Love & Anxiety at the Library

Love & Anxiety at the Library

I, personally, love libraries. So many books, all in one place, for anyone with a library card to read as they like. I love the shelves, the tables, the chairs. I love the way books seem to huddle all together, like friendly little knowledge storage devices.

There is magic in so many books in one place, which so many authors have tried to capture in their works. Everywhere I read, from Terry Pratchett to Jasper Fforde, libraries are places where space and time warp. Where books create pathways, where they speak to one another and change the very fabric of reality.

Of course, if you think about it, this is more than just a metaphor. Books don’t exist in a vacuum. Writers are inspired by other writers, by the world around them, and they send out messages in the works they create. Many books have had an impact on all of society. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair permanently changed food processing in the United States. Silent Spring may have led to the banning of some of the most harmful pesticides, saving many species of wildlife. Some books have an entire culture associated with them, like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

And in a library, all these books live together. If there are places of magic in the world where we live, I’m sure they are in libraries.

Unfortunately, my time in these sacred buildings is limited these days. I often dash in for a terse visit, full of jangling nerves and whispered warnings. I don’t even dare tread into the adult section. Little Miss and Little Dude are not ideal library companions.

Fortunately, most of the libraries we visit these days are built with the smallest guests in mind. Not only does our haunt have a large children’s section with many comfy chairs and tables, it also has puzzles and craft tables, tablets and computers, and even bags of toys. Best of all, outside the library doors stands a playground, a huge lawn, trees, and even a pond with a fountain. Practically a paradise for those of us with high energy little ones.

Little Miss and Little Dude love books. It’s one of my favorite parenting activities, sitting with them for an hour or more, flipping through the pages of Go Dog, Go!, or The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation. But at the library, they are too distracted to sit and listen. They want to run up and down the shelves, pulling out volume after volume, while I try to carefully re-shelve them, during which time they’ve pulled down four more. I take pity on the librarians, and our visits only last ten minutes or so.

I like to imagine that it’s the power of all those books that makes them a little wild. Maybe seeing shelves crammed with stories, which they know can be pulled down and read, every one of them, turns them into little bundles of energy. Whatever it is that happens to them, I’ve learned the hard way what our limits are.

 

I used to take Little Miss to story-time at our old library, thinking that it would be a nice change from our usual outdoor activities. I hoped that the structure and activity would be enough to prevent the fearsome meltdowns that plagued our indoor forays. The first few times, it worked.

My daughter, not-quite-toddler, not-quite-preschooler, somberly walked up to the librarians at the front desk, and selected a name tag in the shape of a storybook character. Half-hidden behind my legs, she whispered her name. Then, her wide eyes trying to absorb the enormous wall mural – which represented the beasts from Where the Wild Things Are, swinging through trees – she followed me to the little tables where we could wile away the minutes until the story time began.

Her favorite puzzle at the time was a fairy surrounded by outfit options. She loved matching the fairy’s skirts and tops. She sometimes found it frustrating that the fairy had to wear one of the outfits at all times, because it meant when she was swapping in a new outfit, for a few seconds the pieces that were on the fairy didn’t match.

Working on the coloring pages that matched up with the day’s theme was entirely out of the question.

When the doors to the separate reading room opened, Little Miss rushed inside. This was always where the trouble began. The room was not a square, or even a rectangle. It was triangular, and for some reason the far back corner called to my daughter. As the other kids crowded around the front of the room where the books stood on display, my child ran to the back corner, slammed her hands against the wall, sprinted back to me, and then ran back to the corner.

I coaxed her back to the front of the room, using every trick I knew to keep her interested. I participated in all the songs with the enthusiasm of an actor in a musical. I pointed out animals in the books the librarian read.

For three or four of these tense reading sessions, once the books and songs started, she at least refrained from sprinting to the corner and back. She didn’t exactly participate in the songs, and she didn’t exactly listen to the books, but she at least deigned to sit beside me, with an expression as if she was being very tolerant of a tiresome activity.

Then the day came when she decided to tolerate it no more. The librarian began to read, and she began her sprints, from the front of the room to that magnificent back corner. Following her example, two other kids joined in, giggling and squealing. I felt the stares of the other moms on me, on my child. We were disrupting the peace, interrupting their otherwise wholesome outing. They had come here for songs and stories, not the shouting and raucous sprinting. Those things belonged on the playground.

My face burning, I hissed at my daughter that if she did not stop running, then we were going home. She sprinted away from me, grinning mischievously. So, we left the reading room, Little Miss glad to get away.

Out in the main part of the children’s section, the mischief continued. Rather than settle down as I’d hoped, my daughter grew even more rambunctious. She did not want to do the fairy puzzle, or color on a worksheet. She wanted to run through the Young Adult shelves, ripping volumes off and handing them to me.

Ashamed and overwhelmed, I took her from the library, quite literally kicking and screaming.

We never went back to that branch again. Contained to smaller libraries without enormous murals and without the constraint of a storytime, she stopped engaging in noisy sprinting sessions. I’ve also learned how to make trips to the library work for my kids. We keep them short and casual.

 

I’ve learned to tolerate the looks from other parents who frequent libraries. The adults with two-year-olds who can name every letter on the rug, while my five-year-old asks, “which one is this?” The grandparents with quiet toddlers who will gladly sit on the floor doing puzzles from the shelves while my kids play hide-and-seek in the aisles.

I’ve also learned to cherish those moments when they will both sit on a chair with me and listen as I read a story to them. I don’t even mind if it’s about a princess who loves to dance and twirl, or about trucks driving up and down country roads, topics for which I once held disdain. My standards are a little different these days.

I don’t try to take the kids into the adult section. If there’s a book I want, I check it out on my Kindle, and am grateful that’s even an option.

