On Writing in November

It’s that time of year again.  The time of changing leaves, of chilly mornings and crisp afternoon.  The sunlight, though less, feels nevertheless sharpened, until in winter it will cut like blades.  I look for leaves like smoldering fires.  I go outside just to smell the changing air.

I also know that, at this moment, all around the world, writers are huddling over their keyboards and churning out stories as fast as they can type.

The yearly writing sprint that is National Novel Writing Month tends to inspire very strong opinions.  I’m a fan myself.  I’ve done it many years (though not this year—too many  conflicting obligations on my time), and I find it both fun and productive.  It is intended to do one thing—to get people to the keyboard—and it does that one job very well.

And in years when I have a bunch of half-finished projects sitting by and don’t need another novel draft, I nevertheless turn November into a personal challenge month:  I set goals of hours spent editing, short stories edited or submitted, query letters written.  Whatever I need at that moment in time.  Being caught up in the general heady rush of NaNoWriMo keeps me going.  It’s so much easier to run that race when you’ve got friends running alongside.

There’s just something special about a bunch of friends & strangers coming together to cheer each other on during this weird, gray, chilly month.  The camaraderie has been, in my experience, one of the best parts of the experience.  So if you’re doing NaNoWriMo, GO GO GO!  Get yourself a cup of mulled apple cider, wrap yourself in something cozy, and keep writing!  Dig deep into yourselves:  each of us contains galaxies, we just need to tap into them.

Distraction at the Gate

Today I’m going to talk about one of the most pernicious foes a writer faces:  Distraction.

But first, look over here!  A brief, shiny aside:

When I was young, a shelf of beloved fantasy novels sat just above the desk where I did my homework.  Whenever I spent time there, I liked taking down books and perusing them, re-reading favorite passages, spending time with the characters, letting the words and worlds fill me.

Naturally, this made it hard to finish my homework.

So one day, I came up with a solution.  I blocked off the books with a length of bright orange yarn and a stern admonition written to myself on an index card.  Now, a loosely-hung piece of yarn wouldn’t have thwarted anyone who really wanted to get at those books.  But it was enough to mentally check me and get me back on task.

Distraction has always been my nemesis.  It’s always guarding the door to the Land of Getting Stuff Done.  Ambitious magpie-brain that I am, I have to find ways to get past it.  This usually involves noticing my weak points and blocking them off.  As I got older and the Internet became a Thing, I started pulling network cables or shutting down my computer’s wireless when I needed to write.  I keep track of weekly writing goals and monthly to-do lists to help me stay on track.  I don’t always succeed–life happens when you’re busy making other plans, etc. etc.–but these techniques help me.

But Distraction can be a tricky beast.  For example, my main writing tool is an AlphaSmart Neo2.  It’s essentially an external keyboard with a tiny screen that shows 4 lines of text at a time. It only holds 8 text files.  There’s no internet connection, no lengthy boot-up time to allow my mind to wander, no other shiny bits or special features I can get lost in.  It’s been my latest tool for distraction-free writing.

(I swear I’m not being paid to say this.  Heck, the company doesn’t even make them anymore!  I had to find mine on eBay.)

But then it started to have a different and unexpected effect on my writing.  My rough first drafts started to get, well–rougher than usual.  More playful.  Characters made unexpected choices or revealed surprising aspects of themselves more often.  If I got stuck, they would break into bizarre slang (“Great Googly-Moogly!”) or sum up the scene with a sudden shattering of the 4th Wall, and I’d move on.

And I realized that limiting myself to a window of only 4 lines of text meant I wasn’t constantly backtracking to fiddle with earlier paragraphs or to shuffle things around or to make sure the current paragraph flows smoothly from the previous one.  My inner editor was shutting up, and I was letting myself play.

All this time, Distraction had been tag-teaming with Perfectionism!  Even when I was writing, the two of them had been detouring me off the path and into the weeds, where I’d be too busy picking at old words to write new ones.  They were the Heel Team from Writer Hell.  Here I thought that Perfectionism was a foe I always had to deal with later, a hurdle for later drafts.  But Perfectionism was standing at the front gates the whole time.

So, what is a person to make of all this?  Are writers supposed to avoid editing as they go?  Does everyone with an ambition have to cordon off their hobbies with yarn and stern index cards?  Turn off their Internet, buy some distraction-free retro tech and hike out to the middle of nowhere?

