Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Sacredness of Breath

When I was little and I would get really upset, I would cry with such vehemence that I would hiccup and cough uncontrollably.  It would get so bad that I couldn’t catch my breath.  My head would throb and my body would shake.  That was my cue that I had to find a way to calm down.  I had to stop crying, or I would feel worse.  This pattern lasted into adolescence and young adulthood, although with far less frequency.  Luckily, I have never been one to get upset easily, but when I did get upset, it was miserable.

The impetus for the tears was always different: my mother letting my Labrador out on the side of the road when I was seven because we would have gotten evicted if we kept him; a nightmare about my mother being hit by a train when I was nine; a D on a high-school exam that I felt certain I had aced; a bad break up with my boyfriend when I was 20.  I never knew what I did to calm down after these painful experiences, but now, I know.

I breathed.  If my nose was stopped up, I blew it.  Then I focused all my attention on my breath.  I became aware of which nostril was more congested, and I blew my nose again.  Then I focused on my breath again and noticed that my heart rate calmed and my head ached a little less. I continued in this vein until I was calm.  Such a simple thing, but it’s the most important thing we have—breath.

It took eight years of meditative practice for me to begin to grasp the sacredness of breath.  It’s a magical function that puts everything right.  Sometimes I feel sad because my husband didn’t give me as much time as I think he should have or because a friend hurt my feelings.  Sometimes I think about the abuse I experienced when I was a little girl or my father dying when I was 10, and I feel completely alone in the world, the same way I did when I was a child.  In the midst of crying and hiccupping and coughing, I feel certain that the abysmal pain will never subside and that I will die from the weight of it.  Then I inhale.  It is an otherworldly inhale.  It feels like the abyss inside me is sucking in all the air molecules from the atmosphere, and I feel my Self separate from myself.  I feel the divine me, the Godly me, looking down on the life-fucking-sucks me.  I exhale, and there is this all-encompassing calm.  No matter how hard I try to reclaim the malaise (and I do try to reclaim it because on some level, I am loyal to it; after all, it has been with me since my first memory) I cannot.

Were it not for meditation, I could not write.  Were it not for writing, I could never have survived.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Importance of Date- and Time-Stamping Notes.doc

Every time I add information to my Notes.doc, I included the starting date and time.  When I am in an exceptionally diligent and mindful place, I also include the ending date and time of the entry.  My reason for doing this is simple: I need to track my output and set realistic expectations for myself—all artists do, especially neophyte artists.

When I was teaching, I assumed I wasn’t writing because I was lazy or not dedicated enough.  Then I went on a writing retreat and realized how wrong I was.  For clarity, I use the term writing retreat to mean 7-14 days in a secluded space where one writes about 70-80% of the time and sleeps, eats, exercises, meditates and performs the basic bodily functions the other 30-20% of the time.  On this retreat, I decided to log all creative work with dates and times.  If I did research, I date- and time-stamped it in my Notes.doc.  If I wrote or revised, I date- and time-stamped it in my Notes.doc.  At the end of my two-week retreat, I realized that I was not lazy at all.  I simply need large chunks of undisturbed time to create. 

Any significant research took me a minimum of four hours.  For instance, on that retreat, I researched how shrapnel penetration physically affects the brains of soldiers in the Iraqi War.  Since I am neither a soldier nor a doctor, it took at least an hour for me to educate myself on the proper terminology (e.g., mortars, I.E.D.s, T.B.I.’s, intracranial hemorrhage, parasympathetic nervous system, etc.).  Next, I had to find credible and reliable sources (i.e., actual war videos and peer-reviewed articles) on the topics.  Then I had to read the articles and/or watch the videos and take notes in my Notes.doc.  There was also the matter of emotional exhaustion.  After reading a shitload or articles and watching three videos of soldiers who had been hit by I.E.D.’s and rushed to the nearest I.C.U. for surgery, I was spent.  I ate lunch then shifted to writing for the next four hours just so I could have some emotional breathing room.

In my opinion, a writer needs a block of time to put anything of significance together on the page.  I should state that I usually revise as I go.  I do not move onto the next paragraph until the previous paragraph is tight.  If I come to the end of a page, I re-read and revise the entire page again before I start a new page.  All that to say, I’m slow as a motherfuck when I write.  This is not the case when I am pressed for time.  Under these circumstances, I throw the ideas in my Notes.doc (or in the QuickMemo app on my phone or on scrap paper) with little concern for spelling or outside-reader coherency.  As long as I can connect the points, that’s all I care about since I will go back and revise anyway.  But on that retreat, I was lucky if I had three typed pages of fiction after eight focused hours of writing and revising (not including food and bathroom breaks).

