The First Biggest Mistake I Made in Writing

Hint: It’s talking about how you feel

Alternate title: A mistake I made in writing that I was made aware of before being aware of other preexisting issues with my writing such as clichés, overuse of commas, and not-goodness.

There are more things that writers do wrong than right. This is why drafts exist. At least my drafts. My drafts are a blood battle. I prefer to edit with actual paper instead of on a computer, and by the time I’m finished my poor draft is bruised yellow and dotted with blood, like I’ve stabbed it in the heart several times and fished around for its insides to paint around my door in order to save my firstborn.

So eventually I just stop re-reading my work. There’s a lot of advice on this, between first and second draft. One “official writer” (I say these words here because they, unlike me, are qualified to write through some program or another, whereas I have only the professional experience of my inner sadist, an internet forum, and two creative writing classes) told me that in an introductory course he would recommend that a writer only save about 25% of the original work in their second draft.

So all that blood and sweat and all those tears that I had spent on my first draft of this thing for college – 75% of that was supposed to be gone? I was just supposed to go through and slash at random?

Later, a different professor told me the opposite. In an introductory class he would have students change about 25%, leaving 75% of the original piece.

Confusing. Conflicting. Confounding.

This is not really the point of this post, I just like going off on tangents. The point of this post is that one time in college I worked very hard on a short story with an actual plot (and it ended up having like three plots and being 18 pages long instead of ten, in the end). As far as I remember it had to do with some guy named John, who had lost his job but was still getting up for work and dressing and shaving and grabbing his briefcase and letting his wife drive him to the train station every morning, because he didn’t want to face the humiliation of his wife finding out he had been laid off. And then he would go downtown and walk by his office building, and he would look up at it and then he would go get a sandwich at a deli and read a book and look at his finances, and his wife called him on his cell phone saying she couldn’t reach him at work and he’d say that his secretary was out sick or something and they’d talk and she’d know something was wrong by the tone in his voice, but he’d refused to say it. And then he went home and his mother-in-law was there or something and his daughter was there and his daughter was one of those punk fifteen year olds and he (the man’s) work had called him (the man) at home and asked when he was picking up his things, and the daughter used this as leverage, and it all spilled out at a big family dinner setting and in the end I think John woke up one morning and looked in the mirror and his wife looked at him in the reflection and she said something like, “Tomorrow will be better,” or something, and then it ended.

So I turned in my first draft of this story and it came back with edits from my professor, because we only did a round-table edit for the second draft, and the professor had highlighted many a verb throughout my writing and written in block letters off to one side of the margins.

If you need to tell us how your character feels, then you have already lost.

I think about this a lot when I’m trying to decide whether to write “It felt stupid and embarrassing to have to sit in front of her mother and a tutor, while her mother explained exactly what was wrong with her and insulted her and called her names” vs. “Her face turned red and her hands balled up, that stinging in her eyes that she thought would mean crying soon, and holding back that stinging as her mother explained to her tutor all of the problems she (main character) had made on the test and how incompetent she (main character) was, doing it in front of the tutor like she (the main character) wasn’t even there.”

The point is, in writing I try to never feel. This is contradictory, because I feel a lot. If I were a weathervane of emotions, I would be set a spinning and never stop, most likely. When I write a character I have a lucky knack for knowing how that character feels. In real life I feel deeply, and cuts scar and scare me. When a character feels pain, I know that pain. When a character feels lost, I sympathize with that feeling of lostness that is so hard to put into words.

But I don’t put “Sarah felt sad” or “Sarah felt lonely” or “John felt empty”. At least I don’t anymore. Which is strange, because in real life I have such trouble identifying my own emotions that I pay sometime to sit with me while I go through a list and say “This makes me feel hopeless, and tense, and confused”. If you’ve never seen the big list of emotion words that therapists use, it looks something like this but it’s just four sheets of front-and-back paper with headers like anger and beneath that other, more specific words for anger like hateful or loathing or furious or irritated. So you go through this list and you pick your emotions and you say “I feel blah” and your therapist writes that down and then says “Well where does the ‘blah’ come from?” at least if your therapist is my therapist. And if you’re me, you sit there for a long time staring at this one part of the carpet that’s coming loose in a corner of the office, and maybe you end up explaining something and sometimes you (I) just don’t know why I feel that way.

