Friday, December 5, 2014

NaNoWriMo '14: Trials, Triumphs, and Take-aways—Reflections on the WriMo that Was

By all accounts, this post would've been better served by having been written earlier in the week, but the final days of National Novel Writing Month were such a challenge that my fingers still ache from the number of keystrokes necessary to earn this:

As was evident from my previous post, every WriMo has been unique for me. Of course each year differed due in part to the fact that each year featured a different story, but on a statistical level, too, has the experience been varied. 2011's steady climb was capped off by a down-to-the-wire flurry of words I still don't remember writing; 2013's effort would have been completed within the first two weeks had it not been for my taking a week off to watch a marathon of Doctor Who episodes leading up to the 50th anniversary special. 

This year's WriMo, however, was nearly a disaster. After building momentum over the course of Week 1 that left me feeling perhaps a bit too confident, I languished terribly. With only three days left in the month, I had written barely more than 20,000 words. I took Thanksgiving off—to celebrate, decorate, and summon as much literary fortitude as I could possibly muster. The run-up paid off, and by the morning of November 30th I'd crossed the 50,000 word mark, and successfully completed NaNoWriMo for the third time.

Now, obviously I wouldn't recommend this course of action. It's much, much better to maintain a steady effort; covering so much ground within a span of so few days was an exhausting experience, and i'm sure to some extent the work suffered for it near the end. And I'm certainly not boasting about my success here, but I do think it's worth noting that the feat can be accomplished. One of the biggest obstacles to reaching the end of NaNoWriMo with 50,000 words—and, indeed, to reaching the end of any writing project—is yielding to the sense of hopelessness that plagues nearly every work, especially for beginners. The lesson here is simple: Don't give up. If you want to be a writer, all it takes is the sometimes seemingly Herculean task of never giving up. You must see the work through. As Neil Gaiman has said, "It's that easy, and that hard."

With another WriMo in the books, it's time to turn an eye toward the holidays, and the spirit of reflection they so often inspire. Looking back on the past month, and 2014 as a whole, I'd have to say the most important lesson for me has been that regular writing begets better writing. As I'd observed in June, it takes a fairly consistent writing schedule to elevate my work to a quality I dream of maintaining as a writer. This proved true during NaNoWriMo as well, with the best work of the month coming after—and only after—I'd been writing for a few consecutive days. 

There's evidence elsewhere to support the claim—science fiction author Jamie Rubin recently reached the milestone of having written for 500 consecutive days, and noted that the benefits of his discipline include increasing his rate of sales from 1 story every 3 years to 1 story every 45 days. It's not that a higher volume of output leads to more frequent sales, he explains, but that more frequent work leads to better work. As it was his blogging that inspired me to establish The Scholar's Fane, I can't help but consider taking yet another leaf from his book. I've seen it evidenced in my own work, on a small scale, and in his claims on a much larger scale. Writing daily must become a priority for me in the year to come.

The other major take-away from this year's NaNoWriMo is this: I need to trust that I've chosen this path for myself wisely. Part of what bogged me down through the middle of the month was pressure I'd been placing on myself to compose an almost perfect first draft, despite every assurance that first drafts are inherently, more or less awful. Everything had to be properly organized, continuity had to be maintained, the writing had to feel right or I'd despair and flail. At some point, I completely lost touch with myself as a writer, given the poor job I'd been doing. What saved me was trusting that, having set myself on this course long enough ago, and having worked at being a writer for years, I must have had good cause to do so. Maybe I'd lost my way—maybe I'd lost my will—but I owed it to my more confident former self to see things though as best I could. And that's how the WriMo was really won—throwing myself into the work, almost mindlessly obedient to the decision to sign up back in October. I discovered I had faith, not in my current self, but in the self that had led to this one, and the one that will undoubtedly follow. 

If anything can be said of this year in general, it's that persistence pays off. Oftentimes, under duress of the many challenges life throws one's way, Perseverance is the name of the game. That's held true for most of this year, more so than in years past. And while reaching one's goals takes more than mere survival, there's no climbing to the top without occasionally hanging on for dear life. This year I've learned i'm capable of doing just that and, it is hoped, with the insights gleaned from NaNoWrimo and earlier fits of writing, I'll soon be able to resume my ascent toward the realization of my dreams. 

It seems so simple now, but I'll no doubt need reminding as time rolls on. Though it's 11 months away, I'm looking forward to the next National Novel Writing Month, which I expect will present whatever lessons I'll have forgotten by then, as well as a host of new insights that will once again spur me on to an ever better future as a writer. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

NaNoWriMo '14: Hobbling into the Home Stretch; Flying to the Finish—Recapping Week 3

It's been two long weeks since my last blog post, recapping National Novel Writing Month's first week. I wish I could report that this lapse has been due to a preoccupation with this year's novel—and it wouldn't exactly be a lie if I did. However, if I'm to be completely honest, there just hasn't been all that much to say. The truth is, I took my eye off the ball, and I've been chasing after it in tragicomic fashion ever since. The writing seemed a little flat after the initial burst of progress, the thread had gotten lost; whatever the reason, I stopped writing. There's still more than a week left in the WriMo, and I'm not without the necessary amounts of hope and determination to see the month through to the close. It will be an uphill climb, though—there's no mistaking that. I'll put the challenge in proper perspective, but let's have some good news first: a few days after my last post, I put up an excerpt for my novel, and the response was almost alarmingly positive.

The Excerpt

As is perhaps too often the case, I began a night of writing by venturing onto Twitter; more often than not, that's as far as my nights have gotten. During 2013's WriMo, I would have been lost without the camaraderie and writing sprints afforded by the writing community on Twitter, but only in these last few days have I realized that this year's novel is a much more solitary effort. That's as far as the writing's concerned; for my own well-being, there's still been nothing like the support we give each other throughout this challenging month, and I highly doubt I'd still be in the hunt at all if it weren't for the friends I've made there. 