Thanks to date- and time-stamping, I learned that my normal writing pace is four to eight hours.  Now, I am more patient with myself.  When I was teaching and working 16-20 hour days, I learned to let go of the foolish expectation that I could get a significant or even minor amount of writing done during the semester.  It simply was not possible if I wanted to get all my grading done and challenge my students the way I believed they needed to be challenged.  So, I wrote when I could and in the summer when I could be unapologetic about securing my writing time.  Now that I have a normal work day, I write about two to four days a week during a writing stint (but this is the luxury of being a child-free aspiring writer).  Some weeks I don’t write at all.  Hell, some months I don’t write at all then there are periods when I write obsessively.

I often think of people who have children and full-time jobs…hell, even people who have children and no job.  Parenting is a like having a job and a half in and of itself.  It’s not possible for parents to carve out four undisturbed hours of their day every day for writing, not unless they have a househusband/housewife, a saint of a relative or paid help.  I also think about the many published authors who state with such authority that one must write every day.  These authors fascinate me because they seem to disregard the constraints that normal people (i.e., unpublished writers who do not have a househusband/housewife, a saint of a relative or paid help) face.  I subscribe to Alice Walker’s schedule.  She said she sometimes writes for three months then takes a month or two off then starts writing again. 

My advice to fellow-aspiring writers is this:
  1. Date- and time-stamp your research and writing time over the course of a week or two, so you can establish a realistic pace;
  2. Write when you can;
  3. When you have a chunk of writing time, make it sacrosanct and guard it unapologetically.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Painful Truths

I wish I were writing fiction instead of non-fiction.  More specifically, I wish I were writing a novel instead of a memoir.  It’s far more pleasant to sit with make-believe plots and characters than with painful truths.

With fiction, you can show until the cows come home, provided you write competently and develop characters well.  You don’t have to tell the reader much although all the great novels do quite a bit of telling (e.g., LolitaRevolutionary Road).  The reader is smart and will follow the dramatic arch.  He/she doesn’t need extensive character reflection or internal monologue.  If you like, you can even write characters who never learn their lesson (e.g., Amy Elliot Dunne from Gone Girl).  None of this is true for present-day non-fiction.

With non-fiction, especially memoir, the writer must tell as much as he/she shows, if not more.  The writer must also provide extensive reflection, or the memoir will lack character development.  The memoir writer must also demonstrate that he/she learned something; otherwise, there is no dramatic arch and the reader is left wondering: What makes your life worth reading about?

All writers are emotional excavators to some degree, but when you’re writing a memoir, you don’t get to leave the dig until the final draft is complete.  You are bound to the dig.  You must set up camp as close to the dig as possible.  You cook meals there, eat there, shit there and sleep there.  When you’re writing fiction, you can pack up your characters and plots and walk away from the dig.  Sure you’ll obsess about them just like you would if you were writing a memoir, but, ultimately, those characters—even if they are based on someone in real life—are only as real as you choose to make them.  Fictional characters are not as intrinsically tied to the writer’s sense of self as “characters” in a memoir are.

I’ve been drafting and re-drafting my memoir manuscript for 13 years, and today I hate it.  I hate v1 (version 1).  I hate v2, and I really fucking hate v3.  I hate my laptop, and I hate writing, and I hate words.  I hate that I can only seem to write this memoir in 2- to 4-hour blocks before I am depleted, as opposed to the 8-hour marathons I run when I am writing fiction.  I hate that at this novice phase in my writing life I cannot seem to move forward until I tell this one fucking story about my childhood.  

