Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Writer's Block; Finding the Right Way

The next few blog posts written here will perhaps seem a bit confessional, but I promise they completely have to do with the mission and integrity of this blog. And I hope they can be of some use to other people as they are generally experiences I would not wish to repeat and would not wish anyone to blunder upon.

For the past year and a half, I worked as a writing tutor at Fort Lewis College. It is perhaps the job I loved the most out of all the jobs I've had. Not specifically for one reason or another - for to say I didn't love my other jobs for certain reasons would be a lie. However, I loved this job particularly because of how naturally it came to me. How soothing it was.

It was second nature to me: to consistently re-work the phrasing of my own articulations, to analyze the details in a definition, to expand my vocabulary. To help others with it was a true joy - it trascended me. It was: let's help you get a good grade, let's make this essay sound awesome, let's put your concept into something that sounds beautiful. One could say my love of reading fueled this, as it's been shown how much reading enhances vocabulary. Even in arenas as trite as the SATs, I realized how easy word acquisition was for me. How once you become an avid reader, it becomes easy for you to assimilate new words into your vernacular - you begin to look at words as a small thrill, an ambiguous challenge. The meaning of it becomes derived from the sentence(s) surrounding it. Meanings breed within you until one day you realize you're talking with words you barely even realized you knew - ones you perhaps heard someone use in a conversation or a commercial or maybe ones you saw in a summary of a book... Or does that just happen to me? Either way, it was catharsis.

And I couldn't even tell you how exactly it registers as catharsis to me - either because it was something I knew and loved, or simply because of the level of neurosis that was required in successfully attempting it. The structure, the beautiful hierarchal decadence of words to choose from. The specificity, the elaboration - how easily a phrase could be remembered, a political speech passed down for decades, what quotes are regurgitated for their ingenious articulation. For me, it was simply too easy to see how words controlled the very functions of our beings and our place in the world, how things got passed on. Words were (and are) seductive to me: they could make or break you. Audience, point of view, etc... It was all formulaic.

To reduce the sentiment, there is a scene in White Oleander where Astrid talks about her mother, Ingrid, being a writer and how she "could agonize for hours ver whether to write an or the." And there was something so compelling about that.

However, there's a breaking point to it - the irony of irones. You can't think about it. For god's sake, do not think about writing the perfect draft your first time around - I would always tell people that, "Don't think, just write." And actually, I think I got that perfect little summarized bit of advice from the movie, Finding Forrester, but it seems so apt. The more you think about your wording, the structure of your written intent, etc... the more it seems to fall to shambles. Because writing is about feelings. And freedoms definitely don't follow convention, so why should writing?

Write it first, then think about it.

Yet, ironically, I became unsynchronized. For all the papers I edited, I knew I hadn't written a creative thing in months (and now, for over a year). For everything interesting thing I read, I anxiously would realize how long it'd been since I read a full book. Something had changed.


My college experience could be described, at best, as a strange and erratic occurrence. I graduated in three years after transferring twice and attending three different colleges (and somehow, amongst all this, took a semester off). I took 44 credits within my last year and worked a minimum of 10-13 hours a week. I left my initial college with its hippie agenda to only fight to construct my own major at a college in Colorado. To add to the fun statistics: I've lived in four different states in the past three years of my life.

How does this all add up? And what does it have to do with the sudden disappearance of my complete connection to writing?

Environment. It'll make or break you - and my writing and reading, two of the things I love the most, began to reflect that this past year.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in New York, and feeling extremely bitter about the bitterness surrounding me, I decided I needed to leave the state. I couldn't handle my hometown, which happened to be located in one of the most expensive counties in the United States - and I was disgusted with how pampered a lot of kids my age were, and was also annoyed with their mindless self-indulgence. It all felt horribly fake to me. And it was this set of feelings that led to my second mini-transition in life: going to Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

Hampshire College is a private liberal arts school located in the valley of Western Mass, and has a reputation for being ridiculously liberal. There are no grades, no tests, no majors, and no credits - instead, it advertises a self-designed curriculum and a supplementary system of "Divisions (Divs)" to keep their accreditation. Having spent most of my high school years feeling being shoved into situations I didn't like that usually involved a mass amount of standardized testing, and trying to get into the county's one public arts school for Creative Writing (and failing), I thought: "this school is perfect for me! I've always known exactly what I wanted to do!" And sure enough, I got in, and everyone (even the Hampshire alum who interviewed me) thought this would indeed be the perfect school for me.

