why I write

I haven’t been writing much this summer. Or, I haven’t been writing much that’s good this summer, I guess. But I have been reading, as much as my full-time nannying job will allow, and during a recent trip to the library, I picked up a book called Writing Creative Nonfiction, a collection of essays and thoughts by various writers and teachers about the genre I have come to call home. The very first essay in the book, “Why I Write” by Terry Tempest Williams, struck me, and so I wrote my own response. I’m not sure this is even worth posting in blog form, but I found it immensely helpful to sit down and consider the topic: Why do I write? Why have I chosen this as my new educational and career path? What makes this artistic discipline so valuable in my life? So here we go. This is why I write.


I write to unwind. I write to heal. I write to understand. I write to connect the two halves of my brain that so often seem separate. I write because I believe in the power of the written word. I write to learn more about the world around me. I write to make peace with the past. I write to be funny. I write to be serious. I write to stretch myself.

I write because it’s addicting. I write when I’m reading a book and the words on the page jump right off of it, beckoning me to craft my own story. I write to remember. I write to find my boundaries. I write and it’s usually not good enough. I write because it’s the closest thing to bottling a moment I want to save forever. I write because it is a constant in a life full of unknowns. I write to get the bad taste out of my mouth. I write to try and capture the vivid colors of each season. I write because I can’t sleep. I write because I don’t want to sleep. I write to empty my mind. I write in my bed, with my pillows squished up around my body, keeping me upright. I write at the coffee shop, amidst other writers. I write to understand the “human experience.” I write all the things I can’t say out loud. I write because it’s the only thing that gives me the feeling of complete control.

I write when I’m craving chocolate. I write while the warm, crackly vinyl on my turntable sings to me. I write when everything else seems hopeless. I write to unplug. I write to pretend I’m somebody else. I write to take risks. I write to be safe. I write when I feel like crying. I write when I am crying. I write when I’ve had too much coffee. I write when my wifi isn’t working. I write instead of washing my hair. I write to feel the keyboard keys clack beneath my fingers. I write things that don’t make sense. I write when the thought of watching one more episode of Lost on Netflix makes my brain melt. I write to be worthy of my mysterious, dark purple lipstick.

I write to revise. I write hoping there is at least one person out there who will understand my muddled, chaotic thoughts. I write for comfort. I write when I’m waiting for my toenail polish to dry. I write and watch the words meld together on the page into something magical. I write and it’s never truly finished. I write even when I don’t want to. I write because I know the beauty that lies in a powerful story. I write because I’m good at it. I write even when I don’t believe I’m good at it. I write for me.

I write…and that’s all that matters.

at the coffee shop

 

going

I’m not a risk-taker.

A year ago, I bought a GRE study book and began brushing up on my high school algebra for a test that, during undergrad, I had never even envisioned myself taking. I crafted a spreadsheet comparing the various costs, application requirements, and deadlines for nine different graduate schools. For ten months, I made checklists. I ordered transcripts. I filled out countless online forms with my personal information. I wrote. I deleted. I revised. I cried.

I waited.

And now, as I sit here eating microwave popcorn directly from the bag and listening to Nick Drake on vinyl, I’m done. It’s all over and I survived. I made it to the portion of the process that I didn’t ever really think about.

I spent so much time editing my writing sample, talking to current MFA students, contacting my references, and painstakingly finishing each application. It was so easy to think about each school, each choice, in theory. Yeah, I could live in Chicago or New York City. Sure, I’d move across the country to go back to school. No problem. It didn’t seem real. It didn’t seem tangible. When I thought about the future, the concept of place was this big blank space in my life. I pictured myself at work in a generic, nameless library. I pictured school, being a student again, but not a specific city. Even though I wanted so badly to get accepted, for someone to read my voice and pick me, I hadn’t thought past the arrival of the acceptance and rejection letters. I hadn’t thought about picking my life up and going somewhere completely new to study something that is, in most people’s minds, impractical. I hadn’t considered learning to navigate a new city, buying furniture, finding my new favorite coffee shop.

And now that’s where I’m at.

