I kind of resent it when really talented writers quit writing. It’s like, yeah, we get it–the writing life is hard. But you know what? You already won the writing lottery: you got the talent and the vision!
It’s like if a whole bunch of us were climbing a glacier, and one guy had, like, icepicks instead of fingers and toes, and he was just clawing his way across the glacier like a spider, and then he hit a crevasse and was, “Oh, fuck these crevasses, right? It isn’t worth it, I’m going home!” And like yeah, I get it, crevasses suck. But meanwhile you’ve got icepicks for fingers, and you’re giving up, while over here we’ve got legless people who’re still gamely scrambling upward!
The converse of this is that I’m impressed when bad writers are able to succeed. Some people seem to resent it when bad writing is successful in the marketplace, whereas “I’m like, whoah, good for you! It’s so impressive that you made it up this glacier even though your legs were tied together.”
After my post on not being nostalgic for college, I feel compelled to say that I do sometimes get nostalgic for my childhood. For years, this was not the case. For years, I never thought about being my childhood, because the trauma and unhappiness of college had, somehow, effaced all of that. But the process of writing all these young adult novels eventually brought it back.
It’s weird. It’s not that you recover a memory and then go on to write a book. It’s that you write a book and the process of writing entails recovering the memory.
And it’s not even a memory. To call it memory would be to misrepresent it. What you recover, when you write these books, is the feeling of being a child. And let me tell you, it’s a pretty powerful feeling! Things are so important! Emotions are so immediate! You can write about falling in love with zero irony. You can write about becoming a high school valedictorian as if it’s a matter of deathly importance. This would not be possible with an adult protagonist! But when you’re writing a child, it’s not only possible, it’s necessary.
Kid’s literature is full of precocious and worldly-wise teens who are probably more intelligent and witty than any teen ever was. However, even these kids don’t escape from the drama of being young. In many cases, they’re more susceptible to it than anyone. It’s a trite example, but take John Green’s protagonists. They’re incredibly intelligent (to the point where it’s annoying), but they also feel things so deeply.
And I feel the same way about my books. Sometimes I write these books that’re about these kids, and I actually resent my protagonists. It’s an incredibly perverse feeling, and I can’t explain it. But I hate them, a little bit, because they’re able to feel things so deeply.
When people talk about being nostalgic for childhood, they sometimes talk about how care-free it was. That, to me, is crazy. Childhood is not carefree. It’s true that childhood (for most kids in America) lacks adult cares: how to feed yourself, how to stay healthy, the fear of mortality, etc. But just look at kids. They’re so emotional. They’re always crying. They’re always worrying. They’re always agitated. They’re not faking. Those are real emotions. And their experience of those emotions is, in many ways, much more extreme than an adult’s.
I would say that, if anything, adulthood is more carefree than childhood. Because while the things we worry about might be bigger, we worry about them less. Partly that’s a result of more knowledge (we have a better idea of the kinds of things that can happen) and partly it’s a result of more freedom (true anxiety comes when you don’t have much control over your fate) and partly it’s just biology (our brains and hormone levels are more settled). But, for whatever reason, I think adults don’t feel as deeply as kids do.
For many, that’s a good thing. It seems like every book I read contains some reference to the author’s miserable childhood. However, to the best of my recollection, my childhood was not miserable. I did get really depressed at the end of my senior year in college (as my mother once reminded me). And I was bullied a bit in middle school. But otherwise, I was pretty happy. My childhood was pretty aimless. I didn’t do much. I didn’t have boyfriends or girlfriends or go to raging parties or even participate in much in terms of extracurricular activities. I read lots of books, but I also mostly read the same books over and over. I spent an insane amount of time playing video games. But I wasn’t unhappy. I had friends. I had hobbies. I had projects (I spent a lot of time working on my D&D campaign). And I had my vague ambitions (I wanted to be involved in space travel!) And that was all pretty satisfying.
