36; or, 35 in retrospect

Happy birthday to me! 🎵

The baby is not being the most cooperative when it comes to letting me have writing time, but I’ve still managed to complete an actual story for the June prompt challenge and a short piece that I’ve sent out to my critique group. If I try to take a look at my daily or weekly output through word count, I will cry. It’s my party and I don’t particularly want to cry, so I’m just celebrating how awesome it is that I wrote two stories in the last four-ish weeks. Go, me!

Birthdays, of course, are the start of a new year. My new year.

One year ago was opening night for my theatre’s summer Shakespeare: the universe granting my biggest birthday wish. Since then, I’ve had a baby! I knit my first sweater (and many other things besides)! I and my family have stayed safe and healthy despite a global pandemic *knock on wood*! I started a writing support/cheering group! I got serious about submitting short stories!

Somehow, I’ve found myself an official working writer, as defined by Mur Lafferty: if you are writing and submitting, you are a working writer. I’ve studied craft and taken classes and written a story that makes every other story I’ve ever written pale in comparison. I’ve had 16 rejections and six of them were personal.

16 sounds like a lot. Ok, it is a lot. Especially considering my previous record for rejections in a year was maybe four (because that’s all I sent out!) and many years I didn’t have any (because those years I never tried). It hasn’t even been quite a full year since I started. But they don’t bother me. Yes, I’m disappointed and I’d really like an acceptance now, please and thank you, but they don’t really get under my skin.

Maybe that’s just because the novelty of it all has yet to wear off. Largely though, it comes down to agency–recognizing what is and is not in my power–and managing expectations. (And brain chemistry! I cannot underscore enough the importance of brain chemistry that lets me actively celebrate rejections.) No one owes me an acceptance and the odds are stacked against me, so I expect rejection. I control the writing. I control sending my stories out in the world. And that is where my control ends.

So 35 was the year I became a working writer. While pregnant during a global pandemic. Let’s see what 36 has in store…

***This post originally published on Patreon.

Ego saga

Oh hey, this is new. I’ve never worried about the ego in a story before.

I wrote a short story partly to challenge myself, to try different things with narrative and words. It’s what the story demanded but also something I know will make me a better writer—make me more the writer I want to be.

But as I was about to hand it off, to let other eyes read it and give me honest critique, I suddenly felt paralyzed with the fear that it’s too affected. Too self-aggrandizing. That my experimentation feels flat and reads with the sort of hollowness that makes people roll their eyes and turn away. Reads as fake. What if they think this story is an exercise in overinflated ego? Maybe I shouldn’t give this to them, after all…

The idea that ego = bad is the sort of bullshit hardwired into me through societal expectations for women and early religious lessons hammering on pride and self-love as the root of great evil. (When I was ten and my dad asked me if I loved myself and I was mortified because no, of course not, and what had I done to make him think I was that bad of a kid…it took me so long to learn how messed up that was.) BULL. SHIT.

(I wonder if this fear is a universal experience or just reserved for those of us told not to be cocky, not to show off. Those for whom acting cocky and showing off were met with punishment, criticism, disdain. So often I saw my sister, only one year older than me, get accused of showing off, of being a know-it-all when all she was doing was trying to share her knowledge and enthusiasm. I hate that I was taught that geeking out was bad. That I was taught to judge her for it.)

Anyway, this story has a happy ending: I submitted it and the group gave me amazing feedback. The things I most worried about getting right? They came across the way I hoped they would. Things need fixing, of course—it’s barely a second draft—but this is the first time I’ve had so clear an idea what I want a story to be AND been able to hit the mark.

So take that, ego fears! I’m not about to stop experimenting and challenging myself; I can’t wait to figure out where my stories go from here!

***This is my first post here in a long time! Like all the others I’ve been sharing, it first appeared on my Patreon. If you want to see these posts early, catch sneak peaks of my current projects, or be the first to catch my writing news, come find me there!***

‘Scary’ is just another word for ‘challenge’

I’m back! Or trying to be. Since my last post, we welcomed our second kid and as always this is a rough transition. Anyway, the post…

Ok. Ignore that these are different parts of speech and let me run with this.

