My decade in love, friendship, and publishing

It was in late January of 2010 that I quit drinking, which means that the close of this decade also means I’ve had almost a decade of sobriety. At this point I’ve been sober twice as long as I was drinking! The number of people in my life who knew me when I was drinking is not a small number, but it’s certainly not a majority. My wife and her family and most of my writer friends all have no experience of that side of me.

At this point, when I write about being sober, I think some people suspect I’m making it up or exaggerating it! Once, a friend of mine, who thought she’d discovered some inconsistencies in my sobriety narrative, accused me of ginning up the whole sobriety thing to get attention. To which I say…LOL.

In 2010, when I quit drinking, I was twenty-four years old, still living in Washington, D.C., weighed about 330 pounds, had never really gone on a date or been in any form of romantic or sexual relationship, and my publications were limited to a single short story in Nature. I’d written around a hundred short stories by that point, I’d gone to the Clarion Writer’s Workshop four years earlier, and I’d accumulated some four hundred or so short story rejections. I was about to be rejected by all eleven MFA programs to which I’d applied. I’d just come out as gay.

That year, I started my first novel, a science fiction novel for adults (to be finished the next year and promptly abandoned without revision). I also wrote twice as many words as I’d ever written in one year. I made my second significant short story sale, to Clarkesworld magazine. I tried to get a more permanent gig at the World Bank, where I was working, but my boss didn’t have the budget to hire me. If I’d gotten that job, my life might be totally different right now! The previous year, I had decided that if I was going to be a real writer, I needed to be a real reader too, so I had embarked upon a campaign of reading the classics. In 2010, I read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Bell Jar, Journey to the End of the Night, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, What is Art?, The Charterhouse of Parma, every Sandman comic, and every Dashiell Hammett novel. That was probably the most significant year of reading in my life.

In 2011, I moved to Oakland, CA. I thought I was quitting my job at the World Bank, but I ended up continuing to do consulting work for them, which I do to this day! I quit smoking. I finished that science fiction novel, and I began and finished a second one, a YA dystopian called This Beautiful Fever whose first draft I wrote in eight days! I wrote a lot of short stories. This was probably my best year for short stories, both in terms of production and in terms of the number that would eventually sell. I started hooking up with men in all the usual (oftentimes somewhat sordid) ways, but still wasn’t dating. Determined not to repeat the previous year’s I applied to 28 MFA programs! I spent five evenings a week hanging out with my former roommate, Brian, and became good friends with many of his friends and coworkers. We went to lots of house shows in Oakland’s twee-pop scene, but my fondest memories are just of hanging out in his house, chatting with whoever would come by. Nine years later, although many of those people have had children and/or moved away, I still count them amongst my close friends. I read True Grit, David Copperfield, Grapes of Wrap, Darkness at Noon, and Something Happened. I read every Adrian Tomine comic I could find. I started a life-long love of Emile Zola, going through Nana, Germinal, L’Assommoir, and the Masterpiece. And I read all seven volumes of In Search Of Lost Time, which was something I couldn’t quite believe even as I was doing it–this seemed so far from my usual interests (I was still writing mostly science fiction)–but which has shaped my life and my thinking and my writing immensely in the years since. Toward the end of the year, I got very into noir novels, and I got deep into the ouevres of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

In 2012, I was accepted to four MFA programs, and I chose to go to Johns Hopkins essentially because they offered me the most money. I started querying my dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever. I got a head of steam on a sci-fi novel for adults, only to abandon it after thirty thousand words when I realized the book was no good. This began a pattern of abandoning books at the one-third, one-half, and sometimes even 90% completion mark. I wrote another sci-fi novel for adults, Boom, that I’ve never shown to anyone. That fall, after moving to Baltimore from Oakland, I started hearing the voice of Reshma, the protagonist of my first book. She sort of popped fully-formed into my head. All through my first semester of grad school, I’d hear fits and snatches of her voice: a sort of angry running commentary on everything in the universe. I put off writing the book, because I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. Graduate school was fine. I turned in science fiction and fantasy stories into the workshop, and I didn’t suffer at all for it. My cohort and the year above were composed of some very talented and hard-working writers. But almost everyone was married or engaged, and I did feel a little lonely. The whole thing was a bit claustrophobic, just the same thirtyish people hanging out every day and exchanging the same gossip or telling the same stories about teaching our classes. It seemed to lack the vitality I’d experienced in Oakland. Not the fault of Baltimore, by the way! I was charmed by the city; it’s an extremely hip place to live, you have no idea how hip. But attending Johns Hopkins is not the way to experience that hipness. Looking at my records, this was the year I read Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, The Sportswiter, Things Fall Apart, The Feminine Mystique, The Pillow Book, and Revolutionary Road. I read most of Edith Wharton’s major novels this year. She remains a huge influence. I fell in love with and was charmed by Nancy Mitford. I read the collected poems of Larkin and Eliot. I still don’t know if I like poetry, but I at least like those two!

