The Looming Negative Streak

I currently have a 141-day streak on DuoLingo.  The more days in a row I practice Spanish with that little green owl, the prouder I feel – and the more determined I am to keep my streak going.  Losing those 141 golden calendar days and having to start over at 1??  It’s unthinkable.

Clearly, the concept of being On A Streak is motivating to me.

But The Streak has an evil twin.  This is the string of accumulated days in which I have not done something, not started that habit I kept meaning to do, not read that book or taken that walk or called that friend.  Similar to cold being the absence of heat, this isn’t really a streak in itself, but the absence of one.  It’s a buildup of squandered potential.  It is The Negative Streak.

The Negative Streak doesn’t cheer me on the way being On A Streak does.  Instead, it hovers.  It looms.  All those blank calendar days, all the unchecked boxes, peer over my shoulder and *tsk* at me.  And whenever I tell myself that any day is a good day to start something, The Negative Streak taps me on the shoulder.

“Remember all the days you’ve already failed?” it asks sweetly, frowning in false concern.  “You’ve already procrastinated so much.  Be honest with yourself.  Today won’t be any different.”

Suddenly, instead of facing forward, looking at all the time I have in front of me, I’ve turned around to view an insurmountable wall of wasted days.  It’s dispiriting, to say the least.

They say that perfectionists procrastinate to preclude failure, and I think The Negative Streak is born of that same mindset.  “Look at how easy it was for you to fail on such a small scale,” it says, “and think how much worse it will be when you (inevitably, given your track record) fail at the big stuff!  Much safer not to fight the inertia and just keep not doing things.”

The main place I’ve seen this lately is in my writing.  All the days of not managing to post on this blog or to even open the document of my manuscript have snowballed into an overwhelmingly enormous idea of this big, blobby project labeled just “WRITE MORE” which is hardly actionable or realistic because it has nowhere to start.  I am a person who needs lists, steps, concrete actions to take.

So I did two things.

One was that I actually kept a habit journal.  For the month of June, I tracked the habits I would ideally like to make a daily occurrence in my life.  I didn’t write once in that time, but I did get a better picture of where my priorities are, and seeing the places in my life where I am On A Streak (reading for fun, getting outside, exercising) was helpful.

The second was reading a blog post by a dear writing friend where she talked about why she has decided to start a secondary project just for the fun of it.  She explains that her Real Work in Progress is daunting, scary, and difficult, and she needed something to remind her why writing is fun.  And I realized I also needed something to remind myself why writing is fun, without any attached expectations.  So I dug out an old idea for a story and started writing.  There’s no cohesive narrative, no specific plans for story – I’m just having fun developing that world.  (There are dragons!)

So for July, maybe I’ll get to fill in the little color-coded square for “wrote today” more often, even if it’s just a paragraph about the etiquette of talking about hoards in draconian culture.  I’m hoping to put some distance between me and The Negative Streak.

Is This Really the Story We Want to Keep Telling?

When I first saw the trailer for Split, I knew I wouldn’t be going to see it.  For one thing, the scene shown in the teaser where three girls are abducted in a parking lot marked it clearly as Horror, and I hate scary movies.  (Not to mention that I already check under, behind, and around my car before I get in, lock my doors, and immediately drive away from any given location, so thank you Hollywood for reinforcing my paranoid safety check.)  Then there was James McAvoy’s character, who apparently is yet another example of Hollywood’s fascination with (and frequent mistaken representation of) dissociative identity disorder (DID).  It seemed unlikely to me that situating a person with mental illness as a kidnapper and probable villain could involve tasteful representation of mental health problems, so that gave me another reason not to bother.

Last week, two of my coworkers began discussing the movie.  They expressed their admiration for the apparent “twist” ending, praised James McAvoy’s acting, then turned to me and asked if I’d seen it.

“No, and I don’t plan to.”

“Why not?” one coworker exclaimed. “It’s awesome!”

