Monday, December 8, 2014

Murder Your Darlings: Perish Your Dreams

This is one of the harder pieces I've ever had to write. Please read it all the way through. Please understand that this is something I've arrived at after years of thought, consideration, struggle, depression, and anger. It takes a long time to murder the dreams of an idealist, but the coroner has finally arrived and declared this life-goal DOA.

I'm no longer going to call myself a writer.

Writers write, see? And I don't. I'm not. I haven't been. 

Let me back up for a moment. In order to see the trajectory of a thing, you need to see the launch point, follow the arc, watch the apex and the slow curve back to earth. When I started this path, I was in fifth grade. I wrote a poem, and it got a lot of attention from the parents and kids in my school. I thought that was cool, so I wrote more poems, and the occasional short story. When I got into high school, I met other people who were creatively inclined in a literary vein, and we became friends. One of my very best friends came from that meeting, and from a shared sophomore-year English class with a teacher who gave thoughtful, careful, instructive criticism and praise, and encouraged us to keep writing. I fell in love with writing. I was going to be a writer.

I wrote. I wrote a couple hundred poems. I'm still pleased with some of them, though I know they'll never change the world or win any prizes. I got to college, and I kept writing, short stories and essays. I filled four or five journals with thoughts and dreams and hopes and aspirations, sorrows and ruminations on my future. I developed friends who enjoyed SF role-playing games, and out of that experience I drew the stories for my first novel. The summer after my sophomore year, I wrote that novel, 110,000 words in 89 days. I sent it out, first to Tor, then to other houses. I was going to be a novelist.

Unsurprisingly, it didn't sell. I've got the rejection letters. All of them, generic and implacable as they are. Later, I was told by some writers to throw them away, and by others to save them, to use them as motivation. "There are 1,001 ways to write a novel," a close friend of mine, another writer, often says, when confronted with a 'which way is the RIGHT way to write' argument. "Do what works for you and keeps you writing."

I kept writing. I wrote my second novel during my junior and senior years of college. It also didn't sell, but it was a fundamentally stronger work, and I learned a lot from the process. By now, I knew the old saw that Stephen King had only been published on his fifth novel, and John Grisham on his sixth. I had written two. I was on my way to being a novelist. 

Life threw me some pitfalls. I had a disastrous first marriage beginning shortly after college and ending a couple of years later. We hated each other.  That's not a word I use lightly, but in our case, it applied. It damaged me very greatly, in a way that took me many years to recover from. I think, honestly, it broke something in me that I'll never get back, some of that sensawunda. I still speculated, but they were dark, slimy speculations, and they came from an ugly, cankered place.

Still, as I found myself in the corporate world, in relationships where I had fiscal responsibilities, and where the taxation of a day's work was on my mind and my emotions, I didn't write as often. And when I didn't write as often, I also didn't write as well. I stopped learning, I stopped stretching. I started to feel desperate about my dream.

I was EXCEEDINGLY lucky to meet one of the most amazing groups of people I have ever been fortunate enough to know in the Wyrdsmiths, my writing and critique group here in the Twin Cities. I would not have healed as well as I have were it not for the consistent presence and interaction of a group of friends that took me and my writing seriously, even though I have never published a thing--not for lack of trying. I reinvested. I wrote short stories, on their recommendation, as a way to hone my craft and begin the climb in the publishing world. I joined in 2004. I got my first acceptance letter in 2007, for a short story anthology. We celebrated. I was a writer.

The anthology collapsed. The house that was publishing it was bought as part of a larger package deal by another publisher, and that line was closed. The editor took it elsewhere, sold it, then had too many authors pull out of the project; eventually, in 2011, the second sale of the anthology collapsed, too.

I recently made my second first sale of a short story, to another anthology. Now this project looks like there is turbulence ahead. I hope it goes through--I want one of my little broken-winged darlings to fly, if only to have put something, anything, out into the world of Story. I love Story. I believe in it. Story is necessary for the existence of culture, perhaps for the continuance of our species.

I started writing in fifth grade, in 1987--twenty-seven years ago. I have submitted and submitted, been rejected over and over and over, and I have spent what emotional capital I have. It's gone. I still believe in my stories. I may still write, from time to time. Hell, I may even submit things, if I think a piece is good enough. But the dream has had all the helium let out of it, and I cannot fly on blind hope alone. Dragging the carcass of this airship across the ground and hopping will never be flight.

