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The Blog Queue: On Writing When You’re Not Ready

BooksAt 25, I started writing a book. Thailand lured me in one direction; the rave scene pulled me in another. My four mentors were kind and gentle, willing to read my fragments, my ramblings, my shit. At the core, I knew what I needed to write about: the dance underground; the music that had so moved me and my friends; the dancing as a tribe; the carnal, soulful quality of sound made by machines; and the recollection of haze and excess, of enlightenment and repulsion. Of being part of an epic moment.

I lived a quarter of a lifetime, and I thought I knew everything.

Given my background in journalism and screenwriting, and being undisciplined, I had a tough time balancing and controlling two voices: my 17-year-old self, discovering a world for the first time; and my omniscient “older” self, a 27-year-old narrator reflecting on and dissecting what it all meant.

The manuscript was called Ten Years in a Trance.

Do the math.

* * *

I once said my collection of unfinished pieces is my greatest accomplishment so far. And another impressive list? My blog post queue: ideas that have that eeked through the brainstorming process and now live in limbo as bullet points, waiting patiently like puppies behind a pane of glass. Pick me! I’m ready to go home with you! Mold me! Give me life!

Examples in the queue:

  • Why Writing a Memoir Before 30 Was a Terrible Idea
  • Musings on “The Constant” (and Why I Named My iMac Desmond)
  • Updated Rules for Mogwai in the Digital Age*
  • Will Homeownership Kill my Nomadic Spirit?
  • Music and Memory: Notes on Serotonin Release, 10 Years Later
  • Exit Planet Dust: The Trip, Materialized Through Sound
  • Fleeting Love in the Time of Ambiguous Cinema, Part III (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Edition)
  • Breakups and the LOST Finale: A Comparison*
  • Why Wanderlust Has Not Led Me to the Philippines
  • Reflections on Winning the 2010 World Series**
  • The Anatomy of a Techno Mix (with Special Attention to Tracks 1, 2, 4, and the Next-to-Final and Final Tracks)***
  • The Raver as Hunter-Gatherer; The Crew as the Tribe; The Warehouse as the Wild***
  • The Speaker as Monolith***
  • Entering the War Zone: The Drum & Bass Dance Floor***

*These ideas are fresh out of the oven: one born on Twitter last week, and the other in an email chain from yesterday. I do appreciate how ideas emerge from randomness.

** I love baseball but fear I may never tackle this. (My only other attempt on writing about baseball—Bonds’ metaphorical asterisk—sucked balls.) Can I write a piece on the Giants 2010 playoffs, relying largely on emotion?

***I’ve mused on these topics in juvenile form, with authority I did not have. The excerpts linked to were in chapters removed from my book.

Some ideas joined the queue in graduate school. The desperate, lonely ones have lingered since freshman year in college, nearly 15 years ago. Some ideas are not yet ripe: They simmer. They change shape. Others become irrelevant and no longer mean anything.

Sometimes, not writing isn’t about laziness. Or lack of inspiration. Most of the time, I am not ready.

* * *

An excerpt of an evaluation from a mentor—an inspiring woman—in spring 2006:

She need not wait. . . . She has an opportunity that is a window that will soon close, because she will grow older, she will become cynical and doubt her certainties, and before she does, her skills can be brought to bear upon understanding that in-between-ness we all seek as writers, or I hope we do, where you can make a universe available by sympathy, and having been in its stomach, you can also see—and yes, analyze—its place in the larger picture—of a century, a culture.

She can both translate the magic, AND sympathetically, decently engage its limitations, can in short see her historical moment’s ideology for all that it contributes, and all that it lacks. And I do mean it when I say this is a time-limited thing. She has to write the rest of this now—but it’s a long now, by which I mean within the next five years of her writing life.

I received this at the midpoint of my MFA program, in my most prolific period of writing ever. The source of the surge? This compassionate, curious professor—a noted essayist and poet—combined with a growing invincibility as a writer. A confidence grew from within. And then there was a therapeutic release.

Oh, dear.

City Hall

LovEvolution, City Hall, San Francisco.

The second half of my MFA experience pushed me in a direction that made me uncomfortable. Upon entering my final semester, I had over 400 pages of material: Some of it tight and focused, but most of it raw, rambling, but honest. And some of it fragments of memoir, but most of it a mix of literary journalism and reportage. In the final stretch, I was urged to kill the omniscient voice, almost entirely—to ditch the dissection of the culture I was hoping to understand, and to focus instead on developing the 17-year-old narrator: to follow her descent into a (literally) dark underground, and to use her to document moments that had floated vividly in my memory.

