Filling up

Ahhhh… you know what I missed being able to do while I was working on the sequel? READ. Ye gods. I felt guilty any time I did, and even when I had time and leisure it was hard to really dig into anything. I just didn’t have the energy and mental resources to spare, so what I read slid off me, water off a duck’s back (the exception being non-fiction, which I would read because it was relevant).

Now I am afflicted with Cookie Monster Brain. I don’t merely want books, I want to eat them noisily and get crumbs all over everything. I want to take them apart and put them together in odd configurations, little Frankenbooks staggering about under their own power. I want to smash them together like stones and make tools, or music, or fire!

So I read V. - as I mentioned – but in the last couple weeks I have also read Throne of the Crescent Moon  by Saladin Ahmed (enjoyed the heck out of that), Raiders of the Nile by Stephen Saylor (I don’t like these young Gordianus prequel books as much as other books in the series; somehow Saylor has simplified the voice to reflect that he’s younger, but he’s also less interesting that way), and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (which I have decided perfectly encapsulates where Gaiman and I diverge, mythologically; I want to write a paper on this, or dissect it with a scalpel). I also have two manuscripts from friends to read, one of which is done, the other of which I need to start before my commentary becomes irrelevant. And then I just started The God Engines by John Scalzi, but I’m not far enough in to say much.

I know that doesn’t sound like very many books, but I am a SLOW READER, and for me it is a lot. Especially when you consider that for the last week I’ve been waking up at 5am thinking about literary criticism. Part of that is that it’s getting light very early now, but it’s also my brain going, “Hey. HEY! Remember that thing you read yesterday? Guess what guess what! I had some ideas about it.” And then off we go. My brain has to explain everything it thought while I was lazily sleeping, and then cross-reference all the other thoughts I’ve been having about anything and everything.

It is simultaneously annoying and glorious. I suspect my voraciousness right now is a symptom of just how gravely the well of my mind had run dry.

In other news, here’s my favourite song from choir this quarter, although this is not the arrangement we’re singing. It’s Owain Phyfe, though, so I couldn’t resist. I like his voice a lot.


Rested and ready for trouble

After three weeks of aggressive laziness, I find myself feeling all squirrelly and full of vim today. I spent much of the last week on the floor with a heating pad after throwing out my back; I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’m feeling better today.

Long ago, my grandmother advised my mother to spend time every day sitting in a chair, getting used to being old. My mother, ever the contrarian, did not follow that advice, but that’s how I’ve felt for the last week, like I was practising senescence. I think I got good enough at it. Surely it’s like riding a bike, right? When the time comes, I won’t forget how.

Anyway, DONE with that. The one good thing is that I got some reading done. It’s been so long since I had leisure to read much of anything that I’m absurdly giddy with it. I finished Thomas Pynchon’s V. which I’d read way back in college (ye gods, almost exactly two decades ago! Speaking of my senescence). In fact, I’ve started a little reading group on Facebook called Club V. If you have any interest in reading and discussing along with me and some other intrepid souls, please do look us up. It’s an open group for now. I may close it at some point if it gets too unwieldy.

You know I’m feeling happy if I’m reading difficult books and digging into my comparative literature roots for fun. I think it’s finally sinking in that Shadow Scale is done and I’m free. I had my celebratory luncheon at Nuba. It keeps hitting me – I’m done! – and I’m dizzy with it.

I even started “the talk” with my agent – wherein we figure out what kind of trouble I should get into next. It’s wide open, darlings. Wide, wide open.


Did it February where you are?

Because it seems not to have Februaried on this blog. Hm. Extraordinary.

I’m not really here. Or more accurately: I am here but briefly, giving myself a break from writing. As if blogging weren’t writing.

I hit my Jan. 31st deadline hard, with a hammer, and then I was tired. I rested for a couple-or-three weeks, until my editor started slipping me revisions again. They’re GOOD revisions, and I can’t underscore what a relief that is. However, that means I am in the throes of work again, at least until early May.

I have precious little extra brainspace for blogging right now. However, be not dismayed! I am working, and working HAPPILY, which is pretty much the most wonderful news I could possibly have.

The real reason I’m popping in today is because I ran across two blog posts recently that struck me as important: Myra McEntire’s The Shame of Depression, and Libba Bray’s Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land. Both are about writers dealing with depression (as you might have gleaned from the first title, at least), and they are honest, heartfelt, and powerful.

I went through a depression writing this sequel. I’d love to say, “But now I’m over it, forever and ever, ta-DAA!” but depression teaches you not to make those kinds of grandiose promises. There’s always the chance it’s going to pop back up, like a horror movie villain, no matter how thoroughly you stabbed it in the chest. I think I can safely say, “I’m doing very well, I find joy in writing again, and may the beast stay in remission, touch wood.”