In 2013, during winter break, I wrote a first draft of Enter Title Here, which would eventually be my first published novel. Aside from one realist story I wrote for my MFA applications (to prove to application committees that I could do it!) it was the first sustained work of realism I’d ever engaged in. Writing that book was so easy that it was incredible, and that very easyness made it difficult for years after for me to write another novel. Through a complicated series of introductions and events, I got my first agent that year. This Beautiful Fever had been sent out to 95 agents at this point, but I finally got one offer, and that shook loose a second offer from a different agent, and I went with the second one. I spent the remainder of the year doing revisions on the book with this agent. During this time, I wrote my fifth book, another realist novel, which was an interesting idea, but somehow never came together. That fall, I wrote my sixth book, a contemporary YA about a troubled starlet who starts hearing the voice of God, (working title: On My Knees 4 U). And, incredibly, I wrote my seventh book too, a weird crime novel about a sociopathic mom who schemes to get her daughter into a school for talented and gifted kids. My YA dystopian novel, This Beautiful Fever, went on submission. At some point, it’s hazy exactly when, I became close with a very talented writer, Courtney—a former graduate of Hopkins–who’s become one of my closest friends. This Beautiful Fever was rejected by five editors, who seemed to universally agree that my protagonist was too pathetic (a lifetime problem for my writing!), but I didn’t much care because I’d polished up Enter Title Here, and my agent loved it. We decided to put it on submission in the spring. This year I pitched my first article to a publication: a piece to Salon on Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh off the Boat (which would later, though I didn’t know this at the time, become the basis for a hit sit-com). When I sent in the article, Salon decided they didn’t like it and killed the piece. This mild rejection touched off my first major depression: two months of utter blackness. Although it’d begun with rejection, my depressed thoughts centered primarily on my loneliness, and how I was never going to find love (I still had never really gone on a date. I’d tried online dating, but somehow never connected with someone–I’d just chat and chat and chat and eventually the conversation would peter out). JHU offered free counseling, so I signed up for that. I started antidepressants. And after the depression lifted, I seriously started doing the online dating thing. A roommate told me that he always asked people out within the first ten messages in an exchange, and I was like, “Wait, you can do it that soon?” and he was like “Yeah, there’s no point in just chatting endlessly”. Armed with this knowledge, I started asking dudes on dates. The third or fourth of these guys was someone who loved movies and graphic novels and science fiction and also was extremely new to the dating thing. We became each other’s first milestones for many things! I remember that winter we watched Ellen Page’s emotional coming-out speech, and we both cried and held each other. I stopped being able to write science fiction stories, and I began turning in realist stories to workshop. This year I got really into German literature for some reason. It was more playful than French literature, but it was also about more serious subjects. It seemed to combine psychological penetration with a sense of fun! I read Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, Skylark, Beware of Pity, The Man Without Qualities, Radetzky March and Every Man Dies Alone. I also read Mrs Dalloway, A Simple Plan, Gone Girl, Les Miserables, The Interestings, and The Magicians.

