Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Reflections and resolutions

I've just gotten back from a lovely visit with my family in New Hampshire for Christmas. Nearly everyone was there, travel snags were overcome, and it was peaceful and relaxing.

It's strange to think that this is not only the end of a year, but also the end of a decade. The 1999 to 2000 transition was so hyped (Y2K, anyone?), yet the 2009 to 2010 seems to have barely registered. But as the transition happens, I've been thinking of past and future.

2009 was a good year for me. My biggest achievement was successfully defending my dissertation and earning my doctorate. But I also sold my first story, and it was to a professional market. I finished a novel, and sent out the first round of query letters to agents. I painted and polished three rooms of my house, and learned to knit. Friends came here to visit, including Megan, who braved the coldest stretch of January Minneapolis has had in 16 years, and I was able to travel and visit old friends and meet new ones. I have worked hard, and been happy.

I am excited for 2010. I have goals for the upcoming year. (I prefer "goals" to "resolutions" unless I'm attempting alliteration. It seems a friendlier word.) I want to be a better friend - to be more active in letting people know that I am thinking about them, caring about them, and interested in what is going on in their lives. I have a tendency to get distracted, and to forget that I need to pick up the phone, write a letter, send an email. I need to fix this.

I will take better care of myself. This encompasses everything from exercising more (shoulder injury has put fencing on hold, but that needs to stop being an excuse for sloth), to cooking for myself more and relying on takeaway less, to giving myself permission to take a guilt-free day off if I am sick or having the sort of day that can only be fixed with chocolate, Love Actually, and a Nora Roberts novel.

I will read more, and read more widely.

I will pay more attention to what helps me to write and what distracts me from doing so, in order to maximize the former and minimize the latter. I will have two novels in polished draft form by the end of the year.

Whenever I can, I will help and support other writers and artists, and I will show gratitude to those who have made a difference to me.

I will take chances, dare to fail bigger, and do something amazing.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My Christmas gift to you

For Christmas, I wrote you a story. For those of you who might be interested in this sort of thing, I had Peter Gregson's recording of Spem in Alium on repeat while writing and editing it. (It's fairly extraordinary. If you like beauty, you'll want to listen to that version of the song.)

Merry Christmas.


Star of Wonder, Star of Light

“…and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was.” Matthew 2:9.

It is because of me that you were born. The felix culpa, the fortunate fall. Without my disagreement with your father and my resultant forcible change of address, there would have been no need of you.

Oh, I know that when the humans tell the story, the fall is that of Adam, that the sin is that of disobedience. It makes such nice symmetry that way, born a human to redeem fallen humanity. But humanity only ever behaved as it was meant to. The failure of obedience is no sin, it is growing up. And the purpose of a story is truth, not symmetry.

No, the important fall was mine. Cast down from Heaven for gazing too high, burning through space and time and star and morning as I fell.

Of course, without my fall, you never would have been required to die, in the particularly hideous and gruesome method of your chosen day. Felix seems an odd choice of word when one considers the consequences to you.

I would have made amends myself, had I been given the opportunity. Had I believed that there was something I needed to make amends for. Had I believed that bloody, violent death was the appropriate response to the loss of a friendship.

They call what happened between your father and me a variety of grand and impressive names. The War in Heaven in perhaps my favorite: so epic in its scope. But the rift between us wasn’t epic, it was simple. It was planned. This is a universe that was made in opposition: order from chaos, light from darkness, from the very beginning. There was nothing that was created without its opposite. There had to be an adversary, because your father existed. And he knew that.

If it hadn’t been me, it would have been some other, who loved him less well.

And so I fell, and became a scapegoat, blamed for a thousand smaller failings, lesser falls. I am like you in this, if in nothing else. But while I became a scapegoat, an easy excuse for everything from pettiness to genocide, you were born to be one, to be the bearer of burdens for the all of the sins of an entire people.

I honestly don’t know which of us got the worst end of the deal.

I mark the remembrance of your birth every year. Why should I not? I was your father’s best friend, before. It seems only fitting that I should acknowledge the day of his son’s birth, and its promise of redemption for all. For all.

