Category Archives: Musings

2016: a year in… well, it was a year

Moonrise during my trip to Poland this past October

Moonrise during my trip to Poland this past October

This is the time around about when people are making their year-end posts, wrapping up what they’ve done and written and sold and published, and honestly I’ve been swinging back and forth between not making one of those posts at all and simply putting it off until I end up not making one of those posts at all because oh no it’s suddenly mid-March so it’ll look kinda weird if I do.

Here I am, though.

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and now my tale is told

So Sword and Star – the final book in the Root Code trilogy (by the way, it honestly continues to be somewhat frustrating to have a trilogy split between two different publishers) – has been out for a month now, and it’s kind of interesting to look back at its trajectory and its placswordandstar_1200x1800hre in my head now.

Some of you might recall that this book wasn’t even supposed to happen. Neither it nor book two – Fall and Rising – was supposed to happen. Or at least for a long time the odds did not look good. F&R was already written when I had to start shopping it around to other publishers, but that’s a far cry from a book “happening” as far as I’m concerned, because an MS sitting on your hard drive is not on the same level as something that people can actually exchange for-real money for. I had one book in limbo, one book only existent in rough form in my head, and for a while I was pretty certain nothing would ever come of both unless I caved and self-published. Which, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t want to do.

Then they both happened, and that was frankly a little difficult to deal with, even with the relief and the excitement. Because I had become so sure I was never going back to that part of that universe. Then very FallAndRising_500x750suddenly I was tossed back in and immersed in it for months.

Now it’s all done. It’s over. I might return to that universe in another book, but it won’t be the same, and it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever deal with these protagonists again (and my villain(s) won’t be dealt with either, because… Well, if you read the dang thing you’ll see).

Something that did happen after the immersion and the editing was over – which has happened to me more than once but which remains profoundly strange and will probably always remain so – is that my brain completely decoupled. Abruptly it was like the book wasn’t mine anymore. It felt like it had been written by someone else. I look back over it – which I frankly have not done for a bit (IT’S NOT THAT IT ISN’T GOOD, I THINK IT’S VERY GOOD) – and I can barely remember writing any of it. Talking about it feels like talking about something largely unconnected from me.

8870200266_3104ed4d7f_o-220x330This also happened with my Casting the Bones trilogy. To be honest, I don’t even recall a lot of the second two books right now, like a language you haven’t spoken in years.

(THOSE BOOKS ARE ALSO VERY GOOD I THINK JUST SAYING)

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that this happens way less with my fanfiction. I still experience that odd disconnection, where it feels like someone else wrote it and I don’t remember a fair amount of the production process – though some parts of it I remember very vividly – but the story itself remains much fresher and more immediate in my mind (this remains especially true with my ginormous ridiculous Walking Dead AU magnum opus, I’ll Be Yours For a Song, which I am still not over). The decoupling process is not as complete. Since returning to writing fanfiction, it’s been fascinating to contrast my very different writerly relationship with it versus my “original” stuff (I dislike the fanfiction/original dichotomy just about as much as I dislike the virtual/real one, and for similar reasons). Again, I think it has nothing to do with quality. It’s about how the work is produced and what parts of Writer Brain are engaged.

I guess what I’m saying here – among other half-coherent things – is that there is a particular feeling of Overness that I seem to experience with the final endings of books that I don’t experience with anything else. In a way it’s uncomfortable, because I feel like I should feel more of a deep connection to something I wrote. But on the other hand I think it makes sense. Working on a book is draining; working on a series is even more so. I think that on a very deep level, my Writer Brain needed to be well and truly done with that story. It couldn’t leave the universe in half-measures. It had to let go completely.

Which I guess is healthy? I hope so, anyway.

Regardless, now I need to figure out what’s next.

tell me, what else should I have done?

prayer2

(Please note: there’s some mildly NSFW stuff in here. Not images, just words.)

I think should is a bad word.

My previous therapist and I talked a lot about should. It’s a word I overused and still do. It’s a word I used and use to beat myself up, to make myself feel guilty for not performing to my own standards and frankly to give the perceived standards of others way too much importance in terms of how I live my life. One of the worst things about that last is that often I’m not giving other people enough credit – they aren’t holding me to standards, at least not those. They’re not nearly as hard on me as I am on myself.

Very often the only person making me unhappy is me.

But should won’t go away. And it serves to drive me away from things that I enjoy, that I and other people find fulfilling, that I’m good at. Should tells me that doing those things is worthless and I should be ashamed of doing them, and I should keep it to myself regardless of how much they matter to me.

2015 was an especially bad year for me and should. All kinds of things happened that year that gave me wonderful new opportunities to be an asshole to myself. Probably the most perverse of these is that in 2015, I had the most remarkable writing experience of my life, and while I’ve stumblingly gone into it with individual people, I’ve been too frightened to talk in any seriously public way about it.

