For a person who hates drama, I sure had a lot of frickin’ drama this morning.
First you should know that I have polycythemia vera, a chronic blood malignancy. I’ve had it for many years, my whole adult life. It’s well-treated and managed and I’m very familiar with the symptoms and how to deal with them.
But still. Sometimes this never-ending fatigue gets to me. I want to do The Things! I have all this mental drive and often my body cannot meet the demands of my brain. But I have many techniques for doing my work while not feeling well.
When I woke up this morning, I knew it would be One of Those Days. It makes sense; I’ve been dealing with a tension headache since I arrived, which is exhausting for anyone. It is much better though, and I was hoping to wake up with a bounce and a smile, ready to work, which is something that literally never happens. I just imagine it’s possible sometimes.
I settled on the very large and comfortable couch to work. I re-read some earlier drafts, finished Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and The Story, finally, which every writer but me has already read, and thought about where I’d like to start writing. But good god, did I want to sleep. So fucking sleepy. It made me mad.
Sometimes I react with anger when my body does not do what I want, especially when it wants to sleep during the day, because I know I’ll just lie down and think of how life is finite and time is limited and ruminate on all the things I wish I were doing.
Between trying to sleep and drinking more coffee, I chose coffee. It’s okay, I thought. I don’t need to do much today. I just need to feel like I made some progress.
I spooned some coffee grounds into the pour-over filter, placed it on my mug, started to pour the water, and the kettle knocked against the filter, which knocked over the mug which rolled off the table and onto the carpet, spilling the entire mound of coffee grounds. I stood, kind of in shock, gazing at the grounds sinking gleefully into the shag fibers, mocking my attempts to caffeinate. Screw you, lady! We’re free!!
I yelled out something like, “Oh, come on!!” I slammed down the kettle and broke into tears.
Then I said something like, “I can’t do this. I can’t write this fucking memoir. My life is so stupid!!” and cried and cried.
Then I went to bed and lay there and cried and decided I wasn’t going to write anymore. Writing was not for me. I thought I could do it. I can’t. I’ll just stick to editing and help other people get their stories into the world, stories that matter, unlike mine.
Then I calmed down. I thought I’d nap, but I wanted to get up, so I did. I went back to the couch and thought, you know, I’ll just do some reading about memoir. And while reading, I came across one of those things that I already know, but seem to keep forgetting, a crucial element of storytelling: what does the reader need to know?
So simple, right? Something I grapple with is which scenes to keep, which to throw out, and how much I should dive into or expand scenes and exposition. What helps to reorient me is to remember that every scene should give the reader what they need to know for the next scene. And the next. And that’s how the story happens, and that’s how I can focus on what matters.
Because I want the reader to know so much about me. I have so many vital experiences to share, times when I was brave, times when I was an asshole, times when I thought I would die but here I still am typing away. But the reader doesn’t need to know everything. They only need to know what feeds this particular story.
And I went back to my little white board (I love to write and erase for some reason; I take pictures of things I want to remember then rub it all out). I wrote ANCHOR SCENES at the top and listed the primary, necessary, most vital and emotionally resonant scenes that the reader needs and that lead up to the climactic moment.
I know I said I wasn’t going to outline while I was here, but I broke my rule, and you guys, it feels great.
So I today I started to write then had a mini-breakdown and decided I would never write again then went back and did some writing. And I made another coffee!
I ate lunch outside in the glorious summer weather with a few other artists in residency here. Someone asked me how my morning went, and I told the whole story.
Every person there, whether painter, writer, or composer, nodded with calm understanding.
“Yep, that’s what we artists do,” one guy said. “We go through cycles of breakdowns and working and breakdowns and working. That the process.”
I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this guy normalizing my weird, tear-filled, frustrating, coffee-ground-spilling morning that somehow ended in progress.