“A Sense of Comfort” :: On Bringing a Book Everywhere

Debbie Tung
Debbie Tung, Where’s My Bubble?

This post is inspired by a comic by Debbie Tung. Check out her Tumblr, she’s really amazing!

“You’re bringing a book on a date?”

I looked up, startled. It was senior year of college, and I was in the common area shared with my three roommates, getting on my coat and packing up my purse before going out for dinner with my boyfriend. My last step — taking the paperback I’d been reading, and nestling it in beside my wallet in my old beat-up purse.

It’s never been unusual for me to have a book crammed into my bag whenever I leave the house. Dinner with the in-laws, party with friends, a half-day at work that doesn’t include a lunch break — there’s a mass market, or a full hardcover, or now a Nook or even something downloaded on my phone, ready for me to read at the first sign of five free minutes.

I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, back to Animorphs books in my backpack, back to Dr. Seuss on car trips. That paper brick right within reach is a comfort, a security blanket, ready to help me out at a moment’s notice, to pull me free from boredom, keep me company if loneliness surrounds me, to cheer me up or calm me down if depression or anxiety worm themselves into my brain.

While I don’t know too many people who insist on this practice (I was the one in my family curled up in the back corner of the minivan on road trips with nothing but a too-loud Disc-man and an R.A. Salvatore novel) but I’d never been made to feel weird about it. Until that day, in my dorm, with my friend. Though loads of my friends love to read, this friend was pretty close to last on the list of people I would have expected to question me. My fellow bookworm, the one who ALSO made time for pleasure reading during finals week, who rambled on about stories and characters with an enthusiasm so bright it blocked out the glazed expressions of everyone who was forced to listen. I looked at this person, expecting her to realize the logic behind carrying a book you would never crack open, just because you wanted it there.

And she looked back at me, confused, like I was an indecipherable nerd, like all the passages in my brain were turned around and broken.

“Uh, yeah,” I answered lamely. “Just in case.”

All my good reasons, rooted in emotion and vague-but-real feelings of comfort, became suddenly inexplicable, particularly in the face of a person who should have understood. It all seemed weird, and silly, and maybe a little bit messed up.

I’ve left home without a book before, because I was distracted or rushed, and managed to forget. But for the first time that I could think of, I consciously, purposely, removed the book from my bag, placed it on the table, and left without it.

I didn’t need the book that night. Really, it’s rarely necessary all those other times. But I’ve always liked having that backup plan, that comfort. “Because it feels like I’ve got a good friend by my side,” Debbie Tung writes in her comic. That’s exactly right, and it’s why I’ve never left a book behind since, if I can help it (it’s hard to fit a paperback in those tiny purses I use at weddings). I always keep a book in my bag, even if I wind up with a twenty-pound purse, even if someone gives me a weird look because they don’t understand.

It’s worth it, to feel secure, and to know my friends are close.

Having a Critique Partner is the Best

In high school, I wrote constantly. So did my best friend. We shared our work with each other and offered opinions, mostly compliments (we were teenagers, our egos were so fragile). We even took the one creative writing class our high school ever offered (at least while we were there) together. We encouraged each other, and while I probably would have kept writing without her, I do attribute some of the confidence I as I kept pursuing it to those sessions in her room where she read my scribbled handwriting while I nervously snuggled her rat.

They made pretty good critique buddies, to be honest.

Once college started I didn’t see my high school friend as much, and Facebook wasn’t a thing yet. I received plenty of comments and assistance from classmates in my creative writing courses and from professors, who at the time helped me grow and also figure out what I really wanted to be writing. But I had no dedicated friend to share these things with, so after I lost the structure of school I was on my own. I operated within a vacuum, which I can say is a horrible place to write. Though I completed a novel, and edited it, and sent it out, it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out the why.

Sick of being stuck, I applied to grad schools, finally ending up in Lesley. It was great: finally, a community of writing friends, mentors, people who got it and could help me out. But greatest of all was when I found the person who, from the moment we read each other’s manuscripts in preparation for the residency, became my best writing friend*. We connected with each other’s writing more than the other manuscripts we read, and it only took until the end of that first half of a day before I felt like I could put my book baby in her hands and trust her not to mangle it up but to carefully inspect it, to help it grow, to love it. We’ve both graduated, but we email, text, Facebook, Skype, share recommendations and worries and, most importantly, manuscripts. When I made sudden edits to a story and needed feedback she was right there, ready to do it. And when she needed help of her own, I was on her list of people to send her beloved novel to.

Basically, I have a person who I know will do her best to help me out and give me honest feedback — praise along with criticism — when I need it, and I have the privilege of being the same person for her. And it’s great.



*She also owns rats, who I have met and snuggled with. So, maybe that’s a sign.

Ideas Around a Fire Pit

This past weekend I flew out to visit Rachel, the dearest friend I made at Lesley. She showed me around her hometown, and her current-town, and drove me to see Steak and Shake and giant catsup bottles.

One night, while her husband was out visiting with her sister, we sat in her back yard and burned brush in her fire pit. Poking at the embers with the stick I’d claimed for myself, I started telling her about the story I’d just finished the rough draft for, a story that I can’t decide if it’s good, or bad, or worth the time needed to work on it. I gave her the key points, out of order, rambling a bit, and the ideas I was trying to convey — anger and resentment that burns inside you like an ember; a deep desire to have life go back to the way it’s “supposed” to be even if what you want is impossible; a need to be understood; an attempt to express yourself.