Even here, I can hear the Unfallen singing. I join them sometimes. I sing, and I remember the night of your birth, and the part I played in it. Do you listen for my voice, where you are?

That night, I didn’t sing. Too far fallen to fill the sky with glory and praise. As angelic as it remains, my voice would have been a discordant note in that song. But I knew what was occurring, had known for some time. The birth of a god carries weight, pushes against the fabric of the universe in all directions.

Even if it didn’t, I would have known. I was the one whose failings were the proximate cause of your birth, after all. O, felix culpa. O, holy night.

And so, as my gift to you on your birthday, that first one, all those eons and ages ago, I repeated the action that necessitated it. I climbed higher and higher still into the heavens, wings straining as they beat against the clouds and ether, high enough to once again see the face of your father, the face of my friend. And then, mantling my wings tight to my back, I fell.

Through the night and sky and stars, bright as I once was, bright as my name.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Home for the holidays

Sam I Am and I got to my parents' beautiful home in New Hampshire yesterday. It's a little odd to be here - this is the third house for them in as many years. This isn't a place I know, this isn't the image that forms in my head when I think of "home."

But in ways that have nothing to do with place and geography, this is home. My parents are here, both of my brothers will be. Even Sam's mom and sister live here. The decorations on the trees are the same as they have always been, the same cookies are in the tins (this year, with the addition of Zombie Gingerbread Men). It is a different fireplace, but the same stockings will hang over it. It is both new, and utterly familiar.

I have never been here before, but I am glad to be home.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas in the trenches

Cnn.com informs me this morning that there is a war on Christmas. I think this is possibly the most ridiculous thing that I have ever heard.

Look, if you believe in the Christian God, you believe in an all-powerful being. So do I really think that God is going to be somehow weakened if the person helping me find the right size sweater said "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" when I walked in the store? No, no more than I think that the 1954 addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance caused God to care any more or less about America. Nor do I care if children in a public school are asked to sing the Dreidel Song to go along with Silent Night at a Solstice concert, or if the school has decided to not mark any of the holidays that occur in December. There are options other than public school, if it is that important to you that your child be exposed to no other viewpoints than that of your own tradition, or if you feel that religion is a necessary component of your child's education.

What is important to me is the sentiment. Having some bored silly store greeter flatly wish me "Merry Christmas" does nothing for me. But the little boy down the street who gave me a big hug and wished me Happy Channukah filled me with delight, and made me feel loved. The genuine wish of joy from another person strengthens my faith. It does not diminish it.

And if people are concerned that the Christmas Spirit is being diminished, maybe, rather than insisting that their City Hall put up a Nativity in December, they might insist that their government feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, and clothes the poor year round. They might educate their children in the values of compassion and understanding, of striving for social justice. They might live as Christians in actuality, rather then relying on symbols and empty phrases to impress other people with their righteousness.

The title of this post, incidentally, comes from an event that reminds me of true Christmas spirit, the Christmas Truce of 1914. Here is an account, and here is a song about it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

One of those writerly, process-type posts

I feel like maybe I've read somewhere or been told that, as a writer, you're never really learning how to write a book, you're only learning how to write that book. (Yes, I asked the internet, in the hopes of being able to properly attribute what I think is a quotation, but the internet only wanted me to sign up for courses that would teach me how to write publishable fiction, and to write said fiction very quickly. I already took one of those.)

Anyway. My point is, I've spent most of my recent writing time on one novel (working title, That Sleep of Death) and the writing of it has been completely different from how I usually work. No, I still don't have an outline or anything more than the most general sort of plot (I know the Scary Danger and What Happens Next, but that's it). It's more that, when I wrote Linger, I'd work pretty steadily, painting in broad strokes in the opening draft, and then filling in the details later. I'd have a pretty general idea of who the people were, and what was going on, and again, later drafts would add more specific and recognizable detail. I could float from scene to scene, and except for one or two "ah-ha" moments, the best way to describe my progress was measured.

