Blog: Recovering from atrophy

So while I am literally on the couch this week recovering from some psychotic infection, I was thinking (in a disjointed, feverish sort of way) about coming back into writing with intention.  Recovering from the lack of writing, as it were.  Not that you would be able to tell from the tangent I’m about to go on.

I’ve been reminiscing about my childhood where my dream was to be a successful, published author.  This was when I was twelve and in 6th grade, BEFORE the internet (GASP) knowing nothing about really anything that had to do with adulthood, but I’d won some schoolwide writing things and thought I was hot shit.  I loved the idea of being an author – in my head I lived on a charming New England beach in a charming New England house with charmingly faded shingle siding and wide window ledges where I placed charming little shells that I’d found on said charming beach.  I wrote in a little room with gauzy curtains floating on the ocean breeze.  I loved my little fantasy future.  I still love parts of it (especially the gray shingles), but it got tied up in cosplay and music and lovers and grad school and getting married and greyhounds and Colorado.  Which I love.

I also LOVED to write.  I had the early blossomings of a novel all planned out in my head.  I drew pictures of the characters (a skill that alas was not required in academia, and I fear has also atrophied beyond repair).  I wrote and typed the snippets of their stories as I thought of them, on half sheets of paper that I filed in a binder (because even as a child I loved me some organization).  I sometimes typed things, on a typewriter and then on a computer.  I slowly but surely reformatted and translated files and many of my childhood ideas grew with me, becoming mature and possible.  I have a lovely folder and subfolders filled with these stories and ideas and a good chunk of my 33 years, a folder that I love dearly and am afraid to share (see last blog post).  When I think back to my childhood and early adulthood, I find forests of words.  I wrote fanfiction and participated in text-based roleplaying and worked (slowly) on that childhood novel.  It was good.  I was good.  We challenged each other and communicated and edited and critiqued and maybe once in a while got mad because we were kids, but we loved every moment of it.

And as I approach a crossroads in my life – considering parenthood, attempting to manage mysterious illnesses, and deciding if the career path (teaching) that I paid a LOT of money to get into is really the one I want to be on – I find myself coming back to the written word.  For comfort?  For illusion?  I don’t know.  I just know there’s a safety in it I can rely on.  I know it’s one of the things that I’m good at – or at least I was good at.

The last few weeks have been exciting, but daunting as well.  I’ve learned more about HOW to write in the last two weeks than I ever did in college (probably because I tested out of most of my English classes, ’cause, again, though I was hot shit – academically, sure, but I’ve learned it’s more than that), and that’s just been reading blog entries by authors, following them on Twitter, and taking a good hard look at my writing habits.  My miserable, non-existent writing habits.  The habit that would have me opening up a manuscript, staring at it for ten minutes, and then closing it with a sigh because I didn’t know what to write next.

I have one remaining talent from my childhood – I can imagine a killer scene.  It’s like a movie in my head that I can write down.  So I do!  And then I’m like, yeah, that was awesome, this is so cool, that sounds great, and… now I have no idea what to do next.  But now, with the experience of years, I know what I need to do.  I learned while working on my masters in teaching that you must constantly assess your teaching.  Are your students getting it?  What are they getting?  What are they missing?  What are the patterns?  What does all that tell me about how to teach THESE children?

OMG REAL WORLD APPLICATION OF GRAD SCHOOL.  So I took that ability to self-monitor, to self-critique, to seek out the weaknesses in my process.  And I found that while I’m a spectacular idea girl, I’m a miserable planner.  Which is sort of hilarious, because HI I AM A TEACHER PLANNING IS LITERALLY MY JOB.  It could even be twice-over my job if I was actually teaching the concept of plot to students.  I AM NOT PRACTICING WHAT I PREACH.  THIS CALLS FOR CAPS.

So me and myself had a come to Jesus talk: you are no longer hot shit.  You’re basically room-temperature shit, which looks fake anyway, ask Lewis Black.  Why are you not doing what you insist your students do?  Why are you not getting out a damn worksheet and planning this crap out, so you don’t get to the end of a thing and go, “Well, that was nice?”  Yes, and?

So, that’s what I’m doing.  And it freaks me out a little.  Because my brain (which, if you recall – pile of cold shit at this stage) is like OMFG WORD COUNTS THAT WAS A THING I READ.  And I have to stop and have a talk with my brain about how I can’t make words unless I know what the hell is supposed to happen next.

So that’s what writing atrophy looks like.  It’s your brain going, “You aren’t writing, so you can’t write.”  Which isn’t an incorrect assessment, but it can be awfully self-limiting if you aren’t listening closely.  I’m learning that writing isn’t just sitting down in front of your manuscript (at least not for me.  If you are one of those people, please bottle that shit, I will pay you) and letting your fingers do the walking.  It’s planning and research and note-taking and even getting on Twitter to bitch about it.  It’s a lot like teaching – it’s not about those 10 minutes you’re yapping at your students, it’s those 3 hours of designing an engaging activity and finding a good book and mocking up a worksheet and anticipating which kid will need more or less on this topic than others.

So I’m heading to the literary gym, I suppose.  I’m not ready for the marathon yet.  But I’m getting there.  And here are a few of the exercises I found:

S.E. GILCHRIST: FIVE THINGS I LEARNED WRITING STAR PIRATE’S JUSTICE – This guest post at Chuck Wendig’s hilarious and thoughtful blog was my first hint that I needed to do more than open a new document.  Subheading “DON’T ALWAYS GO WITH YOUR FIRST IDEA” struck me incredibly hard, and opened the door to helping me realize I need to start planning.

Rachel Aaron: How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day – I know this is kind of going against the whole OMFG WORD COUNT thing, but at the end of the day you still want to WRITE WORDS.  Like this: Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to.”  Check out the post to see why that thought process is a minefield.

Glen C. Strathy: How To Create A Plot Outline In 8 Easy Steps – I find myself almost always inspired by a new character popping up in my head, but plots are a thing of mystery to me.  The plot, to me, is the exploration of that character, the opportunity to know them better.  But even though I feel like I want to focus on the character, unless they have a story, I can’t show you anything about them.  Being a teacher and professional planner, I like tools that break down into steps.  This fits the bill very well, though it felt a little vague.  It was a good starting point for me.

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