Are You Finished?

At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.

Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.

Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.

For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.

When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.

Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.

During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,

“Now tell me, is the story finished?”

I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”

“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”

“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.

But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”

“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.

It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”

This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.

I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.

But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.

So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.

But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.

I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”

 

 

On Ukuleles

I’m not always good at asking for gifts. Someone says, “What do you want for Christmas?” and I’m like, “Um… stuff and things, please.”

But this past holiday season I planned ahead. I gave little lists to the various people who wanted them, and one of the presents I asked for was a thing I’d had tucked in my mind for a long time:

a ukulele.

I don’t know what drew me to the ukulele in particular. Maybe it’s because they’re small and only have four strings, although I did used to play the violin, which fits all those requirements. But a violin is much more labor-intensive; I appreciate the compact little ukulele, which you can pick up and strum with cheerful determination.

Sure enough, on Christmas morning an oddly-shaped package was labeled to me. It was my very own gorgeous little ukulele. I was so excited I spent three hours learning chords.

While I’m still rusty—though I do fancy myself a quick learner—the ukulele has already brought a lot of joy to me. There’s something about being able to sit down and make music, with no need to talk, no need to think really, and to be creative simply by showing up and letting your mind spill out into sound.

Sometimes as a writer, I want to be able to write without using any words, letting the repetition and flow of my mind create something without effort. But of course, this is the antithesis of writing. One must naturally exert effort, in order for the words to make any sense.

Playing the ukulele is my writing without words; my creativity finds a voice even when my words are knotted, and I can create something beautiful even when my mind is numb.

Writing to Myself

I love journals.

I’ve kept a personal journal since I was ten or eleven, and I have them all lined up on a shelf in my room. Every Christmas and birthday, I acquire journals as gifts, and I use gift money to buy more journals. Something about the pretty covers and blank pages of yet-unlived stories gets me every time.

I don’t recall how exactly it started, but I do remember starting to journal my thoughts, daily life, and memories with the conviction that these were all very important. I remember becoming so overwhelmed with each detail of life, so convinced that they were all significant, that I had no choice but to write my life down as I was living it.

I still don’t know why the ins and outs of daily life have always been so significant to me, unless of course it has something to do with me being a writer. I always wrote with the conviction that people in the future would want to know what my life was like, and I wrote, at first, like I was writing a story.

As I got older, of course, my journals became more raw, more honest, more stream-of-consciousness. This shift has made each journal like a tiny time capsule of who I was at the time. Now, I look back at my numerous autobiographical tomes and see patterns in my life that led to where I am now. I read about an event that happened six years ago, and I see how that led to some of my present-day behaviors. It’s fascinating how my own words, thoughts, and feelings jog my present memory. They put me in situations long forgotten.

Reading a diary is like time travelling; you meet your old self, hear her hopes and fears, and tell her things you’ve learned, things you know now that you didn’t know then. It’s very therapeutic in a way; it closes a loop and completes a journey. The things I struggled with in the past find peace, or at the very least explanation, in the future. The older and wiser me can meet the younger with more knowledge, more grace. It makes you more forgiving of yourself, more aware of the process that life entails. And even this pseudo-time travel is a process, because someday I’ll be older and wiser than I am now, and the cycle, the journey, continues.

It’s ironic, isn’t it? While I thought I was writing for posterity, I was really writing for myself.

 

How to Build a World

I’ll be honest.

I’m staring at the screen right now, and I’m supposed to crank out something for what is to me tomorrow morning, and I don’t know what to write. I usually come up with an idea for my blog posts a few days in advance, and then all I have to do the night before is polish what I’ve built so it’s smooth and pretty. But this time I feel tired, and I don’t really want to string together some cohesive thoughts, and the thought of taking “just a little break” from blogging this time around sounds so good.

But I’m showing up anyway, because if there’s anything I’ve learned about writing, it’s that you have to keep showing up. All the training and reading and technique and talent in the world isn’t worth a thing if you don’t show up, if you don’t write little by little day by day.

And most, if not all, writers have this problem. Writing is our passion; it both gives us life and makes sense of life. We can’t live without writing, but we also don’t want to do it. We come up with clever excuses and side hustles and procrastinations.

Writing is the most self-sabotaging of all professions.

This week I finished a short story I’ve been working on. I’ve been submitting to a few contests, and the deadlines have been invaluable in making me work. Unfortunately, my next submission deadline isn’t until the end of the month, and so of course I’ve been dragging my feet on this blasted story.

