Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sing, O Muse

During the wonderful 24 hours that I spent in San Francisco, Kathleen and I talked a lot about writing and a bit about writing our passions.* Knowing that I really love opera, she asked me why I didn't write a story about that, or at least a story that integrated it. I said I didn't even really like talking about opera to my acquaintances, because I have met almost no one in my generation who's interested in opera (aside from actual opera singers, I know a couple of those for reasons too long to go into), and it's an interest that people generally roll their eyes about as weird and snooty and difficult to enjoy. Or at least this is how I see it. Kathleen told me that this did not matter, and encouraged me to write about what I loved, because that's how writers do great work.

*I know I didn't reproduce this set of interactions correctly, so I apologize to Kathleen for my shitty memory. Instead of being confusing and losing my point, I just filled in the blanks with fiction that makes the anecdote cohere.

I was reminded of some unexpected feedback I got on my old SF novella The Apocalypse Experiment. I included a scene wherein Maria, one of the main characters, talks about why she learned to knit. The novella takes place about 150 years from now and knitting has fallen even further out of common knowledge than now, and it's a world where there's no place for handmade crafts. It's partially for this reason, Maria explains, and partially for the exact same reasons that I learned to knit (which she also explains), that she took the time to learn.

I thought this scene was lame and awkward and I was ashamed of it as a seemingly obvious explanation of my own feelings about knitting. I left it in anyway because I felt it communicated something important about Maria and also about the world she lived in. Somebody told me, upon reading it, that he thought this was one of the best scenes in the novella. It was warm and affectionate, he said, and made Maria and her emotions come to life.

Shut the front door, was my reaction, but I thanked him politely and continued to despair about finding any kind of a market for a 23,000-word science fiction novella with dubious science and a very unhappy ending. This was also one of the first bits of evidence in an ever-growing pile that says I really don't know what parts of my writing are good and effective and which parts aren't.

ANYWAY, I had this idea a while back for a SF short story that mostly concerned the human voice and a significant change in its configuration. It occurred to me after the San Fran trip that I could integrate opera into my concept for this story, and that it would be richer with my [paltry] knowledge of and [significant] passion for the form. I drew up a concept and a general arc and sat down last night with my new Moleskine to draft it.

I don't know how many words I wrote, because I wasn't working on a computer, and I'm not finished so I haven't transcribed it yet. But I've set down several pages (on that narrow Moleskine rule - I counted: 45 lines per page) so far. It is mostly rude clay, with a lot of very inadequate work, but as I'm writing through it I'm learning more about the story and the MC and what I want to say, so I think in the end I'll be able to shape it and clear away the rubbish and have an actual elephant story. The opera addition was a good idea, adding a center to the story, and I will be glad to be able to write about this thing I love. Thanks, Kathleen.

Objectively, it's odd to me that longhand feels freer than typing into Word does. Because I type pretty quickly, it takes me a much much MUCH shorter time to draft things on the computer than it does to write them with pen and paper. Also, I am able to edit while drafting, often meaning that cringeworthy sentences are not recorded for all time, a big plus. Since I'm all obsessed with not wanting to write things over and over again, and with wanting to get it right with as few drafts as possible, you'd think that keyboarding would be the way I'd find greater creative freedom.

But no. It just isn't. Writing longhand is messier, in a good way, like a messy living room that indicates real human occupancy. It's easier for me to make notes that make sense to only me, and it feels realer, like I'm working instead of cheating on work. And I have the time to think before I set the next word down, think about how the sentence goes. (Er, sometimes.) And there's something about it that feels romantic. I don't know how else to express that, and it's foolish and has nothing to do with real writer-work, but I won't deny it.

Granted, there's been a real loosening in my work over the last six months in terms of how I feel about rewriting and tossing out the bilgewater. I don't howl and clutch the precious first draft anymore. That probably contributes to how longhand has become an advantage. Plus there's new fearlessness. And seriousness. And glee. All of these things together, not one of them less important than the others, have come to pass for me, and I know it means that I'm doing better work.


In other news, I got a second specific story idea for this big scary project and took a couple of pages of notes on it. For various reasons I'm not really sure whether I should start it or not. The SF story has to finish up first, and after that I'll see whether I'd rather maybe go back to KUFC. It's nice to have a lot of irons in the fire, but my nature is to enjoy finishing things, so I also think of them as nagging loose ends. Oh, well.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Me and My Journal(s)

Throughout my whole childhood, well-meaning adults bought me journals as gifts. Sometimes with crappy locks, sometimes with absurd themes, generally with flowers on their puffy covers. I look back and am complimented by this pattern, as it means that adults generally thought I had something to say. At the time, though, it annoyed me, because even if I'd written a two-page diary entry every day for my whole childhood I never would have filled up all these little books. There were TONS of them, given me by all sorts of acquaintances both close and distant. And besides, most of these journals had flowers on the cover. They were so not my style. (A memorable teacher gave me a wonderful sun/moon-themed journal. What a kindness this was.) Alas, as a lass I was an intermittent diary-keeper, and I wish I hadn't been, because most of my childhood is a blank and I'd like to have recorded the real experience of it rather than my faint impressions.

