Writing Sporks

Despite being a lifelong writer, I have not published often for the same reason that plastic sporks exist: fundamental resistance to difficulty.  A plastic spork says both I do not want to wash silverware and I cannot be bothered to use a separate utensil for solids and liquids.  Publishing involves finishing, correspondence, keeping track of things, and putting yourself out there to be judged.  All things I resist.

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from...

A 1908 design patent drawing for a spork, from U.S. Patent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until recently I blamed this resistance on laziness, but my laziness got a clinical label in my fortieth year: attention deficit disorder.  What I once thought a character flaw I now believe to be a differently-functioning brain. (Among professionals in the field, calling it a “deficit” is so five years ago.)

No doubt that ADD/ADHD is controversial, as many children were casually medicated, but the more I read the research on the condition, I don’t know how I could have anything else. I had an extensive battery of cognitive tests to tell me I have an affinity for words and all the managerial capability of a depressed orangutang.

When it comes to publishing, all that correspondence involved in the submission process, all that finding markets and writing submission text, and tracking submissions seems like a big waste of time to my ADHD brain, like doing my tax returns (note to self: tax returns are overdue again).

I knew early on that I had a knack for writing.  The first paragraph I ever wrote, on the subject of oxygen, was read to the class by my third grade teacher.  I didn’t work that hard on it.  I just did it in a way that made sense, main point first, boring details in the middle, end with a flourish. The same thing happened often throughout school.  In my freshman year of college, I was woefully misguided in my choice for electrical engineering as a major (and in moving away from home to go to college), but my technical writing teacher announced to the class, “I don’t know how Jonathan made fractal geometry understandable in such a short paper, but you all should read it.”

After engineering and I broke up, I decided to major in creative writing. I received praise for my creative work all through school and even into graduate school, but when I finished my MFA in 1996, the praise did not arrive from the source that mattered most: editors of literary journals.  My plan was simple: teach and start my publishing career.  A few key publications and an award or two and I’d be off to the races to make my mark in literary history.

But the awards did not come.  Nor did the acceptance.  I was ignorant about the amount of rejection it takes to publish, or thought I would move to the front of the line because  I was special.  I had an M.F.A., after all.  I was also ignorant about the effort involved in crafting good submissions.  I assumed my degree and my oft-praised work would stand for itself. Didn’t happen.

So, just like my choice in engineering seemed wrong, after a number of rejections, the career as a poet  seemed foolish too.  I had a moment success with a small backpacking article published in a national magazine, but then it got Michigan-winter cold outside and I got tired of the idea of being a nature writer, so I left that behind and focused on trying to manage my teaching, getting tenure, earning a Ph.D., getting married, starting a family.  I thought I would get that teaching career and my finances under control, put aside neatly organized in a mental box and I could be free to write.  Finances and grading papers turned out to be really hard with undiagnosed ADHD, so I could never get a lid on that box, could never get the momentum going in any writing endeavor, and so gave up and started earning a Ph.D. in “Critical Studies in Teaching English,” whatever that means (short version: everyone is oppressed by the hegemony of capitalism and it’s your job as an English teacher to be angry about it for some reason).

But writing always nagged me.  A key turning point several years ago came after a string of career setbacks.  Tired of grading papers after ten years, and worried about my small salary, I had been working on a second Ph.D. degree in educational leadership, specializing in faculty development (it turned out I was only cynical about capitalism and couldn’t finish the first one).  I had been doing an internship of sorts, getting release time from teaching to work in our faculty development center.  That abruptly ended, with some vague explanation that I was not filling some unsaid expectations.  Around the same time I had a run-in with a surly statistics professor who gave me a bad grade.  He thought I did not take him seriously because I did not do the extra credit, when instead I was madly grading papers to finish my own semester of teaching.

Fine, I said to myself, I’ll go back to being a poet. On a whim, I applied for a writing sabbatical.  It was granted.  I applied for travel money to creative writing conferences.  Approved.  I gave up the second Ph.D. and started writing and submitting again.

Today, though, I am nearly in the same situation.  To say I have a trickle of publications would be to exaggerate.  Unless you count blogs (my promotion committee doesn’t) I have mere drops of published output. The difference is that now I have accumulated a much larger pile of rejections.  It reaches that tipping point sometimes: I’m ready to give up.  What other profession requires enduring so much rejection?  Maybe telemarketing. I did that job once too.

