Thoughts On Writing

taking the mystery out of writing

I’ve been in a writing slump since graduating college.

When I was a student, I felt strongly that I had something inside me worth writing about. Sure, there are plenty of writers who’ve written about losing a parent, but at the time that didn’t matter to me.

The collection of poetry that I’d worked tirelessly on perfecting throughout my graduate career had impact, purpose, and heart. It haunted me in all of the right ways, made me angry, kept me up at night. Finishing it—the whole process, from conception to publication—was like reaching the end of a marathon that I had very obviously under-trained for.

Then, I graduated in 2017. Flash forward three years: I have a full-time job with a company that treats me incredibly well. By all accounts, I’m a professional writer who crafts (and sometimes edits) copy for everything from internal emails and articles to video scripts and signage.

I was still committed to writing creatively at the start of my post-college career. Hindsight is 20/20, and I realize now that while I was prepared to grow as a person, I wasn’t prepared to grow as a writer. I thought I could keep writing the same kind of poetry that I was before (I have several notebooks filled to the brim with duds, and rejection letters from literary magazines bookmarked in my email).

And sure, I still write poems from time-to-time, though It might be more appropriate to say that I write lines of poetry. The struggle of fleshing out a poem has never been so difficult as it is for me right now. But that’s okay. The things that were tearing away at me as an angsty 22-year-old are tearing away at me no longer.

Often, folks remark that “they were entirely different people back then.” And while it’s cliché, it’s also often true. I am not the same person that I was three years ago. I would like to think that I’ve tempered (old Facebook posts are a testament to how uninformed and sheepish I was), but at the very least, I know for a fact I’ve become much harder on myself when producing creative works. The mental dilemma I keep encountering is this:

Brain: “Yo. You should write [INSERT IDEA HERE]!”

Me: “Oh, yeah, that’s a good idea. Nice work, Brain!”

Brain: “NP, dude. Now let’s get chop-chop-choppin’ away at that draft!”

Me: “Sure thing, Brain. MS Word is open, let’s rumble.”

Brain: “Mmm—maybe not like that. That’s too much like [OTHER MEDIA]. And are you sure people actually talk like that? Oh, and that narrative jump is too much, too unbelievable. Are you really a writer? Did you peak? You really gonna keep using the same old tropes you’re cozy with? You can’t keep writing about [INSERT THING]. That’s cheating! You’re cheating and you’re doing it wrong!”

Me: “Y’know what, let’s just go play Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That’ll be nice. I can water my flowers and pay off that fat loan from Tom Nook.”

But, no more, I say. No matter how derivative, nonsensical, or otherwise bogus my attempt at writing a graphic novel is, I’m going to do it. Why a graphic novel, or comics generally, you might ask?

  1. There seems to be quite a bit of overlap between poetry and comics.
  2. Many of the writers I’ve come to admire in recent years are comic book creators.
  3. And, yeah. I love comics. Comics are literature.

So I’m going to do it. I’m going to produce six, 22-page issues over 12 months, culminating in the nastiest, ugliest draft of anything I’ve ever written come December 31st, 2020. I’m already 1/6th of the way toward my goal, with a rough draft of the issue #1 in the books. (Excerpt below.)


PAGE TWENTY-TWO – TWO PANELS

PANEL ONE
Noah curls up into his brother’s bed, tears streaming from his eyes, anger on his face. The room is dark, shadows swirling around him. And from the corner of the room—that mythic place where children see things, things that dance sensually, demonically, hauntingly throughout the night—an emaciated avian figure, feathered, scowling, reaching out to Noah in this time of crisis.

  1. NOAH (CAP): Even if it means…
  2. NOAH (CAP): Even if it means losing everything else, too.

Once it’s done, I may even have the audacity to find someone to illustrate the dang thing. Who knows.

But I’m ready to grow as a writer and a storyteller.

And that’s that.

Last week, I posted Ten writing prompts to get you through the COVID-19 pandemic.  Here are ten more to help inspire your daily writing during this unprecendented time.

These tend to be US-centric, but they shouldn’t be hard to tweak based on your location.

