What in me is dark illumine

Alas, I missed my self-imposed monthly blogging deadline again! In my slight defense, I currently work from home and have completely lost track of the date? Also, it is December, a time for abandoning last year’s New Year’s resolutions and wallowing in seasonal blah. At least for me, anyway. I’m always at my lowest ebb of energy and creativity at this time of the year, which never fails to be frustrating. But instead of despondently flailing around about it (I’ve done enough of that already), I’m going to devote this belated blog post to ten things I found inspiring in 2017. I may not be happy with the quality or volume of work I’m currently producing, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be once the days start getting longer again and my brain remembers that it is not, in fact, a hibernating frog. In the meantime, I’ll use this list to help fuel the little flame I’ve still got burning against the dark.

The Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo: I’m going in relative chronological order of things I experienced this year, and I received the first one of these last Christmas. Not only were they fast-paced and fun (heists! schemes!), they were also a master class in multiple POVs and un-self-aware characters, which are highly relevant to my interests. I love characters who get in their own way, especially when they do so without even realizing it. That’s not always the easiest thing to write, though! In order for the reader to understand more about the character than the actual character does, you have to walk a very fine tightrope (which, incidentally, one of the characters in these books can literally do) of revealing and withholding emotional information. Leigh Bardugo does so beautifully, and I’ll definitely be returning to those books when I need my own characters to be complete human disasters (so, like, 90% of the time).

The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts: I attended this conference for the first time in March. There, I made the decision to apply to PhD programs. Though I won’t find out the results of that decision for a few months yet, I clearly can’t deny that the conference itself falls under the heading of “inspiring”! I loved being surrounded by enthusiastic scholarly types so much that I finally realized that I always want to be surrounded by enthusiastic scholarly types. I only spent, like, 35% of the time as a complete nervous wreck (as opposed to my usual conference rate of around 85%), because everyone I met was so encouraging and friendly. I’m super excited to be going back again in March, particularly because the theme is Frankenstein Bicentennial and I’m going to be presenting a paper about Orphan Black. Speaking of which . . .

Orphan Black, created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett: This series ended earlier this year, and I literally wept tears of joy during the finale. I don’t think I’ve actually ever done that because of a piece of fiction? I’ve certainly cried because of fiction many, many times, but usually because a character just died or something, not because I was just so damn overwhelmed by the love shared by everyone. I don’t know about any of you, but in 2017, I really needed a triumphant conclusion to the story of a bunch of difficult, fumbling, wronged, brilliant women who love each other and therefore themselves, and Orphan Black thankfully delivered. Also, at this point it surely goes without saying, but if you enjoy the art of acting even a tiny bit, you will love Tatiana Maslany and despair.

Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar: This inspiration was scattered throughout the year due to this show’s nonsense schedule, but my god am I blown away every time Cartoon Network deigns to drop another Steven bomb. This show inspires me not only as a writer but also as a person. I want to approach grief, loneliness, and fear with as much grace, compassion, and gentle good humor as Rebecca Sugar’s extraordinary story does, both in my art and in my life.

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner: This book (and the Queen’s Thief series in general) is such a ridiculous technical achievement in point of view, world building, and never wasting a single solitary word. How?? How does she do this?? Well, part of the answer to that question is that she takes a really long time, because I waited seven years for this book, but it was so worth it. When I’m revising, I honestly should just line these books up in front of me, but then I might feel too Judged, because they really are almost supernaturally well crafted. Also, I have never been quite as personally called out by a book as I was when the narrator sheepishly admits how much he dislikes being “unappreciated” for his intellectual interests and talents. I MEAN. Seriously, Megan Whalen Turner, what did I ever do to you to warrant this attack?

My students: I taught so many great kids this year, and I am so grateful for the privilege. Highlights included sharing good-natured jokes about the absurdities of grammar with a student who struggled with the material but tried extremely hard, reading 1400 words (!) about hyenas from an 8-year-old, reading two genuinely excellent ghost stories from students of the same age, and listening to an earnest high school student yearn for tickets to Book Con for her birthday. Developing my love of teaching over the past year has made the pieces of my life feel like they are finally fitting together.

Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore: This is another book that blew my mind with the intricacy of its plotting. Each part of this book was so richly detailed, and I don’t know a whole lot of authors who can play with like five genres at once. Also, I was delighted to recognize a setting stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, which was next door to the grad school that the author and I both attended. (I wrote a large portion of my Master’s thesis in that museum!) This book just felt like such a labor of love, and it reminded me of a time when I was engaged in a bunch of labors of love, so it was just an all-around wonderful reading experience.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna: This show is so smart and funny and genuinely ground-breaking. I currently have one of its songs stuck in my head. It can be difficult to allow characters to make huge mistakes and hurt people while still keeping the audience understanding and rooting for them, but this show manages to do so by maintaining such a deep well of compassion for its characters (particularly its protagonist) even (or especially) at their lowest moments. Meanwhile, it also has club songs about going to the zoo, Fosse-esque stripteases with embedded Harry Potter references about being morally unscrupulous, and big Broadway “I Want” songs about mental health diagnoses. If I ever find myself wondering “is this too weird too pull off” in a story, I’ll definitely turn to this show for inspiration to just go for it.

