Kurt Vonnegut, Coronavirus, and the Reasons We Write

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.

pity the readerThis 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.

catscradleI 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 was 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.*

(153)

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.

M


*From Annie Murphy Paul’s piece “Your Brain on Fiction,” published in the New York Times on March 17, 2012.

Some Reading Recs for Anybody Mourning the Possibility of President Warren

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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 correct opinion) 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.

So That Still Didn’t Work

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.

M

So That Didn’t Work

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.

For example:

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.

M

Witching Hour Giveaway

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.

WHGiveaway

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!

M

Signing (6 August 2019)

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)!

Xx M

Spanish Cover Art

If We Were Villains will be published in Spanish next year by Umbriel Editions, and I’m so excited to share the cover art with you. It might just be my favorite yet.

PUCK - _Todos somos villanos_ M.L. Rio JORDI

I’m so glad to be able to share this story with Spanish-speaking readers, and thrilled to have it published in a language (other than English) which I can actually read!

Hope you love it as much as we do.

M

Liftoff

For the last two years I’ve been teaching a writing workshop in a women’s prison. They’re a well-read group, but most of them don’t have much writing experience, and they consistently struggle with starting stories. They tend to get bogged down in detail or background information and just can’t get the damn thing off the ground. More seasoned writers seem to struggle with this, too. I’ve taken a lot of writing classes where I read a lot of stories that didn’t actually start until page three or four. In one workshop, the professor took our stories and drew a huge line across the page with a red felt pen when she got bored and stopped reading. In a different workshop, the professor put the first page of each story up on the screen and the class voted on whether or not they’d keep reading. If they voted “No,” you had to revise and resubmit until you got a “Yes.” Some people never made it past that first page.

Last time we talked about the struggles of getting started, one of my prison students blurted out what everyone else was probably wondering: “Why the hell is this so hard?”

The thing is, you rarely fantasize about the beginning of a story. When you’re kicking ideas around in your head and even once you’re working on a first draft, you’re preoccupied with those big cinematic moments that made you want to write the book in the first place. At least, that’s usually my experience. But beginnings, when done well,  can become the most iconic moments in a story-telling franchise. Consider Harry Potter: few people are ever going to forget those owls landing on the Dursley house or the Hogwarts letters shooting out of the chimney. Consider The Hobbit: thirteen dwarves barnstorming the Shire is one for the ages. Consider Macbeth: the witches on the heath is one of the most recognizable scenes in Shakespeare, even though it may have actually been written by Middleton and it’s only a handful of lines. Point is, the impact of a good beginning can’t be underestimated.

I’ve been thinking about this question of beginnings a lot in the last two weeks as I’ve been writing the first chapter of a new project for 1000 words of summer. Starting a story is, like outlining, one of the challenges of writing fiction which I particularly enjoy. So when my students were wrestling with their stories’ first pages and paragraphs, I asked them the question I always ask myself when I first put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard: Why does this story start here? You can’t start a story right if you can’t answer that question. Why this day instead of any other day? What happens that’s out of the ordinary? What’s going to get the reader interested in finding out what happens next? Most good beginnings indicate an interruption of the norm, whether it’s dwarves banging down the door or something more mundane. But something has to happen to get your MC started on their journey, whether it’s a journey toward a spiritual awakening or a divorce or the end of the world.

What happens with a lot of my students (and a lot of people in writing workshops) is that they get hung up on world-building. They have such a clear vision of a place or a person that they want to fill the first pages of their story with rich description, so the reader has a perfectly immersive experience–like the opening sequence of a television show that plunges you right into the aesthetic of the thing. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite work with printed words; a little description is good, so your reader knows where they are in the world, but nothing will lose their interest faster than adjective soup. It’s much easier to get hooked on a story that starts with action, even a story that starts in media res–because people and particularly readers are naturally curious. They want to ask questions and learn the answers as they go, and they’ll keep reading until they get them, if the story has gotten them hooked.

