can i tell you what i've been working on + why it scares the hell out of me?

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Last weekend, I wrote complained about the business of creativity in the age of the internet. All of the social media and the metrics and the followers and the numbers. Basically, all these indicators I didn’t care about, because what could a “follower count” have to do with the stories I write?Clearly, I’m behind the times, but, people, I didn’t get hip to Instagram until late 2016. My best friend in college was all over it right away, and I watched all the filtering and the sharing, but she was so much trendier than me. Leave that for the cool kids. Until last week, I didn’t know how many followers I had anywhere.

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In sixth grade, a classmate told me “nobody likes a try hard” after they saw the score at the top of the “descriptive essay” I wrote about my house at Christmas time. 98 out of 100, and my teacher docked those two points because I used the word “scintillating” to describe the lights on the tree. He said he didn’t know what the word meant. I needed a dictionary, why wouldn't you? This was year I was called “dictionary” instead of by my name, because classmates caught me with an OED during homeroom.

What does this have to do with promoting my writing? I’m not sure, but it’s what I think of every time I hit send on a new essay or post.

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I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I was four when I told my best friend that I wanted to “make books.” When I love something, I love it hard, and when I go after something, I go after it hard. I think I’m so hesitant to share, promote, beg for readers, because at some point I began to conflate earnestness and effort with something to be  ashamed of. Another mark against Torrie, the weird kid who read the dictionary, who keeps sharing even though can’t she take a hint, nobody cares.

I have Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls in my head: “[Least Complicated] is a song I wrote thinking about my little boyfriend Danny in 6th grade. He was so cute, and I went to Woolworth’s and I bought him a ring with my allowance. And as soon as I gave it to him, I knew it wasn’t the cool thing to do. And that was just the beginning of the rest of my life.”

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This is the locked room I’ve been circling.

I know in the deepest parts of me what I want: To write. To have a readership for my writing. I want my writing to find life outside myself.

I spent this week getting fired up about the whole of the “writing life.” My strategy so far has been to hit send and see what happens next. I've gotten a few short stories out of this strategy, but that's about it.

So here’s where I am now. I’m working on upping my game, expanding my repertoire, building myself a brand new bag, if you know what I mean. I’m sharing this both as a request for support if you like what I write, and as an explanation if you’re feeling spammed.

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Learning: Above all else, I’m learning. The goal here is steady, practical education. While I love the accumulation of knowledge, I don’t (yet) enjoy the process of learning new skills or systems. I frustrate easily, and want to skip ahead to the part where I know what I’m doing.  Since I can’t do that, I’m trying to avoid my usual pattern of obsession + burn out.

I’ve downloaded half the Jenna Kutcher Goal Digger library, and am listening between episodes of The West Wing Weekly and My Favorite Murder(a woman can only hear the word “girlboss” so many times in a row). I’m reading Jane Friedman for the smart truth that it is, and have subscribed to Felicia Sullivan’s newsletter (though her wheelhouse is geared towards freelancers and brand/business strategists). I’m vetting a handful of other resources tailored to education I'm looking for. Other recommendations? Send them my way!

She Breathed Deeply: Did you know I changed the name of my blog last year? I’m upping how frequently I post. You know what I write about: what I’m reading, what I’m learning, how I’m growing or healing. This summer, you can expect some travel, lots about leaving home, lots about living in the DMV. Other perennial topics include mental health (anxiety + depression remain my specters), creative writing, the odds + ends of what’s capturing my attention. If you’re a frequent reader, let me know what you like and what you don’t like! I love feedback. I need feedback.  Seriously, give me feedback.

Medium: This is basically a different and more elegant form of blogging. I’ve read voraciously on Medium for several years, but have only published sporadically and without strategy. I’ll be sharing more essay-length pieces here, as well as some of my fiction. Check out one of my favorite essays I’ve ever published and follow along over there too.

Instagram: I’m going to be all over Instagram, and I’m going to be uncomfortable as hell about it. I’ve talked about followers, and while I understand the value ascribed to followers from a “platform” standpoint, I’m not looking to just jump my number.  I’m learning about the vibrant communities on Instagram, about how it can be a platform for connection. Follow for flowers, Ferris wheels, and the occasional photos of me.

Creative Writing: I have a few short story ideas I’m developing, but my biggest focus is still what comes next after I finishing the latest draft of my novel. I had several kind people ask to read my manuscript (gift upon gift, people), and those who finished had positive, constructive comments. The resounding response is don’t stop now.

