Creativity eludes me. That’s the worst part of this depression. I can write—obviously. And I have a a job where I have to write regularly. It’s not so much that I can’t write, it’s the fiction that’s acting evasive. I’m having trouble tapping into that reserve of stories. Even worse, I can see the story, hear my characters, know what to write, but when I actually try writing, I feel not a wall but a pit. I’m sinking and I can see the story get further away from me until its just a small point in the distance. I drown in the inability to find the words to tell the tales my characters are waiting for.
This might be the reason I started treatment for depression. I hate that I haven’t been able to get to that place, where something comes from nothing and blank space becomes a world. That act of creation is what writers live for. It’s probably the closest feeling to being God. Where there was emptiness, there is now living beings, each with their own histories and futures, in their own worlds. And we push them along and wait to see how they dictate our own stories. When a writer says a story takes on a life of its own, or that the characters surprised them, they aren’t being artsy—it’s a real thing.
Case in point, my own novel Trading Saints for Sinners. Maybe skip this paragraph if you haven’t read it now. SPOILER WARNING! Got it? Okay? Okay. So, Saints ends with the fraudulent journalist, Caden, replacing Mephistopheles as the Destroyer of Lies, while Mephistopheles and Ariadne, Caden’s lover, are trapped in a world of Caden’s imagination. That was not the original ending. In fact, there were two endings before this one. In the first, Caden rewrote Ariadne’s life and in return, wrote himself out of existence. But it didn’t work. The Mephistopheles character was far more interesting than I realized he would be, and he needed a place in the ending. So, take 2: Mephistopheles takes Caden’s life, trapping Caden in the imaginative world while Mephistopheles and Ariadne return to the real world as lovers. The story was already dark, though, and already had themes of rape and abduction. Mephistopheles tricking Ariadne to be his lover was a bit too far, and I still wanted the main theme of the end to be redemption. I especially did not want Mephistopheles to be the villain at the end. So, the new ending formed, where Mephistopheles is seeking freedom from eternity, Ariadne’s suffering ends, and Caden takes the burdens Mephistopheles carried—tricked to do so, but at peace with it. This is the ending the three characters demanded, and it was far from what I had originally planned.
The work I really want to publish next, Sin’s Requiem, is nothing like I had originally planned. I definitely did not plan on the characters witnessing the cosmos, but that happened. And that place is amazing. Simultaneously exploring, mapping, and creating the unknown. I imagine, if God existed, he felt this way when humans started to do things he didn’t agree with, kind of a “well, I didn’t have that planned, but damn, that’s interesting.” Of course he also attempted a page one rewrite, so even he looks at his work and knows it’s crap sometimes. Okay, back on track.
I started seeing a therapist and taking an SSRI. I actually changed therapists because the first one didn’t understand creative people, and definitely didn’t seem to take my concerns with writing seriously. His response was basically “just write,” and some dismissive remark about muses. So I switched therapists and after talking to my new one about writing, she was much more understanding, and promised we’d “get there.” This was the right response. She saw how much it meant to me and how much it troubled me, and didn’t dismiss it. Most importantly, and very different from the first one, is that she doesn’t want me to try and force myself to write.
A couple of months ago, I was afraid I would always feel turmoil when writing, forever. In November, right before the election, I participated in a write-a-thon, an event I love, and I even wrote a post on how to do well at one, because I’ve excelled at the 12 hour writing marathon in the past. But what actually happened was 8 hours of driving myself nuts trying desperately to make my characters do what they needed to do, and not caring so much about the story as I was about just writing something—anything. And at 8pm, I called it quits. I couldn’t do it. The next day, after I recovered, I knew that I needed to do something about the depression. And then I waited until February to actually do something about it.
I’m also getting frustrated at other writers questioning medication and therapy—it’s not going to impede your creativity. It will help. If you had diabetes, you would take insulin, right? Would you question someone for taking the medication? Probably not. In most cases, a mental illness is a physical illness. So, if you’re a writer who thinks they are too good to take medication, or that it will halt your precious method….shut up and see a doctor.
I’m hoping that sometime this summer, I’ll be able to finish my edits of Sin’s Requiem. But I won’t rush it. I want it to feel right. I want to be God again.
