The Writing Life

Reality’s Got Teeth

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
—Shylock, Merchant of Venice (III.i)

Most of what I write is fantastic.

waits the necessary beat

…by which I mean it’s not real, nor is it intended to be. I don’t think there are many places that becomes clearer than in the way so many of the novels I read and games I play deal with violence and its consequences. In most roleplaying games, damage is abstracted to hit points or health levels. It usually doesn’t matter where you get hit or what you get hit with, because damage is just another stat that you track. Healing, likewise, is a matter of popping a healing potion or medkit, sometimes resting a few days. Few games deal with scarring. I’ve yet to see any deal with rehabilitation.

A lot of the novels I enjoy are the same way. Our heroes get the crap beaten out of them. They get stabbed or shot or scorched by magic. Then, a chapter or two later (sometimes just a page or two later), they’re back to running across rooftops or dueling with evil wizards or piloting starfighters. Writers—myself included—build in medical technology or healing magic that’s just as fantastic as the dragons or fireballs or jump gates. I’ve tried, in the novels I’ve written, to keep track of injuries, to let them mean something. But I’m guilty, too, of slapping magical healing or nanosurgery or such on my characters once the crisis has passed.

Partly, it’s a genre expectation. Partly, it’s really hard to effectively write a scene where being able to sit up unassisted for fifteen minutes is a victory. Mostly, I think, we as writers and readers find pain, well, painful. Agonizing months of rehab, scars that don’t fully heal? No thanks. Get me back to the monsters and swordfights and ancient mysteries.

Recently, a family member was in a serious car accident—the “we’re not sure she’s going to live” kind of car accident. She spent a week in the hospital with a laundry list of trauma. Now that she’s out of the hospital…she still has that laundry list of trauma. Her recovery will take months. Realistically, she may never recover 100% of what the accident took. Almost dying will do that to you. Right now, the walk from bed to the bathroom is a hike to Mordor carrying the one ring.

Injuries have consequences. Pain is real. If you prick us, we bleed, whether or not we’re Jewish. This is why current U.S. politics are seeping so deeply into so many lives: policies cause material harm, whether that’s choosing between health insurance and utilities or facing deportation or understanding that your rights aren’t as good as somebody else’s. Life isn’t fair, but that’s no excuse for abandoning the work of trying to make it better.

Watching my sister-in-law in her hospital room, working to breathe, only inconsistently able to track what had happened to her and what was going around her, I couldn’t help thinking “there’s no way to write this pain.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Writing and reading promote empathy. When reality has the kind of bite it does right now, that’s more important than ever.

Reflections in the Rearview Mirror

I remember the day that, as an undergraduate, I realized I could not do everything. I had committed myself to the same kind of activity load that I’d had at UWC. For a semester, it was fine—my first semester at Macalester was lightweight, especially since I wasn’t adjusting to living away from home. Second semester, I had some harder classes, and I collapsed. I spent a day in my dorm room, sometimes sleeping, sometimes crying, knowing I had to quit at least one thing but unable to reconcile myself to—as I saw it—being a quitter.

In between naps, I pored through my yearbooks. At AC, we wrote a lot in the yearbooks, especially our second year. We tried to wrap all the intensity of those two years into our words, knowing that we would soon be scattering literally all over the world (and in the days before social media, that meant even more). That February day in Minnesota, I needed those memories. It wasn’t just to remind myself that I had friends. I needed to read all of the good things people wrote about me (although one of my fellow U.S. students wrote, thoughtfully, about how I was a terrible cynic and ought to respect my country more). I needed to believe that some of those things, maybe most of those things, were true. I was good at things. People liked me.

I needed the past to validate my present, to reassure me that my travails would pass, just as they had there. (I’d had a similar break while in Wales, one that remained the worst I’d had until I was wrestling with leaving academia.) It worked, mostly. I ended my brief career as a sportswriter for the Mac Weekly. I stopped taking on new activities. I started going out with my first real girlfriend.

