227 Emails

So, I was Freshly Pressed.

*Mind explodes*

I’m a bit of a newbie as far as WordPress is concerned–I just got here in July, after all, and haven’t been all too great about posting all that frequently. But, of course, every time as I hit “Publish,” a little part of me thought Wouldn’t it be great if this got Freshly Pressed? Nah, that’ll never happen…

The standard thing for people to do once they’ve been Freshly Pressed, from what I’ve seen, is to then write a post about the experience. So, consider this that post.

There are 227 new emails in my inbox right now, each bearing a little notification of a like or a follow, or a reminder that I really should moderate my comments again. For a while, there–before my post slipped into the relative anonymity of the second page–I had to make myself leave the computer, lest I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people reading my blog. I was absolutely ecstatic to have so many people reading–and also absolutely terrified about what it meant. Wait, you mean people are reading what I write now? And they’re liking it? Well…I just don’t know what to do with that information.

This post has been quite hard for me to write, actually. This is my third or fourth attempt at it, which is ironic, given that the post that got Freshly Pressed was about how my fiction is riddled with half-starts and self-doubt–and that I escape by writing nonfiction. Well, shoot. Apparently, once I’m suddenly writing for people beyond my Facebook friend group, my writerly instinct dries up. I’m going to have to work on that…

But first, I just want to say, to all my new readers, THANK YOU! I have been so affirmed by all your lovely comments, and cannot say enough about how blessed I am to have had you all decide to settle down in my corner of the Internet for a while. Those 227 emails have absolutely made my week. I hope you like what you find here, and that we can have some nice therapy sessions on the merits of nonfiction writing.

And now,  since I seem to be just fumbling through this, it’s time for me to go open those emails, one by one, and meet you…all 227 of you. See you around!

(Sidenote to anyone who happens to follow the same vloggers on Youtube that I do: Writing this blog post, I felt like it would come out a bit like Bryarly’s response to Charlie’s recent admission. Different context, but… “HELP WHAT I CAN’T EVEN” is a pretty accurate depiction of the things going through my head…)

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Confessions of a (Nonfiction) Writer

Okay, I admit it: I like nonfiction.

Now this might not seem like too big of an admission for a blogger to make–well, of course she likes writing nonfiction, that’s all she does around here, anyway–but, for me, at least, it actually is a big deal. See, I don’t want to like nonfiction. In fact, I’ve spent the past several years trying to convince myself that I prefer fiction–and, to some extent, I still do prefer it.

(Oh, come on now, Bekah, no need to go into denial here, you’ve already gotten the worst of it out…)

But it’s true. When I sit down to read a book, it’s usually a novel I’m after, or a book of short stories–with the notable exceptions of a few amazing nonfiction books such as Outliers and King Leopold’s Ghost and Will in the World–and, when I daydream about a mythic future in which I’m a best-selling author (with a few Pulitzers and National Book Awards to my name, of course), the book in my hands as I dole out those interviews with talk show hosts is invariably fiction. When I remind myself that I need to spend more time writing, I sit down to one of my several in-progress short stories, and console myself that, come November (aka NaNoWriMo), I will at last begin work on a novel.

Yet, even so, when I just sit down to write, fiction is not what comes out.

It’s a cliche of writing to say that writers write, not because they want to, necessarily, but because they can’t help themselves. Well, as much as I may hate to admit it, I can help myself when it comes to fiction; love it as I may, my writing process in that genre is full of jerks and half-starts and self-doubt. I question my characters, I question my word choice, I question my conflict(s), I question my pacing, I question where, exactly, the story is going, or needs to go. It becomes almost impossible for me to turn off my self-critic and self-editor and just write. I may love the outcome, sometimes, but getting there is often nothing less than painful.

Then there’s nonfiction.

Shortly after high school, I was reading The Writing Life, a book of essays written by famous authors on the subject of writing that a high school teacher had given me, and I remember getting to one entry by a famous biographer, describing his process of becoming a nonfiction writer. The book itself is boxed away somewhere right now, but his general reasoning for his genre choice has haunted me ever since I first read it: He said his life had been too boring, too ordinary, for him to write fiction. I didn’t want that to be me.

