Pain as Emotional Fuel for Fiction

Aspiring writers are often advised to “go out and get new experiences”—join a circus, become a reporter, or go hang-gliding off a lofty mountain ledge.

But none of that is necessary. The experiences writers need most are common emotions, which happen to us no matter what we do.

Moreover, the feelings I most need in my writing, the ones that inspire me the most, are usually the ones I dread and try my hardest to avoid: grief, envy, anger, and despair.

I learned this a few years ago when my cat Tu-bear died. Although some people view the loss of a pet as trivial, her death felt seismic to me. An unbearable silence pervaded my apartment. Tu-bear had been with me for twenty years. She was like my family, and knowing that I would never again feel her warm weight on my lap made my entire future seem cold.

Months after she died, I wrote a story called The Dragon-Proof House and dedicated it to her. My main character retreats into a futuristic virtual world — sort of like an online video game — to escape the trauma of losing a child to illness.

The simulation allows her to forget why she came, but even in her virtual world she is haunted by the ghost of her lost toddler. My story, the emotions in it, were entirely powered by my grief over losing my cat.

Given a choice between getting my cat back and writing a moving story, I would definitely have picked my cat. But lacking the power to resurrect felines, I am glad that I at least have my story.

Hate, grief, envy — along with more desirable emotions like love and joy — are the engines of fiction. Without ever feeling the best and the worst of them in myself, I would be unable to convey them authentically to readers.

Knowing this gives the worst feelings life has to offer meaning.

This is an advantage that writers have over non-artists when dealing with emotions like grief, jealousy, sorrow or rage: we can convert them into creative energy.

The emotional turmoil may be as intense for a writer as it would be for anyone, but art gives us a way of catching feelings for later use, a way of looking at them with curiosity—and even a measure of detachment—instead of running from them.

The idea of writing as a coping device is hardly new. Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.” According to Neil Gaiman, no matter what happens, whether death or sickness or divorce, the response should always be the same: create great art.

There is no feeling too dark to write about. In the throes of grief, fear, anger, sadness, and dread, there is always, somewhere inside me, an observer viewing it as curiously as a child seeing rain for the first time.

If I remember not to push a painful feeling away too quickly, it briefly stops being harrowing and becomes merely interesting as the writer in me says, “Pay attention. What does this feel like? Take notes. You can use this.”

A Smart Phone Unleashes the Scourge of Pandora (short story)

The smart phone was not that smart.

It was a fatuous noise box of gloom. It blinked. It booped. It buzzed.  It flashed and it dimmed. It told her the news. And the news was never good.

The stories were always the same: The government was broken, and mayhem was rife. Villains stalked the earth and no one opposed them anymore.

Wars never ended. They mowed down generations of kids and no one—of those who cared—knew why. When she closed her eyes, she could see them behind her lids, fields of dying multitudes ushering in an eternal night.

The more she looked at her coffin of a phone, the worse she felt. Her head buzzed. Her vision blurred. Walls leaned toward her like twin edifices verging on collapse. The air thickened. She would surely suffocate if she did not get fresh air—soon.

With rising panic, she dashed to the front door for air but hesitated to openit, lest a hoard of malevolent phantoms pour into the house.

When she finally did open the door, she was stunned. There were no bodies in the street. No armies declaring marshal law. No villains blasting guns. No corrupt lobbyists buying elections. No maelstroms portending the end of human history.

No. It was a clear day—a sleepy summer late afternoon. A tender breeze grazed her bare arms. The sun slid its tongue across her cheeks. The perfume of lilacs tickled her nose. Birds sang. They chirped and whistled and crooned.

Shadows shivered calmly on the road following the windy movements of the pine branches above. The wind made the sound a pillow would make if a pillow could speak.

Conditioned for horror by her phone, she had expected streets shrouded in an eerie fog, an early night that would never end, hordes of gun-men, or malign armies pouring into her front yard from a tainted dimension.

Yet here she was. Which world was real? Sun-warmed and wind-kissed, she was loath to go back inside where her phone was lurking. But when she finally re-entered, she was again surprised.

Her house looked different than it had only seconds ago. It was cleaner and better lit than she remembered. There were no bodies there either. No villains. No bombs.

A cursory stroll through the kitchen revealed that, even if the apocalypse had come, there was enough food in the refrigerator to last her for months.

Turning her head, she caught her phone blinking ominously on the living room sofa. Strange how such a tiny device could be the entryway into such a mental hellscape. She looked away and felt instantly calmer.

She marveled at the way she could create or destroy reality merely by shifting her gaze from her phone, by choosing what would fill her vision and what would not.

She strolled through the house, taking in only what she wanted to see. A picture of a sailboat on the wall. A recliner. A sofa. Furniture that looked so stable it would surely be there for eternity.

She wanted to stay in that place of calm forever. But to avoid her phone was to live in denial. The imperiled world needed her. What exactly did it need? It needed her attention. Even if the world destroyed itself, she had a moral obligation to lend her eyes to the debacle until the bitter end.

Or did she? What if the information overload of horrors was only hurting her and helping no one?

How soothing it would feel to simply turn away. “Reality is whatever I focus on,” she told herself. “If I read a novel, that—for a time—becomes my world. If I gaze at the night sky, then my reality is the stars. If I focus on a drawing of a sailboat, I fall into its hull. And if I open the window, my world is swaying tree shadows and songbirds.”

Strange how, all her life, the world had been screaming for her attention. Advertisers paid vast amounts of money for it. Celebrities invaded her vision from every screen. Politicians bombed her ears with promises.

