Love Your Work

One of my creative writing professors in college had a mantra of sorts: “Alcoholism, depression, suicide….” It was supposed to be a joke. He’d say it after discussing one of the more challenging aspects of writing, and we would laugh. It did seem funny at the time. That’s the cliche, right? Fitzgerald drank himself to death before 50, Hemingway and Sylvia Plath killed themselves, the Brontes were famously unhappy, and Emily Dickinson was a recluse who never showed her work to anyone.

You’re supposed to be miserable, the story goes. You’re supposed to think you’re worthless. You’re supposed to be the worst, toughest critic of your own work.

But anyone can do that. Really, anyone can be miserable, anyone can hate what they create. It’s harder by far to find what you like in what you do, and harder still to build your own confidence in yourself, especially when the story goes that you shouldn’t. You can even find yourself clinging to bad habits like being hard on yourself just because that’s what you’re “supposed” to do. It’s not cool to like what you do. Besides, if you’re not twisting with the internal agonies of trying to create the perfectly formed sentence, then maybe what you do isn’t worthy of the word “work” at all.

And believe me, I’ve done the writhing in agony thing. It’s not fun and it sure isn’t pretty. Once, in college, I came home from a critique and tore up the drafts of my story and tossed them in the recycling bin–not because the critiques were wrong, but because I was convinced my story was so awful. There were at least two occasions when I said “I quit!” to the whole thing, and the second of those times lasted the better part of a year.

But recently I’ve been feeling something else. I’ve written stories and liked them. I’ve written a novel that I well and truly like, that I feel proud of. Instead of feeling wholly inadequate I’ve been able to look at my own stuff and think, “You know, you can really do this…”

And damn if it isn’t a hundred thousand times better than wallowing in my own misery. But it’s weird, because that’s not part of the myth. The story goes we’re supposed to hate our work, so when you find yourself admiring your own sentences you start to panic, think you’re getting egotistical. As if there’s no middle ground between self-degradation and narcissism.

A couple weeks ago Daniel Jose Older, author of the ghost-noir collection Salsa Nocturna, sent out a series of tweets giving writers permission to like their own work. It was maybe the first time I ever saw anyone suggesting it’s okay to love your work. There are tons of posts out there about how to handle self doubt, but almost none about how you can and should cultivate actual love for your work. I think there’s a belief out there that a writer’s loathing for her own work is what helps her edit that work to perfection, but Older suggests that love is what gives us the ability to critique our own stuff. And you know, I think he’s right. The stuff I’ve written in the past that I hated? I could hardly stand to work on them long enough to edit them. But the stuff I love? The novel I’ve been trying to write for over ten years? Those are the ones I can accurately and correctly critique. Those are the ones I see clearest. It’s a labor of love, so why not own it?

Kate Elliott, author of the excellent Spiritwalker Triology, responded to Older’s tweets by asking folks to tell her at least one thing they like about their writing. One thing they’re confident they do well. (I would link, but I lost the tweet…)

I like the idea of doing that. So I’m going to do it. It’s kind of scary — somehow it’s easier to confess what we’re bad at, rather than what we like, because at least if we say we’re bad and we’re not we’re being modest. If you say you like something and it’s done poorly, what then?

But if we can’t find something to like in our writing, why should anyone else? If we can’t like what we do, why do we do it? So, here goes.

I’ve got an ear for language. I’m pretty good at writing prose that’s highly readable but still beautiful. (I balked at “beautiful” at first, almost wrote “interesting,” but what is that?) And I’m good at characterization. Sometimes my plots leave a little to be desired, but at the very least I’ll have some interesting folks running through my stories, folks that I and others end up caring about.

Owning your work means more than just admitting to your flaws. You’ve got to own your skills too. So tell me: What are you good at? What do you love about your own work?

Post-Novel Writing Ennui

I hate this part of writing. Hate it. But it’s as inevitable as rain in spring: you’re going to write your book, and when you finish you will be briefly elated, and then you will kick around and flail and stare at your computer like it’s suddenly transformed into some strange alien object. Words? Characters? Story? What?

I never know what to do with myself after I finish writing a book. I tell myself that I’m going to write a gazillion short stories and maybe a poem or two, plus of course 900 blog posts of splintering brilliance — but I never account for weariness, and instead of all that I maybe edit a story and write the opening paragraphs to half a dozen others. It suddenly seems like so much work, and I have just finished a lot of work, and I’m ready for something easy now. But writing isn’t easy. It’s not supposed to be. I suppose it could be if I were capable of writing something goofy just for shits and giggles, but every time I start it turns serious and becomes work again. And then I stop, because I want to write but I don’t want to work.

