Monday, July 30, 2012

Rejection by the Unknown Population

Rejection is funny. When I was first submitting stories some years ago, the fact that I had to wait for six months or longer to hear back from a magazine about my work seemed absurd and frustrating beyond any kind of acceptability. I still sort of think it is, but when I get a rejection like the one I got this morning, I start to wish that such magazines were just a little bit less efficient. I really thought the story was right for the market, and I also thought the story was nearly as good as it could be, and in less than a week, I was proved totally wrong.

I used to yearn for such quick response times, because then I could send the story out somewhere else and start the cycle of hope all over again. Now I wish my hope had hung out on the line for a few months, had been given the time to mellow and relax its grip on me. More time to discover other markets that might like the story, so I didn't hang it all on this one mag.

Perhaps this is crazy. Perhaps I'll feel differently the next time I spend 256 days waiting to hear the fate of a story. Perhaps I just want to complain no matter what editors do, unless it's an acceptance.

I wrote a couple thousand words the other day, and edited them last night. Not shabby.

I read Storm Front, the first Harry Dresden book, this weekend. Also not shabby. The thing I found most wonderful about it (aside from Butcher's subtlety in building backstory and world) was its emotional vulnerability. That's pretty damned rare for a male author, and it took my breath away at various points in the book. I wanted to clap Butcher on the back and say, thank you, this is what more men need to do in writing and in life. Way to forge a trail. Reading it did feel like watching Friends after watching Ingmar Bergman, though, since I started it only a day after finishing The Chronology of Water. Friends has its own merits, obviously, but after such Art it would seem farcical and made of tin and felt, like a puppet show.

Chronology is a book that has absolutely changed my life. In a week. I am waiting to write much about it until I read it again, which I hope to do next week. I want to read it every week. I want to write it on my skin, to chop it into dust and breathe it into my lungs. It feels like the only real book I've read since I was a little girl (aside from books that just broke my heart, like Feed); the word "book" seems inadequate to describe it.

The things that have moved and shaken due to this book are largely too personal for me to want to get into on this blog. My family has access to this blog. And I'm still processing. I just wrote about 600 words related to something that happened a couple of days ago, for instance, that was triggered by Chronology, and then deleted them. It seemed like too big a point to make in a blog post that opened up with me complaining about rejection, and liable to cause reader recoil.

At times like this I really miss my anonymous blog, where I allowed all things to flap out unfettered and waited for people to write in and say YES this is exactly what I always think about thank you or NO you are a crazy wrong person and no one likes you. Writing for an audience who knows me in real life, especially for an unknown population of acquaintances, is a heck of a lot harder. I keep unearthing more and more things I want to say here, but fail to say from fear of offense or dislike of IRL-me.

Sidebar: For what it's worth, I think this is a different if related issue to the anonymous-happy-face-blog problem that I read about a few months ago. Apparently a lot of writers don't give opinions or put a personal touch on their blogs, hoping to win the biggest possible audience by being friendly and generic. This is not how you capture readers, as Jenny Lawson will likely tell you. You be yourself and you draw people in who like the quirks of that self.

I am 90% sure that my actual parents don't read this blog, but I don't really know. And there are lots of other parentlike loving adults who are part of my audience. So I'm a bit reticent to give my opinion on things like S&M, which was tied up with the 600 words I deleted. Ha. Tied up. It's not that I think at a certain age you automatically become a parentbot with no other function and are unable to think and read about squicky issues without shutting down, but when you're on this side of it you wonder how squicky issues are taken by the parentbot, and whether the parentbot wishes you would please just be the PG and PC version of yourself for its own comfort. I wonder how people like Yuknavitch do this. I don't really care about opening up to the masses, what I think and what I feel and what I've experienced, but when I think about such exposure to people who know me mostly from family gatherings or from high school, I don't really know what to do. The brave thing is probably to open up and let chips fall, etc., but this is a blog with all of a dozen followers, not a professionally edited book published by a national press.

It's a tough spot. And thank you, dozen followers, I'm so glad you're here.

Yanno, I think I can actually tie this back up with where I started: rejection. That's a sort of kissing cousin to what I'm worried about. I know that people are less normal and more open-minded than you'd think, that the things they love are weirder and more unique than you'd think, and that actual rejection by loved ones is much harder to come by than I grew up thinking it was. But I'm always afraid that something's going to come out of my mouth that's going to make people think of me differently than they did, irrevocably, and that change is going to be bad.

