I still can’t bring myself to read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale, because, well. I can observe plenty of nightmares going on round here without seeking the same out in my fiction. However: I know that Atwood is snarky and brilliant, so for today’s Advent window I give you a short essay of hers that I read 25 years ago and appreciate better now than I did when I was an undergraduate.
The Female Body, it’s called. (Honestly, “my topic feels like hell” should be a regular tag.)
Meanwhile, it’s the day’s deep midnight, and I’m looking forward to the crescendo again.
Yesterday it snowed more, and I worked from the home office in the wintry hush. Solstice is approaching: and the Great O Antiphons are here.
The last seven days before Christmas Eve are celebrated with these antiphons — refrains preceding the Magnificat at Evensong — that invoke Our Lord with names and honorifics, gathering up the goodness of the world in one sweep before the Nativity. (The antiphons are probably best known as the verses of “O Come, O Come Immanuel”.) They form a sort of crescendo to the celebration of Christmas.
But I have to admit that my favorite one is the first one: O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. I love how Wisdom is framed in metaphors of discursive intellect, and yet is not really any such thing. It’s an articulate silence that seems to characterize this force that “mightily and sweetly” orders all things. And many times, when I have encountered a profound moral lesson, I have had to resort to poetry even to make myself capable of remembering what happened. Wisdom is neither immanent nor transcendent; it is intimate with the world and yet never mastered by it.
It’s this antiphon, I think, that inspired me more than esotericism when framing the religious worship in my ‘verse. And it was this name of God that I thought made a fitting refuge for a scarred world sickened by worshiping gods made in their own image. Silence and letting go: this is a worship so dangerous to the ego that every time we brush close, we pretend that we’ve already done it.
So this morning I made another noise generator: one that evokes a meditation hall with a storm pouring rain outside the low lintel. A challenge, to sketch out the noises of quiet prayer! But here’s the result: One Light Burning.
May your day be mightily and sweetly ordered from end to end.
It’s St. Nicholas Day, which — aside from its associations with the Christmas season — is an opportunity to reflect on one of our tradition’s more interesting bishops. Besides resurrecting children pickled in brine and tossing dowries through the windows of young women about to be sold into prostitution, Nicholas is also said to have punched Arius at the Council of Nicaea. All of these stories are spurious to some degree or other, but you have to admit, there’s a certain swash to St. Nick’s buckle. Like, he’s the patron saint of nearly every member of the crew of Serenity, one way or another. What’s not to like?
Of course, if you’re aiming to misbehave, the early-modern and modern legends of Santa Claus are less friendly to your cause, as David Sedaris discovers in his essay Six to Eight Black Men. I do enjoy that essay, but because (mindful of St. Nick) I am moved to be generous, here in addition is David Sedaris reading my favorite of his essays, “Jesus Shaves.”
This has been your Hee-Haw Advent window of the day.
On today’s little Advent window, I give you a noise generator that I built on the MyNoise site. One of the perks of donating to Dr. Stephane’s site is that you can harvest stems from any of the sound profiles (and there are many!) in the lists, and collate them in a generator of your own. I’ve played with creating themed generators, or particular sounds, or effective white noise for the office, with varying degrees of success. My latest effort was created to evoke the feeling of stirring hands and feet in the bathing warmth of a hot spring: certainly a welcome feeling at this time of year!
To celebrate this website’s second year, I’m going to do a little Advent calendar of things that give me pleasure and gratitude.
A year ago I started building this website in preparation for launching my first novel in what I hoped and planned to be a series; a year later, I have launched the book, finished an interstitial novella and put it into edits, and started on the second full-length novel which I hope to finish over the course of the next year.
It’s been an intense and busy year on all fronts: but this, I hope, will be a relaxing exercise for me, as sometimes I get hung up on trying to remember what Significant Thing I had planned to blog about some time but didn’t write down. These little Advent windows are not going to be significant of anything in particular. I suppose that’s a measure of what the theme of this year has turned out to be: that even launching a book, significant as that is in my own life, is a granulation of little acts, little pleasures and struggles. And one might as well take note of them and do them justice.