Of course, I don’t feel nostalgic for those activities. I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime playing video games and planning D&D campaigns, and I have no need to revisit those activities. But I do feel nostalgic for the sense of aliveness that I felt back then.
Was talking to an acquaintance yesterday about college and about how this person feels nostalgic for college. They’re happy enough now, but they also feel constrained. I joked that nostalgia for college was “the dark side.” Which was a bit facetious. I’m still astonished by how idyllic the setup for college (at least in the upper-middle-classes) tends to be. It’s all the privileges of adulthood and none of the responsibilities. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. I mean, we pay lip service to the idea that you’re there to learn, but if you want to, it’s very possible to get through college with minimal effort.
However, I, personally, do not feel at all nostalgic for college. In fact, when I walked aroiund the old alma mater yesterday, I actually felt a vague sense of dread. It wasn’t overwhelming. I was still able to feel nostalgic. It was nice to reconnect with myself at a younger age, just because I usually feel so disconnected from my past self. I enjoy that sense of continuity. As in, yes, I am the person who once ate hot cookies (and ice cream? Or am I just imagining the ice cream?) every day in the Wilbur dining hall.
But the sense of dread was real. And I was profoundly glad, during my whole walking tour, that I was not in college anymore. Now that I’ve been out for six years, I feel like I can say that my four years in college were unquestionably the darkest time in my life. I had plenty of fun. I made lots of really good friends. I saw and did lots of new things. But I was also acutely miserable much of the time.
It’s no one’s fault. Not even my own. I don’t really know what caused it. I don’t think drinking was entirely the cause of the misery (though it didn’t help). I think I just wasn’t equipped to live in such close quarters with so many people. I remember I just felt really awkward, really shy, and really emotionally stunted. I felt like everyone was making lifelong friends and falling in love, and I was in stasis. I had no idea how to relate to people. No idea how to talk to them. Couldn’t understand how to make friends. And the only way I could face people was by drinking. But the drinking then led to more negative feelings and more fragmentation and confusion. And I really lost my sense of self.
In high school, I was relatively happy (most of the time). And I had my friends and my place in the world. I was elected Student Council President, and I was not unpopular. I kind of knew who I was. But in college, I felt completely helpless. I wanted desperately to feel close to people, but I just didn’t have the first idea how to go about it. All I knew how to do was go to parties and drink. But even there, I felt so shy. I’d walk around in circles in the hopes that the constant movement would obscure the fact that I was there alone. I’d stand silently at the edge of peoples’ conversations until I was finally drunk enough to break in. It’s still amazing to me. Nowadays I am so systematic in how I handle my problems. But back then I didn’t even know that being systematic was a thing. I didn’t even know that I had a problem which I could work on and get better at.
I think I was stunned by the environment. The crush of people was so constant and all-encompassing. There was no room to reflect, and no way to take stock. I’m struggling to articulate what I mean when I say that my sense of self was gone, because it’s a complicated and subtle thing, a sense of self. I guess what I mean is that everything was so immediate. I couldn’t even think about next week. I was in triage mode all the time, because each day and each moment brought such powerful waves of loneliness and anger. Part of me is wondering if I’m being overdramatic. But I don’t think so. It really was that bad. And I really did regress and become less capable of interacting with people and making plans for the future.
In contrast, every year since graduating has been great. Even my first year out, when I was jobless and still drinking, was much better than the year prior. And although I’ve had periods of depression in the time since college, I’ve always experienced that depression as something strange, something outside my normal mood, and something that I needed to work to address. I feel like in the last five years I’ve done all the things I didn’t do in college: I’ve learned to make friends and to relate to new people, experienced romantic entanglements; found my vocation; and learned lots of new things. It’s been great. You couldn’t pay me to go back.
I’ve been making significant 1099 income (i.e. income from work as an independent contractor) for the last six years, which means that I was, for all intents and purposes, running my own small business, and all through that time I could theoretically have been itemizing my business expenses and deducting them. But I didn’t, because it seemed way too complicated.
