If you spend any time on book Twitter, you may have noticed a recent upswing in chatter about Bookshop.org, “an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores.” Here’s just one of many recent articles on the Bookshop phenomenon, and how this scrappy little website found an unexpected toehold during coronavirus. You can find a more in-depth profile of the project here.
This is such an encouraging development for the publishing industry, and it’s so heartening to see the reading community embrace an alternative to Amazon which puts books and the people who love them first. If you need something new to read during quarantine, I hope you’ll consider buying directly from your local bookstores or from Bookshop (which has made it possible for many local bookshops to stay in business by taking over distribution during social distancing).
If you’re not sure what you want to read next, you can find a few recommended reading lists on my Bookshop affiliate page. (I’m hoping to make more in the next few weeks so if you have any suggestions for lists you’d like to see, please send them my way.) Using Bookshop affiliate links also pays their author-owners an additional 10% with each sale, so by using an affiliate link, you’re not only supporting independent bookstores broadly, but supporting individual artists directly!
From just one artist, thank you–and happy reading.
Next week I’ll be participating in a online festival of staged readings composed entirely of early modern history plays not written by Shakespeare, hosted by the Brave Spirits theatre company. Here’s a little more info from their website:
BST’s online reading festival celebrates history plays of the English early modern stage, revealing the breadth and popularity of the history genre during Shakespeare’s era. Including works by playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Heywood, George Peele, and John Ford, these plays span historical events from 1199 to 1499 and live in conversation with Shakespeare’s history plays, providing source material and alternate versions of events and characters.
You can find the details for the whole run here; I’ll be reading Constance in George Peele’s King John on Monday, May 11 at 7:30 p.m. eastern time, so if you’ve ever wanted to see me do verse, now’s your chance! Hope you’ll join us.
Writing is, in many ways, a solitary activity. Unlike music or dance or acting and other forms of art which necessitate collaboration, most writers work alone. The people and places and plots you create as a writer have to live in your head for a long time before anybody else can encounter them, and before they do there are many long days and nights spent putting one word in front of another in what often feels like a futile attempt to translate these vivid but intimate imaginings into prose. Easier said than done (and it wasn’t even that easy to say; I rewrote that sentence ten times).
I touched on this in a previous post, but living so much in your own head can make you feel (1) isolated, (2) like most of your friends are imaginary, and (3) stone cold crazy. Writing is a strange job. There’s a reason writers tend to be strange people. But the stereotype of the isolated, tortured artistic genius does more harm than good in the long run, from tricking would-be writers into relying on divine inspiration rather than revision to treating substance abuse as a key to creativity. It also conveniently forgets the fact that few writers could function without the support of other people.
If you flip to the back of any given book, you’ll likely find a list of names in the author’s “Acknowledgments” which includes publishing personnel like agents and editors as well as friends and family and sometimes other folks like fact-checkers and beta readers who test-drove the text before it went to press. Occasionally you’ll even find a “Select Bibliography” if it’s a work of non-fiction or something else requiring a lot of research. However, in my experience there are a lot of other people who contribute to the writing of a book whose names you don’t often see, and who may not even be aware of their own contribution.
The coronavirus pandemic has gotten me thinking a lot about those people. Unless you live under a rock, over the last few weeks you’ve probably watched a lot of local businesses close their doors, either due to state lockdowns or simply because the sudden drop in business made it impossible for them to keep up with operating costs. Many of these closures feel personal, not only because I miss my old haunts, but because the loss of them has highlighted just how important they are to my writing process. So in a fit of mixed sadness and gratitude and determination to do something to make this whole situation suck less, I spent last week throwing every dollar I could spare at the small businesses which have helped me write for the last five years. Helping helps me not feel helpless, even if it is in such a limited capacity.
On the off chance you would like to do the same, I’ve written the following list of local businesses without whom my writing would not happen; chances are you have hometown equivalents who need help just as badly, and I hope you’ll consider buying or donating there. This is a very small attempt to pay it back, pay it forward, and call attention to the unsung heroes of the creative process.
- Independent bookstores. By now you surely don’t need me to explain how corporate leviathans like Amazon hurt the book business. But since Amazon announced it’s de-prioritizing book sales for the duration, you really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by buying from an indie, and many of them have been working hard to move their operations online. A few of my favorites in DC are East City Books, who hosted my paperback launch, Kramerbooks, whose employees have talked up my book on social media, Capitol Hill Books, whose Twitter feed alone is worth a $20 book buy, and Loyalty Books, whose new location in downtown Silver Spring did not get the opening quarter it deserved. Another beloved bookstore of mine is Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, who hosted the biggest event of my very small book tour, and kept me knee-deep in good reads while I was a student at UNC and working on the first draft of Villains. Besides all that, any writer will tell you that there is no writing without reading. I owe these establishments a lot. Chances are you have indie bookstores nearby who would love to deliver or ship your next read right to your door. Not sure? Check their websites or try Bookshop and IndieBound. Bonus tip: many bookstores carry a lot of things besides books which might be handy to have around while sheltering-in-place, like puzzles and board games or three famed portraits of David Bowie.
