Sunday, April 29, 2012

As If I Know What Positronic Means

Some years ago, I wrote a novella called The Apocalypse Experiment. The premise was that in the not-too-distant future, aliens nicknamed Portents have ended the fertility of the human race, killing all already-pregnant women and then all women who become pregnant. Humans are scared into a zero birth rate. A pair of scientists and a group of the Last Babies (the last generation to be born, now middle-aged) decide to try and restart the human race by controlling the hormones created and exuded by pregnant women, keeping them secret. Ultimately, they fail, in a tragic way that I didn't foresee until it was on the page.

Even before I'd finished writing, Children of Men came out. Oh, well.

I was horribly insecure during the whole time I was writing this novella. The lion's share of my genre reading has been edge-of-genre fantasy and science fiction - Bradbury, Susanna Clarke, Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, Douglas Adams, etc. There's not a lot of straight Arthur C. Clarke science fiction and even less R.A. Salvatore fantasy in my head. I don't know what you call this in the fantasy realm (low fantasy?), but what I like to read is known as soft sci-fi. Bradbury's later short stories are the best example of this I know, because they're mostly about people, and sometimes those people happen to be, y'know, on Mars.

Before The Apocalypse Experiment, I had only tried to write science fiction in short stories. My memory is telling me that in fact I only attempted YA sci-fi short stories before I wrote this novella, but that doesn't seem right to me. In any case, none of them were any good. The science was exceptionally shaky, because I am so thoroughly right-brained that I can barely calculate tips properly, much less comprehend physics; and I felt like I failed to get at the thing I love best about soft sci-fi. Which is: the way in which fantastic stories unknot what's essential about us, the way the best writers use the framework of science fiction and otherworldliness to show something humbling and brilliant and miraculous about the human animal. Ourselves mirrored in the future. This is also why I like soft sci-fi as opposed to hard; hard sci-fi is far more interested in the Petri dish than in the organism.

You have to write the fantastic stories properly, though, before you can capture the psychology of humans within their cage. You have to build the world before populating it with ideas, and that was what I failed to do in my stories. With the novella I wrote, I think I did a better job at this; my characters were pretty darn well-realized, and I was really proud of my plot. I was really proud of the whole thing, in truth. I still think the science is perhaps a bit embarrassing, but a reader like me wouldn't know the difference.

That's the thing that keeps driving me back to wanting to write science fiction at all. A reader like me. Someone who finds Arthur C. Clarke appallingly boring but who's devoured every damn minute of Star Trek: TNG. (Multiple times.) Someone who couldn't tell if a method of space travel was implausible, couldn't care less if the medicine is unrealistic or inconsistent.

I have a lot of smart friends, though. A lot of people who are thoroughly left-brained. One of them, for example, is a Ph.D. from MIT who's researching artificial intelligence and string theory. Their faces loom in my mind whenever I get a sci-fi idea that would cause me to invent and fumble through all sorts of crap I know nothing about, and I hear them scoffing and laughing at my ridiculous ideas about future transportation and future housing and future diets. So I get insecure. And I put those ideas aside, think about writing them later, maybe after I've been to a few cons and suffered through a little more Clarke.

The idea I'm working on now? It refuses to be put aside. It won't leave me be. I'm crazy about my conflicted, semi-Magneto-esque, completely wackadoo android, and I've just got to get his story down. I was depressed this morning to learn that Asimov (who straddles the line between hard and soft, I find) has already written part of my central idea. Children of Men all over again.

But I'm going to write it regardless. This story is developing to be a lot more like Poe than like Asimov, anyway, and I think I'm going to write in that direction, throwing to the wind all my frets about my poor sci-fi skills. It's coming out slowly and painfully, but I keep trying to remember that I wrote 25,000 words through insecurity about my ability as a sci-fi writer, and surely I can write a few thousand more now.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Through Clenched Teeth

In college, lo those many years ago, I had a conversation with my adviser about cinema (naturally, as she was a film professor and I was a film studies major) and theater. We agreed enthusiastically that most people automatically compare, if not equate, the two art forms, and that this is about as wrongheaded as you can be. Although they appear similar on the surface - actors' performance, script, director, passive audience, etc. - cinema and theater are very little alike. In practice, they're more different from each other than they are from performance-unrelated forms of art, i.e. movies are much more like books than they are like theater.

The main reason for this is that cinema, at its most essential, is movement in time and space. In theater, movement occurs only in time, and space is static. This doesn't seem on its face to be such a big deal, but it changes absolutely everything about the experience. Also, performances vary in theater, and cinema is always the same. Also, the je ne sais quoi that each art form intends to capture for its audience is entirely, utterly different. There are a lot of other alsos, but I don't have all day here.

