How it feels to be split open

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

I’ve been struggling with a scene in my WIP lately, one that’s seemingly innocuous. It’s a scene in which the guy my protagonist has been snogging tells her he doesn’t want to go public with their relationship. It seems pretty simple and straightforward. And not at all difficult to write. But every time I sit down to get it done, my fingers freeze on the keys.


Why am I hesitating? I’ve written rougher scenes than this. I’ve written scenes with physical and emotional abuse, scenes of coercive sex. Scenes that have left my protagonist bare and raw. I’ve been open. I’ve been accommodating. And I haven’t held anything back.

But there’s something about this scene that inexplicably panics me. Something that makes my eyes burn. My skin prick. Something that makes me want to surf the net, decorate the room, or do ANYTHING except write that scene.


When I worked with Franny Billingsley, she mentioned three terms she called “The Vacuum,” the “Controlling Belief,” and “The Default Emotion.” And it’s by thinking about these three terms that I’m coming to grips with why I’ve been struggling with this particular scene.

According to Franny, the Vacuum is the great hole in a character, the thing he or she craves most (whether or not he or she is aware of this craving). Ex: Acceptance, Love, Visibility, etc.

The Controlling Belief results from The Vacuum; it is the way a character perceives him or herself as a result of the aforementioned hole or empty space in their emotional life. Ex: I’m unworthy, I’m unforgivable, No one will ever see who I really am.

Finally, The Default Emotion is the emotion your character naturally “falls back to” in times of stress or great intensity. This emotion is tied directly to The Vacuum and your character’s Controlling Belief. Ex: Shame, Anger, Longing.

If A + B + C = D, where A = The Vacuum, B = Controlling Belief, and C = Default Emotion, then D = who your character really is. (That person you’ve been trying to figure out all this time).

Yeah. I just went all mathematical on you. In a writing blog. 😉

Ex: In Franny’s novel, Chime, Briony’s Vacuum is acceptance (due to a tragic incident in her childhood). Because her Vacuum is acceptance, her Controlling Belief is that she’s wicked. And because she believes she’s wicked, her Default Emotion is guilt.

Whew. Complicated, I know. But it’s really a profound way to get in touch with your characters’ emotions and the things that make them who they really are.

So as I began to think about these three pieces and about how they shape who my protagonist is, the reason for my hesitation became painfully clear.

Why was I getting so upset?

Because my character’s Controlling Belief/Default Emotion is exactly the same as mine.

She’s not me and I’m not her, and we both arrived at our CB’s and DE’s in different ways, but we both have a controlling belief that we’re not worthy of attention/love. Which means we both have the Default Emotion of Fear, specifically of being ignored/rejected.

ALL of which we both have to deal with in that particular scene.

Yikes. Intense stuff.

This, I think, is what Natalie Goldberg means in Writing Down the Bones. I have to be willing – just as all writers do – to face my own fears and emotions. To understand both myself and my character, and find the courage to tell the truth of that experience.

What about you?

What scenes are you avoiding? What sections stand out as so emotionally painful or intimidating that you can’t bring yourself to write them?

I challenge you to sit down and look at both your and your character’s Vacuum, Controlling Belief, and Default Emotion. And if you see some overlap, don’t be surprised.

And take heart. You’re writing something real.



Filed under Fiction, writing, writing life, YA

On writing, getting lost, and driving with your headlights on

“Writing is like driving at  night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E.L. Doctorow

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a fear of getting lost.

I’m not sure exactly when it started. Maybe that time when I was in elementary school, about five, when both Mom and Dad left me behind at church. Each thought each other had me, both went home, and I was left to curl up in the playground fort, hug my knees, and cry.

They never forgave themselves for that one. I did, but the memory of it still sits deep to this day.

The fear of getting lost followed me into my teenage years, especially when I first started driving. Back then, the GPS had only just come out on the market and was too expensive, which meant I had to find my way  the old-fashioned way. I was terrified to drive to places I had never been, and the mere thought of it would turn me into a jittery mess. Mini-panic attacks were not uncommon. I’d beg my parents to come with me and, if it wasn’t possible, I’d go over the directions at least ten times and study the map for a good twenty minutes before departure.