In 2014, I sold my book and graduated from my program on the same day! I broke up with my boyfriend! I moved to New Orleans, and, after giving it up as a bad thing, I moved again after six weeks to Berkeley (best decision I ever made! Two months after selling my book, I lost my acquiring editor at Disney. I started having problems with my agent, who disliked both of the novels, the sociopathic mom and the teen starlet books, that I’d written the previous year. I know, the honeymoon period was short. I moved in with Sasha, who’d soon become a very close friend, and spent lots of time with her very off-beat hippy friends. I came out once again, as bisexual, and started going on dates with women, which, let me tell you, is a very different game from dating men! I got extremely depressed and went into therapy (again) and increased my antidepressant dosages (again). I was still writing and sending out short stories and by this time had sold stories to most of the smaller pro sci-fi journals, including several stories each to Nature and to Orson Scott Card’s magazine. I also sold a weird realist story (told in the form of a chart) to The Indiana Review. This year I also met another person who’d become a close friend, a fellow YA writer, Erin, though it’d be years before we would truly reconnect. This year I read Doctor Zhivago, The Corrections, Tom Jones, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Sarashina Diary, and Dangerous Liaisons. I got into Yasunari Kawabata, who I still think has written some of the most beautiful books in existence.

In 2015, I suffered incredible writer’s block. I can’t count how many books I began and abandoned. Nothing seemed worth writing. I had a two-book deal with Disney, but had a terrible time trying to get them to agree to any of my ideas for the second book. My agent finally sent them a copy of This Beautiful Fever, and my editor liked it, but the acquisitions committee shot it down, saying a dystopian novel wouldn’t sell. All I heard in my head was the voice of my editor and my agent, shooting down everything I was working on. My middle-grade novel went on submission to a very small round, but got rejected, and my agent sort of lost interest in it after that, and I was mostly focused on trying to write or think of some follow-up to my young adult novel. I would say that at this point, I had real, classic writer’s block. I’d sit down and write, and everything would look like total garbage, and I’d delete everything. I just felt so empty of every possible idea. This was the year I stopped trying to write every day: it felt like there was no point. After a hundred rejections from him, I sold my first story to John Joseph Adams, which felt pretty good. I MET MY FUTURE WIFE, RACHEL, AND FELL IN LOVE AND KNEW ON OUR FIRST DATE THAT WE WERE PROBABLY GONNA SPEND OUR LIVES TOGETHER FOREEEEEEEVER! That was pretty cool. I went to Burning Man, which was cool, but not really for me. I read Thucydides, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Crime and Punishment, and a bunch of the less-silly Dialogues of Plato. I also got very into ethnography, and I read some great ethnographic studies of, amongst others, fashion models, working class college students, elite students vying for management consulting jobs, and working-class black men who are burdened with outstanding warrants. I read two excellent Jo Walton novels: My Real Children and The Just City. She is truly a treasure.

In 2016, my writer’s block continued apace. I am not kidding when I say this writer’s block consumed years of my life! I went from writing four novels in one year (2013) to being able to write basically nothing in 2014, 2015, and 2016. I just felt totally unmoored. I had no idea what I wanted to write. I tried everything, every form, every style. It was all just odious to me. This culminated in a terrible depression in the beginning of the year, which resulted in my antidepressant mix changing once again. However, in April of that year, as I was coming out of the depression, I wrote the first scene of what would eventually become We Are Totally Normal. The difference between the composition process for this book and for Enter Title Here could not have been more different. Where ETH just flowed from my fingers, We Are Totally Normal took a lot of doing. I actually deleted that first fragment, thinking it was a false start, before going back and recovering it and doing some more work. When I sent it to my agent, he was extremely enthusiastic about the book and did one revision with me before forwarding it to Disney. Sasha, my roommate, left for law school. I moved in with my wife and proposed to her a week later, which was about one year after we’d met. I sold a story to the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy! Huge milestone for me. Oh, and I almost forgot, my book came out! It did okay, I think. It was reviewed in the New York Times. Lots of people hated it and hated my protagonist, but fuck them. It also touched lots of people. I read The Caine Mutiny, The Bostonians, A Little Life, Bonjour Tristesse, and Brideshead Revisited. I got very into superhero comics and, after reading All Star Superman, I developed a surprising fondness for Superman. I re-read the whole Honor Harrington series, a military science fiction series David Weber, and I also reread In Search of Long Time. I read all six books in Trollope’s Palliser series. I love Trollope. He’s incredible. The perfect mix of romanticism and realism. I got very into late 20th century realism, and I read several works of realism from America (The Rise of Silas Lapham), Poland (The Doll), Britain (four novels by George Gissing, who I now adore), and Spain (Tristana). I started listening to audio books, which nowadays constitute well over half of my reading.

