200 days later

Once again, it’s September 11th, and the sky is that rich blue defined in its depth by the ecliptic’s changing tilt. This week there are students starting their freshman year in college who were born four years after the terrorist attack of 2001, if you can believe it. My freshman year of college was nearly 30 years ago; I’m very glad to be alive on a beautiful day like this.

I’m also glad to be living in the future, where I can listen in on Dr. Timothy Snyder’s class lectures on “The Making of Modern Ukraine.” It’s never been more convenient to be an autodidact! My Duolingo Ukrainian streak is 144 days strong, speaking of convenience learning, and the current war in Ukraine is 200 days old today.

Since I last checked in at the 100-day mark, lots has happened, but some things have stayed the same. The usual suspects have continued their blandishments about the West prolonging Ukraine’s Inevitable Defeat by giving them weapons they won’t be able to use to effect. Zelenskyy had a trenchant answer for that on August 10:

(I notice that when he’s including the rest of us in his addresses to the nation, his Ukrainian gets slower and more distinct; I know this because I can actually follow it, which is not always the case when he’s talking to the folks at home.)

And then the Armed Forces of Ukraine backed him up with the royalest of royal ass-kickings in Kharkiv Oblast this week. I’ll let journalist John Sweeney sum it up:

As I mentioned in my Friday morning dispatch to the Morning Light crowd, an épée fencer can really appreciate a feint-8-take-6 attack, which is what I take the Kherson buildup to be: and the best feint attack is the one in which the feint is not just a misdirection but a composite part of the attack itself. The AFU are not exactly twiddling their thumbs down in Kherson! Every military analyst on Twitter who was pulling for Ukraine has got hearts shooting out of their eyes right now.

But even they are not as ecstatic as the towns being liberated by the Ukrainian army. Video after video of townspeople weeping, waving, hugging soldiers is sweeping social media. In nearly every one of them, someone offers the soldiers food. “We made you a hot breakfast!” someone says as they hand a soldier a garden bouquet. “There’s leftover pancakes!” says one of the women in the first link above. “Have a watermelon. Have three!”

“Slava Ukraini!” everyone says. And, “Все буде Україна” — “Everything will be Ukraine.”

Russia’s response to this rout, naturally, is to aim very expensive missiles at power plants so that Kharkiv Oblast will have to sit in the dark for a couple of hours. Petulant, criminal, and useless. A translation of Zelenskyy’s response tonight:

Even through the impenetrable darkness, Ukraine and the civilized world clearly see these terrorist acts.

Deliberate and cynical missile strikes on civilian critical infrastructure. No military facilities. Kharkiv and Donetsk regions were cut off. In Zaporizhzhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Sumy there are partial problems with power supply.

Do you still think that we are “one people”?

Do you still think that you can scare us, break us, force us to make concessions?

Do you really not get it? Don’t you understand who we are? What we stand for? What we are all about?

Read my lips:

Without gas or without you? Without you.

Without light or without you? Without you.

Without water or without you? Without you.

Without food or without you? Without you.

Cold, hunger, darkness, and thirst are not as frightening and deadly for us as your “friendship and brotherhood.”

But history will put everything in its place. And we will be with gas, light, water, and food…and WITHOUT you!

All of this is illustrating — far better than the post I had been brewing — what it means to actually fight fascism. At the heart of the fascist is a terror of a changing world, and the fascist’s response is to tell other people who they are: to insist by force if necessary. That’s why trans people have been the canaries in the coal mine, both in 1930s Germany and today: they are the ultimate example of people getting to say who they are, and this is terrifying to the fascist. To non-fascists it is simply a discomfort which they can get over by getting to know individuals and love them. But fascists insist on telling people what their gender is, and thus what their place is, and what their nation is, and what the status of their soul is, and if that doesn’t stop people from evilly refusing to be told who they are, then the fascist will throw away politics and even war to inflict maximum damage and torture on civilians: to cast their souls to the dirt and stamp on them. It is nothing more than criminal malice in search of an ideology. And this is why I am keeping record of Ukraine’s fight on the world’s behalf.

Please do watch the Timothy Snyder video, because it is about exactly this. And watch the second one, which is about the stories that create nations. For all they are lectures to Yale students, they are remarkably jargon-free.

The proof of the pudding, for me, is that Zelenskyy published his declaration to Russia above in Ukrainian. Not Russian, which is Zelenskyy’s own first language and the language which he often used to address Russians in his speeches before. If you’re going to insist on taking people’s courtesy for weakness, you soon won’t even get that.

Like Zelenskyy himself, Ukraine is small but bold.

Couldn’t say it better myself.

