Emily Gilman

Making Stuff Up and Writing It Down Since (Before) I Learned How to Write


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Christian Values

The past several weeks have been exhausting for me for a variety of reasons, but none of it was quite like the days since Tuesday. I’ve been focused a lot on private conversations, and figuring out what kinds of help and support I’m best positioned to offer, and then making those offers/doing that work. I’ve been trying to keep my own head above water.

And I’ve been trying to decide what, among all of the private conversations, I would want to say more publicly. So here is one thing out of many, not because I think it’s anything new or earth-shattering or special, but because saying nothing is not an option and because this is one part of the whole shitshow I feel qualified to comment on:

I am angry. I am feeling, to borrow a phrase from Fr. James Martin, SJ, consumed by zeal. Those Men have been elected President and Vice President of my country. Those Men who would ignore the very real dangers of climate change, who would deport millions of immigrants and build walls (literal or metaphorical) to keep others out, who would condone (both explicitly and tacitly) racism and misogyny and Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, who would torture LGBT+ people with so-called “conversion therapy” and try to take away their equal human rights because of their own homophobia and call it the will of God, who would fight to get rid of groups like Planned Parenthood and all the health services they provide because some of them also perform abortions as a small (non-federally-funded) part of their work (and damn the consequences), who would mock the disabled and mock veterans and mock anyone and everyone (but God forbid anyone offer even the most gentle criticism of them), and at least one of them would do it all claiming that he is “a Christian, and a Conservative, and a Republican, in that order” and that this is a Christian nation rather than a nation that separates church (broadly speaking) and state so that people of many faiths and philosophies can live together in mutual respect.

If you’ve clicked any of those links you may have noticed that, with one exception, they are not about Those Men, nor will I dignify Those Men by naming them here. Part of that is because I am so very angry — too angry to organize my thoughts and my evidence for the scathing, sarcastic denunciation I had originally intended — but part of that is because they are already too puffed-up, too proud and full of their own self-importance, for me to want to give them the satisfaction. Let me think of God’s words instead. Let me think of Pope Francis’s calls for sincere and caring dialogue between people of different faiths and his calls to care for the planet, our home and God’s creation, with love and respect.

I’ve never been good about praying regularly, and I rarely feel Jesus’s presence the way some people describe, like he’s a friend who’s physically there in the room. But every so often the entirety of what just happened, the enormity of its implications for individuals and our society and our planet, hits me: for a few minutes it’s all there in my brain at once, the big picture, instead of my little corners that I’ve been trying to focus on to stay sane. It is overwhelming.

So last night I prayed. I thought of what Jesus experienced growing up as a poor child living under a brutal imperial occupation, his torture and sadistic execution (one of countless such executions) as an example to others; I thought of what his parents and friends went through, the grief and fear they must have felt and the danger to their own lives. I thought of the people living that reality now, the people who never stopped living that reality. And I asked for help to be brave. I asked for help to be better than I have been, for help not to turn away even when I’m afraid, even when it’s dangerous, because there are so many who don’t have that option and never did and they deserve better. I need to do better.

And I felt it then, that presence that people talk about but that I’ve never quite understood. In that moment I felt certain that if ever I am in danger because of who I am, or because of who I try to help, or because of who I see as human and a child of God and worthy of love, that I will not be alone. Jesus will be there, because he is intimately familiar with those dangers, those fears. He lived them. In Catholicism, we believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. (It’s a mystery. Just go with it.) And we believe that when God became human he didn’t become someone like Those Men. He was not rich. He was not powerful. He was not the kind of person that his society was set up to help. And he didn’t set out to get rich or to be popular or to control other people’s lives by force. He was a nobody, and he was poor, and he was killed for questioning the status quo and for insisting on loving everyone, even his oppressors, even his murderers.

He will not be with Those Men, except perhaps to soften their hearts (I can only pray). And he is already with us.

One final note on failing and on doing better: I’m a big fan of the idea of original sin. I find it very hopeful. The way I figure it, original sin means that we’re all imperfect, we all fail, and we cannot change that. We cannot be perfect, at least not in this life. We can, however, apologize, and do better, and forgive, and be forgiven. So I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned, in what I have done and especially in what I have failed to do. I promise you (and God) that I will do better, and that I will renew that promise every time I fail. And if you feel like praying for me, that’s cool. I’ll be praying while I work.


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On Being a Real Writer

(I’m not sure where I’m going with this blog more generally, but here’s something while I continue to think about that. And I didn’t put “real” in quotes, but feel free to imagine them there if you want.)

