Friday, May 29, 2009

The Monster Wants to Eat Me

I got to season 3 of Lost. I'll try not to spoil it for anyone, but damn! Yeah, Mr. Eko and the Monster are totally my relationship to my writing. Many a time I feel as if...well, now I will spoil it if you are as hopelessly (or blissfully) behind the curve as I am, so I'll stop.

I'm taking a creative writing class on Saturdays. The company where I was taking the comedy class was not offering the acting class that I wanted this summer, and I still needed some sort of outlet. Meanwhile, various forces in the universe seemed to whisper the suggestion that I take a creative writing class, if for no other reason than to give myself a weekly writing goal of producing something so that I wouldn't embarrass myself in front of the other students.

That's one of the problems with me and writing. Give me a deadline and I panic. All of the words dry up in the face of my absolute need to be perfect, and my absolute knowledge that I will never be perfect. Then, all of the voices start to shout and yell and pound me about the head and shoulders. I don't have an "Angel in the House," I have a symphony of demons. Our instructor has us reading Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. In one of her early chapters, she tells of a friend of hers who suggests taking all of those voices, turning them into tiny mice, and putting those mice into a jar.

I can't do that. I start to have sympathy for the mice. I start to worry about whether they have enough air, and I empathize with their clawings and scratching and squeekings as they try to get out of the jar.

Instead, I hear that cacophonous, demonic symphony. I imagine myself sitting down with that staff paper that composers use to score music. I imagine myself writing down what all of these voices say, the high pitched piccolo of "Lazy, Lazy, Lazy" and the booming bass "worthless, worthless, worthless" and the violins squiggling in with "you don't have an analytical mind" and the violas saying "you are only good as an editor, you can only write narrative" and the tubas bellowing down the scale with "and you aren't even very much good at that." "That" goes "splat!" at the end. Mine ends up being a gigantic symphony of Mahler proportions, with a chorus as emphatic as Beethoven's Ninth.

That all comes when I have a deadline. It comes when I don't have a deadline, too, which leads to the other writing problem. Without a deadline, I don't have to listen to that symphony. It doesn't go away, of course. Every time I start to think that maybe I'm just a little bit decent, maybe a little good at something, the symphony blares, "Loser! Loser! Loser!" and the chorus chants, "Nothing! No One! Nothing!" Without that deadline, however, I can turn down the volume. I give it one less opportunity to ring in my ears.

Then, I don't write. Not writing doesn't make that symphony go away because not writing doesn't prevent the ideas from appearing. Not writing doesn't make the need to write, to tell a story, to simply be creative, go away. Not writing becomes the next movement in the symphony.

Blogging has provided the nice middle ground between writing and not writing. I write, and get the words, along with whatever complaints that they contain. Yet, blogging doesn't really have a purpose. When the instructor started to talk about "free writing," I thought, "I already do that, and I call it 'blogging.'" Blogging, however, isn't really free writing. Blogging has more focus in that I am writing a sort of essay with a sort of point. Blogging is also not particularly focused in that it doesn't have the purpose of digging into some subconscious mound of creative goo in order to get the raw material for something bigger and better. Blogging is it's own thing, and a good think, but ultimately not enough of the thing that I need. I need to write with more purpose.

The symphony metaphor works best for the academic writing. I've done more of that publicly what with two books (on on the c.v. and one off). I have also had other academic writing subject to criticism and -- what do you call it when one minute your work is considered publishable and the next considered crap all by the same person? Suffice to say that my foundation in graduate school was scarring. Whatever the case, if you've ever had your writing criticized, even in a good way, all of those symphonic demons get discernible faces and voices all of their own.

In fact, the incident that prompted this very post was a dream that I had last night. I'll spare the details, but I ended up finding myself back in graduate school, having to take the comprehensive exam all over again. I couldn't remember any of the literature, and knew that what I had studied and could remember was all a decade out of date. My advisor had moved on to a much better school (as he eventually did -- but all of that is another story), and I was face-to-face with my first evil advisor (he was truly evil -- but all of that is another story, too), who was going to grade part of my exam and bully the other graders into following his lead in assessing my work. Except, I knew that they weren't just going to follow his lead because I knew that I was going to give them enough ammunition to kill me on my own. I knew that I was going to fail and I heard and read (yes, I saw words on a paper) all of the comments about how I had no business being a historian and that their duty was to drum me out of the profession. I more than half believed them. I three-quarters believed them.

You see, the academic writing has been given voices and instruments, which doesn't make the silencing any easier. The creative writing has no voice as yet, that is why I imagined it like Eko's smoky monster. It wants to eat me. One way or another, it will. Sometimes, you only have the choice of how you will be eaten, not if. Sometimes, you only have the choice of regrets.

The creative writing class is my choice of how to be eaten, of facing the monster (and the music). The particular one that I chose is called "The Creative Writing Process," focused more on getting yourself into a routine and canning the mice, turning down the symphony, facing the monster, and just fucking writing. We are all beginners with something in us that not only says "write" but also says "you cannot NOT write." We are all beginners who want to see if we can at least try. We are all beginners. That's why I chose it, rather than something more advanced. I may have two books behind me, but those were written with a deadline. You improve as a writer between the deadlines. You come up with better stuff between the deadlines, be it academic stuff or creative stuff.

This class sort of gives me a deadline with each meeting, but it is the kind of practice deadline that I think I need to be less afraid. The deadline is more the "friendly competition" sort. The kind that I used to have with my friend, Ann (not Historiann -- another Ann!), back in middle school when we nearly turned novel-writing into a competitive sport, each trying to out do the other in numbers of pages and plot-twists. The competition, this time, is with the other students in the class, all from fascinating backgrounds and with so many different stories to tell in fiction and non-fiction.

Now, it is time to go face the monster.


Digger said...

My demons aren't perfectionists (well, at least not ALL of them). But they do whisper sweet nothings of unworthiness and incapability. And finishing means other people will read it, and find me out.

Writing reports full-time in contract archaeology has helped some of that. I churn stuff out all the time that gets reviewed in-office, by clients, and by the State Historic Preservation Office. The demons are still there, but Billable Hours and a paycheck yell louder.

Still, not quite the same as writing about Topics I Love and putting them out there.

Dr. Crazy just tells the writing demons to piss off. She has teaching demons, though.

I hope the creative writing class helps! Please post about it.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Ah, yes, the Billable Hours and Paycheck angels kick demon ass every time!

Since I can't shut my brain up, and since writing has become a productive procrastination method for my online classes, you will be getting those posts on writing class. As they say, "be careful what you wish for!"

Bavardess said...

Do you think part of the problem could be that when we view 'creative writing' as such a serious enterprise, we take the fun out of it and make it too much about 'success' and 'failure', rather than the pure joy of the creative process itself? Your story about the writing competition with your childhood friend reminded me of a creative writing class I took last year with a very successful novelist. She still gets her writing going by playing a game of 'what happened next' with her sister. Maybe part of the answer to silencing the demons (or at least turning them down) is to somehow recapture that playful approach to story-telling that we probably all had as kids.


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