Balancing Creative Attachment

I’ve been struggling with some mounting anxiety about writing choices lately. I tend to get into worry spirals about my plot decisions and characters and how different people I know, and lots of people I don’t know, might react to them. Sometimes I can cope with creative anxiety by emotionally pulling back from my work, especially when processing professional feedback, but I think I’ve actually done that too much. I’ve kind of lost track of my affection for Orane and my emotional involvement in her journey. Some distance is definitely good, because a writer who is afraid to make bad things happen to their good people is generally not going to tell a very compelling story.

On the other hand, though, staying that emotionally detached from the story has left me much more subject to the pressure of other people’s opinions. I can’t really feel comfortable with any of my choices because I’m not trusting my own judgement and creative intuition anymore. There’s no point writing a book entirely driven by what I think other people might think. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a particular market, but that’s not my goal at the moment and it’s definitely not what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been scared of judgement. My instinct is to escape the judgement by not writing anything anyone could possibly judge, but that really means not writing anything at all.

That anxiety reached an unpleasant peak this week, where I couldn’t even think about my work without my head just filling up with a whirlpool of worries. I literally can’t function under that much external influence, since every single thing will ultimately be judged negatively by some people and positively by others. There’s no way to please everyone, so for now I’m trying to focus inward and reconnect with my own judgement and creative preferences.

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Image: A pussy willow in late afternoon sunlight.

Writing days this past week: 1

It’s Okay Not to Love Books

I love books. I love writing and reading. I feel that books have helped me immensely throughout my life, and I think it’s okay not to read. It’s okay to not feel any particular attachment to books. It’s okay to like reading, but to prefer digital formats to physical books. It is not just okay, but probably wise, to donate or throw away books that don’t make you happy. Your space doesn’t need to look like a library unless that makes you feel good. If it does, that’s also fine.

It’s kinda not fine, though, to pitch a fit over the idea of anyone else not valuing books the way you do. For some people, they’re just objects. That’s fine. They are just objects. The value of any object is personal and subjective, and it may change over time.

The anger over Marie Kondo’s (misquoted and out of context) suggestion that people keep less than thirty books in their homes is worrying for a lot of reasons.

First of all, it’s untrue. She says you should keep whatever makes you happy. If books make you happy, she’d encourage you to proudly display and enjoy them, not convince you to throw them away. Stop bitching at this nice woman who just wants to help people tidy their houses. It’s her thing, just like books are your thing. She isn’t coming to take anything from you, and she doesn’t want to.

It also shows that a lot of avid readers and writers haven’t considered that there are plenty of totally valid reasons why people might not feel the same way they do about books. A number of disabilities, including dyslexia and ADHD, can make it extremely difficult to read, or to sit still long enough to enjoy a book. Some people literally cannot form images in their heads as they read, so pages full of text hold little appeal for them. Some never had access to books growing up and didn’t develop that love. Other people just have dominant interests that don’t lend themselves well to sitting quietly and reading. Not everything is best absorbed in that format, and not everyone learns easily from the written word.

Finally, the actual force of it is driven by classism and ableism, among other things. Yes, a lot of people only share those posts because it’s kinda funny to imagine themselves cutting down on something that obviously means so much to them, but a lot of other people have shown genuine disgust and anger at the idea of not having a library’s worth of knowledge in their living rooms. There’s this deep belief, often instilled when we’re kids, that reading a lot and having as many books as possible makes us smarter, and therefor better, than our peers. This can become part of our identities as readers. It’s been a part of mine, and I didn’t realize how much that was driven by certain social biases until fairly recently. I’m still learning to untangle it.

Sure, it’s fine to sleep on a pile of books every night like a dragon, but that really does not mean you’re better than anyone else. It doesn’t mean you’re smarter than anyone else. More than anything else, it probably means that you may have some common interests with other avid readers. Which is a great thing, but it’s not for everyone, and it doesn’t have to be.

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Some cute brown mushrooms on a mossy log that I found on my last road trip.

