Goodbye to My Old Journal

I took last week off – it felt like a heavy week all around and my teeny tiny blog didn’t really fit in any conversations.

In the week I took off, though, I managed to write some more of my project. I’m just over 16k words, and it feels great! I certainly didn’t expect to be here earlier this year, when I had no words of my new or old projects.

Also this week, I joined a friend and some of her friends in doing The Artist’s Way. I’d never heard of it, and we’re onto week one. So far, I’m enjoying the Morning Pages, and they feel more like therapeutic journaling than unblocking my creativity, but maybe that’s the start. It is a journey after all, and hopefully by the end I’ll know myself a little better so that this new project falls out of me like stories used to years ago.

And it is thanks to The Artist’s Way that I finally finished the pages in my old journal. Six years, at least three countries, at least two moves and a lot of personal turmoil later, I am retiring the journal that was originally a present. I don’t know if it’s a writer thing or a me thing, but I was really nostalgic about running out of pages. I still enjoy the feeling of writing on the first pages of a brand new notebook, or even using a brand new pen on an existing journal, but… this journal saw me through a lot and went with me everywhere for a while, especially when I lived in London.

I reread a few pages as a weird exercise – the closest I’ll get to actually reading through it. Handwritten musings and stories are more intimate than typed-up drafts, like an imposition on the version of me who wrote those pages. Out of respect for the person who wrote them (and, to be honest, to avoid the inevitable cringe), I include here some snippets of where I remember being when I wrote those pages. A journey through time is the only travelling I’ll be doing for a while after all…

Do you enjoy new stationery as much as I do, and get as nostalgic as I do when running out of notebook paper?

My journal. Entry from September 2018.

Two weeks after moving back from London, in September 2018. I now know that what I felt was a tough time adjusting and being out of survival mode. With the benefit of hindsight, I would advise the person who wrote that to wait a little bit longer, that the only way out of the discomfort of adjusting to a new situation, familiar as the setting may be, is through it. I don’t think I wrote anything when I was more settled, but again with hindsight, one wouldn’t notice the exact turning point when a difficult situation becomes manageable again.

My journal. Entry from sometime in 2016.

My now-abandoned first novel. I went through a phase while I was in undergrad and for most of graduate school where I wanted my big projects to be about motherhood. My undergrad thesis was three short stories about mothers, and I convinced myself that my grad school thesis would be my last piece about motherhood, that it was the last part of the phase. I’ve never been a mom and I’ve never been pregnant, and I ask myself every time I remember the project, “What made you think you were qualified to write something like this?” Now, Julia Cameron would tell me here to be kind to myself, that that kind of negative self-talk is detrimental to my creative self. Speaking realistically, however, and even allowing for creative license and “being a writer,” I was very much out of my depth at 21, 23, 24 and 26. Yes, I did my research on what pregnancy would feel like and what to expect, but I’d be dishonest with myself if I didn’t admit that I have complicated feelings about motherhood as it applies to myself, and maybe these pieces were me working through those complicated feelings at those ages. I still have complicated (read: unconventional) feelings about motherhood and whether or not I want to experience that or have that role, and maybe that’s what this project was for: not to be published but to help me realize something about myself.

My old journal vs my new one. I was drawn to the “Fables” image because I read Aesop’s Fables as a kid, and what better to draw inspiration for a creativity journey?

Like running out of pages felt incredibly nostalgic, buying a new notebook felt incredibly important, like I had to pick wisely because what if I also end up with it for another six years? Realistically, though, it will only be for the Morning Pages while I complete The Artist’s Way. Or, hopefully, for Morning Pages even after I finish the course, if anything to finish another journal so I can justify getting another new one.

Onto write on these crisp blank pages!

My Journey to Book Publishing

Today is World Book Day and Shakespeare Day, so I’m dedicating this week’s post to my journey into book publishing and writing. It’s also day 37 of self-isolation, and I haven’t been feeling very creative these past few days. I took advantage of last week’s inspiration boost to get ahead on my new writing project and to get last week’s personal essay out of me, but this week I feel drained. I know I’m not the only person feeling drained for a variety of reasons, but I also know I’m not the only one in need of a distraction, of something else to focus on however briefly from this chaotic new normal.

It’s also good to reflect, though, and that’s the approach I’m taking here: self-reflection on where I’ve been to figure out where I’m going.

Stay sane and happy reading!

