Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Burden of Words

Sometimes the hardest thing ever is to be writing

Before getting my MFA in writing I wrote for pleasure when I had the time or a story idea hit me. I didn't get caught up in daily/weekly word counts. It was a hobby that had been with me since I was old enough to hold a pencil to paper. It brought me peace and joy, an escape from the every day stress of life. It was where I could go to manipulate and control the reality of my characters. Writing was very much a guilty pleasure because it wasn't taking me anywhere. I didn't expect it to do anything other than entertain me and give me the high that only comes when I expel creative energy.

I wrote all the time for different outcomes. In my career, I wrote tons of press releases, reports, grants, etc. They each served a very distinct purpose and I wrote to a specific audience in hopes of a desired outcome. The writing was fact-based and formative to fit whatever guidelines the piece required. The words were my own, but the topics and form were pre-dictated. There was no room for creative liberties. I spent hours upon hours completing this type of writing so when I had the chance to write what I wanted, I relished it. 

Writing has always come easy to me and I love words. That is why I chose careers that involved writing. In my marketing days I got to write scripts for commercials and multi-million dollar advertising plans that integrated all forms of media. I enjoyed that very much, even though the parameters were not entirely my own and the bottom line wasn't to entertain, but to sell a product or service. I did this for ten years and while it was fun, it did not get my adrenaline going the way that writing a kick-ass fictional scene does.

Later, I transitioned to the non-profit world where grant writing is king, along with their associated grant reports letting funders know how their dollars were spent and laying the groundwork for why their continued support is critical. It is dry and thankless writing. It strokes the ego of those in positions to give monies to those who need it to make systemic changes that always require way more money than what funders give. I get less than zero joy from this kind of writing. In fact, I feel that it often robs my soul of hope by the sheer weight of what I'm doing, which is essentially begging for money to help others have a higher quality of life through one program or another. This is the kind of writing that I do most days and it drains the creative juices from me faster than anything else I can think of.

The whole time I was writing these other forms, the pipe dream of writing fiction for a living was a dormant, yet present itch at the back of my psyche. It tickled me from time to time to let me know it was there, but was gentle enough for me to ignore it and keep doing what I was doing. As I became more and more disheartened with the writing I was required to do, the itch started to grow stronger, "Psst, psst, remember me, your first love?" Still, it was barely a whisper over the rational part of me that hushed it with thoughts of stability and regular pay checks. Publication didn't seem like a practical way to provide a living. It was for other people. Other people were those who could take a risk, or had the means to live on a dream for a while to make it happen. I was not one of them. I did not allow myself to entertain the notion that I could write for a living, that I could gamble on my creative talents to make a career. Even with the luxury of a dual income household, I hushed that voice inside me.

But like many artists know, that voice can only stay quiet for so long. After a while, it is like a growling stomach that sometimes roars so loud those around you can hear it. Warren heard it. He said I needed to feed it. I resisted for a while, pacifying myself with small writing contests and filling flash drives with stories that had no chance of becoming ink on paper. But, that was not enough. The growl grew and after hours of conversation about how it was time for me to do what made me happy vs. what I needed to do for others, I quietly fed it. 

Pursuing my MFA was like going to a buffet. I got to try different forms of story, learn from some of the best writers I had ever read, and spend time surrounded by others who loved writing as much as I did. I was encouraged to play, explore and learn in a way that gorged my senses and made a part of me come alive. Even before it was over, I knew I would never be the same. I could never still that voice inside me again. It was going to be a larger part of me than ever before and I had an obligation to nourish it properly.

That meant that I had to put the days of casual writing behind me. I now had a degree that qualified me to call myself a writer, so I had to write. Books like The Artist's Way said that I should be writing 750 words per day - in the morning no less. Authors on my Facebook feed were getting book deals left and right and bragging about daily page counts. My classmates were getting agents and promoting books. I was part of a community of writers that before, I had only admired from afar. Now I was considered one of them.

