Course continued: call it recycling

I’m plodding away in my writing course. It’s actually not that difficult, and a welcome distraction from the curveballs of life and the constant feeling of ineptitude that plagues me at work. I watch a few short videos, write an extremely short assignment (more on that later), and review some of my peers’ work.

Oh, and I qualified for financial aid, so the course is actually free.

The first part of the course focuses on plot. We looked at that storyline graph that we all had to work from in elementary school (I learned that it’s called Freytag’s Pyramid), and wrote a 250 word piece that really emphasized rising action.

So. 250 words, eh? Do you guys know how few words 250 words actually is? My submission ended up being this fragment of a story that thrusts the reader into the middle of an afternoon with a character. As expected, I was well over the word count when I finished my first draft. I cut and snipped and murdered my darlings until I thought for sure, I was at 250 words.

I was still over.

I ended up doing the old newspaper trick, the thing we were taught never to do in Newspaper Editing back at ol’ Algonquin College: I cut from the bottom. I highlighted my piece from beginning to 250 words, and deleted the rest.

To be fair, I did edit that last sentence to make sure it was complete. Then went back and deleted more words from the middle, since I’d once more exceeded the word limit.

If it wasn’t a fragment before, it sure was now.

I ended up passing (these assignments are pass/fail: either you did the task at hand, or you didn’t). And reading it over, well, I’ve decided it could stand to be recycled into this blog. I mean, I talk enough about writing . . . maybe I could share something once in a while.

(blah blah blah, this is my intellectual property, blah blah, get your own sandwich, blah blah blah)

Anyway, here’s my first assignment: Cocktail Attire Requested

   Stephanie was dreading the party. She trudged down the filthy sidewalk, snow and salt melted into grey slush, and tried to convince herself that it wouldn’t be as bad as she feared. She pictured walking into the ballroom alone, greeting her co-workers, mostly strangers still. At this point her mind, as a well-practiced trick, showed her these co-workers, smiling politely, moving on after brief greetings, leaving her standing alone in the corner in a party dress.
The dress, she thought to herself, her head aching — it would explode at any moment. Ever the procrastinator, she’d left the details of her outfit, details she was told were important, to the day of the party. Up until today, she had been able to pretend that the party was never going to arrive, and was able to hide a little longer from reality; today, she had to face facts, and head to the mall.
Shopping was to be a sprint, designed specifically to pick up the components of her outfit: dress, nylons, shoes. She yanked on the mall’s entrance door, already moving in double-time, her abruptness startling a nearby crow.
The Shoe Warehouse was just inside the entrance, so she decided to start with the shoes, though given her extremely limited budget, she was worried this plan wouldn’t prove prudent. Twisting the rings on her fingers in anxiety, she scouted the aisles, finding a pair of patent pumps with a reasonable, but still sexy heel, on sale for $45.

— 30 — a.k.a. mic drop.

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So I’m taking this writing course . . .

Years ago, I mentioned something to an acquaintance that I was thinking about possibly taking a writing course. At the time, she too wanted to be A Writer, a fact I had just found out. Thus, we were bonding over our writeriness, in a very early-20’s manner, talking about what it meant to be A Writer (though neither of us were published), how to be A Writer (and by this, I meant how to be published), and other seemingly profound thoughts on writing. It was all very Angela Chase, in hindsight.

AngelaChase_JordanCatalano

But the thing that stuck with me about that conversation was that this acquaintance told me that she was done taking courses, she was just going to write. “Either you can write, or you can’t; I’m not sitting in a classroom waiting for someone to teach me,” she said.

I agreed on some level. What had I been thinking? The way in was by getting up early, logging hours at my craft before and after the regular, bill-paying life happened. I read that Sylvia Plath would rise at 5 a.m., write for an hour, then tend to her children and house.