I lasted one semester there, my sanity unravelling to such a dangerous extent that my friends were begging me to not go back (the only thing that really did tempt me to go back was being accepted into a 300 level poetry class taught by Martin Espada). And so, I was in limbo, living in NY again for a month with my friend and her family as I prepared for a move to Chicago, where my mom had moved my senior year of high school.

I lasted about only half a year in Chicago before moving to Colorado in what would be the most delusional pseudo-masochistic thing I have ever possibly done to myself. While the two years I spent in Colorado were rich with life experience and were likely more good than bad, I can't help but regret them a little - in the sense that I wish I knew then what I know now. But that's likely a typical human dilemma.

How did you end up all the way out here [Colorado]? I would frequently get asked. And I always cringed before offering up the answer. I felt the true no frills answer made me look pathetic, and I always have hated the idea of my own vulnerability and/or naivety. But here it honestly is: I found out about Fort Lewis College through an ex who was supposed to go to Hampshire College (and whom I met through Hampshire), but lacked the financial resources to do so. When I ended up hating Hampshire College and he ended up not going, we were pseudo-long-distance dating, and he kept trying to persuade me to come out there. I finally caved and gave the school a chance and ended up liking it. I had decided to not stay in Chicago for personal reasons, and needed to transfer somewhere - of the three schools I applied to, I was accepted to two (one in Chicago, the other: FLC) and was rejected from the other. It seemed I was going to Fort Lewis - but, when I broke the news to him, he broke up with me.

Like an idiotic wounded gazelle, I trekked forward unto Colorado anyway, trying to ignore the limp I was carrying with me. The next two years could've been equivalent to my experience at Hampshire, except in slow motion. At Hampshire, I had a lot of problems with the people surrounding me (at the college specifically), and at Fort Lewis, it was the same thing - I just didn't realize it. People at Fort Lewis all seemed so laidback, happy, fun - and yet, I found myself completely... disinterested? annoyed? The thing that was so persistently on the surface kept dragging me away from the thing nagging at me from beneath they surface: they were all running away from their problems just like I was. The only difference was - they ran away from their problems with partying, drinking, marijuana, and a mysterious amount of shoplifting - and I dealt with my problems by writing epic-length poems, going on walks, and talking about my problems persistently to anyone close to me. This isn't to say I never tried their way - it just never worked for me, something that was reinforced while I was there.

So while people at Fort Lewis had large parties and talked about... whatever average college students talk about at parties, I kept in my own bubble knowing that if I was extricated from it, I'd bore everyone else at that party around me by talking about things like writing and feminism and school. While they went bouldering, skiing, and climbing, I cursed out the winter weather from inside my rear wheel drive car and practically heaved my way up a tiny mountain going "I GREW UP ON SEA LEVEL. I WAS NOT MADE FOR THIS. oh thank god we're at a resting point." While they had fun, I began to ambitiously load up my credit level, going "I need to get out of college. Wherever I transfer, I will inevitably hate it. It's just college. I need to be done with college." Plus, I was kinda a little done with Durango.


And thus, continuing in my theme, I enrolled in 44 credits my last year of school while working a minimum of 10 hours a week, ignoring everyone who called me "insane." It took about two months into the year for everything to come crashing down - homework assignments became laughable, going to class was questionable, migraines and nausea were persistent, and I literally started screaming and throwing books against the wall. Not only did I really hate school at this point (as I really had my whole college career), but I hated that it was destroying the things I loved. That I couldn't look at a book without thinking of a deadline. That I didn't have the time to write anything other than something that was going to be judged and handed a letter grade. That I was so nauseated and had such pain from the stress, my migraines were chronic and lack of nutrition dropped me down to 103 pounds at 5'6". I took an incomplete in one course to only spend my winter break working 20 hours a week and doing the work to get the credit for the course, completing a 47 page paper on "Feminist Sociolinguistics." And then propelled myself into basically the same schedule the next semester, minus four credits. Which then lead to hospitalization due to severe insomnia, continual sickness, and "crawling towards the finish line" as my therapist put it.

