The Novelist’s Lent

Today is the last Wednesday in October. My coworkers are busy planning their various Halloween parties for tomorrow night. Wal-Mart is stocked with candy and the Christmas decorations that will invade on November 1st. I, on the other hand, am trying to piece together enough background material to launch into a new project. I’ve never had much of a relationship with Halloween. My relationship with Christmas doesn’t begin until after Thanksgiving. For the last six years, the thoughts that fill my mind around the end of October center around an odd season: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short.

NaNoWriMo is a program started by a non-profit called The Office of Letters and Light, whose purpose is to promote the practice of creative writing among adults and children. NaNoWriMo began eleven years with the goal of encouraging individuals to keep writing, no matter the result. The challenge is to write 50,000 words (the standard cut-off between a novel and a novella) during the month of November. NaNoWriMo  has a website where individuals can receive daily encouragement and discuss their achievements.

I have only once formally participated in the event, which involves starting with a brand new idea and writing furiously, no matter how much the piece gets away from you. Since I write novels normally, the idea of pursuing a brand new idea every year is emotionally exhausting, not to mention that I hold myself to a higher standard of quality in my writing. I don’t want to write more slosh, I want to continually learn how to improve in my writing, which takes more time and scrutiny. Still, I have partially participated over several years with a slightly different result. November is now a time when I focus on the creative part of being a novelist. I don’t care how much I end up writing in the end. The point is to write a little every day.

Theoretically, novelists should do this all the time, but if you’ve been reading my blog with any regularity, you’ll note that I’ve found it difficult to work creatively in the midst of real life. Discipline is hard. It’s also the only way to success, in anything. Olympic swimmers win medals by sticking to strict schedules of practice and cross-training. Individuals in wealth management constantly analyze economic trends and spend years studying for the three tests required to become a Certified Financial Adviser. Good teachers continue to learn by reading in their field and studying how to communicate with their students. Discipline is important.

The Church has known this for thousands of years. While Christians in recent history have been mocked with the name “Bible bashers” the “read your Bible, pray every day” method of Christianity is time tested in growing faith. When those who want to follow Jesus spend time reading the words he said and the inspired writings of God’s people, they learn more about who Jesus is and what he asks of his disciples. Time and energy consistently invested in a relationship usually deepens that relationship. This is why committed Christians are praying Christians. Certainly, things can go wrong when reading and interpretation are done poorly or the prayer becomes a monologue to self-worth and advancement, but stepping into discipline is still important.

The Church recognized this. More than a thousand years ago, Christian leaders decided to turn the calendar into an act of discipline. The fourth Sunday of December to Christmas Eve would be set apart for churches to focus on the coming or “advent” of Christ. This is usually filled with much anticipation and joy. Christmas Day to January 6 is the Christmas season, the literal Twelve Days of Christmas (plus the Feast of the Baptism of Christ). This is one of the two biggest parties of the year, celebrating the arrival of Christ. And then after a spot of Ordinary Time, we arrive at Lent, the forty days before Easter. While Easter is the biggest celebration of the church year (Sin and Death being beaten is cooler than God as a baby), it comes in the wake of the crucifixion, when it looked like Sin and Death would win (even if the opposite happened). Lent is a somber time. Traditionally, this part of the Church calendar is characterized by the disciplines of fasting and devotion. Christians participating in Lent nowadays are likely to give up chocolate, desserts, TV, facebook, any luxury that usually hinders their relationship with God, in order to deepen that relationship. Sometimes this looks like more time reading the Bible or praying, sometimes it means giving the money spent on that luxury to those in need, sometimes it just looks like loving people with the leftover time and energy. In any case, Lenten fasting is a month of concentrated discipline. The reward is Easter. The holiday is much more exciting when you’ve spent a month focused on it.

I’ve never celebrated Lent. I tend toward being a miser to myself as it is. I’d rather focus on adding things to my life than subtracting them. However, NaNoWriMo is my substitute. For thirty days, I try to spend extra time doing what God has called me to. The rest of the year, I chip millimeter after millimeter from my revision project. For one month I dedicate myself to the joy of creating. I’m planning on giving up my sloth to pursue something new.