I don’t freak out if they make a little noise, or if they’re a bit rowdier than some of the other kids. And if things start to get out of hand, we grab our stack of books and transition to the playground. Little Miss can check out the books these days without help, plopping them onto the scanner, then into our library bags while I keep Little Dude from running in the midst of the adult patrons.

The library is a lot different for me these days. It used to be a place of peace, where I hung out between my classes in college, reading textbooks and enjoying the presence of thousands more tomes. I remember savoring the puffy chairs and the quiet corners, where I felt very much at home, where I always felt a sense of mild disbelief that there could be so many books, all in one place. Shelf after shelf of them, with high, grand windows and long tables and gentle lights. In libraries, the whole world made sense.

I even liked wandering through the deeper parts of the library, where older books were stored on metal shelves, away from windows and people studying. On one rare occasion, one of my classes took place in my college library’s rare books room. There, we all donned white gloves and breathed carefully in the presence of magazines hundreds of years old, containing Charles Dickens’s novels in their original serial form. I was the student who, after class was done, asked what the oldest book in the room was, apparently with enough enthusiasm that the librarians didn’t just tell me about it, they brought it out to show me.

I stared in wonder at a prayer book, bound in leather, written in French, every letter and illustration drawn by the hand of a monk dead for centuries. But here the work still remained, somehow alive, propped on a wooden stand, handled only by white-gloved hands.

Perhaps this instilled in me too much reverence for libraries. Perhaps, when my messy, noisy, sometimes destructive little offspring enter a building which I know holds so much that is sacred and valuable, my tension rises to unbearable levels, and sensing this, they too become tense. Maybe that is why I must keep our visits so short. But I know that later, as they grow, these trips will become easier. They both love to have books read, and will sit for over an hour while I go through half the books on our shelf. Their love is already there, and as they come to understand the importance of the library, as they learn to read and the titles on every spine become legible to them, our experiences there will grow and change.

In spite of the trouble that we’ve had in libraries, I still love going. And my children, even though they spend only a few minutes inside, love coming home with new books. I know that someday their love of books will become a love of the library, and then we will go without breaking the magic.

Someday, I might even visit the adult section again.

How I Used My Bullet Journal to Set and Keep Writing Goals

How I Used My Bullet Journal to Set and Keep Writing Goals

 

I’m the kind of person who is full of plans for monumental projects. Just in the last few months I have started my third novel, scoured the internet for land to buy so I could become a farmer, and wrote up a plan for a wedding photography business. I am full of things that I think I can and should do. And when I’m working on those things, I work really hard.

The problem is that I tend to run out of momentum, and then I leap to something new before I ever finish something. Or, I have so many tasks to complete that I lose track and don’t accomplish any of them. I am a fountain of ideas sitting in the middle of a desert of finish-lines.

My loved ones have tried to help me. My husband tried to show me how to use several different digital calendars, but I found them inflexible and dull. My mother gave me planners and journals, but again – I craved flexibility. I wanted more space in some areas, less in others. A few summers ago my father remarked on a little book I’d started writing about my summer – a project he often assigned to his sixth grade class – by saying, “And as usual, Megan’s is beautiful, but unfinished.”

Ouch, Dad.

In this way, I have floundered towards my goals in haphazard, uncertain ways. To write a book, I knew I had to write, and so I did. And then I knew I had to edit it, so I did. But what about building a platform? Querying agents? Keeping up with reading in my genre? So many tasks necessary to becoming a successful writer went undone. And sometimes my random ideas intruded on my writing time, because I lost sight of  my ultimate goal, or simply got lost.

I needed to be able to check of tasks as I completed them. I needed to write down my goals on real paper, and break them down. I also needed lots of room to scribble down ideas as they popped into my head.

After many abandoned attempts at organizing, I gave up. It seemed that staying on task just wasn’t for me.

Until about nine months ago, when I discovered the Bullet Journal.

I’d seen so many people touting the benefits of their beautiful journals on Pinterest and Instagram, but I dismissed the concept as not for me. They looked so fancy and time-consuming, and I didn’t have room for all that nonsense in my life.

Then people in my Yoga group started talking about them, and intrigued by their conversations, I did some Google searches. As I looked around, I saw examples that were both elaborate and simple. And many of the bullet journals brought to mind the planners that I used in high school. Summer was wrapping up, and it was just the right time for some back-to-school nostalgia. I decided to give the Bullet Journal a try.

Now my little notebook is my constant companion, and my guide when I’m wondering what to do next. It hasn’t made me a different person, but it certainly has helped me become a more organized. I can confidently move from one task to the next, simultaneously working on a manuscript, social media, a blog, and querying agents, in addition to my normal life, without getting confused. I have the satisfaction of marking off very small tasks as I complete them, which helps me stay motivated when working on projects that won’t be finished for months, even years.

This is how I’ve done it.

Bullet Journal title

 

The Goal

One of the first things I did, after putting in my journal’s index and monthly calendar, was define my goals. Normally, I’m not very ambitious or specific about what I’d like to achieve with my writing, but on this page I went all out. I established that in the next ten years I want to become a profitable writer. Written out on paper, it looked a little scary and laughable, but there it was.

Goals
My goals page, spots, strange lettering, and all.

I was careful to pick a goal that I have some control over. I could have written out that I would like to become a New York Times best-selling author within ten years, but I have no control over whether or not that actually happens. That’s up to lots of other people, not me. I do have control over publishing my work, however, since self-publishing is increasingly an option.

Then I broke down all the things I needed to do in order to make that goal a reality. I included the tasks that I needed to tackle to get from where I was to where I wanted to be, like finishing edits and sending query letters. I also included building skills and creating a community.

When I’d made that list, I could move on to creating a more detailed break-down of my timeline. I set a five-year goal, a one-year goal, a half-year goal, one-month, one-week, and one-day goals. That gave me something to accomplish right away, as well as markers that I could check back with at different points to see how I was getting along.