It is exhilarating and terrifying. Daily word counts is the stuff of nightmares for a single mom who works two jobs and has to juggle her kid's growing social commitments. It looms heavy over you on nights when you're so exhausted from your day of doing for others that you can't even concentrate on the news just so you can catch the weather and make sure your kid dresses appropriately the next day. It kicks you in the gut on days that you finally find a pocket of "me" time and you have a million things you want to do, but those words claw at your brain and try to force you to your laptop. Some days I can tear away from life and anchor into a story. Other days, I have to resist because it's the only time I'll have to do the things I really need to do, but that aren't die hard necessities, like wash my car, bathe my dog, or shave my legs. Those days, the words are a burden. The stories call to me like a menace that threatens to take my peace of mind. Sadly, those days are more frequent than any writer will ever like to admit. But I am admitting it here. I don't write everyday, sometimes not even every week, with the exception of this blog. I would love to, but I haven't found a way to make that possible.

In an ideal world I would wake up at the crack of dawn and write before I do anything else. And most times, I think that is what it will take to ever see my dream of publication come to pass. But I am not a morning person and don't do my best writing when I would rather be sleeping. The hours of my peak are spent at work, or on the weekends, I'm on a field or rink cheering on my little girl who expects me there, paying full attention to her. 

I knew the moment my degree was in my hands that I would forever be torn between life and being a writer. Being a writer is like a possessive boyfriend who demands of your time and attention no matter what. When you're not with him he is blowing up your phone, stalking your social media and looking for his place in your day. When you're together it is bliss but the knowledge that the time together must come to an end looms over you because you know you can't ignore the rest of the world forever. You have to divide your time between your love and your life and the two will forever play tug of war with your heart. 

That is stressful. The act of writing is not. The life I live between words is. It means never feeling accomplished. When I'm writing I feel selfish, like I should be doing something else. When I don't write I feel lazy, like I'm letting my dream slip between my fingers. How do writers balance it all? I read other blogs written by authors and I follow many on social media and they make it look seamless, like the universe just aligns for them to be able to do it all. My universe doesn't work like that. It never has. I wish it did, but on the other hand, it would require so many sacrifices that I don't think I can make. I can't not work. Perhaps I could work only one job for 40 hours a week instead of 70. But then, how would ends meet in such a way that I can give my daughter the experiences that will form her future like rock band camp and sports? I could forego working out and spend those hours at the keyboard. But being of strong body has been as therapeutic as writing. They go hand-in-hand to keep me sane. Maybe I have to say no when asked to chair committees at church. But volunteering of my time and talents is as much a part of me as my left kidney so that would re-shape who I am at my core. That's the problem. I want to be too much. I am too much. It's not a bad thing, but it is taxing on the mind and body. When I feel like too much, writing becomes a heavy weight. To clarify, I'm not talking about the act of writing, I'm referring to the times that I don't write.

When I don't answer the call to write I feel like a failure at life. It feels like I am not giving or being my all and that feeling stings. No one likes to feel like a waste of skin but that is what not writing feels like. A day I don't write feels like a day wasted. Not right away of course, but when I look back and realize that I haven't written anything in a week, no matter what that week entailed, I feel like I failed myself. 

I didn't feel that before my MFA. Before being called a writer I didn't feel that I had to write. It came from this new label and the expectation that comes with it. It becomes more ingrained every time someone asks me how my book is coming along, or what I'm writing these days. These are well-intentioned questions and I'm not implying that I don't want to be asked. It's just a reminder of a responsibility that I have to myself to get these stories out. It compels me to recall all the hours, days and weeks that were not spent writing and how that impedes my forward motion towards my goal. 

But, it is also the fire that keeps me moving as a writer. Even on the days that I chastise myself for not having written one word, I know that it doesn't negate that I'm a writer. Maybe it just means that I'm the slowest writer in the world, and that's just something I'll have to accept and learn to live with.

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