“I don’t like thrillers,” I started, “and even more importantly,” louder over their protests that it wasn’t that scary, “I think it’s contributing to social stigma surrounding mental illness by continuing to portray people with those illnesses as automatically dangerous or monstrous.”

They looked at me.  “It’s actually sooooo good!” one of them said, but her voice was quieter.

“I’m sure it’s an interesting story,” I said, “and I’m sure that as far as movies go it has all the drama and suspense that it needs to.  But I don’t agree with perpetuating damaging stereotypes to do that.”

There was a slightly awkward pause.

“His acting was, like, insane, though,” the other coworker finally said, and they were off again.

I have no doubt that McAvoy’s acting in this movie was impressive; just watching the trailer, I was amazed by his ability to differentiate and fully inhabit even the few personalities shown there.  I have no doubt that the writers constructed a compelling enough storyline to accomplish all the goals of the genre.

My problem is with the priorities that this movie represents, the priorities that keep allowing movies like this to be made instead of giving us popular culture filled with realistic and non-shameful pictures of mental illness.  My problem is that even this article in The Guardian outlining cinematic misrepresentation of DID through the years ends with praise for McAvoy’s acting.  We keep putting “It’s a good story!” and “It’s a chance for the actor to show off their talent!” above the damage done by shoving mental illness into the same old categories.  And mental health deserves better from our popular culture.

Individuals with illnesses other than DID suffer from this idea of the “mentally ill monster” too.  Schizophrenia is the most directly affected, since it is often mistakenly conflated with DID and therefore seen as farther along on the “crazy” spectrum.  Depressed people are often assumed to be suicidal, even though the reality is that symptoms vary widely in intensity and depending on the individual.  As for anxiety, our society already mistrusts people who cannot conform to the Extrovert Ideal, so sufferers of anxiety are often watched as though they might “snap” at any moment.

This isn’t just me over thinking things, either.  The American Psychological Association has done studies interpreting the link between media and the perception of mental illness as dangerousness.  While conclusions vary, the researchers agree that this link does exist and that it is actively contributing to continuing stigma against mental illness.

Given all these perceptions and pictures of mental illness surrounding us, no wonder few people seek help when they need it.  Who would want to seek out a diagnosis or admit to having one of these problems?  Who would voluntarily categorize themselves as a monster?

I congratulate James McAvoy on his talent in his chosen profession.  But I refuse to pretend that admiration for a complete stranger is more important than the work we need to do to alter the perception of mental illness in our popular media.  Now, a movie about a man with DID figuring out how to live everyday life despite the society he lives in constantly viewing him with fear?  That’s a movie I’d go see.

Disabling the Exasperation Filter

Whenever I decide to call in sick, my brain immediately turns on what I call the Exasperation Filter.  This filter colors every email, text message, and Facebook chat from my boss or coworkers with a tint of irritation on their part, stemming from and reinforcing my assumption that I have horribly inconvenienced everyone and therefore everyone must be annoyed with me for not sucking it up and coming in anyway.

Some of this probably comes from the classic Impostor Syndrome, which gives me the sense that I am the only person to ever call in sick without being in the hospital, clinging to life.  Never mind that I know that’s not true.  Never mind that logically I know my workplace is more caring than that.  Never mind that catching whatever has left me unable to do my job would probably inconvenience everyone far more than covering for me for one day.  No, the Exasperation Filter adds a layer of guilt and nervousness to every piece of communication on a sick day, which just makes everything worse when I’m already fuzzy-headed and exhausted.

When I caught The Death going around campus (that’s what we all call the annual virus that makes the rounds at the beginning of spring semester) immediately after getting back to work from Christmas break, I tried to push through it.  I tried to read students’ papers and direct small group workshops and ask my coworkers how their holidays had been.  But pretty soon it was clear I needed rest.  So (with the Engineer sitting supportively beside me) I sent out the dreaded sub request.  It was a Monday, one of my longest days, so I worried that not all of my hours would get covered and they would be understaffed and the Writing Center would go up in a ball of flame.  (The Exasperation Filter comes packaged with the Worst Case Scenario Upgrade.)

