The Theology of Depression: An Essay

I would like to start my life now.

Typing that, it feels the same as saying “I will take the job”. My words will solidify an action, and irreversible steps will be taken. The energy has been thrown out with reckless abandon into the universe to eat up and spit out whatever it may back to me. I think for a long while I have been afraid of what treasures or toil it may launch back but recently all I can think about is a longing for something other than the horrendously usual destruction that has fallen on my life.

Sometimes I wonder if all these endings mean something. The ending of my childhood was long ago, much younger than most people my age, but I feel that I’m starting to mourn that now. I have killed former selves savagely with my bare hands, criticizing their work ethic, their beauty, or their intelligence. Without hesitation, I create an ending for myself, the way the Queen of Hearts screams “off with their head!”. I used to take pleasure in creating endings but I’ve recently grown tired of the sport. I wish to stick to one vessel, one body, one mind, one goal and marry it the way I would another person. Perhaps if I marry my vision, that love will last longer than anything I could ever find in someone else Security in its purest form.

I would like to start my life now, perhaps the way it’s been intending to go. Is it possible to jump back into the current of the “should be” once you’re out of it? Will it take me like a riptide or will I have to swim until my muscles are torn? Is there a path that was set out for me when I was born? I often think about fate and destiny. I learned in Theology class long ago that God gave man free will, but there was no reason behind that. Is it possible for one’s own mistakes and shortcomings and free will to run so far from the expected and proper path that you get lost in the woods? Is it possible that I have not strayed too far to get back? Is there anything lighting my way? What is the correct path through life, how will I know?

These questions ring louder the more frustrated I get with people, events, situations. I feel like I’m scrambling in the dark to grasp on to the answer of one, just one, and suddenly feel a lightness. I’m waiting for the moment when I stumble upon an energy that pushes me forward in the right way, and that feeling of knowing will wash over me, warm and comforting. The fighting knight in me can finally take its armor off to kneel and say “the deed is done.”

It’s disheartening to think that there may be no path, no destiny. I’m simply an organism floating around an advanced society, doing as I please. That seems like a dark, pessimistic way to think. I don’t want to imagine my life is pointless, it’s beginning and end may mean nothing to the universe as a whole. But I digress, it’s not even lunchtime and I’m having an existential crisis. Typical.

I would like to start my life now, as I feel that I have been sleeping for several years. I used to have a strong sense of self and identity when I was younger. I wrote in my journal every night dreaming about being a journalist, a painter, a novelist, an anything that would keep me happy. One thing led to another and even though I may enjoy my job, I am none of those exciting, glittery titles like New York Times political correspondent or best-selling novelist. I have flaws, too many to list, that I would like to eradicate, ones I didn’t acknowledge in those younger years. Ones that have stayed through the massacre of my former selves, stuck to my core like glue and I cannot shake them. It makes me wonder if they’re there for a reason. Perhaps I’m supposed to be over emotional and sensitive and loud. I’m meant to take up space and be an inappropriate conversationalist and have a messy bedroom. Can I use these things to my advantage? Can I accept them and move on from them to a place in which they don’t bother me? I have a strong inkling that this is part of my life starting.

I used to think my life would start once I got a job, or once I moved in with a boyfriend, or once I got married, or once I sold my first book, or once I moved to New York City. But I realize that every moment of my life currently is the real thing. There is no incubation period to prepare and hone my skills before I immerge confidently in the world to stand in my place in society. Every moment that passes is the real thing. That’s scary and thrilling at the same time and I’m wondering if this realization is the reason I have retracted into a comfortable space of anxious loops for so long.

I’d like to start my life now, in a quiet way. No more nonsense, no more opinions of others, no more dead ends. No more pursuits that start strong and end soon and weakly. I’ve been told many times by so many that I am a strong person, but I seldom feel that way. All my endings have been vicious or weak, no in between.

I’d like to start my life now, and unequivocally that means I must start writing again. I must throw that out in the universe and know that I cannot control what comes back but I sure as hell can write about it. It’s time, once again, to regenerate. 

