Smiles Packed Like Suitcases

Hunger was constitutional with him,
wine, cigarettes, liquor, need need need
Until he went to pieces.
The pieces sat up & wrote.

–from John Berryman’s “Dream Songs”

Hunger is relative. It can be physical hunger, yes. We all know the feeling of an empty stomach, the weakness in our limbs. Hunger can be mental as well, the need to know, all the questions we ask as writers, as human beings: who are we, why are we here, where did we come from, where are we going, and so on. But a deeper hunger we all experience is one we take for granted, is more hidden, less accessible. Yet it may be the most important one of all: hunger of the soul. Who doesn’t intimately know that chronic sense of meaninglessness in what we call “daily life?” There is no lab test for this hunger. No microscope or telescope to see it. No app to follow its course. No ultimate “authority” to turn to for answers. Not for this hunger. And unabated hunger of the soul can have extremely nasty results including anxiety, depression and othermeaninglessness mental illnesses, suicide, homicide, war….

Yet at least two multi-billion-dollar industries thrive on “relieving” this hunger: pharmaceutical and medical. NPR recently interviewed Atlantic magazine editor Scott Stossel about his book, My Age Of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, And The Search For Peace Of Mind. Stossel talks about his phobias and anxieties. His fears include turophobia, a fear of cheese; asthenophobia, a fear of fainting; and claustrophobia. He says he wrote the book to help him understand and find relief from — or redemption in — anxious suffering. He’s a very high-functioning anxious person and in fact, before this book, most of his colleagues were unaware of his problems.

“Unaware of his problems.” Indeed. We carry on with our smiling faces, meet other smiling faces on the streets and in the hallways of our lives. No one but their owners knows what goes on behind those smiles packed like suitcases, ready to go off, literally. Yet we all maintain, somehow. For the children’s sake. To keep show some backbone. To not cave. To hang tough. To win the war. No excuses. No apologies. We have to keep up appearances or lose our jobs, our reputations, our fill-in-the-blanks. We are afraid of both death and living. Fear of living (vitaphobia) is similar to writer’s block, no? Someone (I can’t find the reference), probably a writer, was recently ask to sum up our daily existence in a meaningless, fragmented, alienated society in a single word. The reply? “Cold.” I’d call that an apt description.

Again I’m writing about something here that may not seem to have a connection to writing fiction. But isn’t fiction all about wanting something and not getting it? About tension, conflict, and frustration? What a perfect subject, this inescapable discomfort, this incurable anxiety we all know deeply as we breach the past and future here and now. Isn’t fiction about catharsis and maybe even transformation in both our characters and ourselves? Let’s be honest. Why else do we write? Yes, writers are notorious for substance abuse, and who can fault us as, along with other artists, the barometers of our societies? But novels and stories can give meaning inside a vortex of meaninglessness. Not to say they give “hope,” because as Dickinson wrote, hope is a thing with feathers on it. Hope assumes a way out, which is problematic at best. So, I don’t know about you, but my heroes are all unsung, the ones who are drowning and abused and hurting and crying out, everyday heroes like you and me who feel that hunger of the soul and in the onslaught of defeat, sit up and write about it.


Related articles:

Character Rants and Breakdowns—Let ‘em Rip

Hunger (novel by Knut Hamsun)


Keyboard Monkey

 You do have a choice: you can write or you can throw yourself off a cliff.

The infinite monkey theorem goes like this: A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Then there’s the the 100th monkey effect, which is the instantaneous spreading of an idea or ability to the remainder of a population once a certain portion of that population has heard of the new idea or learned the new ability by some unknown process currently beyond the scope of science. If 100 monkeys sit at keyboards for an infinite amount of time, what could it mean for the rest of us monkeys?

Apparently there is a long way to go for some of us keyboard monkeys when it comes to finding steady work. What follows is one case in point [or skip the next seven paragraphs to avoid memoir].

When she was younger she had a debilitating disease. Doctors told her that she’d better get a sedentary job because she would live her life out in a wheelchair. Some days she felt so terrible that she couldn’t hold her head up in class to take notes in her college classes.  Her health continued to deteriorate, but the doctors did not know what was wrong with her. Every day she had high fevers and aching joints. She would take OTC pain relievers which broke her fevers and eased the joint pains, but within a few hours the fever would begin to climb again.

