slump

blue

Slump. Slumped over. Going through a slump. Slump. Some lump. Lump. Lumbering, laboured, lagging.

People often speak of ‘going through a slump,’ an expression I always picture in the same way: a cartoon of a tired, defeated business man, in a dark suit, with cartoon lines under his eyes. He was walking on a sunny street a moment ago, with a straight spine and a smile on his face; but as he passes into shadow his shoulders droop in time with the corners of his sad mouth. I am going through a slump. I am walking down a dim, grey street. (I am recycling bad metaphors. I can’t help it.)

I am going through a slump. Actually, I am going through several kinds of slumps all at once. I am going through a reading slump; after a productive year in which I have read 50 books, I suddenly find myself bored and irritated by everything I pick up. I am going through a writing slump; everything I put on the page seems self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring, nothing like what it was in my head a few moments ago. I had a better opening line for this piece that had scurried away before my word processing program could be fucked to load. (Fuck you, technology.) I cannot even write letters to my friends, even though I want to. I cannot write replies to their texts, even though I want to.

I am going through a work slump; at my six-month performance review it was noted that I seemed less enthusiastic about my work. It is hard to be enthusiastic about my work. Six months in I have gotten to the point where I am no longer learning anything new, and my tasks have become mind-numbingly repetitive and frustratingly fiddly. There is nothing creative in my job, or not enough of it. My boss thinks I need reminding and for my hand to be held because, unlike her, I do not announce everything I am doing for the world to see how busy and important I am. That is unfair. I am in a slump at work in which I unfairly hate everything, including my perfectly nice boss.

I am going through a slump at my other work, too, as a subeditor of the film section of a magazine. Even though it has a strong creative element and is, objectively, an interesting job. Even though the writers I work with are improving every day, impressing me with their articulate analyses and amusing one-liners. Even so I find it hard to make myself sit down in front of the computer and edit submissions, or to come up with lists of films for the writers to review. I forget what I am doing while I do it. I forget what it used to feel like. I was so excited when I found out about this job; I jumped up and danced around the room with my best friend, squealing, while our partners looked on, confused. I felt like I was making progress. I was an editor now. I was doing something.

I am going through an everything slump. An agoraphobic slump. I dislike intensely having to leave the house and feel disgusting when I do. Hyper-aware of my disgusting fat stomach and legs, my greasy, sweaty skin. I am going through a sleeping slump, sometimes. I am exhausted but I cannot sleep. I am awake, alert, but I fall asleep as if I am passing out and wake feeling drugged. Sluggish.

People think the way to help me get out of this slump is to tell me how to fix it. Go back to volunteer work, set goals, exercise more, eat better. The fact that they are right only makes me angry. I do not seem to be having an anger slump; that one part of me is functioning perfectly, overtime, anytime, all the time.

They are right and they are wrong. Getting out of the house would  be good for me. If I exercised more and ate less crap I would probably feel better. I do not think they are right about the goal-setting thing; I have plenty of goals. Large, impressive, oppressive goals; goals that scare me, or that I am scared to think I might not ever meet. I have the weight of my own expectations, I do not need yours too.

They are right but they are wrong. If I could leave the house, exercise, prepare healthy food, I would. I think that I would if I could. It’s hard to explain that these simple things are hard for me to someone who has never found them difficult. Or worse, getting advice from those who have, at some point if not currently, experienced the same difficulties with getting out of bed, having a shower, focussing on a task long enough to finish it, making themselves a meal instead of ordering something deep-friend to be delivered. Have they forgotten? Or they are living with the same cognitive dissonance I am: the knowledge that these things would heal me, but that I could only do them if I weren’t already sick. If I could do these simple things with the ease with which people say the words, ‘Just get up,’ then I wouldn’t need to be told them.

These are the things I can do: watch TV, scroll through tumblr, masturbate, pick fights. These things are easy; these things make me feel alive, if only briefly. These things distract me from the gradual frittering away of my limited time. These things can be done in a slump; in a hunched over, balled up, listless position; things that require no effort or thought and contribute absolutely nothing, to anything or anyone.