The Paradox of the Student Debtor

Someone — I can’t remember who, perhaps in a Sojourners article in the last year or so — remarked that when it comes to responsibility, what’s morally good for a society is morally terrible for an individual, and vice versa. In other words, it’s a bad sign if an individual attributes all their misfortunes to the machinations of evil structures and does not undertake to do anything about it themselves; but it’s an equally bad sign if a society blames the individual alone for whatever has befallen them and scoffs at the idea that bad structures should be addressed.

I’ve been chewing on that observation for a while, not sure what, if anything, I wanted to say about it. But then the exact meeting place of those opposing truths arrived when President Biden announced that he would use existing law to a) forgive $10k of student debt for people making under $125,000 a year b) forgive another $10k for the people in that group who received Pell Grants and c) reduce the income-based repayment cap by half, from 10% to 5%, without the burden of further interest. And both the right and the left lost their shit.

The right, of course, are incensed that bailouts should be dished out to individuals who promised to pay back a loan and have only themselves to blame if they are in difficult straits because of it. The left, meanwhile, are furious with Biden because the emancipation didn’t extend to all educational debt for every borrower.

Sounds like he hit it about right, then.

Great lashing waves of sound and fury have been lapping upon the shores of my social media feeds, and I find myself simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with most of it. Yes, it’s pure hypocrisy to accept forgiveness of a PPP loan taken out during the pandemic and then turn around to scarify individuals who’ve been paying back on the standard plan for years and owe more now than when they started. No, no one held a gun to people’s heads and made them go to college. Yes, the academy is fucked six ways from Sunday and serves neither its faculty nor its students nor the market in which its graduates are expected to participate nor anyone else except perhaps the administrators and the offices of what is so benignly called “Development.” No, this is not just a problem affecting people fool enough to get a liberal arts degree. Yes, a real civilized society would want to make it easier for people to get the kind of education that suits their interests and not have to thread a political needle with a camel to make it happen. No, it is not bad faith that Biden didn’t use a bigger camel.

If there’s a better way of demonstrating that the original slogan is just as nonsensical, I don’t know what it is.

Political risk as it may be, President Biden’s action (supported by the policy positions of Vice-President Harris) is a structural action: it is aimed at groups of people whose disadvantages due to socio-economic and/or minority status made getting a post-secondary degree an undue burden. It strikes at the reason why tuition stopped being free and began an exponential climb, which is this: that the practical function of a college education in this country is to provide a gatekeeping hurdle to class mobility, racial equality, and gender parity.

Clearing that gate is the reason why many people go to college. It’s also the reason why many people want to withhold debt relief — I’ve seen at least two conservative people complain where other people can see them that this will suppress military enlistment. Withholding debt relief, like withholding modern healthcare and a host of other social benefits, is a mechanism for them to escape having to stoop to negotiate with their inferiors.

The thing is, though — the academy sucks as a gate. It neither holds a monopoly on knowledge nor offers a real entrance to social elevation. If you were not a person of means when you walked in, the odds are against you being a person of means after you walk out.

But I didn’t care, because that’s not what I wanted out of my education. I wanted to leave home. I wanted to take classes that didn’t bore me to the pitch of rage. I wanted to live in a community with people my age in like-minded pursuits. I wanted to interact with mentors and read things I’d never heard of and play music and argue in a common room at 1 a.m. and earn my stripes as a writer. And that’s what I got. It was worth every penny I took out to pay for it. I’m morally, spiritually, and intellectually a better person than I would have been if I hadn’t done it.

So, the system is stupid. Granted. But I didn’t mind undertaking the difficulty of paying back loans. What I minded was being vulnerable to people who would spit on those difficulties by turning them into impossibilities. I dreaded putting my trust in the United States Congress, that wise and august body, to avoid doing things like excluding educational loans from bankruptcy protection, or setting the yearly interest rate so that it would add to the balance faster than you could pay it down. (Did the United States Congress, in fact, avoid doing those things? Did they hell.)

As a fellow taxpayer who’s been a contributing member of society for a while now, I don’t mind owning a responsibility like educational debt. I consider all the years of misery and underemployment and paperwork and this and that to be my business. Forgive my loans? Just don’t actively shit on my efforts to pay them. And maybe exclude them not from bankruptcy protection but from credit scoring.

My granddad wore that same expression when he told us we could play with his putter weight but “if you break something, I’ll make you a track star.”