Because it’s not what I should write.

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when it all breaks down and we’re runaways

grace

This business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

So we’re coming up on the sixth year anniversary of me first getting paid for a story – which is the point at which I mark my entry into the world of Professional Writerdom – and I’ve been taking stock of some things lately.

As usual, I was forced into it by my own mental health cornering me and yelling and gesticulating wildly until I finally paid attention. That’s usually how this goes. That’s how it went after I collapsed post-doctoral comprehensive exams, and it’s how it went a bunch of times before. I convince myself that I’m okay until it becomes extremely obvious that I’m not. So I’ve done some stock-taking, and the conclusion to which I’ve come is that I’m not okay, and some things need to change so I can work my way back toward the state of Okayness I should be in most of the time.

Cut because this gets long and pretty blargh-personal.

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Writing: practice resurrection

image courtesy of erichhh

image courtesy of erichhh

I wrote this the other day for my Tumblr but I feel like it fits here as well. So here it is.

  • Write.
  • Read.
  • Accept that your first draft will probably be shit. Accept that it can be shit. It doesn’t make you a bad writer. It makes you a writer. You’re writing.
  • Fear editing. Do not let your fear of editing stop you from editing.
  • Recognize that creativity is a muscle and becomes stronger with exercise. Don’t wait for inspiration; you screw yourself that way, because inspiration is fickle and also does not like you or support you emotionally as a person. Your brain is plastic. You can literally train it to produce words on command. It’s not necessarily easy and they aren’t necessarily going to be good words, and everyone is different. But it (probably) can be done.
  • You’re going to have periods where nothing you produce feels good. Where it all feels bad. Where you’re sure you would do the entire world a great favor by no longer producing words at all. It’s okay. It almost certainly won’t last. Try to look at it like the flu; let it run its course. If you can, keep writing anyway.
  • You’re going to have periods where you can’t write at all. Try to write anyway. Stop when it really starts to be painful and/or upsetting. See above re: flu.
  • Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to take breaks. Give yourself permission to take vacations. Eat healthy. Drink enough water. Get plenty of sleep. You’re working with your brain but your brain rides around in your body and you need to take care of one to take care of the other.
  • Don’t let things sit. They will become terrifying.
  • You will never be the writer you want to be. Ever. Probably. Regardless, get comfortable with the idea.
  • Under no circumstances should you compare yourself to other people. It kills you. *points to chest* Here.
  • Recognize that you’re going to compare yourself to other people anyway so don’t beat yourself up about it too much. You are probably going to resent other writers, great writers, who are also your friends, and you’re going to feel like a jerk. You’re not a jerk. At least, you’re not any more of a jerk than they are, because I guarantee they are doing the same thing. Very possibly at this very moment they are resenting you.
  • Focus as little as possible on what you “should” be writing. Write whatever the fuck you want to write and worry about the details later, if indeed the worrying needs to be done at all (probably it doesn’t).
  • Seek the advice of other writers. Take whatever advice they have to give with entire mounds of salt.
  • Embrace criticism. Remember that it will always hurt.
  • Embrace rejection. Remember that it will always hurt.
  • It is a sad fact that quality doesn’t always equal attention. You’ll probably write great stuff – stuff which you know for an objective fact is great, and people won’t read it. While at the same time they’re all reading and raving about something else which is frankly not very good. No, I don’t know why. People are baffling. Make your peace with that.
  • To the extent that you can, don’t write for the sake of attention. This is something else which you’ll probably do anyway; just recognize that it usually doesn’t go anywhere productive.
  • If it comes to attention? Pay attention. To everything. Writing is about the process of paying attention.
  • One of my favorite quotes is from Wendell Berry’s fantastic poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”: Listen to carrion – put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come. Life is temporal. Life exists and moves through time. Words and the process of producing them is the process of creating static points of meaning in that time. Things will arrive unexpectedly, from places you never regarded as productive. This is where paying attention becomes important.
  • That said, don’t take writing seriously. It’s ridiculous. It’s just a completely fucking ridiculous thing, as ridiculous as anything human beings have ever done.
  • Do it anyway.
  • Write.

A light in dark places when all other lights go out

image courtesy of Mike McCune

image courtesy of Mike McCune

Any unfortunate person who follows me on Tumblr has noticed that it’s lately become the repository for all my feelings about The Walking Dead (and for that I sincerely apologize to them). Most of it has been silly and more than a little odd, but one thing it’s been doing for me – and the games have done this as well – is get me thinking a bit more about storytelling and how it’s done and what it means.

