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I’ll be attending WorldCon in London next week, and I was persuaded to participate in the programming, so here are the details of the panel I’ll be on:

 

Friday, August 15 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)

Swords that go schiiing! as they’re drawn, hay bales lying around in medieval times, and flames in a vacuum: just a few examples of factually erroneous writing. The panelists will look at the most anachronistic and scientific blunders and descriptions that just don’t make sense, but continue to be used over and over again. Do these obvious errors serve a purpose within the larger context of story? Are they comforts from which an author can build discomfort?

Ian Nichols (M), Andrew Barton, Amanda Kear, Alison Sinclair, Amy Sundberg

 

This should be an interesting panel, if only because I am one of those readers who often doesn’t care about these sorts of factual mistakes. As a writer, however, I do want to get it as right as I can, because perfectionism, but I also care a great deal about the story and about everything working together in service of telling that story. So perhaps we can find a way to make this panel a little more lively and less predictable than simply a list of all the stuff writers always get wrong. We’ll find out next week, when I will be in all my jet-lagged glory!

In the meantime, I should probably crowdsource and discover more of these factual mistakes that I often overlook  but that drive other people nuts. I’d love to hear about your factual pet peeves in science fiction and fantasy. What would you like me to spread a little awareness about next week? I’m looking forward to referencing Kameron Hurley’s “We Have Always Fought,” for starters.

I’ve been seeing a fair amount of talk about GISHWHES in my social feeds. But not random and silly requests for help or funny stories, unfortunately. Instead people are talking about GISHWHES and harassment. And harassment of my SF&F writer community, no less. Here are the details.

This makes me sad. Being harassed sucks and is a big deal. Being inundated with requests sucks too. Some people have trouble saying no, and that can make this kind of thing particularly exhausting. I suspect that if one achieves a certain level of fame (or at least recognition), it becomes imperative to learn how to say no just in order to maintain basic emotional stability. But even so, not everyone will be great at learning this, and people will be at different stages of the learning curve too.

And when they do say no and the askers are rude and harassing about it? Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh.

This makes me think about the problems of scale. Because coming up with items for a local scavenger hunt that involves relatively few people who are probably all connected in some way (they work for the same company, for example, or they belong to the same community organization) is very different from coming up with items for thousands of people world-wide. (Wikipedia tells me GISHWHES had 14,580 participants in 2012, and I’d guess that number has grown.)

Additionally, when organizing such an event for a smaller organization, all the people are known to one another, and therefore they hold each other accountable to a certain standard of behavior. But when the numbers increase and there isn’t the same social pressure present, the likelihood of having at least a few people who think it’s okay to behave like jerks increases drastically. Add to this the sheer number of people making requests to the most famous authors, and problems aren’t difficult to imagine.

So while some of us are busy creating a stream of tweets rhapsodizing about dandelions (which it sounds like are not in season right now anyway), there are others who are being rude and unkind, during an event that is supposed to be fostering kindness. Which is really unfortunate.

All of the asking required by participating in GISHWHES also has me pondering the nature of asking. I was raised firmly in Guess Culture and have been gradually shifting closer to Ask Culture in order to achieve more balance. Quick summary: Ask Culture people ask for what they want/need and are totally fine being told no. Guess Culture people usually only ask when they’re pretty sure the answer is going to be yes, and Guess Culture involves a lot of reading social cues. Keep in mind this isn’t a black and white contrast, but a spectrum of behavior and culture. (Want to know more about Ask Vs. Guess Culture? Have some links!) So I’ve thought about asking quite a lot over the past couple of years.

 

Here are my own guidelines for asking:

1. Phrase your request as clearly as possible. Include relevant details, and communicate which aspects are flexible.

2. Do not assume the person will say yes. Do not phrase your request in such a way that it appears you are assuming the person will say yes.

3. Be gracious and polite if the person says no. If you aren’t sure if you will be okay with a no, that probably means you shouldn’t be asking (barring emergencies, of course).

4. If you suspect you might be dealing with a person from guess culture (or if you have no idea), consider explicitly including some kind of easy out for them in the request. Guess culture people will often get stressed out from having to say no, so be kind and make it easier. Variants include: “It’s totally fine if you can’t help out” or “I know you’re really busy right now” or “If you can’t help, I completely understand.” These sorts of softening phrases can sometimes make a huge difference in how a request is received. Whether they are appropriate varies depending on context, though.