Debt relief of any amount is an amazing boon. And as it happens, I stand to benefit from a), b), and c) of the president’s plan. It represents a huge relief and will make it much easier for me to do what I intended to do in this stage of my life. But it’s not something that was owed to me personally. It’s just that there are a lot of people like me (and really, don’t you smell a rat when so many millions of ordinary folks are just running to stand still on educational debt? that’s not just a neighborhood but the population of Florida full of irresponsible people not worth knowing, if you’re that cynical), and doing this is, as I said, a calculated, structural way to address several decades’ worth of compounded inequality.

Because the meeting point of an individual’s responsibility and a society’s responsibility hinges on two questions: Who do you want to be? and What are you going to do?

I know the answer to those questions for myself. And I know how I want the society I live in to answer those questions. You can’t always do what’s fair. But sometimes you can do what’s right.

Now here are some birds.

The Bad Guys

A few days ago, in my trawls for reliable bits of Ukraine news on Twitter (I manage to stay off Twitter for weeks at a time, and then the obsession returns like a fit), I ran across this comment on a clip from one of Putin’s speeches:

Yes, that’s Mike Godwin, of “Godwin’s Law” fame. If you need a refresher, Godwin’s Law refers to the end stage of an argument on the internet, when someone brings up Hitler or Nazis or the Holocaust, out of all proportion to the topic being discussed. At the dawn of the public internet, in the late 80s and early 90s, that was a meaningful observation: the Soviet empire was on its way out, and totalitarian movements were (we thought, at least in the West) a disproportionately evil memory, a bugaboo for whiners to invoke when they don’t get their way.

Godwin’s Law, like the post-Cold War era, now has an end date on its tombstone.

When we thought Nazism and fascism were dusted and in the past, invoking them became a way of administering a moral shock to someone whose behavior we were opposing. Everybody knows Nazis are the quintessential bad guys, after all! By degrees, the word’s meaning eroded: at its most specific, it came to mean “someone who fought for Germany in World War II” or “undirected anti-semite.” At its least specific, it meant “bad guy.” And in Putinist Russia, apparently, it means “someone who hates Russia.” The whole Third Reich, apparently, is defined by its attacks against the Soviet state. Jewish people apparently don’t signify much in this definition, which is why some Russians apparently see no problem with calling Volodymyr Zelensky, a scion of Holocaust survivors, a “Nazi” leader.

Thus one instance of the death of Godwin’s Law. The other is here at home.

People still object to being called “Nazi.” But it is now impossible to shame those people who espouse what Nazism actually stood for. They’re not ashamed of it. They’re not ashamed of the idea of suppressing queer communities, not ashamed of treating women like so many milling cattle, not ashamed of rounding up undesirables and deliberately insulting their humanity, not ashamed of training police to deliver white wrongdoers to the inside of a courtroom and black wrongdoers to a grave, not ashamed of randomly accusing people of being pedophiles so as to stigmatize whatever aspect of the person’s identity draws their contempt. They’re not ashamed of putting barbed wire around ballot boxes, not ashamed of looting the public weal on the grounds that they deserve to take and have, not ashamed of being cruel to people in public; not ashamed of sabotaging public health if it’s likely to lead to the deaths of people they hate.

And they measure the rest of us by their own crooked beam, and assume that we would do the same to them and worse.

A lot of us think that this rank outgrowth of evil is due to a lack of education. And it’s true that there’s some staggering ignorance in some of the things these terrible people say. By all means let us upgrade the education of as many people as possible; but it’s my conviction that other people is the education we’re looking for. I recommend Tara Westover’s Educated, and point out for those who’ve read it that it wasn’t Westover’s curriculum that changed and liberated her, it was the influence of reality in the form of the new people she met. The curriculum hardly made a dent until the people in her life gave her the capacity to grasp it. It is not the capacity to understand a treatise that makes the difference. Stupid people are not naturally cruel. I know one young man who has never so much as spoken a word and will be under basic needs care for the rest of his life; yet what capacity he has for trust and concord, he says yes to, in Hammarskjold’s phrase. The most ignorant tweet was written by a person smarter than he is; but they have refused the education of other people that leads to a welcome for reality.

I know that coalitions suck. I know that the best that can be said of some of us is that we’re Not The Bad Guys. I know that we crave a protagonist person or group to rally around. In that sense Ukraine has done the world a massive favor by demonstrating their willingness to fight to the death for their own independence. They are literally on the front lines of democracy. And what is democracy but the education of other people translated into the rule of law?

This, in my view, is the only potent antidote to the cynicism and cruelty the bad guys would tempt us with. It’s the reality that we must constantly set against the fog of lies. The bad guys are not ashamed of themselves: but they sure as hell resent that we think they should be. The Great Litany of the Book of Common Prayer contains a petition to God — “that it may please thee to forgive our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers, and to turn their hearts”; all of which is work for the Almighty. It is not fit for us, and we are not fit for it. We can’t make the enemies of democracy ashamed of themselves; they are not in their present state capable of it. We can, however, fight for reality and truth against delusions and lies. Glory to the heroes.

