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My revisions weren’t going so well yesterday. To put it mildly. I took Nala on a walk, but that didn’t help. So then I started chatting with a friend:

Me: “My life is meaningless and full of pain. Being an artist sucks. I mean, it’s obviously better than anything else. But right now it sucks. Why can’t I just write a decent novel???????”

Him: “Ah yes. This is one of the best parts of the creative process: crippling self-doubt.”

At which point there may have been a few tears, but they were relieved tears because putting a name to an emotional experience and having somebody who understands is infinitely better than mucking around in the dark.

Crippling self-doubt has this insidious way of expanding. First, I doubted one issue in my book. Then I doubted the whole book and thought maybe I should throw it all out. Then I doubted my overall writing skills and my ability to ever write a novel. Then I spun around in the fail well for a while.

Then it spread further. Maybe I shouldn’t go to the UK and Iceland in the fall anymore! Because that was partly for research, and maybe I don’t actually need to research and therefore should go somewhere else. Like Bali! Or Italy! (The fact that this train of thought actually might have some validity, in that it’s true I don’t need to take the research trip, did not help.) Then my brain went absolutely haywire and I decided maybe I should go to Antarctica. Never mind that I almost certainly cannot afford to go to Antarctica right now.

Then it sent a few questing tendrils out to the rest of my life. Maybe things weren’t going as well as I thought in general.

This is the point where I put my foot down. I felt I’d been very generous with my crippling self-doubt. I’d allowed it some free rein and let it make me very unhappy for an hour or so. But enough was enough.

The most ridiculous thing was, I already had a plan. A good plan. I knew I would finish this revision, come hell or high water, and then I’d send off the book to some readers. It is perfectly obvious I’ve lost any shred of objectivity I might have ever had about the book, which means it’s a perfect time to seek an outside perspective.

Plus this is what I was planning to do anyway, and when faced with crippling self-doubt, I find the answer is usually to carry on with your plan. The plan you made when you weren’t reeling from a stressful emotional experience.

In the meantime, though, I also had to gently talk myself down from my unhappiness, by reviewing the following points:

  1. Finishing is the most important thing right now.
  2. Nothing had actually changed from the day before, when I had been working perfectly happily on my revisions.
  3. There will be another book after this one. And another book. And another book.
  4. Even if this book crashes and burns and is an utter disaster, that doesn’t mean all the books I ever write in my entire life will do the same.
  5. It doesn’t matter what other people think about my writing career.
  6. Yes, even that one thing that one person said that one time that made me question the fact that I’m writing at all and seemed to call my very self-worth into question. That one doesn’t matter in particular.
  7. Some writers write at least TEN books before they get one published, which means I still have several to go before I should start really freaking out.
  8. Meanwhile, I can eat some cheese.
  9. And work really hard on this book.
  10. And maybe try to decide where I actually want to travel this fall.
  11. And think about Disneyland.
  12. And snuggle the little dog.
  13. And remember my emotions do not necessarily reflect reality accurately.
  14. And regain my sense of humor.
  15. And feel grateful I have friends to whom I can send a melodramatic sentence like “My life is meaningless and full of pain,” which is very satisfying to do, and still have them be sympathetic and insightful.

And now the crippling self-doubt, while not eradicated, is at least behaving itself with a bit more decorum.

What do you do when you’re suffering through a bout of self-doubt?

One of the best cures for self-doubt: the little dog!

One of the best cures for self-doubt: the little dog!

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Five years ago today, I published this blog’s first post.

Five years. FIVE YEARS.

And this is my 516th post. Can you imagine? I have sat here typing like this 515 times before this time.

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Let’s think about this blog for a minute. Why do I do it? Why have I sat down every Monday and Wednesday for the past five years of my life and written a post?

It’s not a wildly successful blog, after all. I don’t get thousands upon thousands of hits. This is no Whatever, no Bloggess, no MarkManson.com. I don’t get nominated for awards for my work here. Sometimes I write what I believe to be an important post, and it sinks to the bottom of the pond without leaving a single visible ripple in its wake.

I make no money from the blog. I don’t run ads that give me a kick-back. I don’t participate in marketing schemes. I don’t even have an affiliate Amazon link.

And yet. Five years. For five years I have shown up.

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The blog is not always easy on a personal level either.

Occasionally, people believe it is okay to discuss personal and private issues they have with me in the public comments section of a public blog. (Note: This is not okay.)

