(Gwisin is a Korean word for ghosts who are dead people (not monsters/beasts))
The worst pastime for a middle-aged aspiring writer with ADHD is reading about the writing habits of successful young authors. To say it’s disheartening is an understatement. Consider Sally Rooney, my one-sided “rival” who is practically in pampers, precociously talented and prolific (e.g. Conversations with Friends and Normal People). How dare she deliver such confident prose and insight before age 30! In the writing seminars I occasionally took at the New School and the 92nd Street Y as a young woman, most twenty-something-year-olds wrote about topics like dorm life and drunken sex in an earnest and expected fashion. No insights and standing-ovation prose in sight! I like to comfort myself by thinking 1) Sally Rooney probably doesn’t have ADHD and 2) she probably hasn’t developed a K-drama addiction.
The one interview I read with Ms. Rooney irked me to no end; she said her best training to be a writer came from being on her college debate team! I can’t take that I-just-stumbled-into-greatness routine. Is she saying you have to be quick on your feet, energized by public speaking and a master of reason and logic to be a writer? (What about years of writing classes or an MFA? ) If so, I am toast. Sally Rooney’s success story reminds me of another troublesome one: that of writer Louis Begley (of About Schmidt fame). According to my memory, for many years Mr. Begley, a successful NYC corporate firm attorney with no creative writing chops, listened to his son discuss his wish to write a novel. Sick of his son’s empty talk, Mr. Begley, who was almost at retirement age, got fed up and wrote a widely read novel that led to a successful writing career and movie adaptions of his books. (Maybe I should applaud the fact that Begley had late in life success but I pity his sweet lamb of a son!)
Truthfully, I have lived a large chunk of my life pretending to be a writer. It’s good fun. There’s no one who loves searching Airbnb for cute writer cottages to rent more than yours truly. You’ve already learned of my vast journal collection. I greedily ingest author interviews, especially ones that discuss writing habits. I have traveled to far flung locales like Beacon, NY to sit all day in a charming coffee house and pat myself on the back for writing two pages. (Yes, I am aware that there are coffee places in NYC). But at age 48, I am an artichoke ready to shed my leaves and reveal my meaty heart.
My formidable, distant Cousin Ruth (now deceased) came to my baby shower in Brooklyn a while ago when she was in her early nineties and mingled with my friends. When one of my other guests casually mentioned to Ruth that she was a writer, Ruth said in her brusque, CEO way “What have you published?” When my friend said nothing, Ruth shrugged dramatically and said “So how can you call yourself a writer?” Her spirit lives on–reminding me that I have a long way to go to meet my goals as a writer. (We could all probably use a bold brilliant Cousin Ruth on our shoulder–holding her midday Scotch in hand and doling out truths. But Ruth had no idea how hard it is for some of us to write in a sustained and serious way ,let alone, get published).
Countless well-known authors deliver smug, unhelpful writing tips. A Medium article about the routines of famous writers cast serious shadows on my own ability to complete a big writing project like a novel. To begin with, the only time I can do anything creative is evening to early morning (“Only the Hitlers of the world work at night; no honest artist does.” (W.H. Auden)
Arthur Miller advised “Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all those come afterwards.” Egads! Arthur, you have cut me to the core. But sir when you were alive, there was no Netflix, Apple TV, Hulu etc. TV for me is like Marilyn Monroe for you, I’d wager. I’ve got Yellowjackets, Euphoria and Ted Lasso to watch and then the freaking Koreans and their alluring entertainments (e.g, Netflix’s All of us are Dead Now that elevates zombie movies by setting things in high school and offering us the satisfaction of watching dour teenagers get pulverized). Not to mention, I saw a film, Belle, in an actual theater with a friend this week and I have no regrets for it was a splendid, animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast that is set in a Japanese high school. (Note I had thought this would be appropriate for my six year old daughter but I’m not taking her as it has dark themes like child abuse and maternal death by drowning in a river. My teenage son, on the other hand, could appreciate it more). It seems I’m flunking your test Mr. Miller!
