Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Walking through walls

A former student emailed me last week, and at the close of the message, asked me if she could keep in touch. She wanted to be a writer, and if she were ever brave enough to start writing, wanted to have someone she could ask questions of.

It's that part about being brave enough that really stuck with me. On one level, I can relate. Applying to Clarion in 2008 was the first time I had ever thought about writing in a way that was serious, and not just, "hey, writing books must be a great job." Thinking about applying was terrifying - I had an enormous list of Reasons I Couldn't Go, Even If By Some Miracle I Got In, and it is only a slight exaggeration to say "the world might end" was on there. I wouldn't have applied had not life basically forced me through the fear and out the other side of it. At that point, it wasn't so much that I had become brave, it was just that I had moved beyond having any expectations.

And I get fear, and its close relation to things that you want. It can feel like the more you want something, the more terrifying it can be to go after it. It can become so easy to bind up your ideas of who you are and how much you value yourself in those dreams until the simple act of trying becomes terrifying because, oh God, what if you fail, because then failing says something about you. The coils of the snake you've wrapped around you grow tighter as it devours itself, and you never escape.

But if you wait until you're brave enough, until you're ready, until you have the perfect idea, until you have enough time, you'll never write. You'll just sit there, as the fear takes up a larger and larger place in your head, and you'll put your ideas away before they're even on paper, because you will have already convinced yourself that you can't do this thing that you want so badly to do.

Don't fulfill your own prophecy. If you want to write (or make any art), ask yourself what is the worst thing that will happen if you try. In most cases, that worst thing is that you won't succeed. You don't finish your novel. No one buys your story. And maybe those things suck, but how are they any different from where you are now?

Life is short and the world is hard, and life will keep reminding you that things fall apart. Push back against entropy, and do that thing that matters to you. Don't wait until things are perfect, because they won't be. Be flawed and imperfect and afraid because it matters, and find your voice in the mess.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Our unread libraries

Yesterday, my friend Michelle posted this to her tumblr. If you don't feel like clicking through, the relevant bit is she admitted she'd never read any of Neil Gaiman's writing. Michelle happens to be a good enough friend that we can give each other shit, so I took to twitter to do so. (I feel like I should say that I do not lurk in dark corners of the internet with copies of Sandman and Coraline to press upon the unwary. But Michelle and I had literally just had an extended email discussion about Sandman, and she had neglected to mention that little fact, so some sort of commentary seemed necessary. Not the point. Anyway.) I also gave her a couple of "start here" recommendations. But in the process, a conversation sprang up among a bunch of us who are friends - @MichelleHodkin, @christieyant, and @LisMock, if you want to check the feeds - about the books we haven't read.

Here's the thing. There are a lot of books out there. Like, really a lot. A big number that probably has a really fancy name. Which means that there are going to be books that you haven't read. And of those unread books, there may be some - perhaps particularly if you are a writer, as are all of the women I was conversing with - that you feel you should have read. The classics. The big books in your field. The ones all the smart people have read. The ones your best friend loves. The ones that cute person you are trying to sleep with talks about all the time.

But the problem is, there are always new books to read. If you're like me, sometimes you have favorite books you need to reread. There are - so I've heard - things people do that aren't reading. Time is limited, and so those books on the "should" lists remain unread. Or more books get added to those lists. The To Be Read pile becomes enormous, and gains sentience. We become haunted by the books we're not reading.

We all have readerly blind spots. We all have gaps in our libraries. Having them doesn't make you less, doesn't make you a fraud. (Says the woman who got a PhD in Literature without ever having taken a course in American Lit, who is only just now reading Moby Dick because one of her friends organized an internet readalong of it and so it suddenly became less intimidating.) But still, there remains that sense of "should." 

I think "should" can be really problematic, when it comes to reading. In academia, of course, there is the canon. The problem with the canon is that these "important" books are reflections of the people who were deciding what was important, and so if you weren't a wealthy, educated, straight, white, Protestant male, well, good luck ever seeing your concerns reflected on a syllabus. And not that some of these books weren't good, weren't important, but they were presented in a way that suggested nothing else was, and that nothing else existed. I had shock in my classroom every year when I included women writers in medieval lit courses. Shock because "women didn't write then."

There are canons outside of academia as well - classic authors in the field that we are told we should know and read to really be part of that field. And if we don't like them, if they don't speak to us, well then clearly we don't belong in that field, either. Which is, of course, rubbish, but then, I can't stand Heinlein, and I'm not a huge fan of Asimov or Clarke, either, so then I would say that, wouldn't I?

And "you should really read this" comes with a different kind of pressure when it is a friend handing you the book, because especially if you are a bookish person, you recognize the evangelical glint in the recommender's eye: "This book changed my life." "I have parts of it tattooed on my body." "I read this 37 times growing up." In the face of that, how do you hand it back and say, "Yeah, that wasn't really my thing"?

