Friday, January 31, 2020

The Most Important Writing Question: What Are Your Priorities?

January’s almost over.

At this point, most writers are either still in that early state of hopefulness (“I will finish my novel this year!”) or they’ve hit their Slough of Despond (“3,000 words a day was a horrible goal.”)

This is not a blog post about writing goals. This is a blog post about priorities.

Not your priorities as a writer but as a person.

If your priorities are off, your goals—and your success or failure with them—will be pointless.

Repeat after me: Your writing life is not more important than your life-life. Your writing life is not separate from your life-life.

Let’s be clear. I believe that writing can be a moral act. And writing takes time. A ridiculous amount of time. Time that I could be spending with people I love. Or catching up on Doctor Who. (I’m three doctors behind at this point.)

But because it is so difficult to be a “successful” writer, there’s a tendency to treat Writing as a goddess before whom the “serious writer” must pour out everything—friends, family, health, sanity—to gain . . . what exactly?

Money? Fame? Self-respect?

At some point, you have to ask yourself, in a blunt, unpretentious way: Why do I write?

My answer is not going to be the same as your answer.

But I can guarantee that somewhere in your answer will be a mixture of fear, ego, questionable ideas about human worth and art, and just possibly, underneath all the psychic muck, a love for something—language; lonely children, seeking comfort in books; a people you call home but rarely read true stories about—that is honest enough to sustain you.

You don’t have to start at the grand philosophical level. Sometimes, figuring out what is important to you on a practical level helps you work out your internal philosophy (or at least, helps you figure out where the holes and contradictions are).

Last year, I asked myself what was absolutely vital in my life. And then I wrote out a simple list of priorities: physical health, mental health, spiritual growth, family, etc.

And then I numbered them.

That might feel a little harsh. (Did I really put health over family? What kind of monster am I?) But it forced me to acknowledge two personal truths: If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t write and I can’t care for the people I love. And if I don’t help the people I care about, everything I write about is a lie.

And then I broke down each priority into smaller priorities and goals (e.g., exercise, schedule regular doctor’s appointments, SLEEP, etc.)—which makes the priorities more practical.  

This list of priorities pulls me back in areas where I am likely run past the edge of the cliff. It forces me to reject certain inner critics (“If your eyes aren’t bleeding and your family doesn’t hate you yet, then you aren’t writing enough”) and take control of my own choices.

I know that not getting enough sleep makes me sick, and health is a higher priority than financial success, so I shouldn’t take on more work than I can reasonably complete this month.

Spending time with friends is one of my priorities, but I haven’t done much of that lately. Maybe I should go to that movie on Saturday?

It’s not perfect. Right now, my life is full of “which family emergency is the most emergency-ish” situations. Figuring out the line between needs and wants and triaging the wants/needs of multiple people is always going to be complex.

But the list pushes me to create goals that reflect what’s actually important to me. Not the things I merely think I should be doing, but things that help me become the person I most want to be.

It takes a long time to create my New Year’s goals now. But I’m a lot happier with the goals I create. I feel like they’re actually about bettering myself—in gradual, genuine ways—and acknowledging what truly makes me happy and fulfilled.

And slowly, my priorities list has forced me to examine my writing.

I hold no scorn for writers who work with their eyes on the market. (People who think that artists shouldn’t create for money tend to already have their money.) But I have to ask myself if the things I’m giving my readers match my priorities for myself.

When I’m writing fiction, do I only care if my characters succeed in their goals (whatever that looks like)? Or do I care about how they learn (or don’t learn) to treat themselves and others? What, by the end of the story, I am suggesting is important?

If reading fiction engenders empathy, who am I encouraging readers to extend that empathy to? And if I am learning to treat myself with kindness, how I am helping readers extend this same kindness to themselves?

When I’m writing nonfiction, what sort of priorities am I encouraging in the reader? Do these contradict my own, stated priorities? (And if so, why?)

If writing makes me happy (and it definitely does), then do I understand why it makes me happy? And can I open a door into that happiness for my reader?

If I only write to fulfill my unexamined picture of writing success, I may still manage some decent work. But I also will risk that strange disconnect that creeps into ego-based writing.