Occasionally, I use an anecdote to help illustrate my point, and people I care about get worried they might have inadvertently hurt my feelings. (Note: I probably wouldn’t have chosen that anecdote were that the case.)

Occasionally, people in my personal life read a post of mine and think I am talking about them when I am not. Or they think I am talking specifically TO them, and I am not. Or they make a personal choice I may or may not agree with, and say, well, I did it because of what you said on your blog. And I look down at my open hands, and I think, I don’t want that kind of power. I want to make you think, yes, but then the decision is yours.

Occasionally, people misunderstand me. Sometimes this is because of projection. Sometimes this is because I didn’t do a very good job writing my post. Sometimes it is both.

Sometimes I don’t know where the line is. I don’t know what to write about and what not to write about. I don’t know what to tell you and what not to tell you. Sometimes this confusion ends up leaving you confused too.

Five years.

*

So then, why? Why am I sitting here struggling over these sentences?

Part of it is that I believe in creating for creating’s sake, and art for art’s sake.

But perhaps more of it is because I believe in my One Reader.

My One Reader reads my post and has an Aha! moment.

My One Reader reads my post and feels less alone.

My One Reader reads my post and decides to go on fighting another day.

My One Reader reads my post and loves herself a little bit more than she did before.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks about something in a new way.

My One Reader reads my post and feels a little lighter.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks, I thought that was just me! And a little bit of the guilt or shame or self-disparagement dissipates.

My One Reader reads my post and later on when he is lost, he remembers it and he comes back and reads it again, and it is a small light in what might have otherwise been complete darkness.

My One Reader gets a kick out of seeing yet another Nala photo.

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My One Reader reads my post and a connection is created, and maybe we see each other a little more than we did before.

I don’t know who my One Reader is on any given day. But I believe he or she is out there. And I believe he or she matters.

*

Five years. Here’s to you, One Reader. And here’s to the Practical Free Spirit.

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I get asked this question all the time: What is your blog about? Inevitably I flail about, stringing words into somewhat coherent sentences that may or may not have any actual meaning. Sometimes if I’m standing next to someone else who I know has read my blog, I ask them to answer the question instead. It is ultimately more entertaining to watch them flail about trying to explain my blog than it is to do it myself.

I know, I know, I’m terrible (or possibly simply hilarious). But really I keep hoping someone will have a good answer and I will learn something. This has, however, only happened one time, and then I promptly forgot the answer. I tried to get him to repeat it, but somehow it didn’t sound as good the second time, so I think he might have forgotten it too.

But given how much time and effort I give to this blog, it is high time I do my best to answer this question.

During my senior year of high school, a new class was offered by the Senior Honors English teacher Mr. Skinner. It was called Ways of Knowing, and it was an advanced class about philosophy. I didn’t take this class. I’d heard stories of how difficult a teacher Mr. Skinner was, and due to a turbulent home life, I’d barely gotten through my junior year of high school. In fact, I’d ended the year hospitalized for pneumonia. So I was past the point of caring about the philosophy class all the other smart kids were taking. I did, however, hear a lot about it during fourth period independent study AP French Literature, during which my two fellow students were always doing their Ways of Knowing homework while I…read French literature.

When I think about what my blog is about, I often think about this Ways of Knowing class. I wouldn’t say this blog is about ways of knowing. But I would say this blog is about Ways of Living. And these two ideas are linked in my mind.

Nala's Way of Living

Nala’s Way of Living

It has been the work of my life thus far to study and consider Ways of Living, and the roots of this driving interest go back to that time in high school, and even further back. Knowing things is all very well and good, and I was always a curious student, but what I most wanted to know, surrounded by misery as I felt myself to be at that time, was how to live. How to be happy. How to be fulfilled. How to be an artist. And in a world that didn’t seem to value art. How to create connection even though circumstances had left me completely isolated. How to deal with emotions that arose from extreme situations beyond my control. How to deal with that lack of control. How to create meaning, to live it, in a chaotic world.

This is what I write about.

As I got older, I added some interests. How social structures contribute (and sometimes detract from) ways of living. How personal identity plays into both larger structures and personal interactions. The intersections between technology and society and how we live or can potentially choose to live in the future. The question of expression. How the past, and memory, coalesce into identity and how to work with that. The lessons of narrative. How to initiate (and survive) transformation.

This is what I write about.

