From Paul Park, I learned to stay in the present moment, to embed characters in a social context, to avoid emotional shorthand and instead use specific gestures. Relax control over visualization: the reader does not need to see exactly what you see in order for the descriptions to be vivid. Consider the narrative from the viewpoints of multiple characters; each character must have their own motivation, their own narrative. Most of all, we’re here to figure out how to make machines that spit out emotions, not to decide whether or not the machines are worth building.
From Stephen Graham Jones, I learned the importance of endings and taking endings one step beyond their natural settling point. There are art endings and craft endings; neither is more valuable than the other. Writing is like throwing a party, setting out chips and dip, putting on the music, and just as the party reaches its peak and everyone’s dancing, you slip out the back door.
From Elizabeth Bear, I learned that people will try to present lots of rules of writing, but there’s no magical “get published” button. In fact, there are no rules at all; there are only techniques that do and do not work, and what we’re doing is developing toolboxes and learning to use them in the most elegant way possible. Dare to suck, to let yourself fail, and learn from your mistakes. Positivity is constructive: you don’t sell stories by not doing things wrong, but by doing things right. Interest and development come from variation. Make your character want something—then, you can take it away, or have someone want something antithetical to that. Arts is a career path that is largely out of your control; focus on the things you can control, like whether or not you write, and whether or not you’re pleasant to work with.
From N. K. Jemisin, I learned the importance of worldbuilding and the foundations of how to macroworldbuild and microworldbuild. Study humanities and history; you make people real by learning how they work. You can’t write if you don’t live. The creator’s job is to recognize audience assumptions and deal with the incorrect ones. Don’t be afraid to be obvious—it is not talking down to explain your creation to the reader. Doubt is normal; you can’t let it stop you and you have to push past it. Trust that you’re a skilled writer; reach out to friends who know your work and have them remind you of the quality of it.
From Sheila Williams, I learned that, when you send out your story, it’s a goodbye: the more writers try to rewrite in galleys, the more they introduce error. Trust in your story. Editors are all different and have their own preferences. Start the story by allowing readers to get to know the characters instead of having descriptive phrases like “recently reelected president.” When you go to conventions, make an effort to talk to one or two people you didn’t know before.
From Michael Swanwick, I learned that stories are about relationships: you don’t want things just happening; you want people talking to each other. You need at least three characters to form a story; just two is a tug-of-war, an editorial or allegory and not quite a story, whereas a third character exerts pressure on the protagonist and antagonist to take them to unexpected places. Focus on sensory words and verbs that are specific; minimize the use of “gray words.” You’ve got to fake it and sit down and think you’re a good writer—every writer hates the sound of their own voice as they’re writing before they move on. Have faith not in yourself but in the writer you’re going to be.
What I learned from classmates
From Taimur, I learned optimism and positivity, that happy endings need not be trite endings. Speaking unabashedly about what you love will transform any topic into a fascinating one—something as mundane as touching a rock can become magical with passion.
From Betsy, I learned hospitality and generosity, to reach out to support people, to offer kindness without attached expectations.
From Elizabeth, I learned to maintain boundaries, that it was okay for me to retreat when I needed to.
From Jane, I learned self-care, to reach out to people when I needed help, and trust that they would be there to support me and empathize with me.
From Octavia, I learned to write what interests you and to persist in writing what you like, even if you don’t find an audience that gets every nuance in your story at first.
From Paul, I learned to go weird in my stories, that running wholeheartedly with a concept can make it work.
From Alex, I learned to stick to your own style, to trust in your own voice.
From Lora, I learned the depths of how beautiful language can be; I learned that something as simple as a drawing can make so many people happy.
From Cae, I learned to love wholeheartedly, to feel with all my being and throw myself into stories unafraid.
From Jon, I learned to experiment, to be willing to write something that could be divisive.
From Gunnar, I learned resilience and rising up to the challenge.
From Emma, I learned warmth and friendship, to ask for a hug when I needed one.
From Shiv, I learned to chill out, to trust in my own history of things working out: “Wouldn’t you say that someone who ignores history is a fool?”
From Mitch, I learned the importance of play, both in exploring concepts through stories and also through board games.
From Jess, I learned to be honest in critiques and to be brave in pointing something out that could be a problem.
From Gabriel, I learned to embed stories in community, to consider power dynamics and activism in worldbuilding.
From Cadwell, I learned to explore the personal in my work, to try different concepts.
What I learned from Huw & Neile
Compassion. Support. That there are people out there who have my best interests at heart, who are there for me 100% of the time. To reach out before anything happens and trust in their advice.
What I learned from myself
I learned about my own resilience, my own persistence.
I learned that doubt and moments of “everything is awful” are part of my process and happen every time, and that the important thing is to keep plopping down words until the feelings pass and I have a draft.
I learned that I can do this writing thing, that if I keep at it, I’ll get somewhere with it.
I’ve been trying to write this blog post for twenty minutes now. I’ve started it three times, only to have my brain interrupt me and tell me that it should be flowing from my fingertips perfectly formed, that everything is awful if things aren’t happening that way.
But sometimes creation is slow. Sometimes creation needs time to percolate: to condense and arrive at its own form, its own existence.
And sometimes you need to tell scumbag!brain to shut up and create nonlinearly. To give yourself permission to be messy, disorganized, nonsensical.
Sometimes you need to be imperfect.
So here goes.
✦ ✦ ✦
February was a really great month for me—I finished revising a lot of stories and wrote a couple new ones; everything seemed to be working out.
Then, at the beginning of March, I finished a story and struggled to write more.
