How I Started Writing

Ugh. This is one of those weeks when I really don’t feel like talking about anything specific. Here’s a random story about how I got into writing instead.

If you want to get technical, I guess you can say it started when I made comics as a kid. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories in some way, and since art was a huge part of my life I tried making comics for a while. But it wasn’t until middle school, when our family had a decent computer and Internet service, that I started writing writing. If you even want to call it that.

A lot of my earliest stories were fan fiction. I don’t know what inspired me to even write something like that except for one Legend of Zelda fan site that had someone’s story on it. There were probably some other fan sites that had something similar, but anyway, I started writing cheesy fan fiction for Zelda, Dragonball Z, and other stuff I was really into at the time.

I think my first actual story (again, if you want to even call it that) was written in eighth grade. It was a weird love story that reeked of first-time writing. Even the title, “Only For You,” was super cheesy. I don’t even know if it’s worth talking about. It still had strong video game-like tropes in it from when I was writing fan fiction about different games. Some guy goes to school, and his only friend is this girl that’s super nice to him and I guess they had feelings for each other or something predictable like that. Anyway, this guy also has a bully and ends up killing the main character’s friend, so the main character kills him, too. With his sword.

Because oh yeah, this teenage protagonist was also a swordsman, I guess.

Anyway, he leaves town and wants to find out what’s at the end of his continent (because again, let’s write a story that’s totally not about a video game). He meets this tough guy who follows him because… ? He rides a motorcycle while the protagonist… runs at super fast speeds.

Ugh. I can’t describe the cringing I’m feeling. Anyway, they meet some psychic girl that goes with them and they find this lighthouse at the end of the continent and they see the ghost of the girl that died and she told him to live life or something dumb. I don’t know. Who cares. But yeah, that was my first “original” story.

At around the same time I started writing poems. A friend/girl I liked wrote poetry too and e-mailed me some of them to read, and I e-mailed her some of mine. I can’t really remember what either were about, but you could probably guess they were the same kind of poems we all wrote as middle schoolers. There were no video game themes, thank god. They were all about feelings on growing up.

I wrote another short story during my freshman year of high school, but I honestly don’t remember a thing about it except I wrote it during a very whiny, bratty time in my life, and the story probably felt similar.

I stopped writing poems after my freshman year as well, although I can’t remember why. Maybe it’s because me and the girl I liked weren’t really friends anymore, and she was the only person I was showing poems to. So I guess I felt like if no one else was going to read them, what was the point? Stupid, stupid me.

The friends I had at the time weren’t exactly the reading type if things didn’t involve comics, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. Maybe that’s why I drifted out of reading fiction that was about real people and real feelings when I was in high school and college. That’s an unfortunate part of having your interests scattered — you can only get particularly passionate about so much, and you tend to concentrate more on whatever the people you spend time with are into. Most of the people I hung out with then were into anime and video games, so unfortunately that’s where most of my focus went.

However, I still wrote stories in high school. One of my friends wrote an extremely bad short story for one of his classes that involved him, me, another one of our friends, and that girl I liked (which was extremely awkward considering he didn’t even know her, yet was written as if he was her love interest). We went on this stupid RPG adventure to save the world from an evil man that killed our master, who trained us in the art of listening to tutorials on how to play RPGs. I won’t spoil this magical tale for you (as if you had any way to read it), but I’ll say my favorite part was definitely the time when we saved some town from completely burning down, but before somehow magically restoring it to normal, went to a perfectly intact McDonald’s where no one seemed to notice what the hell happened outside. Perfect.

I can’t remember if I was the one to come up with this idea or if it was someone else’s, but I wrote a parody to this story. His was way too serious and as a result, it couldn’t be taken seriously. So I wrote a comedy about our group of friends doing the same thing, except being idiots the whole time. My friends loved it (except for the one that wrote the original story, but we made up about it so I don’t feel particularly bad), and I ended up making four more during my time in high school. It turned into a parody series of just about everything we were into at the time, from video games, TV shows, anime, and even ourselves. It was really exciting to write them at the time because when I announced I was working on a new story, my friends would constantly ask if it’s ready yet. People were excited about something I was making. And it felt good. I would work on it as soon as I got home from school and just keep writing for hours. It was really great.

Unfortunately, those stories are really dumb and immature. We were in high school, so naturally it wasn’t going to be fantastic or anything, but I’m so embarrassed at some of the jokes I made back then. It also doesn’t help that each story was pretty much written for my friends because of all the references, so once again I found myself unable to share something I’d written with a lot of other people.

My friends and I went our separate ways after high school, and I was extremely frustrated with adjusting to college life. As much as I drowned myself in anime and video games when I wasn’t doing schoolwork, I actually did write a decent amount while I was at community college. I started a couple of longer stories (or at least an outline for them) that were more or less about my struggles with change, only I tried disguising them as fantasy stories that were more suited as scripts for anime or video games. One of them got pretty long, though — about 100 pages, single spaced. I don’t have any desire to go back and work on it, but sometimes I wonder if I should read through it again, just for the hell of it.

In my second-to-last semester at community college, I took a creative writing course. And it was pretty terrible. It was an 8:30 am class, we sat in a cold room on the basement level, it was pretty dark, and no other student was really into the class. We didn’t even really learn what made good writing. We basically took turns reading our stuff for critique, but the only people that would regularly contribute were the professor and me. I didn’t want to be that guy who had something to say about everything, but I was honestly really annoyed that no one else was showing any interest in being there and couldn’t bear the silence. Don’t want to be in the class? Drop it. Or don’t sign up for it. One thing’s for certain — that class didn’t make me want to pursue writing outside of it being a hobby.

When I transferred to my four year school, I switched my major from liberal arts to literature because the counselor I spoke with recommended I choose something more specific. Literature had three different tracks: literary studies, creative writing, and another one I can’t remember. I chose literary studies because after my experience at community college, I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about another creative writing course.

Well as it turned out, someone goofed and gave me wrong information. If I stayed on the literary studies track, I would have needed to take more courses than I was told, and all of them were courses I held absolutely no interest in. After talking to another counselor, I was advised that switching to the creative writing track would help me graduate on time (I also had a limited number of semesters my scholarship would pay for, and I already wasn’t in a great financial situation).

Reluctantly, I switched, and I’m so glad I did. The creative writing program was much better than the one at my community college. There were passionate professors and students, the classes were much more engaged, and we experienced short stories and poems outside of critiquing each other’s works.

I felt out of place, though. I was surrounded by people who were much more familiar with literature and writing fiction and poetry. I focused too much on anime and video games in high school and community college, and I felt like an outsider. I tried embracing more realistic forms of reading and writing since then, and although it took a while, I eventually found myself more at home than I was with my previous forms of writing.

At first, most of the stories I wrote were pretty dull. I guess that was to be expected, considering they were my first actual workshops. It wasn’t until I fell into a pretty big depression during the middle of college when I started writing better. Maybe it was that I’d been writing for a little while at that point, but I think it had more to do with me using that depression and using it as a fuel to write more passionately. I won’t say everything I wrote from then on was good, but I think I finally found some sort of voice, and everything I wrote from then on seemed more natural.

And there’s not much more to say. I wrote and read more in the following workshops, I researched writing and writers more, and I overall ended up experiencing more through writing and reading. It’s kind of anticlimactic, especially considering everything with my writing is so up in the air at the moment, but there you go. I’m kind of embarrassed I had such a dorky beginning to writing as opposed to some childhood epiphany by reading people like Ronald Dahl or Shel Silverstein in their libraries, but I’m a pretty dorky person so I guess that fits. :3

Different Phases of Writers

Yesterday I attended a publishing panel hosted by the college I attended. A few authors visited to discuss their experiences with self-publishing. I don’t know why, but halfway during the panel I couldn’t help but notice how different writers can be.