I'm going to open this up to the floor. What do you think? If you keep a non-anonymous personal blog, do you worry about this? If you're lurking, come out, come out, and tell me what's on your mind.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

When I Get a Little Money

The total weight for our move was about 6,000 pounds. That was the amount of stuff we had to move from Maryland to California. I would guess about 1,200 pounds of that, conservatively, was books. And we got rid of about a third of our books before the move. 

We put the vast majority of these books into storage, because there wasn't going to be room for all of our bookshelves, much less all the books we had which were now homeless due to leaving built-in bookshelves in our old house. We only brought three small shelves to the apartment. Two of them are pretty full, but the third is half-empty. 

That is, it was half-empty. In the last week or so, the following books have come through our door (just for me; Matt's books are a much smaller pile): 

moar booooooks

Okay, so the bottom half of those are library books. And a couple of them of them were bought because the titles made me laugh. BUT STILL. I am ridiculous, with the books. Honestly just absurd. And on Monday I'm going to add a few more still to my library, dammit. And I have a list of authors I have to look into at the library in the near future. 

Have I talked about my despair that I can't read all the books in the world? Oh, wait, I guess I have

Thursday, July 26, 2012

In Which I Stumble Around

All right, motivation gland, you wacky trickster, I'm listening. Today is not the day for work, you say. I mean, obviously. Since it's one-fucking-thirty in the afternoon and I have done ZERO paid work. Since all I can think about is big swirly questions, and since last night's mood happened, and since I've written e-mails to both the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the author of the last book I finished. And also gotten splatters of cherry juice all over the unfinished wood surface of my desk and honestly don't know how to clean unfinished wood. It's been a chaotic day, sitting here staring at my computer for the last six hours.

I went to Der Rosenkavalier last night, the last of the summer encores from the Met. I stayed through the first act and most of the second and then gave up and went home. This opera did almost nothing for me, especially compared to the last one I went to, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, which shook me and delighted me and made me think slightly differently about art than I had the day before. Rosenkavalier felt like pop fluff, felt like Strauss wanted to write a sitcom to put talented singers into it to show their stuff, where Hoffmann felt like it was an entire, whole piece of art even without standing back to admire what the singers brought to it.

On the way out of the theater, driving home, walking from the parking lot to my apartment, I had this awful paranoiac anxious feeling, like the shadows were full of thieves and blackguards out to do me harm. Generally I find the world to be a positive place, and the number of people who want to commit crimes against other people seems quite small, but last night I felt vulnerable and unsafe. I don't know why.

Although I think it has something to do with my intake. I am very, very tired of reading fierce and eager words about guns and violence and presidential candidates and war and cancer and starvation and poverty. I know that putting my head in the sand doesn't make any of this go away, but I don't want to consume it anymore. I read something the other day that I don't remember clearly enough now to make a point about it, but it was something about the mad-eyed perspective that heavy TV watchers have (heavy = 6+ hours per day, I remember that detail), how they're more anxious than most about what goes on in the world. I was thinking about it in the shower, and I think it's the constant motion on TV that can drive you mad, the advertisements and the scrolling headlines and the pop-up coming up nexts and the credits of one show boxed below the cold open of the next. When I compared that to sitting quietly in a 19th-century home, an inadequate fire, a poor candle by which to read, uncomfortable ten-year-old clothes, I felt numb and sad and unsurprised about all that's happened in the last twenty years.

I might take a week or so off of Facebook. Just to sit alone and percolate in what I've already acquired, instead of searching for new! new! new!. I just hate missing things. Some of my friends, and some of my "friends", are so clever, and have access to such fascinating and unique stuff. If I miss it, it could be lost, and it could be a thing that improves my life. I nearly didn't go to Les Contes d'Hoffmann, either, and it's already enriched my life despite the short time between when I consumed it and now. But one of the things I reread on my bookmark day earlier in the week was this, which I read many months ago and still has more to tell me every time I read it. Surprising for a silly CNN article with uniformly evil comments on it.

This week I finished reading Clockwork Heart, by Dru Pagliassotti, and I'm going to recommend it to anyone who has the time for a lovely steampunk adventure. I enjoyed it more than I've enjoyed the last several books I read, for sure, and this morning I wrote the author and told her so. Right now I'm reading a memoir, The Chronology of Water, and it's probably part of why my mood is chaotic and thoughtful, as it's profound and frightening and beautiful. It's got an astoundingly clear-eyed and confident perspective on being female, further evidenced by the remarkable article the author wrote about the boob on the cover.