Well…you do what is right for you.  We all have our hurdles, our monsters standing at the gate between us and our goals, whether they be writing that novel or starting that podcast or trying out that new and super-complicated recipe you’ve been eyeing.  Even if money and time and health aren’t issues (and that’s a big if), we are endlessly creative when it comes to sabotaging ourselves.  There’s no magic bullet cure.  Just you learning to know yourself, finding your sticking points, and trying different ways to get around them, till you get where you want to go.

Dracula in the Gaps

There’s a lot to say about vampires:  their raw and deadly charisma, their powers wrested from the darkness, their sexuality, their connection to humanity’s dark half.  Every generation takes their stab (haha) at our perennial shadow-selves.  If you wanted to do a research paper on vampires, you couldn’t swing a bat (haha) without finding plenty of ink already spilled on the subject.  They continuously draw us in even as they creep us out.  They are walking metaphors for hunger, loss, power, lust, immortality, blood.

But I’m not interested in those right now.  Today I’m going to talk about another, tragically-overlooked side of this creature of the night:


You see, Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel “Dracula” isn’t just a straight-up horror novel, starring a whole bunch of Victorian Brits freaking out about the Other.  It’s also an epistolary novel:  it’s told entirely as a series of diary entries, newspaper clippings, letters, and fancy wax-cylinder audio recordings (cutting-edge tech at the time!).  Much of the underlying horror of the threat of Dracula is that he resists being coherently pinned down to the page.  Many of the protagonists’ logs start with “This makes no sense, let me get my thoughts in order…” and devolve into “I have no idea what is going on and that terrifies me.”  Creating a record of one’s experiences was supposed to be a way to put one’s problems in an easy box, where it could be safely examined and prodded, until one could understand it and then come up with a clean, rational solution.  And Dracula kept leaking out of that box, like so much evening mist slipping through a crack in the door.

The modern equivalent would be a story put together from a series of blog posts, tweets, status updates, hyperlinks.  Heck—why not steps measured with a FitBit, or browser histories?  I’d love to get a good look at Jonathan Harker’s Google search history.  And did anyone else notice how there’s no record of that AirBnB listing that he selected?  How is he going to leave that 1-star review?  “Castle drafty and mazelike, wifi spotty at best, and unseemly women kept assaulting me in my bed.  Breakfast was decent.”

Epistolary stories—broadly defined as stories formed out of diary entries or letters—create narratives that are both raw and unreliable.  Raw, in the sense that they feel like they’re coming at us straight from the source.  Unreliable in that it calls our attention to the fact that we are only seeing pieces of a story, told from limited perspectives.  We’re given pieces of a puzzle we have to put together on our own—or in some cases, guess at what lurks in the gaps between them.

These may be the reasons epistolary novels are most commonly seen in romances and in horror.  Both genres focus on the strong emotional reactions of protagonists who often cannot see the larger picture until the climax, when they are facing down the monster or the love interest (or, in some cases, the monster love interest).

Of course, you can have lots of fun putting together a collage story in all sorts of genres.  One of my favorite fantasy short stories inter-splices the main narrative with fictional auction records.  Or this charming and hilarious piece of Batman fan-fiction, a story with surprising emotional heft told entirely through a series of Excel spreadsheets.  One of my own stories, Why I’m Asking for an Extension on my Paper, takes the form of one side of a phone conversation between a college student and her professor.  We never hear exactly what the professor is saying.  We can only guess at their responses, the face they’re making, the tone of voice.  For all we know, it could be Dracula on the other end of the line.

And maybe that’s what’s fun about both Halloween and epistolary stories:  playing with and playing in the gaps, spending good quality time with what we don’t know.


What Stories Give Us: Part 2

When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot in school.  It’s the downside of being a nerd in American culture: bullies homed in on me like book-seeking missiles.  Not having the social skills to deflect them, I stuck my head down and endured.

The stories I gleaned from TV and movies at the time didn’t help me much; aside from Lisa Simpson, girl nerds were largely absent from popular media.  The 1980s and 1990s saw a spate of movies where the awkward, ill-fitting girl is “fixed” with a makeover.  Even if her Pygmalion learns a valuable lesson by the end, respect for her and her choices is never even an option until it’s revealed she can clean up nicely.  Having that nerd girl already be a part of the group, already accepted—even appreciated—for her particular skills and interests, with nobody trying to change her, wasn’t even an option I saw on the table for me.