The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor: I saw this last week and loved it desperately. Monster love stories are the best/only love stories. Aside from just deriving inspiration from all monsters all the time, I also felt very trusted as an audience member when watching this movie. It knew I would follow where it was going, and it didn’t need to drag me there. I kind of love a story that just says, “Listen, you’re either all in or not, it’s up to you.” There’s no need to convince people to love your monsters; they either will or won’t, and if they won’t, who needs ’em? 

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Manhattan: I visited this church for the first time last week, and I fell completely in love. It was an explicitly American cathedral (and as such, it had chapels dedicated to immigrant groups and a sign outside welcoming all regardless of documentation), and I completely connected with the intermingled artistic styles, old and new, built right into the rising, arching bones of the sprawling building. There were small things there, too: someone had left the tiniest pink flowers on many of the chapel altars, and they were as beautiful to me as the stained glass. My visit reminded me that so many of the people who share my country are striving to live out grand and sweeping ideals in a million quiet little ways. The people who want to create beauty may not always be as powerful as the ones who only want to create their own wealth or wars, but we’ll always outnumber them.

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A Halloween Self-Devotional

Tonight is Halloween. Tonight is a night for adorable pictures on social media of kids and animals in costumes, a night for candy and creepypasta and Jack-o-lantern printed socks. Tonight, I am trying not to think about the mountain of work I need to get done tomorrow or about the still-woeful state of my statement of purpose drafts. Tonight, I wish I could ignore the terrible things happening in the world, but I can’t really, because real-life terrible doesn’t move out of the way for the fun terror of Halloween. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for fun or for proper Halloween-ing. So I want to urge everyone to make room in yourselves for a little monstrosity tonight.

Right now, I am many things. I am a woman who just got an IUD and is sitting encircled in heating pads and counting the minutes until my next dose of Advil. I am kind of tired and worried and frustrated about being so tired and worried and frustrated all the time. I think I could be doing better at this whole adult thing a lot of the time, but I made a nice new recipe yesterday and I’m having friends over on the weekend and I’ve realized I no longer get nervous before doctor’s appointments (unless they’re going to involve getting blood drawn, but listen). Small things. Mundane things. Person things, sad and happy.

But here is another thing that I am, though sometimes I forget.

I am a creator and container of monsters, and that means I am not small at all. They hide and fight and sleep within me. My bones are the columns and ribs of a long-forgotten cathedral, built as a prayer and fallen into glorious ruin. My muscles and sinews are the moss and weeds and pushy trees bursting through the open ceiling. Leaves and flowers stained glass skin, cracked baptismal font rain tears. Angry resting praying howling monsters heart. They are safe within me, and they keep me safe.

Big things. Bright things. Monster things, sad and happy.

As you’re drifting off to sleep, I hope you think about what makes you feel huge and dangerous and astonishing. Boundaries are permeable on Halloween, so take advantage of that. Push out and out until you fill all the spaces of yourself, and smile with sharp teeth and proud eyes at everything you see within.

A Plea for Pain

A few months ago, I blogged about writing villains in the age of Trump. Since then, the villainy has only gotten worse. One of the things many people warned about in the days after the election was desensitization. Nothing Trump does or says is “normal,” but it would begin to seem that way if we weren’t careful. It was important to maintain the ability to be shocked.

I have worried a bit over the past few months that my own shock capability was diminishing. Scandals and outrages happen so fast these days that it would be more surprising if there weren’t one for a week. But, no, turns out I can still be shocked when the president says things like this:

These statements are breathtakingly cruel. They are also clearly and profoundly racist. Of course I don’t expect anything other than racism from the man who defended white supremacists and attacked those who protested against them, so that isn’t necessarily the part that shocks me. But to level that racism and vitriol against people who are trapped and thirsty and hungry and in such terrible danger? That is still shocking.

Before I close this post out with a bunch of links, I want to say this: if the president insinuating that hurricane victims are lazy and entitled doesn’t cost him all of your support, favor, or even benefit of the doubt, you’re doing damage to your soul. Interpret that according to your own religious or secular beliefs; I don’t care. But no matter what you believe in, if reading those tweets doesn’t hurt you, then you have built up some kind of callus around the most human part of you. That thick, hard, unyielding tissue is probably made of racism, in this case. It may also be made of misogyny or homophobia or transphobia or ableism or just plain greed. Rip it off. It will hurt, but it’s supposed to. These things have to hurt. Otherwise, you’re just hurting others.