In 2017, after several months of considering it, Disney rejected We Are Totally Normal (then called Tell Em They’re Amazing) and, deciding that they didn’t see a future with me, they cancelled my book contract. My agent, who’d formerly been enthusiastic about the book, now thought it wasn’t salable and urged me to abandon it. When I told him I wanted to send it out anyway, he dropped me as a client. I revised the book (changing the hook, admittedly, to make it significantly more marketable) and sent it out to agents. After just a week of querying, I ended up with my current agent, who sold the book to Harper later that year. I also got married! It was really nice. I liked being married. Living in San Francisco changed my life in a number of ways. One was that I was no longer living with roommates, no longer had that built-in community, and needed to start making friends and finding my own way in the world. Although I had many friends and acquaintances, I felt like I didn’t have enough intimates, and during this time I tried to focus on deepening some of the relationships in our life. ALSO RACHEL MANAGED THROUGH SOME CRAZY MIND TRICKS TO PERSUADE OUR LANDLORDS TO GET A LITTLE KITTY AND WE NAMED HIM SCHUBERT AND HE IS JUST SO CUTE, WE PICK HIM UP AND CUDDLE HIM ALL THE TIME. I still was having trouble writing, but not quite as much. I read The Secret Agent, Evicted, The Emperor of All Maladies, Lord Jim, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read every novel and most of the short stories in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ouevre. I got very into 18th century literature, and I read books by William Godwin, Samuel Richardson, Denis Diderot, and a few others. I got into neoconservative riters, of whom most weren’t very good, but I did quite enjoy Norman Podheretz’s Making It. I’m a sucker for any book that has the unvarnished truth about literary lives and literary ambition. I got into reading about the Soviet Union and read books about the revolution, about the gulags, and about the Terror. I read a few books about painters and visual artists, of which the best was a biography of Joseph Cornell called Utopia Parkway. Man that dude was a weirdo!

In 2018, I wrote the first draft of a novel for adults (current working title The Lonely Years). This would be, I believe, my eleventh novel (I think I’ve left one book out of this chronology). Rachel and I started trying to have a baby, which made me really anxious and panicky, and led to all kinds of feelings being stirred up, which led me into therapy yet again! Ugh, I hate therapy. Stupid therapy. I got back edits on We Are Totally Normal and when I took a look at the manuscript again, after eight months away from it, I realized that the book wasn’t very good! I mean, I still think it was good enough for Disney and my former agent’s purposes, but the story was completely all over the place! Nothing fit together very well at all! I set aside the draft that had sold, and I rewrote the entire book from page one. I also sold a story to Asimov’s, another long-awaited first, after fifteen years of submitting. This year, I reread the entirety of Robert Caro’s ouevre. I think he’s the finest living American writer, and he definitely deserved the Nobel more than Bob Dylan. I read, for some reason, a lot of novels by Michael Connelly and Scott Turow. I read the entirety of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was fabulously written and had some wonderful stories and analysis, although I do wish I retained more of it! I got really into Somerset Maugham, whose work always startles me with its baroque and outlandish elements, which are usually mixed into the most prosaic set of characters and events. I listened to at least twenty Donald Westlake novels, including most of his Parker series. I’m still not sure what the appeal of those books is. They’re just straightforward heists, but somehow they’re very fun.