I hate that my most painful childhood experience was not something like divorce or my parents’ being con-artists.  I hate that I was abused as a child, and that the effects of the abuse affect every facet of my fucking life.  I hate that therapy and prayer didn’t fix me.  They only confirmed what my mother and father always taught me: pain is part of life, and the only way to get through it is to know God and know yourself.  But it is no easy feat to know God or yourself, even if you spend a lifetime trying. I am 39 years old and here is a list of my attempts to understand my childhood, so maybe one fucking day I can know peace:
  • Approximately 21 years of therapy (i.e., counseling, hypnotherapy, Jungian therapy); 
  • 38 years of church-going and prayer (i.e., Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist, Unity, Unitarian Universalist);
  • Nine years of meditative practicing (i.e., Mahayana Buddhist meditation, Tantric meditation, Siddha Yoga meditation, primordial-sound meditation, and  Kundalini meditation);
  • 28 years of community service (i.e., volunteerism, tutoring, mentoring, outreach, program development, service, and leadership);
  • 25 years of self-reflection and healing via creativity (i.e., drawing, painting, writing, opening myself and purging the pain);
  • 6 years of study in literature and creative writing;
  • 12 years of giving and receiving love from my husband with approximately two of those years devoted to actively sabotaging my relationship with him because sometimes I just want to fuck shit up; and
  • Nine years of half-assed attempts to eat healthy and exercise.  Damn, I want a fucking cookie right now!
And all this work for what?  So, ideally, I can create something that matters to me, something that’s raw and true.  Has any of that work paid off?  Right now, I don’t fucking know.

Thursday, April 2, 2015 and the Cosmology of a Character

I stockpile notes for the fiction pieces I will write or finish writing someday.  I settle on a working title and create an e-folder for the piece.  I draft extensive character and plot sketches and save them in a document with this title format: WT Notes (WT=Working Title).  In my Notes.doc, I also include entries on character names and name meanings as well as ideas, scenes and research I have done for the piece. 

Names are immensely important in my fiction as is true in real life.  Names do not merely signify gender; they signify gender expectations, race, class, culture, and the hopes that parents bestow upon their children.  One of my characters is named Vivian.  She possesses a stately beauty, and she is quite spoiled.  Her parents are upper-middle class although they were both born into poverty.  Vivian’s parents are both attractive.  They want the world to know that they and their daughter are special and privileged.  They do not want anyone to perceive Vivian (or them) as ordinary black people.  They raised Vivian to have high expectations for herself and others.  Vivian is expected to “marry well,” i.e., to marry an upper-middle class or upper class man who will take care of her and provide a familiar, if not better, quality of life.  A commonplace name like Stacy or Marie would not do for this character, nor would a unique name like Ta’Nnetta or Zeranipha.

All of these details reflect the ideas that I contemplate in my neophytic attempt to create a world of fiction.  In order to know who Vivian is, I must first know what and who shaped her. Who are her people?  What do they want most for their child?  Did Vivian usually conform to their wishes when she was little, or did she rebel? How did Vivian self-identify as an adolescent?  Did she self-identify, or is she still living in her parent’s shadow?  What does she want most for herself?  I draft scene after scene, so I can find answers to these questions. 

Although most of these scenes end up with strikethroughs (I rarely ever delete scenes from my Notes.doc), drafting scenes helps me make sense of my characters.  I get to play around with Vivian’s environment and learn how she reacts to it.  Is Vivian a worrier, or is she a things-will-work-themselves-out kind of person?  Probably the latter because her mother and father have always taken care of her financial needs.  If this is the case, what would make Vivian lose her shit?  A dint in her new car?  Not likely, but perhaps something that can’t be bought or repaired, something priceless and emotion-based.  This pressure point is the thing that propels her; it is integral to the plot of the story.  I also need to love her.  How else can I ensure that I am challenging her but not breaking her?  If I can’t develop a feeling of love for a character, I don’t write that character.

Once I know who a character is and one or two things that propel him/her, I do focused research.  The truth is I do research from the start, but at the conception phase, my research is somewhat random and may even occur by happenstance.  I may research cities and details that relate to the character’s history, i.e., neighborhoods where my characters are likely to live; schools and educational requirements they need for their careers, etc.  I try to ground the characters in place and time.  Sometimes I’ll be browsing the Internet, and I’ll come across an article or an advertisement that doesn’t interest me in the least, but it would be interesting to one of my characters.  For example, I recently came across an article on how to wash expensive lingerie.  This is something Vivian would know about.  Her lingerie is important to her, and anything that is important to her is going to be expensive.  Naturally, I read the article and added its key points to my Notes.doc.

