Japanese.

I didn’t plan for this to be part of this blog at first. In fact, part of my original intent for this blog was to get away from it, in a sense.

I purposefully haven’t specified the country in which I spent 29 months between 2012 and 2015 for a couple reasons. First (and most) of all, I’m no longer there, and I have no imminent plans to return. But it’s also kinda cliché: I taught English in Japan. (Technically, I was a missionary.)

It was an amazing experience and I miss it very much. But after I returned Stateside I knew I needed to keep moving forward. The eponymous “terrifying creative endeavors” are part of that; they’re things I didn’t have the time or means to when I was working 6-day weeks and 10-hour days in a community setting. During those years my accordion sat in a closet in my parents’ house and the second draft of UNBoaTCfAFHV went unopened for months at a time. What I was doing instead was the most worthwhile two-and-a-half years of my life, but I always knew it would end; it was a two-and-a-half-year-long program.

I started studying Japanese in high school, and in college entertained serious thoughts of going to grad school to become a translator. I knew I wanted to go live in-country for a few years, at any rate.

While I was there I continued studying on my own and passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) N2, the second-highest level. But as my time to return to America grew closer and I looked around for my next career move, I discovered that the demand for Japanese-to-English translators lies primarily in areas I am useless in: finance, engineering, business. Me? I wanted to translate children’s literature—and there is precious little demand for that right now. So in order to earn a living, I had to choose something else. Hence, what I am in grad school for right now.

My Japanese study was shelved after I got back to America, but last week I had the chance to go out to the city for a Japanese-English language exchange event, which was great fun and reminded me of everything I loved about studying it in the first place. A few days later I pulled one of my dusty Japanese children’s books off the shelf and, just for a lark, translated the first couple of pages. Still as interesting as it was five years ago.

So perhaps it’s time to add “Japanese translation” to my list of creative endeavors, though it is admittedly a bit less terrifying, since it’s not quite as personal as fiction writing or music composition. Challenging, though, for sure—in the best possible way.

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Cosplay commitments and ocarina shenanigans.

Busy week (and weekend). A few things of note:

  • I went to another anime/nerd convention with pals over Labor Day weekend and we had so much fun watching and interacting with cosplayers that we made a mutual commitment to actually cosplay in the next year or so. The next day saw us designing cosplays and trawling fabric and craft stores for supplies and materials. We’re trying to keep each other motivated because these projects could easily fall by the wayside into a pile of craft foam and broadcloth, and this in particular is something we’re pretty excited about. (We’re going to papier-mâché an exercise ball and put googly eyes on it. …It doesn’t make that much sense even in context, but the idea left us in tears with laughter and we hope when it is completed it will amuse others, as well.)
  • At the above con I impulse-bought an ocarina (a gorgeous 12-hole Brio from St. Louis Ocarina’s booth), which I am currently enjoying annoying the cat with. It has a lovely full sound, especially in the low notes. Fingering is a little tricky, as is making sure my fingers are covering the holes all the way.
  • On Wednesday I gathered all the acoustic musical instruments I own (accordion, harp, ukulele, ocarina), plugged in my $7 microphone I bought when I was abroad to use while Skyping my family, opened up Audacity, and played around for a good two hours. No, I am not going to be a producer anytime soon. But I had fun.

Prioritizing writing.

This week I tried a new thing.

I’m used to writing being a “fun” thing; something I do after all my homework is done. This works when you’re a high school or college student, perhaps, but I’m a grown-up now, and writing is something I seriously want to pursue. If I want to make a living from it, it has to become work.

Part of my problem has been that when I come home from (my current actual) work, I turn on the computer and do things like check my email and RSS feeds—things that I feel like I need to get out of the way before starting my “fun.” That’s where the rabbit hole starts, and by the time it ends, I’m too tired to attempt writing. (Or, on worse days, I plop in front of the TV and watch two hours of Netflix over dinner before even touching my computer.)

So on Thursday I came home, turned on my computer, opened up the sequel-in-progress to Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from America’s Funniest Home Videos in Scrivener, picked a playlist, and lit the WRITING candle. This is what happened.

  • 5:34pm 4,478 words.
  • 6:08pm Candle is at maximum meltage before spilling into the holder and is extinguished.
  • 6:24pm Potty break. Cat joins me because why not. Cats are weird.
  • 6:31pm Cat jumps on lap.
  • 6:31pm Cat leaves lap.
  • 6:31pm Cat back on lap licking my arm.
  • 6:32pm Cat now on desk with butt four inches from my face. Thanks, cat.
  • 6:33pm Cat butt is obscuring numpad of keyboard. Tail extends over length of keyboard. Thanks, cat.
  • 6:42pm Fatigue begins to set in. Perhaps dinner is in order.
  • 6:45pm Second wind.
  • 7:13pm I’ve been stuck on what to name a character for a good fifteen minutes. Maybe it’s time for dinner now.
  • 7:14pm Dinner time. 5,317 words.

839 words. Not bad for 90 minutes.

  • 9:41pm Still ended up watching TV for two hours. But at least I did real work today.

PS: The candle might be better during winter months. It is HOT right now.