I didn’t mean for this to happen but this blog has become a way for me to write about not being able to write. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing. I am not writing any of the things I want to write. Is it enough to be writing? I started this blog because I wanted to teach myself discipline: I wanted to update this regularly, and hopefully about my writing successes. I had just been paid for writing and performing something for the very first time when I started this blog. I had all these ideas bubbling around in my brain, itching to be put down in words. Instead, I use it for those self-indulgent, unoriginal, boring bits of writing I mentioned before: these clichéd attempts to articulate what it feels like to be so depressed you can barely move; apologies and self-justifications for why I am not writing anything else. It’s not enough just to write, regardless of what you are writing. The words matter; what you are trying to say matters, whether or not it is any good, even if it is just by your own standards, matters. That you are writing something that contributes to something larger matters; just writing here, to fill up space on a page and be able to say, yes, I blog does not matter. There is nothing worthwhile in spewing your thoughts onto the page and posting it on the internet; this is insubstantial, this is the opposite of what I want. I would not be proud to say I wrote this. I will not tell anyone this is here.

Who does it matter to? Me. Me, my harshest critic. My slump does not prevent me from being angry, and it doesn’t prevent me from being angry at myself. Angry for these thoughts and I feelings that I cannot prevent. Angry that I waste so much time sitting around on the couch doing nothing. I am just the same as everyone else, telling me to pull my socks up: I think this is my fault. I think this is something that can be fixed by great effort, by sheer willpower. I start to plan. Fix-it plans: no more TV, yoga every morning, a blogging schedule, a plan to complete my novel. Some part of me still thinks this slump is something I can help.

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on character

[Note: I started writing this post late last year, during last semester’s English course at university. This means the chronology is a little off (i.e. none of this happened “the other day” – try the other month) but I liked the way it sounded, so I exercised that poetic licence of mine and left it as it had been started. Indulge me. LS]

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My English lecturer put forth an opinion regarding the constitution of a ‘good’ literary character and, to be frank, it has been bothering me for days.

I am not used to this, this doubting of my professors. Those from the English department especially have been admirable, intelligent, articulate folk from whom I absorbed knowledge, wide-eyed and hungrily.

(Except for the one we called Goblin Man because we couldn’t remember his name and he had an unfortunately-shaped head; and the one we called Cat Lady because we were cruel and impatient things. But even Goblin Man made some good points and even Cat Lady knew what she was talking about if you could get her to focus for long enough. )

And this current guy, he’s not bad. He tends to interrupt himself and forgets the name of films he’s trying to reference, and he doesn’t seem capable of surmounting the technical difficulties that plague anyone trying to use a computer within the university network, and he makes grammatical and typographical errors in his powerpoint presentations, and he doesn’t cite his sources particularly well, which is a bit surprising/disappointing in an academic. But still, he’s a pretty good guy. I might risk being a little overly effusive here and say that I don’t hate him.

But then: we discuss “literary character.” What makes a good one, what makes a bad one. I’m studying Literary Theory (its complexity and pretentious nature indicated in the otherwise-useless capitalisation of its title) and now that we’ve slashed and hacked our way through the utter pile of bullshit that is New Criticism we’ve made it to Character.

Character. A construction or an indefinable substance. A person or a plot device. If you ever want to give yourself a headache (though I’m not sure why anyone would want that) just read Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination. Just quietly, in the middle of another sentence, my lecturer put forth this argument: that we, the readers, don’t want a particularly strong main characters because we want our characters to be relatable. In order for them to remain relatable, the author has to leave gaps: no strong, fully formed opinions, or we won’t be able to put ourselves in their shoes quite so easily.

Which I think it complete and utter crap.

If I want a completely substance-less character I can wear like a human-skin suit (ew) I’ll pick up a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. Or Twilight.* If I want someone without an opinion… well, why would I want to read about someone like that? Is the assertion here that we all read to be mollified? To be told our own opinions over again? If you are looking for reassurance, it is my humble opinion that literature is the wrong place to go looking.

The whole argument seems off-base to me. If you’re striving for that kind of blandness, you’re not really looking to create a character: what you want is a narrator. Someone like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who basically exists as a vehicle for the story, a petty functionary, a well-crafted plot device – Nick’s hi-jinks that fateful summer are glossed over in a few innuendo-laden sentences, but that doesn’t matter: we’re reading for Gatsby and Daisy. On the other hand, if you’re reading Catcher In The Rye, it’s all about Holden Caulfield. Holden is a character – a fully-fledged, idiosyncratic, contradictory, thoroughly-human mess. You might, (like my other half – it’s a source of tension in our relationship, I won’t deny it) think he’s a total douchebag, but regardless of how much you like him, Holden virtually exists in his own right. He is a character.

‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.’

– Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye

I don’t want a character that slips on and off like a pair of shoes. I don’t want someone bland, or easy; someone interchangeable and insignificant to the story they tell; I don’t want that awareness of artifice, that moment in a bad book when you resist the suspension of disbelief: why would they be there, oh how convenient, they just happened to be in a completely implausible place, able to overhear everything, yeah right. 