It is important that I share this with my writing peers and friends, because I want you all to succeed, and tell amazing stories. I want to read them and revel in them. I want to talk with you about the worlds you imagine and the ideas you want to share. But I also recognize that the shape of my life is not one where I will ever have the chunks of time that--for me--allow me to get into the headspace of a story and work, consistently, where I can regularly produce material to critique and submit, nevermind publish or make a living from. 

And, as a community, we don't talk about the people who walk away from writing. We have this story, this archetype, that people who leave the writing world couldn't hack it, that they are quitters, that we are somehow better than they are. Without knowing the shape of their lives, or the antecedents, we judge. So much for our vaunted skill at getting inside another's head, at creating sympathetic characters; don't let the fallen drag you down. Whatever their reasons, they are no longer playing the game, and therefore they no longer matter. I've watched it happen dozens of times in the past decade. But given where I'm standing, and the choice I'm making, I think it's important to give my reasons why. I'm not made of cardboard, and this wasn't a whim.

Going forward, you will see less of me on Facebook. That has been a drain on my energy and my focus, and that needs to change. There are perfectly good ways of getting in touch with each other that aren't cluttered with a million clamoring voices telling you what to think, what you should do with your time and your energy, who is wrong and who is right, what the latest scandal or fail or goat-with-a-human-like-voice video is. Will I miss the socialization? Yes. Some people I only know online, and I like their voices, and their jokes, and their insights. But the world is full of people, right here, all around me, if I take the time away from the computer screen to go out and live. I'm not gone entirely, but I will be there far less often. I have already cancelled my Twitter account. I will be moving to emeritus status with the Wyrdsmiths, like others who have moved away or shifted in their writing habits or needs.

Like many of you, there is no viable way for me to live without being creative. I am always making things. Some years ago, I took up photography, first as a hobby, then semi-professionally, when several of my photographs began to sell. This past year, I launched a photography business, SMM Photography, and I fully intend to pour myself into that. I want to make good art, to quote Neil Gaiman's now famous graduation speech. Photography seems to be a venue where I am having a degree of success. I already have ideas of ways I can merge my love of SF with my passion for photography, and I would love the opportunity to collaborate, if any of you have mixed media projects you want to explore, or if you need author photos taken. 

Most importantly, in growing to know myself and become the healthiest me I can, I've found that there is only so long I can go without some success, some sense that what I am doing is of value, before I run out of energy. And since I'm the one who has to live my life, I'm going to try and be happy.

Thanks for reading, and good luck.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How Deep Run the Roots of Fear

So, here's and interesting tidbit for my socially conscious friends to mull over. I'm Jewish. I work in a synagogue, and I interact with lots of Jews. 

Just yesterday, before the announcement that Governor Jan Brewer was vetoing SB 1062, and in light of all of the other states that have tried/are trying to pass religious "right of refusal" bills in the last few weeks, I was having a conversation with someone who expressed, with concern, that the bill was awful, that the situation across the country feels xenophobic, and that Jews could be next.

This is not someone who lived through the Holocaust. Multiple generations removed, has a name most people wouldn't identify as "Jewish" (a completely inappropriate and unfounded standard of identification, but many people do it).

Then, later in the day, someone else, completely unconnected to the first situation, said to me that Jews could be next, considering this situation. Their fear was a kernel, but real. They were worried, if only a little.

To quote Martin Niemöller: 
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Never tell me that oppressing one group of people doesn't have any impact on other groups. Fear-mongering, intolerance, and exclusion hurt everyone.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fear ≠ Fun For All

For the last four days, all over my Facebook feed, I've been seeing pictures of this animatronic devil baby that was unleashed on unsuspecting New Yorkers as a prank. A evil looking baby with bloody eyes in a remote controlled walker.

Yeah, fuck that.

I'm sick of seeing it. It's not funny, and it's pissing me off. Here's why: some of us don't enjoy being terrified. Perhaps I should rephrase that: some of us would rather go without eating for a week than experience that severe jolt of fear. That biological response, that fight-or-flight shock of adrenaline hitting your system? NOT EVOLVED TO BE PLEASANT. I don't get my jollies being scared, and I don't think it's funny when people are frightened for the amusement of others. I think it's an asshole thing to do, frightening others for your own amusement.

