Musings: Quarantine 2020 Writer’s Retreat

This isn’t going to be one of those incessant productivity posts that have been dominating Twitter and Pinterest, filled with motivational quotes and willful ignorance of economic privilege and reckless disregard for mental health.

It’s also… not not going to be a post about productivity.

Full disclosure: during the first month and a half of quarantine I found it incredibly hard to concentrate on anything. I found out that I would have to return home while I was on a solo trip in New Orleans, and I had to change my flights last minute when I was told I could not return to campus. Many of my belongings are still in my dorm, and it’s going to be a few weeks before I can get them back. In that time I steadily re-watched just about every TV show I’ve ever seen, slept at odd hours and woke in the middle of the night, and stared at the same sentence in a a book over and over again without being able to move on to the next one. I tuned in to most of my Zoom classes while I had them, but I felt drastically less engaged with the world, and particularly with any practice requiring intellectual rigor.

Aside from a little bit of tweaking and editing stories I’d already drafted significantly, writing was out of the question. With the world filled with things that make me angry, terrified, or just plain weary, I was struggling to find inspiration or motivation to sit down and put words on the page. I hadn’t been journaling, hadn’t been scrawling poems in the margins of notebooks, hadn’t even really composed a witty Tweet. I’m trying to gestate ideas for my honors thesis, but it’s been years since I’ve written a novel draft and I’ve become a much smarter writer since then⁠—smart enough to understand that writing a novel takes more than a single NaNoWriMo draft.

After school ended it still took me about a month to figure out my new groove. My twentieth birthday came and went, and as it began to really sink in that my summer⁠—and potentially my fall, depending on what my university decides⁠—would be spent in my room, with limited in-person social contact and very little to do, I elected to reframe my outlook on the situation. I’m lucky enough to have a home with good internet connection, my own bedroom, and parents with stable employment. My health is good, and so is that of my family. Although I don’t have a job of my own lined up for this summer, I can afford not to have one. I wish there wasn’t a pandemic, and I miss being able to hug my friends, and I’m angry that our country’s mismanagement of this crisis has led to thousands of deaths, and I grieve the experience I would have had learning a new city this summer. But since I have things so good, I have decided to focus on the positive side-effect of the whole situation: this summer, I finally have time.

The past few days, I’ve made some changes to my routine, creating my own personal writing retreat. I deep-cleaned my room and created a home office space within it. I’ve begun walking around my neighborhood for an hour every day, listening to music and allowing myself to engage with the lovely spring weather while maintaining social distance. I’m taking some free online courses: video editing and graphic design to gain some professional skills, and classical music appreciation to feed my soul. I’ve been practicing Spanish on Duolingo and in (admittedly) slow conversations with my mother. I’m playing my oboe again for the first time since high school. I’m reaching out to friends more (electronically, of course!), and I’m trying very hard to read more and read broadly. I’ve made agreements with a few of my writer friends to exchange feedback on stories and/or keep one another accountable about writing. I’m finally going to start submitting to literary journals. I feel really good.

Doing whatever you have to do to stay safe and sane is constructive. Everything on top of that is a bonus.

I signed up for Maggie Stiefvater’s virtual writing seminar and I’m very excited to see what insights she has to share. I’m reading craft books, but trying not to get too in-my-head about craft either. Mostly I’m trying to take in the world around me. I often write to process ideas I haven’t fully worked through, to answer questions I haven’t figured out yet and to find some new questions in the process. I’m hoping to document this process here as I write my way through the quarantine and hopefully emerge on the other side with something. It could be a few short stories, a smattering of poems, a couple short new stand-up comedy sets. It could be a novel idea, or a few chapters of a new project. Maybe I’ll dabble in stage writing or screenwriting.

But I know that perspective is crucial. I may not continue to feel this burst of energy, and I don’t want to be too hard on myself when that happens. I’m choosing to think about my work during this time as constructive rather than productive, and that frame shift is very important to me. Productivity is for someone else. It’s systemic, and economic. For me, constructive work feels more personal. I’m doing things that make me feel more confident as a writer and as a person. When I have to take breaks, and to recalibrate the way I did when I first came home, I am losing nothing by not being productive. Rest is constructive too. Doing whatever you have to do to stay safe and sane is constructive. Everything on top of that is a bonus.

I hope to use this space to keep track of my development as I try to write more, publish more, and generate ideas for my thesis project/next novel. Rather than adding to the mindless productivity buzz, I want to engage in frank discussions about the ups and downs of my writing and my life. I hope you’ll join me in this journey of self-construction.

Musings: On Originality, Inspiration, and Unintentional Frankensteining

It was a warm, dense day in April when I realized that for two years, the novel project I’d been working on was not truly my own. I had been struggling for months to find the inspiration to continue writing, going through brief spurts of energy, revamping the entire plot before again losing interest among my myriad other commitments. I couldn’t understand why this story, which had interested me for so long, was getting worse and worse even as my prose skills were rapidly increasing.

Then it dawned on me: it wasn’t my story.

I know the various theories, that there are only seven stories, or thirty-six, or one. I’ve heard that every story that can be told has been told. I know that West Side Story is just Romeo and Juliet, that even Shakespeare stole from Chaucer and that Chaucer stole from Boccaccio and classic myth. All telling is retelling and all that. I’ve been told in writing classes that what changes is simply the way the story is told, the presentation, the word choice, the voice.

I don’t buy it. At least, not completely. When you break a story down to its constituent elements, there are two major layers: language and plot. To break plot down even further, there are only two elements of that: tension and release. These are what make art great. Music builds and swells and escalates your heart rate only to come crashing together in a sigh, a cadence that allows you to regain composure and reset. But like binary code, two ingredients can compound to make vastly different works. Two cells can make a living being.

The problem comes when the similarities between your story and others are on a much larger scale than tension and release. My novel wasn’t a shimmering layer of language set atop the skeleton of some ancient, primal structure. It wasn’t a retelling, or a subversion. It was a monster, stitched together from books and movies and TV shows I liked, borrowing major motifs, character profiles, plot elements. I wasn’t rearranging the thirteen tones all Western musicians have to work with. I was cutting from Dvořák to Tchaikovsky to Wagner and back in whole chunks.

Once I had realized this, it became easy to see why my writing was losing steam, easy to understand how this had happened. In appreciating other art, attempting to recreate the wonder those works inspired in me, I accidentally wound up recreating the stories themselves, or at least cheap facsimiles.

To quote T. S. Eliot, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

I had fallen into the trap of defacing. It was disguised by pretty words, darlings I still struggle with killing, turns of phrase I’ll likely recycle into later works if I have appropriate occasion to do so. But it was defacing all the same.

In one of the hardest decisions of my writing life, I set the project aside. It’s all saved somewhere so that I can go back to it someday with a clearer head, but as of right now I’m novel-less, and a little unmoored. I’m still in a strange haze coming down from that fictional world I spent so much time in. But this break is for the better. I’ve been focusing on short fiction, and I definitely feel my prose strengthening. I’ve experimented with poetry and nonfiction, and liked what I’ve discovered. And I can feel another novel churning in the nebulous horizons of my mind, just wisps of something now: a snatch of a character here, a glance of a deserted street there, the whisper of magic in the shadows. Nothing has coalesced, yet, but there’s still time to be had and research to be done and life to be lived in the meantime. I’ll just have to be a little more careful what books I read when I’m plotting and planning next.