Today though I finally did! Mostly baby steps. I downloaded all my credit card transactions for 2014 and went through and looked at which ones I could credibly characterize as business expenses. So not many things. Mostly my travel to Seattle for AWP and a few purchases. I wrote off some books, some internet data charges, and also all the submission fees for all those contests and magazines. Felt really good, though! Really liberating! I didn’t save an immense amount money by itemizing, but I think I ended up maybe a thousand bucks richer. And it was not as difficult as I thought it would be.
Itemizing increases your audit risk, which is what I was afraid of for years, but I know tons of writers who do tons of weird things and don’t get audited. I think the fact that we don’t earn much money saves us. Additionally, I think all my ducks are in order here. I’ve only taken legal deductions, and I can fully document all the ones I’ve taken. Anyway, only time will tell. But I’m glad that I took this step. It’s just one more of those little milestones in the writing career.
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.
I’m sure no one’s noticed, but my internet activity has undergone a distinct downtick in the last month. Everything in my life has slowed down: writing, socializing, reading, etc. It feels insane to ascribe this to wintertime blues, since it’s seventy-two degrees outside and extremely sunny, but I think that’s what it is, and I’m sure that come April or May, I’ll be able to taste the sweet again. But at this moment in time, it’s a bit hard. Lately, I’ve taken to bailing on social occasions by just telling the host that I just don’t feel emotionally up to it. Please don’t give me any advice on how to feel better about things. Suffice it to say that I am doing all the stuff that a person ought to do. In fact, when in doubt, just assume that I am perfect in every way and have everything handled.
Thankfully, my current writing task is to go through my editor’s exhaustive second-round notes on my book and make a whole host of little changes, and that feels like something I can do right now. In terms of producing new work, though, I’m feeling pretty useless.
I have no idea how depressed writers produce anything. Personally, when I write, I make heavy use of my faculty for ‘feeling emotions’ and ‘thinking that life matters’ and, without those things, I feel pretty lost. I can write words, but I’m not able to understand what makes this story worth telling, or why anyone would want to read it. I’m sure that I’ll write another book eventually, but at this moment, I find that hard to imagine. In fact, it’s strange to think that I was ever able to write books.
I don’t know what I’d do if I was under contract for something right now. Probably I’d just go ahead and produce something. Maybe it would even be worthwhile. I don’t know, and I’m glad I don’t have to find out.
I remember now why I drank: it made the time pass.
Without that, the heaviness of time is almost unbearable. Hour succeeds hour, and each one is as blue and immense as the one before. It’s not that drinking made me happy or that it was enjoyable. It was that it was something to do. A way to make something happen. Getting drunk feels a lot like accomplishing something. It’s difficult. It’s strenuous. It eats up hours at a time. It involves physical exertion and, oftentimes, travel. But, even more than that, it’s an emotional journey. There’s trepidation, initial exhilaration, then the long slog, followed by a climactic moment, and then the long falling action.
Other activities don’t do that. Watching TV doesn’t do that. It distracts you, but the rhythms of television are too much like the rhythms of life. Each hour is the same as the one before, aside from the steady waning of energy. Reading, while diverting in many ways, requires too much concentration. And music? I actually don’t know if I even like music. Nowadays even when I’m driving, I prefer to keep the radio turned off.
Luckily, I’ve found the thing that’s better than drinking! Computer games! You heard it from me first: computer games are better than drinking! I’ve started playing this game that my friend Chris recommended: Sunless Sea. It’s actually not very good. In a lot of ways, it’s a bit of a grind. But it makes the time pass. Let no one ever speak a word against computer games. They’re fantastic. There’s nothing else in the world that’s like them. They’re inexpensive. They engage your entire mind. They take up hours of time. And they cause no physical or mental side-effects. The only downside is that they’re a bit vapid. Try as I might, I don’t believe that I’m really gaining anything from the hours that I spend ferrying a bunch of pixels from one place to another place so that I can click on some dialogue options that will give me some plot tokens that I can use to unlock different dialogue options in another place. The whole experience is akin to having sex with a spreadsheet. But it passes the time!