And now, as a palate finisher, some pictures.

Warmish Take: “Careful or I’ll put you in my novel.”

Hello and welcome to the newest segment on this here blog, Warmish Takes. There are already plenty of places where you can get Hot Takes, but what yours truly promises here are Warmish Takes, straight off the bat.

Mind you, many of my takes are Warmish because it takes me so damn long to string enough words together: hence the hiatus here while I coped with Summer Doldrums and Plot Problems. More on that in another post. Fortunately, some of my Warmish Takes receive a flush of renewed warmth by coming back round again in the social media turbine, and that’s the case with today’s take.

In keeping with the warmishness of my takes, I’m not going to link out to any NYT articles or dissections of the short story “Cat Person” (the value of which for me is primarily in improving my Current Events percentage in my online trivia league). I’m just going to address this whole idea of “borrowing” (or “stealing” or whatever) other people’s lives and personalities to write fiction with.

And yes, I’m a longtime fan of Anne Lamott too, who says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them they should have behaved better.” I’ve read any number of tweets the last few months in which writers defend themselves against the charge of sociopathy with something along these lines. Don’t want to appear in a writer’s fiction? Don’t have writer friends. Or friends with writers for friends. Or something.

As pointed out on Twitter, this particular hazard seems to be more endemic to the literary fiction world:

And really, why not? Literary fiction is more likely to involve situations and personalities that can be more easily lifted (or at least recognized) from the people around us. It does seem like a natural kind of hazard. I suspend judgment, like a shiny trapset cymbal to bang upon when the mood strikes. After all, aside from the more obvious heists, writers are the last people to know what alchemy induced them to come up with and sustain a story or a character — I say sustain because no matter how juicy a bit of goss might be, the writer just might not be into it for creative purposes.

No, I suspect there has to be a constellation of motivations in order for a writer to satirize a real-life person in the fiction they write. There are plenty of coffee mugs and bumper stickers warning the public at large: “Careful, or I’ll put you in my novel.” I usually take this for a pretty light jest; some writers pay compliments to people they love by drawing on them for a character and killing the character off. And a real friend eats that shit up with a spoon!

So yeah, judgment suspended. But…I can’t be the only writer who doesn’t really do this?

I mean, not that you’re not all interesting, you crazy multifaceted diamonds, you. It’s just a way of going about things that is really foreign to me. I just don’t really get the concept of fictionalizing things and people that are really out there. I don’t get fictionalizing my own life, or any of my experiences; all of that stuff is like wool sheared from the sheep, destined to be carded and dyed and spun and become something, well…else. Not rearranged into the shape of the original sheep and framed on a wall. It just doesn’t make any sense to me as a writer at all.

It’s not dazzlingly unique to say that all my characters are made out of me-stuff, out of things I’ve thought and felt and experienced; and I’m sure that’s true of these other kinds of writers too. Who knows, maybe I do have a roman à clef kicking around in me somewhere. But as of this warmish moment, it’s not interesting to me, either to write or to read.

And that’s my Warmish Take.

On Self-Perception

This post begins with a story of two tweets, one of which I will link and one of which I will not.

Earlier this week, I ran across a tweet from someone who didn’t want to give oxygen to some person’s anti-trans screed, but screenshotted part of it to discuss one particular aspect of it. The highlighted text wasn’t what drew my eye, though. The screed-writer was so outraged by trans people demanding that society validate their self-perception that the phrase was italicized. It was this italicized phrase that caught my eye.

I thought: “Why, yes. Yes, that is exactly what is expected of you, Unknown Screedist. I’m sorry to hear that you find your moral duty so repugnant.”

Everybody has their particular moral lodestone, and this has always been mine: People get to say who they are. Yes, even if you’re 99.44% sure they’re wrong. Yes, even if you would really prefer they name themselves something else. Yes, even if they make you look bad by association.

If nothing else, holding to this principle insulates you from committing the No True Scotsman fallacy of argument. And here is the second tweet, fresh off the internets this morning:

It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. It was “confusing” to be attacked by people who acted not like Jesus Christ, but by the mob who demanded his crucifixion. We are used to thinking of “terrorist” and “Christian” to be mutually exclusive categories of person. But they aren’t. People get to say who they are. If a person committed to a terroristic act says they’re a Christian, I won’t gainsay them. I will note that their idea of worshiping God bears an awfully strong resemblance to the domination system that Jesus Christ came to dismantle, but I can’t force them to internalize that.