And I know. Like, duh. But it was one of those weird moments when you kind of step outside yourself for a minute and look at the timeline of your life. And while that feeling is fairly fresh, I wanted to touch on it a little.

So one phase of a writer is their grade school selves. It’s usually when someone is writing something for fun, like fanfiction, or when someone is trying to express themselves, like through poetry. Writers usually find somewhere online to post their stuff, like or their own personal blogs. This is usually the time in their lives where they can look back and laugh at how bad their writing was because it falls under that umbrella category of making fun of your teenage self.

Then there’s the college phase of writing. You listen to your professors talk about writers and writing and you’re in awe that you’re finally among people that understand your passion. You attend readings, slams, and other literary events on campus. You talk about your life as a writer on campus with other writers. You experience what will probably be your first form of constructive criticism, most likely about a piece that’s emotionally important to you, and it hurts. A lot. But you learn from it. You learn how to write better and you learn how to take and give constructive feedback.

The immediately-after-graduation phase of a writer’s life is wonderfully ignorant. Well, at least for me and a few others I knew. College is over; the community of supportive writers you’ve come to know and love is gone. You try staying in touch with people, and for a while you do. You talk about different writing projects you’ve started since graduating. You try to meet up and recreate some kind of writing environment like college provided, but it’s hard when everyone has their own life to live and schedules to keep. In an attempt to make your job-hunting seem more productive, you tend to talk about your writing life more often to those that normally don’t care. You start looking for writing quotes and advice to help your mind and focus stay sharp. You try to ignore the inevitable feeling of missing your college workshops.

The following phase in a writer’s life sucks. You’ve come to terms with the fact that you’re pretty much on your own for writing. If you’re still looking for a job, your dreams of being a successful writer start to diminish as you focus on more immediate problems. You focus less on writing, although the desire to keep trying still lingers in the back of your brain. Any writing you do is pretty much either for you or some kind of online network you post your work to; workshopping and constructive criticism are a thing of the past. Like college life, you begin to think the writer’s side of you should remain in the past. You try to grow up and achieve “realistic” goals.

And that’s all the phases I’m familiar with. I could guess what other, future phases would be like. There’s a phase when a writer teaches other aspiring writers at a college. There’s a phase when you’re published and develop a bit of an ego when you’re trying to promote your work. There’s a phase when writing becomes your actual job, and it starts to mean less to you as an art and more as something that needs to get done if you want to eat and pay rent. There’s a phase when you’re content with writing; you’ve been doing it for a while and you can reliably produce new content and not view it as a big deal.

And then I guess there’s whatever phase I’m currently in, when I have no idea what I’m writing or what I want to write about and just type whatever’s on my mind. 🙂

Let’s Talk Books (Sort of) – A Dirty Job

Warning: Spoilers

For those of us uncomfortable or fearful of change – especially if change happens frequently and provides little to better our lives – it helps to know there’s always something you can rely on. A constant, if I may borrow something from Lost. Like maybe there’s always been a restaurant you could go to that you’ve been visiting for years. Maybe there’s an album that always lifts your spirits. Maybe there’s a movie that you watch whenever you’re sad and you can share some of your sadness with it.

Unfortunately, these things aren’t resilient to change. They may hold up better than other things when change happens, but eventually you may find yourself not being able to count on the “rocks” in your life that you thought would always hold you together. (And for the purpose of this post, I’m talking about physical things like the examples above. People that play a similar role in our lives is something I’ll talk about another time.)

Recently I’ve had the misfortune of discovering that I no longer liked my favorite book as much as I used to. It seems so stupid to write a post about, but it’s been bugging me ever since I started rereading last month and I kind of want to get it off my chest. The book is A Dirty Job, by Christopher Moore. He’s one of my favorite authors, and starting with this book, I’ve been reading his work for almost 10 years now.

I first found it in Barnes and Noble in 2006 during my senior year of high school. I’d lost my childhood love of reading after years of being subjugated to books I held no interest in throughout middle and high school, not being able to understand the themes and concepts the schools tried to teach me, and dealing with snobbish attitudes by other students that actually liked to read. I fell into the anime and video game crowd, and at the time it seemed more of a proper fit for me so I never really missed my love of reading all too much. Sure, I’d stray away from reading manga every now and then for an actual book – I read the fifth and sixth Harry Potter books when they were released, I got really in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series when the movie was released, and I spent at least a month trying to make my way through Dracula after developing a fascination with vampires by watching an anime called Hellsing (this fascination was so great that I ended up writing my senior paper about vampires throughout literature, something that seemed a lot more interesting and badass before Twilight swept the nation).

But it wasn’t until I read A Dirty Job that I felt like I really connected with a book again. Christopher Moore wrote like I’d never seen anyone write before. The writing and dialogue was extremely humorous and felt very modern. The way his characters went back and forth with quips made me feel like I was listening to an episode of The Office, Parks and Recreation, or Modern Family (if I had been watching those shows at the time, or if they’d been created at all). The story was about a guy that lost his wife immediately after his child was born. In addition to adjusting to this new life, he was also given the task of becoming what the book coins a “Death Merchant,” who needs to obtain souls of those about to pass away and help guide them to their next destination. And yes, these last two sentences feel very dark and serious, but it’s mostly written in a light, humorous way. While the book had it’s fair share of more serious moments, it’s safe to say that it’s a comedy and everything in it should be taken as such.

And it was really interesting, too. If the protagonist doesn’t find souls in time, they fall into the hands of The Morrigan, who live underground and are trying to gain enough power back to emerge into the world and take over. There are a lot of little nods towards mythology regarding death and the afterlife throughout the book, and anyone interested in stuff like that would find a lot in the book to enjoy. The fact that it has fun with these elements makes for an even more enjoyable read.

Maybe it was because it’s not quite the same type of fiction I was forced to read in school for so long. After years of dealing with stories in anime and video games, where realism is definitely not a prominent trait, this was a really good book to help me get back into the world of fiction. There was enough supernatural stuff going on that it felt like an adventure, yet there was enough human nature and commentary in it to make it realistic enough to speak out to me, at least a little. I can’t say my love for reading came back immediately after, but over the next few years I started reading more book books. Granted, a lot of them were cheesy YA novels (which I had a total thing for in my early college days), but still. I was starting to enjoy reading again outside of manga. And it was all because of this book.

I reread this book every year, year and half tops. It’s my favorite for not just how funny and interesting I thought it was, but because it set me back on the path of appreciating fiction. It influenced my own writing style for many years, and eventually put me on the path to wanting to become a writer. If I’m ever depressed or in the need of a good laugh, I could always count on A Dirty Job.

This most recent reread, though, didn’t leave me feeling nearly as satisfied as I used to be. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the book or anything. I still laughed at enough parts, so I was enjoying it. But I don’t know, it just didn’t hold up as well. In fact, there were certain parts of the book that left me really annoyed.

For one, remember the quips I mentioned earlier? There’s a lot of back and forth conversation involving quips like these, and they’re still great, but it became more and more jarring to feel that natural flow be interrupted by stating who just said a line or sprinkling little descriptions between every few lines. I remember trying these types of conversations all the time in my college fiction workshops, and I always messed it up because I didn’t always say who said what or added additional descriptions. I wanted to capture that feel of quickly going back and forth in a conversation the way Moore had, even if he did break it up a lot with these methods. And I always felt like you could do all this in fiction, it’s just a matter of doing it well. (Do we really need so many “person a said” and “person b said” when there are only two people in the conversation?)

But the more I read A Dirty Job, the more I felt like this kind of dialogue would work better on film than in literature, and I started coming to the realization that one of my favorite things about my favorite author was becoming a source of annoyance.