***Quick disclaimer: this is all my personal experience and your mileage may vary. It also probably applies more to early career writers.***

We can probably all agree that challenges make us grow. Facing them, accepting them whether we succeed or not (whatever the metric of success). Challenges are the branchings, some of the major choice points in the choose-your-own-adventure novel of life. The ones that have to do with character arc. That growth can be positive or negative–in the sense of with or against social mores and strictures, closer or further from the person you want to be, etc–but I’m focusing on positive growth along the what-you-want-out-of-life axis.

There’s an exhilaration that comes after conquering a challenge. I felt it the first time I flew by myself, or navigated New York City alone. It was one of the big reasons that my first day job after college was retail: interacting with people like that intimidated and overwhelmed me and I wanted to change that. Why I put a continent between me and my safety net, moving from Maine to Seattle sight unseen to crash on a friend’s couch until I could get my feet under me (though the privileges that allowed me to do that safely and succeed are a mile long).

Fear is something each of these things had in common. Those things all scared me. Intimidated me. Each time I faced and tackled them put me closer to being the person I wanted to be.

I may have given myself a sort of complex with all this. Now, just realizing something scares me makes me want to race headlong at it. Or maybe that’s my lacking sense of self-preservation…

The point to all this?

I’m discovering this same idea applies to writing.

That story idea I don’t think I’m good enough to pull off yet? That style or genre that doesn’t come naturally to me? That form I’ve wasted years conveniently parroting, “I don’t write that”? Any time I’ve said to hell with it and done these things anyway, my skill and ability as a writer has grown by leaps and bounds. That first attempt doesn’t have to be good; it just has to exist.

This happened when I started writing short stories in direct contravention of my up-to-that-point I-don’t-write-short-stories mantra, and again when I let myself try poetry. It happened when I attempted a romance novel and every single time I finally tackled one of those stories rattling around designated for some vague ‘later’ when I reached an undefined metric of ‘better.’ Suddenly, my storytelling ability leveled up. Every. Time.

The ways to improve the writing game are many: write, try out different prompts and exercises, read widely, write, participate in a decent writing workshop, critique others’ work and have our own critiqued, write. But not just write! Not all writing is created equal. That would be too easy.

Any writing will work towards you becoming a better writer, but finishing drafts–of any length!–will teach you so much more. Make that draft one you were scared of doing, one that offered a significant challenge (beyond, you know, the usual) and that sudden jump in skill feels like a catapult.

I think most of us will do this unconsciously, but you can also control the directions of growth. What you read, the exercises and techniques you try, the stories you choose to write all inform that development. Once upon a time, I was terribly at description. I focused on improving that and now it’s a matter of course. I’m still horrible at writing romance plots, but I’m working at it. Wordsmithing has become another more recent interest that I generally think is going well.

It’s taken me far too long to realize the stories that intimidate me are the ones I most need to be working on. So I guess it’s a good thing I’m focusing on short stories because they’ll let me play with a broader range of elements in a shorter period. Because I’m just that impatient.

Writing+new parenting=utter chaos

Kid #2 could arrive at any time and I’ll admit I’m panicking just a little. Can I do this and still write? Yes, I’ve been here and done this, but not with a three year old who needs me to be at least somewhat functional. And that first time around? I basically existed in trauma response mode for nearly two years; “functional” didn’t exactly apply.

How can I juggle parenting and writing? (Again. More. Still.)

I always knew I wanted kids, so this was a big question on my mind long before my first pregnancy. All advice I found on the topic basically boiled down to: you don’t. Write off writing for the first two years.

F*ck that. Even in the best of circumstances, I don’t know if I could survive two years of not writing.