Eventually it sorts itself out. Either I finally find a project and stick with it — start working — or enough time has passed that I can turn around and edit the novel I just finished. I suppose both solutions are about letting time pass so my head can clear itself out and the work can start to look fun again. I love writing, so I can’t stand it when I don’t love it. Does that make sense? Some people write to have written, but I’m very much in love with the process. I’d almost rather be neck deep in a novel forever than have to go about the process of finishing it.

Now I’ve written that, it doesn’t really make sense. Or it does, but it seems like it shouldn’t. That could be a tag line for all of writing in general: Makes sense, but it shouldn’t. This is a weird thing we do, folks, a very wonderful but a very strange thing. And I wouldn’t give it up for anything, even right now when it’s driving me a little crazy.

Name Change

So, you might be wondering, who is this Lura McCartney, and what has she done to Lura Slowinski? (Or not. I mean, it’s okay if you’re not.) McCartney is my maiden name, and after several months of wishing I’d decided to publish as McCartney from the start it occurred to me that it wasn’t quite too late. I could make this change, but if I was going to do it at all, it had to be now. So, here we are. Still the same me, just with a different name.

It’s not because I regret taking my husband’s name when I married, because I don’t really, though if it came up now I’d consider it a lot longer and harder than I did at the time. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of keeping my old name around somehow as well. I also like having one name for the Public Author Persona, and another for just plain old me hanging out with friends and family and the like.

So that’s that. Hopefully I’ll be a little more active on the blogging front going forward than I was all of last year. I’ll need something to keep me sane as I somehow edit my 155,000 word novel down to something resembling publishable length. I made the mistake of Googling word counts of famous books earlier today, and what seemed like a manageable problem only a few hours ago suddenly seems mountainous. Still, there’s only one way up a mountain — step by step. Onward we go…

Everything’s All Right

Sometimes I wish I was a more adventurous sort of person.

It usually happens after I read something about that sort of person — someone a little wild, a little raw around the edges, someone whose life seems to burn brighter and hotter than my own. In this case, the novel was All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry, which is about a couple of girls in the punk rock scene in 1990s Seattle (I think it’s Seattle, though the city is unnamed). There’s sex and some drugs and a lot of drinking, late nights out at raucous parties, excess so extreme that it takes a hellish toll. Not exactly appealing, is it? (Though the book is excellent!) It’s not so much that I want any of those things, because I don’t, but I do envy their ability to ignore or throw aside any sense of repercussions. I’m too naturally sensible to get rid of any inhibitions I have, so, inhibited, I live a quiet, staid life.

Which is fine, most of the time. But it’s possible to be too quiet and too staid, to inhibit yourself almost to a sort of death. Sometimes you have to be able to take a risk, to gamble that things will work out all right. Sometimes you even have to stop and redefine what “all right” might even mean. If you’re like me — exceedingly sensible — then at first glance all right means a steady job with a comprehensive health package and a 401k, a car and an apartment and a future in a suburb somewhere, with the requisite 2.5 children, the dog, the cat, the white picket fence. All right means enough money leftover for buying books and taking the occasional trip, always planned well in advance, never spontaneous and never stretching the budget. All right means everything is lined up, your ducks in a row, steady gains and nothing risked.

But “all right” might not be all right. I left the nine to five job with the benefits package a little over a year ago, because I was not actually all right. I was miserable. I hated my job. That almost seemed to be the sensible thing, hating the office job — the thing that made me just like everyone else. And, sensibly enough, I stuck with it for a long time, until suddenly I couldn’t anymore, and I quit almost spontaneously, in a weird week that caught me so off guard I wasn’t myself anymore.

Things could have gone badly from there, definitely. I was the breadwinner of our little family — me, my husband, and our cat Reesie — so my quitting was a major deal, to say the least. But that was just the first in a rapid-fire chain of events, because during my very last week at the old job my husband was offered a job in the Boston area. He took it; we moved; and here we are a year later, both of us working again, the cat well-fed, us well-fed, our financial situation maybe not as good as it once was but not so bad, either. We’ve got friends here. I belong to a local writing group and I’m a member of two book clubs with a third starting up next month. I’ve attended Readercon twice now, and have seen some of my favorite authors in person at bookstores throughout the area. I can’t afford to buy every single book I want to own, but now that I’m frequenting the library I’m picking up books I never would have otherwise, and loving them.