Instead, my boss, B., sent me a nice email with a smiley face saying not to worry and to feel better, that they would manage without me.  The next day that I did drag myself into work, B. heard me coughing and asked, “How many hours do you have after this?”  I told her.  “Any classes today?”  Yes, I was facilitating one small group.  “Go home when you’re done with that,” she said.  “You need to get better.  We’ll be fine.”

I started to protest, but she said she needed me at 100% when she would be out of the office later that week.

Her genuine concern for my wellbeing made me squirmy, especially knowing I was about to miss quite a bit of work to tour grad schools with the Engineer.  My work has always been a wonderfully affirmative place, particularly when I first started after my super-stressful and toxic internship sophomore year.  But I worried that as I started preparing to leave, the Writing Center would have no reason to keep being nice to me.  I didn’t want to damage any relationships in my last remaining months.  So I pointed out that I’d be gone a lot in the next month already, so I didn’t want to miss any more work.

B. tilted her head and looked at me.  “All the more reason you should go home and rest.  You absolutely need to go with your boyfriend and you should try to get well by then.  Those visits are important too.”

Turns out that was the phrase I needed to disable the Exasperation Filter.  Now I manually replace it with the B. Filter, forcing myself to read her emails in her actual tone of voice, not the false accusatory tone I’ve never actually heard her use, and reminding myself that she and the rest of the Writing Center actually do want the best for me.

It’s a much more pleasant way to read my emails.

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Focus

n. a central point, as of attraction, attention, or activity

v. to direct one’s attention or efforts

I’ve been feeling very scatterbrained lately.  Even when I’m procrastinating on the things I should be doing, like writing, I can’t seem to pick just one method of procrastination.  I watch Netflix, but I must also simultaneously rearrange my neighborhoods on my Disney Enchanted Tales game on my phone.  I brainstorm a blog post, but I must also toggle between tabs checking that the color coding on my Google calendar is right.
I blamed some of this on my relatively new Netflix habit.  I realized part of my mental restlessness comes from not having anyone to talk to during meals, having grown up with dinner table conversations about such diverse topics as early waves of feminism and ways to annoy people in elevators.  So I started turning on a half-hour episode of something while I ate, because it was easier than holding a book open with one elbow and trying not to spill something on the page.  And then that pesky Auto Play kicked in, and I found myself watching a few hours of TV when I had only meant to occupy my brain while my body refueled.  A few months of this seems to have trained me to multitask no matter what.  Even when I journal at night, I keep flipping back and forth midsentence to reread old entries, rather than writing continuously or even pausing to collect my current thoughts.
Just about the only activity I can focus on is reading.
Books have long been a central point for me, like a magnet to my attention.  I might bring a book to the breakfast table, but I always end up focused on the book, letting my food go cold beside me or scarfing down a few bites at a time when I reach the end of a chapter.  When I pick up a book for just one chapter before bed, it usually ends with me only putting it down because the words are swimming before my eyes at 1 a.m.  Phone calls go unheard, emails go unnoticed, the sun could rise in the west and set in the east, and I would not look up from my book.
So I’m trying to figure out what allows books to act as a conduit for me to direct my attention and thoughts.  I’ve also tried some (admittedly sporadic) meditation to retrain my mind to more easily focus on Just One Thing at a time.  I downloaded a Pomodoro timer app on my phone to use when I’m writing, whether for this blog or for my own personal projects, and I made a list of little rewards for myself for when I reach a word count goal.
These steps are annoying.  My brain prefers constant entertainment (insert accusation about kids these days spending too much time on their smart phones and internet).  But then I remind myself (or I’m lucky enough to actually experience it again) how good it feels when I’m in a Writing Mood, when the words just come and there’s nothing between me and the page.  That’s the kind of focus I’m striving for, even if it means slogging through a lot of distractions.