Case in point:  I'd logged on to Twitter one night in the second week of the WriMo, and found a group pressuring each other into sharing excerpts from their novels. I'd been extremely reluctant to do so—even posting a synopsis seemed counterproductive, somehow. Maybe it's the risk I would have been taking by exposing a severely rough draft to public scrutiny, or worse yet the pressure I'd experience should the reaction prove positive enough. Both of these results eventually came to pass, and it took me at least a week to recover. Having recovered, though, it's the positive responses that stay with me, and help me to continue on despite having fallen so desperately behind. 

In the interest of embracing those fears and the rewards I may still reap for persevering despite them, here now is that same excerpt. From my NaNoWriMo 2014 novel, A Stranger in the City of Dis:
It’s 6:30 in the morning, and I am obnoxiously awake. Sleep and I have never been on the best of terms, but lately the relationship has bordered on abusive. After lying on the couch for about half an hour, waiting for sleep that spitefully refuses to come, I sit up and scowl at the still-black sky outside. We haven’t even set the clocks back yet, but sunrise is still a long ways off. As fitful as the night’s sleep had been, at least it was sleep. I resign myself to another long and exhausting day, and get up to fix some breakfast.
By the time the sun begins poking through the hazy gray remnants of last night’s storm, I’m fed and caffeinated—overly so, as the machine once again dumped grounds into the pot and I, bleary eyed and too irritated to care, likewise dumped most of those grounds into my over-sized mug. I think of that cliché boast, “You have to get up pretty early in the morning…” and it brings a bitter grin to my face, because Life certainly did today. Got me real good, the bastard.
I sit at my desk, looking out onto the dimly lit strip of lawn that separates the complex and a stretch of power lines that skirts the edge of the city, and I wonder—how has it come to this? I’d had such aspirations, once. I’d been young and full of hope despite countless obstacles and stumblings; I thought I’d made so much progress away from those darker days, and yet here I am, alone with my books, this flea-bitten cat, and day after damnable day of impossibly malignant luck. Everything about this place feels wrong—not just the apartment, but the whole of the city itself. But what could I have done? Dis is no normal city; there’s a gravity here that makes escape velocity nigh-impossible to achieve. Nothing seems right about it, it’s incapable of salvation. It’s a fact that stains every single citizen, each of us doomed by virtue of our having been spat into the world here.
It seems too much, to blame an entire city. Maybe it’s just me that’s wrong. Maybe I’m just not right for this place. Maybe I never have been…
Dis is not, or rather was not, an inherently bad city, in and of itself. These days, it seems a fell poison hangs in the very air and depresses the souls of the city’s denizens, much as real poison once gushed from the smokestacks of its infamous mills. I imagine there was a time in which life flourished in a hopeful spirit; by the time I was born, however, the damage had been done.
The city had long since earned its reputation as a modest crime capital, and the effects of the steel industry’s collapse had dealt the town a mortal blow. It’s something the city has never let itself forget. To this day, one can still hear people bemoaning the loss of the mills, and though the cries have lost something of their intensity, there’s little reason to expect them to end until the city is wholly populated by those too young to recall the days of factories and forges.
It’s just the sort of town this is, filled with unfocused anger, seething bitterness; a town that rehashes 35-year-old bad news on lousy anniversaries just to remind itself why it feels so perpetually shitty about itself. This grumbling has become the reminder that my birthday draws near, as I was born two years and one week after the day Dis still calls its Black Monday.
The shape of the space that envelops this city is strange, warping its gravity, bending time. Though I took my first steps in the dawn of the ‘80s, much of my childhood was set against a particularly ‘70s backdrop. Even now, it’s clear that Dis will forever be roughly ten years behind the times. It’s as if the rest of the country is forced to drag us along at the end of a ten year length of rope, while we kick and scream and cling to anything that might keep us in the dismal past. 

The Recovery

After far too many days spent floundering in the aftermath of the excerpt's posting, I did some soul searching and found the courage and resolve to pick up where I'd left off and redouble my efforts. The first step was to contend with a sense of vagueness that had begun to plague my writing; I felt relatively lost within my own story, unsure of its direction or purpose. It was time to make use of the timeline I'd mentioned in my NaNoWriMo Day 1 post three weeks ago. The result, though helpful, also made the novel seem all that more daunting: 

Each "hash mark" represents a major event, to be chronicled in as much detail as I can manage. I numbered them, and jotted a brief summary for each on another sheet of paper. By the time i was finished, I had a list of 83 "episodes" to write about; as of today, that number is closer to 103. To say I'd overwhelmed myself would be an understatement. I discovered an entirely new problem—how do I decide which moments are essential to the story I'm trying to tell?

As it turned out, the real crux lay in the fact that I have been, in truth, working on what could easily be four separate volumes. Whether or not I'll continue to work toward a single, complex work or divide it into its individual thematic components is something that will take longer than the remaining 10 days of NaNoWriMo to decide. The most immediate problem, that of divining the key scenes to be written, is also something that can wait for the editing process. Working toward the writing of as many words as i can muster by month's end, it would behoove me to simply work on all of them. I can separate wheat from chaff at my leisure, in December. And January. And so on...

The Comeback

I know this is a lot more thought than one should be putting into National Novel Writing Month—I've always been an over-thinker. To any newcomers reading this: Don't do as I've done. Just write. For the love of literature, just write. I've made such a mess of my run this year, and while I resolve to regret nothing, and this all may prove beneficial in the end, it's surely not the easy way to go about reaching the 50k mark. It would have been better had I been able to keep more or less steadily on track, as I'd done in 2011:

By this point in the month I was behind, but only marginally so, all things considered. Though I lagged further behind the pace as the deadline approached, the rally of the last three days put me across the finish line. 

It's almost unfair to compare this year's struggles to 2013's WriMo success, which was easily a freak of nature in its own right:

This is the one year anniversary of the day I ended a week-long dry spell by going for broke, writing just under 17,000 words to reach the goal by the day's end. I don't think it's a feat I should ever like to duplicate, but if ever I needed such a leap in productivity, it'd be now:

At my current pace, I'll reach the 50k mark on New Year's Eve. This is misleading, of course, as it factors in all those days of regrettable inactivity. The real take-away here is the last three days' progress. 500+ words per day won't get me to the goal by November 30th, but they're merely the seeds of things to come. 

