I feel abysmally low right now, but I’m sure I’ll feel better eventually. In the meantime I’m going to continue to not try very hard with this blog. It definitely will be, and has always been, my lowest priority in life. That’s why there are so many spelling and grammatical mistakes and dropped words. I don’t even proofread the entries.
You know, you read all these articles on the internet, and most of them are total SEO crap: silly wikihow articles churned out for $15 a post in order to get some ad-money by perching on top of a search result for a term like “How do I stop procrastinating.”
But then, once in awhile, one of those posts comes at you with some amazing advice. God knows where it comes from. Maybe the writer of the article was particularly good and conscientous? Or, more likely, they had a friend or a relation who knew something about the topic in question. Or perhaps every person does genuinely have one or two decent pieces of wisdom to impart, and sometimes you end up imparting that wisdom in the form of a generic looking listicle.
In any case, I’ve been making my way through the revisions on my novel, and I feel like I’m on track to finish by my April 1st deadline. And I realized that I actually tend to make my deadlines more often than not nowadays. And, what’s more, I usually make them without going into ‘crunch mode’ or getting all stressed out.
And I owe it all to one tiny little article that a friend shared on Facebook.
The article is gone, unfortunately. I mean, it probably still exists somewhere on the internet, but I have no idea where it is. But anyway, the title was something like, “These seven trick will teach you how to finish all your work on time!”
And the first four of them were trite and obvious stuff like, I don’t know, making to-do lists and breaking up your proejct into discrete tasks that could be doable in one sitting. But the fifth item was great. It was something like:
Begin each assignment as soon as you get it, even if you can only work on it for a few minutes — Research has shown that human beings hate to leave things unfinished. If you put off starting an assignment, then it’s possible to push it out of your mind, but if you begin to work on it, then your mind will prod you to return to it until it’s eventually done.
This could not be more true. I swear to God, it’s like magic. Nowadays whenever I get an assignment, I just open it up and work on it for twenty or thirty minutes. And then I know that, no matter what, I’ll finish it by the deadline. I have no idea how this works, but it just gets done. Sometimes I’ll even procrastinate for huge chunks of time in the middle. For instance, today I revised for two hours and then daydreamed for two hours. But over time, the effort I put in slowly accelerates and the ratio of work to daydreaming decreases and voila, it gets done.
What cannot be a surprise to any recent reader of this blog is that for the last two months I’ve been feeling not-the-best on an emotional level. Not the worst I’ve ever felt. But far from the best. And certainly below what I’d call average. This mood started off as a thing that had an actual form and cause, but since then it’s just become a shapeless grey mass. Every day, I’ll have at least one moment (usually between 11 AM and 3 PM) where I’m like, “Hmm, I think I’m getting better” and then another moment (usually at 9 AM or 5 PM or 11 PM) where I’m like OH NO, I AM NOT BETTER AT ALL*.
Today, though, I found myself thinking about my insomnia.
Probably no one remembers, but I used to blog fairly frequently about insomnia. It would take me hours to fall asleep each night, and as a result I’d either sleep in for hours or feel tired throughout the next day. Now that my insomnia has more or less abated, it’s surprising to remember how much it used to trouble me, but it was actually a major problem that gobbled up days and weeks of my life and drove me to wit’s end.
I tried a lot of things to cure it. I quit drinking coffee. I stopped looking at screens before going to bed. I quit smoking. I started waking up at the same time every morning. I took naps every afternoon. I took melatonin pills. And none of those things ever quite seemed to work. No matter what I did, I still sometimes struggled to fall asleep, and I still struggled to stay alert the next day. But, nevertheless, over time my insomnia stopped looming large in my life and, in fact, stopped feeling like much of a problem at all.
In the end, I realized that it wasn’t any one thing which helped. Waking up at the same time each day (even on weekends) helped a little bit, because my body got tired and then felt wakeful on a regular schedule. And I assume that quitting smoking and not looking at screens helped a bit too. Because of those things, I do believe (though I have no hard data on this) that I’m less likely to spend hours trying to fall asleep.
But just as helpful were the psychological adjustments. For one thing, I just accepted that I’m always going to feel drowsy during the afternoon. Rather than being the enemy, drowsiness is just a fact of life. Before, I used to drink coffee to try to erase the drowsiness, but I’d inevitably drink too much and be unable to sleep at night. Nowadays I just plan on watching TV or reading or writing blog posts or doing some other low-intensity activity during the late afternoon.
I’ve also realized that tiredness is something I can get through. If I’m feeling tired and I have to go somewhere or fulfil some obligation, I know that I can power through and do it. Sometimes I can even do it for a few days in a row. It’s not fun, but I find that if I just start doing whatever I need to do, I find that I eventually get a second wind.
And while I no longer nap every day, they still function as a safety valve. If I’m lying awake at night, I always know that I can make up the sleep debt by taking a nap the next day.
All of these adjustments reduce, in turn, the anxiety surrounding insomnia. Before, when I was lying awake, I’d think, “Oh my god, I’m going to be tired tomorrow. My whole day is going to be shot unless I fall asleep in the next half hour.”
