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Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

August: On the Clarion Staircase.

In my husband’s and my conversations about various attempts at achievement and self-improvement, we talk about something I’ve dubbed the Clarion Staircase Effect.  I’ll explain why in a minute, but first I’ll give you the most recent example.

I’ve been studying Russian for going on five months now, using a textbook, various apps, and twice-weekly meetings with a Skype tutor. This is the fourth foreign language that I’ve studied with any seriousness, and I normally excel at it.  I mention this not to be immodest, but to explain why it was frustrating to me, after five months, to still feel as though I were doing math problems in my head when I tried to speak in Russian, rather than having even the beginnings of a fluid “feel” for the language.  Every week I would study, and every week I would show up at lessons with my tutor and absolutely flounder. The only phrases in Russian that came to me fluidly were “I don’t understand” and “I don’t remember the word,” and those only from overuse.

It wasn’t until last week that I realized my tutor was, intentionally or unintentionally, creating the Clarion Staircase Effect in the escalating content of our sessions.

You probably begin to understand what I mean, but I’ll explain explicitly anyhow.

When I attended Clarion in the summer of 2009, I was terribly out of shape.  I’d been more or less a shut-in for a couple of years before that, and although I’d spent a few months pre-Claroin doing daily walks around the neighborhood to lift myself from a purely sedentary state to something more approaching human, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that every morning for six weeks I’d have to walk up to a classroom on the fourth floor.  I was also pregnant.

The first day of class, I was sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.  But by about week four, when I got to the top of the staircase I was… sweaty and gasping for air, heart pounding, worried for the health of my unborn child.

“This is so frustrating,” I confided to a classmate in week four as I sank miserably into a chair.  “I figured after nearly five weeks of daily cardio this would be at least a little bit easier.  And yet here I am, still gasping like a fish, just like the first day.”

“But have you noticed,” said my classmate, “that now you climb the stairs in about half the time?”

Oh.

I do this to myself chronically.  I set a Difficulty Level for a task in my head, and subconsciously I adjust the task so that it meets the expected difficulty level, rather than doing it the same way I did before and enjoying the pleasure of watching the difficulty drop.  This perpetual bar-raising is a wonderful way to get better at things, but it’s not a great way to feel good about yourself.  So sometimes I have to remind myself, if I don’t seem to be improving at a task, it may be that my standards are moving ahead of my capability like a carrot on a stick.

Writing the Arcadia Project series has been like that, too.  I keep asking myself why first drafts never get any easier, despite my confidence.  And then I remember that every book I write has a larger number of threads I’m trying to tie together, higher stakes, and more complicated networks of relationships.  I’m not satisfied with simply repeating what I’ve done before.  Every time I sit down to write a book, I want to push myself to the point just before giving up, because that way I know I’m growing as a writer.  The minute it starts to feel easy, I know I’m cheating myself out of an opportunity to grow.

What about you?  Do you do this to yourself?  Have you been doing it and not realizing it?  Or are you the sane type who lets yourself enjoy the fruits of your own self-improvement by setting yourself tasks you couldn’t have managed two years ago, but can now accomplish with ease?

May: On Forgiveness.

A lot of the talk about Borderline has centered around the fact that it’s peculiarly forgiving of its characters.  Some see this as a strength, and some see it as a weakness.  The latter people can’t stand reading about characters who get away with bad behavior; they end up hurling the book across the room in disgust (I don’t recommend this if you’re reading on your phone).  But I, obviously, fall more into the former group.  I am a flawed person.  I’ve done bad things.  I have to believe that I can still be loved, still do something worthwhile, and so I invent stories where flawed people do bad things and still — well, maybe not get the girl in the end, but — make friends, encounter forgiveness, survive to at least partially redeem themselves.

I like people who believe this, too.

Let me tell you about my best friend, erstwhile intellectual property lawyer and speculative fiction writer Wren Wallis.  (She’ll be sliding under her desk right about now).  When I met her via the wonderful world of online gaming, I was in a very bad place, emotionally.  I was a new mother, a state that had, despite intervening years of therapy, regressed me back to the emotional instability of my twenties.  I adored her almost immediately for her wit and for her ability to stand up for me when trolls did their troll thing, but the most miraculous thing about her… well, it took me far too long to appreciate.  At first, it annoyed the hell out of me.