I’m also growing a beard. It’s not a depression beard, though. It’s a well-trimmed and extremely manly accoutrement that I happened to decide upon at the same time as my mood took a downturn. And that’s me. That’s life.
Most things in life don’t live up to the hype. But, for me at least, quitting drinking did. Everything good in my life flows from that moment. After I quit drinking, I almost immediately became much more serious about my writing. In the first year after quitting, I finished my first novel. In the second, I finished my second (and so on). I was able to make plans for the future. I was able to learn how to make and sustain friendships in an organized fashion. I was even able to start having romantic relationships (yeah, I know, I’m like the only alcoholic who never got laid…it’s so annoying).
I had a whole other post written here and it contained scattered musings on recovery, but I think today isn’t the day for that. Today is the day for me to say that I feel profoundly grateful to that person, five years ago, who decided to stop.
I really have no idea why he did it. As the years pass, it seems more and more crazy to me that he—on the basis of remarkably little information regarding what would happen—actually decided to quit doing something that was such an integral part of his life. I mean, at the time, I remember feeling afraid for my life. But that’s all I had: fear. I had no positive vision for the future. I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what I’d become. In fact, my worry was the opposite. I worried that I’d change so much that I wouldn’t be myself anymore, and I was only able to quit after I’d reassured myself that that wouldn’t happen.
Which it did, of course! I’ve changed so much that it’s absurd. People routinely describe me using the antonyms of words that they would’ve used eight years ago. They’ll say, “Oh, Rahul is so organized. He’s so dependable. He’s so good at talking to people,” where they once might’ve said “Rahul is disorganized, unreliable, and anti-social.” It’s weird that I’m now particularly accomplished in the same areas where I was once particularly bad.
You know, I always used to think recovering alcoholics were being ridiculous when they said, “My worst day sober is better than my best day of drinking,” but I don’t anymore. In fact, to me that seems like an almost banal thing to say.
Obviously my best sober day is better than my best day of drinking. Because even on my best day of drinking—my euphoric, most productive and social moment—my life was still a mess!
And it was that person: myself at what was literally one of my loneliest and most depressed and disorganized points, who had to face one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make. Isn’t that crazy? The points in life which we require the most determination and confidence are always the times when we have the least to spare.
Anyway, I’m really glad that I no longer have to face problems like, “Should I keep drinking or should I stop?” And the reason I’m free of these conundrums is because my past self solved them for me. So, umm, that’s pretty awesome. And it’s a gift that I reap every day.
Yes, even on this most sacred of days, I am going to pimp out my mailing list. If you want to get infrequent emails (fewer than one per month) about my work, please sign up here.
Somedays I wake up and things just get done. Errands get run. Necessary items get purchased. Emails get sent. And books get written. Oh lord, do they get written. I just sit down and they start writing themselves.
And some will tell you that the writing on ‘in the zone’ days isn’t any better than the writing on days when you’re not in the zone. However, this is an assessment that I must disagree with. I think that when I’m ‘in the zone’ I write way better than otherwise. Instead of everything being all planned out and forced into place, the words flow from some internal logic of their own. It is a better thing. It is the best thing.
However, this has led to a curious state of expectancy, wherein I’ll wait through months of ordinary life and keep trying to see when and where I’ll get in the zone. And instead of going forward and wholeheartedly engaging with life, I’ll spend my time trying to reverse-engineer my mood and figure out exactly what stimuli will put me into the zone.
That is not a good thing.
Partially, it’s because I’m not convinced that being in the zone isn’t a result, rather than a cause, of the work being good. Maybe when everything is fitting together on the page, then I am even more in the zone than ever! I think that is sometimes true. In fact, I think there are many different ways of being in the zone. For me, there’s the mania-type state where I am just really energetic and productive for weeks at a time. And there is the more micro-level flow state where I just have one isolated day where I’m managing life really, really well.