Today is a two-fer, since I didn’t have this idea until last night and did not post anything on December 1. First, for those of you who like this sort of thing: Check out The Advent Project, an annual compendium put together by the staff at Biola University. Every morning there’s a Bible reading, a poem, a piece of art, a piece of music, a collect, and a meditation. Because these things are gathered from all over, many perspectives are represented, which frankly relaxes me because I know I don’t have to like it all. I signed up for this last year, and enjoyed it and the group’s Lent Project enough that I stayed subscribed this year. It adds dimension to my morning ritual of tea on the couch — especially when the mornings are so dark.
For the second — how about something completely different! I’ve already inflicted this vid on my Facebook friends and anybody else I can get to stand still, but it just makes me happy, so on the slate it goes: Pomplamoose doing a mashup cover of the Eurhythmics and the White Stripes.
(If I were going to make an out-verse playlist for my characters, this would totally be one of the songs I picked for Speir.)
You should totally check out the weekly cover vids that Pomplamoose is doing, because this one is not the only awesome one, it’s just my favorite.
I keep meaning to read Diana Butler Bass’s book on gratitude, but haven’t got round to it for much the same reason I don’t do a lot of things that I look forward to being good for me. “You’ll be happier once you’ve washed the dishes,” I say to myself, as how Bullwinkle might say, “Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!”
That trick, as any ADHD person knows, never works.
So my thoughts on thankfulness and gratitude this Thanksgiving season are unguided by anything other than my own insight. (I might have said exactly this when I was 25, but I would have meant something rather less modest.)
I am thankful fairly often. It isn’t very difficult; I think of thankfulness as an undirected feeling of relief and obligation, and reasons to put oneself in that headspace are plentiful. I’m thankful for a good day, a finished task, a delicious meal, avoiding a car accident, getting a good night’s sleep. Having a continual background anxiety that some other shoe is about to drop — that makes thankfulness noticeable by contrast.
So I never particularly liked that Thanksgiving exercise of “let’s go around the table and everybody say one thing they’re thankful for” — what, like it’s hard? I’m thankful for breathing, for getting over a sprained back when some people have a lifetime’s worth of the same chronic pain, for today not being a day when something terrible happens to me… I mean, it’s great and all, but there’s not much of a so-what factor there. And every thing I just listed is something someone else isn’t getting. I think the exercise would work better on a community level, like what David Mamet is said to have said Jewish holidays are all about: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”
Gratitude is something totally different. Gratitude is directed. It sometimes isn’t explainable because so often it’s for something you can’t do for yourself. You can’t put your own hair up when you’re sick over the toilet, like my mother did for me on one occasion. You can’t make someone apologize to you for some hurt they did. Sometimes, you can’t even explain to a person what it is they did that eased you, or revived you, or humbled you. Sometimes, when I’m grateful, I feel thankful that I’m grateful, like it’s a sign that my soul is in good working order.
I’m not sure what makes gratitude so inescapably spontaneous, though. Like, it’s easy enough to explain when someone does something for you specifically to manufacture your gratitude for their…gratification. But sometimes, a gift is given, a favor is done…and the firefly doesn’t light. In my experience that mostly happens when I feel secretly that I ought to have done it myself, or been able to do it myself. That I needed power more than I needed the gift.
I think gratitude is reserved for the meeting of an unambiguous need.
I think we shouldn’t expect people to be grateful when we meet a need for them that was manufactured by people or by structures. But the thing is, sometimes people are grateful anyway. Sometimes we can’t help it. It’s one of the most helplessly genuine reactions we humans possess: and like tears, it’s made of the thing that caused it. It’s something that is still sacredly right when lots of things are wrong.
I guess if I’m going to be thankful for anything this holiday season, it’s that.
This is definitely one of the things I hope Ryswyck brings to the table: a way of defining courtesy that isn’t just “having a well-policed tone” or “using good breeding.” As one character (actually, more than one) asks: “How can there be courtesy if one side thinks they’re the only humans?”
