Diary of a Writer, Day 9 – Losing the Plot

*I wrote this a few days ago but did not get to edit and publish it until today.

I have lost the plot.

You probably know that expression. It usually means that somebody has lost track of what is going on. They are confused. It can also mean that they have lost track of their goals, what they wanted to achieve. It also carries the undertone that the person has gone a bit mad. If you lose the plot and you don’t know what’s going on – you might be a bit off.

Well, it feels like all of the above is true in my case.

I took the entire last weekend off from writing, even though I was sure it was going to be a mistake to do so. I haven’t written enough in the last year or two to just take a break in the middle of writing a first draft and expect to be able to pick it up again at the snap of a finger. I knew that breaking the habit (of writing) after just a week of restarting wasn’t a good idea because it happened too often since leaving Saskatoon.

Turns out I was right. It wasn’t a good idea. I lost the plot.

Finding back into the story from where I had left off was hard. The characters, who had taken on brighter and brighter colors seem to appear behind milk glass now. The settings appear to have locked me out. Words are harder to pull out of my brain than from a dictionary. There are gaps left, right, and center in my manuscript. Jumps. Fillers. Things like ‘XYZ’ or ‚etc.‘

I have tried to just patch the story up well enough so that I could get to the ending. It is called a ‘shitty first draft’ for a reason, I thought. But when I got to the ending, I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I knew what the ending was going to be. But how would I get there? What would it look like? How was I going to finish this delicate souffle off without having it falling apart?

My original plan was to have a first draft ready by this past Friday. Sunday at the latest. Then have a first edit done by the end of this week. Now, I am struggling to patch this thing up to the point where I can even call it a ‘shitty first draft’ by the end of this week. All because here I am tracing my steps, trying to find the lost plot and pick up where I left off.

Diary of a Writer, Day 3: Chewing the Cud

For the third time in as many days, I got up yesterday morning at six-thirty, showered, brushed my teeth, made coffee, and started to write. The last time I started my days regularly like this was in spring 2018 and I was in the last stretch of writing my MFA thesis. Back then this routine seemed like the easiest thing in the world. Right now, not so much.

My writing muscle is still a bit twitchy as well. It’s like a physical workout: when you haven’t worked out in a while, you can feel every fiber of your muscle. It may even be worse the day after. But by the third or fourth day, it gets a little easier. Not so much during the workouts – those still hurt and your muscles might even feel a little less loose than when you started – but the recovery is quicker and easier. Some things even start to come back naturally: words, phrases, metaphors. Even the thing that is commonly known as “inspiration.”

I still feel a bit like a camel, regurgitating my old ideas.

I can honestly say that I haven’t had a decent, (somewhat) original idea since 2018. Anything I explored in the almost four years since then was cud – regurgitated old ideas that sometimes fell out of my mouth and landed on the floor, and sometimes got chewed and swallowed again, but never actually made its way through my literary digestive system.*

And then yesterday…an idea!

Now, it is too early to say whether this idea is any good. And to be honest: it isn’t even much of an idea. I view it more as the foundation of an idea. The idea of an idea, if you will. But it could also be the head of a long queue of ideas that are just waiting to develop into more solid ones and, eventually, into stories. If not that, then at least it might be a sign of life. Perhaps the old jukebox needed just a little kick in the side.

That should do it for now. I need to rest. I can already feel my writing muscle. It will be sore in the morning. But I just have to work through it. The only other option is to regurgitate the cud forever and that is not very appealing to me.

*I realize that, in this metaphor, a finished story is equal to feces, but I don’t think we might be too far off in some cases.

Diary of a Writer, Day 1

Today, I decided to end my suffering.

I decided to go to my bookshelf, dust off the old Master’s thesis and browse through it one more time. I smelled it, too. Let my fingers glide across the writing, just for old time’s sake. And then I threw it in the garbage. I even considered setting the garbage on fire, just to make sure that demonic thing was dead for good.

