Regrets, I’ve Had a Few; or, My Writing History and What I’ve Learned from It

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My name is Elise, and I am a writer. Or at least I try to be. In some senses I am; I did work as a ghostwriter for nearly a decade and write upward of fifty books in that time. So I think that qualifies me. And I have notebooks and thumb drives full of first drafts and incomplete scenes and unfinished stories that I take out and read from time to time and wonder why on earth I didn’t follow through on them. And then I remember: I am a procrastinator. I also get mental blocks and writing blocks, and then I had a kid and all my free time got tied up in diaper changing and cleaning up vomit (baby had reflux, I don’t recommend it) and back-to-school nights and weekend swim classes. Throughout all of that I continued to write at work; I’ve always prided myself on the fact that with the exception of a few years in social services, I have spent the majority of my career supporting myself—and my family—as a writer. Not many people can say that.

But let me back up a little. Or a lot. Thirty-two years, to be exact. (Yes, I am that old.) To 1986, to my childhood bedroom, all white and pastel blue, my posters of Duran Duran and Michael J. Fox on the walls, and my radio constantly blaring the weekly Top 40. It was around that time that I first started journaling; I’m not sure what gave me the idea, but somehow I ended up with one of those black-and-white composition notebooks that I scrawled in endlessly, page after page about what music videos were playing on MTV and what I was doing with my friends and what was happening on my favorite TV shows. (I still have this notebook. I take it out from time to time and cringe at it.)

It was also around this time that I began devouring my local library’s YA section book by book. Paul Zindel and Lois Duncan and Judy Blume’s stories about periods and sex, and this horror series called Twilight, which had nothing to do with sparkling vampires but did cover all sorts of macabre subjects like witches and evil twins and astral projection. It was also around this time that I discovered S. E. Hinton’s novels, and while I read them all repeatedly—Tex; That Was Then, This Is Now; Rumble Fish—I was particularly obsessed with The Outsiders. I didn’t have a whole lot in common with Ponyboy Curtis, the main character—we were both poor, but my parents, though split up, were still alive, and I didn’t have to worry about getting into any knife fights with the rich kids in town. But his story appealed to me. I liked his world, where grown-ups didn’t exist and loyalty was everything, where friends would do anything for one another, where your family at least tried to protect you from the harshness of the world. I read the book over and over; I would literally finish the last word then turn back to the beginning or go back to reread my favorite parts.

And then after a while, just reading it wasn’t enough. All the feelings and ideas it brought into my head, they had nowhere to go, and I needed an outlet. So one day instead of writing in my journal about pop music and John Hughes movies, I started writing a story. About two brothers with no parents (I don’t remember how I killed them off) and their tight-knit group of friends. There wasn’t much of a story line, but there was tons of drama. It was a complete Outsiders rip-off, but I was totally into it. Soon it got its own notebook, a white vinyl binder with loose-leaf pages crammed with my bubbly early teenager handwriting, whole lines and paragraphs scratched out and rewritten in the margins. Even then, I was not good at first drafts. I would write a little and then go back and edit and revise endlessly, until I got that buzz in my head I still get when I do some good writing.

I worked on that story for the longest time, mimicking what I read in teen novels and saw in teen movies and on TV. The brothers had arguments and differences, they pined after girls, they felt more existential angst than even I did in my real life at the time, which is saying quite a lot; writing was a way for me to vent my feelings, yes, but it was also a rather effective means of escape from my less than happy home life, which more often than not was full of shouting and hitting and general unhappiness. When I was writing, I could create the world I wanted, with absent parents and older siblings who looked out for you instead of abusing you. Where kids had normal kid problems and the support they needed to get through them. My characters might have been flawed and imperfect and were definitely complete copies of S. E. Hinton’s, but they lived in the world I wanted to inhabit. Consequently, they became the realest and most important thing to me.