 If they are complicit--say, they go into a haunted house, or they buy a movie ticket for Saw 37--then fine, they have agreed to be frightened. If they buy a roller coaster ride, cool; that is complicit. I don't enjoy that feeling, and if that person's explicit consent was not given to participate--before the prank was pulled--then I have a problem with inducing terror/fear/horror as anything other than a means to biologically preserve their lives. As in, if a Mack truck is bearing down on me, you should scare the hell out of me so I move. But if there is no Mack truck, and you frighten me into feeling that my life is in danger... that is not funny. You are being an asshole, AT BEST.

There's enough hardship and anguish in life without someone jacking around with your emotional state because they want to get their jollies watching you squirm, or scream. I have no respect for pranksters whose weapon is fear, since they obviously have no respect for those around them.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Resolutions: Severance & Perseverance

End of a year, beginning of another. Threshold. Standing in the doorway, it's so human of us to look back at what we're leaving, then try to map out where we want to go as we step through. We can only pause so long, stutter-step, like a graduation march for time, before we roll on into the future. So, before I get to where I want the coming year to go, how has this last year been?

Well, I only made one resolution for 2013: be less afraid.

Huh.

I think that might have worked. Is it perfect? No, hell no. I've never met anyone who completely accomplished a thing as amorphous and ongoing as that with utter confidence that it was over, solved, never to return. But I'm a lot less afraid about certain elements of my life than I was this time last year. I care less about what people think about me. I still have a long way to go before I'm comfortable with where I am in this regard, but I've made some specific strides in this regard this year. I've told a few people that the way they were treating me was unacceptable and would not continue. I've advocated for myself, and by extension those around me, a bit more. My job has been a source of anxiety and depression for me, but this autumn I told them I am leaving this year, and since then, I am much, much more at peace with that environment. (Anxious about finding a new job, yes, but that's a different kind of stress.)

I still feel like I'm not living my own life, but I'm moving in the right direction, now. Momentum is a powerful thing, so I'll try to keep moving that way.

All right, well, looking forward, then. There's been a lot of talk about setting S.M.A.R.T. goals for New Year's Resolutions (read more at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/2013/12/26/2014-resolutions/), the key being that the goals are difficult and well-defined while still being sensible.

I could live with being difficult, as long as I am well-defined and sensible. (Can you be difficult and sensible at the same time? Or is that a Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy?)

Unpacking the acronym, goals I set should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-framed. No climbing Mount Everest or going to space this year, as those aren't Attainable or Realisitic for me, for a variety of reasons.

For me, they also have to be ways in which I want to improve, either because they will support long term goals for my life, or because I want to achieve them. If I set a goal for something that meets these criteria but I'm not actually interested in, I might as well toss that overboard right away. I won't maintain interest if I don't actually care about it.

Yeah, there's a reason perseverance is in the title of the post. I have to improve in that regard.

Lastly, these have to be things that I have at least a fair stake in accomplishing. I'm not going to put "publish X short stories," because, frankly, if I had that much control over whether they got published or not, I wouldn't need to put them on a list. Ditto for selling photographs--I don't control whether someone wants to buy them or not. I can only control submissions.

So, here's the list, then. I'm breaking this into three different categories: Writing, Running, and Other.

Writing
  1. Write one novel
  2. Finish four short stories
  3. Submit every finished short story (1 submitted so far)
Running
  1. Run a sub-1:30 half marathon
  2. Run a sub 3:10 marathon/qualify for the Boston Marathon
  3. Run a sub-19:00 5K
Other
  1. Record at least one original song
  2. Submit at least 50 photographs to Getty Images (10/50 submitted)
  3. Finish designs for the Arts & Crafts style tallit
I think that's where I'll leave it. While I could keep going, there is such a thing as overcommitting--a thing I've occasionally been guilty of. Besides, three threes works for me.

While I was writing this, a friend posted a picture of fortune cookie papers with pithy, oft-repeated mottos printed on them. and damn if the last one wasn't exactly what I needed to hear right now: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."

GrrrrrrrRRROWF!

