Way-Back Wednesday: Manifesto from an Angry Young Composer

As I continue to work on my novel and prepare a long-form essay about leaving academia, here’s another piece of non-blog work. I wrote this one as a master’s student in composition and music history. Looking back, I find it’s actually a pretty reasonable precursor of my doctoral research. There are all sorts of things “PhD me” would tell “new grad student me” about sociology and power structures and different kinds of capital. PhD me, though, is much less in tune with the aesthetic and creative issues that drove me back then. You could probably predict, too, that I was headed for musicology—why else would I put so many references in a manifesto?


How many times have you (or I) walked out of a contemporary music concert thinking “this or that piece was well-constructed, but it didn’t really do anything for me.” Craftsmanship does not equal quality. Style doesn’t equal content. It is entirely possible to have one without the other. Too often, I think, composers write to show what they know, to show off this or that theory or technique that they have developed/adopted/adapted/refined. The worst cases in my experience are often serialist pieces wearing their tone rows on their sleeves. You listen to the first twenty seconds and have a fair idea of how the next twenty minutes will go. In the very worst cases, you’re actually right.

The development of music theory as an independent discipline has produced a variety of interesting new ideas about what music is and how music works. These ideas, though, are completely divorced from any sort of context. Music theory becomes a game of numbers, not of sounds. Numbers alone do not make good music.

Yet many composers insist on mastery of theory and numbers. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I ignore set theory or serial technique or even (gasp) “common practice” tonality. Composing music requires some way of understanding and structuring sound. Theory is a good way to do that. Learning music theory gives the composer tools.

It does not give the composer music.

Mastery of theory and other compositional techniques (formal balance, orchestration, et cetera) does not automatically lead to good music, let alone great music. Writing music to display one’s mastery of theory leads, at best, to mediocre music. The composer must control the tools, not be controlled by them.

(my) Good music has something to say. It needn’t be a profound philosophical statement. Existential angst doesn’t make for good music to any greater extent than music theory does. The composer can be saying something as simple as “this is beautiful” or “have you ever really heard cracking ice?”

“Emotional” content is not automatically something to say. Listen to good movie scores in context (with the movie). There’s your proof, if you need it, that music can be used as a tool to stir emotions. Writing emotionally loaded music of that variety is ultimately just as craftsman-like as producing a competent neo-serial work.

As Modernism took over cultural authority from Romanticism, much was made over the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. Modernism praised the former and distinguished it from the latter. The sublime, by this line of thought, is vast. It is the ineffable, the brooding purple mountains glowering against the sunset. To create a sublime work of art is a form of escapism. Flee the trials of the everyday and take refuge in the delights and terrors of pure emotion. Modernist beauty, on the other hand, aspires to what T.E. Hulme poetically calls “dead crystalline forms.” It is an art of geometry, proportion, of clarity and balance. (For a more thorough description of the beautiful versus the sublime, see Richard Taruskin’s “The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past” in Text and Act or Authenticity and Early Music.)

I believe that good music cannot dwell wholly in either of these camps. Life has sublime moments, but it is not made of them entirely. The excesses of Late Romanticism pretended that it was, and created towers of stacked thirds and unresolved dominants that eventually toppled under their own weight. But life is not dead. It is not still, nor is its motion wholly the precise, ordered motion of Modernist machinery. There is room and need for both the rational and irrational in music.

All this comes around eventually to showing what you know versus saying what you have to say. The modernist path has led to ever more precise, more crystalline forms (reaching their stereotypical apex in the works of Milton Babbitt). Emphasis on rational thought and structure forced more and more detached thinking into music. (It is no coincidence that when Babbitt was creating compositional machinery to control every aspect of a musical work, John Cage was turning his compositional machinery over to chance operations. “Total” control and “non”-control produced works that are, on occasion, strikingly similar.) This detached thinking accelerated the growth of music theory and its place in composition. More theory and more rationalism led to a music of display: contrapuntal technique, serial technique, you name it. To be taken seriously as a composer, you had to show that you knew your stuff. You did this by writing pieces demonstrating your mastery of “new” theories (serialism was hardly new in the 1970s). The legacy of that is composition focused on complexity, on demonstrating that one has the knowledge to produce and control that complexity.