Then I used my journal to make sure I was accomplishing all this.

 

The Days

For those unfamiliar with the bullet journal system, it allows for breaking down increments of time pretty much however you like. I keep daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly logs. Some people go for hourly – but that’s a bit much for me.

The daily logs are super simple. At the end of every day, I create a to-do list for the next day. And I like to include a lot of things, like making dinner, doing yoga, and writing. Filling in the little box beside a task is gratifying, so I try to include as many little things as possible.

Daily Page
That is my real life, there on paper.

This helps me stick to my routines when my days get hectic and unpredictable. Sometimes I don’t have time to write when I schedule it, but I can still give myself credit for doing it later in the day.

Because I make each part of the journal as I go, rather than having a layout all set up before I get started, I’m also able to include actual journal entries in my pages. I even have space to sketch and doodle if I feel like it. Best of all, my bullet journal doesn’t have a ton of wasted space, either. A day can take up as much or as little room as it needs to – or if I’m lacking in diligence, I can even skip a day without leaving empty boxes the way I would with a regular planner.

 

The Weeks

Every week on Sunday, I lay out my plan for the next seven days. This is where I’ll assign myself goals like querying, or make my editing and blogging schedule. I also have spaces on this page for getting down my blogging and general writing ideas, so that they don’t land on random pieces of paper that inevitably get lost.

Yes, I’ve lost a lot of really good ideas by putting them down on spare scraps of paper, or on random pages of a notebook holding a manuscript in progress.

I have the option, with the type of layout I use, of assigning a task to a certain day, or making it a more vague, “as I have time” kind of goal. For me, this kind of flexibility is really important.

WEekly Page
An example of a weekly layout when I used a ruler to make the boxes. I’ve had more productive weeks, but I wasn’t showing you one where I drew the lines by hand. I have some pride.

I also have a little box for notes, which is where I write down the bigger-picture tasks that I achieve throughout the week. Here, I put down the chapters that I finish, how much I revised, how many blog posts I made. It’s also a good space for capturing those “ah-hah” moments when things came together, and I realized how to make things work.

As someone who isn’t always very good at acknowledging my own progress and successes, recording these small steps towards my goal is important to keeping my momentum and motivation.

 

The Months

A lot of things happen in my journal when I move from one month to the next. At the end of a month, I use a page to analyze everything that has worked well in my bullet journal, as well as the things that aren’t working. Then I take that information to draw up a plan for the next month. I set small goals that will move me closer to my main goals.

Monthly Pages
I love this layout, so much!

I take that evaluation, and use it to set up my calendar for the month ahead.

As with my weekly log, I make goals that I can work on as I have time, and also write tasks that I want to accomplish on specific days. I used to keep a habit log, but I found that time-consuming – also, I frequently forgot to fill it in, so I let it go for now. Maybe someday it will come back when it’s needed.

 

The Year

The monthly logs are probably the part of my bullet journal where I do the most work and analysis. At the level of the year, things move slowly. But this is also where the large view of things becomes clear.

With the information that I collect in my weekly and monthly logs, I’m able to do a thorough analysis at the end of the year of what I’ve accomplished, and how that has moved me closer to my ultimate goals. This is an opportunity to celebrate the things that normally would get lost or appear insignificant in the midst of what I do every day. When I feel discouraged, it’s great to be able to turn to the page where I record all these things, and see just how much I’m getting done that I might not be able to see in the daily logs.

Then, as I do with my monthly log, I am able to establish goals for the year ahead. I can determine what I still need to learn and the tasks I need to tackle in order to get closer to my big goals. This year, for example, I’ve set a goal for querying fifty agents, and another goal of finishing the first draft of a new novel. These are tasks that seem completely overwhelming, but broken down into monthly, weekly, and daily tasks, they become very manageable, and I’m well on my way to completing them, in spite of the some unpredictable changes in my life and daily schedule.

 

Random Pages

I’ve mentioned that I love the flexibility of the bullet journal several times. It will probably come as no surprise, then, that my favorite, and probably my most useful pages in my journal are the ones that stand apart from the established layout. Because the journal has an index, I can use space anywhere in my journal to break down an idea or a problem that I’ve encountered.

Some of my random pages include fleshing out characters, analyzing problems with the narrative arc, describing what I want to accomplish with a manuscript edit, and ideas for posts on this very blog. My bullet journal allows me to step outside the march of the days and the weeks, without ever leaving those pages. This is a system that works very well for me: I’m not the kind of person who is able to keep track of multiple journals at a time, so I need everything contained in a single book.

When I’ve worked through a problem by writing down all its bits and pieces, I can then add the action steps to solving it in my daily, weekly, or monthly pages.

The Writer Considers the Journal
My journal, keeping me on track.

 

I imagine that if you don’t have much experience with bullet journals, all of this sounds way too complicated and unwieldy. I thought so too, once, but I’ve found in practice that a bullet journal actually simplifies things. That’s because it is taking all these complicated tasks, that often overlap with other complicated tasks, and breaks them down, makes them specific, tangible things.

If, like me, you find that there are times when you aren’t sure what to do next, and you find most scheduling systems don’t give you enough flexibility, then I encourage you to try a bullet journal. You don’t need anything fancy – when I started, all I had was an index, a calendar, and daily task logs. As I became comfortable with those, I added in my weekly pages, and then monthly as well.

For more information about bullet journals, check out the original bullet journal website here. And then, if you’re like me and you want some more visual examples, then check out Pretty Practical’s discussion on setting up here. Or this article at Buzzfeed. Or this very detailed guide on Tiny Ray of Sunshine.

Then give it a try! If it helps you get closer to your goals, then its well worth the effort. Or, if you have a different system of staying on track, I’d love to hear about it.