Another thing: Christopher Moore is very much a guy’s author. Meaning there’s a lot of jokes in here that are more for men than women, and a lot of it’s content is aimed more for men then women. I’ve read a lot of comments about his work on Goodreads, and a lot of women enjoy his books just as much as men. And when I went to see him on tour last year, there were just as many women there as men. So I don’t know, I guess it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s only for guys.

But some of the things he says reminds me of stuff like The Man Show. Depending on context, he’d often make a lot of dick and boob jokes, and while I’m not above that, the way he did it made it feel a little juvenile. Like he wouldn’t just limit himself to saying dick, but go through the whole cycle of cliche alterations, like wang, schlong, etc. And while I can appreciate that he mixed up the vocabulary a little bit, some of these words just sound so… stupid. Like, who says “fun bags” when talking about breasts? Realistically, who? No one. It’s one of those phrases that only exists in places like… well, The Man Show, I guess. I know these sound like really petty complaints, and to some extent I agree. These were always little issues I’ve had with Moore ever since I first started reading him, but something about this latest reread just really irked the hell out of me with those little things.

Then there’s the last third of the book. It always struck me as a little off, and over the years I’ve been slowly realizing why. Again, it wasn’t until this latest reread that it actually bothered me, though. So after years of trying to get over the death of his wife, the protagonist finally finds someone. They get together, he falls in love all over again, and… ugh. The way it’s handled is very, very much like you would expect in a movie. The woman, despite having an extremely lengthy explanation of her past, is a pretty flat character. She’s one of those I-only-exist-as-a-love-interest-for-the-main-character kind of character.

It also doesn’t help that she’s written as a poor female character. She’s sweet, kind, a little naive, too supportive, etc. You’ve seen this character before and she feels very much like a plot device. I can’t say I hate her or that I hate that she and the main character find love in each other after spending so much time alone (in fact I’m happy for them, if still put off at the “new romance” phase they both go through that’s always so annoying), but the way it’s handled feels extremely rushed.

There’s also this scene towards the end of the book that makes me cringe in general. Before he goes off to fight The Morrigan in “the final battle,” he calls almost every single character from the book to his living room in this awkward, “I know I’ve been very secretive about what I’ve been doing throughout the whole book, but I just wanted to call you together to say I’m going off to do another secret thing and I may not come back” kind of thing, and god it just… UGH!

I don’t know why this kind of scene annoys me so much. Maybe it’s because, like I said, he had to keep the whole Death Merchant thing a secret from almost everyone during the entire book, so calling them all together to announce he has to go off and do more secret things seems kind of stupid. Like it’s supposed to glamorize him as a hero and everyone’s supposed to just go along with it and support him.

The fact that everyone does basically go along with it doesn’t help. To be fair, there are a lot of times in the book where people address this and try to get him to reveal what’s been going on. But they never push enough. It reminds me of Spiderman (the 2002 movie) a little too much. In fact, I don’t think it would be terribly inaccurate to compare some scenes (especially this one) to any superhero movie where a bunch of people unrealistically rally to support someone that’s been distant and secretive. And it’s like I’m just supposed to buy that because the guy is off being a good guy.

This whole scene, and the whole end of the book, really, seems very cliched and cheesy. It always rubbed me the wrong way, but again, this latest reread left me cringing.

Writing this was depressing. I feel like all I’ve done was bashed Moore and this book. Please don’t get me wrong, Christopher Moore is still one of my favorite authors, and I’d like to believe that in some form this book is still one of my favorites, if for no other reason than the role it played in my life. But this was one of those cases where I was extremely aware how something I could always count on had failed me. I originally thought it was because I just haven’t been in a reading mood lately. Like maybe I just didn’t feel like reading and that’s why I never really wanted to pick it up, forcing myself to finish it. And I guess part of that could be true, but the more I think about it, the more I realize I haven’t been in a reading mood for a little while now, but I still found myself enjoying other books way more. Just like with my love for anime, I’m beginning to think I’ve simply outgrown this.

And that’s hard, so, so hard to admit after it’s been one of my constants for almost 10 years now. But I suppose in some ways it’s good. I guess it shows some signs of growing up. My tastes have definitely changed over the past few years, and I’m glad they have. What I look for in fiction is very different than when I first got back into reading it all those years ago, so I guess it’s a little natural to be put off by this book. But even during those times of change, this book always did something for me, whether it suited my tastes or not. I guess that’s what this all comes back to and why it irks me so much – the book couldn’t do for me what it always could. And I needed it to.

“Mature” isn’t something I’d say to describe myself, but I don’t think I’m completely immature, either. I’m not above liking stupid things and enjoying the immature. I mean geez, the other day at work I picked up this decorative Easter chick, held it out to my coworker, and said “Here, I got you this because you’re a – hot chick -” and then proceeded to laugh and grin at my oh-so-clever pun. I’m not above stuff like this. But I think there’s a line between immaturity and being juvenile, and unfortunately, a lot of stuff in this book came off juvenile this time around. And that really scares me.

Some things should always be counted on. And when they can’t, it can be really unsettling.

Writing and Arting and Goals

Oh yeah. I’m supposed to be a writer. I should probably do the thing. With the words. For something other than the blog.

So last year I made several posts giving “advice” (please read that while doing air quotes) on writing when I started doing the blog. Looking back on them now – and a lot of my older posts, if I’m being honest – they seem so unlike me. Like, who am I to be giving anyone advice about writing? I guess I was still in the mindset of desperately trying to keep being a fiction writer after graduating college, and I was trying to share what I learned from other articles and authors about writing. I was very much into the idea of “if you want to be a writer, then start acting like one,” blah blah blah, post-college attitude, pre-I can’t find a job I’m qualified for even with a B.A. and it’s been two years since I graduated thoughts.

And geez, how I can’t even follow my own advice. Aside from the blog, I really haven’t done much writing in almost a year. There was a lot building up to it; the lack of effective workshop classes now that college was done, the lack of support (or even care) from most people; my own overly critical judgements of my work; the fact that all of my fiction pieces started sounding like the same thing and I was starting to feel like I was a one-trick pony…

And then I got rejected from my school’s literary magazine last year, and I don’t know why, but that really hurt. I made it the year before, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time on the short story that got accepted that year then the one I submitted last year. I put a lot of time into that one, a lot more time than any other story I’d written since I was actually in college. I was even able to workshop it with someone that used to be in my class. And one of my friends was on the team that selected stories to go in, and she kept telling me how there are so many bad entries and I’m not one of them. And I overheard someone saying that year’s edition (the one I was rejected from) had a lot of pieces that weren’t so great.

So even though I’ve been rejected a bunch of times before, this one kind of… stung. Definitely felt like I wasn’t really cut out for writing.

And then I fell into a very big depression shortly after due to something else, blah blah blah, how many times am I going to talk about being in the same state of depression, etc., etc. Long story short, it’s January and I think I only wrote 1 short story since getting rejected from my school’s literary journal. That was last April.

Oh, and that 1 short story is a revised draft of a story I did during college in 2011. Granted, it was a heavily revised draft, with half of it being brand new material, but still. Doesn’t really feel like I’m the fiction writer I wanted to be.

I don’t want to blame the depression, but it’s kind of hard for me to delve into writing fiction when my mind’s kind of… well, not so great. I mean I could definitely use this opportunity to write something involving the things I’ve been feeling. You know, turn that into a work of fiction.

But it’s hard when you’re still having trouble facing your own shit.

I guess I took a somewhat extended break from writing. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t do anything during that time. I started a few short stories, I have this collection of random scenes of random characters in random points of view that I occasionally add to – kind of hope it will grow into some sort of novella or longer work some day. But it’s mostly been the blog for a while, and I really want to start getting back into fiction.