(You say it. But you also allow that other person their enthusiasm. You enjoy it. We all have our loves. And sometimes you read a book not to know the book, but to know the person who gave it to you just a fraction more fully.)

A book is different, every time it is read. The text is not truly complete until it has been experienced by a reader, and each reader brings something new. And that something can change - I have books that I reread each year, and I read them as palimpsests, as layers of the person I was all the times I read them before. There are books that I loved as a child that I can no longer read, and books that I bounced off of and then came to love later. We see new things, both flaws and beauties, each time we read.

Come to peace with the fact that there are books and writers that may never be yours, even if they seem to be everyone else's. Even if they are important, whatever that means. There are so many books, and that is a glorious thing. Fill in your gaps if you feel they are gaps, if you feel there are places inside you that need those other books, for whatever reason. Otherwise, be your own rare bird, in your nest of unread pages.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The devil on your back

Warning: This post will discuss sexual violence. If you need someone to listen to you, please call RAINN at 1.800.656.HOPE, or visit for an online hotline.

Yesterday, I saw this graphic come across my twitter feed on a number of occasions. The first time I saw it, it felt like being punched in the gut, and I sat, weeping, in front of my computer.

I wasn't crying because I didn't know the statistics (or know them as much as anyone can - rape is underreported). I am one. But there's a difference between reading that 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail, and seeing those rows and rows of figures. There's a difference between seeing a statistic that highlights how many women survive, and how many men commit the crime. (Yes. I am aware that rape is not solely a crime committed by men against women, and I do not mean to minimize anyone's suffering, but in the vast majority of cases, this is man on woman violence.)

I had a professor once, who, when introducing the subject of rape in the class, apologized to the men present who might have been falsely accused, because that was a horrible thing. He offered no such apology to the women in the room who had survived the crime.

In the American legal system, if you are prosecuted for a crime, you can either be found guilty, or not guilty. Not innocent. When there is a verdict of not guilty in a trial for a robbery, people assume that the police got the wrong person, or that the prosecutor didn't prove the case. They don't assume that since the victim had a history of being financially generous, a reasonable person could have assumed they consented to having their money stolen. No one says it was suicide when there isn't a conviction at the end of a murder trial. But when a woman is raped - after the evidence has been collected from the crime scene of her body, after it has been argued over (those bruises on your thighs, are they there because you like rough sex, or because he pried them open as he pushed into you?) - if there is a verdict of not guilty, she becomes the slutty bitch trying to ruin some guy's life. He becomes innocent.

It is easier to believe that women are liars than that men are rapists. But just because something is easy, that doesn't make it true.

Amanda Palmer blogged about Steubenville recently (and that comes with a trigger warning, too). She posted art of her own, but really, it's this picture of her that haunts me. Because I wish, sometimes, that it was possible to burn everything to the ground and start again. To immolate a culture that tells women that what they wear matters but doesn't tell men that about their behaviour. Where colleges offer presentations to sorority girls on how to keep drinks safe at frat parties, but don't tell the guys throwing those parties, that hey, it's not okay to put something in a woman's drink that makes her pass out, that doesn't tell them that just because she can't remember, doesn't mean it wasn't rape. Where the people in power in the government can talk about "actual rape" "legitimate rape" and have those words just become soundbites.

It fills me with poison. It fills me with rage.

But even in this, God, even in this I am a writer, and I see those flames, and I think of the phoenix, I think of those of us who have risen from our own ashes, and who have put our lives back together. Who have walked through that fire and come out the other side. And there are too many of us. But you are not alone.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The only way is yours

I read this beautiful post from Jo Knowles this morning. Jo says a lot of things that really resonated with me, but they really boiled down to thinking about what it means to live your life. Just yours. Not the one anyone else thinks you should have, not the one you thought you wanted five years ago, but yours, now.

It's the kind of reflection that I think can apply to the creative life as well. The most common question I get from new writers is some variation on "how do I do this?" And they really don't want me to say, "you write words, and then you write some more, and you keep doing this until you've finished." I know that, because when I was starting out, that wasn't the answer I was looking to hear, either.

I wanted rules. I wanted to know that I was doing this writing thing right. Anything that would make me feel like I belonged, like I wasn't a fraud, like there was a chance I might succeed. But there isn't a universal answer - "Write only at night! With a pen filled with the finest squid ink! And never on the second Tuesday of the month! And if you even contemplate outlining, you will bring about the Writerly Singularity, where lo, all our words are reduced into babble!"

There isn't one right way. It can really seem like there is - people post their word count bars, and maybe you feel like you can never catch up. Or you hate Scrivener, but, wow, all your favorite writers sing its praises, so what's wrong with you, anyway? Or you haven't made an inspiration board, or a story soundtrack, or figured out biographies for all your characters and their pets, but you know that's what that one writer who just won that great prize did, so...