 

 

Spring

Spring

I’ll admit that spring has never been my favorite season. This transition from cold and snowy weather into the blazing heat of summer usually leaves me more sad than anticipatory. Packing up sweaters and coats and knitted scarves and leather boots is a ritual of mourning. Pulling out tank tops and shorts, with their washed-out or neon-bright colors, a disappointment.

I stubbornly refuse to swap my hot coffee for the iced version.

I prefer autumn. Give me bright leaves over delicate flowers, any day.

The past couple of years, though, I’ve learned to start appreciating this change in the seasons, because in the last couple of years I’ve had a vegetable garden. This is an exciting time of the year for people who plant things. Right now, peas and radishes are sprouting in my beds, sending up miniscule leaves and shoots, bits of green poking up out of dark earth. Tomatoes and broccoli plants grow under lights in my basement. Now is the time when all the plans I made in January and February become action.

I assemble my growing light in a basement closet, spoon dirt into black plastic capsules, tuck seeds underneath. I add dirt to my garden beds, I evaluate the activity of perennials poking up. Every weekend seed packets rustle and watering containers spill out their contents. I can almost hear roots wiggling their way through the earth.

This is also the time when I start running into snags, and little unforeseen problems crop up. Sometimes seeds don’t sprout. Sometimes a hard rain knocks seedlings to the ground. Weeds sprout. Toddlers pull up plants.

I do not deal so well when things go awry. I’m working on it, though.

Pink and Thorns
Leaves, buds, and also thorns.

I noticed this about myself shortly after graduating college. That was when I started to work on my novel. I had a beautiful vision in my mind of how it was going to go. I had epic scenes and complicated relationships all ready. My main character was awesome, and she was ready to conquer anything that stood in her way. The ending was hazy, but I figured that would work itself out when I got there. No problem.

Around the fourth chapter, things started getting messy.

Based off my conversations with people on airplanes, this seems to be where most novice writers run into trouble when they start working on a book. It’s always, “Oh, you’re a writer! I started a book once, and I just couldn’t get past that fourth chapter.” So I guess I’m not the only one.

When things got complicated and I felt myself getting stuck, I skipped ahead to a scene that seemed clear to me. And so I wrote my first novel, hopping around through the narrative, filling in the bits that were the most fun and about which I was the most certain. Then one day, I ran out of fun, easy scenes, and I found it was time to connect them all.

This was not a good time for me.

Forest Floor
The green is there, and soon the flowers will be, too.

I used to think of spring as a time when rains fell, and all the dirt and muck of winter washed away. It was a time of brightness, of renewal, of new things.

But with new things, with all that vigorous growth, comes chaos. Vegetables and flowers aren’t the only things to spring up out of garden beds. Weeds are often the first characters on the scene, and they are remorseless. They spread before many plants have a chance to get started, covering the earth with their pernicious runners, spreading seeds into any spot that the gardener hasn’t had a chance to fill.

Renewal doesn’t necessarily lead to a positive outcome. Sometimes the change of all that growth can be overwhelming. Sometimes what all that freshness and renewal does is show us just how much we still need to learn in order to deal with all that change.

Star Flower

I wrestled with that first draft for months. My book had to be perfect, had to combine literary technique that I’d worked so hard to learn with exciting plot. I forced the pieces together, made everything I had fit into place. I swelled with pride when, after all those months, it was done.

Then, a while later, I started to read. And what I read was not good. It turned out that by keeping every scene that I’d enjoyed writing and wedging them all together, what I had was a chaotic, meandering mess of a novel. Some parts were good, but they were being choked out by all the extraneous bits. I had a garden, but it was mostly weeds.

I couldn’t believe, after all that work, that I could end up with such a mess. Clearly, I was no writer. My masterpiece was, in fact, nothing more than a scribble made by a grade-schooler. I shoved the papers in a box, and swore I was done trying to be a writer.

Forest Flowers
These delicate guys didn’t give up.

A garden in spring is chaos. But it is also hope.

Weeds spring out of the ground as soon as the snow melts, threatening to claim all the territory as their own. Some perennials from years before never grow at all. Sometimes a late snow threatens the kill back any new growth. A snowstorm can wipe out trees. A cat might decide that the patch where carrots are growing will make a phenomenal litterbox.

Yet a skilled gardener can pull out the weeds, carefully prying out roots so they don’t grow back. The wanted plants can be separated from those that are unnecessary. Soil can be enriched with compost. Sun-loving plants and shade-loving plants can be moved to their proper places, where they will thrive and become abundant.

Floral Branch

I had to learn how to be a novelist. This, it turns out, is a distinct skill from being a good writer. I had long practiced crafting beautiful sentences, spinning exciting scenes, and so I thought I already had all I needed. But in a novel, the story as a whole must work. A writer can create the most beautiful scenes in the world, but if they don’t work well in the story she is trying to tell, then the book will fail.

After some time away from my novel, I returned, ashamed at my vow never to write again. I picked up a red pen, and I learned new skills. I researched how to edit. I cut the scenes that didn’t work without mercy. I found the thread of the story, the thing that would hold the characters and the narrative together, and I shaped new scenes that made that narrative cohesive. I created a plot where once there had been chaotic meanderings and happenings.

Most of all, I learned how to stick with the task in front of me, even when the job seemed overwhelming. I learned how to sit at my notebook and work on scenes that weren’t my favorite thing to write, but were necessary to the story.

Chaos can be tamed, but it takes time, skill, and patience. It takes the wisdom to sort what is necessary from what isn’t. Like a gardener, a writer must learn to tell weeds from productive plants. Which is especially tricky, because what might be a weed in one garden could be desireable in another.

Beautiful Things

Spring is not so bad, although I’m not buying that it’s a time of blank pages and renewal. This season is a beginning, but like most beginnings, it is chaotic, full of all the trouble and challenges of new things. Beautiful things come forth, but not all of them are worth keeping.

