The Healing Power of Stories

WHAT’S PLAYING: The PoliceWalking on the Moon

Some of you might have noticed that I’ve been MIA for the past week. (If you didn’t notice, then keep it to yourself. It’ll just depress me.) The reason for my weeklong silence is that I was down with pneumonia. Way down. Like “temperature in the triple digits, followed by a day in the hospital” down. It pretty much sucked.

Recovery was a long and painful process. I felt weak, exhausted, and useless. Forget about writing or working out. It was all I could do to change my underwear every day. The first time I left my apartment to get the mail, it took me twenty minutes and two breaks so I could catch my breath.

Still, life goes on. I had fallen behind in work, school, and writing, and I wasn’t going to catch up by lying in bed all day.

So you can imagine how it felt when I woke up on the day I was scheduled to return to work and saw this.

That’s right. My first day back at work just happened to coincide with the first major snowstorm of 2012.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

So, instead of snuggling under a warm blanket with a hot cup of tea, I recuperated by driving over an hour and a half in the middle of a frigging blizzard. I’m from Mississippi folks. I have many talents, but driving in snow is not one of them. It usually involves me hunched over the wheel, squinting into the night, and creeping along at 30 mph for about a mile before I pull over to the side of the road to let other, more confident drivers pass. It’s a vicious cycle: drive for about a mile while cursing the weather, and then pull over so I can curse the people passing by, my job, and life in general.

So, add all that to a persistent cough and sore throat, and you can see why I haven’t felt up to writing anything.

By the time my workweek was over, I felt tired, empty, used up. All I wanted to do was go to bed and stay there for a month. Instead, I wrapped myself up in a blanket with a cup of tea and my favorite stuffed animal. (I was sick. Don’t judge me.) Then I did what I should have done a week ago.

I called my grandfather.

My grandfather is a professional storyteller with a voice like black velvet and a talent for fashioning worlds out of thin air. He’s also my own personal form of Prozac. I know that, no matter how bad things get or how stressed I allow myself to become, there is nothing that can’t be fixed – or at least made bearable – by just one hour of getting lost in the stories of our people.

I don’t know about you, but for me stories provide tonic for the soul and wisdom for the mind. The best thing in the world is knowing that I can make things better with just five simple words:

Amafo, tell me a story.”

(Thanks to everyone for his or her kind words during my illness.)


How to Get Past Crises of Confidence

WHAT’S PLAYING: Sam and Dave “Thank You”

I don’t have very much confidence in my skills as a writer. As a nuclear chemist? Absolutely. As a friend, sister, daughter, cousin, human being, etc.? More or less. But when it comes to writing, I can never tell just how good – or bad – I really am. Maybe it’s because art is so subjective. There’s no real measuring stick by which I can observe my skill level. (Chemistry is so much easier. If the lab blows up or I die of radiation poisoning, then I’ll know that I screwed something up.)

Case in point. Here is an abbreviated transcript of my latest breakup:

Him: “Jacqui, I’m leaving.”

Me (typing): “OK, have a nice time.

Him: “No, I mean I’m leaving for good. I’m breaking up with you.”

Me (still typing): “Uh-huh.”

Him: “I have a new girlfriend, who is five years younger and fifteen pounds thinner than you are.”

Me (absently): “Sounds like a keeper.”

Him: “Would you please look at me? You’re the worst girlfriend I’ve ever had!”

Me (still typing): “You’re probably right.”

Him: “By the way, your writing sucks!”

Me (turns away from computer and bursts into tears): “You bastard!”

(OK, maybe it didn’t go quite that badly, but you get the point.)

It’s strange really. I’m not particularly sensitive when it comes to other things. In fact, I usually respond to criticism with a snappy comeback or (failing that) an extended middle finger. But when it comes to writing, one negative comment, no matter how minor, is enough to send me into a tailspin. It’s as though someone finally pried my head open and let all the crazy out.

Sometimes I think my writing is good, better than good. I’ve studied with some of the best writers and editors in the business. I’ve tried to take in every lecture, homework assignment and piece of advice and apply it to my own writing. And on a good day, I can almost convince myself that I’ve succeeded.

Then, there are the bad days.

The days when I go back and read the same passage I’d read earlier, only to find that it’s bad. Really bad. Like “Oh my god, I wish I was illiterate just so I wouldn’t have to read this shitty writing” bad.

Writing is one of my chief joys in life, and more than anything, I want to be able to do it well. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely get over my crises of confidence, but I’ve learned a few tricks that help.

1. Stop. Sometimes the best thing to do is take a breath and push away from the computer.

2. Get active. Some might recommend walking or running, but I like to take my frustrations out on a punching bag, or better yet, a sparring partner.

3. Get inspired. This could be anything: a favorite book, an inspirational quote, even some positive feedback from your peers or mentor. Anything to reignite that spark of creativity.

4. Keep writing. And remember that, when it comes to writing, everything is fixable.

And, last but not least:

5. When all else fails, get drunk and try again tomorrow.

Of course, if you’re anything like me, then you’ll probably do this list in reverse order.


Tackling Resistance: First Book Blues

WHAT’S PLAYING: The Red Hot Chili Peppers “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”

Has this ever happened to you? You’re writing away, and realize that you’re almost finished. Your labor of love is nearly complete. At first, you’re elated. It’s almost over. All the sleepless nights and cancelled dates, they’ve all come down this moment. You let out a whoop, dance a jig, and sit down to finish your very first book.

But then, you check your e-mail. Or play solitaire. Or update your status on Facebook and Twitter. You do everything but write. The next thing you know, four hours have passed and it’s time for bed.

How did this happen? More importantly, why did it happen? What makes finishing a story so hard when starting one is so easy? Short answer: resistance. The dictionary defines resistance as “any force that tends to retard or oppose motion.”

(Baby, you ain’t kidding.)

I’ve come up against some serious resistance in my own writing lately. Words are coming slowly, if at all. I find myself actively looking for excuses not to write. Even this blog has been a struggle. I suppose I could blame it on my crazy work schedule, school, or any number of distractions, but the truth is – on a subconscious level at least – I don’t want to finish my novel.

I want to be a writer more than anything, and I want to share my writing with the world. It’s this particular novel that’s giving me fits. Why? Because it’s my first. Good or bad. Boring or whatever. This is ground zero, from which everything else springs.

Now, I find myself dreading that inevitable next step. The Critique. Yes, I know it’s an important, even crucial, step in the revision process, but I’m still terrified. What if they don’t get it? What if the writing isn’t good enough? Worst of all, what if the story sucks?

I don’t expect everyone to like my writing. (I’m hopeful, but not delusional.) But this is the story I want to tell. If it isn’t any good, well…then I’m screwed. Grammar, voice and technique, I can fix. But if the story doesn’t work, then it’s over. At least, for this novel.

How does one overcome resistance? One thing that seems to work for me is not thinking about what comes next. Focus on writing, choose each word with care and take satisfaction in the craft.

Who can resist that?