This year I’m plunging into a new project, a 1940’s steampunk fantasy novel for adults. Those are the only details I plan on giving in this blog. I’m also not intending to use this blog as a word counter or any such banality (that’s what facebook is for). I probably won’t mention NaNoWriMo again. Still, I’m excited with the knowledge that a step toward discipline is a step towards growth. I look forward to the writing life that is to come.

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Losing at MarioKart

This weekend, Ball State had its fall break. As a result, my husband had nothing scheduled for almost a week. As an extrovert, Caleb goes stir crazy pretty easily. Fortunately for him, I had the last two days free as well. While I could have worked on my own and left him to stare, unmotivated, at a computer screen, we chose to make a holiday of it. For the last two days, we’ve been playing Mariokart and Mario Party on the computer. This has held much nostalgia for me.

Ten years ago I was excellent at Super MarioKart. I played with a computer keyboard, flicking the arrow keys with expertise, fluttering the gas with the “A” key. I still remember all the shortcuts, the perfect paths. Unfortunately, I’ve lost most of my skills. Since Caleb’s keyboard is wireless, the lag it produces makes it impossible to play fast-paced games. Instead, we use his Xbox controllers. I do not like the Xbox controller. Unlike the Playstation2 controller, which I have learned to use, or the GameCube controller, which I can intuitively use, the Xbox controller baffles me. There is no logic to it. I just can’t use it. But Caleb can.

Caleb is studying video games for his Masters program. He knows how to work in multiple systems and on multiple controllers the way I know to notice how the man in the grocery store feels about picking up taco meat. Caleb can step into a new game and know how to move, how to function, and where all the secret places are. Needless to say, I did not win a single game we played.

At one point, I got so frustrated that I had to walk away. I got tired of almost winning only to watch Caleb shatter my attempts with “Now I’ve got the hang of it!” Nothing against him. He knows his craft. But the second-place trophy reminded me too much of my current life situations.

The weather is turning, bringing with it colder temperatures and weaker immune systems. A sudden dizziness and nausea knocked me out Sunday evening and Monday morning. I had to cancel one of my precious days of work, to the frustration of my manager. Our hours are in a steady cut–the real reason I had Tuesday and Wednesday off. I could take advantage of the time and clean around the house. Our dishes got bad enough last week that we had to clean what we needed for each meal. Or I could plan phone conversations with the friends I’ve been missing. Or write. But housework takes time I’d rather spent lolling on our cheap futon. Phone calls require intentionality, sometimes pre-scheduling. Writing means the slog of revision. I’m too lazy for that.

An acquaintance this summer told me that “Life is a strategy game.” Right now I feel like I’m not exactly winning. My paycheck keeps shrinking, sending Caleb and I to stick to carb heavy meals (fewer resources). I’m forgetting to do the things I ought and even want to (poor planning). I’m a really hard person to find friends for, and the loneliness is getting to me (no allies). I’m not going to lose the game of life, but I don’t see how I can win at this rate.

Sometimes, one has to turn off the computer, leave the board, or go be still to get some perspective. Caleb loves me. He doesn’t make me lose on purpose, knocking me out of the way or leaving traps. He plays the game with me. In his eyes, we are sharing his passion. Like how when we read books together, I don’t mind that he can’t do the voices like I can. Our spent time together is more important than the silver pixels making up my trophy.

Likewise, this part of my life is important, and my complete participation with carry me through. If I’m sick, I need to rest and re-hydrate. If I’m working nearly part-time, I still need to work as well as I can. Even if I can’t complete my to-do list, I can still be present with my husband or enjoy the time alone. I might not find friends in this city, but we’ll probably be moving in six months, where friends might be more prevalent.

When I get away from the pressure and anxiety, whether by prayer or reading or a good night’s sleep, I remember the truth.

I’m not a master gamer, but second place is just fine with me.

