Posts Tagged ‘challenges’

Sex Scenes

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2015 at 10:00 am

So, over on tumblr I’ve started doing a sort of informal advice column, and one of the questions the other day seemed like a good topic for an Extribulum blog post. The question was:

When writing a novel that you plan to self-publish do you think it is better to include explicit scenes or not? While sex might not be extremely important to the overall plot the idea of cutting to the window is kind of cliche. Your thoughts?

This is actually something I thought over a lot when I was publishing Trace, which is still my only novel with a sex scene in it. I was really torn about whether to make it explicit, and I discussed it with my readers, both the positives (mainly narrative) and the downsides (mainly emotional, looking back). I ended up leaving it in, mellowed down a little from the original, but I think it is as valid to leave sex scenes out – it really depends on the story.

A lot of writers do “cut to the window” either because the sex wasn’t super necessary, because they think explicit sex will restrict their readership — not unlikely, depending on the demographic — or because they’re not comfortable publishing explicit sex. Publishing explicit sex can be a little harrowing; it seems like a window on our desires as writers. You can feel very exposed, putting something so intimate on display for everyone to judge. Besides, believing you’ve written a bad sex scene is pretty embarrassing, especially if it’s been out in the public eye for a while.

For Trace, the sex actually was kind of necessary to establish the characters’ relationships with each other, and I wasn’t especially concerned with the wider audience. While I’m less comfortable publishing a sex scene in a book that’s not packaged as specifically romantic or sexual (as with The City War, which was done through a publishing house where erotica is common) I still didn’t find myself so uncomfortable I was willing to cut the scene.

So I think, and this is very hard to do, with a sex scene what you need to try and do is take the personal out of the equation, that association of sex with intimacy and vulnerability as a writer, and ask yourself what’s best for the story.

The balancing act, generally, is between “information necessary to the story” and “acceptability of sexual material”. Those are two very broad umbrella terms, however.

Information necessary to the story doesn’t just mean exposition or explanation. It includes things like atmosphere, detail, and effect. Whether a sexually explicit moment contributes to the general atmosphere of the story, whether the story is the kind of story where detail about this would be included, and whether the scene functions to inspire specific feelings (arousal, delight, disgust, even offense) in the reader all come into play under the guise of “information”. Would removing the explicit scene leave the majority of readers feeling thwarted? Is thwarted, in itself, a feeling you want to inspire? There is a famously terrible sex scene in David Thewlis’s “The Late Hector Kipling” that actually won an award for being terrible, but if you’ve read the rest of the book you know that it’s intentionally awful, which rather spoils the award.

Acceptability of sexual material, likewise, isn’t just how acceptable it is to the reader. It’s how acceptable it is to the writer — to put that out there in the world, to push boundaries if writing sex would be boundary-pushing for a writer, to deal with people who may not like its presence in the book. These are things to take into consideration, for sure, even if the idea of considering a reader’s reaction may seem like conceding to censorship. I don’t think it’s quite that at all, but different people have different lines.

I’m a very utilitarian writer. I’m always looking for what a scene will add to a story, before I include it. This isn’t everyone’s style, but for me, the easiest litmus test of whether to leave something in is “What does this do for the narrative?” Not all writers are interested in using every scene to advance the narrative, but usually there is a goal you have with your writing, and you have to ask yourself how this scene or that scene fits into the goal. (Figuring out the goal often clarifies a lot about the story for me.)But in the end, it’s a personal decision – there are a lot of factors in play on any creative work, and part of being an artist is wrestling with questions like this when they appear, rather than just making a snap decision without much examination. I think the instinct to examine is good, and I hope this post has helped clarify where to begin with that examination.

Reappearing as A Writer

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2015 at 10:00 am

Poof! Like magic. Hey, I’m writing fiction again.

There are two problems with not having written in a while, whether it’s because of writer’s block, or other distractions, or a conscious break you took that may have gotten out of hand.

