What Would Leslie Knope Do

It is after dinner on a Saturday night when I sit down to write what will become my first blog post in over three months. I can’t say I planned to take a break, but I can understand why it happened. I have a tendency to burn myself out. After a few weeks, the novelty of keeping up with one or two weekly posts had worn off, and I was back to where I started, unsure of how to love what I do. 

I wish I could trace my return to blogging back to a single moment. But inspiration is rarely as cinematic as we would like it to be. It was really a series of little moments that lead me back here. It was lots of staring at my desk and thinking, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and lots of difficult tomorrows. It was a few tears sessions with my beloved therapist. It was an Instagram post from a friend where she talked about diving into things before we’re quite ready. And it was Leslie Knope.

My little sister is watching Parks and Rec for the first time, and I’m rewatching the whole show from top to bottom for the first time (I’ve rewatched certain episodes dozens of times, but never the whole show) along with her. Parks and Rec is one of those things that reminds me of why I miss breathing (if this sounds like gibberish to you, I’m referencing my first blog post). I first fell in love with the show when I was a very miserable high schooler, and I’ve clung to the joy it brings me for years.

When people ask me why I love Parks and Rec so much, the answer is always the same: because of Leslie. Leslie Knope is hardworking, passionate, and completely self-directed. She loves wholly and she pours herself singularly into her goals. I think my favorite thing about the show is how everyone in her life loves Leslie and would do anything for her because she has already proven that she would do the same for them. Leslie Knope is everything I aspire to be.

When I say that Leslie Knope is part of the reason I wanted to come back to Miss Breathing, it’s because I came to an odd and jarring little conclusion: I think Leslie would be disappointed in me. 

     A fellow Capricorn, Leslie is a true perfectionist. The major difference, however, is that she doesn’t allow her dreams of perfection to hold her back from trying. Meanwhile, I created a blog as a means to reacquaint myself with imperfection, and I quit it after a few weeks because I was afraid it wasn’t good enough. See the problem? 

     I’m not trying to invalidate myself and the fact that, some days, writing words is the most difficult thing on earth. I know Leslie is fictional and her problems are confined to the beautifully solvable three-act structure. It isn’t fair to compare my very real problems to Leslie Knope’s narrative ones. But still. I can’t help but think Leslie would put in at least a bit more effort than I have.

     Since starting my Parks and Rec rewatch, I find myself wondering what Leslie would do in my place. It’s hard to say what Leslie would do with clinical depression and a wounded ego, but the best I think she would definitely try. She would try to keep up with a blog, even if she failed. She would try to write the novel. She would try to keep up with the bookstagram account. She would try her best, regardless of all the ways she could fail. 

     But, because Leslie isn’t here and I am, I’ve had to reevaluate my goals and expectations for myself. Instead of expecting a flawless blog and perfect manuscript right off the bat, I’ve decided that my new goal is to write something every day. Some days it will be a blog post or a chunk of my WIP that I can be proud of. Other days it might be a book review for my bookstagram account. And some days it will be a single, hard-earned sentence that never sees the light of day. And I will do my best to be equally proud of them all.

     I don’t know why, but I feel like that’s what Leslie Knope would do in my shoes, with all my fears and insecurities and hopes and aspirations.

Yours hopefully, 

Miss Breathing

How Tarot Helps Me Out of Writer’s Block

To put it plainly, I’m stuck.

I’m in the middle of a creative rut that’s equal parts writer’s block and quarter-life-crisis. All the pressure I’ve been putting on myself to write the perfect story and to keep a quality blog has driven me to a place of inaction.

Recently, I started wondering about what I can do to drag myself out of that place. I used to think that the way out was forcing myself to work harder, but the only things that ever got me were sleepless nights and migraines. Now I realize that the best way through an impossibly huge task is by taking baby steps. (Credit where credit is due: this revelation is 100% my therapist’s doing. So thanks for the wisdom, Dr. R!).

I can’t expect myself to write a whole novel overnight. I can’t expect that all my blog posts will be perfect and garner hundreds of likes when I’ve only been at it for a month and a half. But I can start taking small steps towards those goals. So I began asking myself what exactly I could do to feel like I’m making progress. My therapist suggested I start by thinking about doing the challenging thing, but that isn’t what I need—think about writing all the time. Then I remembered what I used to do before I fell into this spell of inactivity.

In the past, whenever life became too confusing, I’d turn to the cards.

When I first started reading Tarot, I had a tendency to use the cards to dwell on or reevaluate situations and feelings already in the past. Over and over and over again. Shockingly, that did not yield any results. I was using the cards for rumination, instead of treating them as the useful tools that they are. Tarot cards, I now realize, aren’t meant to tell us how many children we’ll have or when we’re going to die (according to a “card reader’ who does readings in a dingy Boston apartment next to a Subway, I’ll have three kids with the dark-haired love of my life and die in my late 80s).

