Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Painful, Angry Gratitude

I have so much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. My wonderful husband, my goofy dog, my fantastic family and friends -- though I don’t get to see most of them nearly enough -- warmth, safety, happiness, education, plentiful food, full bookshelves, two good jobs...

I am grateful. So, so, grateful. But lately I've found some of my gratitude tinged by anger and outrage and guilt. We hear a lot about not taking our blessings for granted, and I think that’s generally very important to remember. But there are a few that I wish I could, and I'll explain why. 

I went to UVA for graduate school. That was always a point of pride for me, and a part of my identity. I live many hundreds of miles away from Charlottesville now, but I still reminisce fondly with my alumni friends, and my father and I bond by texting each other play-by-play commentary while watching UVA games on TV. I never considered UVA a perfect place, but overall it was very good to me. It was a school I’d recommend to students I knew, a school I thought I could see my (hypothetical future) daughter attending.  

And then the Rolling Stone article (*warning: it is graphic and potentially triggering*) exploded onto the internet and I sat there staring, sickened and angry and horrified by what I never knew was happening on my campus, finding it unbelievable that (a) it would happen at all and (b) nothing would be done, yet at the same time believing every word because it fits with how this messed up world so often seems to work, with the illogical horrors that people inflict on others, and with how administrations who over-value tradition and funding so often end up protecting the wrong people. It’s not the first hard news for young women at UVA either; it followed on the heels of freshman Hannah Graham’s abduction, assault, and murder, and a few years after UVA lacrosse player Yeardley Love was beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend.

And this is where the twisted thankfulness comes in. Because even if you don’t see yourself getting into the exact situation of these girls, there is still that moment where it hits close to home and you think: “That’s so horrible. And it happened right here; that could have been me. I’m so glad it wasn’t me.”

That thankfulness hurts, and leaves me feeling raging and guilty about these blessings that I wish I could take for granted. I don’t want to have to be thankful that I’ve never been sexually assaulted. It shouldn’t be something we’re thankful about. It should be something that doesn’t happen, period. We should be able to take for granted that our bodies are our own. We should be able to take for granted that no one will violate us. We should be able to take for granted that, if anyone does, they sure as hell won’t get away with it, because the authorities and administration and all the other people around us will have our back. 

Then came the Ferguson decision a few days later, and I felt those waves of disbelieving anger all over again at the injustice. I was especially struck by this painful truth that was circulating on social media in various forms: "White privilege is being outraged by the Ferguson decision instead of terrified by it."

We should ALL be able to take for granted that police won’t make up their own lethally unreasonable ideas about what constitutes reasonable force. We should be able to take for granted that, if they do, their punishment will be decided by a full and fair trial. 

And so I find myself this Thanksgiving feeling personally thankful but collectively outraged, overwhelmed by disbelief and rather short on hope. I am trying to find some in the many people speaking out and taking action in Charlottesville and Ferguson. I am trying to believe that things will change. I am trying to envision a future where we can give thanks for a different, better world.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Definition of Insanity

Some people will look at NaNoWriMo, this quest to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, and consider it crazy on principle. But that’s not the part that’s making me question my sanity. 

I love NaNoWriMo. I love the camaraderie, the energy, the creative freedom, the rush. It was instrumental in getting me back into creative writing after years of only writing essays, reports, and lesson plans, so I’ll always be grateful. 

But after five years of winning NaNoWriMo yet not getting much closer to my novel-writing goals, I’ve started wondering if NaNoWriMo is actually productive for me... if I’m not, in that classic definition of insanity, doing the same fruitless thing over and over and expecting different results. 

It’s always the same. I sign up for NaNoWriMo. Through a combination of stubbornness and sleep deprivation, I win NaNoWriMo. After a break, I look back over my mess-uscript. I ponder and edit and and… give it up as unfixable. I either decide the story needs to be locked away, never to be spoken of again (my first 2 NaNo Novels) or drastically changed and rewritten from scratch (the case with the concept I’ve been working on in various forms every year since). But rewriting it from scratch is so daunting that I generally poke at it for a while, try and fail at outlining, and then wander away from it and work on short stories instead. Eventually autumn rolls around, and I somehow talk myself into taking on NaNoWriMo again, and the cycle repeats.

(from grad school finals week, which feels oddly similar)
The point of winning NaNoWriMo my first year was to prove to myself that I could write that much at once, and to relight my fire for writing. It was totally worth it, no matter what happened to the story afterwards. But at this point, I have to ask myself, what’s the point of winning it if year after year I fail to follow through to a complete and presentable draft? What’s the point if I’m never able to share the story with anyone, much less try to get it published? Can I really figure out what my novel needs if I’m just rushing through it at breakneck pace, writing scenes out of order and focusing far too much on word count?

And yet, here I sit a week into November, enthusiastically and insanely doing NaNoWriMo yet again. 

Because… I have a competitive personality with somewhat of a masochistic addiction to massive undertakings.

Because… it’s not like I’m not writing much on the novel the rest of the year either, so I might as well get something down in November.

Because… I do learn a lot about the story every time I dive into it (just never enough, it feels like). 

Because… maybe I can do it differently this year. That’s at least what I’m telling myself. I can work a little more methodically, think more about the story, make sure it fits together instead of throwing together a random mishmash of scenes. I won’t entirely abandon the spirit of NaNoWriMo – the no turning back, no inner editor, just write the shitty first draft magic of it all – but I’m looking for a better balance of quantity and quality for myself.

That’s the plan, anyway. 

Why not try to write a different story, a brand new one for NaNoWriMo the way you’re supposed to? I considered it, but I just don’t have another idea that has capture me as much as this one. I could be entirely wrong, but I think my problem isn’t this story so much as fantasy world-building and plot construction in general. I’m still figuring out how to do it, and I want to try it at least once more in this framework.

So here I am, taking on this crazy NaNoWriMo thing again and trying to do it in a different way. I am very, very bad at not being competitive, but I’m doing my best to let the story come before the word count… while still, yaknow, racking up a respectable word count. We’ll see how it goes. 

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Have you figured out a way to make it work for you?