Choosing Reads

A few weeks ago, I realized I didn’t want to read, which is a huge red flag for me. I’d had a stretch of books that either weren’t great or required more emotional bandwidth than I had handy. Since “not wanting to read” is pretty antithetical to who I am, it was time to employ emergency measures:

I picked a book to re-read. A book I already knew I loved, and a book I was sure would be exactly what I wanted.

A sad consequence of doing most of my reading on an e-reader is that I don’t re-read as often as I used to, because I can’t wander around my shelves and wait for a moment of yes, THAT’S what I need to read right now in quite the same way. But even scrolling through the e-reader library, I have that aha moment when I pass the right one, and it occurred to me that moment itself is telling.

I know there are people who never re-read, but it mystifies me. For me, choosing a given book to re-read says a lot about my mood, for one thing, and what my brain is working on—particular questions of identity, grappling anew with themes addressed in a work, a reflection of the mood I’m experiencing or feeling the lack of. And re-reading these books is a way of reaffirming myself, what matters to me and who I am, and I find re-reading to be an immensely clarifying, cleansing, and centering experience.

(Also I can skip to my favorite bits.)

In this case, the books I re-read (five novels and three novellas from Meljean Brook’s Guardians series, for the curious) underscored a trend not just in what I’ve been drawn to in re-reading, but also the kinds of books and writers I’ve been reaching for.

My to-read pile of books that are denser, require more time or thought, and especially ones that I know will require more emotional bandwidth (hello The Fifth Season, which I’ve started and is AMAZING and is also still waiting on my nightstand) are piling up. I’m in a state as, I think, many are, where I’m just about at my capacity to deal with all the awfulness going on around me. I have about as much challenge as I can stand, and I want more escapism.

Which is not to say I’m reading books that don’t deal with serious or complicated issues; I have perhaps less patience than ever for books with, for instance, unacknowledged sexism, or books that are fundamentally stupid or depend on me pretending to be. But one reason I realized I’ve been picking up book after book by Martha Wells is that I can trust I won’t be smacked in the face with unanticipated sexism when all I want was a transporting read.

These days the books I’m craving, the books I’m reaching for, aren’t just good, nor are they just thoughtful or inventive, as if those weren’t already rare. They’re comforting. They have optimistic outlooks and happy endings. They contain deep personal growth and beautiful friendships, adventure and exploration of worlds and ideas, and I don’t have to worry about being side-swiped by sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism. They’re warm, welcoming, fun, and if not precisely light, then at least not grim. They’re hopeful, at a time when I could use more hope.

And they’re hard to find, because that’s a tall order. I’ve developed my own list of authors and books I trust, and no doubt yours won’t look the same, because we all pull different things from stories and need different things at any given time.

But, as I’m not just a reader but also a writer, it seems only logical that I should be writing the kind of stories I want to read, because maybe other people need them, too.

I’ve been vague-tweeting about a Secret Project for a few months now, but I’m nearly ready to share it with you all. So look for more details here next week… =D

Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

One Year On

It’s amazing the difference a year can make.

Around this time last year, I’d finally reached a breaking point and decided to quit my job because I was imploding. 2013 was in many ways a transitional year, but I was terribly unhappy. I also didn’t manage to complete a novel draft the entire year, for the first time since I started writing seriously in college.

My life wasn’t working, so I took some drastic steps.

This year, I wanted to restructure my life to support my writing, rather than trying to fit my writing in around my life; make writing the priority; learn how to write consistently instead of in binges because sanity matters; finish projects.

It’s taken me months to sort out how this balance works for me, the dance between writing much and consistently without overwhelming myself, between also having a social life (leaving my apartment and talking to friends is beneficial to my emotional well-being! madness, I know) and working part-time and going to cons and finding myself in a committed relationship for the first time in my life (it’s been 9 months now, which also seems like madness).

But it’s working. Finally.

Because I track my fiction-writing productivity like a crazy person, here are some statistics:

– In the last year I’ve completed the first drafts of three novels and completed edits on two novels (only one novel is in both of those categories).
– I’ve written more than 250,000 words of fiction for novel drafts — that is, not counting edits, background work, or submission packets (nor blogs, reviews, beta feedback, etc.).

