One of the first rules of the Internet is Never Read the Comments, especially when it comes to something you have written. As most of us have witnessed first hand, there’s something about the relative anonymity of the comments section that transforms people into hate-spewing cretins. People routinely misinterpret – often willfully it seems – each others’ words and then clamber up onto their virtual soapboxes to preach their version of the gospel. Or call you a goddamn stupid motherf*cking a$$hole licker. Or, you know, whatever.
But sometimes it’s impossible to resist reading the comments.
A few months ago, I wrote a story for xojane.com* about the time I spotted an old flame making balloon animals at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This guy had 1) broken my delicate eighteen-year-old heart, and 2) once been a moody and pretentious aspiring filmmaker, so there was some satisfaction in seeing him surrounded by sugar high children. My story received hundreds of comments, ranging from amusement to solidarity to irritation. Some accused me of pettiness and insensitivity. One commenter was outraged that I was picking on balloon artists.
Over the last two years, I have written and recorded a number of short pieces for the Perspectives segment of my local public radio station. This experience has taught me that even public radio listeners can be over-reactive, albeit while using more polite language. My tribute to my former-hunter-now-elderly cat inspired a heated exchange between an angry bird lover and a defensive cat supporter. When KQED aired my analogy on the nature of prejudice and race relations, let’s just say I was grateful not to get any death threats. Two weeks ago, I was at the station to record my latest piece about staving off a panic attack at 13,000 ft, and the segment editor joked, “I’m sure the commenters will come up with something. Perhaps self-indulgent?” We laughed and I prepared myself for whatever would come.
In this day and age when it seems that everyone has a righteous opinion on just about everything, what does it say that my piece did not receive a single comment, good or bad? To most creative types, the worst reaction to our work is indifference. While I have received positive feedback from friends and acquaintances, I admit that I am somewhat distressed that my writing failed to inspire even one listener to indignation.
I really ought to stop checking the comments section. Seeing that “0 Comments” is breaking my heart.
*For the record, the bordering-on-cheesy heading and subhead were not mine.
While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.
Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?
A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.
I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?
Yes and no.
Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.
But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.
In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.
As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!
*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.
There’s a saying that goes something like this: “Memoir is 90% fiction and fiction is 90% memoir.”*
While I’ve never plugged a real life experience “as is” into a work of fiction, my experiences absolutely inform my characters and story lines. For instance, I recently dug into my own life for inspiration, and struck gold with a shower scene that received rave reviews from my writers’ group.
Let me explain.
I’ve been struggling to establish attraction and intimacy between two of the characters in my novel-in-progress. The consistent feedback from my beta readers is: “I’m not totally sure what they see in each other”. The triumphant shower scene was inspired by the time my boyfriend and I spent ten minutes in the shower spotting dog faces in the granite pattern. I’d done this in private for years, and was oddly exhilarated to share it with him. It was a small moment, but it brought us a little closer.
Most writers reflect on their own experiences for inspiration, but what about when we are inspired smack dab in the middle of said experience?
Just this past weekend, my boyfriend and I were dancing (badly) to bossa nova music – in my living room and in our underwear. We giggled as we stepped on each others bare feet, fully aware of how ridiculous we must look. And as I snuggled into him, I thought, “You know, this could be a good scene to show more intimacy between Alice and Patrick.” But then it hit me: I wasn’t in the middle of a “scene”. I was in the middle of real life. And I was missing it, buried in my thoughts about my novel.
So I snapped myself back into the present, and tucked away that nugget of inspiration for later. Stay tuned on that account.
And in the meantime, I will leave you with that short but sweet shower scene “Inspired by a True Event!”
I’d always found showering with someone else a little awkward, taking turns washing shampoo out of your hair, standing there naked in the bright bathroom light. The first time I’d showered with Patrick, I stood with my arms across my chest, shivering, until he pulled me under the water, pressed his wet skin against mine.
“Do you see the faces?” he asked, pointing to the granite walls. “In the pattern of the stone. See, two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” he said, tracing the shapes with his finger. And right before my eyes, the indistinct forms came together into a woman’s face, complete with long wavy hair. “And here’s a dog’s face,” Patrick said, pointing to the left of the woman. “And a cat over here.”
I’d showered every day in that bathroom for two years and had never once noticed the faces looking back at me. But now they were everywhere.