I won’t lie, that’s pretty amazing to hear. I was ready for a “good effort,” and a polite suggestions that I throw the towel in. I want to hear from a few more people (offer still stands - you want to read 272 pages about a woman finding her way back home, I’ll send you the PDF) before I fully commit to a fifth draft, but I see that on my horizon.

Elsewhere, I’m focusing on the ideas I have for what I want to write about. Already, I’m finding myself granting “permission” to explore aspects of my writing I wouldn’t have pursued before. Why not write about what I’ve learned about money? Why not submit essays to suitable publications? Why not respond to requests for books reviewers, for help reading submissions? I’ve had so many rules -- fiction writer only, submit short stories only, stay inside your zone, why would anyone want to read that?

The great permission I’ve granted yet? The permission to stop asking these stupid questions.

Maybe nobody will want to read that. Maybe I am wasting my time on something that I’ll never receive traditional success for. Maybe I will stay outside the circle, and my metrics will stay low, and that will mean something for my writing career. Maybe, maybe but maybe not. Years ago, I listened to Cheryl Strayed interviewed about the success of Wild.

“There’s a long history, of women especially, saying ‘Well, I just got lucky.’ I didn’t just get lucky. I worked my fucking ass off. And then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky. You have to do the work. You always have to do the work.”

I think about this a lot, because I know I can’t control the luck, but I never want to wonder what would have happened if I’d worked harder. So here’s me digging in the to the work. Want to give me feedback? I’d love to hear from you. Want to follow along? I’d love for you to join me.

thoughts on the business of creativity

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Do you ever become obsessed with productivity? The need to keep vaulting forward? Believe me when I tell you that, as I write this an hour after waking, and already I've felt myself pitching into the anxiety of industry.I tried to explain this to my partner: I feel like I’m fragmenting. My brain is this hive, a colony of operations, except I’m the only bee inside and can’t visit every chamber. There’s the business of leaving: the leases and the jobs and the moving boxes and what you do with all the stuff you own when half of it you love and half of it you hate, but it all seems to necessary. But then there’s all the stuff that has nothing to do with moving, and everything to do with just living.

How do you make enough money to earn the freedom of unencumbered hours to create? If, by some miracle of economy and privilege, you have that freedom, how do you cut away the noise of the world to let ideas populate your wilderness? If by all the miracles of economy and privilege and focus, you actually create something, how do you get anyone else’s attention?

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I sound like I’m complaining that “no one” reads me writing, but really, I’m not. More people read my writing than I can even imagine. After I wrote about finishing my novel, several people emailed asking for the PDF. What a gift that was. Doubly, triply so when those miraculous readers wrote me to say they saw the kind of beauty in my story I’ve worked so hard to create.

No, it’s all the business of creativity. The social media presence and the digital analytics and the “cultivating community” (versus the actual, valuable process of finding people who are as excited about the same things as you). We’re inundated constantly with all these stories about people who “hustled” their way into their careers, who built brands and followings and presences and parlayed them into other opportunities. I want to write, and I’m not saying I should be be able to do this without any work (because I’m shouldn't), but I’m saying what does my Instagram following having to do with the stories I write about broken people? And if one means something to the other, how do I marry those bright squares with the emotional excavations of my fiction.

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I’m creatively restless in the blank spaces that finishing my novel opened, and I’m uncomfortable and confused by the landscape of digital creativity. (What even does that mean? Again, I write. Does that make me a digital creative? Does simply being creative in 2018 mean you are, automatically, a digital creative?)

Yesterday, I sat in a garden for two hours, and finally left, because I couldn’t still my mind. These two trajectories, moving away and building my writing, are linked, because I’m looking at this move as an opportunity to refocus my time and energy. My brain is a to do list a mile long, and it’s an internet browser left open on too many tabs. 

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I’ve questions I want answered and stories I want told. How do I drill down past all the extra stuff to think as deeply as you need to write? And then how do I pop back above the surface, and make space for myself in the already crowded room?

i finished my novel*

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*Draft four. Saying "I finished draft four" doesn't make a snappy title. People! I finished the fourth draft draft of my novel!

I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I didn’t think I’d ever do this. I wrote the first real draft (I’ve been kicking around these characters + this story for over a decade) my senior year of college. I hammered out pages upon pages during lectures, and when I was studying, I’d make deals with myself: “Finish reading this article, and you can write for twenty minutes.” “Finish this section of your thesis, and you can write for the rest of the night.” When I finished that first draft, I was surprised to find myself at the end. I’d been following the rope so blindly that I hadn't stopped to ask myself what it was I creating. Then, all of a sudden, there it was, the end of the rope. I’d run out of story.