I could write on about that, about the cover and the concept of Body and the trouble with overanalysis and the lesson from Last Tango in Paris that I've taken with me everywhere I go in life, but I think I better make this day worth something and get to my manuscript. I've read a lot this morning, and it's all reminded me that I have my own things to say, more than just a ramble on a blog.

Monday, July 23, 2012

In a Relative Way

I have whiled away the whole evening at nothing.

There exist copious notes, vocal and typed and scribbled and mental, which I've taken over the last, oh, year, for a personal essay about time that I may never write. There's a lot I want to get across in this essay - how fucked up my conception of time, on a minute-by-minute basis, can be; the best advice I was ever given about how to conduct my life, related to time; how time felt when I was a child, and how it does now, and how I desperately hope it will not feel in the future; what it means to me that I wrote an entire book that deals with time in a fantasy context and I still don't have enough insight about the subject to actually sit down and write this essay.

The best personal essays I've read have been ambitious in scope, have related various life-topics across each other to make a Fibonacci-ed whole that's devastating and beautiful. "The Love of My Life" is the best example of this I know, but when I tried to write an essay like it about smoking, I think I failed. I put everything I had into it. I told all my closest, hardest stories, all the things that make me suffer when I think of them. (In the process, I may have discovered that that's how you have to write anything worth writing.) When I reread it every now and then to try and revise, it feels hasty, the linkages not fully formed. But I don't really know how to fix it, because it contains all I have.

This time essay is the same way. I don't know where to start. I want to put everything in it, but I don't know how to make it cohesive and complex and lovely, instead of a stammering confession.

When I have an afternoon and evening like this - concocting homemade pickles, which will be ready to eat in one short week; creating a healthy dinner, which was devoured happily; hours of fiddling on the internet, looking at old bookmarks and either deleting them in bewilderment as to why I'd marked them in the first place, fulfilling them (that musical artist I bookmarked to listen to eventually, the $10 item I'd get around to ordering one day), or rereading them and retaining them with pleasure; just screwing around - I look at the clock and I wonder whether this was the right thing to do or not.

There are a few things to show for it. The pickles, for one. The added music and the smaller list of bookmarks. The experience of offering to myself unstructured time, which is just not something you get a lot of as an un-trust-funded adult in 2012.

You want to hear the best advice I ever got about how to conduct my life? About five years ago, I was trying to make up my mind whether to start a professional certificate program in the winter term of the coming year, or whether I should wait a semester or even two, and start when I felt more ready to commit the time and finances. I knew I was going to load up on courses as much as possible to get through the program quickly, and that my time wouldn't really be mine for about 18 months. I dreaded this. I was lamenting it. My mom told me pragmatically that come what may, the next six months were going to pass anyway. I could choose to use that time more thoroughly, adding more responsibilities to my life, or I could not. But the time was going to pass regardless of what I did.

This was profound. I'd never thought of it this way.

I signed up for the program for that winter, and I got in and out of there in the 18 months that followed, instead of putting it off another six just because I wasn't looking forward to it (which was the real reason I wanted to delay).

And you know what? That time passed. It was over in 18 months. It was miserable, but now it's been three years since I finished, and that 18 months seems like just a smear of time.

This evening was going to pass regardless of what I chose to do with it. I could have spent the time revising my lit story and maybe going back to work on the KUFC novel, or I could have screwed around all evening. I picked screwing around (semi-unintentionally), and what I have to show for it is not creative effort, but other things. The next month is also going to pass no matter what I choose to do. Whether I write fiction every night, or spend too much time on Facebook, or drink too much, or go to bed early and sleep a few extra hours, or bake bread, or watch Prince of Space for the 18th time. It's all going somewhere.

I think the lesson I could have gotten out of this was to choose what I do with my time very wisely, to make sure every hour is filled productively, but that isn't it at all. Instead I have a feeling of a larger arc of time, of the months and years adding to something. Whatever I invest in, it'll be over with sooner than I think. So maybe there's some hay to be made there, if that's my choice. Or pickles, even, or homemade ginger cream scones. Which are excellent with a nice cup of tea around 3:30, just about the time I take a half hour to myself before going on to the next thing on my list.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Results of Rewriting and Also Reading

Yesterday I finished with work earlier than I have in...well, I don't remember how long it's been since I finished work before 6:00. Days? Weeks? I don't know. But I decided to seize the opportunity to approach a couple of stories afresh: the crazyass robot story and an older literary one.