This misery went on for years. But her folks insisted she go to college. So, because her 12th grade English teacher inspired her so profoundly, and because writing and books lead to sedentary life, she majored in English. She fell in love with the Romantic poets and with literature in general. She was never a fast reader. She took her time with each word, sentence, paragraph. Speed-reading classes were a joke to her. She steeped herself in literature, although her slow reading speed produced quality rather than quantity. Continue reading

Observations, Writing

We All Live Here in Mental Cubicles

Today’s post is off-topic, but it does have to do with things churning through my brain that must find a way into my fiction at some point.

Is it just me or is everything compressing into some kind of final insanity? I live in a city where everyone else wants to live: Portland OR. It’s a city of cultural creatives, universities, wealth and gentrification, decent mass transit, Subarus, community gardens with 5-year waiting lists, and high density. It’s a city of yoga and fixies and $550K Craftsman houses on tree-lined streets. Those of us who can’t afford the lifestyle don’t live it.

Yesterday an advert on the radio touted a program for people who suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. I thought, Wow, so I’m not the only one feeling this? No, I don’t live under a rock, but here’s what it feels like to be alive in an urban area in 2012. I ride the bus. I ride my bike. I walk a lot at night and peer into showcase homes without curtains so we can all go “Oooo, ahhhh.”

Eye candy everywhere, everyone with skin has a tattoo and/or piercings (me too). Gee, what individuality. Yet underneath it all is a sense of  deep conservatism, follow the rules, be polite and  politically correct no matter what.  There is this deep and terrifying need to be disengaged from the teeming masses of everyone else, to protect ourselves from the unknown, from getting hurt or getting involved. We all live here in mental cubicles. I consider it a miracle when I can hold a conversation with a stranger for longer that two sentences. What are we all so afraid of?

After I leave home for school my brain is filled with wounded news. What I see on the bus: riders glued to screens and plugged in to music. We all live here where nothing lasts over 45 seconds. Our attention spans are about that long too. I am hopelessly addicted to the Internet. Is there an Internet Junkie Anon yet? Good thing my MacBook lacks WiFi and the battery life is at 50 percent now. Good thing my iPod died. Good thing I can’t afford a smart phone and server.  I’m forced to pay attention to life around me when I leave the house. Forced to tap into things that a fiction writer needs to see/feel/hear/smell/taste. But you have to be conscious enough to recognize something before you can tuck it into your writer’s notebook.

A friend of mine is fighting for his life right now in the hospital. His sister might not be able to donate her kidney, which means he might not have a donor. And now he has a staff infection from the dialysis access to his arm. It could be fatal. He was already depressed. Now I fear he’s going to lose his will to fight. It’s times like these that what’s important surfaces. Everything else in one’s life gets put on hold. There’s that overwhelming sense of mortality that colors everything. This is where life gets simple. This is where you learn what you’re made of. This is where people step out of mental cubicles and lose the veneer. This is where we meet common ground, where we remember for longer than 45 seconds that we and everyone we love are all going to die sooner or later.

Fiction, Lists, Writing

So They Say

A bunch of links to follow so you can avoid writing for a little longer.

Just saying.



Writing Fiction Involves Anxiety and Ambiguity

Whenever I work on a story, whether the first or the tenth draft of it,  I go through 148 levels of anxiety. That’s because at every stage I’m convinced I won’t do it “right.” I think that’s because when I was growing up I was brainwashed by authority figures not to make mistakes. Efficiency and cleanliness are deeply embedded in the Puritanical roots of America. They are also counter to the spirit of creativity.

English: Quantum mechanics x classical reality...

I also get caught up in the weight of terrible things that are going on non-stop everywhere on this planet. When I sit down to write, I lean into my conviction that there is no such thing as free will. I’m convinced that we are locked and loaded from the day we were born to be who we are and we do what we do because of who we are. But quantum mechanics has a different take. It states that everything is random. I don’t know anything about theoretical physics or determinism vs free will, actually. But as a writer, I have to begin somewhere. So I’ve been wrestling with the idea of randomness.

So, light can be a particle  or a wave, right? Maybe it can be other things as well.

To approach story with a rigid outline or idea of where it’s going, the idea of certainty, is to remove a huge chunk of possibility for creative spontaneity,  randomness, chance, luck, accident, and serendipity–that is, negative capability. We have to be able to live with uncertainty and ambiguity if we are going to create. That’s because uncertainty and ambiguity allow for new insights. Insight is the lifeblood of novel ideas ( hence, a “novel”). Artists and inventors of all types create something from nothing. That’s an awesome responsibility because it requires that that something is fully imagined. In order for something to be fully imagined, we can’t be stingy with our vision.

