My writing community consists of few people, all of whom I rarely see in person. I have tried many times to form or be a part of writing groups, but they end up dissipating before they even really get started. It is true the act of writing is a solo act. It is not like a sports team where you have to get together in order to practice. But I have to admit I miss my grad school workshopping days. I miss the days when I would enter the classroom excited to talk about a beautifully structured sentence, pointing out why and how each word worked. To an outsider, this may seem like the most boring activity in the world, but to a person who writes there is nothing more thrilling than discovering a beautifully written sentence. Grad school has long been over and still I long for these moments. What I discovered after graduating is this:
Writing can often feel lonely.
Writing requires discipline, consistency, accountability and passion. All of these are easily lost when one is no longer faced with deadlines or by the scowl on someone’s face because you failed to critique their work and give them feedback. It is easy to get discouraged when you enter the “real” writing world often consisting of rejection letters and failed projects. This is where the loneliness sets in. At this point you now have few people to vent to. Most of the people you went to grad school with found “real” jobs and are no longer writing or the grad school glue that once made you feel like you had known each other for years has now worn off. You realize that if you are going to have any success as a writer you have to make a go of it on your own.
What does this mean? It means you keep writing because you love to write and you can’t imagine not writing. Make writing a priority and structure your life around it, but make sure that you remember to have fun with it. Taking yourself too seriously, on any level, is never a good idea. And in those moments when you feel all alone in your love for words remember there are many of us feeling the same way at the same moments.
Over the last six months, I’d officially been in a writing slump. The worst I’ve ever had. I won’t call it writer’s block – I started writing this, obviously, so it’s not like my fingers are completely incapable of stringing words together on a screen – but I haven’t written anything worthwhile. My subconscious, which for so long had fought to the forefront of my mind in the middle of meetings, sleep, conversations, meals, drives, workouts, and TV shows with creative ideas about characters and stories, had abandoned me. I felt devoid of writing synergy. I thought about putting in the work and would lock myself in my den with a blank Word document up, but instead decided to check Facebook or how my fantasy sports teams were doing. There are a lot of excuses for this, which I won’t enumerate here, but they mostly had to do with devoting time and energy to things that weren’t writing. I thought maybe I’d been wrong that I could do this. Or that I didn’t have enough of whatever it was I needed (talent, work ethic, creativity, patience, and a million other things). But two nights ago, I was plucked out of my writing funk by the past.
My old notebook from a graduate fiction writing class.
I found it in a drawer in the guest bedroom, completely unaware I had kept it there for safekeeping. I looked at the notebook’s dirty cover, “Sac State” inscribed in gold across the center, and the folded papers sticking out from the pages as though in a hurry to reveal themselves. I sat on the edge of the bed and squinted at my handwriting, consuming each word, arrow, underline, star, scribble on each page before tenderly turning to the next page, to the next revelatory note:
· Henry James: “fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous…”
· meaning design, not theme design – the meaning should flow like a current underneath the plot/narrative design
· trying to prove something always results in bad writing
· Writing is always about revelation, not destination
· a good scene complicates character but reveals something about them at the same time
· stories are shaped by a character’s desire and the obstructions to obtaining that desire
· the story says something; the author keeps quiet
· you must risk approaching sentimentality but you also must never cross that line
· what you read, watch, talk about and who you hang out with will often determine what you write about and how you write without you knowing it, so choose wisely!
· Good stories always have motion towards something that is surprising yet inevitable
· Desire is a word before it’s a thing.
· Be okay with writing crap. Not only will you get to the good stuff, you’ll also have some interesting accidents along the way.
· In dialogue, don’t forget to use silence, actions, and descriptions to add complication, imagery, and rhythm.
· Picasso: “If you want to be an artist, remain a child”
I consumed all the notes with such joy. I had been transported back to my graduate program, when all my time was centered on writing and learning the craft, talking to people with similar interests, my entire being filled with words and images and emotions and finding ways to put them all together. And then, in the middle of a page, my subconscious leapt back into its familiar spot, and an idea for a character and plot rushed through my brain and goosebumps came over me. I was excited again. I grabbed my laptop and wrote stream-of-consciousness style all the ideas pouring out from my head. It was pure light. That heat. That zone that I sometimes used to get when no one - not even the magnetic lure of social media - can stop you.
