The care and feeding of your writing self

Look what I’ve got in my hot little hands!  It literally came out today and I was of course first in line to get it at the library.  In fact, I’m still at the library–I couldn’t wait to share.

For a writer, reading is an essential part of maintaining and developing the craft.  For me personally, it’s an essential part of staying sane.

I’ve been dying for this book to come out basically ever since A Gathering of Shadows ended on a complete cliff hanger.  Finally, I get to find out what happens next!

On hard work and outcomes

I’m in my bathrobe in my messy bedroom taking a moment on this hectic holiday to do a bit of reading.  I’m currently reading Scratch, an anthology of essays by and interviews with writers about money.  I’m pleased to say that I’m mostly enjoying it and it’s not nearly as depressing as I feared it would be.

But I wanted to highlight one bit of life advice from the interview with Yiyun Li:

Hard work does not always pay off, which seems inevitable in life, so one has to avoid measuring outcome against effort. 

This is so important to keep in mind.  Writing a novel, or any kind of book, requires a tremendous amount of work.  I’ve already invested hundreds of hours–possibly thousands, I’d rather not calculate it–and I’ve got at least hundreds more to do.  The odds are that if I ever make any money at all off of it, it will come out to below minimum wage.

This is why the work itself must be its own reward.  There’s the pleasure of discovering the story, and of getting to know the characters.  But there’s also what I’ve learned in the process.  I’ve discovered new empathy for people entirely unlike me, and discovered more about what makes a successful story (I suspect that that’s a lesson writers never stop learning).

My feeling is that this is probably true of any endeavor.  Whether you’re starting a business or trying to become a professional artist or discover a vaccine or create an invention.  There’s a high likelihood of failure, so you’d better be sure that it’s something that you enjoy doing.

If you want a guarantee that you’ll be rich, go into finance.  Otherwise, the work itself will have to suffice.

Oh, right, exercise should be fun!

Exercise is really fraught.  We spend a lot of time performing “exercise”, movement that usually feels like a chore for the purpose of weight loss/maintenance .  It’s true that I know I will feel better after running on a treadmill, but while I’m doing it, it just feels like work.  Yoga is meditative, but it’s only intermittently fun.  Weight lifting can lead to an ego boost as you find yourself getting stronger and able to do more, but is picking stuff up and putting it down anybody’s idea of a good time?  In my brain, work outs get lumped into the same category as doing dishes and taking out the garbage and going to the post office.  The net result of all this “work” is that it makes being sedentary more attractive.  After all, watching TV is, usually, at least entertaining.

I wasn’t thinking about exercise, though, when I went with my brother and sister-in-law and my two kids and their two kids to a big publicly owned natural space just one town over.  We’ve gotten a couple feet of snow in the last two weeks, and the sunny forecast made it seem like a great day to go sledding.  And what’s more fun for a little kid than sledding?

I loved sledding as a kid.  I was fortunate enough to grow up with a decent sledding hill in my yard and a bunch of siblings to play with, and I have lots of fond memories of the hours and hours we spent outside going on ride after ride down the hill.  Sledding is like a roller coaster, one you can ride over and over without waiting in line and one that could toss you off into the snow on any given run.  Plus your parents never tell you it’s too expensive to do.

But as an adult, sledding has been thoroughly off my radar.  It hadn’t occurred to me until I was standing at the top of the hill holding a sled, watching my nearly five year old daughter hurtling down, that I thought, Hey, I should go down, too.

So I did.

And then again.

And again.

Even as a thirty-five year old woman, sledding is a rush.  It’s thrilling and kind of scary.  You’re whooshing along with little to no control for where you end up.  You get tossed off and land in a heap, completely undignified.  You get snow in your boots, your jacket, your mouth.  Your hood or hat fly off.  Your butt gets soaked.  But as you sail down the hill, bumping over the snow, it’s impossible not to laugh and shriek.