One is admitting you haven’t written in a while. There’s a lot of shame that’s attached to it, because it’s seen as an essential failure of a creative person to do their job. Creative people don’t contribute tangible, quantifiable value to society; it’s difficult to measure the worth of an emotion, or of a revelation. So if we don’t contribute something — a painting, a piece of music, a book — on a regular basis, then are we worth anything to our society at all? Why should society foster or support us? The creative process can take years to produce work which then can’t be valued easily, but after a year or two of nonproduction, people start to point and whisper.

It’s not like writers don’t do this too. Particularly those who make their living off of writing have very little slack to offer people who take longer to produce less. One of the most popular stereotypes for the creative person in media is the guy who’s “working on a novel” — who’s been working on a novel for seventeen years. The frustrated writer looking for a revelation who hasn’t done any real work since his (invariably his) big one-hit wonder is a popular trope in cinema in particular. Perhaps this is because writers who make their living as writers are immersed in the idea of commodifying creativity, and it twists them up. Perhaps they’re just scared of what happens if the writing goes away, and fear motivates them. It’s not super healthy, but then nobody has ever called writers healthy.

And yeah, it’s a little funny when someone who’s been working on something for a decade plus has little to show for it. But we shrink that time frame and we enlarge what “little” means until it feels like if you don’t write a novel every year, you’re behind on your output. I wrote four novels in four years, and then I didn’t write any novels for two. But that’s still averaging better than a novel every eighteen months, and that’s not chicken feed.

Still, it is hard when someone says, “What are you working on?” and you answer, again, “Nothing.” So, as people who basically tell stories for a living, which are kissing cousins to lies, we temporize. Nothing solid yet. Nothing right now. Got some irons in the fire, waiting to see what pans out. I’m brainstorming. Really cool idea, just not sure where to take it yet.

Admitting you’re not writing, however, is implicit in admitting you’re writing again. Which is the second hard part of reappearing as a writer. It’s a bit like saying you’re quitting smoking or starting a diet; there’s a lot of “Oh, isn’t that nice” with an underlayer of deep skepticism. And you do feel foolish taking the risk; what if you start writing and then can’t get anywhere? Better to wait, right? Keep the pressure off until you’ve got something to show for it. But the positive reinforcement one does get, when other people know you’re writing again, that can be a huge boost to creativity — without it, you might just keep…not writing. So there’s no real good way to play it.

Creativity is a process, and that process includes peaks and valleys, periods of high activity and lulls. I don’t really have a fix for either of these problems; they’re issues I face just like any writer does, especially a writer who is very public about their craft. I just think it’s important to talk about them, not only so people can see their fellow writers deal with it too, but also so that writers who may not have been able to put a name to their worries have a little more data to work with.

Saddling Up and Building A World

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2015 at 10:00 am

So, what does one do, after a long break from writing, to start again? Honestly, it’s a problem I’ve never had before.

Nor, truthfully, is it really a full problem now, because I’ve been writing in the past two years, it just hasn’t been original work. I’ve done a crapload of fanfic. I’m not starting from scratch, either; I had plenty of beginnings written when I drifted away two years ago. And I won’t lie, one of my favorite things to do is re-read old work and fix it. That’s how I got started again with Nameless, after all, two years after I’d given it up as a bad book.

But it is difficult to get back into the worldbuilding aspect. One of the major differences between fanfic and original fiction is that your audience, in fanfic, has certain touchstones. Everyone knows who the essential characters are, everyone knows the basic rules of the world, and even if you’re messing with those rules, you’re starting out with a foundation to build on. The alternate universe only functions fully when we know what it’s an alternate of. Otherwise it’s just weird.

With original fiction, unless you’re working on a series and you’re past the first book, you have no foundation. You have to build it yourself, and foundations are hard. It’s a lot of explaining. One of the most important things I have to do, pretty much every time I start a novel, is re-train myself to build a world without resorting to cheap exposition or descending into the madness of minutiae. I am a person who loves exploring the ramifications of every rule; if given a set of arbitrary laws, I will immediately explore every aspect of every one of them and usually break quite a few in the process. As a teen I was infamous for my ability to wreck programs and even operating systems in record time. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, I was no kind of hacker, I just had an innate skill for pushing boundaries, and the old Windows and Apple operating systems were a lot less robust than they are now. (I still managed to bust my first iPhone twice within twenty four hours of purchase, but it was an iPhone 1, that almost doesn’t even count).

