Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A month of fun followed by tough realizations for the New Year

I've been keeping to myself for the past month or so. Haven't been blogging much (not that that is particularly new) and I haven't even really been on Twitter or Facebook. I've barely been keeping up on email. My house became (and parts of it still are) an utter disaster area. I threw my entire carefully plotted daily routine and usual healthy eating habits out of the window. And writing... I haven't really written since December 6th.

Why? Well I returned home from my writing retreat to a buttload of work. A bunch of freelance articles were due and in addition to that, I had 400+ pages of student work to read and review (I write individual letters to my students rather than simply grading them) for the Young Adult Fiction class I was teaching. Also on December 7th, my friend Lindsay arrived. Lindsay is one of my best friends in the whole wide world. We met during our freshman year at Antioch College, a tiny liberal arts school in Ohio. It turned out it was too tiny and too free-spirited to be a functional learning environment for me, so I dropped out after a very unproductive year. The best thing I got out of Antioch was Lindsay who I spent most of my free time with--and a lot of the time I was supposed to be in class, too. We spent the majority of that time drunk or finding ways to get booze or sneak into clubs/bars underage. (Turns out tiny little bars in tiny little towns in Ohio don't card too hard.) We invented a few drinking games including one using a board game for addiction treatment called "Road to Recovery" that we found in the "Wellness Center." (Yeah it was a real hippie school.) When we weren't drunk (and sometimes when we were), we had a lot of adventures on campus in the Glen, driving around small town Ohio and taking an epic road trip to New Orleans. (Though that motel where Emily and Louisa stay in New Orleans in IWBYJR, that's where we stayed. Also that crazy drugged out hallucination/near overdose Emily has may have been borrowed a bit from my own experience.) We also developed obsessions with things that most people wouldn't expect of a gutter punk (her) and a goth (me) namely the band Matchbox 20 and any and all movies starring the two Coreys.

After I left Antioch in 1998, Lindsay and I haven't seen much of each other. We both lived in Madison, Wisconsin for a couple of years, but our time there only overlapped by six months and I was in a bad relationship so I didn't spend as much time as I should have hanging out with her. We managed to maintain our friendship across the years and the miles though. Even if we go months without emailing, we tend to pick up right where we left off. She's visited me in Chicago. I've visited her in Tampa and Baltimore. But she's been living in Asia for the past few years so other than a brief visit while we were both in Baltimore in 2010, Skype has been the only way we've interacted. However she is finishing up a Master's degree that she started online and her campus is in Missouri about six hours away from me, so I suggested that before she moved down there, she stay with me for awhile.

So she arrived on December 7th and for the first week of her stay we both worked our asses off, her finishing up her coursework, me finishing up my teaching. Then I had a decide how I was going to cram time with Lindsay into my already hectic routine. To explain what that is, I bartend Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday nights from 7:30 pm to 2 am--3 on Saturdays. I basically spend all of the days up until I work and all day Monday and Tuesday writing my book, my freelance articles, keeping up with blogging, email and social networks. I run errands on Friday and go to writing group on Sunday afternoons. So my "free time" pretty much amounts to Monday and Tuesday evenings after I complete my work for the day (and sometimes I don't complete it until bedtime), Friday afternoons and evening after errand running, and Sunday evening after writer's group. There is very VERY little free time here. And I decided it was not enough to time to catch up with my friend who has been living overseas for years and will be headed back overseas come June. Also, as you can imagine fitting teaching into my routine (that class was Tuesday evenings) had caused even more of a time crunch. I was totally and completely burned out.

