Here it is, the final installment in this trilogy of posts about a recent crazy creative journey (Read Part 1 – The High and Part 2 – Coming Down here) of writing a crazy screenplay called (for now anyway) Sweet Acid. Not that the journey of writing this screenplay is over–I still have tons of editing to do, and then need to figure out what I want to do with it–but that the crazy emotional creativity roller coaster has subsided.
And as for what got me back to normal? It’s nothing shocking. I think just about every working writer or artist or creative person in any field has said this. The cure for all that insane intensity–the good, the bad, the swinging between the extremes–is to keep doing the work.
After freaking out and not reading the beginning of Sweet Acid in my class, I continued to feel riddled with self-doubt and all that rubbish that comes when the mad dash of a creative project comes to an end and the question of “OMG what if this SUCKS?” keeps repeating over and over. Until I started working on another screenplay, tentatively called Learning to Swim (read about it here, and yes, it seriously needs a different title) the one I’m supposed to be writing for my actual screenplay class.
My friend Taunya and I started a weekly writing tradition. The idea came from NaNoWriMo. During November, there are “write-ins” all over the country. What this means is that you go to some appointed place–a bookstore, coffeeshop, cafe, someone’s house, etc–at an appointed time and write. With people. I did this a bunch in November this year. A lot of times we wouldn’t talk a whole lot about our writing, and I don’t think we ever read it to each other, but we sat there, asses in chairs and wrote. It was good to have that sort of accountability, to know I was going to this certain place for a certain time every week and crank words out. It was also good to have the camaraderie of being around other writers.
Taunya and I wanted to start doing something similar. But we realized that doing so in person would be challenging. We live on opposite sides of the Willamette River, and it would take either two buses (me) or a drive through morning traffic (Taunya) for one of us to get to the other’s place. We also realized we prefer very different writing situations. I loved the November write-ins because they were at busy places with people. Taunya wanted quiet. I’m one of those crazy people who finds it very difficult to concentrate in too much quiet. Even when it comes to schoolwork, I never, ever go to the quiet floors of my campus library, and prefer to study in crowded places with background noise. Or with music.
So we decided to do our write-ins virtually. So now, every Friday morning, we come online, close out of Facebook (we connect on Skype specifically to avoid chatting through any distracting social media sites) and write for two hours. That way, Taunya can listen to good ambient music for mental focusing and I can crank up whatever CDs are rocking my world at the moment and sing along while I write. It works for us.
So, during the first write-in after coming down off the high of the intense creative phase of my project and sinking to the depths of post-creation despair, I finally started to feel normal again. For those two hours, I just focused on the work of my other screenplay, Learning to Swim, one that has been a lot more slow-going and steady. I emerged from that feeling rebalanced somehow.
I really do think it has to do with doing the work. Absorbed in crafting something new, attuned to scene breaks and occupied with how to show this story visually, there wasn’t any room to worry about how my class would receive Sweet Acid. And it just connected me back to actually being a writer if that makes any sense. I got back in touch with the craft, the work, instead of obsessing over what people would think of it. I think it was especially helpful to come back to something that was in the middle of the writing process. If I had to start from scratch, I think the anxiety and self-doubt I was feeling over Sweet Acid would’ve dominated anything else I was trying to write. But going back to something in the middle meant I didn’t have to worry about starting a story, or finishing one, but rather to work with what was already there. And working on a new project helped dispel the tension in that, if Sweet Acid does suck, (and it really might, it’s my first full-length screenplay) I have other screenplays, and other pieces of writing, in the works.
Another thing–and this also, in its own way, goes back to doing the work–that helped was submitting my writing somewhere. I know that something that compounded all my self-doubt over my screenplay was that I was still waiting to hear about the fate of my essay that’s being considered at Creative Nonfiction. I still haven’t heard from them one way or another, and in this case, no news isn’t good news or bad news, no news is just no news. I thought I would hear in mid-May, so for the last few weeks, every time I get an email, my heart jumps.
Will it be CNF? Will it be a rejection? Will it be an acceptance? Will I win some $ for my writing? If it does get accepted and published, what are people going to think when they read it? Oh man, there’s stuff in that essay that people don’t know about me, that I sort of forgot that I never told people, even people close to me. Are they going to judge me? Are they going to be hurt that I didn’t tell them certain parts of it? What if any of my past loves who are mentioned in this piece read it and get really mad at me for writing about them (even though I didn’t really say anything bad, and changed names, and haven’t heard from one of the two people in question in over seven years)? What if my family reads it and wants to disown me (even though I don’t really mention them at all, and there’s nothing all that shocking or taboo in there, but still things they don’t know about their daughter/sister/etc)? What if CNF wants to pick my essay but gets upset that I changed names of people and places and decides against me for that? How much of that was I supposed to spell out in my cover letter? What about the fact that they’re having this big writing conference this weekend, and what if they give preference to someone who’s attending? What about all the million little tiny changes I want to make to the essay (including a slight change to the title) that would make it better? Will they pass over my essay because of it (not that they know these changes but could they just get the vague sense that this essay could be slightly better)? What if they publish it and I wish I could make all those tiny little changes but know I can’t? And the endless list of worries from the somewhat realistic to the completely ridiculous.