When I was a teenager (and I think continuing into college, maybe even grad school) I thought of myself as a real writer. I was serious not just about writing but about revising my work! I submitted stories to professional magazines! I hadn’t been published yet, but I was young and inexperienced and that was to be expected. But I was a real writer, or I was going to be, and certainly compared to most teenagers that was a fair self-assessment.

Then I went to grad school. And then I started working in a public school. And for years, either I didn’t write or the things I wrote fundamentally didn’t work. (I can think of at least three stories I finished and then looked at them and thought, “Yep, that can’t be fixed,” though the realization took longer in some cases than in others.)

That’s not to say I didn’t publish. All the stories I’ve published came out after college, and the last one, “The Castle That Jack Built,” came out after I’d started teaching.

But I’d written the first drafts of all of them in college. And nothing I’d written since college worked. And somewhere along the way I stopped thinking of myself as a real writer, because I was barely writing and had nothing to submit places, let alone anything being published, and can you really be a real writer if you don’t have anything to show for it?


 

Almost three weeks ago I finished the latest draft of the story I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. It’s still not done, and honestly I’m getting pretty sick of it not being done, but each draft is still objectively better than its predecessor and I’ve sent it to a bunch of smart people to read and hopefully they’ll help me figure out what still needs doing. Certainly this draft feels like Progress.

A week and a half ago I was at a bar with friends, including (unexpectedly) some writer friends, and I realized that for the first time in I wasn’t sure how long I felt like a real writer again. I had a story that was, if not ready to submit places, certainly approaching that point. I had multiple other projects to move on to next. I was out at a bar talking with other writers about writer stuff.

It was a huge relief, in the way that publishing my first story was a huge relief. Then it was, “Okay, I’ve been saying for years that I would do this, and now I’ve done it.” Now it was, “Okay, that whole not-writing thing really was a phase because grad school and teaching and figuring out adulting took up too much of my brain.” In both cases I’d validated my self-perception.


 

If you asked high school me what it meant to be a real writer, I think she would’ve said it’s about being published, or at least writing stories of good enough quality to be publishable. If you ask me now . . . I’m not sure I know. It’s partly about publishing, yes, or the quality of the work, but I think at least for me it’s also about the doing. I didn’t feel like a real writer because, at the end of the day, I wasn’t writing. It was hard when story after story failed because I only had the one project in my head at a time; I didn’t have anything I could point to as coming up next if this didn’t work out.

I can have a writerly conversation about a work in progress regardless of whether that work ends up published or not. I can’t really have a writerly conversation about the fact that I’ve been spending all of my free time crocheting and watching Netflix. (I can have a conversation with writers about that, absolutely, but those conversations aren’t generally writerly, at least not in my experience.)


 

There’s a part of me that worries that it’s so much harder to make time for writing now than it was in high school because I’m happier now. Happier is a good thing! I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it means that I have to make the time, that reading and writing are no longer my default activities, because now I have Netflix, and now I have friends nearby and a car to get to them, and now I have too little free time instead of too much.

I’m still working out what to do about that.

I’ve added reading/writing to my Dailies on Habitica, because I’ve realized that I feel so much better if I’ve done at least some reading or writing every day. That helps somewhat. I’ve also just set myself a NaNoWriMo-adjacent challenge: since I have about 15k words of the novel-thing from last year, I’m going to try to get that up to 20k by the end of October and then 40k by the end of November. That still won’t be a whole novel, but it’ll be a big chunk of writing, and I think those goals are manageable enough that I can keep with them. (I chose 20k on the grounds that that’s 1k a day not including weekends or holidays, so I don’t have to feel guilty about spending time with friends/family.)

We’ll see how it goes. It’s hard to want to do a million things that all really work better if you can do them daily and know that that’s just not feasible, that I have to pick and choose or rotate them or something. But I think this one is important, and I need to treat it like it’s important, and rotate the others.


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Some thoughts on the first third of NaNoWriMo:

For four glorious days, I was on track for 50k. Each day I thought, at one point or another, “I won’t even make it to 1000 words, let alone 1,667,” and then I would keep writing, and then I would make the day’s word count total.

By the fifth day, I was exhausted. Aside from some short reading breaks I’d pretty much gone to work, come home, written until (past) bedtime, and then gone to sleep. My dirty dishes were piling up, as was the clean laundry that needed to be put away. I hadn’t touched my crochet project, which is time-sensitive in its own right. And I was worrying pretty much constantly about the writing time I would lose to orchestra rehearsals and social plans that were already on my calendar before I’d decided to try NaNoWriMo.