Finally, we’ve landed in 2019. I expect nobody has read this far, so I’ll bury my most momentous news here. I rewrote my novel for adults at least four times, top to bottom, and between this and rewriting We Are Totally Normal, I felt my writer’s block fade to nothing. I’m not sure what happened. I think I just got a better idea of what stories I want to tell and how to tell them. In the process of pitching We Are Totally Normal to agents, I also realized…you can’t just write a good book, you also need to stir up excitement about the book. So I lost some of that feeling of, well, what’s the point of writing: it’ll never sell anyway. Now, when I write something, I always try to include some hook, some way of selling it. Which is not to say that everything sells, but more things do! I started this year with three or so months of depression, which only lifted once I started exploring the idea that I might be transgender. This is something I had thought about years previously, at the beginning of this chronicle, but had dismissed, because, well, I hadn’t dated anyone, I hadn’t done anything, I didn’t know myself. But now, as I started to revisit those ideas, I felt a growing sense of, well, almost…like…euphoria? It’s something I’ll struggle to understand for a long time, I think: being trans still feels weird to me, but it has undeniably improved my life and my mood. I’ve been dressing as a woman and using female pronouns in my private life for six months now (my wife has been very supportive, and we’re more in love than ever), and now I’m going to start being more open about it online. I don’t feel as blocked anymore. I’m out there, I’m writing. Now that my novel for adults is off with my agent, I’m working on the first book in a fantasy trilogy that’ll explore the fucked-up morality, especially re: caste and social heirarchy, in the Indian epic, The Mahabharata. My hero is Karna, obviously. I’m excited about the book! Though who knows what’ll happen with it. I’ve also written a bunch of short stories this year, but none have sold yet. Life is good. But it’s also full of ups and downs, and who knows what’ll happen next? This year, I read so many domestic thrillers! I love domestic thrillers! If I’m ever trapped on a desert island w/ only one genre of book, I want it to be the domestic thriller. They’re just so claustrophobic and twisted. I also got very into true crime: Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and Erik Larson’s Devil In The White City were the standouts here. I read a ton of self-published legal thrillers: Victor Methos was the best of these writers. I got really into Ibsen! Why did nobody tell me about Ibsen! He’s a fantastic writer. His characters speak with so much power, but they always feel quite real. Oh, and I read all five volumes of Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone. This 18th century Chinese novel is about a thirteen year old boy who loves women and longs to be one…is it any wonder that I adored it?

Oh, and we also got a dog. Lara. She is cute too. And she and Schubert, our cat, tolerate each other surprisingly well.

Wrapping up 2017!!!

Every year, my wrap-up blog posts get shorter, which I suppose is just a part of life. This year is one where I’ve stopped doing many of the little habits and rituals that were once an inextricable part of my life. I don’t track my progress in various spreadsheets with nearly the assiduity I once did. In fact I barely do it at all. Nor do I keep track of my word count or the hours I spend writing.

I still turn off my internet each day and block out the world and work on my writing. I just don’t keep records about it. Don’t feel the need to.

The best thing that’s happened over this year is that I got married. It was a really great wedding, but an even better bride. Rachel and I did it right, and the wedding didn’t completely dominate our lives and take up every spare moment of our time. It sort of happened on its own, actually, with relatively little work on our part (lots of money, but relatively little work–I still can’t believe how much a wedding can cost).

In my non-wedding news though, the best thing has been my slow and steady work on my second YA novel (now titled It’s Probably Just A Phase). My first book, Enter Title Here, was written in thirty-one days of white-hot fury. From the very beginning, the main character’s voice was so clear and distinct, and the story she told me is, to a large degree, the one that is on the paper.

This is a great experience to have. I recommend it to everyone. However it sort of doesn’t set you up very well for writing subsequent books, because you’re always waiting for the magic to happen.

With this second book I also wrote the first draft in a pretty truncated period of time, but…since then it’s undergone at least two major rewrites and three more significant revision passes. It’s been a process.

In the beginning I was excited about the book, but…cautiously so. I didn’t feel like it was gonna win any awards. Nor did I feel like it was my best work. I was writing it because I had to write something, and I didn’t know how to write better.

But in the process of working on it, the book has gotten deeper and deeper. Characters have taken shape. Events have gained weight and shading. For instance for most of the drafting protagonist I didn’t really love the deuteragonist (yeah I can use fancy words!) I saw him as weak and pathetic, and the other characters shared my view. But this summer something cracked open for me, and I for the first time really felt his quiet bravery.