In college, I got into Anaïs Nin, and subsequently into obsessive journal-keeping. I wrote and wrote and wrote about all the things that happened to me, whether significant or trivial. Later I discovered online journals (they weren't yet blogs), and kept one of those until it inevitably got political, since college-age women and thoughtful discretion don't really mix well.

I am forever chasing a journal I bought during the Nin phase: roughly 8.5x11, pebbled black cover, well-spaced lines, bright white paper. It was the simplest journal in Barnes & Noble, and I adored writing in it, because the pages laid flat very well and they were so nice and big. (Diaries that are half-sized with standard binding completely suck for actually writing in, btw. The sun/moon journal had metal rings instead, which is better but bears its own woe.) I filled it completely and next found, in blind luck, a dramatic red velvet swirled journal with much narrower lines on its paper. It, too, was around 8.5x11 and it, too, laid nicely flat when I wrote in it. It was even more satisfying to fill up a whole page in that one since there were so many more lines, but it was also more of a challenge to do so. I think I got that one in Europe. I know it was in a non-chain bookstore. Anyway, I filled it all the way up, too, but it was around the time I finished that I abandoned paper for keyboard.

I still covet journals, still walk past that tall shelf at B&N with greediness in my heart. For a short time I bought beautiful, flat-lying journals when I spotted them, regardless of whether I needed them. They began to pile up like the gifts of my childhood, so I stopped; some of those books are empty still.

I have not yet relocated the black pebbled journal I held so dear, or any like it. Every time I think I find one, I open it up and it's unlined. Sketchbook strikes again.

I've been using a medium-sized notebook with nice lines, lamely "aged" pages, and clocks on the canvas-ish cover for my notes since the spring. I've also taken to using it for writing full text when sitting at my computer isn't turning my creative crank. Having notes and outlines for half a dozen projects mixed in with full text for two other projects has gotten confusing, and not the good kind of confusing where you flip through and bask in wonder at your own marvelous creative brain. The bad kind where I don't know how to find notes on one story or another, whether they're before or after the six closely written pages of a different story.

The book's now more than half-full, so I thought maybe I'd just buy a full-sized journal for the full text writing I seem to want to do longhand, and fill up the rest of this one with notes. So I did; I went to the mall and bought a Moleskine yesterday. I'm pretty sure I heard an angelic choir when I took off the plastic. The cover is so soft I thought it might melt in the heat of my hands, and while it's a little taller and narrower than I would like, with a thinner rule, it's still the closest journal I've yet bought to the vanishing black pebbled one.

Within the Moleskine was a little brochure with, in eight languages, the most absurdly immodest history of anything I've ever read. Apparently Pablo Picasso would not have succeeded without the obvious ancestor of Moleskine, which in my universe is known as "a notebook". It was like the goddamn J. Peterman catalog. A sweater's a sweater, yo.


After spending an hour on that errand, I of course was no more ready to actually write than I was before I spent $30 on blank paper. But now I will be ready to write, that's the point. Yeah.

This brings my total of active notebooks to four. One private diary, one mini notes book, one larger notes book (clocks), one large full-text book. Which is pretty sad, and totally unnecessary in the writer-in-a-garret scenario into which I always romanticize myself. A voice echoes down the years: Finish what's on your plate before you go back for more. But there are just too many beautiful journals out there.

Ironically, my private diary has flowers on the cover. But it looks like this,

not this.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Vaunted Venn / Heart of Darkness

I'm reading Slaughterhouse-Five, and for all intents and purposes I have never read it before. I "read" it when I was a teenager but found it so confusing that I couldn't follow it and remember nothing about it. I am ashamed to admit this, but it's true. This year I find it revelatory, and I find Vonnegut a master.

My most recent brush with him was a lengthy essay by Steve Almond in which he (Almond) related witnessing a panel consisting of Joyce Carol Oates, Jennifer Weiner, and Vonnegut. Then 83, Vonnegut was essaying about the horrors of war, and Oates jumped on him by asking him to note which gender had perpetrated all this crap. Almond thought this was horribly unfair, and while I didn't think it was horribly unfair, I thought the time and place for her to make this point was maybe not then and there, and that the person she should have attacked to make this point was pretty decidedly not Kurt Vonnegut. (The essay is quite long but mostly interesting, although I warn that Almond's a pretty caustic writer and determined to defend Vonnegut to his last breath.)