Live your life. Write your story. Your process doesn't need to look like anyone else's. Write on your smartphone during your commute, or in a notebook at a coffeeshop, or on your laptop while your child is sleeping. If you need structure, give it to yourself. If you need to write 900 pages to find the 300 good ones, do that. Realize you may need to make adjustments - what works for a short story may not work for a novel, and what worked for your first book may not work for your second. Or perhaps it will.

We are not Rube Goldberg machines. The magic isn't in the process.

You write. You write more. You do this until you're finished. Everything in between is up to you. Live your life. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

That time of year again

As nominations for the Hugo awards have officially opened, it's that time of year when people are listing their eligible works. (Nebula awards and World Fantasy awards nominations are also open, the Locus awards nominations are not yet.) Each set of awards comes with their own set of rules as to who can nominate and vote, and you should consult those but the short version is you must be a member of SFWA for the Nebulas, have purchased a supporting or attending WorldCon membership for the Hugos, have purchased a membership to WFC to vote for the World Fantasy awards, and anyone can nominate for the Locus awards. If you can vote (and if you're reading this, you can, at least for the Locus awards), I encourage you to do so.

I recently did a post on some of my favorite reads of 2012, and I will definitely be considering those works when it comes to making my own nominations. Since all my eligible works are in the short story category, I will also repeat here some of the other short fiction that I loved this year:

"Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream," by Maria Dahvana Headley, in Lightspeed. I believe Maria is also still eligible for the Campbell award - she will be on my ballot, if so.

"The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species," by Ken Liu, in Lightspeed

"The Night We Drank Cold Wine," by Megan Kurashige, in Electric Velocipede

All of these stories are well worth your consideration.

The following are my eligible works. I've also listed where they were published and the editor - if you liked something I wrote enough to consider nominating it, I'd like to respectfully ask you to consider nominating the market and the editor as well. Also, I was fortunate enough to have multiple stories illustrated by Galen Dara, who is eligible in the category of Fan Artist.

"The Least of the Deathly Arts," (Subterranean, William Schafer)

"Murdered Sleep," (Apex, Lynne M. Thomas)

"Breaking the Frame," (Lightspeed, John Joseph Adams)

"The Heart of the Story," (Fireside, Brian White)

Lois Tilton of Locus Magazine included both "The Least of the Deathly Arts" and "Murdered Sleep" on her list of recommended short fiction from 2012.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

First sentences, 2013

I love this meme, and so am stealing it from the lovely and talented Michelle Hodkin. (Seriously, you should check out her Mara Dyer books. They are brain-crackingly good.)

Anyway: First sentences written in 2013.

Mine were written last night as the clock turned over.

"If that time has come, I set it down gladly. I was not made to carry my eternity in this fashion."

Welcome 2013

If you had told me this time last year where I would be today - back in the Twin Cities, writing full time - I wouldn't have believed you. It wasn't a thing that I would have even considered as a possibility. So to say that 2012 was full of surprises is simply accurate, not hyperbole. But for all it was a year with a lot of good, there was enough bitter in with the sweet that I have no regrets as I close that door, and look forward to this new year.

I like new years, and opportunities for new beginnings. I like the arbitrary markers that we place in time to say, "This. This here. It matters. Remember this, that there was a before, and an after." I embrace the times that remind me that I can be more than I am.

I have goals for the new year, like many of us probably do. I try, when I make my goals, to have them be things under my control - as much as, for example, I'd love to see something I wrote be nominated for an award, unless I start my own Kat's Best Story Awards, that's something I have no direct control over, so it's a wish more than a goal.

My big goal is to remember that there is life outside of writing. Writing full time has been wonderful, and such a blessing. It is also terrifying - it is very clear to me how much I am responsible for myself. My general response to stress is to work more, to write all the things. To some degree, this is a good stress response, and it's less likely to kill me than others I could have. But I need to remember to have a life.

I want to say yes to more things this year. I tend to have hermit-like tendencies and I am (says the lady keeping a blog on the internet) by nature shy, and that can lead to closing myself off from things and from people that I would have loved. So I will say yes, and be brave.

In terms of writing, I will concentrate more on longer fiction, even longer short fiction - I'd like to write a novelette or novella this year. This is part of my larger, long term goal to always be writing the thing that scares me - the thing that I think I might not be good enough for, the thing that requires me to run along the tightrope. I will write with ambition.

I have reading goals as well. I'm going to continue to read more nonfiction - probably a lot on creativity. I want to read more of what gets called literary fiction, to find the strengths there. I'm also going to read more of the kind of writing that intimidates me - books that get so weighted with expectations and mythos that they are a story that has little if anything to do with the words actually on the pages. I am starting that one with Moby Dick. Apparently the Penguin edition comes with grad school flashbacks.

There are probably other things that I will decide to do, and it's fine that I don't yet know what they are, because we can all choose when our new beginning is. But there is a new beginning today, a new year, and I wish you all a happy one.