It was a brutally cold Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and I was the only person on the street when I walked to the nearest copy to print and bind my novel. I took a blue pen to my novel as soon as I got home. After a harrowing second and third draft that made me wonder if I even wanted to write, I made a big deal about putting this story aside to pursue other projects. Then I ran back to it for a week, because I felt like I'd failed my characters. Then I put it back on the shelf. Then I wrote 60 pages of something new in two months, and let it languish for three. I berated myself for not being able to make up my mind. I told myself that I had one month, and if I could pound out 20,000 words of draft four in that time, I could return to draft four. I spit out 30,000. Then I filled two steno pads with a new story so dark I had to quit writing it so I could stop dreaming about drowned children being pulled out of lakes. Then I knocked on the door again to see if my characters, my friends, would still visit me. This went on for years.

In March of this year, I wrote myself a note and put it on my bulletin board. You just need to bring Ana home. I gave myself a deadline: April 30. I blew it off, and gave myself another one: May 31. It stuck.

On May 28: 92,518 words.

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This book has been the boyfriend I can’t quit, but it’s also been a lifeline to some of my darkest days. I was fourteen when my main character, Ana, came to me, flawed and broken and tired of running from herself. It took me until I was twenty-four to realize that I was writing my way through my own redemption.

I'm at odds with what I do next. Part of the reason I put this novel aside so many times is because I've genuinely wondered if I should look at this novel as my teacher, but use it as a springboard to create something new. Something, possibly, publishable. Not everything I write needs or deserves to see the light of day. But what I can't figure out is whether that's the case for this novel. I love my characters, and I think I've written a moving story about family, redemption, and loss. I also think I've written an overly complicated timeline that veers towards sentimentality, and maybe doesn't give my female character the autonomy she deserves. I just don't know.

I have a few people reading it right now, and I've asked (read: begged) them to give me an up or down vote on whether or not I work to get this story submission ready. I'm comfortable with the idea that no one beyond my family and close friends will read this novel, but I'm haunted at the prospect of making that decision.

(As an aside,  hmu if you want to dive 292 pages deep into my brain and are willing to be more honest than mom/dad/boyfriend).

For all the "what's next" questions, I frankly don't really care about the quality of the work right now. It's enough that I wrote it. This scared, lonely woman came to me when I was fourteen and mourning the loss of a family home, and she stuck with me long enough to become a real person. I followed the rope she threw me through the dark. I followed it a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time, and for the first time, it feels like a real novel.

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Last night, my boyfriend drove me through Wisconsin's rolling fields. He didn't realize this, but he took me to the land upon which I build my novel. We listened to Jason Isbell, the artist I leaned most heavily on for inspiration. He told me again, and again that he was proud, and I wondered if I was too. I spent this past week feeling proud, yes, and relieved, but also unmoored. I finished, but what I did I finish? I FINISHED, but have I? I finished, but what do I do now?

It seems symbolic, and almost providential that I finished now, as my partner and I stand on the cusp of our next act. This novel is so much a novel of Minnesota, of where I've been and what I've anchored myself to. I used this story, first, as a way to mourn the loss of a home that had been in my family for years, but as I continued to write, I used it to mourn -- and then reclaim -- the parts of myself I thought I'd lost. Years ago, I wrote " a woman does not let herself remain a broken thing," and then I made that same promise to myself.

It's a victory, people, even if I don't yet know what kind. I finished something big. finished it. Not gave up on it, not quit on it, not tried to forget about it. I stuck with my people, and they stuck with me, and if writing has taught me one thing it's that there's beauty in the attempt.

what stories do I want to tell?

"The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else's shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I'm compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It's one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day." Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass' Three Junes, a National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do - it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy's body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was "this is the kind of book I want to write."

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn't know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I've been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain, and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else's dark world, that's not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can't write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light - I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance - the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I've loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed's Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That's the kind of novel I want to try to write, that's the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about "serious" versus "not serious" writing. In many ways, that's what I've been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I've been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it's tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I've been doing, it's really exciting to give myself this limit, to say "this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell." I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero-in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don't), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.

going dark: autumn update + thoughts on writing and horror

Autumn is a country of its own. I love the dark, and the cold, and throughout the summer months, I look forward to the retreat. Last week, I set aside a day for real, intentional rest for myself. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I’m not sleeping well—struggling to fall asleep or waking in the middle of the night with my mind burning something. I caught up on a few TV shows. (Divorce is surprisingly spectacular. Sarah Jessica Parker is not Carrie Bradshaw—thank God—and so far the show pairs levity with gravity in a way that’s so damn tender it aches).