I thought, fuck it. I deserve a break. Or even if I don't (I have a really hard time not feeling guilty about taking breaks), if I don't take one, I am going to crack. So I did. I decided that aside from going to the bartending job and writing the freelances pieces as they came due, Lindsay and I would just have fun, go on adventures and entertain ourselves like we used to (except with a lot less booze because I proved in one night that I'm a massive lightweight now). I wrote about some of what we did in my local paper, which you can check out here, but in addition to that we:

  • Ate a lot of Taco Bell and Subway. Lindsay really missed the crappy yet delicious fast food we have here in America, so we indulged in a lot of it. I'm usually a very healthy eater, like I have these shakes for breakfast and a salad for lunch everyday and I've been doing that for about 2 years and realized I was insanely sick of it, so I went all out on the crappy food, eating whatever I wanted (as long as it was vegan, though I even cheated on the dairy a few times). I must admit, I enjoyed it. Only gained a few pounds too, so maybe I should indulge a little more often.
  • Drank a lot of champagne and juice. Not traditional mimosas, but we discovered (thanks to my mom at Christmas actually) that champagne mixes fabulously with cranberry juice, pomegranate juice, pretty much all juice. And it is safe for Stephanie the lightweight. Vodka is also generally safe for me so we had fun with cake-flavored vodka as well as some Smirnoff minis which you will hear more about.
  • Did a lot of thrift store and mall shopping. Despite the multiple jobs I mentioned above, I have a hard time making ends meet. A really hard time. I generally stick hardcore to a budget. I also don't have a car and only borrow one once a week from my mom to run errands, which means I don't really have time to go anywhere besides the grocery store. But Lindsay missed the mall and Target and especially thrift stores. So I decided to splurge on myself a little bit. Due to holiday sales and um thrift stores being super cheap, I was able to make my tiny splurge budget stretch, so it was actually pretty fun. I found a bunch of great $1.50 necklaces at Forever 21 one day and got a lot of new used clothes.
  • We also got this book, a guide to transforming poorly fitted t-shirts into new clothes! Due to being an insecure teenager, I bought all of my t-shirts in L and XL for years. They have been piling up in my closet for a decade because I finally have enough self-esteem to dress in fitted clothes, but I'm too nostalgic to part with the shirt from the 1995 Mudhoney concert. We spent DAYS transforming shirts into new improved shirts and in one case a skirt. Here are my favorites, a Mudhoney halter, a Sleater-Kinney lace-up tank, a Sex Pistols skirt, and best of all, a halter made from two of my old riot grrrl shirts. It is going to be my favorite shirt of the summer I know it.
  • We took a mini-road-trip to Missouri to find her an apartment in her college town. It was very much the Bible Belt. We took pictures of giant crosses on the road and took the tracts from the hotel lobby and posed them with some mini liquor bottles we found--and finding liquor on a Sunday night was a feat. It led us unfortunately at first to a frat boy bar, but Lindsay and I made do the way we always have.