As fiction writers we have to allow our imagination freedom. Free imagination allows us to know that there is no such thing as an “absolute truth.” It also brings us closer to feelings of compassion for all living things. And it seems to me that the best fiction is nothing if not compassionate.


You Could Find a Bridge or You Could Write

Today I thought it might be useful to post a list of strategies for when you don’t know what you’re doing. You have no idea what happens next in your story, novel, or screenplay. You have choices. You could kill yourself,  you could toss the piece of waste in with the rest of your orphans. Or you could try some of the following:

  1. Watch people and pay attention to life. Writing that captures “ordinary” gems like the details of real, moment-by-moment human behavior is authentic. You’ll know you’re doing this because a camera turns on in your brain and you can’t turn it off. That’s when you know you’re a writer–a mercenary for details. You can’t make that shit up. Readers love these details and identify with the character drawn with them because they think, “Oh yea, I do that too.”
  2. Make a daily appointment with yourself to write X number of words or X number of pages (or choose X amount of time, but you don’t always see fruits of your efforts) and keep it.
  3. Finish the first draft first, all the way through, in a momentous BINGE rather than returning to re-write previous scenes or chapters. (This is one of my biggest stumbling blocks, which amounts to dipping my toes in as a way to avoid the plunge.). Then return on the second draft and PURGE. The third draft is another BINGE draft, the fourth a PURGE and so on. Forget the editing and fiddling. Re-writing and re-visioning are what you want here.
  4. During re-writes
    • Ask things like:”What’s the emotion behind that scene? Behind that paragraph? Behind that sentence? Word?”
    • Get the five senses involved in every scene.
    • Make lists as you go about details of each character so you get them right in every scene.
    • Formulate this project’s dramatic truth in a sentence.
  5. Set deadlines and take them seriously (the NaNoWriMo approach): “I’m going to finish the first draft by ____; the second draft by_____; write my query letter by_____; etc.” Then note these dates on a real calendar. If you’re not an avoidant personality like me, TELL people your deadlines so they can hold you accountable.
  6. Ignore writer’s block by doing something else for awhile: read, read, read, work on another project, read, take long walks, read, visit friends (if you have any), read.

Hard Head Spills Her Coffee

Today’s post is long. I wrote it for people who are either in or considering an MFA program or who are serious about their writing and/or getting published.

Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition. However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.~Samuel R. Delaney

My father used to call me Hard Head. Not because I resembled a character in the 1980s arcade game, but because I could never learn from others’ advice or experience. I have to thrash and gnash my teeth and DIM (do it myself). Some people are just wired this way. My high school English teacher was the first person who encouraged me to write. Poetry. She submitted several of my poems to the school newspaper, which published them. That was my first real appearance in print. For someone like me who lacked self-confidence, it was a real confidence boost. And a real pressure. It meant that I could possibly be published in other places. This was before such things as blogging and social networking.

Later I had several short stories published in the underground press, also before blogs and social networking. But these stories did not fit neatly into a genre. I guess the closest would have been dark fantasy. They were pretty awful with flowery language and flat characters. Looking back I’m surprised they got the response that they did from a small number of readers who wanted more. Those were the days when I was putting out my own underground zine and publishing other writers whose writing was just as bad, if not worse, than my own. The point was, I was writing, however awful, and I had an audience. Amazing what junk people will read to satisfy their secret dark pleasures. Continue reading

Humor, Lists, random thoughts, Words

Things to Think About During Bouts of Insomnia

  • every mistake you’ve ever made that put you in your current situation
  • that remark you made that turns your face 50 shades of color
  • all the stress you’ll have when it comes time to get that job you had to get to pay off that student loan
  • how to spin your perpetual absent-mindedness as edgy risk behavior
  • how you drank too much coffee. Yup, drank too much. Too much coffee. Drank too much. Coffee
  • but you’re not a recluse; you’re just playing hard to get with other people
  • that if we all put our heads together we might figure out where our brains went
  • that you’ve been reading Beckett again. Malone died alone, slowly eaten by cats.
  • the depressing knowledge that instead of that huge dream library you’ll have a Kindle
  • the state of the world and those tweets that prove it, like “YOUR AN IDIOT”
  • you forgot to drink those 32.2 oz of water and now you’re going to die
  • all your neighbors with guns that accidentally go off inside their homes
  • that canned coconut milk product tasted a little off, now that you think of it
  • secretly admit that all cats are girls and all dogs are boys
  • wonder if you forgot to burp your Tupperware
  • how much the word “fizzle” has been part of your vocabulary lately
  • those creepy blackened car windows where you can’t tell who is seeing you (or not)
  • dragging yourself around the grocery store looking for cheap ways to stay alive
  • if you only had one day to live you’d just keep doing the same things
Emotions, Personal, Revelations, Writing