As I write a new novel, as I plant my garden, I keep in mind all the work ahead. It doesn’t overwhelm me, anymore, because I have learned how to meet these challenges after years of wandering in a confusing, chaotic wilderness. This ability to keep the final vision in mind, and work towards it, is a skill that I have earned over years of work, and it is a skill that I constantly refine.

Sometimes, I would give a lot to have a time machine, to go back and tell myself that the mess of a novel that I hold in my hands will be better if I’m willing to let go of the parts that don’t work. That the skills I need to tame the weeds are not inborn, and that I can learn them, with time. That I will learn them. And that the time I have spent crafting this first draft, though it is clunky and cumbersome and full of unnecessary bits, has been well-spent.

Of course, I can’t go back. But I can go forward, and I can enjoy the chaos of this season.

A Message to Myself When I Tread Rocky Paths

A Message to Myself When I Tread Rocky Paths

With every fall of every foot, you will sing this song to yourself. And it will keep you going, even when the air grows thin and cold. It will push you forward, even when the mountain peak rises high above you.

Persist.

When the pages trickle by, when you have no time to put your pen to paper, when you are dehydrated and covered in the unspeakable substances that issue from your own offspring. When all your stories lie locked inside your head, with seemingly no hope of ever getting out. When you stumble in a haze of sleep-deprived weariness. When you are unsure of your own name, let alone what that word is for someone who demonstrates a lot of knowledge. (It’s ‘erudite’ by the way.)

Persist.

When even those measly paragraphs that you do eke out feel more like dry bones than the living, breathing story in your mind. When you know you will revise all this, and take out more than you keep, and re-write it all again. When you aren’t sure that you can even write at all, anymore.

Persist.

When you see your own mistakes laid out, bold and clear in front of you. When you know you have so much further to go, and so much more to learn than you ever imagined.

Persist.

When you are drained and filled with self-doubt as you grapple with yet another revision. When you must rest, so that you can take care of yourself and the people you love, know that the next morning you will rise and whisper the song to yourself.

Persist.

When the feedback is good. When the words rise up, one after the other, certain and true and right. When you see all your ideas falling into place and everything fits better than you hoped, sing your song aloud.

Persist.

You may rest. You may work. You may despair. You may feel like your heart is hollow, or like it is clad in iron, or filled with sun-warmed air. No matter how you feel –

Persist.

Let this song be the only one you sing. Let it greet you in the morning, let it soothe you at night, let it be your constant companion as you go on this journey. It is a battle cry, it is a sustaining ballad, it is a weary hum. It will take you everywhere you need to go.

There will be writers who get published before you do. Cheer them on, knowing that this is their song, too. There will be setbacks. Take comfort, knowing that this song will get you through every challenge. There will be things you don’t know. Go out and seek the knowledge, from books, from those who are wiser, from your peers, from your friends, because this, too, is part of the song.

There will be victories. There will be moments when you progress forward in startling leaps, and this will be because you remembered, all that time before, to sing.

Persist. Persist. Persist.

Green Goddess Sandwiches & Musings on Writing

Some people like to get a manicure now and then. Some people go to Yoga class a few nights a week. Some like to buy really nice shoes, and some fly remote-control quad-coptors. There are, I’m sure, a million other little luxuries that people indulge in that I know nothing about.

As for me, I like to cook. It’s chopping, stirring, baking, and the drizzling of olive oil that soothes me, that feels like a special treat. And then, of course, the eating! I have always loved to eat delicious food, and then I learned how to make food, and I became obsessed.

Cooking is such a strange thing to consider a luxury. After all, anyone who has to eat must prepare food, or find someone willing to prepare it for them. And yet, there’s a certain type of meal preparation that seems to be gaining value and appreciation. Creating meals from raw ingredients, from scratch, is a cultural movement, and one that I gladly consider myself a part of.

Whole Sandwich
Food – I’m pretty sure this is as close to magic as most of us get.

 

I found this recipe for Green Goddess Sandwiches. Not only are the photos gorgeous, the ingredients are also just the sort of thing I like. Crunchy cucumbers, smooth avocado, crisp lettuce, and wheat bread – I’m sold. I added the ingredients to my grocery list, knowing that the sandwich would take a lot of extra time to make, but knowing that it would be worth it.

The day when I made them was warm, and the sun shone on our back porch. The kids spent most of their time out on the back porch, or down in the yard. There is nothing like a day nice enough for Little Dude and Little Miss to go out and get dirty, maybe sample a few insects, move rocks around, and stomp all over the strawberries. All the extra space minimizes fighting, and pulling up grass can entertain them for a good thirty minutes. That morning I particularly needed the mental rest this provided, since I’d had a job interview the day before, and I was preoccupied with wondering whether or not I’d get it, as well as what all our lives would be like if I did.

Definitely not so many mornings of drinking coffee and writing in my notebook when my household tasks allowed.

Just before lunch, I pulled out the ingredients. I’ll admit, I hadn’t bought quite everything, and I wasn’t going to make up the excellent-looking aioli used in the recipe. The kids wouldn’t eat it, and I didn’t want to have to wash out the blender after I made aioli for one person’s sandwich.

So, I made my sandwiches with cucumbers, avocado, mayo, a crunchy lettuce mix, and fresh basil leaves.

I made thin, thin slices of cucumber. I just love the way light shines through them when their cut, that magical pale green jelly around the seeds. Plus, the kids love cucumber. Little Miss always calls them pickles, even when they’re fresh.

Ingredients
Food in bowls makes me weirdly happy. Just look at all that potential!

It always amazes me how many different things my knife can do. It’s taken years to learn how to cut up different types of veggies for different types of recipes. But this one thing, depending on how I use it, can slice cucumber, and also break down an avocado. A slice around that giant seed in the middle, a twist to separate the halves, and then a whack to drive the edge into the seed. Another twist to pull it out.