[–*–]

Earlier this week, my first band director died. Skip Bicknese didn’t bat an eye when my mom, a little confused herself, took me to the band room moments after I’d informed the counselor at my soon-to-be middle school that I wanted to do in band in seventh grade. Mr. B and I talked a little about what I wanted to play. He taught me, minutes after walking into the band room, the basics of buzzing and showed me my first fingering chart. My braces saw to it that I didn’t remain a horn player for long, but I am pretty sure I was a band nerd by that October.

There’s no doubt I was by the time I reached high school. I’d been playing baritone horn for a while. Mr. B invited me to come try the jazz band (which met before school) on valve trombone. Valve trombones are abominations, and I decided I’d better learn to play a proper trombone even as I was falling in love with third and fourth trombone parts and going to all the home basketball games. (The jazz band was also the pep band.) When Mr. B left after my freshman year, I was bummed, but I’d learned enough that, along with other band students, I helped stand up to his replacement (who was terrible and only lasted a year himself).

When I read that Skip had died, I cried. He introduced me to music as practice. I’m not sure he was endlessly patient, but he was endlessly enthusiastic, which made up for it. He told terrible jokes. He laughed at the terrible jokes his students told. He wrote our marching band arrangements and a good chunk of our pep band music. I suspect looking at photocopies of those low-resolution printouts planted the seed that I could create music myself. I know that Mr. B’s love for music and for his students propelled me and many others into music as a lifelong effort. I didn’t think of him when I smiled to hear Rite of Spring on the radio last week, but I should have. I wouldn’t have gotten to Stravinsky (never mind LaMonte Young or Meredith Monk) without the Bicknese arrangement of “American Band.”

[–*–]

Last night, I took my curling printout of Ghosts of the Old City to a coffee shop. I brought a pen, too. That was it. I sat down, and I read the whole draft. I went through it last summer, but had to job hunt instead of starting rewrites in earnest. I spent NaNo 2015 working on the sequel. I hadn’t forgotten the novel, but I didn’t remember it well enough to dive straight back into rewrites.

It’s odd to think that I wrote the first part of Ghosts three years ago, before I’d even considered moving to Texas. There’s not a lot of that early vision left, and where it shows it mostly needs to go away—I still read parts and think “that’s so NaNo.” There were times when I didn’t know what I was doing. That’s the glory and the curse of NaNo, especially for a first-timer. I had to find my story.

The draft had not miraculously improved itself while it sat on my desk. The opening is still mostly good. The following section, the one that leads up to the turn, is still muddy as hell. I noticed a few problems with continuity that I hadn’t noted down before. There’s still not enough Zahra in the first half of the book.

There’s good stuff there, though, which was gratifying to see. There are pieces of music I wrote that I can hardly stand anymore, stories and poems that I look at and wonder “how could I have thought this was insight?” Ghosts has good bones. There were moments that I wanted to cry. I still like the ending. There were characters I wanted to know more about, and guess what? I’m the writer. I can know more about them. I can help you know more about them.

Reading back through that draft was what I needed, not just to remind myself of what was in it, but that I’m a writer. Blog posts are writing, but they’re not the same. They’ve worn me down a bit over the course of the summer, especially because I haven’t had much inspiration to write about writing. Now, I think I can get back to that.

[–*–]

Three different moments, but these were all moments that the past, my past, buoyed my present. It isn’t always about morale, or about loss, or about learning from past mistakes. Sometimes we just have to remember where we came from, remember who we are. The terrible news of this summer makes it easy to drown in the now. We act in the moment, but we should not forget that we bring our past decisions, good and bad, with us. We bring our teachers, our friends, our work. Don’t forget that.

Believable Beliefs

I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.—Shepherd Book, Serenity

I love Serenity. It is not the deepest movie ever made, not the most tightly-plotted, and part of me still can’t get over a world where characters constantly drop phrases in Chinese but there are no characters of Asian descent. Still, it is smart for space opera. (It’s also clever, though that’s a different post.)