There's a lot to say about Slaughterhouse-Five, most of which has been said or will be said by people smarter than me. The thing that strikes me on a page-by-page basis about this writer, though, is how much more there is to read. How much broader and deeper this piece of work is than most of what I've read this year. I talked to Matt about it last night, and applied a quote from Dana Stevens on Daniel Day-Lewis, "an actor who is to other actors as Nijinsky was to other dancers of his time: He seems to be engaging in a different art form entirely." I couldn't agree more, and I can think of other artists who fit this bill, who work and create art in a circle that's completely removed from the Venn diagrams of all other artists. 90% of what I consume is in the normal Venns, but some stuff is just...different. The films of Dreyer. The music of Bach. The throat of Callas. The writing of Wallace.

The difference is command, a grasp of the medium that clangs throughout every single moment and dizzies the consumer. Yes, I think I could be a little vaguer, maybe, but this is part of what's interesting about this quality of art. You can't really pin it down any better than with words like command and mastery and virtuoso. Like pornography, you know it when you see it.

I was looking at my bookshelf when explaining this and spotted Wicked, certainly one of my favorite books. It's a deft, brilliant, complex piece of work. But it does not demonstrate this kind of virtuosity. It's just at the very top of the heap that sits in the normal dimension of art.

Do you know what I mean?

Vonnegut demonstrates the vaunted thing in Slaughterhouse-Five. It takes my breath away. I kind of want to gulp it down in one sitting, but I'm trying to take my time to let it sink in.


In entirely non-virtuosic news, I finished the urn story yesterday morning after rewriting much of the first half Friday night. Matt read it, and despite its subject matter, he has decided to remain married to me, for which I am thankful. Indeed, he liked it. He suggested one thing that was already on my mind, and I changed that and sent it to a reader.

I mentioned offhand the other day that I was drawn to writing dark material because that's the way I am, and I've been mulling that over ever since. Bad things happen to people in my stories, and I don't foresee that changing as I continue to write. There's so much weird stuff out there that I want to explore, so much bad truth on this planet, stranger than fiction, that I want to shove into print and put my name on.

But why? I know that conflict and drama can't occur without negative events; Paradise Found is a clunker for a reason. But when I think about the stories I've written in the last six months, I think that maybe I'm overdoing it a little bit on the negative, and as I'm generally much in love with life, I don't really get why. Why am I fascinated by serial killers? Why don't I like watching comedies nearly as much as dramas? Why do I love horror? These are questions I genuinely can't answer about myself in a general way - each question has a separate true answer, but together the questions add up to me being bent toward darkness, and I don't have a straight answer for why.

Maybe "because that's the way I am" is the truest answer, in the end. When I was studying the chakras a few years ago, I asked Anodea Judith in workshop if you could assign any trait or trouble to an imbalance in one chakra or another. She gave me a long and interesting answer, but somewhere in there she said that there was a distinction between chakra issues and just your own personality. Huh, I thought. Personality is a part of the picture too. My most recent therapist said more or less the same thing in passing, that there are mild psychological disorders and then there's just personality quirks.

This led me to question what the heck a personality consists of, anyway, but I think I'm getting far off the point. Another explanatory anecdote and then I'll wrap up. David Lynch is famous for his dark and surreal subject matter, but he's led a pretty happy and successful life. By all accounts he had a thoroughly normal suburban childhood in Missoula, with no sudden deaths or abuse or anything like that. Why does he make fucked-up movies? He doesn't know, and neither do I. He just does.

Drawing from our imaginations leads writers to wonderful and terrible places, of course. It's how I write the ucky stuff I write, because really I've suffered little to no trauma in my life, comparatively. I use my imaaaagination. But why I like going in the dark tangled scary forest, instead of the nice sunny Robert Frost forest, I honestly do not know.

Friday, November 23, 2012


So, Thanksgiving yesterday went like this:

1) Baked and ate frozen croissants. Yum.

2) Read Joan Didion's Blue Nights from beginning to end. If you choose to read this book, that's how I recommend reading it. It repeats itself and loops back on itself to such a great extent that it might not be necessary if you're a close reader, but you won't miss a thing if you read it all at once. I read Play It as It Lays some years ago and didn't enjoy it; I felt more ambivalence about Blue Nights, but it made me think, for sure.

3) Ate small lunch.

4) Went to see Cloud Atlas before it was completely gone from the theaters. The theater we went to, in Sherman Oaks, was not the nicest I've ever patronized, but it had balcony seating, in which I have always wanted to sit for a movie. And we did. And it was a hell of a movie. It was pretty much exactly what I hoped it would be, not an iota less.

5) [redacted]

6) Heated frozen turkey/stuffing/mashed potatoes. Ate. Drank weird orange/almond champagne and got happily tipsy.

7) Watched Starship Troopers for no particular reason. Cloud Atlas was better, but honestly, every time I see Troopers I'm reminded that it's a surprisingly good movie. Its tone is utterly masterful, walking a difficult fine line between the characters taking themselves seriously and the audience enjoying the movie unseriously.

And then I read some more, until it was time for bed. In sum, I spent the day precisely as I wished to, and it was heaven.