So I’m going. I’m moving to Spokane, Washington this fall to attend Eastern Washington University with a teaching assistantship. I’m going to be a writer and a teacher and a student. And I’m proud. Nobody forced me to do this but me. I made it happen. But beneath all of the relief and excitement, there is just as much stress and anxiety as there was while I hurdled through the application process. I might get there and be the worst writer in the class. I might not make any friends until January. I might get lost trying to find the grocery store. I might hate my life.

It’s finally starting to hit me that this place, this haven I’ve called home for the past three years and several summers before that, won’t be mine anymore. I won’t have trips to the beach in the dead heat of late August, or infuriating April snowstorms. I won’t lie awake in my bedroom on Sunday mornings, watching the light filter in and out of my curtains that aren’t quite dark enough and listening to teenagers whistle outside my window on their way to brunch. I won’t recount the hazy events of the night before with my friends, slumped in a booth in my favorite coffee shop. I won’t spend my evenings listening to eighteen year-olds pour their lovelorn hearts out while they sit on my couch and eat leftover donuts. It’s scary to think that something I’ve known so well, my life for three unbelievably formative years, will be gone. It’s even scarier yet to think that someone else — someone I may not even know — will be living it, taking naps on the couch I painstakingly selected for my living room and taking pictures of the snow-covered campus from my bedroom window right before Christmastime.

But I realize that leaving is just as much about saying hello to my new life as it is about saying goodbye to my old one. I can’t stay here forever, and if I’m going to leave . . . well, this is the best reason for me to do that.

I’m trying to be realistic. I know that I’m committing to at least five to seven emotional breakdowns over the next six months. I know that in the beginning I’m going to want to hide in my apartment and call my mom crying. I know that my workload will be stressful and I’ll say to myself “you chose this” while I pull an all-nighter highlighting passages in yet another collection of essays.  But I also know that I will settle in eventually. I will find friends to sit with while we stare at our respective computer screens in our favorite coffee shop. I will bake gluten-free muffins to take to my writer’s workshop. I will come to love my new home. It just might take a little while to get there.

I’m taking a risk, and I don’t normally do that. So . . . at the very least it will give me something to write about. Right?Green Lake

on being boring and being okay with it

I’ve been a pretty idle writer this winter. Considering the only time I leave my room and brave the below zero temperatures and four foot high snowdrifts is to go to work, the cafeteria, or possibly the local coffee shop, you’d think I’d have written enough material for my first book by now. But somewhere in the middle of the seven thousand snowstorms that have hit northern Michigan, I lost my momentum.

For the first half of this school year, my life felt like one big manic, caffeine-fueled, essay writing session, curled up with my laptop amidst pillows and blankets in my dimly-lit bedroom. In between work shifts, four mile runs along the highway, and nights out with friends, I sat beneath the glow of my twinkly lights and worked hard to crank out enough solid material to prove that my Bachelor’s degree in music isn’t the only artistic thing about me. I wrote down phrases, portraits, and paragraphs. Little moments filled the pages of a notebook that I carried with me everywhere. I made lists of topics to explore, thoughts to flesh out. And somehow, all of that work seemed worthwhile and fulfilling. Writing and revising a bunch of essays about my small, run-of-the-mill midwestern life drove me nuts and yet it drove me at the same time. I felt like I was working toward something, like I was in the middle of a marathon and, while I wasn’t expecting to finish in record time or receive any sort of prize for my labors, I was exerting everything I had in order to get . . . well, somewhere.

Now I’m waiting. Waiting for someone somewhere to hear my voice and know that it has potential, that it can be molded and shaped into something better. My thirst for knowledge, for learning to refine my craft is greater than ever, but I’m at a standstill. I don’t know if anything will even come out of all of the work I put in this fall. So the only thing I can do is keep writing. I know that. But I can’t.

I haven’t added anything new to my notebooks in weeks. I haven’t crossed anything off my list of topics. My computer is full of documents only a few paragraphs long. My blog account has 17 unfinished drafts. I know this is part of the process, that not everything I write has to be publishable or great or even slightly good. But I’ve developed the gross habit of abandoning ship anytime the writing gets rough, or my ideas seem trite, or I can’t come up with a good synonym for a word I’ve already used too many times (thanks for nothing, Thesaurus.com). I’ve hit a nonfiction wall; I’m running out of things to say about myself and my experiences, because, when it comes down to it, I don’t see myself as a particularly interesting person.