In the absence of the word sprints (which I still wholeheartedly recommend, by the way) I've recovered some of the passion behind that excerpt, the first paragraphs I composed for this year's novel. I've replaced the needle that had been missing from my compass, and my voice has found its way back into my writerly throat. These last three days have been the most consistent—and consistently fulfilling—work I've done all month, and suddenly I feel entirely unlike someone who's struggled three long weeks at the keyboard. I feel as if I'm starting anew, entirely refreshed, and ready to tackle the challenge of not only reaching the 50k word mark, but 100k and beyond. I'm ready, that is to say, to write a novel.

I have 10 days left to reach the goal for this year's NaNoWriMo, which means I have to meet or exceed a daily goal of 3,249 words. It seems like a lot—nearly double the standard daily goal of 1,667—but for someone who flirts with 2k-word hours, it isn't nearly so bad as one might think. And unlike the beginning of the month, I finally have a firm grasp on the novel I'm writing. I finally have the voice I'd lost almost immediately after the month began. I'm ready to tell this story, and it's going to be told. I have a steep climb ahead of me fly instead.

Friday, November 7, 2014

NaNoWriMo '14: A Fly in the Ointment—Recapping Week 1

The first week of National Novel Writing Month is drawing to a close, and I'm not going to lie—it's been a rough one. After what felt like a terrific start at the stroke of midnight November 1st, I experienced a few days of painful floundering. Thankfully, I have gotten some writing done—this isn't going to be a repeat of 2012's colossal failure—but I have yet to catch up to the cumulative total of daily goals:

7620 words written so far; Day 7's goal—11666
I know NaNoWriMo is meant to be an exercise in discipline, that it's not about the story or its quality so much as putting in the hours, but I find it exceedingly difficult to throw myself into work I don't fully believe in. And while I do believe in the idea behind this year's novel, the writing has been dreadfully stilted. There's no art in it, no color or flavor. I think this may speak to a larger issue, stemming from the challenges I've faced over the past several months. I've often said that I would consider my life a success, regardless of outcome, so long as it could be said I lived my life artfully. Unfortunately, it's become increasingly obvious that I've lost something of that zeal. To put it in clinical terms, I believe I'm suffering from a blunted affect, a diminished experience and expressiveness of emotion; to put it in simple terms, I am depressed, and it's killing my literary mojo. 

...which might just be fitting for a novel named after a city in Hell.

This doesn't mean this year's WriMo effort is in jeopardy, at least not yet. During the few productive bursts of writing I've managed to put forth, I've found it easy enough to get about 2k words down each hour. This means it should only take two hours to catch up, and so there's little anxiety to speak of—at least for today. As the month progresses, I do worry that this sense of discouragement over the "flat" nature of my writing will increase, slowing my efforts, leading to days like those first few, in which I wrote nothing at all. The easiest solution is to ensure that doesn't happen, to continue chopping away steadily, however I might feel about the work I'm doing. I'll still be left contending with the overall problem, but that's nothing new, especially not this year.

On the positive side of things, I have been having a terrific time during these productive fits. It took a few days, and setting up a few time-honored traditions, but it finally feels like a proper NaNoWriMo. All it took was a few word sprints on Twitter and their accompanying shenanigans, a pot of Earl Grey tea, and a few boxes of Fruit Delights—a seasonally available confection comparable to Turkish Delight, an absolute favorite of mine and essential to my Novembers. 

In addition to these WriMo rituals, I added a first for me—the purchase of this year's participants' shirt, "The Magic Equation":

Picture from the National Novel Writing Month Donation Station & Store, courtesy of The Office of Letters and Light
I also pre-ordered my winner's shirt, and there's no way I'll allow myself to own that without having earned it. I'm in this for the long haul, even if it winds up feeling longer than I expected. Week One hasn't been a bust, and the month won't be either. 

Part of what I love about writing is how much I learn about myself in the process. It's from this recent spate of work that I learned the extent of these recent struggles of mine, and hopefully this new-found awareness will be the first step in resolving matters. That would, in turn, help me improve my writing. As writing and my life feed into each other this way, I continue to grow, and I really can't be depressed by that at all. The writing may be slow and, at times, painfully dull, but it's for a good cause. I'll keep writing the good write, and hope anyone else out there who might be struggling will do the same. 

Drink Tea and Carry On

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Writer at the Gates of Dawn: NaNoWriMo—Day 1

National Novel Writing Month 2014 is finally here, and the previous weeks' apprehension and doubt seem as a distant fever dream, every bit as ridiculous as they are gone. Like so many, I eagerly awaited the strike of midnight to begin this year's novel. The paralysis of staring into the abyss of a blank page lasted no more than thirty minutes, and by 1am I had done away with the pressures that once plagued the entirety of past Novel Writing Months. Though there will no doubt be pressures galore as my word count struggles under duress of the looming deadline, the battle is already won: I remembered that NaNoWriMo is meant to be fun.

There's still much work to be done, both on the page and off; I fully intend to make a serious attempt at completing a novel worthy of publication, and that calls for outlines, notes, and timelines. A few months ago, using graph paper, I designed a timeline specific to the composition of this novel in particular. It's meant to enable me to divide a single, 35-year timeline into five 7-year portions:

I think it will take a system of color-coded symbols and indicators, as with footnotes, that correspond to entries on an accompanying number of pages fleshing out the basic narrative in chronological order. 

Honestly, this level of organization and planning has me inordinately excited.

There's also a decent amount of research to be done in terms of necessary story details, in addition to the standard technical studies and review of inspirational materials—works in a similar milieu or style, works that keep me motivated.

Much as it won't always feel as such, there's plenty of time for all of that. Soon the pressure will mount, of course, and the material itself will no doubt play a part in weighing me down as well. For now, it's wonderful just to have awakened on November 1st with a few quality paragraphs under my belt. Time for a little more sauntering into the work's early stages. It's a glorious morning to be a writer...