There’s a very real sense in which Ryswyckians can afford to exercise courtesy — they’re being trained to be formidable fighters, most of them have a comfortable class status, and all of them are intelligent enough to clear the entrance exam. When they leave the school they will be qualified for at least a lieutenant’s position, or the equivalent thereof, in the army or the navy.
And there’s also a real sense in which Ryswyck Academy creates artificial conditions for courtesy to flourish — as Scalzi mentions, places where people are understood to be social equals are places where courtesy actually isn’t very costly. On the other hand, Ryswyckians are inculcated 24/7 with the community’s ideal of what courtesy looks like, so if someone were to accuse them of discourtesy outside Ryswyck, they’d quickly suss out whether the accusation is being made in good faith.
Courtesy, unlike civility in a lot of contexts, does not equal “never showing anger.” You can respect someone’s humanity and still make it bitingly clear that you are furious with them. At Ryswyck, you can hit them — within certain rules of combat, of course. But what courtesy and civility have in common is that sense of cost. It is a heroic thing to show courtesy when it costs you. When someone who finds it much less costly, who styles themselves the arbiters of who and who is not a true member of a community, demands your heroism as a right — well, that is a vast insult.
I know what people are saying when, for example, they complain about Michelle Obama’s maxim, “When they go low, we go high,” but it does have one effect that I don’t think is often considered. Coming from her, this is a seizure of the moral high ground before the fact. White supremacist haters lose their chance to demand her heroism as their rightful due, because she has already framed it as a gracious gift. It’s a nonviolence tactic that drives them crazy.
Still, it’s a tactic, not the whole strategy, and it’s not available always and everywhere. It’s very useful in direct action, and less useful in, say, a situation where someone has applied the letter of the law of civility but made it manifestly clear that they don’t respect your humanity at all.
An actual sense of courtesy seeks, where possible, to liquidate unfair advantages, which requires a person to be aware of the situation outside the boundaries of one’s self. That’s the other sense in which courtesy is costly. Scalzi is perfectly right to suggest that the people who usually call for “civility” would never do so if it turned out to actually cost them something. For a lot of them, there’s little to choose between “respect my humanity” and “never tell me I’m wrong about something.” But for all courtesy’s costs, shielding someone from narcissistic wounding isn’t one of them.
It really sucks, though, to have the responsibility of issuing a gentle and courteous criticism, only to be met with a Category 5 uncivil backlash. I guess that’s why I got such pleasure out of having my Ryswyckians turn courtesy into a weapon.
Smile. Bow. Hit them. What could be more gratifying?
Writers, what mad skills of other writers make you stand back and admire?
I’m not talking about the obvious stuff; I’m talking about the kinds of things you know are tricky from trying to do them, and leave you dumbstruck when you see them done well.
This question occurred to me by way of plotting for The Lantern Tower. Now that I’ve got down three opening chapters, I have a better handle on the problem that was holding me up while storyboarding. The emerging answer was one I had already gestured at in the outline, but I had been rather timid about raising the stakes in order to do it. As soon as I thought that, Sensible Me said, “Well, why?” Indeed, Sensible Me. I should listen to you more often. So I opened a chat window to a friend and nattered at her for half an hour, and found myself remarking: “This is the part where I really envy Julia Spencer Fleming her seemingly limitless capacity for orchestrating the psychological movements of a large cast.”
It’s been a while since I thought about JSF and her books, but damn. Yeah. The more characters you constellate in a situation, the more complex the emotional movements and realities grow, reflecting in counterpoint and building toward either disaster — or eucatastrophe. Keeping track of that many internal realities, timing climactic urges, making sure every beat strikes a realistic emotional note: this is not freaking easy. Rocket science is easier, sometimes. This is especially true when, as JSF often does, you’re writing a story with multiple POVs.
