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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, February 24, 2013

After a lengthy, miserable bout with depression, last month I finally went to my doctor and got a prescription for an anti-depressant. I’ve been feeling lousy for quite a while now; I couldn’t even tell you how long, months and months and months. At first I thought I was just having post-partum depression, but I just kept sinking and sinking until I finally reached a point, a couple months ago, where I realized that I had never been so depressed in my entire life and that, more important, I couldn’t bear the thought of living the rest of my life feeling that way.

I hesitated about going to the doctor, though, because I was afraid that nothing would work. Silly, right? I know it is, but I had this intense fear that I would get on medication after medication and just keep feeling the same, until I would finally have to accept that this is all there is for me, now, and that things will never get better. I had to force myself to schedule an appointment by reminding myself that my depression affects not just me but my husband and daughter, too. It’s one thing to choose to wallow in your own misery, but it isn’t fair to make other people wallow with you.

So here’s how I’d been feeling: empty, numb, uninterested in everything. I was eating a lot, but not because eating made me feel better. I suppose I had this idea that if I ate that candy bar or cookie, it might make me feel good, and then when it didn’t, I would eat another, thinking maybe the second time would be the charm. I wasn’t listening to much music. I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t writing. I watched things on Netflix, but with the exception of American Horror Story, which for whatever reason seemed to be the only thing that was able to really engage me during this dark period, I would just sort of sit and zone out to whatever I was watching, not really enjoying any of it.

Obviously, this was very distressing. It’s not like I’m normally little miss sunshine, but I’m usually able to focus on the things in life that I think make life worth living—good literature, good movies, good music, writing. Writing has been like an anti-depressant for me for many years. When everything else feels grim and pointless, I can always count on getting lost in my own creative process as I invent other realities, other people, other lives. In fact, I’ve found in the past that when I go more than a week or so without writing, I tend to start feeling listless and depressed.

But this time, my depression stopped my writing cold. I didn’t have any desire to do it, and when I would try to force myself, it didn’t feel good. Didn’t feel like anything.

It’s not even an issue, really, of productivity. It’s not because I envision myself as a writer, and when I don’t write, I don’t feel like myself (although that’s true), and it’s not because I have all these writing related goals, projects I want to complete, achievements I want to reach. The reason why it matters so much is because writing helps me deal with the world. Writing is my life vest, my buoy. When I’m not writing, I’m drowning.

So I got a prescription for sertraline and started the slow, anxious process of waiting to see if it would work. And you know what? It did, or at least, it’s started to. I don’t feel back to 100% yet. I’m still not writing or reading as much as I usually do, but I’m feeling better. Work doesn’t feel like such a burden anymore, and the little tedious “have to”’s of life don’t feel so all-encompassing. Life is beginning to feel manageable again, in other words, and I am starting to daydream again about my writing. I’ve been pacing around the house, with music playing, and thinking about the novel I’m working on. It’s a good feeling—feeling anything at all is good—and I’m so glad I finally took the step to do something about my depression.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

I’m trying something new as a writer, something that requires completely changing my familiar writing habits: dictation. The other day, my friend Jolynn told me about some dictation software her parents gave her for Christmas. I thought it sounded worth a shot, so I looked up dictation apps for my phone and found some free ones I could try.

I work an hour and a half drive away from home, see, so even though I only have to go to campus twice a week, I’m in the car for six hours a week commuting to and from my classes. If I could spend even a small portion of that time “writing,” I would bump my productivity up immensely.

So last week I downloaded Dragon Dictation. The first day, I had trouble trying to get my mind into writer mode. I’m so used to typing as part of my process that I think my mind almost has a Pavlovian response to sitting in front of the computer and opening a document to write. Speaking the story out loud just wasn’t doing it for me, and I ended up just deleting the barely coherent crap I came up with.

But I refused to give in so quickly. Six freakin’ hours a week, I kept telling myself. Six hours to myself, without my little girl climbing all over me. It would be the perfect time to write.

So I tried again the next day I had to go to campus. I waited until a sentence formed in my mind—that’s usually the way I begin any writing session—and I turned on the app and just started going for it. I “wrote” for the rest of the drive to campus and ended up with about 1000 words to add to my novel, words I feel pretty good about, too. Of course, I’m still in the very early stages of trying this out, but I’m going to keep at it, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that this is going to help me write way, way, way more.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I’ve been working as an Associate Editor for Bound Off for a few months now, and I think it’s time to talk a little bit about what I think you can learn from working on a literary journal.

1.      Reading submissions gives you an idea of an editor’s perspective. I’m given ten submissions to read every two weeks. It’s not an overwhelming number by any means, and since we only publish flash fiction, I DO read every submission all the way through. I know, however, from previous experience working for journals that this isn’t always the case. Many editors and slush pile readers stop reading as soon as they feel they can justify saying no—why waste their time reading the entire thing when they already know they won’t accept it?