I had occasion to think of this conversation again yesterday. I woke up feeling quite beaten by the experience I had writing on Wednesday, a science fiction short story on which I wrote about 1,200 words. The experience of it was
He presses his hand flat against the table and pushes down on it, making a show of effort. Slowly, his hand begins to move in tiny jerks across the table. “This,” he says through clenched teeth, his voice strained, “is what writing should be like.” (source
Aside from a story that came out at white heat, and a story that kind of bluoorped out while I was daydreaming, I've written nothing but novels for the last seven months, and nothing at all aside from nonfiction for well over a year before that. I am really amazed at how different the experience of writing a short story feels from the experience of writing the novels. It's completely different. I'm already working in a genre in which I'm insecure, as I consider myself a crummy sci-fi writer, but I'm also not so sure I'm a good short story writer. That is making things move even more slowly than usual.

I just finished reading a novel, Day, by a Scottish writer named A.L. Kennedy whose unsettling short story "Frank" I read in a Zadie Smith-edited collection called The Book of Other People, which I enjoyed enormously. "Frank" was one of the best in there, one of those stories that rattle you to the core, and I was thrilled at the idea of a novel by her. She got the best reviews of her career for Day, and I finished it on the plane on the way to the conference, and really, truly, strongly did not like it at all. I didn't exactly hate every word, but I didn't enjoy most of the experience of reading it. By the same token, I'm reading a very highly lauded book by John Crowley, Little, Big. Even my arch-nemesis, Harold Bloom, likes this book, which is CRAZYFACE because it's GENRE FICTION which is WRONG for SMART PEOPLE to READ. I discovered Crowley through a soul-shaking story called "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" that I read in Conjunctions a few years ago. I'm 100 pages into the book and I don't like it at all.

People think that short stories are just shorter novels, with a comparable arc and span and construction, but it isn't so. I remember reading, in several different places, that writers of short stories and writers of novels are really two different breeds, and it's quite rare to be good at both things. Raymond Carver wrote stories that changed the landscape of fiction, but produced zero novels. Annie Proulx's stories are absurdly good, visceral, unforgettable, but I felt nothing for the two novels of hers I read. (I'm trying to think of examples that go the other way, novelists who aren't good short story writers, but I think most of those folks just don't write short stories.) They're totally different animals. The finest short stories aren't much like the finest novels, in their bones, and vice versa. Some quality that made Kennedy's and Crowley's stories so astonishing is missing in their books. At least it is for me; neither book would have been so successful or had praise lavished upon it if critics didn't like it, naturally. But I do feel that they both have this thing, this lack of oomph, this sensation of slogging and muddling that is missing from their intense, ripe, fascinating stories.

Theater isn't just live movies, either. The finest plays would be wrecked or transmogrified into something thoroughly else if adapted to the screen, and a lot of cinema stories lose their power when removed to the stage.

The process of forcing my brain to clunk along in short-story-language on Wednesday was so challenging that I even tried to think of ways I could stretch this story out into a novel instead. Lots more work (theoretically), but I feel like I'd be on firmer ground, and I likely wouldn't be meeting so much resistance on the table. But I can't. And besides, I want to write it as a story, get it out of my head, move on to different things. My main character is clinically insane, and I don't want to spend too much time with him.

I just thought it was interesting to remember how two forms of media that seem to have everything in common have a lot less to do with each other than you'd think. With film it's very easy for me talk about why, but with novels and short stories it's less clear.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Flat as a Fairy Tale

Torn between two ideas: sci-fi idea derived from Star Wars that I'm not really sure I can write well, and old old literary idea that I love and which I'm pretty sure I'm going to fuck up if I try to write it. So, yesterday, I wrote neither, which I'll grant was a pretty stupid way to avoid the problem. Plus there's outlining the Marilyn book, which GAH-BLAH.

There's also this old story, a fairy tale, that I workshopped with the Barrelhouse group during the fall. They told me that my main character wasn't interesting enough and quibbled annoyingly with my first line. I made my main character an everygirl on purpose, because that's how you do it in fairy tales, right? Snow White is not exactly the most three-dimensional character ever to strut around a Disney landscape. Oh. Pun. Ack.