Another Take on Writer’s Block

I thought I was just shy. (see 6 Things People Think You Are Instead of Shy)

Today’s post isn’t directly about writing. It’s about a disorder that affects writing. It’s also about fear. It’s about not living a full life and writing complex and memorable fiction. This disorder has crippled my soul and diminished my life. I have begun to take steps toward dealing with it (right now only by bringing it up in therapy and writing about it). I thought everyone else saw the world in the pessimistic way I do. I was wrong. If you don’t have this disorder, it will be difficult for you to relate to it. But if you do…

Since I just discovered I have this disorder that I’ve suffered from all my life without knowing it, I thought I would blog a little more about it. I introduced it here. I’m writing about it in more depth today because it goes a long way to explain my chronic writer’s block, procrastination, and my emotional paralysis (you feel emotionally numb all the time) which I understand has to do with something called “toxic shame.”  I long wondered why I had such a difficult time getting up inside the heads of my characters in order to write on an emotional level that could move the reader.

It all has to do with fear: fear of screwing up, fear of failing, fear of looking like or being a fool, fear of succeeding, or fear of some nameless dark blob that engulfs you. For writers, that fear of screwing up or looking like a fool (or even of succeeding) leads to the impossible stuck place of perfectionism. It’s rigid and it sucks. It’s probably the biggest cause of writer’s block. Continue reading

Emotions, Personal, Writing

Writing as a Recluse in a Wired World

New Republic critic Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob recently said, “Everybody wants to be famous now. That’s what YouTube is about. Fame, for anyone who’s experienced it, is a calamity; you can see it in the faces of actors. People seem to not want a private life now — they’re dancing naked online — but with the recluse you see the most pristine and old-fashioned notion of how sacred a private life really is. And a writer, especially, needs to keep his interiority detached.”

Here are a few relevant links.

There are other reasons to avoid social interaction, though. And they aren’t all healthy. It’s embarrassing to admit, but yesterday I came across a mental condition called “avoidant personality disorder.” The first modifier is pure jargon, nonetheless I recognized symptoms that match my own:

Avoidant personality disorder is characterized by extreme social anxiety. People with this disorder often feel inadequate, avoid social situations, and seek out jobs with little contact with others. Avoidants are fearful of being rejected and worry about embarassing [sic] themselves in front of others. They exaggerate the potential difficulties of new situations to rationalize avoiding them. Often, they will create fantasy worlds to substitute for the real one. Unlike schizoid personality disorder, avoidants yearn for social relations yet feel they are unable to obtain them. They are frequently depressed and have low self-confidence. {source}

Symptoms of Avoidant Personality Disorder:

“Fear” – Maria Yakunchikova (1870-1902)

  • Social inhibition; retreating from others in anticipation of rejection
  • Preoccupation with being rejected or criticized in social situations
  • Fear of embarrassment results in avoidance of new activities
  • Poor self-image; feelings of social ineptitude
  • Desire for improved social relations
  • Appear to others as self-involved and unfriendly
  • Creation of elaborate fantasy lives

This self-diagnosis might explain why I’m happier writing fiction than doing anything else. It’s an escape from the “real” world. Contrary to popular buzz, mental illness still bears a stigma in technologically advanced countries. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older – one in four adults – suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder yearly. I can attest that avoidance personality disorder eats away the quality of life. It is a living hell, forever running from a potentially frightening situation.

The Internet allows people like me to communicate to a faceless audience, which provides little or no threat. But it also shields me from the “real” world and the means to get well. But as a writer, of course, I always ask myself  philosophical and ethical questions about the relationship between a person and the society in which she lives. A sensitive person can take on the sickness of that society and reflect it back. I’m thinking here of other forms of mental illness borne by other artists throughout human history. Would these artists been as great if they had not had to struggle against the “norm”?

Continue reading