But even people like me who do read every story all the way through expect to be sucked in quickly. If your story gets off to a plodding start, or has lots of exposition right away, or is extremely confusing for the first few pages, you’ll be really lucky if an editor sticks with you to the payoff later in the story. And even if the editor does stick with you, that payoff will have to be damn good to justify an uninspired beginning.

2.      Reading failed submissions forces you to think about what makes writing good or bad. When I respond to submissions, I’m supposed to give a brief summary of the story and say a thing or two about what I liked or didn’t like about it. Then I give my yes or no (or sometimes maybe) vote.

Because I have to articulate why I’m saying yes or no, I have to really think about the strengths and weaknesses of each story. I can’t just say, “It wasn’t my kind of story.” Instead, I have to figure out what about this story makes it not good enough in my opinion. It goes the other way too. When I say yes to a story, I have to put into words why I think the story deserves a spot on the podcast, and it’s got to be more convincing than, “I just really liked it.”

3.      Reading submissions helps you put rejection into perspective. I can’t stand it when editors claim that most of the submissions they see are terrible. That’s BS! I’ve found that in any batch of ten submissions, two or three are “terrible,” although I would probably opt to describe them as amateurish instead. It doesn’t mean these writers will never amount to anything, but they’re not there yet. I don’t feel bad saying no to these stories because, aside from the fact that I want our journal to only have good stories so people will actually listen to it, these writers need to learn that their writing is not up to par yet. Rejection is probably the most painful for writers at that stage, who are submitting though they’re not ready to submit, but it’s also an important part of the process of becoming a good writer.

The other seven or eight stories in each batch—which, keep in mind, amounts to seventy to eighty percent of the submissions—could not, in my opinion, be reasonably  described as terrible. These are stories that are clearly NOT written by novices. They’re well written; they often have elegant prose and make good use of craft techniques. But that doesn’t mean they get accepted. We accept only a very low percentage of the stories that get submitted to us, which means we reject the majority of those pretty good stories.

I sometimes agonize over whether to say yes or no to a particular story. Some stories are so good in so many ways, but there will be just one thing bringing it down. It might be too much exposition, or maybe some element of the plot doesn’t feel original enough. Whatever it is, I have to find reasons to whittle that remaining seven or eight stories down to maybe one “yes” vote. From there, the stories will be read by other editors, who will add their own votes without knowing mine, just as I didn’t know what those who had read the stories before me thought.

Since I’ve been volunteering for Bound Off, it’s happened exactly three times that I read a story that I instantly and uncontrollably fell in love with. Two of those stories ended up getting accepted—and pretty quickly, too. To my knowledge, so far none of the other “yes” votes I’ve offered have ended in an acceptance.

So you see, everything has to come together just right for an actual acceptance to happen. Rejections, then, shouldn’t devastate anyone too much, but do bring your work back to the drawing board if you get a lot of form rejections for it. Many of the stories I’ve said “no” to might have earned a “yes” had they just been revised in XYZ way. A rejection doesn’t mean your story has no potential, but sometimes it does mean your story needs a little more work.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

This year, I spent some of my Christmas and birthday money on a pedometer to help me lose the weight I gained this holiday season. Heading into the winter, I just started feeling famished, all the time. I wanted to eat constantly, and I just decided to go with it. It would give me a goal to work towards in the new year. So I gained about five pounds—not the end of the world, by any means, but I need to lose it now or I’ll be very unhappy with myself.

So I shopped around and read customer reviews and picked out the pedometer that seemed right for me. I came close to spending quite a bit more for one with software that would track my progress and create nifty graphs on my computer. I love graphs. After reading a lot of negative reviews of the software, though, I opted for the cheaper pedometer and decided to create my own graph on the computer myself. This is better, anyway, because I was able to modify it to meet my own set of goals.

I created a graph with two bits of data: daily step count and sweat points from the Just Sweat mode of my Just Dance games (make fun of me all you want; I owe a lot of lost weight to dancing video games, and I just think they’re so freakin’ fun). The graph is really helping me stay motivated. It makes me feel so excited to watch those two lines go higher and higher up each day.

Okay, but what does this have to do with writing? I realized that my love of graphs, the exhilaration I feel entering each day’s data and watching  the line go up, might help me get more motivated to write. I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting motivated to write lately. A lot of that has to do with depression—maybe I’ll talk about that some other time—but part of it is just that I have no momentum going. If I can find something new enough to make me feel excited about writing, I might be able to get my momentum up to the point where I no longer need a trick or gimmick to get going.

I set a writing goal for the month of February: to write every day, no matter how much, no matter on what. I copied and modified my activity graph to create a writing graph. It also has two sets of data to keep track of: number of words written on my novel and number of words written on stories. The goal will be to make sure I have something to plot on at least one of those lines every single day.

I know the lines will go up and down. That’s just the way it works—some days you have a lot to say, others, not so much. That’s okay because I believe the lines will show a gradual progression upwards throughout the month, if for no other reason than because I so, so long to see those lines getting higher and higher.