Point is, this week I've been thinking over whether I want to rewrite this story with this idea in mind. It was this post at Errantry that put me in mind of it. My main character sings (which becomes an important aspect of the story at the end of it), and that is her Only Thing, like the love of honey of the tale Kathleen illustrates. To the workshoppers, this was not enough, and she was really flat and boring. I tried to argue that I'd constructed her like a normal, flat fairy tale heroine, the kind you can project your own characteristics on because she has none of her own (ahem*BELLA*ahem), but they didn't care. The more I think about it, the more I become concerned (not quite convinced) that they're right. I think I'd end up adding a hell of a lot more words if I made the character more interesting, which I guess is okay with me, except that I was happy with a 4,000-word story and don't really want it to be a 7,000er. If it makes the story better, well of course, but it won't necessarily be more saleable if it's better and too long. But that spins me up into asking what the point is, whether I want to write a good story or a saleable story, when the answer is really both. I guess write more, and then try to cut back elsewhere?

I unintentionally created part of a universe in this story that I want to explore elsewhere, so I don't think it would be a bad thing if I were to work a little harder at this first foray into it. It's too short to get much into the universe, so that would be part of expanding the word count, expanding the world. The conflict admittedly appears a little late, but I thought the language made up for it, a bit. I could break it down and start all over, from the top down, with the universe in mind, rather than sneaking into it with just my main character in mind the way I wrote it originally. But that sounds like an awful lot of work, she whined.

Like I said above, I'm still not convinced that flat heroines are entirely wrong for fairy tales written in the present day. (Not set in modern times, just written right now.) Just as I think many readers like predictability to a certain extent, I think many readers like characters they can live through more personally due to having few specific characteristics. Vibrant heroines who are thoroughly foreign to the average reader, but who still possess some universal traits, are one kind of way to draw in readers (cf Scarlett O'Hara), but I think the opposite way is not invalid. Children's books and YA are rife with these sorts of folks, after all.

Y'know, having thought through how not-fun it will be to rewrite this story, I'm suddenly far more interested in working on the SF story. Unexpected bonus. Maybe I'll get down to it today.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Open War

WELL. Home from the conference, and I have a lot of stuff to sift through.

Everyday life is sort of beckoning (...sort of), but there are some writing tasks to do, too. I have to bang out a query, in theory I should do a few things to my website, I have people to friend on Facebook, etc etc. The thing I'm still amazed about is how different the elevation and humidity feel here. It's astounding. The air feels so much more normal. No one had ever told me what a difference it makes to be 6,000 feet further up in the atmosphere. 

There's a lot buzzing around in my head that I want to say, a lot of Big Stuff about writing (and a plethora of little stuff, too), but I can't really get it together right now. So, instead, I will present you with two quotes - Tycho from Penny Arcade echoing Martha Graham, of all people. 
Like most readers, I had functionally consigned On The Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness [ed.: a video game project of Penny Arcade's that Matt and I loved, and which wasn't popular enough to continue in the way it had been conceived] to the furnace.  I had let it float away on one of those little lantern boats in a way that brought me closure, if no one else.  Insufficient.
Fucking insufficient.
You have to get back on the horse.  Somehow, and I don’t know how this kind of thing starts, we have started to lionize horseback-not-getting-on:  these casual, a priori assertions of inevitable failure, which is nothing more than a gauze draped over your own pulsing terror.  Every creative act is open war against The Way It Is.  What you are saying when you make something is that the universe is not sufficient, and what it really needs is more you.  And it does, actually; it does.  Go look outside.  You can’t tell me that we are done making the world.
And Martha, a conversation between herself and Agnes de Mille: 
"There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open..." 
"But," I said, "when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied."
"No artist is pleased."
"But then there is no satisfaction?"
"No satisfaction whatever at any time," she cried passionately. "There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others." 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

No Secrets, No Lies, Just Books

I write this to you from the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, on my third day out of four. Yesterday was my blog day, if I was going to keep to every-other-day blogging (which only seems to happen for about a week before I have to give it up) but OMIGOD, yesterday was busy. I was rarin' all day long with only a short break before dinnertime to lie on someone's bed and decompress and chitchat. I even quoted Heathers. Everyone laughed.

It is such a pleasure to be here. I'm very tired, wore out like the elbow of an old sweater, because I can't sleep and the elevation affects everything and I had a Severe Digestive Event for hours and hours on my first night here, but it is such a pleasure to be here. I had thought that I hated networking, but what I hadn't realized is that when networking involves just chatting with people about one of the things you love most in the world, it's not work. It's not the atrocious effort involved in the sole networking event I'd previously been to, a government contracting thing about a million years ago. Those people and I didn't have anything in common other than our jobs, and my job was most decidedly not the thing that interested me about my life. The writers here, and the presenters as well, are so intelligent, and so experienced, and so enthusiastic. It's kind of like camp - only it's a camp jammed with new best friends.