And then you walk up the hill, through deep snow, carrying your sled.  It’s hard work, but the anticipation of another whoosh down the hill is enough to make you want to run.  And walking back up the hill after sledding down is a communal event. You laugh with the others making the hike up, talking about how this one fell face first in the snow and that one went so far and the other one has never gone that fast in his life.  Before you know it, huffing a bit, you’re at the top, ready to go again.

And the view helps.

After almost an hour and a half of sledding, I was suddenly starving.  It was lunch time but I’m not usually that hungry by noon.  And then it occurred to me that between my own trips down the hill and the times I went down to help one of my kids or my niece or nephew I’d probably climbed that big hill a dozen times or more, all through two feet of snow.  No wonder I was starving.  That’s a fair amount of exercise.

But none of it felt like exercise.  It never felt like the kind of thing I was doing to lose weight or gain muscle.  It was just a fun thing I did to pass the time that had the added bonus of getting me moving.

There’s a tendency to mock younger adults (the dreaded Millennials) who like to participate in child-like exercise: Frisbee golf, dodge ball leagues, etc.  It’s often exhibit C or D in the Case for How Young People These Days Are Suffering from Arrested Development.  But activities things are fun in a way that running on a treadmill never could be.  Why shouldn’t we seek out exercise that doesn’t feel like a chore?  Why is the mark of adulthood to eschew these fun activities in favor of the things that feel like work?

The warmer weather we’re going to have over the next few days will probably melt most of the snow, making sledding impossible, at least until we have another couple of blizzards.  But the lesson I’m taking away from that day on the hill is the importance of seeking out movement that is fun for it’s own sake.  That, it seems, is the real secret to long lasting health and fitness–finding a way to enjoy the process, not just tolerate it.


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Well, that’s disappointing

We’re all a little bit in love with Mr. Darcy, right?  Of course we are.  But when we think of Mr. Darcy, we think of this:

colinfirthdarcy

Yeah?

Or this:

pd_mr_darcy_pride_prejudice_2005_nt_130125_wblog

Right?

Wrong, according to a new study that says the man Jane Austen was likely imagining was probably pale and pointy chinned with a small mouth and long, powdered hair.

Something like this:

mr-darcy

That do it for you?

Yeah, no, me neither.

It gets worse:

The British upper classes preserve their status by interbreeding (Lady Catherine de Bourgh is insistent on the point). It led, in leading families, to pronounced features—the Hanoverian jaw, for instance (still evident in our monarch today). And, quite likely, an equine long nose. Darcy, it’s fair to say, may have one betokening ‘breeding’. The Duke of Wellington, with a nose long enough to hang a lamp on, was something of a pin up among the ladies. So too were Charles Grey the lover of the sexiest woman in London, Granville Leveson Gower a notorious heart-breaker, and the above mentioned John Parker, first Earl Morley. All of them had pale skin, long oval faces, long noses, small mouths and pointy chins. The square jawed hero is virtually unknown at this period.

We all know that the British upper crust was all over the idea of marrying cousins to cousins and then marrying their children off to other cousins, but for some reason we don’t think of that working out to people who weren’t particularly attractive, at least not by modern standards.  I mean, does this get your motor running?

habsburg

I’m sure he was a sweetheart.

Anyway, it’s not all bad news, at least not for folks who like their men with powerful thighs:

Naturally Darcy would be able to dance, ride, and fence. These were all activities which developed the thigh and calf muscles. A fine leg was an index of virility. Women looked out for a well-defined calf muscle, and strong thighs on horseback. Spindle shanks were a sign of ebbing manhood, likely impotence. French men were invariably caricatured as thin of leg & deficient of courage.

The Regency fashion of tight breeches and cut away coats guaranteed a man’s thighs and calves were exposed to the female gaze. (Cavalry officers were rumoured to shrink their breeches to their bodies in the bath, the better to reveal their quads). Buckskin clung to a man’s musculature like a second skin, leaving nothing to the imagination.

It was all about the legs. The six pack was unknown and square shouldered bulk was the mark of the navvy not the gentlemen. Chests were modest and shoulders sloping. Arm holes cut high and to the back rather pinioning the man within. The general effect was one of languid, graceful length not breadth. More ballet dancer than beef-cake.