And then I stopped myself. This had happened before. You have three other novels already in progress, Elison. Remember how excited you were to start those? Yes, but this one is different. THIS IS THE ONE. Calm down, dumbass. You need to finish one of those other ones. What’s the point of half-finished stories? But this is the one begging to be told, can’t you see?
Since I couldn’t decide, I naturally posed the question on Facebook. Almost all of my friends who also write said: it’s not about excitement, it’s about work. Writing is work. Stop complaining and just finish a story already. Almost all of my friends who are not writers said: follow the new story. See how long that excitement can take you. Follow that passion.
The fact that both sides were split so clearly between writers and non-writers was astonishing to me. The writers answered from a state of understanding, and the others from a place of comparison. Writing as basketball. Or writing as everyday work. It occurred to me, then, that the the reason for my slump was I’d been having this exact debate over the past six months in my own head. I had a day job now. A mortgage. A wife. I wasn’t an unemployed graduate student with all the free time and space to let my creativity run wild. I didn’t want to work for 8 plus hours a day and then come home to writing, that thing I loved doing, to feel like work as well. I wanted the excitement. I wanted the passion. But somehow, it had left me, and I was so close to letting it stay lost.
But here's the thing - if this is going to work, for me or for any of us, we have to do both.
There will be days when you can’t get anything down on the page. This is just like any other job. You don’t want to tackle those spreadsheets or write that report or make that presentation, but it’s your job and so you have to do it. Writing is your job, too, and you have to do that as well. But writing is also more than a job. It’s your vocation. Your soul. Your inner voice. And just because it goes away for a while doesn’t mean it’s not going to come back. But you have to fight for it. So unplug your router. Let your phone die. Read. Even then, there will be days when you watch The Walking Dead instead or sleep through your scheduled writing time. This will happen. But no matter what, keep coming back to that blinking cursor. Keep working. Because just when you think that’s it, you're done, that’s when the real story begins.
I hear a lot from writing friends that self-publishing is the way to go. And I’ve got to admit, it looks promising. The idea that whatever you write, you have an avenue by which to get your work to readers, that the hindrance from publication is only yourself. At first look, I have to agree, that’s a great deal. Just write, do some extensive editing, if you have friends get them to edit too, learn a little about formatting, then just upload to your desired platform. Done.
Why even bother submitting work to large publishing houses or independent presses, where you have to wait for months on end not knowing whether your work has been read or not, whether the editors enjoyed it or not, whether they even got the email or mailed manuscript or not? And even if they accept it, which is not very likely, are they going to have extensive editorial notes or not that could, and often do, alter the integrity of the piece in question? And those are only a few of the complications that can arise.
I recently sent off a non-fiction piece to a lit journal. The piece in question had a unique format where I experimented with the shape of the piece and the idea of footnotes that work to distract the reader from the main narrative in order to explore the main theme of the piece. Yesterday I received a nice email which asked the following: I think it's very well written but just a suggestion before I give it to the editor to review: the body of the essay reads very well but the footnotes I feel takes away from the storyline. Could you revise it and resend with just the main story for review? Although the person who sent this email was very nice and appeared accommodating, this person wanted me to remove a majority of the writing in the piece. A change that would have transformed the entire meaning and purpose of writing in the first place.
That is just a small glimpse into the world of standard publishing. Often it is littered with short form rejections suggesting that the work you have devoted thousands and thousands of your precious hours to have not even been read. This is what drives many to self-publish. It eliminates the stress and defeat and overwhelming weight (wait) that accompanies submitting to publishers and literary journals.
So why do anything else but self-publish? Why waste time with publishers and editors and rejections and all the crying at night at your computer desk?
Because there is nothing more satisfying than having someone else tell you that your work is worth something. That email, or phone call, or whatever it may be, that tells you: “Hey, I liked what you did there with those words and stuff, it made me feel something, I want others to feel something to, let me show it to them.” That is beautiful.