Even when my father purchased me a GPS as my high school graduation present, the fear didn’t go away. What if the maps weren’t accurate/up to date? What if I got turned around in the boonies in the middle of nowhere? What if I got lost in a place with no streetlights, no signs, and no way to find  the road back home?

All of which, to my abject horror, did eventually happen. More than once, in fact. I seem to have a knack for getting lost. And I can still taste the copper on my tongue, feel the dull ache between my heart-battered ribs, and recall the pale whiteness of my fingers wrapped around the steering wheel as I struggled to find my way.

Thanks to a better GPS and slightly better coping skills, those moments of breathless panic are fewer and further between. But each time I hop in the car to drive somewhere new, I still feel this little twinge of nervousness – the slightest uptick in my heart rate – when I pull out onto the road.

Maybe that’s why Doctorow’s “Writing is like driving at night in the fog,” quote never sat well with me. Driving was terrifying. The dark was terrifying. The absence of sight…horrific.

And yet, as I move into my second year of working on my WIP, the one I started in my second semester of grad school (then restarted in 3rd, 4th, and I’m re-working yet again now that I’m on my own), I’m beginning to realize that driving in the dark with nothing but my headlights is exactly what I’m being called upon to do.

In my last semester at VCFA, A.M. Jenkins gave a wonderful lecture on that well known adage of “Character drives plot.” She gave us friendship bracelets and told us to wear them every time we wrote. The bracelets were totems, reminders that we were supposed to tell the characters’ stories: not our own.  And if we told their stories, though we might not “know” how those stories would end, the characters themselves would eventually lead us there.

The idea of taking on such a writing style was unsettling to me. I’m a planner. An organizer. A strategist. A map it out then make it happen kind of girl. The prospect of letting my characters emotions, wants, and needs move the plot was every bit as frightening to me as driving alone in the dark.

So I resisted.  I plotted. And my writing turned to shit.

But then, something strange happened one day. I decided to just free write, much in the way I had in Martine Leavitt’s Generative Workshop (where the first pages of this WIP were born). I thought about my character. I thought about what she was feeling. I thought about what she wanted.

And I closed my eyes. And wrote. And the weirdest things happened.

A sense of place, or “MA” as Tim Wynne-Jones would say, crept slowly into my novel. I could suddenly taste, touch, and feel the world my character lived in.  Emotions she had buried, deep beneath layers of cynicism and toughness, came bubbling to the surface. Her relationships with her parents became clear, with her lover became clear, and – for the first time in a long time – it finally all felt real. I quit mapping. I stopped staring at the GPS. I just turned on my headlights and drove.

And it was beautiful.

This realness has taken a toll on my current WIP: I’ve had to almost completely rewrite eight of my first ten chapters, kill numerous darlings, and cut over 40 pages from what had been the tail-end of my WIP. The character’s motivations have changed…which means the story has changed…which means I have no idea how it will end. In essence, I’ve had to start completely over: all the way back to square one. Which is why – unlike the rest of my classmates who have finished drafts, agents, or book deals, – I’m on my 5th first draft.

It’s terrifying. It’s crazy. But the writing is so much better.

I’m more than a little panicked about the fact that I no longer know how the story will end. Will the plot be cohesive? Will the characters be believable? Or will it just be a jumbled up mess? I don’t know.

But instead of being miserably stuck and hating every word on the page, I’m moving forward. I’m driving – with nothing but my headlights on. And I’m trusting, with my characters serving as the GPS, I can make the whole trip that way.


Filed under Fiction, Revision, writing, writing life, YA


Wow. It’s been a while. Trying to finish grad school will do that to you. Here are the updates:


1) Graduated with my MFA

2) Finishing my last year as a public school teacher

3) Getting ready to move in with the boyfriend (so excited!)

