Posts Tagged ‘writing’

On Auditioning New Beliefs

Beliefs are funny things to me. When I was younger, beliefs were like flags on the moon, poles in the sand, ways to stake out your self in the world: I believe this, therefore I am. You can believe in God; you can believe in karma; you can believe in divine retribution, feminism, positive thinking, social justice, attachment parenting, crystal healing, astrology, creationism. Sometimes you inherit beliefs; sometimes you come to adopt them. But they form part of your identity.

As I get older, though, I find part of the process of growing up and (hopefully) wiser is unearthing the beliefs you didn’t even realize you have, those unconscious yet deeply rooted mental assumptions that help you interpret the world. A lot of these hidden beliefs — at least in my experience — satellite themselves around areas like sex, love and money — you know, those chthonic, shadowy areas where compulsions and contradictions lodge themselves. Which, of course, makes them even more fascinating to me, these areas being so taboo and shrouded in a kind of dark silence in our culture. The areas hold beliefs like: Men will hurt me. I can’t trust women. If they really get to know me, they’ll think I’m a fraud. Being rich makes me a terrible person. I don’t deserve this money, this happiness, this stability. I can’t trust anyone. People let me down. People suck. Happiness is an illusion, or for chumps.

Often these are beliefs we would never voice or agree with consciously, but when you look at the pattern of behavior — especially behavior or decisions you can’t understand with yourself, and you have to craft the most convoluted explanations to justify them to yourself and your friends — you realize these unconscious beliefs are what’s guiding your behavior.

It takes a lot of work to even see these beliefs, much less root them out and then change them. You could say it’s the work of a lifetime, really, and I’m sure people spend hours of reflection and therapy to do it, especially when you’re working with really intense areas of life and psyche. I think part of the process of getting wiser is realizing these kind of beliefs are more elastic and pliable than you think — though softening them can be brutally hard work.

But beliefs and assumptions underlie less loaded areas of life, and it’s a little more fun to play with them here. Like beliefs about something like fashion: I can’t wear pink; I’m not a prints person; black is for goths; older women can’t wear skirts above the knee; only neutrals can be chic. It’s sort of fun to challenge these periodically, and a pleasure to experiment with expanding your own boundaries — and it’s why half of my underwear drawer is crazy pink-based patterns, which is not something people would often guess about me. But there you go!

Lately I have been thinking over certain assumptions I’ve made about writing in particular, like what a “successful” writing session should look like, or how to write a novel. Some of these are borne by personal experience or given to me by instruction or education, like the idea that “real writers” write everyday, or write in the morning, or write for 2-3 hour blocks of uninterrupted yet caffeinated time. But of course people change and grow all the time, and shouldn’t we test these beliefs every now and then? And even if these beliefs are “true,” wouldn’t your conviction in them be stronger by testing them out again?

So I’ve been experimenting with new things in terms of writing that go against my ingrained beliefs on the craft. The first step: look at my behavior and try to root out what beliefs were motivating them. Like, some days I would scrap writing for myself altogether because I didn’t have a “quality block” of time for it…which only made me feel guilty deep down for skipping the day. Sure, a block would be ideal, w=but who often leads an ideal life, day in and day out? So I decided to challenge that recently, and audition the belief that “20 minutes is enough.” The result is, well, more writing and less guilt.

Another writing belief of mine to challenge a novel had to be drafted in a certain way. People assume novels are written chronically, and for the most part, I’ve been taught to write that way, even in draft form. But lately I’ve been working on just major scenes and turning points first, and it feels more fun and energetic. Words are flowing, characters are developing, worlds are building, and the result is just a lot more pleasure, not to mention a lot less time sitting there staring at the screen, wondering how I was going to get myself to the next interesting part.

And finally, I’m challenging my own internal notion that my creativity/writing energy is limited. I labored under the idea that there was only so much I could write a day, and if I wrote too much and too widely, I’d burn out. This belief affected me in that it created weird resentments and guilts: I’d feel angsty because I had to write so much for my job and couldn’t focus on my fiction. Or I’d feel weird about blogging when I felt like I should work on my novel, or vice versa.

