstorming) draft. You’ll have some confidence about your work, and you’ll probably get more positive reviews, too.

If you want to feel better about your writing, check out some of my earlier blog posts.  I’m mostly just complaining about stuff.  I have to say, they are pretty darn crappy. They are littered with grammatical errors, cliches and stupid ideas.  I get embarrassed if someone tells me they read them. But we all have to start somewhere, and that was my start. Check out some of your favorite bloggers’ early posts as well.  Unless they’ve gone back and re-wrote them, chances are they aren’t as good as their new material. We all have to face that learning curve. 

Confronting Procrastination Head-On

So I know I’ve said it before: I’m a procrastinator. I’ve spent the last month doing all my homework at the last minute and very little for my thesis. See, I had this little plan: I’d spend every weekday morning from 9am till noon doing homework, working on my thesis and studying for my professional teaching exams. That lasted all of two weeks. When my professor told me I ought to be spending 12 hours per class a week, I got overwhelmed and quit my study plan. Then I got behind, started making youtube videos on social issues, watching youtube, hulu, netflix, etc. Let’s just say I got really behind. I was desperate and I needed a solution. So I went to talk to a counselor and here is what she suggested.

Give your laptop to your boyfriend or roommate, and ask them to hide it and not give it back until Monday morning. And that’s exactly what I did. I’ve been computerless since friday at noon, and I still have about 24 hours till I get it back. Hence, the cellphone blogging. BUT, I’ve done more homework in the past two days than I have in the last month. And really, it wasn’t as much as I thought I had to do. See, when I get bored, the only thing I have to do is homework. So if you’ve already procrastinated to the extreme, have somebody take away your biggest source of distraction— yes, you will feel like a punished child–and the only thing you will have left to do is the work.

If you’ve managed to not procrastinate too badly (or even if you have), yet another thing you can do is only do a little work at a time. For me, feeling like I have to do all of something at once, like read 30 pages of boring homework, I’ll wait and wait until I have no other choice. But if I read one section at a time over a few days, it goes by much quicker and I’m done before I realize I am.

Or, you can limit the amount of time spent doing work. If you really have a short attention span, spend 20 minutes at a task and then spend an hour doing something you want to do. Normally, I don’t like this tip, because it alone doesn’t work for me. However, it actually works really well in conjunction with me not having my laptop. I spend 30 minutes or an hour doing homework, and then I’m off the hook. Eventually I’ll get bored not doing anything, and I’ll go back to doing work without looking at the time. Then, usually I end up spending more time on my work than I intend to, thus getting it finished.

So if you are a procrastinator like me, shut down your computer and give it to somebody for a day or two. And if you can’t do that because you have a desktop– have somebody change the password. And if you need your computer to write a paper or something- write it by hand, go to a computer lab in the library, or create a user ID that only permits access to what you need. Get creative: you spent all this time researching procrastination, I’m sure you can dream up a way to prevent yourself from using the internet as a form of procrastination.

Good Luck

Getting Motivated

One of the hardest things to overcome as a writer is a lack of motivation.  I don’t really believe in writer’s block (more on that another day).  But I do believe in extreme laziness.  So how do you push past these feelings?

Ask yourself, is this really what I want to do? Do you really want to write?  When I think about the answer to this question sometimes I want to say no.  One of my true passions is singing.  I love to sing– and if I’m not writing to process a hard time or whatever, I’m singing it out.  I’m not awful– I probably could be really good at it.  I just never really pursued anything outside of high school. I remember filling out my college application for UM, wondering if instead of checking an undecided major, I should have checked voice.  But then I’d have to go to an audition and certainly be rejected. There was too much risk in pursuing that dream.

So back to my original question: Is this what I want to do? To answer: in many ways, yes.  As much as I love to sing, I’d be content just doing it at church on Sundays.  I really don’t want to be a famous singer. (Famous writer? Now that I’m okay with)   So, I went with my number 2 passion, which is writing. I’ve gone so far as to get my master’s degree in it.  But the last thing I want to do is work on anything related to it.  The sad part is, I watch online TV all day instead of just writing what I want to write.  I don’t know why I can’t waste time doing something worthwhile.  If I’m going to do something constructive, I feel like it absolutely has to be school.

You always hear people saying: “follow your dreams.”  And in this world, you can’t always skip the boring crap and just follow your dreams.  I don’t have a trust fund that I can live off of while I start my businesses, write my novels, and move to some fancy apartment in LA while I audition for record labels.  Real life for the majority of us doesn’t work that way.

I don’t feel like writing a thesis.  I want total creative freedom over my story.  I want to write with un-yielded inspiration and passion.  Sometimes I feel like my story has been hijacked. (no offense professor.) I want ideas to come to me as I write.  That’s part of the fun.  Yet, writing a creative thesis is not like that.  I have a freaking outline for my story. I don’t even write outlines for academic papers.  I find outlines constricting and awful.  Who knows what you’ll discover while writing?

