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.

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

Shameless Self Promotion

I’ve been really happy with the feedback I’ve gotten from this blog.  In the effort to further puff up my vanity, I have started another new blog.

I’m an MFA graduate and frustrated poet.  I’ve been writing a lot the last twenty years without seeing much of it published.  Among the many drafts I have, I’ve written a number of poems about my son who has autism and I’m tired of sending them out to journals and book publishers to be mostly rejected.

So I will put them on my new blog.  Please check it out and comment.  I love comments.  They make my whole day better.  Even if your comment is how much I suck, at least someone is reading and reacting to my work, instead of just sending me the standard electronic rejection slip.

And now, behold!  The link:

http://splinterskills.wordpress.com/

Slush

Slush-

 

Piling

-pile

Sonnet of Ipecac

The late great Herb Scott taught me a lot about poetry during my days at WMU.  Two things he said always stick with me.  “Everyone has their throwing-up poem,” and “I’m not interested in poems about not being able to write poems.”

The second bit of advice came to me about the first poem I wrote at the start of my MFA degree.  I wrote something about sitting at my table, staring down into the street and trying to get the wheels turning.  But it points to a tendency I notice about writers and what they say in interviews and such and how they are different in person.

Most writers are concerned with the difficulty of producing great writing.  Most writers therefore struggle with resistance and motivation.  Most writers I’ve met, especially the struggling poet sort, are interested in talking about the difficulty of finding time and energy to write.  But few of them are interested in writing about losing the battle.

If one starts talking about losing that battle, the conversation slows, eyebrows raise, and suddenly everyone needs a refill on their glass of Chianti.  Most such conversations take place at writing workshops and conferences and people go to such events to pump up their motivation and kiss up to the stars.  They are not interested in conversation about the real specter of failure and the hard questions one has to overcome to keep writing: What if you can’t finish?  What if you can’t publish your work? What if you produce your best work and no one cares?

In every group, there are the haves and have-nots, the cool people and those-who-eat-lunch-alone.  At writing workshops and conferences publication credits are the currency.  Everyone who attends believes they can attain such “riches.”  And if they don’t, they start blaming everyone else:  Editors are too fickle.  The reading public is too small.  Americans are dumb and don’t read any more.  Wall Street bankers killed the economy.

So Herb’s advice has troubled me.  Failure is not an option, especially as a subject for writing.  You can be self-deprecating and funny all you want, but don’t breach that subject of the pointlessness of most of writing endeavors (unless you are already a success and are complaining about how hard it is to be a bigger success; then you can have your essay published in Poetry).  If one views publication in the right journals and presses as the true measure of literary success, the odds are spectacularly against you, approximately equal to winning the lottery and being struck by lightning in the same moment.

Some get out of this predicament with the bohemian mentality, which tends to take the long view and ignore the present.  They point to examples such as Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, who published almost nothing during their miserable lives and are now hailed as literary geniuses.  I say what’s the point of literary fame if you’re not around to enjoy it?

But I will write about failure because it is interesting.  By any measure of literary stock I am a failure.  I’ve published four poems in seventeen years.  I’ve published a handful of 250-word book reviews and one short article in a national magazine. I’ve written thousands of words on five different novels and abandoned all of them.

I think the reason for my failure is the lack of follow through, which should be no surprise to AD(H)D-ers.  I told a friend, a successful poet who has urged me to submit more work that my success rate for publications is about 30 rejections for every publication.  “That sounds about right,” he said.

The thing I’ve learned is that writing and marketing are two very different things.  Writing involves the whole creative self, the flow of ideas, the long view, the high ambition.  Marketing involves writing a lot of cover letters and keeping track of things you send out and deciding things are done enough to show to an editor and to expose oneself to the long wait which 97% of the time ends in rejection, and mostly indifferent rejection, the form letter: “Thank you for your submission, but it’s not right for us right now.  If you’d like to subscribe to our journal . . .”

Blogging has been exhilarating. I publish immediately after finishing a piece.  My standards for “finished” are lower because, well, it’s a blog.  In my world, academia, it has almost no sway.  Blogging is at best a curio, the literary market equivalent of meeting a writer you admire and discovering he has extraordinary halitosis or collects bottlecaps.  No one in academia really cares too much.

But I have readers!  I have my stats page.  Some people comment on my writing.  I need that kind of feedback, especially the positive sort, the little mental boost to keep going.  Mostly I despise that part of me: my vanity.  But here I will use it shamelessly.  It keeps me going.  There’s nothing like spending part of a day putting words and sentences together and then finding out someone likes you for it in the same day.

I have often introduced myself as a “recovering poet,”  which was my cover story for “failed poet.”  I tend to think now the failure is in the 10% of work that I haven’t done in the publishing process: sending my work out.  Relentlessly. And that’s due to the poor wiring in my head, rather than neurosis.

And now, a poem about throwing up:

http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/levine/gin.php

Phil Levine by David Shankbone, New York City

Image via Wikipedia

(By Philip Levine, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, and one of Herb Scott’s teachers.  It’s the circle of life!)

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.

