Nothing makes sense and it’s going to be okay

Nothing makes sense and it’s going to be okay

Real Talk: I’m living with mental illness.

By that I don’t mean I have a bunch of adorable quirks that are misunderstood by society, or that I’ve been diagnosed with nonexistent problems by the shadowy agents of “Big Pharma,” or that sometimes I feel down but a quick jaunt in the woods cheers me right up. (Seriously, the next person who tells me “the best antidepressant” is nature or kittens or friendship or whatever is gonna get punched square in the mouth.) I mean that my brain flat-out doesn’t function properly without some kind of treatment – in my case, weekly therapy and a few daily medications.

I keep telling myself that there’s no shame in this, that some people’s brains work fine right out of the box and mine doesn’t and that my worth as a human being isn’t lessened because of that. But it’s easy for me to say there’s no shame when I’m lucky enough to have the means and support system to help me manage my illnesses; a lot of people don’t.

But even then, I’m still afraid of talking about it openly, or at least as openly as I do about other parts of my identity. And for me, it is a part of my identity. The whole way I view the world has been colored by my experience with mental illness – the difficulty focusing, the suicidal depression, the hallucinations and delusions – and all the ways it’s impacted my life. But strangely, I didn’t realize how big a part of me this is until quite recently, when I was thinking about whether or not my writing has lived up to my blog’s tagline.

A statement of purpose

Back when I was really concerned about establishing my name and “author brand,” I read some advice that said I should pick a tagline to represent me, my brand, my writing, and so on. After a lot of careful thought I came up with: “Nothing makes sense and it’s going to be okay.”

I picked this tagline for a fairly simple reason: it’s the message I want my writing to convey. This doesn’t mean I want every story to be meaningless randomness with a happy ending. It means that life can be strange and incomprehensible, that sometimes ridiculous or horrible things happen to us and we never find out why, but it’s still possible to survive it all and just go on living. Maybe that sounds simple to a lot of people, but as someone who spent most of their life either suicidal or having inescapable hallucinations, it means a lot to me. Simply surviving the bewildering weirdness of life isn’t always easy.

Because for me the weirdness was there all the time, whether I acknowledged it or not. It couldn’t be ignored, it couldn’t be reasoned away, and it didn’t magically disappear just because I wanted it to. For most of my life, it was my reality. But I survived and found a way to live with it. If my readers take only one thing away from my fiction, I hope it’s this: if I can live through and with my weirdness, and if my characters can do the same, maybe my readers can too.

A statement of fact

Even with treatment, I’m still living with mental illness. It’s still a part of my life; maybe it always will be. But you know what? That’s okay. It’s going to be okay. I really do believe that, and I’ll try to express it in my writing as much as I possibly can.

And as long as this is a part of who I am, I might as well be honest about it. Nothing’s going to get better unless more people are open about this kind of thing.

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The years start coming

The years start coming

Well apparently it’s been a whole year since my first post on this blog, which has prompted me to take a look back and think about what I intended to do vs. what I’ve actually done.

One thing that’s definitely changed is how personal the posts have gotten. At first I wanted to keep some imaginary “safe distance” between myself and all you lovely readers, but that fell apart a month later when the Pulse nightclub shooting prompted me to ask what I was willing to put up with today (the answer will SHOCK you!). Though I continued with my posts about writing and media (mostly TRON stuff – and yes, I promise I’ll get back to the TRON Tuesday posts once I can finish TRON 2.0), I found that my personal posts got way more views than anything else. And, frankly, they were easier to write. So in recent months I’ve been focusing on personal posts more and will probably continue to do so.

In the past year I’ve also attempted to do a few post series; in addition to the previously mentioned TRON Tuesdays, there were the “Hallowmonth” posts and the time I tried to make all my Friday posts writing-related. The only one I’ve managed to keep up with consistently is the Decluttering Quest series, primarily because it directly tied into my real-world activities. And I’m not finished with that series, not by a longshot. Expect more of that in the future.

The brand goes out the window

Really, I guess you could say this blog has gotten more casual in general. And that’s a good thing. I’m less concerned now with my “author brand” and more concerned with being myself; that’s the only person I know how to be. Maybe this has something to do with how I’ve been increasingly accepting myself as I am over the past year or whatever, but I don’t want to waste your time by unpacking all that.