4) Trying to finish the WIP. Again. Still. Lol.


That pretty much sums it up. And now….back to writing.


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Wishing…and hoping…

…and waiting…and praying.

Packet 1 just went out this morning to the last advisor I will ever have in the VCFA MFA program: Coe Booth. My stomach, at the risk of being cliche, is tied in knots. It’ll be interesting to see what she thinks….

Methinks I will have LOTS of work to do…

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Creative Writing and Quilting

Recently, I’ve started learning how to quilt. I went through the lengthy but exciting process of going to the store, purchasing my materials, selecting just the right fabric, etc.

I’ve never really been the “artsy” type, but the desire to quilt has been bouncing around in my brain for a while now. My great-grandmother, Winifred Ruth Harvey, used to hand-quilt a blanket for one family member each year. Though I lack the skill and discipline for hand quilting, I still want to revive this tradition because somehow, despite the years and the fact that she’s gone, I still feel incredibly close to her whenever I sit down to sew.

As I started learning the mechanics of machine quilting – the cutting, the measuring, the back stitches, bobbin threading, string snipping and so on – I found myself making mistake. After mistake. After mistake.  To the point where I decided that, were they to have an actual “quilting class” in school, I definitely would have been the kid stuck in remedial. Dunce cap and all.

Finally, just when I thought I had finished a perfect square, I double checked my measurements and realized the unthinkable had occurred: I was off by half an inch. I crumpled up into a frustrated ball and sat there, staring at it miserably.

It was at this point that my mother quietly entered the room and, seeing the train wreck that was my quilt square, leaned over me and whispered: “Hey. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re still learning.  Anytime you want to create something, you have to be willing to start over.”

Her words hit me like a freight train: Anytime you want to create something, you have to be willing to start over. The true-ness of them washed over me and I realized that what she’d said was applicable not only to my quilting, but my writing as well.

Writing is messy. It is chaotic and difficult and exasperating. Sometimes you get your exposition wrong or cut your dialogue too short or completely lose track of where you started from. Sometimes there is no salvaging the thing that you’ve created. And, when that happens, you have to be brave enough to start all over.

I suspect these words will ring especially true when I get my first packet back from my new advisor. But I’m trying to commit myself to the process, to be gentle enough and forgiving enough of myself to say “Hey. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re still learning.”  And I imagine for most of us brave enough to write, that’s a lesson we need to take to heart.

We’re still learning. And whether it’s a chapter or an entire draft, it’s okay to start all over.


Filed under grad school, MFA CreativeWriting, writing

Packet slump

My grad school deadline is approaching….six days from today….and I feel as though my brain is leaking out through my ears. It’s been a hectic month. Work has been horrifically busy and I haven’t been able to carve out nearly as  much time for writing as I want to.

Which means, in essence, I’m screwed.

I know that pessimism doesn’t help, but it’s where I’m at right now. I feel like I’ve hit some giant metaphysical wall, gaurded by an evil, Gandalf, anti-muse who is loudly declaring “You shall not pass!”

I really am disappointed with myself. I hoped to be much farther along in my draft – close to done, actually – at this point. I don’t know where my motivation has gone. I just sit and stare at the page, praying for something to come out. But all is silence. :/ Even the cicadas outside my window are noisier than my keyboard…

Here’s hoping I can crank out something halfway decent in the next couple of days. Otherwise, I’ll be in for it when my advisor reads this hot mess of a packet…

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First they came for the protestors…

Last night,  Naomi Wolf – author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook For American Revolutionaries – was arrested for her decision to support the rights of the  Occupy Wall Street protestors. The photo to the left was taken by Mike Shane and shows Wolf and her partner, Avram Ludwig, being hauled off to the 7th precinct for processesing.

