Tag Archives: INTJ writer

Checkmarks

Or, A long overdue update that got held because I was waiting for news to actually report.

Back around New Year’s, I made a checklist of goals to achieve this year. 2016 has reached its final quarter, and I have finally crossed off enough of the items to warrant an update regardless of desire to resume blogging (which has, coincidentally – or incidentally, perhaps – finally returned).

Let’s see how I am faring:

  1. Get divorced
  2. Sell the house
  3. Move home
  4. Clock my last day working as someone else’s employee
  5. Formally start my own business (website up, registered as LLC – to be done only after I am divorced and back in the state where I will be living for the foreseeable future)
  6. Finish updating my wardrobe
  7. Figure out the proper make-up
  8. Find at least a couple scents to start my “perfume wardrobe
  9. Finish writing Anything But a Gentleman 
  10. Write at least one non-romance short story

The list is more than half complete. And, other than item 4, literally everything else on it is both within my control and within my ability to attain yet this year.

No longer having an external employer is still a goal I intend to work toward, but it is going to take longer than this year. My thought was, use proceeds from the house sale to invest in me. As things outside of your own control tend to do, things played out differently in the real world and the amount left over was…if not insufficient to support me not working externally for a few months, insufficient to give me long enough to guarantee a clear answer about whether I *could* generate a sustainable self-employed income. So instead I am going to moonlight with my freelancing on the side of a day job. I should know within a year or so if I will be able to find sufficient work to justify scaling back my external work hours.

I have added at least one goal to the list, which is:

11. Make my first art-sewing project.

Over the course of this year, I’ve realized that I want to do more than sew clothes and costumes. Those are enjoyable and satisfying and often represent genuine challenges I set for myself. But they are also a little unfulfilling. A sort of minor league game, when I am capable of playing for the majors – and want to play at that level, at least some of the time.

That leaves me four goals on my list for the last 82 days of the year.

  1. Finish ABAG
  2. Write a non-romance short story
  3. Start my freelancing business
  4. Sew a costume piece fabulous enough to count as art

Not impossible. A lot of work, yes, and crossing all of them off will require planning, dedication, and discipline to achieve, yes, but not impossible.

And for the first time in a long, long time, the only impediment is…me.

(I’ve been here less than a week and have had approximately 2 days of near-relaxation. And this is the to-do list I make for myself. So INTJ it’s painful.)

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“One is not born, but BECOMES a woman”

The quote above is from an interview with Paris Hilton, a perhaps surprising source – but the point of the article is that the woman is a surprise, who has played us all with a crafted persona. And I have never been one to care too much who said something I considered profound or insightful, as if only “the right sort” of person ought to be quoted or as if the surrounding text must always also be profound and insightful for the single line to truly be so.

That comment resonated with me. It felt true to my own experience, and it helped me articulate some of what I am working through psychologically in the wake of the end of a 13-year relationship.

I have never really felt comfortable as a woman.

I am female. There is no gender-swap longing within me. Just the opposite, in fact – I have always wanted to be more feminine than I am physically and in my personality. Psychologically I seem to gravitate to many “girly” things, such as romances and sparkles and unicorns, and have since I was a little girl. I just also happen to like math and logic and guns. I feel like to this day there is sometimes a disconnect between my aesthetic tastes and what suits my physical shell. My eyes seem drawn to dainty, ethereal things that would look silly on me or around me, because I am simply too robust in both stature and in my personality, which on the public side is brash and loud and a little inappropriate and often on the verge of strident, and in private is intense: determined, focused, and opinionated, and also risible and almost endlessly optimistic. As an adult of 32 I can look at myself and say “steel magnolia,” and it suits, but I could not always name a style of womanhood that actually fit me (by which I mean, both described me as I actually am and as I wanted to be).

Throughout childhood I felt graceless and unfeminine, too tall and too large-framed in my bone structure and muscle tone to ever be pretty and dainty (what all the girls who got it and seemed to be actual girls to me were like) or perhaps even desirable. I could starve myself into a skeleton and would still be 4 sizes above the cultural “ideal”; I was taller than all the boys I grew up with, and they were also skinny runty things, so my general Amazon/Valkyrie shape felt even more gawky and uncomfortable. I am not out-and-out clumsy, but I essentially spend my life directing my body from a driver’s seat in my head, rather like an Imperial Walker. I don’t possess the natural athleticism and connection to my body that some people have, which might have mitigated my sense of dissonance with my own form. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference at all.