Of course, there are only so many hours. But time, though related, is different from energy. But what if I played around with the idea that there’s more than enough energy for the novelizing, blogging and work-related writing. So I decided to fuck it all and write everything when I felt like it, and just pretend like I would never burn out as a writer.

I do find that writing begats more writing — especially if I don’t limit it to just a block of 2-3 hours of supposed quality time and feel good about writing in snatches here and there. Quality creative time isn’t related to duration, but the ability to focus and imagine vividly and clearly, so 20 minutes of clear focus is better than an hour of unfocused time. And part of creating that unimpeded focused yet keen mindset is, ironically, removing the weirdly outdated, subconscious emotional and mental noise that unchallenged beliefs and assumptions give you.

Deep down, I think that’s when you know a belief — no matter where in life — is no longer serving you — when it’s blocking you with guilt, unhappiness, resentment and fear. That’s when you know it’s time to play around with something else better. I can do that with writing or fashion fairly easily — and of course, it’s the work of a lifetime in other areas of life. But worth it, I think, because who doesn’t want to be free of guilt, resentment and other emotional headless horsemen?

Six Semi-Related Thoughts on Reading, Writing, Thinking, Wisdom vs. Information and Other Random Topics

From street kitten to literary felineSometimes when you’re blocked as a blogger, the key is to simply blog. Maybe not publish, but just write and see what happens. Sometimes I’m convinced blocks happen because you want to write about subjects you perhaps don’t often write about in a particular space. But something — self-judgment, overwhelm, lack of confidence, low energy, life — gets in the way. And when you don’t obey your inner prime directive, well, nothing comes out — everything gets blocked.

(It reminds me of a useful metaphor I once read somewhere self-help-ish, about how both positive and negative emotions come out of the same “faucet,” and trying to repress the icky stuff and not deal with it also blocks the good stuff as well. Maybe there’s a writing/creative corollary as well?)

So anyway: one of these things I’d like to write more about is writing itself, but the idea of shaping a mass of thoughts into a cohesive long-form piece of writing kind of sucks the energy out of me right now. Let’s just lower the bar a little and present a “related list,” no? This is just a “state of the union” kind of things I have been mulling over about writing, publishing and creativity in general.

+ Sometimes I really miss writing more critically/whatever-y/essaylike about stuff like music, movies, books and all that. Sometimes I do that a little, here, but it doesn’t feel quite right for this space and I’m tired to trying to figure out a way to make everything fit. Sometimes I think of starting a new Web “thing” — because I LOVE to start new things, it’s a cardinal sign astrology thing, maybe — but then I think, “Does the Internet really need another opinionated person clogging up bandwidth with whatever?”

+ This of course is tied to my general Internet/online/social media exhaustion to begin with. I feel bad, but I don’t read blogs as much as I used to. I don’t really check into Facebook. (Sorry to people whose birthdays I missed on there, I’m terrible at FB!) I feel like all I get from the Internet is information, bits and pieces that just drift through my life and easily drift out of it, like an early winter snowstorm, replaced by the latest meme or byte — and it doesn’t feel like real knowledge or wisdom anymore. I don’t have a real, sustained engagement or relationship with it. I think about that a lot, sometimes — what kind of intellect is possible if you do all your thinking, writing and researching via the Internet?

+ I do think a lot about how something starts as information, becomes knowledge and perhaps transitions into genuine wisdom and discernment: a kind of life cycle of intelligence, perhaps, and I do think about how the medium and audience and “market” (ugh at that word) affects that process. And when you write a blog or website, what role you/it plays in that process. Which is to say, sometimes I wonder if writing a blog in general is a futile thing if I genuinely want to contribute in some way to something quality in this realm.