Okay, I didn’t actually do that. But there’s a part of me that wanted to. I actually saw me doing it. Things haven’t exactly started out great in 2022 and so I thought, just to occupy my brain with something, I would sit down, get the old writer’s toolbox out – you know the small one with the vocabulary and basic grammar – and start to write again.

But imposter syndrome is a very real, very writer-esque malady. It usually appears in combination with the fear of failure, perfectionism, and mental delusions like “lack of inspiration” or “writer’s block,” both of which often express themselves in excuses like “I’m too busy” or “I have no good ideas,” all of which welcomed me back with open arms right away.

It’s not fun.

The truth is that I have ideas, some of them, I dare say, even good. One of the good ones is buried somewhere deep in the old Master’s thesis. My problem is that I am very good at finding excuses not to sit down and do the work. A big part of it is that I don’t have the patience.

But then I hear of examples like Jake Tapper. This school-principal looking TV anchor sets aside fifteen minutes each day to write. Every day. Fifteen minutes. Heck, I can do twice as much, if not more! If a busy TV anchor, who looks like a real-life grown-up Nelson Muntz can do it, so can anybody, including me!

I’d like to think Jake Tapper is proud of this entry.

So I didn’t throw my thesis out, nor do I intend to (at least for now). As I am typing these lines, the wretched thing is staring me right in the face from the top of my bookshelf.

It’s a reminder of what I want to do. It’s a reminder that, despite what my mind tells me, there’s something to work with here. I just need to make time for it. That’s it. Make time for writing.

Writing this entry was hard. Not mentally or emotionally. It was hard because I realized that the old word-machine is rusty. Some of the buttons are stuck. The ink is very dry, so I sometimes have to press the same button multiple times. And, good Lord, is the backspace unpredictable! Sometimes you hit it three times and it deletes fifteen things. Other times, it is the other way around.

The entire machine needs some dusting, some oil and some gentle handling. It will need constant care. But if I take care of it and put in the work, it will get better again. And perhaps, with a little luck, it will be as good as new again.

Believe it or not, but it took me almost 45 minutes to write a first draft of this. The editing took me another hour or so. Back in school, both would’ve taken me 15 minutes, respectively.

I’d like to think Jake Tapper would be proud though.

Is There a Switch?

There is light at the end of the tunnel. If there was ever a sign of hope for me personally that the pandemic might not reign in an era of constant emergency orders, it is that Ontarians can enter non-essential businesses again – including book stores.

I have missed browsing the shelves of a local bookstore. I haven’t been able to let my eyes float across the bended backs of used books in over half a year. To do so again is like seeing an old friend that you haven’t seen in, well, over half a year: Hi. I’ve missed you. How’ve you been? Should we hug?

With the prospect of my second vaccine shot and an imminent move to Ottawa, it seems appropriate to look back at the past fifteen months. A lot has happened: from meeting a wonderful woman to moving to Ottawa (these are connected), the 2019-2021 seasons of my life have been more eventful than the constant stay-at-home order may have allowed.

The pandemic has also provided me with opportunities. As I have mentioned before, I began writing for cbr.com in March of last year as the world was, at least in my mind, on the verge of societal collapse and the idea of buying a survival guide and watching videos on how to build a tent with nothing but natural resources seemed like a rational thing to do.

I wrote for the site for one year before going on an indefinite break this March. With a year of writing experience under my belt, I focused on a career change and began to write – “part-time” – for a content marketing agency.

It sounded like a wonderful agreement: I would start out with fifteen hours a week and, if both sides were happy, we would then revisit and look at potential full-time employment. However, things didn’t quite turn out this way, and after a month that saw me working closer to 120 hours instead of 60, I quit.

What I am trying to say is that this pandemic has provided me with more opportunities to write professionally than ever before. And as much as I may have hated some of the assignments, I am grateful for them. But I have also learned something about myself: I would rather work on my own project than having to follow an assignment.

So, here we are, just a couple of weeks away from moving to Ottawa, where I will finally have a home office – a place designated for work. And a place where I hope I will find time to tend my own projects again. There is still a thesis that wants to be turned into a second draft. There’s an entire idea book that has almost given up on me. An entire file of literary magazines just waiting for my submissions (presumably).