And I won’t. Because forcing other people to internalize what you think they are is the core impetus of fascism. It’s what some people find so appealing about our disgraced former president, and some of us others find so chilling: that offhand, pseudo-reasonable tone in which he said things like, Well, what can you do? Democrats are just evil. They’re just bad people. Any act of violence against Bad People is therefore justified, is lifted out of the sad category of terrorism into the shining platform of holy war.

This is the entire purpose of the rule of law: not to separate the Good People from the Bad People, but to uphold or deprecate certain acts according to their vital importance. It’s vitally important to fascists — and to people whose life’s investment has been placed in our social structures — that gender conformity be enforced. It’s vitally important to them not only that they think of themselves as the flower of Christianity, but that the rest of us are forced to acknowledge that we are not Christians at all if we are not like them. Defining people and codifying them is the basis of their ideal state: not the rule of law.

So my advice, for anyone who cares for it, is this: don’t play the game. Let people say who they are. Let the tree be judged by its fruit. Let no stroke or dot of the law be subverted by a crusade to prove to people who they are. That is a game for fools and fascists.

Every person has a right to the proving ground of their own self-perception. And I’ve committed not to invade.

The self-suspicion of the (woman) artist

I’m not sure how or why this 2017 essay by Claire Dederer washed up on my Twitter timeline, but it was an interesting and layered read. Its question was: what does one do with the art of monstrous men? And of course, in that #MeToo moment, it was a question on everyone’s lips. And, since the essay invites its readers to weigh in with their perspective, I’m going to.

Hildegard of Bingen: now there was a woman who could write things in accordance with reality!

Dederer chose to peel these layers using the particular onion of Woody Allen. Which is interesting because I know exactly two things about Woody Allen: his movies are supposed to be towering comedic art, and he’s a child predator. Have I seen said movies? I have not. Have I read in depth the accounts of Allen’s misdeeds? Also no.

This is because I was raised in a strictly evangelical Christian environment. My parents may have watched a Woody Allen movie or two; I don’t know. When I became a fully independent adult, I had a nearly limitless array of modes in which to revolt; “watching Woody Allen movies” just didn’t make it onto the list. Diving into the liturgical church; reading, writing, and watching sci-fi and fantasy; and excusing myself from marriage and motherhood occupied most of those energies.

But. I’m intimately familiar with the self-suspicion Dederer describes. Am I a monster? I was asking myself this while I was still a child. I asked myself this when I was a callow college student. I asked myself this while working as an underemployed adult. I asked myself right up until I was 38, and one morning I contacted again an old memory of fleeting cruelty from a man when I was very small. But for the first time ever, instead of focusing on how furious and helpless it made me feel to remember it, I thought: I was right.

At the time I had said to myself: I must be mistaken. This can’t be sadism. This must be something else. I must be making a mistake.

But I wasn’t. I was simply telling myself a necessary lie, a lie that the powerless have to tell themselves for the time being. My perception is messed up, that’s what the problem is. No, what the problem is, is that lies like that throw out little metastatic filaments and snare the rest of your soul and make you think you’re fundamentally broken. Evil, even.

A monster.

But I’m not a monster. I have a fully functioning human instrument. My perception is just what a human’s perception ought to be: limited, but a miracle of function. My insight is a fine blend of acuity and experience.

It’s interesting to me that Dederer describes the indignation against monstrous men making good art and moves from that toward suspicion of herself as — too selfish? not selfish enough? — a secret monster making good art, or an aspiring monster in order to make good art. Yes, it’s all very sturdily Jungian; do your shadow work.

But this meditation is centered around a movie apparently written as an elaborate apologia for a middle-aged man fucking a 17-year-old girl. A girl who, because Allen is a good writer and has a sense of “balance” in these things, is miraculously free of the neuroticism that the grown women characters display. Listen: show me a girl who is preternaturally mature at 17, and I will show you a girl who secretly suspects she is the real monster in the room.

I believe that the only thing that has kept me perpendicular and sane these last four years is that moment of unbelievable escape beforehand, when every single one of those protective lies unraveled and fell to my soul’s feet. It was easier on me for a time to think of myself as a monster rather than stare my helplessness in the face. It took escaping one to also escape the other.

Perhaps this is why none of these terrible revelations about monstrous men behind closed doors have given me more than a few layers’ worth of pause about their art. Yeah, I felt a little guilty watching Carol — not because it was a film about lesbians, but because it was a Weinstein property. But there’s just not much shadow work to be done there, if I’m honest. No, what I’m thinking about is the parable of the demoniac who got rid of his demon, only to have it come back with seven friends and make things worse. Jeffrey Toobin is back on CNN as a pundit, after how many months in exile? Not many. They filled an empty chair with Toobin because there was an empty chair there.