And I mean that: support for Trump is harmful. It is bad. “Kathleen, do you think people who disagree with you politically are bad?” As a polite white American, my answer is supposed to be no. I don’t care. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” the president said about dying people. If you support him, you are doing bad things. You are hurting people. You don’t have to be a bad person, but the only way to avoid that is to stop, apologize, and atone.

Here are some ways to do that:

Unidos por Puerto Rico: http://unidosporpuertorico.com/en/

Americares: https://secure.americares.org/site/Donation2?df_id=22510&mfc_pref=T&22510.donation=form1

International Medical Corps: https://internationalmedicalcorps.org/

The Sato Project: https://www.thesatoproject.org/hurricane

UNICEF: https://www.unicefusa.org/donate/support-unicef-usas-hurricane-relief-efforts-puerto-rico/32952

Hispanic Federation: https://hispanicfederation.org/donate

I am so intensely broke right now, so I can’t contribute to all of these places, but I did a tiny bit, and hopefully everyone can do their tiny bit. Also: keep up the pressure on the people who can do more than a tiny bit. CALL YOUR REPS.

These links are mostly Puerto Rico related, but don’t forget that the U.S. Virgin Islands also need help, as do the communities in Texas and Florida that were impacted by Harvey and Irma. I mean, as do Sandy victims, still. Disaster recovery is a long road.  I worked with the organization SBP for 10 months, and I’d encourage you to share their resource package far and wide. There’s some really good information in there, especially about contractor fraud. That particular cruelty was the most shocking part of working in disaster recovery for me; some people who only care about themselves become contractors, and some become presidents, I guess. But I refuse, I refuse, I refuse to believe that’s most people. So stay shocked, and stay sad, and for the love of all things holy, stay compassionate. Remember that “bleeding heart” is not an insult. It’s a moral responsibility, and it’s the only way I know how to understand the word “salvation.” You can’t save anyone — including yourself — if you can’t feel the pain of those who need saving.

Notebooks

So it’s … not August. There goes that particular New Year’s resolution. Most of them took less time for me to break, though, so I still choose to be impressed with myself. (So there.) Also, I was studying for the GRE, so there was that.

(For those of you who may be wondering, yes, I have already gone to grad school, but I never had to take the GRE, so I had to take it to go on back. Which made me feel some kind of way, as I’m sure you can imagine. But the multiple choice part went well, and hopefully the essays did, too!)

Anyway, while I was camped out at my parents’ house studying, my parents were going through old stuff in their basement. Though my apartment is pleasantly airy, I have approximately two centimeters of storage space here, so a lot of my old stuff is still living there. They asked me to go through some of it to see if anything could be donated to the upcoming VNA sale. (Hometown shout out — I remember when people used to cut class to go to opening day of the VNA sale. Honestly, some of the teachers didn’t even mind. Even more of the teachers didn’t mind if students cut class for the soccer team’s empanada sales, as long as they brought some back to share.) Whether or not any VNA customers will want a bunch of DVD box sets for TV shows I don’t care about anymore or the entire CD collection of a teenager circa 2004 is an entirely different question, but they’re there now if anyone does.

What I didn’t get rid of were my boxes of first draft notebooks. Pretty much the entirety of THE CHILDREN WAR’s first draft was written longhand, and that first draft was long. It was also remarkably bad. I’d like to say that’s because I’d never written a novel before, but honestly I’m not sure if my first drafts have actually gotten any better since then. So I have no intention of actually reading these notebooks, but I also don’t want to throw them out. How delightful was it to flip through and spot bygone characters (some of whom I’d completely forgotten existed) and old spellings? How great was it to see my old writing exercises exploring my characters’ pasts? I will never probably never again write anything at such a leisurely pace and with such a tolerance for pure self-indulgence. That’s not to say that I didn’t take it seriously; I definitely did. But I knew that I was traveling without a map, and the best way to do that is to investigate every walkway, no matter how seemingly unimportant.

Much of the first draft of MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES was represented in the notebooks, as well. I didn’t write all of that longhand, mostly because I had actual grad school deadlines to meet with it. But I remember taking a notebook down to the Charles River and glaring at the geese as I tried to figure out how to make that story work. (I didn’t figure that out for a few more years.) The margins are crowded with notes to myself that seemed important at the time but generally weren’t. Some more beloved cut characters live in those pages. Maybe they’ll find new life in a future project, or maybe they only existed to teach me things about the characters who did make the final cut.