The thing of it is though, I had no idea how to take these things I was producing, short stories mostly, and turn them into something published. I researched target markets, tried to note publishers who produced books that resembled my writing. But I was stuck. I didn’t know how to turn an idea into a full novel; I didn’t know how to sell my writing.

Around this time, I also was crazed for someone to read what I wrote. I started at home and asked the then Live-In Boyfriend to read some of my offerings — we had, after all, gotten together after a long talk about my writing, and our early days were based around his desire to read and critique my writing.

Somewhere, a shift had taken place. It was suddenly the very worst thing ever that I’d asked him: put down the PS2 controller, take a look at this thing I was so very proud of. He told me my vocabulary was too small (apparently, I used the word ‘presence’ endlessly). He told me that I didn’t write about anything that interested him (valid, I suppose, when what really interested him was The Legend of Zelda). He told me that I’d be better off putting my time into something that would actually make money.

Because, remember, at this point, I had no idea how to make money writing.

About 10 years later, the sting of his criticism has worn off. I’m sort of writing again, though nowhere near as prolifically as I was back then. I’m not all that keen on showing it yet, not all that keen on reaping the criticism all over again. Because maybe my vocabulary is too small, maybe I do write about boring things. Maybe I have no shot of becoming a published writer, ever. But here I go, baby steps, baby steps; we’ve all got to get over that shit from the past at one point or another.

So I try to write, and find I still have no idea how to turn something smallish (short story) into something biggish (novel). I have no idea how to market my writing, no matter the size. But I am older and wiser, and so I turn to a writing course. Not because I expect to be taught to write, but because I’m hoping to be taught how to write a query letter, how/when to send out submissions, and all of that logistical stuff that falls outside the realm of right-brained thinking*.

(*: apparently this whole right-brain/left-brain theory has been/is in the process of being debunked, but you understand what I’m saying, right?)

There’s the added bonus that this course also has weekly assignments to complete. It will force me to write consistently, it will force me to keep something once in a while (as I generally don’t, a phenomena that is explained in my earlier post Every word I write is crap.) These assignments are peer-evaluated, so there’s a dim hope that some of the critiques that come back will help me, if I truly am a tiny-vocabularied, boring amateur.

So. Here’s goes nothing. Or possibly, something?

 

Money versus integrity

As I get older, and my goal of being published by the age of 26 fades further and further into the past, I talk about writing less and less. And I think about writing more and more. And I stare out the window more and more. And I write less and less.

One thing that hasn’t changed, as I get older, is my tendency to chatter. I never really seem to shut up. I babble and talk and yammer and blather and so on and so forth.

It’s inevitable that at some point, I will blurt out that I once wanted to write, that I still want to write, that I was supposed to be a writer.

And given what the printed word has become today, it’s inevitable that someone will ask, “What are you going to write? Like some Fifty Shades of Grey-type of book?”

It happened this past week. I shit you not.

To be fair to the person who asked, she doesn’t know me very well, and vice versa. She would have no way of knowing that her question killed a part of me.

But hey, that woman, E.L. James, has a wildly successful franchise. Her name is internationally known. She just published a fourth novel, one that has, according to The Guardian, become the “UK’s fastest-selling adult novel.” She’s had her first book turned into a movie, & if I know Hollywood, they’ll be turning the rest into films as well. Why wouldn’t I want to be her?

Oh right. Artistic integrity. Literary skill. Something like … talent?

(Before anyone calls sour grapes, I’d just like to remind you that I read her trilogy. Every stinking, painful word, I read it. Every Googled synonym. Every ‘inner goddess’, every ‘medulla oblongata’. Every awkward sentence filled with precious, precious adverbs. It was agony.)

I mean, it’s great and all, to dream of writing a story/novella/novel/series, and to dream of actually selling it, and to find out that it’s actually making a bit of money, and to then find out that you’re like, the next J.K. Rowling (or I suppose, E.L. James). But at what point do you sell your soul to the devil — at what point do you just write garbage to make money?

