I usually spend the last week of the year thinking about how I’ve spent my time and how I’d like to approach next year. To put it in a certain kind of business parlance, I write out what I want to stop, what I want to keep doing, and what I want to do more of. 2020 was the year of ecstatic drafting, just writing and discovering and deepening this power that had always existed to some extent but which grew in ways I never could’ve predicted during those early, particularly terrible pandemic months. With nothing to do except be sad while trying in vain not to be sad, my story brain picked up the slack and gave me sanctuary.
(Pictures are from my early-December trip to the holiday lights event at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. It was wonderful and strange.)
The wild writing continued in 2021, but it manifested differently, primarily in that I’ve spent this year trying to learn to revise effectively. I haven’t arrived at the One Perfect Method for Novel Revision, but I made some great progress. Earlier this month, I finished the second draft of something I initially finished in early spring, and it was the biggest revision I’ve ever tried: flashbacks and perspective shifts and cutting out parts that led to the story but didn’t need to be there in a more complete version. I covered the wall behind my kitchen table in multicolored post-its as I rearranged chunks of time. It became a physical presence in my house and something I really enjoyed looking at: behold this physical manifestation of the alternate reality that lives in my head.
I’d call it a success in that I finished it. I got the farthest by using Cari Luna’s revision method (short class details here, longer version here), which continues to make my writing life so much better. Even more than when I was in UX school and pursuing a career in content strategy, my life is awash in post-its, and their presence makes everything feel possible.
There were things I wanted that I didn’t get, though. The first draft I wrote last year, the one that led me into this world that I spend a lot of my time in now, still isn’t where I want it to be, all these yawning-open fault lines. I like watching my brain work on it in idle moments, and I think I’m closer to being able to address what’s not there yet - an inciting incident here, a heightened confrontation there - but I’m trying not to put too much pressure on it for 2022. I came into 2021 feeling absolutely certain that I’d get a second draft done this year (and shit, maybe a third!). Instead, I made lot of changes, couldn’t get the ends to close, declared that a second draft, and now it’s a third draft hanging out there waiting for my occasional attention.
Most of the work is when my brain wants something familiar and interesting to chew on. I think of it when I’m falling asleep. Things occur to me when I’m out walking. You know, the usual: create quiet, and answers might saunter in when you’re not actively trying to beckon them out of the darkness.
I’ve recently declared that 2022 is for the business of writing. That won’t change a lot of my usual writing habits too much. I plan to still write or edit every day unless it becomes clear that it’s creating a problem rather than solving one. But I also want to get things out there.
Just before omicron, I went to Europe for two weeks. For the first time since 2019, I ended up on a plane for more than ten hours at a time, going through the turbulence over California, over northern Canada, over the top of the Iberian peninsula. I’m not the most nervous air traveler, but this time, something seized me. It’s influenced by the preoccupation with death I’ve had for the last two years, sure, but that’s not the song that came out of my heart as I held my partner’s hand, as I walked myself through the shitty mindfulness that’s necessary to get through these days of being an adult without just screaming all the time.
What it said was this: “If I die without getting these stories out there, I’m going to be fucking furious.”
Furious and dead, sure. But furious.
That was new.
There are smaller steps to be had here: I’m going to do something I should’ve done a long time ago and set up some printouts with account access as part of end-of-life planning. This means things won’t be locked in Google servers forever should my MFA-enabling cell phone, my fingerprint, and I take a tragic and premature trip into the surface of the earth (at a slow speed or a very fast one).
But what it really meant is that it’s time to take my imaginary friends outside.
This means a lot of things. I want to take a business-of-writing class with Lyzette Wanzer. I want to submit things and accumulate a fat stack of rejections (because I will absolutely print them out as trophies. I went to a virtual Charlie Jane Anders reading a couple months ago, and she brandished this amazingly thick file of rejections, and I felt some of the most peculiar and pleasant jealousy I’ve ever experienced). I want to get rejected by Clarion West (or at least do the work that could earn a rejection). I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the things I can control. I will eventually have some control over rejections, but I won’t get the knowledge I need to do anything like that until I put myself out there a lot. Like a lot.
I also need to learn how to write actually short stories. I’ve done it before, but recently, “shorter idea” still comes out at 15,000 words or so. “Breanne, that is basically a novella,” I tell myself.
I’ll get there.