To my mom’s delight, I found some ancient Judas story pages (EVENTUALLY, MOM). There was even some old work on middle-grade story; I sometimes forget that this is by no means a new project. In fact, I workshopped my first outing with my main character in undergrad. I spent a semester working with the story in grad school, but then werewolf story came along and took over for the next couple years. I was actually annoyed about it at the time. I wanted to keep working on middle-grade story, but the requirements of the program wouldn’t allow it. Obviously, I’m happy with the way things worked out now. Werewolf story was a book that I needed to write at the time in my life when I wrote it, and I’m very proud of the way it turned out.

I’m glad I saw those old notebooks again, because they reminded me of a few things. First of all, they reminded me to write longhand when I get stuck. Why on earth have I not been doing this with middle-grade story lately?? I focus better writing longhand, partially because I don’t have to use the old distraction box (a.k.a. my laptop) to do it, and possibly also because my thoughts and my writing are more evenly paced than my thoughts and my typing. (That was a humblebrag about how fast I type, or possibly how slow I think? I’m not sure I humblebragged right.) Also, seeing words and worlds spilling across a page in my own handwriting pleases me.

That was another thing that the notebooks reminded me to do: enjoy the ride. Every word of those notebooks was written with love, even when I felt like throwing said notebooks into the river with the geese. Having a physical reminder of the joy of writing was something I needed right now. It’s been a weird … three years … personally and professionally, not to mention politically. Honestly, it’s been getting to me. I’ve spent most of this summer exhausted, castigating myself for self-perceived laziness that I know I don’t actually possess. I’ve had a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it. Not always a great combination.

But I’m doing it. Slowly and without a lot of tangible outcomes, but still. I’m constantly engaged in labors of love, just as I have been since the first time I touched pen to paper. I’m not saying those notebooks completely cured me of every envy or frustration or anxious negativity of 2017, but they were a balm to my striving soul. Hey, you make up people and places and turn them into language, they said to me. That’s cool and weird. Keep doing it. Have fun.

So that’s what I’m doing.

The (Sort of) Persistence of Memory

My family knows me very well. I have always been quite open about both my emotions and opinions (I’m going with “open” as opposed to “an over-sharer”), and I feel like I’m relatively easy to figure out as a person anyway. However, there are some (very minor) misconceptions that have worked their way into the things people believe about me. I’m not talking about misjudgments of character or anything like that. I’m strictly speaking about the completely innocuous and at most mildly annoying assumptions that people make. I’m sure everyone knows someone who once expressed mild fondness for an animal/flower/band/etc. only for the world to decide that they are OBSESSED with that animal/flower/band/etc. and to make it the theme of every gift forever. That person then goes on to politely accumulate like 8,000 peacock figurines, which they now regard with an air of grim resignation.

For me, the strange mythologies that have sprung up around me are “Kathleen is never cold” and “Kathleen remembers everything about the books she reads.” As for the former, just because I like cool weather doesn’t mean I’m not cold in the dead of winter. (Also, the reason I wander around the house barefoot when it’s cold out, Mom, is that my feet are literally always cold and I just don’t notice it anymore. Also we’re inside.)

I realized recently that even I had fallen for the latter misconception, though. My memory is indeed very strong in some regards. For example, I have some memories from a weirdly early age. My earliest is from around 18 months, when my mom EXTREMELY ACCIDENTALLY hit me in the face with a seat belt. I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical, but I’ve corroborated specific details that were never part of a story about it, such as what side of the car I was sitting on and details about the car seat. (Also, can I just reiterate how much my mom did not mean to do this? She cried way harder than I did.) I have multiple memories from ages two and three, as well — bouncing in the stroller with my sister over a cobblestone road is a particularly fond one.

Then when I started to read, I was never content to only read one book at a time. Once I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club, I would have a stack six- or seven-deep beside my bed at all times, with a bookmark in each one. (I probably would have had more if I’d been allowed to take more out from the library.) My parents would marvel aloud that I could keep all of the stories straight, and lo, a personal legend was born.

I definitely cultivated this perception of me as a Reader Extraordinaire. I was deeply protective of and arrogant about this aspect of my identity, as I think many bookish kids are. I remember having “quote competitions” with my best friend circa eighth grade, in which we would quote the most impossibly obscure lines from Harry Potter at each other, trying to come up with one that the other person wouldn’t recognize. (I think we stumped each other once each.) Obnoxious performative bookishness aside, I genuinely could rattle off a great deal of detail from the books that I read and loved.

As I look at my bookshelf now, though, I find plenty of books that I know I enjoyed, but can barely remember anything about. I mentioned that I was rereading one of these forgotten books several months back, and my mom teased, “I didn’t think you ever forgot a book.” My arrogant child self experienced a brief moment of panic. I looked over the shelves and realized that details about characters and plots from books I had read only in the past few months now escaped me. What had become of my amazing book memory?