And don’t get me wrong, the blog’s been great. I’ve been able to try out different styles of writing. And doing this weekly, even when I have no clue what I’m going to talk about some weeks (like this one), has kept me on my toes. I may have been slacking in writing fiction, but I’d like to say writing here every week has helped my writing abilities in some regard.

I’ve been focusing a lot on other art projects in my absence of writing fiction, at least. You guys have probably seen some random Perler bead projects I’ve posted, right? Doing those is one of the ways I cope with the depression. It started out as a way to distract myself, but I’ve been loving it so much that I use a lot of potential writing time working on stuff like that. I reasoned that if I wasn’t making anything I was proud of in fiction, then I may as well concentrate on other creative mediums that I am proud of. And I really am proud I started doing the Perler stuff, I’ve wanted to for a long time and it always feels good to finally do something you’ve been wanting to do for a while. I can’t say everyone shares my enthusiasm for it, but those that do really love what I make, and some of them are even saying I should start selling them. And you know what, I would really like to! I’m going to start looking into some craft fairs, and maybe even selling them on Etsy. Like I said, I’m not having much luck finding work, and even though selling Perler art isn’t going to make me anywhere near enough money to move out and get my own place, it wouldn’t hurt if I could make a little extra money doing something I love.

I’ve also been trying (or meaning to try) incorporating some art into some of my posts. I mentioned last year when I reviewed Hyperbole and a Half that I wanted to try telling some stories the way Allie Brosh does, and I’m ashamed I haven’t even done one yet. My post about the first semester at college was supposed to be one, but at the last minute I just tailored it into a normal post. I’ve got one about my trouble with weight loss lined up. It’s written and everything. I just have to do the art. And I keep talking myself out of it because I feel like I’m always going to hate what I draw. I guess kind of like writing fiction.

Anyway, sorry if this post was kind of scattered. I guess this is a bit of a personal update post more than anything else.

Oops. Oh well.

Next week’s gonna have that art in it as I talk about trying to lose weight. There. I said it. Now if it’s not done, I’ll look pretty darn silly. 🙂

Top 10 Books I’ve Read in 2014

I’ve always wanted to make a top 10 list. So why not? Let’s do it. I was going to save this for my last post of 2014, but I’m pretty sure there’s going to be one more Let’s Talk Books segment before the year is over, and since I’m fairly certain my last book to read this year isn’t going to make the top 10, I don’t see why I can’t present this one week earlier. (Ha. Present. Christmas is this week. That’s funny to me.)

First, I want to say this list does not contain books solely released this year, so if anyone has stumbled upon this post looking for the top 10 books released in 2014, well then I’m sorry, but this isn’t that list. It’s just a top 10 list from books I’ve personally read this year.

I wanted to make a couple of rules or else this list would have been a little unfair. I’m only choosing one book per author and one book per series. Also, there are a lot of things that went into consideration for this list, including my preference in writing style, originality, and how memorable it was for me. I tried not to let my own bias influence what was placed where on this list, but I’m not perfect, so take this with a grain of salt if needed. Oh, and if it wasn’t obvious, there might be spoilers.

Well enough talking, let’s do this.

#10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

I was a little surprised to see this sneak up on the list. I’ve liked the Harry Potter series since elementary or middle school, but I was never in love with it like most of the fans I know. I had a decent grasp on the overall plot and main characters, but I’d forgotten so many details. It was obvious that it’s been a while since I experienced anything Harry Potter-related, so over the summer I finally started giving the series a long-overdue reread. And while I really enjoyed getting into this universe again from the beginning, my feelings for the series remained the same: I like it, but I’m not in love with it.

That being said, I was really happy to discover just how much I loved the fourth book in the series. I always remembered this one being my favorite, and now I have a good reason why. There are major turning points in this book: Voldemort’s finally been resurrected, Ron and Hermione’s feelings start to become more complicated, Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world are starting to reveal more of their weaknesses and secrets to the readers, and I feel like Cedric’s death is what causes Harry to actually see what a threat Voldemort is, as opposed to hearing everyone else say what a threat he is. The entire last part of the book is intense, and while I’d agree that Voldemort drops a shit ton of exposition, it contains info that I’d waited almost four books to find out about.

The first three books, while having an overarching plot of preventing Voldemort from returning, always had their own separate plots that began and ended within their respective parts. The Goblet of Fire is, at least in my opinion, when Harry Potter starts becoming a little more mature, both in its subject matter and writing style, as well as starting something that doesn’t end when the last chapter is over, let alone end positively.

Unfortunately, I haven’t finished rereading the rest of the series yet, so it might be premature to say this is still my favorite of the series. But compared to the other three (especially Prisoner of Azkaban, which honestly felt a little underwhelming), Goblet of Fire definitely stood out the most in the series.

#9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

This was the book I did my first Let’s Talk Books segment on, so I guess it’s not surprising it made the list. Since I already talked so much about it, I’ll try to keep this short, but if you want to know more you can read what I wrote on it here.

This year was my first time reading this book since I was in high school, and not only did I still like it, I enjoyed it even more. I wasn’t exactly the smartest guy when I read it the first time, so maybe it was good I grew up a little and learned better literary analysis skills in college before coming back to this one.

Aside from what I already wrote about it, there’s not much more to say. As someone that still feels lost and burdened by what society labels as “normal,” there was a lot in this book I could relate to. McMurphy’s an extremely entertaining character, the descriptions of the Combine are very strong, and although it’s more likely I’d view the movie again before reading the book (it’s faster to rewatch a movie than reread a book, after all), there’s an extremely satisfying charm to seeing the world through the Chief’s point of view, which the movie fails to show. It makes the ending a lot more satisfying, too; seeing the Chief break free after spending so much time reliving his memories and struggles makes the escape seem well deserved, even a personal achievement.

I can’t say much more. It’s a really good book that I feel still stands strong today.

#8. Bill Warrington’s Last Chance by James King

I picked up this book a couple of years ago as an impulse buy. Something about the cover really drew me in. And I know you shouldn’t judge a book by it, but never underestimate the power of a well-made one. It’s certainly more interesting than the bland, giant text some authors use to broadcast their names and titles.

Of course, I wouldn’t have bought it if the book didn’t sound interesting. And thankfully, it was. Bill Warrington’s Last Chance is about a dysfunctional family (already a plus for me) that mostly centers around Bill Warrington, a grumpy, unlikable old man whose actions keep pushing his family away, and his granddaughter April, a teenager who dreams of becoming a musician and wants to get the hell away from her mother. Each chapter focuses on one character’s point of view (another plus for me), but I forgot there are also April’s mother and uncles’ perspectives, as well. I always remembered the book being just about Bill and April, so it was nice to see a varied amount of voices spread throughout the novel.

Bill and April end up taking a cross-country trip with the rest of the family following after, and I guess you can say there’s a lot of coming-of-age, maturing, and self-reflecting themes throughout the book. The book has some mature elements to it, but it never goes too hardcore or anything. It’s not like it’s a family that has physically abused drugs and each other, but I feel like it does a good enough job to capture the realization of how distant and hurt people can become due to a moderate amount of dysfunction many families can produce. In that way, I feel like it’s relatable to many people, but not so intense that it would stand out for all of them.

Still, there’s something about this book I really like, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s because we get to see everyone’s story play out; they all seem simple at first but then develop a pretty decent level of complexity I honestly didn’t see coming. Maybe it’s the familiar themes of family dysfunction I can relate to. Maybe it’s all the different POVs and how well they work together. Maybe it’s the pacing. I honestly don’t know. But something about it grew on me over the years, and when I reread it in the spring I couldn’t help but love it all over again. It’s definitely something I would at least recommend borrowing from the library, as I’m not sure a lot of people would love it the way I do. But it still earns a spot on my top 10 list.