In other words, I’m all right. But maybe I wouldn’t have any of this if I hadn’t done the stupid thing and quit that sensible job in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a time and a place for sensibility, definitely. But having the occasional, sensible adventure is important too. To me that means going out when I might have preferred staying in, or splurging on a day trip to Salem, or teaching myself how to bake bread and cook new foods. It means reaching out to that writing group, taking the Readercon plunge, diving headlong into a new draft even when the little doubts suggest otherwise. They’re little adventures, maybe, but I don’t need big thrills. The little ones are enough. As Theodora Goss says in this excellent blog post, “I am the adventure: all of the things I do could be ordinary, but my imagination transforms them.”

I’ve got imagination. I think I can handle that.

And as for being the quiet, staid one? Well, anytime I start thinking it’d be great to be wild, I can go back and read “The Quiet Girls,” a poem by Catherine Pierce. “Still we float like spores, aloft and away.” We skirt the big dangers, have our quiet little adventures, take the sensible risks, and even if floating isn’t quite like flying, at least it’s not falling. We’re still aloft and airborne, just at a pace more suitable to us.

And the view is pretty good, too.

Readercon 24

I was lucky enough to spend this past weekend hanging out with a bunch of nerdy, smart, brilliant speculative fiction writers at Readercon 24, an annual SFF convention in the Boston area. It’s a unique SFF con in that there’s no costuming, no gaming, very little reference to films or TV: It’s just about the books and the authors and the people who love them. It is quite literally three straight days of people talking about books.

Fan-freaking-tastic.

I’m still trying to process everything. I and two friends from my critique group split a hotel room for the weekend, so except for two excursions outside for meals I spent the three days entirely enclosed in a relatively small event space crammed full of authors, editors, bloggers, and so forth. Only minutes after I arrived on Friday I managed to nearly walk into one of my favorite authors, and later I bought a book in the dealers room only moments before the author of said book walked up to the same table. It was both weird and exhilarating to be surrounded by so many people whose names and faces and writing I recognized and knew.

I had very little sleep and somehow kept myself to spending only $30 in the dealers room, divided evenly between ChiZine Publications and Small Beer Press. There were hundreds more dollars worth of books I wanted to buy, itched to buy, if only my wallet had been a little bigger. One of the first things I did when I got home (after eating and unpacking and lying on the sofa for a bit) was add books to my to-read list on Goodreads: Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older, Redwood and Wildfire by Andrea Hairston, In the Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss, Hammered by Elizabeth Bear…. There are more, many more, including at least one book that’s not even published yet. And as awesome as it is to meet these writers in person, the fact that I now get to “meet” new writers in the pages of their books is in some ways even more exciting.

I went to as many panels and readings as I could handle, and took a few breaks when I couldn’t take any more. Half these breaks ended up being more discussion of books in smaller groups and quieter places. I met a lot of new people, at least of half of whose names I’ve already forgotten (and they me, I’m sure). I lurked a little, listening far more than speaking, but drinking up the positive energy exuding from nearly everyone in every room. Readercon — like all large gatherings of like-minded, passionate individuals — was equally exhausting and energizing, and I think at the end of the day that’s the primary benefit of attending in the first place. You go, you get excited, you meet new people and find new authors to read, and you come home feeling tired but charged, ready to write the next great novel — once you’ve had a few solid hours of sleep.

The Fear You Feel at the Bottom of a Cliff

The pits of the internet must be paved with defunct, discarded, forgotten blogs. Some of them are probably awful — livejournal entries of teenage angst, or first attempts by non-writers to be writers — and some are probably brilliant, but they’re all there together. I imagine them lying in a sort of cluttered heap, all these miscellaneous ramblings and writings echoing on and on with no one to see or listen to them.

Whenever I leave my blog for too long — which is really more the normal state of things than otherwise — I always start asking myself why I think I want to blog in the first place. It’s not because I have any particular thing to say. If anything, it’s because I wish I did have a particular thing to say, and sitting here trying to say it might bring some much-needed clarity to the matter.

