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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