Then Ferris Bueller rolled into my life, and everything changed. (My influences, I am first to admit, have been somewhat…eclectic. If not downright ridiculous.) Having had a massive crush on Matthew Broderick since WarGames in 1983, I was beside myself when the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out; I saw it twice, two days in a row, the weekend it was released. And now I knew this…this was how I wanted my life to be. Ferris was smart and so sure of himself and flouted authority at every turn, and though I was outwardly a fat, shy kid with braces, acne, and a middling fear of the school principal, I was Ferris at heart. In my mind I was calling myself in sick to school and joyriding in my best friend’s dad’s sports car. But in reality, I knew my life couldn’t be anything like his, with his successful parents and nice house and popularity. (Remember, the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, waistoids, dweebies, and dickheads all thought he was a righteous dude.)

So I did the next best thing: I wrote about it. My main character became a Ferris clone (named Scott, I believe…I don’t know why). Good looking, smart-assy, pretty girlfriend. No real story line that I can remember, just one rambling situation after another. But again, I loved it. It felt so important to me. And I worked at it in earnest whenever I had free time. Which at roughly fourteen years old was quite often. And I continued my journaling too, every day practicing in one way or another this craft I’d come to love. Words had become my life, stringing them together in pleasing ways the only thing I wanted to do.

Of course, as I was still a developing human, my writing continued to grow and change as well. I read new books, saw new movies, found new inspirations. At one point my family came into the possession of a home computer, an Apple Macintosh 128k, the neanderthal ancestor of the iMac, and so my writing notebook went from scribbled-on loose leaf to dot matrix printouts of my endless stories, though still with all the scratch outs and marginalia. (I still have all of these, too. It’s clear I was a tough editor even for myself, even back then.) Perhaps the biggest change of all came when my sister gave me Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire to read, and I followed that up quickly with The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. After getting sucked into that world (pun intended, sorry), my writing style changed and, I like to think, matured. I was crafting longer, more florid sentences, paying more attention to imagery and details, exploring characters’ inner lives more than their outward appearances and actions. Crazy though she might be, Anne Rice taught me a lot; I can still see her influence in my writing today, and I don’t consider that a bad thing.

Did I write about vampires? Thankfully, no, with the exception of one very short story when I was in college, just to see what it was like, and even then it was more implied than outright. I guess it was good, too, because it got published in the school literary magazine. But I did write about tragic figures—homeless runaway teenagers, rich kids whose parents didn’t care about them, all sorts of young people in sad, difficult situations. I wrote and wrote and wrote about them, and when I wasn’t writing about them I was thinking about them, to the point that I had a whole mental soap opera going on as well, an ongoing saga that I never wrote down except in bits and pieces here and there, when I didn’t have anything else I was working on. I always thought this was a little strange, that I had this constantly growing novel contained entirely in my head, but then I read an interview with Anne Rice where she mentioned that she did the same thing. She too had a cast of characters who lived only in her mind, and she put them into situations and crafted their unwritten story entirely for her own enjoyment. So I felt a little vindicated.

I still find it a bit embarrassing, though, truth be told; this is the first and only time I’ve ever publicly admitted I have this story in my head. And yes, that’s have, present tense. I still, some twenty-plus years later, think about these characters and their stories whenever I have a little time to daydream. At this point they’re like a security blanket; thinking about them is comforting. But I also know they will probably never see the light of day.

So what do I actually write, then? Well, blog posts, for one. And I’m also working on a memoir, which is both rewarding and difficult. That’s where I’m trying to focus most of my efforts these days, as it is one of my yearly goals to finish the entire thing. So far I have two chapters, and I’ve started a third. Guess I’d better get going on that one.

I did go to a memoir writing class at a local library, which didn’t help me that much in learning about the genre but did make one thing abundantly clear to me: I missed out by not pursuing a writing degree. Or at least taking some classes along the way. Aside from taking a creative writing elective in high school, I signed up for one writing class in college that I went to twice and then dropped. It was at 8:00 in the morning, first of all—far too early to be creative. Second, I read some of the other students’ writing in those two classes, and well, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. I couldn’t imagine having to read an entire semester’s worth of it.

