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On Solitude

I want to write about solitude today, and finding myself uncertain as to how to begin, I looked up some famous quotations on solitude.

From these, I ascertained that people are very divided about the idea of solitude. Some people love solitude, finding it absolutely essential to their well-being, while other people wouldn’t choose solitude if they had another choice. Solitude is simultaneously viewed as exalting and painful, beautiful and tragic.

I found a reference to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I located my copy, given to me when I was a young artist myself, and started flipping through it, and now I want to read the whole thing again. He references solitude several times in its pages. I particularly like this passage:

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away, you write, and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you.”

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

There is this common idea that solitude is helpful and perhaps even necessary for artists to develop their own voices (and visions) and do the work required of them. Certainly writers have to sit and be focused inside their own heads while writing, even if they are physically surrounded by people. For some other types of artists, solitude is perhaps less critical.

We each have our own capacity for solitude, and that capacity can change over time and in different circumstances. It can be deliberately expanded (meditation retreats, anyone?) and it can be deliberately contracted. Within limits, of course.

I have been craving more solitude recently. I hit the point far more quickly than usual when I must take time for myself. It’s not simply laziness or fatigue, although I am tired; it’s a strong need for the space to introspect and just be. There is so much going on inside of my head right now, and it’s not that it’s so very private in nature but rather that it feels like the kind of thing I need to sort out for myself, with the occasional helping hand along the way.

Perhaps solitude is important not just for creative work but also for personal change. It’s almost as if I need some time to get to know myself again.

I read some writing advice recently that I think is useful both for writers, and for the people who would like to understand what our lives are like a bit more clearly:

“Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first 10 years. Nobody cares whether you write or not, and it’s very hard to write when nobody cares one way or the other. You can’t get fired if you don’t write, and most of the time you don’t get rewarded if you do. But don’t quit.”

–ANDRE DUBUS

This is so very true. Nobody cares deeply about my writing except me. Which is why I can be kind of a hard-ass when it comes to my schedule. And why I care so very much about my priorities and goals. Because if I don’t care, that’s it. They will never happen. End of story.

Becoming good at things takes a long time. Even if some of it comes easy to you, it takes a long time, just less of a long time. It took me twelve years to become as good at singing as I wanted to be, and really more like fifteen to get it completely secured. I took off maybe a year during that period of my life, and the rest of the time, I sang and sang and sang some more. Even when I knew I sucked. Particularly when I knew I sucked.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

This is how Nala practices getting better at writing. Or maybe how she practices becoming even cuter? Unclear.

When I first started writing, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I don’t know if you can be, really, right when you’re starting out. There’s an experimental phase, when you try something out. See if you like it. See if you’re at all good at it. See if it has any meaning to you. See if this is a thing to which you can devote yourself. Because not everything will be. And if it’s not for you, then it’s not only okay to quit but a good idea. This level of commitment is not for everyone.

I noticed the shift when this changed for me. When writing became a true calling. When I realized I’d be writing anyway, even if I couldn’t turn it into a career. When writing became less about the desperation of wanting a particular project to sell and more about doing the work. When the writing became more interesting and all-consuming than what would happen afterwards. When whether this novel sells or not became less important because I’m already thinking about the next several potential novels to write.

Mind you, I’m not saying that I don’t care about my career or that I don’t care about publishing my novels. I do care, and I take the necessary steps towards that goal. But I care about the writing itself more, and knowing this makes doing the business and career stuff much easier. I want to become better not so I will then become published (although that would be great) but because I’m interested in becoming better for its own sake. I no longer have to look for external validation to reinforce my commitment. I’m committed, full stop.

The early stages of becoming a writer are so very much about not quitting. And putting in time and practice, and finishing things. And finding a way to hang in there through the rejection and the failure and the process of becoming better. And falling in love with telling stories, over and over again.

New trendy social media service? Oh yeah, let’s talk about Ello for a bit, shall we?

Ello is the hot social media platform du jour. Some people are saying it could potentially take over for Facebook (especially people who really hate Facebook and who are upset about the legal names thing going on there right now). Some people are saying it could potentially take over for Twitter (especially those who are upset about the new algorithm Twitter has promised is coming that will sort its feed).

My take? It’s way too soon to say, and also, Ello is a bit of a mess right now. Apparently some designers are involved with it, and to say its user interface is not intuitive is probably an understatement. It is difficult to figure out how to do basic things like make a post, reply to a post, and find people. It’s also missing many basic features that we have come to know and love: the ability to share someone else’s posts, the ability to like or favorite a post, privacy and safety settings such as the ability to block a user, non-intrusive notifications, etc. So we’ll have to wait and see how well and how quickly Ello cleans itself up.

