How I Make Myself Write: A Dialogue

I don’t wanna.

What do you want to do instead?

Go back to sleep? Check emails? Have a snack? Watch TV?


I could apply to jobs. That’s productive.

What kind of jobs?

I don’t know.

What do you like doing?

Teaching creative writing.

Then be a goddamn creative writer, and do your creative writing.

Is it too late to become a lawyer or something?


But I can’t write. Nobody’s telling me how.

They’re not going to. You have to figure it out for yourself.

But I can’t figure it out.

Then the book won’t get written.

This book is going to suck.

It might.

I don’t want it to suck.

You have a choice. You can try writing it, knowing that it might suck, or you can walk away now.

What if I walk away?

You went to school for writing. You went into debt for writing. You told people you were a writer. You wrote stories and got them published. What would people think?

They’d think I was a failure.

Wrong! Nobody cares. You could spend the rest of your life sleeping or snacking or watching television, or even becoming a not very good lawyer, and no one would care. The real question is: What would you think of yourself if you walked away now?

I’d think I was a failure.

So what’s your other option?

I can try writing it, knowing that it might suck.

Right. So buck up, muster a little dignity, and try to finish this fucking thing.

Feature in Princeton Alumni Weekly

I woke up this morning to find that me and my book appear in a lovely little feature in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, or PAW. A few of my cohort acquaintances have been featured in PAW over the years, for instance my good friend the comedienne Nikki Muller, and the remarkable playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. As a second-generation college graduate who had a difficult time in college, I feel a particular kind of emotion appearing alongside them in these pages.

What is such an emotion called? It's similar to how I felt sixteen years ago (!) when I was informed of my acceptance into that elite school in the first place. It's more complicated than gratification, prouder than humility, sadder somehow than pride. Perhaps there is a German word for it: the feeling of having been welcomed into a club where you never thought you'd be a member.

You can take a look at the short article here.


Breaking the Rules for Style

Switching perspectives in the close-third person—"She liked his voice" followed by "He didn't tell her…" a paragraph later—is generally thought of as a kind of crime in creative writing classes, and indeed many beginning students do it unwittingly. But Min Jin Lee does it so frequently—and deliberately, and gracefully—throughout this beautiful book that it becomes a kind of style.

Read More

Last week in new words

It's such a delight to learn a new word. It's also so difficult to keep up with blog posts. After learning the wonderful word "brachiate" last week, I decided to start keeping a vocabulary list, as I used to do in high school. Here are the new words I encountered over the course of the past week, along with, in some cases, the contexts in which I encountered them:

acanthus |əˈkanTHəs| noun 1 a herbaceous plant or shrub with bold flower spikes and spiny decorative leaves, native to Mediterranean regions.acanthus 2 acanthus 2 [via Latin from Greek akanthos, from akantha ‘thorn,’ from akē ‘sharp point.’]

From Counterman, Paul Violi: “The lettuce splayed, if you will, / In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus”

brachiate verb |ˈbrākēˌāt, ˈbrak-| [ no obj. ] (of certain apes) move by using the arms to swing from branch to branch: the gibbons brachiate energetically across their enclosure.

fleuron |ˈfləränˈflo͝orän| noun a flower-shaped ornament, used especially on buildings, coins, books, and pastry. • a small pastry puff used for garnishing.

From Counterman, Paul Violi: “…form a medallion with a dab / Of mayonnaise as a fleuron.”

kenosis |kəˈnōsəs| noun (in Christian theology) the renunciation of the divine nature, at least in part, by Christ in the Incarnation. DERIVATIVES kenotic |-ˈnätik| adjective ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Greek kenōsis ‘an emptying,’ from kenoun ‘to empty,’ from kenos ‘empty,’ with biblical allusion (Phil. 2:7) to Greek heauton ekenōse, literally ‘emptied himself.’

From a student: “My most important argument with myself is about self-sacrifice. How much self to let go of. The great religions call for some, idealize complete self-sacrifice here and there. Kenosis.”

pelisse |pəˈlēs| noun historical a woman's cloak with armholes or sleeves, reaching to the ankles. • a fur-lined cloak, especially as part of a hussar's uniform. ORIGIN early 18th cent.: from French, from medieval Latin pellicia (vestis)‘(garment) of fur,’ from pellis ‘skin.’

poltroon |pälˈtro͞on| noun archaic or literary an utter coward. from French poltron, from Italian poltrone, perhaps from poltro ‘sluggard.’