I'll be honest and say that the actual workshops and lectures I've been to have been sort of a wash. Some of them have contained useful information, and perhaps information that I couldn't have gotten any other way, but some of them have been inapplicable to what I'm up to with my work and some of them just haven't been very good. Of course, a couple of them have been truly splendid, insightful and absurdly helpful. Much more enjoyable, and involving much more of a sea change to the good, has been sitting around and hanging out, talking and laughing and learning and exchanging.

The most useful thing by far has been learning that editors and agents are human beings. That they are not scary ring-wraith overlords, permanently grumpy and negative and with hopelessly high standards. Indeed, they seem to want to buy work, and very much to want to do their jobs and get books published, and even, to my great surprise, to want to work with writers. They are, so far, super friendly and endlessly intelligent and knowledgeable. They just seem to know exactly, precisely what they want, what works for them and their press or their client list, and there are so. Many. Writers. and they can't possibly publish them all.

It might have been naive of me not to understand this, but I always saw the whole editorial/agenting/publishing complex a little bit like Hollywood, with personal connections and secrets and sleepings-with and cruelty well beyond the reach of mortal, ordinary people like me, and totally un-conceived by the media and the audience who benefit from their mysterious workings. They could be putting on a big show for us, but I am not seeing it this way here. It's just work, like any other industry. But there happens to be an awful lot of shit that gets in the way between the publishing complex and writers, even good writers. And I don't think any of it can be attributed as blame to any party.

I have a lot of good stories, but I'm not sure how much I can say or should say. Certainly it seems unwise to talk a lot while I'm still here, before I've had the chance to process it all. But I'll be decompressing the information I've attained here for a while, and a lot of that will occur right here on this very blog. Lucky you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

10:30 PM Mountain Time (12:30 AM EST)

Don’t think. Don’t think. Dontthinkdontthinkdontthink.

But what’s it going to be like tomorrow? 

You’re thinking. Stop thinking.

But Donald Maass! And a whole room full of writers you don’t know! 

Thinking! I insist that you stop.

And meeting Maleesha. And like three days after that of writerly stuff. Including some scary writerly stuff that I can’t predict and don’t even know how to worry about. 

Ahem. The bed’s pretty comfy here, you know. And Enya’s playing. Comforting and familiar, like she was when you were 12.

And taking notes in my new journal, and wearing my new clothes, with a wacky unearthed confidence, and no need to think about anything but The Work for like four whole days, and hoteling it up… 


And my silver shoes! And getting to talk about my book to a bunch of different people. What’s it going to be like? What’s going to happen? What am I going to learn? Who am I going to meet? 

Are you hearing me at all? Shut the hell up and go to sleep!

Hamster brain hamster brain. La la la, Colorado. Doo dee doo, people I talked to at the airport(s) today. Stuffed-up nose dry eyes slight headache finished that book didn’t like it. Tap-dancing thoughts, la dee dah dee dah. 

Oh hell. Maybe if I set this down and figure out a way to post it in my blog, I'll be able to muzzle you.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Buy Local. Except When You Can't.

I could start this post with a really long explanation of why I'm in the market for a new wallet and why I settled on the one I did, a story that involves a miraculous answered prayer and my need for portability, but I'm trying to crank out about half a week's worth of work in the next 36 hours; I still haven't cleaned, packed, or considered what the heck I'm going to say during my pitch; and I've got some (wonderful, amazing, spectacular) e-mails from friends and readers to answer, so I'll just cut to the chase.

I'm in the market for a new wallet. A few years ago, my mom bought me a seatbelt bag from Harveys, the concept of which I thought was super-cool, but in execution, those bags are really, really heavy. To the point where putting anything in this bag makes it pretty much uncarryable by my little weakling ass. Still, it is a cool idea, the bag is durable as hell, and it hasn't aged a day since I got it, so I considered one of the Harveys clutch wallets for my new-wallet purchase, presuming it would be more portable due to its lower mass of seatbelts woven together.

The store locator for Harveys told me that there were three stores moderately near me which carried Harveys merchandise: one in Rockville, one in Towson, one in Baltimore. I really wanted to pick up and handle the wallet before I committed to it (for my budget, this particular clutch wallet is kind of a big expense), and I wanted to try and buy locally, so I called all of the stores to see if they carried the wallets before I drove an hour each way to any one of them.

Two stores said no, they don't have them. One of the stores didn't answer the phone and hadn't set up their Verizon voice mail.

So I ordered it from Amazon and paid $4 for overnight shipping. The shipping is less expensive than the cost of the gas I would have used to visit the stores, had any of them carried the product I wanted. And, of course, returns are a breeze.

