alyssa_bethancourt: (elf leaves)
When another year dies, we have this tendency to convince ourselves that our arbitrary measurements of time have some meaning, and that they are defined by how much we've done in that span. As I get older, I've begun to realize that survival is itself an accomplishment we shouldn't be so quick to brush off. The need we have to be constantly doing something, as though our existence lacks justification otherwise, is an evasion. Just background noise to fill the silence; busywork to keep our minds off of our own doubts over whether or not we are who we want to be.

And so I sit here at the start of a new year, unable to stop myself from examining my performance of the last twelvemonth at least a little. I did, after all, quite brazenly and with enormous bravado, decree last January that I would finish the zero draft of my novel before the end of 2012. It's much easier to sweep such declarations under the rug when you don't make them out loud. That's why I made that one where everyone could see. I do my best work under pressure. Or so I tell myself.

Well.

While I didn't actually manage a finished draft, I am calling my work of the last twelve months a success. It took nearly three years of my life and innumerable drops of (blood) sweat and tears just to accomplish the first fifty thousand words. Since then I've added more than one hundred and seven thousand. Yep, that's right. Over a hundred thousand words in 2012, which is why I can't be disappointed with myself. That's a hell of a lot of work I made myself do no matter how hard it got some days to make my brain English. And even though the last several weeks of the year were filled with more non-verbal days than I would have liked -- even though I may be pushing through a mini-slump even as this post hits the intertubes -- I'm still going. Slow work though it may be, it's happening. This story is heading into its climax and not even good old-fashioned writer's inertia can stop it now.

So you can suck on that, 2012. I am not ashamed of you, no matter how much you may want me to be. We lived, we learned, we even took several steps forward together.

Next.

alyssa_bethancourt: (what is)

This summer has been an actual battle.

I say that with a certain amount of willful optimism, implying that summer is approaching something like an end, when in fact in the Valley of the Sun we could easily be looking at another two months of temperatures over 100°F.  That’s just how Phoenix rolls.

When the heat took hold and the dimensions of my world shrank in the name of self-preservation, I thrashed against the captivity like a caged tiger.  My very literal physical confinement quite naturally led to the surfacing of all the other ways in which I’ve been feeling limited.  And, being trapped with myself and my thoughts, there was little I could do but huddle in my hole and stew.  I flailed miserably against my novel all through the month of June, ultimately deleting more than I walked away with by an alarming margin.

July made it worse in some ways, as the heat deepened and the monsoons rolled in with their humidity to make us truly suffer; and with my son off staying with relatives for the entire month, I found myself suddenly without any tangible responsibility. It was mind-boggling how quickly I embraced the nothing I was able to get away with doing.  But it soon became clear that my avoidance of the sun was quite literally making me ill – clinical depression brought on by vitamin D deficiency.

Even as my general ability to anything dwindled, that trapped feeling was brimming over, exploding into something volcanic and destructive.  I needed out, and I needed it any way I could get it.  Dark thoughts in the midst of the sun’s ascendancy. 

Now, Depression and I are old friends and I know its knock by heart.  I know not to listen to ideas that aren’t being spoken in my true voice.  But that helplessness, that need to escape, to do something, was real.  Unfortunately, so are all of the familiar limitations that daily hold me where I am.  There were two things, only two, that I could exert any control over in the depth of summer’s hell, and I dove into those as if to save my life.

Because it was.

My novel: I’ve vowed to finish it by the end of the year, and I mean it.  I’m tired of being vaguely embarrassed to tell people I’m a writer just because it hasn’t been monetarily rewarding.  I’m also tired of being too poor to handle my daily life, and having no recourse to do anything about that because no one will hire a thirty-three-year-old autistic woman with limited work experience.  Well, if I can’t get hired, then I just need to earn money at the thing I’m good at.  I don’t want this book to feel like it has to save my life, but it kind of does.  (Don’t tell the novel.  It’s under enough pressure as it is. /whisper) So I’ve spent the summer hacking away at this word count, some days with a feverish urgency because the more trapped I felt, the more I needed my writing to save me.  Every time I hit a snag, I begged the novel to behave because we don’t have time for that.  I need out now.  The poor novel has done the best it could.