Well, my memory probably isn’t actually as good as it was when I was a kid. I definitely don’t read seven books at once anymore. But also, it was probably never actually that amazing, anyway. I’ve never been all that great with names, and even less so with dates. (Minoring in art history was a bit of a challenge.) The books I remember the best from childhood are either the ones that I read for school or the ones that became all-time favorites. The connection? Conversation. I never immediately stored the information I read in my long-term memory the way I’d proudly assumed that I did. I just talked about books literally all the time, and the repetition drove the details home. The books on my shelves that I don’t remember as well are the ones I’ve never had an in-depth discussion about.

I’ve always had a vague hypothesis that being a twin has a lot to do with my long memory. My sister also remembers our adventures in the stroller. I don’t know if she remembers the seat belt incident, but she does remember me falling down the stairs at my grandparents’ house when we were two. (I didn’t actually get injured all that often.) Our parents and other adult relatives obviously spoke to us all the time, but we also spoke to each other. These were conversations between cognitive equals, so we probably had to work harder to understand and be understood. I wonder if there was something about our communication skills growing in tandem that helped us to store our shared experiences in our memories. Of course, I know very little about the science of memory, so I could be entirely making this up. (It’s possible that my sister, who does know about the science of memory, will yell at me after I post this.) But I do have a good memory for conversations I have had, and it seems probable that my “good memory for books” had more to do with that aspect of my cognition than it ever had to do with actually reading.

This realization actually makes me really happy. I may not have been as ~remarkable as I once thought I was, but I did have a family who let me babble to my heart’s content about the books that I liked. Later on, I found friends who were eager to do the same. I still get to talk about books that I have in common with these friends, and I cherish and remember these conversations. The fact that I don’t remember all the books on my shelf just means that I need to make time for more of these conversations. I’ve been living alone since completing my Master’s, and though I was only literally a hermit for six months, I sometimes let myself get a bit isolated. I’m going to try to stop doing that. I want to have as many memories as possible.

Werewolves, Anxiety, and Me

I talk about monsters to anyone who’ll listen. I can figure out a way to introduce the topic into a truly impressive variety of conversations, and half the time it’ll even sound natural. I am nothing if not single-minded. As a result, I’ve had many people ask me what my favorite monster is, and of course it will come as no surprise that my answer is WEREWOLVES. I often follow this up with, “They’re just so versatile!” Depending on the audience, this is met with either a murmur of agreement or a really strange look.

Werewolves’ versatility is derived from their simplicity. They’re human ’til they’re not. They’re human ’til they’re beast. That’s all there is to it. As such, they embody some of the fundamentals of monstrosity, but what precisely it all means will depend entirely on the context of their story. You can explore just about any fear or hatred or taboo desire with werewolves. Consequently, there are countless werewolf stories out in the world. Some are terrible, some are great, but all are different. I can’t imagine ever growing bored with this monster.

One thing I have identified as an aspect of some werewolf stories that really speaks to me is the narrative of learning to embrace a formerly-rejected part of the self. I can get mad theoretical right here (and I’m currently revising a paper on monsters, so the temptation is strong), but suffice to say that when two (or more!) seemingly disparate points of view coexist within a single subject — and at least one of them is Wrong (for example, a giant bloodthirsty wolf) — that subject has a few options. The option that most interests me is the decision to embrace the Wrongness, to empathize with it, to take care of it, to expand with it. The werewolf (or any monster) who loves and is loved by their monstrosity is my entire jam.

Another thing that I doggedly insist about monster theory is that it has practical, real-life applications. Allow me to demonstrate with myself. I have OCD and social anxiety disorder. I talk about the former kind of a lot, so most people reading this probably already knew that. I talk about the social anxiety less, because it’s historically been less of a Thing (relatively speaking), but I can’t imagine anyone who knows me is overly surprised by this diagnosis. I consider my anxiety (of both varieties) to be mooooostly under control these days. This has certainly not always been the case, and I’m very proud of the work I’ve done to deal with my prone-to-screaming brain, especially on the OCD front.

Recently, I participated in an event that caused way more social anxiety than usual. It was an unpleasant reminder that general nervousness and disordered anxiety aren’t the same thing, and no matter how many times I’ve pushed through the former (and I have! a lot!), that doesn’t mean the latter can’t still knock me on my ass. It was a frustrating and disheartening experience, because I had been hoping to represent myself as a really interesting, thoughtful, and hard-working person. I am a really interesting, thoughtful, and hard-working person! (And clearly my self-esteem is fine!) So what the hell was going on? Why was I letting this thing — this anxiety, this invader — hide who I really am?

That’s when I started thinking about werewolves.

At first, I totally rebelled against the association. Anxiety disorders are medical conditions, not monsters. They aren’t coexisting points of view within me. They’re just chemicals and synapses and whatever. I didn’t ask for them and I certainly don’t have to let them determine who I am. I’m not all that unwanted stuff. I’m only the parts that I choose to be.