I walked through a small wood. A band of kids ran wild through the drifts of leaves. Each had a balloon tied to their backpacks, and they looked like lost explorers. I sat by a small stream, listening to first their joy-shrieks, then the sound of the water running.

I’ve written before about my tendency to inundate myself with noise. While I’m getting marginally better at existing in quiet, it was an extraordinary gift to sit still with no other goal than to see. Squirrels—they’re brazen out here—and birds hopped along the trees. Turkeys rustled their way over to mowed grass, and as I bushwhacked my way back up to the sidewalk, I scared a buck from his hiding spot. My mind is so often trained on something in particular that even exterior quiet can be loud if I don’t quiet myself.

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In early October, I went for a walk, and came back burning with an idea. I’ve been in a creative drought, slogging through a draft that I’m committed to finishing, but about which I have overwhelming doubts. As an exercise in creativity, I let myself scribble through the images in my head. Very, very quickly, something substantial began to take shape.

For me, it’s not characters that anchor me to a story, but setting. People populate my creative landscape, but they only become tethered to me, tethered to a story, when I begin to understand where in the world those people are. These two elements came together fast and full and formed, and what started as an image of a mother in the woods quickly became a story. I wrote tentatively for three days, wondering when the well would run dry and force me back to my “real” project, but when I didn’t, I gave myself October. One month to write, by hand, this story, to pause everything else. I told myself this could be only focus if I wanted it to be, and at the end of the month, I could evaluate what I was writing, and what I wanted to do with it.

That small granting of permission was a gift. I approached this story with a force that was unsettling. I wrote at night until my hand cramped, and in the morning, the pad of my right hand throbbed. I think that’s where the sleeplessness initially began—at 3 a.m., I’d wake up electric. (Particularly unsettling, considering I’m writing about a mother becoming unmoored, and a little boy found at the bottom of a lake). The page burned hot for about two weeks, and right around the 50 page mark, I began to slow down.

The amnesia I have about writing is almost funny. I romanticizing writing, and forget that it’s actually really hard. Writing is an exorcising. It’s taking what thrives inside, and prodding it to life outside. That’s hard. Full stop. I spent much of this week and last reminding myself that this is crisis, but it is what writing feels like. It will feel brutal; it will feel fruitless; it will feel like TV is always a better option.

But it will also feel exultant. Transcendent. The magic that I find when I write for no other reason than I have a story to tell is almost indescribable. There’s nobody waiting on my pages, nobody clambering for my beloved little novels. Because my name in print has been my very literally lifelong dream, most days I want so.much.more from my writing. I want someone to clamber for my stories—I do—but right now, nobody is. And that’s not just okay, that’s actually pretty incredible, but what that means is I get to write because I fucking love it. Because the story I have to tell is so exciting to me, it’s like fireworks and Christmas and a really good piece of cake all at once.

My writing-prayer has been “let me write this story, because it was the story given to me.”

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I’ve been delving deep into the dark lately. For much of my life, I’ve had a strange, hidden fascination with violent crime. Chalk it up to early exposure to a made-for-TV documentary about Charles Manson.

I don’t like horror movies—the theatrics of ghosts and demons and things half-seen will keep me up at night—but knowing that the worst of the worst only comes from the hands of other humans is a different horror all together. As much as the human cost of violence and crime repulses me, it also compels me. I want to see where the fabric between normalcy and monstrosity wears thin.

I wrote my senior thesis on the symbolic role that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson played in the psyche of Victorian London. The global tilting towards the urban disturbed and disordered any understanding of comfort and security for men and women flocking to the city. Modernity was murky, but what it did make clear was that evil has its home in humans. Detective fiction rose at the fin de siècle out of the desire to make order out of chaos.

I don’t want the comfort of order (as much as I adore the original Sherlock and Watson), but the madness of disorder. Horror comes where the world wears thin, and these worn spots are inspiring this dark story I’m writing. As I gobble greedy on true crime, I find myself caring less about the answers, and more about the questions. They are what scare.