Writing days this past week: 0

Kindness Porn

I’ve started watching the Tidying Up show with Marie Kondo, not because I’m actually planning to follow her method at the moment, but just because she’s such a delight to watch and listen to. I also loved her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and would highly recommend it as a very relaxing read. It’s an excellent bedtime book.

In spite of all the totally legitimate criticism of the minimalist movement, Marie is really nonjudgemental and seems to be purely motivated by a desire to help people make their own environments comfortable for themselves, not to make them fit into any particular image. If that box of Star Wars memorabilia makes you happy, she wants to help you display it, not guilt you into throwing it away. She really strikes me, above all else, as a person who has completely leaned into who she is, her own unique view of the world, and what matters to her. I think that’s pretty special.

I have a slowly growing little list of shows that are both positive and relaxing, and Tidying Up is going on it. The Great British Baking show and Queer Eye are also pretty high up there. I never realized how starved I was for just seeing basic kindness on TV until I first found myself watching a baking competition where the contestants would often stop work just to help each other. Even the comedians on GBBS give out hugs and encouragement in equal measure with their kindhearted teasing and jokes.

Queer Eye offers something even more rare, which is a group of men doing emotional labor for other men. Many straight men rely almost entirely on their female partners for that kind of emotional processing and support, and it can be terribly isolating. The men of Queer Eye are gentle and encouraging, and they provide a great image of non-toxic masculinity. Plus, the show offers a lot of body positivity for men, another rarity.

Side note: There was a great discussion I saw a while ago about how this heavy reliance on their female partners can encourage men to believe in the mythical Friend Zone. Men tend to view any kind of emotional labor as something you only exchange with a romantic partner, whereas women usually also give and receive that kind of support from friends. Thus, basic supportive friendship for a woman looks, to a straight man, like a relationship. This is not a good thing. It wears women out, trying to keep up with the needs of a person who isn’t getting emotional support from anyone else in their life, and is part of why older men tend to die soon after losing their partners. They have no emotional support networks to take up the strain, unlike most older women. Plus, it encourages men to ruin perfectly good friendships by putting their female friends in The Girlfriend Zone. Knock this off, dudes. Being friends isn’t a consolation prize, y’all just need to learn how to do it right.

Here are some of the shows on my kindness porn list:

  • Great British Baking show
  • Queer Eye This is the remake, not the original. I’ve just never watched the original show, so I can’t comment on its tone.
  • Tidying up
  • This one is not a TV show, but Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has a youtube channel, Jessica Out of the Closet, that is pretty much like distilled sunshine. She’s a disability activist, vintage beauty vlogger, and she shares stories about her life with her wife and their two dogs. Sometimes she also talks about her beliefs as a quaker, and about queer and disabled historical figures. She’s one of the most positive and intentionally kind people I’ve ever seen in my life.
  • Big Dreams, Small Spaces is a British show about renovating small gardens so that they’re more functional and beautiful for the families who need them. They often feature disabled people, with a focus on accessibility and tailoring those spaces really well to the people who will use them.
  • Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a short one, but very fun to watch. The host, Samin Nosrat, is incredibly passionate about good food, with none of the usual quibbling about calories or creepy talk about guilty pleasures. She enjoys herself, teaches about the important basic elements of flavor, and she goes out and talks to people who make amazing food around the world. She also has a book.

If anyone has any suggestions for more shows I should add to this list, I’d love to hear them.

I had to rescue this orchid from Safeway, because they had sprayed all the other orchids with glitter paint and it was sad.
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This is my weird hairless dog in pajamas giving me a hug. Granted, she was doing this to stop me from working so I’d pay attention to her instead, but still.

Writing days this past week: 2

Personal Update: Still Working on Sleep

I did an overnight sleep study this week. It is very difficult to sleep with a mess of wires glued into your hair and wrapped around your torso, while an infra-red camera and a microphone record everything you do. I brought my computer with me, which was silly. I thought maybe I’d get some work done before sleeping, but I got neither work nor very much sleeping done. Still, it’s another step toward getting more restful sleep, hopefully.