I’m seeing depressed writers everywhere – on Twitter, on blogs, through the grapevine. I don’t know whether some critical mass has been reached, where people finally feel safe admitting it, or if I’m attuned to it because of my own experience, or if now is a particularly stressful time to be a writer. Maybe it’s all three, in varying degrees. But I hope these writers are seeing it too, and taking some comfort in the not-aloneness. I wish I could reach through the computer and give everyone a hug.

For me, depression didn’t manifest as sadness so much as incapacity. I felt incapable. Stupid. Muted. I was half convinced I had early-onset Alzheimer’s, or perhaps, like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, I was waning into dullness after a flash of false brilliance. What ability I’d possessed had clearly been ephemeral.

My advice is to be as honest as you can about it, with everyone you love and work with. People care about you; it’s ok to let them. It’s ok to take the time you need to take care of yourself.

My favourite quote from Bray’s post is, “I would argue that artistic expression is not a symptom of depression so much as a response to it.  I see writing as an act of resistance against an occupying enemy who means to kill me.” If you can write, do it. There was a while where I couldn’t, however, where writing WAS the source of stress, but it was still art that helped dig me out of that hole. I joined a second choir and sang my way out. If writing is too hard right now, don’t panic. It won’t always be. There may be some other art form that suits you better these days, something no one’s demanding you be good at.

All right, speaking of writing, I’d better get back to it. I’m EAGER to get back to it. When will you see me again? Who knows? It’ll be a nice surprise.


Happy New Year, darlings!

Oh, was I supposed to say that on the first? Oops. We’ve had such a lovely, laid-back winter break, that I do believe time has been standing still.

Would you believe I’m on deadline, and feeling relaxed? This is a whole new year, up here. A whole new world.

The edits are going well, and I almost don’t want to tell you that, afraid I’ll jinx it. But the key word there is “almost” – I am not, in fact, afraid at all. That’s why everything’s going so well. It’s like I woke up all of a sudden and looked at how afraid I’ve been and said, “That’s not right. Fear was NEVER what I was made of.”

And then, *floop*, my heart turned over. It had been upside-down all this time. Everything had been upside-down.

I’ve been very disciplined all break, making sure I get in three hours of writing every day (I know that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a LOT with both husband and son at home). The lads have been nothing but wonderful in helping make sure I get my time in and get it done.

I’ve done a thing, the last few years, where I’ve picked the word I wanted to be a theme for the coming year. In 2012, I chose “perspective” – which I knew I would need, and which turned out to be devilishly hard to keep. For 2013, I chose “art” – and that was good. That was a thread through the labyrinth (and what a labyrinth it’s been!)

This year, I know exactly the word I want: AUTHORITY.

My authority.

I had it. I doubted it. I’ve found it again, and I intend to keep it.

That’s what I’m experiencing with this revision. I see the problems; I see how to solve them; I am able to say exactly what needs to be said, do what needs to be done.

I’m ready to face this year the same way, capably and competently. It all looks doable from here. You don’t know what a relief that is.


Snark vs. Smarm

There is nothing quite as wonderful as an essay that pinpoints something you hadn’t quite been able to put a name to previously, something that has been deeply bothering you in ways you couldn’t articulate. In this case, it hasn’t just been bothering me; it’s been obstructing my airways. This article, “On Smarm,” was like an intellectual Heimlich maneuvre. It’s long, but very worth reading for anyone who’s ever felt paralyzed by the demand to say something “nice” or say nothing at all.

Faced with that choice, I go silent very quickly. And I’m not a mean person, friends. I’m not. But it’s so easy to step on toes that you don’t even know are there – toes where there shouldn’t be toes! Most people have invisible toes, in absurdly huge quantities! If I am charged with the burden of never hurting anyone’s feelings EVER, I can’t do it except by staying silent. Indeed, no one can. Everything hurts somebody. People are amazingly woundable.

Before I posted that bit of mockery yesterday, oh the anxiety I felt! I was riddled with it. I almost didn’t publish, and even then I had to put that disclaimer at the beginning. Nothing but silliness to see here, folks. God forbid I should assert an opinion about something.

My anxiety isn’t all bad. It led me to make sure I focused my mockery at an idea – an idea abundantly deserving to be mocked, I must add – rather than a person. There were lines that bordered on meanness; I blunted those, or omitted them entirely. I think the results were good.