I got interesting feedback from three different sources on the robot story: one person who indicated that it was largely worthless, a second person who said that she loved it but that I hadn't been clear enough about various things, and a third person who raved beautifully over it. This last person fully understood the intricate things I was trying to do stylistically and still gave me useful feedback about how I could make it better, becoming the first person ever to do this for my work. Seriously: I felt like I'd been minding my own business walking down a dusty road and managed to knock my walking-stick right into a boulder-sized diamond. He's thousands of miles away and happily married, but I still wanted to fling my arms around him and give him a big sloppy kiss.

Using feedback from all three sources, I rewrote a few key sections of the robot story and generally tightened it elsewhere. Final word count on it is 8,200 words, which means I added a couple hundred in these last edits, but I think it was for the better. Looking at that figure, 8,200, makes me groan. That's an awful lot more words than I really like a short story to be. 35 pages in double-spaced Courier. But when I first got going on this story, I decided that its length was going to be as many words as it took to tell the story, and that was that. This particular story just demanded that, to me, and I've hung tough on it, despite the screamy little voices in my head that say I'll never sell a story this long and any good story should be told in as few words as possible and bleh bl-bleh bl-bleh. Sorry, no. It's 8,200 words, which was as many as I needed to tell the story. So there. I sent it to a market that I hope will want it. Their other material makes me think it might be up their alley.

The older literary story, about a hesitantly gay college guy who suffers a bad trauma, was structured with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a reader told me that I should ditch everything except the middle. She said she knew she was arguing about just three pages, or so, and that it really wasn't so demanding on the reader to read that stuff, and that it fleshed out the characters a bit better. But, she said, the Double Stuf was so compelling that I needed to just edit out the cookies. I reread the story for the first time in a couple of months last night, and even though it seems illogical to the way stories are generally structured to cut out the beginning and the end, she was right. She was flat-out right. So I reworked the beginning radically, I think for the better, and did a medium-bad patch job on the end before I ran out of creative gas and quit for the night.

I've recently finished a couple of books that I didn't really enjoy, but which were very useful. I read a superhero novel that had good things in it, but was often frustrating, because it felt a lot like a YA novel in style and was often un-YA in substance. It also had troublesome gender issues, which has really been a problem for me in reading material lately. That one was good to read for this-is-acceptable-quality-in-publishing standards. I also read a zombie novel that was a weird downhill slope in holding my attention - the first 50 pages were nearly annoying in how generic and unrealistic they were (my brain is still calling bullshit on something that happened on about page 25), but it got real good real fast about 2/3 of the way through, to the point where I stayed up late to finish. I met the person who edited this book at PPWC, and he tried to explain that his publishing house was really into pop culture genre books, and I didn't really get what this meant until I read this book. Now that I've spent several hours of my life on a book I didn't much like, of course, I totally get it. It's an awesome focus to have. And I seriously doubt I will ever have a home at that particular house. Oh well; about half of the book was lots of fun to read, and the writer got one giant LOL out of me courtesy of a perfectly timed Starship Troopers reference.

Right now I'm reading How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which isn't wishy-washy eh kind of I guess I'll be glad I read it. I don't like this book. I'm 40 pages in and nothing is happening. I see that he's trying to bring sci-fi elements to literary fiction, but he's got the worst excesses of lit-fic along for the ride, and instead of seeing it as a delightful hat-tip, it's just pissing me off that he's appropriating Doctor Who for his own ends. My policy for whether I'll finish a book depends on the book, but for this one I've decided I'll read a hundred pages or so before I give up. Every few sentences the writer has a beautiful turn of phrase, which is nice, and a much better ratio than I've been batting with what I've been reading lately, but it's not enough.

All that is soon to change, however. On the basis of a breathtaking story I read in the steampunk anthology, I paid thirty dollars for a goddamned Wizards of the Coast book that's out of print. The writer is Samantha Henderson, and her story "Cinderella Suicide" utterly captivated me, even if I barely understood it for the first couple of pages. THIS, folks, is what I want to do, the thing that Samantha Henderson has done. Spectacular sentences, dancing around in genre without being of genre, breaking numerous rules and being better for it. She restored my faith in what I write with that story, and I don't think I could have gone on and started the KUFC book without her.

Anyway, I ordered her book Heaven's Bones, and after a couple of library books, it's next on the list. I hope it's just as beautiful as her other stuff I've read. Here's one of her stories, published earlier this year in Strange Horizons.