Books, however, were another matter.  Fantasy in particular had a rich gallery of heroines who managed to escape confining upbringings and pursue their dreams among like-minded folk.  Heroines who picked up swords and fought.  Bookish and/or clever heroines who thought their way out of problems.  Heroines who rode frikkin’ dragons!

Fantasy did (and still does) catch a lot of flak for being escapist.  But I’ve always preferred to take a somewhat Campbellian approach to it:  we go to these fantastic worlds, we grow and change, and we come back better, bearing the fruits of our adventures with us.  And all of these girl-heroes who were like me gave me strength.  They gave me hope.  Because they showed me I was not alone.

There are two points I want to make about this:

  1. There’s a lot that can be said here about the value of representation in a broader sense (it matters!). Seeing ourselves in stories tells us we’re not alone, that our beings are not some aberration of the concept of humans.  We have stories and our stories have value.  Knowing even that much can be a lifeline, a rope of light thrown to us in a dark and stormy sea.

    It was tough for me being a girl, and a nerd girl in particular.  But imagine what it must be like for those even more invisible in our stories: to be gay, or a POC, or trans, or disabled, and to not only rarely (or never) see yourself presented as the hero of a story but to be vilified or victimized most of the time.  No matter how abstract or fantastical, stories are models for how we can be.  If there are no stories that show a happy ending for us, then what hope can we find?

  2. This is just one way that stories are capable of giving us strength and hope. They show us how to carry on.  They are, after all, models for how to be.  I don’t necessarily have to be using magical powers to fight demons from the netherhells or delivering a McGuffin of pure Evil™ to a volcano or bonding with a magical animal (preferably a dragon) in order to get something out of a story.  But stories can teach me how to honor my promises, how to treat the unknown with respect, how to use power wisely and with compassion, how not to judge by appearances.  Stories can show the value of determination, or how to think critically and ask the right questions (a valuable and tragically undervalued skill!).

One of my favorite quotes rather touches on this: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” (The quote is Neil Gaiman paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton.)  I think this is true not just of fantasy, but of fiction in general and even some non-fiction stories.  You learn to pick yourself up and face the monster in your life because stories have shown you how.  Stories have shown you that it can be done.

What Stories Give Us: Part 1

In light of my last post, I wanted to take a deeper dive into what stories give us.  Stories aren’t all true; fiction is, by nature, something made-up.  (Fantasy, even more so.)  But whether they’re true tales or works of the imagination, stories give us many things. There’s a reason we’ve kept storytelling around for so very long. I could probably be here all day listing what I think it gives us.  But today I will just focus on one: empathy.

Here’s a true fact about me:  I’ve never been kicked out of my home for making music.  I’ve never been stuck behind enemy lines, knowing that any enemy soldier that found me out would probably kill me.  I’ve never dealt with the pressures of being royalty, or the dangers of being a runaway slave.

But stories have given me a glimpse into what that might have been like.  Stories have taught me a lot about people.

There’s an anecdote related by Gene Wolfe that I think about often when I’m putting together a story:

Not so long ago I saw a magnificent German shepherd lunge from between two parked cars, held in check by a blonde who could have played first base in the National League.  And it struck me that a fantastic adventure could have been filmed on the spot simply by hanging a skull about that woman’s neck and equipping her with a broadsword—but the woman and her dog are everything, while the skull and the sword are nothing.

The woman and the dog are everything.  Because, no matter how fantastically you’ve dressed up your story, it has to be about characters.  It has to be about people.  And it has to make us care about them.

It doesn’t mean that character has to be human.  We tell stories about aliens, animals, ghosts.  But the point is, they give us insight into what it’s like to be human.  They give us windows into experiences we’ve never had (and might never have).  And that insight teaches us empathy, which is probably the most important gift we have in this world.

empathy cat
I had no idea how to evoke empathy in a picture, so here’s my cat. Just seeing him contentedly curled up in my lap relaxes me.  That, too, is empathy.

Empathy is a skill.  It takes work and effort.  Sometimes the process of learning to understand people (especially those whose lives are very different from your own) means letting go of false assumptions or comforting simplicities.

But I think it is necessary work, and stories help us do that.

I’d like to hear from you now:  what stories have given you greater insight & understanding into people?  What stories have made you feel for a person or people you never thought you’d care about?  Or heck, just tell me a story that moved you deeply.  True stories count!