#7. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

Another book I did a Let’s Talk Books post on (don’t be surprised if this is a thing with this list), so again, I’ll try not to repeat myself. You can read it here if you want more details.

I read Fight Club for the first time last year, and it instantly became one of my favorite books. So when I got a Barnes and Noble gift card last Christmas, one of the first books I went out and bought was something else by Chuck Palahniuk. I picked up Survivor, and it was one of the first books I read this year.

As a writer, there were a lot of aspects to this novel that I liked. The pacing, the many detailed descriptions of how seemingly random things work, Fertility Hollis, how the chapters and pages counted down; everything about the writing style seemed very different from what I was used to reading, and I think it worked out very well. It reminded me of my experimental writing workshops from college, and made me happy to see a published novel that took risks I don’t think many readers could appreciate.

If I get another gift card to Barnes and Noble from someone, I’m definitely going to check out another book by Chuck Palahniuk. Survivor definitely made me want to check out more of his work.

#6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

No. No. No no no no no no.

Why. How. You’ve read my rants about this book, right? How is it even possible this book worked its way into my top 10, let alone this high?

Well, I have no clue. But as I was assembling the books for this list, I couldn’t help but feel I remembered The Fault in Our Stars almost better than any other book. This is where some bias may come in; the time when I was involved with this story was a really shit time in my life, so maybe that’s why it always seems to come to mind when I reflect back on 2014.

But even so, wouldn’t a shit time make this book rank even lower, if at all? Well, yeah. So there has to be something else besides it being memorable for unpleasant reasons.

Well, there’s Hazel and Augustus. They’re easily my two most hated characters of 2014.

Hmm. Doesn’t really help explain why this book is #6.

Well, I’ll be honest: in terms of writing style and originality, I can’t give The Fault in Our Stars much credit. But all of its shortcomings aside, and as much as I hated the two main characters, I still liked the book (liked it enough to read it twice, apparently). It may not make much sense, but… well, in some weird, creepy way, I guess I warmed up to the book sometime during my rage-fueled yelling sessions as Augustus said something disgustingly corny. And, well… like it or not, it is extremely memorable. And I don’t want to admit that, because every previous book on this list is technically better than The Fault in Our Stars on my radar. But well… I don’t know! I just remember this book most of all, and I have to give the book credit for that. It must have done something right that I can’t quite grasp at the moment. Perhaps a retrospective should be in order sometime in the future.

#5. The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Although a couple of other people have been threatening his position lately, I think it’s safe to say that Christopher Moore is my favorite author. He’s the man that got me back into reading, he’s influenced some of my own writing, and he presents a brand of humor in such a way that only he can. And I even had the opportunity to meet him this year when his new book was released! Too bad it was during the before-mentioned shit time. It’s a very weird feeling to have one of the best and worst times of your life intertwine simultaneously.

That being said, The Serpent of Venice also has some bias as being read during such an important time in my life, let alone this year, so it’s memorable factor is naturally going to be high. But it’s also really good, which is why it places so high on the list. The Serpent of Venice is the sequel to Fool, a wonderfully humorous retelling of King Lear from the fool’s perspective. The fool, Pocket, returns as the main character in this book, which retells Othello and The Merchant of Venice, as well as Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado (unlike Fool, I haven’t read any of the works The Serpent of Venice is based on, so I can’t personally say how much of each work is represented in the book).

If you liked Fool, you’ll probably enjoy The Serpent of Venice just as much, if not more. Pocket is such an enjoyable character, and it’s always entertaining to see him take advantage of his role as jester to openly make fun of and criticize every major villain in the plot. The only bad thing I have to say about it is, without spoiling too much, everything Pocket worked to achieve in Fool is practically thrown away. But since the book works so well on its own, as well as the fact that it was extremely hard to put down once I got into it, I’m proud to say it deserves its place on this list.

#4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I know this might piss a lot of people off, but tough. The Catcher in the Rye is still a good book and one of my favorites. I just did a Let’s Talk Books about it, so go read that if you want more details about why this book has such a connection with me. But short and to the point, I love the train-of-thought narration. I love what a flawed character Holden Caulfield is. I love the commentary he feels the need to express on everything. I love how I don’t feel alone when I read this book.

Both personal preference and the quality of the writing style earn major points with me. There’s not a lot to say that hasn’t been said already. It’s a great classic that I hope to always enjoy revisiting.

#3. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

This is definitely one of the most memorable books I read this year. Once again, I went over it in a Let’s Talk Books post, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is pretty much exactly how it sounds; the main character is an imaginary friend and must find his kidnapped real friend. It’s a good story, although a little predictable at times, but I still thought it was a fun and unique read.

Of course, what really won me over was the rules established by the author for how imaginary friends can behave. You’d think they can just appear and reappear at their creators’ will, but no. These imaginary friends live their own lives outside their creators. And they’re only as capable as their creators imagine them to be. For example, a young child may not grasp the concept of an imaginary friend moving through doors, so if one gets trapped in a closet, the imaginary friend’s life is at risk. The child may forget about him and never come back, and by the time the closet door is opened again, the friend will have disappeared.

There are lots of rules like this peppered throughout the book, and it makes even the smallest tasks seem surprisingly intense. It’s definitely worth picking up the next time you’re at the book store.

#2. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Ah, Nick Hornby. He’s the only fiction author my sister reads, and I finally decided to see what he’s all about. She let me borrow four of his books over the year, and I’m pretty sure three of them were going to go in my top 10 if I didn’t limit one book per author. It was a close call between this and High Fidelity; I loved them both almost equally, but High Fidelity’s ending really let me down, so I’m going with A Long Way Down.

I read this during the middle of a pretty bad depression, and in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best idea; it’s about four different people who run into each other as they’re each about to kill themselves. They all resolve to put that on hold for a predetermined amount of time, and even though they don’t like each other, they end up helping each other move past their depression and issues.

The fact that none of them really like each other (in addition to being told from each of their points of view) makes the entire book really interesting when it could have been easily predictable or cheesy. I can’t even say they like each other by the end, but that aspect makes them all have an interesting relationship with each other that I don’t think even they understand. It’s like they’re all on their own personal paths to something, and the others are there for company and some degree of support, and that’s it. But the fact is, they all have depression and suicidal thoughts in common, and that alone forms a weird bond between them.

Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Catcher in the Rye, there’s a lot of stuff in this book that clicks with me. There were so many quotes and passages I felt I could relate to that I started keeping a Word document of book quotes. You could say that about all of the Nick Hornby books I read this year, actually. There’s something about his style that hits pretty close to home.

I know the premise sounds depressing (and I won’t lie, it is), but there’s also a good deal of humor mixed in as well. It’s definitely an interesting read, and something I’d recommend checking out at some point.

#1. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

You know how much I loved this book. You must have known it was going to show up on here somewhere, maybe even predicted it was going to be #1. I think even when I was considering a top 10 list, I knew it was going to be #1. I tried justifying how that wasn’t fair, because it’s not written like a traditional book and how it’s a collection of short stories and illustrations from a blog, so it should be in its own separate category, but I couldn’t do it. Hyperbole and a Half was my favorite book I read this year.

This book made me laugh the whole way through. Like, laughing out loud, had to put the book down because I was in tears laughing. As a 20-something-year-old, I felt like there was so much I could relate to in this book, which happens to be written by another 20-something-year-old. Allie Brosh recounts a number of funny, exaggerated stories from her life that bring a smile on my face by just thinking about them. The fact that she can openly talk about her anxiety and depression issues through her stories, as well as being brave enough to poke fun at them, is also a major plus in my book.