But maybe I don’t have to fret so much. When did I become so gun-shy? Eh, I know when, and I don’t really want to talk about it. But here’s the point: it has always been my rigorous belief that if I write honestly, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes my honest reaction is mockery, or criticism, or anger. I never wish to hurt anyone, and when I do, I will face it and deal with it. But I don’t have to be stymied by fear.

Tip o’ the hat to Alyssa Rosenberg for pointing me toward that essay. She also thinks Seraphina would make a good movie, so you know she’s a person discerning intellect and excellent tastes.


Plumbing and/or Scaling the Entire Range of Human Experience Before Breakfast

[The following contains hyperbolic silliness and should not be taken literally. I do not consider children or children's literature unworthy. I write it because I love it and believe in it. Also: don't mistake my tone for anger. This is me laughing merrily. I feel a bit silly explaining myself in such detail, but this is the internet. Tone is hard to hear on the internet.]

Ah, my darlings, the winter bear has been prodded from her slumber.

First there was an article about how Kent University was ‘penitent’ for belittling children’s literature. “Huh,” I said to myself. “Is that Kent University in Canterbury? I played cello at a Messiah workshop there, long ago.”

Indeed it was, or one of their campuses, anyway. Close enough. Satisfied, I went back to sleep.

But then we get this follow-up article today: Children’s Fiction is not Great Literature.

I have to admit, I scoffed at first. However, I have come away transformed. I am a convert. Permit me to explain.

“Great adult literature aims to confront the full range of genuine human experience,” quoth the article. Of course it does! Except for children’s experience, which isn’t genuine experience after all. It’s barely what we’d call human. As some fellow on The Simpsons once said, “You kids don’t know what you want! That’s why you’re still kids! Because you’re stupid!”

It’s not like serious adult literature has never explored the experiences of childhood. I always thought James Joyce’s description of wetting the bed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was particularly sublime. Nobody understands bed-wetting like an adult, though, and this is the entire point! Children do things without understanding the nuances! They only discern black, white, good, evil, and bright cartoonish things. When Joyce wets the bed, it has gravitas. Pathos. Introspection. Of course, James Joyce was far too Great to spend an entire book wetting the bed. He grew up, as any sensible person ought, and moved on to genuine human experiences like sexual urges, fear of hellfire, and spiritual epiphany. None of which children have the faintest notion of. Don’t tell me they do. I can’t hear you, lalala.

Now, does this mean that any individual work Great Literature must encompass the entirely of human experience? Of course not. That would be silly. Nobody has time for that. No, no, Great Literature merely has to be capable of containing anything. As the article explains: “a novel written for children omits certain adult-world elements which you would expect to find in a novel aimed squarely at grown-up readers.” So you see, virtue lies in not omitting – in omitting to omit, if you will – those elements of the adult world which would disturb, confuse, or just plain bore a child to tears. All the really genuine stuff, in other words.

Greatness in literature is like the load-bearing capacity of a bridge: nobody’s really going to drive a ten-billion-ton truck over your bridge, but it has to be strong enough, just in case. Because seriously, you never know. Somebody might have a truck that’s beyond your feeble imagination. We must allow for the full range of possible trucks, even the ones that don’t exist.

Children’s books, on the other hand, are like little wobbly rope bridges, capable of carrying only the wee-est, twee-est widdle emotions, only the fluffiest kittens of experience. Is there anything more futile and ridiculous than a fluffy kitten of experience? Surely the universe could get on quite well without fluffy kittens at all. No one would miss them. Stop blubbing, you.

It is therefore self-evident that the more Human Complexity a work is capable of containing, the Greater it can be. This is why (self-evidently) more greatness may be found in epic poetry than in sonnets. There’s only so much complexity you can cram into a sonnet, especially if you’re being strict with the rhyme scheme (I prefer English, myself). And don’t even get me started on haiku. How much Genuine Human Experience can 17 syllables possibly hold? I’ve had complex adult emotions with more syllables than that. I had one just now. It was self-congratulatory-dyspeptic-smugtasticrabby-glibberishness. Haiku that, darlings.

In sum: it’s not enough to write children’s emotions or experiences well because they are inherently unworthy of literary consideration. A Great book potentially contains anything (except silly kid stuff). The problem with Harry Potter (which I think we all agree exemplifies the entirety of children’s literature) is not that there isn’t anything Complex and Genuine in such books, but that there can’t be, by definition. QED, thank you, and goodnight.


Da Vinci’s marvellous instrument

The Viola Organista! It’s like a harpsichord and a cello had a baby! Read this article about it, and be sure to listen to the performance as well. I’m loving this so hard. It sounds like a string quartet to me, playing Baroque-style without vibrato. Incredible.