I recently got the chance to see Lena Dunham, the creator of HBO’s Girls and one of my favorite writers, speak as part of Oberlin College’s convocation. (By “got the chance,” I really mean I found out she was speaking, requested tickets via mail, convinced one of my coworkers to come with me, drove 400 miles to Ohio on my day off for the event, then drove all the way back to Michigan the next day, but whatever. I swear I’m not a creepy stalker.) As someone who wants to make a living exploring the world of nonfiction, but who is relatively a (for lack of better word) dumbass when it comes to the “industry,” I found so much solace and inspiration within her words. At one point, she discussed the concept of doing things “for the story,” something she has explored using her Girls character Hannah, and something she herself has struggled with in her life as a writer. Ultimately though, she has found a way to work creatively using her own experiences and forgoing the notion that, as a privileged white girl, her stories aren’t interesting enough to tell. She writes what she knows, and even though what she knows isn’t always the most dramatic, it’s real and compelling and relatable.

And after all, isn’t that what art is, really? It’s something that people can connect to, something that exposes the universal commonalities about the human experience. I may not have tragic stories worthy of a memoir; my parents are still happily married, I got my degree from a nice private liberal arts school, I’ve always had a roof over my head and food in my fridge. I am, by all accounts, a boring person, but I am ready to take my boring and use it to my full advantage. I can write an entire essay about nearly having an anxiety attack while attempting to navigate Chicago without a GPS, or the time I got bangs on a whim, or my love affair with purple lipstick. I can use words to make seemingly uninteresting stories seem, well, interesting. Real. And that’s what I want to do. That’s what I have to do.

I know this isn’t a new concept. I know there are plenty of people who have made their living writing what they know. But it’s taken me awhile to let go of the nagging feeling that my introverted self needs to get out more, do more exciting things, and be in situations that will fuel my writing. Now I see that I do have stories to tell. I can strive for authenticity, both in my life and in my art. I can live my life the way it is, be the person I am, and write about that. I’ve already got the material, I just have to work my ass off to make it into something I’m proud of. In my opinion, that is the true test of an artist — working with what you’ve got to make something incredible. And yeah, I’ll probably still have unfinished drafts all over my desktop and essays that never turn into anything good, but that’s okay. I’m just going to be me and write me, because, in the end, that’s all I can do.

I have no picture to prove that I was, in fact, in the same room as my idol. but I have a ticket stub that may or may not end up framed on my wall.

I have no picture to prove that I was, in fact, in the same room as my idol. but I do have a ticket stub that may or may not end up framed on my wall.

musings on HelloGiggles.com!

Hello readers! In lieu of a new post, I will be directing you to a piece I wrote that was published on one of my favorite websites today. If you’ve never checked out HelloGiggles.com before, take a look around! I promise there’s plenty of fun things to check out — after you read my essay, of course. 😉

Click here to read my piece. It’s about bra shopping and, as always, is filled with anxiety and probably more personal information than I should divulge on the internet. Good stuff!

Thanks to all of you who read my ramblings and support me in all of my writing endeavors! I want to kiss each of you on the face.

Peace,
Madeline

P.S. For those of you keeping score at home, this is my third piece of writing to be featured in the From Our Readers section of HelloGiggles. You can also check out “All I Want for Christmas is a Self-Cleaning Bathroom” and “Tales of an Anxious Texter.”

P.P.S. I promise I’ll stop writing about boobs…eventually.

how to be a writer in 15 steps

I don’t really like to call myself a writer, because it still sounds kind of boastful to me for some reason. I haven’t yet tried to make a career out of the fruits of my labors, and I don’t know that much about what it takes to “make it” as a writer, so I have a hard time seeing myself as worthy of an actual title. But, as someone who finds solace in the power of the written word and uses it as her primary creative outlet, I’m learning to embrace the term. The creative process, however? I have yet to really embrace that as a writer. Ironically though, I had no trouble enumerating my personal writing process. So here it is, in all its distracted, self-indulgent, Generation Y glory. In order to complete a piece of writing that I actually feel proud of, these are the things I must do:

1. Brainstorm a list of topics I want to write about in a ragged old notebook I found at the bottom of my desk drawer. Even add little checkboxes next to each item, so that I can be organized and check them off the list one by one as I finish writing about them.