Instead of the product of knowledge, music should be the product of thinking. Pondering, if you prefer, for pondering is not so loaded with rational modernist connotations. Think and feel your way to the sounds and through them. Don’t discard your knowledge; while craftsmanship isn’t a free pass to writing good music, it is a necessary step. The necessary balance is not inherently one of form or content. The necessary balance is one of cold construction and the unruly chaos of indulgent feeling. Somewhere in that balance, there is something to say.

That something is the serious side of music. Earlier segments of the manifesto state that music should be fun. I have hardly forgotten that, but it’s a discussion for a different moment.

Further elements in an ongoing conversation:

I don’t have some magical resolution to offer on the issue of listening versus hearing, nor on coping with opened ears…I caught myself wanting to transcribe the squeaking of a particular door in the library the other day. The point about horses and water is a good one. I want something clever to say about putting carrots in the water (or apples, because all the horses I’ve known have preferred apples to carrots), but I don’t have any substance to match the analogy to. Upon reflection, I believe that part of my argument is about leading the water to the horse. Too often, “art” music pools in the concert hall, hoping that maybe, just maybe, a horse will come along. If the horse actually stops to drink, that’s cause for celebration. Music that goes (to get back to one of my favorite terms) is water that flows or springs up someplace closer to the horse and doesn’t wait for the horse to wander by or for someone to lead the horse in.

Reflection has also led me to believe that my statement about “saving music from itself” was unnecessary hyperbole. I didn’t even mean it at the time, at least not the way that it came out. I am most interested in saving my own music from itself, from getting tangled in too much theory and too much academic scene. There are times when I just want to buy a banjo and sit on the sidewalk and play and tell stories. But I theorize a bit much for that. A product of those reflections on saving music from its academic inclinations appears above.

As this is, after a fashion, a conversation in letters, allow me to jump to a different point, the point that the last volley closed on: immediacy. “Does the immediacy, or physicality of a performer’s presence make something more musical?”

No, it doesn’t.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t that immediacy or lack thereof makes something musical or prevents it from being musical. It is that immediacy and uncertainty create engagement. It’s just as true for a circus act, theatre, or sports as it is for music. Not many people watch recordings of old baseball games. (I admit that some do, and that the correspondence is not exact, but this isn’t an exercise in rhetoric yet. Never mind the question of watching baseball games that are recorded and end up on your television a fraction of a second later.)

I can’t say that electroacoustic music or symphonic music or any other kind of big/boxy music is unmusical. There are incredible electroacoustic pieces and there are incredible orchestral pieces that take full advantage of their respective media. Immediacy is not a criterion of musicality per se. I believe, though, that it can be an important advantage for music.

Much of music exists in the space between people: the space between the composer and the performers, the space between one performer and another, the space between the performers and the audience. Music lives in those spaces, not on a printed score or on a recording. [I point out as an aside that pure electroacoustic music changes these spaces considerably, virtually eliminating the space between composer and performer and, as mentioned elsewhere, transforming the space between the perform(ance) and the listener. This is by no means an automatically bad thing.] Scores and recordings are useful. The best recordings capture some of the lightning of those spaces (although the slicker the production, the cleaner and more thoroughly edited the recording, the smaller and less meaningful the spaces become).

Music that goes aims at revitalizing spaces. For the space between performer and listener, immediacy and a dose of the unexpected can be vitalizing agents.

