Made it through November unscathed!
Well, no, not entirely. But it was a better November than some I’ve had, despite the fact that our apartment suffered a major flood from above. Flooding sucks, although I’m sure it’s better than fire. It may even be better than famine, but it’s still a giant pain in the rear. I’m tempted to say, “It’s just stuff,” which is an attitude I try to have about my belongings in general, but in this case it’s not just stuff — or not primarily stuff. It’s time and space, and stress and uncertainty, all of which turn out to be ten times the headache “stuff” ever was.
I hate not knowing how long we’re going to be living like this. I hate not being able to plan.
I don’t quite understand it, but somehow I was still able to work. In spite of all this stress and nonsense, I got 30K words written. It’s not quite NaNoWriMo speed, but I think it’s as close as I’ve ever gotten (especially in darkest November). In a way, writing was the one thing that didn’t seem to be floating away, a little island among whirlpools and eddies.
I’m hoping it continues, that this stream of words will keep sweeping me along. I know, I know, I’ve just transformed writing from a welcome island into the stream itself. For my next trick, I’ll turn it into a marmot.
But my point is: it’s December. We made it, darlings. November, mon ennemi, adieu.
If you haven’t seen the We Need Diverse Books funding campaign yet, please go check it out, and I hope you will be inspired to contribute. They’re more than halfway to their goal, but there’s still plenty of time for you to get in on the action.
While we’re on the subject, here’s an article on “The Thorny Issue of Race,” intended specifically for NaNoWriMo participants, but useful for anyone interested in writing stories incorporating different races, ethnicities, and cultures.
(Another bit of silly filking for your amusement)
You can write if you want to,
You can leave your words behind.
Jot ‘em, ripe or green,
By hand or by machine,
And everything will work out fine.
You can write where you want to,
Someplace where they will never find,
Or teach yourself to fly
And write it in the sky,
And leave your critics far behind.
You can write, you can write,
It’s ok if you look like a fright
(Just look at me, now)
You can write, you can write,
Dawn or dusk, noonday or night,
It’s safe to write!
You can write what you want to,
If you don’t, nobody will.
You can coin new words
And make ‘em all absurd
And then laugh like a burzbagill!
You can write if you want to,
You can read your words aloud,
You can hold it all in
Or whisper to the wind,
In any case you should be proud.
You can write, you can write,
Ponderous or silly and light
(Just look at me, now!)
You can write, you can write,
I struggle, but it’s well worth the fight.
It’s safe to write.
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.
Hello darlings! It is time once again for our ongoing series of Morris nominee interviews, and today is my lucky day, because it’s finally my turn to introduce you all to Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced “Keen”).
Kuehn’s debut novel is Charm and Strange. Here’s the summary from Goodreads:
No one really knows who Andrew Winston Winters is. Least of all himself. He is part Win, a lonely teenager exiled to a remote boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts the whole world out, no matter the cost, because his darkest fear is of himself …of the wolfish predator within. But he’s also part Drew, the angry boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who, one fateful summer, was part of something so terrible it came close to destroying him. A deftly woven, elegant, unnerving psychological thriller about a boy at war with himself. Charm and Strange is a masterful exploration of one of the greatest taboos.
Intrigued? It’s a devilishly hard book to blurb, I think, because so much hinges on the revelation of a terrible secret. I had to prance around lightly in my own review, so as not to spoil it:
1) I stayed up til 2 to finish it, which just doesn’t happen to me.
2) I bawled like a baby, which is also pretty rare.
I don’t want to spoil it. Part of the experience is that you’re unfolding the truth at the same time Win is (well, a little faster probably, because you’re able to admit possibilities he can’t). It’s a gut-wrenching exploration of dissociation, sanity, and the purpose of metaphor. Win looks crazy to the people around him, but the story is told in such a humane and sympathetic way that you realize he’s this way for a reason, that it’s the way he preserved his sanity and survived.
Well-written and devastating. Possible trigger warning, if you’re expecting a paranormal. NOT paranormal, in the usual sense of the word.
I have also written a spoiler-ful review over at Someday My Printz Will Come. Don’t look at that unless you’ve read the book, because this is one that really deserves not to be spoiled. The book is a harrowing read, but hopeful and life-affirming in the end.