The only other aspect of my life I had the power to effect any change over was my attention to my health.  I dove into that too, because it was all I could do.  Knowing I needed some sun, but obviously unable to get it healthily in the middle of the day, I made a choice.  I’ve always struggled with insomnia, and I mean that struggled quite dynamically.  I fight it, trying to force my clock to conform to social norms, only ever ending up the worse (and more sleep-deprived) for it.  But this summer, with no spawn in the house and no one to make demands upon my daylight hours, I made a decision to go full vampire.  Completely flipped my schedule.  I didn’t want to be up and moving around and trying to do things during the hottest part of the day anyway. I did this ostensibly so that I could get out for a brisk walk in the mornings at dawn, before the worst of the heat set in, but there have been other benefits as well.

I’m getting my 6-8 hours of sleep every day for the first time in a decade and a half, now that I’m not fighting my body’s natural rhythm and trying to take them at night when my mind is most alert and active.  I would say it’s miraculous, except it’s more like I should have thought of this years ago.  My family isn’t exactly on board with this, but you know.  They have their struggles and I have mine and we all have to deal.  And this is me, dealing.

But the other unintended side-effect has been that the surrender, the laying down of arms against my body’s sleep cycle, has led somewhat organically to a more cooperative approach to my writing.  Instead of seeing my own creativity as an adversary needing to be conquered by the forces of productivity, I’ve been able to accept the flow of ideas as helpful even when they don’t ultimately lead me where I want to go. 

Part of this has been a direct result of the hour-long walks I’ve been taking before the world has awoken, because in the silence and solitude I am naturally inclined to explore dialogue and creative concepts.  Sometimes it’s hard to get it all down on paper when I get home, and not everything I write ends up being useful, but surplus is the opposite of the problem I’ve been having until now and I’ll take it.  Mainly, though, I really think this sudden relative ease in my writing is just the lack of struggle.  I’ve stopped fighting myself, at least in this.

And, strangely, I’ve even found things to love about my little corner of Hell since I started venturing out with the sun:

The clouds at dawn. The stillness of the world in that hour before morning shakes off night’s silence.  The utter freedom of being out beneath the sky at an hour that belongs to no one.  The inexplicable colony of lovebirds living in the neighbors’ Royal Palm.  The dog that still barks at me every morning as I pass his chain-link fence, even though he started recognizing me weeks ago; he wags his tail now while he makes his usual ruckus.  The baby cock that thinks he can crow like a man, and tells us so every sunrise in his reedy little voice.  The dawn-light on those ageing blue crackle-painted louvers.  The contrast of the fuzzy black carpenter bees against the wall of glossy white lilies.  The scent of ripe figs telling me I’m coming close to the crumbling old brick building at the end of the neighborhood.  The cats who watch me pass from their comedic safe spot, wedged in beneath the eaves.  Familiar faces whose names I’ll never know greeting me with a nod and a smile as we pass, we alone moving through a world not yet awake.

As the approaching equinox chases dawn deeper into the morning, I know I’ll be sharing my quiet hour with more of my neighbors, so the solitude has been a gift that only summer could give. And for that I must thank it.

This remains a place I know I can’t go on calling home forever.  If there’s one thing I took away from the depth of my desperation, it’s that Phoenix cannot be all there ever is to my life.  We are not and never will be friends.  But for as long as we are forced to deal with each other, we may as well accept a wary truce.

alyssa_bethancourt: (elf leaves)
Things I've learned since I started taking daily walks at dawn:
  • There is far more action around here at 5 a.m. than is decent -- which is to say any
  • I walk funny
  • Phoenix sucks so bad that even at dawn it's not exactly tolerable outside
  • Someone's peach-faced Lovebirds seem to have escaped and formed a commune in the Royal Palms around here, and at first I thought I was seeing things when I spotted them up there
  • When you're completely alone, and the only sounds are the wind, the birds, and the distant hum of morning traffic just getting underway, the natural inclination is eventually to talk to yourself. Or maybe I'm just crazy.
  • Talking to yourself at dawn in near-complete isolation while revisiting familiar territory is the perfect time to run dialogue for flow
  • Or maybe I'm just crazy
  • Moving around at dawn makes me question my sanity
  • Uncoincidentally, moving around at dawn makes me wax philosophical
  • We have a foothold situation in progress re. the feline population
alyssa_bethancourt: (eyes)
Just now I came up for air on the novel and was reading through some old journal entries while I regrouped. Something about the feel of this one in particular resonates with the mental space I find myself in at the moment, for reasons I can't entirely pinpoint.