So my best friend and I came up with a plan. She lives several hours away during the summer, which really sucks in many ways, but primarily because it cuts down on our mutual creative socializing and forces us to act like well-adjusted adults for the benefit of the masses. But I digress.

When we’re together, we camp our books and computers in some hip coffee shop and spend time drinking coffee and writing (as any self-respecting millennial writer does). When we’re not together, we end up mismatched, one of us drinking coffee when the other isn’t, one of us not writing when the other is. There is imbalance and disharmony. It is very bad. It does not do.

So one day we planned an impromptu, virtual coffee run. We each camped our books and computers at home, got coffee (at least, I had coffee. If she didn’t, I don’t know what the point of all this was), and challenged each other to write 1,000 words on our individual projects (that was the point).

I knew I could finish my story in a little over 1,000 words, so I set off eagerly. And it was grueling. I spent most of the time staring at the screen while my phone lit up with her texts signposting her progress, and I told myself “It’s fine, this is all fine, it’s not a contest, stop getting mad, you can write, you’re smart, you know words, THINK, DAMMIT!”

So relaxing.

But in the end, I finished my story in just shy of 1,500 words. And she finished a chapter of her book and started another in a little over 2,000. We both showed up. And our relationship is still intact, too. I don’t tell her how competitive I can be. She still thinks I’m nice and don’t care about it. Boy, do I have her fooled.

Sometimes just showing up is all you need, no matter what you’re doing. Showing up is 99% of my yoga hobby. Showing up is how my Russian is so amazing (like ridiculously good) at sports. Showing up is how anyone does what they do to make the world a better place.

Showing up builds something beautiful brick by brick, even if you don’t think you have the energy to do one more thing. And before you know it, you’ve created a world, and all you have to do is sand it down, polish it, and make it smooth and pretty.

Like I just did.

Ghost Hunting

Whenever I go to a new place, I look for its ghosts.

I don’t mean this literally. Some people actually go ghost hunting, and that’s fine I guess, but that would freak me out. No thanks.

No, the ghosts I look for are, ironically, a lot more concrete.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, a place which, as my best friend once put it, is haunted. Flannery O’Connor’s South was Christ-haunted, but my western PA is self-haunted.

This is not in the sense that you literally see ghosts walking around, pushing carts at the grocery store, pumping your gas, or giving you directions to McDonald’s. (This may happen, but if it does please don’t tell me about it.) Western PA is haunted because it lives in the shadow of its own history. There’s a story behind the millions of wooded acres and crumbling brick storefronts. It’s one of a post-industrial area trying to survive past its original purpose.

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It’s like when someone leaves a piece of carpet in the woods, and a whole ecosystem grows over it, vines and grass and clover, and you don’t notice what’s underneath until you start to question whether the ground truly is the real ground, and you start to peel up the edges of the carpet, ripping the life on top to shreds. What’s underneath is real, but forgotten, and sometimes it’s easier to forget. Sometimes it’s better to pretend that the carpet is the ground.

I grew up thinking it was normal to find rusty machinery in the woods, that every state park had a ghost town in it, and that all small towns were struggling and hopeless. It wasn’t until I moved away, traveled, and studied some history that I realized how remarkable and tragic these places really are.

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Now when we go home to visit, I realize how haunted it is, haunted by itself. I see a city block and know what it used to look like. I drive through woods and know how the hills used to be shaved of trees and dotted with oil derricks. I listen to the stories people tell of the good old days, and that lost society feels close enough to bring back, if we could just beat it at hide and seek.

And I feel the ghosts. Not literal, spiritual entities, but ghosts in the sense that there were layers upon layers of lives before mine who lived in these places and called them home. Layers upon layers of eyes looking at the same things I see, layers of thoughts pondering the same things I think about, layers of joy and love and anger and frustration like I feel.

All those layers, all that history, all that life, builds up until going home feels so thick with stories I have to cut a path through them just to find my parents’ house.

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The funny thing is, I can no longer go somewhere new without knowing the place’s ghosts. When I know I’m visiting a new place, I must do two things: look up the map, and look up the history. I must be able to mentally, as well as physically, find myself around.

Sometimes I’m not homesick; I just don’t know the local ghosts.

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It sounds weird, or at the very least exhausting. That’s okay; it is both those things. But the best part about ghost hunting is it reminds me that life is made of stories. If we don’t seek out the stories, if we don’t look for the ghosts, they’ll be forgotten. Huge chunks of life will be forgotten.