I have some significant roadblocks because along with ADHD, I probably have poor delayed gratification abilities, which an article in the NYTimes basically indicated, means success is less likely for me than for someone who can wait for gratification. Four-year-old me would surely have grabbed both marshmallows immediately after the adults left the room (a reference to the marshmallow test discussed in the mentioned article). Grown up me when faced with fun TV now or writing until one day in the far future I can complete a story, often choses TV.
One distraction (not on Mr. Miller’s prohibited list) is my completion of a ten-page short story for NYCMidnight, a still mysterious short story contest that no one seems to know. Along with almost 7,000 other writers, I received a writing genre (ghost story), main character (an understudy) and a plot(a hidden room) and was given 8 days to write and upload a 2,500-word (10 page) story. A panel of judges will select the top 5 out of a subgroup of 28 contestants to go onto round 2 on April 4. If I make it, I will get a new genre, plot and character, fewer days and a smaller word count. There are 4 rounds total and the winner gets a modest cash prize. Though I will not win this contest, I must shout from the rooftops that I completed a project! Hallefuckinglujah!
It was no small feat. By the fourth day, I had only my general idea and 2 out of 10 pages completed. I knew I wanted to make a ghost story about my 2007 trip to Seoul to visit my Homeland for the first time since being adopted at age three. It made perfect sense to mesh ghosts and adoption since adoption is rife with mystery, loss and dead (or at least forever-gone) birth parents who certainly haunt the minds of us adoptees. But I wanted to turn in the towel as my only ghost-intel comes from watching Scooby Doo and the Haunted House episodes as a child. (I may have never read a ghost story).
I reported my self-sabotaging behaviors to my therapist (e.g., belittling ghost stories, dismissing the contest for having no authors on the judging panel that I recognized and watching an excess of tv instead of writing at night). I also noted to her in passing that I was off of my Vyvanse medication, which begged my patient therapist’s question: why would you not be on your ADHD meds at a time when you needed maximum focus? (My therapist must surely love when stating the obvious saves the day). A day after getting back on Vyvanse, I wrote for four hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m and again the following night to completion.
It was rollicking fun to take real aspects of my Korea trip and add many imagined details. My adventurous friend Jen and I stayed in a drab stone building owned by the Korean social services agency that offered free housing to adoptees returning to visit. For my story, I cut my dear friend out, transformed the building into a creepy mansion and added a mysterious old caretaker who informs me of the agency’s gwisin (Korean word for ghosts). As in real life, I volunteered to hold babies who are waiting to be adopted in the agency’s nursery and fell in love with ten-month-old Johan, who was set to be adopted by a couple in Sweden shortly. The nurses in my tale confirm that the mansion has gwisin who are believed to be parents who have returned to the agency to look for the babies they once gave up.
As I had to include a hidden room in my story, I included a scene where I searched for the gwisin and found a hidden ballroom in the mansion with mirrored walls. In a dimly lit room, I see a floating gwisin (my birth mom) as she floats feet away from me holding a wicker baby basket and staring into one mirrored wall. I watch her tip the basket towards the mirror to reveal nothing inside (baby me gone). When she panics and opens her mouth to scream, I call out to reassure her that I am okay. Writing this scene was unexpectedly difficult as I had to stop once or twice to sob in the dark living room where I typed alone–my husband and kids sound asleep. This fascinated me as I’m turning 50 in two years and I thought i’d pretty much already swallowed that (loss-of-birthparents) stone.
Sadly, my accomplishment is a grain in the sand since I have to revise my story, try to publish it and then, of course, complete an unrelated novel. As I have found the judgmental words of crusty male writers not terribly helpful, I wondered if female authors offer more relevant advice. One of my favorite writers Lorrie Moore wrote “Writing has to be an obsession – it’s only for those who say, ‘I’m not going to do anything else.’ (Ugh. Next please). Alice Munro has said that she began writing short stories because as a young mother she had no time to write novels: “When you are responsible for running a house and taking care of small children, particularly in the days before disposable diapers or ubiquitous automatic washing machines, it’s hard to arrange for large chunks of time.” If freaking Alice Monroe struggled to write a novel when she had young children, there’s little hope for me.