Monday, October 27, 2014

Countdown to NaNoWriMo—Are You In or Out?

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

October is winding down and that can only mean that, once again, National Novel Writing Month looms ominously on the horizon. During the month of November, participants endeavor to meet daily writing goals of at least 1,667 words; by month's end, this will have added up to 50,000 words which is, for many a burgeoning writer, far more than they'd yet managed for a single work. While it's not a contest by conventional standards, NaNoWriMo is a competition with oneself—and against distraction and disillusionment, among other things—and the meeting or exceeding of that 50,000 word goal is a win no matter how you look at it. To the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo may seem little more than an extreme writing exercise, a means of practicing at the discipline of working daily toward a sizable word count. And it is that, make no mistake. At its heart, NaNoWriMo is, as officially described, a "fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing." Veterans of the annual event can tell you, as they well know, that it's also much, much more than that...

The Writer Who Went Up an Idea and Came Down a Novel

From the outside, it seems almost a simple thing, to add word after word until a desired total has been reached. For a few, I imagine this is all the WriMo really amounts to, the placing of one foot in front of the other until eventually you've walked somewhere. There's no stipulation as to the coherence of participants' novels, and one could just as easily ramble through a stream-of-consciousness fever dream of a story if thus inclined. Even then, with little thought regarding character development or plotting, this oversimplified view ignores the reality of watching as an idea grows across the mounting number of pages. There's a feeling—equal parts exhilaration and panic—which emerges as a realization gradually dawns on you: The power to write a novel is within your grasp. The sense of triumph at having discovered this power is awesome, in the classic sense of the word. Over time, of course, this feeling can wane and, I suspect, it's a desire to rekindle that sense of agency that brings many a writer back year after year.

It's Dangerous to Go Alone!

This isn't to say there aren't lions at the gates. It's an arduous task to set for oneself, one fraught with perils. There will be days on which the words will refuse to come, where every keystroke feels like a horrible misstep; other days, it will seem as if the world conspires to keep you from your computer, typewriter, or notebook; often, the grand conspirator will be you yourself, as the prospect of washing dishes or alphabetizing your library suddenly seems too delightfully tempting to resist. For those who choose to compose a more complicated plot, the containment and sorting of a host of ideas becomes a burden all its own. Over time, as the deadline looms, an understandable amount of stress can build; even the strain of writing at length itself can be enough to wear a writer down. It's easy to fall behind, given the myriad variables with which life can confront you, and there you'll find discouragement—in addition to whatever natural sense of self-doubt you typically harbor. Under these mounting pressures, many participants will drop out and fall to the wayside. NaNoWriMo is not without its casualties. Thankfully, with NaNoWriMo you're rarely alone.

For most of us, when the writing happens it's just us and the medium—usually a computer—but there are alternatives. Write-ins are a popular way of celebrating the WriMo spirit with others, and engaging in word sprints—furiously sustained bursts of output—can be a part of these write-ins or online events (I find mine on Twitter, via @NaNoWordSprints, @TheSprintShack and, of course, #WriteClub sprints with @FriNightWrites). There are Facebook groups, the forums on the NaNoWriMo website, message boards and blogs aplenty; the point is, at nearly any hour of the day, there are bound to be other WriMo participants somewhere out there, struggling as you struggle, stressing as you stress, and few will deny a shoulder or ear if you need a little support before leaping back into the fray. As I've remarked often in the past, a writing community is invaluable, and at few times more so than during NaNoWriMo.

You Can't Win if You Don't Play

With victory on one side, and an army of challenges on the other, it seems an uneven match, an uphill climb all the way. I won't lie, it is easier to not write anything at all. There may be guilt or shame in abandoning an interest that verges on a calling, but the inertia of doing nothing at all can be so simple to obey. Imagine all the television you could watch, all the reading you could get done, all the lazing about without concern for word totals or character's certainly tempting. But it might also just be a convenient way of masking fear and doubt. At the end of the day, only you can decide whether or not you have it in you to be the writer you dream of being. Maybe you won't reach 50,000 words this year, or maybe you will but you won't like the end result. I'm of the mind that you still win just by trying, but your mileage may vary. Either way, the only way to find out for sure is to give it a shot, to grant yourself the opportunity to see what you can do when the chips are down. And honestly, it really is a blast. Surviving a WriMo is like nothing else...

I have to confess, when I began drafting this post, I honestly wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to undertake another year's challenge. I haven't prepared the way I had last year, and under the strain of the year's difficulties my writing has suffered greatly. But I've talked myself into it, now. The potential rewards are just too great, even if I should fail in reaching the goal. After all, it's not in the absence of hardship that we find success, but in its endurance. So, while I may not have an outline (yet) or more than an inkling as to what I'll eventually write, count me in.

Now how about you?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon: October '14 Comes to a Close

It's hard to know how to address the close of yet another fantastic Read-a-thon. This is, in part, due to the fact that I last awoke 24 hours and 15 minutes ago and am, quite understandably, more than a little tired. There's also some blame to levy against the fact that, in the previous two events, I at some point slipped into several hours' napping, and felt I'd somehow cheated on my way to the end. Every time, the experience has been unique, despite the persistent themes of revelry with fellow readers and a reverence for the written word. This is, perhaps, the first major takeaway; no matter how many Read-a-thons I enjoy, I imagine each will produce its own special flavor, bring with it its own unique rewards. First, the official survey, and then some final thoughts before resting my eyes a spell.

End of Event Meme

1. Which hour was most daunting for you? I'd have to say somewhere around hours 22 or 23. I'd really thrown myself into reading, and between the book's tone and my exhaustion, things took a rather dark turn.

2. Could you list a few high-interest books that could keep a Reader engaged for next year? I'd recommend the book I read this time around, but at over 1k pages I don't think it's necessarily the best idea, not unless finishing is low on your list of priorities. For science fiction fans and, to a lesser extent mystery fans, Asimov's Robot novels (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and short story collections like I, Robot) would be excellent choices. 