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Setting

I have to admit that I am a huge geek about setting and atmosphere. My tenancy to make the place my book is set in to be an additional character has always shaped my writing greatly. It creates a wonderful visual in the mind’s eye of the reader that can enhance your story and bring it to life. Though we can all agree that Twilight is a lackluster spot in literature history, Stephanie Meyer’s selection of Forks, Washington does add to the story. She describes the rainy, dreariness in a way that compliments to the rainy, dreary plotline. On a completely different note, what would Breakfast at Tiffany’s be without New York City? Even Jane Eyre would not be the same without the haunting magic of Thornfield Hall. It’s all about where the characters live and eat and work and fight – and all about how you select and write the place.

Bean Town

My book is set in Boston, mainly because I am a life-long New Englander. I’ve been to Boston many times, and the scrappy Massachusetts vibe matched my story to a T. Using a setting and culture that you’re familiar with can give your story a real-world insider view to your reader. I’ve never been to another country (hopefully that will change in the future!) so if I set my book in Russia, it would be a total disaster, no matter how much research I did.

Interior Design (for writers!)

One of the best things I’ve done for my book is draw small outlines of the offices, apartments, and homes that my story takes place. There are a few action-type scenes that involve a parking garage in proximity to a character’s office, and I was confusing myself writing this scene, as I realized I mentioned that the garage was on one side of the street and then on another. As characters move from room to room in an apartment, it may be easier for you to write down the layout.

Everyone’s living space says a lot about them. Is it messy or neat? How is it decorated, if at all? Where is it? Is it expensive or cheap? Are there pets? Is it cluttered or minimalist? These questions may be easier to answer once you’ve fully developed your character, and can create a meaningful full-picture of their personality. Personally, I find that my living space typically reflects what my mind is like at that time. If I’m calm and generally unbothered, my apartment will typically stay tidy. If I’m stressed and very busy, it quickly turns into forgetting the color of my bedroom carpet because there’s so much clutter on the floor.

Smell, temperature, and lighting are all important parts as well. I describe my main character’s office as dim and small, with old-fashioned wood paneling and a strong smell from the steakhouse on the floor below it. With more details, you can see yourself walking in and meeting the character that fits so perfectly into the space.

Issues

I’ve found a few problems when it comes to setting. First, I typically get the real fine details wrong. For instance, when does the T stop running in Boston? Where is there typically traffic? Which federal buildings require a full metal detector scan and picture ID? All these questions have come up in my book and I’ve gotten them all incorrect. Even though I’ve been to Boston many times, I don’t live there and require research to determine all the background questions. Research is vitally important to make things seem realistic and believable, especially to your future reader from the actual city.

Second, I struggle to make a decision of when setting is important. I read many years ago that any scene that doesn’t push your story forward is unnecessary and should be taken out. Likewise, when should I describe the setting in full and when do I simply mention that the characters are at a restaurant? How much of a “feel and tone” do I want to give each scene? I have no yet answered these questions, but usually go along with the theory that if I want to make a grand point, I’ll describe it. If the character is stressed out and his apartment is messy, I’ll describe the desk littered with papers or the week-old coffee still sitting in the pot in the kitchen. But when is this superfluous? An “over-show” of the character’s feelings? Another question I may just have to figure out over this writing journey.

If anyone has any ideas to fix issue number two, your suggestions are greatly appreciated. I, like others who value convenience (shout-out to grocery delivery services), appropriate a standard cardinal rule with any struggle.

Next week, we revisit my progress on my book and how I have utterly failed at being a good writer. I think.

Noah, get the Arch: Character Development

Throughout the years, my main character, Jack, has been a cello player, a jazz singer, a mobster, and a newspaper reporter before finally finding his true place in my story as a politician. While these occupations were usually dictated by my ever-changing plotline, my character has gone through major changes to his personality. Every character needs to have rich and vibrant qualities, but this is difficult when you have multiple characters that may have similar interests or occupations. A few things have helped me differentiate and deeply develop a character to be the most vibrant he or she can be.