I want an argument. I want you to call my favourite character a douchebag and feel defensive, protective, when you do. I want someone who makes me angry. I want something who does ridiculous things not just to drive the plot forward but because you believe that character actually wants to do them. I don’t want my perspective: I want someone else’s. I don’t want to escape, I want to understand, discover, learn, fight, wonder. I want Fiction, not lies.

I want a character with Character.

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*EASY-TARGET BURN. On a serious note, however, if you want a detailed explanation of why Bella Swan is fiction’s most boring, thoroughly-bland, so-called “character,” you should check out Jennifer Jenson and Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant essay ‘Buffy vs. Bella: The Re-Emergence of the Archetypal Feminine in Vampire Stories.’

self-destructive criticism

When I woke up this morning the first thing I did was check my email.

I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t even open my eyes; I just rolled over and groped blindly among the shoes, books, cardigans, bags, wool, charger cords, newspapers, plastic bags, unpaid bills, and empty drinking bottles until my hand settled on the familiar shape of my phone. I hung off the edge of the bed and scrolled through my notifications. Right at the bottom, beneath a string of marketing emails alerting me to sales I had no interest in, was an email from my editor.

I knew before I opened it that this was not going to be a fun email to read, because I had known when I submitted my last piece that it wasn’t good enough. I had known, and I had sat in front of my laptop the entirety of the day before until my head ached, trying to get the words out, but they wouldn’t. It wasn’t a complex piece, it wasn’t something dear to my heart – it was just a film review, of an interesting film that I had quite liked, but not loved, and in my head I knew why I felt the way I did about it. It shouldn’t have been a hard piece to write. But for whatever reasons the words wouldn’t come out and so I had typed up some rambling approximation of what was going through my head and sent it in before I could talk myself out of “finishing” it. I wanted to be done with it. I knew it was bad, and I knew I was too frustrated to keep looking at it, and I knew the deadline had already whooshed unhappily past. I was starting to feel a little scared, as I always do when it comes to the crunch, that I have chosen the wrong career and that I cannot handle writing.

Writing is hard to handle, harder than movie-montages of Shakespeare-types dipping their quills or hyped-up Beats frantically typing out scroll upon scroll into the madness of the night: writing scares the fuck out of me, and sometimes I can’t face it. Not every day, just some days, writing will suddenly be inexplicably more difficult to do on that day than on other days, and I have no idea why. On a bad day, everything I write comes out as drivel; every intelligent thought I have is obscured by my sudden inability to find the right word; all my good ideas whither under my cruel, unforgiving gaze.

I open the email and it tells me exactly what I already think of myself. Nice try, Lauren. Did you even go to high school? Did you not see those spelling mistakes? Have you ever heard of grammar? Good ideas – wish you’d had the brains to develop them. I hyperventilate quietly into my pillow, and when this stops seeming like a good plan I go and hyperventilate in the bathroom for a little bit, so my boyfriend won’t hear me and ask me what’s wrong. (If he asked me, I’d have to explain: I did this stupid thing, I knew it was stupid, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I just can’t handle this.) I look in the bathroom mirror, like people in movies do when they are having existential crises, and I ask the exhausted face in there if maybe it mightn’t be time that I gave up on the idea of having dreams and picked something else I could settle for.

For some reason, the utter absurdity, the completely self-pitying foolishness of this thought snaps me out of my panicky little spiral. Give up on having dreams? Did you really just think that? I know I am starting to sound a little bit like an American talk show host when I write this, but really – who, in their right mind, thinks Oh, you know what would be sweet? Having no ambition and being content with a really dull job. I could get really good at gardening. My life could be like one long Dilbert strip. 

And so I go back into the other room and this time the email says: ‘Thanks for your review, Lauren. I really liked x, y, and z – you should develop those more. Also, I’d like you to watch your spelling and grammar mistakes.’ Because the first time I read it through, I wasn’t really listening to my editor – who is lovely, and knows the value of constructive criticism (and probably a thing or two about the fragile egos of writers) – I was still listening to the panicky, scared, stupid girl who thinks a bad day means the end of a career. Or that a bad day makes a bad writer.