And always people. When I escaped to college, I began asking questions. So many questions. Here are things I always want to know: Are you happy? Why or why not? What are you afraid of? What gives you joy? Who and what do you care about? What are you looking for? How do you create your own personal meaning? How do you deal with suffering? What do you say you want, and how is that related to what you actually want? How are you connected with the outside world? Who are your friends, your families, your communities, and what do these relationships look like? What did you used to wish you would be doing as an adult, and how do you feel about that now? What is your relationship to work? What is your relationship to the past? How do you see the world? Who do you think you are?

This is what I think about. This is what I write about.

Ways of living. Yes.

This is what I want to know.

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I like to tell people that one of the most important parts of being a writer is learning how to deal with the emotional baggage of writing, whatever your particular flavor of that is. And part of doing this, for me, is protecting the mental space I need to write.

This protection has been an interesting shift. Certainly when I was a music teacher, there was no need for me to defend certain mental and emotional territory in order to be an effective teacher. But writing is different. It’s tricksy. And the longer I write, the more I recognize how important it is to have boundaries in place that hold a space where I can be productive.

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

And the more adamant I become about maintaining those boundaries. If I recognize that something (or someone) is having a negative effect on my writing, ameliorating that effect jumps to the very top of my list of priorities.

For me, this manifests in several different ways:

Time. I guard my weekday daytimes with my life. What are those times for? My work. Also some life maintenance. What are those times rarely for? Lots of socializing. Granted, sometimes I have a lull in work and I have a little more spare time during the day, but when I agree to spend time with someone during the day on a weekday, that usually means I’m making them a massive priority. And I don’t do it all that often.

Explaining Writing to Me. When someone, usually a non-writer someone, decides to explain writing to me, whether it be the craft, the process, or the business, I pretty much never want to talk to them about writing again. This can sometimes put a damper on things since I care more about writing than almost anything else.

Dating. If I am dating someone and I start to feel badly about writing because of my interactions with them, I stop dating them. End of story. This is often because they want to explain writing to me (in spite of the fact that most of them are not writers and I haven’t asked for advice or feedback). Sometimes it is because they don’t think writing is valuable, or they want to tell me how some other medium is more valuable. (Like games. Don’t get me wrong, I think games can do interesting narrative things, but, um, I don’t write games so I don’t really want to talk about how they’re better.) Or we have different expectations of how my writing career should go, and then I get really stressed out even though I’m meeting all my goals and deadlines. Or they’re not even remotely interested in my writing, which is fine for a while but ultimately kind of limiting.

Talking about Writing. I tend to be somewhat careful about with whom I will seriously talk about my writing. This is one reason I find it extremely valuable to have trusted writer friends. The thing is, there are many things about writing that a person might not automatically know or understand. Like what the common emotional experience is (rejection is constant, occasional discouragement is par for the course), or what the timeframe is (sloooooow), or how the business works, or what the actual interesting parts of it are. And while I don’t think people should automatically know these things, I do find they often leap to conclusions and are more interested in telling me stuff or sharing unrealistic expectations than in learning how all these things actually work. And managing these responses takes emotional energy that, quite honestly, I’d rather spend elsewhere.

Here’s the thing about being a writer, at least for me. I have to maintain a paradoxical belief in myself and my ability to create. Paradoxical because writing typically requires a long apprenticeship that involves a great deal of rejection and failure and learning and experimentation. And no one can chart a course through that morass except me. I sit alone for long stretches of time, working on projects that are sometimes emotionally taxing to create and which no one sees for months. NO ONE. And then when someone does see it, it is for the purpose of tearing it apart so I can make it again, better. And then there’s a cycle of rejection that typically also takes a long time. Rinse and repeat. And once you get published, you’re exposed to market pressures and more criticism of your work.

In the face of all of this, a writer must hold fast to the belief that what they’re doing is worthwhile and possible. That they will improve. That someday the rejection will turn into the acceptance. That they have something to say. That their work matters.

This is not always easy. Actually, it is usually not easy. Hence the boundaries. It’s hard enough to write without dealing with other people’s baggage around it. And having a clean and safe mental space in which to do the work is invaluable and indispensable.

Of course, protecting this mental workspace is one of the things writers need to learn how to do during their apprenticeships. And over time, I’ve found it has gotten easier as I have gotten clearer.

I need these boundaries in order to write. It’s that simple.