On the first Saturday of November, Rosemont College hosts a semi-annual write-a-thon as part of the completely insane and emotional disaster we call NaNoWriMo—the National Novel Writing Month. Now, I have apprehensions about NaNoWriMo, in that writing, a novel takes more than a month, and forcing yourself to write isn’t always healthy. As I wrote about before, the “you should be writing!” shame thrown between writers is detrimental. But I’m not here to condemn the idea of NaNoWriMo. It can be fun for amateur writers who don’t feel the pressure of having to make something publishable. And I love the Write-a-Thon, so I benefit from the idea regardless of if I push myself to that 50k mark.
Now, the Write-a-Thon. Over the month of November, many writers will join for write-a-thons ranging from 1-12 hours. Maybe even longer. I go to Rosemont’s every year, and I go beast on my project. I did 15k words once, 12k. I make this day my bitch (though I lost last year and I plan to rectify that, mark my words). When we share word counts, the writers who reach those numbers of 10k or higher are stared at in awe with the question, expressed verbally or not, “how?”
- You have no friends at a write-a-thon. If your goal at a write-a-thon is to produce writing, then anything that gets in the way of that is your enemy. There are social reasons to go to a write-a-thon. There’s the camaraderie of collective passion and suffering for one’s work. There are the breaks for dinner and whatnot (yoga!) when it is important to stop writing and talk to a real human being for a little while. But the primary function of the write-a-thon is to write. And if you are going to a write-a-thon and not writing, you deserve to be shamed and feel shame. Unless you are running it. Hey, Rathalla Review! If the main reason you are there is to “hang,” get out. Leave. You are distracting people who are trying to create worlds and become gods. We can plan a time to hang later, but not at the write-a-thon.
- Have a Plan. When someone decides to run a marathon, they prepare for it. They train for it, both mentally and physically. I don’t know what it’s like to run a marathon, but I am sure the physical drain is equivalent to the emotional strain of the write-a-thon. If you aren’t emotionally stressed at the end of the write-a-thon, you may not be doing it right. A plan will help you handle that emotional stress. You need to know your limits. Not everyone can write 10K plus words, so don’t make unrealistic goals for yourself. And, for Fiction writers, know what you are going to write. You might have ideas in your head, but before the write-a-thon comes, have an outline or a written plan that you can use to pace yourself. As rough or as detailed as you need it to be.
- Body and Mind. Again, runners train and prepare. Goals and plans are great but never underestimate the power of a glass of water. Have food/water with you. Just like a runner, water is your best friend. If the event offers pizza, eat it. Don’t “power through” on empty. Don’t overdo it on caffeine and sugar either, even if the Halloween candy is on sale. If you use music when you write, be sure to have that up and ready to go, with comfortable headphones.
- Be Awesome. At least, don’t obsess over what you are writing. We all know the truth about first drafts. We feel amazing, but when we go back to revise, we are faced with the reality that our writing is not/was not as good as we thought it was and we have to make it shine. Don’t think about the good/bad, just focus on the high of creativity and the power you feel while writing. On my desk at home, I have a postcard from Strand Books that says “Fucking Brilliant.” I bought that and put it up to remind myself of the feeling we have while writing. So, be awesome. If you are using words to create worlds or manipulate emotions (Hi Poets!), you are awesome. Spend the next 12 hours allowing yourself to be awesome.
- Be a spiritual vampire. Writing is a solitary and deeply internal act. But writing with other writers, even if you are all working on different projects, has a strange and magical effect. There’s a connection that forms. I don’t know if it is because of something spiritual or not, but it is undeniably there. It’s almost like, when writers gather, we create an astral cosmos that we can connect to. Feed off of that collective energy.
Now, fellow world builders and gods. Let us gather and dictate the future of humankind. And if we can do that in writing 50,000 words in one month, then, yeah, we’re awesome.
