Feeling Like a Writer

16 Nov

Ever since I moved to New York for grad school, I wondered when I would start feeling like a writer. I just wondered when the mental switch would flip and I would start waking up each day and taking a deep breath and going, “Ah, I’m a writer, time to brighten the world with my genius!” I felt like since I was taking classes for a Master of Fine Arts in writing and producing for television and would, maybe once a week at least, sit down to write jokes for my blooming stand-up career, I would feel like I deserved the title. But it didn’t come. Spending a month arguing about whether X character should have Y addiction and scribbling down jokes about sandwiches in a laundromat while my sweatpants were drying weren’t really sparking that feeling of self-pride that I was sure came with being a “true” writer.

Since New York Comic Con, I’ve had an idea for a story kicking around that seemed to have materialized spontaneously. It was a rare occurrence because, to my detriment and never-ending chagrin, I have a really hard time thinking in terms of stories. Usually any good idea that comes to me comes in the form of little scraps: images, situations, lines of dialogue. Never anything that could develop into a full narrative. But that day, in the middle of attending a bunch of panels geared towards writers, it just popped up, much like the chosen form of Gozer the Destructor. Perhaps it was just being in close proximity to all these sources of creative energy that forced my mind out of inertia. However, since it wasn’t anything I could use in class or stand-up, I had to just be content with thinking about it and not doing anything. That was my justification, at least. Thus I continued, still not feeling like a real writer.

Then November came along. Like most years, leading up to this particular month, the girlfriend began reminding me about National Novel Writing Month, a challenge that people across the country (and world, I believe) participate in, trying to write a 50,000-word novella in thirty days. She had done it for years and reached the word goal several years running, and ever since we’d started dating, she’d wanted me to join in. Two years ago, my justification was that novelling just wasn’t my thing; I was still just purely concentrating on stand-up. Last year I relented, but, as was typical for me, I didn’t have any story come to me, so I just decided to do a half-assed fictionalized autobiographical thing of my experiences with pro wrestling. I actually made it to around 30,000 words, but then lost interest and quit, since I had no particular passion for it.

(To my credit, with the help of my friend Kenny Baclawski, I completed Script Frenzy this past April. It’s the sister competition to NaNoWriMo, so you write a 100-page screenplay in a month. This gave me the confidence that I could, at least, finish something ambitious within such a time limit.)

This year, though, I had a wonderful convergence of circumstances: the need to feel like I was a more active and productive writer, a class that wasn’t really satisfying that need, and a story that I felt inspired to write (plus the aforementioned confidence). I decided this year that, if I really want to be a professional writer, I can’t and shouldn’t back down from any challenges to produce. On the evening of October 31st, before I left to celebrate Halloween with friends, I sat down and did an outline of my story, so I would have an idea of what the novella’s beginning, middle, and end would be. This would prevent me from abandoning it with the excuse that I had no idea where the plot was going.

I am now 25,000 words into my story–the half-way point, as suggested by the rubric on the NaNoWriMo website. I can now tell you guys that I actually feel like I’m a writer, proving the loathsomely cliched but nevertheless true fact that to be a writer, you have to fucking write. The website suggests that in order to make the goal of 50,000 in a month, you should write about 1667 words a day. Thus, since the first day, I have been logging into Google Docs and making sure I increase my word count by at least that much every single day.

This has made me take essentially the same approach to writing that I took to training my body when I was a wrestler in high school: following a regular, structured regimen. The irony is that I let the regimen which ruled my body slip ages ago and I no longer have any kind of discipline in relation to that, but now I am feeling more creatively stimulated than ever just by taking an hour or three every day and forcing myself back into the world I had created the day before, resolving the choices me and my characters had made and directions they had started in.

It’s basically making your narrative like real life, where  you have to continually deal with the consequences of your own actions and choices, every day. You can run away from a project that frustrates you, but you can’t run away from real life. If you treat a project like everyday life, you find it harder to give up and you work yourself through things. I’ve actually managed to not encounter too many frustrations, and have somehow, by happenstance, found myself in the writer’s Shangri-La, where every word typed leads not to apprehension over what to do, but to just the production of even more ideas and more directions to explore.

I guess I should tell you guys about the story I’m working on: the ideas I had kicking around in my head that were the collective genesis of this story were A) an image of a man who smoked and carried all the butts of every cigarette he’d ever smoked in a duffel bag as a reminder of how close he was to death, B) a TV series where the main character died at the end of every episode, and C) the idea of a celestial punishment to “die 1000 deaths.” Finally, in the middle of one of those Comic Con panels, like the random floating proteins that assembled into the first life form, they coalesced into a story:

Mortimer Grimley lived a very unremarkable life. Not that good of a life, but not an evil life, either. Just unremarkable. In fact, so irritatingly unremarkable, that he can’t wait to die because he’s so bored. However, the archangel Gabriel, so frustrated that mortal men squander the gift of life given them, decides to make an example of him. Mort Grimley, deprived of the escape of death, now has a new fate: he must die 1000 times. Gabriel also lays a couple of rules: Mort can’t kill himself, and each death has to be by a different way. He ends up becoming a sort of selfishly-motivated superhero, realizing he can die faster if he throws himself in the way of other people’s harm.

So that’s the “A” story. When I outlined it, I came up with the “B” story that there’s a prostitute named Jodie who was on the run from her pimp and ended up being someone Mort cared enough about to start protecting. Since I’ve started writing, I’ve come up with other subplots involving Gabriel trying to subvert God’s authority and Jodie also being on the run from her abusive priest father. It all just came out of an organic expansion of the base idea, just my brain going “Hmmm, maybe this would fit nicely here” while I was typing.

Of course, spending each day with word count being the only measurable goal can’t mean I’m going to produce the best possible novella I could, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Even if what I’m writing isn’t a fantastic novella, it’s still writing. If I come to a part of the story where I feel lethargic about moving the plot along, I can spend a few paragraphs where a character describes his surroundings, has a flashback to a past event, or talks about how cold he feels. Then there’s no way I won’t be able to sift through all of that after I’m done and take something I can use: a funny piece of dialogue, a pretty image, a new character, something that is attention-catching enough that I can stay with it, either later in the novella, in another draft of the novella, or even in future writing projects outside of this one.

The point is, I feel like a writer now because I am writing. I am no longer languidly hoping for inspiration to come to me, but using NaNoWriMo as the kick in the ass I needed to force inspiration to come out of me, not from without, but from within, which ultimately is how it must come to any writer, I think. In a good stroke of timing, my classes are finally getting to the point where we are finally writing the scripts for our episodes, as well. Thanks to NaNo, I can hit the ground running with a warm engine instead of getting jolted into action from the cold stillness of creative inactivity. I feel this is having a positive overflow effect into my stand-up as well. Writing is writing, and when you do enough of it, you improve your overall skills.

So, my advice to any aspiring writers reading this: write a lot, but also explore. If one particular form doesn’t work for you, try another, then go back to the first one, then try yet another, and really try to develop a versatile mind. Every week now, instead of wondering what the hell I’m going to do with my free time and ending up visiting various web sites and webcomics, I know I can work on my novella, write jokes, work on the episode for class, or update my blog. There are always opportunities, and any moment spent with ideas in your head but your hands not moving is wasted. You’re not going to feel like a writer if you don’t take the time and effort to be a writer.

The rambling quality of this blog post, however, may be an artifact of my frying my mind with all of my other writing already.


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