3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve Read-a-thon for next year? I did wonder, at one point, whether or not anyone had tried enlisting celebrity participants. Advocacy for literacy is a popular enough cause, and there are plenty of writers out there who enjoy engaging with their fans in ways that put their own fanhood on prominent display. Could you imagine a Read-a-thon in which Neil Gaiman shares updates on his favorite reads?

4. What do you think worked really well in this year's Read-a-thon? Everything. Honestly, this is no exaggeration. I've only participated in three Read-a-thons now, but this was by far the smoothest. If I absolutely had to single something out, I think the "home page" was tidy and efficient, from sign-ups to the lists of prize winners. But seriously, job well done by all involved.

5. How many books did you read? Part of one.

6. What were the names of the books you read? Stephen King's IT

7. Which book did you enjoy the most? I love IT so far.

8. Which did you enjoy least? N/A

9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year's Cheerleaders? I wasn't a Cheerleader, and the only advice I'd have is for them to make sure they check back to see if Readers have responded to their wonderful blog comments. Not to follow-up with more, really, just so they can see some sign of appreciation for the good they've done by cheering us on.

10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? 100% without a doubt participating, barring major life crises and acts of nature beyond my control.

Final Thoughts

Although I have a great deal more reading yet to do before I reach the end of IT, I have two observations that have crystallized over the course of my reading thus far:

1. Stephen King is a far, far better writer than I can ever hope to become.

2. This by no means implies that I can't become a writer of that caliber. Exceeding my own hopes isn't all that different from exceeding my own expectations, and I do that every day, no sweat.

As I do following any fit of serious reading, I'm reminded of just how amazing it can be. But in this instance, more so than similar cases past, I find myself genuinely yearning for the reading of every book I've ever set aside for some indeterminate point in my future. I think of taking a year off from writing, or at least a year off from worrying about writing, and just spending day in and day out reading with an appetite as voracious as the awaiting book pile is tall. After this year's National Novel Writing Month, I might do just that; I should have enough to focus on compiling, revising, editing, etc. and can at least focus on that instead of the actual writing itself. Or maybe I'll just make reading my main priority, and let writing happen as it may, without pressure. Of the few books I've managed to finish this year, quite a few had been on my list for years. I think I should like to knock a few dozen more such titles off that long-standing list, instead of waiting for Read-a-thon to come back around and remind me, like some long-suffering amnesiac, that reading is so much more than fun. For me, and so many of us, it's essential to a well-lived life.

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon: Deliriously Entering the Homestretch

Despite the numerous and wondrous distractions which kept me from my goal of reading obsessively throughout the entirety of the Read-a-thon, this will be the first (out of three events) for which I will have remained awake for all 24 hours. I'm no stranger to insomnia, we're long-time friends, but it's usually the case that aiming for sleeplessness is the surest way to bring about a surprise 12 hour "nap". 

While the day hasn't succeeded in wearing me down, IT definitely has. I'm not surprised in the least that it's as dark and foreboding as I had ever indication to expect. What surprises me is how easily it's crept under my skin, along the length of my bones, up into my mind and down into my soul. As the grown members of the "Losers Club" find their memories returning, I too find myself recalling events past that I'd just as soon not remembered. To be fair, this is a welcome development, in that my writing is largely informed by my own experiences, bordering on memoir, and so to remember so much more of my childhood is a boon to the writing I hope to do during this year's National Novel Writing month. On the other's just a darn good thing I've got such a capable therapist to handle the aftermath of this book's reading. 

I'm not suggesting that anyone should avoid reading IT, but be prepared. Be more prepared than I was. Be as prepared as you can be, and then prepare some more. You must steel yourself if you're going to put yourself through the paces alongside these terrified children hiding behind the guises of capable and successful adults. King has a talent for exploring human nature that I had failed to recognize up to this point. I'm not sure what I could have done, had I known beforehand. I hope I'll know what to do after the fact.

Seriously, this book is messing with me. I need that, to some extent. I just hope there are a few doses of mercy along the way...maybe even just one?


Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon: The Point of No Return

No matter how hard you try, there's just no accounting for every possible variable you might encounter in the course of any given day. Read-a-thon is surely no exception. As Jurassic Park's Dr. Ian Malcom, played by Jeff Goldblum, put it "Life, uh, uh...uh...finds, uh...a way." And I now understand it to be an unavoidable fact of life that there will always be something that puts a crimp in my attempts at an unabbreviated Read-a-thon. 

Now that it's passed, it's time to get down to business. 

Having won both a door prize and a mini-challenge prize, and with no more distractions in sight, there's nothing stopping me from tackling my chosen read in earnest. I know I won't finish, but that doesn't mean I can't take a sizable bite out of the remaining pages. I may find my mind wandering, I may grow tired, but I'm determined to fight my way to the finish. I'll keep checking in on Twitter periodically, to cheer people along and continue sharing in what has now surely devolved into a kind of madness, but reading's the thing until the Read-a-thon draws to its close.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon: Hafltime Edition

Okay, technically halftime isn't until the top of the hour. Plus, I didn't really get going until about an hour into the event, so I am in effect posting this more than an hour before the actual mid-point of the Read-a-thon (for me). If we take an even closer list, I've easily spent more time blogging, tweeting, and reviewing the blogs and tweets of others than I have actually reading, which throws our entire metric way off. Thankfully the Read-a-thon is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike soccer, so no one is tallying up these extra minutes so as to apply them later after regulation reading time has expired. 

Mid-Event Survey

1. What are you reading right now? I'm still working on IT, completely entranced by it but moving therefore at a rather trance-like pace. 

2. How many books have you read so far? Can I get away with saying I've read from one so far? Zero just sounds ever so much more awful...

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? More of IT. I'll finish it without picking up another book, but by 8am tomorrow? Not likely.

4. Have you had many interruptions? How have you dealt with those? See preceding paragraph. Between challenges, posts, tweets, texts, food delivers, food ingestions, and the surprising receipt of an unbirthday present package with lovely Read-a-thon quality snackstuffs and a pair of even lovelier knit handwarmers, I've had a very full day of not reading IT. I dealt with them by leaping at the chance to engage in more Read-a-thon related hijinks and shenanigans!