2. Make a pretentious playlist on Spotify that I can listen to while I write and simultaneously broadcast to my Facebook friends that I am cool and artsy because I listen to an eclectic mix of Paul Simon, Bon Iver, and Tracy Chapman.

3. Make myself a cup of coffee and drink half of it before deciding that the real inspiration I need is to get a cup of $4 French roast from my favorite coffeeshop that is a 20 minute drive away.

4. Pack up my laptop, ragged old notebook of ideas, and a handful of random gel pens from middle school and get ready to go to the coffeeshop, but in the process decide that what I really need to be productive is a new notebook and writing supplies because what kind of serious writer writes down all her ideas using a sparkly pink pen in a notebook with a Lord of the Rings collage on the front?

5. Spend $117 at Target on a new notebook, some fancy rollerball pens that will break or be lost a week later, three dresses from the clearance section that I was too lazy to try on but have a 60% chance of fitting my boobs correctly, a new pair of heels that I will wear once before I realize the reason I don’t wear heels is because they hurt and I walk like a drunk baby camel in them, some lipstick that Emma Stone told me I should buy, and some trail mix.

6. Get to the coffeeshop, order one beverage that I plan on refilling for several hours, scour the place for the perfect spot to sit, and finally settle in at a little table that is near both an outlet for my laptop charger and the bathroom, which I will visit several times due to the amount of caffeine I will consume while I’m here.

7. Open my word processor and web browser at the same time. Check my email, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr accounts so that I can focus without them distracting me later. Come across a recipe for a cake you can make in a mug, a picture of Ryan Gosling in glasses that I somehow have not seen before, and an adorable video of a hedgehog yawning that I must send to my coworkers. Spend 15 minutes composing a perfectly witty Facebook status. Check in on Foursquare so all my friends will know I’m at this specific coffeeshop, then put my phone on silent because my Justin Timberlake ringtone would definitely get some glares in this hipster-filled café.

8. Write a couple sentences, then get distracted by a guy walking by who looks like the boy I had a crush on during sophomore year of college. Look up said former crush on Facebook, click through all of his recent pictures to find that he shaved off his beard and his hair looks good short, then notice he’s in a relationship. Subsequently Facebook-stalk every boy I have ever loved to discover most of them are engaged. Start thinking about how I will die alone, then hold back my tears and order that chocolate muffin I decided against earlier, but only after checking the time to see if it is too early in the day to order a glass of wine without the barista judging me. (It is.)

9. Check the viewer statistics on my blog and wonder why I haven’t gotten many hits in the past two weeks, then realize I haven’t published any new posts in that time period. Write furiously about nothing at all and get mad at myself because everything I am writing sucks and I am no closer to publishing a new post than I was half an hour ago.

10. Send some awkward selfies to my best friends via Snapchat. Get mad when they don’t respond within five minutes. Glare at the guy sitting two tables away who totally caught me taking selfies.

11. Realize that I have to pee so badly my bladder feels like it’s going to explode. Run to the restroom, then kick myself for wearing a romper because I picked literally the most involved article of clothing when it comes to going to the bathroom. Practically rip off the buttons on my romper in my frantic, rushed effort to pee.

12. Write a little bit more, check Facebook 72 more times, find out about a sale on ModCloth, buy a retro dress that’s on sale for $45 (and some hair clips so that I can get free shipping on my order of $50 or more), and finish my fourth cup of coffee. Finally give up and drive home, with only a couple disjointed paragraphs to show for my trip.

13. Get home and change into sweatpants and an oversized tshirt I got for free a few years ago. Probably take off my bra, too, let’s be real. I’m home, you can’t judge me for that. Then kill time by watching three episodes of a TV show on Netflix and drinking 18 glasses of water to make up for all the caffeine I forced down my throat throughout the day. Pretend to clean my room, while really just moving around all the stuff on my floor into a different arrangement. Have a mini dance party to that Taylor Swift song I pretend to hate but secretly love.