There’s probably more I could pick apart about how this blog’s gone so far, but honestly I don’t want to dwell on what I could have done better. It’s time to look forward to all the posts I’m going to write in the future. I say we must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!

Spring and Chaos (and a few life updates)

Spring and Chaos (and a few life updates)

Sorry for the long radio silence. A lot’s been going on the past month – I’ve been meeting a lot of new people (both socially and professionally), absorbing a lot of new information, and going to new places. A lot of this happened because I finally started my new job in a public library.

Long and frustrating commute aside, the new job’s been a lot of fun. I’m not entirely sure how much I’m allowed to blog about it yet, so I’ll just say I’m finally finishing up training tomorrow and will be sent to my permanent library branch next week.

books-1842306_960_720
Pictured above: not my branch

One of the great things about my new job is that it gives me both access to a lot of books and time to read said books, so books books books. Also, movies – including a pleasantly surprising number of John Waters films that I hadn’t seen yet. Oh, also! I got the chance to briefly meet John Waters recently too, at a book signing. I’m not good at the mouth words when I meet people whose work I like, so I didn’t say much, but it was still fun.

Anyway, I’ll spare you the yammering about all the stupid new crap I’ve been buying now that I finally have a paycheck again (mostly footwear) and skip ahead to something marginally more interesting.

News on the writing front

I’m writing new stuff again! That may not sound like much, but even with all the free time I’ve had, literally the only non-blog writing I’d been working on for the past few months were edits for my book – and even those were few and far between. Now that my free time’s more focused, I’ve had not one but TWO new project ideas to work on.

One, which will be more of a long haul, is sort of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 in a modern American context. I say “sort of” because it’s not going to be a direct adaptation; it’s going to be more of a non-partisan political comedy (if such a thing can exist) centered on a former president’s daughter who’s trying to run for a lesser national office herself when she’s suddenly visited by her former best friend from her wild anarcho-punk days, who needs help.

Admittedly I was originally going to make both characters men as in the original plays, but fuck it, we have enough stuff about men already. I hope I can pull it off, but more importantly I hope I can pull it off without pissing off my anarchist and punk and anarchist punk friends in the process. (Then again, most of them appreciated the “Punk Magician” skit so…)

The other project, which I’m hoping to finish in the next week, is a little short story about working retail – but in a magical store. Basically it’s one of those “the little shop that wasn’t there yesterday” situations, but instead centered on a minimum-wage cashier working in such a place, who becomes determined to actually help a dissatisfied customer who wants a refund. I’m hoping to submit it to a couple writing contests, so maybe if I’m super lucky (and good) I’ll get an honorable mention. Fingers crossed!

Well, that’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll have something more interesting next time.

Decluttering Quest: letting go of old writing

Decluttering Quest: letting go of old writing

They were taking up space. They were draining me emotionally and creatively. They needed to go. There was only one problem: they were my old unfinished manuscripts.

I’ve heard that some writers have no problem culling their own work. After all, ruthlessness is a crucial part of self-editing, and editing is the key to good writing. But in spite of how easily I can cut a sentence or scene or chapter that isn’t working – and how easily I’ve been able to let go of much of the stuff I’ve encountered in this decluttering quest – I tend to hoard my old writing.

During this process I came across whole drawers and boxes packed full of writing. Much of it was innocuous stuff, multiple copies of poems and short stories – the remnants of years of creative writing classes. In those cases, the solution was clear: keep one or two copies of each thing, or the final class portfolio if there was one, and let the rest go.

False starts and creative drain

But things weren’t so clear when I stumbled on the manuscripts of the first three books I tried to write. (The one I’m working on now, Unlucky Creatures, was the fourth book I attempted and the first one I actually finished.) The first one I decided to keep; it had been fifteen years since I last worked on or even seriously thought about it, and as awful as it is to actually read, I’m as sentimental about it as a parent is about their child’s art projects.