I scooped the fatty innards of the avocado out with a spoon, and then sliced it. It was just ripe enough, which is such a tricky thing with avocados. I’ve learned how to pick them, for the most part, but sometimes I cut one open before it’s quite ready, and the flesh is the texture of watery plastic.

I sliced some circles of mozzarella, too, knowing that would probably be the kids’ favorite part. Little Miss and Little Dude can eat their body-weight in cheese, especially fresh mozzarella.

I love the part of cooking where all the ingredients are ready, and then it’s time to assemble the food. Ah, look, here before me is all this stuff. Now, watch as I turn it into a thing!

For the kids, I put mozzarella and cucumber slices between two pieces of bread. Even that seemed like it might not go over great, so I made it even more attractive by cutting it into a heart shape with a giant cookie-cutter. Then I hoped Little Dude wouldn’t throw all the cucumbers on the floor.

For my sandwich, I added everything, piled up in all these lovely green layers between some lovely, hearty wheat.

The kids, amazingly, ate their whole sandwiches. Not a single cucumber fell on the ground.

And I consider myself very fortunate that I could sit and eat my sandwich with a book in my hand. It was as tasty as it looks, and the textures were just exactly right. I felt like, for a few minutes, I sat in a little cafe, with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norris in my hand.

I’ll take some time with a perfect sandwich and a book over a manicure any day, but that’s just me.

Cut Sandwich
Perfect lunch.

 

Speaking of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norris, what a great book! I don’t understand how I didn’t know about this novel before, because it is everything that I like. It’s as if Jane Austen had decided to write a book about wizards.

It is also a gigantic book, rivalling even the last few Harry Potter books in thickness, and with dense paragraphs. It might take me weeks to read it, and then I probably ought to get back to modern-day science fiction.

I’m still looking for a published book that I can use as comparison to the book I’ve written. Supposedly the industry very much likes when an author can do this, because it helps narrow down the market where the book will succeed, and it also indicates that the author has read a lot and knows what he or she is talking about. Either I’ve written a really oddball book, or I just haven’t read enough yet to be able to find its place in the literary world.

***

Last week, I didn’t write much, but I cooked a lot. It doesn’t satisfy my need to make things in exactly the same way, but it’s sufficient, and it has the bonus of being something necessary. The family has to eat, and I can make them food.

Little Miss and Little Dude don’t get much from the writing I do, except perhaps a calmer, more centered parent.

In all the preparations for my new job, writing was definitely pushed clear off the stove. There was paperwork to fill out, meetings to attend, and clothing to buy. And if there’s one thing that crushes all the energy out of me, it’s shopping for clothes. Trying on twenty different pairs of pants, none of which fit, and none of which I even like, drains the inspiration right out of my body. Several days this week I returned home from the stores exhausted, and unable to write a word.

Those days, I was glad to make dinner. I savored the roasting of chicken and the rising of pizza dough. After a few good meals, I found my energies recharged. Today, I’ve been able to write again, to further my story while crunching on granola and drinking coffee.

I still haven’t found a pair of pants, though.

Sandwich and book
Can’t complain.

Craft Talk: Ancillary Justice and Too Like the Lightning

Craft Talk: Ancillary Justice and Too Like the Lightning

Gender and Science-Fiction

So far this year, I’ve read four science-fiction books, and of those, two have dealt pretty heavily with gender norms. Those two books were also recently published. It seems that this is a topic on a lot of writers’ minds right now, and though these two novels dealt with gender in very different ways, there was definitely a challenge underlying both of them to view the topic from new angles. Both books surprised me with the depth of their impact on my thinking. Those two books?

Ancillary Justice, and Too Like the Lightning.

Both of these are well-crafted novels, and worth reading for a variety of reasons. But in this post, I’m going to specifically focus on how they treat gender. One of my favorite things about science-fiction is the way it can push readers to think outside the confines of their learned standards and norms. We come to science fiction with the expectation of seeing the world in a new way, so altered social norms are much easier to accept than in many other genres. Sometimes, science fiction is even able to lift aside illusions and show us, in a very stark way, what those norms look like.

I would argue that both of these books are successful in the way they ask readers to look at gender in a new way.

 

Ancillary Justice

In the case of Ancillary Justice, the twist on gender norms is simple, but has a dramatic effect. The ruling group of aliens in the galaxy, the Radch, do not have a separate pronouns for male and female members of their race.

Instead, everyone is referred to as “she”.

In Ancillary Justice, “she” can be male or female. “She” is an emperor, an officer, a wealthy citizen, a soldier, a doctor, a parent, a musician, a criminal, a farmer. Everyone, in the language of the Radch, is a “she”.

At first, it felt strange, to read the female gender pronoun being attached to everyone. As I read, I constantly tried to mentally correct it when the narrator referred to a character who I knew was male. My brain wanted to know, as soon as a character was mentioned, what gender to assign them. As I built an image in my mind of this person on the page, that was one of the key pieces of information, the thing that usually comes first in any other book, on the screen, even passing someone on the sidewalk.

In our world, it is coded in hair, the movement of the body, clothing, shoes, and accessories. Those who defy the codes stand out, sometimes are ridiculed. In Radch society, to distinguish by gender goes against their culture.

Eventually, my brain adapted. After a few chapters, I stopped caring, from the moment a character appeared, if she was male or female. Within the pages of this book, that didn’t matter so much. It became far more important to know what the characters did, how they behaved, what they wanted. There was a certain purity to them when they could exist without the heavy constraints of gender expectations.

By the end of the book, I still hadn’t determined the gender of some characters, and I didn’t ultimately mind. Nothing that any of them had done, none of their struggles, relied on the kinds of constraints that we typically see in our society. There were certainly questions of class, and questions of the ruling race exerting authority over the rest of the galaxy, but the idea of gender had been lifted away.