Call me idealistic and naive, but I’d rather be less than internationally renowned if it means that my writing is actually good. Hell, at this point (you know, the point where I barely write and I use this sparsely-written blog as oil for the machine), I’d be happy to finish something — anything! — and send it out. I’d even be happy with a rejection letter, because it’d mean I did something.

Something other than “some Fifty Shades of Grey-type book.”

Every word I write is crap.

I’ve had writer’s block for an extended period of time. Mostly. There are rare bursts of brilliance that even my deepest inner critic can’t debunk. But for the most part, I think of writing as this thing that I used to do, and staring at a blinking cursor at the top of a blank page as this new hobby I’ve taken up. It’s not very rewarding.

Or worse: there are those days where I write something, knowing there’s no genius there, not at the beginning, but I write anyway, in this hopeful manner that I’ll get swept away and prose that would make you weep would erupt from my fingertips. That happened once: I was working on a short story for a writing class. I sat down to write a scene that I’d been putting off. It was dusk, and in my attic bedroom, the corner where my desk sat was already dark, so I clicked on my lamp and started writing. And today, looking back, I can’t remember what happened to that time. I was in a trance, typing furiously, and when I stopped, it was completely dark outside. I began to cry when I saw what I’d written, but good crying — the scene came off as I’d hoped. Later, workshopping the story, my class actually fought about that scene. It was too real, too visceral, too much. Mission accomplished.

These days, I find I can’t get swept up in it. I force myself to write and never lose myself in it. I want to shake myself for the clichéd characters, situations that I create. That inner critic, who sounds strangely like my mum, reels off an endless stream of commentary that reminds me that even E.L. James has been published but I haven’t and I won’t if I keep writing crap like this; it’s that bad.

Some days, I delete it. So easy. Ctrl-A. Delete. There’s no evidence of my foray into literary shit-town. I read a book once, possibly a Wayne Johnston novel, possibly ‘A World Elsewhere’, though I can’t rightly remember, where the writer character burned all of his pages after he wrote them. I virtually do this. There’s a sort of relief in getting it out, but then getting rid of it at the same time.

Other days, I stare at the blinking cursor — that damned blinking cursor — and think, what’s the point? And so I stare at it for an hour or so, and then look out the window, and maybe make a fresh pot of coffee, and tell myself that I have writer’s block, and tell myself that it’s okay to have it. But that’s just as lame as saying that I don’t need to know how to change a tire because I’m female — I have a car and should be able to change the tire, regardless of my gender.

I used to write all the time, used to fill notebooks and floppy disks and scrap paper with all sorts of crap, and I never seemed to care if it was crap. Because here’s the thing: most writers, they write because they have to. They need to. They must, to paraphrase Elizabeth Reyes.

I don’t write (or not write, as is the case) because I want to. I have better things to do with my time, I’m sure, than to pour myself into something for an hour, two, four, and then spend an equal amount of time berating myself for it. Every word I write is crap, but it’s crap I had to get out.

Maybe this not writing thing is a throwback to my suburban upbringing: repress, repress, repress. Maybe I should just tell that voice in my head to shut the hell up, that not every word I write is shit, that something on that page has merit. Maybe the day’s work doesn’t need to be wiped out.

Then again, maybe every word on this page is utter crap.

Hiatus, & a change of pace

I read this article once about making your blog interesting to readers. It told me that I’m not to say things like it’s been a long time since I posted.

But … it’s been a long time since I posted.

In general, this is a blog about books and my reading habits and my thoughts on reading. I didn’t set out to write a blog about my life because … well … I didn’t. But books and reading habits and thoughts on reading are all wound up in this thing I call my life, and so, inevitably, they are going to end up intersecting at some point.