Purpose

the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal
determination; resoluteness
As the Engineer waits to hear back from grad schools and I wait to hear what part of the country I’ll be living in come September, I itch to start a job search.  But not just any job search.  At the risk of sounding like An Entitled Millennial, I admit that I want a job that gives me a sense of purpose.  I wouldn’t mind working as a waitress, a barista, a data entry person – at least, not at first.  There are many necessary jobs that make our society run smoothly in the ways that we are used to, and I respect the people who fulfill those needs.
But it turns out that I am the kind of person who, if she is unsatisfied in her job, is unsatisfied in general.
I blame some of this on my brain’s deeply entrenched habits.  I’m already much better at exaggerating negative emotions, consequences, and difficulties than celebrating and remembering victories and little happy things.  And if I spend a week writing down good things for my Gratitude Jar and journaling every night and Naming and Recognizing My Emotions, I do notice that life is not quite as Blah as it seemed the week before.  So I do try to do that.
The problem continues, however, when I try to make my job relate too closely to my passion.  I have already figured out that I don’t want writing to be my career in a traditional sense, at least not now, so I thought working at the Writing Center would be a good way to earn money while sticking close to the field that already provides me with a sense of purpose.  So I spend several hours a day showing students how to better put words into sentences, and then I come home and I open my laptop and I open my own Work In Progress…and the last thing I want to do is put words into sentences.
I read an article in a magazine a while back about the concept of “reservoirs of energy.”  The gist was that everyone has three reservoirs: Mental, Emotional, and Physical.  A full day at work might deplete your Mental reservoir, so coming home and being asked to figure out what the heck is wrong with the refrigerator because it’s making that high-pitched noise again is only going to demand Mental energy from an empty reservoir, making you feel more exhausted.  The trick is recognizing activities that might drain one reservoir and not pushing yourself past your limit in using that type of energy; for instance, you might exercise after work because your Physical energy is still nearly full, giving your Mental and Emotional energy a chance to refill in time for dinner with your family.
I think working too closely with writing on a daily basis does something similar.  I think it depletes my Writing Energy (more probably just Mental energy, but humor me).  This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if my job were only focused on my own writing projects, where I could finish the day tired but satisfied at a job well done.  But right now, I’m so focused on helping other people with their writing that I still feel dissatisfied with my day’s work because I so rarely manage to make progress on my own projects.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A vocation is a terrible thing.”  He was talking about the call to one day join God in Heaven, to go through the difficult work of preparing for that kind of relationship, but I think the quote applies equally to those of us who know what we are meant to do on this earth but don’t know how, exactly, to go about it.
Writing, it has long been clear to me, is my God-given purpose.  It is “the reason for which [this person, Grace] exists.”  But while this gives me a long term goal, a desired result for my life (fantasy books, and maybe a historical fiction or two), and though I have been determined and resolute in this goal for years (despite every unoriginal snarky comment in the book), that leaves a bit of a gap in my daily life.  Because I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, I’m supposed to find a job that gives me a Daily Sense of Purpose without sapping energy from my Big Picture Purpose.

NerdCon Stories Part 2: Friday

After hanging up with Dad, I walked a few blocks to the light rail and rode it back to the airport to pick up my phone.  Fortunately I had a few hours before the first panel I really wanted to attend, so I wasn’t missing any of the convention as a result of my predicament.

Riding the light rail without my phone was surprisingly serene.  Public transportation in new cities always reminds me of taking the T on my visits to Boston and riding the Tube around London, and without any games to play or people to text, I was left to look out the window at the city around me.

Of course, once I got my phone back, I immediately began documenting the experience via Snapchat, Twitter, and texting.

2016-10-14 10.40.51.jpg
The wall of a parking lot right outside my hotel.  I wonder what melody it is.

