On Resurrecting Characters

If you got excited at the thought of me writing zombie fiction, then I’m sorry to disappoint (I’m still too completely terrified of all zombie-related things).

When I was 17 I wrote a young adult novel. I was young and stupid and I’m not afraid to admit it now. I naively thought that this was the book, the one that was going to jettison me to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Then I woke up at 21 and realized that it was 53,000 words of utter disaster. My main character was telling the story in first person, yet she had an omniscient look into the other character’s lives. There were plot holes and loose threads all over the place. I overused adjectives, told instead of showing, and (gasp) used an awful mirror cliche to describe a character. This draft will never, ever, see the light of day. My husband has been given explicit instructions to burn this original manuscript should I get hit by a bus tomorrow.

Still, I held onto this embarrassment of a manuscript. I’d bonded with my characters, and despite how terrible the writing was, they seemed like cool people. I couldn’t bring myself to just throw the story in the recycling bin, so I tossed it in my rejection drawer (yes, this is a real thing) with my other failed pieces.

While I never looked at it again, I never stopped thinking about that manuscript. It was the first novel I ever finished. I’ve attempted other novels since, but they never quite held my interest the same way that first one did.

More recently, my characters have been ceaselessly haunting me day and night. They keep begging me to give them a second chance. My main character, Liz, won’t let me sleep at night until I’ve added more dimension to her twisted personality.

I’ve decided I need to give them one more chance. I’m not going to attempt to rework what’s already been written. I’m going to take my time to really get to know the shadows of characters I had created as a teenager and try to get to know them as an adult. I’m going to create a brand new plot, one that these characters deserve to be a part of.

I’ve grown so much as a writer since I first realized that this was the path for me. I’ve read books on writing, taken classes, practiced, and found myself some amazing mentors. I hope I never stop learning despite how many accomplishments I achieve. Hopefully this time around, I can find a story that I won’t be ashamed to show the world.

 

 

Therapeutic Writing?

I went to work Tuesday morning and made it about as far as the office door before I broke down sobbing. I think I was about as shocked as my coworkers were. My Dad has been dead for almost six years already, so why would his birthday set me off now when it never did before? My friend and coworker Bryanna, my writing buddy, allowed me to lock myself her office until I could gain my composure again.

When I emerged, puffy-eyed and slightly horrified that I pulled this stunt at work, I sat down with Bry and told her about my confusion. “Why is this bothering me all of a sudden?” I asked. There are certainly potential triggers in my life. With college graduation and an engagement proposal looming on the horizon, I figured I was subconsciously thinking about all of the milestones my father was going to miss. But I’ve hit a ton of important milestones without him.

Bry had a very different idea of what the problem was. “You’ve been writing about him a lot lately. You said yourself that you weren’t allowed to grieve properly. All that writing is letting the grief bubble up.”

I’m going with her theory. Dad died when I was 16, but it’s only now at 22 that I’m able to write about him. I recently wrote a memoir piece about the day he died and how I felt seeing his lifeless body. I cried quite a bit throughout the writing and revision process, but that seemed normal. It was a depressing topic to begin with. I wrote a few poems about him recently too. For whatever reason, I was just compelled to keep writing about him.

Bry is right though; I never had the chance to really grieve. I had to be the emotional support for my mother and sister. I threw myself into work and school and my future, and I pushed down all of the emotions that might break me. Writing about those raw emotions that I suppressed opened the floodgates, and now I’m being forced to cope with all of the things I’ve been putting off for a more convenient time.

Just a few months ago I went to listen to Christa Parravani read from her memoir, Her, which is about coping with her sister’s death. During her Q&A session she said something that will probably forever stick with me: “Writing shouldn’t be therapeutic.” I agree. Good writing pulls up all of your demons. Those emotions translate into more memorable and poetic sentences, the kinds that stick with your reader and toy with their empathy. The act of finishing a piece like this  might bring some relief, but the writing process itself feels like an extremely emotional long-distance run. This run has left me exhausted and mentally drained, but tomorrow’s a new day and I’m gearing up for more.