I just finished reading Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. It’s an older book, obviously, but this was the first time for me, and I loved it. The audiobook is very worth getting, if that’s a format you enjoy. The narrator gave a great performance, and each character has such a distinct voice. That’s surely due to both Gaiman’s writing and the narration, but it makes for a great listening experience.

A black and white sketch of a spider.

Writing days this past week: 2

The Savior’s Champion

I really enjoyed Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion. It sets a very satisfying pace, has lots of action interspersed with some real sweetness, and it kept surprising me all the way through (in good ways.)

First off, if you have an issue with words like “fuck” and “cock,” don’t even bother with this book, because you won’t have fun. Or, do give it a read, and maybe it’ll help desensitize you.* That said, if you find (contextually appropriate) dick humor entertaining, this is the book for you.

Tobias, our main dude, gets drawn into a massive tournament to win the heart and hand of his country’s ruler, the Savior. She’s the magically ordained leader of Thessen, but hasn’t been seen by anyone outside the palace for most of her life. Tobias is a former artist’s apprentice who has been forced to become a laborer in order to support his mother and sister. He doesn’t have any personal interest in the Savior, or in the power of being her consort, but enters the competition for his own reasons. The tournament consists of a series of inescapable challenges, many of which are life-threatening and violent. He struggles to survive and protect the people that he loves, but also to hang on to his sense of who he is.

The narrative style was sarcastic and fun, and a nice break from the overly stilted language you sometimes find in fantasy. Her world-building was creative and also really broke out of the typical fantasy mold. Overall, the story just frequently didn’t go the way I expected, and that includes the romance, which turned out to be my favorite part.

Tobias goes through some very understandable emotional struggles because of the disturbing situation he’s been forced into, and that was very skillfully and responsibly portrayed. Jenna did the same with consent and communication in the romantic situations, which was awesome. I really liked the diverse cast, too. There are several non-straight characters, and the women in particular have a good range of appearances and personalities. One has a physical disability and another is developmentally delayed, and neither felt like a stereotype to me, although I’m not disabled, so please take that with a grain of salt.

I’m really excited to read the next book in this series.

CW: There is some discussion and portrayal of sexual assault throughout the story, but it is strictly shown in a negative light, not tolerated or perpetrated by people we’re supposed to like. The storytelling is also fairly gory and visceral, so if violence is a trigger for you, you might want to approach with caution – though again, the violence is not glorified. Some ableist language, always used by the uncool people.

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* Regarding all the damn swearing: The thing is, limiting one’s vocabulary to avoid curse words doesn’t mean a person is better, cleverer, or even nicer. You can swear up a storm while uplifting others, and you can easily tear them down without ever stepping outside the bounds of “polite” language. In fact, one constant refrain I hear to protest swearing: “It’s just low class!” Is… You know, classist. That’s not a good thing; it’s actually an insidious form of prejudice. It’d be wise to examine your personal shit around language, whether you pick this book up or not.

Writing days this past week: 2

The Power of Thresholds

One of my favorite recurring themes in fantasy is the protective threshold that forms around homes, shielding the inhabitants from supernatural harm. An unoccupied space has no protective threshold, but a home does. It just feels intuitive, that homes would have power to them beyond the physical walls that they provide. Feeling like I have a home, verses just a place to sleep and hang my proverbial hat, is really important to me. It can be a hard feeling to hang on to when renting, never really knowing when the next move might come, and especially when living in a city that’s far away from family and friends.

I particularly appreciate magic systems with thresholds that don’t just automatically pop into place when a place becomes occupied, because that doesn’t feel quite right. Just like it takes a while for a new dwelling to become familiar, it should take a while for that special homeness of it to grow and become strong enough to protect the people inside. That sort of power feels like something that’s built by the love and care of the people living there, and I’ve noticed that a lot authors include something of that in their particular twist on this theme.

