One problem with researching family history is unearthing the stories of people you wish you could have met. It is most frustrating when there is so little left of them that their bittersweet shadows–“he was the nicest, gentlest man” or “she made us laugh and laugh”–are just enough to make you even sadder that no one remembers enough to tell you more.

Right now, today, but also more generally, I feel this way about two of my great-grandparents, my mother’s mother’s mother and my mother’s father’s father. They both died before I was born, and nothing any of the people who loved them have been able to tell me about them has been satisfying.

Unearthing the monsters is more satisfying, maybe, because it’s easier to feel okay about making up your own details to fill the gaps. And also because you don’t have to mourn never having known them.

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Yesterday I finished the (very, very veryveryvery) rough draft of a chapter of my novel. I shrugged off three gaping scene holes I’ve just decided to come back to later when I feel a little bit more mature with my subject. I’m keeping a List of Gaping Holes because at least if there’s a list it’s like I’m controlling them.

It took me about 5 hours’ worth of work yesterday to plow through the end of that chapter. I did it! Woohoo. Except instead of feeling a great sense of accomplishment I felt melancholy, and it didn’t take me long to realize it was because I was still thinking about/stuck in the things that happened in the chapter that were melancholy, which is all of them.

I have written a total of 93,000 words of this novel already. They are very drafty (as mentioned) and many (as many as half?) of them will likely be eliminated to make room for the other stuff I haven’t written yet, so I’m trying not to worry too much about this yet. But in those 90+k words I feel there is one successful humorous moment/scene. Otherwise the content is mainly pinned around the hardships of the plot.

I’m not sure if this is going to be a problem in the long run. I personally like to read serious books, and can think of lots of favorite books that do not have comedic through-lines of any kind. I think things like linguistic inventiveness and whimsy can instill a sense of wonder in the reader that will make up for laugh-out-loud funny moments. I also think situational irony*, although often not ha-ha-ha funny, scratches the same itch for a reader by presenting the unexpected and causing a head-shaking tongue-clucking “I’ll never forget this” kind of feeling–similar emotional pulses that I, at least, get from humor.

I’m not trying to say the techniques I mentioned in the above paragraph are any easier than injecting humor into a novel. But in some ways they feel more approachable to me.

It is a little strange that I am struggling with this in writing, because in real life I love telling funny stories to groups of people. I’m sometimes (often) accused of embroidering stories to make them funnier. Why should that predisposition be any different than when I’m trying to write a damn book?

I think this is especially a concern right now because I happen to be editing a book that is quite serious but full of a lot of comedic one-liners; I also happen to be reading AMERICANAH, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is quite serious literature and covers a range of serious topics but is pretty inexhaustibly tongue-in-cheek on a line-by-line level that makes it extremely delightful to read. I guess I am worried that I am not working on developing the right skills for delighting people, and am wondering if there is another way I should be thinking about this.

Questions for you, reader, if you feel like dialoguing with a blog on this topic:

–Do you consider yourself a humorous writer? does humor come naturally to you?

–Vis a vis previous question: are you humorous as a person off the paper? Or do you also experience a disconnect between your writing persona and your, uh, in person persona?

–Do you have favorite books that are utterly unhumorous but which never bothered you as such and were still pure entertainment to read?

*(Why is there not a more correct phrase for what I mean here? I mean when things happen in a way that is so unexpected and so contrary to what was hoped for that they invert or pervert the attempted outcome.)

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I went out for a drink last night with a very respected editor who is also a very respected writer. (I had cold-emailed him and he was really very kind and generous both in agreeing to and then throughout the hour and a half we ate cheese together.)

I wanted to ask him about how he made it all work. He said first and foremost I had to negotiate not working five days in the office. At least one day at home.

I felt a little bit better, because I’ve done that.

And then … he didn’t articulate this, so I don’t want to falsely quote him, but the meaning of the more oblique thing he said was clear to me: put your own stuff first. I.e. that day you’re not working in the office–do what ya gotta do. In the morning, before you answer work email, do what ya gotta do.

“I consider myself to be a full-time employee of [the publisher he works for],” he told me.

Because it is true–you don’t turn OFF being an editor when it’s not 9-5. So … it’s not amoral to take blocks of time out of the 9-5 for yourself.