So why keep writing? Ah, the artist’s life!  The bohemian lifestyle!  The freedom of the life of the mind!  Nope. My life is difficult.  I have two sons with autism.  My youngest boy, seven years old, has cancer and is in chemotherapy. I have lots of debt.  All those years of indecisive graduate school were not cheap, and compounding interest makes it worse.  Not exactly a Yaddo residency around here.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But, maybe excepting the debt, I can deal with all that.  My sons are happy and innocent and young.  I’m married to a wonderful woman.  My son’s cancer is in remission, and the chemotherapy schedule helps keep me focused on things that matter.

However, the inconsistency that ADHD saddles me with is the source of my darker days. Which is why I write.

Even in my furthest orbits away from the idea of a career as a writer, I still write, or at least stay in the writing frame of mind. My greatest thrill is when a project takes off, even though that project is likely to end up shelved, gathering virtual dust on my hard drive.   I’ll read a mediocre novel, and see ways it could be better.  I teach writing and literature, so I’m always connected to the written word.

There are many quirks to the ADHD mind.  One is hyperfocus.  A myth about ADHD is that someone with it cannot focus.  I can focus intensely.  I am a voracious reader.  I read a book a week on average, and I read widely on the internet about whatever topic I am into at the moment (right now: software patent litigation). My mind enjoys being intensely engaged in a rewarding activity.  I just can’t often control what that activity is.  And I can gin up that hyperfocus for a few weeks at a time.  I once wrote a wonderful first draft of a zombie novel during a semester break a dozen years ago.

I’ve learned to trick my mind.  If I have a vague notion about wanting to get some writing done, doing a Google Image search for “writer’s desk” or “writing studio” does wonders. I keep  the Jill Krementz book close at hand. The Yaddo website is pretty.

DSC_9567But the thing I am never good at is tedium: paperwork, paying bills, doing laundry, or submitting work for publication.

Despite all the rejection, despite all the hurdles my mind puts in the way of submitting, despite my inner critic saying you cannot call yourself a writer based on that publication record, and despite the abundance of genetic misfortune in my house, I am still a writer in the sense of “one who writes.”

Putting words together into coherent sentences and paragraphs is akin to meditation. My brain wants to ruminate in several different directions as once, but despite all advances in technology, a person can still only write one word at a time.  When I write I gain nourishment from that focus.  The feeling of the keys moving along under my fingers by itself is enough to lift me out of a funk.  A good writing session is relief from the constant tug of war between should and want and it is fleeting evidence that my mind is capable of channelling chaotic thoughts into linear, executive-functioning form. It is hope that my quirky personality has an ideal home somewhere.

Though it is melodramatic to say so, I write to keep the demons at bay.  There can be no other explanation.  How else could I justify doing something with so few extrinsic rewards?  How else can a person continue in the face of constant messages of sorry, not good enough?  On a day that writing happens, that real, honest work gets done that I feel in my bones, I am more at ease in the world.

The process of publication, though, is more akin to running for public office.  It does not fit my persona. It would be like Socrates running for president; every debate would be a one-sided version of “Questions Only” from Whose Line is it Anyway?  Jim Leherer: “Mr. Socrates, what would be your plan to address the current legal morass concerning immigration law in the United States?”  Socrates: “I’d like to first say that I am honored for being here, Jim, and thanks to NPR for hosting this event.  I’d like to say this, but I can’t because, first of all, what do I mean when I say ‘being here’?”

Death of Socrates, 1875

Death of Socrates, 1875 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I recently saw a new ADHD specialist to get a second opinion on my medication plan. I talked about the difficulty of submitting and publishing.  He said “there are people in the world who love sales, even cold calling, where you get fifty rejections for every sale, and those people love racking up the rejections because they know that each rejection is one step closer to that next sale.” All right. Good for them.

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Non Linear Writing: Undoing Doogie

The older and more brain-conscious I get, the more I feel that non-linear writing is helpful to my ADHD brain.  Trying to fit my writing process into boxes that someone else created finally ended when I learned to blog. I’ve learned to write my prose piecemeal and fit the parts together later, sort of a collage approach that I’ve been using in poetry for awhile. (Poets have the advantage of being able to work in smaller chunks at the outset.)

Good prose writers create “flow” on the page where one sentence and one idea leads naturally and inevitably to the next.  Having read on the order of 50,000 student papers in my career and churned out a few words of my own, I know that’s not an easy state to achieve.  “Flow” is one of those ideas about writing that is important hard to point to exactly in a piece of writing.

Novice writers usually know two things about flow; it’s good and they don’t have it.  They’ve been told a million times: improve flow.  Us writing teachers sometimes joke over beers about the things we write on papers when we get tired of grading papers:  awkward phrasing, use a stronger main idea, use more detail, use a more logical organization, improve the flow.  (That’s why I started grading papers during conferences; students rightly want to know how to do these things.)