From Jane Eyre: “What a miserable little poltroon had fear, engendered of unjust punishment, made of me in those days!”

sitzfleisch |ˈsitsˌflīSH| noun informal, chiefly US a person's buttocks. • power to endure or to persevere in an activity; staying power.

solander |səˈlandər| (also solander box) noun a protective box made in the form of a book, for holding such items as botanical specimens, maps, and color plates. ORIGIN late 18th cent.: named after Daniel C. Solander (1736–82), Swedish botanist.

I'm really proud of my newsletter, guys

I've been working really hard on my TinyLetter recently and it's been making me really happy. I have nearly 200 subscribers! Which doesn't actually sound like that much. But considering I don't really promote it or anything, I don't know. It feels good. Last week my grad school friend Ryan Teitman mentioned my TinyLetter in his own TinyLetter, and I got six new subscribers. Two of them were mutual friends/acquaintances of ours from Indiana University. It felt good to see some familiar names, and know that they're interested in what I've got to say. 

I feel like my TinyLetter is a good way for me to keep track of what I've been thinking about, and sort of turn my thoughts inside-out. It's also a good way to keep track of what I've been doing in my classes. Most weeks at least one or two people unsubscribe. But often I also get really good responses. Sometimes people write and say that a certain letter meant a lot to them, and it fills me with pleasure and conviction.

Check it out here:

A Couple of Sonnets

Sometimes when I'm having a lot of feelings it helps to write a sonnet… or two. I got the idea from my wonderful poet friend Lawrence. What I love about sonnets is that the rules are so strict, they almost force you to get emotionally organized. Also, it doesn't take long to dash one off—maybe half an hour—so even if you don't end up with a great poem, you do get a pretty satisfying creative-emotive quick fix.


So all you want, you say, my love, is peace.
And peace from what? I think I know: from me. 
Quiet’s out of our reach. My mind’s a feast
of fury, pain, despair, anomaly.
I think about you leaving me for her:
the perfect and imaginary girl.
Some poised wry nerd who’s able to infer
the meaning behind all your words’ tough whirl.
But then, eventually, I realize
that you don’t want companionship or smarts.
A woman, you're afraid, would terrorize
you with her wild whims and desperate heart.
So I guess I’ll be alone and hectic
since I cannot be your antiseptic. 


I look to you for reassurance when
I’m feeling lost or desperate or odd. 
You tell me not with typing, not with pen.
You couldn’t, not with words, not with a nod.
My desperation, boy, it goes beyond
you, beyond myself. It’s metaphysics:
We all of us are spinning free, no bond
to keep us held together. I’m seasick!
I’m queasy with aloneness! I’m afraid
that everything you’ve told me’s been a lie. 
Maybe there's no real reason to unbraid
myself from you, and yet I fear we'll die
without achieving greatness, not through love. 
To think I thought I fit you like a glove.

3 Novel-Related Google Searches, March '16—and a Caveat about Writers Block

price of airline tickets 1991

popular baby names early 90s

popular economy cars 1970s

I have had a hard time writing this month. I have had a hard time sleeping, too. As I write this, it is after three o'clock in the morning and I've been awake for two hours. I am kept away by worries about work, about publications, a thousand other things. When you're having a hard time, you take everything very, very seriously. 

On one hand, to be fair, I haven't been working on the novel because I recently finished the second quarter of the book and gave it to my writing group to workshop. While I waited for them to read it, I did no work on it. Instead I plugged away at this short story I've been trying to write for months. This short story is supposed to be fun! It's about an orangutan! And a magician! And a pharmaceutical company! It's darkly humorous! Ideally—probably too obviously, probably obliquely—it's Saundersesque! 

But even the short story has proved elusive. It isn't that I'm not working on it. It's that when I do work on it, I find myself uninterested. I don't care about it enough to write more than a paragraph or two at a time. 

I know what I would tell myself, were I my own student. I'd say, "Work with that lack of curiosity. Figure out the shape and nature of that blockage, whatever it is. Let yourself get up in the middle of the night. Suffer the physical and emotional discomfort necessary to come out the other side of your creative misery. To look back on the block rather than looking ahead at it, or around at it, as you do when you're inside of it." 

