Nano, Meds, Cats, and other four-letter words.

Nano is not technically a four-letter word. Neither is ‘meds’. I just need everyone to know that I know that.

It has been suggested that I Add More Cats in the interests of garnering readership for my Guest Post Fridays, thus I give you ‘Kitten With Giant Ears, In a Bowl’:

This is Harry.

He’s made it his mission in life to touch everything I cook with.

This is not going well for me.

I have a date with the doctor to plan my withdrawal from meds. Hope it’s as easy as it was to go on them – fingers crossed. In my ideal world, what happens is I go off of them slowly an properly and all of my little seratonin reuptakers just kind of . . . figure out their jobs. And do them. ForEVAH. I’m not sure about the anxiety…is it part of them? Will it come back, full blast? Regardless, I don’t feel (right now) like there’s anything in the offing that I can’t handle. So that’s good. I’m debating preemptively going back to see my therapist just to have a hand to hold if I need it, but right now I really feel like I don’t. Won’t.

NaNo. Anyone else doing the month of hell this year? I started with an actual – Gasp! – outline this year, and even a plan. In preparation I’ve been brushing up on Michael Moorcock’s How to Write a Book in Three Days (by whose logic I ought to have about 27 days free this month…right?) and the incredible, brilliant, irreplaceable Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Stupid Plot Tricks.

Some other four-letter words are: Skip, dogs, call, gulp and kick.

You’re welcome.

G

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Guest Post Friday: In Which a Mysterious Stranger Visits

Back at it, after a moderate absence. This is a post from an anonymous friend and fellow writer, about whom I can tell you no more, as this person is an enigma wrapped in a brilliant mystery. This is worth reading – no matter who you are, what you do, or what kind of day you’re having.


Serenity through Iron-Fisted Control

By M. Stranger

I have a number of times in my life had cause to be reminded of wisdom of the Serenity Prayer, though I can only ever remember the Calvin and Hobbes version, which I like better anyway, so I’ll quote that instead and trust that you’ll remember the real one:
“[Grant me] the strength to change what I can, the inability to accept what I can’t, and the incapacity to tell the difference.”

I went to graduate school for engineering, finishing some years back after a fairly lengthy and sometimes painful program. Along with the ordinary difficulties of getting a PhD in a technical field, I had an advisor who was difficult to get along with: she always had one student that she really liked, and treated the others as pests. One of my fellow pests described her management style as “all stick, no carrot.” Another demoralized student became fond of repeating that old saw, “The beatings will continue until morale improves,” which admittedly doesn’t say much until I mention that this fellow had been a Luftwaffe drill instructor. For my own part, I preferred to say that she praised with faint damnation. It was all the worse for seeing a small number of students treated very well, and to hear them insist that she (and invariably they called her by her first name, while the rest of us called her “Professor”) was very easy to get along with, really, why we just had lunch… You get the picture. I don’t mean to say that she was deliberately cruel to her students, or even a bad person, but that she was (as is regrettably common in academia) that awful combination of a maladept and inattentive manager with the confidence and manners of a talented engineer.

If I can chuckle at it all now, there were periods then of grinding misery. Having so much of one’s life and self-worth in the hands of someone who doesn’t really care all that much can be brutal. At one particularly low point I displayed uncharacteristic self-awareness and got myself a therapist. We talked about a lot of things, but one thing she said stuck with me: the path through these things is to focus on those things that I can control. I could not control my advisor, only my reaction to her. I could not control the past, including arguments and the decision to work for this advisor, only what I did from then on out. There are dragons who are not slain, only accommodated.

I can’t say it solved all my problems, but it resonated with me. You see, my particular field of engineering was control theory: the science of feedback. I had been trained to think in terms of control signals, positive and negative feedback, and in general making an electrical or mechanical system do what you want it to. The idea of applying this to the problems of my life appealed to me. I began to look at things in terms of what I could do, and what I couldn’t, and if I was occasionally (hah!) told to do things I couldn’t do, then I did my best, recognized it as my best and tried to treat the opprobrium like so much thunder and rain: unpleasant, but uncontrollable. Dear reader, I graduated.