On Wednesday I decided to stop reading the Patrick Melrose novels after I finished the second one, Bad News. It was a chronicle of 48 hours of intense, terrifying drug abuse, and had, in my opinion, few redeeming qualities. I wanted to keep plugging until I hit Mother's Milk, the fourth, which was on the shortlist for the Booker, but I just can't. The first two books dulled my interest in reading and generally harshed my buzz, so I'm done for now. I might revisit them some other time.

Today I am NOT going out. I hate Black Friday. I have friends who love it, and yay for you guys, but I think it's harmful and absurd and I'm going to cower in my apartment and read instead. Peace out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Just Eat the Dang Chocolate

Phew, that's over. The secret project is completed, and I am so happy to be able to stop worrying about it until the spring.

I went back and read the urn story on Monday. The first half isn't working, but the second half really, really is. I think the contrast is between a half where the narrating character interacts with another person, and a half where the narrating character is mostly inside her head. I put in the bit with the other character because the rules of writing told me I sort of had to, couldn't write a story that was all internal, but it so clearly isn't working that I'm wondering if I'm supposed to just stay internal for this one.

My plan is to write the beginning a few different ways and see what fits, although I haven't put my money where my mouth is in that regard just yet. I was thinking it over in my thinkin' chair and I began to wish that I had a sort of twin writer-companion. Someone 100% available whom I wouldn't feel bad about nagging on a regular basis, someone with whom I could knead out the whole stinking thing through all its drafts without guilt for taking him/her away from his/her own life. "Do you think this adjective is better than that one? What if I strayed from grammar here? Is the sardonic thing working or is it just weird?"

No one has that. I just have to do it on my own. I mean, I could audition people until I find the right one, and then kidnap her and keep her in my closet, feed her gruel until her spirit is broken and she accepts her new role as my revision slave.

It provides thoughtful commentary or else it gets the hose again.

But there are laws against that sort of thing and I suspect I'd feel even guiltier ruining her life than I do about asking my friends to read my work and get back to me when they feel like it.

Yet I seriously considered sending the draft at this stage to my miracle reader and asking him if I'm right that the first half isn't working. I've found in recent months that I am a pretty crummy judge of what qualifies as The Good Stuff in my own work. People tell me that stuff I tossed off and don't care to revisit is the stuff they remember; they tell me that a character I felt eh about moved them more than the one I am devoted to. So maybe the first half of the story is working and it's just not particularly what I like about the story.

I dunno.

The other problem is that when the urn story is finished, I'll have four literary stories that I'm sure are ready for submission, and only vague ideas of where to send them. I have two markets in mind, but my confidence is super-duper-low and my brain's playing this dumb game where I'll "ruin" the markets if I send them the work. It's the same old hoarding instinct: if I use up the market by sending it a story and I get rejected, which feels inevitable, then the possibility of that market is gone. I know intellectually that this is stupid and the only way to enjoy anything is to participate in it - i.e. eat and appreciate that delicious chocolate you were "saving" before it gets chalky and bad - but it's a very old emotional habit and hard to break.

I don't mean to gloat, but I am so happy not to be traveling during this Thanksgiving, or putting on uncomfortable shoes, or awkwardly answering questions about myself, that I could break into song. I love my adopted family very, very much, but I've never felt connected to Thanksgiving and would have been just as content to stay at home in my PJs and eat leftovers like we did when I was younger. And this year I get to. Although I did buy a frozen turkey-and-stuffing entree from Trader Joe's, and have to go out today to get gravy. That'll be fun and stress-free, I'm sure.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Now I Know the Way to San Jose

Note to self: do not ever drive to San Francisco again.

No, that's not exactly the note. More like "If you choose to drive to San Francisco, realize that it's not an interesting drive and that six hours is longer than you think." As you may know, I love long drives and car-based adventures. But the scenery wasn't especially good in this part of California (or perhaps just at this time of year; lots of yellowish hills and fog and rain) and we (Matt and I) passed numerous astonishingly smelly stockyards. Utah it was not.

Fortunately, there was a marvelous reward at the end of the drive: I got to meet Kathleen, who is nothing less than an artistic heroine of mine. In real life she seemed suspiciously like a mortal human. It may have been a glamour. But I did get to watch her draw something in real time, which was fun. We all went to Alcatraz together, ate extremely good Chinese food in Chinatown, and saw a real live San Francisco protest. (Against the Israel/Palestine conflict.) We even got the full experience of being unexpectedly rained upon and having to buy plastic tourist ponchos.

I also did some very lazy observational research for the KUFC book, because I'd kind of had San Fran in mind when I invented Ortassi, the city in which the book takes place. It was irresponsible of me to do this when I'd never been to San Francisco, but I needed a city on the west coast of America that had been a real city (tall buildings etc.) since the Victorian era, and SF is the only one I know of. Fortunately, I discovered that the architecture of San Francisco (which, OMG! Never seen so many interesting buildings from different eras all smooshed together, so cool!) fits nicely with my intentions in the book, and that it's sprawly enough to meet my needs without being too similar, which is just right.