Whereas now I don’t worry about it. I don’t look at my watch or count sheep or force myself to do anything in particular. Instead, I just lie there with my thoughts and let sleep take me when it wants to.
Because of this, I’ve lost the scarcity mindset surrounding sleep and wakefulness. I’ve made the physical changes that a person should make in order to sleep better. And that’s good. But I’ve also adjusted my lifestyle so that, whether I have insomnia or not, I know I’m going to get enough sleep, and I know I’m not going to be left in a desperate or unmanageable position. As a result, insomnia is no longer a disaster.
Not sure what the exact lessons are here regarding feeling-not-the-best, but the parallel is comforting to me.
*My usual warning on mood- or health- or weight-related blog posts applies here, which is that I get irritated when people pop out of the woodwork and give me advice like “exercise more” or “meditate” as if they’re delivering some kind of eleventh commandment that Moses forgot to bring down from the mountain.
Started reading Benito Perez Galdos’ Fortunata and Jacinta. I think it’s kind of like the Anna Karenina of Spain. And I’m still not sure where I stand with this book. There are many good parts of it. Mostly the relationship between the two main characters: Juan Cruz and his wife, Jacinta. They’re very in love, but Juan is simultaneously a bit of a spoiled brat and a cad. There’s a really interesting conversation between the two, on their honeymoon, when Jacinta is sort of trying to wheedle her husband and extract the story of his premarital affair with another woman, Fortunata.
So the book has its good points.
But, on the other hand. It is so long. I’m on page 100 of, like, 800. So I don’t know. I’ll see.
Think this is proof positive that my mood is making me feel unmotivated about my writing (rather than my writing bringing down my mood), because this is quite possibly the easiest and lightest writing-related task I could possibly have. My 2nd round editorial notes on Enter Title Here are, while extensive, not very onerous. Mostly lots of little little changes. A few sentences to add. A paragraph to rewrite. A scene to play with. All pretty simple. And MUCH less work and danger of failure than with my first round edits (which involved a level of alteration to the manuscript that I still find a bit shocking). However, despite that, I still have zero desire to undertake this task and I keep flinching away from the notes instead of actually reading them.
But I’m powering through and making progress,, and will assuredly be done by my April 1st deadline.
Now reading Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. I was a bit leery of picking up this graphic novel, because McCloud’s Understanding Comics is one of the most boring books I’ve ever tried to read. I can’t quite understand why I bounced off of Understanding Comics so hard, because it contained so much information that I knew nothing about. It was a comic book that illustrated what comics are like and how they work. The problem, though, is that it was too information dense, so that my brain just couldn’t rebelled at all the work it was having to do. Anyway, though, McCloud has the kind of clean lines and representational figures that I tend to like in my graphic novelists, and with The Sculptor, he has also written a book about a sad young artist who is very sad (which is also something I enjoy), so I think this one is going to be good.
Not walking marathons or anything. Just walking to places in Berkeley. The grocery store. Restaurants. The library. That sort of thing. I really love this neighborhood. It’s pretty suburban, but it’s dense suburbia. No McMansions or tract development. All the houses were obviously built at different times by different people, so there’s a huge variation in lot sizes, styles, heights, colors, landscaping, etc. The effect is, at times, a bit jumbled and discordant.
It’s distinctly different from both Baltimore and San Francisco, where you have long stretches of row homes that display a pretty unified style: three stories tall, boxy bay windows, front facade fairly close to the sidewalk, etc. I think the row home look is beautiful too. Every time I go to SF’s Castro neighborhood or Mission District, I’m struck by how I’m being presented with such a singular aesthetic experience. But the aesthetic experience I get here is pretty nice too.
I spent a significant amount of time today accumulating an utterly absurd amount of money in Sunless Sea so that I could buy a huge ship and run around killing the big monsters that I’ve spent the last three weeks avoiding. And that’s what I did. I also wrote five thousand words and they were ALL TERRIBLE.
ALL OF THEM.
Not happy about this. Ugh, I assume it will all come to something in the end.
In other news, though, I’m reading George Gissing’s The Whirlpool and it is fantastic! I think what makes the books so good is that I come to them with all these expectations derived from other Victorian literature, and then he completely upends them. Like when people in Victorian literature fall in love and get married and have babies, I assume that either they’ll live happily ever after or something terrible will happen. And then to have the book go on and show a nuanced relationship where sometimes they love each other and sometimes they’re not so sure that they made the right choice? It’s shocking. Just utterly shocking.
It’s awful. I need to stop. It’s just that accumulating fake money and weird status thingies and complicated ships is so addicting! NEED MORE FAKE MONEY!
Maybe this is good somehow. Like maybe it somehow displaces the urge for regular compulsive behavior. Because I’ll tell you, if I lusted after real money as much as I lust after fake game money, my life would be a wreck. I don’t even use the fake game money for anything! I just store it in my house, saving it for a rainy day that NEVER EVER COMES.
Recently several people have asked me whether my MFA helped me get my book deal. Actually, the question is usually both more and less blatant than that. It’s “Would you still have your book deal if you hadn’t gone to your MFA program?”