It’s been a beautiful, beautiful autumn, and I find so much joy in watching this region prepare for its dormancy. For as much horror I’m actively consuming, I myself haven’t gone dark, the way I sometimes can. Monstrosity is a specter I’ve been hunting, but I see a world filled with light. I’m practicing gratitude daily, praying and meditating, and watching the squirrels who hide acorns in my rain boots. The darkness is a stone I can turn up.

I’m looking forward to the winter, for the comfort that comes sweet in this dark and cold season.

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CURRENTLY Reading: A Sudden Light, Garth Stein // Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen // Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott (again) Listening: In The Dark // My Favorite Murder // Magic Lesson, season 2 Watching: Penny Dreadful (I have a mess of thoughts and feelings about this show I want to share later) Writing: To live your best life, read The Golden Age and Compartment No. 6—but first, read my reviews.

on writing into the unknown

Last time I posted, I wrote about hitting "pause" on my first novel to pursue a new one. In the intervening time, I've written roughly 15,000 words (reason one why there has been quiet on this blog). 15,000 words feels immense, a whole ocean of language where I thought I only had raindrops. And I'm grateful for that, immensely glad that images have come to me and that scenes have bloomed up in my creative darkness.

But what I'm writing is hard. It’s stretching me.

I tried explaining this the other day: After nearly 10 years with the same characters growing up and revealing their voice, character, appearance, habits and mannerisms, it's strange and stunted work to try to get to know new characters. The entire setting of my first novel was a fictionalization version of a real life town, real life house, real life land. One that I'd grown up with, and one that was tattooed onto my heart.

Now, I'm writing in California, in 1962. I have nothing about a few memories from childhood trips to San Diego and Los Angeles, and research. (I'm researching voraciously. Studying images and photographs, reading novels written during or set in my new space and time. Checking out dozens of books from the library at a time).

I once listened to a pastor talk about progressive growth. He talked about being single, and feeling like he was great at living life well. Then he got married, and all his expertise on life went out the window. And just when he started to feel like a pro at being married, he had kids. Unknowns and uncertainties and inexperiences compounding upon one another with each new step away from comfortable.

That's how writing this novel feels. I figured out what it meant to write the story that makes up my first novel. Yes, there were (and still are) aspects of that work that would be difficult and daunting were I to pick it back up, but I knew where I was, what I was doing. It didn’t start comfortable, but by the end of September, when I officially packed it up, it had become a writerly second skin, something I slid into so easily.

And now! I have all new characters, a whole new setting, and one that I'm not naturally familiar with. I'm also experimenting with a child's voice, using the eyes and experience of a young girl to explore confusion and fear and non-understanding. The smallness of a child's world is an exercise in restraint. What do children see? How do they see it? What do they know and how do they know what they don’t know? It's a good reason to pay attention to children, and to remember my own childhood. But because I've refrained from reading what I've written so far, I don't know how well it's working in my writing.

I've mentioned this before, but writing something new, something so unknown and in need of so much research, is a flood of fears. That I'm really too young to be attempting this level of emotional and narrative complexity. That it's junk, that it'll require slash-and-burn editing. That I will eventually have to hit "pause" on this too, and my computer will become a graveyard of failures. That I'm wasting precious time writing distinctly non-precious words.

I am fighting to counter these fears. These first 15,000 words probably are junk, and will absolutely need slash-and-burn editing, but what first draft doesn’t? I probably am too young and inexperienced for this level of complexity, but how else will I grow up? And why should ease ever be my goal? I may have to hit pause. It may take me two, three, four, fives tries to write something beautiful and shareable. It may take me double that number of drafts to get this novel into something beautiful.

And as far as time goes, whose time am I wasting? Whose timetables am I following or failing? If I'm writing to write, and I'm doing the writing, what is there to be anxious about?

If the first novel taught me anything, it was to just show up. To set a goal and to meet it. To care about production over perfection. (Perfect is the enemy of done). To find the joy in the words and in the characters and not in my own (and this world's) ever shifting versions of success.

I feel a little all over the place here, but I write to understand, to process. I  hit my first blank-page fears this week. That choking tension of having something to say, and feeling so overwhelmed by the idea of saying it.

I’m naming all these fears and countering them, because I need to hold onto them as I write into the unknown. That writing is my passion project, and it's a part of my heart, but it's not the whole thing. That challenges are necessary to grow, and I could what-if myself into faux-panic if I tried hard enough. And that on most days, it’s the writing (along with a healthy combination of other factors) that keeps the real life panic at bay.