I hadn't expected to care much about Alcatraz, but it was captivating. The Park Service has wisely allowed the buildings to decay instead of keeping them pristine and pretty. It's like visiting an old forgotten cemetery in Europe, rather than a fancy manicured one. It's a sad place, to be sure, a lost place. But it feels real, not manufactured for our amusement.

For the record, this is the fourth blogfriend I have met in person this year. I think it's just fortune, not any effort on my part, but it's terrific.

Methinks this will be an interesting week creatively. Or, at least, mehopes. I leave you with this:
More Hamlet
(by Jessica Hayworth, whose work is interesting, in an Augusten Burroughs-Francis Bacon kind of way) 

Friday, November 16, 2012

(Melo)drama in Three Acts

This morning I learned that one of Matt's uncles has passed away. He's not someone that Matt and I were close to at all, but it's still a sad surprise for us, and plain awful for some of his family. Whenever something like this happens - whenever I know that people close to me are mourning or troubled - I never know what to do with myself, publicly or privately. I had written a good portion of a silly blog post about movies and opera before I heard about the death, and when I went to work on it some more after I knew about Uncle Dave, my subject seemed trivial to the point where it would be insulting to post it.

On September 11, 2002 I was a college student, a senior. I'm not sure if anybody had really assimilated the impact of 9/11 only a year later, but I was not quite 21 and was only just learning how big and unimpressible history was compared to any one event in history. The point is, I wore all black that day, mourning, and when I went to the student union around lunchtime, I saw a woman wearing rather outlandish flowered shoes and brightly colored ribbons in her hair.

At the time, I was disgusted. I thought she was extremely disrespectful for not sticking to muted colors on that day. I had a conversation with someone about this - I can't remember who - and the someone disagreed with me. A decade later, I disagree with myself. Sort of. I still think it's a good idea to show respect for what we lost that day, but I also think that if we tamp down any signs that life goes on, if we only allow for ONE reaction and ONE appropriate mode of dress on that day or any day, we lose something important as a nation and as a species. That woman might have just been oblivious to the anniversary of 9/11 and wore what she would have worn any day, but I'm going to choose to believe she dressed brightly on purpose. She was a flower growing out of blackened rubble.

This might partially be justification for not wanting to trash a post about fucking Twilight that I worked hard to make entertaining, but I do believe every word. And I mean no disrespect when getting on with my life, even when people I love are hurting. I want to do what I can, but when I don't know what to do, I'm going to do what I always do. Freezing everything I do so as not to be perceived as a jerk seems mostly like it's just paralyzing, rather than helpful at all.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

One Day, Bloom Shall Know My Wrath

I'm not feeling so happy today - more stressed and insecure. This does not lend itself to insights about my writing life. Which is a shame, because my friend DeAnna wrote this really interesting post about literature that I'd love to respond to. But I can't be arsed. So instead of writing something new, I'm going to cannibalize an e-mail to my mother that's partially about literature, partially about why I write, and on the side explains exactly why I have such a big beef with Harold Bloom. Then I'm going to make myself a hot pastrami sandwich and listen to all the most depressing songs on the Twilight soundtracks. Happy Tuesday.

A seminal moment for me was when Stephen King was awarded a fancy commendation for his contributions to American letters. Harold Bloom came out in protest, calling King a writer of penny dreadfuls without a cell of literary merit in his entire body. This infuriated me even as it perplexed me; I realized after thinking it over that it wasn't my instinct to defend King only because I personally enjoyed his work. Because, frankly, he does write penny dreadfuls, for the most part.

The thing that bothered me was that Bloom wasn't seeing the American canon (which I realize he helped define) in the whole spectrum in which it exists, or in a bigger cultural context. He was decrying and dismissing work that was important to a very, very large population of Americans with minds and hearts, and trying instead to perpetuate novels that are Important but that only a small slice of people will ever read, enjoy, and learn from.

By the same token of this rejection of King: to say that pulp and genre novels, science fiction and fantasy, have no place in the Important pile of books is quite closed-minded, to me, and worse, it does a disservice to the melting-pot attitude that has been America's philosophy nearly from the word go (much as we kick and scream against it today). To eliminate whole categories, whole bodies of work, because they're not one person's idea of good literature is to miss the point of what makes America the society it is. Some people only read romance novels. Are romance novels to be kicked aside as unimportant because they're not "good literature", even though they comprise something like 30% of the money in the book market? I'm not saying they have to be read in college courses, but to insist that they are not a part of American letters is just foolish. They may not be a part of the canon, and they may not individually be Important (or even good, or worth reading), but I consider them a part of the spectrum that should not, not, not be tossed aside.