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What I’ve learned in the last three hours of wrestling with this blog post and ultimately producing nothing I could use is that making a point effectively and concisely while maintaining and projecting empathy can be incredibly difficult.

Maybe this is part of the problem.

The troubles with internet culture are not new. From what I understand, Youtube has historically been a cesspit of bile and awfulness, which is why I never read any Youtube comments except when I’ve been unexpectedly hit by a train of stupid by my own brain. I’ve been aware of the death and rape threats routinely made via the internet for many years. And my corners of the internet have been quite troubled for the past several months, by Gamergate, by some controversy in the YA world that I speak about obliquely here and less obliquely here, by the Requires Hate reveal, and most recently by the Hugo award nomination fracas.

In short, the internet can be an ugly place to hang out. There is a cost associated with being here. There is a cost associated with being a thought leader and expressing your opinion here. It is a cost I have been aware of since I began this blog nearly five years ago.

A few friends of mine reached out to me after I published my piece on rocking the boat about #KeepYAKind. I listened to them carefully, and I’ve been thinking about what they said for the last few weeks. My main takeaway is, people are scared. People are scared to speak up. People are scared to share their opinions. People are afraid of the internet being dropped on their heads. People are afraid of the cost involved. They are afraid of the threats, the personal attacks, the harassment, the name-calling. And understandably so.

One of my friends told me, “Someday you’ll see this from the other side.” And it’s true, I know it can happen to me. Of course I’ve thought about it. Of course I’ve thought about what it will be like getting rape threats on the internet, because I’m a woman who sometimes talks about feminist issues, and no matter how careful I am, no matter how many times I read over each blog post and how thoroughly I consider my word choices, I will offend someone. And someday that someone might be a shitty person who thinks an appropriate way to respond is with a rape or death threat. And at some other point, I am bound to say something stupid. I’m sure I already have, and I’ll do it again. And the internet might fall on my head. It might be right about me, it might be wrong, but in that period of time, the rightness and wrongness will probably not be foremost in my mind.

I still disagree with the #KeepYAKind campaign. It showed an ignorance of the type of rhetoric and cultural training that have been used for decades to keep women quiet and “in their place” that I find quite troubling, especially given what it was in response to. And tactically, it was much more likely to silence the moderate and less privileged voices; the trolls weren’t going to be affected by it to anywhere near the same extent, if at all.

But I do agree that internet culture, and the harassment, bullying, and scare tactics that go along with it, are a huge problem, both for writers (my own tiny habitat in the pond) and for society in general. We can theorize about why internet culture is the way it is (the power of anonymity, the dehumanization and depersonalization of others that is perhaps an effect heightened by interaction over the internet, the attention economy, humanity’s history of only having to deal in relatively small social units, etc.). But all our theories will not change the reality.

Then we have Kameron Hurley’s recent inspirational piece about how the internet harassment she is subjected to is nothing compared to the difficulties faced by her grandmother in Nazi-occupied France. I will admit this gave me a severe case of mixed feelings. On the one hand, perspective is valuable, as is having the moxy to live loud on the internet and encourage others to do the same.

On the other hand, we’re looking at some problem comparing here. Of course internet harassment is not the same as living in Nazi-occupied France. But that doesn’t make the fear less real. That doesn’t mean anyone who is afraid or upset or angered by internet harassment should feel ashamed of those emotions. And shame is the danger that inevitably comes with problem comparing, even when such a comparison makes for a great rhetorical device.

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Roadside Guitars via Compfight cc

Well, I am not ashamed. I’m a recovering people pleaser, for goodness sake. Of course I was afraid when I started this blog. If I hadn’t been afraid, I wouldn’t have needed any Backbone Project. I recognized the need for me to claim my voice in spite of the fear, and I’ve been working on that ever since. And I’m still afraid, sometimes. I still worry. It’s gotten a lot easier, but when I get the internet dropped on my head, I’m sure I’ll have a miserable time of it.

As a writer, I have to keep asking myself: Am I willing to pay the price for lifting my voice? Even when the price is stupidly high? Even if I’m terrified or creatively blocked or otherwise emotionally compromised by the experience? And if the answer becomes no, then so be it. There is no shame in that. Ultimately my own welfare and safety trumps everything else.

But so far, the answer is still yes. And I hope it will continue to be yes for a long time to come.

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This afternoon (it is Wednesday when I type this), I finished the rough draft of my current novel.

Obviously after typing THE END, any further productivity for me for the day went straight out the window.