And that’s why, I think, you have places like western PA. When we forget our ghosts, we get places that are little more than haunted, overgrown carpets in the woods, thick with layers of history that people live in, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless with no idea why. That’s why you have small towns where a whole life and society is built on forgetting. Remembering is exhausting.

But as a writer, I know my craft is one of remembrance. It’s my job to learn as much as I can, to choose not to forget. It’s my job to get down all the stories, all the chunks of life, we forget as the years go by and the world moves on.

It’s my job to tear up the carpet, shred up the turf, and look for the ghosts.

It Sucs

The first year we were married, the Russian and I decided to get nice Christmas gifts for our mothers. And because we live down near Pittsburgh and our families don’t, we thought we’d splurge and get each mom a little collection of IKEA goodies. Among the things we decided to get for my mom, there was a large potted succulent, a crassula—or jade plant—which for some reason we named Bob Jr.

It was a dreary December day, and the cold wind cut across the enormous parking lot and found every possible chink in our coats, freezing everything it could touch. We dumped all the stuff in the car and placed Bob Jr. behind the passenger seat. Then we set off toward home, weaving out of the labyrinth of cars. Just as we were taking the sharp turn onto the highway, we heard the little skid, pop, and whoosh of Bob Jr. falling over and dumping his soil onto the carpet.

“&*^$!@*&$#?%, Bob Jr.!” my husband exclaimed in a sudden burst of emotion. Then we started laughing, because he had just cussed out a succulent, because we were so unreasonably angry with this succulent, and because we had named the succulent Bob Jr. And you can’t get too mad with a plant named Bob Jr.

Bob Jr. inadvertently started a trend, not of spilled plants in the car, but of naming every plant I get. Over the past year or so, I’ve developed a real obsession with succulents, and it’s a tad worrying. Someone could come to my house, see the little pots lined up on the bookshelf, and remark, “Oh I love your plants!” To which I’d reply, “Thanks! That’s Ophelia, Lyle, Ned, Happy, Dusty, and Kelly. There’s Alice and Titus and Fred Jr. and Ramone, and over there on the windowsill is Little Leonard.” To which they’d promptly leave.

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I often joke that the succulents are just filling in until I have pets or children. And I admit the whole business is odd. At the store I pick out a succulent that just, you know, speaks to my soul, and then I wait to name it until a name comes to mind that I really think encompasses the plant’s character. I know, it’s weird. But something about looking over and seeing the little pots lined up on the bookshelf is so satisfying, so homey. Succulents are just so happy.

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Of course, sometimes they’re not so happy. Every few months there’s a slew of deaths, a mourning period (I’m mostly kidding; don’t send help. Send help), and a new round of plants. It’s a little, constantly evolving family. And it’s a challenge as I try to figure out what a succulent from the desert needs in the schizophrenic weather of western Pennsylvania. I experiment with watering too much or not enough, I learn from my mistakes of not repotting or of leaving out in the sun too long, and I try to be patient when I can’t tell if my efforts will produce a thriving plant or one that rots to death.

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(This lovely echeveria was such a casualty. I didn’t even get to the naming process. Tears.)

Sometimes I’ve found that too much care is exactly what signs the death warrant. It’s the hardest thing to sit back and let the plant do its thing, but it’s way stronger and more beautiful when I do.

My succulent saga is like a lot of things, but it very much reminds me of the writing process. Writing creates all these little microcosms you feel responsible for, all these little worlds you want to name and coddle and love so they grow into full-blown, gorgeous tapestries of literary lushness.

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But writing doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you have to sit back and let the story do its thing. You have to let it stretch its roots down in your mind, let the root system grow massive and entwined. This usually happens when you don’t realize it. It usually happens as you read and watch TV and write crappy-looking first drafts. As you talk to people and laugh and cry. As you live your life day by day. As you doubt that you really are a writer, because you’re not producing a brilliantly rich work of art every time you sit at the keyboard. It’s frustrating. It sucks.

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But at some point the roots that have been weaving together under the surface start to support a plant up top. The visible product of all that preparing, waiting, and living grows and flourishes. And that’s when writing becomes really fun. That’s when writing becomes magical and real. That’s when you realize that it was never your job to make the plant grow, but to be there to enjoy it when it does.

So thanks, Bob Jr. I’m sorry we swore at you.