I’ll be honest, before college I didn’t even know there was such a thing as creative nonfiction; in my thoughts, writing existed in two categories: fiction, and textbooks. That may be a bit of an oversimplification, but not much of one–if I’m remembering right, I read my first-ever piece of personal narrative, an excerpt from Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, during my senior year of high school, and it existed in my mind as an interesting, but isolated, writing form. Besides, even that was an exercise of journalism, and of research, more than of creativity. Creative nonfiction? That just seemed like a contradiction in terms.

Even in college, creative nonfiction flew under the radar with me–I got a Creative Writing degree on the fiction track (the only other option was poetry), and it wasn’t until my senior year that I took my first and, to date, only class in creative nonfiction.

But I was hooked. Sitting down to write was so easy–I just wrote! No questioning my story–it happened! No questioning my characters–they existed! Sure, I still had pacing and word choice to think about, but the primary struggles behind those concerns–namely, the constant preoccupation with setting up my main character’s personality and motivations through tone–disappeared, since the narrator was, suddenly, no one other than myself. My creative voice sprang forth almost without my trying. It was bliss.

And it is bliss–even now, as I type this, I cannot help but remember that that is what I am doing, now: writing nonfiction. And it was what I was doing, all last year, as I wrote my stories from Taiwan. When I want to process something, I write. I can’t help myself. And what do I write? Nonfiction.

What I didn’t understand about the biographer’s description of his entry into the field, but which I understand now, is that nonfiction of any sort is more forgiving than fiction of an ordinary background–but that doesn’t necessitate a boring life. In fact, in the case of creative nonfiction, it requires precisely the opposite: you must go have amazing adventures, or at least be able to dramatize your smaller ones, or you will have nothing to write about.

As a fiction writer, it actually helps if you had a screwed up childhood or identity issues or what have you, because those are the sorts of real human problems that go into making real human characters out of the ideas in your head; those are the sorts of fictional people people want to read about. As a nonfiction writer, reality’s okay–all you have to do is be able to organize it in such a way that it becomes interesting and meaningful. Nonfiction is intensely personal, and it’s that, very intimate, nature, and the author’s ability to bring others into that space, that makes for a good piece. Drama isn’t necessary if you’re doing it right.

So yes, I like fiction–I like reading it, and I want to like writing it. But the fact is, at this point at least, I’m a nonfiction writer–might as well step out of the shadows and claim it outloud.

The Easy Choice

I am currently faced with two choices: move to California, or move to Seattle. At the moment, everything in me is pulling for a certain one of those options. (Incidentally, less than a week ago, quite a bit of me was pulling for the opposite one.)

“That’s easy, then!” you say. “You pick the one you want the most!”

Ahh–if only it were that easy. But, see, the thing is, whenever I come at a problem like this, I see two potential outcomes to making the easy choice:

1) I am happy in my choice, and get to say “Ah, I knew this was right! Good thing I followed my instincts…” Still, I always have to wonder if the critics were right, and it wasn’t so much instincts as insecurities that led me; if I’d have been happier on the flip side.

2) I am absolutely miserable in my choice, and say to myself, “Why, oh why didn’t I do the other thing? I knew I was meant to overcome my misgivings and do the other thing…”

Alternately, if I pick the hard choice, I have my choice of these outcomes:

1) I’m miserable, and realize I should have followed my instincts; or,

2) I’m happy, or at least remotely happy, and get to feel extra happy because I pushed myself and overcame my flawed instincts.

In other words, if I make the easy choice, I will second-guess it down the road and likely never be fully satisfied; if I make the harder choice, I will either be miserable or uber-happy.

Sigh. Why can’t I know now whether my instincts are to be trusted or defeated? And why can’t the easy choice ever actually be the easy choice?

Paralysis

Tomorrow is Monday. And what are my plans? Well, I’ll meet a friend for coffee in the morning, and I’ll do some mowing and/or log pulling for my dad in the afternoon. That’s it. That’s my entire fixed-point day–two tasks.

I hate this. Like, really, truly hate it. I am now, for the first time since I was 12 and took my first summer job picking blueberries, unemployed. And yes, I know, that’s part of life, particularly in today’s [insert expletive] economy, but what sucks most to me is not just that I’m unemployed, but that my psyche seems dead-set on keeping me that way, undercutting any attempts I make at employment with a simple, deadly question: Is that really what you want to do next? Is it really what you should do?

