First of all, I was originally invited to participate in this grand round robin by the gracious and tenacious Kelly Sundberg. However, the chain unraveled upstream from her (as these chains are wont to do). But I decided to participate anyway because I liked the questions. I liked the idea of making myself sit my ass down to answer them.
You should go check out Kelly over at Apology Not Accepted, where she writes about being a witness to and a victim and a survivor of domestic violence.
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Second, my writing process terrifies me. When I showed up for our first meeting “as a big group” in my MFA program–it was a huge secret success (I mean, not to my Facebook friends, but to the rest of the cohort, who I was hoping to impress). I had been turned down by all the schools I applied to the year before, and I had gotten in to U Wyoming’s fully funded program off the waitlist. I was convinced I was secretly a fraud and would be found out any minute.
At that meeting, our program director said “If you feel like a fraud right now, you aren’t alone,” and “You have the next two years to figure out how you fuck yourself.” She said other beautiful and eloquent things, but that is the thing I thought about most for the next two and a half years–because some weeks it felt like all I was learning. Here’s what I now know for absolute sure: I fuck myself with distractions and I fuck myself with self criticism.
I beat myself up like it is my job. When I came to our (kind, generous) director a year and a half after that first meeting, and broke down in her office, it was because I was a terrible writer and I was so afraid that I’d wasted everyone’s time.
“Because,” I wailed, “for weeks, all I’ve wanted to do is knit sweaters and roast vegetables.”
She said, “Why don’t you then?”
“Because I have been trying for months to find a way to write every day and I can’t because I am so lazy and unfocused and I have always been like this and… I just suck at life.”
Because we are told over and over and over that the good writers find a way to write every single day. And I have never been able to do that–except for this one experiment where I blogged every day for a year. See how I use words like never even though they don’t apply? That’s what my (wise, patient) director noted.
She said, “Why don’t you let your cohort worry about your work ethic for a couple of weeks? Any one of them will tell you all about how hard you work. You don’t even have to believe it, just let them hold that opinion of you, for you. Go knit and roast beets. The work will be there when you get back.”
It’s not like I was cured. But I knit a great sweater and got my thesis done. She and my advisor nominated it for an award, later. Plus, most of it has been published. Even I can’t say it wasn’t an expression of good, dutiful effort.
I still don’t usually believe that I am not lazy, but I am trying to acknowledge that my laziness appears to express itself in mysterious ways that often only I am capable of discerning. I pass for hard-working, in other words.
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Man. You’d think I forgot about the questions altogether. I DID NOT.
1. What am I working on?
A non-fiction book about vultures. It combines travel, memoir, science and mythology to tell stories about birds that disgust us.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
For one, I am not sure what needs to happen. Too many books about ecological horrorshows are certain. And, I mean, someone needs to be. But I think we also need to wonder and question and mull stuff over, too. There are multiple sides to every natural wonder’s predicament.
Also, while I love birds and I love travel–I am not a professional at either. This gives me room to stand next to my readers, rather than over them at a mahogany podium with a powerpoint full of footnotes. I am figuring this stuff out as I go. That keeps the reader and me on the edge, a bit. But not any actual edges, because I am really not fond of heights.
Also, I’m not afraid to get lyric. This may become a problem when I try to sell the manuscript–but it’s not really something I can help. I write like I talk: excitedly and often before I’ve thought something all the way through. This means I must stay open to the possibility that I’m wrong.
3. Why do I write what I do?
More than anything, I love the natural world. I ache for it in ways I don’t quite understand. Just knowing there are owls outside right now calms this mania in my chest by an infinitesimal degree. The frogs singing, another degree. The wind through the winter-dried grasses trying to stand up, one more. Eventually, it all comes together and I can breathe a little easier; I feel less alone in the universe. Some people get this feeling from going to church or looking up at the stars and seeing God. For me, it is the exact mosaic of stones shoved to the side of the road by the traffic; the clay embankment carved in lesser and lesser depths by a stream; the outline of a cirrus, and the hues in its depths; a birdsong, hard to identify.
When I write, nearly every time I write, I am trying to explain this longing for comfort. I am trying to describe watching one bird take flight one day, and the way the image of its strong back reverberated in my brain bell for weeks. How it made me think about every time I’d tried anything. How it made me wish for a moment, even though I am a grown ass woman with car insurance and surge protectors and a chain for my reading glasses, that I could fly.
I enjoy my house and would quickly say that I need some of the comforts of civilization, too–but it’s the fact of the outside, its existence in all its myriad shapes and forms and wonders, that keeps me thinking. Which keeps me going.
4. How does my writing process work?
Fuck if I know; see above.
I don’t write every day. I think in words every day, however. Sometimes I tweet lines as they come to me, often using the #cnftweet tag. Some of these tweets are single toes-in-the-water of something bigger, sometimes they are just passing thoughts.
But when I do finally sit down, it is because something has been building in my chest cavity for days or weeks or months. It comes out over an hour or two, or three days–in a jumbled shitty rush. And then I spend a few days or weeks revising it until I can read it out loud without stumbling.
Then, I usually try to submit it somewhere. This makes me stop picking at it for a bit. Those first subs rarely work out–but they enforce a break, some time to think, on my part. Submittable serves as back brakes for my mania in that sense.
The trouble with this (non) process is that it works way better for standalone essays than it does for a whole book. So the book is inching in fits and starts and crumbs and balls of paper. I will have to do something different, I’m afraid, if I want to finish it. I’m almost positive. But I’m not sure what, yet, or how.
On good days, I know it will come to me eventually.
On bad days, I like to cry it out and eat M & Ms.
I used to hate my process. It embarrassed me. But that ain’t gonna make it shape itself up.
So this is me, showing my process off in a bikini. I’m trying to love it more. I mean me.
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And now to pass the torch. Two of my own chain links fell out of interest or time for this project, but luckily for you and me both, Brian Oliu was still game. You can read his post in the coming days… Here’s why you should catch up with anything you’ve missed in the meantime:
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & has taught at the University of Alabama since receiving his M.F.A. in 2009. His work has been anthologized in Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2, 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction, & has been twice selected as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays series. He is the author of So You Know It’s Me, a collection of Craigslist Missed Connections, & Level End, a series of lyric essays about videogame Boss Battles. His newest book, Leave Luck To Heaven, an ode to 8-bit videogames, was released by Uncanny Valley Press.
You can check out his words and news and track suits here: BRIANOLIU.COM