I’m also interested in the population that has “seeded” Ello. With Google Plus, Google seeded the service with people their employees invited. Perhaps as a result, the user base of Google Plus skewed heavily male and very technology-based. (Now that it’s been active for more than three years, this might have changed, I’m not sure.) This early community definitely set the “feel” of Google Plus as a site. I don’t know who all is on Ello right now, (the SF/F writers are there experimenting, as we so often are, but ultimately we’re not a huge user group) so I don’t know what “feel” might result from the initial user base, but it will be interesting to watch and see.

My Ello page.

My Ello page.

As a content creator, one of my main interests is in figuring out what role (if any) Ello could play in my content strategy. I know a lot of people simply cross-post their content everywhere, but as a content consumer, I dislike this strategy. What makes for a decent to good tweet does not necessarily (or even often) make for a good Facebook post, and having to read the same asinine observation twice does not make me twirl around singing about hills being alive before leaving a nunnery in order to join the domestic labor force.

Instead, my reaction to replicated content tends to vary from the passive zombie stare of apathy, complete with string of drool, to a slight irritation that I am wasting my time and maybe should hide some more posts from my feed. The exception to this? When someone has more substantial content to which they’re cross-linking (a blog post, article, new website, or what-have-you). That I don’t mind as much.

But if I don’t want to merely use Ello as yet another cross-posting ground, the question becomes, what is a good Ello post? To what kind of content does it lend itself? What can I enjoy posting on Ello that I won’t be posting somewhere else? And will the engagement received be worth the time to develop the content? I don’t have answers yet. It depends both on how the technology develops and in what directions the user base grows.

In the meantime, Ello users get to experiment. We get to try lots of different types of content, and we get to accidentally delete the comments on our posts (oops!), and we get to poke and prod and complain about how things work. And we also get the opportunity to begin creating content for a new platform that is not quite as clogged with content as all the older social media sites.

Should writers definitely join Ello right now? Eh. Not yet. You might want to reserve your username of choice in case it really takes off. But for right now, it’s primarily for those of us who enjoy playing in the frontiers of social media.

Interesting in experimenting? You can find me @amysundberg or at this link.

I keep a log of all the books I read every year, and when I looked down my list at the end of last year, I noticed something. I was doing a great job reading many women writers. I was happy that I was branching out and reading a variety of books, not just YA and SF&F. But the number of POC writers on my list was low. Eight percent of my total.

I looked at past reading years (I’ve been logging since 2009), and I found that no matter how many books I read each year, the number of POC writers I was reading consistently fell between seven and ten percent. Not completely horrendous, but also not great. So I told myself, I’ll try to pay more attention in 2014 and up that number. (It would require another post to discuss why I think this is important. I’m adding it to my list.)

I did a little bit of research to find more POC writers I thought I might like, and then I did a little bit more. It was more work than I’d thought it would be, because a lot of the lists repeated the same few names over and over again, or they turned out to be about books with POC characters written by white writers, which wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.

And then yesterday I was looking over my reading list so far from the year, almost three-quarters of the way in, and I realized I’m not doing enough. POC writers only account for eleven percent of my reading this year, which is only a few percent higher than years I wasn’t paying any attention at all. I decided I’d have to be more systematic if I was actually going to improve.

So I spent more hours combing through the internet, looking for writers and specific books that I think I might enjoy (sometimes I can be a bit picky). I poured through lists of POC writers, I read some posts from the #weneeddiversebooks campaign from earlier this year, I peered at author photos and read their bios and interviews, and I combed my bookshelves. And I compiled a list.

It is a somewhat strange list. It doesn’t include any books I’ve already read (hence the glaring omission of Octavia Butler, among others). It includes certain books because I already happen to own them. It doesn’t include certain books that I’m not interested in reading right now (this is a list that is supposed to help me read more, not discourage me from doing so). It has lots of different types of books so I can find something I want to read no matter my mood. And I’m going to keep adding to it because I know there are so many more books out there by POC writers that I’d love to read and just don’t know about yet.

Here is the commitment I’m making to myself. I’ve recently joined two book clubs (yeah, I know, I don’t know what I was thinking either), so I can’t control the reading for those. And sometimes I need to read something specific for a writing project I’m working on. But aside from that, the next six books I choose to read will come from this list of works by POC writers. That should bring me to more like twenty percent for the year, given how much I expect to read. And between those six books and my book club reading, that might be about all I have time for.

I’m publishing my list because I don’t think there are enough of these lists out there, and I was surprised at the amount of time it took me to compile it. I’d also love to hear about any books by POC writers that you would like to mention or recommend in the comments.