Playing 20 Questions (or less)

I find it so helpful to use basic questions to really make sure you know your characters backward and forwards. Some of my favorites:

  • What purpose does this person serve to my plot?
  • Is their overall past happy, sad, angry, disappointing, boring, etc.?
  • What do they want (in relation to my plot)?
  • At what lengths will they go to get what they want or need from the situations I’ve created?
  • In relation to my main character: are they considered good or bad? A help or a hazard? A distraction or a push in the right direction?
  • In relation to the character arch: do their qualities reverse, progress, or stay the same?

Thinking purpose rather than personality has really helped me create more meaningful characters. Whether they are a kind person, a grumpy person, an angry person doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with why they are in your story. If you create characters to stand as obstacles or as help to your main character in pursuit of their wants, the character has more backbone than a simple comic relief or over-explanation.

Growth & Change

I personally have always found that the most wonderful parts of a story are seeing a character change and grow (or not change and grow). How the life event the story is based around has fundamentally changed their personality – as this often happens in life. I am at a stage in my life where I am constantly learning about life in all forms – work, relationships, personal happiness, etc. I’ve always enjoyed watching a character have an aha moment or kick an obnoxious boyfriend or girlfriend to the curb or change their job on a whim. It’s exciting human nature at its finest.

One of the ways I’ve done this in my novel is to slightly emphasize character traits that I later plan to change. For example, I currently have a character who is very shy and easily pushed around. She later becomes more confident and engages in a confrontation she wouldn’t have at the beginning of the book. So I make a point to extenuate her meek and door-mat type nature in a way that naturally fits into the story. Her food comes incorrectly at a restaurant and she will not send it back, she simply eats it. Her boss is harsh and difficult but she doesn’t want to make the step in finding a new job. Though these examples may not compliment the plot in order to move it along or give new information, the subtle hints help shape the character so that her arch is more meaningful to the reader.

Spreadsheets & Flow Charts (and other loves of my life)

My book has quite a few characters, as it’s focused around a political campaign and the various jobs on any campaign are numerous. What has helped me keep track of all the personalities is a good old spreadsheet list. I use several quick abbreviated categories to help me be consistent when writing so many different voices:

  • Complete name and nickname
  • Job/Occupation
  • Age (approximate)
  • Three main personality character traits
  • Relationship to the main character
  • 1st, 2nd, or 3rd level of importance to the story

Even if you have a manageable amount of characters in your story, I think this type of chart could still be very useful. I find it to be a thorough yet very helpful practice to outline the main tone of each character’s relationship to each other. Knowing if one character has disdain for another helps shape their interactions and make them more human. For example, my story involves a family with three children, one being my main character. He does not get along with his mother, but what about his siblings? If they all have dinner together and are in conversation, it matters if his brothers may speak to her in a different tone. This may also create an interesting conflict. Though this may seem time-consuming, a few quick adjectives describing how each character feels about another can help make your reader relate more to each person in your story.

I’ve also mentioned the level of importance in your story above. This can mean how close they are to your main character or how centralized they are in your plotline, depending on what is important to you. If a character flits in an out of the story with no real importance (a doorman, a nameless intern, etc), I consider them a 3rd level character. If they move the story along, have an important scene, or cause an action to happen, I consider them a 2nd level character. All other important people, like the main character, and all of the people close to him are 1st level. This can also be determined by completely removing them from your story in your mind and see if the plot can continue as planned. If not, they can be awarded a gold medal for the 1st level character.

All characters are loved and cherished by authors. Even if we are killing them, ripping beloved things from their grips, or making them extremely uncomfortable, we do so out of sheer love for human nature. Completely normal, obviously.

If you are interested in character building and would like more tips on dialogue, see my previous post on the subject.