It’s a really weird sensation, typing THE END and being finished. Even being finished with the first draft, which isn’t actually being finished finished. (Revision is my friend.) There’s a sense of confusion and a sense of surprise. Don’t get me wrong: I was fairly certain I’d finish the book either today or tomorrow. But even with that knowledge, the moment of completion is still just the slightest bit unexpected.

There is a part of me, when I’m writing a novel, that kind of thinks I’ll be writing that novel and living in that world forever.

Writing novels is such a weird experience. It’s a solitary endeavor, especially the rough draft, which I share with ABSOLUTELY NO ONE, and yet I am so focused upon it, and it becomes so real. It’s hard to leave it behind and move on to the next thing, even if the next thing is only draft two of the same book.

Anyway, this time around, I figured I might as well live it up, so I proceeded to spend a couple of hours being very excited and chatting with lots of people to celebrate. I knew I could persist in the kind of numb, kind of confused state indefinitely unless I deliberately broke through it and allowed myself to celebrate hitting a milestone. So I danced to my favorite songs and used a lot of capital letters and exclamation points and tried to let the fact of THE END sink in and begin to feel like some kind of reality I can understand and work within.

And now I am both very happy and very tired. Tired because I just flung out an outpouring of celebratory energy and because I put as much as I could into this book. I think most of us do. Even books like this one, that are more rollicking and fast-paced and plot-driven. There is something that used to be inside of me, and now it’s there on the page, for better or for worse.

I don’t know what I have, of course. That will be the work of the second draft. I don’t know how much works and how much doesn’t work, but I already have a list of things I want to change and fix. What I do have is the experience of writing the book, and overall I had a lot of fun with this one. I reveled in the chance to be writing fantasy again, after quite some time away. I was surprised by exactly how much this pleased me.

What else can I tell you about the book? Well, it doesn’t have a title yet. It technically has a couple of working titles, but they are both really awful so I am not sharing them. When I talk about it, I say that it is a YA contemporary fantasy that is a cross between Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. For those Buffy fans out there, I was also really inspired by the Season Five episode “Forever.”

But when I think of it in my own head, I think of it as my London book. And this book has been a long time coming. London has been my favorite city since I was twenty-one, and I’ve been wanting to write a book set in London since before I started writing books. This is that book, or at least the first of those books. It is a love letter to London, albeit a somewhat strange, magical, and dangerous mirror version of London in the Underworld. And getting to write it has made my inner writer sing.

Me in London last summer, with my favorite statue, which inspired one of the characters in my book.

Me in London last summer, with my favorite statue, which inspired one of the characters in my book.

And now these few days are for celebrating and resting and catching up with the rest of life that isn’t writing this novel. Thank you so much to all of you who have been and will be celebrating with me. Writing novels can be a lonely business, so my friends and readers and colleagues really make a huge difference. And celebrating all the milestones makes the entire writing process both more enjoyable and more sustainable.

And now? It’s time for some more celebrating!

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This post originally appeared on the SFWA blog, but I know not all of you saw it, so I’m running it here today. As you might expect, given my recent experimentation with this blog, I had several thoughts on the subject. Enjoy!

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When giving advice on writing blog posts, James Altucher says, “Bleed in the first line.” He talks about blog writing and bleeding a fair amount, actually, so I always think about bleeding when I write blog posts now. But what does that mean, bleeding on the page, and what is the correct way to do it?

As I’ve been experimenting some with my own blog, I’ve also been thinking a lot about sharing and privacy and where to draw the line. It’s something I’ve had to think about often over the years since I do this kind of personal memoir-esque kind of writing, and with opinions flying as to whether it’s a good idea for writers to share their political opinions, it is in the forefront of my mind right now. What is private and what isn’t? What is a great telling detail and what is too much? Where does that line go?

I found some wise advice where I wasn’t expecting it, in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. (This book is also a great resource both for learning about Dr. Brown’s data and how it pertains to the way humans tick and for managing common emotional difficulties that come up in the writing life.) She gives three guidelines for sharing with the public that I’d like to put into my own words and talk about.

  1. Only share experiences and stories after you’ve worked through them yourself.

I can’t overemphasize this one enough, mostly because it can be so tempting to break. But I do my best to write about things AFTER I’ve already processed them and dealt with the emotions coming from them and learned from them. This can be tricky, as experiences take different amounts of time to process (and of course, sometimes you think you’ve done so only to find out there’s more to do).