As a writer and publisher, I see publishing as a communal activity. Publishing is a collaboration between artist and art lover that connects the rest of the world with the beauty that words can created. Granted publishing has lost its way in the last 100 years or so, the United States on a whole being controlled by the Big Five, and soon to be Amazon.com.
I’m not naïve to ignore that publishing in our age--publishing in the classic sense—is next to impossible. I know that beauty and power and brilliance are no longer causes for publication. I know that the book has become a commodity for the world at large, that readers are simply consumers devouring what is shoved down their throats. I know. But that doesn’t mean I need to be part of that world. Nor does it mean you need to be part of that world either.
If you are after money with your writing, by all means, self-publish—just make sure you are a killer marketer and publicist.
But as for me, and From Sac, we’re about beauty.
A few days ago I unpacked my office. Having been without my books for several weeks, this was a moment of joy. In the time without my books I discovered a feeling of displacement, a kind of disorientation of self. I have many books. Some I have read, some I have analyzed and written papers on, some that are waiting to be cracked open. While unpacking and placing them on their shelves it was as if I was unpacking parts of myself. All these authors whose words I once felt on my tongue and the memories of moments in time when we (the narrators, authors and I) became friends: William Carlos Williams, Carole Maso, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Lewis Carol, Jean Rhyes, Raymond Carver, Silvia Plath, Saul Williams, Edwidge Danticat, and yes, even J.K. Rowling. These and so many more, now a part of me.
To touch them again. To open them up and smell their pages. To run my hand over their covers.
I can’t imagine a world without them. Without the tactile experience of “the book.” Today I sat in the middle of the floor looking over every spine. I grabbed a couple books and opened them, reading the first words I saw. When I got to Rilke’s, Letters to a Young Poet, the first words I read hit the spot:
“There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all –ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.”
When I step inside this doorframe I am stepping into myself, into home. The same smells and feelings of comfort. My writing is guided by their influence. They offer me worlds I may never get to experience, people I will never get to meet and ways of structuring language that I learn from. Attachments to such things seem silly to my logical mind, but to my soul this all makes sense.
What does it mean to be "from" somewhere? Dictionary.com's primary definition is this:
"Used to identify a starting point in spatial movement."
So "from" at once means two seemingly opposing things: a set place and movement. In 2002, Time Magazine declared Sacramento the most diverse city in America, and South Sac was probably the most diverse area of Sacramento. I spent most of my childhood in a quadrant bordered by Calvine on the South, Franklin on the West, Highway 50 on the North, and Power Inn on the East. On our street alone, there were probably 15 different ethnicities. A quick walk around the block and you probably heard 5 different languages, music from just as many cultures. At different times, I lived next to a mortician, a banker, a drug dealer who sold weed in his driveway to a man in a wheelchair once a week, a bunch of guys who played in the garage like they were the next Nirvana, quiet families, a nurse, a group of teenagers who always (always) wore blue, and many more. Diversity.
That's the place I'm from.
We are all from somewhere, and that from has led us to places we might've never imagined. When I was playing ball outside at the parks around Elder Creek, or driving down Fruitridge in my early 20s with some friends, trying to find some girls to holla at, or walking through Florin Mall, waiting for my mom to get done shopping, I never thought about the movement part of from. Where it takes us.
For a while, I played a lot of poker, and I always had a knack for "reading" my opponents. Before then, I'd always been good at conversation, understanding people, attuned to social cues and changes in inflection and how to play my part in healthy relationships. It hadn't occurred to me that being from such a diverse place helped me "read" things, and this is what led me to writing. And writing led me here.
And so that's how being from Sac got me to From Sac. If you're from Sac, or from around Sac, or been through Sac, or have roots in Sac, send us your stories. We might know where you're from, but we want to know where that from took you.
You (I) don’t.
Simple as that.
Rather, you discover that you are a storyteller and that writing happens to be your medium of expression. It could have just as easily been filmmaking. Or painting. Or sculpture, drawing, photography, landscape design, interior design, animation, etcetera. Point being: writers/writing is only one aspect of storytelling, and on that must be discovered.