 

 

Smokey Update #1

My novel, The Smoke-Filled Room, has been the problem child of all of my creative endeavors. I’ve been living with the same characters in my head for almost ten years, rewriting plot after plot and all I have to show for it is a heap of disconnected Google drive documents named “shitty” or “stupid” (I’m very arrogant, you see). So I thought it may help to show the world my trials and tribulations with my personal writing journey, and hopefully it will assist some other sad writer out there who has the same roadblocks as I do.

Real Life Responsibilities and Other Irritants

The problem: My work and social life make it hard for me to find time to write.

The fix: A writing schedule that is so inflexible I’ll become Emily Dickison.

I feel like the cliche sentiment that writers live two lives may have some truth to it. I may be a writer, but I also have a full-time job that keeps me busy a majority of the week, a relationship I love, and friends and family to see. Not to mention cleaning, laundry, vet visits, books to read, news to be aware of, coffee to drink, and oh would you look at the time…

I have always struggled to put my passions and creative interests at the forefront of my time management. I typically would rather see a friend for dinner than stay home and write a chapter. I’m really unsure if this means I’m not dedicated to my work or if I just enjoy other parts of my life too much to give them up. I’ve noticed the backslide in the amount I’m writing usually corresponds to a large life event, like a new job or the holiday season (or honestly just a new Netflix show to binge).

To fix this, I think I may need to create a writing schedule and stick to it. I’ve given myself until around September to get it all typed out, and with the rate I’m going, it will get sent back from agencies with a note that it’s a crappy short story. I have no idea if I’ll stick to it or not, but I figured it’s worth a try.

Inspiration or Procrastination?

The problem: I just don’t feel like writing, I’m not in the mood.

The fix: Stop being a lazy procrastination expert (and try to write as much as possible)

A big factor of my writing has been being struck by the lightning of an idea and feverishly typing until my fingers fall off, and then not writing for a month until another bolt hits me. This causes my production to be sporadic and inconsistent, often with conflicting plot scenes or disjointed paragraphs. I’ve never been afraid of making “crappy art” as the Tumblr scene would call it, but for some reason if I don’t feel like writing I just don’t even though I know I need to get words on the page. Maybe I’m always looking for the perfectly crafted storm of inspiration and only take the best that comes. That, my friends, is much too snobby. I should be writing whatever comes to mind, whenever I can. Practice makes perfect, and I can’t put this off waiting for a divine idea.

This may tie with the previous problem, but for my type-A personality, I may need more structure than letting the wind carry me from month to month whenever I feel like it. I need to get tough on myself and stop treating this like a hobby and more like a goal that needs to be met.

1, 4, 20, 21, 24

The problem: I write chapters out-of-order, and just write what I’m in the mood for according to my plot outline.

The fix: Is this even a problem?

I have always written my novels out-of-order. It’s just been my way. I write the end and the middle and the end again and the beginning and nothing in between. I lack a connection between my scenes. This hasn’t necessarily presented a problem, but I’ve always wondered about those that write books from start to finish. Is there a best way to do it? Do some writers work best my way and some work best the other? I think I may spend a night this week researching theories about this topic, as it fascinates me. (Yes, the title of this section is actually the chapters I have written recently).

My only thought for the start to finish method would be that it would create a more consistent tone and atmosphere (I am atmosphere obsessed!). The tone you write in chapter 10 may not be the one you want for chapter 11, but if they’re written months apart this may create an issue and make things choppy.

On the other hand, it may allow you to build the important arch of your story without having to muddle through the transition scenes that are not fun to write. If you write, for example, all four major events in your plot, its much easier to fill in the gap than to ride the roller coaster up and down each time. If any of my readers have any thoughts on this subject my ears are open!

Writing things out in this way has always been helpful for me to work through my problems, and I believe this session has helped me write a bit. I will report back in the next update if I ended up sticking to a schedule, or if I continue to be one of those people who writes about writing but doesn’t actually write – the horror!