This is something I wrote and originally posted on Tumblr, and primarily it’s about what I perceive as showrunner Scott Gimple’s missteps in the matter of how the mid-season finale went down. But it’s also about my understanding of storytelling and the obligations of anyone who wishes to undertake it in a serious fashion, so I’m reposting it here. There are, naturally, spoilers below, so take care.

Okay, I need to say something about this that has nothing to do with theories or analysis or flailing or Daryl’s arms or the brilliant perfect sunbeam that is Beth Greene. And it’s gonna get long, so get comfy.

I need to say something about storytelling.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own feelings and my own reaction to this, as I’ve said in other posts. I’ve been thinking about the nature of the hurt I’m feeling and about the fact that technically it’s about something that didn’t “happen” (it did) and that wasn’t “real” (it was). I’ve been thinking about the pain I’ve seen in other people, about how – regardless of whether or not you think it’s stupid to get so worked up over a zombie TV show and whether or not you think everyone who’s worked up is messed up in the head or heart or something (like it’s your business, you judgmental prick) – if the show isn’t “real” that pain sure as hell is, and about the context of this particular character being taken away and in the way in which she was.

And here’s what I think right now: it’s cruel.

Doesn’t matter if she’s alive. Doesn’t matter if she comes back and she’s brilliant and glorious and amazing and single-handedly cures the zombie disease and ushers in a new era of peace and joy and prosperity and she and Daryl get married in a big frilly wedding and have a hundred adorable babies. It’s still cruel.

I’m a storyteller, and I’m one professionally, which means nothing more than that for me it’s a job so I spend a fuck of a lot of time thinking about and doing it. I spend a fuck of a lot of time thinking about what it means. What stories are and what they do. And the thing about stories is that they are real. Maybe not to everyone, because not everyone experiences the world in the same way or reacts the same way to powerful emotion, but for some of us, the line between fiction and nonfiction is rather arbitrary, and we feel fictional things very deeply. When fictional characters die, we mourn. When they experience joy, we experience joy with them. When they become wiser, we learn with and from them. For some of us – strange kids, queer kids, bullied kids, abused kids, kids who have mental illnesses, kids who are dealing with whatever shit they’re dealing with and the adults they and we become – these “unreal” things and people have literally saved some of our lives.

Stories have guided faiths, birthed religions, raised and destroyed and altered cultures, saved and killed, given and taken, strengthened and weakened, pushed the world forward and held it back.

Do not tell me that stories are just stories. Do not fucking ever tell me that.

The conclusion I’ve come to, as a storyteller and as someone who loves stories, is that storytellers need to understand that – if the stories they tell are wonderful and sharp and resonant and engaging – they hold the hearts of their audience in their hands. They carry those hearts with them, take them on journeys. Some of those journeys are perilous, some of them are painful, some of them are full of joy, some of them are full of suffering, some of them are full of love, some of them are brutal and lonely and sad. Many of them are all of those things, because life is all of those things, and the best stories are true stories. True fiction. True dreams.

As a storyteller, you can bring your audience through suffering and pain. You can take them into dark places. You can take them into the core of hopelessness. You can take them into the fucking void.

But you can’t forget that you’re carrying their hearts in your hands. You can’t forget that you have to be careful. You can’t forget that, in the end, you have to be kind.

Not merciful. Not comfortable. Kind.

I think Gimple, in how he did this, forgot that. I think, at the very least, he underestimated the power of the story he was telling, and that – for a storyteller – is a failure. Regardless of what happens next, this was needlessly, pointlessly cruel, and real people really got hurt. And as a storyteller, I’m not okay with that.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But they’re my feelings and I have them, and here they are.

Storytellers: Be careful. Be kind. Don’t forget what you carry.

One Foot After the Other: writing when things are generally shitty

from here

from here

I posted a couple of quotes on writing the other day, to accompany a Difficult Writing Time. I think everyone can sympathize with this, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves “writers”, because although too many writers like to get misty-eyed and emotional about how very differently important writing is from everything else, when you get right down to it, it’s work, and everyone reaches points with work wherein they just cannot even anymore, where everything is going wrong and nothing is easy and it all just seems unbearably crappy, and motivation has been eaten by a sullen cloud of horrible. But in those moments you don’t actually have much in the way of real options besides the simple task of dragging yourself onward, one foot after the other – not in front of, because that implies more momentum than you actually have – and trusting in spite of all the evidence to the contrary that things will get better, that they will somehow maneuver themselves back into where you vaguely remember them being.

Yeah, that’s me right now.

I should say at this point that I honestly haven’t once suffered from writer’s block in the half decade I’ve spent trying to write for money. I have not yet been locked into a period where I wasn’t producing anything at all. But I do go through long periods where I’m convinced that none of what I’m producing is very good, and often that feeling is actually correct, though it’s still something to be regarded with healthy skepticism. Interestingly, these periods often also coincide with the completion of large, long-running projects – usually novels – and I think that makes a degree of sense.