+ I also think about making a zine again. Like a real zine. I made one as a special giftie for peeps who bought my , and it was fun to make something that I knew would literally exist in material reality. I do so much writing for the Internet, both professionally and personally, that it is a fascinating exercise to write something that you know will only exist outside the electronic ether. And perhaps I am nostalgic for the time when I wrote a “perzine” and felt that wide-open expanse of possibility within that format — you could write on anything, in whatever format, and while the audience wasn’t as wide, they were more engaged perhaps. Or maybe that’s just me flattering myself, I don’t know, or I’m projecting my own type of engagement upon different media. (On a basic level, I tend to remember books and ideas better when I read them on paper.) Anyway: sometimes I think it would be fun to do a zine again, to create a physical object full of writing. I sort of miss photocopying, too, collating, stapling, mailing…

+ I have been writing a lot of short stories recently, but fall means novel-writing, so I’m gearing up for that soon. I stumbled upon the first act of a novel I started a few years ago, read it and realized, “Wow, this idea is fascinating and, above all, kind of that sustainable tension between fun and challenging.” Reading it was like reading something someone else wrote — I’d forgotten I’d written it, in a strange way. Which is in some way the most delicious sensation you can have as a writer, when words you wrote are somehow outside of yourself and you’re like, “Dang, who write this? Me?!” Of course, you can have that feeling in both a good and bad way, and often both at the same time.

+ I really do think people underestimate and misunderstand the role of “fun” and play when it comes to writing, especially long-term projects. This was an insight I came to late during my MFA program, and I really wish I had learned it much earlier on — I would’ve saved myself a lot of time, money and heartache, perhaps. I could write and make very serious, weighty, dramatic stories in a short format — a short film, a short screenplay, a short story. I could experiment with dense, intellectual ideas, both in form and subject, in short formats. But when it came to longer work, I found writing that intensely sad, fragmented post-colonial family saga, for instance, to be a horribly awful experience, both for me to write and perhaps for others to read. The material colored my existence, made me sad and pessimistic and writing became a chore in a way it normally is not for me.

Sometimes I believe that how you feel about the process of writing is just as important as how you feel about what you write about — and how you feel as you write it, perhaps. (I’m convinced that feelings about self, life, whatever seep into writing in this effable way, which sometimes makes it hard for me to finish work these days by lauded, “good” writers I’m convinced are total douchebag assholes, simply because the ineffable asshole vibes somehow waft off the page.) Anyway, I wish someone had told me early in my MFA program, “Sure, experiment with that crazy intense story for a few shorts, but when you buckle down to making real sustained work, write something you enjoy on some level.” But of course, I think this is different for everyone. There are some people who create as a kind of catharsis, a therapy, an outlet for pain and trauma and simple suffering of mere human existence, and they need to write crazy, intense stuff to get something out and God bless them for that. I think those writers are so compelling and dazzling in their honesty and courage. I guess I don’t write from that space, though: my demons are small fry, really. I write because it’s fun for me, because I like being transported, and I like the potential companionship that a good story provides. But it’s nice to know the space you’re coming from.

+ Anyway, writing about writing gets tiresome after while, so I’m going to wrap this up and get home and make some soup and tea. Because sometimes there is nothing better than soup and tea after a nice intense writing session, after all.

Absolute Beginners


I started taking a drawing class a few weeks ago. I’ve taken art history classes before, but I’ve never had formal art or design training — I’ve only ever been in writing and filmmaking courses.

So in many ways, I’m completely at sea in this drawing class. I have absolutely NO IDEA what I’m doing, and that is such a weird feeling. My hands actually shook a bit with nervousness on the first day as the instructor basically threw us into a bunch of visual memory and observation exercises without a ton of explanation. I felt that weird tightening in my chest that is basically “OH MY GOD I AM GOING TO BE SO SUCKY AND I HAVE NO TALENT AND EVERYONE WILL LAUGH BECAUSE I AM THE LAMEST.” And it’s true: I feel a lot slower than others in my class, dome of whom have clearly already been drawing since forever. I was drawing a little figurine and I only managed to finish the top of it when we had to move to the next exercise!

But I kind of got over my initial feelings of potential loserdom, fear of judgment and embarrassment — which I recognize will always plague me whenever I take any kind of risk. Perhaps it’s leftover pressure from my days as a former high-achievement junkie, or just part of my nature to want to do my best all the time. I’ve spent a lot of my adulthood feeling competent in one way or another, so it’s really strange to just be so at sea.

