The Old Year in Review

I cannot remember another year as awful as 2020. True, I’ve experienced moments that rivaled the worst of 2020 (like when my grandmother and dog died within a month of each other), but collectively, 2020 sucked.

I’ve been out of work since March 13, when movie theaters closed in Seattle. While I’ve gone to the store (occasionally) or visited others after mutually quarantining (rarely), I’ve spent most of my time in my apartment, which isn’t great for mental health, but is somewhat helped by living with my girlfriend, possessing a cell phone, and owning a cat.

Having all this free time meant I could finally work uninterrupted hours on my writing projects and voice acting career, but “could” is different than “would.” I should’ve remembered the last time I was stuck at home. I’d just graduated from college and lived with my parents, since I had nothing else lined up. I tried to write magazine submissions and my first novel with no social life, which went about as well as you think it would — though time and circumstances were different (9/11 happened several months later, and smart phones weren’t a thing).

As this pandemic continues, I’ve gradually been learning to put my mental health first and to stop feeling guilty for not filling my days with endless productivity. Of the two types of work I’m focusing on, voiceover is the more physically demanding, writing the more mentally challenging.

But, to be successful at each, I have to ignore any monetary rewards attached to them, not because I don’t want to earn money putting my talents to work, but because focusing on the monetary aspect tends to strangle the creative aspect. Doing creative work for money causes me to fall into a depression, particularly during gloomy Seattle winters. Writing for any reason other than that I love writing, or doing voice acting for any reason other than that I love voice acting, ends up being counterproductive.

Speaking of doing things for money, I don’t miss work. What I miss is hanging out with my coworkers and being able to go to live events and movies. If universal basic income became a reality, artists, house spouses, and part-time workers would finally be able to put time and energy into their passions, rather than having that time and energy drained in working jobs for the “privilege” of living paycheck-to-paycheck. We’d finally get paid for the work we do, not how much money we generate. And for those people whose jobs’ only purpose is to make money, perhaps we could put that money to better use by taking it out of their pockets and putting it back into their communities.

Imagine a world where no one has to worry about not making enough money to eat. To own property. To buy clothes. To have healthcare. To pay the bills. Civilizations were formed because it was easier to band together for protection than to go at it alone. Isn’t it time they fulfill this promise and protect us from want?

Here’s hoping that when the world opens up again, we’ll be ready to demand a more perfect one.

Writing Inspiration for the Uninspired

In The Autobiography of Mark Twain (edited by Charles Neider, but possibly in other arrangements of his autobiography), Twain writes about “filling the well” when he experiences writer’s block (he doesn’t call it writer’s block, which sounds like a place where authors live). One of the techniques that worked for him was playing billiards. Just like the most productive workers aren’t the ones who regularly put in overtime, but rather the ones who are able to balance work with play, so the most effective writers aren’t the ones who sit down every day and pound out something on the computer, but rather the ones who take time to “fill the well” when inspiration leaves them. And make the habit of sitting down every day and writing something, but never mind that.

Here are some of the techniques I’ve discovered work well for filling that well for when I’m not feeling well about my writing well. It’s not a profound list, but it is a true one.

Go for a walk

Star this one, circle it, highlight it, staple it to your forehead, commit it to memory. Going for a walk is one of the best things to do when the writing isn’t coming. Heck, just getting outdoors has miraculous healing powers. If you can’t go outside, doing exercise or movement of any kind tends to help.

Clean

A cluttered house often makes a cluttered mind. There’s something about the physical act of cleaning up your workspace/room/house that lends itself to uncluttering your mind, too. It also has to do with that movement thing I mention above.

Read

Inspiration for writing comes from what you read, so if you’re stuck, reading a book can help. In fact, you should be reading at least as much as you write. And while you can read something that directly influences your writing (such as reading the same genre of book), it’s more important to choose something that inspires you and is well-written. If you’re reading something that’s poorly written, you can learn a lot about what not to do, but you won’t draw much inspiration from the words.

Be sociable

Contact with people is essential to writing about people. Even if you’re writing about pigeons, you should hang out with people.

Listen to music

Probably not something with lyrics. I find classical music works well. What you want is a mood, or at least something to distract the part of your brain that hates you and doesn’t want you to be a writer.

Play

Like Twain playing billiards, sometimes you should put aside the writing for a bit and do something purely for fun. When you come back to it, you’ll find that your well has miraculously refilled itself. Or that you’re an expert billiard player.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Writing

Back in middle school, I wrote a short story for my sixth grade English class. In high school, one of the books I read my freshman year made me think about expanding that short story into a novel. I wrote an outline, but then did nothing with it till after college, where I revisited it and began writing the novel itself. Then 9/11 happened. I finished the rough draft and started revising it. The revisions didn’t go well. So I put it aside and went to Japan.

A year-and-a-half into my Japanese journey, I decided to start reading a book my mom had given me. The book was On Writing. The part that stuck with me was when Stephen King wrote that most of his novels weren’t outlined before he wrote them. This reminded me of Mark Twain doing the same thing. Since I already had the novel in my head, maybe I needed to rewrite the whole thing (by hand) so as to avoid the pitfall of being locked into certain plot points happening at certain times.

I started my draft in Japan, an hour each day after work, completed it soon after I returned to the states, and then set about revising it. Then I moved to Seattle. I sandwiched writing in-between apartment and job hunting. The first few years found me jumping from job to job, then to unemployment and food stamps, then to a job where I had to fight for more hours. I still wrote, but not as often. And then I had to move again.

Now, finally, I’m feeling some stability with my job and my living arrangements, I’m in a great relationship, and the novel seems more and more like an albatross around my neck, while it becomes easier and easier to waste time clicking apps on my phone than it is to go on my computer, or pick up a pen, or bring out my typewriter, and revise my work currently in progress, or begin something new. Granted, the lack of sunlight sucks away at my happiness this time of year. But I think the big problem might be the lack of music.

When I was writing my novel at home (though not in Japan), I’d put on some Mahler, since what I was writing was as cataclysmic and angsty as that composer’s oeuvre. Plus, I always write better when I feel strong emotion, either negative or positive. Though I have an iPod (and access to Youtube), I don’t much like headphones, and hate earbuds even more, especially when the music has such a dynamic range that more time will be spent fiddling with the volume control than doing any typing. But now that my partner/girlfriend and I are taking care of a cockatiel for a family member, we’ve had music on for his enjoyment. Mostly it’s pop music (he’s a big fan of Michael Bublé, Ariana Grande, and Britney Spears), but last night we put on classical music, and that’s what’s playing as I write this.

The other major problem might be that I’m not the same person who started writing this tale, and so now the story must change to reflect the altered person that I am, a person who shares many similarities with the kid who based his first novel on a short story he wrote for his sixth grade English class, but whose knowledge of and outlook on the world has expanded considerably, and must revise accordingly.

Plus, there’s that damn narrator issue.