These goals don't just happen. They require a metric crapton of work and preparation. So here's the first part of a plan to put my body in the best shape for those running goals: 


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

There's Power in Them Thar Words

"If God is, it is because he is in the book. If sages, saints, prophets exist, if scholars and poets, men and insects exist, it is because their names are found in the book. The world exists because the book does." 
--Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions, 
trans. Rosmarie Waldrop 
(Middletown, Conn., 1972), p. 31 

If I have a singular, capital-B, capital-S, "Belief System," it is one in the power of narrative, the tidal strength of story to draw us in and direct our paths in life. If I were inclined to the L. Ron Hubbard way of thinking, I would make a religion of story, with rituals of telling and hierarchies of naming, of reshaping and remembering. I'm not so inclined, but neither would I be surprised to see a formalized religion of story emerge in the coming decades*. We are all searching for meaning in life, for purpose, direction; to be remembered, perhaps; certainly to have lived for a reason.

I cannot think of a more distinct endorsement for the power of narrative than the quote above, from Egyptian/Jewish/French poet Edmond Jabès. (Caveat: While I grew up believing in God, I do not any longer. For those of you who believe in God, please understand that I'm not making any commentary here on the value of those beliefs, but rather on the power and value of the narratives that can--and do--drive any number of belief systems.) Throughout his work, Jabès discusses the meaning of words, their power, the value of being inside of a story that we ourselves are writing. In the example above, we get one of the clearest examples of the power a story can have in shaping the world. The phrase "In the beginning, God..." sets a hell of a path in motion, when taken as the pretext for existence. Civilizations have literally risen and fallen over the words that follow, over the stories in that one book. Look at the simple example of the two half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael, one loved and one cast aside, and the complex, conflicting identities of the peoples that look to them as progenitors, and have not forgotten a grudge older than memory, if it ever happened that way at all. How much has the world been changed by the willingness to belief that a woman gave birth to a boy with no father, who grew up to be a radical voice calling for social reform, got nailed to a cross, and turned out to be the embodiment of a deity? And those are just examples from one set of books, one portion of the many-faceted history of the world. What of the Bhagavad Gita, or the Ramayana? What of 

No, wait, don't dismiss those ideas--people really and truly and deeply believe them. It matters to them. Why? THAT is the question that we must answer, because those narratives are compelling enough to sink roots deep into the psyche, to tap into deep emotions and undercurrents of thought. They have undeniably changed the course of history.

They are words, mere seeds of ideas. "From the tiny acorn, the mighty oak tree grows."

Look how much they matter, these words, these stories.

What we do, shaping stories, can change the world. Never doubt it.

___

*Actually, the Australian Aboriginal belief in the Dreaming may be one of the closest examples I've seen of story and existence being closely interwoven, though of course there are references throughout many other texts, including the speaking of creation in the Book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and the logos reference that starts off the Book of John in the New Testament.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Mind the Gap

We writers are people. We like to share our successes, we like to hide our failings, our faults, our less-than-perfect moments. Especially online, as we each work to build an audience and reach out to readers, it can be hard to talk about the difficulties and struggles. But there's another group of people who might read this, too: less experienced writers.  And they NEED to know how hard it can be.

Today I'm going to talk about the gap.  First, let me let Ira Glass, host of National Public Radio's "This American Life" and a fine storyteller, explain:




So, that's the gap. I'm in that gap. I have been for about two years. I am closer now than I have ever been to breaking in, and I know it. That's makes every setback harder to take, worse to struggle through, because my backbrain starts telling me I haven't made any progress, that I'm a hack, that I will *never* make the jump.

Now, my forebrain knows this is a heap of rubbish. But emotions, unfortunately, they bubble up out of that subsurface stew in the backbrain, and they get to simmering on that disappointment and despair, which kicks in the cycle of not working, not writing, depression, and it gets harder and harder to do the work to push forward. 

I need to say this, because it's happening to me right now. I need to say this, because it's happening to other writers, right now, too. And I need to say this because it *will happen* to countless others along the way, many of whom have no idea that this is part of the struggle to get where we're going. Campbell isn't as popular as he once was, but I have to see my self as the hero of my own journey, and this is the belly of the whale. It goes deep, and it goes down, and it is dark and foul-smelling. And I have to persist through it. So I will. That doesn't make it any easier, but it does mean it won't last forever.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rules of the Road

So, yesterday was a long run, 20 miles. No matter how fast you are, 20 miles is going to put you on the road for a long stretch of time, with not much to do but think.