Where was all that energy that was feeding me in February? Where was all the genius? Was I sliding back into a depressive episode; would I lose two, three, four more years to mental illness and find myself unable to write again?
I was anxious. I lamented about my sudden dry spell to my therapist; I talked about how I felt like I always needed to be creating, how I needed to be productive, or else the bad brain would catch up to me. How this dry spell was killing me; how I felt so worthless every time I opened a new document and stared at it, unable to come up with any words.
After listening to all this—and remarking that a blank document is a terrible source of inspiration, anyway—my therapist asked, “What if it’s not a dry spell, but a moment of rest?”
A moment of rest?
I thought about that. The truth is, these were story drafts and story ideas that I’d been nurturing since October, November. I had a reserve of energy to draw from.
Then, my batteries ran out—no, let’s rethink that: then, I expended the energy I’d saved up, and now my batteries needed to recharge.
Not a dry spell, but a moment of rest.
The idea was liberating, but hard to internalize. It’s been a month since that conversation, and I’m still trying to counter thoughts that tell me that I’m worthless when I’m not creating; I’ve had to battle back those voices multiple times even over the course of composing this post.
Reminding myself that my worth is not contingent on my productivity has helped: no matter how much my culture tries to tie human value to labor, it’s a false equivalence. A few other things that have helped:
Giving myself permission to write badly.
Giving myself permission to not write.
Giving myself permission to rest.
So, that’s where I am right now. Things have been quiet around my blog this month because I’ve had little energy, and I’m trying to allow myself to rest to recover that energy.
I’m creating at my own pace. I’m taking much-needed time to recharge.
I’m so honored to be a part of the Clarion West class of 2016! I’ve already started chatting with classmates on Twitter, and I can tell it’s going to be a great experience. Seattle is gorgeous, and I’m ready to learn, make new friends, and work hard. 😄
I’ve also been happy with the diversity of my class—I’m not the only nonbinary/trans person, not the only disabled person, not the only person of color (far from it!). Having a diverse group makes me feel like I can breathe out a sigh of relief, as I always feel safer in more diverse spaces than less diverse ones.
I’ve been thinking too about my previous study abroad experiences. While Seattle doesn’t count as “abroad” for me (though it will for others—another aspect of diversity in my class!), it’s still going to be a home away from home for six weeks, filled not only with fun, but also with pressure. When I did study abroad programs in undergrad, I always burned out and broke down from overexertion and a lack of self-care. But I’m hoping to prevent that this time around and to reach out, both for my own sake and to help support others.
As I wrote in my personal statement, “I would love to see everyone succeed and would do my best to help others, whether that’s through helping them with self-care or with thoughtful critiques.” And I intend to commit to that. The camaraderie of Clarion West is perhaps the aspect I’m most excited about—while it’s scary to me, a shy introvert, to put myself out there to strangers, it’ll be worth it.
After I announced my acceptance on Twitter, Evan Mallon, a Clarion 2015 graduate, offered me a bit of advice:
@sqiouyilu advice i wish I would have followed: if the choice is write or hangout. Always hangout. You will only get your six weeks once.
I’ve been reflecting on that. The writing, the instructors; they’re only a part of the experience. From what I’ve seen of Clarion and Clarion West graduates, the relationships between students in your cohort are what last.
So here’s to overcoming my fear of new situations with kindness and compassion, with patience and love. I can’t wait for Clarion West (83 more days!) and to meet everyone in person. 💖
Engage in some form of physical activity. Whether you’re fidgeting or taking a walk, both will help to convert all that anxious energy into a different kind of energy that can be released.
Take deep breaths. Deeeep breaths. The kind where your diaphragm goes down to maximize the amount of air your lungs draw in. Count to five on each inhale and on each exhale. Breathe.
Have you eaten in the past 2–4 hours? Have you had a drink of water? Try doing those things. Even a small snack can help.
Fold a piece of paper in half. On one half, write “Things I can control.” On the other half, write “Things I can’t control.” You know that thing you’re ruminating about? Break it down and start categorizing all the pieces. Do what you can for what you can control. Take deep breaths and remind yourself that you can’t do anything about what you can’t control.
You know what, even if you’re terrible at what you do, that doesn’t impact your worth. You have inherent work regardless of how “productive” or “unproductive” you are, how good you are at something or how terrible you are at it. Tell your brain it’s wrong when it insists on lying to you and telling you that your worth is tied to un/productivity.
True fact: Your friends love you. Seriously. No, stop saying that that’s false. It’s true. They believe in you. They’re there for you. Hell, say hi to one of them. Strike up a conversation. It doesn’t have to be anything deep. I know you don’t want to be social, but sometimes we have to do what we don’t want to do to stop feeling crappy. They’re called opposite-to-emotion actions for a reason.
Compliment yourself. If you can’t muster up that energy, compliment someone else. Smile at the cashier. Be nice to someone. Sometimes sending positive energy out to others will bounce that energy back to you. Even if it doesn’t, at least you made someone else’s day better.
You matter. You matter. You matter. Yes, you, the person reading this—you matter. Your brain is telling you falsehoods and yet still you’re here. That’s brave as fuck. You matter so much. I believe in you. Yes, you from the future rereading this post, I still believe in you too. You have inherent worth. You matter.
Every moment you’re here fighting off scumbag!brain’s lies is another moment you’re alive. Scumbag!brain will fade, scumbag!brain will rear up again, but every time you keep fighting and you keep getting stronger. You exist and have worth despite what scumbag!brain says. Scumbag!brain speak in lies. It’s wrong.