- Independent record stores and labels. I don’t have a TV but I have 800 records in my living room and music has always been one of the most important ingredients in my writing process. Musicians have been suffering for a long time due to streaming services’ shameful refusal to adequately compensate them for their work. (If you’re interested in facts and figures, check out this article by Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski, from all the way back in 2012. This has been a problem for a while. Krukowski’s book, The New Analog, would also be a great read in the time of covid-19.) With concerts cancelled and brick-and-mortar record stores shutting their doors, musicians–particularly the ones who weren’t selling out stadium tours back when that was a thing we could still do–need album sales now more than ever. I know it’s old-fashioned, but what better way to revive the tradition of the listening party than by supporting the artists who made the soundtrack for your quarantine and the record stores fighting to keep the music industry focused on the music? My favorite local spot is the Record Exchange, but you probably have record store near you, too, and they’re probably willing to ship! Not sure? You can use the Vinyl District’s record locator app to find one. No turntable at your place? No problem. Most record stores also stock CDs, books, movies, video games, and more.
- Bars and restaurants. I’ve literally never written a book that didn’t feature a bar. Drunk drama fueled so much of Villains that I sometimes feel a portion of my royalties (if I ever make any) should go the good people who put up with me and all my actor friends while I was working on the book. The next best thing is donating to support the staff of my beloved college bar, Linda’s, where I spent many good nights and a few bad ones, read books and wrote scenes and staged plays and drowned my sorrows when writing wasn’t going my way. If you’re lucky, some of your favorite local haunts may have adapted for delivery. (If you’re in the DMV, I would highly recommend throwing a few dollars at Quarry House Tavern, whose Whiskey Wednesday specials have gotten me through some tough times, and whose burgers might be some of the best in the region.) If you do order delivery, please tip well! Food service workers live on tips and they’re not making many right now.
- Performance companies and venues. Guess who’s not making money right now? Artists whose art requires an audience. Unsurprisingly, live theatre is a big part of my creative process. Many theatres who have closed their doors are now wondering how they’re going to keep their actors, directors, designers, and other staff on the payroll, and it’s that much harder to do when everybody and their mom is asking for refunds for cancelled events. If you can, consider donating the price of your tickets or anything else you can spare to the people who put on shows for you when we’re not all staying home. Consider paying a little more than you normally might to stream new movies or watch the live performances theatres all over the world are putting up online. The livelihoods of the people who made them–and their ability to make art–are probably more precarious than ever before.
- Animal shelters. If you’ve been following me on any social media platform for any length of time, you have probably seen pictures of my dog, Marlowe. I adopted him from Operation Kindness, a no-kill Dallas shelter, in 2017. Since then his presence in my house and my life has done a lot to keep me off the ledge. Many animals shelters operate with very narrow margins, and chances are they’ll take any help they can get right now. And if you wanted to take a step beyond a monetary donation, there’s no better time to bring a pet who needs a home into your life. You don’t need to distance yourself from dogs or cats, and when are you next going to be home all day every day to help introduce a new pet? Don’t make any snap decisions, but if you’ve been looking for a sign from the universe that now’s the time to rescue your new best friend, consider this it.
Writing may be a solitary activity much of the time, but that doesn’t mean it happens in a vacuum. All art, I would argue, is collaborative: it is influenced and inspired and supported by so many different people in so many different ways that listing a few names under “Acknowledgements” feels insufficient. These are just a few examples of the people who have helped me make art. Apart from directly supporting artists in times of crisis, one way to support the creators you care about is to contribute to the institutions in your community which foster creativity. It may not seem like a lot, but in a time like this every little bit helps–and if enough people do a little bit, the little bits add up to something much bigger.
Stay safe, stay well, stay home, stay hopeful, and stay engaged with the people and places that enrich the life of your community if you want to see them on the other side.
This week we learned that UMD, the university where we work, is prohibiting all non-essential travel for the next 60 days. Sensible, given the circumstances. But we also learned that they’re not going to reimburse anyone who’s already paid for the travel they approved and then prohibited. If you’re a tenured professor, that might not matter much to you. But if you’re in a grad student or contingent tax bracket, $800 is an awful lot to lose. (Most grad students here make about $20k a year. The cost of living in the DMV can be 40% more than the national average. I teach English for a reason, so I’ll let you do the math.)
