Being a hermit of the literary kind, I tend to not join things. But I’d enjoyed Gabriela Pereira’s panel “Rock Your Revisions” at the Writers Digest Annual Conference last August and joined the mailing the list for her online newsletter. So I got an email announcing the DIY MFA Book Club starting January 8th. I mulled it over for a while and decided, “Why not?” Get prompts to share stories about writing with other writers? Could be fun! I signed up and got the first prompt on the 8th, the second on January 10th, the third on January 12th, and the fourth on January 15th. While I have posted answers to these prompts in DIY MFA’s Facebook group “Word Nerds Unite,” I decided to include both the first set of prompts and slightly more in-depth answers here on The Cat’s Cradle:
January 8, 2018
DIY MFA Book Club
GP: “Just like every superhero has an origin story explaining how they came into their powers or were called to their heroic pursuits, so too is it with writers. In the very first Book Club email, I share my own origin story and how having a meltdown in the school library at age six led to my becoming a writer. Now I want to hear from you. What’s your origin story?”
I’ve posted about how I became a writer before on The Cat’s Cradle, and the topic comes up in various forms throughout various entries. But the short answer for me is Star Wars. It is probably the single most influential media I have ever experienced, which I have discussed in entries such as “Reflections on Star Wars,” “The Benefits of Fan Fiction,” and “Star Wars: The Death of a Universe.”
While I loved reading and playing out stories with my toys (horses, dinosaurs, Barbies, cars… all were fair game), I hated the actual process of writing. I watched my dad’s VHS copies of the original Star Wars trilogy when I was seven or eight and have lost track of the number of times that I’ve seen them. I made up stories that placed me into the Star Wars universe (although I was ridiculously OP), and later I took a step back and created stand-in characters. But as I discovered the Expanded Universe (now Star Wars Legends), the stories got more and more complicated to the point where I couldn’t keep all the details in my head anymore. I was about twelve years old when I suddenly realized, “Hey! I could write this stuff down! Then I wouldn’t have to remember everything!”
The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been writing, both original works and fan fiction, ever since.
January 10, 2018
DIY MFA Book Club
GP: “Sometimes life requires your full attention and writing needs to move aside to make room. Other times writing is a space apart from reality, a safe haven where you can breathe freely and recharge, so you can face reality with a little more dignity or strength. Has there ever been a moment when writing felt completely incompatible with your real life–when it felt like there was just no way you could make the two exist together? If so, how did you get through that moment? How did you make room in your life for both things? How did you find balance between writing and life?”
This response is a long one because finding balance is something I continually struggle with. I’m really glad that Gabriela included a link to her podcast Episode 47: Honor Your Reality that elaborated on this prompt. Because to be honest, at first, I had no idea what she was talking about. I drew a complete and utter blank.
Guilt is omnipresent in my life. I’ve always been hounded by a litany of Shoulds. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to muffle those voices, but they never fully go away. Usually I don’t feel guilty while I’m writing because I know the “other stuff” that comprises reality will still be there when I look up from the keyboard. But when I’m doing that other stuff, I usually feel guilty about not dedicating more time or effort to my writing. For not spending every free moment I can scrounge up working on what is ostensibly my passion.
Like so many creative people, I often lament about the time being “wasted” by the general business of staying alive, which always seems to take up more time than I would like. (And I don’t even have kids or a spouse to contend with for that time!) But as someone who has been battling chronic depression for over a decade, my energy levels and ability to focus are already lower than average. In addition, I’m also very introverted, so the little bit of energy I do have gets eaten up by my highly social day job, which means I need to spend a good portion of my free time just chilling to recuperate and recharge.
At the same time, having a day job does two very important things. First, it forces me to go out and interact with real, live human beings and observing and participating in those interactions is key to crafting realistic characters. Second, it forces me to prioritize my time. Open-ended days sound like paradise, but it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of procrastination. While I always enjoy a break, I inevitably get restless and unable to focus because I’m not one of those people who can write for eight hours a day. So as much as I may complain about the restrictions of my day job, having something to give my days structure is an important part of my reality that I must honor.
But for a long time, I struggled with trying to be a productive writer while holding down that day job. My schedule and energy levels usually only allow me to write or do anything creative for 1-2 hours a day. Sometimes I can get more, but that’s the average. I could boost my productivity during month-long challenges like NaNoWriMo, but writing 50,000 words a month was not something I could sustain year round. I’d concoct these brilliant, tight-knit schedules, but the second something out of the ordinary happened, the schedule was thrown off, everything would fall apart, and I’d go back to feeling like an utter failure.