Aaaand I think that's about enough rambling.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This Is Not a Unicorn

There are several excellent reasons why I didn't update more recently:

  • Health
  • Las Vegas
  • Work, unfortunately
  • Staring at empty blog post window with finger in nose and drool tailing down chin

But the big one is that I haven't written anything, so I can't follow up on my previous post to let you know if I'm still a wishy-washy idiot or not. Maybe that will come in a few days, but for the moment, I'll just talk about another one of the images on my little pinboard next to my desk.

This is R.A. Salvatore standing next to a statue of Drizzt Do'Urden and his companion Astral Plane panther, Guenhwyvar. The statue was created for GenCon some years ago, I think, although I don't know what its fate has been. I happened upon this picture shortly after finishing Homeland, to date the only Salvatore book I've read, and I stared at it on my screen for minutes on end, fascinated.

See, Drizzt isn't real. Salvatore made him up. Invented him from nothing. Conjured him from the ether. He's fictional. And yet there he is, plain as day, with his scimitars and white hair and magical panther, a real, life-size statue of a not-real drow created by the person standing next to the statue.

So, put yourself in Salvatore's shoes. Can you imagine how goddamned cool it would be to stand next to the statue of a character that you invented?! Yes, interrobang, because it's so cool that it blows my tiny mind how cool it would be.

This is a goal picture. I look at it and get all grinding-jealous and then inspired-jealous and then just inspired. Because I want to make a character who's that enduring, that interesting, that people want to create a statue out of her. Maybe I'll have the humility to just smile when there's a picture of me taken next to her, but I think I'll be pointing with my jaw dropped, kind of like that college student who met the President.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Painting Within a Tended Field

It frustrates me how easily I give myself over to Yes This Is The Answer. When I find a solution for something, even if there's no chance it's sustainable, I tend to be all I AM THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE I FOUND THE ANSWER HUZZAH!!, and then I feel very foolish when whatever it is falls apart upon use in the long term.

Lemme splain.

Remember how I talked about hating to outline? All that still holds true. But there's a lot to keep track of in the KUFC book, a sort of A plot/B plot construction (global plot, personal plot) and some other people's plots that have their own arcs even while our heroine is blissfully ignorant of them. Plus the unfamiliar universe, plus a number of odd characters, plus a backstory, plus being certain that I'm self-styling instead of just plunking the prose on a sentence-by-sentence basis. (Sidebar: the Greenland novel was even more complicated than this, and I think if I'd had an outline, it wouldn't have turned out such a damn mess. For revision, if I ever fucking revise that book, I plan to create an outline and edit it, and then edit the book.) So but for this book I thought I'd do what I usually do and make copious notes in a pretty journal to the side of my desk. That wasn't enough, it turned out, because after I'd written my prologue, after writing pages of notes about the universe, and even after a few hundred words of Chapter One, I still didn't know what happened next.

So I wrote Chapter One on a new page of my notebook and scribbled what I already knew about it: I was going to open with action, with my heroine freerunning, doing what she calls her night work. I thought that was all I knew about it, but then I wrote down what I needed to establish about her, and what I thought was likely to happen to her in order to establish this stuff. Suddenly, more ideas were flowing: little details about the universe, character names and traits, something essential and very interesting about her background that reshapes things a bit. None of this amounted to what anyone would call an outline, because it was just notes and the majority of it stretched way beyond the first chapter, but it gave me a grounding for what I was going to write, which meant that I had a more structured and yet somehow more innovative first chapter when I got down to business on it.

Very stupidly, I presumed that this little bit of outlining had created momentum that would sustain me into Chapter Two. Which it did not. I wrote about a third of Two before I had to stop and go back to the notebook, and scribble through what was going to happen next and why. Then I came up with even more ideas: ways that her personal life was tied in to some of the intrigue of the book, characters who were going to appear sooner rather than later, other characters who weren't going to show up until later and the devices that were going to drag them back into her life. Before even writing it, I fixed what would have been a major mistake: drawing the A plot into the heroine's story too soon.

Everything feels much more orderly. I don't feel restrained, as if I'm doing the prose version of this:

Wait! I know! It's a giraffe! 
But more like I'm running around in a field that has been carefully bordered and mown. Tended, sure, but not unnaturally limited. Plus, I can always jump the fence. While writing Chapter One, I shifted gears to create a character who hadn't been part of my plan, and she's going to be useful.