The problem of our characters is they don’t get to just sit there and spell out their emotions. Unfortunately for us writers, we have to find clever and creative ways to feel how someone is feeling. And in turn this can make us rageful, which according to wordpress isn’t a word.

It was hard, going through my short story about John and his lost job, and trying to come up with clever ways to ‘show and not tell’ that John was feeling helpless, or that John was feeling sad, or that John was feeling worthless because he couldn’t find a job.

The last few days in my life I haven’t been feeling much. Or in other words, I’ve been feeling so much that it all comes together in some cacophony that I can’t really put my finger on, all these words that I ‘feel’, because I have all these things I had wanted to do before New Year and now those things will likely not happen, like read 200 more pages of a book and finish knitting a blanket, I wanted those to be 2016 things and not 2017 things, or a mix of the two things. But a lot of people are asking me how I’m feeling lately, and so sometimes I just want to say that I’m a character in a book, because this is kind of how I feel:

Imagine that I am a coffee cup. Just like the one that you have in your cabinet. I’m taken out every day and put on the edge of the counter while coffee is carefully ground and water is carefully heated. I’m not really acknowledged or noticed, I just sit there because the only work I have to do is to a) hold coffee or tea and b) be washed and put away when I’m finished. There’s no care that goes into me, really, and I’m fine with that. I just sit on the counter, waiting for the coffee to be ready.

But one day someone comes and accidentally knocks me over with their elbow while I am sitting on my counter, and I fall on the ground and break into three pieces. It’s not that bad, so I’m just glued back together using some superglue (maybe my owners are not exactly spendthrifts) and then put back on my shelf, and that’s okay. There are little breaks in me, but they’re mostly glued up now so I can go back to just being me, and existing in this world.

But I keep breaking. And each time it is harder, because there are more pieces and cracks to glue back together. And before the glue sets, something else happens, and my parts just slide out of place again. Coffee now spills out of little cracks that no one can see, so I’m used less. There’s an invisibility about me, the broken coffee cup, in that I’m like, brought out for parties or sometimes when all the other mugs are dirty. But I’m just a cup. And I just keep breaking. And eventually one day I break and someone steps on me, and instead of little pieces of ceramic I am just ceramic dust. And there’s nothing to do with ceramic dust except sweep it up and throw it away and make sure you don’t get any microscopic pieces stuck in the heel of your foot while you walk around your kitchen.

And that is how I feel. If I was with my therapist I could say I feel broken. But broken doesn’t quite begin to cover it. Nor should one word be sufficient to describe how a character feels. Because there is no way to really experience being a neglected coffee cup until you are one. There is no way to become a dusted unread book, or to fight against feeling worthless and unusable, unless and until you feel it yourself. Coffee cup analogies or no.

So the first rule of writing I learned was completely in juxtaposition with my real life. Don’t tell us how a character feels. I think it’s for a lot of reasons. That ‘telling not showing’ adage that writers croon about so often, as well as the fact that readers like a little mystery.

So don’t tell us how your character feels, but tell us how you feel.

And if you find yourself relating more to a broken coffee cup than you do to people around you, maybe you need to ask for help.

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When a Writer Decides to Be a Writer

Sometime in my formative years (which are still going on, probably, and may never stop) I received several key pieces of information that allowed me to become a better writer. There was still a problem with this process though, and that was that I refused to use the word writer.

I always wanted to be unique as a child. Growing up, I wanted to be President. I probably could be, too, as long as I just blatantly tell lies and say things like “terrorists are bad” and “the American people are my number one priority.” People seem to like those phrases. Maybe I am not a writer, and instead I should pursue a life of politics, become completely disillusioned to the whole idea within six months, and then choose another life plan.

I have a hatred of ‘writers’. At least, the word writer. I remember writing, book after book and story after story – never by hand though, because I don’t know how to hold a pencil correctly and so after about twenty minutes of writing my hand cramps up. In addition to being a drama queen, second-grade me was also incredibly stubborn when it came to doing things in a different (i.e. correct) way. I still write holding the pencil incorrectly, just as I hold my knitting needles incorrectly and slump incorrectly and use commas incorrectly.

