Rec me, Amadeus! or, the Author on sabbath

Well, I’m back.

Once a year the religious community I belong to gets together for an annual meeting, in which business is accomplished, Eucharists are celebrated, songs are sung, and wine corks are popped. This year we were at the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet retreat center in St. Louis. The century-plus-old monastery is right on the river, and of course at the moment it’s even more right on the river than usual: all the rivers in the broad vicinity are vast expanses of opaque and purling water, draining as best it can toward the distant Gulf of Mexico. I had booked a train trip out there, but due to diverted freight traffic Amtrak was forced to bus us to and from our destinations: cue me making a face. I’ve actually seriously considered abandoning my usual stance of recreational complaining and writing a Strongly Worded Letter lamenting our collective priorities when it comes to infrastructure. Of course, I can do both.

Disappointing non-train trips aside, it was great to reconnect with my companions, to breathe back life into the round of daily prayers, to sit and talk late into the evening with popcorn and snacks and wine, and to remember what is so valuable about holding our lives in common. Our collective charism is an undergirding to what we do in the places where we are, and we all wish for more than one chance a year to refresh that knowledge.

Now I’m back at my desk and back to work, and making my plans for the next months. Launching Ryswyck was six months of really hard work, and slowly but surely it is paying off; but I’m definitely ready to recharge.

So I think I’m going to put aside the ‘verse for a month — not do any writing, or any stewing about not writing — and read. When writers who are just starting out ask me for advice about how to develop their writing, I agree with all the authors who say: read. Read a lot or read a little, read good books or read bad ones, read people you know and people you don’t know (and that goes for both authors and POV characters), read in familiar genres and in genres you’ve never touched.

I believe in this advice wholeheartedly: more than half of what I know about writing comes from studying my favorite books — or any books — and working out how the authors did it. (The other half comes from failing again and failing better, because you have to do that too.) But. While I am in the actual act and process of writing, I just can’t spare much headspace for consuming new books. While I am writing, most of my reading consists of making dinner and then opening a Vorkosigan omnibus to a random page, or something similar.

So when I’ve finished a project, or a stage in a project, I’ve started taking reading sabbaticals, seeking out books I haven’t read a billion times and opening new thought-territory. Plus, it pays to keep up with one’s field.

While I was on the road for work, I read the first book and half the second of the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein, and have been enjoying that very much. So I’ll get back to those. And then there are always the monthly reads for my book club, which always comprehend a great variety.

But I want recs. What are you reading right now? I’d like to read something new, or something old brought back from the margins. Something a middle-aging white Midwesterner might not run across on her own; something that has a damn good story to it. Or: something you want to read but haven’t got to yet.

That sort of thing. Or as my sister likes to say: Okay, recs, go.

Good life choices: a fencing manual rec

A week or so ago I joined Instagram — largely because I feared I might be boring my Facebook readers with new views of my cat asleep, and other such random photos as Instagram appears to be specially made for. Instagram is great, I discovered: vastly more simple to curate, with a feed presented in order by date posted (that thing which every user of a social media service wants and every service developer hates to give them), and easier to discover friends on.

It’s thanks to Instagram that I discovered that a longtime fandom friend has just finished a project illustrating a fencing instruction manual. So naturally I bought it; it arrived today, and it is clearly the Best Purchase Ever.

For one thing, fencing — whether HEMA or sport — is a small world. The author dedicated an acknowledgment to a fencing instructor whom I’ve actually met — and I don’t get around much in fencing circles. For another, the manual is both serious in approach and light in tone, which is no mean feat when writing instructions for practice and pedagogy. My friend’s illustrations are simple but clear and excellent.

I’ve read a few fencing manuals for knowledge and entertainment, and this one really raises the bar for both; it does not over-assume what the reader knows, yet the explanations are not heavy. Seriously, snag this puppy right away, even if you’re not a fencer yourself. (I mean, that can always change. Right?)

Congratulations, Kat and Russ!

And it helped, too

So yesterday was the kind of day where, although things didn’t exactly go badly, there was just a general atmosphere of stress, exacerbated by all the little things crowding the margins of my mind that I haven’t gotten done. I have taxes to do, and a sermon to write, and certain work deadlines have been glaring at me from beneath their heaps in Outlook for weeks.

(Speaking of exacerbate, a friend of mine has a running joke where when someone uses a 25-cent word, she says, “And [simpler word], too.” Once in our hearing, V remarked that something-or-other would exacerbate a certain situation, and C said: “It might even make it worse.”)

