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I will be single on Valentine’s Day this year.

Actually, I did some quick math, and I’ve been single for about 70% of all the Valentine’s Days in my life, so this is actually nothing new or unusual.

In general I’ve always been fairly sanguine about Valentine’s Day. A few years ago I spent the evening with a friend of mine who was having trouble with their relationship; we talked about it a fair amount over sushi, and I felt kind of relieved I was single rather than being in a relationship that made me unhappy. Then we watched a silly action flick and all in all, it was one of my favorite Valentine’s Days. I mean, I wish my friend had been happier. But personally, I had a nice time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m also not anti-Valentine’s Day. I mean, it’s a weird holiday. If someone were proposing it as a new holiday, I don’t know that I’d be in favor. But since it exists, I am not opposed to putting aside a bit of time to feel happy and appreciate a significant other. Plus sometimes I get big bouquets of red roses for Valentine’s Day, and I like roses, so that can work out pretty well.

This year I might get myself flowers, but maybe not roses. I wonder if tulips are in season? I’ve been wanting some tulips ever since I saw this beautiful display of them at Pike Market, but I couldn’t get them then because I was staying in a hotel. And that was almost four years ago, so I’ve been waiting four years for tulips.

Whatever, they’ll totally be worth the wait.

Anyway, a lot of my Valentine’s Days blur together, and since it doesn’t have the strong foundation of tradition that, say, Christmas does for me, it’s hard to get too worked up over it. But I do remember both my best Valentine’s Day and my worst Valentine’s Day.

Worst one first, shall we? I was in college; it was in the first year after my mom died, and she always got me an adorable card for Valentine’s Day, and sometimes also a stuffed animal or sugary treat. Our last Valentine’s Day together, she’d given me a stuffed tiger I’d named Marmalade. So this Valentine’s Day wasn’t going to be good no matter what.

Also this guy and I had started showing a mutual interest in each other (actual concrete dating at Santa Cruz was not super common, at least in my experience), and I liked him a lot, and it wasn’t out of the question that we would spend Valentine’s Day together, but then it turned out he was having some issues with his ex-girlfriend that made it sound like she might not remain his ex-girlfriend. So no Valentine’s Day for us, which was disappointing.

And then on Valentine’s Day itself I got an email from my dad announcing that his girlfriend had moved in with him. This news came in spite of the fact that six weeks before I had told him I wanted to come home for the summer and asked him if he could hold off moving in with her until the following fall, and he had agreed. But now magically it was as if that conversation never happened. (I later found out on my graduation trip that she had actually moved in with him maybe a week or two after we’d had that talk, which made for an interesting graduation trip.) When I called up my best friend, I sounded so stricken he thought someone else had died.

Definitely my worst Valentine’s Day.

Now to cleanse our palates with my best Valentine’s Day. I’d taken the day off work to go look at an apartment in San Francisco. It was a great apartment with a bay window and a lot of character, and if I craned my neck enough, I could just barely see the ocean from the bedroom window. Two weeks later I moved in. And after the interview, I drove down to see the guy I was dating at the time. My memory is a little fuzzy on this point, but I’m pretty sure I beat him home, and he’d left all these Valentine’s Day presents for me to find: flowers, candy, a stuffed animal. And I was surprised and thought it was amazing. It wasn’t super elaborate or anything, but it meant the world to me, and really, that’s all that matters.

This year on Valentine’s Day I’m going to be thinking of my friends, and how grateful I am for you all. You shine, you really do. It’s not that I don’t want or value romantic love, because I do, but I find my friendships matter to me more than I ever would have guessed.

So then that’s what I wish for everyone on this Valentine’s Day. May you be loved by some great people. May you be appreciated. May you feel cherished.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn't want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

I have always had a very strong sense of self. Admittedly, it has sometimes become somewhat buried under expectations or confusion or trauma, but even in the hard times, I have known on some essential level who I am.

But it wasn’t until a bit later in life that I realized not everyone has this same confidence in who they are. And once I did understand this to be true, this question both worried and fascinated me: Why? Why do I know who I am? What is it that forms that core sense of self that I am able to fall back on in times of stress and trouble?

And how can I be so very certain of who I am when I also believe myself to be constantly changing, when I enjoy learning and challenging myself? How do I know myself when sometimes my behavior changes, or my environment changes, or my interests change, or my opinions change?

I don’t know that I have a complete answer to this question, but this is what I’ve got so far:

My basic stories about myself are simple. We all tell stories about ourselves, and we start this at a young age. Someone does well on a certain art assignment at school, and then he has a story that he is an artist. Someone wins a competition, and the story of winning can come to define her. We tell stories about our physical and mental attributes, our personalities, our families, our love lives, our careers. And this is perfectly normal.