  • If being isolated has taught me one thing about my self, it’s that I…
  • When I wear my mask into a store, I feel like a…
  • Being furloughed isn’t so bad since I get to…
  • Being isolated is fine, as long as I have my…
  • I’ve never worked remotely before, but now that I have to…
  • 2020 will be known as the year of…
  • The 2020 Time Magazine Person of the Year will be…
  • In this time of social distancing, going to the grocery store is like…
  • People who are protesting the stay at home orders are…
  • The Great Pandemic of 2020, the time when we all…

I write in my journal every single day. I found it helpful before our current reality set in, and it’s even more helpful now that we’re locked down. While I don’t necessarily have trouble coming up with things to write, I know some people can have a difficult time getting started, so I decided to come up with some pandemic-related writing prompts.

These tend to be US-centric, but they shouldn’t be hard to tweak based on your location.

  • The first thing I’m going to do when the stay-at-home order is lifted is…
  • The thing I enjoy most about being at home is…
  • The thing I dislike the most about being at home is…
  • The thing I miss most about my pre-pandemic life is…
  • I believe my Governor (or mayor or other local official) is doing a _______ job managing the pandemic.
  • I believe the President (head of my country) is doing a _______ job managing the pandemic.
  • If I run out of toilet paper, my plan is to…
  • I am considered <essential |non-essential>, so my time is spent working on…
  • Life will never be the same after this, and here’s what I think will be different…
  • I’ve been furloughed or laid off from my job, so I’m spending my time learning…

I spent two hours of the morning before writing this post locked outside of my apartment in the Michigan cold. It was snowing and I was shivering, wearing an old “Ghost Hunter” hoodie, some joggers, tennis shoes, and a wool hat. Now, you might be wondering, “How did this happen, Zach?”

Well, let me tell you.

I woke up at 9:30AM (later than I’d intended), wandered into the kitchen, ate a clementine over the kitchen sink, washed my hands, sat down with my laptop, paid two bills, and then – because it’s the New Year, and I’m trying to combat the myriad of health issues my family suffers from – I decided that I was going to go to the gym. So, I put on my shoes, opened the front door, flicked the bottom lock with my thumb, closed the door, and stretched on my front porch like a king overlooking his kingdom. I took in a deep breath, reached for my car keys, and alas: the 25-year-old dumbass who was ready to conquer the day only ten seconds earlier was now staring through his living room window at his set of keys (apartment and car) hanging on their hook next to the entryway closet.

Fuck, I thought.

theshining

So, what does this have to do with Wingless, the book that I promised I’d start writing about in my last post?

We’ll get to that.

First, though, I need to explain I’ve been interested in mythology and horror since I was a kid. Regarding mythology, it all started with Disney’s Hercules; after I saw the movie, I became obsessed with researching the Greek Pantheon, and at a young age I started making connections, albeit very basic ones, between mythology and religion, subconsciously aware of their shared archetypes and tropes. My obsession with horror, however, all kicked off when I was shown perhaps the best horror flick to date, The Exorcist (I wanna say I was around 14 or so when I saw it, and I’m not sure I ever told my mom). I’d never been so simultaneously fascinated and horrified. Sleepless for the rest of that night – and for a few nights after, I’m sure – my lifelong fixation on horror had officially begun.

The first story I’d ever written took core concepts from mythology and horror and combined them into a science fiction/dark fantasy hybrid in which a teenager wakes up in a world in which almost the entirety of humanity has vanished, and in their place larger-than-life, Lovecraftian monsters roam the scorched earth. He knew that the only way for him to fix everything was to make his way to this tower where he would face down with some big baddie.

Oh, uh, it was a dark tower.

*sighs*

When I discovered that one of my favorite authors had already written a series of books about this exact plotline, I resolved to take the basic emotional premise of my story and tell it through poetry: a coming of age narrative about a boy who is haunted by demons and monsters, both metaphorical and real, in a world constructed of his worst nightmares (fun fact: I was initially inspired by the mythological character Icarus to include recurring “wing” imagery throughout my book).