… Except substitute “curse” for “chemicals,” and you have the internal monologue of every newly minted werewolf ever.

And wasn’t my OCD the reason I did an AmeriCorps term? After all those agonizing months of obsessing over the effects of climate change, I chose to turn that pain into action and help actual victims of a natural disaster. I couldn’t fix all the suffering that our degraded environment has caused and will cause, but I did something, and it was something I wouldn’t have done without anxiety.

My anxiety has poured into my writing and made it so much stronger. I gave different parts of it to various characters (and all of it to one of them), and I also made these characters brave. Someday young anxious readers will read about these characters and see anxiety not only permitting bravery, but fueling it. I could not have done that without my own anxiety, either.

Hell, even my social anxiety is mostly focused on a fear of interrupting or inconveniencing people. It will make me uncomfortable, but it really doesn’t want anyone else to be. Both of my anxiety disorders just want everyone to be happy.

My anxiety is kind. How can I blame it? How can I hate it?

So all right. Come here, unwanted thing. Come here, chemicals, fear, monster. I got you. I am you. You love the world. So I’ll love you.

Writing villains under Trump

(Content notice: this post contains a description of being followed by a street harasser.)

So it’s been a Month, nationally speaking. Right now, every website I go to is screaming at me about the Paris Accord. My brain is kind of always screaming about the Paris Accord, so it’s nothing I’m not used to on one level. And hey, as of this writing, nothing’s official-official. Maybe we’ll stay in? And if we don’t, then at least that means we won’t be sabotaging everyone else?

Yeah, I know, not much of a bright side. But it’s all we have to work with right now. That and constant constant constant constant political pressure from all of us. Miles to go before we sleep and all that.

Hmm. Thus far, the tone of this blog post is a little wearier than I intended it to be. I am tired, but I’m nowhere near giving up on believing in all the things humanity is capable of achieving. I’m honestly not. Like, this is not a bad zombie apocalypse drama. The answer to “but do we deserve to survive?” is still a resounding yes. It will always be yes, and the people who believe in that yes will always keep fighting. Listen: there are a lot of us, in my country and everyone else’s. We’re tired, but we don’t give up.

Of course, there are those other people. The ones who necessitate the fighting. A couple of months ago, I wrote about good guys and bad guys. I was focused on the former, but man there have been a lot of the latter hanging around lately, haven’t there? Big-time bad guys in charge. Small-time bad guys coming out of the woodwork. The other week, a man followed me in his car and called obscene things out the window at me. When I detoured away from him, he waited for me to reemerge so he could continue. His voice was very, very calm. After the second time I turned, he didn’t follow. A block later, the feeling returned to my fingers as I stopped hyperventilating.

Of course that could have happened under any other president. But that experience just felt like it fit into a pattern. Even now, I want to downplay what happened: he didn’t get out of the car, he didn’t touch me, he didn’t follow me home. So no big deal, right? I probably wasn’t in real danger. But as brief as that encounter was, it felt like real danger, and that was the point. That man tried to scare me, and he succeeded.

I don’t get that. I fundamentally don’t understand what it feels like to want someone to be terrified. I also don’t understand what it feels like to have access to a whole world’s fear — fear of environmental degradation, fear of crushing poverty, fear of escalating wars — and just not care. What is it like to see someone who is afraid and not want to comfort them?

Don’t get me wrong, I know how it happens. I know there are a million different sociological and psychological forces that can bleed the empathy out of a person. A man who takes pleasure in scaring a woman doesn’t empathize with that woman because he fundamentally does not see her as human. Insert a bunch more isms, blow it up on a national scale, and you have a group of rich, white men who don’t care about the fear of everyone else in the same way that I don’t care how the huge spider who hung out in my apartment for a few days felt. I just wanted it to leave me alone and not interfere with my life.

But knowing how people become that way is not the same thing as understanding what it’s actually like to see other people as inconvenient spiders. I guess their lack of empathy is the limit of my own. I can digest and comprehend all of the sociopolitical reasons, but on a purely emotional level, I still keep coming up with “but why?

Honestly? I’m okay with that. I do think it’s absolutely important to be able to intellectually understand the forces that drive the people who do harm in the world. Hiding from that will never be a good idea. But I don’t think gazing into the abyss necessarily requires diving in headfirst. I’m not going to be playing Donald Trump or scary-car-guy in a movie any time soon.

I do, however, write villainous characters. The main antagonists of THE CHILDREN’S WAR, MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES, and middle-grade story are different in a lot of ways, but they all essentially boil down to hunger for power. I’d be interested to hear if anyone ever wrote a bona fide villain who didn’t. (I do know that some antagonists are motivated by other things, but of course not all antagonists are villains.)