Ghosts of the Old City: An Evening with Zahra

Working on a long-form essay about leaving academia and flailing along at Camp NaNoWriMo have eaten up my writing time this week. In lieu of a proper post, here’s another excerpt from Ghosts of the Old City

Above Zahra’s head and beyond the carefully crooked alleys of Old Sakurdrilen, the three lights burned. Within the walls, though, the city sang a darker tune as the last wisps of day fled the sky. Oh, the coffee houses and restaurants were safe enough. Little troubled the grounds of the University or the neighboring offices of government and business. But outside, on the streets, Old Sakurdrilen crawled with all that hid from the sun. Prostitutes and pickpockets, fortune tellers and cut-rate alchemists…if you could not find what you wanted—for some price—on the night streets of the old city, it was not worth having.

This is what they don’t understand. Zahra thought. This is why I dare the Owls. And why I’ve no coin to pay them off. At night, she danced over walls, through locked doors. She played tunes with her picks and knives and made and lost fortunes by morning. Zahra prowled Eelsward. There would be time for adventure later. For now, the wine in her stomach desperately wanted company. Rolen would have food. He might even have a story to send the evening forward.

Her brother’s shop was half underground. The upper floor was filled with curios and oddities, sailors’ talismans and relics collected from around the world. The heart of Rolen’s business, though, was in the basement. People left their names upstairs and their coin below, or traded valuable nothings for heavier purses. The basement smelled alternately of hot metal and exotic incense. Rolen kept the lights dim. Even if he hadn’t been her brother, he still would have been Zahra’s favorite shifter.

“Good evening, miss. Rolen’s downstairs.”

Zahra nodded curtly and headed downstairs. She didn’t like her brother’s taste in women, nor that he tended to leave them in charge of the shop whenever he was conducting more serious business below.

“Rolen! What have you got to eat?”

Rolen grunted and set down his tiny pliers. “Hello, sister dear. You got the gig, I take it?”

“Is it that obvious?” Rolen nodded his reply. Zahra relented. “Yes, yes. We got the gig. And he paid half up front. It is a fine night to be alive. But what have you got to eat?”

“Half a roasted chicken, what’s left of this morning’s bread, and some carrots.” But Zahra had already spotted it on the table behind the workbench. She casually vaulted the bench to rip a leg off the chicken. “Help yourself.”

Zahra swallowed and grinned. “Thanks. How’s business?”

“Slow. But that’s not a bad thing, you know. Not all the time. The Watch has been pushy lately. I don’t mind the quiet. It gives me a chance to spread some money around where it won’t bother them.”

“Alyn tried to talk you into investing again?”

“When doesn’t he? But he knows better than to push it. If I wanted that life, I would just take it. I can be happy Alyn is succeeding without wanting to be him. I don’t know if he’s ever understood that.”

“It wasn’t always like that.”

“We’re not ten anymore, Zahra. I don’t need him to be the fastest, strongest, smartest brother ever.”

“You left out ‘most honest.’”

“Pfeh. That, he can keep.” Rolen picked the pliers back up and resumed removing the jewels from a necklace. “I thought you’d be out with Talu and Pavon.”

“Pavon and Talu,” Zahra said, “are busy becoming a couple. They don’t need me along. Besides, can’t you smell the city tonight? They would not come out with me.”

“All I smell is my food that you’re eating. Like I said, it’s been quiet. Even for the Owls, I hear.”

“Don’t tell me about them. They—“

“You can’t just laugh them off, Zahra. They’ll kill you if you push them too far. Don’t think they won’t.”

“I don’t want to join their stupid club.”

Rolen plucked an emerald out of its setting and placed it in small dish. “They don’t care what you want. They care what you do. It might not be so bad. They have a lot of, ah, resources. Kit and tricks you don’t know. Why do you push against it so hard?”

Zahra’s answer was quiet. “They’d make me quit playing. Dad wouldn’t want that. And mom wouldn’t want me to be involved in any of this stuff in the first place.”

“If this Toja gig opens the right doors for you, do you think you’ll stop?”

“A night like this, and you ask me that? You’re such an ass.”

“I mean it! You can’t have a foot in the day and a foot in the night. Not here. You have to fall one way or the other, and nobody’s going to be there to catch you.”