But I should’ve stuck with it; I see that now. Because when I went to this memoir writing class, it was taught by a woman pursuing an MFA in creative writing, and I could tell just from what she spoke about that she had learned things as part of her education that experience alone had never taught me. Yes, I am a good writer, I believe that. But I am entirely self-taught. And while I never saw this as a bad thing—in fact, I’ve worn it as a point of pride—these days I’m seeing more clearly how some formal learning could have really improved what I do and given me some tools I didn’t even know I need in order to make my writing the best it could be.

Still, I won’t let that stop me. In lieu of the education I should have had ages ago, I read books on writing, and I read as much fiction and memoirs as I can, observing the ways that other people tell stories and the conventions they use in order to get their points across. And I practice, practice, practice. With every word I type, I’m practicing, I’m improving, I’m building upon what I know and what I’ve learned over the last thirty-two years, and that is an ongoing process. I might not have a formal writing education, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning about it, about this craft that has come to define my life. I’m not a best-selling novelist or a literary great, but I am a writer through and through, in heart and in mind. No matter what else I do, that is always how I’ll describe myself.

Goals for People Who Hate Making Goals (Namely, Me)

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 This quote pretty much sums up my relationship with goals of any sort—work-related, personal, deadlines, resolutions, all of it. I’ve never been good with them; I’ve always seen them more as loose guidelines that don’t necessarily have to be followed than hard-and-fast rules for how and when something needs to get done.

At least, that was how I was in my younger years. The older I get, the more respect I have for goals and deadlines. Not respect meaning I revere them, just that I understand why they’re sometimes necessary and can force myself to meet them when I have to. Which is more than I can say for my twentysomething did-forbearance-on-her-student-loans-six-times self. My current job, where I have daily and sometimes hourly deadlines, has done a lot to help me improve in this area. And in the coming year, I’ve decided, I’m going to try to let that bleed over into the rest of my life.

And that means…New Year’s resolutions. Not to go to the gym more (already working on that one from last year) or to spend less money (just to budget it better, thanks to You Need a Budget) but to do more things that I enjoy, because that’s what’s really missing from my life. And the two things I enjoy most are reading and writing, so I suppose it makes sense that the majority of my goals for 2018 relate to those two topics in some way.

First, for my reading goals. I tried to keep them simple but still ended up with quite a few. Common sense tells me I should cut some out, but what the hell. I’ve never been one for subtlety; if I’m going to do something, I’m going all in. So, they are:

Read/listen to four books per month. In 2017 I read forty-three (out of a goal of forty, go me!) books in the Goodreads Reading Challenge; this year I’ve upped it to forty-eight.

Read more new releases. Despite my recent declaration to the contrary, I think it’s time to at least try to start keeping up with the times.

Reread at least three favorite books. I already have a list of seven contenders, so we’ll see how this one goes.

Read all the unread books on my to-read shelves/in my Kindle library. This one is steep—there’s a lot of titles there—but I’ve already jumped in with a 495-page novel. Feeling ambitious.

Read more print books. The previous goal is going to help with this one.

Read more motivational books and actually do what they say! Not like cheesy self-help books, but books about positivity, mindfulness, and how to live a better life. I am a negative person by nature, and that’s gotta stop. (Short version of this goal: This year I will stop rolling my eyes at Brene Brown.)

And my writing goals. For most of my writing life—and it’s been a long one—I’ve written because I enjoy it, with the thought of publication only a “maybe someday” thing in the back of my mind. That changes this year. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s time to get serious about this craft I’ve been working on since I had braces. This year I will:

Finish a first draft of a book. I have a few ideas, some I’m working on, some not yet. I’m not sure which I’ll go with yet.

Get something published. A short story, a chapter of my memoir I’ve been working on, even a flash fiction piece. Something.