All I have to do is find the switch to turn the creative juices on again, and flip it.

Discovering David Sedaris

The first time I heard the name David Sedaris – at least as far as I can remember – was in 2016 during my first semester at the University of Saskatchewan. A classmate was reading one of Sedaris‘ books at the time (I don’t remember which one) and brought it to class. He was quite enjoying it. Even then, the name ‚David Sedaris‘ sounded familiar although I couldn’t point my finger on it. What was he writing about?

Last week I finished my first Sedaris book, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, and it is still hard for me to narrow him down to an essence. In a way, I was right. He writes mostly (somewhat) personal essays, often with a humorist twist. To even call them essays can be a stretch though because, at times, they lack a clear cohesive thread and/or structure. Perhaps the better word for some of his pieces would be “anecdotes.”

A couple of hundred pages into his book I could imagine him standing behind somebody in line at the local grocery store, just testing the material out on random strangers in exchange for more anecdotes. They are like currency to him.

If anything, Sedaris’ writing prompts you to look for more information on him. So after I had finished the book I looked a little into his background. I needed to know why he is writing about the things he is writing about and why other people read it?

That last thought eventually lead me down a rabbit hole that I usually never descend into: Goodreads reviews. I think Goodreads is the Reddit of readers. Sure, it’s fun to rate the books and a nice (and useful) to keep track of what you’ve read and want to read, but if you are allergic to people who are stuck in high school English class I suggest you avoid the reviews, especially if you haven’t formed your own opinion.

Anyway, I went down that rabbit hole. In a moment of rare true social media satisfaction I found a number of reviews, not all of them bad, that affirmed the all-important question I was asking myself: who cares about David Sedaris Life Anecdotes? As soon as I knew that I wasn’t the only person wondering, I closed the app on my phone.

I don’t know David Sedaris personally. From all I have seen and heard and read of him he is a somewhat quirky but nice and polite person. Despite his quirkiness though, I don’t think he is a particularly important or interesting person in the grand scheme of things and I don’t think his achievements or personal history are in any way remarkable. He is pretty much just a person with a sharp eye, writing about the more interesting experiences of his life in a humorous way.

That may sound pretty negative, but I don’t mean it that way. Sedaris is a bestselling author and has sold millions of copies being and writing about, well, his corky self. He doesn’t hold power. He has no special accolades like a decorated athlete. He doesn’t lead a glamorous life like a movie star. Instead, he writes about people he meets in the airport or at book signings.  

It just goes to show you that if you’re a good writer, chances are people will read what you have to say.

As for me, I was not hooked by Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls. Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the book. It was an easy read. It even got a chuckle out of me here or there and I am sure that Sedaris would take this as a “Mission Accomplished” moment – as he should. But I can’t say that I want to hear more from him.

My Year in ‚Journalism‘

The past year was an interesting one for me in terms of writing. When Covid hit and my work closed down for about a month, I – like most people – didn’t know what was going to happen. Anxiety and uncertainty is usually poison to any mind, but especially for a creative one: you need to focus to create and you to be at ease to focus. Worrying about the end of civilization as we know it doesn’t really help in that regard.

But during the height of the end-of-civilization feeling I was somehow able to pick myself off the writer’s desk. I looked for some freelance work. The intention was twofold. First, a freelance gig would pay for whatever costs I had aside from rent. And second, it would get me back in the writing game.

It worked. I landed a gig with cbr.com.  A week or two after I started they announced pay cuts due to the pandemic – as if there was much to cut – and the topics I covered bore about as much resemblance to journalism as a bottle of urine does to lemonade. But hey, it got the juices flowing, no pun intended.

Well, it has been almost a year since I started writing for CBR and I have decided to close that chapter at the end of this month. There are a few reasons why. The most important is that it stopped being fun. I feel my articles have become repetitive and I am quite sure that there is a special place in hell for the Danielle Steele’s, puff piece writers, and journalistic regurgitators of this world.

