The Choice to Fly

I love flying. And this year, I went paragliding.

 

photo by Drew McNabb from Acroparagliding

Starting my annual birthday flying adventures is the best tradition I’ve established for myself. It’s a chance for me to step outside my day-to-day, to reflect on what I’ve accomplished and who I want to be and whether I’m on that path.

This year was hard, for a lot of reasons, and I have been pushing hard. On the writing front, I wrote another book’s worth of words in the course of revisions, and I have revised more–both in thoroughness and in quantity of time spent–this year than I’ve revised in my life. And amidst everything else, I wrote a new book (which you can read for free!), which was a new kind of challenge and adventure. But I’ve gotten so caught up in the minutiae of that daily work that I was desperately ready to fly.

For my birthday flying adventures, I’ve been skydiving, flown on trapezes, sped through the air on ziplines. There are spectacular views to be seen this way, but it’s ultimately not the external perspective I value. It’s the act of flying itself that I love, that I can never get enough of.

When I’m in the air, I don’t feel adrenaline rushes from fear or even thrill. It’s a quieter feeling, but it centers me: flying, I know who I am. I know what I can do, and what I will do.

Every time, I wonder if it will be hard to jump. This year, I wondered if I’d feel nervous running off the hill with so much air below me. I’m familiar with that feeling, standing at the edge of a cliff and making myself jump, and I was prepared to do it, to prove to myself that I could. But there was no doubt, no fear; just launching into the sky.

This year, though, something else struck me. Throughout the trip–doing the paperwork, riding the van up the mountain, strapping in amidst endless jokes to test whether I was going to panic (they, clearly, had not met me)–people kept asking, with some confusion, some disbelief, “you’re here alone?”

Like it was so rare not to need people to come along for moral support, or to witness me. Like I really was there just to fly.

And when I responded affirmatively, they just said, “Good for you.”

Good for me, for taking steps to pursue my own path. Good for me, for knowing when I am enough, for being enough, by myself.

But even though I came alone, I came to a community. People who joked, knew each other’s hopes and struggles, looked out for each other, expected the best. A community of people who have learned to carve a regular space for adventure into their everyday lives, as though flying above mountains is a normal part of everyday lives.

Because it can be.

And the other consistent refrain throughout the trip was when people asked me what I did, and I said I was a writer, and they all marveled.

At first I thought they were impressed by my ability to make ends meet as a writer, but after a couple interactions I realized they hadn’t considered that the challenging part. It was the fact that I write, and I write novels, and multiple, and fantasy, facts I always take as a matter of course, that was what wowed them.

Writing has become such an integral part of my everyday that I sometimes forget what an adventure it is, to pour my time and energy and thoughts and passion into creating stories with words, to throw myself off the cliff over and over and trust that I will fly.

When I fly, I remember I’m an adventurer.

photo by Jenny Scott

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Approaching Cons as a Professional Writer

I just returned from a fabulous Sirens, where this year I was reader, presenter, writer, and staff, a new intersection of roles for me. As always, I’ve returned with a lot of thoughts, more a coalescence of ideas accumulated over years of cons rather than a response to a particular experience. (Which is to say, if you think I’m talking about you, unless you know I think of you as a scholar and a gentleperson, you’re probably wrong.)

I’ve had a chance to attend a variety of cons over the last few years before traditionally publishing, which has given me time to realize I have opinions not just on what kind of writer I want to be in the sense of storytelling, but also on what kind of public professional I want to be. I hear writers talk regularly about their public internet/social media presence, but less about the way they approach con-going. Professional writers go to different cons for different reasons, those broadly being:

  • Networking/Meetings
  • Learning craft
  • Selling books
  • Being with friends who get you

Attending a con will usually involve some combination of those goals, but some cons are better for particular priorities. Big cons–like book expos or comic cons–are the best way to get books in front of lots of fans. A tiny regional con or workshop is a better bet for craft. A genre establishment con–WFC, Nebulas, RT–is going to have a high density of pros, which is ideal for scheduling meetings with a lot of publishing professionals.

A con is also an investment: of money, and of time. In general, writers are paying their own way to these events, and they’re events that take time away from writing and editing. More than that, they’re exhausting, physically and emotionally. It’s hard to be “on” all the time. Add to that, a lot of professional writers are introverts. Being social, in public, with people we don’t know, is hard.

But writing is also a job. Cons are, ideally, rejuvenating in a personal fashion, but for a professional writer, they’re also work. I think it’s important to consider what writers get out of cons, and what they want to get out of them, and what that means in terms of approach.