But I’ve always been clear on my basic story, and my basic story tells both who I want to be, and, because these stories can end up being self-fulfilling prophecies, who I am. I become who I want to be–not all the time, but quite often.

So what are my fundamental stories?

I love the world. I love being alive. I’m curious. I’m determined. I care a lot about resilience, and kindness, and joy.

Does this mean I am always resilient or kind or joyful or happy about what’s going on? No, not at all. But I always care about those traits, and I always come back to the sense of feeling lucky to be alive. Perhaps this is temperament, or a basic value system, I’m not sure. But these things have never changed for me, not over the long term.

I recognize my experience as part of my identity.

For many years, I taught music as a profession. So one of my identities was musician. Now I only do music for fun, and when I get busy, my practice falls by the wayside, sometimes for months at a time.

But being a musician has been folded into who I am. I spent over fifteen years putting huge amounts of time and effort into music. My skills, without so much constant practice, are no longer at their peak. But my thousands of hours as a musician shaped who I am today. How could it not have?

Experience matters. And just because it changes over time does not mean it automatically becomes lost. Experience ripples into the present, in both predictable and surprising ways.

I don’t define myself by comparing myself to others. I have never thought of myself as being the pretty one, or so-and-so’s girlfriend, or the geek girl, or the smart one. I can be all of those things, sure, but that’s not who I think I am, not in the essentials. In fact, when I was voted Most Intelligent in high school, I was completely shocked. And not because of modesty, but because it simply hadn’t occurred to me that being intelligent was the way my classmates defined me.

Who I am is not determined by others. I’m not in some kind of competition with the rest of the human race so I can define myself by whatever traits or skills of mine are better than average, or get more recognition. I’m not merely what other people see in me. And if I meet someone who is better at me at something that is important to me, that doesn’t change anything about me.

I determine for myself who I am.

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On Conflicting Advice

In the past, I have had people take advice I didn’t mean to give from this blog.

I rarely mean to give advice. When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking, “Now then, let me tell people how I think they should do x or how they should feel about y.” I’m generally talking about my own experiences, knowing very well that people are different and their concerns are different and what works and doesn’t work for me might have nothing much to do with you. I talk about things I find interesting and things I have learned, but they are all very much colored by me being me.

But advice, well, advice can be tricky. I was reminded of this fact by this post about advice, which contains many examples of two pieces of directly conflicting advice, both of which can be valid. It’s really illuminating to read so many examples back to back. I’ll give you just one here to give you a taste:

“You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”

I know people for whom the first piece of advice is probably best, and people for whom the second piece of advice is probably best. I even know people who might benefit from both pieces of advice. So yes, advice is not simple.

Ultimately I think good advice depends a lot on context. Generalized advice is all well and good, but nothing can replace the insights of a therapist or a close friend or family member who knows the specifics about who you are and what your situation is. (This person must also be wise and experienced enough to have helpful insights.) Often situations have many factors at play, so one piece of generalized advice can easily miss a lot of nuance.

In learning how to better set boundaries, for example, I found it very useful to have people I call “sanity checkers:” people who know me and my background and who are very skilled at setting boundaries themselves, who I can get feedback from, run things by, or get help with wordings. I find I need their help less and less as I get more experience, but even so, it’s nice to know I can ask for their expertise if I need it. And sometimes I still definitely do!

The other interesting thing about advice is that you can’t force people to take it. It doesn’t matter if you do know them and their situation, if what’s going on seems really incredibly obvious to you, or how painful it is to watch them suffer. People do things on their own timeline. They’re ready when they’re ready, especially when it comes to accepting hard truths and making difficult changes. Sometimes they’re never ready.

Which means I always feel fairly wary of giving personalized advice. You have to find a way to do it that is gentle enough that it doesn’t alienate the two of you when they probably don’t take the advice. And I try not to give advice unless it’s actually been asked for. There are exceptions to this (oh, nuance!), and we all slip up at this from time to time, of course. Some people feel they need to give advice to be useful, which isn’t really true but can certainly feel true. And sometimes it can be really hard to sit and witness the suffering of someone who is simply stuck and has been for months or even years. That tends to be when I’m most likely to slip up.

Advice over milkshakes!

Advice over milkshakes!

In conclusion:

Generalized advice: can be helpful, but must be considered in context

Personalized advice: can be helpful, but must find people who are insightful and get you

Giving advice: can be helpful, but usually only if asked to give it and if not too attached to the outcome

So yes, these are my thoughts (but not advice!) about advice.