The most effective use for Tarot cards is in trying to gain clarity about a situation. The cards can reveal the universal forces at work around us. They can help us see obstacles we might be blind to. And, yes, they can hint at our future. We might not get our one true love’s initials from a reading, but we can gain a better understanding of what holds us back in love.

In writerly terms, a Tarot reading won’t hold all the answers. I’m sorry to report, Dear Reader, that I have not found the one true cure for writer’s block. But the cards do bring clarity. They help me understand the reasons for my lack of motivation. They help me see the forces at work around me that I couldn’t see before. In short, they are not a solution but a small step in the right direction.

So, Dear Reader, what do I want you to take away from this post? Part of me wants to tell everyone to get a Tarot card reading. (A reliable one, please. Don’t make my mistakes! The last thing you need if you’re suffering from writer’s block is a lady in a headscarf charging you 20$ to tell you how you’ll die.). Part of me wants to encourage you to learn your own cards (less risk of being ripped off). But, in truth, this isn’t about the cards. Not really. It’s about the slow and unsteady path to creating and about the small steps that get us there.

It doesn’t really matter whether our journey starts with just thinking about writing or a deck of cards or a moonlit ritual involving palm leaves and incantations (don’t ask). What matters is starting. What matters is that we find our way back after falling off the path—no matter how many times we have to do it.

Tonight, Dear Reader, I’m lighting a white candle, saying my prayers, and reading my cards. It’s not a novel, and it’s not an award-worthy blog post, but it is a start. I encourage you to take a small step today too.

Love,

Miss Breathing

Oh, F*ck! It’s a Period Piece…

You might remember from an earlier post, that I’m using a couple of guidebooks to aid in the process of writing my first novel. Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading The Everything Guide To Writing Your First Novel and breezing through the novel elements checklist on Chapter 3. That is, until I reached the Setting subsection. I had (and still have) a pretty good idea of where my story is set, but the problem wasn’t the where; it was the when. The more I thought about the story that I’m trying to tell and all the elements at play in the world I’ve created, the more obvious it became. There’s no way around it: Carrot Cake is a period piece. 

I use the term “period piece” somewhat fearfully, since it likely conjures images of medieval dungeons and petticoats and chainmail, and my story has none of these things. And yet it is a period piece because it takes place in the past, in a time before smartphones and WiFi. My story takes place, I now realize, at some point between the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

You’re probably wondering if such a “small” change is even worth it. Dear Reader, I promise you I tried to avoid it. For a while, I tried to convince myself that the changes would be minuscule, and that twenty-some years would scarcely make a difference. But none of that is true. Our world has changed considerably over the last two decades, and Anne Marie’s story simply doesn’t fit in this modern world.

I toyed around briefly with the idea of adopting a timeless setting and never actually specifying the time period—something I have done in the past with some success (by “success” I mean that it went over well with the other students in my writing workshop). But I believe the reason it worked in the past is because the piece in question was a screenplay.

It’s easier to get away with an ambiguous time setting in film because film is a medium of omission. As we start to learn the rules of the world on-screen, we rather readily accept that what we don’t see on-screen does not exist in this world. For example, I was happy to hear among the workshop responses for the screenplay I mentioned above, that it “reads like a timeless story-of-our-childhood movie.” Besides being an awesome thing to hear about your writing, this validated my choice not to include any modern technology. I never specified a time, and I was careful about what to include, and, perhaps more importantly, about what to exclude.

Onscreen, it’s relatively easy to get away with ambiguity in the setting. Who knows when “Moonrise Kingdom” takes place? Or the popular show “Twin Peaks?” The idea is that they could be set at any time in recent history. This technique, however, doesn’t translate as well into prose. I know because I’ve tried to use it. Every time I take a story to workshop, at least a handful of the readers want to know how the story fits into current events. Last year, I wrote a story set in Puerto Rico, and my professor said I needed to reference Hurricane Maria, even though I hadn’t specified the time when the story took place.

In literature, if we are not explicitly told otherwise, we assume the story is set in the present. Therefore, if I were to write Carrot Cake in a way that is true to my vision, I expect it would prompt a lot of questions about the time. So, in summary, I’m screwed.

Because writing a period piece means doing a boatload of research.

Back in college, I read Syd Field’s book “Screenplay” for a screenwriting class. (I majored in Media Studies, in case you hadn’t yet caught the obnoxious film student vibe). Field says that “every creative decision must be made by choice, not necessity,” and that “the more you know, the more you can communicate.” Both quotes are meant to illustrate the importance of research, and both have stuck with me through the years.

In the past, I’ve always tried to steer clear of stories that might require a lot of research. It’s not that I’m bad at it; in fact, my attention to detail and my perfectionist spirit mean that I’m actually quite good at research. And, unlike those writers who would much rather zoom through the researching stage and get to the “real” writing, I do not dread research. I love it. That, I think, is the problem. 