The work I've ended up with is so superior to what I could have written, with so many more little cables wiring itself to the rest of the book, that I feel...just...grateful, and wholly stupid for not doing this with other projects before now.

I know I'm going against the advice of absolutely every writer I've ever heard of (and surely thousands I haven't), but writing every day doesn't seem to work out for me unless I'm a) short-storying or b) barreling headlong toward the end of a project. Everyday writing on a novel makes me feel resentful of and bored by the work instead of fascinated by it. I feel like I've got all the stuff of my life in the evening (dinner, Matt, movies, relaxing) on one side of a seesaw and writing on the other, and it seems unfair that writing is always heavier. Thus far on this book I've been writing every other day (sometimes with an extra off day in between), and the work has seemed much fresher for it. Sometimes I'll sit down with my notebook on the off day, and sometimes I'll do the notebook thing before writing that evening.

(This all sounds a lot more orderly than it is; a routine has still not been established. Yesterday I spent all morning at errands and didn't get to my job until 2:30, which meant that there really was no evening, just a shower and some Skyrim-watching and bed. Today I'm dawdling in the morning and I don't know if I'll get to anything but dinner at night, although I do hope it's a writing night.)

THE POINT IS, to make this into a Solution, the idea that outlineish note-taking in my notebook is the way that I'll write from now unto death, is wildly premature. And yet I'm thinking Yeeees, This Is The Answer. This is how I outline. See? Problem solved. Now I can be a writer.

It's so exasperating to do this, because I'll trumpet and crow about whatever solution I've just come up with, be very self-satisfied, and then find that this method doesn't work at all for the next project or the next stage of life. Back in my early 20s, I thought the way I wrote was to write completely nonstop for a few weeks, eating, sleeping, breathing the work, and then at the end of it I'd have a novella. That notion was born partially of being in my early 20s and having fewer other responsibilities, and partially of the creative machine being a very different thing then than it is now. A few years ago, it was trudge and slog and write through the pain, and I thought that was effective. (That might have been delusion rather than changing circumstances.) Now it's this notebook/every other day thing. And I'm sure in a few years it'll change again.

It's just like my job-hopping. It gets embarrassing telling your family members at Thanksgiving that you have a different job than you had last Christmas. Again. And telling them that no, you still haven't had any more stories published. Yes, you've changed your method of writing for the 18th time, but you're sure this time you're really on the trolley and nothing will ever change again, so when you're asked about it next year, you'll be able to say yep, that's still the way I do it, I'm confident and secure and totally not a wishy-washy idiot.

Um. Got a little sidetracked there. But I stand by it: I do feel like a wishy-washy idiot sharing these methods and then being like no, I had to tear down that building and build another one four inches away from the first one. It cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in the currency of personal pride, but it'll definitely be worth it. After all, I've written seven thousand whole words now! Totally worth it.

In unrelated news, I thought we had black-chinned hummingbirds, and then I thought they were Anna's hummingbirds, and now I seriously don't know. Half the hummingbirds native to this area seem to have greenish backs and red throats and dark heads, as these do. Whatever; they're full of pep, and I love watching them. When I'm actually on the patio, in my reading chair, I can hear them going ttttthhhhhhhhrrrrrrrRRRR as they zip by.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Closer I Am

My KUFC manuscript is currently the length of a short story. [waves small flag with WOO! written on it, glum expression on face] I think I'm doing good things. I think it's going to be something I can be proud of. I think. It's just going so goddamn slow, and hard. I desperately want to share pieces of it with others, but I know that's a very stupid thing to do until I have a full MS. Which could take forever, at this pace.

But today I want to talk about something else.

There's been a slow dawning in me over the past, uh, mumble (because it just takes embarrassingly long for me to get a clue), brought finally to a head by this article and this article. This slo-mo epiphany has finally peaked at the point where I have convictions about my lifestyle that I can support and defend.