I have 111 students this term. A light load, for me. Right now, I have 57 papers and essay to grade. And a few dozen discussions to read through (hybrid classes. YAY!). I’m in my office, I know I have to get a lot of work done this week—I have another 18 essays coming in tomorrow, and another 36 on Thursday—to keep up, but there’s one small problem…
I’m writing. Well, yes, right now I am writing this post, but what I’m actually talking about is something much more inconvenient:
Where was this drive and inspiration all summer when I had more time to write? I don’t have time to write for myself. I have the works of First-Year Writing students to get through. This is not a good time for muses.
Oh, a side note, anyone who uses muses as a romantic trait, or calls a loved one a muse, is full of shit. Muses are not romantic. They’ll make you feel great and then beat the crap out of you, and that’s their job.
They also make you obsess over your work at the worst possible time. So, by Tuesday next week, I need to have 111 essays graded. And I can’t get this story out of my head, no matter how much I write it. Great. This is going to be an awesome week.
For a while, I was back and forth on if I should call myself Italian-American or not. I’m 3rd generation…and is that really enough to say I am not simply US American? Do I have the right to claim my Italian Heritage when I don’t speak the language, or have the same ideals as many Italian? Or live the same way? Haven’t I been thoroughly Americanized by now? Haven’t I…
You know what? That’s a pretty bullshit existential crisis I was having. It’s a conflict born out of white privilege. I can be US American…or I can be Italian-American. I can choose that. But only white Americans have that luxury. I have an awesomely diverse group of friends, and despite various creeds, genders, colors, and sexualities, it’s upsetting to think that outside of this community, we are treated very differently, but one of those ways is pretty arbitrary…adjectives.
Maybe 10 times a year, I am mistaken for Middle Eastern, and treated as an Arab-American for 30 seconds before they realize I’m Italian. When my family lived in Southwestern Virginia, it was made very clear that we were not white, just looked white. We were “passing” as white. We were the Other, and were treated accordingly. And it sucked. And we moved. And it ended. But my friends who do have darker skin colors, regardless of what that heritage might be, can’t simply move away from it. Yet for 99.999% of my life, I’ll be treated like a white American.
And this is kind of new for an Italian. 2 generations ago, regardless of location we were a minority. Now, we’re not. White includes Southern European countries now. And that’s simply luck. We are very damned lucky not to be treated like our 1st generation ancestors were. Which, by the way, is how black, Hispanic, Asian, and Arab-Americans are treated now. We didn’t earn white privilege, the rest of the white America just got lazy, or something. I can’t point to when Italians became “white,” but we did. And we should not take that for granted, nor should we forget how our ancestors in America were treated. Because many of our friends are being treated that way now.
So, I am going by Italian-American. Why? Because I have friends who are black, who have roots in this country going back far longer than mine, and they are called African-American. Not because of their continent of origin, but because of the color of their skin. Even if they are called Black American, that is still an arbitrary and segregating adjective. I have Arab friends whose family came to America not long after mine, but they don’t get to decide to just be American now. They have brown skin, so they are Arab-American. They aren’t even given their country of origin. I have Native American friends who legitimately have heritage here going back further than any white American, but they have an adjective because they aren’t white. I am going by Italian-American because I have no right to go by anything else. I am not indigenous. My roots are from elsewhere. But mostly, if my friends can’t just be called American, I don’t even want to be able to claim that title either.
So, last night,I kind of had to admit something. I was looking at my various writing friends discussing achievements or their work, or just #iamwriting…and I realized something. I’ve had an inspiration problem lately. I’m not sure for how long, but it’s been there. It’s not that I don’t have stories to tell, I have several that I want to
tell. In fact, that’s part of the issue—I really want to tell these stories, but it can be easy to feel like they never will be. I’ve been editing Sin’s Requiem, the thematic sister-story to Trading Saints for Sinners. And I’ll get maybe 5 or 6 pages in before feeling exhausted. Writing new fiction just seems overwhelming right now.
It’s not just my writing, either. I’m grading more slowly, forcing myself through essay after essay and getting increasingly frustrated as I do. Even just reading. I actually enjoy taking my time and savoring a book, but I’ve been working on the same book for over a month. And graphic novels, where I was reading one a day or every other day, I haven’t read one in 3 weeks. And most unlike me, I haven’t even been going to the movies as much, even though I can go again after my surgery. I used to plan my week out with movies, but I have nothing for this weekend yet.