When you’re building a world, that’s not the time to push boundaries; you have between 200 and 600 pages in your average novel to do that. Learning how to plant the seeds on page one of a revolution on page 209 is still something that I’m working on.

Still, one thing I am good at doing is muttering “I’ll fix it in the second draft” as I tap madly away on a scene I know is probably crap (or worse — boring). Suspending one’s sense of perfectionism is something most writers have to learn, and most don’t learn easily. It’s one of the toughest to acquire but most useful skills a writer can have. You have to be able to say “I’ll fix it later” and not worry about remembering it later or how you’ll fix it. Accepting that you may not remember it later, because it is in fact just fine and you won’t notice it on a re-read, is also hard.

But those are the two big skills I think you need when you come back to writing: how to build the universe of your story, and how to acknowledge that your first try is going to be flawed without freaking out and trying to fix it immediately. They’re not easy, but they are very, very useful.

Back In The Saddle

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2015 at 10:00 am

For about two years now, I haven’t done much original writing.

After a while it seemed a little pointless to bang on here about original writing when I wasn’t doing any. Plus, it’s tough to do a twice-weekly column on writing; there’s only so much to write about. I didn’t want to become one of those blogs that just recycles content or hammers at one specific message.

I wasn’t honestly that concerned about having stopped my original work for a while, even for a long stretch. I’d just been promoted at work, so I was growing my career, and I had two major surgeries in two years, which takes it out of you. My life was a bit of a mess, and it was better for me to focus on other things. And because I’d had a pay raise, I didn’t need to hustle the writing for money in quite the same way I had before. When I was earning thirty thousand dollars a year, writing was a genuine supplementary income. Now that I earn almost twice that, the desperation is gone, and desperation is sometimes one of the greatest drivers of creative instinct. (Sometimes not. It’s always better not to be desperate, I think, but it can be great motivation.)

So yeah, I tended my other gardens and let writing go its own way for a little while. And I wasn’t displeased; I knew it would come back.

And apparently it has, because a few days ago I had a little epiphany. I’m somewhat short of funds this month — not seriously, just not quite as well-cushioned as I like to be — and I was sitting on my couch, thinking that I’d really like to order a pizza but I didn’t really have the money to spare for that this month when I had perfectly good food in the fridge. And literally as I thought that, an email arrived in my inbox, telling me that Lulu.com had deposited my monthly royalties into my paypal account.

Some of y’all were busy book buyers last month, I guess, because it was $42, which is about twice the normal. And well more than enough for a hot pepperoni pizza.

And I thought, well, one, I do miss writing. But I also miss getting that royalties check, not even because royalties are so great but because it’s proof that other people like what I do enough to pay for it. That’s a really delightful feeling. While I don’t like capitalism I was raised within it, and being paid for my work lights up my brain whether I want it to or not.

So I thought, I’m going to write again. And I got started writing.

Mind you, I did decide to ease into it. I’m working on a piece that I had about a quarter finished, and it’s not that far from fanfic. It’s about the Monuments Men, the soldiers during the second world war who followed (sometimes preceded) the Allied troops in order to secure and protect great cultural works endangered by combat, as well as locating and securing art the Nazis looted. It’s a topic close to my heart and one I find easy to write about, so it feels like cheating even when it’s not.

And, honestly, it’s erotica. It’s for my publisher, which in some ways makes it easier, because I’m finally working on something I promised them two years ago, even if no deadlines were discussed. Plus they’ll do all the typesetting and graphic design which, while satisfying, is not always something I look forward to.

So, I’m back to writing, and I’m hoping to do a series here about getting back into writing, and how to work on things that have lain fallow for a while.

Hi, everyone. :)

Novels And Conferences Post X-Files

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

All right. Last week we talked about the relationship between digital communication and brickspace data relay a little. Let’s see if we can hook it into fiction and books this week.