The first article is a thoroughly pleasant and fun read, and posits a philosophy that I couldn't believe in more strongly if it was a religion.
On the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. 
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.
The second article is a little more difficult to read. It's Harper's all the way - kinda over-intellectual and snooty and unenticing, and written so that reading it in Bette Davis's voice would enhance it. But I urge you to read it, read the whole thing. There are wonderful thoughts within.
Sometimes, I want to say, money costs too much. And at the beginning of the millennium, in this country, the cost of money is well on the way to bankrupting us. We’re impoverishing ourselves, our families, our communities – and yet we can’t stop our­selves. Worse, we don’t want to.
It is this willingness to hand over our lives [to work] that fascinates and appalls me. There’s such a lovely perversity to it; it’s so wonderfully counterintuitive, so very Christian: You must empty your pockets, turn them inside out, and spill out your wife and your son, the pets you hardly knew, and the days you sim­ply missed altogether watching the sunlight fade on the bricks across the way. You must hand over the rainy afternoons, the light on the grass, the moments of play and of simply being. You must give it up, all of it, and by your example teach your children to do the same, and then – because even this is not enough – you must train yourself to believe that this outsourcing of your life is both natural and good. But even so, your soul will not be saved.
Toward the end of his essay, the author turns to reflect upon George W. Bush in a way that strikes me, eight years after its publication, as...immature? Inconsiderate? Overly ranty? I'm not really sure, but even though I didn't much disagree with his points about Bush, it soured the piece. So, fair warning. So much intense yesyesyes comes before that whole Bush section that I still recommend the piece wholeheartedly.

Anyhow. I realized the other day that the worst thing that could happen if I worked a little less, and took a little more time for reading and movies and sitting outside on my patio to watch the hummingbirds, was that I wouldn't pay off my credit card debt particularly fast. That's it. That's the catastrophe. We are living pretty well within our means at this point, so although more money would be nice, I've discovered -

I am not trading money for time anymore.

Time is more precious. A lot of people would agree with that automatically without thinking about what it may mean in their lives. There are lots of people who can't afford to make the choice between the two, of course - minimum wagers, single mothers, etc etc. But there's a big ol' swath of the population who probably have the means to choose: who could work one less day a week, or drop back to half hours, or even get a different job. But they don't. Money matters more. Partly because they've been convinced by this culture, on a daily basis, that it does.

I'm not going to get all evangelical about this and claim that everyone must agree the life of a loafer is a superior life, that it should be our ultimate goal as a society. There are all sorts of people who are suited to all sorts of lives. The thing I'm trying to say is that the sort of life which I prefer, and the sort of life to which I'm suited, is a slower-paced and less work-focused life. Not a life you can live in America without askance judgement and the pervasive feeling that You're Doing It Wrong.

But I'm doing it right. I'm doing it right for me. It is so hard to come to this conclusion! It's been serious effort, through inadequacy and despair and all manner of therapy-needing emotions, to figure out that a life with enough space for idleness is not only a choice that it's possible to make, but that I can be healthier and happier than I could ever have imagined if I have the guts to go on and live that way. Guts which I've finally accessed.

Hence, I'm not gunning for a better job (except as a novelist). I'm not longing for more security. I'm even content with our smallish apartment in an unglamorous neighborhood. Because around 2:00, I'm finished with my work for the day. For the rest of the hours before dinner, I write paragraph after paragraph of fiction that I love and believe in. Or I take a walk and feel the sun. Or I just fiddle on the internet, or watch Mary Tyler Moore. Doing some of those things every day is more important to me than virtually anything else except the people I love. And I'm not going to hide from that anymore. I'm not going to be ashamed, or consider myself freakish or disappointing.

It is okay to choose not to be busy. It's okay to walk away from the money church. I swear, nothing horrible will happen, no one will spit on you or eat your brains. Such a life may not be for you - that's something you have to learn for yourself, knowing who you are - but it's a legitimate, possible potential choice, much as it may not seem to be.

Disclaimer: If this post sounded too self-satisfied, or too WOW THIS OBVIOUS THING IS TOTALLY AMAZING, I apologize, but there are no refunds. See you in the park, or at the movies.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Background Effort

Friday night I wrote a few hundred words, and got stuck on the name of a fictional government program which I couldn't manage to invent. Matt and I went out to dinner* and I complained a lot, at first about not being able to find a rhythm when I'm still in the thick of inventing a world I don't yet know that much about. I hadn't even figured out which decade I wanted to set this in, for example, and although I don't think a lot of detail like that is going to be mentioned specifically by characters or narrator, I still need to know it. I didn't know whether I should try to outline beforehand and then write, or whether I should write with big gaps and then go back to rewrite later, or whether to write a few sentences, stop what I was doing to make world-building notes, and then try to get back in the feel of what I was writing.

None of these seemed like a very good idea to me. I loathe outlining. In the past, it's stifled and stymied me, and it always feels like wasted work. Stuff that's going to be thrown out later. But writing with gaps sounded like I'd wind up with an incoherent voice and muddled themes, and writing in herks and jerks sounded like a terrible experience likely resulting in poor work. Between them, outlining and note-taking first seemed like the best answer. But OH I did not want to.