So, okay. It is now half past three, and this is how I feel about the story and the blockage: that I have lost my grip on some sort of essential magic—or it has lost its grip on me. That whatever magnetism was keeping me in the bristling, mysterious world of my own written fictions has lost its power.

And what is the degradation of magnetism but simple entropy? It takes a great deal of force to work against entropy. As I lose my grip I feel my strength flagging. I feel the shame of giving up, but I also feel something like relief.

There is a certain gross deliciousness about giving into shame. It is the same feeling as overeating alone. It is self-indulgence. It is self-acceptance. It is also fear. No coincidence, I think, that I've been sick several times recently: clogged up and sneezing, aching, I've given myself a tangible reason to whine. No coincidence either that I have been suffering this creative block during the month leading up to this year's AWP conference in LA—a conference I'm looking forward to, but that also tends to make me feel like fucking Sisyphus. Where the fucking rock I'm pushing up that fucking mountain is my fucking writing career. And where, all around me, on other mountains, other writers are perched happily at the very top of their own mountain tops, passionately typing away at long, intricate novels that finish easily, are boxed up immediately, and are sent post-haste to happy, helpful agents who then sell them for massive sums to wealthy, agreeable publishers, who place them on bookshelves at thriving bookstores, where they are bought by hungry readers and admiring reviewers. Poor Rachel-Sisyphus! Everyone else has it so much easier than you! Why not let that poor rock fall back into the canyons? It isn't worth it! Might as well give up! It's not like you're accomplishing anything! Ha-ha!

Right. It isn't worth it. Or it wouldn't be worth it if that's how it were. But it is worth something. What is it worth? Every time I write, I am also fortifying my sense of purpose. It is worth fortifying my sense of purpose. And every time I write, I explore some new hidden place. It is worth exploring those hidden places, and uncovering the strange treasures I find there.

It is worth becoming a more honest person, a better person, a woman more like the woman I want to be. 

In the end, the overwhelming, amorphous blockage I face, and am then subsumed by, is given shape when I put a name to it. Naming something makes it a lot less horrifying. I think often of Elizabeth Gilbert's story about Tom Waits, who told a song to go fuck itself when it visited him when he was stuck in traffic. "Song, get lost. Can't you see I'm busy? If you must be written now, go visit Leonard Cohen." And the perhaps apocryphal anecdote about Michael Jackson: that he worried if he didn't work, work, work, his songs would go find Prince, instead. I think of these two anecdotes, and I know the goal is to be open to the creative thoughts that visit me. And in order to do that, I must name and therefore shape the intimidating amorphous whatever-it-is that blocks me. 

I think of how some people call the Loch Ness monster "Nessie." This monster who's who-knows-how big, who lives in a steaming hot cave below the crust of the Earth, who upturns boats and slinks so quietly through the black Loch. People call her "Nessie." They name her—and it's such a cute name. And because she's called "Nessie," she isn't threatening anymore. 

So it's 3:52 now, and 4 AM's the witching hour, that time when it's too late to go back to sleep. I've got to go back to bed… but I think I can now.

On the Danger and Freedom of Writing Publicly About Oneself

I have a personal essay coming out this week in Bustle. It's a first for me in many ways: my first piece on a website that gets millions of hits a month. My first public essay about my private self. And the first personal essay I've ever published and gotten paid for. 

I'm so excited about it—but I'm also so nervous. For one thing, it exposes some things about me that I don't generally like to talk about. For another, it exposes other people—two people in particular, both of whom I've loved deeply. I wrote the essay in the first place to deal with my own struggles: with Valentines Day, with love, with relationships, with my own needs. But in the process I had to write about two of the people I've struggled alongside and with.

I sent a draft of the piece in advance of its publication to one of these two men—the one I've been involved with most recently. I told him he should feel free to tell me if he felt it misrepresented him; that I could change the piece if it made him uncomfortable. After reading it, he did say he felt it misrepresented him, but he also said that he didn't want or need me to change it. I took that to mean he recognized that I am writing about my own experience. Misunderstandings and misrepresentations are part and parcel of knowing other people. Sometimes the better you know someone, the less you really understand them. 

I did not send the piece to the other person I talk about in the piece, a high school ex-boyfriend with whom I haven't really been in touch over the years. Although he and I live in the same city, he is married now; we don't hang out with the same people; we rarely talk. Is that why I didn't send it to him? Am I using as an excuse the simple inertia of not being in touch? I guess it's one reason. Another is: I don't feel he has so much at stake. We broke up when I was eighteen, after all. That was almost fifteen years ago. The boy I remember can hardly be the same person as the man who he is now. 