This time, I'm writing in chunks. My brain will stir it's way through the next thing that happens, and then an enormous flood of words flows out onto the page. And I can't write my way through a scene: I need to know what's going on, who the people are, what the things are called, why everything is important, first. Naming things has been hugely important for this project - I've been using this regularly. I'm extremely aware of the detail-level of what I'm writing, and I've got a list of notes already of things that need to be made more important at the beginning in order to set up what's happening now. I can feel the emotional through lines.

It's amazing, and kind of terrifying. Instead of following the story, I feel like I'm being pulled along after it. I mentioned the other day that I felt like I was writing without a net. My friend Steffi said that maybe the story was the net, and the more I think about it, the more I think she's right. And I'm trying to trust that it will catch me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Still cold, less grumpy

Almost completely ungrumpy, as a matter of fact, due to an unexpected bit of awesome that happened yesterday. Details when and if they become relevant.

The snow removers still have not contacted me. Honestly, even this makes me more sad than grumpy. It's a small, local business that I used last year, and was very happy with (hence the prepaying this year.) But none of my phone calls have been returned, not even to say, "we're sorry."

I'm mostly holed up inside where it's warm, and writing, but here are a couple things that might make you happy, if you're feeling grumpy:

The Muppets ring the bells. Ding dong!

In honor of the Shakespeare decorating the top of my Christmas tree. "That is the question. Yeah."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

And also, brrr

So today when I woke up, it was -5. I'm not sure what the windchill was. Sam I Am and I had to take his morning walk in shifts because the ground hurt his feet so bad he kept attempting to walk without actually touching the ground. (We tried boots. Once. He ate them.)

Then two of the Four Felines of the Apocalypse demonstrated their best Linda Blair in The Exorcist abilities, and engaged in multiple bouts of projectile vomiting.

And also there was unresolved personal stress that involved a phone call with my attorney.

To add to the fun, the company that I prepaid for winter snow removal has apparently elected to not remove my snow, and to not return my phone calls. I live on a corner lot on a hill, and so I have a lot of snow to clear. Snow removal is, in my opinion, an excellent winter investment. When it actually happens. I do not have the money to invest in snow removal that does not.

So even though it is now 4 (windchill of -11) I went out and shoveled. I had been working for 45 minutes when Awesome Neighbor Paul brought over his snowblower, and cleared the hill part of the sidewalk for me. Which was pretty great. And so rather than being horribly grumpy, I am now only mildly so.

And now I will self-medicate with chocolate.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This is not the Age of Not Believing

So on the Techland blog today, Lev Grossman posted the trailer for the new Sorcerer's Apprentice movie. Just to be clear - Techland? Awesome. Lev? Also awesome. (Remember? He wrote that amazing book, The Magicians, that I really liked.) The Sorcerer's Apprentice? Well, I dunno. But that's not really what this post is about. This post is about what happens at 1:08 in the trailer, where the Sorcerer has done a Magic, and the soon-to-be-apprentice says, "What you just did? That's not possible."

And... I'm out. My disbelief is no longer willingly suspended.

First, because never in my life, if I had seen magic performed, would I have had that reaction. No, if I had ever seen magic, I would have said, "Holy shit! Magic is real!" And maybe that's a reaction that means "Warning! You're going to grow up to be a speculative fiction writer!" but I really don't think so. I think our pop culture is so permeated with magic, and the possibility thereof (how many millions and millions of people have seen or read Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings, just to name two?) that the majority reaction - especially when the person having it is a teenager - isn't "that's not possible," but "magic is real."

I get why the writers would choose to put the line in there. It's like a big neon sign, telling the viewer to pay attention, emphasizing what the title cards in the trailer are emphasizing: this isn't myth or just your imagination. That big shiny explosion what you just saw is Real Actual Magic. But it's also lazy storytelling. If your story, which, you know, is called The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and you need big neon signs and title cards to tell the audience that the magic in it is real, well, you're doing it wrong.

And while I'd believe in magic, I don't believe in your story.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Sparrow: A Reflection

Let me be clear up front: this is not a book review. I love Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, and do believe it is a wonderful book, well worth reading, but it speaks to me in a way that renders me unable to look at it simply as a work of literature. So really, what this is, is a meditation on the book, and my reaction to it.