An Underappreciated Occupation

When I began this blog in August, I did so with the intention of writing about a path of life that is much discouraged and joked about. The “starving artist” might as well be labeled “lazy” or “foolish”. Our culture, as much as it pretends towards idealistic lifestyles, expects practicality. I cannot say how many times I have been asked if I want to teach or edit. I politely say, “No.” I’m happy with my job. Yet, my job is generally treated as a joke. I work in a fast food restaurant. (The company I work for prefers the term “quick service,” but The Lord of the Rings still falls in the same genre as Eragon even if one is literature and the other derivative junk.) I work at a cash register most days, taking orders and filling drinks. The days I work past four o’clock, I’m surrounded by minors. According to our culture, only losers and high schoolers work this job. Adults in food service work as baristas, waitresses, and hostesses. Even a fry cook ranks above a fast food worker. Our clientele tends to be a little nicer than that Golden Arches, but the schema is still the same. If I come in to a fast food restaurant and make an order, you’re going to get it to me within the time it takes for the drinks to be filled. It will be right. It will be warm. And the cashier is just an interface between me and my food. I’ve been guilty of this. We walk up and give our order to the girl in the ill-fitting uniform, staring at us blankly or smiling just a bit too wide. In either case, her eyes are glazed and distant. Sometimes she can’t understand what I’m saying, what I mean. It is so easy to blame it on her age, “I can’t believe we have this sixteen-year old taking our order. She doesn’t know up from down. Ugg. We’re never going to get our food,” or her life situation, “I can’t believe this fully grown adult works this job, but I can see why. She can’t even get my order right. No wonder she’s never outgrown fast food.” One of the reasons I’m happy with my job is that I have been learning a lot, not just about how long it takes coke to unfizz so I can keep filling. I’ve been learning what it means to work in a very hard job that is not highly respected. I’ve learned how it feels to splash old coffee down my trousers while trying to empty a stale pot (we keep our coffee for four hours). I’ve learned how much my fingers hurt when they pull the burning box of fresh hash browns from the warmer. And I’ve learned why cashiers at fast food restaurants stare blankly. With an apology for the length of this post, I will pass what I’ve learned onto you, my readers. 1) She is probably dehydrated. Healthy code laws forbid food workers to consume anything while handling food. This means that we can only drink in a back room by the lockers and managers office. There is a rack stacked with cups, thermoses, bottles, and cans. Theoretically, we should be able to go back when we’re thirsty. Practically, we can’t. When it’s the middle of lunch rush and there are twenty people in line, I cannot leave my post and chug H2O. I need to help the impatient customers get what they want. Many are on their lunch breaks and only have long enough to grab some carry out on their way back. If I leave, they will be angry, which will make my manager angry. So I stay and serve. If the lunch rush is bad, I can go 2-3 hours without drinking anything. Likewise, if I’m working breakfast or the afternoon and I am the only person on the register, I can’t leave. I have to stay and watch the counter. One day I went four and a half hours without a sip. I can’t express to you how much this affects my ability to be engaged. I like it better when I can drink every hour and a half. That makes life go easier. 2) She is probably eating on a weird schedule. In order to handle the lunch rush, we need to eat around it. This means that, depending on our hours and who else is working, we eat lunch between 9-11 or between 2-4. One day it might be the former. The next it might be the latter. If breakfast didn’t do the trick that day, the kids ice cream cones I just made start to look really appealing. Some days I feel like I’m in the middle of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Food and water everywhere and not a bit for me. Depending on the person, the schedule can reek havoc on emotions, or just leave the cashier with no energy. These are extreme examples, but sometimes we have extreme days. 3) She may have had a bad customer experience. I find that when I have a difficult interaction with a customer, I stay flustered for the next several transactions. Depending on what the offense was, I could mess up things. A woman irritated that she received 8 nuggets instead of 3 strips may leave me paranoid about getting the next few orders right, which usually means I’m not as on top of things. A customer upset about our lack of senior discounts may mess up my ability to count the change I’m pulling out of the drawer. One angry customer can hang over a whole day. Even if the lecture on the evils of MSG, how-could-we-be-so-evil-as-to-put-it-in-our-food, happens at 9 am and you are standing there at 1pm, it still may be there, playing in her mind on repeat. 4) She may be bored. I’m blessed on this one. I stay pretty busy at my job, which is a surprising blessing. If I really run out of things to do, I make the boxes of sauces behind our counter look pretty, putting the packets on top of each other like legos. And if that’s done, I’ll have a conversation with the girl bagging food. I am fortunate. I have friends who worked at another chain where they were told that if they were on register, they were not allowed to speak to other employees. They were supposed to stand at their posts, even if no customers were in the store. They were told to stare straight ahead, like robots, until someone came in. “We want our customers to know we’re waiting just for them.” I can assure you, that from the days when the only other girl was on headset and the sauces were already filled and organized, holding onto the register and staring ahead is a boredom hell. Time absolutely crawls, Your brain begins to shut down. Even the arrival of a customer can’t take that away. I need to repeat. I like my job. Every occupation has miserable consequences, and I’m fine with handling mine. I like serving customers. There’s nothing that makes me happier than giving a haggard mother the large diet coke with her much needed caffeine or making sure that the man allergic to tomatoes gets his side salad anyway. I love having a job where I get to give kindness and attention where it’s not expected. I have the added advantage that the company I work for really wants to give service, not just a hunk of food. Unfortunately, this is a rarity. The cashiers and fry makers and drive thru attendants at fast food restaurants are people with hopes and dreams and goals. Some of them are high schoolers. Some of them are losers. But some of them are college graduates trying to pay off debt in a bad economy. Some of them are parents who want a job that will give them flexible hours. Some of them can only climb up in food service because the jobs they want won’t take them without a ridiculous experience requirement only acquired with nepotism. We are people who work hard jobs with little respect. Please show us some. And to those of you who do, waiting patiently when our screens don’t work, not fussing when five minutes have passed without your food, eating the nuggets even when you get strips, we owe you our deepest gratitude.