The events leading up to Wolf’s arrest are as follows:

1) Wolf and her partner arrived at the “Game Changers 2011” event being hosted by the Huffington Post in the SOHO area of NY

2) As they entered, they noticed Occupy Wall Street protestors outside, noticing that they were using the “human mic” technique since they had been told using a megaphone was illegal; Wolf was apalled and reminded them that the 1st Ammendment says nothing about the prohibition of megaphones

3) Wolf and her partner quickly collected a list of grievances on behalf of the protestors to take to Govenor Cuamo (who was also attending the event).  They were, however, unable to locate him and other business pressed them to leave the event early.

4) On their way out, Wolf and her partner noticed that the protestors had been driven away from the building, guarded by the police who were keeping them far away from the very event they wanted to protest. Wolf approached the police and asked why; she was gruffly told that Huffington Post had a permit that prevented the protestors from using the sidewalk.

5) Wolf hunted down a HuffPost representative, suspecting such a line was pure malarkey, and indeed it was. The only restriction was that protestors could not block the paths of pedestrians or prevent them from entering or exiting the building.

6) Wolf then proceeded to inform the protestors of their rights, lead them back to the sidewalk where they could protest freely, and was confronted by the NYPD. Wolf describes the showdown as follows:

Then a phalanx of perhaps 40 white-shirted senior offices descended out of seemingly nowhere and, with a megaphone (which was supposedly illegal for citizens to use), one said: “You are unlawfully creating a disruption. You are ordered to disperse.” I approached him peacefully, slowly, gently and respectfully and said: “I am confused. I was told that the permit in question allows us to walk if we don’t block pedestrian access and as you see we are complying with the permit.”

He gave me a look of pure hate. “Are you going to back down?” he shouted. I stood, immobilised, for a moment. “Are you getting out of my way?” I did not even make a conscious decision not to “fall back” – I simply couldn’t even will myself to do so, because I knew that he was not giving a lawful order and that if I stepped aside it would be not because of the law, which I was following, but as a capitulation to sheer force. In that moment’s hesitation, he said, “OK,” gestured, and my partner and I were surrounded by about 20 officers who pulled our hands behind our backs and cuffed us with plastic handcuffs.

A video of Wolf’s arrest can be viewed here.

Wolf closed her re-telling with these words: “first they come for the “other” – the “terrorist”, the brown person, the Muslim, the outsider; then they come for you – while you are standing on a sidewalk in evening dress, obeying the law.”

Words cannot express my horror at this turn of events. Like many, I have been watching the growing video evidence of police brutality in New York. And like many, I am shocked by the complete and utter unconstituionality of the NYPD’s actions.

But this situation, in particular, upsets me to no end. Wolf committed no crime. She obeyed the law. She exercised her rights as a US Citizen peacefully and respectfully. And she was arrested.

It terrifies me to think that we are living in a country where it is increasingly becoming a reality that if you “question” the authority or the majority, you somehow become the enemy. This is especially troublesome for me as a writer, because I view it as my sacred duty to challenge the status quo, to inspire my readers to look at the world differently, and – above all else -encourage them to keep asking questions.

When did asking “Why?” become a crime?

Wolf’s final words in her account are especially chilling. They harken back to that famous poem from WWII, written by Pastor Martin Niemoller, that still rings eeriely true in our time:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

 As Wolf asserts, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be “different” in America. To be the other. To be the one who thinks and lives outside the box and according to the tenets of his or her own conscience. This is also why it is important that we, as writers, defend the rights of those who are different and continue to tell their stories so that they are not swept under the rug and forgotten. That’s why books like Shine, The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian, etc, are so important. They remind us that it is not wrong to be different, to be an outsider, to stand on the edge and say “No. This is not who I am. This is not what I believe in. I will have no part in this.”

They remind us to stand up for ourselves. And for what is right.

As e.e. cummings once said “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

The battle to be ourselves starts in childhood, carries on through adolescence, and follows us into adulthood. It is a continuous journey – an ever relevant issue – which is why I applaud Wolf for standing up – both for herself and for the rights of the protestors she was protecting – and saying enough is enough.

Here’s hoping that, someday soon, the folks in power might actually listen.

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