The demons of self-doubt.

This summer I tried to not have to learn lessons twice. I have several sticky notes of “Hard-Earned Wisdom” on my monitor, with such tips as “Don’t bypass LeechBlock. Just don’t. DON’T,” and “Hey, remember that funny thing from (x time) ago? DON’T LOOK IT UP. Just enjoy the memory.”

These things have helped me waste less time doing stupid stuff on the Internet when I should be writing or practicing, as has the candle I mentioned a few weeks ago. But all those things are external. What about that voice in my head that tells me I’m a two-bit no-talent hack and that anything I create just proves it?

The worst is when it pretends to be the voice of artists and writers I admire: “Whatever you attempt is nothing compared to my stuff,” it sneers, which is odd because a lot of these artists and writers publicly encourage those aspiring in their art. “Oh, they mean everyone except you should follow your dreams,” the voice tells me. “If they ever saw your stuff they’d just feel sorry for you.”

What if I just don’t have it in me to be truly good at anything?

I know—that kind of thinking just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if I let it. But it’s so persistent. How can I banish that voice for good and put my head down and just get to work, darn whether I ever get “good” at it? How can I stop imagining the masters of their craft looking at me and laughing at my pathetic attempts at prose or music?

Sorry for the dark night of the soul. These kinds of thoughts have come and gone for months at a time since I was in high school, and I’m no closer to figuring out how to deal with them other than struggling through until I feel like it’s safe to come out and create again. Guess it’s just Insecurity High Tide right now.

Cotati Accordion Festival 2017.

A supportive friend accompanied me to the Cotati Accordion Festival this weekend. It was my first time and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The atmosphere alone was worth the price of admission. Everyone was there because they loved music and wanted to have fun with it, and it showed. I also bought a tiny handcrafted ceramic chicken figurine that reminds me of the children’s book character Minerva Louise and it gives me great happiness every time I gaze upon it.

I left my accordion at home for this one, but maybe not next year.

Writing and ritual: the candle.

The key to being a writer, as they say, is writing. Seems easy enough, except I’m a human.

Getting my butt in a chair in front of a computer is not the hard part; it’s getting me to open up Scrivener and type and not to open up Firefox and plumb the depths of some blog I found or watch every SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch from 1996 to the present. Because going down Internet rabbit holes is easier and less scary than writing what I know will be an awful first draft.

I’m really good at coming up with excuses to not write. I’m not in the right mood, I tell myself after a depressing news tangent. Now I just feel like an Internet glutton; I need to detox from the computer for a while, after a YouTube tangent. I’m thinking about [some media franchise I’m a fan of] too much to write, after a Netflix binge or video game play session. Or how about this one: I can’t write now—I feel like all the people in that awful comments thread I just masochistically read through are watching and judging me. And then, finally, after a full day of this stuff, It’s too late at night. I need to go to bed.

And that is how novels don’t get written.

I’m still working on avoiding temptation and practicing self-control. Something tells me this is going to be a lifetime struggle. But I’ve found a cheap little thing that’s helped me quite a bit. “One Weird Trick,” if you will.

It involves three very inexpensive things:

  1. A 50-cent glass candle holder from Goodwill
  2. A 75-cent votive candle from the Yankee Candle discount basket
  3. A $3 barbecue lighter

And it is a simple 4-step process:

  1. Declare candle the WRITING candle.
  2. Place WRITING candle in candle holder.
  3. Light WRITING candle with barbecue lighter.
  4. WRITE.

Why is this so effective for me? It plays into a lot of my quirks—my desire to squeeze every penny out of that 75-cent candle, for example. If you’re familiar with those little 2-inch votive candles, you know that they never burn perfectly symmetrically; the wick always curves in one direction, pushing the flame out from the center of the candle and melting more wax on one side. Eventually (after about an hour, in my experience) the outer edge of the candle on that side collapses and all the wax drains into the candle holder, dramatically shortening the life of the candle and making you have to chip the wax off the glass after it cools. Worse, the wax now covers an area bigger than the opening, so it’s impossible to get it out in one piece.* To prevent this from happening, you have to extinguish the candle before the wax melts, around the 60-minute mark.

And since that is my WRITING candle, I do not want to spend my one hour of WRITING time on dumb Internet tangents.

The trick is to light it before that nonsense even begins.

candle
This is literally what pushed me to finish Draft 2 of UNBoaTCfAFHV last October and November.

Sure, while I’m writing I get writer’s block now and again, but the candle gives me something mildly interesting to stare at while I wait for more ideas to come. (Once I leaned in too close and singed my own hair a little bit. Don’t do that.)

By the time it’s time to blow out the WRITING candle, I’m often on such a roll that I just keep going. If I need inspiration, I just smell the candle. (I don’t know if that actually works or not. It’s just something to do.)

Just—y’know, be safe about it. Don’t leave burning candles unattended; don’t put flammable things near or above the candle; make sure the candle is on a stable, heat resistant surface; keep pets and kids away, etc. Don’t make dumb decisions. Don’t singe your own hair.

Anyway. There you go. Maybe it’ll help someone else, too.