Mainly, I want to scroll Facebook and eat crackers and not think about anything. So I am writing this. Because writing is how I am going to figure out why I haven’t felt inspired. Discovery through writing, as I tell my students.
It would be easy to blame having surgery and not being able to leave the house much for two weeks. Or that I was fighting an infection before that and didn’t even know it. But even if there is some truth to that, I know it isn’t the main reason.
I think there are two things happening. One, is Impostor Syndrome. A few nights ago, I had a few friends over, 3 of them also writers, and we joked about Impostor Syndrome being a side effect of being a writer. If you don’t know what that is, basically, it’s that you feel like a fraud and that your accomplishments are just lies and eventually someone is going to figure out that you are fooling everyone. You know, the old trick of studying hard, getting an advanced degree, publishing several works, taking on crippling student debt in order to be an underpaid adjunct. Bwahahaha, the fools will never expect me! Yeah, I know, I’m good at my job, I’m a good writer, but I still feel like I’m getting away with something half the time, or I undersell my achievements. But that seems to have had a different effect lately: Why try? I’m not as good as I trick people into believing, so why keep trying. And, side note—a writer feeling like a fraud for tricking people into believing something about them doesn’t even make sense, really. A fiction writer’s sole purpose is to trick people into believing something that isn’t real, so this internalization of the process is both a paradox of what we use our skills for, and a detriment to our own self-image. In essence, we are making ourselves into stories and characters to fool an audience, so we have no actual identities. That’s the feeling, anyway. And eventually, someone will realize we’ve just been writing and acting ourselves. So, why deal with it? Sin’s Requiem isn’t probably that good anyway, and if people think it is, I fooled them (again, that’s actually my job).
So, that’s a part of it. I don’t want to deal with keeping up the truth [that my brain keeps telling me is a lie], but it’s also motivation. I’m tired. Not just physically, but we’re ending March, it’s been a hectic academic year, and it’s not over yet. Enrollment is down horribly, so I have no summer courses and I am going to have to work a different job to pay rent and whatnot, and I don’t want to think about more work. And when you’re a writer, the thing you love—writing—is work. A chef may love cooking, but that doesn’t mean that every night at their restaurant, they’re motivated to cook. When your passion is also your job, it’s sometimes hard to remember the passion part of it.
Hopefully, when the term is over, I can break from everything for a few days. No teaching, no writing, just read lazily and watch movies. Or maybe I’ll find a burst of inspiration before that and I can get The Catholic Noir Double Feature finished and discuss things with my publisher for the Winter. Team up with a friend for some book fairs.
But being a creative person and not feeling motivated to produce creative work is frustrating. It’s like wanting to drive forward, but the car is stuck in neutral. I want to do more, just can’t find the energy to do more.
The worst thing a writer can do is force themselves to write. That bragging/condescending thing about “You should be writing EVERY DAY” is a lie. It doesn’t mean the writer is lazy, it just means
the 900 narratives going on in their head have some gridlock. It’s mentally exhausting, and it’s not that the writer is taking a day off, it’s that they’re working things out in their head, and it kind of sucks. It’s easy to feel like you’re not doing anything when you just don’t feel ready to commit the idea to paper. “Just write” is bullshit. But it still hurts not to write, it just also hurts to write. That’s the other thing I’m feeling. I’m just not happy with whatever small bits of new writing I’ve attempted, and it’s bringing me down.
All right, I’ve written almost 1000 words on not writing. Actually, it will be 1000 words NOW! I have no answers. I hate the bullshit responses I listed above that people, even other writers, think is helpful when they really aren’t. If an architect said “I don’t know what the building will look like” would you tell them “Well, just build it anyway!” No. Because it’s not that simple. It never is. So, I want to write, I have little inspiration and no energy, but a dozen stories to be told.
I’m going to blame my students. Can I do that? Blame them and move on? Yes. It’s all their faults. Okay. Still doesn’t solve anything, but students are the worst, am I right?
Damn it. I said I would find an answer. None yet.
I’m just going to keep revising Sin’s Requiem 6 pages at a time and hope for a Winter publication.