“Ugh, that guy,” I’d say.  “I just want to log off every time he starts mouthing off in guild chat.  He’s loathsome.”

“Tact isn’t his strong point, no,” she’d say, or something like it.  “But that’s just his persona; he’s a good guy at heart.”

“There’s no excuse for saying things like that!” I’d insist.  And the conversation would go on for a bit in that vein, with Wren calmly refusing to join me in my judgment.  It infuriated me.  I felt as though she were “taking his side,” or judging me for even having had bad thoughts about him to begin with.

Eventually I left the game we’d been playing, because of all the various people I’d been complaining to her about, and we lost touch.  But I never quite got her out of my mind.  I platonically pined for her in a way that rivaled the most angsty of romances.  I’d sometimes sneak back onto the guild message boards just to see what she was up to, to sigh wistfully over the perfection of even her most casual prose.

Why didn’t I get in touch?  Because I assumed that she’d never liked me.

Someone that saintly, that good, couldn’t possibly want to be friends with a hot mess like me.

You see the breakdown in logic here, right?  I’m shocked at how long it took me to see it, to realize that the same benefit of doubt she applied to that loathsome guy in guild chat also applied to me.  And so when I reached out again, when I found her in a new game, this time I didn’t let her get away.

People like Wren are rare.  It’s very fashionable these days to be cynical and cutting and misanthropic.  It’s actually one of the reasons Borderline has done as well as it has, because despite the forgiving authorial voice, its narrative voice is quite rigid and angry a lot of the time.  People associate cynicism with cleverness; we admire those who focus on others’ flaws, as though our noticing them in others must mean we don’t have them ourselves.  Crowds flock to those who can wield a verbal scalpel, exposing the ugliness inside anyone and everyone, because they believe them to be possessed of keener insight (which makes total sense, right?  Because if I immediately notice just the red things in a room my vision is obviously better than yours).

But as I tweeted earlier this morning:

The problem with ‘Everyone is garbage except for you’ is that without fail, in my experience, eventually it also gets applied to me.

And that’s what made Wren so ultimately irresistible to me as a friend.  Over the years, I’ve developed a growing awareness that the way someone talks about other people in front of you is the same way they’ll eventually talk about you in front of other people.

I’m not a person with “trust issues.”  I don’t make people “earn” my trust, generally, but a person can lose it very quickly by showing their disdain for others.  After decades of of social interaction, I am not naive enough to believe that I am anyone’s “one exception” to misanthropy.  I look, now, to the way people treat those who are not me, and I decide if that is the way I wish to be treated, and if not, I keep my distance.

I have done too much wrong in my life to spend emotional energy on the unforgiving.  I forgive them, of course, to avoid egregious hypocrisy, but I love these people from a safe distance, for my own sake.

If you’ve been struggling to get close to me and can’t figure out why I remain aloof, consider that it may have nothing whatsoever to do with the way you treat me.

To bring this back around to my writing: I don’t expect you to overlook, much less enjoy, my characters’ flaws.  If I write a person as having a certain unsavory characteristic (Millie’s misanthropy, for example), it doesn’t mean I condone it or support it.  All it means is that I can love her despite it just as I want to be loved despite my own flaws.  Because I don’t let my readers “just walk away” from flawed people – not if they want to find out how the story ends – my hope is that I will trick them into sticking around long enough to see that people are not defined by their flaws.  To make them realize, by page 137, that they’re developing a sort of grudging affection for that person they dismissed as garbage on page 20.

If I could do that, could work the nuanced magic of forgiveness on even a handful of readers, that alone would be reason enough for having written.

It’s Hard Being Right All the Time.

Take out a blank sheet of paper and a pen.  Go ahead, I’ll wait!

Now number down the left hand side, one through five, and draw blank lines after each.  Got it?  Okay.  Here is the exercise.  Fill in those five blank numbered slots with five things you are wrong about.  Just five.  Go on, I’ll still be here when you’re finished.

Having trouble?  I thought maybe it was just me.  I thought maybe I was the only person on the face of the earth who was right about everything.  What are the odds there’d be two of us?

All right, I’ll stop being a smartass and get to my point.

