Emily Gilman

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


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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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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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Reading and Reflection

Today I finished Mohja Kahf’s beautiful, fascinating novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, about a Syrian-American girl and her changing relationships to her family, to her friends, to politics, to religion, and ultimately to herself. I’ve also (finally!) been reading Connie Willis’s time-travel-slash-historical-fiction novel Blackout, which is fascinating and engrossing (but also rather stressful!). And I’ve slowly been reading (a translation of) the Qur’an, one sura at a time, both for research and for my own curiosity. And I just started reading G.K. Chesterton’s essay Heretics, which (along with Orthodoxy) I’ve decided to read as part of my Lenten observance. And then of course there are the young adult books I’ve been reading for work . . .

The funny thing about reading again is that the more I read the more I itch to write. It’s like I was dehydrated from too little reading, and now I’ve finally caught up enough that reading is no longer enough, I need to be doing something with it. I need to be participating in that creative process. And it’s hard, because I love the story I’m working on right now, but it’s the kind of story that comes out as a sentence here, a paragraph there, slowly growing or perhaps slowly revealing itself to me. I’m not sure. (With luck, writing this entry will help tide me over until I have time and energy to sit down and work properly, maybe this weekend.)

I think, though, that I’m glad I’ve been reading so many different kinds of books — books for adults, books for children, fiction, nonfiction, holy, secular, all in different styles and with different emphasis (on plot, on character, on language . . . ). Because, you see, I am also slowly working my way through the draft of a friend’s novel, and every so often I feel that pang that always reminds me of the scene in Velvet Goldmine, when Brian Slade says of Curt Wild’s performance, “I wish it had been me. I wish I’d thought of it.”

The thing is, I don’t wish that, at least not in so specific a sense. I could wish that; I could sit here and be jealous and unhappy and let those bad feelings rot inside me. What I really wish in those moments, though, is that I’d done (or I were doing) something like whatever I’m reading or watching or hearing: I wish I were doing something meaningful, something beautiful, something creative. Reading lots of different things helps remind me of that distinction, because just as I can enjoy all of these different books I can appreciate that my friend wrote her novel and also be excited about my own writing projects and how we’re both doing such different and interesting things.

I suppose I’m also thinking about this a lot today because it’s Ash Wednesday, and after several long months of being tired and stressed-out and unhappy and never quite catching up I’m finally sorting out what I want to be doing and finding the energy to do it. I have no interest in giving things up, right now, but I welcome the extra motivation to focus on reflection and discipline, on making time for the important things in my life and in some cases discovering through that process what those important things are. Mostly so far I’m finding that making the time, investing the energy even when I’m tired, is what’s giving me the most joy and energy back.


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Thoughts on Becoming That Woman

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Theodora Goss’s recent blog post “Becoming That Woman” (hence the title of my own post here, and yes the pun is absolutely intended).

I think my first reaction as I was reading was to wonder what my That Woman looked like because I knew immediately that she did not look like Dora’s. (Dora and I are in some ways very different people, which is one of the nice things about having friends.) But the more I thought about my That Woman, the more it struck me how visual and specific Dora’s description was. Here’s the particular part I have in mind, for those of you who haven’t clicked the link yet:

She was the sort of woman who walked around European cities, with a scarf wrapped around her neck. She negotiated her way in English and probably French and who knew what other languages. She was beautiful and accomplished: she had done things and she knew it, and out of that came her confidence, her ability to walk through strange cities with a mysterious smile on her face. Looking as though she belonged, wherever she was in the world.

It’s not that the whole description is visual, though we do get a setting (European cities) and an article of clothing (a scarf) and a general adjective (beautiful). It’s that her personality and accomplishments are manifested in her appearance: “[…] a mysterious smile on her face. Looking as though she belonged, wherever she was in the world.” I didn’t entirely realize it, though, until I reached another passage a few paragraphs later:

I don’t think you become her by setting out to. You don’t say to yourself, I’m going to become That Woman, and go out to buy the right clothes. For one thing, you’ll get it wrong, because you probably don’t understand her yet.

The more I thought (and think) about this — that you don’t become her by setting out to — the less sure I was that I agreed. Not about the clothes, mind you! I totally agree about the clothes, and I’m reminded of Willow pretending to be Vampire Willow in the episode “Doppelgangland” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Willow could put on Vampire Willow’s clothes, but that didn’t mean she knew how to wear them (or, presumably, how to go find more).

The thing is, I don’t know what my That Woman looks like. Maybe it’s because my sense of style has evolved enough that I’ve reached a point where I’m comfortable with it, or maybe it’s because my sense of style has evolved enough that I assume it will keep evolving. Dora’s That Woman also has a very clear setting, but I’m not sure mine does. I doubt she has a particularly mysterious smile, and I don’t know whether she stands out or looks like she belongs.