This is not about selfishness, though arguments about selfishness are the stuff of (women) artists’ lives. This is not even about monstrousness, though the troops of House Depiction Is Endorsement come out to bay across the valley at the giants of predatory cruelty.

This is about insight. To claim insight is the ultimate act of temerity. Dederer lost a male reader because she questioned Allen’s insight in making Manhattan; she was not an obedient audience. She could make bloodthirsty remarks about butchering men in the street, apparently, without giving this man a qualm; and indeed why not? That can be dismissed as derangement. Derangement and neurosis, or demure nubile receptivity: no place for actual insight, in stories or in life, for people who are not white men. If a white man is not sitting in the chair, it’s an empty chair, amirite?

Yes, I say these things because the reality on the ground makes me angry. But it’s a mathematical anger. A logical anger, even. A Zachary-Quinto-saying-Live-long-and-prosper-when-he-really-means-Fuck-you kind of anger. A Stacey-Abrams-writing-a-shedload-of-romance-novels kind of anger.

An insightful anger. An anger that finishes what it starts.

In the summer of 2017, while Dederer was working on this essay (and her book on the subject), I was feverishly finishing the manuscript of Ryswyck. It’s an interesting thing to remember, the galvanizing power of that anger. I wasn’t marching in the streets; I was sweating in front of a computer screen in my apartment. In the same 24 hours, I wrote the last sentence, and John McCain turned his thumb down on ACA repeal. In such acts, visible and invisible, the resistance propounds itself.

We’ve had our fill of monstrousness, and even with the Abuser in Chief gone, there are still plenty of inexplicably cruel people willing to be monsters in public, and occasionally it feels really demoralizing. So it’s good for me to remember that I got free of that debilitating self-suspicion, and when I did I vowed to set free as many other people as I could.

In that sense, the pen isn’t mightier than the sword. It is the sword.

Well, we persevere

I’ve been neglecting my blog — it’s one of the hazards of blog-keeping, but I have been preoccupied with a lot of quotidiana lately, and all you who are signed up to Morning Lights have been getting small bulletins on how writing is going. I’m tempted to say that the short version is “Not great, Bob!” — but really, this is a recognizable stage in any project of mine, so the distress is minimal. To go back to the gardening metaphors, it’s not usually a good idea to dig up plants to see how they’re getting on.

Woke up this morning to the depressing news that the reviewer assigned to Ryswyck for an indie contest I entered has DNF’d it.

It’s true that everyone who has finished the book found it “exponentially rewarding” as one reader termed it. But I can’t hang over everyone’s shoulder urging them to go on reading — can’t, shouldn’t, don’t want to. I find myself in the position of being unable to repent my artistic choices, but knowing they have their consequences, and a depressing DNF percentage is one of them. Well, it was a long shot anyway, and as an old internet acquaintance said, we persevere.

I admit when things like this happen I wonder why I am bothering with this enterprise; but as soon as the thought takes shape its answer is already apparent. This is my vocation, and I can’t not do it. I think we think that if someone has a vocation that its truth will be proved by its success, that deserved fame and fortune is an ontological marker for what you were meant to be doing. But, as long as I’m breathing, I’m making up stories and finding ways to put them out in the world for others to find and enjoy and be lifted by. It doesn’t really matter if the work is bad, and I don’t think mine is. For a writer, writing — like blood — is compulsory.

Anyway, when I run into things like this, I give myself ten to thirty minutes to have a panic attack or a despairfest or a hot flush, and then I carry on.

In other news, my photography kick has extended itself now that I have a good phone camera, and I’ve wanted to post galleries on here to go with my daily selection for Morning Lights. I haven’t had the bandwidth to make selections from what’s becoming hundreds of photos, but if I sat down once a week or so to pick a half dozen I really like, it might be a way to keep the rhythm up here. If I want to. We’ll see. Post-pandemic life is a vast improvement on this time last year, but it does throw into sharp relief the stamina one doesn’t have. The bandwidth may just all go into writing, in which case I must beg my readers’ indulgence.

And so it goes.

The winter kaleidoscope

One day soon I will make a Lenten-themed post, but today is not that day.

I braved the deep freeze last week to get my annual physical and purchase a new phone, as my old one’s memory was stuffed too full to function after five years. The new device, being well-designed in the much more recent past, has a camera that doesn’t suck.

Also, I can get a text from someone that downloads itself and doesn’t take ten minutes to do so, so there’s that.