  • In addition to revisiting our history of road trips and bad bars, we also revisited our Corey obsession and did a marathon of all three Lost Boys movies. Yep, there are three. The two sequels went straight to DVD. Lindsay and I did not let this deter us. After all we did watch "Blown Away," which was basically a soft porn starring the two Coreys during the height of our obsession in the late 90s. And back then we had to put actual effort into finding those movies by seeking out and getting memberships at all of the video stores in a 30 mile radius of Antioch. These were on Netflix streaming so what the hell..... Just so you are warned in case you are thinking of making a day of Lost Boys movies, those sequels were straight to DVD for a reason. We pronounced the last one, "The Thirst," as literally the worst thing either of us had ever seen... and we've seen some bad shit as evidenced by the soft porn I mentioned earlier.
  • After the Lost Boys disaster, we decided to feed nostalgia only from trusted sources. I found a forty-nine cent copy of Clueless on VHS at the thrift store (yes, I still have a VCR) and it was the best money I've spent possibly ever. We also watched Dazed and Confused and Gross Pointe Blank, but that's not all....
  • Lindsay brought back a bunch of TV shows on DVD from Asia because umm they are cheaper there... also probably not totally legal, but what the hell. I'd seen a couple episodes of the original Skins (I would not watch the MTV version to save my life) and wanted to see more, so we watched 4 seasons of it. I have the 5th season too and we started it, but we just weren't sold. We both loved the first two seasons with the original cast. That may have been some of the most incredible, fucked-up, honest storytelling about teens I've ever seen. But we really didn't like the second cast and the third didn't grow one us immediately, so we quit and moved on to....
  • Firefly. This was not one Lindsay brought for us (I still have a few seasons of Sons of Anarchy and two UK shows she thought I'd like, Being Human and Spaced). My brother gave my husband Firefly and Serenity for Christmas because he felt there was a major gap in my TV viewing for a lover of sci-fi. Yes, there was. It was literally one of the best shows ever and I am belatedly pissed at Fox for canceling it.
  • We also cashed out half a season of Supernatural with my friend from my writing group. The "group" is really just me and my friend and we generally write during the day on Sundays and then eat dinner while watching Supernatural as a reward for our hard work. Well, the two times we got together while Lindsay was in town, we basically just went straight for the reward. I'm now into season 3 of Supernatural and insanely in love with it.
  • In addition to TV, Lindsay and I rediscovered video games. My husband has an old Sega Genesis and I introduced Lindsay to my favorite game from junior high/high school: ToeJam and Earl. Your goal is to help a pair of alien rappers find the pieces of the spaceship they crashed. It's a rare breed who loves ToeJam and Earl. As it turns out Lindsay is One Of Us. We spent hours on that game before finally looking up a cheat code so we could win. We also found a bunch of cheat codes for Sonic the Hedgehog, though we sadly did not have enough time to beat that before Lindsay left yesterday morning.
Now, no doubt you are thinking a couple of things about me. 1. I excel at being a slacker. 2. Giving up my routine must have been easy because I sure took to it like a fish to water. and 3. I must be well-rested now and ready to get back to work.

You would only be right about one of those things. The first one. I do find some amazingly fun ways to waste time when I'm in the right company and after I've shut off the little internal alarm that is screaming at me about being irresponsible. The routine that I've trained myself to follow for the past couple of years was really hard to kick. I felt horribly guilty at first. The house was a warzone (especially the basement which became the TV-watching, shirt-making, video-game-playing, champagne-drinking den). There was healthy food going to waste. I was spending money I didn't really have. I wasn't keeping in touch with people online. Worst of all, I wasn't sitting down to write. But once I did break the routine, I discovered something, the thing that makes #3 untrue: I was miserable.

I've been miserable and depressed for much of the last two years. I know it. My friends and family know it. People online even know it because I'm not very good at faking contentedness. Also because I have the guilt thing, I feel guilty that everyone knows I'm miserable. I don't want to be a Debbie Downer. So then I try to fake contentedness which only makes me more miserable. It's a vicious cycle. So I tried to create this routine to keep myself busy at all times, feel productive and keep the misery at bay. For much of 2011 it worked. I did feel better for the most part about my writing than I did in the epic disaster that was 2010. But deep down all of the self-doubt and misery lurked. It's been hard keeping to the routine. It's been hard sacrificing everything, especially my time with my husband and my friends because I have to work non-stop at four different jobs to make ends meet and the ends still aren't meeting. It's incredibly draining. And after Lindsay left yesterday, I did collapse sobbing because I don't want to go back to it. I dread it almost as much as I did my office drone job that I quit in 2008.

I really enjoyed staying off the internet because while it connects me with people, it also tends to remind me of all that I'm not. I haven't sold a book in almost four years. I don't write quickly. I don't write splashy books that are going to sell hugely. Before I sold my first book I was so unaware of the writing industry, I just wrote for the love of the story, there was no pressure, it was just fun. The first year of being actually published was fun--well the first couple months were at least, but then the pressure set in and I've been wondering lately if I'm cut out for it. Maybe I'm too emotional for this cut-throat industry. And maybe it doesn't matter because who knows if I will ever sell another book again. I hope I do, but you just don't know.