As my first pregnancy progressed, I became more and more frantic to find something. ANYTHING. But the advice I found remained the oh-so-unhelpful “you find a way” or just give up for a couple years. That’s when I could find anything at all, and a lot of it came from authors who were not the primary caregivers. The advice that made me want to rage-scream was the ubiquitous “they’re only that little once, so just enjoy it.”

I know our culture has a long and storied habit of erasure of parental mental health and maternal identity (PSA: calling me “mama” erases my personhood beyond my reproductive role and is asking to be punched), but come on. How can I possibly enjoy one of the most intense, demanding experiences if I can’t do the things I require to be my best self? And what sort of example does that set for a kid?

If I don’t write, my coping skills vanish, my mental and emotional health plummets. And parenting requires these all in spades.

I found a way to make it work, that first time around. By which I mean I worked my ass off to figure out what I needed and how to get it while being semi-permanently attached to a tiny human. And right now I’m facing having to go through it all again, so this post is for myself, as a reminder of how I did it before and how I can do it again. Maybe it can help some others struggling with writing while parenting small children.

Step 1: think you know your process? Not any more.

Seriously. Take everything you think you know about how you work and chuck it out the window. Defenestrate it. It’s gone and can’t help you now. In the Before times, I could only have one major project at any given time. My brain just didn’t work with anything else. After? If I could focus on one project for even twenty minutes at a time, I was doing well. I needed a total overhaul of everything I thought I knew.

Step 2: be flexible. Be a f*ing contortionist.

Your focus flits around like a goddamn fly that will not land long enough for you to swat it? Add projects. Vary them. Make them wildly different. Try different mediums. I ended up juggling blog posts for three separate platforms and flipping between three or four short stories on my laptop, a play on an old desktop computer, and revising one novel and drafting another by hand. And that’s just what I remember now, a couple years later. I took advantage of that fractured focus and flipped between them all indiscriminately, letting my brain latch onto whatever it could rather than trying to force it.

Step 3: take a hard look at the new patterns. Time and space aren’t what they were.

How do you use your spaces now? Where do you spend your time? How can you adapt to those new uses? I spent a lot of stationary time on the couch nursing during the day and in a dark bedroom at night, also nursing (followed by making sure I hadn’t set her down too soon so she’d spit up and aspirate that in her sleep–most nights it just seemed easier not to leave). So those were the places I most often wrote.

Step 4: get rid of obstacles.

The fewer steps between thinking, “Hey, I could write now,” and actually writing, the higher the chances of writing actually happening. This meant keeping a reading light and my research book in the bedroom and bringing my laptop in as a matter of course every night. The binder with my novel revision stayed open on the table beside the couch at all times, along with the notebook where I was drafting the other novel and a for-fun book to read (because reading is also an essential part of writing). Sometimes just needing to open the binder kept me from touching the revision for days on end, so it stayed open.

Step 5: remember that it will keep changing.

Kids grow fast. Almost as soon as I felt like I’d figured out a workable system and process, my kid hit another milestone, her needs would change, and I’d be scrambling to reevaluate and do this all over again. Of course, it took me longer to finish any one project, but I was always making progress, always writing.

Step 6: ask for help before you need it.

I literally could not ask for help for at least the first year of parenting. Maybe the first year and a half. So this is cheating in that it is something I did not do and so it did not work for me the first time around. Even at the time, I knew it was a simple thing and I knew I had a support network just waiting for me to call on them. But I absolutely could not wrap my brain around actually doing that. I had no energy for the logistics and the mom-guilt of involving other people (more toxic culture at work). This time around, we’re in the middle of a pandemic so I can’t rely on having that same support network, but I’ve been able to make clear my likely future needs as well as the fact I may once again not be able to ask for the help I need in the moment.

In the sleep-deprived haze of my next few months, I will need this list, these reminders. What worked for me before won’t necessarily work again. There are more unpredictable variables this time around and maybe one of the worst mistakes I can make is fooling myself into thinking I somehow have this figured out.

But I’ll also need to remember to allow myself grace. Writing is hard. Parenting is hard. Doing them together is not easy and for all the times I somehow manage to find my way, I will lose it again.