This is going to be one of my best posts ever. Are you ready?

Nala before her haircut:

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Nala after her haircut:

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You’re welcome.

I got my first Kindle in the summer of 2009. It was a birthday present after seeing my first Kindle at Wiscon (my first convention) at the end of May. I loved the idea of being able to have so many books in one device, but I didn’t embrace it enthusiastically until a few years later when I had to move. Suddenly the idea of not adding to the volume of books to be moved seemed like the best idea anyone had ever had. And since then, I’ve read much more on my Kindle.

Fast forward six and a half years. In this day and age, that’s a good run for an electronic device, but this fall I began to notice my Kindle’s battery life was not what it once was. And then for Christmas, I received a Kindle Paperwhite.

I love my Paperwhite! I love it so much! I hated setting it up, and I hated learning the basic UI, and I understood that I always kind of hate those things, and then I was done with them, and it was LOVE.

What I Love about my Paperwhite:

  1. It is small and light! But the screen is the same size as my old Kindle. So I’ve lost nothing and gained something great. Maybe my purse won’t break so quickly this time around. (This is actually a serious problem for me. I break my purses. Mostly because of Kindles and books, which are heavy.)
  2. It has an automatic light! I can read it comfortably in any lighting situation, from bright to pitch dark. When I was on the plane this weekend, I didn’t have to bring along an extra light. I didn’t have to turn on the overhead light. I could be lazy and read my novels in peace.
  3. The battery life seems to be okay even when its wi-fi is on. This was not true for my old Kindle, so I always had the wi-fi off. But with the wi-fi on, it is even faster and easier to buy new books, and also there’s a little blurb when you open a new book telling me what it’s about, which is great because I can’t always remember why I bought the book in the first place.
  4. I can see book covers again! My old Kindle was all text, showing only titles, but now I see a beautiful display of book covers, which also helps remind me what these books are.
  5. There are options for measuring your reading! You can pick between page number, time left in the book, and time left in the chapter. I keep switching back and forth because I love them all. The time left feature is great because it allows me to plan my reading better, and no surprise, I adore anything that lets me plan smarter.
  6. Touch screens are cool. I understand we’re already kind of accustomed to them, with smartphones and smartpads and everything else, but seriously, they are cool.

My joy and rapture over my new Kindle has already convinced two people to buy one for themselves. Just as my joy and rapture over The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson has already convinced a few people to buy the book. (Because it’s so good! The buzz was actually true!) I don’t know if I’m being unusually convincing lately, or if these things are just so amazing, it’s hard to resist their allure. (I suspect the second.)

Anyway, here’s my new Kindle, and there’s Nala in the background pretending to be blasé. But don’t let her fool you; we are very excited about this! (You can tell by the liberal use of exclamation points in this post.)

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Before this last weekend, I hadn’t attended a convention in a year. And the last convention I attended was somewhat memorable.

Before I left for ConFusion last week, I told myself I had to take it easy. I had been sick for much of the three or four weeks preceding the con, and in addition to that, I’ve been a bit burned out, which seems to mostly mean I’m more tired than usual and have less social energy. I’ve been forcing myself to go out some, but wow, am I much more of an introvert than I usually am.

The perfect time to go to a con!

(Cue maniacal laughter.)

I’ve found it difficult to explain the experience of attending a con as a early-career writer to people who have never been to a con and are not writers, but I will try now. It is incredibly intense. It is both one of the best times ever and an enormous amount of work. It sounds like a big party, and it kind of is, but you never forget you’re there because of writing, which is one of the most important things in your life, and therefore everything that happens at a con has the tendency to take on an overinflated importance. It is difficult to avoid some feelings of being judged, and this doesn’t seem to go away even for many seasoned pros.

The entire con experience is laced through with an undercurrent of PRESSURE. Pressure to make good use of the time because you spent a bunch of money to be there. Pressure to sound intelligent and not say anything incredibly stupid or offensive. Especially on a panel or when talking to a writer you particularly admire. Pressure to smooth over social awkwardness. Pressure to find someone to talk to at the bar. Pressure to prove yourself. Pressure to find an interesting topic to discuss or be on Twitter more or make sure your opinions have some actual thought behind them. Whatever your particular pressure poison is.

Lest you begin to get the wrong idea, the con experience is also jam-packed with amazing moments, fun excursions, and stimulating conversations you’re still thinking about long afterwards. It’s a pressure cooker of mostly awesome.