Flow is an illusion, though, a parlor trick that good writers perform which inspires the Doogie Howser theory of writing process.  At the end of every episode of Doogie Howser, M.D., young Dr. Howser would sit at his computer and write in his journal accompanied by melancholy theme music.  He’d turn out perfectly pithy observations of that episode’s events without so much as a typo.  And because good writing seems as though it is produced that way when you are reading it, when it doesn’t happen, a novice writer gets frustrated. When perfectly crafted sentences do not immediately spring forth, they think something’s wrong.

The Doogie Howser theory of writing process is engendered when teachers present writing process in a simplistic way, in any way that suggests the paragraphs are written in the order that they will appear in the final version.

When students in my business and technical writing classes write workplace-style reports, they get hung up on the introduction.  The introduction contains statements of scope and limitations, among other things.  The thing is, you can’t write those statements until you’ve written the report.  You don’t know the precise scope of the report or until it’s at least in a fully rendered draft.

For most students, writing the introduction as a later assignment from the body of the report solves the issue.  But some students have a real hangup about writing any sort of narrative without an introduction. It runs so counter to their instincts and experience that it is nearly impossible.  (I tell them to write a placeholder introduction to delete later. Also a problem for some writers, though subject for another time.) The idea that you write the introduction last, even though it’s the first thing the reader reads, is utterly foreign.

The best advice I got in graduate school was “research is messy.”  Conducting and writing research is supposed to have false starts, backtracking, more material than you can use, etc. That’s not apparent if you only read finished research. I did not learn this lesson when I learned to do research writing in high school and college.

process writing

In high school, I learned to write research this way: we brainstormed a topic, gathered research, wrote a thesis statement, used note cards to organize our research, wrote an outline, then wrote a paper.  These are all things that make sense, but I experienced them in a lockstep fashion. There was no backtracking.

The fatal flaw with this method: the thesis statement is locked in before the research is done.  This is ass-backwards.  I am bemused by college writers who write research proposals for my class that offer the solution to the problem they are planning to research before they have done any actual research.  That kind of research is what political campaigns do.  It’s justification for existing positions.  It’s crap.

I just finished writing an essay (of the memoir variety) about an experience I had backpacking in 1994.  I went out on my first solo trip in Nordhouse Dunes on Lake Michigan and got swarmed with blackflies on the first day and nearly passed out racing back to my tent.  The incident is more of an anecdote, but I thought there was an essay there about expectation and reality.  I had considered becoming a nature writer before that trip, for example, and soon after abandoned that idea. (Though writing an essay about a bad encounter with nature is still technically nature writing, but I digress.)

I had been trying to write about this experience on and off since.  A few poem drafts and a couple of prose pieces have been lingering in my files for nearly twenty years now.  I have a reasonably good poem, I think, and I read it at a local event recently that got me to thinking about trying an essay again.

For the past couple years, I’ve used Scrivener to write. You can go look at it online to see all the features, but the key feature for me is that you can write in chunks and then manage those chunks easily.  In Scrivener, one main file is called a project. To that you add folders and documents and it has several choices for the interface of looking at your work.  It has loads of features for managing the work: tags, status labels, a research database, statistics, color coding, notes.  Far more features than I can use.

Scrivener makes it easy to work on a narrative in piecemeal fashion and then move the pieces around.  When I tried to write essays on the blackfly thing before, I got bogged down with chronology: I started the story at the beginning and worked my way up to the climax of the swarm incident and tried to end (unironically) with a Doogie Howser moment.

This time, I told the story in the first couple paragraphs and then thought about different ways to think about the event.  In fact, the essay is more about different ways I’ve thought about the experience through time as I understand more about myself (or different ways of thinking about myself).

Composing it was fun.  I created a different Scrivener document for each idea I had and banged away. I then read through the results and moved the documents around until I had an order that worked for me. I compiled it and printed it out and then read through to think about transitions.  (Another great feature of Scrivener is that you can quickly export a bunch of its documents to a single Word document. [And no, I am not a paid endorser for Scrivener, but I am saying Scrivener a lot.  Scrivener, Scrivener, Scrivener.  What a a strange word.])

After a couple re-orders, I went back and smoothed out the jumps between my original sections.  Working on those transitions triggered a couple new ideas and made some other ideas seem irrelevant, so I added and deleted.  After a couple more times through with smoothing and changing and I had finally arrived at a good insight to end with, which made the whole piece cling together, so more work on ordering, transitions and refining happened.