Secondly, it started to feel like work. This may sound odd since, technically, it was. But I feel writing needs to be something a writer wants to do. If it turns into something a writer has to do, then it won’t come as easy and naturally. Writing becomes mechanical, forced and boring. Even worse, I believe readers can tell when that is the case.

Finally, the time I spent ‘researching’ and writing for CBR could be spent on writing fiction. Sure, I’d go back from getting guaranteed paycheques to having to submit pieces and hope for voucher copies. But money stopped being the prime motivator for my CBR work. I simply held on for the last few months because I wanted to complete an entire year with them.

For what it’s worth, CBR helped me pay for all kinds of fees related to my permanent residence application. It gave me something to add to my resumé. Most importantly though, it helped me get back into a semi-routinely writing habit. I am very grateful for all these things.

I still have three weeks to go until April. If you are interested you can click here to get to my articles on cbr.com and check out what I had to say over the past year. Don’t worry, I won’t hold a grudge against you if you don’t.

That is all the time we have, I’m afraid. Thank you for reading. I will go back to the drawing board and look what kind of topics are up for grabs for my next article. Perhaps I will even pitch an idea. If it is something really worth reading about I will let you know.

Just don’t hold your breath.

So Many Books, So Little Time

This is not my pile of unread books. Mine are in better shape.

One positive aspect of the pandemic for me is that bookstores are closed and I can’t get lost in the endless sea of spines on shelves. In the before-times, I used to walk into every bookstore I came across and if I felt I had five minutes to spare, I would browse for at least twenty minutes and in 99.9% of cases I would end up buying at least one book, often more.

The result of this is that I have an overflowing bookshelf. I came to Canada with four books in my backpack. My dad later sent me another handful, but that accounts, at best, for one row of my shelf. But there are over a hundred books (I haven’t counted them) and, If I had to guess, I’d say that I have read about half of them, maybe less.

Now, Germans are often accused of having a word for everything. While that is mostly true (I mean, look up Waldeslust), we don’t really have a word for the compulsion to buy a book whenever entering a bookstore – at least not that I am aware of. Sure, I could make up a word. German lends itself really well for creating neologisms by simply mashing up existing words. Bücherkaufzwang, consisting of the existing words Bücher (books) and Kaufzwang (oniomania or compulsive buying disorder) sounds good and pretty much hits the nail on the head. But just making up a word, without confirmation and approval by your peers feels like cheating.

Other languages have terms that focus mostly on the collection of books. The Japanese have a term for collecting more books than one reads: Tsundoku. The term consists of the words doku (“reading”) and tsun (“to pile up”). And of course there is the English bibliomania. But both words are only about possessing books and piling up unread literature in one’s collection. That may be the source of my problem, but I am still left searching for a term for the specific symptom of having to buy more books upon entering a bookstore.

I guess I will have to stick with my German neologism for now – and hope that bookstores remain closed for a few more months.

Time Enough At Last. Or Not.

2020 is thankfully behind us. While the new, bad C-word has halted life as we knew it and continues to hold us in its grip – albeit hopefully not for too much longer – the past year has brought many people something precious, something they complained they never had: time.

Yes, all of a sudden many people had time. Whether it was because they had lost their job (hopefully just temporarily) or just because they were now working from home, cutting out their commute. Yes, people had found time. Of course, the irony was that there was nothing you could do with all this time. We were all still stuck at home because of this damn CoV…virus.

One would think that this situation was a perfect scenario for readers. To quote the famous Twilight Zone episode about eerily similar circumstances: Time enough at last! Indeed, we had time at last to read all the voluminous classics of various genres that we never dared to touch but had bought for just such an occasion: War and PeaceInfinite JestUlysses,and all the others we were always so determined to read but never did because – wouldn’t you know it? – we just never had the time.

Yeah, right.

I don’t know about you but 2020 was the year I read less than in any other since I started keeping records of my books in late 2015. It’s not even close. My previous low for a full year was 25 books. Even in 2015, when I started to keep track, I reached 12 books – in November and December alone.