Try out a writing group. I know of a local one that meets weekly; I’ll try for once a month if it seems like a good fit. I just need to network. I need to know other writers.

Write more than once a week (which doesn’t even happen regularly now). I’m aiming for three times a week, hoping realistically for two.

Write in a journal every day. Inspired by Vicky’s recent post, I pulled out a new blank journal and started on it today—a week late, but hopefully I’ll keep up with it every day until December 31.

 That’s all I got. And it’s quite a bit, to be honest. I feel like I’m going from zero to sixty in about a second here, but it’s gotta happen. I’m going to make it happen. This is the year I start taking goals seriously, starting with reading and writing. Wish me luck!

 

365 Days of Memories

I’ve tried to keep a diary my whole life. I have boxes and boxes of notebooks in my closet to prove it, dating as far back as grade school. None of them more than a quarter full. I start out strong and then drop off quickly. Maybe ten or twelve entries. But not 2017. 2017 is the first time I’ve ever successfully started and kept a daily diary for an entire year. I’m so proud of it I could throw up.

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I knew last year was going to be different and that helped motivate me. My husband was diagnosed with cancer on December 31, 2016 — happy fucking new year — and we immediately braced ourselves for a year of intensive treatment. One of the most consistent pieces of advice I got was to write about what was happening. People recommended it as a way to communicate to loved ones who couldn’t be with us, to help me process everything that was going on, and to keep a record of what would likely be a dark and difficult time. I really wanted to, but for some reason I couldn’t get myself comfortable with it. I tried to start a dozen times, different platforms, different styles. How much information should I be sharing? Was it ok to sound as sad and pessimistic as I sometimes was, or did I have to pretend to be one of those endlessly optimistic cancer warriors? Did I have to write even when I felt terrible? I was too overwhelmed to figure it out. I might write about it all someday, but I couldn’t get it done this year.

I ended up with a paper solution, almost by default.

I had ordered a Moleskine daily planner (like this) at the beginning of December, before I had any inclination K was sick, in one of my overly optimistic, slightly manic One-Click moments (I would be mortified if anyone saw the length and variety of my Amazon order history), so it was already sitting on my desk ready when I thought that I might give the diary thing another shot. I started on January 1 and wrote an entry for almost every single day, right up to December 31. Because I wasn’t going to share it with anyone, I could be honest about how I was feeling and what was going on. There was no thinking required, I could just document my days.

Mostly I wrote brief notes about what was going on and how I felt about it. Sometimes it was just a laundry list of things about my day (“Hospital. Coffee. Brenda. Walked the dogs”). Sometimes I sketched, sometimes I painted, sometimes I printed out cheesy little photos on my inkjet printer. I wrote down a lot of quotes as I came across them, making it a little bit of an old-fashioned hand-written commonplace book.

Yesterday my 2018 planner arrived. Same format, different color. I hope this year is easier, and I hope I can keep up with the writing.

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NaNoWriMo? No, Thanks.

National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo for short—is upon us. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a contest of sorts in which writers are challenged to produce a 50,000 wcrest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76ord book entirely in the month of November, from start to finish. As someone who used to ghostwrite books of that length for a living, I can tell you this is no small feat. It used to take me months to get that much done (though most likely, NaNoWriMo participants will not have stubborn clients to contend with while writing, as I did; that slows down the process considerably). 

So it sounds like fun, right? And what a sense of accomplishment these writers must have at the end of the month, when they have an entire novel completed. Granted, it’s only a first draft, and hopefully—speaking now as a practicing book editor—there will be many rounds of edits before it’s suitable for publication. Still, I can only imagine the thrill of knowing the biggest hurdle, the writing, is in the past, that you’ve finally gotten all those words inside your head out and into some sort of logical order, that you’ve created something pleasing that others might want to read. 