I feel sort of guilty that I resort to Amazon so often, rather than going to stores, but this kind of crap is the reason why. I certainly don't really enjoy the way big-box stores have smooshed little stores; they seem to me in many cases simply to carry more cheap crap from China, rather than actually to have a bigger selection or more convenience or whatever. But there are no stores in my area that carry the dry shampoo I use, so I order it in bulk from Amazon, a lot cheaper than I could have bought it in a store anyway. I don't want to support Best Buy, the only music store in my town, so I buy CDs at much lower costs from Amazon. The closest Asian market to me is 35 minutes in the direction of D.C., right along the Beltway, so if I need a weird ingredient I generally order it from Amazon rather than raising my blood pressure and wasting two hours.

It's just always there. It has mostly flawless service. It has everything. I'm a Prime member, and I'm here to tell you it's worth every single penny. While I can't ignore the guilt twinges I feel for supporting a big behemoth that has the potential eventually to crush every other store in the world, I also can't ignore that, as Carly Simon would say, nobody does it better.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Manic Midnight

To write another blog post about how waiting for readers to get back to you is a land of Boschian nightmare as detailed and engrossing as Homer's Land of Chocolate, only backwards, would be self-indulgent. So I shan't.

Last night I stayed up too late reading Deborah Copaken Kogan's Between Here and April, and when I was ready to turn off the light and sleep, I couldn't. I was too mixed up about the topics of the book (which, from the long view, is about the oppression of women and the difficulty of motherhood; from the short view, it encompasses very, very difficult topics like sexual incompatibility in a marriage, maternal filicide, the recent history of women and mental illness, etc.) to stop my mind racing. I ended up calling Matt and talking with him for 45 minutes, and part of what I told him was that I wished I wasn't as devoted to sleep as I am - I make sleep a priority in my life - because when my mind is revving and chugging in the middle of the night like this, I do really unusually good writing.

It's rare in my adult life that I've gotten up and worked in the middle of the night instead of just trying to effing sleep, but whenever I have, it's been that white-heat writing. The stuff that isn't always usable in its original form, but when it is, it's like it came from somewhere else, and I was just transcribing. Kogan's novel had inspired me to think about scenarios between people, and how I could put some compelling ones together. Earlier in the week, my brain had revisited a very old story idea, and last night I felt like I wanted to get up and get to writing it right then.

The problem with writing in the middle of the night, for me, is manyfold: I exhaust myself, because I don't really know when to stop, when to give up and go to bed, and sometimes it's dawn before I feel ready; my digestive problems are majorly exacerbated by missed sleep, like, to the point where it's not a small concern; it takes me days to get back to normal schedule-wise if I miss part of a night of sleep; and I have held a night-owl schedule before, working nights and sleeping half-days, and I know it's not for me. There are other smaller things - lack of concentration and worsened jaw-clenching the next day, insensible infatuation with what I wrote during that time, a general feeling of misplaced schedules that is hard for me to deal with. So on, so forth. Due to my annoyingly delicate emotional constitution, it's a bad idea.

This would all be worth it for good work, if I had a completely malleable schedule and nothing else to worry about but the writing. But that's just not true right now. This weekend I have to worry about meeting my other-work quota, cleaning the damn house, and reviewing all the conference stuff (I leave Wednesday!) to decide what to attend, assemble everything I need to bring, yadda yadda. And in theory I should make a movie date with a friend to whom I gave a rain-check last weekend and do the laundry and re-dye my hair and and and and.

On a total tangent, I finally realized a couple of weeks ago what the heart of nostalgia for childhood is to me. I was not a happy kid, growing up; I felt like the world as it was meant to be was closed to me, and I was impatient to be taken seriously. But in recent years I've started to wish for the life I had as a kid, which is baffling, because I know intellectually that I really disliked being young. I realized that the reason for this is not that I was happier then, because I wasn't, but that I had a lot less to remember. The shorthand for this is that I had fewer responsibilities, but I don't think this is fair to what kids have to accomplish when they're kids - school, homework, meeting expectations, dealing with social stuff, and the business of growing up, all of which is way more stressful than we, societally, give kids credit for. It's not fewer responsibilities, it's having to keep in your head all the things you have to keep track of. Do I have enough groceries in the house? Did I pay all the bills, with all their different due dates, on time? Is the car due for service (again)? Is that membership expiring? Did I take that stuff to the dry cleaner, did I pick it up? Am I out of toner (again)? Isn't it next weekend that thing is happening, and don't I need to bring something? Have I written e-mails and returned calls to all the people who deserve them?