In 2020, I read a total of 11 books.

The more I think of it, the more reasons come to mind why I read so little. The fact that I kept working as usual, with the exception of a few weeks in late March and early April, is one (actually I worked even more, since I started as a freelance writer for cbr.com – give me a read here). Meeting and later moving in with my girlfriend was another. Those were the good reasons.

But there was something else, a sort of restlessness that lingered in me throughout the year. From the start, the news dominated everything. Trump impeachment here, new virus there. Trump madness here, vaccines there. At one point, I found myself checking the number of new infections for Papua New Guinea while watching another nurse break down in tears on CNN. It all felt like War and Peace and Infinite Jest and The Stand had formed a weird exo-literary time-space continuum. I was just waiting for the news that a tennis coach named Randall Flagg was starting a cult to storm Area 51 (the last part was actually a possibility in late 2019, remember?).

So with everything going on and society teetering on the edge of self-destruction, reading felt somehow trivial. I was more worried about whether I would have to buy a sleeping bag and a tent and head north in the middle of the night once anarchy reared its ugly head. Funny enough, even as my mind went there, I still was thinking that I should bring Infinite Jest and It with me. Time enough at last.

But now that 2020 is over the page has turned, pardon the pun. The Mango Mussolini has left in disgrace. Vaccines are, slowly but surely, being distributed. Hope has made a comeback. And so have my reading habits. I am on my fourth book this year and there are no signs of slowing down.

Looks like the Twilight Zone got it wrong. It doesn’t take an apocalypse to find more time to read. Quite the opposite. 

Speaking of…

Yesterday I said that my books were all speaking to me, wanting to be the next book to be read.

Well, if you think that was wacky and out-there-ish, then look at this:

I saw this on Facebook. Allegedly, a couple of librarians created this. But who knows? Maybe the books took it upon themselves to get the message across.

Who’s crazy now?

When Your Books Start Talking to You

Well, since we all can’t go anywhere, why not revive this zombie blog and write about what I’m reading?

To be honest, it’s not much because I am catching up on my TIME magazines while finishing Maupassant’s A Woman’s Life and – boy howdy! – that book is not exactly fun. But what can you do? My OCD requires me to finish it. So here I am, sitting in my Poäng chair, feet outstretched on the foot rest, reading one page, one paragraph, one sentence at a time. Every now and then I look at my bookshelf to the left and what a sight that is: all these books I haven’t read yet! You’d think it motivated me to finish this one faster, but…

I catch myself thinking about what to read next. Rachel Maddow’s Blowout? Not likely while I still catch up on TIME magazine. That would be too much politics at once. The Charles Manson biography? Still too close to politics. I need something fictional.

In a state of trance, I get up and walk over to the bookshelf. At once, I hear all the voices escaping from the dusty pages, all yelling atop of one another, longing to be heard.

The first one sounds foreign and I see the copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary but I quickly retreat from that. One Frenchman just ruined my reading experience for a month. I need a change in pace.

Ellis’ American Psycho, Martin’s Game of Thrones series (should I reread the first book before starting the second one?), James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, Auster’s 4321, Ramsey Campbell’s The Darkest Part of the Woods. All unread, all screaming at me, promising me joy and thrills for hours!

Or should I go for a short story collection? I turn Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, Volumes 4-6? I can’t remember too much from volumes 1-3, but I know it won’t be necessary. Richard Matheson, Daphne du Maurier, Ray Bradbury. They all ask me whether I have a few minutes. They promise they’ll be brief.

The only book that keeps quiet is in the top right corner. It’s my trusty German copy of Stephen King’s The Stand. Is it ashamed of the current situation? I look its yellowed pages. The over 1,200 pages would be a serious commitment.

In the end, I don’t know which one to pick. They all look good to me. I go back to my Maupassant. Read one sentence. Then another. And another and another and…

There is one good thing about being stuck with a terrible book: as long as I read this one, I don’t need to decide which to pick next.