*The trick to getting wax out easily is freezing the candle holder after the wax is completely cooled. (Freezing it before the wax has completely cooled is a good way to crack the glass.) The wax will shrink and pull back from the glass. The you can just snap the wax into a few pieces and take them out one by one.

Thoughts on noodling.

“I should really sign up for lessons” is something I say a lot. Currently the only musical instrument I play that I’m taking lessons for is the djembe, and I can see the difference in how I play that vs. how I play piano, accordion, folk harp, and ukulele. The last time I took piano lessons was 2004, and I stopped accordion lessons in 2012 when I left the country. Since then I haven’t really pushed myself on either instrument. I used to be able to do scales on the bass buttons on the accordion, for example—now at the Celtic music sessions I mostly oom-pah (or oom-pah-pah) the bass in a very vanilla, uninteresting way. I’ve never had a teacher for folk harp and ukulele, and my experience with them has been pretty much messing around plus the occasional YouTube tutorial. I can’t tell if this is helping me develop my self-expression or holding me back. Maybe both.

Thing is… lessons are expensive, and I’m not exactly rolling in dough. Djembe is a group lesson, so that one’s affordable, but for everything else it’d probably have to be one-on-one. For the unusual instruments it’d be even more expensive (and I’d probably have to travel).

Dunno, just something I’ve thought about as I’ve plucked my harp and strummed my ukulele this week. Guess I’ll just keep going my own pace till I find opportunities and means to learn from real people.

On a related note, the Cotati Accordion Festival is coming up, and while that’s a bit of a drive for me it’s still something I intend to check out.

Not much to report this week.

This past week I didn’t get a whole lot done on that sequel, for a few reasons, including homework and errands… but also a bit of an emotional shake-up with an important decision. Can’t go into detail, but I’m all right now, I think.

In other news, I got another commented-upon draft from a third friend, who is exceptionally talented at worldbuilding and has given me lots of good tips in that regard. He also included some meme images that made me spit water on my keyboard. (Just a little bit, though.)

Lessons from writing a sequel.

Last week I got 2,000 words into a sequel to the Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (UNBoaTCfAFHV for short). UNBoaTCfAFHV isn’t close to polished/finished yet, but I figured after nine months of dedicated work on it (after four years of almost no work on it) it could benefit from being shelved for a while.

This is only the second serious first draft I’ve started, and it’s been almost seven years since the last one. I don’t like dealing with the messy, inevitable crappiness of first drafts, so I rarely start them. But the ideas I have are so strong and I can’t stop thinking about them—even if I don’t know where they’ll lead.

When I first started writing it, the ideas and the words flowed relatively easily, which made me think that perhaps the rest of the draft would be just like that: 1,500 words, rough but workable, in only a couple of hours. Maybe I could do that every day and have a complete first draft in a couple months! I thought.

Yeah…. no.

I tried again a few days later, and squeezed out 500 words of choppy prose, one-dimensional characters, robotic dialog, and melodramatic events. How could something be so beautiful in my head and then turn out so poorly when I try to wrap words around it? It’s like that Ecce Homo painting in Spain that was ruined by a well-intentioned amateur artist back in 2012.

But I have to remind myself that the same thing happened when I finished the first draft of the original. It was “103,680 words of plot holes, inconsistent characterization, telling (not showing), awkward dialog, and just plain bad writing,” I wrote after finishing it at 4:00 in the morning. I wondered if I’d ever be able to wade through it.

And it took four years, but I did, and was surprised at how pleased I was with the result.

Rewriting is a huge task; don’t get me wrong. But the nice thing about rewriting (at least, in my experience) is that the more you do it, the clearer your story’s direction becomes. I allow myself to become overwhelmed with the task as a whole: rewriting ENTIRE CHAPTERS? But writing them the first time through was hard enough already! etc. But taking it little by little, allowing the story to show itself, made the task manageable. And, hey, sometimes rewriting flows easily, too.

In other news, just in the last hour an email showed up in my inbox from my friend (a different one this time), with my UNBoaTCfAFHV Draft 3 and her comments attached. Huzzah, supportive writer friends! I look forward to reading her perspective.

A little help from my friends.

I spent much of last week visiting my friends from college, one of whom was the one who gave me those helpful comments on my draft back in January. We had a ton of fun, caught up on the last six years of each other’s lives, made good food, played board games and card games and a D&D one-shot (I was a human rogue), watched one of my friends start playing Breath of the Wild (the local Target had seven Switches in stock. Seven!), and talked a lot about writing and reading. Book recommendations flew. I brought (the finished!) Draft 3 on a flash drive to be passed around. I’m a little nervous about the revisions this time around because I let myself be just a wee bit more vulnerable. They say vulnerability makes one’s writing better, but it’s also terrifying. I await critiques.

In the meantime, a few ideas for a sequel have been bouncing around my head (which is kind of a surprise, but a nice one), so perhaps while I take a break from Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” I can get started on that. Maybe it won’t take six years to get to a presentable draft this time.

A side note: I’m currently reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik at my friend’s recommendation. I’m only a few chapters in (maybe 11 or 12) but I’m totally hooked on the story and setting. I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding. It’s also one of my greatest weaknesses.