It was once said of George Bernard Shaw that his essays were the price you paid for his plays, which would make less sense if you didn’t know that he often put his essays into his plays, thinly disguised as monologues. Shaw was a radical, an egotist, and an essayist to be sure, and like most writers throughout the ages he attempted to convey a message using fiction.  He wasn’t the first to do so — I just really love that quote about him because I think it applies to a lot of storytellers. The price you pay for a good story is often your absorption of, collusion in, or at the very least momentary complicity with the ideology of the author. That’s the point of most fiction reading, after all — to put yourself into a story. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; some authors have ideologies well worth adhering to.

Prior to the mid-nineties, these stories were heavily gatekept by economic necessity. Between Gutenberg and — for amusement’s sake — let’s say the  first episode of The X-Files in 1993, anyone could print a screed or a story or a play and distribute it, but you were paying your own way, especially if you didn’t turn an eventual profit. Which meant you had the kind of cash to spend on that, or a patron who would spend it for you, be they a wealthy donor to your cause or a publisher interested in selling your book.

When we talk about twentieth century gatekeeping we primarily talk about the publishing industry pre X-Files which, being in it for the money, published books that they thought would sell. They published compellingly written books, pop-appeal books, scandalous books, or books by someone who already had fame riding on their side. (It is also important, if not necessarily directly relevant here, to point out that the only people who generally got a look-in for consideration were white dudes, so assume that the above was not applied in an equal-opportunity setting.)

The communication of data has always required resources — the ability to pay for printing, the ability to travel to a conference, the ability to purchase ad time. This is still true in the digital age. You must have access to a computer, which must be connected to the internet, and you must have a basic level of literacy plus either training in digital communication or the time necessary to train yourself in its arts. This is not an insignificant burden and it is the reason we have the term “Digital Divide”.

That said, these resources are much easier to procure than at any other time in human history: libraries offer free access to computers and the internet, MOOCs offer free tutelage in internet use, and if you have a laptop or a smartphone you can get wifi at McDonalds for the cost of a cup of coffee. People often have access to computers and internet through their workplace if nowhere else. And people who have the money to buy a computer and pay for monthly internet are still potentially paying far less for access to mass-communication tools than they would have for most of human history.

This kind of mass communication somewhat invalidates the old reason we met face to face at conferences, as I discussed last week, but conference culture has been slow to catch on. It also invalidates, in some sense, the old reason we published nonfiction books. Don’t get me wrong, I love nonfiction and I read a lot of it, but the same information can be conveyed through the internet. A lot of scientists and historians have blogs, and STEM podcasts are proving very popular (my personal favorite is Caustic Soda, run by non-scientists with science guests). The reason we still turn to nonfiction books is narrative — a book forms a more cohesive experience, and even a nonfiction book still tells a story. And there are people who legitimately prefer reading a book to reading a screen.

So what about fiction books? Are we returning — or could we return, and should we return — to the serial model? Serial novels worked like gangbusters in the 19th century, when rising literacy rates and lowered printing costs made newspapers, and magazines like the Strand, available cheaply for mass public consumption. Internet readers seem resistant to the concept of fee-based fiction online, but Netflix has proved the fee-based consumption model at least functions, and Amazon is attempting to change peoples’ minds with its “Netflix for books” (with understandably limited success, given the traditional definition of “netflix for books” is library). Bloomberg recently suggested that the fight between Amazon and publishers currently going on over print books is sad to watch because it’s already irrelevant — that fee-based access to books in a permanent cloud will be the new face of publishing. Their logic was unsound and their research was shoddy, so I can’t recommend taking the linked article too seriously, but they are suggesting an Amazon-derived model that has realistic potential. It may be too soon to tell — or the people handling the big data may not want to share their results yet. I’m just a paladin author, usually with no publishing house to my name, so it’s difficult for me to say.