“You work your shop in the day.” Zahra retorted.

Rolen shook his head. “I keep up appearances. It’s not the same thing.”

“Nobody’s caught me yet!”

“You think I didn’t hear what happened? I get Owls down here sometimes.”

Zahra somehow turned biting a carrot into a defiant gesture. “So?”

“So give me some credit. You have to either get out of the old city or pick a side.”

“What I need is a score for tonight.”

Rolen sighed. “We’re not done with this conversation.”


“Milliner at the center of Lec. Gold buckles, gold leaf. Morsi lace.”

“For hats?”

“Who knows what the gentry’s wearing this season? It came up from the harbor this afternoon. Easy stuff to shift, but I can’t give you too much for it unless you take the whole lot.”

“How much?”

“To sell? I’ll make it an orb an ounce. Half-groat a yard for the lace—not much market for that.”

“That’s the best you can do?”

“I hear he bought new locks to go with the shipment. He’s worried about the Owls.”

Zahra pulled a stool to Rolen’s bench. “How new?”

“Parukhi. That’s all I know. My tip didn’t say anything else about the locks, just the valuables.”

“Useless! They could be almost anything.”

Rolen grinned. “The owner got new locks. Because he worries about the Owls. That isn’t enough for you? That is not the action of somebody who means to cheap out.”

“You think they’re good ones?”

“I’m sure they’re good ones.”

Zahra bounced to her feet. “Fine, then. You’re sure?”

“God’s breath, Zahra! Yes. Yes, I’m sure. Go see if you can pick them already.”

Zahra gave her brother a peck on the cheek. “Thanks. For the food, I mean. I’ll see you before sunup.”

Ersatz Redux

This morning I took my first phone call from a parent concerned about grades. Am I a teacher yet?

This is my last week in this month-long assignment teaching speech (excuse me, professional communications) to eighth graders and theater arts to sixth graders. One of the days that first week, I came home and told my partner that I could not imagine myself ever teaching middle school full time. Last Friday, we had a conversation about how middle schoolers are some of the most interesting kids to teach. I’ve played around with lesson plans, adjusted pacing, graded many speeches.

I have also heard more terrible jokes about LeBron James than I ever imagined. I have witnessed the awesomely casual powers of destruction wielded by sixth grade boys. I have banished students from the classroom. Over and over again, I have told students to put their phones away and to stay in their seats. I have spent whole 90 minute classes hopping from metaphorical fire to metaphorical fire, trying to put them out before something on the other side of the room got out of control.

I have learned the students’ names.

I have to resist the urge to write that as “I have learned my students’ names.” After a month, they feel like my students. That first week still felt like a sub job. I was leaning on the lesson plans the permanent teacher had left for me. We were watching movies and finishing up projects that had been assigned before I started. By the second week, and certainly by now, that has changed. I’ve been here long enough to assign projects and see them finished. I’ve learned the ins and outs of the various groups of students. The core progression of assignments isn’t mine, but I have a sense of its ebb and flow. I feel like a teacher, not a substitute for one.

I still go home tired, especially because I end my days with 30-plus sixth graders. My voice gets worn out. I have to remind myself that it’s not my kids at home who’ve been testing my limits for 8 hours. My writing has suffered somewhat because I’ve been working so much. Having a job is work (duh).

That’s what I wanted, though. As nice as it is to have time to write, I pretty keenly feel the obligation to work. Related: I keenly feel the obligation to pay bills. Blogging and working on a novel isn’t going to do that. Waking up at 5:15 or 5:30 a.m. is never going to be fun for me, but the last few weeks I’ve been grumbly mostly because I don’t like being up that early…or haven’t gotten enough sleep…or both. I have not been dreading my job like I have at various points since I started in September.

This might not be the perfect job, but it’s one I can do. Sometimes, that’s enough.

…Of course, next week it’s back to catch-as-catch-can subbing. One choice at a time.