Is it worth it?

I can only answer for myself, but hell, yes.

*Patrons over on Patreon got to see this post first. Please join me there for exclusive stories, shop talk, and early access to blog posts and news!

Rebirth; aka, (pseudonym) name changes

One of the biggest shifts in the career-type side of my writing in the last year has been deciding to start using my own name. Granted, it’s been my name right along, just a slightly different iteration.

In high school, I decided to use M. J. King as my pseudonym because I wasn’t a big fan of my first name and it worked for J. K. Rowling, right? Rowling had just become big (and at the time I barely knew what trans meant, let alone transphobia, and TERF had yet to be coined) and I’d never thought about reader bias before finding out about the use of her initials to avoid alienating potential male readers.

Time passed. I married and changed my last name, so hanging onto my maiden name in some form felt like hanging onto a part of myself I didn’t want to lose. My dad died a couple years later. I can’t now remember if I’d considered using my legal name before then, but suddenly that idea felt like a giant betrayal of him and a severing of some of the few remaining ties his death hadn’t snapped.

In the past decade, I’ve had a few short stories come out under M. J. King. Most of them now make me cringe. I started moving social media away from that name two or three years ago as I realized my writing might not package neatly (read: marketably) under one umbrella and could require multiple writer names, while also acknowledging that my limited capacity for social media would prevent me from maintaining multiple accounts.

But I’ve also realized that while M. J. King has been a good name for experimenting and growing as a writer, I’ve outgrown it. It may still make an occasional appearance in certain, limited situations, but Melissa Burkart is who I am. Who I’ve been for a while.

Using my actual name has been a relief in unexpected ways that I’m still not sure how to articulate. It feels more professional, which is perhaps a side effect of my associations and experiences. Perhaps it’s just coincidence that my first non-form rejection came shortly after I finally committed to making that change in my writer name. (Yet perhaps not…)

Whatever it is, moving this blog over to some sort of actual site is now more of a priority than ever.

Submission stories: a rejection roundup

Submitting stories has been my kryptonite for a long time. For years. At first, this was because I didn’t have any short stories to submit and novels just take so damn long to finally have a piece ready to go. Then I started writing short stories and still didn’t submit anything. They weren’t good enough, or they never seemed right for any market, or I didn’t know any markets, or I knew they could be better somehow so I never even tried. And of course, there’s the ubiquitous fear of rejection.

I’m a queen of procrastination, as my grandmother often told me. And excuses. And getting in my own way.

To be fair, those stories weren’t ready. I really am better off not having more stories available in the world that make me want to blush and hide and claim no relation.

A part of me was waiting for some miraculous, serendipitous discovery. For someone to just hand me a successful writing career and all my wildest dreams. I cringe about it now (I cringed about it then, but still never took a more active role), the gross privilege and learned entitlement and the utter joke that was (is) my naïveté.

On the other hand, the general disgust at my own inaction helped birth some healthy coping mechanisms for the inevitable rejections–those writerly rites of passage. Every time I get one, I celebrate it as tangible proof I did the thing. I took ownership of my dreams and (hopeful) career and made steps toward them in the ways I can control. Turning around to send it out again somewhere else is my favorite way to celebrate.

Most years, I’ve counted myself lucky to send out three or four submissions in a year. If there is a mystical number of rejections required before a writing career can take off, I’ll never reach it at that rate.

Then, 2020. I wrote off the hell year of 2020 early on. Or maybe I just pretended to because I kept going; I had to.

I got myself a cheering group in August (more on that in another post), then somehow sent out nine short story submissions and a novel query before the end of the year.

What.

Two flash pieces ended up on The Word Count Podcast (ep 99 & ep 100–the final episodes!). Of the seven other short story submissions, I had four form rejections and two personalized rejections (for the first time ever!). One of those personalized rejections was even that holy grail invitation to revise and resubmit.

Again, I say: what.

If you notice that my math doesn’t quite work out, that’s because I’m still waiting to hear back on one of those subs.