Not so say that gender was left entirely neutral by every character in the book. The protagonist does move through cultures where male and female are distinguished by their appearance, and in fact, when this character moves back into Radch society, she finds the gender neutrality of Radch appearances a little disconcerting. The signifiers that the Radch mix and match in their dress with wanton abandon seem confusing to those who are accustomed to the symbols being used with purpose.

Ultimately, Ancillary Justice spent a lot more time on other questions of identity and morality, with this twist on gender running through the background. The way it was embedded so deeply in the language of the book, however, made it a very effective way of dismantling notions attached to the pronoun “she”. Just reading the book is a confrontation of one’s own expectations.

 

Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning is a book that takes on a variety of subjects in a very direct manner. It delves into philosophy, as well as futuristic science fiction. Here, a network of flying cars (controlled by people whose brains have been shaped to work as computers) exists comfortably alongside a faction that serves people’s spiritual needs when religion has been outlawed.

Like Ancillary Justice, Too Like the Lightning imagines a place where gender identifiers have been reduced to almost nothing. Instead, most people dress to express their allegiance to a particular mindset. The Humanists wear boots with treads that leave an unique imprint wherever they go, and engage in risky, thrilling behavior. The Utopians wear coats that display ever-changing images of the world around them as they wish or imagine it to be, while reaching for impossible-seeming ideals.

Unlike Ancillary Justice, though, the narrator of Too Like the Lightning talks about gender all the time. He calls his good friend Thisbe a witch, claiming she possesses dark arts and mystical powers available only to females. In a society that attempts to maintain a level of gender neutrality, Mycroft regularly points out how a person’s behavior makes them male, female, or puts them somewhere in between. He even makes a point of discussing some around him who are anatomically one gender, and yet because of their dress or behavior he identifies them as the other gender. And he spends an enormous amount of time making his arguments for doing so.

Mycroft definitely gives a reader the sense of speaking with a time-traveller. He is at odds with the society he lives in, a society that is striving to remove the indicators of male and female. He constantly points out identities, explaining them to the reader, while also explaining the enormous impact when antiquated gendered clothing is worn. Mycroft exists in both spaces, the place where male and female aren’t supposed to matter, as well as the place where it is coded in every part of a person’s appearance.

If Ancillary Justice frees the reader almost entirely from considerations of gender, then Too Like the Lightning is more of a challenge to the reader’s thoughts of gender, no matter what those thoughts are. It is almost impossible to follow Mycroft without asking questions about why certain standards are in place, while also questioning what the detriments might be of leaving those standards behind. Too Like the Lightning presents what might be considered an ideal world, and simultaneously dismantles it.

 

Writing on Issues

A lot of books attempt to discuss the weightier topics facing society, with a broad range of success. At one end of the spectrum are those books that do more harm than good by bashing at an idea with little sensitivity or understanding. At the other end are the books that are so blindly enthusiastic about a topic that they ignore all the little snarls and complications. Somewhere in the middle are the works that dig in and really bring to light all the nuances, subtly weaving the truth about our world into the story.

These kinds of books are rare, but I think the skills behind them are of benefit to every author – really, to every human being – and worth cultivating.

I think one of the primary things on display in works that achieve that balance is self-awareness on the author’s part. The writer of work like this must know how other people think, yes, but even more they must know their own thoughts and prejudices. In order to treat the characters on all sides fairly, the writer has to be aware of when their own feelings on a subject might cause them to make a villain out of someone who is, in fact, a complicated human being.

One of the other vital pieces at work in successfully discussing issues in fiction is a connection to the subject. If the writer doesn’t have a personal interest in capturing the nuance of a topic, then it’s likely to be misrepresented on the page. Without thought or consideration, something like the discussions of gender could easily get distilled in ways that don’t contribute anything useful to the subject. Or even in ways that are harmful.

This connection to the subject is important even when the writer isn’t delving into some serious modern-day issues. If a book is going to have soul and life, the author has to care, and has to keep caring for hundreds of pages.

 

Language Shifts

I remember discussing in one of my college creative writing courses the use of pronouns, particularly attempts to speak in a way that was gender-neutral. In a lot of formal writing, the use of the phrase “he or she” when talking about some theoretical person feels stilted, but not too much so. That same “he or she” phrase in fiction is so unnatural that writers avoid it at all costs. Many students in my class confessed to using the grammatically-incorrect “they” to refer to a hazy person of unspecified gender. The professor did not give an opinion as to whether this was right or wrong, and at the time it felt entirely theoretical.

I figured, “let’s just use ‘he or she’ and move on with our lives!”

But the world has changed a lot since then, and increasingly we as a society are confronting the spectrum of gender identity in an open way. Also increasingly, I think we find that language fails us, which is why it’s not only interesting that science fiction like Too Like the Lightning and Ancillary Justice are tackling the topic, but also vital.

Too Like the Lightning, by the way, takes the stance of many of my fellow-students, and refers to most characters as “they”. Ancillary Justice applies “she” to every character. In one case, a plural pronoun has been hijacked to cover the singular in a gender-neutral way, and in the other, every person regardless of sex is given the female pronoun. Both tactics work within the context of the story in which they appear, but in the outside world, they both feel inadequate.

I think both of these books demonstrate just how important science fiction is to the broader conversations that we, as a society, are engaging in. The futuristic worlds allow all of us to examine the questions that we face now – in these two novels, we get to see two very different treatments of gender, both of them tackling the effects of gender roles in our society. As these conversations unfold in fiction, they help advance our language and our understanding of how deeply gender is woven into our society, influencing and enhancing the nonfiction work on the same topic.

This, in my opinion, is science fiction at its best.