I also as a kid had terrible clothes, because my mother literally does not give a rat’s ass (her words) about fashion, or clothing, or conforming her appearance to what other people think (which sounds brave and wonderful but is also sometimes embarrassing, especially to a kid; “why is your mom dressed like a homeless bag lady who is also colorblind?” Moreover it feels hurtful that she will not bend on this for her family, when we do care, and don’t ask much of her – just that she not look, well, not homeless – as if she is unwilling to perform that task simply because it is important to us. I suppose we are assholes for asking, and for not appreciating her for the strange and wondrous creature that she is, but, really, why couldn’t she be strange and wondrous like Professor Trelawney and not Hagrid?) and extended her dislike of paying attention to such mundane things to choosing clothes for my brother and I and caring for the clothes we had or were given by other people. I also had an aversion to most of the skirts and dresses that were attempted to be put on me. Thing was, it was not the dresses per se that I was objecting to – those articles of clothing were out-and-out uncomfortable to me. Scratchy, almost painfully so, bunching or rubbing at my waist in a way that i just couldn’t stand but also couldn’t articulate better than “it doesn’t feel right.” I can look back on now and recognize this as part of my general HSP (highly sensitive person) sensitivity to touch and material type. If I had known the issue was polyester and a lack of undershirts, maybe I could have successfully been put in a dress more often. But I fought that battle so hard and so well that I got to stop wearing them and was able to live in jeans (cotton) and t-shirts (cotton) and awesome neon-patterned late 198os short called jams (cotton – see the theme?). My hair went unbrushed because it has just enough wave to tangle and knot like curly hair, and my mom’s was straight and she just didn’t know how to deal with mine. So we skipped that mostly. I was an utter hoyden. Can’t even say tomboy because none of this was a conscious rejection of girlishness, more just a rejection of civilization in general.

Mentally I was painfully shy, almost incapable of speech in a group when I started school. Once I became more comfortable with the environment I became very proud of being the smartest person in the class and, I am certain, cruel about it to my classmates. As I grew older (more like junior high) I realized that my personality would have served me well if I were a boy, because the boys who were outspoken and independent-minded were admired and generally well-liked, whereas those qualities made me, as a girl, strange and awkward and intimidating. By high school I had an arrogant confidence in my own weirdness, because I can’t pretend to be something I’m not (I spent like…a week trying once. Literally I could not do it) and decided to simply embrace it. At least I attained that much self-acceptance.

But in all of this I felt like I was missing a vital component that would transmogrify my biological femaleness into actual femininity. It was something that seemed like the other girls I knew had been born with, some understanding or way of looking at such things that I simply did not have. When I put on make-up or really girly clothes I felt like an impostor, almost like I was dressing in drag even though I am female.

Being biologically female has always felt to me a separate experience from being feminine.

What I didn’t realize as a kid, of course, is that beauty is a language, and most girls begin to learn it beside their mother almost from the time they learn to talk. My mother did not have any of that language to impart to me, and so when I looked at other girls, girlier girls, even at 6 or 7 years old, I was seeing the result of using a language I didn’t even know was a language. Colors that harmonized and complemented. Shapes that flattered and fooled. Individual pieces that created a gestalt. All I saw was an end result I had no idea whatsoever how to achieve.

So Paris’s words really struck me: “One is not born, but becomes a woman.”

I was in the process of finding the right aspect of femininity for me when I met my ex. College is usually a time of experimentation and of slipping out of one’s old skin to try on a new one. My freshman year I took a lot of inspiration from Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) and took notes in class with a fuzzy pink pen and determinedly wore lipstick every day (which, outside sorority row, was actually a rarity on my campus). When I was a sophomore with an office job I took to wearing heels and pencil skirts – again garnering plenty of WTF looks from the people on campus and sometimes in class. In this case the strangeness was that I was more feminine than the other young women around me, a heady and empowering feeling. I moved from being obviously a smart girl to being the one least likely to be considered such because of my appearance, and holy hell how I reveled in correcting that mistake (some things never change, eh?).

But as amusing and empowering as pink and fuzzy and sparkly are, they were also a bit too far in the girly direction for me to make a lifestyle out of. Unfortunately for me, I still didn’t know where the overlap was on the Venn diagram of what I liked and what actually worked for me. I had by then grasped that beauty products were a language and had mastered a few phrases. I had a very basic make-up routine (subtle, subtle, subtle) and stopped experimenting with make-up because I had something that at least kind of worked and didn’t make me feel like a clown or an idiot for wearing. With clothing I kept exploring, with some hits and some misses, but no cohesive style.