At the end of the day, I'm writing novels under an all but unpublished name. Nobody but me (and maybe my father) is waiting for my writing. My writing is a joy, and it should never be so damn serious.

when the magic moves: putting away my first novel for a second

Yesterday I put away my first novel. Packed up the printed drafts that I work off. Collected all the scraps, post-its, note cards, ideas scribbled on the back of receipts. I folded up the timeline and scene lists. I emptied the table I work on, and I arranged the entire life of my novel in a folder, and before I closed it, I cried for a few minutes. Said goodbye to my characters, to the world they’d been living in (the world I’d been living in). And I closed the folder. Put it on a shelf.

Literally, physically, viscerally put away my first novel.

I wrote the first lines—the first of only two things that have remained constant through this story’s different incarnations—nine years ago, in the back of my parents Volkswagen bus. I was fourteen. It would take me five more years of writing in fits and starts about this girl, Ana, before I started the Word document that would, eventually, become the first manuscript of my first novel.

This story followed me through high school, through college, through the first years of my adulthood. This novel was my writer’s rebirth. It was the rediscovery of my first love after I began to think I wouldn’t be a writer in my adulthood. It taught me small things, like how to use the Oxford comma correctly and what keystrokes turn formatting into automatic habit, and it laid the foundation for my written life.

This novel taught me about writing and rewriting, and about shitty first drafts and how all “all writing is rewriting.” It taught me to show up on the page, to force difficult characters forward, to write above all else. To not shy away from death or unlikable women. To be okay with the mess of creation.

This novel, which was never truly given a name, though it was called everything from “She Breathed Deeply” to “Overland” to “The Thing I’m Writing (?),” gave more to me than I gave to it, and I never expected thought I would put it away. Especially not when it was still unfinished.

I’m calling this “pausing,” not “quitting” my novel. Not because quitting sounds ugly, but because I don’t know if I’m done with this story or these characters. All I know is that I need time. I need a break. I need a new start. I’ve become the girlfriend who speaks in cliques, who needs to start seeing new people. My first novel has become the first love who gave me the courage to go out into the world.

The decision to pause my first novel has been months in the making. At the start of the third draft (i.e. third full rewrite) this spring, I found myself paralyzed, unsure whose story I was telling. In any given scene, the perspective shifts between characters—I try to tell everyone’s story and can’t commit to anyone’s. I re-read the whole manuscript again, wrote narrative synopsis and character sketches, but still couldn’t figure out my story.

Is it the story of the family—everyone gets their share of the narrator pie—or is it the story of one girl? Do I have to make my other, equally beloved characters shut-up so Ana can take center-stage? If they are quiet, will she talk?

As I struggled with these questions, the work involved with reorganized the complicated, epically messy timeline became overwhelming. In the face of it, I turned away from the still not-started rewrite to write a short story. Then a second one, then a third. When I started writing a fourth short story in as many months, I realized I was practicing a highly productive form of procrastinating on my novel. I soldiered up and went back to it. More duty than love.

Still not started on the act of re-writing, I began reading articles about when it’s time to quit, give up, move on. Lots of “quitters are lazy,” “quitters aren’t writers,” “you never quit, you only finish.” Then I read this, about a novelist’s first novel, scrapped for something worth writing. Then a writer friend talked (emailed) to me about her decision NOT to quit her novel. I began to realize that this could be an option.

I could move on. If it was really time.

I think most writers have that vague “next novel” lingering somewhere behind all the detritus of their current novel. For a while I’ve had two ideas. Each unformed, unstructured. Interesting, but not important. Diversions that I jot down a new note about every few months. They each had a Word document on my laptop, but they never held more than unfinished sentences and question marks.

Vietnam War? Brother in Vietnam? Male (maybe female? Not sure?). Girlfriend writes letters. Girlfriend breaks up with him. No girlfriend? Sister named Alice. Check out [book, documentary, historical document, newspaper article, etc.].

As I grappled with my First Novel (it became a capitalized thing), I had a scene idea for one of the two “next-novel-ideas” that I wrote down and expected to file it away. Then I had another idea. I bought a notebook to capture these details. Kept telling myself that I was working on the third draft of my First Novel. That I could turn to this Next Novel only when I finished my First Novel.

I read about a gruesome, 1959 murder, and during my long commutes, I started to think about domestic violence and California. I found this podcast, and listened to twelve episodes on Charles Manson. I thought about the West Coast and how houses hold onto their memories. How people can be shaped by what they don’t understand.

I began to think about characters, and one afternoon, three of them came to me. Each with a name.

It’s hard to ignore a person with a full name.