She combines narrative and intentionally crude drawings for an amazing story-telling experience that couldn’t be achieved by using just one or the other. Coming from a writer, this may not make much sense, but no matter how good you are with words, I’ve always believed that sometimes a picture can just get something across much more effectively. This is something Allie Brosh seems to understand, and she takes full advantage of it in her book. She’s actually inspired me to start incorporating some art of my own into different projects, and hopefully I can focus enough to make that happen next year.

Well, there you go. My top 10 books of 2014. This was actually harder to make than I thought it would be, so if you’re still reading, thanks. If you have any Christmas money you’re looking to spend (or if you need to make a last minute gift purchase for someone that may like these books), give one of these a try. And if you want, let me know some of your favorite books you’ve read this year. Merry Christmas! 🙂

Let’s Talk Books – The Catcher in the Rye

Yup. We’re talking about it.

However, I don’t really want to go too into analyzing the book in this post. Actually, I wanted to talk about the love and hate surrounding Catcher in the Rye, and there’s certainly a lot of it.

So I read Catcher in the Rye for my sophomore English class in high school. High school was a pretty strange time for me; I’d gotten too frustrated reading books on my own because I never seemed to grasp what my teachers wanted me to take from them. It had turned me off of reading for a long time, and the only stuff I actually read a lot of was manga. I didn’t rediscover my love of reading until after high school, but that’s besides the point. All that being said, I remember Catcher in the Rye being one of the required readings I enjoyed, although I honestly don’t remember why. It wasn’t like I read this during high school and fell in love with Holden Caulfield or anything, which happens to be one of the things haters of the book hold against the fans. I’m fairly certain I forgot everything about the book shortly after finishing it.

I didn’t pick it up again until last year. I was 25 and I loved it. It had been on my to-revisit list for a long time, I finally found my copy, I read it, and I loved it. I was surprised by how much I loved it. There’s usually a decent amount of distance between me and any work of literature from this time period, but I was shocked at how well it held up for me. From a writer’s point of view, I find it really impressive that a book written so long ago has a train-of-thought narrative style that feels not exactly modern, but familiar enough for me to find extremely likeable.

For me.

Look, I’ll admit it right now, as much as I love Catcher in the Rye, I get why it’s not for everyone. I can see why people hate Holden Caulfield. I can get why they don’t like the train-of-thought narration. I’ve tried this style of narration before for some of my writing assignments in fiction workshops, and it was very, very hit or miss. Whether or not it’s done well seems to be irrelevant; I honestly think this writing style is something people either love or don’t, and I’ll bet if you asked the fans and haters of this book what they thought of the train-of-thought style the novel uses, they’ll love and hate it, respectively.

I can understand why they think it’s overrated. To be extremely blunt, nothing “happens.” This is one of the major complaints people have about the book, and I guess in the literal sense they’re right. Holden gets kicked out of school, he dicks around and complains for 200+ pages, and the book ends. In the sense of literal things happening, nothing much does happen.

The thing is, this is a book that’s more about the observations the narrator is making rather than the physical things that are happening in the plot. I can see Holden desperately trying to connect with other people on the spur of the moment and getting mad when they don’t turn out like he hoped they would. I can see Holden struggling to accept how the adult world is filled with people that constantly need to show off to others to obtain their self-worth. I can see Holden missing the innocence of childhood and trying to avoid the inevitable fact that he not only will become one of those “phony” people he hates so much, but is actually in the middle of that change.

(And as a side note, another common complaint about Catcher in the Rye is that Holden is a hypocrite and does many of the things he hates other people do. Yeah. He does. That’s the point. I honestly thought that was fairly obvious, but it’s something that seems to fly over a lot of the criticizers’ heads. Holden is a teenager. His beliefs and his actions aren’t always supposed to be the same. That’s not how teenagers tend to work. And if that’s not enough, Holden does flat out tell the readers that he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” (22) He establishes his potential as an unreliable narrator pretty early in the book. When people hate him because of these things when his character is intentionally built around these flaws, it kind of makes me feel like they’re missing the point. Sorry for the rant, I just wanted to get that out of my system.)

I like stories that are more about the observations and ability to connect with readers that have similar thoughts. I’m not saying plot isn’t important, but after reading and writing short stories for my fiction workshops during college, I’ve learned to appreciate this aspect to storytelling. It’s not like Catcher in the Rye is the only book to do this. Hell, it’s not like books are the only thing to do this. Movies do this, too. Clerks is a pretty good example of not a lot happening in the plot but still being able to show something through character interactions and observations. But literature and films aren’t the same, and I guess it’s not completely fair to try comparing the two. I think the point I’m trying to make is, some people need a beginning. They need people physically going places and physically doing things, and they need to be more interesting than everyday events. Some people need a bad guy. Some people need a romantic interest. And then other people need characters to relate to. To have a story make a comment or observation about real life that makes the reader feel like they’re not alone. Different people come to books (and all forms of media) for different reasons, and I think Catcher in the Rye is one of those books that only caters to a certain type of audience.

What about Holden Caulfield? Well, like the way the story is presented, people either seem to love or hate him. A lot of what I said about appreciating the writing style can be applied to appreciating the main character, so I don’t think I need to go over him too much in that regard. What I do want to try to talk about is why Holden (and I guess to an extent, the book, although the book and Holden are so closely linked they may as well be one entity) is obsessed over, for better or worse.

Liking or hating Holden Caulfield also seems to be closely linked to the reader’s personality and tastes. People like characters. People don’t like characters. They finish the book and move on.

Not Holden. Like the characters in Twilight, people hear someone talking about them and come rushing over, either adding praise or criticism. Is it something in the hype? Catcher in the Rye is a pretty popular book, I guess. Everyone knows it and most people have read it at least once. But it’s old. And yeah, it’s talked about a decent amount in literature circles, but it’s not like there’s a ton of posters and t-shirts waiting in a bookstore for a herd of fans to pick up (you need to go online for that). If you didn’t like Catcher in the Rye, and you heard great things about it beforehand, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking it was at least a little hyped up.

But what about other popular classics? 1984? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Lord of the Flies? Anything by Shakespeare? There’s a ton of stuff just as popular as Catcher in the Rye, and while it gets its fair share of hate as much as love, it never seems nearly as bipolar as the love and hate this book receives. It’s almost like you have to dedicate yourself to loving or hating it.

So is there something else? Well… all right, hear me out. Let’s say you know someone who has a lot of trouble expressing themselves. This person is very lost in life and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. They want to do something, there’s a definite drive there, but they don’t know what it is and they wear themselves out trying to think of it. They have a lot to say about a lot of things, and despite needing to get it off their chest and needing someone to listen, understand, and try to support them through life, it can come off as very whiny.

Sound familiar? Are you one of these people? Were you one of these people? Do you know someone like this? Do they frustrate you? Is the situation frustrating because you want to help them but can’t, and you get mad at them? Do they simply annoy you?

Holden Caulfield is one of the most real characters I’ve come across, for better or worse. Holden has serious emotional issues. He needs help. It’s hard to see for a lot of people because it comes off as whining. But as my regular readers may be aware of, I write a lot of posts about mental health and trying to cope with things. I can’t help but feel the ability to understand, tolerate, and deal with mental health is a big factor in dealing with Holden. A lot of people complain that the only reason fans of Holden Caulfield like him so much is because they are him.

You know what? Yeah. We are. Not all of us have our shit together. Not all of us have found our place. Not all of us can communicate with other people the way we’d like. Not all of us have found somebody. A lot of us are lonely and scared and angry and need to know we’re not the only people in the world like that. Looking at Holden at a personal level, this is why we love him. And I don’t think that’s something we should be ashamed of. Should we aim to be like him? No. Should we aim to recite his word as law? No. That’s not the point of Holden, or any flawed character for that matter. He’s a mirror that shows some parts of our lives, whether it’s past or present, and we take comfort in knowing we’re not alone.