I hope that one day I stop feeling ashamed that my journey with writing started with Twilight. I was endlessly teased for it in high school, but I can promise you I never wore the t-shirts (to school) and only stuck to bracelets, necklaces or keychains. I never had a Twilight-dedicated blog, YouTube channel or fan account, and my Facebook updates at the time were only about how excited I was to go to a midnight showing of the new movies (yes, I did do that but I never, never adopted the Twihard title).

For all the teasing, Twilight the book had an effect on me, because it was the first author I looked into beyond the backflap of the book jacket. I’d spend an hour or two on the family computer researching Stephenie Meyer and her own journey into authorship, and it struck me that she fell into the job. Granted, Twilight came during the YA boom of the late 2000s early 2010s, when heroines with book sagas and movie deals came out every month, and it could be argued that Meyer was lucky enough to send her book proposal to an editor who read it through dollar-sign-colored glasses. She loved books, is what she said in many an interview, and I distinctly remember her saying she studied English literature in college because she could read books and get a grade for it. That sounded perfect, except that simplistic view of majoring in English Literature lasted me only until my second semester of freshman year.

I mostly enjoyed my literature classes, but my creative writing classes didn’t always feel like work, and I always did the reading for those (I was supposed to read Far From the Maddening Crowd once and I couldn’t even bring myself to use Spark Notes). Workshopping my stories didn’t always feel daunting, and editing and providing feedback on my classmates’ work was enjoyable and a one of my strengths. I’d always feel confident on an edit and prided myself on my instincts, and while that made me the ideal candidate for a book editor career, I had a few turns to my story left.

After graduating college and spending a year in an awful job that at least allowed me to save up, I started graduate school. That decision was the main plot point in my story, and it came about accidentally, too. The novel-writing program that accepted me effectively rescinded their offer but offered me a place in their hybrid creative writing and publishing program, which was shorter and (they promised) just as valuable as the two-year course I initially applied for. I figured that if I was going to write a book someday, I might as well learn about the actual process of getting a book published.

Like my undergrad degree, I enjoyed my creative writing classes more, but that’s as far my creative writing career has gotten for me (until the start of this blog). Like the best stories, mine took a turn from the most unexpected place: the publishing part of my degree. 

I interned at a publisher while I was wrapping up my degree, a publisher I still work for today (three job titles up from intern, thankfully). It’s not a fiction publisher and I don’t read all day every day and get paid for it, but I do have an understanding of how books work. More than that, I enjoy it. I’m not an editor, but I never saw that career path for myself anyway and never worked toward it. I don’t blame anyone who thinks that’s all there is to book publishers, though, just authors and editors. It’s more complicated than those two roles, but I think learning the in and outs would ruin the magic for a reader. Lifting the curtain. It’s not always a glamorous industry, and I haven’t met anyone famous yet or have connections that will make publishing my own as-yet-unfinished book easier than it would be otherwise. 

I somehow ended up right in the middle of the industry, working with books every day and seeing the work behind the scenes. I’ve learned heaps, from how I’d like to be as an author, what I’d like to have in a publisher and (reluctantly but realistically) that there isn’t a lot of money in books unless you’re J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Suzanne Collins, or you put in double the amount of work it took to write the book to promote it and yourself as a brand.

I didn’t know when I signed up for my master’s that this is where I’d end up, and mostly saw myself writing every day, and I very much didn’t see myself here when I started reading Twilight or watching author interviews on a family PC. What hasn’t changed is the fact that I love books, reading, the written word and storytelling, but now I know that’s not enough to “make it” or make a living out of it, but it’s a start.

A London Love Letter

Where are you from?

It’s a question that gets more complicated the older I get. Does it mean where feels like home? Where does it feel like I’m from? Where was I born? Where I grew up? Where I grew into myself?

The older I get, the more those answers vary, and to spare you the memoir-length answer to the first two questions, I will start with the easy ones. I was born in Quito, Ecuador, but I grew up in Silver Spring, just outside Washington, DC. I only just starting saying “I grew up there” because, as of two years ago, I’ve spent more time outside of where I was born than the time I actually lived there.

When I talk to other people who have spent a significant time in another place than where they were born, the common theme is the fact that where they were born no longer feels like home because they’ve been out of it for so long. By those terms, I’m from here, the DC-Maryland area.

Saint Paul’s Cathedral pictured from the top of One New Change. It’s my favorite place in the world.