5. What surprises you about the Read-a-thon most, so far? There was an hour or two there where I thought I was the only person still tweeting about it. Things have picked up in the last few hours, in part because I went ahead and followed a dozen more participants, and I expect to see #readathon among my tailored trends any time now. But for a moment there, I was worried.

Another hour to the real mid-point, but there's the gist. I don't expect it to change, except for having joined in slightly less hijinks. The book's really picking up steam now, and I'm falling further and further down that rabbit hole. Pretty sure there's no Wonderland at the bottom of this one, though.

Okay by me!

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon: Mini-Challenge Edition

One of the most fun—and most delightfully distracting!—parts of the Read-a-thon is the hourly Mini-Challenge. These games-for-prizes put on by participating blogs add a regular dose of whimsy to break up the monotony of reading page after page after page. This isn't to say our chosen reads aren't absolutely enthralling, but it's a blast rushing between chapters to assemble whatever a given challenge calls for and share it with the rest of the Read-a-thon world. 

So far, I've entered two Mini-Challenges. The first, Book Staging, hosted by Kimberly at her blog, On the Wings of Books, asked that we arrange a photograph of the book alongside something from the cover, or to do with the story itself. I decided to take the newspaper boat from the cover and first chapter of Stephen King's IT a step further, and posted a proud picture of the result.

For the second, Show it Off!, over on Dead Book Darling, Kay asked for a picture of one of our favorite, most beautiful or precious volumes. I chose my leatherbound edition of Robinson Crusoe, which is not only one of the oldest volumes in my library, it's easily one of the most beautiful.

Whether or not either of these entries leads to a prize remains to be seen, but winning's not entirely the point. As with the Read-a-thon itself, it's the sharing and revelry that matter most. Plus, as luck would have it, I managed to snag a door prize earlier in the day! Given my choice of a number of excellent prizes, I went for The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell.

"From the actor who somehow lived through it all, a “sharply detailed…funny book about a cinematic comedy of errors” (The New York Times): the making of the cult film phenomenon The Room.
In 2003, an independent film called The Room—starring and written, produced, and directed by a mysteriously wealthy social misfit named Tommy Wiseau—made its disastrous debut in Los Angeles. Described by one reviewer as “like getting stabbed in the head,” the $6 million film earned a grand total of $1,800 at the box office and closed after two weeks. Ten years later, it’s an international cult phenomenon, whose legions of fans attend screenings featuring costumes, audience rituals, merchandising, and thousands of plastic spoons. 
Hailed by The Huffington Post as “possibly the most important piece of literature ever printed,” The Disaster Artist is the hilarious, behind-the-scenes story of a deliciously awful cinematic phenomenon as well as the story of an odd and inspiring Hollywood friendship. Greg Sestero, Tommy’s costar, recounts the film’s bizarre journey to infamy, explaining how the movie’s many nonsensical scenes and bits of dialogue came to be and unraveling the mystery of Tommy Wiseau himself. But more than just a riotously funny story about cinematic hubris, “The Disaster Artist is one of the most honest books about friendship I’ve read in years” (Los Angeles Times)." —from the Amazon Book Description

I'd recently read an article about the debacle this film turned out to be, and with a reviewer claiming it to have been "like getting stabbed in the head", I couldn't pass up the chance to read the inside scoop. I can't wait to read it, although I just might do well to hold on to it until next spring's Read-a-thon comes along. 

Back to the day's fun, and more reading. Further updates to follow!

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon: The Long Hard Road into Hell

Initially, when considering my Read-a-thon options, I'd wanted something uplifiting, positively life-changing, to brighten the end of an otherwise difficult week/month/etc. I'd also wanted something substantial, however, and not many cheerful reads at my disposal were of the sort to be anything more than simply entertaining. There's nothing wrong with that, of course—it's preferable in most cases, I should think—but what I wanted most of all was some gravity. Boy-oh-boy, did I get it.

I slept hard last night, dreamt of zombie apocalypses (which isn't even remotely my style), and shortly after setting things up for the day's event discovered I had the sort of sinus headache that throws "Up" and "Down" out the window, leaving me disoriented, and painfully far from the sort of zeal I'd like to have when tackling the day. Add the cold and the gray outside to the dismal run-up, and honestly I can't think of a better personal setting for one of King's darkest tales.

It's been slow goings, but I'm enjoying it so far. I haven't read much of King's fiction, though I own at least a dozen works all told. Carrie and Christine each left me feeling sickly inside, somewhat sullied, as if I'd besmirched my soul by allowing their scenes to play out in my mind. I expect no less from IT, but hope that I'm more prepared to cope.

I see a lot of progress amongst my Read-a-thon compatriots, books falling by the hundreds; I won't be matching their speed today. But I don't mind. It's enough for me to spend the day reading, at whatever pace I can manage, and sharing once again in the celebrating of a love for literature. After a quick lunch, I'll get back to it, and with any luck at least take down a few more chapters before another update feels due. Until then, happy reading to everyone participating, and anyone else who just feels like curling up with a book this weekend.

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon: October 2014 Edition

Life has been a ceaseless jumble for the past few months, and that trend hasn't let up just to accommodate my autumnal habits. Read-a-thon, like so many other interests, will take some shoe-horning to fit in, but it will not be denied! I began my first Read-a-thon nearly an hour into the event, so by that measure I'm not doing too badly by drafting this post only 15 minutes late. Let's get going!

Reading Choices

The trouble I have in choosing a book for Read-a-thon plagues me throughout the year, and will likely continue doing so for much of my life. Having put together a sizeable personal library, I suffer from an abundance of options, such that it's rarely easy to select a fresh read. I decided soon after waking that my decision needs to satisfy three criteria:

1. It should be something I haven't read yet.

2. It should be something that, by all accounts, I should have read by now.

3. It should be something suitable to the season, i.e. mysterious, scary, or otherwise creepy.

...and the answer was staring me right in the face, before the first bookshelf came under consideration.