Communicating with many people that hate Catcher in the Rye is like communicating with people that either don’t have a tolerance for people with depression and other mental health issues, or don’t understand them.

At least for me.

I don’t want to generalize, but if I’m going by my personal interactions with people that hate Holden, this seems to be a recurring theme. Maybe this is why I felt the need to try understanding why people hate or love this book so much, and the need to voice my own opinions about that love and hate. I reread this book last week, and I honestly couldn’t help but notice the similarities between how people talk about Catcher in the Rye and how people deal with mental health. I don’t want to criticize anyone by saying that, or assume anything, or make any kind of hurtful statement to those that genuinely don’t like the book. But the way people almost unprovocatively lash out at Catcher in the Rye makes me feel like they have some personal issue with someone like Holden Caulfield.

Or maybe not. Who knows? Maybe they really just hated the book and that was that, and I’m looking too much into other people’s reactions. :p

At any rate, I hope this made some sense. It’s a little hard for me to put my thoughts about all this together, and I’m sorry if it turned into a bit of a jumbled mess. If it’s been a while since you’ve read Catcher in the Rye, whether you loved or hated your last read, try it again. I think this is going to be one of those books that affects people in different ways at different times in life.

Info for my edition of The Catcher in the Rye:

  • Published 2001 by Back Bay Books
  • Paperback, 277 pages
  • ISBN 9-780316-769174

Don’t Give Up on Your Craft

When I was on Facebook this morning, one of my friends from college was talking about looking for a new job. Among the comments following her post, it sounded like she had given up on writing. I haven’t talked to her in a while, so I’m not exactly sure what her thoughts on the matter are, but she was so focused on being a travel writer when we were in school together. Now, almost two years after graduating, she doesn’t even want a writing job.

It’s not like I’m particularly surprised; a lot of students from my writing workshops stopped writing after graduating. The thought of being a published writer someday is a pretty comforting thought when you’re in college. You spend so much time focusing on your craft, and maybe some publishing opportunities in small, college-supported contests that you don’t even worry about what kind of job you’re going to look for. Hell, I’m still looking for some kind of job I’m qualified for. It’s not until after you leave that network of supporting writers and go back to your home life that the doubts about how you’re going to use that degree start to noticeably manifest. Snarky remarks by relatives (so what are you actually going to do with poetry?), the lack of interest in your craft by other people, and for many, the need to start making substantial payments on student loans, are enough to start discouraging anybody from following their writing passion.

Stuff happens. Life gets in the way. Your focus and interest in writing starts to fade. It’s pretty easy when you don’t have a professor demanding another draft of something on a regular basis. I’m pretty guilty too. This year’s been shit and has demoralized the fuck out of me. I haven’t completed a short story in half a year, and although I’ve started several since then, I haven’t made nearly as much of an effort as I used to. If it weren’t for these weekly blog posts, I honestly couldn’t even call myself a writer anymore.

People come from and continue on different walks of life, and unfortunately, not all of them are going to support your desire to write. Accepting that you may never have anything published or “succeed” as a writer is something you should do as early as possible. It’s not being negative, it’s being realistic.

But don’t give up on it just because it’s not going to make you money. If you started writing, if you went to school for it, if you really wanted to perfect and continue appreciating the art of your craft, then don’t give up on it. You’ll have less time for it as the years go on, and you’ll probably be less enthusiastic about it too, but if you really love it then keep doing it. A passion for the arts is a true test; you see how much you really love something when it’s not working out for you, and finding that out is a pretty strong life accomplishment in and of itself. Don’t be discouraged by critical family members who don’t “get” it. Don’t feel too isolated if you’re the only one in your area that can appreciate the art of writing. And don’t worry about not making money off of what you write. You can find ways to live and still keep writing for you.

After all, didn’t you start writing because you had something to get out? Didn’t you want to put your unexplainable feelings into a more tangible form other people could connect with? Didn’t you find a joy in reading other writers’ work and finding ways to make intelligent comments to help improve it instead of just saying “it’s good?” Don’t you remember reading something that hit so close to home that you wanted to write something that would have the same effect on someone one day?

Just don’t stop doing it if you really liked it. Stop doing it if you’ve honestly lost interest. But don’t stop because of money or time. If you’re having trouble with that part of life, then you’re probably pretty frustrated. That’s understandable. Too bad there isn’t a way for you to express that kind of frustration, huh?

Audience Interpretation vs. Creator’s Intention

So recently, we’ve been told that Hello Kitty has been fooling us all for 40 years. Despite the cat ears, the white fur, the paws, the cat nose, and the whiskers, she is, in fact, a little girl.

Or something like that. I’m kind of late to the party and now people are saying different things. Apparently, someone from Sanrio (the company that made Hello Kitty) insisted that Hello Kitty wasn’t a cat, but a little girl. Her name is Kitty White, and she lives in London, and she has a pet cat, but she herself is not a cat.

Despite, you know… obviously being a cat. The main argument this representative seems to have is that Hello Kitty doesn’t walk on all fours like a cat, so therefore, she is not a cat. The effects of being a cartoon character don’t seem to apply, I guess.

But now someone else from Sanrio is saying that she’s the personification of a cat. Which, I’m only assuming in this context, means that she’s a little girl, but in the form of a cat character. Like how Spongebob is a little boy/manchild in the form of an undersea sponge. Or basically anything else. Because she’s a cartoon character. As someone that grew up almost exclusively on cartoons, I can confidently say this follows fairly common cartoon rules. I think anyone could look at Hello Kitty and see that she’s supposed to be a little girl, but… you know. A little girl cat.

I don’t know. I feel like something was lost in translation here. Doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about audience interpretation vs. creator’s intention.

So I don’t know about you, but sometimes I come across a book, or a movie, or a TV show, or a whatever form of storytelling, and there’s enough room for me to make my own interpretation. And sometimes people have these big discussions about all of their different interpretations, and it’s great because this something is influencing a bunch of people to think. And it doesn’t matter if there’s a definite answer or canon to go along with these particular stories, because the audience is smart enough to come up with their own explanation, and despite arguments about which interpretation is “correct,” it doesn’t matter. It’s a personal belief, and that’s all that should really count.

And then sometime later, maybe during an interview or Q&A panel, the creator will reveal his or her intentions while creating said work. And sometimes it answers questions. And sometimes it creates controversy. Everyone who had been spending so much time finely crafting theories and interpretations are now outraged that the creator, who should know all of the “real” answers, decided to lay out the “facts” long after the original work had been published.

But here’s the thing: even if an author, or director, or musician, or any type of artist decides to tell the public what he or she intended their creation to mean… it doesn’t always matter. Your audience may see things the way you wanted them to, or they may not. And yes, at times it can be very frustrating. But it’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes your audience can open you up to possibilities that make your work better.

For example, I wrote this 28-page short story for my advanced fiction workshop in college. I worked so hard on it, slaving away during all of my spring break, hoping to move my classmates and professor with this amazing story of a young boy’s personal realization and growth as he decided to start thinking and acting for himself. Through a series of interactions with the same, familiar people he’d dealt with every day of his life, he made a decision to leave home and see the world for himself. I thought it was perfect.