And I trusted my mentor and all the writers around me; I vomited hundreds and hundreds of new pages: scenes I didn’t want to recreate, nor did I think were important. But I wrote, hoping sequences would add up, wishing for a truth to emerge, praying I could latch on to something concrete, a glorious AHA! to validate not only my MFA experience, but my past.

Today, I cannot read the manuscript. I cringe when I (try to) read it with editorial eyes: its embarrassingly linear narrative, the succession of one-note moments eliciting little sympathy, the overarching emptiness.

It sits in a drawer, collecting dust.

Dirty Bird Party

Dirty Bird Records Party, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.

But is collecting dust so bad? The more dust that settles, the more perspective I gain. In the year after my program, I resented the entire experience: a waste of time and money, exclusion from the book proposal and contract race. And the main thing: the meaning of the world I explored was more elusive than when I began. But now, that window my mentor spoke of has indeed closed. And I no longer identify with the narrator in those pages. I used to know her: Her acceptance. Her lack of judgment. Her innocence. I think of her fondly, but she is gone.

Yet before the window closed, I captured that moment—a long moment of 10 years—independent of a conclusion. Observations made with wide eyes; recordings of sensations I can no longer hear, smell, and touch; a journal of our collective recklessness.

* * *

She has to write the rest of this now—but it’s a long now.

I get it. And I’m beginning to understand why my final mentor pushed me to work on the scenes I didn’t want to revisit.

Why do I have this blog queue? I wait for the right moment. Some stories become rich with age, like wine. But I also realize some moments must be recorded, perhaps in haste, no matter how raw, unripe, and slippery they are.

It may be another 5 or 30 years until they’re mature, but the posts in my queue—and that larger story I had attempted—continue to simmer. A favorite part of the writing process is figuring out when they’re ready.

And if some of them never are? That’s okay. A beauty in that, certainly.

Categories: writing

Tagged as:

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Writer at Writing Through the Fog. Editor at Automattic.

13 replies

  1. As someone still early in their writing life (or life at all, for that matter)– filled with so many ideas which seem to have so much potential but aren’t yet ‘ripe’– I really appreciated reading this. I must remind myself more to let things age when they need to.

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    1. I catch myself wanting to rush things when it comes to writing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve published a blog post prematurely, knowing it wasn’t really “done.” Then I reverse it into draft form, clean it up, and republish. Not sure why I do this, but I do occasionally.

      And the queue itself. My god, it’s long. I think I have 16 drafts in WordPress at the moment — posts started and abandoned after a couple paragraphs.

      And then there’s the old, old list of ideas that have simmered for years. I think they’ll sit there for a while — but who knows, all of a sudden, I’ll want to sit down and tackle one. Strange how that works.

      Thanks for the note.

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  2. Every time I read one of your posts I feel all over again that your blog is perfectly named. I don’t know what it is exactly, but the way you bring the ephemeral and evanescent into your writing is beautiful. You have an incredibly strong voice, even though it’s a very subtle one.

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    1. “I don’t know what it is exactly, but the way you bring the ephemeral and evanescent into your writing is beautiful.” << That is probably one of the nicest compliments I have gotten in regard to my writing. I have this thing for fleetingness; it drives my writing. So, I'm really glad you get a sense of this when you read. I know I can still improve my writing so much, but that is so nice of you to say. Thank you!

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  3. OH MY GOD, CHERI!!!! You are my soul (writing) sister. Not only do we bare the same name(kinda), but our experiences are far too similar. The whole time I was in grad school I heard many of the older students-some of who were experienced journalists and writers-tell me that I was too young to write a memoir. I was 23 at the time but I had spent nine years working in the funeral industry. I felt that if I could do that from the age of 15, then I could certainly write a book about it.
    What I now realize was that they weren’t calling me incapable , they just knew that I needed some more time to gain perspective. As I reflect on my manuscript, I now know that I wasn’t mature enough to tackle this book project. I didn’t have the distance that I needed, and I couldn’t separate my personal emotions from the story in an objective matter.
    When I graduated, I was over the story, the MFA experience. It did feel like a waste of time. I hated my manuscript. I couldn’t look at. I didn’t want to face it. I felt like I had wasted my parents money and I had no idea how I would make it up to them.
    But then a friend from grad school asked me to query her agent. She had put in a good word for me. And for almost three months I lied to her telling her that I was working on the query and tweaking my manuscript. Then she forced my hand and made me do it. It’s the best and the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.
    Cheri, your five year window isn’t up. You must face your manuscript and deal with it before it deals with you. Trust me those pages will haunt you until you confront them wholeheartedly.
    I can’t wait to see them in print.
    Your soul (writing) sister,
    sjb

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    1. Sheri–

      Like I said on Twitter, I’m so glad you commented here. I think you’re the only MFA classmate that I regularly “see” online, and even though we don’t keep in touch about our writing, it’s nice to have the Goucher company on Twitter.