I used to think I would feel a sense of accomplishment upon finishing a novel, but as it turns out, at least for me, that’s not true at all. What I feel after typing the end is instead a kind of exhausted hollowness, an utter lack of any sense about what to do next. To be sure, there is a bit of YAY I’M DONE, but it never lasts more than a day or so, and then the blankness asserts itself. I had no idea what to make of that, until I took – and passed – my doctoral qualifying exams, and suddenly it all made sense. When you’ve spent months doing something very difficult – maybe doing it every day, maybe for hours – your brain, on a fundamental level, has no idea how to deal with the prospect of not doing it anymore. It panics and shuts down. It’s so burned out that continuing is more than it can deal with, but it’s forgotten how to function without that daily energy suck around which to orient itself.

I fell apart after my qualifying exams. It took me a few months – mostly because I had a semester of teaching to provide structure – but once that was gone, I broke down. We’re talking nearly-paralyzing-anxiety-with-sensory-triggers-trip-to-the-ER-back-on-meds-after-15-years level of breakdown. The point is that we need to be ready – as writers, as workers, as human beings – for our brains to be assholes, and for that assholishness to bleed into all aspects of our work, as well as to come from the work itself. Sometimes even from what looks, on the surface, like major productivity.

I don’t think that’s exactly what I’m going through now – though I did just finish not only a novel but the final novel in a trilogy – but I recognize something similar. Thanks to the loss of my departmental funding and some other things that fell through, I’m not teaching this semester. Next semester is also doubtful. I remain uncertain regarding whether I can finish my doctoral dissertation. I’m very angry at my department, my university, and academia in general, because I think that last is devouring itself and I hate being in a position to watch it happen. I’m now unemployed, and so far the job hunt is less than encouraging. On paper a lot of my life is still pretty good, but almost everything on which I’ve relied for structure and momentum and security – for nearly a decade, counting college – is going away.

That’s not a comfortable place in which to find oneself.

It can be very difficult to write when you’re wrestling with emotional and mental issues – I think many people find it almost impossible when things are at their worst – and it’s certainly true that it can be so much harder to produce your best work when your head and heart are not at their best. But I’ve also found that writing can be a refuge when everything else is difficult, because at least writing is something over which I can exert almost complete control. I may not feel like I’m doing it as well as I can, but I can still create a world of my own populated by people I’ve made; I can invent my own escapism and retreat there, tell myself a story and – upon emerging – have something concrete to show for it. It helps. Sometimes it’s almost the only thing that does. Sometimes it’s what you need.

But then sometimes even what you create doesn’t feel like the right kind of escape. The joy fades and it just feels like work again, and it doesn’t feel like work you’re doing well enough to take real pleasure in.

And that’s where I am now: this thing on which I rely to keep myself together isn’t doing what I need it to, which means it’s just one more thing that feels like it’s slipping away, and that is so, so terrifying. Everything else I’ve accomplished in the last months and years – the books sold, the short stories published, the good reviews, the people who have said nice things, even the goddamn money – all fades into the background and provides no comfort at all, because none of it makes the words work any better.

So what do you do?

If you’re a writer – if you’re a person – you have two options: a) go fetal and cry, and b) suck it up and, to the extent that you can do so and still take care of yourself, keep going. One foot after the other. Drag drag drag.

I’m writing another novel right now – one of three currently waiting to be written. I have no idea if it’s working; I thought it was but now I’m really not sure. None of the prose feels like it’s smooth. None of the pacing feels sharp. The direction is hazy. I’m hoping that this – finally – will be my Agent Book, but I’ve also written less than stellar novels before, and I’m filled with dread that this might be one of those. But what else is there to do? I’m 41k words into it; I can’t really stop now. Drag drag drag.

I was talking to my friend and Long Hidden ToC-mate David Jon Fuller about this on Twitter the other day, and we were commiserating about the feeling that nothing is going right and none of what we produce is good. I said something to the effect of why the hell did we ever start doing this, and he said something that isn’t necessarily a big secret but is therefore one of those fundamental truths so obvious that it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it now and then:

He’s right. Nothing beats it, when it’s really happening. When it’s happening, it feels like the most amazing thing in the world. Get a taste of it once and you’ll never stop wanting it; call us addicts chasing the next high if you want, because that probably isn’t very far off. And maybe it does have some kind of deeper, broader significance as an act, maybe it has some kind of grand universal meaning, and maybe it really is something worth getting misty-eyed and emotional over, but me, I think it’s ultimately about healing, about getting well, about being alive. It’s about you, and me, and really no one else, not at its core. It’s about being reminded that there’s something good about existing, and that you can find that again, no matter how shitty things are, because your head is a house of treasures.

And that doesn’t make you special. It just makes you human.

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life