And the truth is, I don’t know–and, until I do, I am absolutely petrified to take a step in any direction, for fear it will prove to be the wrong one. I spend my days looking for jobs, saving them, and then go back through them second-guessing: do I want to go back to Seattle? Would I be OK moving to New York? Would I actually be able to handle that role? I sit down daily to write emails to my professional contacts, only to wonder: if they respond, what then? Am I looking for a job if they have one, or just a bit of professional advice? Would it be better to contact this person now, or later, once I know a little better where I am, and where I am headed?

I have always been one to over-analyze things and, objectively, I know that that is what I am doing now. The answer to most of my questions is actually “yeah, I think I could handle that.” But the terrible truth is that when I have little with which to occupy my time, what else can I do but think, and what else is there to think about but why I am sitting around jobless? It’s a vicious cycle: job-free time leads to over-thought; over-thought leads to paralysis; paralysis leads to more job-free time.

Lesson learned: there is a reason I kept myself so busy for the eight years of high school and college. The reason is, I do better when I have things to do. Despite my introvert’s need for alone time to rest and recoup, I am still happier when I’m up early, occupied all day at school or work or in extracurriculars, and have just a few moments to myself every night before I drop, exhausted, back into bed. I never thought I would miss a life when, as in high school, I sometimes wouldn’t see my house in the daylight for weeks, or, as in college, I would sometimes find myself stumbling in around 3 or 4am on a production night at the paper, with a test and work the next day. But I do.

For now, I can at least add one more item to my to-do list: overcome my paralysis. Get stuff done. I don’t even care what it is anymore, it’s just time to start applying, and emailing, without looking back, until there are no more jobs to apply for and no more contacts to reach out to. What do I want to do next? I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon. And, since the problem isn’t quite what I want to do, but what I want most to do, the most obvious solution is and must be explore all the options and see which ones actually are.

So, no more over-thinking. No more over-thinking. No more over-thinking. Dang, this is hard…

Rooted

Yesterday, my dad asked me if I could help him drive the tractor on the back part of our property. He probably told me the details then, but I certainly don’t remember hearing them; I thought it had something to do with mowing.

Not quite. When I walked out to join my dad and brother this afternoon, I found a full-on log-hauling operation going on: there was a tree down on the property we’re going to build on, and we were to pull the massive chopped-up pieces from where they were to a couple hundred yards away, where we left them in a big pile.

Pretty simple work, with a tractor, that is. With rudimentary training–forward, back,speed, torque, bucket up, bucket down–I was stationed at the helm, and got to work attaching logs to steel cables on the front part of the tractor and then dragging them backwards through blackberry vines and thick brush, while avoiding rocks and stumps, to where they needed to be.

To help the mental imagery, this looks just like our tractor. It isn’t, though. (Thanks, Internet!)

For all the italics and bold, though, it was pretty simply once I got the hang of it: drive to downed tree, hook cable around branch(es), pull branch(es) clear of the other downed tree, two random stumps, and various building site posts around the property; re-maneuver tractor into beaten path through the blackberries and tree trunks, drag branch(es) out of the woods; make it up the hill, position branches by the pile, unhook, and repeat.

OK, so that description doesn’t make it sound particularly simple. But it did get quite repetitive, and I was pretty isolated by the roar of the engine muffled through my earplugs, leaving me time as I drove beneath the translucent green leaves to think about what, exactly, I was doing. And what I was doing was remembering my roots.

My family is pretty new to the area in the grand scheme of things; my dad’s dad moved here when he was pretty young, and my mom’s dad moved when he was an adult. And, when my dad’s dad got old enough, he bought property, 20 acres of it, which he farmed and kept sheep on and did various other things with over the years. My grandpa loves being out on the land.

Next phase of the story: when my dad (the oldest) grew up, he decided to move back from across town to “the homestead.” So, when I was about 5, my dad bought 7 acres from his dad and moved in next door. Growing up, my brothers and I had free reign of the full 20 acres; most of my childhood memories take place there. Since then, my grandpa has moved into town, and my dad has taken over a lot of the maintenance. Incidentally, today found us working entirely on his land.