You know the sort of writing I’m talking about: it pays lip service to high ideals but comes across as a bit flat and removed from the messy realities of trying to live a principled life. (“We solved all our problems through the power of love . . . and that money we got from our abruptly dead rich uncle. No, we are not going to explain what we mean by ‘the power of love.’”)

Honest writing about difficult issues requires a life that is honestly lived.

Maybe this is already obvious to you. And you don’t need a rambling blog post to tell you your goals should match your values.

But the tyranny of the urgent is a kudzu vine that’s constantly hiding what matters most.

So if you’re looking at the beginning of February and feeling a bit overwhelmed (or underwhelmed) and directionless, maybe it’s time to look beyond your goals for the year. Maybe it’s time to dig down to what’s really important to you.

It’s okay if this takes a while. Deciding what is meaningful isn’t a single project but a continual, life-long work.

I can’t pick priorities for you. But if I could, they might be for you to get to the end of the year and not simply say “I finished [number] of my goals” but “the things I did this year, and the stuff I wrote, mattered to me and I am proud of them—even if no else is.”

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Trouble with Short Stories

Sometimes, you read just the right thing at just the right time. But more on that in a minute. . . .

Speaking of reading, I am not doing very well with a lot of my reading challenges for the year (especially "reading books that are already on my shelf"). But I have been plugging away at the Short Story a Week Challenge. I’ve read fifty-eight short stories so far (which, yes, would equal more than one a week, if I spread them out). And I’ve learned something about myself.

I don’t like short stories.

I felt my unread backlog of New Yorkers stare accusingly at me every time I picked up The Cursed Child instead.

So far this year, I’ve read short stories from the New Yorker, from published collections, from literary magazines, from slightly-less-literary magazines, and from sci-fi magazines; I’ve read stories for children, stories for adults, and stories that ride that line between YA and fully grown up; I’ve read painfully realistic stories and confusingly absurd stories.

And while there were a handful I liked, or at least, appreciated, most of them left me cold. In fact, out of all them, the only two I had truly enjoyed were “The Jesters” by Joyce Carol Oates and a story called “Toad Words” by Ursula Vernon that I stumbled across on Tumblr.

I always feel a little sad when people tell me that they are “not into poetry.” Because that’s a little like saying, “I’m not into music” or “I’m not into food.” I suppose it’s possible. However, it seems more likely to me that they just haven’t found the right sound/flavor of poem yet.

But I was beginning to feel like I wasn’t “into short stories.” Like I was missing some essential part of the reading brain that allows you to enjoy short fiction.

In the midst of this, I found myself circling the “Quick Pick” section of my local library. (Not that I needed another book to read—I definitely did not.)

And I picked up a book with an introduction that said just what I needed to hear:
I recently spent a long weekend in Key West at a literary festival where the organizing theme was short stories. How delightful for me! There was much discussion on panels of the challenges that short stories present to their readers. The general feeling was that short stories could be difficult because their subject matter was so often grim; tragic. A novel you had time to settle into—novels wanted you to like them, it was agreed, whereas short stories were like Tuesday’s child, full of woe, and required a certain moral fortitude to properly digest. And yet it has always seemed to me that short stories have a kind of wild delight to them even when their subject is grim. They come at you in a rush and spin you about in an unsettling way and then go rushing off again. There is a kind of joy in the speed and compression necessary to make something very large happen in a small space. In contemporary short fiction, sometimes it’s the language of the story that transmits the live-wire shock. Sometimes the structure of the story itself—the container—the way it unfolds—is the thing that startles or energizes or joyfully dislodges the reader. But: it does sometimes seem to me that for maybe the last quarter of the previous century, the subject matter of literary short fiction was somewhat sedate: marriage, affairs, the loss of love, personal tragedies, moments of self-realization. The weird and the gothic and the fanciful mostly existed in pockets of genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, children’s literature) as if literature were a series of walled gardens and not all the same forest (Kelly Link).

This was what was bothering me. Everything I had been reading, whether high or low-brow had seemed predictable. (“Gosh, I wonder if this bird—a symbol for your relationship—will die. Yes, yes, he will.” “Gee, I wonder if this child protagonist will learn a terrible truth about life—and handle it badly.” “Golly, I wonder if these stick-figure characters will act out the obvious moral of this story.”) And what’s worse, they largely lacked any delight for (this) reader. I don’t need my fiction to be “delightful.” But I need to find some sort of delight in it—whether of discovery or language or character. I need to be surprised.