While all this is happening on the East Coast, on the West Coast graduate students at UC Santa Cruz have been on a wildcat strike for a cost-of-living adjustment. The university’s response to their demands for fairer wages was to fire 80 of them. (You can learn more–and lend some support–here.) But as Rebekkah Dilts and Dylan Davis put it in the Washington Post article linked above,
…the exploitation of graduate-student labor is endemic to higher education. We teach for poverty-level wages only to enter a dismal job market: Some 60 percent of university teaching jobs are off the tenure track, meaning they are typically part-time and lack benefits — yet still highly competitive. That’s why innumerable adjuncts are fighting here, too.
The reality for many graduate students is that they will spend five or more years struggling to make ends meet, and when they graduate their odds of landing a job with a greater degree of security are, in a word, long. So the cancellation, without reimbursement, of conference travel not only means that we’re losing money we desperately need, but that we’re also losing a professionalization opportunity we need just as badly for our CVs. Insult, meet injury.
If you’ve heard absolutely nothing about this, don’t feel bad. It’s a niche concern in the greater scheme of things. But you probably have heard similar stories from different sectors about the coronavirus outbreak and how it’s creating new problems and compounding others which already existed (not to mention disproportionately affecting people at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain). Between the pandemic, the never-ending 2020 election nightmare, regular mass shootings, a permanent state of constitutional crisis, and the ever-present threat of ecological collapse, it’s starting to feel like The End is indeed Nigh. Personally I’ve been flirting with a nervous breakdown for the entire month of March. However, there are two small fibers of optimism (fiber-optimism?) which have kept my last thread of sanity from snapping, and they both have to do with writing.
As you can probably imagine, Book Twitter is a bit of a mess right now. While some are lamenting the financial impact of cancelled book tours on indie and midlist authors who can’t afford to lose that publicity, others are drawing attention to the ugly irony of the publishing industry insisting that remote work is impossible and then proving the opposite by telling everyone who can afford to live and work in New York to go ahead and work from home. Really, right now you’re just better off avoiding Twitter like, uh, the plague. Or touching your face.
Still, in the midst of this madness I’ve seen quite a few writers step up to offer tips and tricks and resources for staying sane and staying on task while working from home–something most of us have a lot of experience with. (My tip: buy yourself a big dishwasher-safe water bottle and keep it in reach at all times. Hydration is easy and improves your quality of life in a lot of ways.) It may not sound like much, but for someone who’s never had to manage their own time in their own space when the kids and the neighbors and the dogs and 25 household chores are all vying for their attention, it might just be a lifesaver. It’s reassuring to see people offering what little they can in a time of crisis. And it doesn’t surprise me that this is an impulse many writers seem to share.
This week I also happen to be reading a book devoted to Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom on the craft of writing, compiled by his onetime student and longtime friend Suzanne McConnell. It’s an anecdotal, idiosyncratic book likely to appeal to people who enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s anecdotal, idiosyncratic style. My favorite nugget of wisdom so far appears in surprisingly early chapters–seven to twelve, to be exact. They’re short, like most of Vonnegut’s own chapters, and, like most of Vonnegut’s work, they prove that length is not necessarily proportional to importance, as these things go.
The overarching thread of these four chapters is what the point of writing (and art more broadly) is. It’s perhaps best summed up by the title of Chapter 12: “Agents of Change.” In Vonnegut’s philosophy, the prime mover of the artist is care. When asked in an interview after the runaway success of Slaughterhouse-Five, “Why do you write?” he answered,
My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve…. Writers are specialized cells in the social organism. They are evolutionary cells. Mankind is trying to become something else; it’s experimenting with new ideas all the time. And writers are a means of introducing new ideas into the society, and also a means of responding symbolically to life…
…We’re expressions of the entire society… And when a society is in great danger, we’re likely to sound the alarms. I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts.
McConnell goes on to quote a different interview:
I would not be interested in writing if I didn’t feel that what I wrote was an act of good citizenship or an attempt, at any rate, to be a good citizen. What brought my ancestors over here from Germany was not oppression over there, but simply the attractiveness of the United States Constitution, and the dream of brotherhood here. And also plenty of land. They were attracted materially too. I was raised to be bughouse about the Constitution, and to be very excited about the United States of America as a Utopia. It still seems utterly workable to me and I keep thinking of ways to fix it, to see what the hell went wrong, to see if we can get the thing to really run right.
Vonnegut undoubtedly succeeded, if not in achieving an American Utopia, then certainly in inspiring his readers to become Agents of Change. McConnell mentions one who followed his example by majoring in anthropology and then went on to work in international conflict resolution, helping to provide shelter and safety for people displaced by civil wars, borders disputes, and natural disasters. But this is also true on a much smaller scale.