Coming Soon: a long-form essay on leaving academia, frantic attempts to play catch-up for CampNaNoWriMo, and sundry awkward pop culture references.

Love and the Academy

I still don’t remember exactly why I was at the “Grillé” with one of my favorite literature profs. (Yes, it had the accent on the e. Yes, this was a particularly stupid thing to do at a selective SLAC where everybody would know how stupid it was. I still don’t know why they insisted on grill-ay.) It might have been on the visit I took back to my undergrad in the spring of my first year of grad school. It might have been a year earlier about a paper I was working on. The conversation strayed away from the strictly academic and toward what our futures might look like. This was one of my favorite professors—she pushed her students hard and took care with her time, but when you had her attention, you got her full attention and the formidable mind that went with it. What I remember from that spring conversation was this professor mentioning, almost in passing, how nice it was to be having a personal life again, and how one really needs to put all that aside through grad school and the early career grind. She didn’t say “be married to your work,” but she came close enough.

She might have been right. Some of the most successful scholars I know (not all) have pursued their work to the relative exclusion of other parts of their lives. There’s this idea (and occasional expectation) that academics put their work first, second, and third. If you want to get that fellowship…if you want to get published…if you want to get a job. There’s some truth there—filling up the publication section on your CV takes an enormous amount of time and effort, especially on top of a teaching load. That’s easier to manage if you don’t have obligations to other people. It’s also much less hassle to move around the country chasing VAPs or short-term fellowships.

None of that stops people from having outside lives. At an “early career professionals” session at SAM a year ago, there was the expected distress about finding jobs. There was also, though, an incredible variety of concerns herded under the broad banner of “career/life balance.” Adjuncts, VAPs, people new to the tenure track, people still finishing school—so many of us in that room were juggling work and home responsibilities. That’s nothing new to anybody who has a job, but…the mood in the room was a mixture of indignation, desperation, and guilt. We’d been trained for a job that’s supposed to be a life. Life, though, was busy throwing non-job things at us—we had people caring for kids, caring for parents, caring for themselves on minimal or nonexistent insurance, dealing with the “two body problem,” dealing with all the stress those situations provoked. Again, these are problems common to anybody who has a job and connections to other people. It’s just that most other jobs lack the tacit suggestion that you should be married to them.

I was never particularly good at holding life out. I married my partner the summer after she graduated. We had our first child during the first year of my doctoral work. We discovered we were pregnant with our second about two weeks before learning that my funding had been cut. I was lucky that first semester with an infant; it was the lightest load I had all through my PhD. (It helped that my partner worked for a company with a liberal leave policy.) My son was a terrible sleeper for years. I’d regularly spend an hour in the middle of the night walking up and down the apartment trying to get him to go back to sleep. Later, I’d read books on music semiology with him in my arms and fret over when I could go work on my dissertation without putting my partner in the lurch.

It’s not really possible for me to untangle the years I spent working on my PhD from my first years as a parent. Even in grad school, when you’re really supposed to focus on mastery and contributions to the field, I was never able to focus wholly on academics. They were just one more thing competing for my time. I wished, sometimes, that I had more time to spend on my work.

Mostly, though, I appreciated that I got to spend time with my kids. There’s no doubt I could have gotten through my program a year (or even two) faster than I did. My kids, though, never had to be in daycare full time. When we were going through the process of my son’s autism diagnosis and the subsequent slew of therapy sessions (occupational and speech), I was able to make my schedule fit his needs. Grad school might be a 60-hour-per-week job, but at least you get some say in which hours those are. (Although I still hate it that the university libraries weren’t open on weekend mornings.)

More importantly, having a family kept life in perspective. There were things I still took personally, but I was able to blow off many that might otherwise have infuriated me. I always had an out for departmental garbage (even though I also missed events that might have helped me). For all my protestations about grad school being more like an apprenticeship than education, the constant presence of my family helped me to treat it like a job. (Most of the time.) My family has also been incredibly supportive about my decision to go from ac to postac.