“This one looks like a horse,” I said, my eyes searching over the granite. I’d completely forgotten to feel awkward. “And this one looks like a walrus, if you tilt your head a little. And here’s a bear!”
It was such a dumb thing to get excited about, but I couldn’t help myself.
We spotted faces in the granite until the hot water ran out. And from then on, every morning when I showered, I looked for new faces so that I could point them out to Patrick the next time he was over.
If we were going to break up, I was going to have to move. How could I ever shower in my bathroom again?
* Percentages are approximate
A few weeks back, I set off on a week-long creative retreat in the Sierra Foothills with four friends and four dogs. No phone, no Internet, no cable = no distractions, right? I dusted off the mostly complete draft of a young adult novel I wrote in thirty short days four long years ago, excited to take a break from my novel-in-progress and revisit what I remembered as a rough but fairly clever storyline and interesting, layered characters.
After the packing and the driving and the first night of food and drink and socializing, I got down to business. For about half an hour, anyway. Barely one chapter in, I was bored by my own story. In my defense, I was lounging on the deck with my feet up, surrounded by sunshine and dense woods, dogs and friends – of course, I was distracted! And anyway, it was just the first chapter.
But as the days went on, I spent more time dozing on the deck or trying to rally my friends to go wine tasting than reviewing/editing my novel. Was it the quiet natural setting? The fact that I was overdue for a vacation? Or perhaps my novel and its characters simply weren’t interesting enough to keep even my own attention.
It was a rather depressing thought.
But then halfway through the novel and mere minutes away from setting aside the “creative” part of this retreat, I read the following chapter and felt—if not fully redeemed—at least encouraged that my novel wasn’t a total snoozefest. I’ll take the little victories where I can get them.
The setting: College dorm party the last night before everyone goes home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Sooni is our heroine, along with friends Anne and Gretchen, and boyfriend William. Gretchen is planning to visit her boyfriend Marc, who is studying in London, over the Christmas holidays.
Hello and thank you for visiting my blog. I will be out of the office, my home, and Internet range for a whole week.
During this time, I will have only a few fleeting moments of access to the Internet. This means I will not scroll through endless reply all work email threads, fall into the YouTube rabbit hole (just one more sloth video!), or take Facebook quizzes to determine my political “coordinates”, which country I should live in, or which Kardashian I am. I will not Instagram pictures of my dinner or tweet funny quotes said by someone else. I will not read Huffington Post or Salon articles, or the oft rude and occasionally delusional comments that accompany them.
In short: With the exception of the occasional jaunt on Google maps, I will not be on the Internet.
What I will do is relax in a little house in the woods with four friends and four dogs. I will drink wine and eat cheese and go to the lake, where I will float in silence and listen to everything and nothing. I will look at Big Trees. I will play with dogs and talk with friends. I will walk the mile into town to buy more wine and cheese. I will write. And then I will write some more.
Sometimes, I will do nothing at all.
And when I return – refreshed and inspired – I will write some more.
If you should have an urgent need in my absence, I am confident that there are many other writing blogs out there to tide you over.
Thank you again for your interest. I will get back to you just as soon as I return to the Internet. Or at least once I’ve caught up on my email.
Once upon a time, I called up a friend who worked at a big New York publishing house to ask for some professional advice. I was nearing completion of the third draft of a novel and had yet to dip a single toe into the murky waters of agents and editors and publishing deals (oh my!)*. My friend inquired as to my novel’s subject matter, length, and genre. When I told her I thought it fell under the category of Literary Fiction, she audibly sighed.
“Literary fiction is a hard sell,” she said. “Genre fiction is much more marketable. And if you really want to get published, Chick Lit is HUGE these days.”
I just about choked on my tongue. I knew my friend meant well, but I would have rather abandoned writing all together than pen some vapid romance novel disguised as female empowerment, one where the core conflict centers around who the spunky young heroine should date: the sweet but shy guy at work, or the hot asshole at the bar.
Fifteen years later, my feelings have not changed. For the last two and a half of those years, I have toiled away at yet another literary fiction novel; this is not out of some sort of pride or obstinacy, but because I cannot write a story that I do not love. But of course, there are many shades of love.
Next month, some friends and I are going on a week-long creative retreat to an Internet- and television-free cabin just outside of Yosemite. I am excited to spend time with dear friends (and our dogs), to meander through the wilderness and lounge by the lake, but I’m extra jazzed because I’ve decided to use this getaway as an opportunity to take a break from my current novel-in-progress and work on another project for a little while. The only trouble is that I’m having a hard time deciding which of two projects to dust off for the occasion.