Some part of me has a fervent hope that these aspects (incorrectness) make me unique. But something rang true in a novel by David Foster Wallace that according to my Uncle all of three people have read:

Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else

So, reversing this line of tangent, I despised the word writer. So many students would stand at the front of elementary and middle and high school classes claiming that they wanted to be a writer, and it made me angry enough that I would go home and scream at my mother and older sister that TODAY IS THE WORST DAY OF MY LIFE. Despite the fact that at the age of fourteen, every day was the worst day of my life. I would then take out a journal that I would write in exactly once or maybe twice if the journal was lucky, about how life was unfair and I would never get anything that I wanted and everyone hated me and I sucked and everyone else who was a quote-unqote “writer” sucked and I was the only writer who didn’t suck.

Now you see why I don’t have many friends.

I grew out of these temper tantrums. Kind of. The thing is, I hid my writing. I would write for me, creating entire novels and then deleting them with one stroke and going about my day. Sometimes these deletions were impulsive. Sometimes I did them just to say that I was selfless and so dedicated to an art form that no one knew I even liked that I wasn’t even doing it for anyone else. I was like Kafka but without the actual, you know, being good part. Because most of my writing looked something like this:

The girl looked at the boy and smiled at the boy. The boy who was dressed in khaki pants and a red T-shirt didn’t smile back at the girl, the girl was really upset that this happened so she went home and cried.

You know except there were more grammatical errors. I remember throwing tantrums in fifth grade after writing a story about a girl who woke up in the middle of the night to find that a bunch of nutcrackers had come alive and they led her to a magical forest. I was so proud of the work, and expected my teacher to tell me it was the best she ever read. Instead I got a C on it, and was told that my parents had to proofread my work because my grammar was terrible.

If I had to choose a latin motto for myself at that day and age of my life I think it would just be sibi. If you’ve heard of the Andover School (actual name Phillips Academy), that really prestigious boarding school that a bunch of really successful people went to, you might know that their motto is non sibi. Their motto is also Finis Origine Pendet which means “The end depends upon the beginning.” I feel like this could be a latin motto for any book ever written in the history of time, and also anyone’s life, ever, but mostly my point is that non sibi means not for self and at the age of fourteen I was definitely not non sibi. I was non non sibi.

I just wanted to be the best.

Anyway, this first key piece of information that I learned about being a writer is that everyone wants to be a writer, and people who don’t want to be writers still admire writers, and that people who neither want to be a writer nor admire writers would write if it could guarantee them fame, and that many writers want to be writers for the guarantee of fame.

And sibi, sibi me, had always wanted fame. It’s the drama queen in me, and the reason that this blog is called extant hyperbole. Because hyperbole is real. It’s a real thing. And I have it.

Applying to college I first thought about taking Japanese language for kicks, because I liked languages and it was the cool thing to do (but I was not a follower, to be clear, I totally didn’t do things just to be cool). Instead I ended up applying to a bunch of schools, public and private, for degrees in philosophy because I thought that by reading 10 pages of Nietzsche’s (whose name I didn’t pronounce properly until my freshman year of college, by the way) Thus Spoke Zarathustra made me totally unique in my ability to understand all philosophy ever.

I was rejected from most of the schools – any of the prestigious ones anyway – and ended up at a liberal arts school where I decided to study biochemistry and molecular biology mostly for the wow factor. Then I discovered that not only am I not good at chemistry, I didn’t really like it, and although biology was fascinating I also didn’t really like that. What I did like was calculus. Which was weird, because I hated calculus in high school. I failed it. I literally failed it (Well not literally, I got a D-), and due to some administration error my teacher who had promised to simply give me a P for pass did not do so, or the school screwed up or something, but we all know I got that grade because I didn’t study or do any hard work.

But I did work hard (mostly) in college calculus, until we got to the point I didn’t understand at all, and then I just sort of gave up for a while because the teacher scared me and there was a boy in the class who answered all the questions to make the rest of us feel stupid, and he always sat next to me and so usually I would spend more time staring at his face as he took notes than taking notes myself, which led to embarrassing memories of being cold called and unable to answer what 2-cubed was (it’s 8) which only kind of made me want to sink into an oblivion and never come out again, right there in the classroom. Like if my desk had opened up a huge void into…the void, I would have eagerly jumped into it and never tried to claw my way back out, and if all the students in the classroom had stood around staring into this void telling me to come out, it’s not that embarrassing, just play it off as not paying attention, I probably would have tried to dig deeper into the void, except I wouldn’t have had any digging tools, so I would have void beneath my fingernails which is always an annoying feeling.