Last semester I had the happy accident of teaching a class on 20th century science fiction. As an early modernist, this was way out of my wheelhouse and a result of the usual vicissitudes of course assignments at a large university. However, because I’d been working on a book set in the age of New Wave sci fi for the better part of two years, I’d been reading a lot classics in the genre and felt up to the task. Cat’s Cradle was one of the first things I put on the syllabus.
I knew it would provoke interesting conversation, but I didn’t fully consider the impact it would have on a group of students who (mostly) hadn’t encountered Vonnegut before. Being (mostly) STEM majors, many of them had never even taken a literature class, and signed up for this one because it seemed like the least painful way to satisfy their (meager) humanities requirements. Many of them freely admitted that it had been years since they read a book. Just as many told me, when the semester drew to a close, that they wanted to read more. This is the best outcome you can ask for as an English teacher.
Much of what I know about being an Agent of Change I learned from Vonnegut. The same might also be said of those 24 students. Cat’s Cradle not only introduced them to a bizarre and darkly funny genre (our first day of discussion was more an hour-long collective outburst of confusion and delight) but also forced them to confront some big questions they’d never considered. For instance: When does a tool become a weapon? Does it depend on the intention of the creator, or the tool’s potential use? A shovel is a weapon in the wrong hands, but we don’t place the blame for murder by trowel on the man who made the trowel. Should the same ethics apply to something like ice-nine? The science that enables biological warfare? The atomic bomb? What are scientists’ ethical responsibilities to the world they live in? How would the world be different if we considered all the possibilities of new technology–not only the desired outcome and intended use?
When I first posed these questions, nobody answered. Usually, silence is last thing you want in the classroom. Usually, it means they’re bored, or not paying attention. But not always–sometimes it means they’re thinking.
This is only one example of the the Big Questions Vonnegut got my students thinking about. It might not seem like much, but knowing how bright they are and what else they’re learning, I’m not so sure that’s true. What of Vonnegut’s reader who went on to save lives around the world? Last semester a class of 24 had a strange encounter with Cat’s Cradle and, hopefully, they’ll take the lessons they learned with them into their careers in chemistry and biology and engineering. If our later conversations about Jurassic Park were any indication, in a few short weeks their awareness of the importance of ethics in scientific inquiry had already been raised. I didn’t need to ask these kinds of questions anymore: they asked them on their own. Thanks to Kurt, they know that none of the work they’ll do after the classroom will be uncomplicated or apolitical–and if they take that knowledge with them into the workforce, the ripple effect could be significant. That’s change, baby.
Now imagine the same thing, but multiply by the millions of people who have read Cat’s Cradle outside my class. The potential impact of a work of literature is huge. That is, make no mistake, a huge responsibility. Thank God Kurt Vonnegut had a conscience as well as a sense of humor and wove the two together so wonderfully. Of course, none of the rest of us inkslingers are ever going to be Kurt Vonnegut. But we may as well do our best to make him proud by making art that really matters. This is not to say that every work of fiction needs to be a social crusade. It’s simply to reiterate what Vonnegut said already: we write because we care.
Here’s the added bonus: your writing is going to be a lot better when you write about stuff you care about, whether it’s graduate students on strike or nuclear war or just the strange experience of a young Shakespearean actor (hi). Art is how we process things–as creators and consumers. Stories are how we make sense of the world.
Even more importantly, literature is a bridge to empathy. Really–we’ve got the science to prove it. “Controlled experiments,” McConnell writes, “prove Vonnegut right on this most important count:
Our brains do know reading is good for us. Especially literary fiction. That’s what the scientific journals NeuroImage, Brain and Language, and the Annual Review of Psychology report.
One study found that ‘after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.’ Literary fiction improves social skills. Why? Because it leaves more to the imagination, activating inferences about characters and sensitivity ‘to emotional nuance and complexity.’
Researchers discovered other particulars.
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.
Fiction–with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions–offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality…: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.*
Not such small potatoes after all. In a time when our political leaders are refusing to take the necessary measures to keep people safe and refusing to take responsibility for the gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and when the situation is being exacerbated by individuals who are hoarding supplies they don’t need which won’t reach the people who do need them or putting others at risk by not taking appropriate precautions, it sure seems like we could all use a little empathy.
So this is why we write. And this is, I think, what’s going to keep us writing even though the world feels like it’s on fire. We’re going to keep writing because the world is on fire, because literature literally makes us better people, and because better people are more likely to help put fires out. Sitting down to type or even just to read might seem useless and futile when disease is spreading and people are dying, but just because you’re a writer or a reader instead of an epidemiologist doesn’t mean that what you’re doing doesn’t matter. Write on.