The whole way through I was working on editing language and proofreading, but I did a couple more editing and proofreading passes and then submitted it to a literary journal for publication.  That last step is a breakthrough for me.  My very slow writing career in terms of actual publication is due to this lack of finishing projects.  (A recent change in my meds has made it much easier; the ADHD brain likes all the ideas and possibilities, but you need Mr. Executive Function in order to do anything productive with said ideas and possibilities.)

The end result is an essay about the blackfly thing that has a clear flow and builds up to a final statement.  You would never know that I didn’t set out to achieve the ending by reading it now. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Blogging is similar.  I have a Scrivener project for my blog and I keep a folder of drafts, and bang away here and there at this and that and move around ideas until something feels finished enough to edit and post.  But not always.  “The Umbrella Story” occurred to me as a nearly complete idea and I churned that out in an hour or so during lunch.

I have no idea if this is true, but once someone told me that the novelist Thomas Wolfe used to sit on top of his refrigerator and scrawl out his writing on legal pads and toss the pages onto the kitchen floor and his editor would pick up the pieces and make something out of it. Though I have no editor at present, a more controlled version of this process seems to work for me.  I’m both the refrigerator sitter and the cleaner-upper.

Doogie Howser, M.D.

Writing as Therapy

If writing is so therapeutic, why are there so many miserable writers?

When I was earning my creative writing degrees, the idea of writing as therapy was anathema.  The phrases “navel gazing,” “mental masturbation,” and “self-indulgent prattle,” are attached to my memory of that time.  The derisive attitude toward therapeutic writing is understandable, even desirable, if you consider the context of my degree work.  Though stated as “creative” writing, the program’s goal was literary writing.  We did not look at commercial writing or popular writing in any sense, except as contrast. Put another way, its the difference between art school and graphic design school; my degrees were clearly on the “art” side.

Writing as therapy is writing only for the writer. It is a pouring out, a gushing forth.  Page vomiting. Even though it may be read by an audience and even though its writers often seek an audience, the goal is unburdening of the self.  I don’t tell people I have ADHD for their sake, so much.

Therapeutic writing is self-indulgent, but that’s a feature, not a bug.  Literary writing seeks an audience, a greater form.  I can hear Jack Kerouac fans hoisting their bongs in protest, but the writers of the Beat generation succeeded because they were both talented and brave. Their writing process, though, does not lend itself to timid hackery. If you can’t tell the difference between a poem by Allen Ginsberg and something written by a caffeinated bipolar monkey at a typewriter, you need to read more.

Writing as therapy has a place.  As a part of therapy.  Trying to shoehorn it into a literary writing program creates problems, one of which is the difficulty of critiquing a person’s therapeutic efforts.

This is not to say that writing cannot be both therapeutic and literary.  I’ve had poems published by literary journals that felt very therapeutic when I wrote the early drafts.  But I went beyond those drafts.  The questions “what will make me feel better” and “what do I want to say” produce early or private material, whereas “what would make this a better poem” starts to produce literary work. So it’s more accurate to say that writing which is merely therapeutic doesn’t belong in a literary writing program.  There’s plenty of confessional literature, but it is still literary in that it has some sort of accomplishment.  In the wrong context, writing that is merely therapeutic is like hearing about someone’s current toenail infection within five minutes of meeting him while he’s standing too close to you blasting hot sauerkraut breath into your nostrils.

Writing as therapy is also risky for the writer who seeks publication. Literary publishing, poetry in particular, for most everyone is usually an exercise in enduring futility.  To be a successful poet, you have to have talent, persistence, and absent “star backing” (a well known poet who will help you network), you have to live long enough.  From first submitting a successful poem through publication, longer than a year is not unusual. For publishing a book, two or three years. Pour all your self-esteem into that work, and you’d better load up on Xanax every time you open your email. (Note to self: track down some Xanax.)

So I write (I think) literary writing and (definitely) therapeutic writing.  I particularly fond of the big, black book of evilness practice for the therapeutic part, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone seeking writing as therapy.  I go to it when things are particularly difficult.  There’s not actually one such book, I have many of them, because I can never be sure I have one nearby when I need it.

These are the rules for the big, black book of evilness:

  • Entries must be dated
  • They must be handwritten
  • Nothing may be held back
  • Nothing may be false
  • The book cover must be black.

It is harder to follow these rules than you might think. For one, despite much evidence to the contrary, I do fancy that I will achieve literary success one day.  It’s a pipe dream, but one part of a literary person’s legacy is his or her papers.  That is, if I ever become Mr. Super-Famous Poet, when I die people will want to read my journals.  It is difficult not to adopt a pose in my big-black-book-of-evilness journals if I have the slightest inkling of an audience when I’m writing it.