The Pen and the Keyboard

The Pen and the Keyboard

Talking to my fellow writers about our craft is always a learning experience. The many different methods, reasons, and styles reveal just how personal and creative the process of writing is. Some people like spiral notebooks, some people write on legal pads, some people like old-school typewriters, some love their sleek Macbooks. I, for one, only lend out one of my precious pens if I’m given a solemn oath that it will be returned intact.

In this land of varying opinions, however, some things have been subjected to scientific study. That’s the controversial water that I’m going to wade into today.

 

Defending Pen and Paper

You might think that putting a pen or a pencil to paper is the same as tippity-tapping your way over a keyboard, but research suggests that these are two very different activities. Or at least your brain thinks so. This article at the Huffington Post talks about research into how the brain processes handwriting differently than typing. The short version: when you write by hand, more of your brain lights up than when you type. Even children generate more ideas, and college students remember more from lectures.

Anytime I’m writing new material, it goes into a notebook. For me, the process of scribbling my own words on a piece of paper is radically different from sitting in front of a computer and typing. It’s slower, even for a snail-paced typer like me, but that’s the point. The ball of my pen rolling over the smooth surface gives each character, each word, a visceral meaning. The ideas in my head take shape gradually, the amorphous images carved into solid characters, feelings, dialogue, and actions by my hands. Sometimes as I write through a scene, things take a very different shape than I originally imagined. New ideas weave their way into the plot. Ideas that I hadn’t even put to words start to appear, made real by the solidity of my own handwriting.

The scientific evidence suggests that this is because writing by hand actually reaches more parts of your brain than typing does. Ideas come forward that you might not have found any other way. There’s a reason that I often come away from writing a nonfiction piece with a new awareness of how I think about something. By scratching down my words with ink, I’m finding thoughts that I didn’t even know were there.

There’s a romance, too, to sitting down with a blank piece of paper and filling it up. For hundreds of years before the invention of the typewriter, this was how the process worked. The ancient philosophers did this, kings and queens have done this, Jane Austen, and Stephen King, too. There’s a strange magic to putting pen and paper, knowing how many have done it before.

 

Don’t Toss the Keyboard

You might think me a hypocrite when I say this, but I still use a computer to write. I do so love pen and paper, but that doesn’t mean typing has no place in my life or my writing.

In fact, this entire blog post was written on my computer. I don’t think that typing is inferior to handwriting, it just has a different place.

When I want to get an idea out fast, then a keyboard is where I turn. My fingers can fly and my thoughts can, too, arriving on the page unfiltered. The end result is a little rougher, but that can be a good thing. There have been some scenes that I struggled to write using pen and paper. When I switched to typing, when I could see the scene marching up and down the page, when I didn’t have to spend so much time ruminating on the individual words, everything fell into place.

From a more practical perspective, a manuscript is almost impossible to share when it’s hand-written. I had some very patient friends in high school who read my cursive stories, but I’ve learned that as much as I love my own lettering, not everyone appreciates having to sort out my ‘b’s’ from my ‘l’s’. After hand-writing my first draft, I type the second.

I know that this seems like a cumbersome  process, but considering the many, many drafts that most pieces go through before they are finished, it’s a small time investment, with big pay-offs.

The Diverse Writing Process

Research suggests my brain works in different ways when I’m handwriting versus when I’m typing. My own experience (and the experiences of much more renowned writers) aligns with studies. Which has convinced me that the best thing a writer can do is exploit this fact, and write using both methods.

Story time.

Right before my daughter was born, I finally (finally) got serious about finishing the first draft of my first original novel. To speed up the process, I pulled out my laptop and typed away. I was on a deadline, and it just had to get done.

At last, the draft was finished. I hit the print button and stuck the stack of papers in a box.

When my daughter was a few months old and I’d finally caught up on sleep (or given up on sleep entirely) I pulled that draft out. I read it. It was terrible. I realized almost immediately that the majority of what I’d typed was going to have to be cut if the novel was ever going to work. It was a disjointed series of scenes, that while interesting on their own, would never work together. Sentences and paragraphs rambled across the page, taking up space without moving the plot forward, or saying much at all. Worse, every sentence, every character, every location, was flat and dry. I had spit out scenes with very little sense of place, without any depth.

Pen and Keyboard Vertical

So I cut. And every scene that I cut, I rewrote in my notebook. The result was so much more lively and cohesive, because I had to go slowly and put thought into crafting each word.

Then I retyped those scenes. And as I retyped them, I refined them. This kind of process is much easier on a computer screen than on paper. If I don’t like the order of a paragraph, it takes seconds to cut and paste the sentences into a new sequence. Whole scenes can be moved around this way, even whole paragraphs. Highlighting an entire chapter that’s dragging the piece down, hitting the ‘Delete’ button, and watching it vanish, is downright thrilling.

Those scenes that started in a notebook and moved to keyboard were far stronger than the scenes that started out typed. I discovered the method that worked best for me, the way of writing that resulted in the most evocative sentences.

It makes sense, as a writer, to approach a piece from as many different perspectives as possible. I care a lot about how my writing impacts other people, and I want others to be able to read the most cohesive, cleanest story possible.  Drafting in multiple methods is the best, and I have found, most efficient, way of doing this.

Finding Balance

All writers have preferred writing methods, and we all have deeply held opinions about them. But if I’ve learned one thing from talking to my fellow writers, it’s that what works for one of us isn’t going to work for all of us. Often, the only way of discovering what works best for you is to try new things. If you usually plop in front of your laptop during writing time, then pick up a notebook and a pen next time, instead. If pen and paper is all you’ve ever known, then give a keyboard a chance. You might find, like I did, that there’s an important place for both methods in your writing life.

Whatever you do, don’t limit yourself to just one way. And if your notebooks have been getting dusty, pull them out and see what happens. You might be surprised at how much more depth your writing has when it begins that way. And the research backs me up.

What are some strange discoveries that you’ve made on your writing journey? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

And as always, thank you for visiting Bright Ink.