Yesterday, as I came up to an intersection about a mile into the run, the light turned green and the walk signal came on, so I kept my pace and started to cross the street. The driver of a minivan decided to gun it and turn right in front of me, despite having had a red light for a couple of seconds already, and despite the fact that several of us were visibly beginning to cross the street. (I should also note that the driver slowed down, but never stopped.) I prefer to communicate that this is unacceptable, so I rapped on the side panel of the vehicle with my knuckles to say "Hey, right here, could have hit me! We saw you run that red light!"

About half a mile later, I came to another intersection with a light. Again, the light turned green just as I was approaching. I kept pace and started to enter the street, noting that the car that had been waiting at the light was turning left and would intersect my crosswalk. I then noticed that the walk light was NOT lit, so I backpedalled, holding out my hands to the driver in apology. Once they had turned and no one else was in sight, I crossed.

I tell these two stories in light of the conversations/debates/arguments that have been happening lately within the SF/F writing community, about the SFWA bulletin and the lapses in judgement regarding the depiction and discussion of gender equity. Every civilization requires a mutual recognition for certain shared rules, laws, and behavioral guidelines, in order to establish proper social interaction. I trust I need not quote the Code of Hammurabi or Aristotle's Politics in support of this point.

That said, those rules of interaction change with the society. Some are more flexible than others, some are situational variant, and some are generalized guidelines, perpetually in flux.

It strikes me that a great deal of the controversy over the recent blunders in the SFWA Bulletin (issues #200, #201, and #202) has to do with how we read and react to the rules of the road. For instance, when the driver of the minivan ran the red light, I was well within my rights to communicate that I recognized and disapproved of her choice, and that it had endangered me and others in my society. Likewise, when I began crossing the road without the correct signal, I could have just continued across the street, ignoring the signal and forcing the vehicle to stop from hitting me. I'm in a crosswalk, right? Per Minnesota state law, the onus is on the driver of the vehicle, which has more power to do harm.*

Except, that's not a responsible approach. Because as soon as you start to say that something is barely breaking the rules, or that those rules shouldn't apply in this situation, you start to say that your interpretation of the situation and the rules is more important and more valid than the rest of the society you are participating in. So I agree, wholeheartedly, with Ben Rosenbaum's post about situational and society awareness. If Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick want to sit around in private space to discuss the relative physical merits of a woman they once knew, fine. But there needs to be a recognition that, when speaking from a place of established power (as long-established, male authors writing for the official publication of THE professional organization for SF/F writers and artists should more or less concrete, for purposes of this discussion), to be aware of audience, cultural shifts, and most importantly, forward looking responsibility to the genre.

I'm willing to believe that what they did in issue #200 was akin to me running out into the street without the right signal. It was ill-conceived, inappropriate, and likely unintentional--though that last may be more egregious than it sounds. But still, I've never met someone who doesn't make mistakes; they, too, are part of how we interact with each other.

It was that, instead of backpedalling and apologizing, as when I realized my mistake in running, in issue #202 they figuratively stood in the crosswalk, flipped off the oncoming car, and yelled "You're trying to run me down! I have every right to run here!"**

This does not for good society make.

I believe there have been misinterpretations and misjudgments on many fronts in this debate. Threats of death, dismemberment, rape, bodily harm, and physical or psychological torture*** are never an acceptable form of discourse. Calls for people to step down, or be fired, do have their place--and I understand Jean Rabe has done just that today.  As I say in the comments section of  my blog, if you cannot be courteous, be civil. Yes, there are times when the blood must rise, when a point must be made, or defended, strenuously. But for communication to happen, both sides of any disagreement must see, admit, and accept the humanity of the other side, even if they cannot accept in any way the other's point of view on a particular topic.

We must move forward together. And I mean every single word of that sentence.
___

*To be clear, lest this be misinterpreted, this metaphor is NOT intended to suggest that the women and men who responded to Malzberg and Resnick's dialogue of “lady editors” and “lady writers,” how they looked in bathing suits, how they were “beauty pageant beautiful” or a “knock out” were in any way doing the wrong thing. In their metaphorical experience, the car may have continued moving until it bumped into them, or revved its engines as if suggesting they were in the wrong. It's not a perfect metaphor.

**Also, it should be clear that, based on the power dynamics of the situation and the long history of ill treatment of women in speculative fiction and SF in particular, these men were in the driver's seat of the vehicle, not acting as the pedestrian, in this metaphor.

***This is not intended to be a complete list of modes of unacceptable discourse.