That’s where I was when we met…and that’s where I stayed. There were a lot of ins and outs to why, none of which I am proud of as I look back (graduating and not having much spending money nor a job that required a particular look which would have forced me to keep up my wardrobe; his (professed) disdain for fashion and trendiness and traditionally feminine things like make-up and styled hair that made me feel like my interest in them was silly; not really having anywhere to go where I was expected to look nice since he didn’t like parties or social events; as time went on, the weight I had put on senior year came to feel permanent, and feeling unattractive took a toll on my interest in my appearance, along with a paranoia on his part that I was going to cheat on him which caused me to prefer to be in understated (if not out and out unattractive) clothing when I was not with him). There’s a point where you just feel lost in the stream. Your entire wardrobe is either outdated or tired and sad from overuse or just bland basic pieces that you acquired piecemeal in moments of immediate necessity, and the prospect of replacing it is overwhelming and unaffordable. Somewhat amusingly, given his role in my choice to abandon my interest in fashion, my ex hit a point where he was so tired of “not having a wife I’m proud of” that he started taking me shopping. My interest started to revive. (Also, that was when we should have split. Oh, hindsight.) Then I got pregnant, and frivolous thoughts (all thoughts, really) got put on hold until after my son was born.

Through the last few years of this fashion depression, I had started sewing for cosplay purposes. Cosplay saved what little self-esteem (regarding my physical appearance) I managed to hold onto, because it is a way to care about fashion and make-up and appearance without the bullshit of the real world intruding. If I made a costume it was beautiful if it was made well or if it captured the look of the character, and I felt beautiful because my costume was beautiful. I could feel like a girly girl, dressed up in some ridiculous skirt, but also like a badass because I made that thing, and it was hard, and it took a lot of time and effort and passion to create, and it was something that was completely mine. I also started learning about my figure and its divergences from the “average” figure used for most off-the-rack garment construction (and commercial patterns). I learned about what shapes worked well on me. I realized how goddamned awesome dresses are. And I realized just how much math and puzzle-solving and logic go into designing garments and executing the designs.

That was the epiphany, right there: that I could observe system dynamics even in something like the world of beauty, use it to identify the questions I needed to answer, and then work within the system to find those answers. In other words, if I applied logic to things like fashion and make-up, I might actually be able to crack the codes on what had once seemed impenetrable languages I simply could not learn.

Since my son’s birth I have been quite interested in reclaiming the aspect of myself that likes being pretty and doing the things that socially signify an attempt to amplify one’s attractions. At first, not for my ex, but in spite of him; if he was going to be angry that I was attractive to other men but also angry that I was not, then he deserved no consideration in my choice at all, and choosing strictly for myself I would choose to embrace myself as femme. Now, obviously, his opinion doesn’t even have to be consciously ignored, because it is entirely irrelevant to me.

And I am faced with the task of actualizing myself as a woman without the leisure of experimenting.

The way I see it is, I am 32 and a mother. I have walked through hell and made it out the other side. I am an adult, and I know who I am and what I want. Finding a way to present myself that offers in one glance a genuine insight into my psyche should be second-nature to me by this point in my life. The fact that I stalled out that process during the experimental phase is not grounds on which to resume experimenting. Experimenting is no longer where I am. I need to find it – whatever exactly IT is – and become it. I am tired of wasting time on dead ends and poor choices. It is time to be what I am.

It is time to become.

I have embraced the idea of becoming the woman I wish to be via the use of logic and scientific principles. Color theory, applied to lipsticks and fabric choices, raised the rate of return on clothing tried on, make-up shades purchased, from about 1 in 5 to one in two. I have made a swandive off the cliff of perfumery and am compiling a mental database of perfumes and notes and accords and what should work on me/what does work on me.

The perfume hunt has been especially enjoyable, perhaps because I never even tried to experiment with it before so I have no sense of past failures holding me back or making me afraid. Finding scents that I feel psychically represent me along with smelling good on my skin has been fascinating, because it is forcing me to think through the qualities I wish to project. I am most interested in projecting a truth about myself, therefore I have to think about what a scent choice says and whether that is something true about me. And since I have set myself the task of acquiring a scent wardrobe, I get to consider several different things to say about myself. As an exercise in self-reflection I thought through what my psychic “scent” might be, and that imagery has in a weird way been helpful for me in reframing my view of myself, away from feelings of being too tall, too heavy-boned, too statuesque to feeling more grounded in my body, and viewing my shape as strong and powerful and, well, still statuesque but with a positive sense of that vs. an uncomfortable one. If my psychic scent is an alpine meadow on a sunny day – a little earthy with hints of flowers and a chilly breeze – then essentially I should smell like a Valkyrie. (And tell me that isn’t a fun perfume quest to undertake! “I wish to smell like a Valkyrie.”) Or maybe it’s a campfire in a pine forest with a fifth of whiskey. Or a summer day so blazingly hot it feels cold again. All of the images are strong (i.e., vivid) images (mine is not a subtle personality), but they are also all images that combine beauty with…something else. Strength, or serenity, or drama, or danger; never weakness or delicacy or frothy frivolity.