14. Finally get struck by inspiration at 11:24pm, while I’m brushing my teeth, about to go to bed. Rush to my laptop and begin writing with the fervor of a small child chasing a chipmunk in the backyard. Stay up too late, slumped over my computer in bed, writing a blog entry/essay/short story that I’m actually proud of. Press “post” or “print” or “send” on said bit of writing. Sleep soundly, reveling in the power of the creative process and dreaming of eventually becoming a famous writer who has a fancy office (filled with fancy notebooks and pens) in which to get distracted and frustrated while writing . . . but who still escapes to the coffeeshop every now and then.

15. Repeat steps 1-14.

on summer nights, I dream

There’s a specific kind of beauty in summer nights at my parents’ house. After the heat and sweat of the day have dissolved and the afternoon stress is all but forgotten. As the dogs stop barking and the hazy, dreamy summer sleep settles across the neighborhood. When the warm summer wind dances softly through the open windows and the rest of the house is finally silent. This is when I come alive.

From my tiny second floor bedroom, I watch the fireflies in the backyard bounce against the blackness; tiny, bright flickers of light, pricking through the dark fabric of night. I stare in childish wonderment at this marvel of nature, then light a candle to imitate them, a single flame glowing within my dimly lit room. This is my place. Here, this tiny space filled with trinkets of childhood and old sweatshirts and half-used bottles of fancy lotion that weren’t worth packing but are too pretty to throw away, this has somehow become my home again. My bed nestled in the corner, surrounded by piles of books, a box of crackers or two, and all the musical instruments I attempt to play, envelopes me as I sink down in for another night of writing and reading and dreaming.

While the rest of the people my age put on their summer lipstick and sandals and head out to grab a beer or catch a movie with their friends, I face the open window, breathe in the smell of the air, and let my hair down out of its messy knot. My tresses tickle my bare shoulders, like a new lover, timid and unsure. I slide my favorite Paul Simon album into the turntable and gently set the needle on the record, reveling in each crackle and pop before the first song begins. This whole room is filled with sounds; the slightly warped vinyl, spinning endlessly in the player, the fan buzzing in the corner, the crickets outside. Everything sounds warm.

My pillows smell like lavender as I descend even deeper into their embrace. I pull a blanket up around my shoulders and balance my mug of tea between my knees, determined to find a position that will allow me to read my latest endeavor and sip casually at the same time. This acrobatic act is all part of the ritual; the warmth of the tea radiating against my body, the fluttering of my book’s pages in the breeze as I try to hold it with one hand. It is comfortable without trying to be.

I read. I write a little. I read some more. Mostly though, I dream. I dream of stories I don’t have the ability to tell yet. I dream of friends far away. I dream of things I’ve never tried but always wanted to. I dream of my life in five years, ten, fifteen. I think back on old memories, pretty little moments filled with jokes or kisses or too much wine. I keep a notebook by my bed and jot down random phrases as the night goes on. Funny quips to use in future writings, stories I need to write down, quotes that I find inspiring. I even draw a flower doodle on the edge of my notebook paper, but it’s pretty unimpressive. Visual art has never been my strongsuit.

Eventually, my time of the night is over. The record, after its third play through, stops with a loud click. My tea is gone. My eyelids droop, heavy with exhaustion. I blow out the candle and watch the long, spindly vine of smoke wind its way through the air. I climb back into my bed, and the place for dreaming and being is now the place for sleeping. I drift off, relishing this simple night of nothing and everything all at once, and knowing that tomorrow holds another chance for this deliciousness, this peace, this beautiful summer night in my own place.

"I don't recall a single care / Just greenery and humid air"

“I don’t recall a single care / Just greenery and humid air”

I’m not a writer but I play one on this blog, and other dumb things that have crossed my mind lately

Sometimes I assess the state of my life based on whether I have anything to write about. When I’m too stressed out, I have a hard time collecting my thoughts in a coherent way. When things are going swimmingly, I don’t want to spend an afternoon holed up on my couch, clacking away on my keyboard. It’s typically in between those two extremes where I feel most productive. I need just enough stress to make me use writing as an emotional outlet, but enough positive energy to be able to focus and use my time productively. But that happy medium has been too freakin impossible to attain lately.