Oh. And that novel query? Also garnered a rejection with feedback and…an invitation to revise and resubmit.

Rejections–even with a revise/resub invitation–are still a long way from publication, but personal rejections are a major level up from where I’ve been. When I’ve actually submitted stories.

So what’s changed? In the case of one story I’ve been sending out for years now, nothing except my name. (Another case where that’s a whole other post.) But my writing has improved. I look at stories four or five years old and feel sorry for anyone I inflicted them on. Still, it seems that the only real reason is that some indefinable, impersonal wave has turned in my direction to give me hope.

Whether it moves beyond hope to actuality, obviously, remains to be seen.

I generally subscribe to the idea that putting intentions out to the universe helps me realize them (it worked for Octavia Butler), even–perhaps especially–when there are elements I can’t control. Like whether or not a market accepts my story for publication.

Actually submitting stories seems like a pretty good place to start putting those intentions out to the universe, doesn’t it?

*patrons on Patreon got to see this post on Monday. Join me there for more stories, writing shop talk, news and exclusive looks at current projects!

January writing prompt: Death Ship

I’ve been needing and wanting more writing prompts and exercises in my life–something to practice and get words flowing that I don’t have to treat too seriously. So I signed up for Susan Dennard’s Story a Month Challenge (follow the link if you’re curious or want to sign up–it’s not too late!) where she sends out an email on the first of every month with three prompts to choose from.

Now I’m going to do something that generally terrifies me and share the rough (very rough) draft of what I wrote in January, complete with typos and everything. For patrons over on Patreon, I’ve peeled back the curtain on some of my process to share my revision notes: the things I need to change and work in to make it a more satisfying and complete story. We’ll see how the year goes, especially once a newborn joins the mix, but for now I’m planning to share both the story and an analysis every month.

For January, I chose the audio prompt. Feel free to click the link and give it a listen for the full experience as you read:

*****

Death Ship

Dear Stef,

Damn this storm. It’s been going on for days. What seems like forever. Hours become weeks, become years. I don’t know what it’s like anymore to feel dry and truly warm. I miss our fire, tiny though it was. I mis the way we would curl together for warmth, your breath on my neck, your scent in my lungs. I don’t remember what it’s like to have something solid beneath me, even bare earth—what I wouldn’t give now for the scent of earth! For its solidness and its green growing life—instead of this pitching, shuddering, tipping deck.

I’ve smelled rain and salt and damp wood and unwashed bodies and human sick so long I barely notice it now. Perhaps I’ve killed my nose (I might be better off that way—I can hear your jibe now). My hearing is going the same way, I fear. The rain, the incessant, damnable rain, scurries and taps like a living thing. I jump and swat at shadows, thinking them chittering pests, but there’s never anything there. Booms of thunder, a whisper, a sigh I barely hear. The masts creak and hull groans and scream from those farther belowdecks are the sirens finally singing us to doom.

I won’t say we don’t deserve it.

…We must have done something to deserve it. Why else would we be in this hell? But for all that I remember your touch so clearly I swear I can feel you even now—I have goosebumps and have to keep looking to be sure you’re not behind me—I can’t remember what we’ve done to be here.

Gods, Stef.

There are gaps in my memory large enough to sail this ship through. I was so focused on you, on remembering you, I’m only now noticing.

Where are we going? How did I even come to be on this ship? Half the time, we didn’t have coin for food, let alone ship passage. I must be working my way. But I don’t know the names or faces of the crew. I remember everyone, but they’re all blank.

What is going on?

I am well and truly scared now, Stef. Have I been sick? Or am I mad?

I need you. Gods damn, I need you! Are you here? Are you somewhere on this ship? I can’t imagine leaving you. What would take me from you? Gods help me, I can’t remember.

I can’t think with all this creaking and rattling! And the thunder.

Where did I get this pen? Short and thin and white. The ink, thick and slow to dry—it smells too much of metal. With the smoky-sweet tallow candle, it makes me sick. Or maybe that’s the constant pitching.