But the truth is, it is nice to be really new at something, to just leap and have no goals and just explore and find pleasure in something. Almost every creative endeavor and project in my life is goal-oriented and structured in some way. While that’s important and good — especially when you take something very seriously and want to succeed in it — it’s nice to have something where play is paramount and there’s no pressure except just to enjoy learning it.

You always hear talk about “beginner’s mind,” which is a very Zen concept that involves approaching something in a fresh and clear way without prior assumptions or burdens. But for me, the real pleasure of beginner’s mind is bringing a renewing sense of playfulness to an endeavor. It’s nice to be an auntie to young children, because my niece and nephews are forever playing. Playing for them isn’t about publishing a story or getting into an exhibition: it is having fun in the process, having no inhibitions or rules and just making it up as you go. It isn’t about wrong or right: it’s about joy and pleasure and moments — and sometimes just being goofy and silly and willing to look ridiculous. Ridiculousness is actually a huge element when I play with my nieces and nephews — the more we can flout the accepted way of doing and being, the better and more amusing of a time we have together.

Sometimes it’s nice to infuse this sense of play back into something you’ve been doing a long time. For me, that’s writing: it’s something I’ve been doing for ages, I studied it as a creative discipline and I do it for my job. One of my life goals is to achieve mastery, a kind of alchemy of skill, vision, conviction and confidence. But oddly enough, I’m finding that mastery is about keeping things fresh and even fun, putting myself back into a position of newness and uncertainty. Sometimes this means trying to write a story from an entire different perspective, or writing it backwards, or writing a poem instead of fiction. Sometimes it means attempting a new genre or form. Or it means writing something you never ever thought you’d write. Sometimes I’ll even write by hand — or write with my non-dominant hand. The trick is to challenge your entrenched assumptions and habits, whether they’re emotional, imaginative or technical. (I suppose this applies to not just art and creativity but life as well; it’s certainly a bit of a trick to contemplate changing up a long-established relationship to create newness and playfulness.)

Or, you can just try something completely and utterly new, which is the route I’ve taken this spring with this drawing class. I don’t ever see myself becoming a great visual artist in any way, nor do I want to. But it is kind of just fun, and fun is so underrated as a guiding virtue in life. Just this past week we learned line contouring drawings and one of the warmup exercises was drawing “blind” — we drew our hands with marker pen, only we didn’t get to look at our paper as we drew, and we could only use one continuous line, so our markers couldn’t leave the paper. The objective wasn’t to produce a great drawing, but to slow down and really look at something. Of course, the results were crazy-looking and hilariously Gollum-like. But once I relaxed into it and just enjoyed the process of trying something totally new, it didn’t matter. It was fun, it was new and it felt fresh and true.

Mental Trickery I Use On Myself to Do Long, Annoying Things like Running 10Ks and Writing Novels


I am not a natural runner. You know those people who are like “I run a 4-minute mile!” and “I run marathons in my sleep!” and “I run 60 miles a week!” I am so not those people. And yet I run. Even though I hate it while I do it — my head full of pissed-off thoughts like Fuck man, why do I do this to myself? — the Zenlike bliss and calm I feel afterwards is often worth it. I do the minimum possible to get that bit of Zen, but I eventually get it.

Most people hate it, but I often run on a treadmill because I like the different metrics on the screens: my mile-per-hour speed, distance, average speed, elapsed time, all those things. Most people at my gym cover the screen with towels and just run, but I could never do that, because I use them as a kind of mental game to get through any run. If I thought of runs like “I need to get to six miles,” then I would never do them because it sounds so horrible and daunting to my essentially lazy self. So instead, I have to break it down into mental micro-increments, and the resulting metal chatter sounds like a crazy person. But it works for me!

I always start off with telling myself, “I’m going to run for just ten minutes. Come on, Kat, anyone can trot along for ten minutes, right?” Anyone can do something for ten minutes. And then I go, and the first ten minutes always just sucks because my body is like, “Noooooooo, stay stagnant! Stagnant is good!” and my mind is like, “Kat, why don’t you just skip all this nonsense and go to the hot tub like you really want? And then eat a candy bar? Yeah, a candy bar! Candy bars are good! ” But then I think, Oh come on, just ten minutes and you can be done with it.