Project No. 1: The mostly complete second draft of the accidental** young adult novel (working title Sooni Greene) I wrote four years ago. It has some good things going for it – interesting characters, important social themes, and conflict well beyond dating matters – and I have always planned to revisit it at some point.
Project No. 2: A quick and dirty first draft of a ‘tween book (working title The Burnt House) that I wrote about a year and half ago. Missing persons, neighbors burning down their houses, and tears in the space-time continuum…what more could you ask for in a mystery/coming of age story?
As I pondered my options, my publishing friend’s words echoed somewhere in the back of my mind: “Genre fiction is much more marketable.” At present, I have two genre novels to chose from: Tween or Young Adult***. Instead of instinctively selecting the storyline that feels the most compelling to me right now, I caught myself contemplating which of the two would be more likely to get published.
So does this mean that I am finally on the trail of the Golden Goose, that elusive “marketable” novel that I can both love and publish?
*Sadly my knowledge in this realm has improved only marginally since then.
**Accidental in that I did not set out to write a young adult novel. But it’s interesting what you discover when you vomit out 70,000 or 80,000 words in a short period of time.
***And wouldn’t it be ironic if my first published book was for the under-eighteen set?
I admit it: I quite enjoy writing in the voice of a pissed off teenage boy. My character, Nate Chapman, is more real to me than a lot of people I interact with on a daily basis. Nate and I share many youthful experiences and emotions, which makes perfect sense because I made him up. He is part of me, just as I am part of him. Deep, eh?
I am more than halfway through the third draft of my novel-in-progress and well into the book’s third section, which is told from the viewpoint of my teenage friend. I gotta say, I’m going to miss this kid when it comes time to revise the fourth and final section. Until then, I’ll treasure my time with him, and hope that you will like him too. Happy reading!
Small Legends Part Three: Nate, Chapter 12
Me and Kevin didn’t hang around as much by our senior year of high school. He got this girlfriend named Summer and that was sort of it for him. She was okay, I guess. At least she wasn’t annoying like a lot of girls in our year, girls who got drunk at parties and ended up locking themselves in the bathroom, crying about how some guy – usually some guy right in the next room – had used them for sex or weed. Summer didn’t get drunk but she did have this sorta power over Kevin. Power of the Pussy, we’d say. What she said was how it was, and Kevin would’ve sworn that the sky was fucking green if she’d told him to. That’s how it was.
But sometimes when Summer went to visit her sister off at college somewhere, or if she was out with her friends, Kevin’d turn up at the park or at my front door, asking what I was up to, and if I wanted to go down to Telegraph Ave and look for used CDs. And if I wasn’t doing anything, I’d say sure. And we’d go.
Over spring break, Summer went to Palm Springs with her family and suddenly Kevin was like a barnacle on me. I couldn’t shake him if I’d tried. Not that it was so bad, just that there was a girl on my mind, the girl who’d been on my mind ever since that first time in Bluebird Park. Cassandra had already graduated but she still hung around in the park sometimes, and I was on a mission to at least get a hook up in before I left for college. But it was really hard to get in with her while Kevin was hanging around. So instead, we spent a lot of time smoking weed at the park with a couple of guys from school, Tim Wheaton and Dave Carter.
I’d known Wheaton and Carter since junior high but we didn’t really hang out, mostly because trouble seemed to follow those two wherever they went and it was best to stay out of the line of fire. They’d both done some time in juvy for possession and public intox, and word was that Wheaton once forced some girl at a party to suck him off. Also, they were assholes. But they usually had good weed, so I could put up with them for a little while if it was worth it.
That night at the park, Cassandra was hanging around with this fucktard junior kid who kept putting his hands on her knee, and then on her thigh and then up near her cooch, like he was playing chicken or something. She didn’t seem too bothered but it drove me fucking nuts.
Wheaton and Carter were scoping out some freshman girls. They were newbies to the park for sure, their squeaky voices and endless giggling giving them away to the predators hiding in the weeds. I’d just pinched out a joint when Wheaton turned to me, stroking the pathetic scruff of hair on his chin and sweeping back his long white-boy dreads, which stood in sharp contrast to Carter’s dark skin and shaved head. For some reason, Wheaton always smelled like Vaseline.