It’s possible to love the Academy. It’s possible to have love and the Academy…if you’re lucky and dedicated enough to switch your priorities as necessary (and your companions are patient with those switches). I didn’t love the Academy. I couldn’t marry my job. I picked my partner and my kids. That’s the only part of leaving I’ve ever been 100% confident of.

Mood, Music

I don’t really understand why the question is so common, but writers are repeatedly asked what (if any) music they listen to while writing. It comes up in the #NaNoWriMo Twitter conversations. It comes up in blog posts (like this one yesterday from Austin local and WordPress/NaNo stalwart Jackie Dana), in author interviews, and almost any occasion a writer fields questions.

Generally, I’m in the “sometimes listen to music before writing, but rarely while writing” camp. I spent most of my adult life studying music, and even the wallpaper Baroque and early classical performances that so many people use as writing or study music can distract me. (Or just annoy me. There’s a reason I specialized in 20th-century avant-garde music.) There are exceptions, though. When working on a scene from Ghosts of the Old City that I’ve since discarded, I put on György Ligeti’s Atmospheres. It’s dissonant atonal stuff, heavy on strings and built around texture. It was the right music for the scene in question.

And that’s my cue to pivot. I’ve spent the first part of Camp NaNoWriMo cleaning up my outline. (I’ve historically been a pantser, but the middle chunk of Ghosts was a horrible soup until I set aside the time to give it structure.) I was surprised to find myself mentally scoring the scenes to help pin down their content. My thoughts about the scenes’ moods were more musical than verbal.

I started grad school as a composer. I started as a composer because I dug music. And largely, I dug non-pop music because of film scores. I spent a lot of my undergraduate years composing pieces with explicit or implicit narratives. I also spent a lot of time thinking about music and text and how they worked differently for telling stories.

The upshot of this is that my ideas of textual structure are thoroughly tangled with my ideas of musical structure. When I think about pacing, I imagine a conductor’s gestures. I think about conflict in terms of crescendoes and cadences and shifts in orchestration. Back when I composed long pieces, I’d get one or two pieces of 11″x17″ paper and sketch out the shape of the piece. Sometimes I’d do that with a carefully-measured timeline across the top of the pages, others I’d just be roughing it out—“trumpet solo here,” “percussion cacophony,” “pianissimo strings…”. I’d draw shapes and small pictures on the page. I don’t do that with my stories, but my longhand outlines sometimes get close as visualization exercises.

Music plays out in time. In a live performance, at least, you can’t flip back to check if the theme you’re hearing now is related to the one you heard two minutes in. (You can do it with recordings, but unless you’re a music student, I think it’s pretty rare.) It’s the composer’s and performer’s job to make those connections clear, to hold the listener’s attention. You get one shot at structure, start to finish. You can use inherited forms, many of which are based on returning material and/or harmonic progressions, or you can make your own structure. Either way, the structure is experienced linearly.

Books don’t have that limitation. You can read them by flipping around. You can read the end first. You can go back and remind yourself what happened in the first chapter. Despite that difference in the medium, structure in fiction works an awful lot like musical structure. Even if you break up your plot, reveal it in out of sequence bits and pieces, it has to be compelling as it unfolds for the reader. You have to bring them with you through the story. The crescendoes have to get them excited. If you change keys for the bridge, you’d better have a good reason (and probably ought to consider bringing some of the bridge material back to prove its relevance).

A novel isn’t a symphony. The concepts and themes to balance are different. The techniques are different. For me, though, it seems more and more like the principles are the same. Whether you’re writing a story or a string quartet, you’re giving shape to chaos. You’re making the inchoate intelligible. Words or notes, you’re paving a path for your audience.

Long story short, there’s a lot of music involved with my writing even when my speakers aren’t making a sound.