*From Annie Murphy Paul’s piece “Your Brain on Fiction,” published in the New York Times on March 17, 2012.
Normally I avoid talking about politics online. The reasons for that are probably obvious. But in 2020 it’s going to be impossible to avoid, and you know what? This week it felt personal. I’m not going into my own political ideologies here because frankly I don’t have the bandwidth to have that conversation with The Internet. It’ll suffice to say the narrowing of what was once the most diverse class of Democratic candidates in political history to two straight white male septuagenarians is… somewhat demoralizing.
Maybe this belongs in the “disappointed but not surprised” folder, but there’s a third element here which makes this sting a little more than unsurprising disappointments past, in that it proved America simply is not ready to put a woman in the White House. Elizabeth Warren was everything the theoretically “electable” female candidate was supposed to be: smart, articulate, strong on policy, untouched by scandal, folksy and accessible while simultaneously up to the task of single-handedly dismantling the preposterous vanity campaign of billionaire Mike Bloomberg on live television. And it still wasn’t enough. (Just to add insult to injury, everyone and their mom is already jumping down her throat to endorse Their Remaining Candidate, in keeping with the great American tradition of exploiting women’s labor and expertise without actually empowering them. Not a good look, folks.)
That this primary kicked off Women’s History Month and was punctuated by an International Women’s Day which happened to fall on the only 23-hour day of the year (as pointed out on Twitter by Caroline Moss) is almost too much to stomach. These might seem like trivial coincidences–and at the end of the day they probably are–but the frustration, outrage, and hopelessness many women are feeling right now isn’t trivial at all. They’re sick and tired of watching excellent women lose races, jobs, and opportunities to men who are merely mediocre. Don’t @ me.
On the individual level, there’s not a lot I can do about this. I’m not going to throw my vote away just because I can’t vote for the candidate I wanted to vote for. But neither do I like feeling helpless or (worse) complicit in systemic sexism–hence this post. In the greater scheme of things, a list of good books by women is pretty small potatoes. That said, sexism in publishing rather than politics is something I feel better qualified to speak to, as someone who has observed and experienced and occasionally studied it.
I’ve been involved in the publishing industry since 2014, and in six years you absorb a lot of anecdata. I could bore you with statistics about the disparities in paychecks and publicity for male and female authors. I could give you figures for the gender ratio of industry workers (overwhelmingly female) vs. industry executives (overwhelmingly male). I could show you a hundred screenshots of reader reviews that start with “I don’t usually read books by women but…” I could recount the dozen times I’ve been asked how I dared to write a first-person narrator not of my gender when I have never heard a man asked that question once.
I think we’d both rather not do that, so instead I’ll keep it simple: sexism in publishing exists and will continue until people decide to do something about it. One small thing you can do (which is as much a favor to yourself as anybody else) is buy, read, and talk about books by women. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of excellent books by women which you might consider picking up if you, like me, want a way to amplify female voices in a day and age where we pay lip service to gender equality by sticking apostrophes in gas station signs but can’t bring ourselves to stop relegating women to the role of cheerleader, VP, endorsement-to-be-won, or–as a creative writing professor once called a classmate of mine, out loud, in a class that was two-thirds female, in the Year of Our Lord 2012–“a pretty good writer for a girl.”
With no further ado, here’s that juicy recipe you’ve been scrolling through my boring story to get to:
10 Books by Women for Anybody Mourning the Possibility of President Warren
- Heather Abel, The Optimistic Decade (2018). This is a rare coming-of-age novel which depicts the trials and tribulations of adolescence without trivializing them. Abel’s teenagers are people, not punchlines. But my favorite thing about this book is its portrayal of political awakening–there are a thousand books out there about first love and first lust, but it’s not so often you find a bildungsroman founded on first ideologies. Abel’s book is as intelligent as it is compassionate, two qualities we could all use more of these days.
- Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979). I taught this book last semester in a science fiction course, and come December I had a fascinating pile of papers on my desk discussing the web of influence between science, culture, and history. Few novels demonstrate so masterfully the ripple effect of individual human actions, and the long-term impact of systemic inequality. Perhaps most important, though, is Butler’s attention to intersections of identity and how they shape our lived experience.
- Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal (2008). Catton won a Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013, but I rarely hear anybody talk about her first novel, which is a shame. Set in a New Zealand community rocked by the revelation of an affair between a teacher and student at an all-girls high school, The Rehearsal dispenses with the sordid details in favor of exploring the social repercussions of this abuse of power. When students at the arts academy down the road decide to fictionalize the affair for their final project, they open old wounds and raise uncomfortable questions about ethics, performance, and artistic representation.