The second and third ones, however, were just depressing for me to even look at. The second book was crappy fanfiction masquerading as historical fiction which, while kind of nerdily adorable, was just embarrassing and didn’t have much material I could salvage for other things. It was both awful and useless. The third was about a mental breakdown I had in my late teens, written while I was still in the midst of the breakdown. (ProTip: don’t write about a major mental upheaval while you’re still in the middle of it. You need at least a little time to process things and get the right perspective.)

Finding the drafts and notes for the third book really depressed me. Part of this was the fact that they were reminders of a really low point in my life, and part of this was guilt over abandoning the book to begin with. It was a project I’d worked obsessively on for a few years – everything I wrote during that time was for this book – and still only half of it was written down. In the end I had to leave it behind for my own sake, which was a hard decision.

As I looked over that manuscript I also realized that even though I’d put that project down almost seven years ago, it was still negatively affecting my writing. Every time I decided to set aside a story or book, even temporarily, a voice in the back of my brain went “Oh great, it’s the third book all over again.” And even though I had no intention of finishing that book, I still found myself withholding ideas from my current writing because part of me felt like I had to “save” them for the third book instead.

Outside help

Even though the negative energy surrounding these manuscripts was clear, I still hesitated to get rid of them – even though I still had all the digital files for the third book. What if I regretted it later? What if I realized I could make them work somehow? It was incredibly unlikely, yes, but still more likely than the idea that someday somebody else would have a strong desire to look at them.

Once I started to consider getting rid of it, I started to feel even guiltier over the third book than I had before – but for different reasons. That book was something that my late fiancé had been a part of, reading through it and encouraging me to continue; would throwing it out be like throwing him out? I knew the idea was absurd, but it still held me back.

So finally I decided I needed somebody neutral to help me decide, somebody who I could explain all my feelings to but who wasn’t invested in these projects – my partner. He agreed to help me out, so I packed it all up and brought it along with me when I went to visit him this past week.

stack-letters-letter-handwriting-family-letters-51191Imagine this, but crammed into a backpack.

After I got there I showed him everything, explained how I was feeling, and asked him what he thought I should do. “Let them go,” he said. I still hesitated, and he continued, “You already know it’s the right thing to do.” He was right, of course. If I hadn’t wanted to get rid of them, I wouldn’t have lugged them along on an eight-hour-long bus trip to hear the answer that, deep down, I already knew he was going to give.

One by one, the packets of paper went into the recycling bin. Once they did I had no desire to retrieve them. In fact, I almost cried with relief. It felt like I’d finally freed up a lot of space – not just in my desk, but in my mind. Finally, I could focus completely on my current work instead of feeling guilty over past work.

Maybe someday I will regret throwing those manuscripts out, but I can’t make all my decisions based on future regret. That writing’s gone. It’s time to make more.

More in the Decluttering Quest series:

Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 7: Sacred Spaces
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library

Every name is real

Every name is real
“Every name is real. That’s the nature of names.” – Jerry Spinelli, Stargirl

I’ve been thinking a lot about names today, largely because I got a small email asking a big question about the upcoming book that the articles I’ve been writing will be published in: how did I want to be credited? What name did I want to use?

It probably wouldn’t be that big a deal for most people; a lot of people in our culture go through life never having to think of the weight their name carries. Their name is just their name, and that’s it. Others don’t have that luxury – sometimes, they even have to change their name just to survive. I could go on and on just about that, but it’s not my story to tell.

Names aren’t meaningless

Some people might argue that names are irrelevant. I disagree. Names aren’t just the shells we crawl into to protect ourselves, completely interchangeable and easily discarded. They help shape who we are – even if it’s just in small ways.

I think this is true whether the name is given by another person or chosen by the bearer. When people choose names, whether personal or professional, they do so deliberately. They know the difference even a minor detail in a name can make, and how that name will affect the way they are seen by others. Names, for better or worse, are the most fundamental way we define people; when two people meet for the first time, the first thing they usually ask the other person for is their name.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject: if somebody changes their name, for whatever reason, respect the new name. If they want you to call them by the new name, do it. I don’t give a damn whether it’s their legal name or not. Just do it. It’s not that goddamn difficult.

