November is a busy month for writers and bloggers — on November 1, a number of events kicked off, notably NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, and NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month. (There’s even NaNonFiWriMo, but that makes my eyes hurt so I’ll just type “NaNo” here to mean everything.) We’re promoting these month-long challenges over on WordPress.com, where I work, as we should — one goal we have on the editorial team is to help encourage bloggers to post regularly and write better. To get writers excited about writing.
And will I partake? No. But it’s not because I don’t have the time. I realize, over and over again, that I’m not a sit-down-each-day-and-write type of writer. I’m not that regular. As mentioned before, my writing comes in spurts, making this blog an awkward space — a pseudo-wasteland — that comes to life every few months. I let the internet know I’m still alive, then simmer down.
I can date my most productive writing sessions so far to 2006 — my second and third semesters of my MFA program at Goucher College. My first semester was a mess — while many of my classmates had solid book-length ideas for their manuscripts, I came into the program with several big ideas:
The warehouse rave scene and techno in the 1990s, and my first brushes with a maternal machine!
My time in Southeast Asia and the paradoxes of Thailand!
My fascination with Tokyo and the friction between modern and traditional!
* * * * *
So, Cheri — what’s your book about?
Well, it’s a collection of essays weaving disparate threads about techno music and the underground dance scene and the rise of the dot com industry in the Bay Area and the juxtaposition between those and then my experiences in Thailand and feeling like everything was backwards and my other travels in places like Tokyo and Montreal and the visual friction between old and new and French and English and and and…
I feel for the mentor assigned to me that first semester — I really do. There was not much she could say but to just write — to vomit it all out, to see what emerged. I think she was the one who had first suggested, after reading all of my crap, that I needed to poke at the scab that had formed after all those years of partying.
So, the rave it was.
Semester two was better: perhaps my new mentor, essayist Diana Hume George, sparked something in me. I woke up in the morning and slipped right into typing and — come afternoon — churned out 10, 15, 20 pages in Word. I’d never written like that before. At the time, I was living with my parents and working part-time here and there, so I set aside several days a week to sit and write. Sometimes it meant just sitting and not writing. But eventually, after a lot of sitting, the words spilled out. Perhaps I could liken the process to establishing a more regular bowel movement, but that might be disgusting. But that’s how it felt.
And still, that’s how it feels.
Under Diana, I wrote whatever I wanted. My fascination with the techno beat, for one. How mechanical and soulless it might sound on the surface, and yet how human and in tune with our bodies it made us feel. (I’d revisited this last year, over on Cyborgology.) Or, my earliest observations of the dot com industry in 1995 — of the excitement over technology and the internet, of a collective desire to use gadgets to make our lives easier — juxtaposed with a very different experience with technology when the sun went down: in abandoned warehouses in Oakland, where we surrendered to the sound of a machine, merged with its beat, came together like a tribe, and let it manipulate us.
The third semester was just as freeing. My third mentor, author Joe Mackall, helped keep me on track: I wrote even more each day. The words just came out. I explored the warehouse as a womb: dark, warm, nurturing. Dance crews like hunter-gatherers, staking out their territories on the dance floor. And the ecstasy.
Oh, the ecstasy.
The last semester was hard. Coming into this final stretch, I had hundreds and hundreds of pages, written over the past year. As I drafted my plan to the finish line — to present “my book-length manuscript of publishable quality” — I realized most of the material I’d written, while intriguing, was unusable for the manuscript I was working on at that very moment.
I felt defeated.
My final mentor was kind but firm; she suggested that what was missing, in all my commentary and analysis and big ideas of this fantastic dark underground, was me.
You need scenes, Cheri. You need *you* in there. You are the story.
When I realized I was to write a piece of memoir — at twenty-six — I cried.
* * * * *
November is just your beginning.
— Chuck Wendig, “25 Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo”
I’ve read a number of posts and comments this week about how people plan to finish NaNoWriMo and get their novels published.
That’s wonderful and all — I love your enthusiasm, your dedication, your optimism. I’m envious, really. But I don’t think that’s how it works. Do read Chuck Wendig’s “25 Things You Should Know About NaNoWriMo.” It’s entertaining and honest.
I look back on the times I’ve invested effort and money on improving my writing; I think about those four semesters, each lapse a NaNo in itself. A focused, dedicated period to draft material. Slowly improving, trashing whole chapters, editing the few passages that were salvageable, and working toward a polished product — whatever my idea of “polished” was at the time.
I finished my MFA program in June 2007 and produced a book with a beginning, middle, and end. In that sense, I was relieved and happy. But it’s an interesting feeling to get your bound manuscript in the mail, shortly after finishing, opening to the first page, and then wanting to throw up.
What is this alien thing in my hands, and why is my name on it?
It was the first time I realized what it really meant to write.
* * * * *
I said above that what I’d written was unusable. Technically, yes. But that’s what must be done, isn’t it? I wonder what I’d write about today had I not written what I did. But that’s the thing: do we really write to get things out of us? Do we ever shake these things — these things we’re deeply curious about, these things we’ve experienced and have changed us to the core?
(Shall I point out that I’ve written this post before? That if you know me or have followed this blog for a while, you know I’ve said nothing new here?)
We’re always growing and changing. You’ll see vestiges of past material — hints of my obsession — in my posts today, no matter the topic: on Zadie Smith and memory (“I’ve been exactly there“), on writing at five in the morning (“Ten years ago at this time, I’d be leaving the warehouse”). Musings, then and now. Despite their fate, it’s all still me. I must remind myself that writing I’ve cut, of which I might be ashamed, is as valuable as writing I’ve published and am proud of.
So this archive of writing I have filed away — a record of perspective — is a treasure. It’s hard to read, yes, but it’s a treasure in its own way.
And what’s more to be said about writing a memoir when young? I think it’s silly in some cases, but I ultimately don’t think it’s a waste of time. Write it, but expect to write another one, and then another one. Not because you have so much to say and have accomplished so much, but because you probably won’t get it right, or you realize the moment you’ve finished, the wheels in your head have turned again.
The more I write, and the more I read the writing of others, I realize I have so much to learn. So much to improve. It’s a humbling process. I find it amusing that a big part of my current job is inspiring bloggers to write and improve their craft, when I can’t seem to follow my own tips. I’m no expert. When you begin to think you have all the answers, and think you know what you’re doing, it’s probably a good idea to check yourself.
If I impart just one piece of advice to those who read this blog, I’ll say this: if you’re a writer, you can always do better.