So on. So forth. I don't think any of these responsibilities are more dire than what a 13-year-old is faced with (I remember being 13, and it sucked), but there are so many of them. So infinitely many things to think of. When you're a kid, someone else is tasked to think of these things for you. You have to do a lot of hard shit on your own, but much of your basic daily business is taken care of. The solution to this problem as an adult is to hire a personal assistant, whose job it is to manage you in this way. But then, of course, the personal assistant has to look after your life and her own, as well, and the insanity just gets pushed on to someone else. God help the personal assistant if she has kids.

ANYWAY. Ultimately last night I decided to stay in bed and try to sleep, drinking hot chocolate made from a packet of unknown age, rather than writing. I think this was the right call. I'm not sure what my next writing project is going to be, whether I'll churn out essays and stories or sketch out my next book, but I don't think I'm ready to start on it yet. Maybe after the conference, or maybe after May is over. A lot of uncertainty should be settled by June, so part of me wants to just put off the serious stuff until the chaos dies down. Yet, as I've had reason to remember lately, life happens all the time, and not just when you wait until the time is right. Do it now, as they say. Do it now, do it now, do it now.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Spectacular Spectacular

When I found out that they were re-releasing Titanic this spring to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, I instantly thought this was the most heartless, transparently cash-in-y thing I'd ever heard of. And immediately afterward, thought "I can't wait to see it BIG again."

Last weekend, I did. I saw it big, in 3D, and oh good glory, it was the best thing I've seen this year.

For starters, I forgot that Cameron does not take the tragedy of the sinking lightly. I'm not denying that there's something inherently squicky about cha-CHINGing the anniversary of 1,500 deaths, but his camerawork under the ocean, and the words he puts in Old Rose's mouth, are not cheap or trashy, nor are they the smallest part of the experience.

For two, I feel sad that Titanic has become a big ol' joke. I get mad when people don't take pop culture seriously, or when they take Art so seriously that absurdity and fun can't be appreciated. Pop culture is important. It's the place most of us live most of the time, and it's how an alien species or an anthropologist could have any hope of understanding us, of reaching us. These are the things that shape our lives: not just the noble ideals and and masterpieces of great thinkers and artists of the past, but the dialogue in Back to the Future and the music of Madonna.

Point is, a movie like Gone with the Wind, a big epic spectacle, sticks with the culture for decades on end. Whole generations watch it and then show it to their kids, who show it to their kids. People have a place in their hearts for that movie that they feel belongs just to them - but it belongs to everybody, because that's how great pop art feels: ubiquitous and unique. Titanic (despite its weaker script) sits easily on the shelf next to Gone with the Wind, and a critic who fails to see that simply doesn't have the long view.

There were long minutes during the sinking sequence when my mouth didn't close at all. I know this movie pretty durn well; I saw it in the theater three times (my moviegoing companion over the weekend had seen it eight times in '97-'98), and I used to put it on the DVD player in my laptop while I knitted in my little room in Massachusetts. No single line is a surprise, although I don't have most of it by heart as I do GWTW. But it was still completely different on the big screen, just as GWTW had been when I saw it on a rerelease in the mid-90s. (I will never forget that day. It was an irreplaceable experience to see it on a theater-sized screen. I badly want it to go back in the theater again.) It was still all of the best of any moviegoing experience compressed into a paltry three hours and fourteen minutes. We go to the cinema to see something spectacular, that is our only goal, I firmly believe. And that is exactly what Titanic is, no more and no less.

This time around I gave some more thought to the way Cameron writes female characters. I think he tends to veer away from the standard male gaze in ways that I enormously admire, although I don't know if his motivation is because he's a feminist or because he just wants as big an audience as possible. Rose (and all this goes for Sarah Connor in T2, and Ripley in Aliens) is objectified to some extent, but I really want to be her, the same way men want to be Philip Marlowe. She's fully realized, not sketched. She doesn't just behave the way you want her to, acquiesce and trot along with the motion of the plot, but actually follows her own lights and helps to drive it all forward. This is not the way most female characters behave in Hollywood.

There are sexist aspects to Titanic, but they match the period of the piece. If anything, it's anachronistically unsexist in many spots. And it's not perfect, you know, there's a lot of Men Stuff that goes on, but never does it seem (to me) inherently more important than the bedroom drama between Rose and the expectations placed upon her. Which is sort of the whole dynamic between Men Stuff and Lady Stuff in fiction, the boardroom vs. the bedroom, and one of them being necessarily more interesting because it's populated by the masters of the universe. Footnoted to A Room of One's Own.