It’s helping me untangle the associations I made as a child between the feminine and the dainty. Sure, that is one aspect of femininity, but it’s not the only one, and it’s not mine. Which I have recognized for years without being able to define what mine is. That harmonizing is what I am doing now – using wardrobe, make-up, perfume, etc., to build a bridge between the raw form of my flesh and the sense of femaleness that has always lurked beneath my skin but never quite surfaced.

I am not quite there yet; actualizing takes at least a little time, even when you finally have a reasonably clear picture of what you are trying to do. But it’s an overhaul that is long overdue, and one I am taking great satisfaction in making. I can feel parts of my psyche that had been dented and collapsed filling and plumping back into place. I can feel the pieces of me that had never quite fit together being sorted, evaluated, and matched. I still have a ways to go; parts of me still feel broken, and despite all my logic and observation, sometimes the answer I thought I had turns out not to be the answer at all. But I am determined. I am no kind of quitter. I am a Valkyrie, a steel magnolia, a princess who has slain her own dragon, and I have unlocked the code even if I have not yet unraveled all its secrets.

I am, at long last, becoming a woman.

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INTJ and Self-Esteem

Friday at the office, I had another of those eerie INTJ conversations with the only other INTJ I know in non-internet space, a male colleague and work friend (who, in addition to being an INTJ, is, also like me, afflicted with self-diagnosed and highly functioning ADD). You know, the kind of talk where one of us starts describing our state of mind and the thought processes that led to it, and the other says “change the nouns and you are describing my brain right now.” We were talking about how right now, in our work and the sort of work that goes into your personal life (chores, hobbies, etc.), we’re battling anxiety and depression that are caused, in part, by the feeling of spinning wheels – of not accomplishing anything.

INTJs derive self-esteem from essentially two places: being good at things and achieving things. When neither of those are happening at a particular point in time then an INTJ essentially has no self-esteem, because they have nothing from which to draw positive feelings about their greater self.

For example, I don’t find it much of a compliment to be told I’m smart or I’m pretty, because those are qualities I was born with, they are inherent to my being, and no matter what I do or do not do (within reason, of course!) I will always have those traits. So, eh, thanks, but really tell my parents because their genes are what’s being praised. But if someone says something I DID was great – whether a piece of writing, or a cosplay, or just a complicated analysis that I did at the office – then I feel truly complimented, because I DID THAT. It wasn’t just my natural state of being that I have no control over, but something that was worthy of praise because of positive actions that I undertook.

So right now, I am in a funk because I feel like I am not accomplishing anything, and I also feel like I am underperforming at all of my various life roles. To quote an email to a friend: “I feel like a shitty mother because someone else is raising my kid, a shitty employee because the baby constantly makes me late and leaves me with no energy for the job, a shitty wife because I am grumpy and pissed off all the time, a shitty chatelaine because I never have time or energy to clean, a shitty daughter/granddaughter/friend because I don’t often have the energy to call and when I do I don’t want to call because I’d either have to admit I’m depressed or pretend I’m not, and a shitty writer because I simply never write anymore.” It doesn’t really matter to my INTJ brain what society expects of a working mother with an 8-month-old baby; it doesn’t matter if the people in my life are cutting me slack. What matters is that I am not being good at anything, and I’m damn sure not ACCOMPLISHING anything better than survival. It is incredibly disheartening. I do not like not having something to feel good about. I do not like feeling overwhelmed and really uncertain how to fix it, because so much of what is causing the problem is beyond my control.