It was easily the worst story I’d produced in all of my college career (of the ones I’d grown attached to, anyway). At the time, I didn’t see it. I was just mad people weren’t seeing it the way I was. Maybe it was because I’d been going through a personal change at the time and wanted to communicate my feelings on it through the story. Maybe it was because I’d worked longer on it than most of my other stories, and I was frustrated it turned out to be so terrible. But people didn’t get what I was going for. They started making up their own theories about what the story was about (or rather, should have been). One of the motifs I used in the story was the woods (exploring the unknown; I know, so original) and various people warning the main character not to go in them. My professor had the idea to turn this “deep,” “symbolic” part of the story into a gateway that led somewhere entirely different. He had the idea of turning the story into a type of Truman Show piece. My main character should have went into the woods, only to find the same life he was so tired of was actually staged. Looking back on it, this would have been a great way to excuse the awful blandness of all the characters. Too bad I was too stubborn to take his suggestions to heart. He even E-mailed me later that day, apologizing if I took his criticisms too close to heart (I was usually fairly good at taking in negative feedback; I guess I couldn’t hide it that day).

What was my point again? Oh yeah. Just because I intended the story to be some amazing, coming of age masterpiece doesn’t mean that’s how my audience perceived it. And that’s okay, because honestly, I think my professor’s reimagining of the assignment would have been a much better short story. Sometimes, and obviously not all the time, but certainly sometimes, an individual’s own interpretation of a particular work may have more weight and meaning than the creator’s. To the individual, anyway. And sometimes, that’s all that really matters.

Or something like that. I know a lot of ideas were thrown around here today. I may not have had as much of a point as I thought I did. Oh well. Food for thought, anyway. Something to keep in mind the next time you want to disagree with what someone says about a book or movie or whatever, despite what the creator said.

Potential in Journal Entries and Writing Exercises

Recently, my mind’s been all over the place. I keep having angry days, sad days, melancholy days, paranoid days, etc. I thought I’d try keeping short journal entries so I could have somewhere to put some thoughts and maybe try to work through them in a therapeutic sort of way.

But as I was writing my first entry, I ended up doing something different. What started out as ranting about something that pissed me off turned into this snippet that peered into the life of a character I’d accidentally created. It was sort of strange, but halfway through I thought to myself, “Hey. What would someone like me, but not me, have to say about this topic?” And I kind of started writing something else, pretending I was a different person. And like all my characters, there’s always going to be some degree of “me” in them, but I gave him a name, made up a situation for him to be in that I’d never personally been in, and before I knew it I’d made a character.

So I tried it again a few days later. I was on my way home from work, and it was a cooler summer night, and I was feeling a little lonely. When I got home, I began writing this little blurb about loneliness, and it turned into this short piece about someone longing for a girl to share a moment with as he sat by a lake, ending with him confessing that he missed this one girl from his past. Who’s the guy? I don’t know. Who’s the girl? I don’t know. But I made this narration that I was really proud of, and I saw potential in another character if I decided to expand it.

I made two other “characters” this way and I noticed the more I played around, the better I got at creating characters that felt more separate from myself, and that’s something I feel I need to work on in my fiction. These recent writing sessions turned into very effective exercises. At the moment, I’d like to try fleshing out these characters a bit more to see if I could create a story around them.

But either way, I thought I’d share my experience with this for any writers struggling with fiction. Creating stories and characters is complicated and often doesn’t work the way we want them to, so sometimes it’s important to go back to writing exercises. This is why it’s important to keep writing, even when you’re short on ideas. Whether you’re writing journal entries or working on short exercises, keep writing something. You never know what you’ll end up finding as you do them. 🙂

How to Get Back Into Writing

As a writer, you’ve probably heard a lot of people say that you should write every day. This is more or less true; even if it’s not for a long time or if you barely write anything, the practice of making time to sit down and write is critical to make writing part of your natural daily routine (because let’s face it, as much as we love it, it is work, and we don’t always feel up to it).

However, there’s going to be a point when you have to take some time away from writing. You’re going to sit down for the nth time, stare at a screen for 20 minutes, and realize that you’ve got nothing, and returning to your computer time after time isn’t going to change that. So take a break. It’s healthy. It’s necessary.

However, there’s also going to be a point where your break doesn’t seem to end. You keep telling yourself you’ll start writing again tomorrow. You keep convincing yourself you still have nothing to write about. You scare yourself into thinking you don’t have what it takes to write well.

Getting back into writing can be tricky. It’s a lot like getting back into a regular exercise routine. You want to do it, but you don’t want to start small and build yourself back up to where you were before you stopped exercising. After all, you were pretty boss on the elliptical’s highest setting. To start on the lowest one again can be demoralizing, especially when you want to get back to where you were.

Unfortunately, if you’ve been away from writing for a while you might have to ease yourself back into it. Unless you’ve been struck with inspiration to write about something in particular, you could be as lost as when you stopped. That’s fine. We all get lost sometimes. The important thing is you want to at least get back into the habit of writing. To start things off, you can try some writing exercises. They might seem a little beneath you, especially if you’ve been a writer for a while. But remember that you’re also reading a post on how to get back into writing after a frustrating break, so hear me out.

Writing exercises aren’t meant to be long-term projects, and that may be exactly what you need at the moment. Maybe you’re frustrated because you can’t write anything that you want to perfect in the long run. So why not work on exercises then? They start and end in the same session, so there’s no commitment or emotional investment involved. They’re simple prompts used to work your writing muscles. Think of them like warm-up exercises. They’re meant to ease you into a much bigger challenge, not replace your exercise routine completely. You can find plenty of daily writing prompts if you search online. Some are even presented in your news feed if you follow them on social media.

Speaking of writing exercises, have you ever considered writing shit? You might have thought you’re already writing shit and that’s why you needed a break, but you were probably trying your best. Have you ever considered intentionally writing shit?

One of the best exercises from my college workshops was to write the worst thing I possibly could. Write 1-2 pages of the worst you can possibly do. Drown your exercise in cliches, poor dialogue, overuse of caps and punctuation, not enough punctuation, misspelled words, and anything else you can think of. It’s a lot of fun, and it will help you see what makes bad writing. It may even make you feel better about your own natural writing.

You’ve also probably heard of the egg timer technique. If you haven’t, it’s when you set an egg timer or another device to a specific period of time, and you do nothing but write during that time. No checking E-mails, no social media, no bathroom, no distractions whatsoever. This is a really good way to get back into writing without getting too intimidated. Set a timer for 20 minutes, 10 minutes, hell, even 5 minutes and write something. If you feel like writing after time’s up, you’re more than welcome to, but the point is to give this dedicated amount of time your undivided attention. Again, it’s like regular exercising. You can start small and build your way up as you grow accustomed to the routine.

Once you’ve gotten back into the swing of things, try thinking about what kept you in your extended break for so long. Did you get bored? Frustrated with what you produced? Try mixing things up a bit. You probably have something you specialize in. For me it’s fiction. But sometimes it just doesn’t work out and you feel like if you can’t write in your own zone, you can’t write at all. If that’s the case, try writing other stuff. Try poetry. Nonfiction. Write descriptions of things you notice outside your window. Keep a journal and write about your life. It may not be what you want to write, but it does help you continue writing, and you’ll still improve your craft along the way.

Don’t forget to read different stuff, too. If you find yourself writing the same thing again and again, maybe it’s because you’ve gotten too comfortable with reading the same stuff again and again. Go to the library and pick out the first thing you see that you would normally never glance at. (Yes, I’m encouraging you to judge a book by it’s cover. Don’t pretend like you never have.) At best, it’ll make you a more experienced reader. At worst, you’ll hate it, but at least you can still learn something from it. You can analyze it and see what made it a bad book. Again, that helps you as a writer.

At any rate, the fact that you want to start writing again is a good start. Just don’t forget to act on it. Start small and work it back into your life. Don’t focus so much on writing stuff you want published, focus on getting familiar with writing again. Then you can go back to hating what you write. 🙂