The book I had picked up was The People in the Castle, a new compilation of Joan Aiken’s work. I picked it up because, seeing Aiken’s name, I was immediately flooded with memories of other collections (The Last Slice of Rainbow and A Harp of Fishbones) I’d read in high school. And while I didn’t necessarily remember (or even like) every single short story, I distinctly recalled their vibrant strangeness. (I believe there was one about a man or woman who had a sort of “face blindless” and then fell in love, but something happened to the person this character loved—I think maybe they got trapped in a tea kettle?—and without seeing their love interest for a while, this face-blind character couldn’t recognize them later. I don’t know if that’s exactly correct. But it has all the feel of an Aiken short story.)

I think of a novel as a house (I’m certain I’m stealing this metaphor from someone, is it Henry James?)—a full structure, carefully built, worthy of exploration. And I think of a poem as a window (looking in or looking out). A poem only gives you a glimpse, but sometimes the glimpse is more perfect, more satisfying than a tour through the mansion could be.

But then what is a short story? A room?

Maybe that’s the problem. So many of the short stories I’ve read lately have felt like hotel rooms: slightly different in their details but generic and unremarkable.

Aiken’s stories are like the front room of a questionable apothecary shop or a hidden room in the center of a manor house with a unexplained tree growing through the floor (the actual setting of “A Room Full of Leaves”). They aren’t all quite what I would call “literary.” And if you read enough in one sitting, you start to guess where some of her stories are going. But my word! did they delight me, did they surprise me, did they reawaken a pleasure I had forgotten I could receive from short fiction.

I know a work has really sunk into my bones when it makes me view the world a little differently for the rest of the week.

I’m curious to know: what was the last short story you read that gave you a sense of delight?

(Image from Small Beer Press.)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Strange Book Saturday: The Super Dictionary

It's time to explore another strange book from my shelves. Even before I fell down the deep, dark hole that is comic book fandom, I was fascinated by this volume.

The Super Dictionary is best known for the following meme (and it’s variations):

Lex Luthor: criminal mastermind, sugar addict.

Intentional or not, there's a sort of comedic genius in this phrasing. (Please, someone, direct me to the comic this panel was borrowed from. What was Lex originally stealing? Cakes of uranium?) But even beyond this entry, Super Dictionary is much loved by the internet. You can find blogs and articles dedicated to its strangeness.

The Super Dictionary was published by Warner Educational Consultants in 1978, and it is now, sadly, out of print. Several of the characters in The Super Dictionary appear to have been created just for the dictionary. These characters also appeared in a series of elementary readers known as Super A (and possibly AA, B, and BB). According to some internet sources, the art in Super Dictionary was repurposed from earlier comics, which would explain its sometimes unsettling disconnect from what's being defined.

I think what makes the Super Dictionary so fascinating is that A) it offers such weird, out-of-context images of our favorite superheroes, and B) it fails, so beautifully, as a dictionary for young readers.

Consider this entry:

"A Slow News Day"
or "Instilling Globophobia in Children Everywhere"

What exactly is this image supposed to represent to children? Why is the balloon shaped like a pterodactyl? I suspect this panel was taken from a story in which Wonder Woman fought dinosaurs and they just doodled in some strings. In case you are wondering, pterodactyl is never defined by The Super Dictionary.

Even when the entries have no images, they are headscratchers:

Ted and Teri Trapper are married detectives created for The Super Dictionary. They spend many of their scenes being ant-sized for no clear reason. They also have the sanest Super Dictionary experience.

Okay, yes, breakfast defined as the first meal of the day works. And I can understand dividing the concept of breakfast into categories (cold/hot, healthy/children’s cereal, late/early, homemade/on the run), but indoor/outdoor never seemed like a important part of the meal’s definition. Does Super Dictionary worry that children will stand outside, shivering, munching on pop-tarts because no one explained that breakfast could be eaten indoors?