I spent this week getting slapped in the face with the fact that I am in a bit of a depression, which I had been avoiding recognizing for a while now. It happened because I decided one of my “resolutions” would be to get healthier physically and get back on my losing weight trajectory. (The baby weight is off; has been off for months. I am, however, still 20-40 pounds over my acceptable-ideal weights, have been for years, have been admonished by both regular doctor and OB to get some of it off especially before pregnancy #2, and was in the process of losing some of it when I got pregnant with baby boy.) The way I decided to start was not dieting per se (not cutting calories dieting) but just cutting out junk. I have been at it a whole week, and by the end of the week I was FLOORED to realize just how much I eat my emotions. Feeling stressed? Have some cookies. Upset because I can’t concentrate at work? More cookies. Tired and in need of a pick-me-up? Cookies. No wonder breastfeeding a ravenous little boy wasn’t doing anything after getting me back to starting weight! And in denying myself the outlet of comfort calories, I had to confront the fact that I was feeling really negative things on a DAILY BASIS (sometimes multiple times per day) and that I had, frankly, no idea how to deal with those feelings OTHER than eating. Like…whoa. Whoa damn.  Then I started thinking about why I’m feeling stressed out and upset all the time, and it comes down to being exhausted most of the time (having a baby who wakes up 4-6 times a night every night will do that!) and trying to do all the things I was doing before the baby came in addition to spending most of my time at home looking after the baby or playing with him. So here I am, spinning in circles, barely managing to keep the dishes washed and myself in clean underwear, functioning poorly at work, not writing, not spending any time – and I do mean ANY time – on myself. It’s enough to drive anyone to despair, but my personality type is especially poorly suited to being happy in “survival mode.”

Why? Because there is no sense of achievement or accomplishment. I cannot point to anything I’ve done and say “I am doing this well” (*maybe* I could say I’m a good mom, for a working mom, but that’s it, and such a bare-necessity level of achievement that I can’t feel proud of it, like…WHAT ELSE COULD I POSSIBLY DO EXCEPT BE THE BEST MOM I CAN?!). I cannot look at my day to day or week to week or even month to month activities and say “I have accomplished this task or achieved that goal.” There is nothing for me to use to judge my self-worth against; I have a yardstick and nothing to measure.

I have blogged before about my need to create a sense of task accomplishment in order to feel good about a long project. Right now, my long project is life, and I have no sense of task accomplishment, only the eternal recurrence of days spent on nothing beyond the daily tasks of existing.

I did hit an interesting breaking point with respect to writing. It was this combination of despair and exhaustion and Adam Carolla’s point that “if you really want to do something, you DO IT” and thinking about my favorite song from my favorite band’s experimental album, wherein they wrote and recorded a new song every day for a week – at the end of it came one last song, written, they admitted, from that broken place when you can’t try anymore and sometimes things just well up. I just realized that if I don’t find some way to write in the evenings after a day at work, no matter how tired I am mentally and physically, then I will literally not write for the next 3-6 years. Did I want to write, or didn’t I? If I did, I needed to just do it. So I turned on my computer in that desolate place – drained, empty, desperate, disbelieving, and above all too stubborn to just quit. The first night I wrote four words. But it was four more than I would have otherwise. The next I wrote 339. We’ll see if I can continue. If I can, maybe that can be my sense of task accomplishment: “I wrote something today.”

For now that might even be enough.

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When Closer Is Farther

Maybe I should have titled this post, “Through the looking glass.” Because I sort of feel about the book I just tried to read like I imagine Alice did when she stepped through the looking glass and into Wonderland as place of opposite dimensions and misaligned corners so that something’s very familiarity enhanced its Otherness by virtue of being almost-but-not-quite right.

What happened was that I tried to read The Barrow by Mark Smythie. It came recommended for various reasons, mostly that one of my favorite fantasy subgenres is grimdark adventuretime shit. I will give the sample another shot, when I am less sleep-deprived, and see if it was just a trick of my exhaustion, but last night when I tried to read it…I couldn’t, because his writing was too close to my own. It was like trying to read something I wrote 10 years ago, where the cycle and flow of words would shift within the same paragraph from being exactly how I would say it to…not, but not in a way that felt clumsy and juvenile and would make me cringe to read back now, with my old and jaundiced editorial eye, if it were my own. It was bizarre to find myself going in an out of sync with the guy’s words, and every time we fell out it was jarring and uncomfortable. Like deal-breakingly jarring.

I am not sure I have ever experienced this before. I have authors whose words hypnotize me because they say things in ways I never would but find mesmerizing to hear. I have authors who write things pretty much the way I would, if I were writing that story. I have authors whose books I cannot read because of the very Otherness of their thought patterns displaying in their writing. But I have never had someone who writes two sentences like I would and fumbles the third, over and over again. Just enough to get me into a rhythm and then bounce me back out – and not in a good way, because it’s clearly not an intentional way. It simply is. What is this guy, an ENTJ or something?

Anyone else ever experienced this with someone’s writing?