So I had a shower. I went to the bakery and got a coffee, and a muffin I probably shouldn’t have, but what the hell. I sat down in front of my computer and did the crazy-writer thing, where I mutter my sentences to myself and my boyfriend looks at me funny. And today turned out to be an equally inexplicably good writing day, and when I went looking for the words I found them, and my sentences made sense, and my ideas seemed pretty good, actually, once I got the chance to look at them again. And I learned my lesson for the day: whether it be first drafts or feedback emails from editors, read everything through twice. Things will look different in the morning.

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*Actually, from time to time I have wished for apathy. Most often I’m in the middle of a panic attack when I think this – I think, god, if only I didn’t care. But this, like the panic, passes.

you never know who’s listening: shameless plug edition

Just under a year ago I had the pleasure of reading my work out to a crowd of strangers.

If this doesn’t sound like a pleasure to you, then you clearly have no understanding of the warped psyche of a writer. This downright terrifying exhilarating experience was (thankfully?) immortalised on tape. (It’s probably not tape, it’s probably something much more hi-tech than that.) Anyway, it was immortalised. In the chaotic, nerve-wracking lead-up to the first public speaking engagement I’ve ever volunteered for, I somehow managed to miss out on the information that I was being recorded. Finding out later freaked me out momentarily – it’s like finding out someone can see straight into your bedroom, thanks to a combination of high-powered binoculars and your lack of blinds. (That happens to everyone, right?) In the end I was grateful that I went into the performance in a state of blissful ignorance.

My story, Under-Wired, was performed as part of Scissor Paper Pen’s inaugural Something Else event. They hold these story telling events semi-regularly, and they are always a delightfully bizarre mix. They give the writers a theme – ours was Wires Crossed – which is basically a rather vague nudge in the direction of your writing desk, and then they just sit back and watch the madness unfold. On the same night as me, my friend Zoe Anderson enlightened us on the weird and wonderful world of beekeeping with The Bee Story, and local poetry slam champ CJ Bowerbird unsettled and impressed everyone with his piece You Never Quite Reach the Drums in the Distance

Me, well, I brought down the tone a little. Under-Wired is about high school politics, “self-acceptance”*, and the sheer awkwardness that is a young girl’s relationship with her breasts. When in doubt, mine your angst-ridden adolescence for material.

In much the same way as I feel about my boobs now, I hope you guys like my little story.

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* So my much-more-articulate editors at SPP have dubbed it, anyway.

november is the cruellest month

November last year. November. Last. Year.

Most projects, when launched, are so launched with what one might tentatively refer to as honourable intentions. There are a few notable exceptions: invading another country, planning an elaborate murder, deciding to facebook-stalk your ex. But this blog, man, it was one of those new leaf moments. I am kind of grateful that I didn’t really talk to anyone about it because gawd, if I had, right now I would be cringing so hard at how New Age I’d sounded. I found a notebook the other day, started around the same time as the blog, where I used the phrase artistic epiphany. Kill me now.

It’s hard to start anything without a little bit of that cringeworthy naïveté and it’s harder still to look back at the projects you started, the projects you were SO EXCITED about and were going to CHANGE YOUR LIFE and other cliched phrases like TURNING POINT – it’s hard to look back and see how fallow you’ve let those fields lie. Typewritten Tales leads with an incredibly emotional, exhilarated and thoroughly pretentious narrator (*cough* me *cough*) babbling about the first time she managed to get paid for writing and performing a story. And then there’s a potentially interesting series of posts on one’s work-in-progress* that trail off after only two or three. And then there’s a long silence.

It is my first instinct to delete my previous posts and start again. I am secretive by nature, not because I have anything worth hiding but because I am naturally embarrassed at the thought of anyone looking at me, or anything I’ve done, and not finding it up to scratch. This is a difficult way to be when you have specific goals that kinda, you know, rest entirely on someone else actually reading and connecting with something you’ve written. I want to delete those old posts, those pieces of evidence proving, without a doubt, my guilt: I have no follow through. I, as I have blogged about previously, have such a severe case of procrastination I should be in medical textbooks. I should be studying right now. I tend to judge myself especially harshly; I have a certain proclivity for freaking the fuck out and running away and hiding.

BUT. I read back over those posts today, for the first time in nine months**, those gloriously optimistic posts, those thoroughly edited posts, those posts that link to my personal twitter account and will be viewed by everyone I know, by everyone who googles my real name (what a tiny little clubhouse that must be) and you know what? I’m proud of that girl.

I am proud of past me, who tried and failed, and I’m proud of current me, who is writing again, seriously, for the first time in over a year. I am proud that in the fifteen years since I decided writer was my ultimate aim in life and the source of any potential happiness, that I am still able to try again. Oh, she’s got her faults, that little old me, but mostly I think she’s all right.