I could be giving credit to Cameron where it's not due, but I find that, over and over in his oeuvre, he does not falter or dick-swing when he writes female characters, and I really believe Titanic is no exception. Even if Rose does require saving, according to herself. She's just a teenager, after all.

So, upshot: Go see it, if you missed it the first time around, or even if you didn't. Even if you hated it. Try it on for size. It's big enough to fit most everybody.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Very obviously, I do not possess the copyright to this image. 

On Friday I walked to the mailbox, and discovered that it was a stunning, cloudless day. I decided I'd take a walk after lunch, just a short one for some fresh air. There's a passage in Bridget Jones's Diary that I've never forgotten, where Bridget muses that perhaps there are only so many beautiful clear spring days ever apportioned to one lifetime, and sitting inside on one (or many) of them is wasting a valuable gift. This is probably far more dire a problem in England, and living in California would bring me more than my share of such days, but the spirit and the point of the passage remain, and bothered me during every single beautiful day I ever spent behind a desk in an office.

So I took my walk, looking up at the sky, walking over to the trees and smelling their blossoms, feeling and hearing the breeze. I was filled with wonder at how perfect the temperature was, how fresh the air. I walked up the hill to the strange little wisteria-enveloped not-exactly-a-gazebo thing a couple of blocks away, and then walked back. On the way home I noticed a field that I had somehow never noticed particularly, a rough circle of land that had recently been mown and was set away from the road behind some low bushes. I walked into it, found a flat spot with good grass cover, and sat down. Then I lay down. Then I closed my eyes.

I felt the sun on my skin. I felt the breeze play over my shirt. I heard the trees rustle, heard some kids practicing layups on the community basketball court a few hundred feet away. Occasionally a car passed.

I could have stayed there all day.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Feedback FTW / Enlightened by Edna

I had another one of those Lost Days yesterday: I got home from class fully intending to work for a little while, and then knock out the last revision of the [non-]horror novel, and then go back to working, meeting my responsibilities for the day with some time to spare. But it didn't work out that way. I didn't do any paid work at all, in fact; I revised for most of the day, into the evening.

Although I have a far better handle on my work schedule now than I did in, say, February, I am still trying to figure out how to make it more intuitive, more like something that I just do without thinking about it, the way I just got up and went to work and then got up and went home when I had a day job. The situation is so loose that I don't feel like holding myself to a specific schedule is necessary - nor do I think it's really the way in which to get the best work out of myself.

In any case, after yesterday's edit, I am through with actively revising for the moment. The book is starting to all blur together and not be new anymore, so I'm going to take notes on the feedback I get from here on and wait a month or two to implement it. I have been getting a LOT more discussion and feedback from readers on this book than I did on the Greenland book, which is either a good sign (because I wrote a more interesting book) or a good sign (because I was clearer with my readers). It's lovely to hear from so many people, especially the unexpected or critical feedback. Keep it coming, folks.

This weekend I have to get down to business on the promo materials I'll take with me to Colorado - synopsis, elevator pitch. I thought I might draft a query letter, too, while I'm at it. Matt gave me a terrific opening for it, so I think it'll be a bit easier than other queries I've written. Since I need to update my website, too, I've got to put together a synopsis and blurb for the Greenland book, which I find a dreadful prospect. I always find that I have either one sentence or three pages to say about that book, because it's so weird and straddles a few different things.

I'm almost finished with a book of Edna O'Brien short stories. The first book of hers I read was The Light of Evening, which is on my Special Shelf. I was utterly bowled over, and very nearly decided to stop writing altogether after I read it. I was overwhelmed by how not as good as her I would always be - how very minuscule and worthless my talent was compared to hers. (The reason I changed my mind is an entirely other post.) Then I read In the Forest, and I was sort of...disappointed. It was a great book, beautiful and vague in sort of the same way, but not a totally Other experience the way Evening had been. I thought, okay, well, she had an off (ish) book. I'll try again another time. So I got this book of short stories, and now that I'm all but two finished with it, I'm feeling the same sort of way: but...but...this was supposed to be otherworldly! It was supposed to knock me flat! And this is just...highly accomplished. It's still fiction I could never write, it just doesn't seem like it came from the pen of God, as Evening did.

I don't know what's up with this, whether maybe it's me, but I partly wish I hadn't started on her oeuvre with Evening, hadn't gotten my expectations so worked up. I'm going to keep trying - I just requested the Country Girls trilogy from the library, the books that got Ireland's panties in a bunch when they were published in the 60s - but I'm going to lower my expectations a bit.

Also, read The Light of Evening. You will never be the same.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Not Crimson Glow, But It'll Do

The big news is that I dyed the last couple of inches of my hair purple yesterday.