Yesterday, I put away my First Novel and this morning, I typed out the first eight pages of my next.

Part of me does feel like I quit my First Novel too soon, for all my calling it a “pause.” Another part of me feels like a sham for calling my stories novels at all, because in my head, a novel is only validated when it is purchased by someone else. (Cousin to the popular lie that a writer is only a writer after they’ve been published).

The louder part of me is excited. Electrified. I’ve found a new story, and it’s on me. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I wonder if this is why. I’ve shut off the television to research a state I am not familiar with and an era I don’t live in.

I am barely comfortable admitting that I’m “on a break” with my first novel, and I am intimidated as hell by what I’m taking on with the next. All the fears I’ve ever had about writing are converging—what will I do if it’s another disaster, if it’s hard, if it loses its magic, if it’s never finished, if it’s never published, if I’m never published—but there is that thrill. It’s going to take me a while—maybe months—to get the feel for the place, to really hear my character, to find writerly momentum, but right now, it’s all magic.   Dark butterflies and fireworks.

My Bully Keeps Asking Me One Question: Who Do You Think You Are?

In the last few weeks, I’ve reached some new heights in my still-low-slung writing life. I joined an online writing group, and was paired up with a talented, thoughtful children’s lit writer. I asked friends and family members to read drafts of my writing, even though they had no real incentive to do so. I finished a short story—really finished it, with all the drafts and rewrites to prove it—, and submitted it to a contest, and a few small literary journal. Last night, I sent in my application for a small grant. Hell, I started this blog—that felt big for me. After years of writing, writing, writing, I’ve started to do small things that are natural, normal, and necessary steps on this mythic path of “becoming” a writer. (Although I’m trying to get myself to believe that I am a writer because I write, in the same way that I am a reader because I read).

Each time I have done something, this mean little voice, with all these mean little worlds, has almost stopped me. This voice that just won’t stop hammering away at me—who do you think you are, Torrie? Why do you think you can do this? Every time I decide to step out of my comfort zone, all my fears, and insecurities, and fragile self-worth bind themselves together to remind me that I can’t do what I want to do, and that I shouldn’t do it either. These demons wail together so that I imagine people in my life—kind, compassionate people—thinking to themselves, or saying to other people we both know “why is Torrie doing that?,” “who does Torrie think she is?,” “where does she get off thinking she has the right?”

I am my own accuser, constantly reminding myself that I have neither the talent nor the worth to lay myself before an unsolicited audience. And the nugget at the center of all these interlocking anxieties is this epically large fear that I have of being laughed at—being made the fool by my own self.

I know why this fear is so out-of-control big. It’s because I have these piercing memories of being picked on, and laughed at in elementary school. The most vivid, though not the worst, of these memories is this one amalgamated memory of this same stunt that two or three girls in my second grade class would repeatedly pull on me.

I was largely friendless, ignored, though I didn’t know why, and quite, because I didn’t want to give my classmates more reasons not to like me. These few girls would do this thing where they’d start a conversation with me, in the library, or in the bathroom, or on the playground. All places where we’d have natural reasons to be moving. They’d give me a reason to talk to them, to answer them and try to engage with them, and then while I was talking, they’d move to somewhere I couldn’t see them, and would leave me alone, talking to myself. When nobody responded to me, I’d realize what happened, and I go looking for them, always finding them hiding, and laughing, and asking me how long I’d spent talking to myself.

The most vivid piece of this memory, the piece that was constant each time they pulled this stunt on me, is the sinking, humiliated feeling that I should have known better: Who was I to think that people (outside of my loving family) would want to talk to me? Would want to be friendly with me?

The bridge between feeling the presumptuous wanna-be in my writing life, and feeling the fool in the 2nd grade classroom is this: Both of these experiences involve me reaching for things that I deeply want. In 2nd grade, I wanted friendship; I wanted the girlhood comradery that is silently and inherently promised to school-aged children. Today, I want publication. I want my writing to be given a life outside of me and my laptop. Because in 2nd grade, I was burned when I grabbed onto an opportunity to fulfill that desire, the bully inside of me is now trying to convince me that I am equally as foolish and undeserving of seeking publication/recognition for my writing now as I was in seeking what I thought was a branch of friendship then.

(Is that bridge starting to appear?)

Every day, I fight against that mean little voice inside of me (so much meaner than any little girl) who is constantly accusing me of upjumping my position, of asking for things that I don’t have the right to ask for.