Back at the hotel, I took one of Minneapolis’s many downtown skyways to the convention center, a convenience that made running back to my hotel room between panels much easier.  Unfortunately, I was too late to attend the Mental Health in YA Literature panel, but I was overjoyed to see that it was filled to capacity because so many people wanted to discuss that topic!  After checking in and getting my preordered t-shirt, I wandered around the expo hall a little and bought some typical convention center fare for lunch.  The tables were huge, so huge that you were almost forced to sit with strangers because it was too ridiculous to have a table for 10 all to yourself.  Thanks to this, I soon discovered one of the perks of NerdCon – social interactions aren’t as awkward because everyone is around the same level of nerdiness.  For instance, a random guy asked to sit at my table, struck up a conversation, and ended up showing me his short story.

2016-10-14-11-18-24After lunch I wound up in a panel on self-promotion, which was entertaining if not particularly enlightening.  All of the panelists claimed not to be good at self-promotion, which seemed like poor planning, but since I wasn’t terribly invested in the topic I just enjoyed the banter between the featured guests.

Then came A Brief Exploration of Feminist Publishing, in which I met several wonderful ladies who are also striving to both find women in writing and create their own content.  We talked about the point at which we first realized the divide between male and female authors, who our favorite women writers are, and the history of feminist publishing.  I loved my little group and our whole discussion was fantastic.

The Writers Panel with Ben Blacker was up next.  I made more new friends as we filled up a ballroom and waited for the interview to begin.  The interviewee?  John Green.2016-10-14-16-24-04

I will admit to quietly flailing in my seat and taking far too many pictures as John came out and introduced himself.  But as their conversation began, I found myself simply needing to listen.  I was so grateful that John was so generous in sharing his writing experiences of the past and present, and that he was willing to delve into mental health and personal balance as well.  One part in particular hit me in a visceral way, because he used a similar word choice to what I tell myself when I talk about my depression.  The interview closed with questions from the audience, which John answered thoughtfully.  (I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is released.)

My first day at NerdCon: Stories closed with an invitation to dinner with one of my favorite bloggers from SnarkSquad!  Mari and I had connected over Twitter when I realized we would both be at the convention, and she was nice enough to include me in a dinner with a few other internet friends.  After dinner, I went back to my room, watched the end of the second Harry Potter movie on TV, and went to bed (a real bed, having switched rooms earlier in the day!).


Read about my travels to NerdCon: Stories here!  And read about my adventures on the second day of the convention here!

Convention

a meeting or formal assembly, as of representatives or delegates, for discussion of and action on particular matters of common concern

a rule, method, or practice established by usage

“So L. told me you do creative writing?” my coworker said/asked.  I looked up from my lunch in the workplace kitchen, slightly startled.  This coworker had always scared me a little.  But I’m always happy to nerd out a little about creative writing.

“Yeah, I want to be an author of long-form fantasy novels.  And maybe some historical fiction.”

She nodded, “That’s awesome,” and suddenly I found myself answering a lot of questions.  What was my writing schedule?  What podcasts did I listen to?  Who were my workshoppers?  What was my plan for getting an agent?  What was my timeline for finishing my novel?  What conferences had I been to?

“Actually, I’m going to a conference next weekend,” I said, and described it.  She waved a hand dismissively.

“Too many academics there.  You want to network at WorldCon or something like that instead,” she said.  “That’s where L. and I met Professor T. and A. B. – you know who that is, right?”  I could only shake my head as she barreled onward, completely overwhelming me with instructions as to how to make writing my career.  By the time she was done, I felt utterly hopeless.  How on earth was I going to educate myself on all these aspects of the publishing world?  And how had I ever thought I could be a writer when I was so ignorant?  I needed to catch up!

