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Insomnia February 21, 2011

Posted by J. in Genius.

Back when I was younger and more impressionable, before I learned that being able to quote William Blake doesn’t mean you’re not just as full of shit as the next guy, a teacher whose opinions I generally respect shared with me the old adage “A writer writes.” It was in the context of how certain educational prizes at graduation are awarded, and mashed into the rest of the explanation of how the winner was chosen, the notion was put forth that it’s not the quality of one’s writing that makes one a writer, but the simple fact that a writer writes.

The way I understood the decision at the time was that it’s not enough that a person have a way with words.  In fact, it’s not skill that defines a writer, nor is it producing work that is popular or well-critiqued, nor for that matter is it even having any readers at all. A writer is, simply put, one who lives to write. A writer can’t help but write, no matter how pedestrian his poetry or purple her prose. A real writer lives and breathes to put words on paper. A real writer is passionate, and that kind of writer deserves awards and should be encouraged.

Honestly, even at the time I bristled at the idea that quantity or consistency could trump raw talent and unparalleled imagination when it comes to giving out awards.  Talk about applauding mediocrity.  *spits derisively into dust*

Poops being awarded for phoning it in. Seems to me my smile should be more smug somehow...

Lest you think all this sounds like sour grapes, I’m not talking about me.  I didn’t get the English department award when I graduated because I didn’t have the highest grades, and when that was explained to me, I really couldn’t argue with it.  I loved all my English classes and I brought home good grades without putting in a whole lot of effort.  The God’s honest truth is that I never cracked a book in high school if I could have helped it, and I’d be the first one to declare that my bare-minimum approach to education certainly shouldn’t be applauded.  Graduating with an A average while doing the least amount of work possible was award enough, thanks.

It was some years later when high school was securely in my rear-view mirror that I learned the English award was going to a student based not necessarily on grades, or English proficiency, but because that student was a Real Writer.  Not the best writer, mind you, but the best kind of writer.  At graduation that particular year, the kind of writer who fills notebooks and fabric-bound journals with page after page of nothing terribly special was lauded for his passion and encouraged in his craft.  The other kind of writer, the one capable of writing a college-level dissertation with great aplomb on medieval poetry or whatever other topic was assigned , was going home with fuck-all.

It hit home because I, too, fall squarely into the second category, and I guess after all these years I am still inclined to think of myself as not-a-real-writer. A writer to lesser degree.  A would-be-writer.  And I have realized that I’ve been hanging an awful lot of self-definition over the years based solely on the judgment of another person who, when it comes down to brass tacks, may or may not be full of shit.

I think deciding what criteria a person must meet to be considered a real writer should be up to the writer.  To that end, while I may never win an award for being prolific, I am nothing if not inconsistent, and I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as passionate about my craft, I am nevertheless finally going to declare that I am a writer.

To be a real writer, you have to write every single day. Or so I've heard.

I’m a lousy journal writer, for sure. Self-indulgent navel-gazing is not really my thing, and I flat out suck at it. One year, in my quest to earn the consistent writer merit badge and exorcise the you-must-write-every-day demon, as a New Year’s Resolution to myself, I bought one of those fancy bound diaries at the bookstore and said I would write in it every day. And I did. For one year, I kept a daily diary of my life, my hopes, my dreams, and my deepest thoughts. On December 31, 1995, I wrote my last entry, put the book in my hope chest and didn’t take it out again for years. I didn’t start fresh with a new, empty book and I never once felt the itch to keep going. I sat down and wrote something every single day because I said I would, but it never became a habit, and writing never came any easier.  How could I be a real writer when there were days–months even–that I simply had nothing to say?

If the ability to commit thoughts to paper daily, even when completely uninspired makes one a Real Writer…well, then, I’m screwed.

I can go for long stretches without writing a single word and yet I still hold forth that I’m a writer. Sometimes it just takes awhile for the thoughts in my head to take shape and find their way to the page. It’s for shit-sure that I’m not the kind of writer that can sit down and just let the thoughts spew out onto the page with the intention of going back to clean it up and cull out dead wood and polish up the gems. I don’t write that way and I don’t care what Creative Writing for Dummies says, you simply cannot make me.

What happens when "It doesn't have to be good" makes sweet vampire love to "It doesn't have to make sense" and the rubber breaks.

I decided to try NaNoWriMo for the first time this past November. For the uninitiated, that’s short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to start from scratch and write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t even have to make sense.  A writer writes, and NaNoWriMo is a place where you can earn your 50K merit badge.   Having proven that I can’t be consistent and good at the same time with my journal writing debacle, I decided with some hesitation to see if I could give prolific and good a go.