So. Long time since I posted. Mostly because my life ‘flipped-turned upside down’. I changed jobs, and I changed cities. I no longer have a relevant library card, and rely heavily on my phone’s GPS. And during all of this tumultuous change, I’ve read some chick lit (bad chick lit), some thrillers (mostly bad thrillers), and some of my old books from when I was a kid (Nancy Drew, hells yeah!). Not too much to comment on with these. I’m still in the learning stages at my new job, trying to pick up on not one, but two software packages; a seemingly endless parade of names and faces; mulitiple departments with multiple protocols — I’ve been told it’s okay if I feel new for a year. And quite frankly, until I feel like I’ve got this, I’m continuing my brain junk food. I’m rereading the Sookie Stackhouse books. Ah, Charlaine Harris: not the best writer in the world, but entertaining enough, and if I fall asleep reading (which happens very frequently now), it’s pretty easy to reorient myself within the story.

But still, this is not the stuff of interesting blogs, unless I wanted to spawn some sort of fanfic symposium. Which I don’t.

So then, what to do with this ol’ thing? I got to thinking about why I even started it in the first place. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a writer. I always knew I’d have a full-time job and that writing would be a labour of love that I would probably never actually support myself with. I had small dreams of publishing a novel that at least my family and friends would buy, and even very possibly, read. But somewhere in my mid-20’s, I followed my life down a darkish path, along which someone told me that I was a bad writer, that nothing I wrote about was interesting, that I’d be better off putting my focus into something that actually made me money.

be a writer

That was a crappy thing to hear; crappier still is I believed it. Now, almost 10 years later (how did that happen?), I’ve got this ghost of a dream and 20,000 disjointed words. I used to write 2,000 words a day, or more; now I’ve averaged that a year.

So I’m going to go back to that 20-something-year-old girl inside (that teenaged girl, that 10-year-old girl; this was a lifelong ambition), and convince her not to give up her dream. And I’m going to use this blog as a forum to exercise my writerly dreams. I guess I’ve always had this idea in the back of my head.

Welcome to my Creeping Thoughts.

 

Freudian Alice procrastinates in Transylvania

In my previous post, I mentioned that I’m taking an online course in Fantasy & Science Fiction through Coursera. This course helped remind me that I am a Great Procrastinator and can only do anything at The Very Last Minute (if at all).

And yet, I’ve now met two deadlines. Hurray for me!

It’s actually been a bit of a struggle. The course is flying by, the reading list demanding, and it would appear that my critical reading has slowed to a snail’s pace. How on earth did I do this in university?

Oh right, I mastered the art of writing essays on books I haven’t finished.

The second week of the course brought me to Wonderland, through the eyes of Alice. I finished that book, though only the day before my essay was due. I came up with a decent (I think) thesis, wrote my piece sometime in the wee hours of the night, and, feeling pretty good about myself, went to submit it.

At this point, I learned that I’d muddled the maximum word count, writing just under 600 words. The submission form would accept no more than 320 words.

320!

I had two options and five hours. Option A: edit and cut mercilessly. Option B: start over.

Since I’d fallen horribly in love with my piece, I decided to go the route of Option A. I took to task with Stephen King’s advice ringing in my ears: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” (King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.)

This could also be me, trying to write only 320 words.
“‘How dreadfully savage!’ exclaimed Alice.”

I cut and I slashed and I murdered those darling ideas mercilessly. And somehow, with three hours left on the clock, I got that piece down to 320 words (exactly), and could click submit. Thank goodness. I was a blurry mess, aching to sleep and finding no meaning in the written word anymore.

It was received pretty well via the peer evaluation process (maybe I’ll talk about this one day in some depth). Phew.