I can, however, tell you what she does. She writes — not full time, but more than I do now. She reads extensively, both fiction and non-fiction. She reads and writes and speaks and understands French and Arabic, maybe not fluently but enough to be useful, enough to communicate, and she may speak other languages as well. She knows how to pick locks because it’s interesting and potentially useful, and she may or may not know how to hot-wire a car but she’d be willing to give it a try if she had someone to coach her. And she travels, not necessarily a lot and not necessarily alone, but she travels to the places that are important and she has friends to travel with her. She is courageous and clever and loyal and principled and thoughtful.

I’ve found, over the course of the week, that imagining my That Woman has been a really useful exercise for precisely the same reasons why I disagree (in part) with Dora’s statement above. When I look at my description of my That Woman I get the overwhelming sense that I can set out to become her. I can choose to prioritize reading and writing. I can choose to do some of my reading in French, and to make time for teaching myself Arabic. I can learn to pick locks. I can plan trips to places. And while I’m not sure I can set out to be courageous, exactly, I can tell myself not to be afraid, or not to let fear keep me from doing things.

Here’s the other thing that’s been helpful about this exercise, at least for me: imagining my That Woman has helped me to clarify what is and is not important to me. I have a whole long list of languages that I’d like to learn: not just French and Arabic, but Hebrew and Farsi and Turkish and Russian and Irish/Gaelic and maybe Welsh. When I picture my That Woman, though, she definitely speaks French and Arabic. She might or might not speak the others, and she certainly wants to know as many languages as she can, but those are the important ones. And when I think about the languages I feel I “ought” to learn, like Spanish . . . I don’t necessarily picture her speaking them. Not that she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, but it’s not one of the things that makes her That Woman. The same goes for writing and understanding computer code: there’s a level on which it interests me/her, and maybe I’ll pick it up somewhere along the way, but it’s not necessary.

Obviously a lot of the things I’ve listed above require a certain amount of resources — access to language-learning materials and support from others who are learning or already know the languages in question, access to books and movies, money for passports and travel and accommodations, and above all time. I’m not going to accomplish that all at once. But this week, I went back and re-did my first Pimsleur Arabic lesson. I watched less television so that I would have more time to read. I’d hoped to continue with the Arabic but I’m fighting off a head-cold, so yesterday I watched some of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (without subtitles) to practice my French. And today my reading focused on research that will help me reach the point where I can begin my next story.

Mostly I’m going to try to keep coming back to my That Woman, when I’m unhappy or bored or just trying to figure out what I want to do next, and think, “What would she do?” I hope that if I focus on that, the rest of it — the people she meets, the places she goes, the things she does — will grow naturally from that.


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In which I am just not reading enough.

I am a bad sister. I was home visiting with my family last night and I completely forgot to bring my brother my trade copies of The Unwritten, which I’d promised to lend him. I also forgot to read any of the comics he lent me so that I could return them.

Lately I feel like I’ve been bad about reading in general, which is especially silly for someone who’s a writer and librarian and who loves reading as much as I do. The problem is that I want to read, but I also want to crochet, and even if the pattern I’m working on is simple enough to leave sufficient attention for reading I just don’t have enough hands to crochet and hold a book open at the same time. This leads me to wonder about cookbook holders, which would solve the not-enough-hands problem if I were reading cookbook-sized things, but usually I’m reading mass-market or trade paperback-sized things and I’m not sure they’d work. (If anyone has experience with them, or knows of some other device that would let me read actual paper books mostly hands-free, I would love recommendations!)

My other problem is that I tend to use music and television for company when I’m home alone, and I just don’t do well processing reading/writing and speaking/listening at the same time. Give me a computer and I can browse the Internet while carrying on several simultaneous IM conversations; give me a conversation with several different people and I can enjoy that too. Ask me a simple question while I’m writing, though? I won’t hear it, or I will but the meaning won’t register until I stop and switch gears. And I do usually listen to music while working on a story, but stories tend to have their own playlists and it’s more for atmosphere than because I’m really listening to the music itself. Anyway, given a choice between reading in a silent apartment or doing something else that gives me the illusion of company, I tend to go with the latter.

I think it will be easier when spring comes and it’s not dark so early. In the meantime, though, I will have to make the conscious decision that from now until I go to bed tonight I will not watch more Flashpoint or listen to more Matthew Ebel (who appeared at Arisia right around the time that I was getting bored with all the music I’d been listening to, but more on that later). Instead I will read more of Code Name Verity and hope that that is not a stupid choice for right before sleep.