Adult SF/F:

  1. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu
  2. Falling Sky, by Rajan Khanna (out Oct. 7)
  3. The Killing Moon, by N.K. Jemisin
  4. Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany
  5. The Deaths of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  6. The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu
  7. Mindscape, by Andrea Hairston
  8. Ascension, by Jacqueline Koyanagi
  9. The Best of all Possible Worlds, by Karen Lord
  10. Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
  11. White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi
  12. Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
  13. All You Need is Kill, by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
  14. Harmony, by Project Itoh

Other Adult:

  1. Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  2. The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  5. Lullabies, by Lang Leav (poetry)
  6. Follow Her Home, by Steph Cha
  7. Beauty and Sadness, by Yasunari Kawabata
  8. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
  9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  10. Bitch is the New Black: a Memoir, by Helena Andrews
  11. The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, by Ernessa T. Carter

YA:

  1. The Silence of Six, by E.C. Myers (out Nov. 5)
  2. Since You Asked, by Maurene Goo
  3. Pointe, by Brandy Colbert
  4. Charm & Strange, by Stephanie Kuehn
  5. The Young Elites, by Marie Lu (out Oct 7)
  6. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han
  7. Prophecy, by Ellen Oh
  8. Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake
  9. Rivals in the City, by YS Lee (out of print)
  10. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson
  11. Champion, by Marie Lu (this is the 3rd book of the trilogy)
  12. Once We Were, by Kat Zhang (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)
  13. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin
  14. Control, by Lydia Kang
  15. Unravel Me, by Tahereh Mafi (this is the 2nd book of a trilogy)

And here is a (very partial) list of resources I used to compile this list:

We Need Diverse Books and 27 POC Authors

We Need Diverse Books Summer Reading Series

You Want More Diversity in Your Pop Culture? Here’s How to Find It

100 Books by Black Women Everyone Must Read

Diversity and List of Books by 23 Asian American and Other POC Writers Part I and Part 2

For more information on this campaign, visit weneeddiversebooks.org.

Change is an Inside Job

I’ve gotten two pieces of advice repeatedly over the last week, and they’ve both proven to be quite helpful, so I thought I’d share.

  1. “Things will get better now that the pretending is passed.” aka you don’t have to pretend everything is completely fine.
  2. Talk to your friends about your problems.

So I followed this advice. I stopped pretending, and I talked, and I talked, and I talked some more, and some more after that. And in between I did nice things for myself and gave myself a lot of alone time.

And eventually the clouds began to lift, and I began to feel better.

In the process, I learned something interesting about change.

There’s this feeling I’ve been having for quite some time, a fear that the change I’ve been working toward all this time isn’t real or long-term, that it won’t stick, that one day it will disappear without warning, that I’ll find myself back where I started. It’s very powerful, this fear, and not all that helpful.

Here is what I have realized: conscious change does not ultimately depend on external factors. Change does not rest on the shoulders of one or two key people in our lives, or on a job, or on geography. Change does not rest on our communities, or on a hobby, or on a lifestyle choice. All of these things can help facilitate change, yes, absolutely. But strip any of them away, and what are we left with?

The internal change. We can be thrown into situations that we might have hoped all this change would have prevented. But if there has been internal change, we will respond differently. We will have different skills and different strengths. We will see the situation differently, we might be aware of different options, and we will be able to make different choices if that is what we want to do.

Internal change is not something that just goes away. Can we experience a backslide? Sure. Some confusion? You bet. But I could no more find myself back where I started than I could snap my fingers and cause instantaneous deep change on a whim. Everything–all the hard work, all the insights, all the frustrations and setbacks, all the small victories–builds on itself to create the change.

And perhaps one of the last steps is to gain the confidence that such change can be both true and lasting. That it is not something that can be irrevocably lost or taken away. That failures and difficult situations are an opportunity to learn more rather than some kind of final grim judgment of self-worth.

That the change is not dependent on any one thing or any one person except myself.

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bindaas Madhavi via Compfight cc

This is Not Your Story

I wrote a short story with that title once: “This is Not Your Story.” I think it was a fantasy story, but really all I can remember now is the title. I suspect the story itself was not overly memorable.

When I was in London, I spent a lot of time walking around the city, and most of all, the parks. There is something intensely soothing to me about walking in that city’s leafy green spaces, occasionally stopping to take a picture or read a few chapters of a novel. And thinking. So much space for thought.

One thing I thought about a lot was how so much of what has been going on around me has very little to nothing to do with me. In one sense, it does, of course, because I have been present, I have been involved, I have had relationships of all kinds with people throughout my life. But even so, so much of it isn’t about me at all. It doesn’t have a lot to do with what has happened to me, or how I’ve felt, or what I’ve wanted, or what I’ve been thinking.