So at close of business yesterday evening, I shut down the lid of my laptop. “Fuck it,” I said, “I’m going to Bo Lings.” I put on my hat, grabbed my file of “Household Lights,” and went.

Bo Lings is one half of my mental spa ritual. The other half is Barnes & Noble. The order in which I visit them depends on how hungry I am, and whether I plan to purchase reading material to go with my dumplings and egg drop soup. In this case, preliminary editing was the order of the day, so after dinner I walked the two blocks to B&N and mouched about, browsing.

To my delight, I found that B&N had stocked Erin Bow’s new book. Which is, deplorably, not always the case at my local B&N.

Lo these many years ago, I was a failed beta reader for one of Erin’s early projects. Can we talk briefly about beta reading failure? Writers (at least all the writers I know including myself) continually trawl the mental rolodex of their friends for possible readers for their manuscripts: people with certain areas of expertise, or with discriminating taste, or with an editor’s eye for detail, or all of the above. But sometimes it happens that someone agrees to read a manuscript and then…just doesn’t. Or just can’t. And then there’s a shame spiral and they can’t even look at the file, and turn aside from the topic as soon as may be and may take to avoiding the writer on the street.

I’ve been on both ends of such a weltering disaster, and producing Ryswyck has taught me a lot about this aspect of project management. Well, actually, one of my betas taught me a lot about it: she suggested I give a timeline along with available dates for discussion so that she would be able to work it concretely into her schedule. “Ooh, concept,” said ADHD me. By providing a proposed deadline and other parameters, I as the writer can practice expectations management, and the beta reader can find it easier to cancel if necessary without having to say I don’t want to read your book ever ever ever.

Anyway, Erin has obviously found better betas, because she has now produced a string of brilliant books. I read through Chapter Six last night, and look forward to getting back to it. (You know, somewhere among all the abovementioned work.) Some writers worthy of the Evil Author badge are ingenious at making you cry by the end of the book, but Erin is special: she made me shed tears AT THE BEGINNING WTF.

Talk about a mental spa service upgrade. Couldn’t have found a better way to ameliorate my anxiety.

A Gnosticism Taco

For numerous reasons, this Sunday blogging is brought to you by my dear friend and fellow community member V. I have, in the past, shared living space with her for longer than I have anyone else except family, and she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together, so I reckon that as the mark of a good friend.

It was V who recently recommended Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, and since I already knew Rutledge to be a fine writer and preacher, I bought it on Kindle — and am finding it just as amazing as advertised. It has the kind of academic rigor and respect for ecumenical reality that you would hope for from a 21st-century treatment of the topic, and just my kind of humor as well. (To people who argue about whether to focus more on Good Friday or Easter, she retorts: “If you’re making a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t ask which is more important, the ham or the cheese. If you don’t have both of them, it isn’t a ham and cheese sandwich.” This occasional flippancy is just the right leavening for a serious and complex topic.)

What really got me thinking, however — at least as far as this blog post is concerned — is the way she begins her approach: with a serious and thorough critique of gnosticism as it has leached into our beliefs and practices even in churches, displacing the importance of the cross. I know, I know: we’re supposed to think of gnostics as the good guys — after all, “gnosis” is knowledge, and knowledge is better than ignorance, right? “I thought I was all set to read a blog by a smart person. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!”

No one ever does.

I mean, I get it. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours in New Age shops, read Jung and learned Tarot, fought my way free of the creeping despair of fundamentalism; my friends constellate the widest varieties of belief and nonbelief, and I have no reason or desire not to honor that, even enjoy and affirm it. But Rutledge is right about one thing: gnosticism is not actually democratic in nature. It seems like it might be: though the cross is a picture of abject helplessness and degradation, we know instinctively that we are more done-to than doing when we face God in a Christian arena. To take the initiative into our own hands, to go out and seek knowledge or to hold still and grasp it from within: that’s more like it. It certainly is more appealing to me.

But democratic it is not. Some people are better equipped for meditation, get more out of walking labyrinths, find more opportunities of learning from teachers. Transcending the difficulties of the body — being spiritual — is a matter of becoming adept. And if you don’t make the grade, you roll down the bank as the train barrels past.

I think we’re supposed to care about that. Not least because I’ve rolled down any number of spiritual banks myself; but also because in some limited areas I have impressed people far more than I deserved to, better people who were not aware as I was that it ought to be the other way around.