All righty then! On to what you really came for, Ms. Stephanie Kuehn in her own words:
1) Charm & Strange is a difficult book to discuss without spoiling, in large part because the book is about recovering memories and integrating the past and present. The reader learns the truth along with Win, and it would be a shame to pre-empt that. What is your go-to, spoiler-free description when someone wants a quick summary?
It’s the story of a boy who believes that he is a monster. And it’s about understanding why.
2) I loved the book, but it deals with some very difficult, painful, and upsetting topics. In my review on GoodReads, I almost felt I should give some kind of trigger warning, but that’s hard to do without spoiling. How have readers reacted to this book?
Thank you! I don’t totally know how people have reacted to the book. I get the feeling it’s something people either really, really connect with or they hate. Or they liked aspects of it but wish they hadn’t read it? I can understand all of those viewpoints, I suppose. It is an upsetting story and a very sad one.
More than anything, I’ve enjoyed hearing from readers, and I so appreciate everyone who has reached out to me and shared their own stories. Knowing that people have found the book meaningful is a special thing. It’s everything, really.
3) You study clinical psychology, which would seem to have a clear connection to this story. What are the roots of this novel, and how did it grow?
Yes, I think it’s obviously a very psychologically driven story, or at least told as one. I know that when I was writing it I was exploring some of my own ideas about how—from science to myth—we develop a sense of ourselves, and under what circumstances change can occur.
I think I was also affected at the time by how quickly angry young children (especially boys) are labeled as “bad” and what this does to their self-perception. The anger of others can be hard to contain. It’s an emotion that’s easier to push away or minimize than it is to accept. But as adults, I believe it is up to us to hold the anger of children and not ask them to keep it inside. It is up to us to try and understand why they’re hurting.
4) I’m also interested – maybe even more interested, because it’s less obvious – in whether your background in linguistics also plays into the story. There’s a moment where Win talks about Wittgenstein – and then a quote from Wittgenstein near the end – that make me suspect a preoccupation with language itself, how we make ourselves understood and how to find the words for the most terrible of experiences. Was it hard to find the right words for Win? What were the challenges in fostering reader empathy, as opposed to pity or revulsion?
On a philosophical level, I’ve always been drawn to Wittgenstein’s private language argument, the notion that a language known to only one person really isn’t a language at all. In the words of Saul Kripke (from On Rules and Private Language): “the sceptical solution does not allow us to speak of a single individual, considered by himself and in isolation, as ever meaning anything.” When I was writing the book, that abstraction of a private language felt like the perfect metaphor to represent someone who has endured unspeakable trauma and has been made to feel as if no one else experiences the world the way that he does. If there are no words to communicate one’s reality, what is there? If you can’t connect with others, what are you?
The beginning of Charm & Strange finds Win trying his best not to communicate with others at all. This is because he fears hurting and he fears being hurt. In this way his suffering has dehumanized him. It’s an awful thing, his loneliness, and much of Win’s journey is about accepting that a positive connection to humanity is part of what makes him human. Ultimately, it’s the friendship and empathy of others that become his catalysts for change. These are two of the strongest forces I know.
On fostering empathy: I believe empathy comes from understanding what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, and I tried to write the story closely from Win’s point of view so that the world is experienced as he perceives it. In that way, I hoped readers would connect with how his struggles come from a place of strength and resilience, not weakness.
On finding the right words for Win: It wasn’t hard to find his words. Win speaks through his own lens, but he tells his truth openly. “I feel dark,” he says. “I feel used.”
5) You touched on a particular preoccupation of mine, which is metaphor. Win has created an entire mental schema with which to understand what has happened to him, but to me, approaching from outside, it looks like a metaphor. One of the reasons I write fantasy is because it enables me to couch real struggles in metaphorical terms, to examine problems one step removed from their painful immediacy. Some summaries of Charm & Strange make it sound like it’s going to be a paranormal story, which it very much is not. What is your take on the role of metaphor in fiction and in life? How can art help heal our traumas?
That’s really interesting to think about. It’s true that the use of fantasy in Charm & Strange represents a form of dissociation and coping for the narrator. It’s also true that I chose the mental schema I did so that I could play with genre in a certain way, both as a metaphor for painful truths, and as a way of keeping the reader in Win’s mind. And it is fascinating to consider how we, as a culture, use metaphor to distance and deconstruct complex realities, not just in literature, but in all forms of storytelling. As actual psychological processes, however, I do think there are big differences between what is an individual’s trauma reaction versus a voluntary artistic choice or social allegory.