I wanted to create a dark world with brooding, haunted characters, and I wanted them to suffer in the worst ways, with stories like Antichrist, Misery, and Evil Dead lingering in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to write anything happy; in fact, the story I was concocting in my mind was so dreary that it probably would have seemed insincere and fabricated, detached from any real trauma or experiences.

When I first started writing Wingless, it was a mish-mash of dark poetry that didn’t really mean anything at all because I didn’t have anything to talk about yet (see the poem in my previous post for an example). I was a freshman in college. Everything was hunky-dory. The difficulties and obstacles I’d overcome thus far were miniscule in comparison to what was on the horizon. In other words, I hadn’t yet locked myself outside in the cold with no coat or keys, hadn’t yet felt the frustration of being so close to something that I couldn’t physically touch.

The seed for Wingless was planted when I’d fallen in love with mythology and horror, and reinvigorated when I’d learned how to combine them; however, the actual “What’s it about?” of the book hadn’t yet happened. That’s what we’ll be talking about next time!

“Hey, I write poetry, too! Wanna read it?”

This is, hands down, one of the most terrifying questions anyone can ever ask: is there any conversation more awkward to navigate than when someone asks you to read their work outside of a professional or academic setting? I mean, you can only feign interest for so long if the writing is bad. Sure, it’s easy enough to provide some basic, surface-level comments, and maybe even sprinkle in some global-level feedback as well; however, if the writer isn’t used to receiving feedback, feelings may be hurt. Hear me out: no form of self-expression is wrong, but the sheer amount of poetry being put into the world is overwhelming, and a lot of that poetry is just…not good. I mean, really, really not good.

I think this is why folks give me a strained, fake “Oh!” when I tell them that I’ve published poetry. It was different at school, when I was sitting in that oh-so-comfortable echo chamber, surrounded by other writers who cared deeply about what we’d written. So much attention was paid to each word we’d picked, each line we’d broken, each stanza we’d crafted. Poets and fiction writers alike collaborated in workshops and student organizations to help each other write the best thing we possibly could.

Then, we graduated, and were faced with the real world. To our disappointment, we discovered that the number of people in our lives that cared about writing – whether it’s a short story, a poem, or a PowerPoint presentation – dropped exponentially. I feel that poetry is especially difficult to share and discuss with strangers and newfound friends because it’s often meant to evoke more of a feeling rather than outline a narrative (kinda like a song). It’s easier to answer the question “What’s it about?” when someone inquires about a story; with fiction, you have concrete details and characters to carry you through the conversation. If you’re lucky enough to write “narrative poetry,” you’ve got a little more going for you here.

So, knowing this, why did I choose poetry?

Well, first off, I picked up on the nuances of poetry pretty quickly.

In my Introduction to Creative Writing course, I found that the condensed, image-driven nature of poetry was what I needed to be a clear, concise, and efficient writer. Otherwise, my God, I peppered adjectives into my fiction writing, lengthening my sentences as long as possible for no other reason than I thought it looked purty. With poetry, I learned how to 1) mask my feelings behind an anonymous speaker, 2) use the right words (with appropriate syntax, meter, sound, etc.) throughout the poem to evoke a reaction from my readers, and 3) keep my writing short. It was incredibly important to me that I could learn to establish a feeling within my writing without using any abstract words (like “angry,” “apathy,” “happy,” etc.), instead letting the imagery do all of the work. It was like writing a painting, I guess: it gives the right reader something to think about, to derive meaning from.

Here’s the first poem I’d written that I was really proud of. It was about one of my roommates from freshman year. He’d just told us that he was moving out from the dormitory because he’d failed out of every class, and he wasn’t sure if he’d be returning home due to a rocky relationship with his parents:

his desk was covered by his belongings:
clothes packed nicely and neatly
into cardboard boxes, two blankets,
scratchy and stiff with matching sheets,
unwashed, six months to the day.

gave him the food none of us wanted:
canned beans, pistachios, out-of-date granola,
two bottles of water, and
put them in old grocery bags
next to his moss-colored backpack.

peer through the window at the snow:
see the streets he will scavenge,
searching for the for sidewalk
on which he will write his journal;
have we given him enough?

looked through his notebooks, after
moving away his unopened,
unused textbooks; found a letter
written out to his grandmother –
signed but never sent.

a few pages later, a sketch of
a dragon with pencil shaded scales
spewing fire from its gaping jaws,
a sword penetrating its belly.
it bled blackness through lead streaks

the split below the page
as it balanced on its hind

legs
like a tight rope
acrobat.