On the TLT front: I finished the aforementioned chapter and have started on another. This one has been a bit of a slog, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s my mood or the deep freeze or the laborious transition to more promising dialogue, but there it is.

Stitching the plots of my two arenas together is becoming less frustrating as I start to actually do it. I just have to remember to put in all the little touches I thought of to set this or that up.

Since for the most part I’m away up in my little nest, working and cooking and taking random photographs and texting my sibling in Austin to make sure they’re okay, I feel somewhat like my view is telescoped in repeated refracted colors, like a kaleidoscope. It may or may not be good for creating art, but to be honest? I don’t want to leave it.

Perhaps when spring gets here, I’ll feel differently. But for now, it’s just me and the cat and the open Word document. And that’s just fine.

On Killing Characters: or, the parabolic functions of SFF

It’s almost inevitable that at some point in a project, a writer shakes out the Evil Author cap, dons it, and puts a character to torture or to death. I’ve known and read plenty of Evil Authors through the years, and claimed the label myself on occasion: usually it’s with a slight deprecating laugh, like when disclaiming one’s internet search history. How long does it take a stab wound to close? Asking for a friend.

Was it readers who first started the Evil Author moniker, or did writers start calling themselves that in reflexive self-defense? Impossible to say, but that in itself underlines that Evil Authorship is usually conceived in terms of the relationship between writers and their readers. (“You killed Major Blue! How could you??”) In an age in which readers have almost immediate access to authors on social media and via email (and authors use those media to seek new readers), this dynamic is often the opposite of abstract and hypothetical. It’s a prominent feature of a very real landscape; but it isn’t exactly anything new.

All this is by way of saying that I hadn’t given much thought to the matter for a while. Then I ran across a tweet thread that gave me to think:

(Once again catching up on old topics now that my site is back up. NB: some database capabilities remain offline until the site is migrated to the big server being set up by my web host. If you have a subscription it should then be restored. When I’m in my new server home I hope to implement some expansions. If this blog is Relevant to Your Interests, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to a regular newsletter. I toyed with starting one but then 2020 happened. Anyway, back to the topic.)

What’s it really like to kill a character? What is that process? I have heard some testimony from other writers, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. When I conceived the story that would become Ryswyck some years ago, some structural framework was immediately apparent, and none of it really surprised me because I knew what kind of story I like to tell myself.

If any given writer has their own narrative preoccupations, mine have been apparent for a while. I’ve always been fascinated with the dynamics of forgiveness — what it’s really like to deal with a wrong done you by someone who matters; what it’s really like to be that person who did the wrong; what it’s like when the person who wronged you isn’t sorry, or doesn’t know enough to be sorry, or is committed to other priorities. What kind of things actually happen in the mind and heart when trying to cope with a wrong. What that might mean for the restoration of human dignity to people who were robbed of it.

Still, although I’d tortured plenty of characters in the service of my preoccupying narrative, I hadn’t killed any that I recall. Yet as the proto-structure of Ryswyck emerged, the death of a particular character was there from the beginning, and the real question in my mind was whether I would actually use his POV in the story. (He insisted.) The day I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt tired and drained, but mainly from hard work. Emotionally I felt firmly satisfied: I thought the scene was solid, and the story still what I wanted to tell.

No, it was killing a different character altogether that gave me trepidation. Here was an ordinary, likable supporting character, bluff, sensible, inoffensive. And one afternoon, between the writing of one early chapter and the next, I realized there was a storyline in which he was not only killed but tortured first. The more I thought about it the more it made horrible sense: how he matched up to a foil character, how he could act as a catalyst for the endgame, how thematically appropriate his end would be, how parabolic not just for my future readers but for the other characters. I was going to do it.

I did the same work: laid the same foreshadowing, traced the same thematic touches, made sure that an appearance from my foil character in the narrative was followed by him being onstage, or vice versa. When I wrote the scene in which he was killed, I felt all the same tired satisfaction at good work well done. But I also IMed my betas: “I need a drink.”

Another tweet I can’t currently find has crossed my ken recently, something to the effect that instead of asking writers why they built a non-sexist fantasy world, why we don’t ask other writers why they built a sexist one. And fair play to that; we don’t want to give sexist tropes a pass. But it’s hard for me to imagine a non-sexist fantasy world not being remarkable: because it is remarkable when compared with ours. Of all the genres of storytelling, SFF is the most specifically parabolic; from “The Cold Equations” to Ancillary Justice, from The Blazing World to Frankenstein to The Inheritance Trilogy, when we tell these stories we are all but explicitly measuring the moral curve between the world of that story and our own.