The individual oddities of this dictionary’s entries were enough to make it worth owning. But I also enjoy the accidental narratives created by reading the dictionary in order:

Batman is a terrible guardian.

I can't tell if Robin is being sarcastic or just resigned.

"Be careful of the outside covering of your body. If you scratch the finish, I can't get my full refund."

The dictionary reminds us that Robin has nine more toes, but that still doesn't make this okay.

"Can I leave you here in this alley? Can I continue to ignore my responsibilities?"

Robin's life is just sad.

Look at how wobbly Robin is, Batman. I think you really damaged his toe.

"You think my constant repetition reeks of desperation, but it doesn't!"

Look at Robin's face. He knows that even the dictionary is mocking him now.

I guess it's never too early to introduce children to the looming horror of parental disappointment.

Batgirl and the robin are sharing that "maybe if we ignore him, he'll go away" look.

During the panels where Green Arrow isn't courting Black Canary, he's a ball of barely contained rage.

HULK SMASH PUNY ARROW! (The cop is trying to nod himself out of frame.)

Black Canary's face says that she knows exactly what those problems are.

I'd say that it's nice to see Green Arrow express something other than anger, but he looks pretty mad about that tear.

And Lex Luthor just loves him some cake.

I don't think I've ever seen him this happy. And I've seen him kill Superman.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Update: New Job, Popular Culture Association Conference, Ferry Frogs, and Tea Parties

Pro Tip: If you don't know how to begin your blog post, try "the photo of a strange thing I saw" cold open.
It's been far too long since my last blog post, and even longer since my last personal update, so here's a quick recap of the past few weeks (and an effort to pretend that I've been busy enough to have an excuse for not blogging):

1.) I got a new job! I am now a part-time staff writer for Children of Nations, a Christian nonprofit that works with orphans in Africa and the Caribbean. This news is so fresh that I haven't even had my first day in the office yet, but I'm too excited to wait to share it. (Generally, I don't discuss my "in-office" professional life on this blog, but I really want to you to check out the marvelous work COTN does.)

2.) I've spent a lot of time lately either writing (on things that aren't this blog), spending time with friends and family (birthdays, family visits, etc.), and dealing with mold. One of these things is not like the others.

I've learned that A) my family is very sensitive to mold and B) "mold hunt" is the worst form of scavenger hunt ever invented.

Replace "You're getting warmer/colder" with "You're getting damper/dryer."
Try to guess which area or item in your house will unexpectedly become a sponge.
Find mold.
Five bonus points for each body part that either swells or turns red and itchy.

As I type this, I have approximately one hundred books piled on my bedroom floor; all pulled out so that I could find the single book that decided to go fuzzy on me. (So long, The Book of Tea.)
All the topics I'm "totally going to read up on one of these days."

3.) In slightly older news, the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference was held in Seattle at the end of March. This was the closest McFarland Publishing (the publisher of that book I contributed to) was going to be to me all year, so I took a Thursday off and headed down to the conference.

Here I am with the lovely people at the McFarland table. (Many thanks to Gary and Karl-Heinz.)

The closest I will ever get to taking a photo with actual Dick Grayson, Boy Wonder.
Guys, I had a wonderful time at the conference. I can't even tell you. Most of the sessions I sat in on were about comic books, so I basically got to spend the day listening to academics overthink of one my favorite mediums. I was in heaven.

I also wandered the city and ended up eating macarons for the first time (from Belle Epicurean and The Yellow Cupcake Bakery, both of which I recommend).

And at the end of my trip, as I was waiting for my ride at the Bainbridge terminal, who should keep me company but this giant frog pictured above?

4.) I celebrated National Poetry Month in my typical fashion (with literary littering).

5.) I threw a small circus-themed May Day tea party with some wonderful friends.
I don't have any photos of us sitting at the table, but I promise I actually have friends.
My mom and brother created these little critters and their maypole, so I can't take any credit for them.
Now that we're caught up, I can get back to my regularly scheduled posting.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Strange Book Saturday: Boring Postcards USA

I'm introducing a new series of posts: Strange Book Saturdays!

In these posts, I invite you to gawk with me at oddball books. I won't write these posts every Saturday, but when they do show up it will be on a Saturday (or late Friday evening). Because I am a sucker for alliteration.