I’m such a fan of rules and of doing things “right,” that I’m easily sucked down the research rabbit hole. I can already see myself determined to read every article and every book about the time period. In fact, I’m even wondering if I should start by researching how to research for a novel. Not that I don’t have research experience—let’s face it 70% of college is research—but, in the past, it’s been relatively easy to know when to stop researching and start writing. In college, I’d stop researching when I was nearing a deadline. At work, I’d stop when I got a new assignment. Yet I was always left with the feeling that there was more to uncover.

And that is where I’m at right now: not quite sure where to start researching and scared that, once I start, I won’t know when to stop. Which brings me back to my original sentiment—fuck, it’s a period piece!

Yours,

Miss Breathing

Note: Carrot Cake is the name of my current WIP, and Anne Marie is my protagonist’s name. If you want to know more about my novel progress, you can start with my previous post What If It’s A Novel?

A Writer’s Journals

I got my favorite journal in Venice when I was seventeen. Had we known that the pretty, Italian leather journals and customizable wax stamps were a staple in all the large Italian cities (an obvious tourist trap), maybe we wouldn’t have stopped in that Venetian shop. But it was our family’s first time abroad, and Venice was the first city we visited.  After a full day of seeing me stare longingly at displays on store windows, my uncle caved in and offered to buy me a journal. 

Inside, the store was heaven. It was dimly-lit, as if by candlelight, and wooden shelves covered the walls from floor to high ceiling. The scent of leather-bound books was intoxicating. I deliberated for at least a half an hour, trying to choose the prettiest journal to take home. Eventually, I picked a blue-green hardcover with a leather spine and a set of thick strings holding it shut. 

Some of my favorite journals. Featuring the Venice one (the second from the top).

At first, I was scared to use it. I’ve always been a little superstitious, and I kept holding off on writing on the new journal until I could find something important enough to write about. I brought the journal with me to Boston when I started college that fall, and I christened it by writing a crappy little poem about some boy I never saw again after the first month of classes. I’m no poet, but the moment felt just right regardless. I was sitting under a tree in the Boston Commons, the leaves had begun to turn, and there was the slightest nip in the air. It was my first autumn, and arriving in Boston for the first time had felt like coming home. It’s hard to explain, but that moment sitting in the Commons felt like a (happy) conclusion, like everything in my life had led to that small moment. 

A small sampling of my journals.

It gradually became easier to write in the journal. This was notable in that I had never before been able to keep a journal; I had tried countless times, and I have shelves of evidence at home. But, little by little, I began to fill the pages of that journal with everything from haikus (all of which suck) to opening lines to character descriptions.

Years later, as a junior in college, I had a scriptwriting professor who gave us a grade for keeping what he called a writer’s journal. According to him, a writer’s journal is different from a regular journal because it’s not about reflecting or documenting; writer’s journals are meant to be a place in which to document anything that might lead to stories. At that point, I had already learned to carry my Venice journal around with me everywhere I went, and I found it extremely validating that someone had thought of a name for this. My favorite journal was a writer’s journal. 

On the last day of my junior year, we were having class in the Boston Commons when I felt the sudden urge to write a poem. I have to reiterate, I am no poet; however, the need to write these words down was strong. I stuck around after class, and I sat on a solitary stretch of hill to write. The words flowed out of me until they filled every corner of the very last page. I thought it absurdly fitting that both the first and the last thing I wrote in the first journal I ever filled was a poem inspired by the Boston Commons. 

When I started writing this, Dear Reader, I intended for it to be a brief and practical post about the usefulness of keeping what my old professor dubbed a writer’s journal. I didn’t mean to get into overly-sentimental detail about my one journal, but I suppose this kind of discovery is what the blog is meant to be for.

My current writer’s journal has a full family tree for the character

I won’t try to preach to you about the importance of keeping a writer’s journal since I’m well aware that the process is different for everyone. But I will say that writer’s journals take many forms–I’ve seen everything from an iPhone Notes document to an actual piece of crumpled notebook paper kept in jeans pockets. And I can personally attest to the usefulness of journals kept specifically to jot down and expand upon creative ideas. Everything I know about Anne Marie and her family started out as a few lines in my current writer’s journal. At first, it was a handful of descriptions of things I found inexplicably alluring: a Cuban restaurant, a homemade carrot cake. It wasn’t until I began asking myself, “what’s the story here?” that I could flip back through the pages of my own writing and begin to connect the pieces. Writer’s journals, I’ve found, really work for me. I urge you, Dear Reader, to give it a try too. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing 

Loving-Kindness and Writing Teenage Characters

Back in 2014, I had the chance to attend Leaky Con in Orlando. It was an all-around great time, but the absolute highlight was a panel called “I Was A Teenage Writer.”