My discovery was not so simple, and took two decades to uncover.
In my younger years I thought I hated stories. More precisely, I thought I hated books, because I disdained reading. From Shakespeare to Steinbeck to Salinger to McCarthy, everything given me in school I found boring and useless. On the other hand, I loved movies, the greatest being The Goonies, followed closely by Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I watched those movies hundreds of times. During those years it made sense to me that books were boring and movies we awesome, because movies involved no reading. Not until college did I understand the truth.
In 2003 I got accept to BYU-Provo to study Chemical Engineering, before I even graduated High School. I was and am a Scientist at heart. My High School career filled with AP Calculus, AP Chemistry, Physics, Drafting; all the Science and Math the school offered (except Statistics, because that is a waste of time). Once in college, my first semester I changed to Mechanical Engineering, because deep down I wanted to be an architect, but BYU had no Architectural program. I assumed the two were similar enough that somehow it would work out. After a semester of ProE computer drafting and tedious tolerance mathematics, ME was not for me. Simultaneously, I was teaching myself 3DS Max—a computer animation program I acquired from my brother (who was trying to start his own animation company). When I knew ME was out, I tried my hand at the Animation program. Turns out you have to be able to draw well to get into that program. Which I can’t.
A year’s worth of schooling and still no direction. I changed to Film, thinking that I could still follow my architecture dream and do Production Design. And my love for movies as a child had only grown. Once in the program, I learned that BYU didn’t have a Production Design emphasis for the Film program. Semester three: gone. So I changed again, now to Theatre Design, which was just Production Design for the stage. I also took a Creative Writing class during that semester (a series of events occurred while preparing for college that got me to think I could write a fantasy novel series, but that’s another story entirely).
At the end of semester four: I was lined up to design a production of The Jungle Book that would tour Utah Valley High Schools, and research for the novel was at the highest it would ever reach.
Then it was decided to move back to California, because Utah was not the place for me and my wife. I applied to California State University, Sacramento, the only University near our apartment in Orangevale. Turns out they didn’t have a Production Design major, let alone a Film program at all. So as a matter of circumstance I ended up in English. I figured, I liked that Creative Writing class, and it turned out I was decent at writing, and I had started to like books, and there weren’t a whole lot of options left. I’d already said goodbye to Math and Science as a major, which only left the Arts and Humanities.
Now, almost eight years later, a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Creative Writing under my belt, I love reading books, because I was exposed to authors and stories and ideas that interested me, and I loved writing. It took six majors and two years of college, on top of my already 13 years of pre-college schooling, to find that my love for movies was a love for storytelling.
But that is all just one man’s story. I’ve come to find that many have similar experiences, that writing is something that found them, that grew inside them without their knowing, that writing is just their medium of storytelling, that it’s not about being a writer but about getting down those stories that must be told, those stories that circulate your blood and makes your skin grow.
I assume most look at the title of this and think, “How I become a writer is grammatically incorrect, so why add that ‘I’ in parenthesis?” Because: I am not a writer. Calling myself a ‘writer’ implies that I have arrived somewhere, that I am complete and need not press on any further. Which could not be farther from the truth. The title ‘writer’ is a misnomer, because writing is not something that can be achieved; writing is a verb, it is an action, and an incomplete action at that.
You are never really a writer, regardless of your professional status. You are either writing, or not writing, simple as that.
So go write.
Be writing, not a writer.
One of the first groups I ever joined on Facebook was called "You know you're from Sacramento when . . ." Some of these made me laugh. "You know you're from Sacramento when you knew Cal Worthington's 'Go See Cal' slogan" (and maybe you thought he was saying "pussy cow" and you had no idea what that was, some kind of hybrid bovine-cat?). "You know you're from Sacramento when your family comes to town and you take them to the Capitol, Old Sac, and the Train Museum" (it's called the California State Railroad Museum, asshole. Oh.). "You know when you're from Sacramento when you took a field trip to Sutter's Fort" (okay, now this is starting to get depressing).