So I let my friend point out to me that, as far as my original 30k goal went, I was good through Saturday, and I gave myself Thursday night off. I watched some TV, I worked on my crochet project, I went to orchestra, and I felt a lot better. And I didn’t worry, on Friday, when I was too busy running errands and then too tired to write. Or Saturday, when I was visiting with friends.

But then I didn’t write on Sunday, either, because I needed the introvert time, or Monday, because I went to a concert after work, or Tuesday because I was too tired again. And I was really tempted not to write today, to spend the day off from work watching television and catching up on chores.

So here are some things I’ve learned from the first third of NaNoWriMo:

  • I can write a lot more in a day than I thought I could.
  • If I know enough about my characters and what needs to happen it’s easier than I expected to let myself be vague or wrong or inelegant and plan to fix it later in the interest of getting words on the page.
  • Writing 1500-1700 words every day when I’m working full time is too much for me to do and still be healthy. I need some down time for crafts and things, and I need time to see people, and I need time to do at least some basic chores. Aiming for 750-1000 words a day is probably pretty reasonable, though.
  • It really is easier to write if I do it every day, and it’s hard to make myself get back into it after several days away.
  • I feel a lot better — happier, more energetic, more like myself — when I’m writing.

Some of that is stuff that I knew, or guessed, but even with something like “writing makes me feel better,” knowing it’s true isn’t the same as experiencing it in the moment. Mostly I’m glad I wrote down my intentions before I started, and while I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I can write in a day, I’m also pleasantly surprised at how spot-on my intentions (1k/day, aim for writing every day consistently rather than pushing for a bigger word count and burning out) turned out to be.


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What would winning look like?

So I mentioned I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. Attempting. Whatever.

Here’s the thing: I don’t actually expect to hit 50k. I’m not even going to try to aim for 50k. I’m aiming for 30k. I have a full time job that requires a lot of energy. I have a bunch of social plans I’ve already made for November, including several days around Thanksgiving. If I can average a thousand words a day I will be elated.

Why, then, am I doing NaNoWriMo if I’m not expecting to “win”? I hate losing, and I hate failing at things (or feeling like I’m failing, which I realize isn’t always the same thing). I expect to get good things out of this experience, but part of the point is to have that specific goal; since I’m not aiming for the mutually-agreed-upon target, here’s what I am aiming for:

  • I want to get back into the habit of writing regularly. Having a difficult but achievable word count goal (30k for the month/1k per day) will encourage me to stick with it and make it a priority.
  • I want to try to write faster and worry less about whether it’s “right.” It’s not going to be right on the first draft, and starting this during NaNoWriMo helps me give myself permission to go for quantity over quality. After all, it’s going to need tons of revisions no matter what I do; I might as well focus on giving myself something — anything — to work with.
  • I want to actually write this novel. It’s been kicking around in my brain making me crazy for seven years and counting, here, and I’d like to have something to show for it. If I can, by some miracle, write 50k words of it, that’s a big percentage of the project done. If I manage a smaller number of words — the 30k I’m aiming for, or even 20k — but build up good habits and momentum and keep myself excited about this project, that works too. But I’d rather have a smaller total word count and keep writing than hit 50k and give up.

So that’s what winning looks like for me, in case you were wondering, but mostly in case I get partway through November and forget.


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NaNoWriMo

I don’t do NaNoWriMo.

I have friends who do NaNoWriMo. I’ve had Friends Who Do NaNoWriMo for over a decade now. But I don’t do NaNoWriMo, because I write slowly and I can’t make stories come together to deadlines and November’s a crazy month and and and.

All of my reasons for not doing NaNoWriMo are good ones, and they make a lot of sense for my usual approach to writing. This weekend, though, I was talking with a friend about her novel draft and my novel-thing and I realized that I’ve already done a lot of planning and plotting and character building for this thing. (I’ve been working on it off and on since late fall of 2008, after all.) And it’s already non-linear, so my usual need to let the first draft grow organically (and in order) doesn’t apply so much with this project. And my friend’s draft was peppered with notes about scenes for her to write later.

Sometime in the past 36 hours or so all these facts came together in my head and I realized: I don’t normally do NaNoWriMo, but maybe this year I could. And it sure would be nice to make some meaningful progress with this thing, to have a complete enough draft that I can actually work with it.

So I guess I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year.


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Taking It Easy

I’ve never been good at taking it easy. Growing up I was always That Kid: I wanted to read the longest, most difficult book, and I’d get upset if my teacher wouldn’t let me be in that book group. I’d want the most difficult spelling list with the longest, trickiest words. In sixth grade, when we wrote stories for English class and then were encouraged to submit them to various literary magazines for kids, I immediately set my sights on the one hardest to get into. In college I always went for the interesting essay prompt rather than the straightforward one.