- Joan Didion, Democracy (1984). This isn’t usually the first book people talk about when they talk about Didion. It’s unlike any other book I’ve ever read in that the author intrudes on the narrative at will–sometimes as a character and sometimes the creator, commenting on how this person or that part of the narrative took shape. It’s a fascinating window into a gifted writer’s process, and an all-too-pertinent portrait of what it takes to be a woman in politics. And with their personal problems subsumed in the geopolitical turmoil at the end of the Vietnam War, the Victor family would have felt right at home in the 2020s.
- Keri Hulme, The Bone People (1984). I recommend this book constantly, with the caveat that it comes with a lot of trigger warnings. It’s not easy to read, but it’s gorgeously written–which isn’t surprising considering Hulme’s origins in poetry. Her protagonist, the loosely autobiographical Kerewin Holmes, is an artist and a recluse, an asexual woman of mixed Caucasian and Maori heritage struggling to claim her place in a world which doesn’t know how to categorize her. After an encounter with a deaf-mute boy hiding in her house, she finds herself at the center of a grisly domestic drama which forces her to reckon with the greatest extremes of human cruelty.
- Lily King, Euphoria (2014). I’ve been obsessed with this book since the cover art caught my eye while I was working at Barnes & Noble back when it came out. Fortunately, the pages between don’t disappoint. Loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, Euphoria is one of the most immersive novels I read in the 2010s, but that’s not all it has going for it. King’s depiction of passionate researchers in the flush of discovery is perfection, but she wisely resists the urge to romanticize, and never lets the reader forget that triumph and tragedy are never far apart. (Her new book, Writers & Lovers, is on its way to my mailbox. You can order yours here.)
- Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood (1987). This isn’t necessarily where I’d suggest you start with Iris Murdoch. It’s dense and often difficult, but also (in my humble
but correctopinion) some of her best work. Murdoch has long been a favorite of mine for her inimitable ability to weave threads of philosophy, theology, and literary criticism into a compelling piece of fiction. Her characters have remarkable depth and fascinating dynamics which explore, critique, and often explode our prescribed social roles as parents, children, siblings, students, teachers, spouses, lovers, and friends.
- Ashley Ream, The 100 Year Miracle (2016). Set in an insular community in the San Juan islands, this evocative novel foregrounds two women–a middle-aged politician and a young biological researcher–in the story of the titular miracle, six days in which microscopic phosphorescent creatures make the water in the bay glow green. Oh and by the way, they just might be the key to a cure for a fatal disease. Ream’s attention to scientific and political ethics, chronic illness, and aging make this much more than merely interesting speculative fiction.
- Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014). This is another one that came out while I was working as a bookseller. Am I biased because there’s so much Shakespeare? Of course. Is it an obvious choice considering the Covid-19 outbreak? Of course. But it’s still a damn good book. Station Eleven remains the most persuasive take on dystopia I’ve ever read, and part of the reason it succeeds is its refusal to fall into the trap of cynicism. It’s not all flowers and sunshine, but ultimately Station Eleven is about where and how we find hope in the darkest of times. God knows we could use that right now. (Mandel also has a new book out, The Glass Hotel. You can find that here.)
- Laura Van Den Berg, The Third Hotel (2018). This is one of the strangest books I’ve read this year, and incidentally one of my favorites. Van Den Berg’s tale of two normal, troubled people in a normal, troubled marriage takes shape around a horror film festival in Havana, where the protagonist’s dead husband makes an unexpected appearance. It’s a slim volume which raises more questions than it answers, simultaneously resisting and inviting interpretation–which might just be the point. Clare’s struggle to come to grips with the loss of her husband and his influence on her self-perception is unflinchingly honest and painfully familiar. If you’re not Clare, you’ve known her.
If you read my last post or any of the posts linked therein, you’ve probably come to know me as a demented workaholic who is so Type A she pencils things like errands and showers and taking out the recycling into her planner (and then color-codes them by category of activity. Really). However, as you may also know if you’ve been following the saga of M-struggles-to-find-a-work-life-balance, the freakish level of organization with which I have learned to manage my life, while useful when it comes to meeting deadlines and juggling responsibilities, often makes me miserable.
Over the last week and a half my entire planner was blocked out in pastel shades of Academic Work and Writing Work and Housekeeping and Social Obligations and Stuff I Don’t Really Have Time for but Agreed to Do Anyway Because I’m a Chronic Over-achiever Who Doesn’t Know How to Say No. It was a mixed bag of excitement and exhaustion. I saw a lot of friends and did a lot of work and absorbed a lot of new information. I was also so burned out after twelve straight days of sunup to sundown stuff that last night when I finally reached that 5-o’clock-on-Friday finish line, all I could muster up the will to do was lie on the couch and stare at a screen and let its soothing blue light numb my brain into momentary hibernation.