So, because it hasn't ever seen the internet before, I'll just go ahead and share this old insomnia-driven scrap from August of 2008 that for some reason speaks to where I am right now:

It is so easy to forget, living immersed in city lights, just how beautiful the sky can be at night. I knew once what the Milky Way looks like -- that gorgeous belt of diamonds wreathed in stellar mist. That seeing it again was such a shock to me is a grief I only wish I could remedy. I would almost say the long drive was worth it for that midnight view alone.

Unexpectedly I met a kindred soul this morning, as sudden as lightning in summer. Perhaps it's only my imagining, but I think she sees it too. Something about the way she stares at me, as though she sees a familiar thing but can't quite find it in her memory. Her pain is my pain, and all the world around us is oblivious. There are words I could say to ease her suffering, but I don't know which ones or how to speak them. Too much has happened already in the name of this cause, too much damage that may never be repaired, and I fear to botch another operation so delicate. One day I hope the door is open at a time when I'm standing before it ready to enter.

This feeling is odd and unsettling, surrounded by beauty of a sort I have long since ceased familiarity with, and unable therefore to drink it in without some discomfort. It hurts, in a way. In many ways.

There's so much here I cannot process.

Sitting out upon the lawn far greener than those at home, I was recognized by a stranger who knew me by the family resemblance. I remember the days when that was more common, and we would laugh about it. The age gap is not inconsiderable, but I suppose we've both always been difficult to pinpoint. The boys were trying to play at the time, but both of them being what they are the exercise was fraught with certain difficulties. I think they have a bond regardless and it pleases me.

Sleepless now in a strange place that is nevertheless much like home -- like what I wish home was. I feel haunted almost by memory, regret, the ghost of contentment, yet these spirits mean no harm. They simply have words for me that I cannot quite make out and am straining to hear over the sound of my own disquiet.
alyssa_bethancourt: (No)

My relationship with my own writing is pretty tempestuous.

Sometimes we're in love.  Sometimes it's easy to make the words flow and I know I'm doing good work and I get almost drunk on my ability to create whole worlds out of language.  I start to dream up grand plans for the day when I'm famous and I can walk into a bookstore and see my own name on a shelf.  My work will be so well-received that Hollywood will buy the rights.  Oh, it will be glorious.  I'll be witty and sarcastic on writing panels at cons, building a fan base of nerds like me with an equally dark sense of humor.  My opinion will matter.  People will love me for being so eccentric.  I'll stop wondering whether my parents secretly feel like I was a superfluous addition to the family.

Then there's the rest of the time.  Today, right now.  When I feel like the writing is so difficult that it can't be anything but a chore to read.  That no one could possibly have any interest in the stories I have to tell, the things I have to say.  Because I'm just that tedious.

Usually, when this mood strikes, I stop writing for a few months and seriously ask myself whether I'll ever bother again.  All emowangst style.  Today, however, the universe stood up and said no.  The universe instead showered my writing with praise from multiple sources on a previously unrealized scale.  The universe said, "Hey.  Alyssa.  Get over yourself and get back to telling stories.  You're good at it."

Thanks, universe.  I needed that.

alyssa_bethancourt: (my hand)
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” 

— Ray Bradbury

alyssa_bethancourt: (eyes)

Call me disloyal to the great American literary form, but I've somehow never been one for the short story -- at least on the creating end.  I've enjoyed reading my fair share of them. 

It's just that when it comes to getting my head around the beginning and end of a story, to write it, my tendency is to go macro rather than micro.  The little stories contained in the hours that make up our days and years, these are not my strength as a storyteller.  It might have something to do with the way my mind continuously looks for patterns whether I want it to or not.  All events lead to other events, and it's my inclination to follow that train of thought for the long haul.  So when it comes to picking out just one moment and encapsulating within it the full scope of the dramatic arc in miniature, I struggle to see beginning and end.  To me, it's all middle.

However.

There is much to be said for the short story, as a writer and not just as a consumer of words.  As much as I might flail when forced to be brief, it's a useful exercise.  It's no less true that every word has to count in a novel than it is in short story, but somehow, knowing that you mean not to break ten thousand makes you look at every word with a different kind of scrutiny.  You want each and every one of those evocative bastards to be telling a story all by itself, not just pulling its own weight.  (Unrealistic?  Sure, whatever.  It's not a writer's job to approach things in terms of what's realistic.  Our work is with the substance of dreams.)  The story has to introduce the protagonist and his conflict, show action toward the resolution of that conflict, present a climax, and tie up any loose ends on short rations; no word of dialogue, no line of description that does not aid in this is welcome to the show.  Shrinking novel mentality down to sitcom-episode size takes constant vigilance, and that's good for someone like me who tends to be wordy (in real life as much as on the page.)    