If I stop writing these words, I’m afraid of what might happen. I can’t remember anything of before I began this letter. I’m scared, Stef. More than I’ve ever been. More than my father’s rages when I was young, more than our first kiss.

How can I remember all that and nothing else?!

And my bed. This bed I lie in is nothing but rags and parchment. Paper. Gods—

Stef, they’re letters.

Letters to you, In my scratchy scrawl. But they all look the same. They’re all…exactly like this one…

I don’t think this is paper, after all. Vellum. Made of skin. Your skin. Because I know your skin better than I know my own hand. I know these rags beneath me.

Stef? I think you’re dead.

I think maybe I am, too.

Gods, no. No! I don’t want to remember! Don’t make m

Dear Stef,

Damn this storm…

*****

I warned you it would be super rough, right? But if you want to see how I’d save this mess, please head on over to Patreon! The analysis is available at even $1 a month. (The payment isn’t taken until the first of the month, so feel free to sign up just to look around–I won’t be offended if you cancel before the end of the month! It’s taken me a while to get my feet under me on the platform, but if you like what you read I’d love for you to stick around for more stories, shop talk, and writing news!)

Or if you like what you see and want the analysis without a monthly commitment, buy me a coffee and I’ll send it your way!

Shop talk: writing ideas beyond your skill set

Someone asked me on Twitter the other day how I got past all the “I can’t write this yet” story ideas. I answered briefly there, but there’s only so much I can cram into a couple tweets and I have more to say.

**Note: the usual caveats apply! This post is all my experience and what I’ve found works for me. No two writers are the same so, essentially, your mileage may vary.**

So I assume you sometimes have (or have had) an idea arrive that feels beyond your current skill set to pull off. I’ve always trusted my gut and set those stories on back burners to simmer, but I don’t know if that was the right move. Self-doubt and impostor syndrome are Lying McLiarfaces that will take advantage of the tiniest opportunities to get in the way.

If every idea feels like it’s beyond you? I’d say you probably have some lying bullies clouding your judgment.

But what can you do when that happens and all the ideas just feel impossible? Or if you want to figure out whether it actually is beyond your current skills or those personal creative bullies? What can you do if the story just demands writing, skills be damned, or it will burn you from the inside out?

First off, SIT WITH IT. I can’t stress this enough. Free write or do timed writings about the idea, focused or just stream of conscious–whatever feels most comfortable or accessible. What is this idea? And how complete is it? Who are the characters? What are their relationships to each other and their individual goals? Where are they? What fascinates you and makes you passionate to write this story?

The deeper you delve into it and flesh it out, the better you’ll be able to understand what elements might be holding you back and keeping you from writing the story now. And it cuts down on a lot of the spaces that self-doubt and impostor syndrome like to exploit.

Once you’ve done that, it’s time for a little further examination. So, what does make this idea so challenging?

  • Atmosphere/message/desired reader reaction? These are all things that happen in revision. So write that draft! I like to make notes to myself as I go of what I’m aiming for where in the manuscript, since that helps free me from some of the more absurd expectations of a rough draft. Also super helpful when you pass off the story to early readers to be able to ask if you’ve hit the mark.
  • Does it feature people and/or cultures rooted in identities different from yours? This can be tricky and fraught with the potential to perpetuate harm to marginalized groups. Know your influences! And interrogate why you need to tell this story. What makes you the best person to tell it? If the story and plot are about the lived experiences of someone with a marginalized identity you don’t share, maybe consider abandoning it because there is just so much potential to cause harm. If you still need to write it, do your damn research. And sign up for any applicable Writing the Other classes.
  • Unfamiliar structure or style? Read it! You can learn what you don’t already know. Research any conventions or hallmarks that define that structure/style and make it distinctive. Someone somewhere on the internet has made a list. Once you’re a little more familiar, write it!
  • Does it require you to plumb deeply personal/uncomfortable/scary/etc experiences that might make you raw and vulnerable? Or open you to criticism/judgment/reprisal from your family or others in your life? WRITE IT ANYWAY. No one has to see it. At least in my experience, writing something that viscerally personal massively levels up writing chops. It can even help with catharsis and healing–just be mindful of triggers and keep checking in with yourself. Have supports in place before you begin to help keep you safe. Sacrificing mental, emotional, or physical health for the sake of your art is in no way worthwhile or romantic. Don’t do it.
  • Not fleshed out enough? This can be an issue of research. Maybe it needs more free writes or other forms of brainstorming. Or maybe it’s just not ready. It’s ok to put it back and let it cook more.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but unless the story just isn’t ready to be written or is likely to cause harm, I say write the damn thing. Know you’re writing a rough draft, set expectations accordingly (aka: low as you can), and trust in the power of revision.

