Monday, May 13, 2019

What's the appeal of so much pain?

There will not be any specific spoilers to Game of Thrones material here, though I will talk about the show in general ways.

I don't actively watch GoT. My husband follows the show, so I tend to hang out in the living room and either knit or work on my laptop during it. There is a lot to appreciate about the series, not the least of which is its production values. But I don't enjoy it.

There's a critical difference between stories that show characters battling darkness (internal or external) and finding their triumph versus stories that glorify pain.

I don't enjoy the latter. Not to read. Not to watch. Not to write.

When I was in my teens/20's, I read a lot of dark stuff and loved it. (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant comes to mind.) Now, it just magnifies the dark I've experienced. Over the past several decades, I've lived through the slow decline of my mother's mind and her eventual death from complications of dementia. Helped my father through his end of life journey when 7 years of dialysis were too much for him to bear. Mourned so many loved ones. Escaped a burning house with my family and the clothes on our backs. Experienced great disappointments and great pain. Nearly lost a dear one to suicide.

The longer I've lived, the more pain I've experienced and witnessed in my life. And the less I want to find that kind of pain in what I read and watch for entertainment. 

It's why I can watch a zillion versions of Twelfth Night or Two Gentlemen of Verona, but I don't think I can ever sit through another King Lear.

I recently saw The Ferryman on Broadway with some friends. It was a masterful performance that left me reeling. It was like King Lear meets Ethan Fromme and as incredible as the play, the staging, the acting were, the ending was a gut punch. Not a sucker punch, thankfully, because the show laid enough foreshadowing that you knew it wasn't going to end well.

I don't think I would have chosen to go to this show on my own. It was recommended to me as a writer by a writer friend I trust. And yes, on a craft level, there was a lot to learn and absorb from The Ferryman.

While I don't regret seeing it, I don't need to ever see it again. And thank the gods of writing that there was humor and lightness in the play, because otherwise, it would have been unwatchable.

It's not that I want false cheer in my entertainment. I enjoy cotton candy or peeps now and again, but that does not a healthy diet make.

I don't understand the appeal of so much pain. It's why I never read past GRRM's first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Not because it was poorly written - it wasn't. I've often said you could run a masterclass on writing point of view using that first story.

It was because the pain depicted became (for me) the point of the story, rather than a part of the story.

I will never write that kind of unremitting darkness anymore. I have several trunked novels that will never see the light of day because they are full of pain for no other reason than I had internalized a lot of stuff from my early reading.

My stories have pain and sadness in them; that's part of life and I don't want to shy away from expressing a full range of human emotions in my work. But, even Pandora found hope after freeing all the misery and evil trapped in the box. 

If you enjoy SF&F stories with some hope and endings that leave the characters transformed, but not tortured, I have a bunch you might like. You can check them out on my website. 

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

No courage without vulnerability

I watched The Call to Courage (the Brene Brown Netflix special) last night and it hit me hard. Her overriding message: There is no courage without vulnerability. That failure is part of being brave. That we cannot be our full selves if we spend our energy staying armored against our fears.

I know that my best work and my best self emerges from allowing myself to be vulnerable. But it comes with so much fear tangled up with shame. It doesn't feel brave at all; it feels like I'm drowning in a whirlpool of muck.

And so I hold back. Struggling at the edge of a shit-vortex while assuring everyone around me that *everything's fine.*

And I have so many reasons why everything should be fine: Financial security. A loving and supportive marriage. A happy home. Puppies. A creative pursuit. A healthy relationship with my adult children. Good health. True friends.

So many things to be so incredibly grateful for.

And still.
And still.
And still.

I hold back.

I am afraid.

And when I try to talk about it, all I hear is myself being a whiny toddler. It's as if because I have so much support in my life, I have no right to struggle. I'm entitled, so I'm not entitled, if that makes any sense.

Maybe it's just the time of year. Anyone who's known me for long enough knows I go through a depressive spike in early spring. Why? Have no idea. It makes no sense. The light is back, the weather is warmer, the colors are returning. But every year in April and May, my anxiety ramps up.