On the other side of the family, my mom’s dad and my mom’s mom come from logging families in southern Oregon. My mom’s mom’s family has compiled a pretty great family history, and reading it awakened me to the horrible conditions of loggers in the not-so-distant past. And, more to the point, in my family’s not-so-distant past.

So as I pulled chopped-up logs a couple hundred yards from one piece of my grandpa’s land to another, plowing through memories from my  childhood without a backward glance (well, I mean, I was going backwards, but…), I found myself thinking, too, of my mom’s parents’, and their families, making a living by doing what I was doing, but without all the fancy machinery. I pondered on what it would be like to hitch a horse or mule to the load instead of a tractor, and considered the fact that, logistically, at least, many of the problems would be the same: rope tension, angles, obstacles, power. I can’t say that I’d ever spent any significant time before thinking about the ins and outs of my great-grandparents’ livelihoods, but today it grabbed a good portion of my thought processes. This is, after all, where I (at some point) came from.

Today,  a friend who has also recently returned from abroad mentioned how unrooted he had been feeling before he came back and spent time with his friends and family here. It made me stop and think a minute about my roots–about how often I take them for granted, and about how much they actually do for me. See, today marks exactly one month since I’ve been home. And as I imitated one set of great-grandparents on another set of grandparents’ land, I felt just how deep my roots run–and was reminded that, without having such solid roots, I would never have had the courage to pick up and move across the globe, even for a little while.

It’s counter-intuitive, but there it is: in order to be mobile, I must have roots. And I’m so thankful that I do–even if it takes pulling out some physical ones to remember it.

Double Duty

It’s interesting–when I left Taiwan, I imagined myself immediately entering into a period of intense productivity. I’d have to, after all–it’s not like I was coming home to a job or anything. Within that productivity, I figured, I’d blog occasionally, as I saw fit, but the main focus would be job applications and revising old works for submission: blogs are, after all, a long-term investment, rather than a pressing responsibility, and after a year of daily blogging, I was tired to death of staring at a blinking cursor, willing myself to just write something already so I could go to bed.

Flash forward to now. I’ve been home almost a month already (a month, really? Wherever has the time gone?), and my plans for productivity have fallen in shambles around my feet. What have I done with my time? Well, that’s easy–I’ve gone camping, twice; I’ve visited Seattle; I’ve helped my parents repaint my old room; I’ve caught up with old friends; I’ve put a few things in order that I’d left out of it. I’ve read, and I’ve watched the Olympics. But the things I’d planned to do? The applying, the revising, the submitting, the decision making? I’ve done very little.

Today (by which I mean the 7th, not the 8th) was actually one of my most productive days in recent days, assuming you don’t count catching up with friends after a year abroad as productive: I sent several emails, finished and turned in a job application for a job I’ve been pining after for ages, read a bit–and wrote not one, but two blog posts.

Yes, somehow as I turned and ran from my old daily blog, promising myself only that I would post weekly on here, I found myself starting a new blog for the pure thrill of it, one which, though I scarcely noted it while I was making it, all but requires a daily post. It is, after all, called Word-of-the-Day Toilet Paper.

And what did I find? That concept blogs are infinitely easier to post on those that call for long-form narratives plucked from my life and turned into something supposedly worthwhile. And that, as a result of that, this blog, my self-proclaimed “serious” blog, was suffering.

Well, shoot. I guess it’s time to kick it into high gear with a two-post midnight posting–hooray! So much for giving myself a break from daily posting: who wants that pressure when you can double it?

Productivity is a slippery thing, especially when you start factoring in faux incentives like how many views your posts get, or how many fellow bloggers ‘like’ or ‘follow’ you, or the ever-present shadowy goal of WordPress bloggers of becoming “Freshly Pressed.” So it is that now, nearly a month after returning home, I find many jobs as yet un-applied for, many pieces unedited and unsent, many decisions unmade.

But I also find two blogs, growing slowly but surely, and without the torturous advance of the blinking cursor at midnight. The other things will get done–they are, after all, the inevitable immediate necessities. And, in the long-term, maybe my double duty will pay off.