The whole of society, it seemed, was trying to direct her gaze: to sell to her, to outrage her, to solve problems she had never known she had.  Her attention had meant so much to others. Why had it always meant so little to her?

She shoved her phone beneath one of the couch cushions and opened her curtains wide so the receding light of day could fall inside.

Her phone buzzed and blipped, announcing a notification. She shut her eyes.

One day maybe she would look. But today she wanted to see the world she had lost. The one with the lilacs and clear skies and tree shadows that moved, so subtly, when the trees did.

Such calm could not last. Her furniture, by looking so still and immovable, was lying to her. One day none of it would be there anymore.

But when she sat down, her couch supported her weight. She glanced out her window at the fading sun.  Right then, nothing in the world seemed more moving to her, nothing more poignant that the late summer leaves shivering in the last lingering light of day.

She shut her eyes. Opened them. Shut her eyes again. On. Off. Night. Day. What contrast. What beauty.

What power.

Navigating the Pitfalls of Praise

Almost everyone loves praise, and nobody, including me, likes to hear anything bad about it.

There is a good reason for that. Praise builds confidence. It keeps aspiring artists from giving up on days that they feel like quitting. It steers children toward their areas of aptitude. It energizes. It uplifts.

But like many good things, praise comes with a caveat: the addictive urge to keep the praise going.

If someone tells me my novel is “brilliant,” I want my next to be brilliant too. And I immediately begin to worry that it might not be.

Who knows what “brilliant” even means?

“I know,” my ego says  “Forget about writing anything new. Just rehash the old stuff that everybody seemed to like, but with minor variations.”

“Great idea, Ego,” says my praise-addicted self. I begin to probe my memory for anything that readers seemed to enjoy in previous stories.

If everyone loved my cat stories best, I might decide to stuff a cat into every piece I write, even if it I am writing about a supernova: “Supernovas are strikingly similar to cats. Like a cat leaping onto her prey from the shadows, a supernova can pounce into the night sky without warning.”

Maybe I secretly believe a supernova is more like a ferret, a giraffe, or a platypus. But nope. Readers like cats. Must. Write. About. Cats.

Actually, I too prefer cats to platypuses, but I might change my mind someday, and what then?

I strive to always write the story I want to read, but whether I like it or not, I am influenced by past responses to my old stories. If I want my writing to be fresh and original, if I want to be honest, I have to shun my rodent urge to press levers for praise pellets.

Otherwise, I may spend my life telling stories I have told before–the popular ones—with slight variations, while all around me meteors are flying, eggs are hatching, and revolutions are brewing.

Writing is worth doing for its own sake. Even if no one ever reads my stories, there is an intrinsic high that comes from finding an apt metaphor, constructing a graceful sentence, or bringing a character to life.

Praise for writing creates a different kind of high, but it is louder and brighter.

If the intrinsic joy of writing is like an apple, praise is more like cotton candy. The sugar rush of a glowing review can wash out the more complex sweetness the apple—the slow-burning reward of simply writing.

So, if getting good book reviews ever becomes the main reason why I write, I am in trouble.

Albert Einstein dealt with a similar problem. He said, “The only way to avoid the personal corruption of praise is to go on working. One is tempted to stop and listen to it. The only thing is to turn away and go on working. Work. There is nothing else.”

Although I already write every day, I think Einstein was onto something. Immersing myself in “the work” of writing alleviates self-conscious worries, especially on my best days as I dive deep and lose myself in the flow of a story.

But there is another aspect of praise that interests me, perhaps because I have bipolar disorder: praise as an emotional elevator.

When I was a college freshman, I had an English teacher who showered my essays with compliments, telling me that I was the best writer she knew. I was not sure how many writers she knew, but her encouragement sent my mood into orbit. Yet I also became anxious. At some point I was bound to write something awful. What if I disappointed her?

I was already a careful writer. I became even more careful. Because I was uncomfortable writing in class, I would go home on the day the topic was assigned, write my essay with painstaking care, and turn it in. I made a good grade in the class and left the semester charged with creative aspirations.

Two years later I took a course under the same teacher, but the rules had changed. I now had to write every essay in class under a strict time limit without knowing beforehand what the topic would be. Thus, I was unable to give my writing the painstaking attention that I had before.

After my teacher handed back one of my test booklets, she said, “Your writing isn’t as good as I remembered it. You must be out of practice.”

The criticism left me too stunned to even explain. And it stung all the more  because of all the praise that had preceded it. Not only did I feel like a bad writer; I felt like I had let my teacher down.

Only later did I reflect that the deeper “mistake” had happened much earlier. When my teacher had raved over my work, I had stepped onto an emotional elevator. Its doors had slid closed when I agreed to allow her compliments to affect the way I felt about myself.

That had been perfectly fine as long as the elevator was going up. I had forgotten a crucial fact: elevators also go down.

They all do. If they never went down they could never go up. But because we as a society prefer up to down, we call the machine an “elevator” and not a “descender.”

To stay off the “machine,” I could have simply smiled and thanked my teacher for the compliment, and then went about my day; instead, I integrated her praise too deeply. If I had stayed off the descender that I had thought was only an elevator, the jab of criticism would have landed softer, and my memory of my 101 English composition class would have remained a good one.

Artists are always boarding these kinds of elevators. Someone encourages them and they plug their self-esteem into an emotional vehicle that appears to be rocketing toward the moon. Then the machinery lurches beyond their control in a mad plunge into the seething bowels of hell. The change in venue is jarring.