Order me some regular

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert’s maxim caught me in it’s grasp when I first heard it in graduate school. It resonated with my split nature. On the one hand, I wanted to be a good, productive member of society, to please people, to be responsible. On the other hand, I wanted to be a poet, which seemed the opposite. My inner rebel sent me to poems, sent me away from the idea of a boring nine-to-five existence. But my lack of a benefactor sent me the bourgeois way.

After I finished my MFA, I set about establishing a career, to make a living so I could be violent and original and bohemian with basic cable. I had gotten engaged (by blurting it out on the phone one night, classic AD(H)D style) and had to prove (to myself, not to my future wife) that I could be responsible. The coming specter of student loan payments drove me to find income as well. I had filled out all the paperwork for enrolling in a PhD program but threw it away and instead secured a one-semester teaching job a Ferris State University.

I wanted to get my professional life started and in control, to become a good teacher, make enough money to cover my expenses plus dinner and a movie, and put that part of my life away in a box so there would be time to write. I should have recognized the familiar flawed refrain: I only needed to set up the right circumstances and the real writing would begin. In the past, I thought, I only needed to have my own computer, my own apartment without roommates, the right pen, the right chair. I projected my resistance onto the objects around me.

During my MFA days, one part of the degree was six semester hours of “MFA Project”; that meant that while the university paid me to each, I paid part of that money back for the honor of not going to class to work on my MFA thesis. My life for a semester was teaching one class at the university, a couple at the community college, and writing. Plenty o’ time to write in my own apartment with my own computer. Three and a half months into my four months of project hours, I finally started writing, and I took to tying my leg to my desk to keep me working on my poems for two hours a day. I got through my MFA project with talent, rather than discipline, as I always had.

I moved to Mecosta, MI, to the top floor of a house on a lake in the woods. The bottom floor was inhabited by the retired owners of the house: a kooky bird of a woman and her dementia-afflicted husband. Other than the occasional distraction from downstairs (one afternoon, polka music suddenly blared throughout the house, never to be heard again), I lived in isolation in the boonies. I had my own entrance and my own deck on the second floor, so it felt as close to a writer’s cabin as I could manage. I would begin the writing career I had long studied for.

I only had to get my teaching life in order. Easier said than done.

I taught five classes with three preps. Two of the classes I taught were basic writing classes, populated by students who did not meet minimum requirements for writing proficiency. FSU was open admissions at that time, so the classes were chaotic. I had never had to use any “classroom management” before. I wanted to teach college classes so I never had to yell in the classroom. I had to yell. Someone gave me advice that you should just lay it on the line for them: do this, and pass; don’t do this, and fail. That proved horribly wrong. It’s true that the standards had to be set up, but threatening them with failure seemed like more of the same crap they heard all through school, so they wrote me off.

I also met some of the strangest students in my life. In my research writing class, for example, I had a student who decided his semester project would be to prove the validity of the Bible. Another told me, in all seriousness, that she was the sort of student who did best if she never had to come to class and instead could just come by my office and turn in her work. I taught these classes that I had never taught before with students that I didn’t know what to make of at an institution where I didn’t know anyone, and I struggled.

I got angry with myself with struggling over basic motivation. I thought when I finished graduate school I would start being a grownup and stop fighting with myself over basic things like getting up in the morning, getting to my job on time, keeping my kitchen clean. I don’t know why I had this idea; perhaps it excused the present. I hadn’t been, until this point, a real grown up adult yet. I was always a student.

But two things occupied my life: teaching and worrying about teaching. Most evenings my worries kept me stuck on the couch, watching TV. Doing not much else. Nowadays with a house and two kids to take care of, I wonder where all that time went that year. I didn’t invest it in reading or writing, that’s for sure.

I experience slow periods where I feel frozen. I think the metaphor came from those days out on the lake. Deep in Michigan winter, that apartment felt cold with the wind blowing across the lake through my leaky windows. In a frozen period, my brain is occupied by the following unbalanced equation:

I want to do [something fun/fufilling] but before I can do that, I have to do [something I need to do, but can’t]. Therefore I will do [neither of these things while thinking constantly about both].

Instead, I watch TV, read novels, surf the internet, play computer games, plink on the guitar, none of which feels very satisfying.

I could never be regular and orderly in the boring parts of my life. Instead I am anxious and avoidant. The things in my life that I find boring and uninteresting indirectly grow into all-out constant worries. Therefore, by not thinking about them, I am constantly preoccupied by them. They won’t stay in their cages. They are the Stay-Puft Marmallow Men of my brain.

Stay Puft Marshmallow Man

Try not to think about it.

Writing’s the Thing

I’ve had this idea, since I was about ten, that I had to find my Thing in life.  I had to find the role that would define me, that I could settle into, that would make my name known to the world.  All through school I had the label “gifted.” I always took advanced classes, read at the top end of the highest reading group, had special classes and groups designed for the gifted and talented.  From age ten on I knew that I had to do something in life, and that I would succeed at that choice, fill my special role in the world.  I just had to choose what my Thing would be.