Fast-forward some years to my time at Viable Paradise. I’d had some small success at writing fiction again after giving it up in grad school; I’d quickly realized that the world of professional fiction was full of pitfalls, and that my work was not as good as I thought it was. I heard there some familiar advice: when planning your goals, focus on what you can control.

Just like my advisor, you can’t control your readers and you can’t control your editors. You can’t control the people who nominate and vote for awards. It feels a little unfair: these are the people who have so much say over whether you achieve your goals, whether they be getting a story published (or at least getting a personalized rejection), landing that great agent, or winning that Hugo that would go so nicely on that shelf by the window. And when you’ve been grinding away for a few years without achieving any of those things, it can become all the worse to see people for whom these things appear to come easily (though really, they almost never do) and who all of a sudden seem very cool and casual about it all: editors are so easy to get along with, really, why I just had lunch with one…

Part of the problem is that the resolution to focus on what we can control is only part of getting to that state of serenity. If you feel that you’re not writing enough, you can define a goal that you can directly control, like finishing more stories or writing more words. But let’s be honest, those can feel like fake kindergarten goals sometimes. We know what we’re really after, and it hurts when we don’t get it. And worse, we feel like we can sort of control it: at the very least, we seem able to torpedo our chances, which is a KIND of control, right? Really, we need to feel like we’re doing everything we can; the whole serenity prayer really boils down to that third part: the wisdom/inability to tell the difference. I think I can offer some insight into that.

In control theory, you’re presented with a system that has variables: A car has, say, its speed, position, acceleration, and orientation. A writing career has variables, too: words written, chapters written, stories completed, stories submitted, stories sold, awards won, readers-who-you-made-cry, etc. Some of these things you can plainly control, some of them you plainly can’t. And some of them feel like you ought to have some control over, but don’t see how.

There are two complementary concepts here. Controllability, you probably have a pretty good handle on already. I can’t directly control my car’s position. (Trust me, if you’d ever seen me try to parallel park…) I can only directly affect the engine torque, via the gas pedal, which on a good road controls acceleration, which in turn controls velocity. Velocity plus orientation determines position. At any point in the chain, you can lose control on everything after, such as when hitting the gas on an ice patch. In the same way, stories sold depends on stories submitted, depends on stories completed, depends on words written, depends on getting your butt in that chair and typing. While we can’t completely control some things, then, we can crudely affect them — at the very least we can avoid yanking the steering wheel in the wrong direction. The farther along that chain we want to control, the harder it is.

But there is a second concept that does not get as much attention: observability. Just as we can’t control all variables equally well, we can’t see all variables equally well. I can’t directly control my car’s position, but I can observe it, and by seeing the effects of pushing the gas and steering the wheel I can learn and internalize a process by which I first learn to intuitively control my velocity. With enough practice at that, it can feel like I’m directly controlling position. It’s the combination of controllability and observability that allows for a feedback loop and actual control.

The danger to the writer is that observability is not the same as controllability. Duotrope is dangerous in this regard: we can see response times and how our own stories seem to stack up, but there’s no real feedback loop there, only watching. It looks observable, and so feels controllable. But while editors’ responses are (partly) observable, they are not nearly as controllable as we think, and readers’ responses are frequently neither controllable nor observable.

There are four categories, then, of variables in our writing careers:
1) The things we can both observe and control;
2) The things we can observe, but not control;
3) The things we can control, but not observe;
4) The things we can neither observe nor control.

Looking at our careers in terms of those variables that are observable, controllable, both, and neither can be a way of understanding what’s going on as you progress through your career, and for evaluating the kind of goals to set. Getting awards is clearly out as a goal: the end result is not controllable, and the intermediate steps (getting recommended for nominations, whether any given reader had a bad day before picking up your book, etc) are neither observable nor controllable. You’re probably happier if you think of awards as basically random events. But we should maybe also reconsider that Google Alert on our names: ramping up our ability to observe may only make us miserable. Observability and controllability are not in themselves constant: Coming out of Viable Paradise, I hit a bit of a slump because I could all of a sudden see many things that were wrong with my stories, but not a way to fix them. Controllability, to some extent, can catch up, but from what I hear from more experienced writers, it never quite does. (Which reminds me: talking to those writers about their careers and experiences can be a way of indirectly observing your own, but beware if it leads you to believe that you should therefore be able to follow in their footsteps!)