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

On Saturday night, Caleb and I spent the evening in the home of a former professor. He and his wife are both writers and very dear friends. This was the first time I had been able to see them since the spring, and I missed them a lot. We had dinner, and then we sat on the marvelously large couch in the living room. I sat in my favorite spot next to the table piled high with books and drank apple cider. Jazz played softly in the background.

The subject of my writing came up.

“I’ve been reading your blog,” my former professor said.

I blanched a little. The difficulty with a blog–or with any social media, really–is that if one is being honest, it becomes a lot more difficult to put a positive spin on things in actual conversation. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that my writing is not going particularly well. He knew that, too.

“You’re actually experiencing just the right tensions for your stage of life. That was encouraging to see.”

He and his wife then shared about their own writing journeys, stories I already partially knew, but which were a good reminder. They’d both worked terrible jobs out of college. She had a very long drought in her writing. His goals happened much later than he wanted. It was encouraging to hear about their struggles, to know I wasn’t alone or failing at all. In a speech I’ve heard him use several times in class, my former professor told about Raymond Carver, how he thought “the fire had gone out,” that “the spark was gone”.

“So much of writing is about keeping the faith.”

Raymond Carver and “faith” and writing shot my mind back to one of the most encouraging books I’ve ever read, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. My copy has a foreword written by Carver, and one of the sections of the book is labeled “Faith”.  This section describes how to persevere through the long years, writing blocks, and the apprehension of if one will ever succeed. According to Gardner, faith for the writer looks like recognizing “that the art of writing is immensely more difficult than the beginning writer may at first believe but in the end can be mastered by anyone willing to do the work”. The work is hard, but if we keep working, we can do what we need to.

Where does the writer get faith? Partly…from community support. The steady encouragement of friends makes it easier to slip into the dream and easier to endure the drudgery of learning both to control and to listen to language.

As we drove home from our lovely evening on Saturday, I was struck by how much support I do have. Less than an hour after I posted my blog last week, a friend from my high school writing club encouraged me to write something everyday, no matter if it was junk. Shortly after, another friend from that club commented on the quality of my prose. The following day, a writer friend from college told me that even being able to write a weekly blog was a success in my creative life.