Focused research is required for any aspect of the character’s life that is technical (e.g., legal, psychological, medical, etc.).  This also extends to secondary or tertiary character(s) who play a significant, even if small, role in the primary character’s life.  In Vivian’s case, I decided that she would be connected to someone who was drafted to a college that was known for sports.  This detail was pivotal in my research on cities.  I had to choose cities that have hard-core college sports teams—teams that win tournaments and produce high-ranking draft picks.  I also needed to learn how college drafts work, how players are ranked for drafts, and what limitations exist for drafting students (i.e., age, grade point average, weight for a given position, etc.).  All this detail goes into my Notes.doc.

This is how I start developing the cosmology of a character.  I’ve never actually completed a manuscript for a novel, but one day I will, and when I do, my Notes.doc will be invaluable.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My Perfect Trail

I rarely exercise.  I’ll do a workout regimen for three to six months then I won’t do shit for another three to six months.  Interestingly, this is exactly how I approach writing: three to six months on; three to six months off.  Now, I’m in an exercise up-swing phase, and I want to do more hiking.  Since last summer, I’ve gone on about six hikes of varying difficulty.  That isn’t much, but for a sedentary person, one hike a month is a decent start.  Every time I went on a hike, I lamented the best hike I ever took.

A few years ago, my husband and I found a trail that was about 30 minutes outside the city.  It wasn’t too crowded, too easy, or too rigorous.  It had some open areas and some green, shaded areas.  It was perfect!  Somehow I neglected to save the directions, and over time, I forgot the name of the trail.

Last summer I kept trying to find my perfect trail, but I couldn’t.  I kept thinking the trail’s name was bear-something, but there are tons of trails named bear-something.  Exercise and writing are strongly correlated for me.  If I’m writing, you can guarantee I’m exercising and vice versa.  Since I was writing consistently last summer, I wanted to hike, so I could think and flesh out some character development and structural ideas.  Needless to say, I hiked but I did not re-discover my perfect trail.  

Last Saturday I was certain I had found it.  I did my research and had my directions—I was ready!  I headed toward the area at about eight in the morning.  It all looked familiar.  I got so excited, but the moment I pulled into the lot I knew it wasn’t right.  This place charged an admittance fee.  My perfect trail was free and the trailhead had little picnic tables near the parking lot across from the restrooms.  I pulled out my phone and Googled other trails in the vicinity.  I ended up driving around for three and a half damned hours!  I drove to four different trailheads and two different county parks.  I worked myself into a grown-woman pouting fit.  (I secretly love grown-woman pouting fits!)  I was so frustrated and angry with myself for letting my perfect trail slip away.  Today the weather is perfect, I told myself.  Why can’t I go on a hike? Everybody else is hiking

Despite being histrionic and bratty, I’m actually pretty self-reflective.  I know this unhealthy behavior is my M.O.  I set my mind to something, and I am completely inflexible until I get it.  The longer it takes for me to get it, the more obsessive I become.  This is precisely how I have approached publication.  I will send out a short story or essay, and I will be paralyzed until I get a response.  I will cease writing, and I will wait and obsess.  After receiving a response, which to date has always been a rejection, I am not only paralyzed, but I am an emotional fucking wreck.  I berate myself for not being good enough, for not writing enough, for not being committed enough.  Thankfully, I have learned not to remain in this state for long because I also know that I am most effective when I am calm and centered.  The problem is this: I have not been calm or centered for much of my life, so it is easy for me to think myself into a chaotic state.

That afternoon, I meditated and chilled the hell out.  I wrote out everything I could remember about my perfect trail.  I knew I was in the right area, so I wrote that down.  I remembered there were houses nearby and large red rocks, so I wrote that down then went about my day.  I hung out with my boo, got a lil nookie.  Then I remembered that there was a creek that revealed itself after a steep decline on my perfect trail.  I wrote that down and went on doing something else.  Eventually, I remembered the trail name didn’t have anything to do with bears at all.  It had “deer” in the title.  Then a few hours later it came to me: “Deer Canyon.”  I had a trail name and a general area, so I got on the Internet, looked up photos to make sure I had the right trail and sure enough, there it was—nuzzled in the calm and centered corridors of my mind.

The next day it was colder and windier, but still nice.  I drove out and found my perfect trail.  During my hike, I felt so grateful.  I reminded myself to trust myself, to trust my mind, God and my creativity.  Things do not always come to me when I want them, and I need to make peace with this fact.  Luckily, I am learning an important lesson: Everything I want and need is within me.