Matt, who has a paying creative job, told me (in the kindest, gentlest terms) that I needed to be more realistic about the problem of doing work that was going to be thrown out. He said that in his job, probably 75% of what he comes up with - beyond spitballing; like stuff that he works on for days or weeks, and fully creates, and is usable - is thrown away and never used. Ow, I thought. He insisted that what was remade instead was better work, and the previous work being lost was something he got used to over time.

Other friends have tried to tell me that outlining, and previous drafts, and pages of notes that end up not fitting in to your work, are not wasted. My friend Dave, a visual artist, told me that it took him a long time to iron out how he felt about doing practice drawings. He said he had to "learn how to be OK with things that weren't great", a phrase that really resonated with me. Instead of seeing gesture drawings as earlier versions of something better and more complete, he began to see them as self-contained things.

I remember being in a writing course at a community college some years ago where we were assigned to write a little self-contained scene. There were instructions for the scene that I can't remember now, but I hazily suspect that the purpose of the exercise was partly for our practice, but mostly for the instructor to get an idea of our abilities. I wrote a scene about a woman in a convertible that was falling off a cliff. I still remember a detail I wrote about the song she had in her head. I did something between tossing off and doing my best on that scene, seeing it as an assignment for which I had to meet expectations, but not as something I'd ever integrate into other work. It didn't have to be a sonnet, but it did have to have some rhyme and meter, so I wrote appropriately.

It wouldn't harm me if that scene got snapped up by the black hole of the universe and I never saw it again, and it doesn't bother me that I spent an hour or so on it. It served its purpose.

I'll endeavor to see outlining and notes the same way. I just feel so inadequate and silly when I look back at notes that I made prior to the last finished project and see that I forgot the spirit of half of them and didn't use most of the rest to inform the project. It feels wasted. But it's not, it's just background effort that gets my head in the right place to set forward the best and most integrated effort I have.

My resistance reminds me a lot of my pack-rat instincts. Nothing can be lost! No creation can ever be discarded or forgotten. It all has worth and value. I think part of what Dave was trying to tell me was that the worth and value is in his sketches' very discardability, that he can practice with them and then throw them away, and the intangible benefit of having done the work (and also having been able to let the work GO) is what he gains, not the tangible benefit of the drawing's existence.

In any case, last night I did some outlining that led to some freewriting that led to some amazingly awesome ideas for this book. Ideas which I doubt I would have come up with if I'd kept floundering along in Chapter 1. So I have a little egg on my face there. Maybe I'll alternate nights with writing and note-taking. (The idea of actual outlining, with the high-school format of I. A. 1. a. etc., makes me shudder, so I'm planning to just kind of...freewrite a lot.)

By the way, Matt recommended that I look at Jim Butcher's blog for suggestions about how to put a book together. I've just skimmed it so far, but Matt's right - there's a wealth of information on that blog. It's here. Some of what Butcher talks about is stuff that I tend to feel my way through - either like a natural or like a moron, depending on your point of view - but if you feel helpless before the maw of Story Cthulhu, it sure looks like a life raft to me.

And Finally, I made a small pinboard over the weekend of inspiring images to put next to my computer, and it makes me very happy to look at the collage of it. I hope to make it a rotating series of pictures, rather than the same ones all the time the way my previous near-desk collages have been. If I leave them up forever, the pictures lose their power. I thought it might be fun to put one of those images into my blog every now and then and say a bit about it.

This is Marlene Dietrich, whom I think may have had the best legs in the history of legs. (She's photographed here by Milton Greene, who also took some of the most famous pictures of Marilyn Monroe.) The vague texture of the background next to the sharp texture of her hair, and the movement in her left hand as she pulls up her stocking, are only a few reasons why I love this picture: I also love the little wavepoint in her shoe, and the fact that you don't see her face but you know that this is a woman of world-changing charisma. And the unbelievable length and lines and curves of her gams. She's never been one of my favorite stars, but this is definitely one of my favorite pictures.

*In fact, we went to Black Angus. I'd never seen a Black Angus on the East Coast, and knew it only from a scene in The Simpsons wherein Bart mercilessly insults the joint, leading Matt and me both to a) hear that scene in our heads every time we drove by, and b) wonder what the food would be like there. I was a bit gleeful to have the opportunity, but disappointed to find it was neither particularly bad nor particularly good. Decent Sysco food.