Then last weekend I went to that conference I told my coworker about.  My coworker probably wouldn’t have thought much of it.  I didn’t get any business cards, and I didn’t pitch a book idea to any agents or editors.  I had lunch and sat through panels with friends I had made the year before.  I chose seminars based on where I am in the writing process (very, very early stages).  I asked questions about things that interested me.  I nerded out about Anne Boleyn with a historical fiction writer.  Perhaps it didn’t do anything to greatly benefit my fledgling career, but the conference definitely benefited me.

Since announcing my intention to stay in our Small College Town and work on my writing while the Engineer finishes his degree, I’ve received a lot of advice about how to network (a terrifyingly vague term that still makes me cringe) and “start a career” despite my remote location.  But that’s never been what writing is about for me.  Yes, I’d love to write a bestselling novel, because it would mean other people wanted to read the same kinds of stories I’m interested in writing.  Taking time to write every day is more about seeing what I can do than about building any type of career.  I want a network of fellow writers and readers more than I want to memorize a roster of Who’s Who in Writing.

I do understand and appreciate the intentions of the people who ask me about my networking plans.  In many industries, connections are vital, and the earlier you make them, the better.  I realize it must seem like I’m approaching things a bit sideways.  This isn’t how convention says progress is made.  But I’m starting to value progress in my own head over progress on a society-based timeline.  At that conference, for example, one panelist said that his own shift in perspective came when he started calling himself a writer, even though he still had another full time job.  “Writer” was who he was, not just what he did.  That makes sense to me.  That is a step that feels concrete and real to me, even if my coworker might give me a pitying smile and say that until I can put it on my resume, I’m not really a writer.

I know that I am.  And that knowledge will give me the energy to keep working so the world can know it too.

So today I bought my ticket for NerdCon: Stories in October.  I’m going to meet up with the Commodore and talk about stories – written, filmed, recorded, sung, pantomimed, or any other kind of story – for a weekend.  And I’m extremely excited.  Maybe I’ll meet a future employer.  Maybe I’ll just have a really good time.  But I’m okay with either outcome as long as I can come home and write about it.

Succulents and Stress Spirals

I potted some plants the other day.  I pulled on my brand new neon orange gardening gloves, scooped Miracle-Gro into an azure blue pot, and settled some spiky purple blooms around a central plant with trumpetlike white flowers.  Promptly forgetting the names of the plants, I have dubbed the spiky purple ones dragonsbane after a plant described in Dealing With Dragons.  I haven’t come up with a name for the white ones yet.  There’s also an adorable tiny succulent on my windowsill, which I have named Junior after the asparagus from VeggieTales.

I was proud of this attempt at gardening.  I was adding life to my home (and the plants seem like they’ll probably survive!).  That burst of productivity even extended to vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, and balancing my budget.  It was a good afternoon.

Then the next day I came home from work and didn’t move from my couch for the entire afternoon.  Dinner was forgotten.  The dishwasher did not get unloaded.  Nothing happened except that I sat on the couch, coloring, until Netflix asked, “Are you still watching?” (a message I can’t help but read with a judgey inflection, even if Netflix is truly just concerned for my wellbeing).  Even my mindfulness coloring book didn’t seem to help my mood.

And all I could think about was, “I never do anything anymore.  I am so unproductive.  I’m going to completely fail this year” – and there I went, slipping and sliding down a Stress Spiral.  Basically, when I get into this self-overwhelming mindset, I use my current mood/emotion/situation to build illogically dramatic visions of the future.  In this case, it went something like:

I’m not feeling productive today ⇒ I’m falling behind on all the things I wanted to do today. ⇒ I’m going to fall behind on all the things I wanted to accomplish this year. ⇒ I won’t get any writing done. ⇒ I will be a failure at achieving my dream of being an author.