I should read Stephen King's It

I'd recently come across someone who reminded me that there are people deathly afraid of clowns, and the word "creepy" instantly led to an imagining of Pennywise's shark-toothed visage. I won't include it here, out of respect for the fact that coulrophobia—the irrational fear of clowns—is a real condition, and Read-a-thon should be an inclusive event. Also, the look of the man himself is sufficiently imposing, I believe.

Also, a bit handsome in this pic, don't you think?
I could go on about Stephen King's influence on my writing, the number of his books I have or haven't read, but it's already half an hour into the Read-a-thon and I'm still busy formatting the first post. Moving on!

Opening Meme

1. What fine part of the world are you reading from today? I'm participating in this year's Read-a-thon, as always, from the comfort of my lovely book-nook of an apartment in Youngstown, OH. However, thanks to recent developments, I can further specify that I'll be doing so from the added comfort of a cushy new (to me) recliner, my favorite of all reading locations.

2. What book in your stack are you most looking forward to? Given its size, I expect my first reading choice will comprise the stack entirely.

3. Which snack are you most looking forward to? Is coffee a snack? More of that. Lots more.

4. Tell us something about yourself! A little over six weeks in, and this year's beard is looking lush and magnificent.

5. If you participated in the last Read-a-thon, what's one thing you'll do differently today? Each of the previous two Read-a-thons lost me to sleep for a larger chunk of the day than I had planned. This is the first attempt for which I have actually slept an appropriate amount beforehand, and so it's hoped that the difference this time around will be my continued participation!

So there it is! My opening post, and hopefully the first of many updates on a tremendous amount of reading progress and the usual amount of fun engaging with so many others sharing Dewey's love for reading. A good Read-a-thon to one and all—let the reading commence!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Times That Try: A Scholar in Crisis—Part II

[This piece is the second in a two-part series on the experience of enduring hardship while suffering from Bipolar Disorder. Click here to read the first installment, The Times That Try: A Scholar In Crisis—Part I]

Still rising...
Though much of these events have already come and gone, their gravity continues to pull at me, warping the shape of the space which surrounds me until nothing is familiar save the prone position in which I so often feel I am forced to exist. I know that survival ultimately lies within reach of my own agency, and my escape is inevitable—the question is, what form will I take once the worst has passed?

I have long held that the nature of the universe is heavily dependent upon the fact of consequence; every effect is the cause of another, the very course of Reality amounting to an infinitely complex mosaic of cascading dominoes falling in endless succession. The tiles which so chaotically tumble now are very much the result of events which transpired in the summer of 2009. This crucial tipping point, five years in the past, seemed even then to herald no small amount of difficulty to come. I learned rather quickly to avoid clinging to an anxious anticipation of the "other shoe" dropping; "Everything changes", Heraclitus said, "and nothing stands still." Rather than dread the eventual outcome of that conspiracy of triggers, I looked forward to the adventure of navigating their results. But in the five years that followed, I'd forgotten a great deal, having grown complacent as those changes failed to materialize. I took for granted the illusion of stability, yet another example of naively setting myself up for a painful surprise.

Days of Summer Past

In the wake of the economic collapse, my family had been struggling. Additionally, my grandmother—with whom we had lived all of my life—had begun to suffer from Alzheimer's and dementia to such a degree that we could no longer adequately care for her. In response to the latter, after much guilt-ridden consideration, we opted to find a nursing facility that could more capably contend with the many challenges presented by my grandmother's condition. Though our hearts were heavy with self-recrimination at our failure to care for her ourselves, it was a relief to find the home more than sufficient to the task. Her condition began to improve, and we enjoyed a brief period of relief.

In response to the economic hardship that had befallen us, just as it had befallen so many, my parents sought to restructure their mortgage, hoping to lower the monthly payment enough to afford a little more breathing room in the budget. They were told by their lender that, in order to qualify for refinancing, they should forego payment on the house for two months, after which they could then enter negotiations for new terms. 

One night, at the end of June, we received a phone call from the nursing home—my grandmother had contracted an infection, and it had spread. They informed us that she had been rushed to the hospital and was being treated now for septicemia, or blood poisoning. At nearly 89 years of age, she was not expected to survive. The next morning, my mother woke in a daze, her vision blurry, her speech slurred; she, too, was taken to the hospital.

A few days later, we received notice from the mortgage lender that due to the lapse in monthly payments, they had begun the process of foreclosing on the house.

My response to these and other circumstances was, as I've said, to embrace change as the natural order of things. Thankfully, my grandmother did survive, my mother recovered without incident, and though the house was in foreclosure it remained more or less in our possession for years after. In fact, it wasn't until a few months ago—just days after the tragic event that preceded July—that my family finally received word that the house was to be sold, at auction, in the beginning of August. I hadn't realized until the day that noticed arrived just how much of my breath I'd been holding all that time—finally, the end was in sight.

August - 2014

I had thought, with no small amount of optimism, that the sale of the house would provide the motivation necessary to bringing so much of my family's affairs into order. I suffered no delusion that I held any power over these events—indeed, the affecting of this boundary has been integral to my survival over the course of the entire season. Whether or not matters were resolved should never have been such a concern that a failure to do so could impede my own progress, but I must admit that, as the sale came and went without much notice or fanfare, I found my optimism quickly replaced by still more despondency than I had already experienced through much of July. The bank, it seems, had purchased the house from itself, prolonging the foreclosure even further, and so the process of moving on from the old home life still has yet to proceed. 

I had managed, however awkwardly, to find some semblance of "footing" in spite of these events. However, this tenuous stance suffered a major blow from well beyond the sphere of personal matters, in the form of what can only be called a national tragedy—the passing of Robin Williams.