I understand why people ask the question. My book went to auction on what was literally my last-ever day of classes, and that timing certainly does give rise to questions. However, I find the question difficult to answer. Not because the answer is complex, but because the question itself is subtly wrong.
For one thing, the question is really two questions: “Could you have written your book without your MFA program?” and “Could you have sold it without your MFA program?”
The answer to the first question is…maybe not. The book I sold, Enter Title Here, was written during the winter break of my first year at Hopkins, and it was the first serious work of realist fiction that I ever undertook. I think the only realist story I ever wrote before that was the one I wrote to include with my MFA applications (to prove I could ‘do’ realism). To me, it’s obvious that being around lots of other realist writers acted to change my writing. It’s not that it changed my tastes. I’d read and enjoyed plenty of realist writing up to them. But somehow it wasn’t what I did. I didn’t know how to sell work like that. I didn’t know people who wrote it. My imagination just shut down on realist story ideas before I let them go anywhere. But when I was in the MFA program, things changed. I had permission to write realist stories, so I did (although I did still write and workshop plenty of SF/F stories). So it seems obvious, to me, that my MFA program changed my writing significantly. If I hadn’t gone, I’m pretty sure I’d have kept writing near-future science fiction, and everything would probably be pretty different for me.
However, the answer to the second question is, “Yes, I could definitely have sold it if I hadn’t attended the program.” I feel bad about saying that. Hopkins has given me so much, and I wish I could give them credit for helping me to sell the book, but I can’t. I never showed it to anyone in or affiliated with my program. I don’t think any of my professors even knew I’d written a novel. And finding an agent was an exhaustive process that occurred through querying and contests and personal contacts that were all acquired entirely outside my program (in fact, my agent originally represented me on the strength of a manuscript that I’d written before even entering the program).
So on the one hand, the answer is simple. No. My MFA program did not help me sell my book.
But at this point in my answer, I always feel like there’s too much that I’m allowing to remain unsaid. For one thing, most of the time, I’m asked this question by people who write genre fiction. And I always want to tell them that an MFA program is not going to help you to publish genre fiction. Mostly, that’s because–and it’s impossible to overstate the degree to which this is true–the genre writing world is completely invisible to the literary world. They are aware that the former exists, but they, generally speaking, have no idea how a person writes or sells commercial fiction. It’s not even that your program can’t give you any contacts…it’s that it can’t even give you any advice. So if you write genre fiction (and intend to publish it as genre fiction), then don’t expect your MFA program to help with that.
Secondly, I always wonder what people mean by “Did your program help you?” What form do they envision this help taking? Because if all it amounts to is helping you find an agent for your already-completed manuscript, well, then, that’s not very much help. That’s because: a) most agents–even very fairly important agents–can be queried online; and b) there are much easier ways to develop connections with agents. I met a number of agents at Sewanee, for instance. Befriending already-published writers is also a good way of developing connections to agents. An MFA program is actually a pretty inefficient way to make connections, because you’re usually trapped out in the middle of nowhere, where the only people that you meet are those who are either just starting out or who are almost finished. Whereas if you want to make connections, the best thing to do is to go to places where you’ll meet a lot of people who are in their early- or mid-career: people who are just a few steps ahead of you.
Okay, so going to an MFA program isn’t a good way to get an agent for your already-completed manuscript. However, I kind of understand that many of the people who ask me this question aren’t saying, “Will this program help me publish my novel after I finish it?”
What they’re saying, I think, is, “If I go to this MFA program, will I be able to skip some steps? Can I get a good agent without completing a manuscript? Can I sell a book without finishing it? Can I place stories in journals without submitting?”
And to that I’d say…yes. That is a possibility. However, if that’s what you want. Or if that’s what you want a shot at, then you should be clear about what you’re asking. In order to be anointed, your talent has to appear self-evident. It can’t seem like people are doing you a favor. It needs to seem like you are doing them a favor by letting them help you. As such, it’s not realistic to expect that you’re going to get anointed if you’re at a less-selective MFA program. It’s not realistic to expect anointing if you only got in off the waitlist or if the school doesn’t seem extremely excited about you. For instance, if you don’t get a school’s top fellowship…then they’re probably not going to anoint you…
I think that my feelings about anointment are pretty clear. I think it’s great for those whom it happens to, but I think that there are too many literary writers who are chasing anointment, and I think that in many ways the pursuit of anointment can cripple a career.
And finally, finally, finally, finally, I should say that if you want to publish genre fiction as genre fiction (i.e. if you want to publish it with genre imprints and have it be shelved in the genre sections of the bookstore), then getting an MFA is not going to help you publish. And that’s because most authors, editors, and agents in the genre world (or at least in the YA and SF/F worlds) don’t really understand the difference between the various programs, and even when they do understand, they don’t really care. Because so many acclaimed genre writers didn’t go to school for writing, it’s just not part of the culture of the genre world. I’m not saying that some genre writer here or there can’t find some way to benefit from having an MFA, but it hardly seems like a sufficient reason to get one.
(The main reason to get one is, of course, because these schools will give you money!)