Application Burnout

People underestimate the draining powers of the grad school application. I’ve known for years that I wanted to get my MFA in fiction. I started preparing for this process way back in June 2013, with the intention of spending my entire summer working on perfecting the stories I would use for my writing sample. I would create the perfect personal statement within that time as well, the one that would blow away each and every person reading it.

But we know that none of that actually happened. I was scrambling to complete a shoddy 500 word personal statement this past Sunday and submitting writing samples that are nowhere near done (at least by my standards). I’m not lazy, I promise. I don’t wait until the very last minute to do anything important either. But honestly, even if I finished everything three months ago, would I still have been happy with it? Probably not.

I dragged my feet for so long because I was so worried about pleasing complete strangers. While I was doing these applications, I lost focus on the real reason why I was going through this process and spending a crap-ton of money on applications in the first place. I wanted 24 perfect pages, pages that could be immediately submitted to literary magazines around the country for publication. But I wasn’t writing for myself, and you can only come up with the good stuff when you’re doing it for you. So instead of writing, I sat there worrying about having the perfect plot, the perfect sentence, the perfect imagery, and all of the other stuff that doesn’t matter anyway, because my heart wasn’t in what I was doing the way it should have been. I put too much pressure on myself, which might hurt me in the end.

Either way, I gave it my best shot, and I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time doing this. I have one more application to submit and then I can breathe easy. Then maybe I’ll go back and rip those stories to shreds, without concerning myself with page limits or the use of excessive expletives.

 

Why I Scrapped My Novels and Why I’m Okay With That

I now once again have a blog that I can devote entirely to my love of writing and literary things. Oh how I’ve missed it! It took longer than I had hoped just because there were so many kinks to work out. But I’m here now, and that’s what matters.

I’ve decided to initiate this blog using a piece that I previously posted on my Facebook page:

 

I began writing my first novel at 17. It was a young adult book with a topic I felt very passionately about, and I poured my heart and soul into this piece. When I finished writing it last year, I felt like I was on top of the world. I actually wrote a novel. Granted, it needed a lot of work, but a first draft was better than no draft. I began the second book in the series, thinking that I needed to take a few months off from the first book before I went back and started on edits. I had planned for book #1 to be the first book in a trilogy.

I was halfway through writing the second book when I came to a realization: I had started book 1 when I was 17. I was now 21. My writing style, my voice, my outlook on life…they had changed completely. The things that mattered to me at 17 no longer fit with what I wanted to express in this story. The writing process came to a halt.

I was panicking. Did I do all of that work for nothing? I needed advice. Thankfully, I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by wonderful poets and fiction writers on a daily basis. So I ran to Mike, a good friend and poet who doubles as my reader. He’s the friend who will honestly tell me if the story I just finished sucks, and I appreciate his never-ending list of suggestions. I explained to him my predicament, and his reply to me was, “You’re hiding behind a 17 year-old. Don’t be afraid to tell the story you really want to tell, because right now it doesn’t sound like you’re doing that. Scrap and start over.”

And he’s right. In retrospect, that jumbled mess of a first draft wasn’t saying exactly what I wanted to say. I was afraid to write about my feelings back then, back when the slightest amount of criticism would send me running to the nearest cave to live out the rest of my days safe and alone. I have matured into a more confident person since then and have learned to accept myself and my mistakes for what they are. I no longer cared what people thought of my experiences and viewpoints. I  realized there was no salvaging these novels. They had become a jail cell.

Of course, that’s not to say that I’ve erased those manuscripts. They’re a part of my history, my journey to becoming the writer I hope to be one day. They have been printed and lovingly placed in a drawer. I will always hold onto them and will look back at them one day to see how far I’ve come. I will always be learning new things as a writer. This particular experience has shown me that sometimes you just need to let go, because not every brilliant idea is going to work out.

Maybe one day I’ll come back to these manuscripts. If not, that’s okay too. Letting go of 17 year-old me was hard, but I think she would be proud of my decision.