**Edited to add: I want to make it absolutely clear that I don’t mean to say I felt like the writing was actually clumsy or juvenile. I honestly cannot evaluate the sentences that threw me for a loop objectively, because my issue was more that’s not how I would say that than it was “that was a tragic sentence.” I think. Maybe someone can read the sample for me and confirm it’s either spotty or that this is purely and strictly a Lily issue, because he was writing a funhouse mirror version of my writing.

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Line Editing Statistics (Extrapolation)

I finally started integrating the line edits from my printed copy of the Christmas novel to my digital document. I am about a quarter of the way through, and I am done tracking the statistics. It’s way too time-consuming, and while it would be interesting to me to have an EXACT count of the differences between unedited final draft and my edited final document, I just don’t care enough to keep tracking it…not when I have a solid representative sample from which to draw a few conclusions.

First, the numbers.

Words in unedited sample: 13,193

Words in edited sample: 13,350

Instances of direct replacements (1-1 word changes): 60 (77 words)

Instances of words removed: 42 (108 words)

Instances of words added: 24 (265 words)

As you can see, the most common change was replacing one word with another. Many of these were swapping a pronoun and a character name, but many were also replacing weak/vague verbs (such as speak or say) with more specific verbs.

Removals were more common than additions, but removals tended to be one word (such as an adverb that I decided wasn’t really necessary) while additions tended to be entire sentences, usually of physical description to help “ground” a conversation or internal thought process.

Tracking the changes thus far was definitely worthwhile in order to give me a more clear picture of what I am really doing in a line edit. If I looked only at starting and ending word counts, the picture would be distorted – I would have a change of 1.19%. If, however, I look at the actual number of words changed rather than the net words involved, the rate of change becomes 3.41%. I am not sure I would consider a one percent difference worth my time involvement to execute and then integrate a full line edit; three and a half percent, however, definitely is.

Part of me is a little bit surprised that my rate of change was that low, considering all the pink I feel like was bled onto the pages in edits. But for every page I covered in neon, there is a page that has only one mark on it.

Interesting statistical experiment, one I will likely not repeat until I am much further along in my writing career (maybe around novel 20 it would be fun to do this again and see if I have improved my skills any, or if I am still only a 97%-right-the-first-time writer), but one I am glad I took the time to do now. I feel reassured both that line editing is worth my time to do and also that my writing is pretty solid out of the gate.

Anyone else out there OCD enough to have tracked editing stat’s like this? What was your experience?

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Plotting

I…don’t even know how to start this post. Here are the things you need to know about where I am when I get to the point about what my writing state is:

1. I am done with costumes for a long while so I have writing time again.

2. I am determined to publish both my Christmas novel (finished and edited) and its as-yet-unwritten prequel novellette/novella (whichever it turns out to be) this fall.

3. One thing I took away from this round of cosplay is that I am much better at dedicating all spare time/energy to a project when it has a deadline.

4. I am incapable of writing blind; if I don’t know what happens next, I cannot write. I am a type A planner and an INTJ thinker who requires an understanding of the system (entire plot) in order to perform tasks within it (write individual scenes).

5.  I do not know what happens between the introduction scenes and the climax in this short.

We come at last, then, to the crux of the matter: I need to write this piece that is nowhere near a complete story in my head, in it entirety this month, so that I have time to polish it and prep it for publication during October and have both pieces up by early November.

The clock is ticking, and I have no idea what to write.

So I have spent time last night and today plotting. I don’t mean sitting there forcing a story to come about in a certain way, but my method is sure not organic, either, where I wait for my subconscious to work out the details and share them with me. No, I am laying out all the different possibilities for how the story plays out, trying to figure out which questions I can already answer and hoping those answers will eliminate enough of the options for other questions that those turn out to be answered, as well. I don’t know if you remember the “big angle problem” in geometry, where the teacher gives you a puzzle with like twenty lines crossing a circle and only one or two angles filled in, and you have to fill in the rest on your own, but plotting this way feels a little like that.

Phebin

 

It’s a series of if-then statements and evaluations of the story they create. Making one choice by necessity cuts off others. The answer to the question “Is he drawn to her the first time he sees her or not until later?” influences the question of “Where do they meet?” – or is it vice versa?

I am hoping that my intuition will take over the decision-making process, because if the story is nothing but a series of arbitrary decisions because, goddamnit, I had to put SOMETHING down on paper, then the story won’t be able to stand.

I normally enjoy this part of the story-writing process. Brainstorming. The problem is that I am anxious to get to work and the interactions of these characters are eluding me, and I have a deadline and so I cannot just put it to the side and wait for my muse to show up fashionably late to the party.