A parable isn’t deterred by the prospect of unsettling its audience. In fact, it would happily afflict the comfortable as well as comfort the afflicted. This is so deeply embedded in our understanding of the genre that in order to get away with using sexist and racist tropes these days, the writers of them try to re-identify who the afflicted and the comfortable in our world actually are. That the worlds are to be thrown side by side is never in question. The only question is what the ambition of the author is. What effect on our world are they aiming for?

I suppose that’s why, although I killed a lot of characters in Ryswyck, I was never less disposed to plume myself with the Evil Author epithet. An Evil Author might aim to make readers howl, but she isn’t out to mend the world with her song. I was out to imbue my characters with the power to bear witness, in life and death alike. Not to mention tell a cracking good story.

But I still probably need to disclaim my internet search history.

Being salty about word count, redux

Happy Christmas Eve, everyone! I am enjoying the day off by eating a champion’s breakfast and perusing my list of blog topics saved during the Great Blog Hiatus.

To begin, a tweet from November 25:

Spoiler alert: the next tweet in the thread begins with the words “total bullshit.”

When I read this tweet a month ago, my reaction was mainly an indignant Now you tell me! But I’ve thought it over a little in the time since (a little, not a lot — it’s not like there’s nothing else going on), and aside from the sprinkling of salt, for me it still really comes down to a question of competing priorities.

As Long’s tweet thread suggests, the problem of word count is a bit more nuanced than the Hard and Fast Advice of the Internet would suggest. But although my decision to self-publish was precipitated by a piece of Hard and Fast Advice about wordcount, it wasn’t actually that difficult a decision. When it comes to selling your manuscript to a publisher vs. selling your book to the public, the question was and is: which set of upsides do you value more, and which set of problems would you rather have?

Traditional publishing upsides:

  • In a word, cachet. You passed the gatekeepers! A Real Publisher published your Real Book!
  • You don’t have to do every last bit of the marketing yourself.
  • You also don’t have to do every last bit of the distro yourself.
  • Project managers produce the book for you.
  • You have access to professional editors as part of the deal.
  • All of this equals a head start in making bank, and as a friend said when I demurred about this as an ambition: “No. Make fucking money. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth making money with.”

Reverse these, and you pretty much have the defining features of independent authorship. Whether those are downsides depends on your point of view. From my point of view, these are the upsides of independent publishing:

  • “Project management” may not be a pair of words that an ADHD person likes to hear spoken together, but with that comes sweet, sweet control. To a publisher, you sell a manuscript. To the public, you sell a product: a product whose cover design you commissioned, whose layout you fashioned, and whose content you exerted your authority on. That’s worth a lot.
  • Likewise, this product takes as long to produce as you decide it should take. You can arrange another editing pass (or not), choose the release date, set up your targets, and go. There’s no hurry-up-and-wait once you’ve finished the writing part.

Like, I love Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing, but her books have had some god-awful cover art, which she was not responsible for and over which her control was very limited. When I imagined myself having as little say over what Ryswyck looked like, I thought: ughhh. It’s worth it to me to shell out some cash for a cover design that I like.

And that brings me to the downside of my chosen lot, which is: just as the control is all mine, the success of the product is all on me. In a traditional-publishing scenario, I would only have to sell the book to one agent. The agent then sells the book to a publishing house, and the publishing house sells it to the people. But in the modern environment, the author still has to do some of the marketing, they’re not going to clear that much overhead, and their name’s still on it, so people have to decide the book is good. Is there all that much difference, when all is said and done, between this and what I’m doing, selling the book person by person?

I admit, I am sometimes inclined to lament my bad karma when it comes to viral magic. I’ve known for years that my social media prowess is not destined to bring me cultic popularity — or even, let’s be real, a double-digit number of engagements per post. That’s not a vicissitude that an independent author likes to have on the list.

But I don’t suck at small-bore networking. I have friends who, when I ask nicely, have been happy to assist me out of their expertise, and not only that but to introduce me to their friends who have helped my project along. This is how I was able to purchase stellar cover art and launch a website with minimal outlay.

It’s true, Ryswyck is 248k words, a daunting prospect for the potential reader of an unknown indie author, designed (God help me) to turn the ratchet of tension by slow degrees at the beginning. Selling that to one agent might have been difficult, but selling it copy by copy to each individual reader is, let’s just say a heavy lift.

But though the return data is small, it suggests that if I get a reader to a certain early point in the book, they’re likely to really want to finish; and if they finish, they’ll have been highly rewarded. It’s a damn good book, it’s a damn good product, and I’m proud of it. More people should read it.

So, for a minute there, Long’s tweet thread made me wonder if I made the wrong decision. But all things considered…I don’t think I did after all.