While the plot involves human experimentation, conspiracies, and life at the edge of the law, it also hinges on belief. When the movie begins, Mal Reynolds is not a believer—at least he won’t admit to himself that he is one. He tells everybody who will listen that he’s just a captain trying to keep his boat in the sky and his crew fed. (“The wind blows north, I go north.”)

Against that, we have the Operative, a creature of pure belief—his cause is his only moral compass. The Operative is one-dimensional. He’s more a symbol than a character. Especially in the context of a movie, we don’t have to know why he believes as he does. (We might vaguely assume that he’s a product of brain-meddling himself.) What matters is that he is single-minded and implacable. He’s a Terminator of belief.

Mal can’t help but come into conflict with the Operative. The Operative is a legitimate external threat, but he also threatens the story Mal tells about himself, that he is “just a captain.” That internal conflict is nothing new to fans of the series, where the battle between Mal’s pragmatism and his idealism colors most of the jobs the crew takes. In Serenity, though, Mal is eventually forced to believe again, to believe in a way he hasn’t since the Browncoats lost Serenity Valley. Embracing belief leads him to victory: not just a physical victory over the Operative, but actually punching a hole in the Operative’s previously impenetrable faith.

It works because we can see it as redemption. Malcolm Reynolds, who has embraced cynical pragmatism as a bulwark against the war he lost, rediscovers belief to become, for as long as it takes, “properly” heroic (yes, a Big Damn Hero). His beliefs are a logical consequence of his experiences during and after the war. (I assume they follow from his experiences before the war, but we don’t get much of that.) Serenity is thus a story about belief as much as it is about conspiracies and space cannibals.

Not all stories feature belief so close to the surface. As writers, though, we still have to know what our characters believe. Belief is a slippery word. We use it in turn as a synonym for faith, as a synonym for principle, as shorthand for giving credence to. All of those things matter for our characters. Whom do they trust? What are their principles? Where do they put their faith? We need to think about the answers to those questions.

Then we have to follow up: how do we, as writers, challenge our characters’ beliefs? Most internal conflicts can be viewed through the lens of belief. Do we challenge faith with counterfactuals? Do we challenge trust with jealousy? Do we challenge one belief with another? Do we drag them, kicking and screaming, to a point where they have to choose between beliefs? Do we run them into a character whose contrary beliefs are more successful?

We never have to explain to the readers why characters believe the things they do. As writers, though, we have to know. There are differences between a devout middle-aged man who was raised in a faith and a devout middle-aged man who came to faith after trauma. This doesn’t mean that we need exhaustive backstories for every character who crosses our page. Even a thumbnail sketch ought to provide clues necessary to infer beliefs, though.

Chief Inspector Mukul, who is at times an ally and at times an antagonist in Ghosts of the Old City, doesn’t have much of a backstory. I know that he was an officer in the Shehru military before he took over Sakurdrilen’s Watch. I don’t know where he was born, or who his parents are, or even, for sure, whether he has living family. (He probably does.) I know he believes that order is the path to public safety, though, and takes threats to it seriously. The single belief suits his role and colors his personality; it’s sufficient for a background character.

Protagonists and, hopefully, primary antagonists, should have more complicated networks of belief. Their richer internal lives help create the inner conflict that makes us care about them. And that, ultimately, is the reason we connect with stories: whether or not we agree with a character’s decisions, we see how he or she makes them, imagine what we might do in the same situation. That’s how we get characters we can believe in.

Without Mal’s reluctant embrace of belief, Serenity is just another little guys versus authoritarians space story. With some believable beliefs, Firefly and Serenity become something people are still writing, thinking, and cosplaying about years later.

Adventures in Taglines

When I started this blog, it was not supposed to be about #postac. I was going to write about writing, all the time. I was going to say profound things. I was going to share my keen insights into the writing process. I was, if nothing else, going to write about the things I was thinking about to try and make sense of them. I had the vague idea that I should have some sort of web presence to point to when people asked about my writing.