That logic gets tricky when I’m in the US, to no one’s surprise. When I’ve been outside the country, most have no issue believing me when I say I’m American. After all, I sound American with the non-regional accent I developed while learning English as a second language (and after I shed my Latino accent tell that only surfaces when I’m nervous or tipsy). Although it’s less common to say I’m American when I’m in the US, the few times I’ve said it in front of my family, I’m quickly berated with “You’re Ecuadorian!”

But am I?

I no longer identify with core cultural principles of the country (except an infatuation with potatoes in all forms), I know next to nothing about the current political outlook and I would get lost if dropped off on any street and told to go to the house I grew up. The last time I went back was 2008, and even then I didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore, and now that it’s twelve years later, I often experience the feeling that other “Others” feel when contemplating belonging: I’m too much of THIS to be fully That, and I’m too THAT to be fully This.

That’s a feeling I took with me when I moved to London, but sadly I didn’t spend nearly enough time there to deserve the coveted “I’m from here” badge and had to settle with “I live here.” I grew into myself in London, and for that it will always live in my heart whether it wants to or not.

London is my three-year love affair. My geographical true love. Through disappointment, heartbreak and loss, London never lost its charm. During tough times far away from home, some people are quick to point the finger at the city, its unfriendly people, rodents in the underground transportation system or extortionate rent prices. Not me. London never let me down.

Leaving London was heartbreak in its own right, the kind of heartbreak that comes when you say goodbye to someone you love because being together isn’t that simple. When saying goodbye is the only option because the alternatives are too complicated or downright impossible. So you part on the best of terms, the friendliest and most loving break-up you’ll ever have.

London further complicated my sense of belonging, because my answer to “Where are you from?” had even more layers, not least because there was never a box I could check off in demographic information forms. There, “Other” was my go-to, the characterization I always avoided at home because it felt harsh, because I had boxes available to me at home. 

Yet, that characterization of “Other” provided added opportunity, the air of “mystery” (but never exotic – I’m not a fruit) that allowed certain foibles that I was ridiculed for at home. Like in college, when I was talking about study abroad to incoming freshmen and how my choice was influenced by my priority of wanting to go to a place where I spoke the language. When I said my native language was Spanish, the response was “I thought I could hear an accent in there.”

Or more humiliating yet, when my answer to “Where are you from?” was betrayed by pronouncing words wrong, like fun-gee instead of fun-guy when describing a mushroom in science class, or saying words that are not correct like “dumbly” or “indignated.” An answer further betrayed when phrases from my native language fit a situation perfectly but there’s no translation, or when my brain beats me at translating and comes up with a word that’s not incorrect but it’s wrong. “Babe, we need a balance in the bathroom, to weigh ourselves.” Because “scale” in Spanish is balanza

But for every foible allowed, there was a microaggression, or a remark I chose to take as well-intended because the alternative was too contentious (too contentious for a former almost-mother-in-law, anyway).  Where are you from? A question that some think allows them to see my culture as a party trick, something to relate to me when they introduce me at a party. “This is Vanessa. She’s Spanish.” How to even begin to correct that?

That’s one of the reasons I love London, because it posed me with challenging questions, but challenging in the way someone you love challenges you so you can find the answer yourself and be better for it. London gave me so many questions, situations and decisions I needed to overcome to arrive at who I am today, and for that, I’ll love it forever.

What Does Writing Block Feel Like? A writer vs someone who writes

Ah, writer’s block. An indulgent excuse or a legitimate obstacle? When is it a legitimate hurdle and when is it something we hide behind when we can’t bear to keep writing?

You’d think with the mandate to stay home and avoid people, I’d have endless time to write now, to be inspired to keep at my new work in progress. And yet, despite not having to commute to the gym or the grocery store, I seem to keep dancing my way around writer’s block and running out of ideas. What does it feel like for me? It actually feels quite a few ways.

Image of yellow and black smiley wall art
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Sometimes it feels eerily like inadequacy. I think about the stories that I love, love for different reasons. I think about the plots, the characters, the voice, the detail; I think about the talented genius who wrote them and wonder, “How do they make it look so obvious and easy? Of course that character would make that choice and the plot would unwind that way – why can’t I think about my own story the same way?” Looking at my favorite stories that have been out in the world for a while, I wonder if I’m cut out for this after all. I can think I’m a writer all I want, but if I can’t deliver what I can see in my head, am I not just another someone who writes?