From the perspective of a serial novelist, short story is like a working vacation.  You can put aside, for a moment, everything you've had to hold within your mind regarding the big picture.  And believe me, holding the pieces of an unwritten novel together in your brain is no easy task.  For most people, it's too daunting a prospect even to take seriously.  We novelists are an eccentric bunch in that we know what a scary job it is but we decide to do it anyway.  But when writing short, you get to step away from that crazy internal almost-chaos and just take a moment to explore character.  Or setting.  Or tone.  Visit techniques or genres or ideas you don't know well enough to give your attention for the full length of a novel. 

Then you have a lovely finished product to sit back and admire after an effort that can be measured in hours rather than weeks, months, or even years.  There's no denying the appeal of the immediacy of the gratification.  And once you've completed the exercise and patted yourself on the back, you get to return to the scary, more complicated world of the novel with the reassurance that you do in fact have it in you to get things done

Yes, this is my dreadfully windbaggy way of saying I wrote a short story last week and that I liked doing it.  And that it helped me want to get on with the novel.
alyssa_bethancourt: (my hand)

I believe it was some time in the spring of 2009 that I began seriously considering the reality that I had written a good book based on a trilogy of bad books, and that something would have to be done about this if I wanted my future fiction empire to have any kind of foundation.

I was at that time just finishing up a long piece of fanfiction that was the first thing I had managed to write since concluding the principle writing on Faríel in 2004. I had been learning things from fanfiction and from editing other people's work that no college course had ever taught me about what other people like -- and expect -- to read. It felt good to be constructing phrases and plots again, and coming within shouting distance of the end of that long fic had given me the confidence to believe that I still had it in me. Not just to write, but to write better. I was able to convince myself that I could rewrite my first novel, that I should rewrite it, that it would be great this time and furthermore I would breeze right through it because I knew the world and the characters and the plot so well.

At about... 2 am on September 19th, 2011 (give or take an hour ago), I finally managed to crack 40K on this beast. A whole forty thousand words, two and a half years later, of what was supposed to be an easy, fun rewrite. This is a bigger deal than it should be.

Somewhere along the way, things went pretty screwy.

Maybe it was the fact that I peddled Faríel for three years without a single bite. Maybe it was depression, adulthood, overexposure to bad fanfiction, stored-up childhood insecurities, or sheer mental exhaustion; but somehow, somewhere, I lost my confidence in my words. The thought of writing instantly brings with it these days a sort of clenching in my chest, a greyness in my thoughts as I try to map out what I will write and am met by the unrelenting internal response: but I have nothing to say.

I never used to believe this. I can still remember the days -- not so distant, surely -- when you couldn't stop me from writing. If I was going to be the passenger in a car for more than five minutes, I brought pen and paper. If I was supposed to be taking notes in class, I was actually writing about elves. Or trickster gods. Or warped fairy tales. Just not about the economic theories of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. or the failed military decisions of General Lee in Pennsylvania. I knew my work wasn't great, but I always felt there was a yet unspoken in there. With all the writing I did, all the time, everywhere, whether there were other things I should be doing or not, there was no way I could avoid learning how to be not just publishable but famous. It's great that I genuinely believed this. All children should have that kind of passion for something, that kind of self-confidence.

I lost it somewhere.

If I could just pinpoint the moment of initial decay, or find somewhere to point the finger, it might be easier to relearn to believe in myself. Problem is, I don't know when it started or why. All I can do is try to stop, take a look at where I am now, and see that whatever else I might have been once, at this exact moment in time I am a woman who can string a damn fine sentence. Looking at the future raises the frightening spectre of doubting my ability to build a solid plot that other people would find interesting. Screw sixty thousand words from now, a hundred thousand. In my imagination, I've already failed at the story by then. 

What matters is that right now, right now, I've got 40K I wouldn't be ashamed to attach my name to, and I wrote them. I wrote them. 

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alyssa_bethancourt: (Default)
Alyssa Marie Bethancourt

May 2013

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