I'm still detoxing from the experience. To sound even more insane than the aforementioned paragraph, I still do not regret my decision. I needed to be done with undergraduate studies and Durango, so I finished it - at a pace I would recommend to no one else other than me (and I wouldn't have even recommended it to me). The environment was all off - ever since some trauma that occurred my senior year in high school, I began to see things more fluidly and it became stressful for me to adhere to deadlines and the type of structure an undergraduate education promises. I found it hard to relate to people who ran from all their troubles when I realized I needed to stop running from all the trauma I had endured throughout my life and face it head on, so I could actually emotionally mature. And in the intensity that is me: PTSD, anxiety disorder, bipolar, borderline ME - that meant, all or nothing. So I threw all my emotions in... to end up, months later, still really emotionally depleted. It was evidently a bargain I was willing to make.

How is any of this relevant?

I now live back in Massachusetts again - ironically in the same area Hampshire is located. And this time, it's relieving. The two years I spent in Durango were years I spent realizing the problem wasn't me, it was what I was surrounding myself with. My emotional intensity isn't a problem: it's surrounding myself with people who can't handle emotional intensity that's the problem. My workaholism isn't a problem: it's about finding the people with the same work ethic as mine so that we can positively support one another for both the good and bad sides of workaholism. I had a lot of situations in Durango where people felt the obvious solution to my problem was that I needed to party or go to a gym or do this or that. No, the obvious solution to my problem is I need to live in a positive environment that encourages, fosters, and excites the person that I am rather than draining it and telling it to not exist.

I feel the need to bring this up if only particularly because it has a lot to do with what I'm struggling with trying to start a life post-undergrad, and a lot to do with what a lot of my friends are struggling with when it comes to making decisions: "do I follow my passion or do I follow what's logical/economically feasible/expected?" Having spent weeks in MA applying for over at least 50 jobs at this point and not really hearing back from anyone, it's safe to say I've grappled with this issue still. Until recently. Last week I was randomly and excitably put into the second round of elimination/interviews with two different nonprofits in CT. I sat on this for the weekend, and then decided to take myself out of the running for both positions. Many people, who are watching me struggle a lot financially lately, can't help but wonder WTF.

In making this decision, a strong factor was remembering a quote I had read somewhere about telling if you had a positive or negative relationship with a person. It said, think about how you feel after you leave hanging out with a person - do you feel energized, excited, refreshed? or do you feel drained, tired, depressed? If you feel the former, you're in a positive relationship. If you feel the latter, you're in a negative relationship. Seems simple enough - but I don't think many people take that into consideration when they're making decisions, largely due to a perceived "obligation" in one sense or another. I realized that in taking these jobs, based off what I knew from them already, that I would leave feeling emotionally drained and stressed, something I don't need after this past year. It didn't seem worth it to me.

"I'll go bankrupt for my passion," is what I concluded to myself and other people.

Emotional needs are just as important as physical and financial needs. And everyday, I try to remind myself and other people, that even logically you will likely end up being more successful following your passion than doing anything else you might be settling for. There's a difference in attitude. And that attitude can make or break you.

Use me as a walking, living, breathing example. Listen to what your body and heart are saying you really need. Do what feels natural.


  1. However, there's a breaking point to it - the irony of irones. You can't think about it. For god's sake, do not think about writing the perfect draft your first time around - I would always tell people that, "Don't think, just write."

    this is going to be a part of my lecture for the second day of schooL!

  2. Victoria, I think that you have it right that we all need to do what is right for us no one else thanks for Sharing sandy in dgo