(Bad luck for those who prefer a broad shoulder)

Ultimately, this is just a fun little thought exercise for those who love Jane Austen, something to make us all giggle and groan.  But it also highlights a funny thing about beauty standards: they seem mostly tied to whatever is most difficult to achieve.

When Austen was writing, life was hard and the majority of men and women had to work hard and in poor conditions, rendering them tanned, scarred, wiry, and with little body fat.  Being sallow with poor muscle tone was a sign of wealth and status.  Today, it’s those who are wealthy who can afford the diet and gym memberships to look the way we’re told is “best”.  Those on the bottom rungs of society, who eat more convenience foods and can’t go to the gym–well, they might’ve been hotties in another era.

Still, the next time I read Pride and Prejudice (and I will because it’s amazing), I’m still going to be imagining Darcy as less the little pixie in the illustration up there and more as, well, this:

tumblr_ll6su8z7e11qaky2jo1_500

 

Well, sometimes getting the cart ready in advance isn’t the worst idea

In case your not familiar with the two books sitting atop my manuscript above, Scratch is a book of essays by and interviews with writers of varying degrees of success and fame about money.  It’s… well, it’s frequently a little depressing.  That fantasy about making a nice, middle class living as a fiction writer is likely to remain just a fantasy.

But to make it a little less a fantasy, there’s Your First 1000 Copies.  If you’re a writer and you’re not familiar with Tim Grahl’s, go ahead and surf over to his site to sign up for his newsletter.  It’s really useful and makes the idea of marketing your book feel way less scary.

It might seem like getting ahead of myself to be thinking about what it’ll take to make money on this novel when, well, the thing isn’t done yet.  I won’t argue with you that it’s optimistic.  But sometimes it’s wise to lay the groundwork ahead of time.  Having an idea of how to sell this thing before I need to start selling it seems like a wise step.  

Dress done…It just doesn’t happen to be for me

You know that thing when you’re a parent where you get really excited about going out shopping by yourself and then you get home and realize that you only bought things for the kids?

Yeah, I pretty much just did the sewing version of that.

But, hey, the dress for my daughter is cute and it came out reasonably well.  It just needs the button put on the back.  I’m feeling reasonably proud of it.  Now to attempt to make something for myself.

(I promise I am doing some writing, it’s just that the progress is neither as dramatic nor as photogenic.)

Writing your resistance

resistThis weekend was rough for those of us who believe in the good of immigration.  It wasn’t even that the idea of a temporary ban on immigration was so awful–it was that a hastily created and vaguely worded executive order meant that lots of people who had been granted the legal right to visit or reside in the United States saw that right unceremoniously yanked away, upending their lives and the lives of their families, many of whom are American citizens.

I spent the weekend sharing the stories of all these people because it seemed obvious that the best way to win hearts and minds is to tell stories.  Like that of a twelve year old Yemeni girl stuck with her U.S. citizen father in Ethiopia.  Like the Iranian woman who resides legally in South Carolina who finds herself unable to return to her home and her dog.  Like the Iraqi man who is the father of a two year old U.S. citizen and the husband of a pregnant U.S. citizen and now cannot get back to them.  The baby who was kept away from her mother.  The five year old detained and handcuffed.  The baby who needs open heart surgery who may not get it now.  Even if you believe in the underlying goal of this order, I defy you to suggest that any of the above stories reflect well on us as Americans.

Since the furor and initial crisis of the weekend has died down (though many of these people are still stuck in their precarious positions will have had their lives irreparably altered), I’ve been thinking about the power of stories.  As humans, stories have unique power over us.  I cry every single time I read The Velveteen Rabbit.  I will always be a little bit in love with Captain Wentworth from Persuasion.  I remain terrified by the mere thought of the old man in the rocking chair in Heart-Shaped Box.  Stories move us and they stay with us in a way that simple facts never will.