“Hey Chap Man, I saw your sister coming out of the 7-11 the other day,” he said, throwing a grin in Carter’s direction. Carter grinned back, wisps of smoke escaping from his crooked mouth. “How old is she now? Fourteen? Fifteen?”
“Thirteen,” I said, “and if you so much as look at her, I’ll rip your eyeballs out through your asshole.”
Wheaton leapt back in mock fright, throwing his hands up in the air in surrender.
“Relax, Chap Man. All I’m saying is that she’s growing up real nice, turning into a pretty girl,” he said. “Too bad she got all the looks in the family.”
My fists were clenched and I was about a second away from clocking the guy when I felt Kevin’s hand on my arm. He wasn’t trying to restrain me, just trying to calm me down.
“Dude,” Kevin said to Wheaton, “uncool.”
But Wheaton had found a sore spot, and like assholes all across the universe, he couldn’t help but keep poking his dirty hippy fingers into it.
“Relax,” he said. “She doesn’t even have tits yet. But maybe, in a couple of years…”
I looked over at Cassandra, who was still over by the swings with that horny fucktard. All I’d wanted to do that night was come to the park and see if I could get her to make out with me. And now I was going to have to hit Tim Wheaton and hope that Kevin would come to my aid when Carter jumped into the mix. Wheaton was pretty scrawny and I was sure I could take him, but Carter was built like a linebacker and easily had 30 lbs on me. And I’d seen him take down guys much bigger.
“I mean, she might not even be your sister,” Wheaton went on, his voice getting louder and making the giggling freshman girls tturn around and look. “I mean, you two don’t look anything alike. Maybe when she’s got her tits in, you can– “
Outside of a couple months of karate classes in the fifth grade, I’d never actually taken a hit at anything other than a punching bag, so I was completely unprepared for how bad it fucking hurts to grind your knuckles into someone’s face. Wheaton, who by all accounts had been hit in the face on numerous occasions, seemed more surprised than pained as he staggered back a few steps, nearly falling into the sand moat.
“What the fuck, Man?” he spat out, along with a mouthful of blood.
Kevin gripped his hands firmly onto my shoulders and tried to steer me in the opposite direction.
“Let’s go,” he said.
I knew I should listen to him and split before everyone clued in to what was going on, before Carter knocked out my teeth with one hit. But I was pissed off, and feeling reckless. So I pulled out of Kevin’s grasp and went back in for another on Wheaton, who barely dodged my second punch. This time it was Carter who grabbed me by the arms, and try as I might, I couldn’t wriggle out of his grip, so I planted my feet as best I could and tried to brace myself for the beating I was about to take.
When a few moments passed and none came, I looked up at Carter. So did Kevin, and even Wheaton. We were all watching him now, waiting to see what he was going to do. But he just shrugged and let me go.
“You get one,” he said, “but that’s it.”
He looked over at Wheaton, whose jaw had dropped open like a cartoon cat.
“You talked shit about his sister,” Carter explained indifferently. “You know that ain’t cool.”
When Kevin leaned in and said, “Let’s go,” I didn’t protest.
We were almost to the gate when Cassandra caught up to us.
“Hey, are you okay?” she asked, her voice a little breathy.
“He’s good,” Kevin responded, not stopping.
“Those guys are assholes,” Cassandra said, gesturing back towards Wheaton and Carter. “Tim tried to rip me off on some ecstasy last year. Fucker.” When neither Kevin nor I responded, she went on. “Hey, so Nate…are you staying around over the summer and everything?”
This made me stop. Four years I’d been coming to the park and I still wasn’t sure if Cassandra knew my name. I felt an involuntary twinge of pleasure located somewhere below my belt.
“I’m moving down to L.A.,” I said. “In July. Probably won’t come back for a long time.”
Cassandra reached out and touched my arm. Her warm little hand on my skin was enough to bring on a very unwelcome boner, and I thanked fucking God it was dark out and that my jeans were on the loose side.
“We’ll have to hang out then,” Cassandra said, “before you go.”
She was at least half a foot shorter than me and I could see down her tank top. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Yeah, that’d be cool.”
Kevin was shifting around uncomfortably nearby, like he wasn’t sure if he should wait it out or just walk away now.
“Well, see ya,” Cassandra said, taking her hand back.
“See ya,” I called back.
“Holy shit, Dude,” Kevin said as soon as we were out of earshot. “I guess the nature shows are right.”
“What do you mean?”