Something really ugly happened at the beginning of the New Year. I was bartending. It was a slow and crappy night. I was about to close. It was just me and a few regulars which was cool but then this guy came in. A guy I shouldn't have let in because I knew he was douchebag. Sure enough, he behaved like one and long story short, I asked him to leave on his way out, he screamed at me about how I was shit, how my life was pathetic, how I was just a bartender at a shitty bar and I would never be anything more than that and he felt sorry for me. He wasn't drunk. He was definitely a tool and I know his words shouldn't mean anything to me. What should matter is that my friend Drew stood up for me and screamed back at him how I was a published author and I was awesome, etc, etc. But that guy managed to put my biggest fears right there on display literally 3 hours in 2012. It seemed like a terrible omen. I mean, I'm trying not to let it be, but it's still gnawing at me.

So I'm going into this new year feeling extremely uncertain about everything. I'm spending this week cleaning my house, organizing things and this weekend, my husband and I are going away for some quality time. (My Christmas present to him plus a thank you for letting me and my friend take over the house for a month.) Then I'll come back and try to get back into my novel. I'm scared because it seems like it's not clicking more than it's clicking for me and awesome and exciting as the idea is, I'm not sure I can pull it off. I'm not sure I have the drive for it. That is the really terrifying thing: I'm afraid the pressure that I've put on myself for the past few years has sucked the joy out of writing for me. Between that and the financial strain, I've been seriously considering going back to school for library science, thinking maybe if I focus my love of words and YA lit in another way I'll find the passion again.

Now don't think I'm quitting. I'm not. Not at this point at least. I've always promised myself that I'd give it to the end of 2012 before I reevaluated my career path. And last time I got to this point was five years ago and right before I started applying for schools, my first book sold. Maybe that will happen again and the Bartender Book will sell. But even that is not going to be a magic band-aid. No matter what this is going to be a year of reevaluation, a year of finding balance and I've realized that balance doesn't just mean getting all the things crossed off my to-do list and fitting at least three or four hours of writing in every day. It means having time to feel like a normal person. To wind down and watch TV or read or play games. To do the projects like t-shirt making that I always end up just telling myself I'm going to do. To be happy and relaxed as much of the time as possible. Or at least to feel on most days like I did when I was drinking champagne and playing old video games with Lindsay.

I'm not sure how to make that happen. I'm especially not sure how to do it with all of my jobs and writing. I guess I have to start with not overcommitting to things and making my to-do list too long, but I'm not really sure how to do that. That's why I'm spending this week regrouping, this weekend (well really Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) reenergizing with my husband and the rest of next week trying to push myself so fully into my story world and detach from all those writing pressures so I can evaluate if it's just the pressure that's getting to me, if the story is part of the problem or if I really have begun to lose my passion. Also thanks to Jeri Smith-Ready (who along with Tara Kelly, Karen Mahoney and Vanessa Barneveld have kept me from totally breaking down about all of this), I'm going to start a five-year journal to keep track of how I'm feeling day to day. I explained the five-year journal pretty much exactly as Jeri explained it to me on the Rookie Tumblr so if you want to know more, go here. The Rookie Tumblr is totally rad by the way and way better than my blog or tumblr.

Sorry for the epic post that is kind of a downer, which is not the way most people want to start out New Year's I know. And I may delete this, I'm not sure... But I just felt like I had to be honest even if I only keep it up for a night. And for those of you who do read it and have any suggestions for how to balance or detach all the baggage I've attached to writing over the past few years, I'd be eager for your tips.


Annika said...

I'm so glad you and Lindsey had a good visit! Except for the one I married I never see anybody from Antioch (though I am in regular touch with Yojo - and Nova but she doesn't count because I didn't meet her at school).

I wish I had some wise words of advice for you but all I can offer is my love and support.

Katherine said...

Downer or no, you have still been a positive inspiration and beacon to me as I've gone through my own hell the past three years. Only working part time, barely making ends meet, career field dried up, and unlike you I'm not good enough of a writer to be published even once. Seeing how you power through your difficulties helps me understand how to keep going. Hugs and wishing you best of luck in 2012. Hang in!

Karen Mahoney said...

I've missed you, but knew you had your friend staying. So glad you had fun with her! :)

Massive hugs to you, Steph. 2012 will work out, I know it. I believe in you and your writing.