On another day, writer’s block feels like ennui. Complete lack of inspiration that makes a blank page or screen look like a wall instead of clay to be molded into the picture I see in my head. This version is the one that’s most commonly associated with writer’s block, the lack of ideas, the lack of good ideas. The typing, deleting, retyping and deleting again, but not in the satisfying way that helps one build and carve out the story. This dissatisfaction version of writer’s block goes hand in hand with the inadequacy version, because why would you write, delete and retry unless you felt it wasn’t good enough? At least, that’s the case for me.

The third version of writer’s block for me is the two previous versions turned up to the max. Anger, frustration and hate that verge on rage. There have been times when I hate the story and everything about it so much that I can’t continue writing. I hate everything that comes out, each development point feels unbelievable and it makes me wonder who would read this if I can’t even stand to write it. Sound familiar? It should, because I’ve already written about it.

All three versions of writer’s block for me have their different “cures,” lest they mutate and I have even more excuses to not write. When I feel inadequate, I take a step back and confide in someone who has read my writing before for an ego boost. Vain, but it helps. Reassurance and support go a long way when I feel I shouldn’t be doing this to begin with, because it reminds me that if I don’t write the stories in my head, if I don’t flesh them out and develop them into a decent shape, someone else will. Or, even worse, nobody will and the story will remain untold. If the story isn’t worth telling, why did I think it up to begin with?

Ennui and lack of inspiration are fixed by reading. After all, the best writers are also readers, not just because they’re scoping out their competition, but because it reminds us why we started writing to begin with. Writers are inspired by other writers – don’t we all remember the exact line and writer that inspired us to write in the first place? (For me, it was that scene in Ratatouille when the mean food critic writers his glowing review of the dish – don’t judge me.) When I’m feeling uninspired, I go back and read for a bit, take a break from creating. At the moment, I can’t wait to start reading My Dark Vanessa and Corazon, one for narrative inspiration and one to get me out of my usual tastes.

How do I get past the rage version of writer’s block? A combination fix of the other two, predictably. I get angry at myself for thinking I could write in the first place, so I reach out to my support network and really take a step back from the story I’m attempting, sometimes abandoning it altogether. It took some soul searching, but I’ve taken breaks from certain stories for various reasons over the years, and taking that time away can be cathartic – I often come back with new ideas and new angles from which to tackle the story.

Writing the novel I started when I was doing my master’s has caused me to experience all three types of writer’s block over the years, most recently the rage version. So I’m pivoting – I’m choosing to take a long and conscious break from writing that particular story until it is ready for me, as opposed to the other way around. This choice came partly after a painfully obvious suggestion from a friend – if I hate it so much, why not take a break and write the story I actually want to write? I was very much missing the forest for the tree.

I don’t doubt this new story will present itself with a new type of writer’s block when the time comes, and with the current situation that version will most likely be due to the current world crisis and the fact I can’t leave my house. Until that time comes, though, I will ride this new creativity wave, and try to remind myself that I am not just someone who writes – I’m a writer.

Am I Patient Enough to be a Nurse?

This first “Writing About Me” prompt is also taken from the 642 Things to Write About by The San Francisco’s Writing Grotto (although they also have a 642 Things to Write About Me workbook that’s sitting blank on my shelf…). I’ve always thought James Lipton’s version of the Proust Questionnaire is a good conversation starter (and a good first date ice breaker), and while many of my answers to the questions have changed over the years, the consistent one has been what profession other than my own I would like to attempt.

So here I’ve attempted what I think a day as a nurse would have looked like for me. This entry has been inspired by Adam Kay’s books.

At the beginning of my career, I preferred nights, thinking I’d found a way around getting up early. What I didn’t know was that getting out of bed and going to work would never get easier no matter what time I set my alarm for. 

When my phone goes off at 6:30 p.m. on a January evening, it might as well be morning time that I still struggle to get out of bed. After a shower and a cup of tea, I’m out the door and on the road. With my days and nights fully reversed, nothing feels weird about having an egg sandwich and hash browns at my desk at 8:15 p.m. before seeing my first patient. 

Scanning my emails shows nothing that can’t wait until the end of my shift in 12 hours’ time, so I pop some gum in and go see my first patient. A 19-year-old female on an IV drip after alcohol poisoning.