So I’ve made these people up. I know their backstories. I know the sociopolitical forces (and grievous personality flaws) that have made them who they are. But I don’t emotionally connect with them the way I do with all of my other characters. I don’t feel what they feel. I don’t know how.

In MISBEGOTTEN CREATURES, one of my characters is an empath who literally (like, on a brain chemistry level) feels the emotions of everyone in his immediate vicinity. (It’s one of the crueler things I’ve done to a character, though there is some steep competition in that regard.) Spoiler alert for a book that doesn’t exist in the world yet: the antagonist does wind up in his radius at a certain point. Actually, now that I think about it, he also is around street harassers in another scene, so he fits this blog post doubly well. His reaction to both of these situations is total scorn.

Of course, I’m just guessing, because I can’t do what he did. I can’t emotionally get inside their heads. But I stand by my guess. Power-hungry villains are interesting because of the effect they have on other characters, but I don’t think they’re very interesting in and of themselves. Donald Trump does not fascinate me. If you can kind of think of the president as the protagonist of the country’s story, then the plot is certainly off the rails, but the character development is shit. How does a character grow if they don’t care? How am I supposed to get invested in a character who is not invested in anyone else?

Waste of time, if you ask me. Maybe that means my villains will be flat. I hope not: I work hard on their dialogue and try to make them compellingly menacing. (Based on Trump and scary-car-guy, maybe I’ve been putting too much thought into the dialogue. Neither of them really seem to.) But the interesting people are the ones who care. So go forth and be interesting.

Continuity

When I was at my parents’ house for Easter a couple of weeks ago, my mother plunked a sheet of sketchbook paper in front of me. It was filled, front and back, with an elaborately loopy cursive scrawl that I recognized as my 10-year-old handwriting. I recognized it instantly: it was the first two (and maybe only two?) pages of a “novel” about vampires. I could remember the exact unit in Australia where I had scribbled it down. We were there with lots of family, visiting lots of family. Australia owns a lot of my heart and I really want to go back, but that is perhaps a different post for a different day. What I was delighted to discover/remember was that a) apparently my fondness for writing in hotel rooms started super early (the first thing I ever wrote down for story was on hotel stationary in Venice) and b) clearly so did my fondness for monsters.

I had not remembered this particular vampire idea in — well, probably about 18 years — but it immediately came back to me. It was written from the point of view of a kid named Dan, who has been best friends with Van (short for Vanessa, or “Vannessa” as I apparently thought it was spelled) for several years. They bonded over their rhyming nicknames. Van always came over to Dan’s house, though, because her parents were very “private.”

Of course, it turns out that the real reason is that they are VAMPIRES.

Van will be a vampire, too, but she isn’t one yet. You see, vampires can totally have kids, but they don’t start off as immortal creatures of the night, because then you’d just have a newborn with insatiable blood lust forever, and that’s not a good idea. So the process of becoming a vampire starts slowly around puberty (at age 10, I was morbidly fascinated with the concept of Puberty) and completes in early adulthood, at which point you stay like that forever. Van doesn’t want to become a vampire, or at least not the killing people variety, and so the story was going to involve figuring out how to remain partially human. I don’t know if I ever worked out those details, but I do know that substituting citrus fruits for blood was a major solution. For some reason. She did remain part-vampire, though, I know that; shades of Renesmee aside, I’m pleased that baby Kathleen knew that monsters had to stay monsters.

Also, I’m not sure if Dan’s “voice” is something that’s really detectable in two handwritten pages by a 10-year-old, but what little was there was pretty much straight up stolen from Marco in Animorphs.

All of this is to say that I was DELIGHTED by my mother’s discovery and also by my weirdo childhood self. If you had asked me before Easter when my love of monsters began, I probably would have placed it around age 13 (that was The Summer Of Thinking About Literally Nothing But Remus Lupin). Apparently, though, I was already predisposed to think about monsters — and to root for them.

I spent most of today working on an academic paper about monstrosity, and I couldn’t help but think about that 10-year-old in the hotel room. She wouldn’t like everything I had to tell her about age 28. She’d expected more to have happened by now. She’d thought that, at this point, everything would be settled and sure. Hadn’t she already done the heavy lifting of deciding what she wanted to be when she grew up?

(I wouldn’t tell her anything about the sociopolitical state of things in 2017, because I’m not a horrible person.)

But then I’d tell her that I still think about monsters every day of my life, and most days I write about them in some form or another. I’d tell her I haven’t stopped inventing girls with deadly bites who choose what kind of monster they want to be, and boys who are willing to do the dangerous thing and stand by their friends. I’d tell her that I have long and jubilant conversations about stories, like, all the time (because, oh yeah, I have way more friends now, and they all love to read). I’d tell her I still write in hotel rooms, and when I write longhand, it’s always in cursive (just a little less loopy now).