This meant that I read a lot of cool books and learned a lot of interesting words. It meant that I was already serious about improving as a writer when I was in middle school, which led me to Alpha in high school, which led me here.

On the other hand, it meant I stressed myself out a lot. It meant that I first read The Two Towers for a book report in fourth or fifth grade, with only the old animated movie version of The Hobbit for background, because it was the longest, most interesting-sounding book available at short notice and hey, I’d read trilogies out of order before.

Yeah. Not my brightest moment.

In high school I started learning to go a little easier for myself — I let myself take an easier science course freshman year because I wanted to add a second language and keep doing orchestra; I let myself drop science and social studies entirely and take only a moderately challenging math course so I could double up on English and finally try theater arts — but even then I was going easier in one area so I could do something difficult in another. I was learning to prioritize, but I wasn’t really learning to take it easy.


The past few years I’ve been really bad about getting any exercise. I work in a school; it’s hard to find time and energy for other things around that, especially when there are so many things I want to be doing. Given limited time and energy, crocheting and playing music and writing and hanging out with friends and sleeping are all going to win out over exercise, pretty much every time. Especially when exercise involves going out somewhere, or wearing special clothes (which is to say, neither the clothes I wore the rest of the day nor pyjamas). Especially when exercise is boring.

But this year I’m working on being healthier. I’ve been using HabitRPG to hold myself accountable for going to bed on time and drinking enough water and eating healthier foods and doing some language practice every day. I’ve found a breakfast food I actually like for breakfast. (Apple cinnamon oatmeal with walnuts!) And I’ve realized that sometimes the easy thing is also the smart thing, like saying no to extra commitments that I’m not excited about, or buying school lunches because I don’t actually enjoy cooking and I do enjoy the salads that our lunch ladies make.

The other week I ordered a step aerobics platform, and this week it arrived, and today I stepped up and down at a reasonably brisk pace for about half an episode of Doctor Who. I didn’t have to go anywhere. I didn’t have to wear special clothes. It was easy. And that meant that I actually did it.


I’ve heard the word “resilience” come up a lot lately. It’s a professional hazard, if you’re working in a school right now, or if you’re friends with a lot of educators/therapists/social workers/et al. How do we help students/clients/whoever to be more resilient? What does resilience even mean?

I’ve also heard, and used, and delighted in, the word “adulting,” as in “to adult.” It comes up a lot when talking with friends my age, though I’ve heard some older adults use it, too. Adulting is hard. Some days adulting is extra hard. Feeling one has successfully adulted is often cause for celebration, even if that celebration consists of a Facebook post documenting said adulting. Sometimes one questions whether having mac and cheese for dinner counts as adulting if one adds peas (and feels validated when a number of friends respond that it totally does).

As I’ve been writing this entry and trying to figure out why, what my point is, I keep coming back to something Leigh Grossman told a couple of friends and me back when we were still in high school: he said that college was where a lot of people learned how to differentiate between the work that absolutely must be done (and do it), the work that was really unnecessary (and could be ignored), and the work that was not absolutely essential but would still be good to do (so you should do it if you could but also not stress out about it if you couldn’t). It informed a lot of my own approach to college (for better or worse), and it’s informed a lot of my approach to adulting and to trying to help students build resilience (in preparation for adulting later on). When is it worth pushing myself to do something even though it’s hard, even though I don’t want to? What can — and should — I get away with not doing?

Some of that I do think can be taught, albeit slowly over time. Some of that is about getting to know yourself, what your priorities are and what motivates you. It’s taken me a long time to learn to let go of some things, and even so there are days when I’ll call my mom because I need to hear someone else agree that I made the right choice and it’s going to be fine before I can stop worrying about it. (Thanks, Mom!)

But some of it is definitely about access to resources, and that’s the part that’s scary. Options that are easy cost in other ways, usually money. Even when there are no easy options, money can lower the stakes, can turn some “absolutely must be done” things into “good to do but not the end of the world if you can’t” things. Money means you don’t need to panic if something goes wrong, so you learn that you don’t need to panic when something goes wrong, so it’s easier not to panic when something goes wrong. And when you don’t need to panic, and the people around you don’t need to panic, it’s a lot easier to give and receive those less tangible social supports like the time and energy someone takes to reassure you that it’s going to be okay.