If a mere compliment can propel a mood toward the stars, it is easy to imagine what fame might do. The higher you go, the farther you have to fall. The more you believe you have to lose, the greater the anxiety must be.  

Many famous artists self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which become anchors of stability amid the lurching contraption of public opinion.

But public opinion is the wrong place to look for good feelings. Fulfillment lies in the “work” of writing, which in art often feels more like play.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying praise. But if I cling to it, or seek it as an external reward for something I already love doing, I risk becoming lost and confused as my love for writing takes second place to an imaginary need for approval.

One way of nurturing my love for writing is by doing writing exercises that only I am likely to ever see such as: “Describe a mountain from the point of view of a man who has just escaped from prison” or “Write an action scene in which the sentence rhythm matches the pace of the action.”

Such exercises allow me to make mistakes unselfconsciously. They let me forget everything I know and become a beginner again, which is how I learn best.

Even knowing that what goes up must also come down, I suspect that someday I will be tempted to dash, once again, into an emotional elevator for a fun, effortless ride toward the moon.

But I hope I will do the sensible thing, and instead of diving headlong through the sliding, doors, I will smile and wave and thank it for the offer—then turn, run like mad, and take the stairs.

The Adventure of Paw Continues in my Just-published Sequel.

I have news that— after so many long delays— barely seems real to me: I have finally released my sequel to Paw for the Kindle.

Prowl continues the journey of Mitalla, an intelligent feline and former slave who is trying to navigate  a world dominated by humans. In her newest adventure she claws her way toward a new level of freedom. My Amazon description of Prowl reads as follows:

Born underweight, Mitalla has always relied on her cunning to survive, becoming the only member of her family to escape a brutal slave camp with her life.

Now she dreams of building a free life in a new city. But soon she learns the truth: There is no safe place for her in an empire where her feline species is viewed as inferior. Even her wit appears to be no match for a society determined to enslave her kind.

While hiding from humans, she must also grapple with her own tortured mind. She is especially haunted by an innocent creature she killed in a blind moment of passion, leaving her to wonder whether she is, at heart, as evil as her human captors.

During her darkest hour, she finally glimpses a path to freedom: rumors of a journal said to hold secrets capable of toppling a king.

Soon she finds herself on a tumultuous quest for power which she hopes will liberate her species from slavery. But to find the journal, she must risk losing everything—her friends, her identity, and possibly even her life.

The series will be a trilogy. Book 3 is already taking shape in my mind. I will begin writing it soon because after Prowl, I want to know what happens next, and how her tortured history will resolve itself.

Speaking of history, Mitalla has come a long way since her conception almost a decade ago. Like my first novel, the series was inspired by a video game—in this case, Skyrim.

The first time I played Skyrim, I had no idea what I was getting into. I chose a cat character as my avatar and, enchanted by the realistic natural scenery in the game, I began to describe of mountains, rivers, and snow on my notepad.

To make my exercise more fun, I wrote about them scenery from the viewpoint of a cat. The cat had strong feelings about what she was seeing and hearing.

Mitalla was born. And she had a lot to say. After crawling and pouncing her way through my first novel, she has just skulked and prowled through another.

If you have read and enjoyed Paw, check out Prowl on Amazon, and allow her adventure to continue.

How I Made Peace with my Unfinished Stories

When I was in college, I used to view my unfinished stories as failures, despairing proof that anything I began would fizzle. I was afraid to write anything new. Why expend energy just to add a creative casualty to the story morgue?

Besides, too many of my stories had ended in embarrassment. Like my environment-themed fable that I stopped writing because it was too preachy; or the hilarious yarn that turned lachrymose somehow.

But many years later, I started to view writing as a lifestyle—not a slavish production job. I discovered that when I allowed myself to slow down and enjoy the process, not only did my writing improve; I stopped hating my unfinished writing and I even enjoyed rereading it.

My unfinished stories were—at the very least—good practice.  Even the silly ones. Why not congratulate myself for spending my time creating art rather than watching stale sit-coms?

Having befriended my unfinished stories, I began turning to them on days I had trouble knowing what to write. Rereading them, I would sink into a kind of nostalgia, as if rediscovering old belongings in an attic.

I even finished some of my old stories. One of my favorites was about extraterrestrials who, after first contact, decided that humans bored them. They stopped communicating with Earth because they simply had better things to do; the cosmic shrug left humanity heartbroken.

The story languished on my computer for almost a decade before I decided that I had to finish it.

I remembered painfully why I had abandoned the piece in the first place. It was because I had viewed the first three paragraphs as inspired. I had been attached to their musical rhythms. But after my first effort I had lost my “inspired” poetic flow, and was unable to recapture it. I gave up in frustration.

But the trick to reviving an old piece is the same as finishing any story: letting go. Clinging to favorite passages will stall any story.  I had to discard my original writing so that the story could become fresh again in my mind. I left the old paragraphs, and their moving rhythms, in the past where they belonged.

Luckily, I had acquired some other writing tricks beginning my “alien” story. I had learned for example that if I wrote a tentative ending to a story, even an absurd one, I was more likely to finish. Creating any point of arrival motivated me. I could always improve the ending later.

My other “trick” was mind-mapping. I used the “clustering,” technique described in Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico. I used my original title, “The Aliens Do Laundry” as the nucleus of my mind map, drew lines from it, and free-associated until a pattern I liked emerged.

After clustering, the new version of my story seemed to fall into place.