I know, I know. I asked you to do the thing that I said was the worst thing anyone could ever ask anyone to do outside of a professional or academic setting. But, I had to show you, because this is where it all started. This is “why poetry.” I was able to say something with images alone, something that I wouldn’t have been able to convey otherwise. Sure, folks in the real world might not always be about it, but those who need your poetry will find your poetry, somehow.

Yikes. We tackled a lot here, and (for purposes of brevity) I didn’t go nearly as in-depth as I could’ve. Have a question? Hit me up, and I’ll do my best to answer as quickly as possible! My next post will actually be about my book, I promise.

Hello! *clears throat*

So, uh, it’s been some time since I’ve written anything for Thoughts On Writing; I’d like to say that it’s because I’d gotten busy, but the truth of the matter is that in the last few months I’ve either had my nose in a book (I just finished reading Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, started reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, and I have an insane backlog of Haruki Murakami novels staring at me from my bookcase), my hands on a gaming controller (there was a solid two months in which I attempted – and succeeded – 100%-ing Shadow of the Colossus on the PS4), or been so deep in my own writing I wasn’t really paying attention to anything happening around me, resulting in at least three cups of spilled coffee, an almost-late project, and a countless number of ignored (er, “missed”) texts.

Long story short, I’ve been bad. Real bad.

spiderman3

Okay, maybe not “Spider-Man 3” bad, but still. Pretty bad.

On the bright side, I’ve recently been challenged to write about the process of publishing my chapbook of poetry. I have to admit that it’s a great idea, and I can’t believe I haven’t done it already. No, for real: the first thing I did after this was suggested to me was dive into the depths of my computer documents to search for something, anything, which resembled an outline on the process of writing Wingless.

Nope. Nada. Zilch. Nothing.

To my absolute shock, I was never once asked by anyone – professor or peer alike – to write about the “how,” the “what,” or the “why.” I mean, I wasn’t really ever expecting anyone to ask any of those questions, but I feel strongly that self-reflection is a great way to reach catharsis and move forward. So, I’m going to do it. I’m going to write a series of posts, rendering to the best of my ability the entire process I followed to get that sucker out into the world. I’m going to talk about the good stuff, the bad stuff, the challenges, the heartbreak, and the reality of what I was writing about. I’m also going to do my best to ensure everything is chronological, because, frankly, the most significant stuff about the book are the people and events surrounding the book’s creation.

Oh, and if you have any questions along the way, leave a comment! While I have a rough draft (read: a crinkled page out of an old notebook with sloppy handwriting) of the posts in this series, I’m happy to tailor my content to interested readers.

Well, that’s all for now, folks. Next week, we’ll be talking about the biggest question of them all, the one I get more often than I’d like to admit: “Why poetry?” Because, I don’t know if you know this, but poetry isn’t reaaaaaaaaally mainstream.

(No, your favorite Instagram poet doesn’t count.)

(Kidding.)

(Kinda.)

The first book that turned my entire world upside down and made me realize that, y’know, not every story has to have a happy ending was No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

See, until McCarthy, the majority of media I’d consumed was pretty clear-cut sci-fi/fantasy: there were good guys, bad guys, and funny little sidekicks that quipped and provided cute commentary (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Inheritance Cycle, to name a few).

While these stories helped me develop my moral compass and decide the kind of person I wanted to be, No Country for Old Men shook the foundation of everything I believed in. It was philosophical. It was dark. It was gritty. It was real, both in the sense that it took place in our reality, and that it was filled with real people who made organic decisions based on their personal situations. I mean, who hasn’t thought about what they’d do if they found a suitcase filled with money in the middle of nowhere with no one around?