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*You know, I honestly can’t remember what story it was that I decided to develop for last year’s NaNoWriMo. Yet another abandoned project for the archives!

** That’s a WHOLE BABY’S WORTH OF TIME right there. I could have CREATED LIFE in that time. I didn’t do anything even half that constructive. I just made awful puns that would make TS Eliot roll over in his grave, then rise back up and come and eat my brain for having desecrated his work in that way.

nanoupdate #2: the pros and cons of typewriters

I’m a bit of a typewriter nerd.

Well, no, not nerd or geek, because that kind of implies that I am knowledgable in some way about typewriters. What I actually am is a typewriter fetishist. Polite cough. Sorry. But there’s no way around it: I know next to nothing about the invention, use, or maintenance of typewriters; I know that the Qwerty keyboard was invented to stop the little flicky key-bits from jamming but – see! I don’t even know what the little flicky key-bits are called!

What I do know is that I love writing on typewriters but that, five days in, I’m already slightly anxious about my decision to write my nanonovel on my clunky old Brother electric. Probably because I just sent half an hour MANUALLY TALLYING MY WORD COUNT. Yeah. Technology ain’t all bad.

 

Here’s my pros and cons for the Typewriter Experience so far.

PROS:

I can type as fast as I can think of a sentence – my touch typing skills are certainly up to scratch.

Using a typewriter automatically switches off my inner editor – ‘cos I can’t go back and change what I’ve just typed. Perfect for Nanowrimo’s word count boosting, 50,000-or-die mentality.

It’s pretty! My typewriter itself might not be the most adorable retro piece – it’s way too 80s for that – but I like the way the words look on the page. I like having a physical stack of pages to measure my progress against.

CONS:

Sometimes my fingers go a little too fast, and switch into muscle memory mode before I can stop them, typing something instead of someone more times than I can count. Correction tape is a precious commodity, I only use it for the really big cock ups, so there’s a lot of back spacing and typing rows of x’s over things.

Hesitating before I write something, because it feels more like a permanent decision. That inner editor of mine is a mouthy little bitch who won’t take a hint.

NO WORD COUNT FUNCTION. RARGH LAUREN SMASH.

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Word count: 4,363 words. Slow start big finish.

nanoupdate #1

So… yeah. Day four? Day four. Oh, my word count? Wow, everyone is so obsessed with length here.

So I’ve had a pretty bad start to NaNoWriMo 2012 in terms of words on the page. My tried and trusted method is the 1667-words-per-day-no-matter-what: I say tried and trusted because I’ve only “won” NaNoWriMo once and that was what I did. Sometimes I even went over 1667, just to give myself a little bit of a buffer in case the next day was a bad day.

November 2012 seems to be a bad month; at least when it comes to my novel. If you are any other project – random short stories, pearly-white and perfect first stanzas to future earth-shattering epics, then man, am I showering you with love and attention right now. But The Novel, poor thing, I think it might be able to tell that I am forcing myself through that “quality time” of ours. It’s taken me until Day Four to do what I needed to do: 1) block some time out of my calendar where what I’m meant to be doing is writing and 2) have someone there to make sure I do it. Apparently I am useless without the buddy system. This afternoon my best friend and I wandered down to the park and sat in the sun, ate vegan chips and apples, talked about how scary birds are, and then we made some goddamn ART. We were both dealing with a spot of rustiness, she sketching after some time off, me writing fiction again after months of gig reviews and artist interviews, so it was an awkward but ultimately productive afternoon. I am no where near meeting my word targets, but at least I’ve actually started moving – however slowly – toward them.

Another thing I have learnt about my writing process, darling is that I am a planner. If I’d spent even five minutes doing a bit of self-assessment I probably could have put two and two together and come to the same astounding conclusion, but as it is it turns out I learn by making an idiot out of myself. Thankfully, this time, it was just to myself, no one else.

I discovered, in drawing up a family tree of my characters, that I’d managed to put one of my characters into two different families within the same paragraph. I’d read through the paragraph once before I realised this and not even noticed. I had to sit down and make an elaborate family tree, draw a little map of my universe, and start picking careers and personality traits for my characters before the penny would deign to drop.* And I thought brainstorming was just something they taught us in high school
English when we were planning essays.

So in conclusion, my new business cards are going to read something like this:

Lauren Strickland
idiot, procrastinator, novelist

Am keeping on going, and come hell or high water I will win this year; the t-shirt design is just too damn cute.

* Side note: there was a reason I had to quit playing The Sims.