Writing & Grief

The world has been exceptionally heavy this past week or so.  I’ve been waffling on what to write here since so much of what I’d like to talk about seems almost frivolous in the face of devastating hurricanes and yet another mass shooting.  John Scalzi recently spoke of this in a general sense, about writing when the weight of the world is pushing you down.  But more specifically, today I’d like to talk about writing through grief.

My brother David died on New Year’s Eve, 2003.  It wasn’t an expected death, not the result of any illness or anything preventable.  Just a stray bullet fired when it shouldn’t have been, and he was gone.  Like that.  He was 24 years old.

David was a jazz musician.  He was one of the most passionate, creatively talented people I knew, and now he was just gone from the world.  All the things he could’ve done, all the songs he could’ve written, all he could’ve contributed to the world with his passion, none of it would happen.

I was a year younger than him, fresh out of grad school at the time and stumbling my way into adult independence.  Grief came like a hammer-blow.  I wasn’t in a good place to openly grieve much; I was financially unstable and in a living situation I can generously describe as fraught.  So I carried it around like a quiet weight inside me for a long time, as if the iron head of that hammer had lodged itself in my chest.

I didn’t write much in the year that followed.  In general I was an optimist, quick on the rebound and convinced there was little in the world that couldn’t be solved with a little imagination and a determination to do good.  But grief wasn’t something you rebounded from after a good night’s sleep.  My brother was missing from my life.  Everything felt off-balance.

What was the point of me telling stories about dragons or superheroes in the wake of such a loss?

Over time, my grief scarred over, healing as all wounds do.  I gradually began writing again, though there were some days where his absense struck me more.  There were days where I turned his loss over and over in my head, wondering how I could best honor his life.

About three years later, I pulled a half-finished novel draft out of the trunk.  I’d gotten stuck on Chapter 6, not really sure where the plot was supposed to go.  I played with it, writing a few sentences, and then a paragraph.  The next thing I knew, I’d broken the story’s dam open and the words began to flow again.

I was about two-thirds of the way through that first draft when I realized I was writing about David’s loss.

My main character was, in her own sideways manner, a creator of stories.  She, too, lost someone imporant to her.  She, too, stared into the abyss and wondered what the point of it was.  The book was the two of us feeling our way towards the answer.

Telling a good story isn’t the end-goal.  It’s what that story gives to the person who hears it.  Stories give us hope, and joy.  They give us insight and empathy.  They give us a new perspective.  They show us ways of being in this world, and dealing with all the ups and downs that entails.

purple flower
Nevertheless, we persist.

I can’t tell you what your own path through grief will be like.  That road is deeply personal.  But I can tell you, with certainty, that the world needs your voice.  It might take you a while to figure out what you want to say, especially when the world feels like it’s spinning off into the darkness.  But your story matters.  And one day, when you are ready, I would love to hear it.


Cultivating Mental Green Space

I’m sitting in Schenley Plaza, a spacious green lawn in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.  Oakland is a busy urban hub overflowing with universities and colleges.  Their presence means that there’s a lot of green space here: grassy plazas, parks, wide sweeps of lawn, and lots of green nooks between and around buildings.  Places where the proverbial student can tuck themselves in with a book and pore thoughtfully over its contents, in a pose worthy of dozens of college brochures.

I love finding these little patches.  There’s nothing like turning a corner and finding an unexpected garden in the middle of the city.  These are the places I go on my lunch breaks, toting a notebook or a netbook or now a Neo2, whatever writing tool helps me get the most work done.  Sometimes I tuck myself in with a book and read someone else’s words.  Sometimes I just sit and admire the view, breathing slowly.

There’s already been a lot written on the value of green spaces by people much more versed in urban planning & civil engineering than myself.  I couldn’t break down the Quality of Living metrics for you.  But I do know that their presence gives me something insubstantial but immeasurably valuable:  a visual and emotional break, a patch of beauty and serenity in the middle of the urban bustle.  A space to breathe.

I need green space to write.  Not necessarily in the physical world (though that’s always nice to have); I need to cultivate *mental* green space.

green space
This garden is on a wide grassy lawn crammed between the two busiest streets in Oakland.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’m a magpie brain.  I’ll find all sorts of other things to distract myself with if I’m not careful.  Give me free time and I’ll try to fill it up with chores and craft projects and TV shows.  Or even worse, I’ll get sucked into the neverending  black hole that social media can be, spiraling endlessly downward to the lightless gravity core.  And when this happens—as it’s been happening a lot lately—I find it even harder to work up the momentum to sit down and write.  I get stuck on a sentence and suddenly I’m looking at my phone.  I’m not sure where a story should go and suddenly I’m reading a long-form essay on the Political Scandal du Jour.  And I still don’t know where the story should go because I haven’t taken the time to step back and breathe.