McCarthy’s prose style is tremendously poetic. His descriptions are rich with colorful symbolism and often inform the grander narrative and character motivations. In my own writing, I strive for this level of detail, although I don’t find it necessary to be as “long-winded” as McCarthy. His dialogue often appears without quotation marks and is written with a strong sense for character’s colloquialisms. There are moments in which the characters seem to be talking about nothing—having casual conversation that all of us have every day—but he still finds a way to make it riveting. Sometimes, the lack of punctuation may seem pretentious, but it works with his overall writing style.

McCarthy incorporates the same kind of style in all of his writing. I’ve also read The Road (one of the saddest, most beautifully written books I’ve ever held in my hands), and I’m currently in the middle of Blood Meridian (definitely the most violent book I’ve ever read). McCarthy’s books are populated with uncomfortable things. People killing people. People killing animals. People thinking about the nature of existence, and what it all means, or if any of it means anything at all.

I’m currently writing a novella (a horror story about a dude with too much hair), and I often turn to McCarthy. Of the authors I’ve read, no one else executes violence so beautifully; menacing, but beautiful. His dialogue is something I try to emulate (though I’m sure some readers will find it derivative) because it’s so stripped and raw and primal.

It’s the nothingness that happens that I strive toward. The nothingness that means everything.

The tools of writing are as varied as writers themselves. Some writers prefer pen and paper. Some prefer pencils. Some use an old-fashioned typewriter, and many, if not most, use a computer.

People that prefer pens can be picky. I know people who swear by a cheap Pilot G2. I know others who love a nicely-weighted fountain pen. Over the years, I’ve had some pens that I loved. I even had a fantastic pen made from a Jack Daniels barrel. I need my pens to have some bulk to them — both in size and weight. I’m also left-handed, so I’m always looking for pens with ink that doesn’t easily smear.

Read on at Medium.com

I love everything about conferences: learning, networking, and people-watching (post-conference drinking is a great addition, too). I presented at a few conferences over my academic career, my first being at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference (NULC) in Ogden, Utah, where I gave a talk on “Anti-heroics in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.” I have also presented at several Writing Center conferences on a myriad of topics, ranging from the pedagogy of online writing consulting to incorporating elements of creative writing workshops into consulting sessions.

This marked my first year attending the Content Marketing World Conference (CMWC), and I can easily say that it was one of the best I’ve ever been to. Every session provided me with valuable insights into internal and external marketing, but also allowed me to dissect my own personal writing more deeply than I ever had.

The keynote speaker for CMWC was Tina Fey, someone who I’d never expected—or necessarily wanted—to see. Let’s just get this out of the way: she was great. She was an engaging speaker with an inspiring story and personable attitude toward her career. She spoke quite a bit about her writing process and her success as a director, writer, producer, and actor, and (as mentioned in previous posts) a lot of it comes down to #JustF***ingDoingIt™.

However, CMWC really got me thinking about audience and objective. While I believe strongly in the power of literature and storytelling, I also find myself (a little more often than I’d like to admit) asking: “Who the hell cares?” Sure, I feel a personal connection to my characters, settings, and sometimes-a-little-too-subtle-and-obnoxiously-cryptic narratives, but will the audience feel that same connection? Will they understand the objective of my story, or be able to interpret a purpose on their own?

What I think I’m trying to say is that conferences force us to reconcile that blurry division between personal and professional writing.

Of course there are differences between the two—because you can damn well bet that a technical writer isn’t going to give his one-act play the same monotonous tone as the automotive manual he’s working on; similarly, he’s not about to pepper an automotive manual with flowery words and stage directions—but keeping an open mind is absolutely essential if you want to make progress in your own writing.

For example: Why not apply the strategy of creating a documentary-style marketing campaign to a personal project, especially if that strategy has proven successful?

Writers (myself included) have a tendency to get distracted with the stories they want to tell, and end up writing, and writing, and writing, and end up altogether neglecting their objectives and audiences. Whether we like it or not, those two things are important because they give us they focus and determination we need to follow through.

I mean, if we don’t know who we’re marketing our stories to, who will?