So. Is he drawn to her right away, or isn’t he?

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I Think It’s Time You Told Me That Story About Why You’re Still Wearing That Towel

Or, Talent VS Training

I was showing pictures of my costumes-in-progress to one of the men I work with, and his comment was “You have a real talent for this stuff.”

I accepted the compliment graciously, because I have learned over many years of being complimented for things I disagree with (or had nothing to do with and thus feel I shouldn’t be praised for) and showing that in my reaction, that rejecting a compliment only makes you look like one kind of asshole or another. Either you’re arrogant or insecure, and either way you’re attempting to invalidate another person’s opinion. So I just give an abashed smile and say “thanks” and let the conversation roll on.

But that comment struck me because, with sewing, I do not feel like I have a talent AT ALL. I feel like I have dedication, yes, and stubbornness; ambition and ingenuity and a really good eyeball for measuring short distances without a ruler, but are any of those things a TALENT? Not in my opinion. To me a talent is a natural aptitude that allows someone to perform a task with minimal frustration on their part; it is a process that just clicks for them, that they can do intuitively and without a great deal of hair-pulling. When talent gets to the point of hair-pulling, it is creating something that borders on genius.

But my hair-pulling and cursing and do-overs are invisible in the story photographs tell. Even if I admit that this design took multiple weekends to finalize, the way that story is heard by someone besides me still elides my sense of plugging away at a project that I have no talent for, only a hard-won and somewhat incomplete skill set.  So I get why my co-worker used the word “talent.”  Most people use the word to describe the process of creating something which they feel like they could not create.

You know what? When I first conceived this particular costume project, I wasn’t sure I could do it, either. But as I have mentioned before, one thing I do have a talent for is taking a big project and breaking it down into manageable chunks. Not just manageable–actionable. As in, “These are the available steps you can take from this point. No purpose is served by thinking about the other steps that will need to be taken to complete the project, because these are the only steps you can take right now.” If you look at a project in that way, the sense of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to start or go next tends to disappear. Once you understand that even the largest project has a narrow range of steps that can come next, the consumer’s paradox of too many choices being paralyzing no longer applies.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that what someone else perceives as talent is often merely the application of skills and logic that the person seeing talent just hasn’t taken the time to acquire/think through.

All that said: fair readers, I think it’s time I told you the story of how I came to view writing as craft and not talent.

As my “About” page attests, I began writing in a serious way in 8th grade, when I was 13 or 14. In my freshman year of high school, my favorite unit of study in English was grammar, because I learned all sorts of rules to apply and got articulations for why some sentences made sense but others didn’t. That point was my last formal grammar training until college. I picked up tips in later English classes where a teacher would point out (and define for us) things like parallel construction and dangling modifiers, and in studying Spanish I learned about mood and reflexive verbs, but those were piecemeal tidbits of knowledge.

The university I attended did not offer a creative writing major. I chose English instead, but never took a single creative writing course. Every semester I would look at the course descriptions and the syllabus each professor posted online about his or her course, and every time I would not want to take any of them. The course descriptions were so…squishy. “We’ll talk about character development and themes” (things I could study just as well from reading and analyzing literature in my normal English courses), and the focus was always on short stories, and always with the implication of literary bent (as opposed to SFF, which was what I wanted to write in those days).

Instead I took courses cross-referenced with linguistics, including an alternative grammar course that was meant to expose the natural grammar of English (as opposed to the grammar of Latin superimposed onto an entirely different style of language). The linguistics courses taught me more of the mechanics of language than I had learned since I was 15.

I also took a class on writing memoirs, because it was not through the English department and satisfied a particular elective credit. In that class I learned not to trust other writers just because they are writers. My first essay was, shall we say, offensive to the Ivory Tower sensibilities of my classmates. I sat through 45 minutes of being told I was a horrible person with my head high and then went home and cried. My only solace was they’d had very little to criticize in my actual writing–and I learned a valuable lesson that day: being told your writing sucks can never, ever, compare to being told you suck as a person. Most of my classmates from that course followed it with the most serious non-fiction writing class offered by the English department. I did not, at the time thinking I had no interest in non-creative non-fiction, but looking back I think I just didn’t want to take that class with the rest of them. I could get nothing out of it when I had no trust for any of them, not even in the sense of assuming strangers will take you as you present yourself.  When I did take that course, I knew no one in it, and heard stories about how the previous semester’s group had been so close. Ha ha ha, I thought–my old classmates. I would have hated being in that group. I might have dropped the course, and what a shame that would have been, because it changed my perspective on writing.