      You know, I was never told to my face that I was too young to write what I wrote. But I gather that’s what others may have thought. (Still, Diana, Joe, and Laura were particularly supportive and pushed me to write: to get all that shit out, to clean the pipes.) At the very least, I learned how not to approach the narrative. Next time I undertake that project, I have a bit of grounding.

      I had no idea you felt that way, too, after we graduated. I’m so curious, then, to hear if you feel you have more distance now, as you work on your book for publication — is it much different from your manuscript? (P.S. I’m proud of you — can’t wait to see Nine Years Under on the shelves.)

      And don’t worry — I won’t abandon my story. The underground dance scene (and those years) define me, whether I like it or not. But…I need 5, 10, 15, 20 more years to let it all simmer. =)

      Cheers, darlin’.

      –Cheri

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  4. Sharon
    Really like your comments on my posts recently, and in some of them you mention a friend or writer-friend (perhaps different people, perhaps the same person) who, in all, give solid, wise advice. Thanks for the note.

    Nancy
    Well hello there! So nice to see a note from you. Agreed–things have their pluses and minuses. Homeownership will be an interesting step. Coming soon.

    Nick
    I suspect you’re now throwing in made-up words whenever possible, huh? Yeah, what you say about brushing away the dust makes sense. Sounds lovely, even, despite dust being irritating on my eyes and making me sneeze. I do not know anything about Fraser Clark and his Zippies. Will look that up.

    Miranda
    Hey there, thanks for saying hello. It continually amazes me how suddenly something that has lain dormant for so long can become relevant, even urgent. Or indeed how a story that starts out so strong can end up untold. Beautifully put. And I hear you about forcing a conclusion. I noticed in our program that while a book-length manuscript was not a graduation requirement, it seemed like everyone was writing one (or trying to), and in conversation, the question was, “So, what’s your book about?”

    And all I really wanted to chat about were the fragments, the half-cooked ideas, the ramblings in my head. My MFA experience was ultimately valuable in that I went through the motions and emotions of getting a complete story on paper. But definitely an odd, rushed experience.

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  5. Really liked this – thanks for sharing. “In the year after my program, I resented the entire experience” – I felt this too, after I completed my MA, and perhaps for a similar reason. I had known before I began what I wanted to write about it, and I had spent a year writing it only to discover, at the end, that I had not written about it in the right way, or at least, not in the right way for me. I was disappointed not to have produced the book I thought I would (or any book at all, really); it took me half a year to start to understand that it was not the subject, or my ability, which was at fault: it was simply that I had rushed to an artificial conclusion. I love your mentor’s words: “She has to write the rest of this now—but it’s a long now.” I might make that my new mantra :)

    And I too have a (lengthy) blog queue. It continually amazes me how suddenly something that has lain dormant for so long can become relevant, even urgent. Or indeed how a story that starts out so strong can end up untold. The timing alway seems arbitrary, but I’m sure it’s not.

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  6. For obvious reasons, I’m interested in the updated rules for Mogwai in the digital age. (And if nothing else, I *need* to know the keyboard shortcut for a mogwai emoticon… or emotigwai.)

    Also this: “The Raver as Hunter-Gatherer; The Crew as the Tribe; The Warehouse as the Wild” – reminds me of Fraser Clark and his Zippies… heard of that? Or was it just an English thing?

    “The more dust that settles, the more perspective I gain.” – yep. And in time, maybe you can trace the anatomy of a new story in that dust, something that links “now” to “then”, where you rub away the accrued dust of the years, peer though it – blurred – back at a past present. (hmmm, does that make sense?)

    Love how personal your posts have been recently.

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    1. And if nothing else, I *need* to know the keyboard shortcut for a mogwai emoticon… or emotigwai.

      Not sure how (or if) we can add this emotigwai to the collection of emoticons in GMail, but here’s a prototype for now:

      What should the next one have in its hand? Whisky?

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      1. That is too cute! I doubt we can add it to gmail, but there must be a shared space we can access to save the image – google docs??

        Whisky in the hand? I think you should create a team of four or five, each with their own characteristics and special power, each holding a different weapon or sigil. Kind of like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Mogwai.

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  7. I have a blog-essay-poem-novel-screenplay queue that takes up two file drawers.

    Once when bemoaning that I would never be “a writer” to a rather well published friend, he lovingly reminded me that I was a writer, no matter how I made my cash. It was just that what I wrote had just not made it all the way to the paper yet.

    I remember that even now when I send myself another note for the queue.

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