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.

Free as the road

A few days ago I discovered that making a new year’s resolution to “see friends more often” is a thing. Like, I dismissed it when I found it in the NYT crossword, but then I saw it cropping up on actual lists of people’s goals for the new year. And that inspired me to rant on Twitter.

And yeah, I know, nobody wants even friends randomly showing up at their house for undefined socializing, but that’s wrapped up in the whole cycle of overscheduled burnout that seems to have ramped up in the last ten years in particular. My friend calls me: “Is this a fencing night? Can we go have dinner?” And half the time, yes, it is a fencing night, and I miss fencing practice too often as it is, and I have friends there too, and so I say “How about Tuesday?”

This past summer I experimented with doing a bullet journal. I admit, playing with colored pens is fun, and it was nice to have my sticky-note to-do lists in one little Moleskine notebook. But then I got sick and had that whole ER rodeo thing, and lost interest. And the sheer executive functioning nightmare of earning a living plus managing a household plus connecting with my people — because none of that happens without significant effort — makes me think that something needs dismantling somewhere.

So no, I don’t think there’s a job I’ve fallen down on when six months goes by since the last time I go to my friend’s house. I think that six months of my chronos has stolen my kairos, and we need to mount the barricades.

Last Friday one of my book club friends died after only a week in hospice. She had been battling protean cancers for years, and they had finally grown beyond treatment. On the book club group text this week we hashed out whether to attend the visitation or the funeral, and if and when to move our winter feast. All these practical acts of scheduling, all the planning of my writing projects for the year — there’s a gap between all of that and my friend who now makes no plans and manages no schedule. I’m not sure what that means. I’m not sure if I’m sad about her death and angry about the vicissitudes of planning…or angry about her death and sad about the vicissitudes of planning. I don’t know.

But I’ll have to let it lie for now, because it’s nine-thirty and my apartment isn’t going to clean itself before the year turns.