5. Do what you can to make your request as convenient and considerate as possible for the other person. This could include being flexible about timing, for example, or laying out all the details up front so they don’t have to ask many questions just to figure out what’s going on. It could also mean making sure you’re on time, having the correct materials on hand, or giving plenty of advance warning.

6. Consider the ramifications of your request. This might fall into the being considerate item above. For example, before a Gisher asks Neil Gaiman to write them a story, they might stop and consider the fact that he’s probably already been swamped with requests and therefore decide to ask someone else instead.

7. Show gratitude if the person says yes, both when they first reply and when they are helping you. Let them know how much you appreciate them.

I can tell I’m still more on the Guess culture side of things, though, because as I contemplate this list, my natural inclination is to clarify and add more and talk about variables. And I know many people for whom this list is already way more complicated than it has to be. After all, it could be boiled down to:

1. Ask.

2. Accept no.

3. Be kind.

If nothing else, the simpler list is easier to remember. And it still leaves space for all kinds of nuance as required.

Are you more Ask or Guess culture? What are your guidelines for asking?

10:00am: My alarm goes off. GISHWHES is about to begin!

10:40am: I am already running late. Nala still needs a walk.

11:20am: Great America traffic!

11:35am: Arrive at the War Room and pull out the laptop.

1:10pm: We are obsessed with obtaining human teeth.

2:00pm: I have just asked friends the following: if they are willing to be photographed covered in clothespins; if they are willing to give a lecture on hostile GISHERS to fellow law enforcement officers; and if they know a VC with a “strong” sense of humor.

2:07pm: “Can we source human bones now?”

2:17pm: Now I am sourcing a pipe organ. I have always wanted to play a pipe organ so it’s worth a shot!

2:35pm: So this is proving to be an exercise in asking other people for help. For wacky, crazy stuff.

3:07pm: Apparently for a uniformed officer to be filmed requires official permission. Who knew?

3:34pm: Just wrote a heartwarming story of an act of kindness performed by a stranger. 50 words or less, baby!

4:11pm: Only four of us left in the War Room. We are talking about cats.

4:48pm: We’ve determined the bloody horn of a unicorn can be created with foam and violently red nail polish.

4:54pm: Have taken ownership of the kazoo tweed porn task.

5:00pm: Head home for some quality Nala time.

Well.

This was supposed to be a bright, happy, bouncy post. And we will get there, never fear. But now that I’ve sat down to write it, I find I want to provide a little context for where we’re going.

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I believe there is value in documenting the grieving process, so this is what has been happening.

My friend Jay died two months ago now. And in those two months, I have taken an emotional beating. Close readers of this blog apparently already know this, so now I’m just taking the final step and being explicit.

Very little of this beating has had much of anything to do with Jay’s death. His death was a catastrophe that put me in a vulnerable place, yes, and apparently that’s all it took to allow floods of bullshit to wash in.

I was going to call it drama, but let’s call it what it is, shall we? And sadly, much of it is bullshit, plain and simple.

I’m exhausted. And my tolerance for such things has dropped to historically low levels. I am considering keeping it there.

An unfortunate side effect of all of this is that I’ve had to put my grief on hold while I deal with other things. Yes, it’s a luxury to even be capable of doing so, but it is still not a situation that makes me happy. In my experience, putting grief on hold has a tendency to backfire in unfortunate and sometimes unpredictable ways. Not ideal. Not at all.

But that is what is happening. Hey presto, context!

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In more fortuitous news, I’m going on vacation in a few weeks. A blissful, well-deserved, drama-free, AMAZING vacation. I can’t wait.

And in the meantime, I have signed up to participate in GISHWHES, otherwise known as the GREATEST INTERNATIONAL SCAVENGER HUNT THE WORLD HAS EVER SEEN.

At this point, I think my belief that sometimes things need to be shaken up is well documented on this blog. And there is no better time to shake things up than when life is being unfortunate. So I am extra super excited to be spending next week doing something completely different and outside of my comfort zone.

It should be especially exciting because improv makes me nervous, doing strange things in public makes me a little nervous too, and me crafting doesn’t so much make me nervous as it often yields results that are suboptimal (and possibly hilarious). Or else I’m just kind of slow. Seriously, the only C I’ve ever gotten in my life was in 6th grade art because it took me so long to complete each project. Pushing Amy out of her comfort zone? Check check check.