Zanne Nilsson

Anyway. The whole how-do-you-want-to-be-credited question sent my brain on this whole weird journey of wondering whether or not I should use my “real” name or not, and what would count as my “real” name anyway. Is it the name on my birth certificate, the nickname my family calls me, the nickname my fiance called me, the nickname everyone else calls me, or the name on my writing?

I kept coming back to the name I’ve been using on all my public writing for the past year or so. There were a lot of reasons for this, mostly practical ones (using it makes it easier to distinguish myself from the many writers with names similar to my legal name, plus I’ve already worked to establish it on social media), but some emotional ones as well.

See, there was an important reason I chose this name. Well, half of it anyway; admittedly picking the “Zanne” part was a combination of the fact that it doesn’t carry any specific gender connotations (at least not yet) and the fact that I just like the sound of it. But the “Nilsson” part was taken from my late fiance, who was memorialized and buried under a completely different (and wrong) name. So I use it as a way of keeping the name and memory of him alive. It also serves as a reminder of why I started writing in the first place; simply seeing it reminds me of why I’m doing this and pushes me to try to do better.

So yeah, I think this is the name I’ll be using when I write from now on. If you know me in real life you don’t have to start calling me by it or anything (unless you want to, that’s cool), but I guess try to use it if you’re talking about me as a writer or something – if only to keep things consistent. Cool? Cool.

If all else fails, use fire

If all else fails, use fire

I’m gonna pass along a bit of advice that I’ve applied to my own writing: “If all else fails, use fire.”

Full disclosure: it’s not my phrase. Legend of Zelda fans may recognize it as a non-player character’s hint from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In that case the character means it literally, which makes sense in a universe where the solution to most problems is to either kill everything in the room or break everything in the room.

usefireTry this at home, children!

I, on the other hand, do not mean it literally. For me it’s sort of a variation on a fairly common bit of writing advice for when you’re stuck: think of the worst possible thing that could happen in the story at that moment and make it happen – such as setting the character’s surroundings on fire. As long as it makes sense, it usually raises the stakes somehow.

For example, think of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. Aurora pricks her finger and falls into her death-like slumber. Meanwhile, Prince Philip is on his way to meet her at the cottage where she used to live. What’s the worst possible thing that could happen at that moment? Maleficent and her goons could ambush him at the cottage and capture him. Technically, it could be worse if they just killed him – but that wouldn’t have built to the right climax for that particular story. (This being a classic Disney movie, it was building to a happy ending, which wouldn’t have been possible if they killed Prince Philip off.)

So yes, there are some limitations to this advice. Generally speaking, most writers have a sense of where they want their story to go, or at least end up. So doing something that wouldn’t work in the story just because it’s the worst thing that could happen isn’t a good idea either.

As an example for something that wouldn’t work: in the current draft of Unlucky Creatures, one of the characters encounters what he believes to be his friend, who he has a crush on. She confesses that she feels the same way, but after spending a few minutes with her he realizes that she isn’t actually who she appears to be; she’s a shapeshifter who’s messing with his head for the lulz.

It would be the worst possible moment for that character. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Yes, shapeshifters are established as being A Thing in this book’s universe, and it’s established that they use their powers solely for dickitry. But the reader knows that the only existing character who’s shown to be a shapeshifter is elsewhere during this incident, and has also had no previous contact with the target character at all. And introducing a new character so late in the book solely so they can mess with somebody’s head then disappear forever makes no damn sense. So I’ll have to take it out and replace it with something else.

What should I replace it with? Who knows. Maybe I’ll just use fire.

Getting Un-Stuck from the Suck

Getting Un-Stuck from the Suck

As my general lack of posts (and the content of the few posts I’ve done) in the past several weeks might indicate, I’ve been having a lot of writing issues lately. Lack of confidence, motivation, energy, whatever – you name it, it’s messing with me.

This has especially screwed up my writing-related posts since A) I don’t feel like enough of a “real writer” to be writing anything about writing, and B) even when I recognize that there’s no such thing as a “real writer” and therefore nothing anyone writes about writing comes from a specific place of wisdom or authority, I still have nothing to write about, since the rest of my writing posts come from a place where I’m trying to convince myself that something about writing is true. Because I haven’t been writing, I haven’t been learning anything about writing, so I have nothing to write about.