Everyone does handle it differently, which is really cool. We all know that vampires can’t come into a house without being invited, but there’s a lot of variation on the idea. Depending on the author’s magical system, thresholds might just protect against the undead, or they may protect against all sorts of supernatural threats. In The Dresden Files, thresholds provide basic protection against supernatural threats, and are also a framework onto which more sophisticated magical protection can be built, like a scaffold. Inviting someone to cross the threshold often binds both guest and host to certain ritual responsibilities to each other, which is a very old idea, deeply rooted in folklore.

Homes have, historically, been a place of refuge in a dangerous world. Family mattered, of course, because who else would protect you from outer threats? Under good circumstances, (which, unfortunately, is not a given) family creates a sense of safety that’s almost palpable, whether it’s a family of two, or a large and extended family – whether they’re blood relatives, partners, or other people that you’ve chosen to be close with. People who live together may carry shared grief, as well as good memories, and can draw comfort from that. On the lighter side, homes are ideally shared with people who won’t judge you for your goofy jokes, because you share a sense of humor. Familiarity is a form of safety that makes it easier to relax and be yourself.

Beyond family, there’s also the love and care that’s put directly into a space. A person living alone could strengthen their threshold by caring for houseplants, organizing their bookshelves, cuddling with a pet on a rainy day, filling the place with their favorite things, cooking and cleaning, or just by loving the familiar chaos of their own messy little nest. Boundaries – the ability to decide who you share your space with, and when – are fundamental to the idea of a protective threshold. A home can be a powerful place, even (or especially) if it is just one person’s cherished sanctuary.

Magic generally comes from the energy within people, and so much emotional energy is expended in and on the places in which we live.

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Writing days this week: 2

The Heart of What was Lost + The Witchwood Crown

I finally got into both of Tad Williams’s new books in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn world, Osten Ard. For those who aren’t familiar, this is an excellent fantasy series, and very worth checking out. The original trio came out in the early 90s, and I love them.

Interestingly, they also are credited with inspiring George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Having read both, the common elements can be pretty striking, even though the stories are completely different, as is the tone. If you’ve only read Martin’s series, and aren’t a big fan of the gore and sexual violence, you should definitely check out Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Tad doesn’t go in for that gratuitously gritty feeling, and I really appreciate that about his work. His stories and characters don’t feel unrealistic – much the opposite, in fact. They’re believably flawed and interesting, and his non-human characters in particular are uncommonly rich and personable. His focus in general is just a hell of a lot more uplifting than seems to be popular in epic fantasy these days.

It took me a little while to get around to these new books, but I finally did.  I just finished The Witchwood Crown, and I’m so ready for the next book.

The first and shorter of the two that are currently out is The Heart of What was Lost. It’s set right after the climax of To Green Angel Tower, and introduces some new characters that become relevant in The Witchwood Crown, while laying some more world-building groundwork. It delves much further into the Norn culture than before, which is really cool, and even gives us some POV Norn characters for the first time. (Norns are the eternally pissed-off northern cousins of the Sithi, a race of elf-like people that share Osten Ard with humans, trolls, giants, dragons, and the changeling creatures called Tinukeda’ya.)

The Witchwood Crown is set many years after all the previous events, when the main protagonists, Simon and Miriamele, are much older. It focuses on a mix of other familiar characters, and new ones, including their grandchildren and Binabik the troll’s daughter. Overall, it feels very much like the original books, although Simon has been replaced as resident mooncalf by his grandson, Morgan.

My one complaint would be that The Witchwood Crown has a pretty slow build, and that’s really less of a complaint and more of an observation. I really like how full Tad’s stories tend to feel, even if it does make the main plot move a little bit slowly. There are a lot of different characters and stories to follow, and I found it a really relaxing read, although there were some pretty tense bits, and I was surprised by how genuinely nervous I felt when my favorite characters were at risk. He really knows how to build up that tension and toy with the reader’s expectations, and I never feel quite certain that I know who’ll make it through to the end of his books.

Depending on your preference, of course, I’d highly recommend checking out the audiobook versions of these books. I quite enjoyed the voice acting, especially for the trolls. It gets a little silly, but it’s fun.

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(Writing days this past week: 2)