I also, last week, discussed the idea that in some cases a website about a subject could draw more attention and accolades than a presentation about the same subject, and could actually provide fodder for a better presentation. This is the new, non-gatekept marketing: hook ’em online and get interaction going, instead of shouting advertising at people and hoping something sticks. “Going viral” is a dream that has yet to be bottled, because nobody seems to be able to quantify what drives the nature of a viral meme, but going viral has never been as helpful as a long-term, hooked in, loyal and interactive fan base, known as the “long tail”. These are difficult and can be expensive to build, but the long-term return on investment is much greater, as long as the product continues to please and engage the consumer.

As an author, attending a non-author day-job-oriented conference, what I think I carried away is a confirmation that primary digital engagement is often a step in the right direction — but that not a lot of people have caught on yet.

And as I’m writing this on my authorial blog, I may be preaching to the choir.

The Book That Saved My Life

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

NOTE: This post contains frank and in-depth discussion of depression and suicide. If these are likely to affect you negatively, you may wish to consider skipping this one.

About two weeks ago, souridealist on Tumblr asked me about the process of turning Animagus Winter, a made up book in a Harry Potter fanfic, into Nameless.

I scratched my head a little, because I honestly remembered almost nothing of the process, and then I realized that I had so little memory of it because depression can affect memory, and I was in the middle of a major depressive episode when I wrote Nameless. So I wrote about that, and I thought I’d archive it here for folks who don’t follow my tumblr.

For those of you who don’t have all the context on this, it goes like this: I wrote a fanfic, Cartographer’s Craft, in which there is an original character named Ellis Graveworthy, who, yes, the E.G. of Dead Isle stems from. He was a novelist who had written several books (you can read about them here if you don’t want to read 43 chapters of Harry Potter AU fanfic). One of those books, Animagus Winter, became the skeletal structure of my first original novel, Nameless.

There is some discussion of the process of writing Nameless in the afterword of the book, which you can read for free here. (If you like the book, consider buying a copy!) But how did Animagus Winter get to be Nameless?

Here’s the thing about Nameless: it literally saved my life. I probably would have killed myself if I hadn’t written it. I have clinical depression and that was certainly part of the headspace I was in at the time, but I was also going through a lot of external pressure: living at home with my parents (who are lovely people but dysfunctional to live with), in a Texas suburb, job hunting after grad school, and generally feeling like a failure. I couldn’t support myself, couldn’t help my parents as much as I felt I ought, and I felt like I had done no actual single concrete useful thing with my life. So I thought, I’m going to write this fucking book, and when it’s done at least I’ll have done something. I worked on it from ten to midnight, every night, and sometimes the promise of those two hours was all that got me through the rest of the day.I want to stress two things here:

1. If you have not “done anything” with your life you are not a failure. If you’re living with your parents or unemployed or both, you’re not a failure. It’s just that when you are in a major depressive episode, everything you are and do makes you think you’re a failure. You could be curing fucking cancer and think you’re a useless waste of oxygen; being an unemployed boomerang child just makes that feeling much, much worse.

2. I had friends, lovely friends who were helpful inasmuch as they could be considering I didn’t tell them I was dying inside. I was lucky to have a safe place to live and food to eat and the support, however difficult, of my parents. It’s just that when you’re in that deep, nobody else can pull you out because you won’t let them. So you have to climb out yourself. It sucks more than anything else in my life has ever sucked.

Back to our story.

Nameless had a lot of iterations. Changing over from transformative to original work is really hard. Not to say that fanfic is only for children, but seriously, moving from writing fanfic to writing a novel is like going through puberty. It’s hideous and awkward and you’re not really aware of how hideous and awkward it is until you’re on the other side. As a bonus, however, it will make you a better fanfic writer.

So, I wrote the first draft of Nameless following the basic structure I’d laid out for Animagus Winter; I just set it in a world where magic, as far as Christopher knew, didn’t exist. I polished it, rewrote some bits, and sent it to agents. I was still miserable, but at least I now had two irons in the fire — I was being rejected left and right for jobs, but I also was sending out this thing that I had made up out of my own brain, and getting a literary rejection letter made me feel less like a failure and more like Jack London. (I had seen Jack London’s case of rejection letters at his museum, as a younger man, and admired his guts in keeping them all around. I kept mine for a long time, but I’ve since thrown them out.)