Anyway, I’m getting better at focusing on actually doing the things and not thinking about where I am mood-wise. It also helps that in California the weather is much milder, so I have less seasonal variation in mood.
Ooof, revising is some kind of process, I’ll tell you what. Today, I sat down and made a list of the scenes that I thought I’d need to insert into the novel between where I am (the halfway point) and the 2/3rds point. Adding scenes to a mostly-complete novel is an amazing feeling. On the one hand, I have complete freedom to do literally anything I can imagine. But, on the other hand, I don’t really want to disrupt the overall structure. Thus, I’m left looking at the shape of the manuscript and thinking very deeply about what I need to happen, and I’ve actually come up with some very elegant solutions that I’m very happy with.
Adding new words to the manuscript is also weird, because you worry about losing the voice. For awhile, I was really worried because the new scenes I was adding didn’t sound quite right. They were more searching and vulnerable. The character was coming off less sure of what to do and who she was, and I kept trying to compensate and bring a little bit of that other stuff back. But then I was like, “Wait a second. There’s a reason for this. What I’m trying to do with this revision is to add those shadings to her character.” If I’m successful, the character will always be recognizably herself, but there’ll be different shades to her character depending on who she’s interacting with. I think there’s a reason that the two storylines I’ve been spending the most time on are the two most complex and unsettling relationships that she has.
In the end, who can say how good this revision is. I’m caught up in the middle of it, so I think it’s going great. For this novel, I wrote a very complete and very readable first draft, but it’s really astonishing how much has changed since that draft. It’s not that anyone has been cut out or anything. It’s that the weights shifted. One love interest turned into an extremely minor character. The other two became much more complex people. The main antagonist was turned into a mere foil. And the sidekick became a plotline in her own write. There’s a lot of moving pieces, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve shifted around and interacted with each other. I can’t believe that this book is actually going to come out and be on shelves for you to read. I’m very excited for that.
For no discernible reason, I and my roommates decided to watch Ghost of Mississippi, and as we were watching Alec Baldwin ham it up, I started thinking, “It is really bizarre and unnatural to live in an apartment with strangers who you found on the internet.”
Like, one of my roommates is someone I know a little bit from college. But another is someone that I didn’t know at all until they answered our Craigslist post. And now they live in my apartment and eat in my kitchen and sit in my living room. In fact, they probably think of my living as their living room. It is a very strange thing.
In college, I lived with a huge number of people. I think I totted it up once and counted that I’d shared rooms with 19 separate people over my four years of college. But since then (except for summer sublets), I’ve pretty much only lived with people I had some sort of prior relationship with. And what stopped those situations from being strange wasn’t that those relationships were particularly strong (in some cases they were very tenuous), but that they were people who were already floating along with me in the currents of life. They were people who I had mutual acquaintances with or who were in school with me or other stuff like that. Whereas when you live with someone you find on the internet, there’s no way to ignore the fact that this is a very forced intimacy.
Not sure what else I have to say about this. I like our third roommate a lot (or I wouldn’t have written this post). In general, things have always worked out well for me roommate-wise. (Once, a group of my friends were exchanging awful-roommate stories and I joked that the reason I didn’t have any was because I am the awful roommate.) I’ve liked all the people I’ve lived with and have remained friends with a good number of them. I also prefer living with people. When I first moved to Baltimore, I was excited that I finally had the financial wherewithal to live alone, but it was not fun at all. When you live alone, it’s good as long as you’re happy, but the moment you become unhappy, then it turns into this weird, self-perpetuating mire where you’re lonely but don’t have the energy to see people, which in turn makes you even lonelier and less energetic. Whereas when you live with people, you at least see other faces once in awhile.
Although, living with the wrong people is worse than living alone. The one bad living experience I had was the last place I was at in Oakland (the one where I only stayed two months), which was kind of a rooming house situation, where the landlord rented out the rooms individually and no one knew each other or spoke to each other. That was definitely much worse than living alone.