This morning, this glorious Saturday morning when I had nothing–nothing!–scribbled in the relevant column of the ubiquitous planner, I sat down to fill in my day. Then I stopped, snapped the planner shut, and said to myself (sorry, Mom), “Fuck it.” Why am I planning my first free day in two weeks down to the minute with stupid things that don’t need time stamps, like reading a book or writing a blog post or running the dishwasher? Folks, my brain is BROKEN.
This is not exactly news. Obsessive tendencies have been my dear companions since middle school and are largely to credit/blame for the number of plates I manage to spin on a regular basis. But it has occurred to me recently–and with surprisingly sharp clarity this morning–that some of the anxiety I feel is entirely self-generated.
In college I realized that I was much more likely to finish things I started when I only worked on one thing at a time and stuck to a schedule I figured out based on how much I wanted to accomplish by what date and how much work I had to do each day to get there. It was such a successful formula that I banged out like five novels and two theses in about six years, which is to say nothing of all the other stuff I managed to fit in in between. Because it was working, I didn’t question it–until now.
To be clear, I do not regret cultivating this kind of discipline. Without it, there’s absolutely no way I would be able to juggle writing-as-a-career with the demands of academia. However, the time seems right to entertain the possibility that there is a limit to how much hard work can help you. My solution to every setback has been to work harder and work faster and hope like hell that it all pays off. Some of it has. Much of it hasn’t. And in the meantime, I’ve become such a basket case that I need four hours of binge-watching the TV I’ll never catch up on because I’ve got work to do, damn it, just to recover from two weeks of normal.
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. With that in mind, the way I’ve been trying to solve problems looks not just dysfunctional but downright delusional. And the closer I look the clearer it becomes how much of the stress I experience is partly self-inflicted. Working harder and faster has made little material difference in how much sooner I reach my goals, and may even be part of the reason I’m not reaching them sooner. Which raises another question: what’s the point of pushing myself to accomplish these things if I feel more like a hamster on a wheel than a person chasing their dreams?
It sounds corny because it totally is. We could blame Western culture or Walt Disney or the Founding Fathers who instilled in us the desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the pursuit you forget about the happiness part. To be fair to myself, it’s not entirely my fault. I work in two industries where it is notoriously, demonstrably difficult to succeed. Getting ahead feels like sheer fantasy, when the reality of every day is a race to keep up. But it’s equally real that I am making things worse for myself.
Looking back through the first pages of the planner to the beginning of 2020, it’s obvious I’ve crossed the border from dedicated to delusional. What sane person plans to write a conference paper and a dissertation chapter and the first draft of a new novel and a series of articles and reviews while working full time and a half and still trying to sell the last novel she finished, all in a matter of three months? It’s objectively insane, and yet it was something my January self not only fully intended to do but had calculated down to the daily wordcount.
Today is February 29th, which feels like a liminal space, an unreal day of unusual possibility which we only see on the calendar every four years. Something about today made me stop and think and decide to break the cycle. Of course, old habits die hard. I will never be a person who flies by the seat of her pants, but that doesn’t mean I need to run my own life like a helicopter mom, either. So this morning I loosened some of the straps on the psychological straitjacket.
I can’t throw out the planner because I do need to keep track of what day it is and where I need to be, but I made some other changes. I deleted my Goodreads challenge so I’m no longer getting guilt-tripped by the internet for not reading fast enough. I scrapped the writing plan I made in January that had me trying to bang out 1,000 words a day on a novel on top of everything else in favor of something more flexible. I said no to a job that I probably would have said yes to yesterday because I knew it would be more stress than it was worth. I decided not to try to cram travel into the month of March just because it’s spring break so maybe I should. I want to leave more room in my schedule for spontaneity and relaxation and exploration and enjoying moments of this life I’ve worked so hard to build. And maybe, paradoxically, that will actually bring me closer to all those long-term goals. Maybe part of the reason I’ve been struggling to do good work is because I’m just trying to do too much–even if it is, like all those things I mentioned in my last post, positive. Maybe all work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy. And maybe a little time to breathe won’t make me brilliant, but it might make me healthier and happier, and that’s not bad as consolation prizes go.
So that’s my suggestion for Leap Day. Cut something loose. Self-sabotage might just be a great place to start.
I’ve said this before, but I don’t set a lot of stock in New Year’s resolutions. So far the only one I’ve ever done that worked was in 2017 when I resolved to listen to at least one song every day without doing anything else at the same time (a practice I would highly recommend for anybody trying to find a quiet moment in the midst of 21st-century chaos or reconnect with art in a meaningful way).