Plus, there's the problem that yesterday's penny dreadfuls are tomorrow's great literature. Dickens. Poe. Raymond Chandler. Even Shakespeare, if I'm not too mistaken. Wake up, Bloom.

So, aside from making me a permanent archenemy of Harold Bloom's, this moment showed me that I want to write (mostly) on the border between genre fiction and lit-fic. Because genre fiction always needs better writers (especially lady ones), and because lit critics badly need their minds opened as to what "American letters" means. I want to contribute to that open-mindedness by writing damn good fiction that's literary and genreiffic, just like Atwood and Vonnegut and Brockmeier and a ton of others.

Maybe that means it'll take me until I'm nearly 70 to be acknowledged as a good writer. But if I end up making as much money as Stephen King has, I think I can live with it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Songs of November

What can I tell you today? It's a crazy week of entertainment. Opera last Wednesday night (L'Elisir d'Amore, splendid), opera yesterday morning (The Tempest by Thomas Adès, really really strange and interesting if not, er, enjoyable), Skyfall this morning, opera again on Wednesday (Otello), Breaking Dawn 2 on Thursday night or Friday morning, and San Francisco next weekend. EESH.

But Kat, you might say, it's not necessary for you to keep up a punishing entertainment schedule. It's not like this is your job.

No. But it is my life.

(It was terrific.) 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Katharine on Catherine

At the beginning of this week, a friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook with a comment on his disappointment in game-makers for doing shit like this:

He then linked to this ad for the video game in question:

In case I have to say it, ugh. Ugh ugh ugh.

Someone linked to a Malibu Stacy video, someone else reproduced Picard doing this in ASCII, some other people said some awesome defending-women-as-humans-with-brains stuff. Yay for enlightened men. But then someone linked to the Wikipedia page for the Japanese game Catherine. And I kind of did what Picard did:
Nooooooo Catherine is full of ridiculous sexism. Madonna/whore crap and female devouring. no no no no no.
My friend replied with
I haven't played through it yet, but to be fair, that stuff is in the dreams of the dude. It makes sense that his subconscious would have sexist ideas.
I did the computer equivalent of opening my mouth to reply with a long diatribe, and then snapping it shut again. I was going to argue that it hardly mattered whether the game put (very, very old and very, very harmful) ideas in dreams or subconsciousness or whatever, that putting them in games at all was harmful because it continued to perpetuate and spread the ugliness. Fucked-up is fucked-up and it matters very little whether the main character was dreaming or fantasizing or rehearsing a play. The ideas still burn out of the screen right into my brain as sexist.

But I took my fingers off the keys when it occurred to me exactly how hypocritical this would be. In my short story "Fucked", which was published in two print venues, my main character gets her lower abdomen sliced open (shallowly; she winds up okay) by a man who's angry because she's pregnant. A recent story I wrote from the POV of an abusive gymnastics coach begins with this paragraph of sunshine & rainbows:
She’s doing it wrong again. The little bitch. She’s not trying hard enough. She thinks because she has other talents I’m going to let her slip by without doing it right, exactly right, every time. Sneaky little bitch.
And, in fact, the depraved story I wrote last week invokes the devouring woman in a pretty literal way.

So I sat with this for a little while and wondered how I could continue to believe in the ugly fiction I write while maintaining that Catherine was misogynist and harmful. I think it is, but I couldn't figure out how to defend that position while still defending my own work.

I know very well why I write stories where such terrible things happen to women: because terrible things constantly happen to women in real life, and I believe that by bringing attention to them in literature, people will actually give some thought to these things in real life. I want to explore wounded women and unlucky women, and even villainous and clueless women. I am drawn to the dark rather than the light because that's the way I am, but I'm drawn to darkness in women because I find it more interesting, more provocative, and less explored than in men in literature. I approach darkness with the intent to empower and enrage, maybe in equal parts.

But in thinking about how I'd rebut this Facebook comment, I couldn't say for sure that in writing stories where awful things happen to women, I wasn't doing the same thing Catherine did, showcasing and encouraging bad attitudes against women by exploring them in such loving detail.* Scripting harm against fictional women probably does harm actual women in any form, and the fact that I'm a female writer trying to make a point about the unfairness and commonness of violence against women could have been beside the point. Since I couldn't defend myself while leveling criticism at Catherine, I just said nothing.

And then I asked twinkly and kamper about it when I saw them in San Diego. What am I missing? I asked. I described Catherine in a few sentences, explaining that girlfriend-Katherine wants to get married now please, I don't care if you're husband material or not, buy the cow, shackle yourself to me, NOW but otherwise is sort of personality-free, and that dalliance-Catherine is a perfect mistress, sexy and playful and devoid of distinct personality or motivation that is not first, ideally pleasure the man, and then, bring that sucka down and emasculate the stuffing out of him. I noted that the main character is sort of a well-meaning schlubby type whose life isn't going anywhere.**

twinkly and kamper explained in equal and intelligent parts that what I was missing was the approach. It sounded to them as if Catherine came from a base of unconscious misogyny, rather than a base of trying to overturn and explore misogyny (my own). And they're right. The underlying assumptions of the game are degrading and harmful to women. Such as Katherine and Catherine automatically being Madonna and whore and not having any sort of nuance to these portrayals. And the necessary underpinning that all men have nightmares about being devoured by giant, terrifying succubi with many breasts. That nightmare comes from a place of fear about women being too powerful or dominating, as an entire gender. That is not good.