I’ve been lacking in inspiration, motivation, and creativity. I’ve tried countless times over the past month or so to just sit, write, and accomplish something. On one particular warm spring day (which have unfortunately been few and far between in northern Michigan thus far), I made the 20ish minute drive from campus into town, my windows cracked and Josh Ritter’s new album playing sweetly through my car stereo. The sun was out and it seemed like the perfect day to spend a little time at my favorite downtown coffeeshop, sipping a cup of local organic tea, and unloading some of the things that had been burdening my mind. (I sound like a huge hippie freak, sorry.) But after I got there, ordered my tea, and made myself comfortable at a little table, I couldn’t write anything. I opened a new Word document. I thought of the infinite possibilities I would have relished within that blank document back when I was a teenage short story writer, but I stared at my computer and nothing came to mind. I drank my tea really quickly and then had to pee right away. I fidgeted constantly. I checked Facebook 847 times. I didn’t understand what had changed. A couple months ago, I could barely sift through all of the different topics I wanted to write about. Now I had none.

Perhaps I should explain that I’ve never considered myself “a writer.” That sounds stupid now that I’m actually declaring it, because…well, I have this blog, don’t I? And honestly, I’ve been writing for most of my adolescent and adult life. But I’ve gone through writing phases. As a preteen and teenager, I wrote short stories all the time. I was obsessed with young adult fiction and most of my stories followed the typical teenage-girl-facing-the-world-slash-in-love-with-her-best-guy-friend model that I devoured, one novel at a time. As a senior in high school, I got my first (and only, so far) freelance job as a teen opinion columnist for my local newspaper. (My old columns are all in their online archives, I recently discovered, so that was a fun blast from the past during one recent and extremely boring front desk shift.) In college, I understood the mechanics of writing for academics well enough to breeze through the writing requirements of all my courses (especially my music ones, because apparently nobody in that discipline expects you to be able to express yourself unless it’s through performing or writing notes on a staff — one time I was assigned an analytical paper on a specific lied for my theory class, and my professor was so impressed by my writing skills that he gave me an A+, which I didn’t even know you could get in college). I even tutored other students in writing and took one creative writing course during my senior year. But I never considered writing to be more than just a skill that I had, a useful tool that allowed me to easily communicate in various capacities and environments. I didn’t consider it as a career choice (though I guess I have made a little money doing it and teaching others how to do it). I let it be a part of me as it always had been, but it was never a defining characteristic.

I guess the point is, writing has always just been a normal part of my life; a convenient skill when I need to capitalize on it, or an outlet to express creativity or get caught up in telling a story that’s not my own. More recently, though, it’s been a way for me to process emotions that I can’t otherwise get out. For one thing, I don’t express myself eloquently when I try to speak about my feelings. I have to get them out in writing, to put them down in black and white, in order to feel like I’m adequately explaining myself. So I do that sometimes. But since I don’t see myself as a “real” writer, I don’t have ways of getting myself past that staring-at-a-blank-screen-with-no-inspiration point. I don’t have exercises that I use to get the words flowing. I always found those exhausting when I was forced to do them in school. But sitting at that table in the coffeeshop with nothing to do but browse my Spotify playlists, I realized that it’s also exhausting to want to write, to have this desire to let the words flow freely for awhile, and not be able to do it.

So now, as I’m trying to redefine myself and my career path heading forward into my adult life, I’m starting to wonder if I should take writing more seriously. It’s always been this constant in my life, but since I saw myself as a musician for so long, the writer side of me always fell by the wayside. I’m not sure why I felt like I needed to choose between the two, but now that music has become more of a hobby for me, I feel like it might be time to let my writer side grow more. I need to force myself to sit and write, even if it’s about nothing important, nothing worth reading a few hours later. I need to come up with ways to break through that blockage I face, but I also need to accept that sometimes, the block is an important part of the creative process. I need to want to do it, but I also need to do it even when I don’t necessarily want to. I need to start writing down my observations, taking in my surroundings and reacquainting myself with the way words can express literally anything around you or within you. I need to find a way to write when I’m so stressed I can’t handle it and when I’m over-the-moon happy, and all those other moods in between.

Mostly, I think I need to see myself as a writer. So here we go. I’m a writer.