However, this new year happened to coincide with a series of circumstances which have forced me to reconsider the way I operate from day to day. The short version is that the class I was supposed to teach was cancelled due to insufficient enrollment, a glitch in the Matrix which might be attributable to an uninspiring–and apparently immutable–course description, the structure of the undergrad English major, the general devaluation of the humanities in American culture, my own lack of appeal as a person, or some combination of all four. The downside is a significant cut to my insignificant paycheck. (There’s no such thing as job security as a graduate student.) The upside is that this leaves me with a more flexible schedule than I have had in the last six years.
As you may have heard me say elsewhere (by which I mean Twitter), I don’t do well with unstructured time (hence the sharp upswing in my Twitter activity of late). As a result I’ve gotten to be very good at structuring my own time when there isn’t an institutional schedule in place to do it for me. But one of my objectives this year is to become less of a slave to structure. If you’ve been following this blog awhile or already clicked on that link at the top, you know I’ve been down this road before. I tried it last year. It did not work.
However, I am nothing if not stubborn, so here we are again. I’ve accepted that a reasonable work-life balance is an unrealistic goal for me, just because of who I am as a person at this particular point in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some changes to the way I work. In addition to feeling generally burned out and overwhelmed, a lot of the joy that writing used to bring me has been replaced by fatalistic dread about what it will (or won’t) amount to in the end. Is this really worth my time? Will it be worth a publisher’s money? Will it grab a journal’s interest? Worry about that sort of stuff for long enough, and it’ll make you hate something you used to love.
This is not to say I hate writing. This is to say I hate the anxieties that come with writing for publication. Unfortunately, if you intend to make a career as a writer (which I still do, with characteristic stubbornness, despite trying and failing to grab a new editor’s interest for the last four years) marketability isn’t something you can afford not to worry about. But perhaps you don’t have to worry about it all the time.
My abstract and belated resolution for 2020 is to worry less and write more with no other end goal in mind than the writing itself. I want to write about stuff I want to write about without worrying whether anybody wants to buy it. To be honest, I want to write without even worrying whether anybody wants to read it. Over the last few months, I’ve been taking baby steps in the right direction. I’ve been following whims and interests which are largely unrelated to my usual fields and genres, and some of those things have been hugely rewarding.
I’m writing reviews and interviews for The Vinyl District, an online music mag with a pretty wide reach where I have pretty free rein. If you’re curious you can find links here (and keep an eye out in the coming weeks; I have a long interview with one of my favorite cover bands and a piece on Brian Wilson in the pipeline).
Years ago, I was doing record recommendations based on followers’ favorite books. Demand got so out of hand I had to stop doing it, but now I’m back at it, in a more manageable way. I’ve told nobody about this until now. For months it was a sorely needed creative outlet with absolutely zero stakes. If you want, you can find that here.
After teaching a science fiction class last semester, I’ve taken a much deeper dive into space exploration. I applied to participate in the upcoming State of NASA event at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and–to my surprise as much as yours–was actually selected. On February 10th I’ll be touring the facilities (as Cake might put it) and sharing some exciting stuff about the Artemis program, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and future missions to Mars. If you want to follow along with that, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram.
These are just a few of the proverbial irons in the fire. I may not be teaching again until September, but I still have conference papers and a dissertation to write and a novel to sell and an admin job with my university’s MedRen society. All of that keeps me pretty busy. But finding time to write just for the sake of art and curiosity and the craft itself has helped me remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. To that end, I’m hoping to also start posting writing more regularly here. (Don’t worry, it won’t be enough to be annoying.) I’m not sure yet what form that writing will take or if it will find a consistent form at all. The point is to follow my own creative whims and write without worry.
For anyone else feeling burned out or bummed out or just demoralized by how little real reward there often is for the many hours we spend working, I hope you can find time in your life to chase a few butterflies. Indulge yourself. Take a risk. Waste some time. Resist the urge to map every hour of your day or your month and let life catch you by surprise. 2020 promises to be a rough year. If we don’t want to go crazy, we might just have make our own rules and make our own fun and find the things that remind us why we’re toughing it out in the first place.
Good luck and godspeed.
Spooky season is upon us, and we’ve loved seeing all your ghastly IWWV snaps, so we’re giving away three signed copies this month! To enter, tag me in your best ghoulish Villains grams and use the hashtag #IWWVwitchinghourgiveaway.
Winners will be chosen by the Villains team in the three days leading up to Halloween. First place will have their first choice of English language editions (hardback, paperback, or UK edition), second place will choose from the remaining two, and third place takes the last one. Open to anyone, anywhere. Happy snapping!
In the Seattle area? Want to visit an island, see some Shakespeare, hear me talk about the Bard, and get a book signed? Then you’re in luck, because I’ll be at the Bard’s Boutique from 7-9 p.m. tomorrow. More info here (scroll down)!