That’s what I was doing when I wrote Of Dreams. It was my third post on the blog. It’s still responsible for my highest traffic day. I just re-read the post. It’s raw, and probably the most open I ever was about how much quitting higher education had wrecked me. It was not self-consciously #postac, because I didn’t even know what #postac was. I found out quickly enough. I left academia at roughly the same time Rebecca Schuman was carving out Thesis Hatement and venting her spleen (usually constructively!) on pan kisses kafka.

I was fumbling through on my own with far less attention. I kept writing about writing, but I kept writing #postac stuff, too. It got me traffic. I cared about it. I wanted to document my journey in solidarity with all the people I knew were going through similar struggles. When I went and read other people’s postac writing, I felt less alone. I changed the tagline on the blog to “The Adventures of a Post-ac Writer.” That was back in 2013.

Last week, I went through and checked my links, shuffled a few things around in my sidebar. The virtual housecleaning was necessary—some of the links were broken. Pan kisses kafka is on indefinite hiatus while Dr. Schuman gets her memoir out, continues to write for Slate, and does the whole “parent” thing. Some of the postac sites that had featured my work don’t exist anymore.

I wondered, almost two years ago, whether you can ever really stop being a postac. I wasn’t sure you could, any more than you can stop being from where you grew up. We carry our pasts with us, always.

That doesn’t mean we have to write about them.

I just finished my second year as a full-time classroom teacher. It’s been three years since I was even nominally on the higher-ed job market. I’m much more concerned about preparing my students for college than I am with the preparations necessary to teach college. Really, I wrapped all of my big thoughts into the 4,000 word essay I wrote for “How to Leave Academia.” I still have little ones, and there are occasions where my past and my present overlap in hopefully interesting ways. I’m still going to write about those here. It has felt increasingly wrong to keep the “Adventures of a Post-ac Writer” tagline, though, no matter what it might do for SEO.

My PhD hasn’t expired. I’m still #withaphd. The #withaphd hashtag is great, because it helps erode the “you are your degree” mentality that is so prevalent among academics (and exiting academics). I’m still a writer. But I’m not really a “post-ac writer” anymore. I haven’t been for a while. I’m a writer and teacher who happens to have a PhD.

So, new tagline: Adventures in Wordwork. That label more accurately gets at the mix of writing, reading, and teaching that occupy my time these days, that occupy this blog. Let’s see how it works out.

(P.S. If you are looking for my writings about postac, There’s an annotated list accessible from the menu at the top of the page.)

Something Funny

I want to write something funny, something longer than a tweet.

The first novels that I tried to write, back around third grade, were rather shameless and childlike takeoffs on things like Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. (Yes, I was completely oblivious to the innuendo in those books.) I read lots of Robert Asprin, the Myth and Phule’s Company books. Hell, even in high school most of what I wrote was funny, or tried to be and settled for clever. (Or worse.)

That went away, I think, around the time I started writing Serious Poetry. I was, as my students might say, “in my feelings.” I was in love with what I imagined to be profound as only a seventeen year old can be. Yes, there were self-indulgent love poems about crushes I didn’t know what to do with. (No, I’m not posting them.) A lot of the poems I wrote, though, were about the nature of reality, about girls who smoked flowers and rode to improbable places on desk chairs. Some of them were okay. By the end of college, I wasn’t writing many of those. My honors project was a long poem about stories and telling them and chasing them. It was super-serious and I meant every word of it. I still like it.

Meanwhile, I was turning from Anthony and Asprin to R.A. Salvatore (true confessions!) and Tad Williams and various kitchen-sink epics. I had a few fleeting projects along those lines. More importantly, those kinds of fantasy stories were the ones I was reading when I was writing for Imperial Secrets. Hallas and Leor and Dzalin were all serious characters who had various reasons to save, break, or re-make their respective chunks of the world.