 

The Damn Dialogue

Those quotation marks can help you turn tides and change minds if you let them. The diverse possibility of every character’s words can be overwhelming but when used properly, it can enrich any plotline. Is dialogue more important than plot? Is that radical to say? Am I a giant geek to consider this a radical statement? Let’s discuss, shall we?

“And whom am I speaking with?”

Though my plots have always been character-driven, I’ve noticed throughout the years that all my characters tend to blend together. While this isn’t a post about character development, a large part of that development is differentiating your characters from each other. Separating traits, mannerisms, likes and dislikes to create a realistic and diverse cast is so important – and dialogue can be a big part of that. While I struggle with this, I think there are a few ways I can improve on this. Firstly, it’s important to evaluate his or her most basic traits: gender, age, and where they are from. Women and men speak and relate to each other typically in a different manner. Wonderfully, we live in a modern time where gender is becoming more fluid. For example, it’s become more common and acceptable for men to show emotion and for women to hold professional strong positions of power. Utilizing this can be helpful to show your reader who your character really is without the typical gender stereotype roadblocks. Other factors include age and life experience, taking into account your character’s pop culture references and slang. Whether young or old, there’s a way to shape your characters background in a very “show don’t tell” way through the speech.

In addition to these basic factors, I like to create a list of traits for each character, usually a small paragraph of likes and dislikes, life experience, and their relationships to one another. For example, my main character is very nervous about another and doesn’t want his feelings to show. His speech is stuttering and curt and awkward when speaking to this other character. I try to show this as much as I can through speech and description of movements during the dialogue that shows this without stating his anxiousness.

“I swear to drunk I’m not God”

I have always struggled with writing dialogue for characters who are in extreme situations like being drunk, emotional, or angry. Are italics okay to use for someone who’s yelling? What about exclamation points? I was told by a teacher once that it is a cardinal sin of writing to include exclamation points. I typically use descriptive words like ‘sharply’ or ‘loudly’ to describe someone who is angry, with normal punctuation. Starting sentences and stopping them to start another, emphasizing certain words, and talking over others is another way I try to portray someone who is angry.

A character being drunk or under the influence of medicine or drugs is another difficult thing to write. It becomes overly cliché to slur words and expose truths the character wouldn’t normally spill. This comes with a basic knowledge of alcohol and drugs you wish to have your character be influenced by, but it’s also a fine line between using the substances as a plot device and making the dialogue realistic. If I’m using anything like this, I usually research heavily (making my search history very suspicious).

Emotional scenes can challenge the depth of a character. It’s always fun (mean author alert) to push your characters personalities with a sad, depressed, or uncomfortable scenes. I often have characters be irrational and extreme when speaking in these situations. Long, drawn-out monologues, digressing, and piling on problems are tactics I find to be realistic.

“I am very upset, can’t you tell?”

Dialogue can also be used to show intentions and emotions without the narrator outright saying so. My book is in the third person, and I’ve noticed that it often ruins the flow and pace when I have to put a sentence after a character’s monologue with the sentiment of “he was very upset”. That should be shown by the feelings and mannerisms explained through dialogue. A characters development can be shown greatly through their improvement or improvement of showing their feelings this way. Another way the narrator won’t disturb the peace is having character B point out character A’s feelings. This can help if your efforts are too subtle with character A and often makes for an interesting conflict.

While I am no expert in dialogue, I relish in it every time I write. Conversations I’ve never had, things I’ve never been able to say, cleverness and wit I’d never had in real life. What is the fun of creating a world of fiction if you can’t be someone else you’d love to be? Or at least the writer you’d love to be.

The Helicopter Author

I only recently told anyone in my life that I’m writing a novel. It seemed like a vulnerable, soft thing to say in any context. I used to not be able to explain the plot out loud without blushing, and the impressed eye-brow raise of every person I spoke with about it makes me change the subject. Just the conversation allows an outsider into a lush, complex part of my brain that even I don’t fully understand yet. A world that has been an escape for when real life is dull and stale. I often feel an aggressive protection of this safe haven, especially when someone wants to read my work. Too close, too much I’d think.