In other news: I’ve been relaxing most arduously, playing Mass Effect 2, doing housework, attending to all the things that need attending (the dog, largely; she’s been ill, poor thing). I keep having ideas for fiction. I am jotting them down, then letting them float away, which feels like the height of luxury to me. I’ll get to them; there will be time.

I hope November is treating you gently, too.


The merry month of November

My darlings, I have news: I have completed the most recent draft of the sequel, and I sent it to my editor this morning. I have spent the last two hours bouncing around my house like a ping pong ball, because – ye gods – this is such a weight off my heart. I can’t even tell you. I’m made of words, but I have no words.

Do you know what the very best thing about this is? No, it’s not the fact that you really will get to read the sequel this decade, although that’s pretty nice. OK, very nice. But the very best thing is that today is November 1st, and it will take my editor a few weeks to read the draft and get comments back to me (alas, let us not pretend the book is completely finished).

I have November, for novel-writing purposes, OFF. Nothing in November.

This has been a special goal of mine ever since last November. Allow me to explain.

I have known, ever since I moved to Canada, that November is the nadir of my year. It’s dark, and getting darker. It’s rainy, and getting rainier. Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, so there isn’t even a holiday to liven things up between Halloween and Saturnalia. I get epically bummed out. Seasonal affective disorder? Maybe, but the point is, it happens every year, so theoretically I ought to be able to come up with a strategy to combat it.

My previous strategy — keeping my nose to the grindstone and muscling through — did not work. In fact, it made things worse. For the last two years, in particular, by the end of November I have been not merely depressed but burned out and exhausted as well. There had to be a better way.

Well, lovelies, there is. This year I am proclaiming the month-long holiday of November Nothing! While others toil at NaNo, I shall be celebrating NoNo.

NoNo has exactly one rule: Be gentle with yourself. It is the month of restoration, of remembering what you love and why and doing exactly that. Of resting when you need to, laughing as much as possible, slowing down and staying sane.

I’m planning to be here a lot, honestly, because you know what I miss? Writing for fun, or for no reason at all. While I was working on revisions, I felt guilty any time I came to this blog, particularly if I was going to write something silly. Well, NoNo rejects the idea that only focused, goal-oriented tasks are worthy! We laugh in the face of that idea! Time spent doing things you love is never, ever time wasted, and sometimes goals just have to wait their turn.

I am here to laugh and enjoy myself, and probably write more about prog rock than anyone but me cares to read. And if it starts to feel like work, maybe I’ll slack off — I have permission! It’s Nothing November, my dears, and you are all welcome to join me, fully or whenever you’re able.

Be gentle with yourselves. I’ll see you tomorrow.


A nautical feast!

I would like to give credit where credit’s due: this was all my husband’s idea. He planned it, he researched it, he (and my son) did most of the cooking. And although I won’t say this was the most delicious meal I’ve ever eaten, it was one of the most fun.

They started out yesterday making hardtack, not just for us to eat straight, but because figgy dowdy is made mostly of hardtack. Hardtack itself is made of flour, water, and a little salt, then baked at a low temperature until it is hard as a rock.

We carved "ER" in a few of them, so we could symbolically bite the queen later on.

We carved “ER” in a few of them, so we could symbolically bite the queen later on.

We baked a second batch with a different recipe that used a little butter, and indeed, those were a lot easier to chew. Below is a plate full of the authentic hardtack, illustrating how much a sailor would receive as his ration every day:

A pound of tooth-chipping goodness!

A pound of tooth-chipping goodness!

The next day, my husband and son took the designated amount of hardtack out on the balcony and beat it to death with a bat:

It's cowering in that bag.

It’s cowering in that bag.

Figgy dowdy requires hardtack crumbs, which are in fact quite hard to make. Hardtack is – I may have mentioned – pretty hard. Anyway, they finally crushed it sufficiently (or decided it would do), and then they mixed in the other ingredients: raisins and currants (which had been soaking in rum overnight), chopped figs, a little flour, a little sugar, a little nutmeg and ginger, more rum, water, three eggs, and a LOT of suet. Here’s my son kneading the mixture together. All those little white pellet-shaped things? SUET.

There were a lot of rum fumes, which he didn't appreciate.

There were a lot of rum fumes, which he didn’t appreciate.

We then wrapped the mixture in flour-dusted cheesecloth, tied it shut, and set it in a pot of boiling water for three hours.

A tidy, attractive package!

A tidy, attractive package! My hand is close to the camera, which is making the dowdy look smaller than it is.

Enjoy your bath, dowdy!

Enjoy your bath, dowdy!