It’s hard being right all the time — and it can ruin your writing.  At some point in your life, whether through fiction or through an essay, you are going to try to convince people that your take on something is the right one.  Unfortunately, unless you’re a truly extraordinary human being, you will begin this endeavor without first thoroughly and genuinely empathizing with your opposition.

All people believe that they understand all there is to understand about their opposition, just as all people believe that their side of an issue is the correct side.  How do you know if you are one of the huge number of people who are wrong about one or both of these things?  One way is to ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Would anyone I respect actually do/think the things I’m arguing against?
  2. Would any member of the opposition look at my portrayal of them and say, “Yes, that’s me exactly”?
  3. Is there anything in my writing that would make people on my side of the argument uneasy?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, you might be throwing punches at a straw man.  Swinging your fists at nothing makes it pretty easy to win a fight.  But if winning is less important to you than provoking change (or at the very least thought), it may be in your best interest to spend a few moments entertaining the most bone-chilling of questions:

What if I’m the idiot here?

Slip inside your opposition’s skin for a moment.  Retain all your intelligence and powers of reason.  Now find some way, via mental gymnastics, to catch at least a dim glimpse of the truth held in the other side’s point of view. This may take a while.  We’re not looking for a perfunctory nod of “Yeah okay I get it.”  We’re looking for true empathy, the sincere, visceral, emotional experience of holding that point of view.  You’ll know when you have it, because you’ll feel incredibly uncomfortable.

If it helps, imagine it as an alternate universe in which your opposition is actually correct.  Imagine yourself a protagonist in a story set in this parallel world where there really is a God, or where women really are less intelligent, or where people really did evolve from apes, or whatever it is you’re trying to argue against.  Now imagine how you would feel about someone who insisted that the rules of the (now nonexistent) real world applied to this alternate world.  Imagine what harm would come if people in power tried to run the parallel world by the rules of the real one.  Try to viscerally feel the destructive stupidity of that.

This is an extraordinarily difficult but necessary thing to do, and it’s easy to spot writers who haven’t done it (see checklist above).  Only when you are able to phrase your opposition’s side in a way that would make them say excitedly, “Yes!  Exactly!  You get me!” are you at the very beginning of the process of mounting an intelligent counterpoint.

Sometimes, in the course of researching the opposition’s viewpoint, you’ll actually talk yourself over to their side.  And if you do, you should be proud, not ashamed.  Integrity only matters if the thing you believe is actually right.  If not, by all means, please change your mind.

The Art of Being Wrong in Fiction

At the risk of sounding like a Myke Cole groupie (I know he comes up in my blog a lot), his books are a classic example of two sides of an issue given their due respect.  To grossly oversimplify, the two sides of the argument in his books are military vs. mage.

  1. Military: Magic is dangerous on an epic level when uncontrolled, and our job is to protect citizens from threats.  So we train and control mages so they can use their powers for good.
  2. Mage: I didn’t ask for these powers, and yet I’m being penned up and supervised like some sort of criminal.

My natural modes of thought predisposed me to sympathize with the mages and to be appalled by the way the military blithely walked right over their civil rights.  But here is the amazing thing.  All throughout Cole’s books, he kept changing my mind. 

Just when I would be furious at the military for treating mages so cruelly, I would be shown an example of how that same rigid military discipline unlocked mages’ potential and led to amazing acts of heroism.  I’d be shown how selfishness and lack of cohesion caused untold destruction.  And I’d start to think, “Okay, I guess the military are the good guys in this story,” and gamely I’d switch sides.

But then in the very next chapter I would be shown some example of how easily the military’s hierarchy and traditions could be abused to do something inhumane.  So I’d switch sides again only to be shown in the next chapter why the military did that seemingly inhumane thing, and how catastrophic it can be when civilians try to demand their individual rights in the middle of a war zone.  And suddenly I’m looking down my nose at the selfish civilians again.

Eventually, Cole’s stories do choose a side, of sorts.  But you can’t forget the way you sympathized with the other side, and it makes some of the confrontations especially tense and heartbreaking.  There are no idiots in these stories, only frightened people using the rules they understand best to cope with a situation that no one truly understands.

And guess what?  In life, there may not be as many idiots as you think there are, either.