Rachel hasn’t seen any of the writing — I haven’t typed it up yet — but she had thoughts on my concepts, and words of encouragement that made me think this isn’t a boring, overdone idea, that it’s something that could succeed if I decide to just keep going with it.

And this is why I need writing friends, even if I never show them a word of what I put to paper (I will); they know what I’m going through, and what I need, not just want, to hear. If it had been a silly idea, I believe Rachel would have said so. But I also believe she wouldn’t have told me to give it up. She would have brainstormed with me, help me stumble on the direction I needed to go in to get the story right.

We talked about other ideas that weekend, both things that I’m working on, and stories she’s trying to bring to life. Not just around that fire: sometimes in pajamas on her couch, panting up a hill, driving around after eating milkshakes and whispering in a lavishly mosaiced church. Every time I just felt better about writing, more confident that if I just sit down, I can actually pound out something worth reading.

Writing Problems: Keeping Up Connections

Spider webBig reveal — I’m an introvert. I like spending time alone, away from people. It’s how I started writing in the first place: hiding in my room, or staying up later than everyone else so it felt like I was alone in the house.

But to make writing something that I continue, something that I actually improve on, I can’t just sit alone in the house. I have to get out, and learn, which was a big reason for starting my MFA. On my own, I was stuck in place, and in order to move on I needed more eyes, more ideas, more guiding hands. And through my mentors and the friends I made at Lesley, that’s exactly what I got.

Then I graduated, and I left my nice little pocket of guaranteed advice. While it’s been nice to go back to completing things on my own time, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to continue without some sort of continued support group, only this time it wasn’t going to be maintained for me. I had to keep it up myself.

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MFA: Day Seven!

The week is almost done, and I can’t believe it. As quickly as my time here went last semester, this semester seems to be zooming past.

We had an interesting seminar in the morning with Tony Eprile, looking at observations. We talked about what we observe, how characters observe, and how this can be used in our writing. We also talked about how noting the specific things our characters do or do not see can help define who they are.

After this I stopped by Lisa Robinson’s graduating seminar, on the writer’s unconscious mind. I enjoyed the things she talked about here, but I also felt like I already learned a bit of it in Barbara Baig’s Art of the English Sentence course, when we learned about freewriting.

This afternoon was the start of small group workshops. Most people were able to finish today, no problem – but most people aren’t working with Tony Abbott. My god, this man is thorough. In over three hours we made our way through Hunter and Elley’s pieces, but Jaime and I are still left for tomorrow.We both submitted a continuation of our large group manuscripts, so maybe ours won’t be as intense – maybe.

I watched the graduating readings, then headed upstairs for the second semester reception! … but no one came. Steve Cramer forgot to announce our reception, and that combined from everyone being a bit… indisposed after the Wednesday night reception kept the party small. But I appreciated it, since I was actually able to hear the conversations going on around me. I only wish some more of the professors had stuck around; I only have so long to see them, and I already feel like our time is so, so limited.

Still, I had an excellent conversation with Sharon, a fellow 2nd semester WFYP who I rarely see, since we’ve never been in the same large group. I had fun chilling and talking with others way past when I thought I would, and may have accidentally gotten myself on board to help run an event. I also made some new friends, which seem to be in large supply here.

Tomorrow should be an easier day… but I’ve said that before, haven’t I?

MFA Day 8

Today, today… what happened today? Oh man, I can hardly remember.

Rachel and I got ourselves thoroughly confused, thinking that the second part of the Feeding Your Muse seminar was at the library again – it wasn’t, something, we didn’t figure out until we arrived, late and panting… to an empty room. We had to drive back to the main campus, and missed half of the seminar. Yikes.

Susan Goodman changed up the seminar, to make up for the snow day, instead going over the material for the other seminar she was supposed to host, Telling Your Story – But How? We looked at ways that people can approach a subject to tell it with a different tone.

I went to one of the graduate seminars I had signed up for at 11:30, The Hero’s Journey in 3-D. The study of the hero’s journey, not just in fantasy literature but in everything, is something that I’ve gone over before, but I never get tired of. It’s a great way to look at your story and characters to see how your own idea follows these archetypes. It’s also good to be aware of the archetypes for when your story starts to become too predictable and boring.

Afternoon was finishing the large group workshops for Elley and Rachel that were missed on Wednesday. After I finalized my plans with Chris Crutcher for what I’ll turn in over the semester; nothing to complicated, just writing and rewriting so I can plow through Speaksong and get it as done as I possibly can before the semester ends.

Graduate readings got clogged in the sludge my brain is turning into, but what I was able to be aware of was really wonderful. Despite sheer exhaustion I hung out at the reception for some time with Rachel, not because I felt like I had to be there but because i just couldn’t stop talking to people. Abby and Jan have been really helpful, and it breaks my heart that they’re fourth semester students, meaning that by next semester they’ll be graduating. They’ve both already offered, or even asked, that I send them more of Speaksong, and I gladly will.

I’m ready to go home now. My writing hand itches and my brain is so full I’m afraid it might spill out. Everything is packed to be thrown in the car in the morning; that way I won’t have to worry, and can just wait for the right time to leave.