A lot of writers forget that you can world-build as you go, instead of all at once. Starting with action doesn’t mean you’ve forfeited your only opportunity to describe the people and places that populate your story. No reader is ever going to picture everything exactly the same way the writer does, and I think the impulse to over-describe comes from an (understandable) desire to close that gap. However, good writing checks that impulse and instead seeks to close the gap between action and description, and gives the reader sensory and aesthetic detail as it becomes relevant to the events of the story–for instance, describing the way a character walks when he first walks into the room, or the way the front door groans when someone is trying to sneak back into the house after curfew without making a sound. This works in fiction because this is how it works in the real world; rarely do you walk into a new room and stop to digest every detail before you greet anybody or grab a drink or ask where to hang your coat. Instead, you absorb details of your surroundings as you move the through the world and as they grab your attention. Thus also to good writing: it takes notice of relevant detail, dispenses with the rest, and gets on with the story.

Of course, every beginning is different. But I do think it’s universally true that if you want a reader to keep turning pages, you have to convince them that things are going to happen in the many pages to come. In a world with more books than any one person could ever hope to read, you can’t afford to dither. Make a bold first move. These first pages are urgent. Shove your reader and your characters right out the door. They’ll follow where you lead. The story’s already started.

M

Best-Laid Plans

Every time I send a new draft to my agent–or my committee, if we’re talking academia–there follows a strange fallow period where I simply don’t know what to do with myself. After weeks and months of a familiar circadian rhythm hugely influenced by how much work I want or need to get done each day, suddenly finding myself with idle hands can be so disorienting that I forget to enjoy it, forget to bask in the luxury of free time. I don’t want to perpetuate the (grievously mistaken) impression that academics don’t work during the summer–because the truth is that they use the summer to catch up on all the work they didn’t get done during the year because they had classes to teach and papers to grade and conferences to attend and so on and so forth–but even though I’m spending the summer at the Folger’s Paleography Institute and working on my dissertation prospectus and crafting syllabuses for teaching next year, these first few weeks have felt uncommonly freeAfter months working around the clock, I finished grading final papers and essays, sent a new draft of a new book to my agent, and passed my comprehensive exam on May 21. Waking up the next day when it was all over felt like finding myself shipwrecked on a tropical key with only a scrambled recollection of how I got there. It felt like paradise–until the island fever set in.

I am trying hard to mitigate my workaholic tendencies, but that doesn’t change the fact that without something to work on, I get restless. My agent is in the process of reading my latest draft, and because I don’t want us to be working at cross purposes, there’s not much I can do right now to work on my current book project. Fortunately, because I’ve never figured out how to turn off “plot bunnies,” I usually have a long list of ideas waiting in the wings for a moment just like this one–when my current manuscript is out of my reach but my brain needs something to do. So: let the plotting begin.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fanatical outliner; because I like to write in a more-or-less linear manner and because I hate staring at a blank page wondering, What next? I never start a first draft until I have a pretty solid outline to work with. I’ve heard many a protest that this sucks all the creativity out of the process, and I respectfully disagree–planning ahead lets you engage in two completely different types of creativity but (here’s the crucial part) not at the same time. Every writer is different, but personally I find it difficult to produce good prose and find the right pacing and “set the stage,” as it were, if I don’t know where the story’s going. Much easier to focus on the shape and texture and tension of a scene if the question isn’t what happens but how it happens. So, finding the narrative is Step 1. It’s hard to build a house without a blueprint.

This seems to be how many newish writers get stuck. I hear a lot of variations of, “I’ve realized I need to outline but I don’t know where to start. How do you outline your projects?” The assumption often seems to be that one can approach outlining like assembling IKEA furniture–that’s there’s a simple how-to manual which, if interpreted correctly, will eventually yield a reasonably stable bookcase (or, in this case, book). Speaking only for me, this is pretty much the opposite of how outlining happens. Despite the fastidious, buzzwordy connotations of a word like “outline,” this part of the process is messy and unpredictable and wildly experimental. So when people ask how I outline, it’s difficult to know how to answer. But because that’s the phase I’m in right now, at least until I get my other MS back from my agent, I figured I’d try to describe it.