It was exciting to finish my story after so many years of its lying dormant on my iPad. But not all of my stories should be finished. Some are failed experiments that taught me what not to do.

Whether I ever complete an old story, there is never any reason to regret writing it. Not only was it good practice; rereading it reawakens a part of me that has been buried by time. Like forgotten toys in an attic, old stories contain a blend of familiarity and strangeness that I enjoy, and that allow me to reunite, if only for a moment, with my former self.

The Vicious Cycles of Self Help

As a kid I absorbed a popular notion: that life was about growing. Not the kind that made you tall, but the kind that helped you overcome your “issues.” My dad—as a psychology professor— knew all about issues. Most people had a vast array of them. Whenever you spotted one, you had to triumph over it—fast—before it ruined your life.

Beyond triumphing, the ultimate goal of growing was never clear. But it seemed to mean becoming someone else—someone nicer, smarter, and better.

If my dad never exactly told me that, his bookshelves did. He had many books, one—apparently— for every insecurity, weakness, or shortcoming. Like a fairy godmother a self-help book seemed magical. With the wave of its papery wand you could shatter your worries, snare happiness, make friends, stop procrastinating, heal relationships, or vault to the top of something called a “corporate ladder.”

By the age of seven my head was stuffed with self-help maxims: “Think positively,” “win friends and influence people,” “be motivated.” I remember bouncing around the living room singing a positive thinking mantra, “Think enthusiastic and you’ll be enthusiastic.”

My giddy chant had come down to me from one of the self-help courses on positive thinking that my dad taught to his college students. But the fun ended when a terrible discovery was made. I had an issue: I was shy. Or at least quiet, which was considered the same thing. When my dad learned that I was getting bullied at school for my issue, he was ready: he weighed down my arms with books about how to triumph over my shyness.

The books inducted me into the confusing paradoxes of self-help. By defining shyness—and not the bullying—as a problem that needed solving, I became ashamed of my shyness, which only made me shier.

The books treated shyness a disease or a character flaw and an opportunity for personal growth. The prescribed cure was to believe in yourself and be confident and talk more.

It had never occurred to me not to be confident until others had told me that shyness was bad. I tried talking more, but since I had nothing I really wanted to say, the other students could tell my efforts were forced, and the bullying increased.

When an adult frames “overcoming shyness” as a personal growth issue, it adds moral pressure. It forces conformity by making extraversion into a test of courage. Yet the belief that shyness was a moral weakness was far more damaging than the shyness itself.

I finally decided that I was going to be shy whether anyone liked it or not. What was wrong with being quiet? People who blurted out every thought were annoying. My dad could keep his self-help books; I was done.

Or so I thought. I had a change of heart years later when my dad bought See You at the Top by Zig Ziglar, a bestselling motivational book about achieving goals.

The book looked fun; it brimmed with amusing quips, cartoons, and anecdotes. It was a hit in my house and my dad was always quoting from it. It focused on how to get rich while also becoming a better person, using the corporate ladder as a metaphor for life.

At age 15 I knew nothing about corporate ladders, but goals I understood. In fact, I already had one. I had decided that I wanted to be a straight A student.

I read the book and followed the advice: I wrote down my goals, a list of potential obstacles, and all the ways I planned to overcome them. Three months later when my first quarter report card came out, I exulted over my perfect record.

But chasing goals, as a lifestyle, came with discomfort. You could never stay still or look out windows. Life was an unending climb toward some hazy pinnacle. The future was where all the prizes were. My todays dimmed because it lacked the sheen of my tomorrows, which were haloed by the flattering light of fantasy.

See You at the Top framed personal growth as climbing to a higher social class and making money. The book assumes that reaching the top is what life is, or should be, all about.

I am not against setting goals; I have many. But there is no top. And while the book inspired me, it also made me anxious about wasting time—or doing anything that was not moving toward a goal.

Gone were the days of pecking on the piano keys, or drawing cats,  daydreaming, or looking off at the far distance in a thoughtful daze. From my new perspective, life was a chore, and to be unproductive, even for a day, was to fail at life.

My brother Steve, seven years older than me, felt the same pressure. But he dealt with his in an odd way. As an adult he began hoarding self-help books.

At one time, they littered the floor of his apartment, so that there was barely room to walk. He had rarely read more than few pages of any of them—including the one that promised a clutter-free life. But just having self-improvement books around made him feel more in control.

I understood. We had grown up in a household where a self-help book was the remedy for every problem. So why not brick yourself inside your apartment with them?

I had to tease him about that.

When I was in college, Steve and I used to walk around bookstores together. As I wandered the store, Steve would always gravitate toward the self-help aisle. I wondered what he ultimately hoped to find there: the meaning of life? A great epiphany? The secret to saving the world?

“Have you found The Book yet?” I asked him one day.

“Huh?”

The Book.” I had to explain that, obviously, he must be looking for the Ultimate Book which contained the Answer to Everything. Otherwise, why was he so obsessed with that one aisle?

He knew I was kidding and laughed, but he really did want that imaginary book. For that matter so did I.

The Book” became a running joke—the rare volume that would magically solve every problem imaginable. It would give you more time and riches and eternal youth and a diet that let you eat all you wanted. Upon request it would even offer a personalized schedule for maximizing productivity.

Many years later, I have never found The Book. But my wish to be “better” remains. I stay away from self-help books though.

Not because they are all bad, but because I remember how much they once confused me.

I remember how fighting my shyness only made me shier, and how setting goals projected happiness beyond my reach. I remember how a book on reducing clutter only became part of the clutter.