She wouldn’t be brave enough to ask if she really had to be as afraid of growing up as she was, and I wouldn’t be brave enough to attempt an answer. But I’d let her know that the things she loved are still the things I love, and that would make us both smile.

Read It Out

I’m sure every writer out there has been told to read their work out loud while editing. It’s standard advice, and it makes sense. It’s much harder to miss little details when you slow down enough to say every word. A lot of entry-level writing advice is aimed at inserting some practicality into the sometimes chaotic process of making stuff up and writing it down. Even the most ~artistic of souls has to occasionally be methodical.

Here’s the thing, though: I’ve never heard anyone talk about how ridiculously fun line-editing is. You get to read all the stuff you wrote! Out loud! As dramatically as you like! Theoretically, you like the stuff you wrote at this point, because it’s not like you’d be line-editing your shitty first drafts. (Unless you’re the kind of writer whose first drafts aren’t shitty, in which case: well isn’t that just wonderful for you.) (Just kidding, I respect everyone’s ~process.) (But I mean, honestly.)

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of line editing in 2017 on a couple of different projects, and honestly it’s been a blast. I was always the kid in high school English who got uncomfortably into the read aloud assignments (I have a specific memory of just going for broke as Oedipus). I never took any drama or acting classes (which I regret), so reading out loud is probably my way of indulging my own desire to perform, even if I’m my only audience. Plus, is there anything better than getting to a line you’re really proud of and just hearing your own words in the air? Or discovering a paragraph with a perfect rhythm?

Yes, line editing is work — you’re also going to run into some godawful sentences that assault your ears. I mean, that’s the point of line editing in the first place: to find and fix all those mistakes. But enjoy the parts that you got right. Pat yourself on the back. Have fun.

Also, for both writers and non-writers who love words, a self-care method that I highly recommend is to read your favorite books out loud to yourself. Roll around in some great language. My last several blog posts have been kind of heavy and I didn’t want this one to be, but suffice to say that everyone can use a little self-care in 2017. I read Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo this year (and have been unable to stop thinking about them since), and they are an absolute joy to read aloud. I love reading anything by Mary Doria Russell (a.k.a. one of the only authors for adults I care about) aloud, as well. Of course, there are entire passages from Harry Potter that I still “hear” in the rhythm in which I recited them as a child (often in a bad British accent with my friend Francesca to a highly indulgent audience of our parents).

So this is my spring 2017 advice to you: work hard, care hard, and when you’re tired, immerse yourself in a story that you love, whether your own or someone else’s. Savor the sound of your own voice speaking beautiful words.

On Truth

Sometimes I worry that I only have one story in me, and that I’m just telling that same story over and over again in different ways. It’s a worry that I imagine a lot of writers share. Impostor syndrome is a strong force in creative circles, and it’s easy to fear that someday we’ll be found out. What if, that doubting voice whispers, everyone discovers that I don’t have that much to say?

But of course all my stories are going to have some things in common. They wouldn’t be mine if they didn’t. And one thing that I’ve realized they share is a deep preoccupation with truth-telling.

This discovery was something of a comfort. Though the capital-T Truth may appear to be flat and non-negotiable, there are actually many things to say about it. As a writer, I am reassured that my stories won’t necessarily all feel exactly the same to my future readers (or my small and beloved gaggle of current readers). As a person, I am reassured that no one will ever run out of worthwhile things to say as long as we’re committed to the truth.

The types of truth-telling that interest me the most are speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the self. Neither one is easy, and both rely on the other. I don’t think it’s possible to speak truth to power until you’ve figured out what you believe in, which requires figuring out who you are and who you want to be. But I also don’t think it’s possible to truly be honest to yourself without feeling the need to speak up and speak out about the important things in life.

After all, how can you protest or make phone calls or argue or attend meetings or engage in any other means of resistance — up to and including straight up breaking unjust laws — without first admitting that you’re sad and angry and afraid? These are not easy truths. They require you to admit that you’re not in control of everything in your life, and that just opens up a whole other can of worms. Our own lack of control is everything that we hide from. When we stop hiding from it — well. It can be unpleasant.

The alternative, though, is pretending that everything is fine. As any writer will tell you, stories need conflict. There can be no growth, no change, until that conflict is acknowledged. And yeah, there are some real life conflicts I really wish had been avoided. I’m definitely not saying that all the awful things happening in the world are okay because they lead to ~personal growth or anything like that. There is an upside to admitting your own sadness and anger and fear to yourself, though. Once you acknowledge those things, you get to tell yourself another truth: that you care. And a caring person is a beautiful thing to be able to see when you look in the mirror.

So I guess that’s another running theme in the stories that I write: I write about people who are learning how to care. And if that’s the only story I have in me, then I’m okay with that. That story is beautiful, and I believe that it is true.