Stories can stew in the back of my head without me giving them much conscious thought.  But to really get into the nitty-gritty of shaping and building and detailing, or just to play with new ideas and see where they’ll go, I need that quiet time when I put aside everything else and just let my thoughts run around the park.  Suddenly I’m moving through the world in the most productive haze, doing mindless chores or just taking a walk while mumbling about a character’s background or deciding what the most vital conflict is.  Ideas flower, and my feet find the path and follow it eagerly.

Call it negative space, or downtime. Call it Dedicated Musing Time or, heck, call it Miracle Jenny’s Miraculous Green Space Productivity Program (patent pending).  But we shouldn’t be afraid of giving ourselves that space when we need it.  Of putting the phone on the other side of the room, taking a deep mental breath, and having a nice long think.

I know that’s what I need to do.  So I guess it’s time to start covering busy mental parking lots with mulch and grass, to plant little gardens, to aggressively carve out spaces to just breathe.  And my thoughts can be like toddlers let loose to chase each other over the grass, or the man in gym clothes slowly yoga-ing himself into a pretzel, or the day camp kids chasing a giant 6-foot tall beach ball wherever the wind takes it, or even the occasional college student curled picturesquely over a book.

Buried Treasure

My guest room is a mess.  Every surface is covered with piles of papers, notebooks, magazines, and miscellaneous odds & ends.  That wasn’t the plan:  the plan was for me to take my house reorganizing and culling in small, bite-sized portions.  I was really only planning to sort through one, maybe two boxes this month.

But the next thing I knew, I’d pulled out several storage bins and boxes, some of which I had never unpacked from our move five (!) years ago.  If I was going to tackle papers, my thought process went, I was going to tackle them all at once.

So now I’ve spent a couple of evenings picking through high school report cards, preschool workbooks my parents had kept and passed along to me, college notebooks, sketchbooks…and old writing notebooks.

old notebooks
Magic Eye, Lisa Frank, and shiny chrome robot unicorns…I am definitely dating myself.

It’s a general rule of thumb that writers shouldn’t toss their old writings.  You never know when you’ll stumble on some useful nugget or old idea that could spark something new.  Everything gets tossed into the bubbling stew pot that is a writer’s imagination, so we can let it simmer for a bit and then pick up our ladles and go fishing for that perfect morsel.

So far, the sentimental poetry, awkward sentences, and poorly-constructed worlds of my teen years are inspiring more embarrassment than fresh new ideas.  Still, it’s a fun walk down Memory Lane, watching myself try to figure out this whole Writing Thing.  And there are moments when the light shines through.

There’s an old writer’s adage (usually attributed to Ray Bradbury) that goes “The first million words don’t count.”  It’s a helpful reminder when I think of all the time and effort I’ve put into stories that I tossed in the trunk and never touched again.  There’s a lot of writing that never sees the light of day but is still us learning and practicing our craft, slowly getting better until we finally start writing things that aren’t half bad.

I don’t know when I reached a literal million words, but I do know that the writings in these notebooks were me keeping at it, slowly getting better:  sometimes stumbling, sometimes sitting for a long time but getting up anyway and trying again.  I’d forgotten about a lot of these early poems and barely-started teenage novels, but they’re there, all bricks in the road getting me to where I am now.

I guess this is just me saying that I’m glad for the journey, and glad that my younger self persisted.

Navigating by Starlight

The Storyteller arrives before dawn.  The world is still dark, and the room empty, but full of anticipation.  She lights a fire in the hearth, sets out the seating, dusts the tables and sweeps the floor.  She ponders, briefly, painting the walls, but decides to leave them as they are.  She puts the kettle on for tea.

The story goes, we writers are reclusive sorts. The stereotypes keep us in cold attics or studio apartments or remote cabins in obscure woods. There may be some truth to that: writing is a notoriously solitary art, and we all need that “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf so famously put it. But now, our computers and laptops come with us up into the attic, and remote cabins are hooked up with wifi. And we do have a habit of making words if we’re given a page to put them on–even if the page is virtual. Continue reading “Navigating by Starlight”