The book of Hebrews has something to say about faith. It is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This definition is followed by a list of names of those who followed God in the paths he led them, trusting in his promises, even though they did not see them fulfilled. The author admits there are too many people to mention. And then he says this:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

I believe that God has given me my writing so that I may show his glory. I also believe that God has put witnesses in my life, whether they were following him or not, to show me what faith looks like, to encourage me to keep running, keep writing. Even though I struggle through two sentences an hour, my work is not lost. By faith, I write.

Creating and Consuming

Two posts ago, I wrote about how my lack of energy has kept me from being able to write. Here we are, two weeks later, and I have added one more sentence to my revision. I also embarked on an hour long research frenzy into whether I was calling a location the “Northern Castle,” the “Country Castle,” or the “Country Palace.” For nearly a month now, my guitar and my violin have been sitting in our apartment. I haven’t touched them. The beloved chalk pastels that were locked up during my time in college are packed away in a box upstairs. In high school I used them to create beautiful portraits. I was so happy to get them back. I haven’t opened them.

I have, however, watched over a days worth of Foyle’s War. Caleb and I watched the fourth season of Doctor Who. I have reached level 23 in “Robot Unicorn Attack” on Caleb’s phone. I’ve listened to Pandora for hours on end. I’ve eaten through all of our bread and bagels and drunk the last of our orange juice. Caleb came home today to find me sitting in front of the computer, watching Netflix, and eating the toffee his parents sent as a gift. Sometimes I just refresh facebook, starting at pictures of my friends with people I’ve never met before.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been active. I make dinner most nights, and I’ve been trying to keep the kitchen clean. I’ve also been burning out. I spend 6-8 hours a day keeping busy, taking orders, stocking shelves, refilling the lemonade, slicing lemons, rinsing out the coffee maker. Then I come home with that same burning desire. Clean, clean, clean. Keep busy. You have to keep working to show you care, to do a good job. And then I realize that there’s no team to contribute to. There are no customers to serve. There’s no rush to keep up with. Instead, there is a messy apartment with a husband so swamped with work that he hasn’t noticed. And I collapse.

I have to confess: I’ve lost my temper too many times. There’s something out of joint in my world and I’m confused. So much of this is new. I don’t know how to do everything. So I collapse. I consume. I watch and listen and eat and browse. And all the while, at the back of my head, is that burn to create. I want to write. I want to feel the story pour out of my fingers. I want to sing and act and make music. But it’s always too late. Or I’m too tired. Or the dishes haven’t been done. Or the fridge is empty. Or Caleb needs me to drive him to class because he missed his bus in order to finish the homework he didn’t do yesterday because he was planning for the class he teaches, which he didn’t do the day before because he was working on his final project.

I spent this spring in a similar state. I consciously decided that I had to give up creativity in order to graduate. I felt my insides drying out, my soul shriveling. Then, I did it to reach a goal. Now, I do it because I feel responsible. Unfortunate situations in my youth have left me with a sense of practical guilt. If the kitchen is dirty, I can’t write. If the laundry isn’t folded, I can’t write. If there’s a job that needs to be done, I can’t write. But now the guilt is no longer attached to an external, motivating source. So I run away.

Caleb has tried to be helpful. He’s tried to make me go write. He’s told me to forget about the messy kitchen and pull out the laptop. But I can’t. I can’t leave the maddening guilt. I can’t leave what I have to do in order to do what I want to do. And I don’t want to do anything…so I consume.

It’s terrible, this gluttony. I’m bloated and tired. I even put off writing this blog because I had to make dinner. And then anesthetize myself from that frustration with Netflix. Eating and Doctor Who followed that. And now I’m going to be late for bed because this piece of writing has a reason. It has customers to serve, a shelf to keep stocked, and lemonade to refill. It’s work with a purpose.

That makes it practical.

This is the part of writing one doesn’t think about when one races through a gripping novel. One thinks of the great storms of inspiration, the sea battle with character development. One forgets that, like the sailors of old, our lives are mostly boring, spent staring at the same scenery, drifting for days under a hot sun with no wind.