I do think twice about what I write before I write it. Something I put in a recent story seemed a little bit like an instruction manual in a way that creeped me out. But it came right out of warnings my mother gave me about keeping safe when driving by myself (in brief: always check your backseat before you get in the car), so my hope is that it'll keep safe someone who's good more easily than it'll give inspiration to someone who's bad. My enduring hope is that people reading my work will say "hey...why is the other half of the population treated this way?", even if none of them burn a bra or join NOW.

None of what I write blots out the insidious workings of games like Catherine or, most unfortunately, Top Girl. What's interesting to me that sexism like you find in Catherine is more and more often being replaced with the new sexism of Top Girl or the Bic for Her pens or the awful, very-quickly-cornfielded "Science...It's a Girl Thing!" ad campaign.*** That stuff is harder to pin down, as it's not part of an old and harmful archetype, and it's not very blatant.

But it's still there. It's always there.

*Total sidebar: I don't think a male director could have gotten away with American Psycho. It, too, explores violence against women in extreme detail, and I think in failing to explain much about why Bateman chose mostly women as his victims, Harron was saying that of course he chooses women, because what other group would an American psycho choose to victimize? At least, I think that's her point. If a male director had made the movie, it might have made me a lot madder even than it did.

**Not unlike a Judd Apatow character, in fact. Golly, what a coinkydink. 

***Do watch both of those videos, when you have the chance. Five minutes altogether. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My Drive Through Coruscant

Yesterday I had a little mini-adventure: I drove to the La Jolla area of San Diego to visit the lovely bloggers kamper and twinklysparkles. They had ventured out of New England in order to enjoy a pleasant November climate - aaah, I'm just teasing.

The drive was interesting. I drove through L.A. basically from top to bottom, which for your reference I have illustrated badly in Paint:

Click to embiggen. I might have exaggerated about Los Angeles's boundary in the south; Santa Ana and Orange County probably aren't strictly L.A. But there was not one quarter-mile of pause in the sprawl during that entire red line. 

And I kept getting in traffic jam after traffic jam. It was not unexpected, but still ridiculous. I also saw a cop swerving back and forth across seven empty lanes of traffic for obscure reasons, I guess in order to slow us all down to 50 mph; I saw a sky that seriously looked like it was on fire, from orange streetlights + craaaaazy fog (that famous San Diego fog...?); and I saw a bunch of our nation's finest driving around in tanks on the vast stretch of land that surrounds Camp Pendleton (aka The Kill-Bot Factory).

Yes, I'm kidding. 100% of my parents were trained as kill-bots. 

I'm pretty sure I saw the boob-towers from The Naked Gun, too, although there was a weird structure in front of them that meant I couldn't get a good picture. One of the funny things about the drive was that it felt deeply weird to be driving south and have the ocean on my right. I'm used to the other coast.

And I saw harbor seals in La Jolla; I've never seen seals outside of a zoo before. That was cool. If you're ever in La Jolla, go to the Cave Store, pay $4, and hear the sea thundering inside a tunnel while you walk down 145 steps to a neat-o cave.

Most fun, I saw twinkly and kamper! I love meeting blog-friends, and this was as terrific as all the other meetings so far have been. They gave me some insight on gender in fiction that I plan to share in Friday's post.

I know there's something else going on in the country right now, but damned if I can think what it is.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Maybe There's an App for "Write It Anyway"

I'm starting to feel like I'm getting my groove on. The secret project is going okay, I came up with a good and sad idea in my dream last night to supplement a story I'd started tentative plotting on, and I'm on task for assembling a submission and pitch for the Monstrous project.

Also, last night I revised the ugly story. I'd been putting this off, because the revisions I knew I needed to do seemed like they would add several hundred words, and I wanted the thing to stay excessively lean and mean. I had to balance out the narrator to make him slightly less of a monster, and I had to do some explaining, which I hate doing in stories. No matter what, I always feel like I'm doing it wrong, whether at too much length or too much subtlety, or putting it in the wrong place, or using the wrong types of words, or whatever.

Amazingly, when I was done with my revisions, I'd only added 150 words. This morning I added another 100, which are also okay with me, and the thing is still plenty lean and really, really mean. I don't know if I'm actually finished with the story, but the revisions improved it a lot, which is nice.