Just like a controlling parent relationship (or “helicopter parents” as one might say), my tight grip is causing harm to my work. The tighter I hold, the less opportunity I give my story to improve. This hesitation doesn’t come from a place of low self-esteem, I think it’s important to have some healthy level of confidence in your ability. It’s the fact that the more I let people into this story, the less room there will be for me.

Writing has become self-serving and therapeutic, as most hobbies and passions are. If I’m upset or bored or anxious or angry, there’s some character that needs that emotion, some storyline I can relate that to. Once I finish it and give it to others to have their way with (through the editing process or through interpretation of my words), it’s no longer mine. But the devil’s advocate in me thinks: What is the purpose of this novel if I let it collect dust on my computer? What end goal am I typing towards? Nothing? It can’t just be nothing. What’s the point of hard work if no one’s there to enjoy the product?

I’ve wrestled with this many times. Exposing my book to the elements is exposing it to criticism and questions. People may point out large plot holes, cheesy dialogue, or just flat out tell me it’s not something for mass production. Being scared of these things seems like the weaker option. It’s similar to sending a child off to school for the first time – she may be bullied, make mischievous friends, or get hurt on the playground. But she has to go to school regardless. You can’t protect things you love from all the wicked forces in the world. I guess I just have to know that my book and my story will be tough enough to weather the storm and come out the other side still shining the way it does in my eyes. If I love it enough to want it to be successful, I have to let it go.

Writer’s Blood

Welcome, welcome to this blog! I am so excited to share my writing process for my novel, The Smoke-Filled Room. For an introduction to me, I wanted to explore what it means to me to be a writer.

I’m currently reading Circe by Madeline Miller. This book is written in a lush, bold, and magical way that makes your mind instantly latch on to every word. Though I haven’t finished it (page 217!), I constantly find myself thinking “now this woman is a writer”. I can’t imagine building a plot the way she does in this novel. Complex yet simple storyline, characters with their own unique shades of brightness, and a strong female lead. A book that meets all my definitions of literary perfection can only be written by someone who deserves the title, the crown, of being a writer.

I’ve hesitated to use this term to myself for the ten years I’ve been writing. It seemed too great, too arrogant to put myself on the shelf with F. Scott Fitzgerald, J. K. Rowling, or John Grisham. I am, and always have been, just a person with a laptop and a vast imagination that blushes when anyone asks what my novel is about. Surely I don’t deserve this title yet, I’ve always thought. Or do I?

My first true love was not a boy, it was a keyboard. My parents gave me an old desktop computer with the internet disconnected in my bedroom when I was 11. It was meant for me to play computer games on but I had a hundred files saved of my little stories. I stayed up all night pouring out the filled-up corners of my brain with no method or attention to grammar. As I got older, I reached a level of feverishness for perfecting anything I was writing. My second true love was stationary and the pursuit of the perfect notebook (this one). In high school, I filled these notebooks and journals with notes and plans for all my stories. If I had an idea, I couldn’t leave my laptop for hours on end, making sure I was getting out every detail that was in my mind. In college, I wrote more than I studied, and my research in politics for my book turned into a wonderful way to get carried away and waste hours of my time. I’ve written more than 300 pages since then. Only recently have I decided to get “serious” and finish and perfect one plotline and set of characters into a real novel to be published. An intimidating path to march down. Through all this process of getting where I am today with my writing, does that indicate any sort of purpose or destiny? All this hard work that doesn’t feel like work, all this passion and interest and dedication I have, does this mean I have the written word in my blood and can wear the crown of being “a writer”?

I question this often, in moments of worry. The blinking cursor becomes a ticking time bomb and the longer I wait to finish the farther I am away from the end game of holding a book in my hands. But when things click into place, like when my paragraphs melt together to create a scene and my character says something that makes me feel like crying – that is the magic that Madeline Miller creates. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I think I have every right to polish off that crown and make sure my book is saturated with moments like that.