Even when I tried to improve myself without books, I found myself mired in vicious cycles. Whenever I tried to concentrate better on my reading, I ended up concentrating on concentrating, and I forgot about the book altogether.

Such frustrating ironies make me envy my cat.  I recently found her lying carefree in the sun and stretching in a posture of total bliss.

I thought how lucky she was to never have to worry about being a better cat. No one had ever given her a self-help book on how to be a better jumper. She never fretted about needing a fluffier tail. I never looked at her and thought, “If only my cat would be more productive.”

I accepted her as she was, even when she shredded the furniture. I thought that if I could accept my cat unconditionally, I could do the same for myself.

Finally, I could set aside the struggle for perfection and just enjoy my life.

But, alas, even unconditional self-acceptance looks suspiciously like “growth.” Another maddening cycle looms: the inability to accept my inability to accept myself.

Does irony never cease?

The Creative Benefits of Blogging

A couple of years ago, after almost a decade of happily blogging, I quit.

Although I loved to blog, I quit because it was time-consuming. A single post sometimes took as much as twenty hours in a week—a part-time job. I wanted to free up more time for writing novels, which at least—according to my marketing friends—had the potential of earning a living.

One of them asked me bluntly, “Do you want to be a blogger, or do you want to be a writer?” He told me that I was unlikely to succeed at both. If I wanted to make money blogging, I would have to research what others wanted to read. I would have to write what was popular, rather than what I cared about. I would also have to blog daily, maybe even hourly. But if I focused on fiction only, I might have a chance of earning a living at that. If I had to choose, the answer was clear: I wanted to be a novelist.

Quitting my blog did free up a lot of time. And I did finish a new novel. But I missed blogging. And even though I was writing more fiction than before, I was writing less overall—and enjoying less what I did write.

My reduced productivity surprised me. I had expected that if I quit my blog, I would spend all my freed-up time blazing through novel manuscripts, especially at night.

It was at night that I had learned to make use of stolen moments. I did most of my writing during the day, but after supper I would sneak in extra writing while watching television with my family. Whenever a show began to lag, I would draw out my Android phone and work, surreptitiously, on my blog.

Without a blog to write, I could instead use those stolen moments for writing my novels. Whenever the TV plot stalled or pointless explosions began, I could escape into my own imaginary world. I wagered that if I wrote on a novel every time a TV show became tedious, I could be as prolific as Isaac Asimov.

But there was a problem I had failed to consider. My stamina for writing in noisy rooms, though robust with blog posts, withered when writing novels.

Inventing stories demands more of me than blogging does. A novel requires me to live in a tumultuous world, constructed only from words, for hundreds of hours, but first I have to make it all up—the walls, the people, and even the floors that they stand on.

Then I have to lie about it all in an entertaining way. Furthermore, my lies must seem plausible, even though my readers already know that everything I say is outlandishly false.

Keeping my lies consistent demands focus bordering on the superhuman, which is hard to come by when I am fretting about getting “caught” in a plot hole, just as if no one knew beforehand that I was only going to make stuff up.

Blogging allows me to simply tell the truth. Plagiarizing from reality is infinitely easier than constructing the stable edifice of lies called storytelling. So, when I quit my blog, I stopped writing anything at night, and instead had to watch television without any recourse when a show became tedious.

But blogging does more than offer sanctuary from bad TV. When my energy for making stuff up is drained, blogging gives me a way to shift gears. I can keep writing—just on a different kind of project.

Instead of dreaming up worlds, I can blog about a memory, express a point of view, or enumerate the antics of my cat. Blogging flexes different creative muscles than writing fiction does—but in a way that hones my writing skills generally.

It also makes me more receptive to new ideas. When I stopped blogging, fewer ideas for stories and essays came to me.

This is unsurprising. I had told my brain to focus on a single project exclusively, so that even when dazzling new story ideas came to me, I swept them under the couch cushions with the cat fur and stray pennies. Exploring my new ideas risked diverting me from my “more important” writing.

By “setting” my mind to pay attention to new ideas—even if they are unrelated to my main project—blogging encourages creativity.

It also motivates me. Embarking on a short project, such as a flash fiction story or essay, lets me enjoy finishing it after only a short time—a day or a week, rather than months or years.  Completing short pieces, especially when I do it often, builds confidence. Quick bursts of success also give me the patience I need for the arduous marathon of writing a novel.

Blogging has another benefit. I often write what I need to read.

As a novelist I need to give myself constant pep talks. Writing is an intense psychological game that pits my ego against rough drafts that seem to mirror my deepest character flaws. Sometimes my writing is silly, self-pitying, biased, sententious, or sentimental, yet I have to look at my prose and say, “Yep. That came from me.”

It takes fortitude to face my Jungian shadow day after day, and to keep writing after my many embarrassing beginnings, which sometimes sound like the exuberant blather of a five-year-old.

In fact, many of my blogs have been discourses about why “blathering” is a necessary stage of the creative process, and why there is no reason to be ashamed of it at all; in a rough draft, anything goes.

Blogging is a way to remind myself of that. Whatever motivation or confidence issue I am facing on a given day has a remedy: I dig out a notebook and write a post about it.

When I stopped blogging, I found myself slipping into old habits of thought about how I might be losing my talent—the kind of thinking that never gets me anywhere.

Which brings me to an ironic bonus of blogging: sometimes I feel guilty for exploring my creative side ventures instead of working on my Big Important Potentially Lucrative Novel.