By the end of college, I’d turned even further to Brust and Gaiman and Wolfe and Zelazny. Good writers, all. Funny moments in all (even in Wolfe, where they’re always a surprise), but the stories were never hangers for jokes like so many of the books I read when I was a kid.  I “knew” what I wanted to write: thoughtful, clever stories leavened with intermittent one liners. I wanted to put all the thoughtfulness that eventually led me to graduate school behind fantasy stories. (The degree to which it had to go behind the story is another post.) There was not a single whimsical thing in the process.

My kids will both, immediately, tell you that I am the silliest person in the family. They’re not wrong. I pretend all sorts of ridiculous things all the time. The kids are nine and approaching seven and I’m silly enough to make them roll their eyes like teenagers. (My daughter’s head start on that count is frightening.) My students will tell you that I’m funny and weird (and a lot of other things, I expect). Growing up, conversations in my family often revolved clever comebacks (and bad puns). The humor may be pretty dark, but…

…what I’m getting at, or trying to get at, is that it oughtn’t be a stretch for me to write something funny. It is, though. Part of that is the issue of acting versus reacting. One-liners and retorts bounce off of what was said to prompt them; they don’t appear out of nothing. Part of it, too, is that I have spent so much time treating writing as Serious Business. Writing Me is Serious Me, with big thoughts and careful language. Writing has been a way to prove that I’m smart. On the nonfiction side, it’s frequently didactic: here, let me help you understand this thing. (Look, it’s no coincidence that I’ve spent most of my adult life as a teacher of one sort or another.) On the fiction side, most of the stories I want to tell are not particularly funny.

Writing humor is challenging, though. Writing jokes is challenging. Even writing satire—which comes most easily to me—is challenging. It is just as much a skill as being able to explain Bourdieu to your uncle or complex-compound sentences to a disinterested high school freshman. Just as it takes more than speaking well to write well, it takes more than being funny to write funny things. Timing functions so much differently, for one. I know people who can make the stupidest knock-knock joke hilarious because they get the beats just right. Making those beats work in writing takes work, especially when you know that your readers will hear it not in your voice, but in their own inner voice.

How do you get better at things? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. (My alma mater has a science building named Carnegie Hall; it was a running joke that music students would go practice there just to say they’d played in Carnegie Hall.) Luckily or unluckily for you, my practice space is this blog.

I want to practice, too, because for all the progress humanity has made, there are a lot of bleak things going on. We could all, I think, use something funny…and I don’t do cat videos.

Back on the Horse

This morning, I managed to start the day with yoga. I’ve used a basic sun salute sequence as my athletic warm-up for years. That does not, unfortunately, mean that my body fell automatically into the right rhythm this morning. I tweaked my knee running warm-up laps at frisbee practice a few months ago, which threw me out of that attempt to get back into shape. This morning, my back didn’t want to loosen up. Tendinitis poked my knee. It was all a little harder than when I did the same things yesterday.

I’m probably more out of practice writing blog posts. I started drafting a few different posts over the spring semester, but the only one that I finished is more personal than I want to put up right now. I’ve been writing, but mostly recreationally. Sitting at the keyboard this morning, I feel a little creaky.

It’s also a little like the moment you get a message or social media request from somebody you haven’t spoken to in years. How do you catch up? “A lot of stuff has happened in the last fifteen years. Fifteen years ago, I was… Fourteeen years ago…” You can’t do that. You hit the high points. Right now, I’m glad my blog isn’t really a diary because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to catch you up on the last six months of my life.

I can catch you up on the posts I wanted to write. I have about a hundred words of my Song of the Year post for 2015. I have a post that, a little presciently, begins “Writing is putting one word after another. Being a writer is putting words on the page after a long day of work or a short night of sleep.” By that standard, I have not really been much of a writer for the past few months.

But I’m back! I’m working the kinks out, re-reading drafts of Ghosts of the Old City, catching up with all the UI changes on WordPress, usw. I’m reading novels I’m not teaching. My plan is to write three or four posts a week, but only to post two. This hypothetical “buffer” will do bufferish things when school prep starts back up in August.