Now, this skill can’t carry a book all by itself. One of this series — I think it was To Darkness and to Death — focused on psychological orchestration to the exclusion of all else, and I got bored and asked S to spoil me so I could read the next one. But if a story needs this skill, and it isn’t there…well. The fact that JSF can create, maintain, and drive stories with a community full of breathing internal realities makes the series as a whole one of my benchmarks for writing a large cast.
So if you stand in awe of a mad skill of some fellow writer, I want to hear about it. I need some new recs anyway.
(And speaking of recs, have you read Ryswyck? Did you like it? By all means hit it up with a review! Let the good folks at Amazon know what they’ve got.)
Meanwhile, I am still basking in the afterness of a good day of goodness, having done my first (small) fencing tournament last weekend. I fenced to my standard, which is to get on the board in any bout and win as many winnable ones as I can, learned a lot about procedure, fenced some new and very interesting fencers, and picked up some new music from the fencing buddy I rode up to Des Moines with. All in all, a good time was had by me, 10/10 would fence a tournament again.
Now that the conference is in the rearview and work has calmed down a little, I should be back to posting Genuwyne Quality Content on the regular. Starting with a small gallery of my Albuquerque trip.
I took 250+ shots of the Balloon Fiesta ascension, culled those for FB posts, and then drew a tiny representative sample for this post. In the midst of working the conference, my fencing buddy S, who introduced me to Beth in the first place, flew in to ABQ, rented a car, and picked me up for a side trip to Santa Fe for Beth’s gallery opening reception, which was amazing, of course. You can see why I was so honored for Beth to make room for Ryswyck on her easel! (And obviously I need to get on the stick and read more Ray Bradbury.)
Speaking of Ryswyck, somewhere in the midst of prep work and travel and long hours, I’ve managed to finish two chapters of The Lantern Tower. This is not at all my prolific time of year, but I’ll eke out whatever I can in the fall months. The themes so far appear to be secrets and shock tests, and unsurprisingly du Rau is responsible for a lot of that. I suppose it’s his revenge for my not using his POV this go-round.
So my weekend was fairly productive on the housework and acquiring-new-shoes-for-the-conference fronts, but not so much on writing or blogging. Or changing the cat litter, but one can’t do everything. But one thing I have done recently is start going through Pat Wrede’s blog on writing; there’s some really good stuff there, and it’s given me a lot to think about.
For one thing, Wrede put me on to Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, a writer’s guide which she updated for the 21st century — ULG was lively-minded right to the end. I want to be Pat Cadigan when I grow up, and I want to be Ursula Le Guin when I grow old. Anyway, Steering the Craft is (naturally!) full of sensible advice and actual writing exercises that look salutary for a writer to do. (I mean, I haven’t done any of them yet, but they do look useful.)
For another thing, reading a blog that has a long archive is like leafing through a time capsule of the changing zeitgeist. I found a post where everyone on a panel (including Pat) was shocked when someone said brazenly that a novel should have an agenda, at least so much as to say a moral point of view. Seanan McGuire, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor: these authors have since then articulated even more firmly that if your very existence as a writer is itself a political act, then of course you should embrace writing stories with a specific moral point of view. After all, any story that appears to be agenda-less actually has an invisible agenda that is congruent with the predominant cultural point of view. It has plausible deniability, or at least an unthreatening premise.
I think that argument is true in the specific sense in which the new writers are using it. And I think they’ve been successful enough in changing the conversation that it’s now about whether new speculative fiction can be called “high concept” if it is not challenging to the predominant cultural point of view. And that’s a good thing, in my view. I’ve read some great books in the last five years thanks to those efforts.
But that’s not what I want to get at today. I want to talk about what writing with an “agenda” is like from the writer’s point of view. Like, how does a writer actually pursue a moral point of view in a story they are writing?
In my experience, the first question is what kind of story you want to tell yourself. You have to want to tell yourself this story, or it’s no fun. I can see where writers can become sad and bitter, if the stories they want to tell themselves are stories that other people are indifferent to, or disapprove of. When I find myself sinking into a mood like that, my self-prescription is to read other people’s books, preferably ones I haven’t read already. If it lightens my mood, that’s enough; if it enriches my perspective, that’s even better. Whatever gets me back — or onward — to a place where my story is fun.