The blogs I like the best are the ones that aren’t afraid of getting personal. And of course I try to do the same, with one major difference: I am at least a little afraid of getting personal. It’s not the details that matter, but the threat of letting slip a little too much. It’s the same fear that we all share, that makes it so hard to show any of our work to anyone: fear of rejection, not of the piece itself but of ourselves. Every time I start a new blog post the same thing always happens: I get about halfway or two-thirds of the way done and the idea shrinks suddenly, squeezed to tiny insignificance by my own fears. I’ve got to stop doing that, both here and elsewhere in my writing. I should try to be braver.

That reminds me of a post I saw a little while ago, by Kat Howard. It’s titled “A manifesto to myself” and it says what I’m saying here (or trying to say here) in a lot fewer words.

Scare yourself. If you’re not afraid of what you’re doing, pick a different project.

I think I’ve known for a while now that I do my best writing when there’s that edge of fear running alongside, propelling me almost — not fear in the sense of horror (though sometimes there’s that) but the fear that comes when you’re on the cusp of a difficult transition or change. The fear before the plunge. The fear you feel at the bottom of a cliff, neck craned to look up. Am I going there? And sometimes the answer is yes. Lately, though, the answer has been yes only to a point, at which point I flail (creatively and sometimes literally) and stew around and then give up. I stop. In fact the problem I have now, the problem I’ve been having for a while, is that I haven’t finished anything in so long I’ve forgotten how to do it. And it’s mostly (or at least partly) because I’ve given in to the fear instead of letting it propel me forward.

So I’m going to try to stop doing that, obviously. I’m going to remind myself that fear is often an indicator that I’m on the right track, and I’m not going to let it stop me. In fact I’ll try to revel in it — easy enough to do at the beginning, but harder and harder as the pages pile up behind me, messy and unedited and disastrously imperfect. Still, I’ll relearn how to push through, how to finish things. I’ll start with this blog post, because the small steps matter. When I finish and press Publish, I’ll have this one minor victory behind me, this one moment when I didn’t let my silly fears lock me in silence.

Dear Media: Stop Conflating Shyness and Introversion, Please

This is definitely a “this is making me irrationally angry” moment, but still: The Atlantic, a magazine and website I generally respect (though don’t always agree with), posted a brief, silly, throwaway article called “Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School.” Possibly the most offensive thing about it is how ridiculous and uninformed it is, considering the author can’t be bothered to understand the differences between shyness, social anxiety, and introversion. What’s entirely missing, in this discussion, is the difference between choosing not to say something and being afraid of saying something. The author assumes introversion is the latter. Probably not coincidentally, the author identifies as an extrovert.

I was shy as a kid, so I get the anxiety thing. In general I dislike public speaking and don’t like being the center of attention. But when I say I’m introverted that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that I spend my evenings not in a bar but at home with a book, that I like being alone for extended periods of time, that I like writing more than speaking because it gives me time to formulate my thoughts better. When I say that large gatherings — even of families — are exhausting, I don’t mean I’m afraid everyone in the room is negatively judging me. I just mean they suck energy out of me. It’s really as simple as that.

The reason this misunderstanding bothers me so much is that as a kid I began to think it was wrong to be quiet, wrong to not say anything if I didn’t have anything to say. Certainly, all through high school I tried to chase an ideal of the extroverted super-involved type A personality peer leader — even as I became more aware of my desire to just be left alone a lot of the time. It led to some dissonance, a sense that I was doing things wrong. I always felt guilty about craving alone time, as if that was synonymous with being antisocial.

So I resent articles like these that mix up shyness and social anxiety with introversion, even though they don’t necessarily all walk hand in hand, a dubious trifecta of social imperfections. Shyness is a problem, but introversion isn’t.

One sentence in the article is particularly telling: “Or I can ask them to open their mouths, turn on their brains, and share their ideas with the rest of the class.” That is exactly what people like me dislike most about this discussion. Why on earth should we open our mouths before we’ve turned on our brains? It’s that kind of verbal diarrhea that drives us most insane! And I find I do resent the implication that because we aren’t speaking we somehow aren’t thinking. Our thoughts are often vibrant and lively enough that we don’t need validation from peers, and don’t always need to share them. We can spend hours alone not because it means we don’t need to think but because it means we can think freely, without someone nagging us to say something.

So I find articles like this to be too facile, presenting introversion as a problem with a simple, almost stupidly obvious solution: Just start talking, silly! But the article betrays more ignorance than groundbreaking thought. Authors like this one — who is a teacher — would make more headway if they first accepted that sometimes silence is a choice, not a prison. Stop trying to cure us, extroverts. We’re not broken. We’re doing perfectly fine.