Ironically enough, I found a quote from one of my school readings that fits this situation perfectly by Donald Murray (as quoted in Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper and Kurt Schick):

The writer is constantly learning from the writing what it intends to say.  The writer listens for evolving meaning…The writing itself helps the writer see the subject.

I feel like my artistic creativity is being constrained and squashed into a tiny little box.

I want to be a writer but I have BILLS that must be paid.  I have to get a job to pay those bills. And in order to get a job I have to get my degree and take professional exams. And to get the master’s and pass the tests I have to do all the boring crap I don’t feel like doing.  And it goes on and on and on.   But if this is what I want to do, I have to do all the boring crap.

I have to look past all of the stuff in front of me and look at the big picture.  I have to see those words: “#1 New York Times Best Selling Author Talia Clay.”  I have to see my master’s degree framed and mounted on the wall.  I have to see my accomplishments in action so I can continue moving forward.

I never understood why self-help authors tell people to make vision boards. I get it now. Vision boards let you see your accomplishments before they happen. They inspire you.  They remind you why you’re busting your ass doing bullshit you don’t care about. They give you hope.

Hope, in and of itself, is the best motivator.

Advice for Starting Your Thesis

I shouldn’t have started my thesis, yet.  And I should have followed the advice of all those who have gone before me.  I am way over my head. I’m finishing up my master’s degree– if an entire year remaining counts as finishing up– and it has been an extremely tumultuous journey.  Here is some advice that I didn’t follow, but should have:

Don’t start your thesis while taking a class. Everybody says this, but they don’t tell you why.  There are actually a few reasons.  The first being that your thesis may no longer feel like a priority.  You schedule some far off deadline (mine is September 1, 2012) to turn in 50 pages.. Even if you have intermittent deadlines, like I do, they still seem relatively far away compared to that 30 minute presentation that is due in 2 weeks. So what do I focus on? The  presentation.  Suddenly those two weeks have passed and I haven’t read the 2 novel length books on my thesis reading list.  Would you really like to be 500 pages behind on your thesis reading? I don’t think so.

Secondly, no matter how easy you think that class will be, you are wrong. You still need to pass that final class with an A to graduate with honors; and working on the thesis whilst in the class could ruin all of that. Conclusion: Class + Thesis = Burned-out Grad Student

Watch out for surprise homework. Your thesis adviser will assign extra work to “help” you with your thesis. And, it may actually help you take your thesis to the next level.  But having to do an extra character interview on top of the homework for class and other thesis work you’ve already scheduled down to the hour, may be problematic.

Plan your thesis out BEFORE meeting with an adviser.  Your adviser, who has worked with gazillions of know-it-all grad students, will find every gap, crack or hairline fracture in your thesis.  If there is one tiny thing you thought you’d just figure out later, forget about it.  She wants it figured out now, before you start, before there are 36 hours until D-day.  She wants details on things you didn’t even think to think about. Get started NOW on that proposal.  If you are writing fantasy, make sure you have your fictional world air tight.

Getting a full time job is a bad idea.  If you already have a class, and thesis, when do you have time for a job?  My adviser informed me that I ought to be spending 12 hours on homework for every class for which I’m enrolled.  That, and an additional 12 hours a week on thesis crap. So, if you are like me—not good at math—here is the adding all laid out for you:

        

So unless you can work a full time job in 10 hours a week, I suggest you use those Grad Plus loans wisely.

Thesis is all consuming, forget your life.  If you actually like your thesis topic by the time you are done working though the proposal, you won’t want to do anything else.  Your sweet, loving boyfriend will feel neglected.  He will wonder why it is that you stare at your computer when he comes over for a visit.  Your DVR will become full, and by the time you realize it, the season finale of True Blood won’t be recorded.  You will get fat, eating chips, popcorn, and if you’re a girl, chocolate.  The money you spend on your gym membership will go to waste. Say goodbye to your social life, your friends, and anything that interested you prior to thesis.

And lastly, don’t neglect your newly adopted Chihuahua mix.  If you do, even if she is fully trained, she will poop on your floor, lick your laptop and shed hair all over your apartment.

I know you won’t listen to any of the advice I’m giving, as no one ever does.  But I’ll be the first to say “I told you so.”

Train Rides

Last week I was enchanted by public transit: the train specifically. I like the solstice it provides. I can write. The world stops for me. However, today I was reminded of the challenges it presents.

Today, for example, as soon as I found a wide open seat at a booth by a window I get company. Some guy in his mid 20s sits across from me. When he smiled I noticed his front teeth were eroded three-quarters of the way up to his gums. I always think “Really? There are plenty of open seats.” And its not that he sits there is the main problem– it’s that he smells. Somehow I forget that the train is used frequently by the unwashed. Please forgive me, I know I shouldn’t judge. But I have headphones on. Do I look like I’d like to chat or get to know you?