This was a fortifying conversation.

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I made a mistake a few days ago that threw me through a loop. (I thought I had done something I hadn’t, thereby failing to prevent a problem that escalated to involve many other people. The problem itself wasn’t my bad deed, so really my guilt here should be a lot less than it is, but my side of the street isn’t clean either because if I’d been more vigilant I would have caught it before it escalated.)

It’s been four days since I realized what happened, and just now I’m starting to emerge from the cloud of terrible bad feeling. I am very, very bad at dragging myself out of a funk when I have made a mistake. I honestly think the biggest help this time was coming to this blog on Thursday (I haven’t been here in a long time) and encountering the decisive element quote, which I had posted on my profile page and declared was my religious creed (a now-dead link, incidentally). I had forgotten the quote, and looked it up to reread it. Since Thursday, I’ve looked it up and reread it again about ten times. I’m posting it here in case maybe some day it will help someone else.

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

–either Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Haim Ginott, the internet cannot tell me which for sure

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the struggle

Is this a thing for everyone?

Writing creatively catches me up in a depressive fever. There are times (although not exactly often) when I take joy in the act of writing and when the things that I have written make me feel proud and/or good about myself. But usually I am living in a shadow of recriminations, self-doubt, and stress that I’m spread to thin and not doing anything right. It puts me in a pretty constant black mood, easy to irritate or inflame but also guilty about my irritability and questioning whether any creative project is worth the negative effects my attitude has on people around me as well as myself.

This emotional storm was one of the reasons I stopped writing two years ago when I went on a self-imposed hiatus. I have definitely felt good about the fact that I’ve gone back to writing these last five months. The hiatus made me sad and the novel I was trying to write then made me sad (or maybe a bigger, more malaise-y kind of upset than sad) for going unwritten. Now I’m sad that the fact that I’m writing it doesn’t mean it’s any good, and that I’m not doing it justice.

I’m not sure how much of it is to do with my job–maybe the fact that my job in particular is hard to juggle at the same time a creative writing endeavor, which creates a sense that I’m not doing either well. Or maybe better to say it creates a terrible resentment toward my job if I prioritize that over my writing, and a terrible guilt toward my job when I prioritize my writing.

I have often come back to the having one’s cake conversation in my head. I have a job I love and that I’m good at. It’s something I still want to be doing in 20 or 30 or 50 years. Which is why throwing it aside to focus on a creative project just seems … foolish, selfish, short-sighted, privileged, silly. Especially when the project is of extremely questionable merit. But how much of that is because I’m not applying myself whole-heartedly or doing right by it? Am I actually missing my true calling?

No one can answer this question for me. I know that. I can’t answer it for myself, although I really need to try harder to do so.

I am curious though if other people go through this. My co-worker told me a few days ago that he never had these kinds of feelings; he never doubted that he would have a novel published someday. I asked him what the key to finding such confidence in sense of purpose. He snorted, told me to quit my job, sign up for an MFA, and spend two years reading and thinking about craft. I know he didn’t mean it the way I took it (he may even have been being facetious), but to me it sounded like a reminder that I didn’t deserve to write a book, because I hadn’t paid my dues to the process–which honestly resonated very deeply. It is something I have often thought about other people who think writing a book is an easy thing, a hobby.

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pot of coffee

A week at work during which I let myself get overrun by my own emotional stress. I can’t control that I react emotionally to challenges at work. I think that’s a function of the kind of personality that gets into my kind of job, and which is by job description pitted together/against a bunch of similar personalities.

P says I need to step back and unwind; he is worried about how tightly wound I have been for several days. But I can’t; that doesn’t work. (I tried in good faith.) The only thing that works for me is winding tighter and blasting through the bad feelings. If I’ve worked really hard I can cut a lot of fear and self-recrimination and irritation off at its knees. I can say to myself, “at least I did my best.”

Not quite mid-day on Saturday yet but so far the weekend has been an entire pot of coffee and 3 hours silent work. I paused to write this so my eyes would refocus; now I’m going back.

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plugging, plugging away.

Don’t know if it will ever be any good, but it’s nice to have something to say.

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