I hemmed and hawed about trying it. I’ve got a novel or two in me somewhere, I can feel it. But I’ve got way more short stories and non-fiction musings kicking around in my head, so I figured I’d make my own rules and set a goal for myself of 50K words, or a bit more than 1600 words a day for 30 days on whatever strikes my fancy.

As it turns out, that is a shitload of words.

I finished the month with a total word count of 39,075, which, while not the full 50,000 I was shooting for, is still a pretty respectable total.  It’s even more impressive when you take into account the fact that I didn’t just shit out the requisite number of words to make the count and then cull it down to a couple of thousand usable words. Every word I wrote was readable and in a final draft, editor-ready form.  It’s the most prolific I’d ever been, but I still couldn’t write every day and I felt horribly rushed.

Part of my trouble with writing 1600 words a day is that no matter how hard as I try, I cannot simply spew out words and hope to whip them into some sort of shape once they’re outside of my head. It’s like when they’re still in there all safe and warm, the thoughts and ideas are working with me, sliding around in and out of all the wrinkles in my brain.

Once those words hit the page, however, they take on a life of their own. For reasons I’m unable to fathom, as soon as they’re transmitted from brain to keyboard to hard drive they no longer feel the need to work with me; they fight manipulation out here in the cold, harsh light of day. And because they fight me, whipping those unruly words into shape takes awhile. I realize my life would be easier if I’d just learn to vomit into the hard drive and sort it out later, but I just can’t seem to do it. I have to carefully deposit the loosely joined thoughts and set them down gently, then let them settle while I look around and try to find and fit in the pieces that shifted or fell off in transit. It’s delicate work and it can’t be rushed.

Truth be told, if it was up to me, I’d be happy with skipping the whole “writing it down” part of writing.  It’s a lot of work, and sometimes I’ve got other stuff I’d like to be doing.

Alas, that is not an option.  I’m not possessed of a passion to write.  It’s more of a compulsion…no, that’s not right either.  It’s like I get ideas in my head that need to get out, and if I don’t write them, the thoughts get all clogged up in my brain. If the ideas are taking too long to take shape or I get too many going at once, they start to back up and then all hell breaks loose. When that happens, they start gumming up and it causes a system-wide breakdown. Usually what relieves the cerebral congestion is to make myself find a few minutes here and there to actually put pen to paper as it were and drain the works.  It’s sort of how I imagine Dumbledore’s pensieve works, but with written words instead of gray mist and a stone bowl. My way is less cumbersome.

God help me when the ideas in my brain spring to life faster than I can refine them and get them out.  Thoughts that are ignored are irritating little buggers.  And when they irritate my brains, things get ugly.

One of the ugly symptoms of cranial constipation is insomnia.

I’ve had periodic insomnia for years, and for those people who are constantly and relentlessly plagued by it, my heart goes out to you. I don’t know if it’s because it’s winter and my thoughts are just more dormant, but full-blown wide-fucking-awake insomnia hasn’t happened in quite a few months now, knock wood. A few nights here and there of bad sleep and less sleep, but not the kind of insomnia where I’m wide awake and typing like a stenographer on crack at four in the morning, only to fall asleep just as the alarm starts going off.

I’ve come to terms with insomnia as part of my own creative process. I conceive ideas first, let them ferment and age and ripen in my head, and then when I decant them they’re pretty much ready to consume. It’s a matter of finding balance and keeping up with the ideas as they ripen and hope that too many new ones don’t inexplicably sprout at the same time and make me lose too many nights of sleep due to brain bloat.

And if I haven’t said it in awhile, let me say it now: thank God for the Internet.  I think if I’d been plagued with Deep Thoughts and Humorous Observations a hundred years ago, I’d have been an essayist and a short story writer, and it’s likely that I’d have submitted reams of work to the many numerous “readers’ periodicals” that flourished back in the day.

Today, I can be a Blogger and unleash my skewed perspective on literally tens of readers a week.  I can post all the stories I want to any number of websites and gain all kinds of readers, and if I wanted to, I could publish an e-book tonight and have it for sale on Amazon. com within the week.   Jesus, I love Modern Times.

I’m not a passionate writer and maybe never will be.   I have to write, not because I love it so much that I can’t imagine not doing it, but because I really enjoy sleeping.  I have accepted that part of my own personal creative process is knowing that sometimes there just are no new ideas popping up and taking root and quite frankly, I welcome the respite. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mojo, or that I have writer’s block, or that I’ve run out of things to say. It doesn’t even mean that I’m inconsistent.  What it means is I have is my own unique creative rhythm.  I heed it, and that is what makes me a writer.

That’s right, damn it:  I am a WRITER.



1. Sistah - February 23, 2011

…there wouldn’t be signs BIG ENOUGH!

2. Kathleen - February 23, 2011

You have a distinctive voice. That’s a real writer.

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