Now I’m much more sold on this book! I like it way more, and I daresay it even rivals my first. Moreover, it’s been really good for me to experience a different writing process. I’ve learned that good things can come from careful, plodding work. And as a result I feel much better equipped to face the, you know, lifetime of writing that I have coming up.

WRAP UP SEASON 2016: Everything else

All over my Facebook feed, people have been like, “Fuck 2016, this year sucked.” I don’t get it myself. The election of Donald Trump sucked. And I suppose the whole campaign was an awful experience. But I’m fairly sure no greater a number of celebrities died this year than they did in any other year.

Personally, I cannot say “Fuck 2016.” I thought this was a great year. It’s true I did get depressed (twice!) and evicted from my apartment in Berkeley. But then in the course of a month I moved in with my girlfriend, proposed to her, and saw the release of my debut novel!

A friend congratulated me on both, and then he said, “Of course, it’s not like those two are equivalent.”

I was genuinely curious as to which one he thought was much greater, and he said publishing a book was obviously a bigger event than getting engaged. Lots of people get engaged, relatively few publish books.

For me though it was just the opposite. Seeing my book on shelves was a lifelong dream, but almost no event in my life could be as momentous as getting engaged.

I won’t say I was particularly emotional during the actual proposal. After all, I’d had months to prepare for it. But I do feel very satisfied at being engaged. I’ve been single for most of my life. To go from that to having a life partner is an amazing experience.

My fiancé is social media averse, so I don’t post much about her here. However I feel so lucky to have found her. We have almost no interests in common. She doesn’t and has never watched TV, so she often doesn’t understand even basic pop culture references. Like if someone were to say, “Oh, you need to be cool like Spock,” I’ll turn to her and be like, “Spock was a character on this show, Star Trek.”

Nevertheless, we can talk for hours. She’s curious and politically engaged. Very silly and funny. I mean she’s awesome. Just trust me on this. I knew from the moment we started texting (we met online) that she was something special, and I knew, after a few weeks of dating, that I was eventually going to propose (unless she got to it first, which was definitely a real risk).

Yes, I don’t mean to be cheesy, but it was like movie love.

Recently I was telling a friend about this, and she was like, “I despair of ever experiencing that.” But the thing is…if you experience an emotion like this, you marry that person. Doesn’t matter if they’re unemployed or ugly or the wrong race or gender. Unless they’re a drug addict or a Neo-Nazi, you marry them.

But I feel very lucky to have found Rachel.

So that was my big thing this year. I also moved to San Francisco. That’s been cool. Berkeley is still my favorite city in the world. Once somebody asked me where I’d live if I could live anywhere, and I said, “I can live everywhere, and I chose to live in Berkeley.” It’s a fantastic place: truly a wonderland.

San Francisco isn’t quite as nice. It’s a bit too urban. The buildings hem you in, blocking out the sun (at least at evening and morning). The weather is cooler. There aren’t as many hippies and slackers.

But it also has a lot going for it. I do enjoy being able to walk everywhere. I live in the Mission, and there’s basically nowhere south of Market street that I can’t walk to. It’s an extremely pleasant place to stroll around in. I’ll stop someplace for coffee or peek into a bookstore. I know lots of people in San Francisco (possibly more than I did in the East Bay), because half of my college graduating class has moved up here. Every other day I encounter an acquaintance on the street. I’ve made some new friends, and I’ve become closer to others. Hard to say what the future holds for me now that I’ve bound myself to somebody with a real job, but I’m not unhappy that I’m in the city for the near future.

And that’s it, pretty much. See you next year.

I kind of resent it when really talented writers quit writing

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 all this time spent writing children’s books, it’s hard not to get nostalgic for childhood (and I count the teen years as childhood too!!!)

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. sad-kidSometimes 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.

I can’t be the only one who found college to be a pretty dark time

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. a2ef41a19830e7fc4f1c4e03a0df46cc58And 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.

Did my taxes today! And itemized my deductions for the first time! I have zero advice for you!

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.IRS-agents-AR-15s-400x211

How I didn’t cure my insomnia, but it was sort of okay anyway

WWS-InsomniaWhat 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’ve found the only thing in the world that is better than drinking

5456828413_wohoo_xlargeI’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.