The preliminary "strange book" is a long-time favorite of mine: Boring Postcards USA (Phaidon).
Exactly what it says on the tin.
A friend and I used to send each other bizarre books we had discovered, and I think this is the first one she sent me (thanks, Cara!).

I spent three and a half of my college years in northern Indiana, yet I still never managed to cross a stretch of road quite this unremarkable.

Warning: You spend enough time staring at these postcards, you start to believe their claims. When I first saw this photo, I grimaced. Now, it actually makes me a little hungry.

The wonder of the book lies in the fact, not that someone took a photo of each of these places and objects, but that someone turned these photos into mass-produced postcards. What's more, some of these cards have obviously gone through the mail. I like to imagine the sort of messages sent from middle-of-nowhere America:

Dear Joan,
I wish you were here. But for all I know, you are here because "here" is indistinguishable from anywhere else.
In the moments between eating at diners dubbed only "Diner" and driving under the blue eye of a sky that never blinks, along a purgatory of endless interstates, I think of you.

This looks less like a location you'd send a postcard from and more like the setting of a low-budget horror flick.
There's a part of me that desperately wants to take a road trip and find all the places where these photos were taken, to create a "before" and "after" series. Which seems like a waste. It's not as though there aren't many more interesting locales in the world, enough that I will never have time to visit them all. (If you'd like to learn about little-known, non-boring sites to plan a road trip around, check out Atlas Obscura.)

But Boring Postcards appeals to a part of me that relishes innocent delight in the ordinary. Anyone can see the beauty in the Grand Canyon. It takes a vigorous imagination to appreciate the beauties of the Gaines Truck Stop in Boyle, Mississippi. At one point, each of the places depicted here meant something to someone, was worth snapping a photo of or sending a note from. Even if only to say, "This is where I was today when I remembered that I love you."

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen: Jim Henson's Labyrinth

                It’s (past) that time again! Time for another episode of Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen.

I know other rock stars were considered for the role, but can you really imagine anyone other than David Bowie playing a convincing Goblin King?