Every story starts as just an idea. Inspiration can come from anywhere–a painting or a newspaper article or a riff in a song which makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up–and suddenly the imagination is off like an improv troupe with a prompt, trying out different personalities and scenarios, snatching and discarding different ideas until something sticks, something clicks, and the pieces begin to fall into place. Inspiration tends to ambush me, rather than tapping me politely on the shoulder when I don’t have anything more important to attend to, so most embryonic story ideas get scribbled down wherever they strike. Then I mostly leave them alone, picking them up to play with in spare moments on the train or at the gym or when I just need a break from whatever project is consuming most of my attention at the moment. Little by little, pieces fall into place. I collect ideas for characters and scenes and settings and try out different plot points as they occur to me. This often takes months, precisely because it’s a process that can’t be forced. It can, however, be helped along a little.

In the early stages, when nothing’s set in stone, a book is more about the feeling than it is about the facts, and what I refer to as “outlining” includes time spent splashing around in the aesthetic space of the story–which might mean making pinboards or making playlists or tracking down other books in the same genre to give myself a sense of what’s already out there or starting to put together a research bibliography. Inevitably I find myself discovering tidbits of character or culture that are simply too good to lose and slowly filling in gaps in that loose outline as I go. This is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, actually, because it’s purely a time to play. But eventually something a little less amorphous emerges. Casts of characters solidify and their backstories gather detail. A skeletal plot begins to take shape.

This is when I turn to notecards. When I have a strong enough sense of “how the story goes” I open FinalDraft and start dropping notecards in a storyboard. (The freeware version of FinalDraft is CeltX, which as far as I know has most of the same features I’m talking about here. But you could also do this with old-fashioned paper index cards.) What I like about outlining this way is that it lets me play with structure while retaining flexibility–I can shuffle scenes around until I find the order that makes the most sense. These scene cards are pretty scant on detail, just a sentence or two to indicate what has to happen in the scene. For instance, here are the first few from my original outline of Villains:

IWWVoutline

This is pretty sparse, but eventually it turned into something that looks more like this, fleshed out by character and atmosphere and everything else that makes a book a book. However, it takes a long time to get from idea to outline to first draft, and along the way there’s a lot of time spent trying to figure out how the pieces of the story fit together, how to get from one notecard to the next when you know there’s something missing in between. That’s probably the best analogy for it–it’s like solving a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle which will eventually give you the road map you need to start writing the first draft. It’s vital work, but unlike the actual writing of prose or revision of prose already written, it’s not really something I can schedule or quantify or plan ahead. I just have to let it happen. Sometimes it’s frustrating as hell, especially when I’m excited to get started on something but I know I’m not ready yet and the muse is taking her damn time, unmoved by all my earnest pandering to her whims. But it’s also some of the most fun you’ll ever have as a writer, precisely because it is (ironically) unstructured. It’s a time to explore and discover, and there are few more exciting moments than the “EUREKA” moment of solving a plot problem or uncovering the secret of what makes a character tick. Do that for a few weeks or a few months and eventually–voilà–you have something that’s starting to look like a story.

I haven’t decided what I’m working on next. I have three different projects which are partly outlined and starting to solidify. And because I know I’ll be getting that other MS back from my agent soon enough, there’s no sense going too far down the rabbit hole with anything new just yet. But idle hands are dangerous, and an idle mind is worse. So while I’m in MS limbo, I’m going to get out the jigsaw puzzles, and have some fun, and see if I can’t make some pieces fit.

M


Header photo by Rick Payette.

The Readiness is All

From what I’ve seen on my own and everyone else’s social media, one of the most common questions writers get is how you know when your work is “ready”–ready to show to beta readers, ready to submit to agents, ready to send to the agent you already have, ready to submit to publishers, or ready to go to press. Like most things in writing, there aren’t any straightforward answers, to any version of that question (except the last version, to which the answer is, “When the publisher decides it’s ready, because they’ll send it to press whether the writer is ready or not”). Sometimes deadlines make the decision for you, but when there’s a degree of autonomy involved, it’s much harder stop spinning your wheels and hit “send.”