Which, in the age of authoritarianism and rising white nationalism (how is this possible in 2017?), makes those who write powerful.  It’s easy to feel like you’re screaming into a void when the world seems to have careened off course and people you know and love demonize the poor and the needy.  But if you write, you have an inordinate amount of power to change hearts and minds, to win others to your side with empathy.  It’s incumbent upon us all to use that power to the fullest extent.

So if you’re feeling dismayed and on the verge of despair, take heart.  You have the power to write your resistance.  And you must.  We all must.  This fight will be won as much on the page and screen as in the streets.  You have a superpower.  Now go use it for good.

On relaxation and writing

In most ways, life is easier than it has ever been in history (assuming that you live in the developed world, of course).  Central heating is universal.  Life expectancy stretches well into the 70s.  Most of us are unlikely to ever contract the measles, chicken pox, or polio.  Cancer is no longer a guaranteed death sentence–for many it is at worst a chronic condition.  We have computers and smart phones and so we need memorize anything.  We have ample time for watching television or movies or playing video games, all of which are better than they have ever been.

But as life has gotten so much easier and healthier, we’ve suddenly become “busy”.  I put that in scare quotes not because I don’t believe people are actually busy.  I do.  I put it in quotes because by that I mean more than just we have a lot of things to do.  I mean that busy-ness has become a virtue and a part of many of our identities.  And it’s a scourge.

Tonight, as I was putting the kids to bed, I was feeling tired thinking about all the things I really needed to do.  I needed to clean up the house.  I really needed to write.  I should probably work out.  There’s laundry that needs folding.  And I only have two hours between when the last kid goes to bed and when I need to go to bed, so I was agonizing over what I should do.  But all this thinking about my tasks and what I should do was sapping my desire to do the one thing that I felt like I really, really, REALLY needed to do and that was write.  So, I decided to do something radical–I decided to skip everything (including the writing) and go take a bath.

I feel guilty about doing something like taking a bath.  Rest and relaxation are supposed to be earned after you’ve completed all your tasks and I am so busy that I never get them all completed, which means that I don’t deserve to relax, which means that by taking one I’m being lazy and self-indulgent.  That’s my thought process every goddamn time.

But, anyway, tonight, I settled into the bath with a glass of water and a book and I had a nice, long rest.  For a long time, I just stared at the ceiling.  And as the busy-ness floated away, I started feeling like I wanted to write.  My mind drifted over to plot points, to character development problems, to places I could take my writing, revisions I needed to make.  In resting my body and resting my mind, I was able to refocus, and that led to inspiration.

Our busy-ness is hurting us.  Writers aren’t the only ones who benefit from flexing creative muscles–lawyers, doctors, architects, nurses, truck drivers, nursing home attendants, waitresses, retail workers: everybody’s life and work can be bettered with a little bit of creativity.  And feeling creative and letting your mind run can only happen when you are rested and resting.  We’re all so, so busy, attending to this task or that task, and none of it feels optional.  But I would guess that if we all took a step back and really weighed the pros and cons, we’d discover that there are pockets of time, tasks that could be left undone while we rest our bodies and minds.  We’d all probably be better off for it.

Well, that was quick

I didn’t quite expect to meet one of my year goals so quickly but, well, the bag is done.  I stayed up way too late last night finishing it and here it is.

You may notice a slight hesitation in my writing.  Truth be told, I’m not over the moon in love with it.  It’s a little too big and I really should have come up with some kind of fastener to keep the flap closed.  Also, I really ought to have top stitched it with some kind of contrasting thread just to break up the solid black.

However, I think I did meet the criteria of the goal.  I really love the Vader print on the inside and it’s definitely usable (as evidenced by the fact that it’s already full of stuff as you can see).  I will use it.  I just think I also could have done better.

So I guess we can say that goal number one for 2017 is completed.  I’d still like to make a smaller, slightly better constructed bag.  And a piece of apparel.  Probably because it didn’t turn out quite as great as I wanted, I’m not quite as excited about crossing this one off my list, but I think I’ll give it to myself anyway.

And I don’t think the other two goals will be quite as easily accomplished.