One of my Leaky Con 2014 treasures.

From what I understand, “I Was A Teenage Writer” is a recurring event in these conventions. With good reason, too—it’s an amazing panel! It consists of some of the biggest names in YA literature—back in 2014, this included Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Holly Black, and many others—reading excerpts from their early works. And when I say early works, I mean early. The featured authors read from stories, poems, and essays they wrote as tweens and teens. The goal is to show aspiring writers that everyone was a “bad writer” at first.

The 2014 panel was, for the most part, hilarious— at one point, Holly Black burst into tears from laughing so hard at one of her old poems. While most of the authors present took jabs at their old writing, there was one notable exception. Writer and artist Kazu Kibuishi took a slightly different approach to his old writing. Before he started to read, Kibuishi made a disclaimer that he wanted to “show his younger self some respect and compassion” (I’m paraphrasing here. 2014 was a little while ago.).

At the time, I didn’t think much of Kibuishi’s statement, except maybe that his seriousness had briefly shifted the mood in the conference room to a careful silence. But all of this came back to me last week when I was writing Wednesday’s post.

The title of this post was almost “What The Jonas Brothers Taught Me About Loving My Teenage Characters & Younger Self,” but

  1. That’s a fucking mouthful.
  2. Two back-to-back posts about the Jonas Brothers might be a bit much for this audience, no?

Writing about something you loved so passionately as a teenager is tricky because there’s a tendency to talk down on our younger selves. Being in my early twenties, I think about my teenage self quite a bit. But it’s usually something along the lines of “thank God I’m not sixteen anymore.”

All of this reminds me of a meditation term called “loving-kindness.” Essentially, loving-kindness is about killing judgemental thoughts and replacing them with gentleness and understanding. Recently I realized that, when I think about my younger self, I’m often missing loving-kindness.

I’m not exactly alone in this, either. I’m willing to bet I’m not the only twenty-something who cringes at the thought of all those Team Edward posters. (And T-shirts. And the New Moon themed birthday party.) I can’t be the only person who went to the trouble of deleting old social media accounts in an attempt to erase boyband-related posts made at suspicious hours of the night back in 2012.

I can laugh about it now (because 48 posters of Robert Pattinson is a laughable amount), but sometimes I wonder whether I should. Hating on our teenage selves is an almost unavoidable bandwagon behavior; we all do it. And the closer in age we are to our teens, the more vocal we are about how “dumb” and “childish” we used to be as if by doing so we’re putting some sort of metaphorical distance between our present selves and the people we were six years ago. Well, recently, I started thinking about whether that’s fair to past me. 

Speaking of merch…

The flip side of being so close to my teens is that I still remember what it felt like to be a teen. A lot of the embarrassing things I did as a teenager came from a place of strong emotions. When I liked a book or a show, I hung posters and live-tweeted and bought all the merch my Christmas money could buy. When I loved someone, I was loud about it. When I hated someone, it consumed me. And just because I don’t feel the same way anymore doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid. 

This is 11 year-old me at her first Jonas Brothers concert.

For me, showing my teenage self some loving-kindness means admiring the strength of her emotions. Sometimes, when I catch myself being overly critical of my younger self, I try to flip the script on myself. It usually sounds something like “I love the way you love things. I love the way your eyes go wide when you’re talking about a story you love. I love the way your heart flutters when you see your favorite actor on screen. I love that you feel so strongly.”

I can’t say I’m perfect about this. I still talk down on my younger self sometimes. But, after a few months of loving-kindness, I have a newly found respect for my teenage self.

Strong. Fucking. Emotions.

The reason I’m writing about this now, Dear Reader, is because the protagonist of my WIP is a teenage girl. Her name, I might as well tell you now, is Anne Marie. I absolutely love Anne Marie, but, as I was looking through some old drafts of the story that inspired this novel, I realized I could have shown her a little more loving-kindness.

It was interesting going back to my workshop notes and finding that readers really liked the narrative voice poking fun at Anne Marie’s flair for drama. Anne Marie, much like my younger self, is all about strong emotions and wearing them on her sleeve. Going back to those early drafts made me realize that when we’re writing about all the awkwardness and urgency and the theatrics of being a teenager, we can choose to talk down on our characters. Or we can choose to show them some loving-kindness. 

Writing teenage characters in a way that truly honors their experiences is all about compassion and understanding. It’s about toning down judgments. It’s a practice I’m finding especially challenging as I attempt to write a novel with a teen protagonist but for an adult audience. 

I am not an expert writer, and I’m not trying to tell anyone how to write. But I find that practicing loving-kindness with my characters really helps me understand and sympathize with them. If you’re writing a character that you aren’t quite sure how to feel about—especially if this character is a teenager—I urge you to try some loving-kindness with her. You might be surprised at what you learn about her. And about yourself. 

Yours,

Miss Breathing