But the reason it was getting rejected was, of course, that this book blew. It was terrible.

In the meantime, however, I had scraped together enough money (with a small loan from my parents) to get my ass to Chicago, where I got a job. It was terrible and abusive, but it was a job. Then I got another less terrible job, and I started to both come out of my depression and pull my life together. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect life, but it was mine and it was self-sustaining, so I stopped thinking about killing myself a lot.

Eventually, I got bored and dug Nameless out for no real other reason than I thought it might be fun to share it, since (rightly) nobody wanted to publish it. I was able to see how bad it was by then, so I rewrote it, then I posted it, and then I got this huge outpouring of critical commentary which eventually became the basic pedestal of the Extribulum process of crowdsourced peer review. I rewrote it again, a few times, and then self-published it, and it’s gone very well for me since.

So Nameless is the product of Animagus Winter, indisputably, but there were other factors at work — my wrestling with my own depression, which you can see a lot of in Lucas; my wrestling with my abilities as a writer, which are evident in the prose; my struggles to get to a place where I was self-sufficient financially and stable emotionally and balanced between the two, which you can see in the journey that Christopher took, pre-novel, from being this young urban power suit with a literal broken heart to being a small-town entrepreneur who has a specific, much-loved place in the life of Low Ferry.

That’s the story of Nameless, with the benefit of about seven years of hindsight.

A Moving Experience

In Uncategorized on July 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’ve set this to autopost — well, really, all of these posts are set to autopost, that’s how I roll — but the point is, with this one, as you read it I am supervising the move of all my worldly goods from Wrigleyville on the north side of Chicago to the Prairie District on the south side. Hopefully it’s going well.

You learn two things, generally, when moving:

a) How much stuff you have
b) How little you need for basic survival

Of course, one aspires to slightly more than basic survival, which is why I have eight boxes labeled “kitchen” and about four labeled “linens”. In my defense, they’re small. I don’t have that many boxes of books, because I used to move a lot and books are heavy; I was a super-early adopter of the ebook, though I still don’t own an ebook reader proper.

From the ages of eighteen through twenty-eight, I moved at least once a year, every year. First for school, then away from school, then to Chicago, where I hit my third apartment in three years and decided I would settle there for a while. Despite a plague of wasps, a recurring stream of mice named Lorenzo (Pope Lorenzo XI, may he rest in peace, was the last of his line), and a hot water tap in the shower that I think may actually have had some kind of ancient curse on it, I stayed put because I was just so damn tired of moving.

(It turns out, btw, when you hire movers rather than moving shit yourself, it takes 90% of the stress out of moving. Who knew?)

In theory, I like travel, and I like to experience new places, especially as a resident. I enjoy learning a neighborhood, so I’ve usually tried to make sure that I am, in fact, living in a neighborhood worth learning. I eventually learned to disqualify certain swathes of the south loop during my home-hunt because they simply had no neighborhood. They were just blocks upon blocks of apartment buildings, designed for people who could drive to more interesting neighborhoods. There’s nothing objectively wrong with that; people have to live somewhere. But it wasn’t for me, an inveterate on-footer with a particular appreciation for awkward architecture.

Moving makes you examine your life pretty closely, not only because you’re packing it all up but because of the stress of moving and the cultural weirdness that surrounds it. There’s a sort of gestalt that says by the end of a move you’re supposed to want to kill everyone else involved in the move, and that there will always be unexpected stresses and last-minute messes. I intend to defy this, but then I’m sure I’m not the first. At any rate, it makes you take a step back and look at who you are and the direction your life is going, because our homes so often define us. Even when we aren’t financially able to choose a home to fit us — perhaps especially then — our homes speak volumes about where we stand in our society.