Of course, all of those are much easier said than done.

I recently drafted a short story that had felt beyond my skill level for years. It’s a structure I’m not overly familiar with, told with tricky point of view shifts that I pretty much never do, and I want it heavy on both atmosphere and lyricism. I sat with it until I understood why it needed that structure and those point of view shifts and what each of those elements adds to the story. As for the atmosphere and lyricism, I made notes to myself as I went along. I don’t expect to succeed with those elements in a rough draft and noting my goals for those sections helped me focus on the story and getting words down.

You know what? It felt pretty damn good to have that faith in my revision process. And now that I have words written, I can start the work to make it more like I want it to be.

Currently, none of my stories feels beyond my ability. Some are infinitely more challenging than others (and therefore more interesting, because I’m like that) but not impossible. And yes, that is in part because of where I am in developing my writing and storytelling skills. If I had understood all this earlier, I could have gotten to this point faster. But maybe this can help someone else get here just a little bit faster, instead.

The world always needs more stories and more storytellers.

What the hell, world*?

All this big, depressing bullshit is getting in the way of getting shit done.

Ok, yes, that’s basically been the last year in a nutshell. Most of the time, the pandemic and people insisting on life as normal (aka: might literally kill my family) can get shunted from panic-attack-inducing to we’ll-just-stay-hunker-down-and-keep-on-as-best-we-can. But here in the US we’re overachievers and top a deadly, uncontrolled pandemic with sedition and coup attempts.

I’ve been struggling since the election. Ramping up to the election was bad enough, but at least then it felt like there was some element of agency. We could do something about our wannabe-fascist dictator. We voted. But I didn’t celebrate when the results came in. Since then, I’ve been waiting. Would we have faithless electors? Would courts uphold the baseless and oft-debunked claims of voter fraud?

January 6, I was out of the news loop until after my kid went to bed and the violence in DC was already largely under control. My reaction when I found out? Surprise that it wasn’t more. That it hadn’t been worse. Which I in no way mean to downplay, dismiss, or otherwise minimize the awfulness of those events.

We’ve been told for months that this would happen, if not longer. Believe people when they tell you who they really are.

I was halfway through drafting a novel, but my word count since the election is zero. Blogging meets full avoidance. Words are like pulling teeth when writing is what I desperately need.

Most nights lately, I binge watch Netflix and knit. Knitting is great because it’s relaxing and creative and I can make visible progress while shutting down the anxiety parts of my brain. But it’s not writing.

I try to be kind to myself and aim for writing-adjacent things. I’m transcribing a handwritten novel, taking a couple online writing classes, making to-do lists and a Bingo card of things I want to accomplish writing-wise this year. Still, it’s hard after the rhythm I found last summer and fall to have that ability to focus stripped from me by all the hate and violence and worry that the next coup attempt will be more successful.

At the same time, I need to acknowledge that it is a mark of my many privileges that constant worry of hate and violence is relatively novel in ways that viscerally impact my life. Reminder: Black Lives Matter.

I don’t have answers. Wear your masks, wash your hands, value others. I’ll be blundering through my creative process and working to figure out how I can still make it function. Lack of focus sucks, but I’ve dealt with it before and found ways to write anyway.