At one point, all four burners on our stove were going: boiling the figgy dowdy, heating up water to add to the figgy dowdy if it boiled down too low, cooking up the pease porridge, and boiling the salt pork. Hot work on a hot day! The pease porridge was basically yellow split peas and onions, boiled down to mush, and then some egg and seasoning added in. THEN, it too was wrapped in cheesecloth and put in to boil with the salt pork.

Boilin' boilin' boilin! Keep that dinner boilin'!

Boilin’ boilin’ boilin! Keep that dinner boilin’!

So ok, the salt pork and pease porridge (hot!) were done before the dowdy, so we had our dinner all together tidily like so:

Clockwise from top: Pease porridge; salt pork; more salt pork; hardtack (one with butter and one without - you can't tell by looking, but your teeth will know)

Clockwise from top: Pease porridge; salt pork; more salt pork; hardtack (one with butter and one without – you can’t tell by looking, but your teeth will know)

What’s that in the mug, you ask? Why that, darling, is grog — rum, water, lime juice, a little brown sugar. I found it drinkable, just. I liked the peas best. The hardtack was very cracker-like, honestly; nothing to fault but the texture. Salt pork, however, is nasty, at least the way we prepared it. To be fair, I don’t know that any meat is at its best, particularly, when boiled. Still, I found this unpleasantly salty, and the half-inch fat rind was kinda tasty, but it really sits in your stomach like a lump.

British sailors were rationed a pound of salt pork. PER DAY. I can’t even imagine.

So ok, you’re wondering how the figgy dowdy turned out. I can read your mind, clearly. Well, it turned out like THIS:

That's right, bebeh. Slimy and delicious.

That’s right, bebeh. Slimy and delicious.

It held together reasonably well. It looked a little like a loaf of soda bread, or a brain. We were able to slice and eat it for dessert.

Mmm! The white lumps this time are chunks of still-hard hardtack.

Mmm! The white lumps this time are chunks of still-hard hardtack. The suet all melted.

I would imagine that if you’ve been stuck at sea for months, eating a pound of hardtack and a pound of salt pork every day, this probably tasted sweet and delicate and heavenly. It was a bit like bread pudding, I guess, but damper and greasier and not very sweet at all. I liked it, but it was a lot of work to make. My husband was thoughtful enough to run the  figgy dowdy ingredients through a nutrition website and make us this:

Look at that iron content! That's got to be good for something!

Look at that iron content! That’s got to be good for something!

Apparently their rations came to about 5000 calories per day. I imagine trimming the sails and heaving the capstan and dancing the hornpipe took a lot of energy, but ye gods, I can’t even imagine. My stomach still kinda feels like I swallowed a rock.


My sincere and humble thanks

For all those wonderful wall-song suggestions! Even the silly ones. Maybe especially the silly ones, because I can always, ALWAYS use a laugh. It’s good to have a pile of new music, and from so many different genres, too! I am a little astonished that nobody suggested “100 Bottles of Beer”, however.

I was thinking about walls, in particular, because I have been feeling like I’ve put a wall around myself, and I don’t like it at all. I had big defensive walls when I was young, but I tore them down years ago and decided I wasn’t going to live that way anymore. Somehow, though, getting published and making this transition from “Nobody You Ever Heard Of” to “Somebody a Few People Have Heard Of” has been scary and uncertain enough that the walls went back up.

Have you noticed this blog getting more boring and impersonal over time? Yup. That was the walls going up. If you read the entries sequentially, you can see it happening, like time-lapse photography. Little by little I said less and less. It got to the point where I could barely write anything here at all, where I felt the internal censor half choking me any time I tried.

The thing about my internal censor – and my defensive walls – is that they get super zealous about their jobs. They weren’t just applying themselves here on the blog, but everywhere. My “real” writing. My life. I have been cutting myself off at the knees, truncating my thoughts, boxing myself in at every corner.

And for what? Am I so scary that I need to be contained? Are my honest words such a liability that I need to keep a muzzle on?

There is nothing terrible I want to say, but I have to feel absolutely free to say something terrible or I find I can’t say anything at all. Writing – the thing I chose to do, the thing I love – has become a misery as often as not. I’m tired of that, and I’m done suffering. It’s not necessary. I can say exactly what needs to be said. I have the power, the right, and the ability to judge rightly what to say.

The first rule of shame-Grendels is never talk about shame-Grendels — but that’s their rule, invented for their own self-preservation. They know that when the sunlight hits them they will dissolve into dust. That’s why I’m saying this here, because it will help precipitate their disintegration. It is time to stop shouting at myself and enjoy my work again.

And I really, REALLY want to get to the point where I can explain to you why listening to YES is like eating an excellent sandwich. That’s a goal, perhaps. I will know the last brick has been kicked aside when I can finally be that funny and serious — together — again.

 


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