Winning Bread, Losing Guilt

“What, then, would you say is the source of most of your work?”
“Need of money, dear.”
Dorothy Parker, in interview

I dreamed about zombies last night. It’s one of the few recurring themes in my dreams. I won’t bore you with the details. The zombies were mere environmental hazard; it was the people who were the danger. The atmosphere, though, was somewhere between “resigned” and “despair,” and it didn’t lift when the alarm went off at 5:30 this morning. That’s the bit I want to seize on, because that’s how postac felt last night. It’ll probably be different by tomorrow, mind.

The catalyst for this latest round of crankiness was notice from Texas Health and Human Services that my household has too much income to qualify for insurance assistance for the kids. The federal government had been certain that the state would cover the kids, and shifted them off our Affordable Care Act application because the state would (theoretically) take care of them. According to the Feds, we’re poor enough to need help. According to the state, we’re not. (Of course, according to the state we weren’t poor enough to need help back in September with income near zero because our 12- and 14-year old cars were worth too much money, so, uh, yeah. Bureaucracy.) Resolving this requires a lot of time on hold. I spent an hour and two minutes on hold with the Feds yesterday without talking to a real person and hung up on their terrible music because it was time to eat dinner.

Anyway. The health insurance stuff is annoying. It’s the kind of problem educated people are not “supposed” to have. I do have it better than many; we’re not reliant on food banks. We can pay our rent. We’re not sure where we’ll scrape together several hundred dollars more for health insurance for the kids every month, but that problem, too, will eventually get solved. Eventually.

While getting to eventually, the mini-crisis kicked up the dust of old anxieties. When we have money trouble, it feels like a personal failure. Societal gender norms say the man is “supposed” to be the bread winner. Never mind the real numbers on who earns more money in a household, especially since the bottom fell out of the economy. Growing up, my dad put in 60-80 hour weeks running a restaurant, but my mom’s consultancy and later full-time employment brought in more money. Intellectually, I understand the reality that the intersection of structural inequities in women’s pay, increases in women’s general level of education relative to men, and broad shifts in the labor market tangle things into an enormous mess that eradicates inherited norms. I understand the ways the numbers tell me that my situation isn’t atypical. That doesn’t change the way I feel about it. I feel like I should be bringing in enough money that the state and federal governments shouldn’t be arguing about whether I count as poor.

As a postac, feelings of financial inadequacy resonate with a chorus of guilt-strings. There’s a monetary level to it—my partner paid the lion’s share of our bills when I was in school. That’s how we avoided loans for living expenses. The money’s only one piece of it, though. She wanted to spend time with the kids when they were young. Because she had to work for our bills to get paid, that wasn’t feasible. I took care of the kids. I had my doctorate drag on and on through shifting tides of funding, research, and an interminable span of writing. For the first 10 years of our marriage, we lived where I was in school. Grad school dominated our lives for a decade. Then, after all the time stewing in that dream, I chucked it.

So yeah. That’s all my fault. My “terrible life choices” (as Marge Simpson would put it) ate up not just a decade of my life, but a decade of my partner’s and the majority of what my kids have known so far. When my personal demons are riled up, life seems as bleak as it did in that zombie dream: what terrible thing will I have to do next to survive? How have I doomed us all?

The problem with this guilt is the one central to so much postac misery: the comparisons that gnaw at me are to a hypothetical and improbable ideal. It’s true that I didn’t achieve the goals I had when I started grad school. I didn’t achieve the goals I had when I quit high school, either, but I don’t feel particularly guilty about that. (Granted, those didn’t involve other people.) Life changes. Grad school did not lead me to happiness. There’s no guarantee that not going on to do a doctorate would have led me to happiness either. I really disliked living in northwest Ohio. Maybe I’d be blogging now about how much I hate flat former swamps and not chasing my ambitious mid-20s dreams.