Author Shirley Jackson, a mother of four with full household responsibilities during a different era, is someone I admire and relate to for she writes of her struggles to be a mother of four, do household chores and write. Apparently she could create full stories in her head while she did mundane chores and somehow did it so well that at the end of the day when she sat down to write, her completed story just fell out onto her pages. (She sounds super-human or like a ridiculous genius so I can’t learn too much from her).
Perhaps, I need to turn to writers with ADHD for the most useful advice. For this post, I learned that Robin Black, an author whom I had already admired for publishing her first story collection after age 35 and then publishing her first novel after age 40, has ADHD. (Her novel, Life Drawing, is the kind of beautifully written, character-steeped book I’d be honored to write). This exciting discovery lead me to read a few of her interviews where she discusses tackling her writer’s block and ADHD in great detail. She honestly discusses her struggles to write a novel and notes how it made sense that her first writing effort was a collection of short stories. One of the most interesting pieces of advice she imparts is that starting a novel with a death and going backwards to explain it, is a good technique for an ADHD writer; it offers a structure. Notably, this structure is used in many of my favorite modern novels (e.g., Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (mom dies very early on) and the Secret History ( main character dies on page one) and so many others. I think I’ll try it out for my novel.
Another piece of advice many writers give is that you should write the kind of novel you would like to read. I like that advice. Considering a small sample of my favorite novels, I notice some common themes:
1) newcomer enters a new community and tries to fit in with a unexpected group ( e.g., Prep, The Secret History, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (student coming to new high school and admiring a certain teacher and group of mysterious, beautiful students), The Magus (young man visits uncle on mysterious Greek island and what follows is psychological warfare);
2) Unexpected relationships (e.g. Headlong about a professor’s relationship with a “boorish local landowner” and his wife);
2) confused woman in her twenties or thirties whose life seems off track with humor and great language (e.g., Writers and Lovers, Little Children, Conversations with Friends);
3) wry social commentary, portrait of an era/time with focus on characterization (e.g., the Ice Storm, Great Expectations, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, American Pastoral, The Last Picture Show, some of the Rabbit Run books but i can’t recall which ones now);
4) unique voice (e.g., The Virgin Suicides, The Lover);
5) literary mysteries (Case Histories, Tana French novels);
6) many genres/Just fantastic in general ( e.g., Housekeeping, City of Thieves, Fates and Furies, Purity, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles).
Writing this post has clarified what I want my novel to be: a funny, character-driven story about class conflict In New York City. It’ll be set in an elite nyc private school in the present or imagined near future when class conflict is even more heightened. Because I am drawn to films and documentaries about charismatic cult leaders, I’ll have a handsome, charming English teacher as a main character. He’ll be the leader of an imagined radical left group that seeks class warfare by any means and recruits students. I’ll show you the lives of a group of students who get intricately involved with him. The novel will begin with a bombing at the school and include a character who is a new student trying to fit in.
The last question I’ve pondered is how much of myself should I put in my novel? (Should the new student be a shy Korean-American adoptee?) Shirley Jackson wrote that ” [I} very much dislike writing about myself or my work, and when pressed for autobiographical material can only give a bare chronological outline which contains no pertinent facts.” In the past, I agreed with her but lately I think having a character loosely based on myself might make things easier to write.
Finally, I’m going to follow the advice of a family friend who is an artist. Years ago, she opined that any novel I write should include a beautiful woman. I’d poo-poo’d this back then but i think she was onto something. I will include a female character who is indeed spectacularly beautiful. (Thank you Carmela for that tip).
Thank you for reading this. If you are trying to write a novel or any project as I am, I hope these type of posts are helpful/enjoyable for you!