This is not my story.

Photo Credit: Brujo+ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Brujo+ via Compfight cc

I would like to be able to say that this realization has helped me take things less personally. That might even be true. But at the same time, it has made me keenly aware of my propensity to allow things to become my story, even though they really don’t belong to me.

I allow myself to be invisible. I allow myself to be crowded into a small space so there is more space for others. I allow my voice to cease being heard. I think, if only I say the right thing, if only I behave the right way, if only I am an even better listener, if only I am more understanding, if only I let this slide or keep my mouth shut or let it go because it’s not like it matters that much anyway (it’s not like I matter that much anyway, is really what I’m telling myself here), then everything will work and everyone will like me and I will finally be given the space I need to thrive.

To be clear, this is complete bullshit. It doesn’t work.

I’ve been having a hell of a time writing blog posts lately because I’m afraid to even lay claim to my own story. If I say anything about x topic, I think, then this person will think I’m writing about them, even though actually it has nothing to do with them, or maybe it does but that doesn’t mean it’s not an appropriate topic for the blog, but that means I can’t write about that topic, unless I find a way to be very clever so I’m kind of writing about it without writing about it. And three hours later, here I sit with no blog post to show for it. Or I’m bending over backwards to be incredibly vague, even while suspecting that it’s impossible for me to ever be vague enough. And the writing suffers as a result. This also doesn’t work.

Okay, so what does work?

Being authentic works. Being honest works. Speaking up works. Being firm and clear works. Not wanting everyone to like me works. Noticing when other people’s stories are coming strongly into play works. Refusing to take responsibility for other people’s stories works. Laying claim to my own story, yeah, that works too.

This is my story, and I’m going to write about it.

Joining the Dance

Okay, I have a great quote for you guys today. No surprise, I found it on Jonathan Carroll’s Facebook page, which remains a great inspiration.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Wilson Watts

Photo Credit: CEBImagery.com via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CEBImagery.com via Compfight cc

I’ve been thinking about breaking up this quote onto different pieces of paper and posting it around my living room. We shall see, though, because I don’t want my living room to remind me of an inspirational calendar. Well, at least not an overly cheesy inspirational calendar.

Anyway. I am of course right in the thick of a long, extended period of change, and within such periods, there are spikes of bigger change and then those times when you can get a little rest. I’m definitely in the middle of a spike at present. And I’ve been thinking about what I want my life to look like.

I have a few thoughts about creating a life vision, if you will.

First, a life vision will be constantly evolving. That’s in its nature. As we learn new things, as we experience setbacks, as circumstances change, as who we are changes, our life vision will shift and grow to fit the present time. How many times have I thought I wanted a particular thing in my life only to find out once I had it that I didn’t want it after all? Enough times to know this is a thing that happens, that’s for sure. But it can be difficult to allow our vision to change because it’s so easy to get attached to the old way of thinking.

Second, as much as I wish I could think or imagine everything out ahead of time, that is not necessarily the best strategy. Hence the above quote. I am a planner and a thinker, so that’s where my comfort zone lies. But sometimes we have to take a leap and see what happens, and then adapt to it. Sometimes we have to try things out to experience them for ourselves. I feel like this can be especially powerful when something isn’t working. Sometimes when we can loosen up our thinking, we find a completely different solution or direction that wasn’t in the original vision at all.

Third, I’m interested in the inevitable biases that creep into our visions of what our lives could be. To me, an obvious one is that of our family of origin. (Another one is the broader society in which we are raised.) When we’re kids, we learn what is possible by watching our parents and close family groups. That sets our basis for what is “normal.” As adults then, we are constantly challenged to learn from our surroundings and seek out exposure to different people and ideas. We can use these to disrupt our original basis for understanding reality in order to create visions that more truly reflect who we are and what we’d like to see for ourselves.

There are so many ideas in our brains, and we haven’t necessarily had a chance to deeply examine them. What it means to be a certain age. What it means to be a certain gender. How we choose to express ourselves. What goals are worthy of pursuit. What gives life its meaning. How we run our social lives. And lots of smaller stuff, like the proper way to bake cookies and what kind of food is comforting and the amazing sweetness of fluffy poodley little dogs and habits of making lists and what kind of stuff you like to do for fun.

A lot of these ideas are great and useful and practical and work really well. But sometimes they don’t all work so well. And sometimes even when they do work well, they act as barriers between ourselves and other people with different biases. Sometimes they even work as ways of shutting down empathy. And sometimes they can keep our life visions more limited than they’d otherwise have to be.

So right now I’m doing my best to put at least part of my inner planner on the back burner and enjoy plunging into the change. I don’t know exactly what will happen next, but then, right now, that’s the entire point.

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