“The females are always hot for the alpha males.”
“I don’t know if hitting Tim Wheaton makes me an alpha male. Maybe just stupid.”
“Being alpha is all a state of mind anyway,” Kevin explained. “Half the time when animals fight, they’re just putting on a big show to impress everyone. Besides, it’s not like you could let him say shit about Alice and get away with it. I mean, if some guy looked sidewise at my sister, I’d have to kick his ass just on principle. It is weird, though. I guess I never thought about it before but you and Alice don’t really look alike, do you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I look more like my dad. And Alice looks like…“
I was about to say she looked like our mom, but that wasn’t right. They had the same eyes, sure, but that was about it. Alice was already as tall as our mother, and she was the only one in the family with blond hair, except Aunt Margaret but I don’t think that was her real color. Alice’s nose was different from our mother’s, than any of the rest of the family. But then again, she was still practically a kid. Who knew what she would look like when she was older.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess she’s still growing and everything.”
Kevin shrugged. “Yeah. Probably. Hey, so do you think you’re going to nail Cassandra before you leave?”
I glanced back over my shoulder to make sure no one was around. It was barely 9 o’clock but already the neighborhood was quiet, the houses dark except for blue flickering TV light. A light breeze shook the trees, their newly leafed branches creaking slightly.
“I’m sure as hell gonna try,” I said.
Nearly all of my anxiety dreams take place in high school*. I am unprepared for the final exam. I can’t find my class. I’m not wearing pants. This is pretty standard anxiety fodder.
I recently had the classic neurotic writer version of this dream after spending an evening struggling to revise a challenging scene in my novel-in-progress. In my dream, I was relaxing in a cushy chair on a wood slatted deck, basking in the glow of a late afternoon sun, when I was hit with the realization that I had a story deadline in the morning. I don’t recall if the deadline was for school or work or something else entirely, but I knew that there would be serious repercussions were I to miss it.
The parameters of the piece were almost non-existent; I could focus on any topic I wished, as long as I made a certain word count. The creative world was my oyster, but for the life of me, I couldn’t think of a damn thing to write about.
Time was ticking ticking and every time I looked at the clock, another hour had passed and still I hadn’t come up with a topic. As my stress levels skyrocketed, all rational thought was forced out of my brain, along with any thread of creativity.
I could write about whatever I liked, yet the anxiety of having to choose a topic prevented me from writing anything at all.
I woke up feeling edgy and unrested. This was due in part to the dream, but also to the troubling reminder of how much time I spend avoiding writing even when I’m not sleeping.**
Sometimes, I can barely wait to get home to my laptop. Other times, I start by taking a hard line with myself (I will write for a minimum of two hours tonight) and then negotiate down my own terms (well, after I eat dinner…and take a shower…oh look Project Runway is on…).
Why do I avoid doing something that I love?
Because I also hate it. There, I said it.
Sometimes I hate writing. It’s frustrating, ego crushing, and lonely. I can spend an hour effing around with one or two paragraphs, only to delete them and slouch away in defeat, feeling much worse about myself than if I’d spent the evening with a House Hunters marathon and a box of Samoas.
We’ve all heard the old adage “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”, which can be applied to just about anything. But if we only write when we are inspired, that means we only write 1% of the time. Settle in, because it’s going to take about 50 years to pen the first draft of that novel. Hope it’s a good one.
So 99% of the time, writing is just damn hard work. This is due not only to the significant challenges of the craft itself; writing also demands that I repeatedly risk my sense of self-worth. And the longer I put it off, the harder it gets. Like going to the gym or filing insurance paperwork.
Doing nothing is easy, but doing too much nothing makes me feel hollow and uneasy. I suppose I could watch three hours of television each evening and save myself the emotional roller coaster that comes with any creative pursuit. But I am confident that I will never experience that glorious, all-over mind and body tingle that comes in the 1% moment of true inspiration while watching Millionaire Matchmaker. I may be able to avoid the low lows, but at the cost of the high highs.
And really, what would life be like without some extremes to help keep the in-between in perspective?
*Anyone who attended high school will not question my subconscious’ reasoning for this.
**Case in Point: I put off writing this here blog post until the night before I was due to publish it. Okay, so it was Valentine’s Day weekend and I was, um, busy with other things. But I’d known what I was going to write about for over a week. I suppose this is why deadlines were invented; without even self-imposed ones, we’d never get anything done.