It’s possible for writers to only talk to people at cons they already know–whether because they have many people to catch up with after years of attending a con or years of being away, or many meetings scheduled, or overwhelming shyness and enormous relief that they’re no longer fighting to break in, that they have their group, that they don’t have to put themselves in awkward social situations anymore.

It’s not only possible, it’s easy. It sometimes takes more effort to not end up only talking with people I already know, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn to be aware of that so I don’t, because I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. If I only wanted to talk to friends, I could schedule a retreat, or set up a private group chat. Part of the value of cons is not just bringing together people I already know, but people I don’t already know.

When I go to cons, I want to make deep connections–in ideas, and in relationships. I always want to learn, grow, and make friends.

And not just with other writers and publishing professionals. Readers are smart. Some of the most insightful story craft and emotionally supportive discussions I’ve had were with people who will never type a word of fiction in their lives.

I do also want to make friends with people in my field, but the idea of “networking” without friendship fills me with unease–the kind of hollow foundation it implies in my head is harder for me to navigate than the prospect of demonstrating sincere interest in people and knowing them better. That I don’t have to fret about how to do well, because I am interested–if anything I’ll have more trouble keeping my interest in hearing absolutely everything contained.

So here it is: if I go to a con you’re also at, I want to meet you. No matter whether you’ve been in the industry for decades or never been to a con in your life, I want to hear what you’re excited about, and I want to have a conversation about it and not just small talk.

That’s a choice, and every choice has consequences. I know it means I won’t sleep enough in favor of talking with people, and although I’m an introvert I won’t spend much, let alone enough, time alone. I know it means I’ll need to compensate for the sleep deprivation with making sure to eat extremely healthily, which is often complicated at a con. I know it means I need to stock up on introversion before and after a con, that I’ll lose another day to get my body and mind back in working order. I know it means I need to schedule time at the con, not just to see my friends, but to make sure I have time to see people who aren’t already my friends. I know it means I’ll end up in conversations I want to flee, and I’ll miss visiting with some people I care about.

But I’ll also make new friends, and I’ll have conversations and thoughts I couldn’t have had otherwise. That’s the goal, and that’s the reward.

Cons are a balance, and for every person that balance falls differently. Selling books isn’t currently a top priority for me, for instance–but even once it is, I don’t think my choice on this will change much. One of the professional benefits of putting effort into a public presence is to help readers feel personally connected to writers, which encourages them to buy books and spread the word, and in my experience conversations are way more likely to establish connections than listening to someone sitting up on a panel pedestal. For another, everyone has different mental and physical health needs, but I’ve had time to learn how to balance mine in a con setting. Not everyone can make the same choice I do, nor should they necessarily want to.

But I know how much I’ve valued the people over the years who have taken the time to be patient, to listen, to take me seriously, to engage with me earnestly and thoughtfully, to see me when I’ve been alone. How much it’s mattered, and how much I’ve learned. And I know that’s the kind of professional writer I want to be.

So the next time we’re at the same con, I hope we get a chance to talk. I want to hear what you’re excited about.

experiments in defensive fortifications

Happiness as Resistance

I’ve scaled back my social media consumption a lot in the last year. My feeds have become so full of anger, and not unjustifiably. It’s not hard to make me angry, too, but past a certain point, anger doesn’t help me get anything done. So I filter.

Of course, while filtering social media heavily has made me happier on the whole, it brings the unexpected complication of making me feel guilty about being happy when so many people are suffering. I try to remember my being so unhappy and angry I can’t do my work doesn’t help anyone, including myself. And being happy—not just as an absence of anger and grief, but actively experiencing joy—takes energy.

But I think it’s also a form of resistance.

To keep being able to do my work, the work I believe matters.

To be happy, despite all the systems’ best efforts to grind me down.

So I’m working, not just on keeping myself from being overwhelmed by the state of the world, or even on seizing happiness where I can find it, but on doing what I can to put happiness into the world. So that maybe I can help give someone else pieces of joy to hold onto when everything is falling apart around them. I want that in my life, and in my art.

Putting happiness into the world is my rejection of a world in which there is no space for my happiness, for small moments of joy. And I will keep putting it in, even when screaming into the void is the only rational response.

It’s not a substitute for other forms of resistance. This is an “in addition to,” not an “instead of.” But it’s one that, while arguably trite, I think matters.

It’s easy to add more anger to the world. Joy is harder.

But here, have a cat picture. =)

Literally Covered in Cats: the Casey Blair Story

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.