In the past few years, it's been exacerbated by several difficult anniversaries. 6 years ago tomorrow, I nearly lost a loved one to depression and 4 years ago next month, is my father's yertzeit.

I share these things because it helps me to figure out my emotions when I write about them and because if I'm not honest about my struggles, I won't find my way through to courage.

Trust me, I'd rather hide behind my well-practiced surface persona then be vulnerable. But I'm also emotionally weary of beating myself up for not being that person.

I'm starting to understand the cost of being neuro-atypical in a world that isn't designed for me. Most of the time, I can manage all the spinning plates. I have systems in place to pay all the bills on time, make sure laundry gets done, feed the dogs, feed me and my spouse, set and follow writing deadlines, and more. But just because I can function, doesn't mean I'm not also prone to anxiety and depression, or don't get overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, or don't get panic attacks from the daily news, or am able to 'roll with it' when my routine is upended.

Most people would never see me as neuro-atypical, but the reality is I'm on the autism spectrum. And regardless of how well I can mask and function, the way my brain is made and how it works doesn't go away. I have to account for it every day. How many environments have I had to navigate today? Do I have the internal resources to make a phone call? Can I cope with a potential conflict? It's a calculus I do constantly.

Last Wednesday, I had to go to 3 unfamiliar grocery stores to buy food for Passover. It was exhausting. Not physically, precisely, but the sensory barrage and the anxiety of finding my way in a new physical space was utterly draining.

Sounds silly to be so flummoxed by grocery shopping. I've done so many difficult and challenging things in my life and done them well. Apparently, grocery shopping is not one of them.

But I did it because it needed to be done and I managed the emotional cost of it. Is that a kind of courage? Maybe. It feels more like stubbornness, but maybe that's what it has to be.

I am not looking for sympathy or answers. I'm not looking for anything from outside of myself. Maybe I just needed a place to be honest and vulnerable and even a little bit brave.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What makes a professional writer?

My personal bookshelf: 8 novels published in 6 years

This is one of my periodic musings/rants on the state of publishing. As ever, this is my opinion, based on my experience and YMMV.

Depending on your definition, I'm either a professional author or a hobbyist writer. Personally, I'm not sure it matters. And I'm okay with that.

I came to writing after spending almost 25 years as a physical therapist, working in a variety of settings from hospital-based inpatient care to an outpatient private practice. I earned a good living and spent significant time and money on professional development so I could stay current in my skills.

I had the opportunity to speak at professional conferences and contribute to the research literature as well as write chapters for text books.

There is no doubt that physical therapy was my profession.

During my latter years as a clinician, I started to focus on long form fiction - as a hobby. While I can't deny holding to the fantasy of having one of my manuscripts discovered and published to world-wide acclaim, I understood that this was fantasy. Being an author wasn't my job at that point.

However, I was also the parent of two children, and as their needs changed, I also shifted my working priorities to part time employment which allowed me greater flexibility to care for my sons.

Just because my earnings decreased as I limited my work hours didn't suddenly demote my work to hobby status in the eyes of the world.  Whether I worked 10, 20 or 40 hours a week as a PT, I was still a professional. And that designation remained whether I was the primary 'breadwinner' of my family or not.

Fast forward to 2012 when I published my first novel. By then, I had disbanded my physical therapy practice and was no longer working as a clinician. I remained a licensed professional, even as I didn't earn any income in that profession.

I may have earned $500 in 2012 from that first venture into publishing.

So where did I stand as a writer? Professional? Hobbyist?

Would it matter if I said I spent time and money on professional development? Wrote consistently? Sought feedback on my work? Learned about the changing landscape of publishing? Had an agent? Went on submission?

If your definition of professional is someone who earns a full living from their chosen work, then there were many, many years I wouldn't have been considered a professional physical therapist. Without my spouse's income, there were years I wouldn't have been able to pay the rent, childcare, and basic needs for my family.

Let's fast forward again, this time to 2019.