Here's the thing. I'm Catholic. Possibly not a very good Catholic, in the eyes of my Church. First, I'm divorced. I believe in birth control, and the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality makes me weep. But I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the life of the world to come. I believe, because I would rather live in a world with miracles.

I'm also really well educated. I was a science major as an undergrad. I have a J.D., and a Ph.D. When I told people I was writing about Joan of Arc for my dissertation, the question I was most often asked was, "what do you think was wrong with her?" My response was always, "I believe in the truth of her experience of her voices." My favorite reaction to this was being told that "You shouldn't be able to think that, and get a degree from a state university." (Yeah, the first amendment is my favorite for more than just the speech clause...) But most often, I was met with a stunned, "But you're smart." Smart people, apparently, don't believe in miracles.

The Sparrow is a book that believes in miracles. And it does this in the context of science fiction, which is something that is particularly meaningful to me. (Look, if as a genre we're going to wrestle with the big ideas, we should wrestle with all of them.) And it addresses, head on, the problems and difficulties of faith:

"'Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,' Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. "'Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.'"

"'But the sparrow still falls,' Felipe said."

And that is part of the dilemma that I struggle with myself, when it comes to belief. That if God knows, why does the sparrow fall? I do not know the answer, and I will not pretend that I do. But I love the fact that a book exists that asks this question, that asks why God always gets the credit for the good, but never the blame for the bad. That directly addresses the fact that sometimes to be beloved of God is also to be used horribly. Joan of Arc was burned, remember.

And I particularly appreciate the fact that this is a book that allows the characters in its pages that are people of faith to be actual people, not plaster saints, holier-than-thou caricatures, or part of a shadowy Catholic Menace. (It's that last one in particular that drives me bats. I mean, we're supposed to be creative writers. Can't we come up with a more creative Evil Religion than one called the Magesterium, presided over by a Pontifex?) It speaks to the fact that faith is a struggle, not a given, that miracles happen, and the sparrow falls.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What should I read next?

When I was in grad school, I read hundreds, possibly even thousands, of works of nonfiction, with titles ranging from The Manly Eunuch to Wonderful Blood to The Sandman Papers. I read books that challenged me, and frustrated me, and made me think differently about things (the three books that were probably the most influential on my scholarly development, all of which I strongly recommend even to a nonacademic audience are: Holy Feast and Holy Fast, The Stripping of the Altars, and Hamlet in Purgatory.)

I want to dive into the wonderful strangeness of the real world again. I miss the feeling of learning about something. And sure, I've found some books on topics that interest me to put on my shelves, and yes, story research can lead you down strange pathways - there is, for example, a history of grimoires that I'll be looking at soon. But I don't just want to learn about things I'm already interested in. So what I'm hoping you'll do is recommend some of your favorite works of nonfiction - biographies, histories, collections of essays, scholarly or popular - things that will delight me, and make me see the world in a new way.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Be part of something amazing! Win fabulous prizes!

Would you like a chance to help make the world a better place and to win fabulous prizes while doing so? I bet you would. And you can, by participating in this year's Worldbuilders fundraiser for Heifer International.

It's basically a great deal. You decide to donate to Heifer International, a great organization that helps people build lives for themselves, and you make your donation on the Worldbuilders page. Awesome, talented author Pat Rothfuss, and the co-sponsor of Worldbuilers, Subterranean Press, publisher of books that are not only good but absolutely gorgeous, will match 50% of your donation. That's right, you will do 50% more good than you had planned. Then you will be entered in a drawing for fabulous prizes (see the above link to Pat's blog for exactly how that bit works.) Or, you can choose to "buy" a fabulous prize directly with your donation. (Again, see the blog.)

I'm really excited about this. I think it's an amazing thing Pat (and Subterranean and the wonderful people who have donated items to the fundraiser) are doing. I'm not going to lie - one of my goals as a writer is to be able to donate something that will help raise lots of money someday. For now, I'll be contributing what I can afford, and I hope you will, too. And if you could pass the word on, that would be great.