As I’ve started to be bold—or at least marginally bolder—with my writing, I’ve had to do some serious thinking about these internal condemnations, so that, in turn, I am able to banish its presence and power within me.

Here are those accusations, those things that I fear:

  • What I have to say or do is not worthy—does not have value—and I should know that, and I should not act like it does have value.

  • People will laugh, actively and cruelly, point-and-laugh-at-Torrie laugh, because they will see what I cannot: That I am of little value.

  • People will ask themselves the same questions that I, in my accuser’s voice, ask myself. Who does Torrie think she is? (This question kept me from starting a blog for years, and still keeps me from talking openly about my writing).

Here’s what I’m trying to say to these fears:

  • Writing or the written work I produce, does not define my value or worth, and one person, or one review board, or one editorial team also does not decide my writing’s value and worth. I believe in my writing right now, and someday, I may very well decide that what I’ve written isn’t valuable or worthy—but that still doesn’t, cannot, bear wait on my own personal value, or the value I see in my work today.

  • People just won’t laugh at me. Especially not strangers reading my work from their computer screen. It’s actually selfish of me to think that someone would take that kind of time and energy to point-and-laugh at a piece of writing that they don’t like, written by a writer they don’t know. (So many of my anxieties are selfish, or at least deeply self-focused).

  • People probably aren’t asking themselves these questions about me. It’s much, much, much more accurate that people are just ignoring me. Because this fear centers more around people I know (versus people I don’t know or people I won’t ever know), it has more power to weaken me, but it shouldn’t. People who care about me, or who find an interest in what I have to say, will pay attention, and people who don’t know me, who aren’t interested, who aren’t stirred by what I have to say will ignore it. And both are equally okay.

For the last five or six years, I have been toiling away at my computer screen—several different computer screens—writing, and learning about writing, and building an unshakable writing habit. I’ve produced thousands and thousands (literally) of typed and hand-written pages, and I’ve scrapped thousands of pages as well. I have written some really, really terrible stuff, and I’ve started to write some stuff that isn’t so terrible. Lately, I think I may have even written a few things that are coming close to good.

As I start to get closer and closer to good, and maybe even come within shooting distance of publishable, I’ve started to send my work into the world, to family and friends to read what I’ve poured my soul into, and to editors to consider. These are steps towards boldness, and steps towards publication, both of which I desire, and I am so glad to have taken these steps. Chances are, in 4-6 months (the average response period for literary journals, contests, etc.), I will start getting rejection letters, and none of them will say who in the hell do you think you are, thinking you deserved this?

Because I am the only one who speaks in my bully’s voice, and she? She’s a mean little bitch.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

  photo: unsplash

photo: unsplash

One of my grandmothers, Grandma Shirley, has been on my mind recently. Maybe because last week, when I was cleaning, I found her wedding ring in my jewelry collection. I used to wear it everyday until one of the turquoise stones, set flat into hand-molded silver, began to chip. Grandma Shirley died in 2001, when I was nine years old. I remember it being a Monday night that she died (although I don't know if that's true or not). On Tuesday morning, my dad shook me gently awake to tell me the news before he left for work. My mom was gone; she'd been one of my grandma's primary caretakers at the end of her life, and she was still at my grandparent's townhouse.

Because I was 9 when she died, and too young to really understand in any meaningful way what death was, I kept her death close to me, rolling it over slowly until it started to take more shape. When I was a college freshman, struggling through the poetry unit of the Creative Writing 101-type class I was taking, I wrote her a poem. In general, I make a clumsy poet, but there was something dear enough to me about this poem that I am at least willing to say I wrote it. (Interestingly enough, though, my first writing ever published was actually a crummy poem, taken by a girl power young adult journal).

I wrote this in a fog of anxiety, and for a few months, it was a touchstone for me. A link between this and that, between someone who had loved me, and something I was still learning to understand.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Before her garden became her graveyard, frothy green carrot tops and poppies, my grandmother husbanded, kneeling in the dirt,

rearing flowers against disease. I joined her for a harvest, Filling baskets with sugar peas and tiger lilies,

as sun melted her cancer eaten body. She closed her eyes and I fed her last harvest to the sugar snap roots.

She left a vase in the garden, and filling it with her last calla lilies, I drifted for a decade,

through rhubarb stalks and irises, where I found her vase tipped over in a windstorm.

Now I pick peas with her coaxing fingertips, sweet as the ones she blessed herself. Matching seeds taking root

in soil tilled by hand, where we each scattered handfuls of her ashes and now leave flowers in her broken vase.