So all that’s been coming out lately have been these posts about my writing troubles. I swear they’re not just an excuse to whine (mostly) – they’re here because I suspect a lot of writers have this happen to them at some point and, speaking from experience, nothing makes you feel worse about it than looking around and thinking that every other writer has this figured out but you. I sure as hell don’t have this figured out. It’s okay.

Yeah, but what should I do about it?

I don’t know. (See “don’t have this figured out,” above.) However, I can tell you a few of the things I’ve been trying lately, with some degree of success:

1) Push yourself to write anyway

I’m putting this one first because it’s the hardest, but might be the most effective. Another part of the reason I’ve been writing these posts is because it forces me to write something, even if I’m not crazy about doing it.

I’m not certain, but this method also might work better if you take a break from whatever type of writing you’re having trouble with (fiction, nonfiction, fan-fiction, blog posts, poetry, whatever) and try another kind for a while. Since my big problem has been with fiction, I’ve been trying to focus on blog posts and nonfiction to try and recharge. Luckily, I currently have a freelance nonfiction gig to help fuel this strategy, but that’s not even remotely necessary. Just dabble in something else for a while, even if you’ve never done it before or aren’t great at it. And don’t worry about whether the type of writing you’re doing is “legitimate” or not – legitimacy is subjective bullshit and if it works, it works. If you’re thinking of writing the crackiest, porniest fanfic that’s ever existed, then go for it!

(And if you’re having trouble finding the energy to write at all, I highly recommend item #4, below.)

2) Ask your writer friends for help

Admittedly I haven’t been doing so well at actually trying this one, but like I said, it’s probable that most or all writers go through this – so who better to give you advice than a fellow writer? Plus, it helps you strengthen your relationships with writer friends, which is always a good idea.

Don’t have any friends who write? Well, then hit me up! My Twitter handle is ZanneNilsson – message me or ping me or whateverthehell it is you do on Twitter to get in touch with people. (Never been sure of the exact term for that.) I’d be happy to talk or commiserate or just listen or whatever it is you need.

3) Look to writers who inspire you

Again, I don’t know if this’ll work in all cases. But if there’s a writer you admire who seemed to genuinely enjoy writing, then for the love of Helix read whatever they had to say about writing. For example, one of my favorite writers is the late Ray Bradbury, who (thankfully) seemed to love the act of writing itself, and left behind a bunch of essays (collected together as a book called Zen in the Art of Writing) on the subject. Lately I’ve been rereading them and it’s been helping me regain my enthusiasm bit by bit.

If you do this don’t spend even one second thinking “Oh yeah sure but I’ll never be as good as they were”; the point is to regain momentum and thoughts like that will just get you stuck worse than a half-eaten Jolly Rancher on the bottom of a boot.

Besides, the only writer you’re supposed to be is you, got it?

4) Make a “Get Psyched Mix” and listen to it repeatedly

Way back in an episode in one of the early seasons of How I Met Your Mother, there was a recurring joke about a mix CD Barney makes to get everyone psyched for a New Year’s Eve filled with parties; Barney says that in spite of the advice that mixes should rise and fall, the mix he made is “all rise.”

At some point after seeing this episode – maybe like one of my sophomore years of college – I was having trouble writing a paper (which, characteristically, hadn’t been started in spite of being due the next morning) and decided to make my own “Get Psyched Mix” playlist to give me the extra boost I needed to get shit done. In the years since I’ve used it every time I need a pick-me-up or simply to get something finished, and I’ve continually added songs to keep it fresh.

Is it ridiculous? Yeah, sure, look at all the fucks I give. Does it work for me? Absolutely. Hell, I’m listening to my “Get Psyched Mix” right now.

So just gather together whatever songs motivate you or get you pumped up in some kind of playlist that you can pull out every time you need it. If you find a new song that helps, then add it! Don’t worry about the similarity or “quality” of the songs you’re using; you don’t ever have to show this to anyone else.

And besides, my mix combines songs from “Hamilton” and video game soundtracks with “All Star” and a bunch of ’80s action movie montage songs. Scoff all you want, but it’s almost impossible to be down on yourself while listening to “You’re The Best Around.”

And on that note, I’ll leave you with the theme song for today’s post: