Writing the World, Sight Unseen

By Kerry Kijewski

I am admitting my mistake here and now. I did what I swore I’d never do. I was thoughtless and careless enough to have a drink next to my precious laptop. Yes, I swore I would never do that because my laptop is how I reach out, express myself, and how I’m given a voice.

KerryNowI knew the truth, deep down, but as long as I didn’t ask the computer repair shop the final fate of my Macbook, I could live in the hope that all was not lost. I was given the verdict. The key to my self-expression was gone. It was no one else’s fault but my own.

My blog has been the only place I have to speak up on everything I felt I needed to say. I could also surf the Internet, and anything I ever needed to know I could learn at the push of a few single key strokes.

It felt like I had lost a limb. Okay, so those who have literally lost an arm or a leg might not agree, but living without sight, a laptop gave me back a lot of what I was missing for so long. I couldn’t simply pick up a pen and paper, like people have done long before the invention of the modern technology we’ve all come to depend on. I had no real way to release all the thoughts and the feelings I had inside. Immediately I missed writing my blog, something I had been doing regularly, at least once or twice a week, for the last year or more.

I found myself taking out my old, heavy-duty Perkins Brailler, my own version of a pen and pad of paper. As I returned to this relic of days gone by, to write the rough draft of this guest post, I thought long and hard about what it meant to be without the tool I had come to rely on so, so much. It is a miracle that I have these options for expressing myself. Without them, I don’t know where I would be or what I’d do. Still, it’s a reminder of the ways I compensate for being a writer who doesn’t have sight.

Kerry6yearsI used to see colour, bright and distinctive: blues, greens, red, and yellow. I saw the faces of my friends and family and the large print on the page. Over the years, as I began to switch from loving to draw to loving to write, I slowly lost this acuity. Now I am left to imagine, in as much detail as possible, all that I no longer see like everyone else. I think back to what those details looked like, and I try and I try to incorporate that into my writing.

Always though, at the back of my mind and sometimes at the front of it, I worry that my writing will be lacking something important, something that any readers of mine will immediately notice, that they won’t be able to live without. I fear I won’t be able to provide a well-rounded sensory experience. I can try my hardest to include details of a character’s physical features or the expression in someone’s eyes or a smile on his or her lips. I can imagine how that might look, and I can give it my best, but still not do those things justice.

I fear it will be automatically obvious, as someone is reading, that I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. A fraud, that’s the word for it. I am an impostor, someone who thinks they can fool any unsuspecting reader, as if I know what I’m describing, when really I am grasping at distant recollections of what I used to know. I try to focus on what I can contribute. I know how to write about emotions and feelings. Is that enough to build a story on? How can I give my reading audience a full experience, worth their time and attention?

I can write about the tone of someone’s voice or the way it feels when a loved one reaches out with a comforting hand – I can write about how a summer breeze tickles the cheek; or how the spring air smells after it rains; or how fresh strawberries taste on the tongue.

Are these things enough? Is it worth my time and energy, describing a look or an expression, when these no longer come naturally to my own colourless, dim and faded memory? These things are ghostly imprints of what was once there.

The timing of spilling that sticky liquid all over my precious laptop seemed horrible and yet, it forced me to face not being able to say what I wanted to say, when I wanted to say it. It also made me think more about the ways I adapt to my situation and how I manage to say all that I wish to say anyway.

– – –

Kerry is a lover of books and of the written word. She was born blind, but writing helps her to see life just a little more clearly. She writes fiction, memoir, movie and music reviews, interviews with interesting people, and travel articles on her blog, Her Headache. To Kerry, life is often one giant headache, both painful and beautiful. She has a Certificate of Creative Writing and lives in Ontario, Canada, with her literary-themed dog and cat: Dobby and Lumos.

What NaNoWriMo Has Taught Me About the Writing Process

nanoprepConfession time: I’ve attempted to win National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) four times, and I’ve only met the 50,000 word goal once.

The first year, I was still feeling NaNo out. About two weeks in, I got stuck on my project and decided not to finish it, or NaNo. The second year was the one that I won. The third year, I was busy with grad school and used it to get a little writing done on my memoir, but ultimately decided editing was where I needed to focus. This year, I’ve been derailed by getting sick and then having to help, deal, and cope with a death in my extended family.

What made the year I won different from the others? Two things: focus and a lack of distraction.

The year I won, I had a novel idea I gelled with from the start that didn’t give me too much trouble. I was also single at the time, on a hiatus from grad school, and was going through a freelance dry spell, so I had absolutely no distractions. I wrote every day. I went to tons of in-person write-ins and was active on the forums. It was a perfect NaNoWriMo.