If I sense a kind of defensiveness in my own tone here, if I feel the courageous and courteous thing to do would have been to send it to him—to at least have let him know this essay, which talks about him in detail, would soon be out there in the world—I also feel that to have done so would have been to make too much of it. Just as you must revisit a person intimately to write about them, to have written about them is to mark them definitively as past. Now that I have written this thing, I have put these histories to rest inside me. I don't want to revive them again by bringing it all up again between us, by writing to him and saying: Hey, hey, remember this? And, though of course I could be wrong, I doubt he'd appreciate it either. It would make it seem as if I required his permission, as if these memories were necessarily memories we shared. More likely our memories are vastly different in tone, in timbre, and even in substance.

I am reminded of the quote from Zola: "Art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament." It's a phrase that gives me freedom. My work is simply a corner of creation I've experienced, seen through my own temperament. It's a phrase that reminds me to give myself the freedom to express myself, and the power to preserve my own little corner of creation.

My Nihilist Hedonist Practical Spiritual Approach to the Slog of Writing

A few days ago I was helping a friend edit a short humor piece she's been working on, and she asked, almost in passing, "What makes the risks and sacrifices we make to commit to this work worth it? When is writing worth it? Is its value mostly the process? But what if the process sucks? Do we ever know it's been worth it?" 

It was thought-provoking, and I had a little time to devote to metaphysical questions about the meaning/worth of art, so I launched into it with her. "I think I am a……… nihilist hedonist practical spiritualist when it comes to these sorts of questions," I wrote back. To elaborate…: 

The nihilist part of me says, nobody cares if you write or not. The world's a crowded place, and there are a zillion other writers out there who are hungrier than you, and if you don't want to write they ain't gonna cry.

Meanwhile, the hedonist part of me says: if writing provokes thought and enjoyment in the mind and heart of you, the writer, it's worth something. And if your written work provokes thought and enjoyment in others' minds and hearts, maybe it's worth a little more. Pleasure, man, pleasure! If we're not on planet Earth for a reason—and I believe we're not (see: nihilism)—pleasure's all we've got. When it takes a little pain to achieve your pleasure, that pleasure seems so much sweeter. So go ahead and pursue it. When things get difficult, pursue it harder. 

But the practical part of me says there's something else here. I don't know if this will make sense, but I'm going to try articulating it. Since you don't know whether your writing will be worth anything until it's worth something, and since, as you write, you become a better and better editor of your own work over time, over the course of your writing career you are continuously working harder and writing more to produce fewer, probably better words. If value is measured by a relatively traditional ratio (work investment to value of the product), as you continue to write harder and spend more time writing, then logically, continuously, and predictably, your writing should increase in worth over time.

In this way I think the process is inextricably intertwined in the worth of the product. 

In a last way, though, on a spiritual level, all of the above is bullshit. Because, first of all, there is an important difference between worth and value. And, putting worth aside for a moment, who are we to know what inherent value there is in art—or life, or love, or any of the things that end up mattering to us (sometimes… or most of the time… but never always)? All I know is that I feel better, emotionally stronger, more clearheaded, smarter, humbler, and more in awe of the world around me, when I devote myself to the discipline of writing. I could devote myself to some other discipline, like meditation or exercise or playing the violin, and probably feel almost the same way, but I happen to be a person who gets more satisfaction out of putting words together in a way that makes not just sense but magic—in a way, in other words, that ends up with their meaning somehow more than I ever could have known I would mean before I strung them together (!)—than I get out of, like, running. At its worst, writing is a boring, stupid slog, and it makes me feel like my brain is made out of mush. But whatever, sometimes my brain is made out of mush, and to be spiritually minded about it (i.e. to use a little hokey, inverted logic), those days are there to keep me humble. At its best it's the most valuable of exercises. An exercise in balancing judgment with compassion; utopia with the real world; hope with despair; loneliness with fraternity; clarity with confusion; sarcasm and satire with earnestness and depth, etc., etc. Writing feels to me like not just best but the only way I have of truly expressing myself, in all the frustration and stupidity and awe and fear and confusion that comes with having a self at all.

So keep on sloggin', girl.