Big plans this summer, too: getting Ghosts out to beta readers. I’ll be tidying up the collection of my #postac posts and compiling them (with commentary) into an ebook. There are so many things I want to read, so many novels I want to nick from.

Yoga this morning was a little harder than it was yesterday. This post is more disjointed than I’d like, a little rough, a little strained. It’s not smooth or clever. But it’s here. Before you can ride (like the wind!), you have to get back on the horse.

More to come!

NaNoWriMo Reflections, 2015

So the semester is done and I finally have a chance to look back on NaNo.

nano-2015-winner-banner

I won this year, but it was so much different than 2013. I’ve spent the last few weeks (and particularly the evening after our local “TGIO” party) puzzling out which of the differences had to do with me and which had to do with my region. There were a lot of changes in both over the two years between my wins.

Back in 2013, finding the community in the Austin region was super-important to me. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I’d only been in Texas a few months and meeting people who were not in my family circle was novel (sorry). Teaching was still just a stopgap, something I was doing on a substitute basis while looking for a real job. I was still pretty miserable much of the time. I’d also, y’know, never written a novel before. (Never mind that I’d started several going all the way back to third grade.)

That year, write-ins were really social. We spent at least half the time doing word sprints and chattering between them. I went to most of the Saturdays and most of the Wednesdays. A really high percentage of my wordcount came from those write-ins, particularly from the sprints. I remember that most of the people seemed to be writing purely for entertainment. We’d get together, overcaffeinate, and hurl words at our virtual pages.

Last year, I hardly made it to anything. I wanted to, but being a first-year teacher at a poorly-funded middle school was as much as I could handle. The commute did not help, nor did my kids’ challenges adjusting to their new school. I don’t know if the changes I noticed this year were in progress last year or not.

The biggest difference this year is that the community seemed much more…pre-professional. Our new municipal liaisons were great at organizing events. Many of those events, though, aimed directly or indirectly at publishing. The focus on writing for the sake of writing seemed diminished. The write-ins were much quieter. One of the regular ones is at a local gaming store. Back in 2013, it was one of the noisiest write-ins. This year, it was an island of quiet in the otherwise busy store. Don’t get me wrong—I still wrote thousands of words at that write-in. I just wrote them quietly. People said hello when they arrived and goodbye when they left, and occasionally chatted with friends they’d already made when they needed a break. Mostly, though, the write-ins I went to were quiet.

This year, that suited me. That’s the other difference—I’ve written a novel now, even though it’s not quite ready for distribution. I knew going in that I could do it, and I had a good idea of what I wanted to get out of the month. Putting my head down and writing was fine. Really, I needed the time with minimal distractions more than I needed the community this year—I like my job (a lot), my home life is fairly stable, and my stress-happiness balance is tipped very much toward happiness. November was about making time to chase the story and the wordcount.

It was a hell of a chase, too. I was at “par” on two of November’s 30 days: the first and the last. Going into Thanksgiving break, I had over 20,000 words left to write. I spent much of the break writing (including Thanksgiving day). On Black Friday, I hiked downtown and got caught in the rain. (It was bad enough that I had my spouse bring me some dry clothes.) I had about 1800 words left for Monday, and wrote almost 3000 because I was not about to stop in the middle of the climactic chapter.

The end product is, I think, better than the initial version of Ghosts. Most of the story for Spires of Trayan is there, and there are fewer of the scenes where I’m using the characters’ fumbling around to try and figure out where the story needs to go. I’m sure that when I open it back up in a month, I’ll groan and wonder what I was thinking. There will be things that are too obvious, things that are not obvious enough, and a few scenes that will be better off incinerated.

But it’s done. Fifty-one thousand words on the page (61000 including the ones I wrote last year). Words that weren’t there before. It was a quieter, calmer, more focused NaNo, but pulling those words out of nothing makes it a win.