For example, I waited over six months to write this post about losing my chosen family. I couldn’t write about it earlier; I couldn’t have done so from a grounded place, and therefore I couldn’t have written a truly effective essay. That is why when people express concern at any of my blog posts, I always feel slightly surprised. By the time I’m writing about something, there is rarely any reason to worry. The stories I tell are a means to an end. Which leads us to the next guideline….

  1. Have a reason to share that serves your readers.

The point of blog writing is not to bleed indiscriminately on the page or to merely shock by flooding your audience with personal details. Every story has a reason to be told. Every shared experience should lead to some kind of revelation.

In some ways, writing blog posts reminds me of teaching. In the process of writing, I reaffirm lessons I’ve already learned and sometimes gain a stronger understanding of my subject matter. But as with teaching, I can’t write about something when I haven’t at least grasped the basics.

And I’m always writing with an end goal in mind: What ideas am I trying to communicate? What do I want my audience to take away from this post?

  1. Avoid sharing in order to get your own needs met (i.e. to receive validation, praise, support, etc.).

We want to publish every blog post from a position of strength, which means publishing it to serve our audience, NOT to get some emotional need met for ourselves. Blog posts aren’t therapy. And as writers, the more we can let go of any expectations we might have as to the response a post will receive, the freer we are to craft a powerful piece.

Sometimes, of course, a post will generate an outpouring of support, and that’s perfectly all right. What we want to avoid is needing or expecting it to do so. The more we depend on the response, the more we’ll become tempted to pander to our audience to receive that response.

These three guidelines boil down to this simple principle: So often when we’re sharing in public as writers, it is not about us. This may seem counterintuitive since we are sharing personal stories and opinions, not to mention letting people know about our work. But blog posts at their best are about not just us as the writers, but the relationship between us and our readers. And sharing personal stories can be a powerful tool for conveying emotions and ideas to our readers, as well as creating a sense of connection.

We don’t always want to hold back from bleeding on the page, but it should be a mindful act. We want to bleed for the right reasons.

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Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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This weekend I went to a party that was basically a room full of Buddhists…and me.

Does that sound like the set-up for a joke?

Anyway, I really enjoyed hanging out with these people because they were all kind and authentic and heartfelt, and also there was a lot less small talk than usual at a party where I don’t know anyone, and as we’ve already kind of touched upon, small talk tends to bore the crap out of me, especially in large doses. (And as an aside, I haven’t gotten to ask anyone yet about the coolest thing they’ve ever done, but I am SO looking forward to it.)

Photo Credit: ~C4Chaos via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ~C4Chaos via Compfight cc

I also had to speak in front of the group, in impromptu fashion, and I mentioned in passing that I had found my own way to work towards wholeheartedness. Afterwards, more than one person was very interested in hearing about my “practice,” and I found myself struggling to put it into words. I didn’t have a convenient sticker like “Buddhism” to slap onto myself and how I move through life.

And yet, it didn’t seem like an odd question, because I do have a practice. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time probably know a lot about it because I tend to write a lot about it, but it doesn’t have a specific label. It is a combination of many different parts, some of which would be very familiar to a Buddhist: mindfulness, introspection, and compassion, as well as a focus on priorities and strategies and investigations into how the world works and how I work.

But what I found myself saying more than once was this: I am an artist. That is my practice.

I am an artist. That is my community.

Music has always been my foundation and solace. It reminds me how joy feels. And writing, well, writing changes me. There was that moment when I realized I couldn’t separate myself from my writing. I was in my writing, whether it was in these essays or in my fiction, and therefore I wanted to strive to be the person I wished to see in my work.

And art is a practice. It’s all about practice, whether you’re repeating vocal exercises or the difficult end passage of that aria, or whether you’re memorizing music, or whether you’re writing two essays a week and a thousand words a day. Art is trying new things and challenging yourself, pushing yourself to your limits and then coming back tomorrow and finding your new limit and pushing yourself again. Art is in the way you see the world, and it becomes entangled in the way you interact with the world.

For me, there came the point where I saw my entire life as one long continuous work of art. It’s a fun way to live.