I should like someday to expound upon the influence that Robin Williams' work has had on me over the years, the ways in which his roles have so greatly informed the man I have become. While I know enough to credit the writers and directors behind these roles nearly as much as I credit him for so perfectly portraying them, in the wake of his passing those characters have become as patron saints to the cause of my progress toward actualization. While not everyone mourned his loss, those of us who did felt it deeply, and fiercely. Then, when further details of his life emerged, I found even more reason to grieve: Robin Williams suffered from Bipolar Disorder, and his death was no accident. I was left wrestling not only with the absurdity of grieving for a man I'd never met, but also with a question: If someone like Robin Williams could lose the fight against this condition, what hope do I have? 

It was a question I would continue to ponder as the month dragged on, but I had little time for it. That very same night, my mother was rushed to the hospital. A few days later, so was my grandmother. Though it astounded me to see the same confluence of issues resurfacing in tandem five years from their first convergence, I could not claim enough recollection how how I rode out the storm then so as to similarly weather it now. Things were much more serious this go around, as well; though my mother is doing well, she faces the possibility of fighting against a chronic condition for the remainder of her life. And although my grandmother did recover from the illness which sent her to the hospital that terrible week in August, it sapped from her whatever strength she would have needed to contend with the next blow only three weeks later. 

Everything After

For a time, however, it seemed the tumult of the season had finally begun to subside. The matter of the house remained unaddressed, but it was a trivial matter when held against the question of our very mortality, which stood at the forefront of my mind following the tragic and near-tragic events of August. Through the entirety of the season, I was confronted with my own powerlessness in the face of so many aspects of my own existence. With the family health scares seemingly behind us, a birthday fast approaching, and my own finite nature well grasped, I was resolved more than ever to rededicate myself to the portions of my life over which I did have power. I'd allowed the instability of my condition to become the sole focus of my attention, at a serious cost to the goals I'd set out for myself. I'd forgotten one of the most important lessons I'd learned over the course of the past few years: the answer to any situation, no matter the size, is to keep moving forward. And forward I moved.

This time, no episodes coincided with my effort; though I experienced an elevation in mood, I refused to allow things to grow beyond my power to contain them. Inspired by the acquisition of a new electric typewriter and acting on a whim I'd shelved some weeks before, I repurposed an old dining room table as an work station, for arts and crafts, to accompany my writing desk:

Although I had managed to chronicle the most pertinent events that had transpired over the preceding months, I'd done little in the way of proper writing. Struggling to resume the practice, I instead turned to less serious endeavors; thus, the ScholarDoodle was born.

"Normal is an illusion..." - Charles Addams
For the first time in months, I remembered what a joy it is to create again. "The old juices", as Hemingway would say, were flowing. Though I still found work on my novel to be too daunting to undertake, I began conceptualizing on its structure, and arrived at a better understanding of the form it should take. In addition to reinvigorating my work, my confidence was boosted as well; i suddenly discovered myself to be more capable than I'd ever thought. Seeing these projects through from conception to completion has been more rewarding than I'd imagined. I've even opened a Tumblr account for exhibiting these and future works. 

"Gather ye rosebuds..." - Robert Herrick

Not only did this personal renaissance open new channels for me creatively, but it also drew a rousing burst of support from my closest artistic friends. Once again, I discovered the essential role that community plays in the life of a creative individual. No longer did I find myself questioning my chances given Robin Williams' passing; instead, I came to realize how much farther he must have made it with the help of his friends and loved ones. And, thanks to the support I received for these new efforts, and the rallying of the family in response to my grandmother's health scare, I was able to see, finally, a light dawning at the end of this long, dark season of my soul. Though I often approach birthdays with nothing less than the most dismal of depressions, I now viewed the upcoming birthday as a bright new year in my life, a means of putting all the darkness of the previous season—indeed, the previous three seasons—behind me. I was ready to move forward, and seize each day with aplomb. And then the other shoe dropped.

On Saturday, September 6th, my mother received yet another call from the nursing home: my grandmother had a fever. It seemed so insignificant at the time, though we were of course aware that she had become much more susceptible to a sudden decline. Nevertheless, it still managed to catch me off guard when, just after midnight, on the morning of September 7th, after she had once again been rushed to the hospital for the treatment of a potentially systemic infection, my grandmother reached her limit just as the nurse was to administer a dose of antibiotics. At the age of 93 years and exactly one month, the life of our family's matriarch came to its close. My grandmother was dead.

It was my grandmother's wish that we eschew the traditional arrangements after her passing. There was no viewing at the funeral home; there was no church ceremony, with grandsons and nephews escorting her down the aisle to an awaiting hears; no interment at the cemetery where so many of our family have been previously laid to rest. In the end, by the loving graces of her eldest grandson, we gathered as a family two weeks after her passing, broke bread together, and celebrated her life. I'd never realized how much I'd come to depend on the pomp and circumstance of the traditional funeral, but seeing the entire family gathered together—people I have not had the good fortune to see in years, otherwise—did bring some sense of closure. 

So it goes. I will arrive at the dawn of my 36th year without grandparents for the first time in my life. The house, while still filled with what familial possessions were left behind following the heinous act at the end of June, will soon enough be out of our hands. If ever it could be said that a chapter in my life was ending, let it be said now. The last vestiges of childhood are but a memory, now happy, now filled with regret, now tearful and joyful and filled with such life as I can barely contain. The trick is to experience these highs and lows without letting them run away with themselves, swallowing up still more months of this turbulent year.

My name is James La Salandra, and I suffer from Bipolar Disorder. When life is upon me—as ever it is—it can cripple and devastate in ways that confound the average person. The conspiracy of events that befell my family and me this summer have been absurdly severe, heartbreaking, and tragic. And for much of that time, they made the very act of surviving a day's duration the hardest work I have ever undertaken. But that survival, the endurance of these dark days, has taught me much about myself. It has strengthened my resolve to make the most of my allotted time, and sent me charging into the next chapter of my life determined to continue the fight to become whatever it is I may yet become. It's also reminded me that, despite the darkness, there is still beauty in this world. There can still be joy amidst so much sadness; one can still find kindness on the harshest of days; there is still life, so long as we have the strength and courage to live it. "Gather ye rosebuds", my friends, and just you watch as they bloom.