The second difficulty is that in order to follow these rules, the book must be kept absolutely secure.  I’m not able to be completely unvarnished if I think someone might stumble across my writing accidentally, and, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not exactly great at keeping track of my things.

Handwriting is essential.  I feel it is more honest and deliberative, probably because my handwriting is poor.  It feels more raw and self revealing to scrawl out things on paper.

The book must have a black cover because black covers are the best and a big Hello Kitty book of evilness is just stupid.

The keeping of a big-black-book-of-evilness journal has therapeutic effect for two reasons; the articulation of the present and the long view.  It’s somewhat of a relief to unload bad thoughts somewhere, especially without judgement, and it’s good to read back for perspective. (Moleskine large ruled notebook, in case you ever need to buy me a present or twelve.)

Here’s an entry from my first “real” semester of teaching:

Mecosta, MI

Sunday, Sept. 29, 1996

9:25 p.m.

Still in a funk—can’t shake it.  Parents were here—couldn’t really relax.  They left early, well, 11:00, and I went to the office and played with the computer for 5 hours, came home, watched the Packers/Seahawks, ate, called Laura, ate, watched more dumb T.V., ate.

Now I’m going to bed

I need to get outside.

I need to get organized.

I need to write.

I need to pay bills.

I seriously thought about driving off to Mexico, taking my paycheck tomorrow and just going.  How long could I live on $1200? In Mexico? Six months? Two days if someone robbed me? I don’t think I could leave Laura like that—but there are times I’m sure she’d go with me.

Laura and I talked wedding today. Almost picked a date (after 4 years).  Looking at Spring of 1998. And we want to have a great honeymoon. Fiji, or the continent. I’d like to go camping. Tonight this is all babble. Boring diary drivel.

Gotta do every day—

1. Stretch/exercise

2. Grade

3. Write

Five days, that’s all.

Get poems together—I know I’ve got a book.

Ferris State Technical College (oops I mean University) is taking up to much of my time.  When R— said they were going to abuse me for a semester, they weren’t kidding.

Gotta read more.

When I look at this now, it’s not one of the darker entries. (Those do not go out to the world yet.)  There is a bit of posing going on: I used the phrase “the continent” unironically, after all. The escape-to-Mexico fantasy is just that: fantasy.  I’ve had running away fantasies since I was twelve but never once did anything to act on them. (I knew that there’s no way Laura would go with me.) The closest I ever come to running away is not showing up: not answering email, calling in sick, avoiding the phone.  In fact, though I did not include it then, I clearly remember the reason I was uncomfortable with my parents staying over that weekend: I was behind on a credit card payment, and the company kept calling all that weekend, and I was too embarrassed to talk to the creditor while my parents were there.  I just kept hanging up, saying “oh, it’s an ad calling.”  My mom was astonished that a telemarketer would call on Sunday morning.  I felt guilty for lying.

I remember why I was behind on that bill, too: I worked at my new job for a whole month before I got paid, so it was actually five weeks between paychecks from my old job as a temp secretary, and that first paycheck got eaten up with bills right away.  It would have been perfectly reasonable to say I had a hard month because of that, but I couldn’t for some reason.  I thought, being twenty-five, that I should have had everything figured out.  Silly me.

The sad part here is the things I “need” to work on are exactly the things I feel I “need” to work on 17 years later, except for getting outside. I walk to work and it’s been cold; I’m good with inside.  And I read plenty enough now. But I’m 41 and I need to get organized, I need to write, I need to grade, and I need to pay bills.

Having the time and date are really helpful.  I remember that semester that my Monday morning started with an 8:00 a.m. class and I lived about a half hour from campus.  At 9:25 p.m. I would have really started to fret about the beginning of the week. Same as every Sunday night.  Still.

Some of the things I worried about then seem quaint now.  We did get married in June of 1998, and we honeymooned in St. Lucia, which was a pretty amazing feat considering our financial resources.  At the time, I considered that job my temporary gig, hence my dig at the University. I wanted to get a book out and get a “real” teaching job: creative writing, not academic writing.  This many years later, still no book, and the “temporary” job became my career. I do like my job overall.  Though the grading troubles were never, ever temporary.

In fact, in retrospect, it’s hard to see how I couldn’t have realized that I had ADHD.  This period in my journal, though, marks an important change.  Near Thanksgiving that year, another outpouring, much more negative than the surrounding entries, and an aside: “I think I may be clinical.”  I read that now as the first time that I thought there might be something really wrong, other than just, “I gotta get it together.”  It only took me nine years or so to do anything about it.

BTW, here’s the answer to my opening question.

My Messy Moleskine