This is literally the first time in my life I’ve been excited about moving. Every other move in my history was either forced on me by external circumstances or was so fraught with financial and physical peril that it was more terrifying than it was satisfying. Moving from Austin to Chicago comes pretty close to being thrilling, but even then it was a leap of faith — no job, no furniture, no local friends, just me and a couple of suitcases on an Amtrak north.

For me, this apartment is a step into the middle class. Unlike many writers, I don’t fear the bourgeois; I’m looking forward to embracing my new condo culture and learning from it, and maybe punking it up a little.

Hopefully I’ll be able to liveblog the event; if so, keep an eye on my tumblr for photos of my new place, possible mentions of emergency room visits, and an update on the state of every belonging I own.

Where Has All The Reading Gone

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

It was a running joke in my grad school theatre program that nobody had much time for pleasure reading. We were all academics, and we read a lot, but very rarely did we read anything other than plays and theatre pedagogy. I remember encountering one of my fellow students and telling her I was reading a novel, and her sighing dramatically.

“I remember novels,” she said, mock-wistfully.

Her reaction — she was a third-year at the time, and I was a first-year — inspired me to be sure I made time for books. As an undergraduate, I’d seen an article about how theatres and graduate programs weren’t just looking at what your experience on your resume was — they were asking what shows you’d been to see recently, because theatre professionals are infamous for working a lot of shows but not seeing a lot outside of what they work on. So as a theatre kid I committed to seeing a lot of theatre, and when I transitioned into a more literary field, I committed to reading a lot of books. I’ve kept that commitment for many years, and while I don’t quite hit the magic “fifty two books a year” which seems so pleasant and symmetrical, I usually manage to read twenty to thirty.

So far this year I’ve read six, and that’s counting two that I read in very late December of last year. Mind you, I’ve read a lot of comic books, at least a few novels’ worth, so perhaps this year will simply be the year of comics. And the books I have read have been fairly intense: heavy political commentary, literary historical fiction, Lovecraft. Still, time to get back into novels.

As an adult, with a job (really two jobs) and a plethora of transitional events this year, from surgeries to moves to promotions, it’s easy to say that I don’t have time to read because I’m a little busy managing my actual life, but that’s also an excuse that will be valid forever; everyone has a busy life. It takes time and energy to commit to what in the corporate world is called Professional Development — keeping up skills, learning new ones, and understanding the trends and advances in our chosen field. In my case, professional development includes reading, both for pleasure (to remind myself what is pleasurable about literature) and as a form of continuing education. It means you make time for it, even when that’s difficult to do.

To be a writer, particularly a writer who wishes to speak to a culture or from a culture, you have to be a part of the culture, to understand what you can of it. Reading isn’t the whole of that but it is a significant piece, and it’s the easiest to achieve — all you really need is time, and either money or a library card.

Time to get back into it.



What I Learned From Survey Questions

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2014 at 10:00 am

There has been a tension for me, the last few months, between my work for my career and my writing. While it is nice to have climbed out of debt and to make a good wage — not just decent, but good — the increased pay and status from relatively recent promotions translates directly to decreased time and mental capacity for creativity.

Writing is precious and compulsive to me, so I’ve had to look at my life and try to decide what to sacrifice or at least wrap-up in order to have the resources, physical and mental, to continue writing. I sat down and basically mapped out my life on paper and it left me wondering how people have things like spouses and children.

The balancing game is hard. I could read less, but reading is an essential part of writing, an important tool. I could watch fewer television shows, but given I watch them in the evenings, when I’m already tired, would that help? Should I socialize less and be more lonely — more unhappy — just in order to write? That seems unwise. Do I drop side projects even though they sometimes lead to inspiration?

Do I sleep less? Could I sleep less?

The ultimate result of my examination of my life is that I haven’t removed anything yet. Instead I’ve developed a question based on survey questions that want you to make a subjective value judgement. When I’m doing something, I ask myself: Is what I am doing right now more-helpful or more-harmful to my overall existence? And if it is more-harmful, how do I stop, alter, or enhance it? Can I do something helpful during this harmful activity?