On the other hand, writing a real online dating profile for Nala? I am so all over that. (Yes, this was a real task from last year.)

I am sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

I am a sweet little dog who enjoys traveling, going to see movies, and pretty much all adventure sports. And of course, I love to bark!

The founder of GISHWHES, Misha Collins, has this to say about the hunt: “GISHWHES is about creating art, pushing boundaries, perpetrating acts of kindness and, ultimately, redefining our perception of “the possible.””  And I am 100% behind all those things, as a creative person, sure, but more fundamentally, as a human being. It’s so easy for our view of the world, and of ourselves, to become limited and stagnant, and it is so important to do what we can to work against this trend.

I’m hoping I’ll have time to post updates on the blog over the course of the next week on how things are going in GISHWHES land, but I’m not sure how all-consuming it is going to be. So I will be playing it by ear. (Gasp!)

Meanwhile, I’ll be remembering, and gleefully celebrating, that life is what you make of it, one day at a time.

The Secret Keeper

Theodora Goss’s latest post cracked my head open, and thoughts have been pouring out ever since. There are at least three essays I could write in response to it.

This is one of them. It is about secrets.

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Photo Credit: Skley via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Skley via Compfight cc

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I have forged myself into a receptacle for keeping secrets. I have been a reliable secret keeper for twenty-five years. I know things I wish no one would ever need to know.

People tell me their secrets. Mostly men, because I’ve made an inadvertent lifelong study of being the type of woman men confide in. I’ve only realized this recently, and I’m not quite sure what, if anything, I am going to do about it. Is it so bad to be a secret keeper for other people?

I think it actually might be, at least in certain circumstances, because after a while, I disappear in the sea of secrets. The narratives unfold, and I allow them so much space that eventually I compress into hardly anything at all. Being a secret keeper can be hazardous to your health. It takes a master to prevent their encroachment and hold them where they belong.

Can I be a master? Perhaps.

Do I want to be? This is an entirely different question. I think I do, but only when my own secrets get to be a part of the sea.

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There are two types of people: those who, at the slightest hint of anything difficult in conversation, become distinctly and obviously uncomfortable, and those who aren’t afraid of talking about the hard stuff.

There are two types of people: those who know how to listen, and those who have never trained themselves to hold space for another person.

The ideal secret keeper doesn’t blink an eye at the hard stuff, and she holds space without a trace of judgment. The secret teller can then unburden himself in safety.

There is an art to creating trust.

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I have plenty of secrets. I don’t think about them all of the time, even most of the time, but when I do, I feel like they might choke me.

I turned keeping secrets into a modus operandi back in middle school, and I never looked back. My survival, I was convinced, depended on my ability to keep all these secrets that no one would understand. The idea of gossip about me was unimaginably horrible.

So I simply never told anybody anything.

It worked, too. And to this day I don’t think I made the wrong choice.

Then again, I still sometimes say very little indeed. So of course I agree with my past self. Of course.

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I have secrets I might be literally unable to talk about. I do not have the words. I am a writer without words, which as you might imagine, can be disconcerting. I might have to create a whole new language in order to express these secrets accurately.

I do not have the words because that’s what happens when something is traumatic enough. The trauma leaches words of meaning, and it blanches them bone white so they are hard to distinguish.

You read about avoidance of talking about trauma, and you think, oh, that must be like when you avoid cleaning your bathroom. But it is nothing like avoiding cleaning the bathroom. It is more like, your bathroom lacks the coherence and structural integrity to be able to clean. But it’s still sitting there needing to be cleaned all the same. So then you have to rebuild the entire freaking bathroom just so you can clean it.

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Secrets are bad for your health. This seems relevant to the current discussion. It is why one bothers to go to all the trouble of rebuilding the bathroom. Which, any way you slice it, is a huge pain in the ass.

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Right now this blog post is a secret. But tomorrow morning it will go out into the world, and the act of you reading it will transform it into something else.

Now that you have reached the end, it is no longer a secret. It is something we know together.

I love selfies.

I know there is a lot of judgment swirling around the idea of the selfie, along with a lot of criticism. Apparently there are many of us who are ultra super threatened by the idea of someone else posting a photo of themselves…because…?

Heaven forbid someone else feel comfortable with how they look. Or experiment with identity through appearance. Or make a bold statement: THIS IS WHO I AM, WORLD.

This is who I am.

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OMG, world! This is who I am.

OMG, world! This is who I am.