Whenever I feel any guilt about writing, I embrace it wholeheartedly as a sacred gift from the muse. Writing is at its most exhilarating when I feel like I am doing something forbidden. In contrast, whenever I feel like I should write, nothing is worse for my productivity. It only makes me want to take a brownie break.

So, instead of fighting guilt, I make friends with it. I use it as a source of energy. Naughty writing is prolific writing.

And despite what my guilt tells me, I do not have to decide between being a blogger and a novelist. I can be both. If I want to put novels first, I can still blog for short bursts while my coffee is boiling. Or I can just write a few paragraphs.

When I stopped blogging, I felt like something meaningful had vanished from my life. Blogging may not be necessary for a successful writing career, but when it was gone, I missed it. And I am glad to have it back.

How I Deal with My Fear of Confusing Readers

Creativity is not a rare talent bestowed on a gifted few. Everyone has original ideas, possibly all the time—like a current running underground.

But a prolific artist learns to pay attention to them, no matter how bizarre, silly, or vague they might be. Art requires honoring our weirdest ideas enough to test them. Usually, this means trying to build something from them, whether its is a story, a painting, or a poem.

Despite knowing this, I am sometimes afraid of going too far—of writing something so alien that it will just confuse everyone.

A few years ago, a proofreader amplified this fear. Whenever my writing baffled or offended him, he sneezed exclamatory punctuation marks all over my manuscript, with some question marks tossed in. Many of his edits looked like this: ?!?!?!?

These “incredulity bombs” always made me cringe—especially since he rarely explained them. My interpretation was, “You wrote something so grotesquely strange and confusing that words elude me.”

After bidding goodbye to my proofreader, I persisted in my strangeness; after all I was writing about bipedal cats that were enslaved by humans. I did however redouble my efforts to write more clearly. But seeking clarity—while generally a good idea—can become a crippling obsession if you let it.

Besides, preventing confusion is not always possible. Any communication risks miscommunication. The most pedestrian conversation can lead to epic misunderstandings. No matter how articulate you are, you are eventually going to confuse someone—and that goes triple if you are a writer.

If I let my fear of baffling people have its way, I would never write anything. To relax, I like to remind myself of an artist who thrived on confusing his audiences, rather than avoiding it.

He was not actually a writer like me, but a comedian named Andy Kaufman.

In the nineteen-eighties, Kaufman became known for comedy acts that made the audience wince rather than laugh. His skits and stand-up routines flouted basic rules of comedy etiquette such as “be funny,” leading to the charge that he was more of a performance artist than a comedian.

In one of his Saturday Night Live appearances, he broke out of character in the middle of a skit, alarming his fellow actors as he fulminated about the poorly written script. In another legendary stunt, he spent an entire stand-up routine reading The Great Gatsby to a bored and baffled audience, not stopping even when they began to boo him.

As an adolescent I was unaware of his shenanigans, so I was taken off guard when he struck. As I was watching one of his stand-up routines on Saturday Night Live, he was suddenly accosted by a heckler.

Grinning and swaggering, the man kept loudly interrupting his jokes and reciting the punchlines before Andy could get to them. This was done to prove that Kaufman was predictable and not funny anymore. The heckler further urged Andy to admit his comedic ineptitude and quit his career.

The taunts seemed to drive the comedian nearly to tears. Instead of counterattacking, Andy seemed to crumple like an abashed, stuttering child, unable or unwilling to defend himself.  

Riveted to the spectacle by horror and fury, I fully believed that the heckling of Kaufman was real. And as a previously bullied kid, I felt like I was enduring his humiliation along with him.

I went to bed that night tormented with worry, hoping that the disgraced comedian would quickly recover from the merciless tongue lashing that had apparently just shattered his comedy career.

It was many years later, after I had graduated from college, that someone informed me that the whole event had been staged—a prank on the audience. The heckler had been friends with Andy Kaufman. Together they had conspired to bamboozle the viewers. The news irked me. That heckling had haunted me for years, yet it had not even been real.

By the time I learned of the subterfuge, Andy Kaufman had died, and critics were hailing him as a comic genius—a brilliant performance artist, a courageous engineer of human emotion, a keen social observer who had revealed uncomfortable truths about society. R.E.M.—one of my favorite bands—even wrote a song about him.

What exactly had Andy done? During the heckling stunt, he had done what many creative people do. He had honored a weird, convention-crushing idea by putting it into practice to see where it would lead.

But he went further than most. He engineered confusion. He allowed his viewers to linger, riveted, in a state of worry. He feigned his own humiliation in a jarringly un-funny way.

He did all the things I am afraid of doing by accident, only he did them on purpose.

Despite my annoyance over the prank, I now use it as a source of comfort. Whenever I find myself worrying that I will be misunderstood, I remember how Andy Kaufman was feted for deliberately triggering confusion in pursuit of comic drama.

When I start to fret that my writing is too strange for anyone to understand, I remember how Kaufman inexplicably read The Great Gatsby to an audience that was expecting a vibrant comedy show.

I think, “If Andy did these things on purpose and the world remained intact, then I can stop being afraid to do them accidentally.”

I am still not sold on duplicity as an artistic device. And I am still mad at Andy Kaufman for subjecting my adolescent self to unnecessary turmoil.

But I do appreciate his bold willingness to deviate from the script, to push back against predictability.  The arts thrive on a confluence of audacity and skill. In the case of Andy, the audience, responding to his defiance of convention, became a dynamic part of his art.

His antics reassure me that bewildering an audience does not equal disaster. If my writing is misunderstood or deemed odd, well, okay.