I have 8 novels in the marketplace.

My average annual income as a novelist is approximately $6,000 - $12,000 a year, depending on if I have a new release or not. That is not by any definition 'a living' - not when you have a family to support.

So, am I a professional author? A hobbyist?

Would it change your mind if you knew I was a full member of SFWA? An invited guest speaker at well regarded genre writing conventions?

If your definition of professional has an income requirement attached, then the percentage of writers who are professionals is vanishingly small.  Yes, there are writers earning good money. They are the outliers. Trust me. I know a LOT of writers. Most of them don't earn the equivalent of minimum wage from their creative work. And some make far, far more than that.

Still others sell a ton of books and plow nearly all their earnings into promotion and advertisement, writing fast and furious in search of audience share. That is a route I have seen lead to financial success, but it requires a kind of relentless focus on the numbers (both books written and sold) that doesn't work for me and would lead me smack into the brick wall of burnout.

And honestly? I don't see all that much of a difference between my traditionally published writer friends and those who go the indie route. Some writers will do extremely well. Some rare writers will be in the right place at the right time and grab that brass ring.

Yes, hard work and discipline is certainly a factor in artistic success - and it's the only part of the process the writer has any control over - but even the most successful writers will tell you how much luck and timing had to do with it.

It was far easier for me to make a living as a physical therapist then it is as a writer. I suspect most artists of any stripe will say their 'day jobs' make more financial sense than their art work.

And none of this means that artists cannot also be professionals even as they pursue their art as part of their life. As a hobby, if you will.

I think the biggest problem with the professional/hobbyist divide is that society has conflated pursuing a hobby with dabbling and all the negative connotations it carries.

I would love to reclaim and redefine the word hobby in a way that doesn't place it on the opposite side of some imaginary continuum where "professional" is the other end.

Perhaps we would all be better off with less of an artificial separation between vocation and avocation.

If you're looking for me, I'll be searching for that elusive balance.


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Wednesday, March 06, 2019

You Must Read This: Madcap Superhero Edition

I don't write official reviews. That's a choice I made after I published my first novel as it feels like a kind of conflict of interest, especially when reading books in the spec fic world where I hang my own writing hat. (Other authors feel differently, and I respect that.)

What I will do is evangelize about books I've read and loved. Today I want to talk about The Brothers Jetstream and its author, Zig Zag Claybourne.

I met Clarence Young (Claybourne's cover identity) at Boskone 2019. What caught my eye was this incredible purple greatcoat he was wearing.

Readers, I coveted it. Hard.

But I didn't have the over 6' tall frame or the gravitas to have pulled it off. So I struck up a conversation with the man instead and ended up buying his book, The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan.

Why, you ask?

The purple coat may have reeled me in, but when Young described his novel as his homage to one of my hands-down favorite movies ever -- Buckaroo Banzai -- it was a no brainer.

This delightful, chaotic, romp of a novel engaged me from start to finish.  I normally race through books, but I forced myself to savor this one slowly and was rewarded by my patience because I got to spend more time with Milo and Ramses Jetstream and their brilliant rag tag crew.

Telling you what this book is about is almost besides the point. Yes, there are the eponymous superhero brothers. There are also sentient whales, vampires, Alanteans, mysterious cabals, an arch enemy (The False Prophet Buford), the leviathan who was there at the start of the universe, mystics, psychics, angels, clones, Djinn  and so much more.

The ten-thousand foot view of the plot is simple: the world is in peril. The brothers and their crew need to save it "one last damned time." The execution of this wondrous novel is anything but simple. Don't expect a paint-by-numbers plot: the cast of characters is large (and all delightfully named!), the pace is fast and furious. Young, AKA Claybourne, drops us into his fertile imagination and leaves us there to sink or swim. But if you're up for an adventure, dive in. You won't be disappointed.

I could absolutely see Buckaroo Banzai wanting to hang out with the Brothers Jetstream. I know I do.

Subscribe to BlueMusings and receive my short story collection, STRANGER WORLDS THAN THESE, as my gift.