When it comes to setting goals, I would argue that we are happiest when our goals focus on those variables in the first group. Being able to not only directly plot our paths but gauge how far along we are, is important. Finding ways to move things from the third group into the first expands our options: joining a critique group, for example, helps you make observable variables that otherwise aren’t: “Is this funny to someone other than me?” “Will readers think this ending is a cheat?”

All this is not meant as advice; rather, it’s a toolkit. These are the mental tools that I try to use when I’m thinking about my career and my goals. They help me identify those things I can see and control, and they help me figure out what more I need in order to see or control more aspects of my writing. Finally, they’re useful when evaluating other peoples’ advice, so that when people tell you that you need to join a critique group or get your butt in the chair, you can see that those things are meant to address observability of some of the intangibles of your writing, or increased control over number of words written. Put that way, it’s easier to decide whether those things are actually going to be useful for you in achieving the goals you set.

A Thousand Rotting Baby Seals, or: Guest Post Friday, The Spenceration

I’m getting really overwhelmed, you guys.

Overwhelmed by all the honesty-balls being thrown at my head. Overwhelmed by the sweet, funny, sad, strong, fight that lives in all of these posts. Amazed that when I met these people, they were all the smart and secure ones, and there I was, all alone in my fool insecurity – but the whole damn time, there we were, going ’round and ’round in our own heads.

Well, this is Spencer. Spencer is all ‘pinnacle’-ey: That is to say, he’s clever, a great writer, (you may remember him from Mount Rainier’s struggle with depression in this post) married to a beautiful and supportive woman, and has evil-gorgeous children. (You know. Evil gorgeous, like they could get away with murder. Kittens and puppies have it too, but it’s lessened because they can’t talk. Thank the gods.) His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Intergalactic Medicine Show and Brain Harvest. He also has one of them day-job things, and blogs, and twitters, and somewhere on this inter-web of horrors there is a link to his band, but I can’t find it and it’s late at night and he’s probably doing something clever, like sleeping. Here he is, in letter-form.

(And by the way, I don’t think this is ‘my’ internet, exactly, but I DO think that the CIC is a great idea)

Updated: Look what I found! http://www.reverbnation.com/pawnbroker

Updated Again: Links to Spencer’s Stories!

BLADE AND BRANCH AND STONE
THE DEATH OF ROACH
THE DEVIL’S REMATCH

My Pet Depression

An Essay By Spencer Ellsworth

You know the old adage: “If you’re going to confess embarrassing things, do it on a Canadian’s internet.”

So confession time, people.

At every writing-related-thingie I go to–convention, workshop, get-together–every one–I cry at some point.

This is not because something beautiful has been shared. This is not because I have connected to my muse. This is not because I wrote something really fucking amazing.

Don’t get me wrong.

(I’ve written some fucking amazing stuff.)

It starts when I come in contact with a lot of people who have had more success than I have, or who seem to be writing about something amazing, or who just enjoy writing more than I do.

I look into my soul, and I think about my own writing, and I think about how I’m not so hot on it, and that one novel needs to go out the door, and I wish I had more short stories out.

And I think about lots of stuff. Sometimes I think about how I was supposed to do more with my writing by now. I made myself a promise as a teenager that I would be all famous n’ shit. I question whether or not I really like writing. It sure is hell sometimes.

The frustration and sadness and etc all wells up, and then it taps into something much darker.

This CIC (Canadian Internet Confessional) is The Thing That I Like Least About My Depression, and teacher, here is my long-bandied thesis statement: I hate that my depression has latched onto my writing.

Yes, that nasty creature I call my depression, squinty eyed and cackling, waits for me to weigh my worth as a writer. Then it pounces, bowler hat perched on notched cat ears, and says, “I’ve been telling you for years you were worthless. And I was RIGHT!”

You, Wise Reader/Writer, may be Wise enough to have avoided this trap.

If you know what I’m talking about, though, even a little, I hope you recognize that this really has very little to do with your writing, and more to do with that nasty little creature, Depression, squat, hobbling around on stork legs, in a dinner jacket with a wilted purple rose at his lapel, under the embroidered words, “You suck.”