The course itself was combined to function as basically three rhetoric and composition classes in one. We wrote 13 essays of 13 different types of non-fiction, one every week, and line-edited the entire class set. So it was both a writing-intensive class and an editing-intensive class. Class meetings were once a week, and focused on workshopping two essays per night; everyone in the class got two essays workshopped during the course of the semester. The edits were done on communal copies, so that we could see the edits our classmates made on not just our own work but also everyone else’s. We could agree or disagree with their edits, and sometimes that was more illuminating than anything–having three different, contradictory, opinions on the exact same sentence. Nothing says “subjectivity in editing” like that.

I walked in a better writer than most, maybe even all, of my classmates. I walked out a better writer than I had started, but I feel like that course gave me the last 10% of knowledge and growth that I needed to become a professional-level writer. Some of my classmates had dramatic transformations. Their first essays were muddled, riddled with errors and inconsistencies, meandering and repetitive by turns–generally the products of people who had most of their college education finished and still didn’t know how to write. By the end they were writing some of the best essays in the class. I could never say that about my essays; mine were comfortably middle-of-the-road, because while my writing might have been better, my ideas were not. At least a couple of the ones who started with lower writing skills had amazing clarity of ideas and only needed the training to present them in a clear and exciting way.

And that was the most profound lesson I took away from the class: writing elegantly can be learned.

I truly believe this. I have seen it happen. It takes time, yes, and the desire to want to learn the tools of the craft, and a good teacher (be it in the form of person, peer group, or book), and the willingness to experiment and fail and do over again until you can do it by instinct. But writing well–by which I mean clearly, engagingly, and interestingly–is a skill, NOT a talent.

I am not saying some people don’t have a talent for writing (in the sense that writing well comes easily to them), or at the very least an innate ability that gives them an advantage. For example, some people have affinities for learning languages; I am one. Some people have a good mind for wordplay. Some people naturally think in multiple layers. But a lot of the people who are perceived by beginners as having “talent” are really just further along in their study of the craft.

And let’s face reality: the way writing is taught in the American education system is a joke. Students are told to write it how they would say it, or write what they are thinking–but this helps nothing if they are not also taught to think clearly and have never been taught to speak correctly. Students are given grammatical rules out of any context of the process of writing and then expected to internalize them without any practice or practical application of them. No one ever sits down with a student or a class and dissects, sentence by sentence and word by word, all of their mistakes and all of the things they got right just by instinct or accident. No teacher ever clarifies why the sentences s/he did not mark as wrong are correct–they just assume the student knows why, when in fact the students might not know why at all; they just took a lucky guess or just wrote it the way they would say it without knowing why.

Why? Because we are not taught how to write. We are told, Yoda-style, simply to do, on the assumption that we learn by doing.

Most writers are autodidacts. We take our understanding of English and then start “speaking” on paper. We develop a style that suits our personality, and refine it until we have a particular voice in which we write.

Most writers, though, are never given the actual tools to be able to write correctly. Sure, many are able to absorb by context and examples they read most of the rules of writing well. A friend for whom I beta-read has no formal training, for example, and her writing is better than plenty of published authors I’ve read. Even without the benefit of my last writing course, my own writing was “good enough” just by my attempts at self-education and the intuitive grasp of language a native speaker has. But none of that equates to having an actual understanding of what you are doing and why.

To bring this back to the example I started with: I am a self-taught sewer. I just jumped in and started doing, and every time I finish a new project–or start one and fail–I learn something. The heuristic learning style is effective for sewing because of the immediate feedback, the immediate awareness of whether something is “right.” You can look at a garment and tell if it matches the picture of it; you can try it on and know right away if it fits. You can wear it and see the seams falling apart or staying together. You know whether you reached your goal, because the goal is quantifiable, not qualitative.

Writing is not as good a subject for heuristic learning, because of its flexibility and subjectivity. As a beginner, especially, practice is almost pointless without guidance. Without a teacher to show you not only what is wrong but why, but also what is right but why, you have no way of knowing whether what you’re doing is effective or correct. You cannot know which instincts and habits to trust and which to break.

Therefore, when someone tells me I have a talent for writing, I do not give them an abashed smile and say “thanks.”  To do so would be to propagate the myth that good writing is reserved for certain people who were born with a talent. It also invalidates the hundreds to thousands of hours I have consciously put toward improving my skills as a writer. So instead of accepting the compliment as if I agree with their assessment, I say, “I’ve been at it for a long time.”

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