Now that I’ve escaped stinky, I can focus on other things. I thought I wouldn’t be able to write today. I thought I exhausted everything creative in me. Oddly enough, that stinky, toothless man’s attempt at hitting on me was enough inspiration.

Sometimes I get so irritated and frustrated about life, writing is one of the main ways I can cope. What I need to do, though, is channel some of that emotion and anxiety towards my story. Working on my short story last night was so satisfying. It’s like I finally was able to scratch an itch I couldn’t reach on my back.I have 10-15 pages due really soon. I want to have 8 done before Friday. Working on that story yesterday gave me a sense of peace. Writing gives me a sense of clarity that I haven’t had it a while. Hopefully, I can keep it up.

Back to Basics

It’s hot and very humid. I’m drenched in sweat and have only been sitting at the train station for ten minutes. All the busyness of the world stopped the moment I sat down. I used to take public transportation everywhere when I didn’t have a car. First, there would be the rush of not knowing whether I was going to make it: hurrying to the ticket counter, digging through my purse for a dollar or bus pass or a few extra quarters to pay the fare. Then, I had to wait, in the heat, where I am now, savoring slight and few breezes that brushed my cheeks. I never cherished the moments in which I waited for the bus to get to work.

Now, I feel relief and yearning as I sit on the hard-metal, pale-teal bench. Owls’ hoots and motorists’ engines, in the distance, fill the hum of the silence Everything I could possibly need in the next four hours is crammed in my purple, grey and white backpack. Sometimes I forget to enjoy these moments.

I used to write during these moments. I could organize the the thoughts that I’ve been fumbling around with. Life made more sense when I set my thoughts to paper. I’ve lost those moments, so I stopped writing; writing for me, anyway.

School has started again. And of course, the only writing I’ve been doing is for my grammar history class. And any writing where I don’t thoroughly enjoy the subject, is not really writing. Now, I’ve begun a fiction workshop class. I have to write more frequently, and I’m quite out of practice.

I feel that my strength is in the manipulation of language. Writing pretty sentences comes easily enough to me. Thank you many dark, emotional years of poetry writing. However, my weakness is in the nature of what I write. Really, how does one write a story? How does one mold characters? How do I make a complete person out words?

When I figure it out, I’ll let you know (soon, I promise). I’m signing off for now. Good day!

Five Year Plan (my goals)

five year plan

Image courtesy of toothpastefordinner.com

In life I have been  meandering. I make decisions, yet I’m still not sure how everything is going to work out.  The day to day struggles seem pointless in the long run.  So I am going to take very concrete action and come up with a plan.  Okay, a plan may not be action, but a specific plan will help me know what actions to take.

I’ve been researching on line ideas for designing a five year plan.  I need to figure out what aspects of my life need clarifying. And, I’m still trying to figure out my love-hate relationship with finding a job.

So here is what I have found so far.  There are 9 sectors that I need to clarify and set goals for.  Artistic, Attitude, Career, Education, Family, Financial, Physical, Public Service, and Travel.   Some of these sectors I never even considered setting concrete goals for.  Other ones, like Career, I’ve agonized over for years and years, and not managed to get very far.   That’s what I feel is happening right now, like it did when I was in high school and again while I was in undgrad.  So, here is my five year goals for each of these sectors:

Artistic: Play guitar well enough so I can sing along.  And, have some sort of singing gig, like in church

Attitude: Reduce and manage stress. Be happy.

Career: Have a career I love: writing and helping children.

Education: Completed Master’s Degree in Writing.  Made a decision on whether or not to pursue a Ph.D.

Family: Meet someone that I love and care about and get married.

Financial: Paid off credit card debt. Earn a comfortable living.

Physical: Working out consistently (at least 4 times per week), healthy knees, and my idea of a “perfect” body.

Public Service: Volunteer weekly with an organization helping children in need.

Travel: Visit a foreign country.

Now just because I’ve set out these goals, doesn’t mean I’m all done.  Not even close.  The real key is going to be breaking these goals down yearly, and then monthly. Other wise known as “THE PLAN”  I will spare you the details on everything except for career. This blog is about becoming a writer, no?  I suppose that I can’t become a professional student and live off of student loans forever.

I think the key to setting up my five year plan is deciding what exactly I want to do.  I have a thoroughly low commitment to any one thing.  And even if I pick something, getting a job is a whole other story.  I don’t like job interviews.  I feel uncomfortable bragging about myself to employers, presenting myself as some perfect person in a stuffy business suit.  If money weren’t an issue, I’d write all day and just enjoy life.  I abhor the whole job search process.

So in lieu (partly) of looking for a grown up job, I’m going to get volunteering gig with the Boys and Girl’s Club of America.  It seems like a great first step to do something positive and something that could find me a slice of happiness in this world.

To Be Continued….

Sources:

Create A Personal Five Year Plan

Personal Goal Setting

Toothpaste for Dinner