Culturally, we use fantasy and metaphor in other ways, too: For many people, Santa Claus is a symbol of faith and childhood innocence. In the book, letting go of that particular innocence is a milestone of growing up that Drew marks. Later in his life, Win’s letting go of the magic he needed to endure his childhood becomes a different sort of innocence lost. It marks the integration of his past and his present, as well as his stepping out onto his path toward healing—the magic he gives up is his belief in his own badness.
6) How long did it take to write this book, and what was it like to live with these characters and this particular story? Was it ever overwhelming? What kind of coping strategies did you have to develop?
The book was published almost exactly two years after I sat down to write the first sentence (which has never changed), so in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t take very long. And yes, on an emotional level, it was hard to work on this story. There’s pain that comes from being attached to characters whose hurt you can’t fix. That’s probably a metaphor, too.
I was also going to say that the process of writing the book made me sad, but I actually think I was in a dark place when I started it. Sometimes writing is a way of coping.
a) Morning or night?
b) Cats or dogs?
Both! I love all animals. Sadly, we lost our old doggy this past fall, but we have a young dog and two sweet cats.
c) Sherlock or Watson?
d) Weirdest thing you ever ate on purpose:
Ohhh. I’m sure I’ve eaten some things other people would consider weird, but I don’t tend to eat things I think of as weird on purpose. Maybe a peanut butter and cheddar cheese sandwich? Those are really good, I swear!
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Rachel! I really appreciate it.
Thank you, my dear. I loved the book. It made me think, which is what I look for most in literature.
Last week a friend told me an interesting idea about art, and I think I need to write it down. She’d told me before and it fell right out of my head. Clearly, there’s too much in my head if stuff this interesting is falling out, but the blog is just going to have to be my auxiliary brain for the moment.
The idea, most simply put, is that art is medicine.
It doesn’t sound so earth-shattering put that way, though. And what does that even mean? Art therapy? That’s not a new idea.
Art therapy tends to focus on doing art, though, which can indeed be a very healing activity. My friend’s angle was slightly different: when we make art we are not just healing ourselves, we are facilitating other people’s healing. It can take so many different forms: a blanket around someone’s shoulders; a forceful blow to the diaphragm that will dislodge airway obstructions; a strengthening elixir.
(Note: this is not the only thing art can do, and not all art does it. But it’s an interesting reason to make art, I think, and an interesting by-product sometimes when you think you’re doing something else)
Whatever we’re suffering, someone else is suffering too, has suffered before, will suffer again. We think we’re isolated and alone and unrelatable, but we’re not. We’re non-unique in the best possible way (to paraphrase John Green in An Abundance of Katherines)(My favourite John Green book for precisely this reason: Colin and I have suffered many of the same doubts and revelations).
Anyway. Just laying that out there to remind me, because this is something I’ve forgotten before. If it jogs an idea loose in you as well, hooray, and welcome.
We already celebrated Thanksgiving here in Canada, but I wanted to be sure to wish our southern neighbours a merry day of feasting as well. We need some kind of late November holiday up here, I think, because the stretch from October to Saturnalia is unrelentingly grey and grim. Of course, I say that every year, and the answer always seems to be, “Yes! Now organize something, Rachel!” And of course I don’t, due to being massively busy (and lazy, simultaneously).
However, in the spirit of the day, I would like to say how very thankful I am for you, my readers. I know that’s cheesy, but y’know what? I love cheese. What to do? There’s no getting around it.
I am thankful for all the people who’ve taken the time to read the odd products of my wee tiny brain, for all the people who enjoyed it and took the time to tell me so, for all the super interesting people I’ve met on this journey, for all the wonderful individuals in publishing and bookselling who helped Seraphina be the very best it could be.
Okay, whew! Gorgonzola!
I now return my nose to the grindstone. Someone was just asking me about the sequel: I am still writing it. My books are built in layers; the first layer of this one was structurally sound, but pretty dark. This second has a lot more texture and some glimmering glimpses of light. I’m loving it and finally (I think) understanding the book. (yes, I know, I’m a weirdo, but I don’t always know what I’m writing about until after I’ve done an awful lot of writing. I mean, I think I know. I go in with an idea. But the subconscious wants what it wants, and it doesn’t always like to tell me what it wants. It likes to make me work for it. I try to be easy-going about this, because there seems to be little I can do to change it.)