To answer these questions, I had to work out what I wanted from my overall existence, which was actually easier than it probably should have been. It’s very much in the vein of the hierarchy of needs:

1. Security: home, food, money to supply both, which means keeping and doing my job.

2. Creativity: being able to engage in my art, which is both pleasurable to me and contributory to my community.

3.  Joy: being able to do pleasurable things, regardless of their productivity or lack thereof.

Let’s not talk about how Joy comes in number three. Being fair to me, Maslow thinks it’s low priority too, compared to food and shelter.

I wrote this initially in a notebook during a training session last week, which illustrates the occasional difficulty of identifying an action as helpful or harmful. Attending the training demonstrates to my work community that I am engaged and enthusiastic. Which I am! I genuinely like my job. But the actual training is not really informative, and is taking an entire day to convey what information it does have to offer, which is harmful. Or at least, inefficient. I counteracted the harmful by writing this essay, at least for now.

The system is new, so I don’t know how well it will work — but I suppose it makes me happier to have it, which is ultimately helpful.

Lessons With Packing Tape

In Uncategorized on June 6, 2014 at 10:00 am

I’m writing this on a flight from California to Chicago, returning from wrapping up the last of my grandmother’s estate, a process which began seventeen years ago. Gran always was a nonconformist.

My grandmother had a fascinating life, but the portion of her existence which she imparted most strongly to me was her art. She was a painter and a lover of all the fine arts, and she gave me culture, from sketching with her in her dining room to playing trains on the floor of her painting studio (which doubled as the garage). She died when I was seventeen, but her paintings and many other belongings of hers have only just surfaced, so we had to collect them up and figure out what to do. Over the course of last weekend I documented, wrapped, packaged, and helped arrange safe transport for a hundred and two of her paintings, everything from eight-inch-square seascapes to three-foot-tall frontier towns.

She painted two for a local bank and then changed her mind and kept them; she painted three abstracts and then duct-taped them together, and when we found them I was the only one of the family members present who could point out the angels she’d subtly painted into them, much to my mother’s delight. Gran painted faceless women in white and boats that somehow look married to each other. She was stubborn and independent, and while she did sell pieces and paint pieces as gifts, her art was mainly for herself. Sometimes I think she painted a crap painting just because she didn’t want to mess around with perfection.

When I visited her, I didn’t really appreciate that she wasn’t teaching me sketching and painting as much as she was not to take any bullshit from anyone when it came to art — hers, mine, or others’. Her art isn’t always the most original or the most talented, but it is invariably honest. I know this, because I’ve seen paintings from the time when she was unhappy and suffering depression — when she was trying to be someone she wasn’t, for the sake of others — and they’re no good. They have no light, no subtlety, no depth. When she stopped taking shit from the rest of the world, she got a lot better.

It is incredibly hard to be honest to one’s art, especially when one is just starting to work. People want you to be something, and they want your art to be something, and very rarely will they agree with each other or with you about what that something is. It is necessary to take criticism and to accept it when it’s truthful, but before one can judge the quality of criticism, one has to know one’s work. Confidence in the honesty of the work, whether it’s any good or not, is vital. I don’t think I ever realized until this past weekend that she fed this to me along with cheese sandwiches and cups of apple juice.

It’s been a struggle, the past year and a half, to try and write — exhaustion, new jobs, illness, and perhaps some plain old burnout have made it difficult to hold coherent thought for the length of time it takes to write a novella, let alone a novel. I’m not sure if I’ve been honest to the work; I’m not sure if I haven’t been trying too hard to fuck around with perfection. And it’s not like spending two days lifting, wrapping, photographing, packing, and securing canvases has caused some kind of spiritual epiphany; mostly it made me tired. But it did give me perspective.

I sometimes wonder what Gran would think of me. I think mainly we’d be butting heads about the fact that I haven’t given her any great-grandchildren yet. I think she would be proud of some of my novels, at least, if she knew about them. And the rest she would at least be proud I’d completed, even if she might think they were a little ‘blue’.

Either way, I owe her a lot, for teaching me about honesty — and for the half a dozen paintings by her that were my commission for the work this weekend.