So naturally my thoughts turned to the worldbuilding I had done for Ryswyck. As a secondary-world speculative story, it doesn’t carry the same factual history of our world but is an analogue to it. In the story we only meet people from two countries in a backwater region of a global community more or less united against nuclearization anywhere in the world. The two peoples of the story share, with some differences, a religious tradition — a worship of wisdom without resort to images. As I feigned it, destruction and loss on such a massive worldwide scale led to an iconoclasm similar to the Simplification of A Canticle for Leibowitz: it is better to know nothing than to know how to harm people. For my world, the axiom is that it is better to worship no image than to identify the image only with ourselves.

My characters stoop to enter the low lintels of meditation halls; they burn lights in witness to their prayers; they pray alone and they chant together; they consider themselves more or less adept in comparison with others. I questioned myself: did I feign a gnostic religion for my world?

I mean, I don’t think I’m going to hell if I did. But on consideration…I don’t think so. I think what I did was a photo negative to what I experience in this world. After all, I wrote Ryswyck because I wanted to read a story that I couldn’t find out there six years ago. I wanted to read a story driven by friendship, ensconced in community, making use of Charles Williams’s concept of substitutionary love but anchoring a truly feminine point of view: plus all my favorite SFF tropes and the kitchen sink. It makes sense that if my daily fare is a Christian pita with a gnostic filling, I would serve up substitutionary love in a gnostic taco.

So pour me a Dos Equis and pass the hot sauce.

Merry Christmas, and an Angry New Year

Apparently Sunday blogging didn’t happen yesterday. Instead, I had some needed downtime, in which the most strenuous thing I did was to draft a map of the island country featured in Ryswyck, to show to an artist I would commission to draw it properly for the book. I would show it here, but a) there’s a reason why I’m hiring someone else to draw the map and b) I digitized and edited it at its full size to retain the details, and this post wouldn’t support an image that size.

Meanwhile, the items on my production schedule for the book are slowly coming together, though we’re still in the stage where things happen discretely instead of in linked chains of tasks. I expect it to pick up as spring comes on. Currently on my writer’s easel is a novella-sized treatment of the aftermath of the book, which if it edits well will serve as a sampler of the ‘verse and an intro to the second book in the series, which has been storyboarded and a few scenes sketched in. I’m doing my best to take advantage of the post-winter-solstice surge that is part of my creative rhythm.

It’s only in recent years that I have noticed that pattern enough to take advantage of it; for a long time I was too relieved that the torturous contraction of autumn was over to realize that it had an effect on my writing too. Not just the amounts of production, but the qualities of it change: less maudlin, more driven.

Which brings me to today’s subject. For Christmas, I gave my closest friends a copy of Rebecca Traister’s new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. It’s a short, trenchant treatment of the current situation we find ourselves in, and the attempts our society makes to obscure the power of anger in women by belittling or demonizing it. Just days ago I woke from a vivid dream about a fascist corporate takeover in which propaganda was spread printed on women’s shopping bags — seemingly friendly advice crowded in little text boxes and meme-sized photos: “Remember, if you start to feel angry, just remember that you’re a bad person, and the feelings will subside.” This morning I woke from a dream in which I went to a guru’s office in part to report that someone had rifled my briefcase bag and taken valuables from it, only to receive a bulletin later that I was banned from the building because being angry over the theft had made me dangerous and disruptive.

I used to have the luxury of thinking dreams like this were due to the idiosyncrasies of my brain and my life experiences. That’s a luxury that’s long gone for everyone.

The funny thing is, if you can get over the bone-deep suspicion that your anger is a sign of depravity, you can get a lot done. When I conceived Ryswyck six years ago, its dangers were all hypothetical, its moral imperative the stuff of parable. I worked on it slowly, stymied at times by mental and emotional obstacles. Then suddenly, there was nothing hypothetical at all about a post-post-apocalyptic tale in which the principle of courtesy becomes the last hope of people mired in a dehumanizing war. I was galvanized into action and wrote the last two-thirds of the story in a fever of fury. Then followed, of course, the long process of beta reading and editing and market research. Pressing to find the place of velocity.

We think that anger is no more than a feeling, an outrage inflicted upon us by the people or the situation that is making us angry. It’s that, to be sure. But finding something to do — not about it, but with it, in it — transforms it, transubstantiates it into something life-giving, even joyful. It becomes something we want to offer to the highest.

What we choose for our highest is the next perilous point.

So, for the New Year I wish you the anger to offer and the best place for offering it, and in those in-between times, a means of cheer and relief. I’ll be on the fencing strip, myself. Cheers!