I had a wonderful and tiring time this weekend. Everyone was very kind to me. There was no running off to cry in public bathrooms (always a plus). Three of the four panels I was on went extremely well, and the fourth one wasn’t a train wreck or anything, I just thought it was kind of boring. I got to spend lots of time with Ferrett, along with many other friends and acquaintances, and I met several new people who I liked a lot. While I heard stories from other writers about stuff that went down at this con, I personally had a very positive experience.

Yay!

Yay!

But I did notice a difference.

I took a lot more time alone in my hotel room. I’d reach a lull in my schedule or have no companions at the bar, and instead of pushing myself to seek out THE BEST USE OF MY TIME, I’d go back up to my room and play Splendor on my iPad and relax. However, this self-permission turned out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having some quiet time was really nice. On the other hand, I definitely felt like I was using more willpower than I normally do because eventually I’d have to force myself back out into the thick of things, and the expenditure of that extra willpower took away some of the gains of taking the quiet time in the first place. So that was one unexpected thing that happened.

The other thing I noticed was that I cared less overall about what other people thought. The main result of this seemed to be that I circulated less. I pushed myself less to be a flitting social butterfly moving from group to group. I moved some, but not as much as usual, and I had pretty much zero concern about thinking about whether I should be mingling more or considering with whom I should be talking more. I’d see a group of people I kind of knew and think about joining them, and if that seemed like it might cost me a lot of work or energy or awkwardness, I didn’t care enough to do it. Because I realized it didn’t really matter; I already can’t remember the specific cases when this happened. Instead I spent my time more organically; I didn’t work to engage people but talked with people with whom the engagement came naturally.

Interestingly, I met plenty of new people this way (although it’s hard to say if this was less or more than previously), and the general quality of conversation seemed to go up. Usually at cons I spend a lot of time having almost the exact same conversation fifty times or more. This time there was a lot less of that, and the increased variety of topic was something I deeply enjoyed. At various times I had really quality conversations about music, dance, various books, social justice, female friendships, transmedia, psychology, relationships, cooking and food, story ideas, theater and musical theater, television, the film industry, economics, several panel topics, and more. Of course, good conversation is a hallmark of most cons, but this time there was simply MORE of it, which is an unalloyed positive as far as I’m concerned.

Even so, the pressure was still present. I simply wasn’t allowing it to shape as much of my time or determine as many of my actions. Even in the face of pressure, there is often a choice: what do I value the most here? And in my case, it was allowing room for moments of significance and connection, and also, perhaps the biggest change, allowing myself room to do what was good for me.

Photo by Al Bogdan

Photo by Al Bogdan, 2016

Today is a travel day for me, so without further ado, here is my schedule for this year’s ConFusion science fiction convention in Michigan.
Saturday 4:00:00 PM SFF At Your Fingertips
The online world has fundamentally changed how we find, discuss, and pass on the books that mean something to us. How has unfettered access to many authors changed the discussion around their work? What about the ease of finding like minded communities that only reinforce an individual point of view?
Jon Skovron, Andrew Zimmerman, Amy Sundberg, Jonah Sutton-Morse, V.E. Schwab
 
Saturday 5:00:00 PM LOLCats, Wols, and Watch Me: Pop Culture in SFF?
Pop-culture is ever evolving and fiction often hides behind a desire to be “timeless”. However, pop-culture is an increasing influence on our lives, particularly among young people. How can these modern phenomena be used to make science fiction and fantasy more relevant to today’s readers? Why don’t we see more created popular culture within invented worlds?
Ferrett Steinmetz, Amy Sundberg, Michael Damian Thomas, Sunil Patel, Adam Rakunas

Saturday 7:00:00 PM Emotive and Ebullient: The Young Adult Narrator
Huge films like Hunger Games and Divergent have created renewed interest in beloved Young Adult fiction. However, the intense emotive first person narratives driving many Young Adult novels don’t shine through on the big screen. What is lost in translation and how might this impact readers coming into Young Adult for the first time?
Kelley Armstrong, Courtney Allison Moulton, Amy Sundberg (M), V.E. Schwab, Jon Skovron
Sunday 12:00:00 PM The Business of Rejection
Writing is a business built around rejection. Almost every writer in the industry has experienced it at some point, and many experience it constantly. Come learn how working writers deal with rejection, move past it, and embrace it for what it is.
Amy Sundberg, Kameron Hurley, Greg van Eekhout, Dave Robison (M), Gwenda Bond
I have to say, I am super excited by the LOLCats panel, not only by the topic but because I’m been waiting some years now to be on a panel with my bestie Ferrett, and it is finally happening! With my good friend Sunil to boot! On the same panel! Never has their been a more exciting to me panel lineup.
I predict The Business of Rejection is going to be particularly kickass too.
Have a great weekend!
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