22 March 2010

Crushing on Writing; or You've Lost That Mudpie Feeling

When I was 23, I moved to New Mexico with my truck and my dog and my laptop and a bunch of notebooks. (And, you know, underwear and stuff.) At the time it seemed pretty straightforward, like of course I'm moving across the country without a job or friends or any kind of particular plan, what else would I be doing at 23? In retrospect, I'm fairly impressed with myself, even though it didn't seem like a big deal at the time. In fact, when my friends from college were picking up and moving to Ecuador and Namibia and Lesotho, Albuquerque seemed pretty tame in comparison.

It took me a few weeks to get a job, and then I was only working four days a week, so I had these loooong 3 day weekends every week, and almost nothing to fill them. I had no friends, no hobbies, no real obligations... one would think I'd be reading all the time, but I don't actually remember going to the library until a few years later, when I was living up in the mountains by myself (and then I was at the library every few days). I'm sure I wasn't buying many books, seeing as how I was terribly poor (though at 23, books seemed just as important as food. This is slightly less true today, but not by much). So what did I do?

I taught myself a slightly fancier version of html code so I could build a slightly fancier website for myself than the one I'd built when I first taught myself html at 19. I started blogging. I mopped every Sunday while listening to This American Life. I researched ways to kill cockroaches. I wrote in my journal. I played with Zeke.

But mostly, I taught myself to write short stories.

Today, I will tell you that I can NOT write a short story to save my life. I can't even TELL a short story. But back then, in 2003, I was determined to learn how. I'd spent the previous nine years writing poetry and journaling, but fiction had never been a strength. In fact, I'd written some short stories that were so awful, I still blush to think of them (and even worse, I studied with the amazing James Alan McPherson, and I actually workshopped one of these hideous stories with him! SO embarrassing, in retrospect. Actually, I think it was even embarrassing at the time, though JAM was such a genius he could make the most sophomoric drivel seem profound).

(There are, I should say, two surviving stories from that time that I love fiercely, even though everyone else thinks they suck. I don't care; I still love them.)

Anyway, the point is: my goal was to write one short story a month. I had no idea how to write fiction, or short stories, but I didn't care, because I was determined to figure it out by doing it. And every month I'd write some bizarre story about dead fathers or bats or young teachers or unhappy relationships or raccoons, and then I would send them off to my friends! Because I was so proud of them! Even though I knew they weren't great, I could feel myself getting better with every story, and that was so exciting. And my friends were incredibly supportive and excited about these crappy stories I kept sending them, possibly because they were also 23, and possibly because they appreciated the sparks of excitement and newness that shone through the pages.

And what's important about that time is that I kept going, even though I kind of knew I sucked, because I could feel myself improving with every story until I finally wrote a short story that my MOM liked (she's a great reader and a very tough critic, so I didn't care that none of my friends liked this particular story -- my mom did! Plus, writing it taught me a little about non-linear timeframes).

And what's also important is that feeling of giddy beginner's luck, that first sense of wonder and the desire to say "Look what I did!"

I was lucky enough to sustain that giddiness through the very first draft of my novel, partially because I still had friends who were excited and impressed and would email me demanding more, and partially because here I was, writing a NOVEL! Who knew I could do that? Not me!

After that, writing started to feel less like playing in the mud, and more like a job, particularly as I started to acquire serious grown-up things like an agent and suggestions for revision and deadlines. I've come to love revising -- really! -- but it definitely doesn't have the same "Woo! Look what I made!" feeling, especially when you know your agent or editor is going to zip the manuscript right back to you with enough nice comments to keep you from defenestration, but also a million more suggestions.

But. But! Recently I've been working on this weird thing that may or may not fit into my current WIP, but it's so weird and unlike anything I've ever written and so far beyond anything I ever thought I could write (it's historical fiction! seriously! I know nothing about history but I'm totally loving making it up. I keep pausing to go, wait, when did the Korean War happen? I have no problem fudging historical details as I go because I've promised myself I'll find some history savant to read through it sometime in the future) and it is SO FUN. And I have been so excited to show my friends -- for the first time in YEARS I am emailing people going "Look what I made! I don't know what this is, but isn't it neat?"

It's pretty awesome.

So here is my advice to you -- and more importantly, to myself -- learn to love revisions, but keep an eye out for that mudpie feeling, too. And when it comes, follow it, relish it, and live inside it as long as you can. Gather ye mudpies while ye may, my friends, and don't forget that you're doing this because you love it.