Still, I will not be participating. Why? Because I have a life. Too much life, to be exact, to have time for it. I don’t mean this in the insulting or condescending way it sounds, as if those who do NaNoWriMo have no life and are therefore free to pursue their writing dreams. Because really, who’s got the short stick here? I have two jobs and a six-year-old son to spend time with when I’m not working, and between those two things, that’s pretty much all of my time. Sometimes I’m able to sneak in an hour and a half of writing once a week while waiting for my kid to get out of a class he takes on Saturday mornings (as I’m doing right now), but even that is often trumped by other more necessary errands. To tell the truth, I envy those who can participate in NaNoWriMo, not just because they have the time (or make the time; I’m sure there are some participants who are just as busy as I am who still manage to fit it in) but because they have the inspiration. Because they haven’t lost whatever it is that drives them to write. 

Creativity is like a muscle, I believe, and if you don’t regularly flex and stretch it, it can atrophy. I’ve seen it happen in myself, during periods—like now—when I don’t have as much expendable time and energy to put toward creative pursuits. This doesn’t have to be writing; it can be drawing, painting, knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening, redecorating your home—anything that makes you use your imagination and produces some sort of artifact that can be enjoyed by yourself and/or others. If you are regularly able to be creative, then good for you—I envy you too. I hope you flex that muscle as often and as strongly as you are capable of. And I hope that you don’t take that ability for granted, as I did back during the days when I was prolific. Back in my twenties, say, when I had almost zero responsibilities and much fewer worries clogging up my head. 

Whenever I think about myself as a writer, my mind always goes to that time in my life, to an apartment I had in Jersey City, New Jersey, a third-floor attic that had an extra room I set up as a writing space. I had a desk that wrapped around two walls, a cork MV5BMzc1YmU2ZjEtYWIwMC00ZjM3LWI0NTctMDVlNGQ3YmYwMzE5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_SY999_CR0,0,704,999_AL_board with photos and postcards for inspiration, passages from books I liked typed out and taped up on the walls behind my desk, and a giant subway-advertisement-size poster from the movie Fight Club. I spent so much time huddled in there, smoking American Spirits and listening to my three favorite CDs at the time, Depeche Mode’s Ultra, Duran Duran’s Medazzaland, and David Bowie’s Earthling, on heavy rotation while I wrote and wrote and wrote, never finishing anything more than a flash fiction piece here and there but just enjoying the process, just loving the feeling of translating the images in my brain into words on the screen of my Mac laptop. I would agonize over every syllable until they were all perfect, until they all gave me that hum I felt inside my mind when I knew I was writing something good. Something with meaning; something with heart. Something that spoke to the themes I was always trying to relate in my writing: love and trust, loyalty and betrayal, and getting down to the deeply buried heart of what it means to be human in this world, to the moment where all is laid bare and the truth, in all its beauty and all its difficulty, is confronted and revealed. Though isn’t that, after all, what we are all writing about? Isn’t that what any good writing is able to achieve? 

I still write about these themes today, I think, when I do get the chance to write, albeit in different ways. Instead of fictional characters, I write about myself, about the life I’ve had and the moments that have defined me—the love I have felt, the trust I have lost, the betrayals that have pushed me to become the person I am today, for better and for worse. The older I get, the realer my writing becomes to the point that I rarely work on anything that could be classified as fiction anymore. And it’s harder to find that hum, to look at the words I type and feel like they are magic, to feel the sparks fly from my fingertips as they meet the keyboard. Instead it feels like work, like something I have to work at rather than something that just comes to me. 

I tell myself it’s all a first draft, that if I don’t get it perfect, it’s okay, I can always go back and edit. The important thing is to get it out. Writing as therapy, I guess you would call it. That’s what I have time for these days. And in a lot of ways, that’s good. It’s what works for me at this point in my life. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes sorely miss those days in my Jersey City garret. If I could somehow harness that creative energy again and pair it with my older and questionably wiser work ethic—minus the time constraints–who knows what kind of NaNoWriMo masterpiece I might be able to complete?