I've been wanting to do this since high school. I've really been itching to do it since I quit my paralegal job in November of last year. But when Matt got laid off, there seemed a chance that I'd have to go back to conservative office work, so I resolved to wait until he got a job. He started work yesterday, the dear thing, so I bought a Splat kit and went to town.

It was surprisingly easy. The bleach barely fried my hair at all, no breakage. And I'm very happy with it. And I know I couldn't have for all sorts of reasons, but I kind of wish I'd done this years ago and could have had fun experimenting ever since.

Aside from this, which is kind of a headline in my life in that it's a big and much-desired first for me, there really isn't much news. Today, after work is done, I'm going to run through the [non-]horror novel and do the aw-crap-did-I-really-overlook-that-mistake edit, so I can order another 10 copies of it from Lulu (I ran through the first 10 already, which yay (?)), most or all of which will go with me to the conference later in the month. I'm still not feeling in a writing mood yet, for stories/essays/whatever. I've been mulling over a story that was inspired by Star Wars - someone I trust told me that it's a good idea, and I was thinking of mutating it from SW into a more generic sci-fi background and seeing if it works out. But with money-work and life stuff the way they are this month, I'm not sure if I'll get to it before May.

Oh, but when/if I do, Margaret Atwood has started a sci-fi mag! This is terrific. And the pay scale is pretty significant. Canada has better litmags than the U.S., if you ask me, and I'm sure this will be no exception.

Unrelated to all else, GO BIG BLUE.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Alone with the Critic in My Head

The difference between Matt being gone and Matt being here in terms of how I behave is only ever clear after he leaves. I hold to the notion that having him around really isn't very different from being by myself, in that I don't censor myself really at all, I don't feel compelled to act one way or another, I don't change into someone that he could like better than "the real me" - it's just me. Behaving like somebody else is just too much work. And I'm fortunate that he brings out the best in me. I've had boyfriends who have brought out the worst, and it was...bad.

Anyway, this morning, I woke up around 7:00, still tired (my sleep has gotten whittled at opposite ends over the last few months, for some reason, and I don't really know what to do about it). Rather than jumping out of bed and getting to the gym or to work, which was what I thought I'd do last night, I stayed in bed and read my book. I got up for breakfast and brought it back to bed, and read on until 9:00.

In the abstract, I really enjoy getting a jump on the day in terms of work or chores, starting at 7:30 so I can finish up by early afternoon, but most mornings I don't really feel like it when I'm still in bed. If Matt had been here, I'd've risen, foraged for food, and set to work. (I probably still wouldn't have gone to the gym.) I'd have been too ashamed to be a slugabed. Somebody else would have been nearby, and would hence have eyewitness evidence that I'd stayed in bed for two gratuitous hours when I could have gotten the productive part of my day going. Obviously it's not a very big deal, a big thing to be ashamed of, since I'm admitting it on the internet. But someone observing it is a whole different thing than admitting it after the fact.

There's tons of stuff like this that Matt prevents me from doing, without intending to. His second pair of eyes helps me to see my errors and overlookings, and while it makes me critical of myself in ways that I think he doesn't cotton to - he's told me over and over that he doesn't give a damn if I can't keep the bedroom tidy - it also helps me not to have that sort of bacheloresque, this-ain't-the-Ritz attitude which I think is pretty bad to slip into. Hard to get out of, and hard not to be self-centered when you're in it.

When he's not around, the critic in my head who needles about what Matt will think if he witnesses me doing this or that just...falls silent. It's more of a wheedle than a needle when I'm on my own, because I genuinely don't care about the bedroom being messy except for a) what bad things about my personality it potentially reflects that I can't keep it neat, and b) how it looks to others that I can't keep it neat. These worries are a lot more muffled by myself.

I don't think Matt would care if I stayed in bed until 9:00. (Especially on a Sunday.) Or if I left my crap everywhere instead of nominally putting it away before going to bed. Or if I spent another half-hour than I intended to poking around town before coming back home after class yesterday morning, which I did, because I wasn't in any hurry to get home. I don't think he would think any less of me, or that I would become less attractive to him. But I feel a responsibility to this other human in my life not to be a person who lives entirely by her own lights when he's around. To be the best me. The one he helps me to be.

This brings up all sorts of questions for me about gender and expectations, and those topics in the context of marriage, but I think I'll just leave it where it is. In the last month or so, I've gotten really, really tired of thinking about gender, getting angry about it, discovering where my position lies on Issues of Gender. Fuck it. I just want to live. And occasionally have a lie-in on Sundays.