“Home for winter break?” I ask her. The sooner I get her talking, the sooner I can empty the bed for the next person. Her notes show she’s been here since the morning, with BAC of 0.21, responsiveness sporadic. 

“Yes. I met with my friends from high school before I go back this weekend,” she says quietly. She’s rubbing her head, and I see goosebumps on her arms.

“I see. Well, let me get you another blanket while you wait for someone to pick you up.”

“My dad went home to get me some clothes and said he’d be back.”

“That’s fine. But please, take better care when you get back to school,” I say. I know full well this advice has a 50% success rate.

I make my way to the next room. 8-year-old male with a likely broken wrist. Waiting for results of X-rays, given kids’ Tylenol for pain half an hour earlier. Mom is sitting with him on the bed playing on an iPad when I poke my head in. 

“Hi, my name is Vanessa and I’m taking over for Nurse Ryan. Anything I can get for you guys while you wait?” I never understood nurses who insist of being addressed a certain way. We all got our certification (we wouldn’t be seeing patients without it) and letters besides RN are meaningless for people outside the profession. They only care about doctors versus nurses.

“Do you know how long the results will take?” Mom asks.

“Says here he went in an hour ago, and they’re not too busy back there so it shouldn’t take much longer.” I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not as I haven’t been back to Radiology yet, but what Mom doesn’t know…

“I’m hungry,” the patient says.

“I’ll get you some crackers, or a sandwich since you probably haven’t had dinner.”

His face lights up just as Mom says, “Nothing with gluten, if it’s possible.” Of course.

With a smile and a nod, I go to the next room. 20-year-old female with abdominal pain. Pregnancy test negative, waiting to go for a PET scan for appendicitis. And so I’ve found my favorite for the night.

“Hi there. How are you feeling?” She’s alone, shivering and with tear streaks down her face. 

“I’m just waiting.”

“Let’s get you a blanket. Are you here with anyone?”

“No. I’m from out of state,” she says and sniffs.

“I just started my shift, so please ring that button when you need anything or have any questions, okay?” I made a decision early on in my training that I wouldn’t use pet names for patients. No one takes a twenty-something nurse seriously when she addresses patients by “honey” or “sweetie.”

The triage nurse brings in a brand new patient into an empty room, so my introductions have to stop while I assess him. The man is walking with a limp and there’s some blood trickling down the bad leg. I make a point to mention to triage to at least offer wheelchairs. His face is ashen and his hands are trembling, and a young girl follows behind him carrying a coat. I introduce myself but he looks at the girl instead of at me and doesn’t respond.

“My dad doesn’t speak English,” she says. 

She interprets as I go about asking what happened and checking his chart. The girl keeps an even tone as she rattles off in English then what sounds like Farsi, but the patient sounds agitated and grimaces in between sentences. Once I confirm there aren’t any allergies, I hook up an IV and run to get a bag and painkillers. I leave them to wait for the doctor, hanging his chart in its place next to the door, and grab a few blankets, a sandwich and drink. I could have checked our gluten-free fridge on a slower day, but Broken Wrist’s chart didn’t show any allergies that Mom stated when they came in.

I already lose track of how long I’ve been away from the first set of patients when I give Broken Wrist his sandwich and the doctor is with him. He’s a little teary-eyed as the doctor examines his wrist gingerly, and I know she’s looking to set it in place when she glances at me with the food – she’s had people throw up on her before when she resets broken bones.

“Give this to him when I’m bandaging him up after the doctor is done,” I whisper in Mom’s ear. “To distract him.” She’s so focused on her little boy that she doesn’t notice the sandwich is full of gluten and the drink is an off-brand soda.

I drop off the spare blankets, making a point to make a loud noise as I walk into Alcohol Poisoning’s room. She perks up and whimpers as I drape the blanket on top of her. When I go see Potential Appendicitis, she has her arms around her stomach and is sniffling and grimacing.

When I make my way back to check on Bloody Limp, he’s calmed down a bit and the daughter is on her phone. I make a mental note to go to Radiology to see how far away Appendicitis is from being seen, then get to work on cleaning up the cut on this patient’s leg before the doctor comes in. 

I’m barely an hour and a half in, but I wish I could tell my younger self that there is visibly no difference between a day and a night shift as far as getting out of bed goes. Or as far as looking forward to the weekend, except my “weekend” is Tuesday to Thursday this week. Now where did my pen go…