I thought it might be computers.  Inspired by the TV series Whiz Kids and the movie War Games, when we got our first computer, a Commodore VIC-20, I set out to learn everything about programming in BASIC, and eventually write my own computer games.  I bought books and graph paper and came up with lots of ideas (trying to create War Games on the VIC-20, for instance) but it proved too complicated and I gave up.

Commodore VIC-20 Computer with later revision ...

1980's awesomeness!

My mom bought me a subscription to Writer’s Digest, so as a thirteen year old I started reading about agents and crafting dialogue and how to research markets.  I read lots of J.R.R. Tolkein and Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and I imagined penning my own novel, how I would appear on the dust jacket photo in my pinstriped shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a knit tie loosened at the collar, my hair adorably mussed and overhanging my smart glasses as I posed thoughtfully in front of my trusty typewriter.  But that writing never happened.  I read and read, preparing for the day that the great flow of pages would begin, but it didn’t happen.

So I decided that it was not my Thing, that instead, my Thing was just preparing to go to college while having as many hobbies as possible.  I built models, played keyboards, ran cross-country and track, got serious about bicycling for awhile.  Those were all diversions from the Thing I sort of resigned myself to do: become an electrical engineer.

I don’t know how I decided to be an electrical engineer.  I didn’t really know what they did, even after years of visiting colleges in high school.  My thinking was that they did something with electronics, which seemed cool, and they made a good salary, and you had to be good at science and math, which I was.  It made sense.  My Thing, then was just to get good grades.

But I did really well in my writing classes too.  I even went to a two-week-long summer institute in creative writing.  I kept getting invited to these academic summer camps.  I did one in biology and one in engineering, so I thought I would have a lark and do one in creative writing.  I had a lot of fun, but it didn’t change my life.  I had a vague notion about writing a book once in awhile, but like mullets and acid-washed jeans, that whim passed.

My senior English teacher, Mrs. LaMothe, took special interest in me.  We college-prep kids had a capstone class called Creative Composition.  Our special honor was that we could bring pop and snacks to class to help our process.  Some of us actually got to write on a computer!  (It was 1988.)  She said to me “I wish we’d discovered this talent sooner.”  I never thought I had a “talent” for English class.  I liked writing, but the literature classes pained me.  I could read faster than anyone, but had little patience for slowing down to tease the meaning out of a poem, or wading through page after page of the Elizabethan English of a Shakespeare play, both of which were litmus tests of the English student specialty.  I fit in more on the Math/Science side (Captain of the math team!).

Anyway, I went to college and met true failure for the first time.  After switching to creative writing as my major, and then earning an MFA in same, and teaching for 17 years, I still struggle to find my Thing.  Mostly I need focus, and cannot garner it, unless I am taking a class or workshop.  Today, for example, I woke up with the resolve to be a better poet, but I can’t decide how best to invest my time.  Write new poems?  Revise old ones? Prepare submissions? Read?  If I decide to read, read what?  Contemporary poems? Canonical? Literary criticism?  Journals? Poets & Writers? Should I network with poets on SecondLife and Facebook? Apply for funds to go to another conference?  Work on my oft-rejected book manuscript again?  All these things seem equally important to me, and I couldn’t decide, so I read political blogs and played Angry Birds until I got disgusted with myself and started this blog post.

The thing about ADD/ADHD, at least as I experience it, is that when you don’t know you have it, you can’t understand why you have such a hard time doing things that other people do easily.  Like decide what part of being a writer to focus on today, this minute.  Like how to plan something and then trust yourself that you will do it.

Another thing that happens is that you finally find your flow, and say, this is it, this is my Thing, this is who I am, and it works for awhile because it is a new project or new challenge or you have some structure supporting it because you started taking a class or a workshop or joined a group or something, and everything seems focused and clear until something happens, something that taints the new Thing, a problem that you can’t resolve easily, or a drawback that you never considered, and suddenly it’s not new and exciting anymore, it’s one of the five hundred old things that you’ve discarded, and you’re lost again.  The more this cycle repeats, the taller the pile of discarded selves weighing on your mind until it’s difficult to find anything to get optimistic about anymore.

So I write, and stow it away, and write some more, and stow it away.  Or I don’t write and I feel bad.  Writing is flow, forward momentum.  When I start a day by writing—and I mean composing words, not editing or submissions or whatever—the rest of the day seems a bit more workable.  When I go for a week or two without writing, I’m lost.  I start to think I’ll never write again.

The formula for feeling well is simple.  Do my work, write, exercise, eat well, take my supplements, meditate.  All these things are easily available to me, and yet, when I’m in a funk (I have often called it a freeze, because I feel frozen, unable to move) none of these things happen.  I do their opposites: stay up late, not working or writing, sit around, watch TV, eat junk.  The constant way out is writing.  When I’m dead and gone, if I have any sort of success as a writer, whoever’s left to examine my papers will surmise from my journals that I was an unhappy dude.  I always turn to the journal when things are really bad, almost never write, “Had a good day, did my work, got a poem accepted, and paid the bills on time!”  Mostly because good writing is about conflict and it’s hard to be both happy and interesting.