In thinking about all this, I also realized how important community is to any practice. Because yes, writing changed and continues to change me, but I don’t know that I would have had the courage to let it without the writing community by my side, helping me and educating me and supporting me and cheering me on. It is hard enough to transform without doing it in isolation. It is easier to challenge yourself when you are surrounded by people who understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Aside from a renewed sense of gratitude for my own community, I left the Buddhist party with the following awareness: that there are so many ways to travel in the same direction and so many ways to reach the same, or a similar, destination. There are so many ways to have and cultivate a practice. There are so many ways to embrace change. There are so many ways to strive and grow and learn.

There is no one right way.

The Buddhists and I, we’re really not all that different. In that room, we each of us had a practice, parts of which were different and parts of which were the same.

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Person I just started dating: “You said you were easy to find with a Google search, so I took a look, and I’ve been reading your blog.”

Me: “That’s…great.” Oops.

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A thought I’ve had in the middle of a flirtatious conversation: “Oh, you’ve totally been reading my blog to try to figure out if maybe you want to date me/to find out if I’m available. That doesn’t make me even vaguely uncomfortable.”

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On an online dating website: “I’ve been following your blog for quite some time, and it would be great to have a conversation with you.”

Me: “Am I professional Amy or dating Amy right now? I am SO CONFUSED.”

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“This totally inappropriate thing I did was inspired by you and one of your blog posts.”

Me: “Um….” ???

*

I love my blog, but I do not love having my blog and dating. I try to pretend it’s not weird because sometimes the best strategy is to bluff your way through something, but in reality, IT CAN BE PRETTY WEIRD.

It’s a question of a balance of information.

Whenever I write a blog post, I ask myself if I’m okay if the whole entire world reads what I’ve written. That is my base assumption, not because I think that will ever happen in a million years (it won’t), but because I want to do my best to remember how very public this blog is (even though it doesn’t always feel super public). So I’m sanity checking whether what I’ve written is something I’d be willing to say in public, even knowing whichever person I’d least like to might, in fact, read it.

So it’s not that there’s anything of which I’m particularly ashamed on the blog. I’m sure I’ve said some stupid things sometime in the past, because in four and a half years, that’s pretty much a certainty. I’ve probably also said things that I no longer agree with, because hey, in four and a half years I’ve learned new things and changed my mind and become aware of more nuance in certain issues. But overall, I don’t find the blog embarrassing.

What I don’t like about having the blog and dating is that at the beginning of getting to know someone, I think it throws off the balance. An enterprising person can read four and a half years of more and less well-thought-out essays from me. Surely most people won’t have the time for such an undertaking, but even so. Even if they don’t read all or even most of my essays, there are still an awful lot of them.

And meanwhile, what do I know about them? A few emails worth of carefully curated information? A single conversation’s worth of anecdotes? The flow of information is the opposite of balanced in this situation.

And then there’s the problem of assumed intimacy. People read this blog, and over time, perhaps they feel like they’ve gotten to know Blog Amy. And that’s as it should be. I’m happy when you get to know Blog Amy. But the people I’m dating? I don’t want them to get to know Blog Amy. I want them to get to know Personal Amy. Preferably by talking to me and spending time with me. I want to share my stories and opinions myself instead of past Blog Amy getting to have all the fun.

It’s not even that I don’t want the people I’m dating to read my new blog posts as I’m publishing them. It’s more that I then want to talk to them about those posts. I want to have a conversation about those subjects, because if they weren’t interesting to me I wouldn’t be writing about them. I want to talk about what was hard about writing them, or how people responded differently than I thought they’d respond, or how no one is interested in reading about such-and-such a subject.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to think of my backlist of four and a half years at all.

Blog Amy or Personal Amy?

Blog Amy or Personal Amy? Sometimes it can be hard to tell.

I’ve actually thought about whether to continue the blog, given the potential dating weirdness, and you can see the answer to my deliberations in my continued blogging, and even my new willingness to blog about dating. My discomfort, when it comes, is the price of maintaining a public persona, however obscure, on the internet. And I’m willing to pay the price.

I’m willing to stand behind this blog, and say, yes, this is part of who I am. I am a writer. And dating a writer can probably also be weird. Take it or leave it. The blog leaves no room for anything less. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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Person I’m dating: “So I saw your most recent blog post. On dating.

Me: “Oh….”

Person I’m dating: “I didn’t read it.”

Me: “There’s nothing about you in it.” Please don’t freak out. Please don’t freak out.

Person I’m dating: Doesn’t freak out. Starts a conversation based on the headline of the blog post instead.

Me: Sometimes mature communication wins.

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