When I hadn’t sold any stories, he constantly reminded me of the fact. “How can you call yourself a writer when you haven’t sold stories?” But now that I have, he hits just as hard on other things. “You haven’t been nominated for awards.” “Nobody cares about another dumb SF writer.” “You haven’t sold to this long list of cool guy markets.” His breath rasps in my ear, stinking of a thousand rotting baby seals.

And he WILL make my cry.

Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different tactics, not least of which is personalizing the bastard. Last time I did the Mid-Writing-Retreat-Cry, I ran into a friend who suggested, “Go on a run. I know that makes you feel better.” So I did run, a lot. A little over seven miles. At the end of it, the adrenaline washed the emotion from my system and I was able to story.

Sometimes I call my wife and she talks me down a bit. Sometimes I just take a walk or otherwise take myself out of the situation. It helps to remind myself that there is more than just the writing world.

But I will cry.

To further deal with this black-pupiled, purple-irised bastard, I’ve been studying mindfulness meditation a great deal lately. Both in Thich Nicht Han’s famous book The Miracle of Mindfulness and Williams, et. al.’s book The Mindful Way Through Depression. Mindfulness is just awareness, really. Pay more attention to what you eat, do, love, and less attention to what you want.

In mindfulness, he’s still there. I wish I could say he went away. I suspect that the only way to really conquer him might be to put my arms around his pebbled, warty, mildew-ridden skin, pull him close, and tell him, “You’re part of me, and I love you, but you’re wrong. Writing is not about these things. Writing is about Story, and Story is bigger than the both of us.”

Because frustration is normal. Sadness is normal. Comparisons to other people are, as unhealthy as they are, normal. And his shifty purple eyes, pebbled skin and cracked fungus-ridden fingernails are the yang to the muse’s whispering crystalline wings. He is me, in the same way the muse is. He comes from dark places I don’t understand, but they’re still my dark places. Call them chemical imbalances, childhood trauma, bits of both… he is me. He is my darkness, and I need my dark places.

I’d like to end this blog with the conversion. And then there was no more depression, just like when we got rid of racism and war. But that’s not it. I get to live with it, and I get to fight it over stupid things related to writing, and you might too.

Nope. He’s still there. But so is Story, and whether I outrun him, out-think him, or pull him close and acknowledge that he is mine, Story will be calling in the background, and once he quiets down, I’ll hear it.

Guest Post Friday: Chang, on Where to Put Your Ass.

Well, I don’t even know how to introduce this – it’s an amazing post, and I feel very lucky to have it on here.

Chang came to visit my class at Viable Paradise and teach us yoga. At that point I hadn’t slept for a couple of days, my writing was pissing me off, and the most I’d done in terms of actual movement was to migrate from one chair to another. Chang’s class brought me back into my body, settled me down, grounded me – all the things that yoga does – and reminded me why I love it. And – surprise! – my writing stopped feeling like a fight and started feeling like a flow.

Anyway, that’s not all that this is about, but really, I don’t know how to introduce this. Chang is Chang. He’s awesome, and a brilliant writer, and has a big-safe-warm-kind of energy. He’s a rare human. His website is here and he tweets away as @bigbadchang.

And now…

Taming the Wild Voices

I’ve got voices in my head.  Voices that are telling me I was a fool for thinking I was qualified to write about yoga, writing and mental health.

“You’re a basket case, man.”

“When was the last time you wrote anything good?”

“When you do yoga it looks like a bad Dali painting.”

I hear these voices all the time.  But what I know is this:

I’ve started this post three times so far and not even come close to saying what I want to.

I’ve written four novels so far and not even come close to writing what I know I’m capable of.

I’ve been doing yoga for 11 years and not even come close to the full potential of what my body can do.

I’ve been on and off anti-depressants, ritalin and xanax and yet nothing gives me the calm of a great yoga practice nor the satisfaction of writing.