So the second key piece of information that I learned in order to be a writer was that you had to actually do work. I couldn’t just sit down and write what was in my head. I mean I could, and I did, and I am right now. But that I had to learn how to write. Grammar was important (don’t worry, I had learned it…mostly, by age 17). Reading assignments had points even if I couldn’t see them, and as long as I didn’t admit to being an author I didn’t have to face the judgement that I gave others when they told me they were authors.

If there was a 5 step process of admitting that writing is an integral part of your life and that you’ll never be able to survive without it (I’m going off the five stages of grief here), my third stage would be haughtiness. Except I guess I’d always had that (See: sibi, above). My college offered a creative writing class. By that time in my life I’d written 5 novels and considered myself a “good” writer even though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to write an essay with an actual argument in it, which is kind of a problem in college. The creative writing classes were offered by one professor, and they were kind of a process that started with an introduction to short story writing and working your way up to advanced fiction writing.

Now, at age 18, I thought I was way too good to be in the short story class with all the people whose writing was far inferior to mine, so I wrote to the professor asking if I could be in the senior level advanced fiction class, claiming that all my writing work was proof enough that I knew how to write, and that I was a good writer, and he should let me into his class because I was prodigious (I did not use this word). When he wrote back saying (and I’m paraphrasing) “No” I harrumphed in my dorm room with my very kind Japanese roommate (her side of the room was immaculate, mine was a war zone) and claimed that I didn’t need him anyway because I was probably better than the professor.

Not that I was a writer. Or anything. Because I didn’t use that word.

The fourth lesson that I learned was that sometimes you have to suck up your pride. So I took the short story class my fall semester of my senior year of college (this is two years after the email asking to skip ahead, by the way). I took it, and I actually wasn’t half bad (I think I got a B+ in the class, because I didn’t take college courses as seriously as I should have, and it wasn’t until I became a teacher that I began to really respect what teachers do). In his office, the professor in question said that I must take his advanced fiction class. At this point I had edited and re-edited my own works as well as others’. I had read countless short stories from college students. Some of them were good. Some of them were cringe-worthy (a particular sample, where someone used semi-colons in place of commas and told me my writing was ‘unoriginal’ and ‘voiceless’ comes to mind). Some of them I didn’t have any opinion on.

And then it took me three more years to reach the fifth step. Which I’m stealing from grief, because they’re the same, is acceptance. Acceptance that I am a writer. This came through many channels – attention seeking on an online writing forum where people viewed me as ‘moderately famous.’ Other amateur writers telling me that for being so young, my writing was good, and that I would be far better than they were when I was their age. This inflated the ego a bit too much, but also got me out of my shell.

And finally, when I started a patreon account (where people can contribute to you and your work as an artist) and made $100 a month for a few months, because of people donating, I realized what I was: A writer.

And I accepted it, despite my initial formative years’ hatred of the word. I accepted it was my passion, and what I wanted to do. I applied to programs in writing. I admitted to friends and family members that I was a writer. I stopped hiding it. I let people critique it and didn’t take it personally when they tore it apart.

And then I just started writing. I figured, I’m a writer, so do, because you can’t teach (I don’t have the qualifications…yet). I wrote short stories. I edited (can you believe that for the longest time, I thought all I needed was a first draft and then poof, I was done?). I edited other people’s writing. I took on jobs that paid next to nothing, and I started this blog.

Basically, I became a writer. I’m not sure if writing is something that you do, or if being a writer is something you become or just something that you are, if it’s as imbedded in your personality as, say, sibi or non sibi might be. And though I still have identity crises where I cry and moan about how I’m no David Foster Wallace or Haruki Murakami or Sylvia Plath or Margaret Atwood (the list goes on for a while, let me tell you), I am a writer. And I may not ever make any dent in the world. My writing may never be remembered and revered, and down the road some twenty-three year old may never write a blog post saying they are no me. But on the list of things that matters, I’m starting to realize that the fame part matters less and less.

So I guess that’s when I decided to become a writer. When I admitted that saying that terrible taboo word and applying it to myself wasn’t all that bad, after all.

At least, the sky hasn’t fallen yet.