 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a tale in which a young girl struggles to define her sense of self. Our protagonist is repeatedly asked to explain who she is to a varied cast of characters. Most memorably, the Caterpillar, rather than greeting Alice, asks “‘Who are you?’”. Alice never supplies a satisfactory reply.
Since Carroll lets the reader know that both forays into Wonderland were the dreams of this little girl, this reading has reconciled Freud’s dream work into Adventures and presumes that as Alice slept, her unconscious mind grappled with what her conscious mind found too difficult to reconcile.(1)
Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development also comes into play. This describes seven-year-old Alice within the Competence stage, wherein the child develops a sense of self-esteem with regard to her peers(2). The Wonderland community constantly confuses and questions her, and though she tries to defend her sense of self, she resigns easily to her designated role. The White Rabbit thinks she’s his housemaid; she doesn’t correct him. The Sheep tells her “‘… you’re a little goose;’” she doesn’t protest further. The Unicorn declares her “‘a fabulous monster;’” Alice quickly gets “quite used to being called ‘the Monster’”.
Since these are dream companions, using Freud’s work, we see that it is not these animals questioning Alice’s claim to self, rather, it’s her own unconscious mind, since these peers are manifestations of her “repressed conflicts”(1). Her unconscious mind has generated a society within which she can evaluate her sense of self.
Alice also questions herself: “‘Who in the world am I?’”. These moments of self-interrogation are accompanied by some unusual event and it is these unusual events that remove the fear accompanying a crisis of self. Through this motif, the text goes beyond existing psychosocial work, suggesting that while Alice’s conscious mind is using community to develop a sense of self, her subconscious mind has moved on psychosocially, trying to determine who she is.

This week was a whole other story.

The reading was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I quickly realised that I’d never read this book before. So I settled in. This story is the grandpa of vampire tales. It’s amazing to see how Stoker lays out the things that we take to be “true” of vampires: the pointed teeth, no reflection in the mirror, sleeping in a coffin. Apparently, Dracula also had hairy palms, which I’ll admit to having a little bit of a giggle over (yes, I’m apparently 12). This story is the original — no stupid twinkling in the sun and similar.

I didn’t finish it.

The essay was due Tuesday morning. Monday night, I decided to plough through the book, read as much of it as I could, rather than try to write an essay based on the first 116 pages of the novel. I could get up early today and easily scribble out 320 words.

When my alarm went off this morning, my lamp was on and the book was in my hand, thumb holding my place on page 137. Oops. No matter, I wrote my essay. I had a couple of hours to come up with something.

This essay was not my proudest work. I blathered a bit to fill space, and still only came up with 302 words. I ended up writing something about how Stoker uses Dracula to grapple with the concept of death and mortality. It was fine, but not great. Some (most) of the comments I received mentioned that there didn’t seem to be a conclusion, and truth be told, there really wasn’t. I just sort of stopped writing and clicked the submit button.

It’s a shame really, because this book is great. If I had more time (er, if had managed my time more effectively), I would have finished the book. Written an essay with my original idea. Made it great. Or you know, finished the one I wrote.

Stay tuned: you never know when I’ll finish the book and/or the essay …

Books This Post:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll.
  • Dracula, Bram Stoker.

References Cited:

  1. McLeod, S. A. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html .
  2. Erikson’s Stages of Development. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.learning-theories.com/eriksons-stages-of-development.html .

The fine art of procrastination

Procrastination

I’m a freak: I love school.

Okay, I’ll qualify that. I don’t loveschool per se. I actually believe I hated school in most of its incarnations: elementary was hell, high school was hell (and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or not to be trusted), college was hell, university was … okay, I loved university, but it had its own hellish elements (staying up all night, pounding out essays and lab reports with 20 minute power naps in between drafts created a certain sleep deficit that I believe I’m still trying to work off).

But I do love learning. And so, with the advent of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) through various websites such as Coursera and edX, I have become a learning junkie.

Sort of.

I’ve mastered the art of failing classes gracefully through the fine art of procrastination. I forgot, apparently, that the reason I had to pull all of those all-nighters in university was that I will put everything off until The Very Last Moment.

For example, I’m currently enrolled in this one course on Coursera, Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, as presented by Eric Rabkin via the University of Michigan. This was a course that I told myself I was going to stay on top of. The reading list is interesting. Rabkin is a pleasant and intelligent lecturer. And yet, here I am, 24 hours before my first assignment is due, and I’ve still to finish my reading for said assignment.