And I’m sure that having this list of worries about my essay only compounded all the worrying I was doing over my screenplay. So I submitted a piece of writing (a poem actually) for the first time since embarking on my dual adventures of mad-dash screenwriting and obsessive email-checking about my essay. And that act of doing something, taking action, continuing to do the work of what it is to be a writer, sending something else out so that not all this tension and pressure was focused on one essay, which may or may not make it to publication soon, it helped to break the tension. It reminded me that I have a lot of pieces, several out at different places, and even if they all get rejected, there are more to send out, more places to send out to. The writer’s life goes on.
And after those two actions–getting back to work on another piece of writing, submitting my writing–it was easier to take the third action that helped return me to normal. I read the beginning of my screenplay to my class.
And, it was a huge success! People were laughing! A LOT! In fact there is one line that I could barely get out I was laughing so hard (a line that is taken from real life, something a tutor friend of mine loves to say about one of our professors). No one seemed fazed by me writing about all this albinism and blind stuff even though blindness is something I have never acknowledged in this class before (it’s never come up). No one seemed offended that I was writing about chemistry tutors making drugs. In fact someone in class asked me how much for the mescaline hahaha. And someone told me after class that my presentation was their favorite. I was just so happy that people laughed. Even at parts I wasn’t sure would translate as all that funny.
The next day, I also read part of it at a work meeting, just the first two scenes (basically my character getting rejected from med school) and they were laughing even harder than my class. Probably because they know me (my class really doesn’t except for two people I work with who are in the class). I mean we were all sitting in this little room laughing so hard we were about to cry.
So, you know, it went fine. And I learned from it. The one question I keep getting after people read the beginning is, “What’s NMR?” so I have to find a way to explain it. It’s funny, there’s other chemistry speak in there, but that’s the thing people ask about. No one has asked what’s a Diels-Alder, or an alkyne, or a cyclohexadiene or a dienophile, but people ask about NMR. And the funny thing is, that’s actually the thing that comes back at least two other times in the latter portion of the script. It probably comes up over and over because it’s my love. And now I just have to find an unobtrusive way to explain what it is in the beginning of the script. And that’ll make sense because I have detailed scenes of people running NMR samples twice, as well as analyzing NMR data.
Oh! The other thing I wasn’t sure if it would go over so well is that I have a lot, and I mean A LOT of references to pop culture, TV shows especially. But everyone laughed at that stuff too, so I guess it’s all right. Actually, there are a lot of hidden references to TV shows, songs, etc, that aren’t spelled out. Easter eggs.
When I used to do a lot of writing groups, I used to think of writing a piece as the first step, and reading it to the group as the second, like the two had to go together. So, now, I do think of reading parts of my script to the class and the work meeting, as another part of doing the work of being a writer. Sometimes, you just gotta move forward.
Now that I’m thinking about it, this really applies to all sorts of things, not just creative endeavors. Earlier this week, I was telling someone at work about my first ever bio exam when I returned to college, how I got 48 questions right out of 50 and was mad at myself for missing those two questions. (See, this is why I end up writing posts like “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good”, I have definite perfectionist tendencies which are pretty much never helpful, in writing, in science or in life). And what I did after that exam was buckle down even more for the next one. Got back to doing the work.
I think it applies in creative endeavors, in science, in academics of all kinds I’m sure, in careers in general, in life. When your mind wants to take you to super high highs and low lows and you’re swinging back and forth, the best thing to do is take some action, keep moving forward, get back to doing the work.
But all that doesn’t mean that once this holiday weekend is over and I know I could hear from CNF about my essay at any moment, I won’t jump every time a new email comes in. Or that I won’t feel super self-conscious anytime I show my screenplay to anyone. Or that I won’t get totally caught up in the euphoria of the creative process over and over again, because I’m sure I will. But there is a way back to some sort of balance and serenity, to solid footing. At least for a moment.
Now, I’m going to go do some laundry, and then put in an hour or two on my Learning to Swim screenplay.