And right now, I find myself wondering if part of it is also cultural. I have been very lucky, and I have friends who’ve been as lucky or luckier, but I also have friends who have been less lucky. Friends who have less of a safety net. And even with a safety net I worry about how secure it is, how far it could stretch if it needed to. Is it big enough? Strong enough? For just me, or if need be could it catch a friend, too? If it fails, could someone else catch me?


Sometimes, even when it is smart and healthy and the resources are there so I might as well use them, easy still feels like cheating.


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Doubt

I would say it’s been a long time since I finished a story, but that’s not exactly true: even with how slowly I write, and with grad school and my first few years teaching on top of that, I can think of about four stories I’ve both started and finished in the past five years.

The problem is, the first three didn’t work. The first two were unsalvageable, so fundamentally flawed that almost immediately after finishing the first drafts I wrote them off as extended writing exercises. The third one almost worked, and I might still go back to it someday, but I finally had to admit to myself that I just didn’t have enough of a handle on who my characters were as people, and until I figured that out their story would continue not quite working.

It made me nervous. All of the stories I’ve had published before — all the stories I’ve been able to revise to the point where they worked — I first wrote in college. Sure, I made all of the important revisions for “Lily” and “The Castle That Jack Built” during or just after grad school, but I’d had the basic material for both while I was still an undergrad. What if I couldn’t do it anymore? I couldn’t help wondering.


 

Over the summer I fell in love with Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s art, especially this poster. I even did a little bit of freewriting inspired by the counting rhyme and the feeling of her art, if not the specific images. I wrote one scene, and I read it over afterward and thought, “Hey, that’s really neat! I have no idea what it means!” and then I more or less put it aside until suddenly, a couple of months later, the rest of the story came to me.

At that point I made a deal with myself: finish the story, and you’re allowed to buy the poster.

It turns out that was a really smart deal to make, and I wish I could take credit for having realized that in advance. Mostly, though, I was worried about what would happen if I bought art that I associated with a story, and then the story didn’t work or I just never finished it. Wouldn’t that just remind me of my failure? Better to wait, and be sure, and then I could buy the art as a celebration of my success.

Really, though, that poster is what kept me writing. At first the story came quickly and easily, almost as if it existed already and my job was just to record it. Then I kept rethinking what it was about, and who my characters were, until dozens of small shifts had turned it into something a lot more complicated and a lot more difficult to write. (The fact that it was better than the version I’d started out writing was not as great comfort as you might imagine.) Whenever I got frustrated, though, I’d find myself looking at that poster online and thinking, “I really want this on my wall,” and I’d sigh and get back to work.

I’d like to think I would’ve finished eventually anyway, but I’m not honestly sure, and even if I had I’m sure it would’ve taken a lot longer.


 

I finished the first draft of my magpie story, and then I had a decision to make. You see, my deal with myself was that I had to finish the story before I could buy the poster, but I had deliberately left “finish” undefined. Did “finish” mean “finish the first draft”? Did “finish” mean “finish the first draft and revisions and be ready to submit it places”? Did it mean something in between?

Really what “finish” meant was “finish enough that you’re sure it’s going to work,” and I hadn’t defined it further because I didn’t know when I would feel that way. Certainly I didn’t know when I finally typed the pound signs at the end of my first draft, already sleep deprived before staying up until nearly two in the morning writing, whether it worked. At that point I was just excited to have a beginning, middle, and end.

It’s funny, though: I’ve been looking back through old e-mails and online posts to try and figure out when I bought the poster and what, if anything, prompted me to decide I was ready. I thought I remembered waiting a day or two, but as I looked at timestamps I realized that actually I waited about twelve hours. It couldn’t have been based on critiques/feedback, because I didn’t have any until a week later, and I was much too anxious at that point to have read it over myself.

What I do remember is that I still had doubts. I told myself that yes it was a first draft and it probably had problems, but it was a solid first draft, and I sort of believed myself. I still worried, though, that somewhere out there was a shoe with “this sucks” scrawled all over it in permanent maker just waiting for me to build up my confidence before it dropped.

I ordered the poster anyway.

This morning I worked a little bit more on the revisions for the second draft before deciding to switch gears and (finally) write this blog entry. I’m more confident now that the first draft was pretty solid (as far as first drafts go), and that the second draft will be even stronger, though I’m pretty sure I’ll need at least one more draft after this one. We’ll see if I manage to finish the second draft before I have to go back to work on Monday, but even if I don’t that’s okay. I’ll keep working at it, and the work will get done.

I’m still nervous about it, of course, but I’m also pretty happy with where it is and where it’s headed. And I’ve gotta say, that poster looks pretty damn good on my wall.