I’d love to say I haven’t had time, but that’s basically a lie. The assignment in and of itself is simple: read a specific edition of Grimm’s Household Tales (the 1886 Lucy Barnes edition), and write a brief essay about a theme found within.

When I say brief, I mean brief: 270-320 words. I’m not even sure this is a page. For me, overly verbose me, this is like, a paragraph, maybe two. (This is not really evident in this blog, where I find myself reverting to newspaper writing, with flashy, short, grabby paragraphs in an attempt not to lose my reader; academic writing is another beast altogether.)

So instead of reading this text, I’m binge-watching The Leftovers on HBO On Demand, washing dishes, doing mountains of laundry, running errands, calling friends who I haven’t spoken to for an era, writing this blog …

Why the aversion? These stories are easy reads, gruesome and glorious. The text I’m using has gorgeous illustrations (done by the translator’s husband, Walter Crane). The themes are plentiful. This should be an enjoyable experience.

I have two theories. The first is that I’m completely freaked out by how brief this essay is, but that isn’t as important as the second: the deadline. I started reading this text before the course even started and I had nothing but time. As a lifelong procrastinator, there is nothing that stops me in my tracks quite like a distant deadline. Tell me that you need things done in hours, not days-weeks-months.

Even at this point, 24 hours to go, I’m telling myself that I can easily complete this assignment. I’m probably about a third of the way through the text, but I can probably plough through it in a couple of hours. Then 300 words? Pfft! Child’s play! I’d better clean the bathroom; I’ve got nothing but time.

But then, reality will set in, and it will be just like when I was eight years old and had to make a diorama of a castle for school. In my head, this diorama was awesome. Working gates, meticulously constructed from Lego, set into a facade made from cardboard, onto which I’d draw each individual stone that made up the face of the castle. A moat. Little people in each room, doing medieval things (G-rated medieval things … like sitting in thrones and baking bread and jousting). So an hour before my bedtime, I pulled everything out to get started. Drew the facade of the castle. Cut it out. Realized it looked wrong. Drew another. Cut it out. Still wrong. Suddenly realized that I COULDN’T DRAW (still can’t; I peaked at eight)! Ah! What was I going to do? I only had 40 minutes left before I had to go to bed. So I tried to build a gate with my Lego. Couldn’t get the damned thing to a) look right, or b) work. I had 20 minutes left. My dad poked his head in, saw what I was doing, asked about it. And then, the usual chaos that surrounds big school projects ensued. First the parental freakout that I left this to The Last Minute … again. Then the “What are we going to do?” panic. Then the “Figure it out,” thing that my parents seemed to always do so they could teach me to take responsibility for my actions.

My diorama sucked. I’m pretty sure my classmates made fun of it. My teacher probably was horrified. It ended up being the Girl Guide cookie by-the-case box, with some holes cut in it for doors and windows and some crooked bricks drawn on one side. Clumsily constructed cardboard walls collapsed inward on a barren inner castle. If I wanted to do a diorama depicting what a medieval castle would look like today if left to moulder, I’d have hit the nail on the head.

Did I learn my lesson? Absolutely not. Because here I am, 25 years later, writing a blog entry and not a 300 word essay on the consequences of dishonesty in Grimm’s tales.

I think I’ll just wash those dishes and fire off a couple of emails and then tackle the essay. Or maybe I should write a few pages of my own stuff first, just to get the juices flowing. Oh, and I saw the perfect picture on Facebook to go with this post; I’d better go and find it (there it is at the top). Also there’s some laundry to put away. And I meant to bring my neighbour some of those squares I baked last night. And there’s slideshows of Grammy  outfits to look at. And …

Books This Post:

*(Incidentally, I never did this paper: read a few more stories and then got caught up in vague day-to-days and watched the deadline blow past me. And then put off posting this entry for two days because … I did. Procrastinators unite!)