Mind you, no matter how viral your story turns out to be, any story with a specific moral point of view isn’t going to be for everyone — like Hendrick’s Gin, which puts that legend in scrolling script on every bottle: It Is Not For Everyone. (Then they came up with another infusion that’s even more Not For Everyone than the original, which might be a bridge too far, but I haven’t tasted it yet, so I withhold judgment. And anyway I doubt Hendrick’s is complaining about their sales volume. But I digress.)
Example: back in the day when I was a floating library assistant (insofar as a Geo Storm hatchback could be said to float around Tulsa County library to library), I had a conversation with a branch librarian that appalled me to my core. We were talking about displaying favorite books, and she started gushing about Thomas Hardy. “I mean, the way he writes, it’s just the way life is!” she said. Now, I had had to read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for my Victorian survey class, and to me it was the epitome of everything I hated in a story: a hapless protagonist whose every effort to get out of a tar pit only mires them in further, a dim view of human capacity, a cynical view of God and/or spiritual enrichment, and a narrating voice that can well afford to stand afar off, aloof if not sneering altogether.
I can’t remember if I actually bit my tongue or if I answered her out loud: “God, I hope not!”
Nowadays, if (God forbid) I should ever be forced to teach Tess to a class of unsuspecting undergraduates, I would pair it with T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Yes, double the misery, I know. But reading the Boyle book showed me something I hadn’t picked up about Tess, even in a university setting: which is that Hardy was doing all those things on purpose, not because he was a miserable man with a miserable point of view, but because he wanted to subject his readership to a scathing parable about their complacent condemnation of the marginalized people among them. I don’t know any Victorian middle-class snobs; but I do know plenty of white liberals. I get the value of these novels as parables — and there’s something to be said for a book’s power if it could make me react so strongly 100 years later.
But. I still don’t want to tell myself a story like this. Hardy and Boyle obviously found some fun in it; but I think in large part it’s because they could afford to. You have to be placed just so if you want to afflict the comfortable without also comforting the afflicted.
And that brings me to the point I wanted to make. So often when people take against the idea of writing with an “agenda,” the complaint is that the book is too “preachy.” But I say: show me a person who thinks a story can’t present a moral point of view without turning into (ugh) a sermon — and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t heard a good sermon. It’s not their fault; good preaching is hard to find, generally speaking. I’m lucky: I gained a lay preaching license because I had some truly gifted mentors. I learned that a sermon combines the art of academic argument with the art of storytelling. A good sermon does five things: 1) it is about one topic and has a beginning, a middle, and an end; 2) it does not read things into its text but draws them out; 3) it is relevant for the people it is addressed to; 4) it gives the listener something to chew on on more than one level — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, imaginative, or all of these; and finally 5) it’s given by someone who knows when to be confrontational and when not. It’s a delicate art.
Like writing a novel.
So what kind of story do I want to tell myself? What sermon do I need to hear? I want a story with eucatastrophe built into it, obviously; with characters who are innocent as doves or cunning as snakes or both together; where everyone is essential to the resolution of the crisis, or at least significant in it; where people get along with the others or find a way to work with those they don’t; where suffering isn’t a cheapskate play for meaning; where heroes don’t punch down; whose plot doesn’t take for granted the punishment of women for laying claim to significance; where friendship is a driving force; where agency rather than fate is the moral imperative; where redemption is earned and grace bestowed, instead of the other way around.
Now that sounds an awful lot like an arduous checklist, but when I’m making up a story, I don’t proceed by ticking boxes. It’s more like I’m hanging on the refrigerator door figuring out what to make for dinner. Ooh, I have an onion, I could make this; won’t make that till I buy some lemons. But of course I’m the one who stocked the fridge in the first place.
There’s a lot of work between that moment and the moment I have people over. But then there will be wine. Or gin.