And if all I can do is knit, at least I’ll have a kickass basket to show for it.

*By “world” I mean the scope of my world, which keeps getting smaller the longer I’m in lockdown. I might be American, but I actively try to avoid the US=world/default/global standard mentality.

Creative roundup, 2020 version

2020 has felt like the proverbial flaming handbasket. No one needs a tragedy-porn recap of the catastrophic and apocalyptic-level trauma we’re still enduring. I will just say: Black lives matter, the pandemic is not a hoax, and I’m not about to forget how many (white) Americans saw hate/lies/open sedition and dismantling of our democratic republic and said, “Nah, I’m cool with this–keep it coming.”

In the midst of everything, is it any wonder that everyone I know is struggling? Even with my many, many layers of privilege, I’ve struggled too.

But because I intend this to be a year-end creative roundup, I am choosing to take this space and celebrate those accomplishments. And I encourage you to do this for yourself, too. Count the little things–the escapes and surprises. This year has been short on joy and the rest of it will all too easily crowd out the bright spots if you don’t actively seek them out.

At the beginning of the year, I was rehearsing for a ballet production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was finally enjoying quasi-regular writing dates when I’d leave my daughter with her grandparents to go sit and write by myself in a tea shop for an hour or two.

In February, before the encroaching pandemic touched our state, I met with friends and finally learned to knit after a lifetime of confusion, frustration, and outright avoidance. I took my two-and-a-half-year-old to a high school drama festival for the first time, which was a big deal. The day Maine announced its first case, I followed through on plans (promises) to take my kid to a playground and the library. She hasn’t been back to either since, thought they are two of her favorite places.

March and April were times of adjustment. After that first day, that first case, my busy schedule of family and friends and performing came to a screeching halt. Fear and uncertainty evolved into a miasma of anxiety. Once-weekly grocery store trips gave me a pounding stress headache and made me useless for anything else the rest of the day. But in all this sudden at-home time, I found a reprieve from the logistical exhaustion that comes with trying to do anything outside the house as the all-the-time, on-call parent. And into that new space, I read, I knitted, I made an attempt at gardening, I finally found the energy and mental space for quasi-regular crafts and baking experiments with my toddler, and I wrote.

Somehow in this mixed up mess of a year, I’ve managed to read 55 books. Knitting has become my relaxation–something I can do even with constant kid-interruptions and -distractions, that calm and centers me, in which even small progress is visceral. Instant creative gratification.

The garden attempt died. Getting outside with a toddler became an hour of struggle so daily waterings began to fall by the wayside. On top of that, I never made a real plan to get the seedlings in the ground, then rehearsals and performances ate the best planting part of the summer. Because, yes, our local numbers were low enough that outdoor theatre seemed a minimal risk. Had I known at the start that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t have done it, but I’m glad I had the chance to play a fun role and be on stage one last time. (Pandemic aside, I’m not likely to be able to get back on stage in a full production until kid #2 has his second birthday.)

Crafts with small kids are exhausting, but rewarding. And now at three, they allowed my daughter to take so much pride and ownership in Christmas gift-giving this year. I’m weirdly excited about our bag of ripped and discarded wrapping paper, since a Google search netted me some fun craft ideas.

But writing. Writing in 2020.

I took an online playwriting course and drafted a short play. I finished a novel draft. I spent a lot of time assessing and reassessing my process and have made it halfway through another novel draft. In August, I created a writing support community, which has helped push me to getting a record number of story submissions out. (A low bar, but worth celebrating!)

So my 2020 has not been a fallow period creatively. The fact that I have thrived when so many others are struggling for basic survival leaves me with a deep sense of guilt. It has been a process to get here and I’m still trying to articulate how I did in hopes that maybe it can help someone else. But that will be a future post.

And if you are in a less-than-productive time, I hope there’s some comfort in knowing that creativity also needs fallow periods. You may not see any progress or development, but it’s still happening below the surface. Know it will be there when you’re ready to come back to it.