Looking at this through a logical lens, of course, the extrapolation falls apart.  For one thing, this year is not the only year I have in which to become an author.  I have my whole life to do that; this is just some time I happen to have set aside to work toward that specifically.  Scaling it back down, the dishwasher could conceivably be unloaded the next day.  And a bout of unproductive-ness one day does not mean I’m that way all the time – just the day before, I’d potted plants!  I’d budgeted!  I’d been an adult!  But the funny thing is that on those Good Adulting Days, I never think to myself, “I am always like this.”  Those thoughts only come on days when I am not being who I want to be.

IMG_20160714_121549My favorite counselor once told me, “Emotional states are not personality traits.”  It’s a helpful thing to repeat to myself when I’m scrabbling for a toehold in a Stress Spiral (and not just because it rhymes).  At some point I developed the habit of mistaking my darker moods for reflections of my Core Self, and as painful and overwhelming as that is, it’s a difficult habit to break.  So I journal, because sometimes just identifying the twists and turns of the Spiral helps me unravel it.  I talk to the Engineer, whose belief in my abilities is dazzling and unwavering.  I text my friends, who tell me I’m putting too much pressure on myself.  And I stand at my window and see that Junior seems to be doing just fine.  So odds are I’ll be fine too.

Review: The Transcriptionist

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Mom sometimes says that when I type, it sounds fake, like someone is just smashing the keys randomly to sound as though they’re doing work.  My speed is mostly due to practice – we took “Computer” every year in elementary school and it was always the same.  When I’d finished all the lessons (my least favorite was alternating between L and the semicolon key over and over), I’d try out the Freetyping section until I found a sentence that seemed to flow for me, then repeat it relentlessly until I could do it fast without mistakes.  I first broke 100 words per minute with 100% accuracy on the bizarre query, “Did you know there is a curious creature called the Platypus?”  (Even as a 6th grader, I doubted the capitalization of the creature’s name was correct.)  After that, I quickly realized that in order to keep up with my own thoughts, typing out my stories was much more effective than trying to scribble them down on paper (though I still take notes and journal by hand).

It is this love of typing that led me to pick up Amy Rowland’s debut novel, The Transcriptionistsince the title implied a theme of words and the channels we use to convey those words.  And I was right, in a way.  The eponymous transcriptionist, Lena, works at a New York newspaper, transcribing articles and interviews on tape and sending the words on their way.  She frequently describes it as being a mere conduit and letting other people’s words run through her.  Even in her conversations outside of work (which, initially, are few and far between), Lena quotes from literature she’s read rather than create her own sentences.  She worries that she is dissolving, drowning in Other People’s Words.

The book is a chronicle of Lena’s reaction to one “story so shocking” that it drives her to begin pricking, then ripping, holes in the bubble of words that suffocates her.  There are other characters who can be divided into two camps: those who do not understand what is so wrong with a comfortable, even easy, job, and those who acknowledge her fear and support her in getting unstuck.

There are animals in Lena’s world, too – a pigeon that never leaves the balconette outside her Recording Room window, and a lion that becomes depressed after eating the woman whose death becomes the shocking story that jolts Lena out of her torpor.  She also frequently dreams of a mountain lion from her youth that terrorized her farming community.  Lena’s relationships with these animals reveal as much about her as her relationships with other humans, yet not in a sappy or heavyhanded way.  The pigeon’s true significance is withheld until the very end, and the two big cats’ effects on Lena are far from straightforward.

I was riveted by the idea of someone’s agency suffocating beneath too many words, seeing as my own relationship with language has been one that allowed me to discover aspects of myself rather than bury them.  The only weakness in Rowland’s prose was her tendency toward verbose dialogue that didn’t seem real – but then again, given Lena’s propensity for letting Other People’s Words slip into her conversation, perhaps it was appropriate to the character, if a bit distracting for the reader.

Lena’s long-ignored fears bubble to the surface and carry the plot swiftly along in a brilliant example of how the struggle to change one simple life can be just as compelling as a sweeping drama.

4/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read The Transcriptionist?  What did you think of it?  What is your relationship with words like?