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I was opening up the photo gallery on my phone to show a photo to my friend, and he was looking over my shoulder. “Wow, you have so many selfies.”

Yes. My phone is full of selfies.

When I find myself in front of the mirror, I make faces. I’ve done that ever since I can remember. I want to know what different expressions feel like. I want to be aware of the form of self-expression that is my body and my face. I want to know how I’m opening my mouth when I sing. I want to know how I perceive myself from the outside, just as I want to know who I am from the inside. And I want to know how the inside and the outside interact.

Mirror, selfies, what’s the difference? Mainly that I can use the selfies to trace the development of my identity over time.

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Justine Musk has smart things to say about the phenomenon of the selfie:

“I don’t buy that every time a young woman (or an older woman) posts a selfie, she is seeking external validation and approval because she’s so insecure. She is telling a story about who she is – I’m the kind of woman who goes to Positano – and in this very act of declaiming her identity, she continues to create it.”

Selfies tell a story, just as status updates tell a story, just as blog posts tell a story, just as autobiographies tell a story, just as how you behave when with other people tells a story. This is a story of identity, and when it is about your identity, it is one of the most important stories you will spend your life telling.

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Selfies have another important purpose; they are one way to disrupt the narrative of low self-esteem, of constant self apology, of being afraid of taking up space. Because they are prone to receiving judgment, they become a way to face that judgment and say, “You know what? I don’t really care what you think about me.”

They are a way to reclaim a love of self.

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We are afraid of this love of self. We throw around words like narcissistic and selfish very freely. There are people who are narcissistic. There are people who are selfish. And then there is everyone else, people who are afraid to “brag” and “toot their own horns.”

Please tell me, what’s wrong with liking yourself? What’s wrong with liking specific aspects of yourself, whatever those may be? Maybe you like the way you look. Maybe you like your smile, or your eyes, or your teeth that are pleasingly straight after years of orthodontic torture. Maybe you like the way you play soccer, or the way you’ve become an expert on geopolitics, or the way you paint, or the way you can walk out of a party with five new friends.

I fail to see what’s wrong with any of that. Good for you! And good for you for celebrating yourself. I want to celebrate you too. There is a difference between being humble and not allowing yourself to appreciate your positive qualities and accomplishments or acknowledge them in any way.

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Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

Oh no, not another selfie! Because selfies are *serious business.* Ha!

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And what’s wrong with taking selfies? As far as I’m concerned, nothing at all. A selfie is just one more tool for expressing who we are.

 

 

My friend uses the phrase “having a literary life” to mean, as far as I can tell, having a traumatic childhood. You know, the kind that would feature in a literary short story or possibly even form the foundation of a brilliant autobiographical debut novel with a two-word name, like White Rain or Sublime Bodies or Orchids Burning. (Maybe I’ll call mine Broken Magnolias, after the magnolia tree branch in my backyard I accidentally broke when I was six or seven. It would feature a call-back to Duras’s famous Moderato Cantabile, although in my novel the magnolia would symbolize a loss of innocence instead of female sexuality.)

Carolyn See wrote a book for writers called Making a Literary Life. It concerns establishing a regular writing routine (I think this is the first place I read about having a daily word count), becoming okay with submission and rejection, and writing charming notes to writers you admire.

By both of these metrics I have a literary life. But I would like to offer a third metric.

When I think about leading a literary life, I think of the way writing pervades every aspect of my existence. And don’t think I’m exaggerating; it really does.

When something bad happens to me: well, at least this might come in handy for my writing someday.

When looking for a place to live: does this feel like the kind of place I could write? is this part of my story of myself as a writer?

When engaging with the world: I am curious about all the things because you never know when I might need this knowledge or experience for a project.

When being impulsive: It feeds my creative well when I’m leading an exciting, romantic life. Plus this will make a great story later.

When not being impulsive: I need to focus on my work.

When wallowing: Tragedy! I am experiencing tragedy! Now let’s pour this all out into a cool creative project.

When socializing: If I understand people and their behavior and motivations more thoroughly, then think of the interesting characters I can create.

When out and about: People watching. More people watching. More people watching.

When appreciating the small, the mundane, the ordinary: This vividness of experience will translate so much more strongly on the page. Telling details for the win!

When making decisions: I want to lead the kind of life I wouldn’t be bored to write about, and be the kind of character I wouldn’t be bored to read about.

Such is my literary life.

Books books books!

Books books books!

 

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