In 2014, my onii-san David Greenshell and I were getting together regularly to play HALO on the Xbox 360. Video games have different difficulty levels, and HALO‘s are listed as “Easy,” “Normal,” “Heroic,” and “Legendary.” After many discussions about my struggles with productivity, David created the Legendary Novel Writing Challenge, or “LeNoWriCha” for short (which he describes as “an upgrade to NaNoWriMo.”) Rather than having a simple win/lose dynamic that NaNoWriMo has, David proposed something with different tiers or ranks of productivity with corresponding word counts. If you write 500 words or more in a day, then you have “completed” that day on “Easy.” A “Normal” day means you completed 1000 words. “Heroic” is 1500 and “Legendary” is 2000 words or more. If for whatever reason you write less than 500 words that day (or none at all), the day is marked as “Incomplete,” because when you tackle a video game level, you might not get through it the first time around.
This new way of tracking and measuring my progress was a godsend. It completely changed how I looked at my writing productivity. Now I felt like I could properly honor my writing by seeing how much was accomplished each day in terms of video game difficulty levels. It gave me permission to have bad or slow days where I couldn’t get much done, either because of reality or not feeling well or whatever. And when I had really good writing days, I could keep track of that as well. (I even made a website to track my progress.) LeNoWriCha is my main tool now for balancing reality with writing in a manner that quiets the pangs of guilt and lets me feel proud of what I actually am accomplishing each day.
January 12, 2018
DIY MFA Book Club
GP: Today’s prompt is a bit of a change of pace. Before you start writing, hop on over to take the Storytelling Superpower quiz. Don’t worry, it’s super short! Once you get your result, I want to know: What’s your Storytelling Superpower? More importantly, how does your superpower relate to what you’re writing?”
I decided to take the quiz twice because I was torn on a couple of the options. First time I went with my initial choice and the second time with the choices that had also appealed to me the first time but I hadn’t picked. First time I got Survivor and the second time I got Underdog.
And I think these both fit for me. I like stories about people surviving great odds and about the little Rebellions defeating great Empires. And combining the two, I think, makes for excellent stories. Like the Survivor, I enjoy creating characters “readers will admire for their pluck, determination, and sheer creative willpower.” And like the Underdog, I also try to make them “relatable characters with a deep desire to change something in themselves or the world around them.” Those are my ideal protagonists (and antagonists as well, actually. Makes for great anti-heroes too!)
January 15, 2018
DIY MFA Book Club
GP: “I firmly believe that creativity isn’t something random that may or may not happen to us. I don’t believe in an uncooperative muse. Instead, I believe inspiration is something we make happen. Yes, there is something magical about creativity, but it’s also something we can harness, channel, even manipulate.”
Gabriela mentioned on her post for this prompt that part of her creative fuel is her ORACLE, a collection of items that spark her imagination and creativity that double as writing tools. Things like D&D dice, word cards, and pictures clipped from magazines. I like the idea, although I don’t know if it’s something I’ll be able to put into practice.
For me, the fuel for my creativity varies from project to project. When I’m working on my nautical fantasy series The Mariner Sequence, I listen to maritime music and epic fantasy scores, find pictures of ships or other naval objects, watch swashbuckler movies, and (oddly enough) look up words in Finnish dictionaries. But for my fantasy/ steampunk romance novel Courting the Moon, I listened to steampunk bands and romantic instrumentals, read Regency romances, and looked up pictures of Victorian-esque costumes. Just like when I get obsessed with a particular fictional universe from a fan’s point of view, I try to fill my mind, ears, and vision with anything related to my current work in progress.
For just general creative inspiration, I have a couple of tricks:
- Keeping a Pinterest board called “Stories: Inspiration” filled with pictures of people, places, and things that look like they can become their own story or be incorporated into a preexisting one.
- Reading books about writing and creativity or letters written by authors. (On Writing by Stephen King, The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey are just a few of my favorites.)
- Taking solitary walks in nature, weather permitting, or just taking any opportunity to be alone and silent.
- Keeping a dream journal. (It’s amazing how interesting and even coherent the subconscious can be…)
How would you answer these prompts? What is your origin story? How do you balance life with writing? What is your writing superpower? And what fuels your creativity? I’d love to see your stories in the comments, or you can join us over at the DIY MFA Book Club where Word Nerds Unite!