Unfortunately, life isn’t usually distraction-free, and writing projects rarely go smoothly. We often hit road bumps and blocks in our lives and our creative work. While it’s nice to think that at least once a year, for just one month, we can power through and reach that finish line, things don’t always work out that way.

So how do we maintain a productive and distraction-proof writing routine no matter what happens, all year long? By applying the principals of NaNo in smaller, more manageable degrees:

1. Motivation. Having a daily goal, like writing 1,000 words every day, can help. But you need more than that. NaNoWriMo creates an external pressure through the contest. Most writers will tell you that setting self-imposed deadlines is necessary in getting themselves to write; otherwise, it’s so easy to put it off. Just make sure those goals and deadlines are realistic, and that you keep your end game in mind. What motivates me to write is knowing how important it is to me to get my ideas out into the world as soon as I can. I have specific projects I’m very passionate about. That drives me to push through and finish them, and inspires me to create deadlines and routines around them.

2. Community. Writing with others is great. Word wars (when everyone writes for a short period of time, usually around 30 minutes, to see who can do the most words in that time) are particularly helpful. My natural competitiveness kicks in, and I’m also forced to focus because everyone else around me is focusing. I wasn’t able to take advantage of the community and write-ins much this year because of external factors that couldn’t be helped. But the NaNo community isn’t only a once a year opportunity. There is a NaNoWriMo group near me that meets year round, and I’m thinking of starting up a local writing group again.

3. Distractions. I came up against some unexpected and difficult things this month that knocked me off course when I was already lagging behind. This can happen at any time, and sometimes you need to honor those distractions and take care of business. But it’s good to figure out when you’re ready to write again and be sure not to let your goals and routine slide for too long.

4. Determination. Ultimately, you need passion, drive, and long term goals to be a productive and successful writer year-round. Some people only write during NaNoWriMo, and that’s fine. However, as someone who wants to be a professional writer, I need to do some form of NaNoWriMo every month. I want to produce words and works regularly so I can meet the goals and dreams I’ve had for many years now. That determination helps me get back up after I falter, and keeps me writing even without a NaNo to push me. I do that by focusing on what I want, what I care about, and where I want to be.

Overall, I think NaNoWriMo is a wonderful thing, but it’s important to figure out how to establish a lower-key NaNoWriMo routine year round. The frenzy and stress that accompanies NaNo is good for a quick burst, but it’s too overwhelming to be sustainable. And sometimes, NaNo comes at an inconvenient, or impossible, time.

I’m going to continue attending writing groups whenever I can and create new deadlines for my writing so I can push past the fear and procrastination to produce work on a regular basis.

To all of those who won, or will win, NaNoWriMo this year, congratulations! Now go write some more.

How To Keep Rejection From Eating Your Soul

If there’s one thing that all writers can agree upon, it’s that getting rejected sucks.

As someone who tends to spend years tolling away on long-form works like novels and memoirs, I haven’t played the literary magazine submission game too often. Now and then, I feel compelled to send out a few pieces, and most don’t get accepted. I didn’t mind as much in the past because I stuck to poems and short stories. However, this time I did a submission blast specifically for essays and excerpts from my memoir.

Sending out such personal and sensitive work for the first time was difficult. While I don’t have much of a problem with others reading about my life (even the embarrassing, weird, and awkward parts of it), having that same work rejected from the get-go was a much more frightening prospect.

gummi-bearAnd I did get rejections. So far, I’m 0 for 5 with 2 submissions pending. When the negative responses started to trickle in, I did lose heart. Those moments you receive rejections are the ones you most question being a writer…well, not including the ones when you get so frustrated while trying to write something that you put your face in your hands, groan repeatedly, give up for the day and eat a bunch of gummy bears while watching Gilmore Girls reruns.

Actually, I might be the only one who does this. But I’m sure you have a similarly strange frustration coping process. (Tell me in the comments!)

I’m not going to pretend that this process didn’t shake my confidence. It did. However, as I’ve been posting about this endeavor on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve received many comments from people who have also struggled with rejections. Everyone has assured me that not only is it perfectly normal, but that in many ways rejection makes you stronger as a person and a writer.

This response from talented memoirist and craft book author Sue William Silverman was my favorite: “I received a gazillion rejections before I received my first acceptance…and I still receive rejections. It’s just part of this being an artist thing we signed up for. Just remember how subjective it is. The important thing is to never, ever give up!”