#

I began writing at the age of 12, pursuing it on an off for the next twelve years before bailing because after several failed attempts at “mainstream fiction” I hated everything I wrote.  Similarly, I’d exercised on and off for years before giving up and resigning myself to the fact that I was just going to get older and fatter.  I figured I’d just have to keep seeing mental health professionals and occasionally drink myself to sleep in order to find peace.

Then one thing in particular changed everything.

Power Vinyasa Yoga.

The hot, sweaty stuff.  Not Bikram. The other kind.

When I began doing yoga my life was a mess.  I was unemployed, my marriage was under duress, I was stressed and becoming unstable.  My wife began doing yoga and loved it.  One night she begged me to come to class with her.  Two weeks late I finally did.  At first I thought I was going to die.  Then I made it to the end and left feeling better than I had in…  well… ever!

Within a month I was going 3-5 times a week.  Soon I was volunteering at the studio.  Then working there.  After six years I opened my own studio.  Since 2006  we’ve taught to over 10,000 people, seen their lives change before our eyes and grown an amazing community.

All this because I know that without my yoga I would be dead, divorced or worse.

My yoga practice has made my body stronger and my mind calmer.  I think better than I used to, with greater clarity and focus (for a guy who couldn’t drive without 30mgs. of ritalin coursing through him that’s a pretty amazing change).  People find this hard to believe but I’m completely serious when I say yoga helped me understand sequential logic, vital to such things as programming, algorithms and even math (back in the day I had the SAT scores of 750 verbal and 340 math.  Couldn’t add my way out of a paper sack but damn if I could read!).  The constant repetition of a set series of postures that can be arranged in a modular fashion to produce a certain end (work the hips, work the spine, work the heart, work the shoulders, etc.) all require a certain routine and path to achieve completion.  This helped me to understand the order of operations in everything from modular synthesis to HTML – even jazz!

Yoga got me writing again.  I missed the mental effort, the workout writing gave me but hated what I was writing because it was what I thought everyone wanted to read.  When I finally gave in and began writing science fiction I felt liberated and I’m writing better than I ever was.

Yoga has especially helped me understand the craft of writing better.  My yoga practice helped me realize that for me to have a strong functioning spine I would need to maintain consistency, practicing regularly and often.  Our bodies are made to be moved physically and when we don’t do that we allow them to break down faster than they really should.

Through yoga I began to understand that the same thing happened with regards to writing.  To write well, pretty much all the great writers have said the same thing:  one must write regularly and often, and read often.  It’s really only through a regular discipline that we can achieve mastery at anything.  Stephen King says “Writing equals ass in chair.”  I say to my students “Yoga equals ass on mat.”  Not on a SUP board.  Not while eating chocolate or watching TV. You’re either doing yoga or you’re not.

In writing we learn to keep only the essentials, remove the excess so that all there is on the page is what we need to say what we want, no more and no less.  Similarly, in yoga we learn to weed out the extraneous, remove the excess and arrive at a place of simplicity; a clean and unadorned mind and body (tattoos and jewelry are okay, though).

Another parallel between yoga and writing is that there is no end state, no goal state. No one practices yoga to suddenly find themselves blissfully at the top of the highest mountain peak with no one there beside them, having achieved it all.  There are peaks and valleys and plateaus upon which I as a writer land and occasionally lament.  Eventually I find what I need to move beyond this plateau, either by pulling back from where I’m at or pushing myself slightly.

Same goes for writing.  The best writers keep evolving, challenging themselves and writing new and different works.  The human brain, of which I assume you the reader are in possession of, thrives on challenges to maintain its strength and growth.  Without this, it will stagnate and often degrade sooner.

#

Yoga has brought me many things but the main thing it has brought me is a sense of calm and peace with myself.  I still have challenges, I still have dark days, days when I’m pretty sure it would have been a better idea to stay in bed not just for that day but for the previous week.

Through yoga I’ve learned to accept these things as they come, not change them but to simply be with them.  Sooner or later things change and the obstacles are gone and the path is clear once more.

Yoga may never get rid of the voices.  It hasn’t, in fact.  It’s added to them.  Now instead of just voices I have that say, “You suck” and “Give up, loser-king” I hear ones that say, “Write shit and edit later” and “Get on your mat for an hour then the world will seem normal, possibly better.”

And those are the best kind of voices to hear.