                I know I’ve seen parts of Labyrinth before, and I feel like I must have watched it as a child, but I have more memories of hearing about it than I have of seeing it. There’s a lot I could say about Labyrinth, but what really strikes me is how much it is a story about puberty—specifically, female puberty. Forgive me if I delve briefly into “over-analyzing children’s movies” (this is my favorite game, after “over-analyzing comic books”).
Middle-school me wants every single thing in Sarah's room.
                Jareth is a combination of symbols of male power and sexual fantasy, which explains Sarah’s uncertain relationship with him. (Seriously, the whole Goblin Kingdom is full of phallic imagery, never mind David Bowie’s. . .er, “magic dance.”) The story Sarah tells at the beginning is about the Goblin King being in love with her and offering her some of his power. Pre-journey Sarah is in love with the romantic and fantastical, but her baby brother represents the realities of adult responsibility (and real human relationships). Sarah wants the freedom and power she assumes are attached to adulthood (and romance), but she rejects their responsibilities, particularly the responsibilities of family, which she associates with her stepmother, while idolizing what she assumes was the more romantic life of her deceased actress mother.
                Before Sarah can accept the world of adult responsibilities, however, she has to go deeper “underground,” into the world of dreams and wishes, into her own subconscious.
Me and ever other Muggle who didn't get their Hogwarts letter.
                As with most hero’s journey’s, what the journey represents is change within the hero. As the story continues, Sarah begins to befriend creatures in the labyrinth, she looks for wisdom instead of easy answers, she becomes more generous, and she stops expecting the labyrinth to be “fair.”
                I know people have commented on how the dream ball scene seems a little creepy given that David Bowie is obviously so much older than Jennifer Connelly. Add that to David Bowie’s unsavory history with underage girls, and it becomes difficult to view this scene the way I think it was intended. But if you consider that everything in the Goblin Kingdom comes from Sarah’s fantasies, it’s a little less disturbing. The Goblin King is the romantic “other”—intriguing and sexually mature, dangerous and different, exciting and frightening, but also less threatening than a real flesh-and-blood boy Sarah’s own age would be.
It’s not really clear why the Goblin King would want a baby, but that doesn’t bother me. In puberty logic, it’s not really clear why anyone would want a baby; we’re just vaguely aware that is a thing people want.
                When she momentarily wakes from the dream, she thinks she is looking for “Lancelot”—her bear, but also her dream of courtly love—but what she is really looking for is her baby brother (representing family and responsibility) and her creature friends (representing, well, friends). Her childhood toys represent selfishness and an unwillingness to face adulthood, but paradoxically, her stories from childhood give Sarah the determination she needs to break free from the illusion that the self-centeredness of childhood can last forever.
                When Jareth says that he is “exhausted from living up to your expectations of me”—well, of course he is. He is a projection of everything Sarah thought she wanted. Jareth is pure fantasy, and he promises, “Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.” In other words, “give in completely to fantasy and never have to face the hard world of reality again.”
I know, Sarah. This is pretty much what I thought adulthood was going to be like too. (For the record, I am severely disappointed by the lack of masquerade balls in my life.)
When Sarah remembers the line from her book, “You have no power over me,” she is finally realizing her own power—power that has not been given to her by Jareth or any figure of romance, but that is completely her own. And this is the point of story: to give us tools to face our own goblins, to remind us of our power.
                The dance party of rejected goblins that takes place in Sarah’s room at the end might seem to contradict the idea of leaving the realm of fantasy behind, but it actually shows Sarah’s ability to now incorporate her fantasies into her real life without letting them take the place of her real life (it also hints at Sarah now having the ability to make friends). Sarah has accepted reality. She sees that her treasured childhood toys are “junk” when compared to the value of her baby brother. She has traded the black-and-white childhood definitions of “fair” and “unfair” for a view of people that is both less na├»ve and more forgiving (allowing her to forgive Hoggle’s betrayal). And she is able to see both that she needs others (like Hoggle) and has a power of her own.
Why can't all movies have Escher stairs?
                All that aside, while Labyrinth is fun, and I appreciate seeing a fantasy coming-of-age tale with a female protagonist, it can a bit. . .tedious. I think this is partially because the movie is trying give the viewer a sense of also being trapped in a never-ending labyrinth, which makes the pacing much slower than the average children’s movie (and raises the question: who exactly was this movie intended for?). This also partially because the dialogue becomes repetitive, and at times, falls into the “if a character repeats and repeats something, with increasing freneticism, it must eventually become funny” fallacy. Also, Sarah is not a particularly enjoyable character for a good fourth of the movie (Jennifer Connelly plays a fairly one-note petulant teenager).
                All in all, I enjoyed the movie, even though I frequently caught myself checking the time. I give it three and a half plastic bracelets out of five. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Update: The Hollins Critic, Guest-Blogging, and Bad Movie Ideas

Whenever I start out a week feeling especially ambitious (This is it. This week I'm going to get to everything on my list!), it's like the opening of the movie trailer.

VOICEOVER GUY: It was foolproof plan.

NAIVE PROTAGONIST [writing to-do list]: What could possibly go wrong?

VOICEOVER GUY: Until. . . .

[Music changes to a minor key. Smile on NAIVE PROTAGONIST's face slowly morphs into a confused grimace. . . .] 

[Trailer speeds up. Volcanoes. Poisoned darts. Fire. Man-eating kittens. Close-up of protagonist's horrified face. Explosions. A literal tornado of paper. Ninjas from the future. More fire.]
He's thinking about it; you can tell.

There may or may not have been man-eating kittens, but that's pretty much how the past few weeks have felt.

So there hasn't been a lot of blogging here. I have, however, been working on some new Bethany Watches Movies Everyone Else Has Already Seen posts, and I should have one of those up soon.

Meanwhile, you can check out my guest blog post, "Your Novel is Boring (Here's Why and How to Fix It)" over at Writing About Writing. I'm now an official guest-blogger there (with a bio and everything), so I guess I'm a real blogger now, in spite of my recent lack of posts here. (If you're reading this, Chris, I'm totally typing out a post for you right now, with my other hand.)

In other news, what should show up in my mailbox but a copy of The Hollins Critic?

With one of my poems on the back cover.
You can either order your own copy to read, or you can create a new poem out of the words visible between my fingers.