But then I get to close to ten minutes, and then I think to myself, Oh, Kat, you’re just shy of a mile, why don’t you just hit that? Then I get to the mile, and see I’m just over ten minutes, and then I think, Why not go to 15 minutes? Why the hell not? That way you can round off to a nice quarter-hour and then be done. And once that five minutes is up, I look at the all the metrics on the screen and think, Oh wow, you’re almost to two miles…why don’t you just go to that?

And so it goes! I keep thinking stuff, “Oh, look, you’ve burned 200 calories, just run to 250 calories” or “You’re getting close to 3 miles, just go a little further to get to the 5K mark” or, my standard favorite, “Why don’t you just go five more minutes and you can quit and go to the hot tub!” And by the time you’re done with the 5K or the 10K, you’ve exceeded your original goal of “just ten minutes,” and that’s always a good feeling, no?

Everything is just a micro-decision to the next micro-destination along a more major journey. If I think about how far away the end-point of the major journey is, I get daunted and overwhelmed. But breaking everything down and setting up little micro-goals is really what gets me through, along with the permission to stop if I want.

The funny thing is, now I use the idea of micro-decisions and micro-goals to get through anything that’s long and protracted and kind of boring and really not something you can just power through — you know, like writing novels! Just get to the next plot point, the end of the chapter, the end of the sentence, the final detail of the image, the end of the dialogue…and slowly, at some point, a book or story starts building up, and acquires a momentum of its own.

That’s what you live for as a writer, when the words and story and characters possess you…but until you get to that point, one little tiny decision at a time. They add up nicely.


In other news: I’m trying to make the best of winter and the polar vortex, but I have to admit, the long coldness — since November! — is really wearing everyone down. I went from music embracing winteriness (Agnes Obel, whose Aventine is really so beautiful; Bjork) to music that reminds me of sunniness and warmth. I had a few Haim songs downloaded but never really got why everyone loved them so much — they were cute but not amazing to me — but now I like playing them. I think visiting L.A. last month helped me understand Haim in a weird way. It’s sort of nice to play in the background while I’m straightening up or making tea or whatever.

I saw Her recently, which I loved on many levels. I’ll likely end up writing on it for my day gig, but in terms of my personal reactions, I just immediately appreciated how achingly tender and sincere it was overall; Joaquin Phoenix was so subtle and good and beautifully sensitive, and it was so amazing for him to stand in as Everyman when he’s so known for being dark and tortured in his roles. I loved how it looked — both hazy-nostalgic yet futuristic in a very warm, clean way. And I loved how, in some way, it was this kind of letter by Spike Jonze to his ex-wife Sofia Coppola. (I mean, Rooney Mara in her last scene was dressed and style so nouveau-Sofia, you know?) Her made me so glad that movies exist, and it echoed so many questions I think we all have about how to love someone and share our lives together. It gave no answers, but it seemed to offer some faith and comfort in waiting in the limbo for them.

We also finally watched Inside Llewyn Davis, which I liked in a very different way. It’s not an accessible or even likable film, but I found it fascinating, a kind of character portrait of a man who essentially can’t change and learn from life around him. For someone who got drilled into film school that every protagonist has to be “dynamic” and have an “arc,” I found it interesting, though I suspect that’s why people won’t enjoy it — because the character doesn’t really learn anything. It had a kind of mordant, dry humor to it, which I enjoyed. (I felt like I was the only person laughing in the theater, which made me feel like an asshole, but whatever!) And of course, the music was beautiful and great, and it was fun to see Justin Timberlake play a naive goofball in a sweater and Adam from Girls in such an unabashedly silly part. Adam Driver is pretty much the only real reason I watch Girls, outside of the sharp writing and Jessa’s clothes, so it was a real job to see him yelp it up in a super-silly song. (Go to the 2:13-ish mark in the clip to see my favorite bit by him!)

Still finishing Elizabeth and Her German Garden, but my sweetheart got me the Neil Young and Keith Richards autobiographies for Christmas, so those are next on my list! And then I found out Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove just came out on paperback, so I want to re-read those freaking gorgeous, amazing stories again.