That’s more productivity on writing than I’ve ever managed before, and I’m getting faster. The better I understand my process, the better I can structure my life to maximize my time.

I’m not done settling into this new balance. My work and living situations are both going to have to change, for instance, but now I know what I need from them both. It’s a work in progress, but it is progress. It’s so much progress.

Because what the statistics don’t say (unless you’re a writer and understand that how you feel about the novel affects your mood for Everything Else), is that I’m happy. That’s the most important change. Happiness for me is tied inextricably to my writing, but there are a lot of other pieces, too. And it’s taken months to get to a place where I don’t feel like I’m having to claw my way out of a hole every day, but I’m there. Or getting there, closely enough that I can breathe.

Flying Trapeze

Last year, I talked about figuring out how to fly, every day. In the figurative sense, I’m learning how to flap in the wind. In the literal sense, I’ve decided to make flying/adventuring a yearly pre-birthday tradition: something I do on my own, for myself; something I’ve always wanted to do that I’m now going to actually do.

Last year, it was skydiving, jumping out into the sky and falling. This year, it’s flying trapeze — something that’s always fascinated me (hanging upside-down while flying through the air, why wouldn’t I want to do this??). The hardest part was climbing up the ladder, but once I was on the trapeze, well, flipping upside-down has always been easy for me. Some stutters, sure, but I kept flying, or I got back up and flew again. And I also learned that it is very easy to do trapeze here, so I could even make it a habit, a sustainable hobby.

Last year I jumped; this year I learned how to fly. Maybe next year I’ll soar.

One Quarter-Centennial Down…

And here’s to many more to come!

Really, more than the standard few would be ideal, of course; I’m in no hurry to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Birthday Skydive

No, seriously.  Just wrapping the quarter-centennial with STYLE. Like you do.

It was actually a pretty zen experience. I wondered if I might get nervous last minute, but I was sort of eerily calm as I geared up and got on the plane, as I rolled out of said plane, and as I fell from 13,000 feet. Good times. I mean, it was incredibly fun, but not the adrenaline rush I was expecting. Like jumping out of planes was a perfectly everyday sort of affair. The best kind of everyday affair, because what if I could jump out of a plane and fall and fly and float every single day?

There are people who do that.

And I’m reflecting on my last year, and what my everyday experience has been like.

My everyday has changed a lot in the last year. In the obvious ways, I quit my job and moved from Japan back to the States. I relocated to Seattle, a city where I knew pretty much no one and didn’t have a job, and met people and got one. I don’t really have my own group of people here, but that’s fine; on the other hand, I’ve felt more in touch with my writing people. And one of the lovely things about birthdays is that I get to hear from friends everywhere, no matter how casual or deep that friendship goes.

In the last year I’ve also learned how to do the Twitter thing, been to three new cons and met awesome folk at each, started reviewing over at Fantasy Book Critic, set up my own website, submitted pieces of fiction to paying markets for the first time, and edited the crap out of and written words on a few different novels.

It sounds sort of productive when I put it like that, but I feel like I haven’t done enough, not that matters. I won’t list all the things I think I ought to have gotten done. It’s been over a year since Viable Paradise, and I’ve done many things, but none of it feels like enough. And I suppose it will never be enough, because there are always going to be more stories, which is part of the reason I want all those quarter-centennials.

And every day, I feel like I should be doing more, and when I think that, I always mean in regards to writing, even on days when I’ve written thousand and thousands of words. Which makes me wonder about how my everyday is structured now, because I know what I really want to fill it with. And I think that whenever I decide to do a thing that people around me think seems more than a little risky (see: teach in rural Japan, move to Seattle, go skydiving…), really choose, I commit; I stick to it and get shit done. Calmly, independently, and inexorably, because it’s my choice, and that means something. Year 24 was a transitional year, and that’s fine.

But I think it’s about time I stop dithering and figure out how I get on that plane, so I can jump off of it and fly.