I think this gets harder rather than easier the longer you write and the more revision you do, because you’ve had the time and experience to learn that every draft that seemed almost-perfect when you fist finished it looked like a holy mess a few weeks later. Sure, you might be feeling pretty good about Draft 5 now it’s done and dusted, but that’s exactly how you felt about Drafts 4, 3, and 2, and man, were you wrong about those. I published a book that went through 45 drafts all told and I still wish I could go back in time and make changes, even though it’s way too late for that now. And I think that’s the first thing you have to accept: that no draft will ever be perfect, no matter how many drafts you do. So instead of waiting for a perfect draft, you have to settle for a draft that’s good enough, despite the nagging premonition that six weeks from now when you’ve gotten some distance all the flaws you were blind to before will glare at you in blinking Vegas neon. (Art is for masochists, not romantics. Jot that down.)

So, when and how do you summon up enough “f$#k it” energy to send that thing to agents or your agent or editors or your editor even though you know it ain’t perfect and it probably never will be? Obviously it depends where you are in the process, but the abstract answer is “when you’ve done everything you can.” When you’re getting ready to query, that probably means you’ve done at least ten drafts and you’ve gotten some beta readers and maybe a freelance editor and done some of those drafts with their feedback in mind and you think it’s the best it can be without professional (i.e., an agent’s) input. When you’ve already got an agent and you’re getting ready to give them something new, that’s a whole different ball game–because you don’t need to convince them to take you on as a client anymore. Sometimes there’s more anxiety involved with a second book because you’re both asking whether the second book is going to live up to the expectations the first one created. At the same time, the working relationship has had time to grow and develop and you’re already in this together. Of course (of course) you still want to impress your agent, but it’s also not so gauche to say, “I know I still need to work on X, Y,  and Z in this manuscript, but I wanted to get your input first.” Submitting to editors is a decision you and your agent necessarily make together, and you can multiply the number of people involved and subtract from how much decision-making power lies with you, the author, the farther along in the process you get and closer you come to pub day. But people usually aren’t asking about that part of the process, because by then they’ve got the agent and the editor and everyone else at the imprint ready to give them the answer.

As for those early stages, when the decision rests largely with the writer, it’s a lot harder to take your foot off the brake and let it go. Personally I’ve found there are a couple of telltale signs I’m reaching the point of no return:

  1. Instead of identifying big problems that span multiple scenes or chapters, I’m doing the sort of surgery that only requires local anesthetic.
  2. I’m changing things and then changing them back again in the next draft to what they were before.
  3. I’m hunting for things to fix instead of finding them right away.

When I start to notice this pattern repeating itself from draft to draft (and chapter to chapter and scene to scene) that’s usually a good sign that I’ve used up my own resources and it’s time to punt to someone else. Then I take a break from the work and walk away from it, ideally for at least two weeks and ideally when I have plenty of other things to occupy my mind. This time around it was two weeks’ cramming in the home stretch before my comps exam, when I wouldn’t have had time to think about writing if I wanted to. Having come back to the MS over the last few days, I still feel the same way I did two weeks ago–namely, that I’ve done all I can do and it’s time to make a few cosmetic changes to bring the document up to industry standards and send the cursèd thing off to my agent to read.

At this point in the process, I’m usually feeling a little ambivalent. I’m still excited about the project but don’t want to get my hopes up because I’m still too close to it to be objective about the book as a book, as opposed to the book in its current iteration. And I think when aspiring authors ask questions about how they know when they’re ready what they’re really asking about is how to avoid that feeling, that uncertainty. To be honest, I don’t think you can. Like I said, art is for masochists. Self-doubt and self-confidence will always go hand in hand. That–like the fact that no draft will ever be perfect–is one of those things you just have to accept. So instead of waiting for the day when you feel unambiguously positive about your manuscript, because that day will literally never come, you wait for the day when you feel you’ve done everything in your power to improve it, and you’re ready for someone else’s input. You don’t have to be ready to publish it. You don’t have to be ready to show it to the world. You just have to feel confident that the work that you’ve done was the best you could do on your own and you’re ready now for someone else to read it and say, “I like what you’ve got so far. Here’s what still needs work.”

M