I got three rejections in the last week. One of them indicates to me that a story needs to be retired; it's just been rejected too many times and I'm tired of screwing with it. (Yo writers: when do you decide to retire a story from trying to get it published? Is there some point, some rejection, some thing that tells you it's time?) Another one just needs me to research another market at which to try it, because I know it's worth publishing. Ugh. Don't wanna.

Speaking of don't wanna, the thing I have not done is reopened KUFC to write on it. I had hoped to do this during November - every day during November, actually - and there are a lot of piddly little reasons why I haven't. None of them are really any good, but my brain seems to have put its foot down on the matter. Hopefully there will be more on this as it develops. I really don't want a stalemate between me and this book.

I'm still pushing away at my poetry experiment (namely Kat Reads Poetry Without Giving Up In Frustration). I finished Louise Erdrich's Baptism of Desire yesterday, which sounds as if it's a cheesetastic kind of racy and naughty, but isn't, is instead majorly potent stuff. I loved it, for the most part. Then I read about half of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red and, I'm awfully sorry, I don't like it much at all. There are incredible sentences here and there but in general it's not for me.

In other news, I've started listening to an Andrew Johnson iPhone app before I go to bed each night. He's a Scottish hypnotherapist who has a dozen or so different mini-programs in the iTunes store to download, each focusing on some issue - quitting smoking, gaining confidence, public speaking, etc. At first I was very uncomfortable with a hypnosis tape, because all I could think about was that passage in Brave New World - "Oh no, I don't want to play with Delta children" - but I listened to the program when wide awake prior to listening to it before going to sleep to make sure there aren't any "fly, my pretties"-type suggestions hidden in it. So far so good. The one I'm listening to every night right now is for procrastination, which has been a problem in ways both big and small for me over the last several months. It actually seems to be making a difference.

Speaking of which, I've got to get on with today. This blog isn't a tool for procrastination, but revising my posts into the ground is.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sorry About All the F Words


Well, that was interesting.

I've set myself a new work schedule wherein I am allowed to fuck off for the first half of the day, but I have to get down to business and work (for money) at noon, and can't stop until I have worked for four hours or hit a certain dollar amount. I am also allowed to switch it up and work straight from 8-12 and then fuck off for the rest of the day. The plan is to reserve the fuck-off hours for writing, but during this first week it's only sort of worked out that way.

I'm working on a secret project that has gobbled up some of my morning hours, and that project does indeed involve writing and have to do with writing, so it counts. But my hope was to dedicate time to the actual placing of fiction-related words and sentences on the page, and that hasn't happened.

Yesterday, when noon rolled around, I had an utter failure of concentration. I tried for about half an hour to get to work, but my mind kept wandering (jumping around and shouting incoherently like a tweeker, if I'm honest) and I couldn't focus on what I was reading. My job is editing, so this would not do.

I went out for lunch to a restaurant that I'd been meaning to try, which was a letdown. I went to Michaels. I drove to Granada Hills to visit the library there. (Apparently there are more literary types in Granada Hills, because their library has all manner of things I can't find in Chatsworth.) I returned a couple of books and greedily snapped up four more, none of which I really have time to read. I listened to Florence at high decibels and let the wind blow my hair.

When I got home, I still felt a little chaotic in the mem-brane (ahem), but it was a different kind of chaos. I'd been mulling over story topics while I was out, trying to assign ideas to themes and trying to cobble themes together into a whole. The fornit was telling me I needed to write. I sat in front of a blank Word document and watched the cursor blink for a while, and nothing happened.

So I took my battered notebook to my favorite chair. I sat there for hardly a minute, and poof. "I took the urn and I left the building." I wrote about 2,000 words longhand before I ran out of gas, and Matt came home, and later in the evening I wrote another 400 and typed it all up.

I came up with the germ of this idea kind of randomly a couple of weeks ago, and the story is even more fucked up than I thought it would be. I LOVE it. No one in a right mind will ever love this story as much as I do. It is too depraved. I am so satisfied.

There's a flurry of NaNoWriMo stuff all over FB, and as always, I wish participants the best. I toyed with trying to write 40,000 words of the KUFC book this month, not signing up or anything, just setting a personal goal. But it's shaping up that I'm going to San Francisco AND San Diego this month, plus working on the secret project (deadline is December 1), plus Skyfall and Breaking Dawn 2 come out in the next few weeks and there is a LOT of opera to see. This might sound like I'm making excuses, but I really don't care, this isn't the right month for me to be ambitious about my writing goals.

I'll leave you with this, which is not my pattern at all when it comes to creative work but with which I think a lot of people sympathize:

*In principle I do not like Oasis. I feel it very necessary to make this clear. I think they are/were stupidly pretentious about music that's not much more than solid midlist rock-pop. And, HEY LIAM, YOU ARE NOT JOHN LENNON. But this song, which I do like a lot, expressed just what happened yesterday. Hilariously, my iTunes places it in the "Indie Rock" genre. Oh, it is to laugh.