I’m going to look at submissions and write to what they request as part writing exercise, part submission goal. I’ll keep working on my revisions with the idea of querying. I’m planning on going to AWP in March, but there’s the enduring question of whether in-person things will be happening then or not. (A tech conference I’m speaking at next year just moved from February to May because of All This.)
I’ve spent the last 19 months exercising uncommon focus on stories set in one world, and it’s time to branch out more. I’ve made the occasional detour: the fantasy first draft I finished in July as part of Clarion West’s Write-a-thon, ideas I write down and sometimes stay with for a while, the novel I got about 20,000 words into before realizing it is not the story for me right now. But when my brain strays toward fiction while I’m doing dishes or attempting to work or otherwise existing, they almost always go to this one world. And I’m capable of more, so I want to chase that as hard as I can.
Goal the first: get rejected and learn from it. Goal the second: settle my business so that, the next time I’m on a turbulent flight, my first thought isn’t BUT THE FICTION.
“How did 2021 manage to be worse?” I’ve asked my friends lately. And in certain ways, it’s true: we’ve had wave after wave of almost-hope get crushed by wave after wave of pointless setback. I’ve occasionally thought wistfully of those early pandemic days, all solidarity and staying at home and baking things or whatever, just because it was simpler. It was also fucking horrible, which is the thought that comes hot on the heels of that wistfulness, but I understand what my brain is trying to say. We’re just all tired. Thinking and navigating is exhausting, and there’s no sign of it relenting.
The writing I’ve done last year and this year sustained me. Work might go to hell (and it did; I got a new job this summer, and things got better), the world might be in flames, I might be assured again and again that I can’t trust massive swaths of my fellow humans, and my heart might ache all the time. And that all happened. But beneath it all, I saw a body of work growing that I’d never been capable of before, and I at least knew that something important to me that I adored threaded itself through all the days where my brain felt like it was on fire and my heart wondered if it could just go on strike.
(I have informed my heart that it cannot, in fact, go on strike, but that I will continue trying to make working conditions better.)
I didn’t do everything I wanted and expected in 2021, no, but I made great strides in things that are dear to me, and I have every reason to think that next year will bring more of the same. Third drafts and fourths, my work in front of other people, and endlessly asking myself if I should just say fuck it and self publish.
But that’s a question for another year.
And finally, a little snippet I wrote recently that I liked:
“Did you just have me feel the end of your severed vas deferens?” He paused at that. “I suppose I did.” She buried her face in his hair and tried not to laugh. “Well, that’s an act I’ve never experienced before. I can’t decide if it’s sexy or really, really weird.”
I spent a couple of weeks in Paris and Barcelona just before and then during the initial emergence of omicron. I have a lot to say about travel in this era (which I believe can be done carefully and ethically sometimes; that said, if my trip was starting, say, around Christmas this year instead of American Thanksgiving, I would have changed my plans), but I got something from this trip. We spent five days in Paris, six in Barcelona, and then the remainder in Paris again. I spent those last couple of days in a mode I usually try to avoid but maybe shouldn’t, just darting around crossing as many things off my list as I could. On our last day there, I walked more than 15 miles. We got French covid tests, took a walking tour on Paris during the occupation and liberation, and then I shot out to La Défense.
A friend who’s spent much more time in Paris than I have told me that La Défense is just kind of like a mall: everything’s new and shiny with sharp right angles. It’s just a place, and not really worth going to a lot of trouble to go see it unless I’d run out of things to do. But he also showed me a picture of Le Pouce, pictured above, and so for years I have meant to go and see it. Just a big-ass 12-meter thumb, hanging out on our earth. I went past the enormous arch building just outside the Metro station, really so big that it almost surpassed the edges of my useful vision, just something that’s so big and immediate that it’s hard to fit in one brain. And then: the big-ass thumb. A good, weird, years-long intention, finally fulfilled. I hung around, looked at it for a while, took a little wander around, and deposited myself back on the train. I got to sit in front, where the fake control panel is on the driverless 1 line, and feel like I was zooming down the tunnel.
It’s a great time for strongly held yet possibly very silly ambitions. Do the thing. See the thumb. None of us get out of this alive, so we might as well be as big and weird was we can.
I hope your holiday times brought you rest and some joy, and I hope the new year brings you the chance to reconsider things in a new and happy way, laying a path toward things that haven’t felt very possible for the last 21-odd months but which (I promise) actually are.