Turning Angst into Art: The Story Behind the Writing of Clear Out the Static In Your Attic/ by Isla McKetta

When I’m not writing I’m angsty. When I’m angsty I’m not writing. It’s not a good circle and it can be a hard one to escape. But sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to harness all that angst and turn it into a full manuscript. I’ve actually done this three times now, this is the story of the book that’s been published, Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art.

Working in marketing can be an interesting way of getting inside the mind of an audience and honing your writing to make the most of all the triggers available to you as a writer—from the heightened sensitivity of stretching time during a momentous scene to knowing which words you can ____ out without affecting a reader’s understanding of your text. Writing for marketing can also be a soul-deadening experience of feeling like you’re pulling puppet strings rather than connecting with human beings. It gets worse when your department of four is suddenly shrunk to two but the workload is not.

When this happened to me, I had the good fortune to be working with a fellow writer. Rebecca Bridge went to Iowa for poetry which means not only did she have the writing chops, but I was also deeply intimidated by her.

So when Rebecca saw the Write Bloody book contest was looking for how-to books on writing and that she thought we could write one together, I flattered, inspired, and scared.

I was feeling down and pretty certain I had neither the luck to get accepted nor the energy to see another book through to publication.

But things at work were going from bad to worse and I needed an outlet or I was going to spend every night for the rest of my life weeping. I took Rebecca’s lifeline and we started conceptualizing the book. Most writing prompt books are simply ways to get writers’ brains started, and the format is relatively straightforward. We wanted to do something more to make the book more memorable/marketable, to give beginning writers something to hold on to, and to make the book fun for us to write. I never could get the line “static in my attic” from “Channel Z” by the B-52’s out of my head and we worked around that, thinking about all the things that might be in an attic and how those could translate to interesting exercises for writers.

We were lucky that the publisher was looking for a proposal to start because we had one month to get that in. We wrote an introduction for the book and six exercises. We also took a clue from Write Bloody’s personality and created a list of selling points in the quirkiest but savviest ways we could, from “We use our MFAs from Iowa and Goddard to write really good words that people like reading“ and “There are two of us which means we can cover more speaking engagements“ to “We stole the title of this book from the B-52s.“

It worked! The contest ended on March 31. By April 9, we had an email saying that we were among 20 finalists and they wanted the final manuscript (including at least 50 prompts) by May 15. Fifty prompts is a lot of prompts to write, especially on such a short timeline, and I’ll admit that Rebecca and I stole more than a few minutes of work time for brainstorming and writing. Rebecca is more creative than I am and I’m better at deadlines so we played off our strengths throughout this process.

We still struggled to come up with the full list and sometimes wrote things that were terribly duplicative. But we kept working on the book and found a form that worked. The prompts started to separate out into three categories that mirror the writing process: Inspiration, Carpentry, and Finishing Touches. Each prompt included a little essay about where it came from or how it related to our work, the prompt itself, an example using our own work, and a list of books that exemplify the technique at hand. The reading list was my idea. Not only did I find the annotation process extremely helpful in grad school but recommending books to people is my favorite thing.

We finished! On May 15 we looked a little like this:

 

And on June 12 we watched this video anxiously to see if we’d been accepted:

Round about 2:25 there was a big exhale! We’d done it!

There was a lot of back and forth with the publisher and polishing the book over the next year, but by April 2014 Rebecca and I had our book in our hands. That’s not to say it’s been a great commercial success, most books aren’t. But when I open the pages of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art, I still get the “I can’t believe I made this” thrill.

And success attracts success. Somewhere during the year we were editing Clear Out the Static, my thesis was accepted for publication by Éditions Checkpointed in Paris as Polska, 1994.

Lessons I’ve Learned

  • When you’re feeling awful, grab at the things that feel like opportunities, even if you don’t think you’re completely up to them.
  • Break your project into manageable chunks so you can see the next endpoint clearly. That gives you roadmap and a chance to reward yourself along the way.
  • Put yourself on a tight, but achievable, schedule. A little pressure can help you work through the hard parts.
  • Help others when you can. Whether you choose to collaborate on a project or just use each other as touchpoints on a lonely journey, a buddy is invaluable. Some of my best writing buds are the ones who manage this retreat and this blog. Although I usually do my best writing on my own, we all help each other out when we can and I’d be lost without them.
  • Project the best of yourself into the world, even when you’re feeling badly. You want a publisher or agent who wants the you you want to be, not the one who thrives on nursing you through misery.

Submit!

If you’ve turned your angst into art and that art looks like performance poetry (no writing prompt books this go-round), try submitting to this year's Write Bloody submission contest. The deadline is July 21. You can do it!

No matter what form your writing takes, write. And when life is too hard to write, do it anyway.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.