That’s really the key thing to remember when submitting work anywhere, be it a literary magazine, agent, or publisher – it’s subjective. A lot of the time, a publication is overwhelmed with submissions. Sometimes, your writing doesn’t match the reader’s personal preference. Rejections don’t mean you’re a bad writer. They just mean you haven’t found the right home for your work yet. The right home for your work might even be indie or self-publishing. You have the power to accept your own work and allow readers to decide for themselves whether they like it.

My take-away from this submission/rejection process is to:

1. Keep working on your craft. The writing itself is ultimately what matters most.

2. Keep submitting. Eventually, you will find a home and audience for your work if it’s well-written and meaningful.

3. Share your journey with others. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed by rejections. Getting those words of encouragement from my friends, fellow writers, and well-published authors is what saved me from spiraling into a pit of self-pity and defeat. Take advantage of this thing we call social media and reach out. It’s a much more effective coping strategy than eating gummy bears (and way less fattening).

The Key to NaNoWriMo Success

It’s kind of ironic that the one year I didn’t blog about attempting NaNoWriMo is the year I ended up finishing it. That’s right. I hit 50,000 words on Monday night. I’m a winner!

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. I’ve blogged about my experiences with NaNoWriMo in the past, but until this year, I’d never actually completed the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.

So what made this year different than the others? I attribute my success to one thing, and one thing only: the NaNoLosAngeles community. By attending both the in-person and online NaNoWriMo write-ins, I was able to get the motivation and inspiration I needed to do this crazy thing of writing a 50,000 word novel in one month.

There’s nothing quite like sitting in a room with 20 people furiously typing on their laptops, completely absorbed in the worlds of their novels. I’d get so much more done at a write-in than I ever would in the same amount of time alone in my room. Of course, making awesome new writer friends was a big benefit of attending the write-ins as well.

I don’t think there’s nearly enough emphasis in the official NaNoWriMo pep talks on actually leaving your house and going to a local NaNoWriMo event. I would not have won this year if I hadn’t gone to write-ins. And there’s really nothing equal to the feeling of succeeding in a challenge that you’ve struggled with in the past. When I hit my 50,000 words, I was at a write-in at a wine bar in Pasadena (that’s right, a wine bar). Several of us finished our 50,000 words that night, and it was so much fun to celebrate our victories together, to celebrate the act of creation and our shared love of writing.

For those of you interested in participating in the next NaNoWriMo, check out their website. It’s a totally doable challenge, and at the end of the month, you’ll have a bunch of new writing and (if you’re lucky) a bunch of new friends too.

Congratulations to everyone who has finished or is about to finish (you still have until 11:59 on Friday night)! And even if you didn’t make it to 50,000 this time, there’s always next year.

Did you attempt NaNoWriMo this year? How’d it go?

NaNoWriMo: Week One

It’s day seven of NaNoWriMo, and my word count is 8,872. I’m nothing short of amazed. A few days ago, I was ready to throw in the towel before I even began. I spent hours with my head in my hands, frustrated and uninspired. My idea just wasn’t clicking with me, and I couldn’t get it started.

So, I took a couple days to brainstorm and regroup. At the last minute, I decided on a variation of the plot I’d been planning. I wrote a couple scenes, then attended a write-in at Cal Tech in Pasadena where I wrote almost 4,000 words in three hours.

I blame it on the fact that the room we were in was literally 55 degrees. People were shivering, and our fingers were numb and stiff. But we wrote through the pain! Some people even decided to incorporate snow storms into their scenes. It definitely kept me awake too. Maybe my room is too warm and comfortable to get any serious writing done.

For everyone else doing NaNo, I can’t stress enough how helpful the write-ins are. Don’t worry, they aren’t normally held in arctic climates. They’re really fun too. Someone brought cupcakes and leftover Halloween candy, there was tea and coffee, and I won second place in a word war and got a journal as my prize! The best part, though, was meeting all the other awesome folks doing NaNoWriMo in my area. And it was reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one floundering with my plot or behind on my word count.

If you still want to do NaNoWriMo this month, it’s not too late to start or catch up! I didn’t write anything until a few days in, and I still don’t have a real outline for the rest of my book. All you really need to get started, in my opinion, is a few characters, a setting, and a general idea of what you might want to happen.

I know a lot of the experts out there say differently, but detailed planning isn’t necessary. It doesn’t seem to work for me. I can’t choose exactly what’s going to happen until I live with the characters on the page for a while. I’m learning a lot about my character and her past that I never could have figured out ahead of time. It may be a longer journey to get to the end point, but I think it’s better to fumble a little in the draft stage than to be too scared to get started because you don’t have it all figured out from the start.


How’s your NaNoWriMo going? Hit any roadblocks yet?