I write first to make myself happy. It is only in the final stages of revision that I worry about communicating my ideas.

But art goes further than communicating: it tests the audience. While the viewers are looking at art, the art gazes back at them. It probes their memories and their feelings, and it nudges them to the surface.

And because everyone is unique, I will never be able—regardless of my skill—to completely control the way readers experience my stories.

But that is okay. Beyond conveying a message, artistic success depends on the feelings it stirs, the memories it evokes, and its ability to surprise.

Even if they were unintended.

How I Lost My Certainty and Found Curiosity

At fifteen years old, I decided that everything I had been taught about the world was wrong.

I had just freed myself from a depression – a three-year ordeal in which nightmares had jolted me from my sleep. I had a collection of tear-stained pillowcases, dampened by years of agonizing religious confusion.

A Bible teacher at my Christian school in South Carolina had done the confusing by warning my class that God heard our every thought. He further declared that God would someday broadcast these thoughts to the angels and everyone who had ever lived. “There will be tears in heaven, folks, even for the saved,” he had said. “Tears and remorse beyond anything you can imagine. Be careful what you think.”

At thirteen, I became convinced that my thoughts were offensive to God and that afterlife humiliation awaited me. I tried in vain to impede my “impure” thoughts; instead, I became neurotic and depressed.

My fear of my own mind began a three-year journey, starting when I was in seventh grade, of guilt, religious doubt, and tortured prayers. The summer after leaving ninth grade, my belief in God shattered.

I would have expected the loss of my belief system to fuel my despair. Instead, I was suddenly free of it – leaving me to wonder about the world in a way I never had.

If there is no God, I thought, how is anything here?

I entered my new public school the following fall bright-eyed with curiosity. Until that year, I had dozed through my science classes. But my new school encouraged critical thinking, a practice that my previous teachers would have deemed as sinful as stealing tithes to buy porn. The “new” educational philosophy dovetailed with my new habit of questioning everything. Nothing was too sacred for scrutiny anymore.

I fell in love with biology. Before taking the class, I had known that I was made of cells but I had never cared. Now I knew that I was cells, and suddenly they mattered. Was I actually a just colony of cells that mistakenly thought it was a single self? How did cells produce my consciousness?

I became so caught up in studying, I made no effort to make friends at my new school. My solitude led me to another realization: I could be happy with just my own company.

As a previously bullied kid, I had absorbed the message that hordes of friends were essential for happiness. That was untrue.

Although I had enjoyed some good friendships in my life, I could do without them. I missed least of all the gaggle of back-stabbing frenemies that had stampeded through my childhood.

Alone, burrowing down in my beanbag as I studied, I could follow my own interests without worrying about seeming weird.

But I did feel weird. I felt like an extraterrestrial that had been shipwrecked in my home town in South Carolina. Everything felt new, even my English literature classes. I had always read novels, but mainly for escapism. Suddenly fiction was about discovering who I was and even what it meant to be human.

Without a soul, I no longer knew what “human” meant. Were we really just animals with inflated opinions of ourselves?

I had once seen humans as soulful creatures supervised by an authoritarian yet loving father God. Now I saw the world as a planet of confused aliens desperately searching for their origins – which was how I felt personally.

Whenever, I studied, I felt like I was doing something more than homework. I was searching for some sort of cohesive world view to replace the religious one I had lost. The more I learned the more ignorant I felt, yet for the first time ever, I made straight A’s.

I gave up watching television. Suddenly, real life interested me more than fake people on a screen. I was made of tiny cells, I had a simian ancestral past, and I lived on a rock that was whirling around a star. Who needed sit coms?

I liked books better than television anyway. Books let me read minds, but because I was increasing my reading, I was also spending more time alone.

My mom, noticing this, said, “All you ever do is study. You need to go out more. Have some real experiences. Don’t you ever want to go shopping for new clothes?”

I answered by sinking deeper into my beanbag, peering at my novel through my curtain of long bangs, and wondering what it meant to have a “real” experience.

On one night, I wandered down the hall past the blaring television in the living room where my mom and brother were watching it. I entered the den, savoring its silence–-a welcome contrast to the clamor of the television.

Seeking further solace, I was drawn to a framed photographic print that had been hanging on the living room wall for years. It showed a canoe floating on a lake that was rendered orange by a sunset. I thought about what my mom had said, wondering why she thought shopping for clothes was a “real” experience but not reading about alleles in a beanbag or gazing at a photograph.

I conjectured that simply staring at a photograph of a place could be as satisfying as really being there if I fully absorbed the sight—instead of zoning out the way I usually did when I went places.

To test my theory, I meditated on the photograph and even tried to creatively project myself into the scene. I imagined myself floating on the orange lake with the boat rocking beneath me and a breeze stroking my nose.

I tried to summon the contemplative mood lakes sometimes engendered in me. Before long I felt so much like I was there that a feeling of euphoria settled over me.

I felt triumphant. Ever since letting go of dogma, I had felt like I was traveling without physically going anywhere–-a journey I had begun not in a boat or a car, but in my mind.

I had once assumed what my mom did—that to legitimately “experience” anything, I had to leave home and go someplace like a circus, a party, or a beach. But that was untrue. Every moment I took a breath was an experience.

I reviewed my bizarre year in my mind. I had spent it letting go of what I had been told all my life by adults, and my loss had turned out to be priceless.

By ejecting my childhood beliefs, I seemed to have entered an upside-down dimension—one in which looking at a photograph could be an adventure, where not having friends could free me to be myself, and where disbelief in God could be the most spiritual experience I had ever had.