“Forgiving yourself” starts to sound way too hokey self-helpish for cynical ol’ me, but I think it’s a necessary step in the process. This isn’t just a question of narrative wreckage. This is about blaming ourselves, and stopping blaming ourselves. It’s wasted energy. When we get sucked into guilt, we’re letting our past decisions dominate our present and intrude on our future. The tricky bit is in learning from our mistakes without letting them poison our emotional landscape. (The other tricky bit might be coffee, which is often good for lifting one out of morning bleakness.) My own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.

They’ll never see a right way forward, only better and worse ways. Regardless, I’m pretty sure that “supposed to” is one of the worst benchmarks with which to gauge those paths.

NaNoWriMo, Camp Style

November was National Novel Writing Month. I was a bit skeptical going in, as I wrote before the month began. I also “won” NaNo—I got my 50,000 words despite presenting at a conference and missing the first weekend. I met some fun people in the Austin area. As the month wound to a close, we were abuzz with the desire to start writing groups and workshop the manuscripts we’d piled up (some more neatly than others). It faded relatively quickly amidst the clamor of the holidays and what passes for winter here in Texas.

Earlier this month, the Austin NaNo Facebook group slowly rumbled back to life. Nanowrimo.org also sponsors “Camp NaNoWriMo,” a more open-ended pair of virtual camps in April and June. (This is exactly what I needed back when my Novembers were full of academics, incidentally.) A good chunk of the Austinite NaNo crowd was signing up. Some of us are still working on our NaNo projects: editing, adding the missing bits, or otherwise trying to turn our word piles into entities with literary architecture.

I signed up. I want to finish.

When I committed to the “proper” NaNoWriMo, post-relocation life was still unsettled. It had been about three months since the move. My partner was only just starting a new job. I was still applying for writing jobs willy-nilly and substitute teaching on occasion, but with my partner working, I went back to being the stay-at-home parent. (Substitute teaching did not pay enough to justify paying for daycare for our pre-K daughter.) That’s changed somewhat. My sister-in-law watches the kids after school when I’m working…and I’m working a steady 40 hours each week at my long-term substitute gig for most of April. This weekend I even had to take some time to do grading and a dash of course prep. I will have considerably less energy and rather less time to throw at my novel than I did in November.

That’s really why I’m doing it—because I don’t have the time. I want a draft. Correction: I want a finished manuscript. I can’t have that without a draft. I can’t complete a draft without doing the writing. NaNo’s a good incentive for that: I take lizard-brain pleasure in watching a bar graph (or in this case, a bullseye graphic) improve. I also get something out of the mild competitiveness of the wordcount race. These nudges will, I hope, be enough to help me cram writing back into my day.

Oh, there’s writing in my day. Blog posts. Still a bit of online game writing (though I’ve dialed that back). I’ve been pecking at my novel intermittently. What has been lacking is sustained pressure. I wrote last week that I’m afraid of quitting my novel, that it would be easy to leave it where it’s at. That’s true. The fear of quitting is also a much more familiar one: the fear of failure. I’m okay with being a “failed” academic, mostly because I happily slap those quotes on it. Being a failed novelist wouldn’t come with the scare quotes. I am in this for serious.

 Not everybody who does NaNo is. I think that’s where many of the anti-NaNoWriMo posts miss the point. Many people do this for fun, and only for fun. They do it because they like hanging out with other writers, virtually or physically. They do it because they enjoy the process. If they crash and burn in November, it’s no skin off their nose. If they write 70,000 words that nobody else will ever read, that’s okay with them. We do NaNo because we love to write.

This seems to be even truer of Camp NaNoWriMo. Its format is open-ended, allowing users to set their targets and describe their projects any way they want. In my virtual cabin, I’ve got two people who are enthusiastically writing fanfic (Harry Potter and Dr. Who, if you’re keeping track). Some people are writing histories. Others are writing poetry. Camp NaNo is an excuse to revisit November’s camaraderie for a while, to borrow a bit of its structure and manic energy without being swamped by it. Or it’s a chance to dip a toe in those waters before diving in in the autumn. The key is this: we bring in the goals we want.

To my fellow campers and fellow writers: best of luck achieving them.