Nova Ren Suma said...

I can't even explain how much this speaks to me.


"I really enjoyed staying off the internet because while it connects me with people, it also tends to remind me of all that I'm not...

"I don't write quickly...

"Maybe I'm too emotional for this cut-throat industry..."

etc. etc.

I'm so sorry you're going through this right now. I relate. I wish there were something I could do to help.

But I need to second Kaz above. I believe in you and your writing. I believe many good things are coming your way in 2012—and that asshole at the bar is the shithead who has to face his own pointless life. Yours isn't any of the things he said it is.

I wish I could take you out for coffee tomorrow and talk about all this.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Annika, we did have a good time and I appreciate the love and support.

Kate, I'm glad I've still managed to be an inspiration somehow and I am so sorry to hear about what you are going through. And please don't think you aren't a good enough writer. It's just an insanely tough industry.

Kaz, thank you for your friendship, encouragement and belief. Hope you are well.

Nova, thank you, thank you, thank you. It means so much to know I'm not the only writer who feels this way and we really must go out for coffee when you are in Chicago. I look forward to a long long chat.

Rachael said...

I'm glad you had a chance to have some fun. It makes sense that you needed a few weeks of play and carefree living if you've been so serious and focused for so long. Life's a balance, after all. I hope moving forward you won't have to oscillate between such extremes.

Your encouragement & insight this past semester have mean a lot to me and while I didn't want to say anything like this until after grades were in, because it just seemed weird, I read both your books this semester was very moved by them, especially Ballads of Suburbia, which said so many of the kinds of things that I have been trying to articulate since I have been writing. I wish I had read more authors like you when I was a teen. You capture the tension that exists in that weird paradox where teenagers are completely fragile but beautifully resilient.

Anyway, I'm not trying to give you compliments just to try to make you feel better, but to honestly express that in many ways, being around you has changed my life for the better as a writer, reader, and just general human being. You may never make a ton from your writing (and I'm not trying to downplay that, I know how difficult it is to work your ass off just to barely feed yourself, and I really hope that changes for you soon) BUT you matter, what you write matters, the teaching you've done matters.

I hope this year is better for you.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Rachael, thank you so much on multiple levels. For one, I am really glad you enjoyed my class. Even though that class took up a lot of time/energy, it was so worth it because you were such an amazing group of writers that truly inspired me. I really loved what you were writing and I mean that completely and totally and was actually really pissed when I realized I couldn't give you an A+ instead of a plain old A, so um, know that :)

I also really appreciate what you said about my books and it's extra meaningful because you were my student and I know how critical you are. I'm glad you felt that way especially about Ballads. That book was a piece of my soul. It does really buoy my spirits to know that I have made an impact. Yeah, I'm stressed right now and not sure where my life/career is going, but no matter what I will carry that with me so thank you very VERY much.

Shooting Stars Mag said...

I'm glad you could enjoy your break way from things. Those new shirts and whatnot are TOO cute. And I love the first two seasons of Skins. Cassie is adorable and I wanna marry Sid and it's just oh so lovely. I never got any farthe than those, but oh well, maybe one day. I think I'd like miss the original cast too much as well.

But back to you. Ahem. You're an amazing person and I love your books like woah. Seriously, Ballads of Suburbia is one of my top favorite books and that's up there with Perks of Being a Wallflower and whatnot. I try and tell people this all the time, and I'll never stop.

I hope things work out for you and this really CAN be your year. Try not to think too much about getting published. Just write for the love of it again. The industry is insane, but it's always changing, and you'll find your part in it again. That's what i always tell myself at least with my own writing. I can't let the worries get me down. It'll happen. Just believe that. :) And if I can ever do anything at all, let me know. I'm there.


Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Lauren, Yes, Cassie and Sid were my favorites too! The other casts just don't add up to them. And thank you so much for being there for me and supporting my books, Ballads especially since you know it's my baby! I definitely am going to try to focus on finding my love of writing again because if I don't, really what is the point! Thanks again and good luck with your goals in the New Year!