Staring at my boat, I knew I would always remember that quiet, seemingly unimportant moment. Alone, unmoored, uncertain, and insecure, I was the happiest I had ever been.

How Time Bends My Perception of My Writing

No writing critic stirs such terrors in me as my Future Self.

I may think my brand-new story about peppery kittens is the best thing since the Iliad. I may soar on currents of self-congratulation,  but all the while Future Me is lying in wait to smother my zest.

That is because the delay between giddily finishing my first revision and returning to reread it somehow strips the sheen off my opus. The manuscript I re-evaluate after a hiatus is never the manuscript I remember. My clever metaphors seem too florid. What once seemed like eloquence has become bombast. “Once again, your ego has deceived you,” Future Me says. “Poorly executed and shoddily constructed. Start over.”

I have a name for this maddening phenomenon: temporal subjectivity. Everyone knows that writing is subjective from person to person. But writing is also subjective from moment to moment. I may hate at night a story I loved earlier in the day. Sometimes my attitude shift takes only hours. Maybe it is my bipolar disorder, but the writing process seems to lend itself to abrupt mood shifts,

I would be less crestfallen if my future self only denounced my rough drafts. I expect a rough draft to be rough. But the damning verdict from Future Me always occurs after I have painstakingly revised a written piece and mentaly declared it a success.

The difference of opinion between my present and future selves creates a dilemma. If Current Me loves my work but Future Me deems it blather, which self should I believe? The distinction is fateful. If I believe the grim denunciations of my future self, then I might have to scrap everything and start over. But if my past self was mistaken to love my work, I risk tossing a disheveled manuscript into a world already ailing from mediocrity.

Before I start razing walls of text, I have to think. The worst thing I can do is start making random, desperate changes. Frantic edits made to coddle a wounded ego are rarely good for stories. I might as well cut my hair by trial-and-error – which I have done with predictable results and would not recommend to anyone.

Nor is it a good idea to gaze at text in the hope of divining how to fix everything in a few facile strokes of a key. Staring at a wall of words only triggers frustration. The epiphany I am looking for is never going to come if all I do is wait.

It is better to go through a checklist of diagnostic questions, but first I do some the emotional screening. Could it be that my problem is not flawed text but a shift in my state of mind? Is a mood swing causing me to view my manuscript in a distorted way? Am I depressed? If so, it might not be the best time to revise a humor piece. Humor writing rarely strikes me the same way twice on my best days, much less when I am agonizing over the ephemeral nature of life or my inability to open a pickle jar.

On with my checklist. Do I have a migraine? Itchy toes? Are my pants too tight? What is going on in my life that could be affecting my perception? Do I feel hostile toward my manuscript because my cat just lost her kibble on the carpet? Or is it because when I called my pharmacist, she put me on hold and forced me to listen to gospel music for an hour only to hang up on me?

Anything that happens, no matter how trivial, can warp how I see my work. But if I finally decide that my mental state is fine and my prose is in fact culpable, I move on to forming a new plan.

I leave the screen and jot in a notepad what I think needs improving, basing my diagnosis on a quick impression. I ask questions, stating them positively when possible. Are my figures of speech fresh? It my story logical and well-structured? Are my characters consistent? Is my grammar solid? Is my tone the same throughout?

Detached analysis may not solve my problem right away, but at least it jolts me from helpless befuddlement and propels me toward clarity. Analyzing also encourages me by reminding me that any error in writing, no matter how egregious, can be changed.

But what if I solve all my writing problems and address all my concerns, only to later discover that I still hate my story without knowing why? Maybe statistics will help. I can say, “If I reread my story ten times and I love it at least seven of those times, then my story is a-go. Otherwise, I will revise it more.”

But this process is arbitrary and maddening. It propels my mood pendulum into violent motion. It triggers alternating periods of confidence and self-doubt. Nothing is more dispiriting than to believe you have written scintillating prose only to later find – again and again – that its luster was a mirage.

Worse, often I will reread my original revision only to find that of all my grinding rewrites, I like my original best. My first version crackles with spontaneity and freshness, I suddenly realize. Why did I ever think there was anything wrong with it? Past Me was correct after all. I have spent hours revising for nothing.

This absurd plight leads me to one other possibility for how to deal with Future Me: fire her.

Future Me is too fickle. She is not even me. She pretends to be a quality control expert, but she is really just a front for my control freak of an ego, which wants to micro-manage everything, so that I will always look good – an impossible task. If I have painstakingly revised my work and I have done my best and I love it, why is my single moment of approbation not enough?

Writing is relentlessly subjective no matter who is reading it — whether it is me or someone else. In fact, my inability to love my writing from one day to the next puts a whole new spin on the subjectivity of editors, publishers, teachers, and everyone else.

The world is brimming with potential readers who, like me, suffer from headaches, depression, sick cats, strict diets, messy houses, itchy toes, tight pants, leaky sinks and intransigent pickle jars – all of which affect perception. What does this mean? It means that trying to please anyone, including all my fickle future selves, is futile. I can do my best, but at some point, I have to let my work go.

Nothing I write will ever be beyond reproach. If I fully accept that, I can write whatever l like and have fun doing it. Freedom comes from accepting that writing to please anyone but myself – my present self – is unnecessary and possibly futile.  

I do not have to make all my future selves happy. If at some point in time, I thought that what I wrote would have made Homer rethink The Iliad, then I can rest easy, let go, and begin something new.