Category Archives: Thinky Thoughts

The 2%

At this point I’ve been writing so long that there are things I don’t notice about the ways I write. They just are. My brain just works this way, it doesn’t strike me as odd or patterned until someone else points out hey, I’ve noticed this thing about you. Case in point, this tweet chain that started off with an observation my Editrix made about me several days ago after I’d just finished the second near-final draft of a novel of this year.

The novel I just finished, by the way, was not the first draft that was over 50% correct. That honor goes to Turing Shrugged, which as of this blog post is in submissions and so y’all may not see it for some time. I’m sorry! I swear it’s a really good, fun novel. Even if I did kill off one of my favorite characters to write.

This is a new phenomenon for me. For all that I write, and if you’ve read this blog for any length of time or looked at that twitter thread, you know I write a lot. I wrote out a whole post as to why! (Dumbassery. Is the short version, I was an idiot.) I’ve gotten better over the years about finishing things I write even if I don’t always finish them immediately and a lot of times if there’s six months between starting and finishing the end won’t resemble the beginning very much. And not in a sequential way. So. In the twitter thread I estimated that I write about ten items every year, fifty items every five years. One or two of those will be novels, one or two will be novellas, and the other six or so will be short stories. This might be a conservative estimate given how often I’ll hear something that my brain will interpret as a prompt and go off cackling into writer-land, but we’ll go with it. Ten works a year, fifty works in a five year. And only one of those will be over fifty percent correct the first time. Which works out to 2% and roughly means every work has a 2% chance of being that one.

(I may be doing probability wrong here, by the way, it has been a very long time since I reviewed math on a regular basis.)

I tell you this because hating your first draft is a feeling that never, ever goes away. Because even experienced writers, especially when the drafting is novel length, have the soggy middle that starts whispering you suck you have no idea what you’re doing this entire novel sucks go lay brick somewhere. Yes. The first draft sucks. It’s supposed to suck. That is the point of a first draft.

No, I’m wrong, that’s not the point of a first draft, the point of a first draft is to take a trial run at the novel and see where the edges are, how close you get to dealing with it, where your problems are going to be, and if this is a thing that should exist by your hand or by someone else’s.

You’re not going to find out any of these things if you don’t write it. If you don’t finish it.

You’re not going to find out how long it’s actually supposed to be. You’re not going to find out that it’s supposed to be in third person instead of first, or vice versa. You won’t find out that you’re actually telling three different stories here. You’re not going to find out that it’s not supposed to be about exams and stressing over your future, it’s supposed to be about intergalactic conspiracy and dealing with feelings getting in the way of ambition. You’re not going to find out that no, there really is no way for that character not to die. You won’t find out that the ending is like the gasp of fresh air and burst of sunshine on the eyeballs when you crawl out of that three mile tunnel of shit and sewer water. And you won’t find out that this is a story you have enough passion and drive and imagination to tell. Or, perhaps, that this isn’t a story for you to tell and should be handed off to someone else. Not that there’s any guarantee that someone else will write it but the point is you don’t know until you’ve completed that first draft.

First drafts suck. They’re very rough sketches, sometimes they’re outlines in prose form. Sometimes you veer off south when you should be going east, ask me how I know and about the novel I rewrote literally half (45k words or so) of because the first time it got stuck in a boggy mire and I floundered around for 40k words. Sometimes you get distracted. It happens. Without that first draft, you will never know that the work wasn’t supposed to be this, but that. You can’t have the fix until you make the mistake. And you can’t polish the thing until you have something to polish and can see where all the nicks and stains are.

Ask me how I know. Ask me about the novel I’m about to start again that I’ve written four goddamn times. I think four, by now. I’m not sure. Somewhere around eight or more years ago this one character dropped into my head and put his feet up on my mental desk and not only has refused to leave, has refused to cough up a coherent novel four times. So, periodically, I keep throwing myself at the fucker in the hopes that it’ll work this time if I do this one thing differently. I think I have it now. We’ll find out by the end of the year.

First drafts suck. You have my permission to hate your first draft. You have my permission to feel like it’s the most arduous task on earth if you need it. Not that you need my permission for anything. But my support and reassurance then, you have it, because your first draft is going to suck. My first draft is going to suck. Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and George RR Martin’s first drafts are all going to suck, because a first draft is figuring out all the places the story isn’t. It’s only when you get very lucky that 2% of the time that a first draft is when you find out where the story is. The rest is sifting through mud and sewage looking for its shiny buttons.

It’s Got Anxiety

I am doing too many projects too close together, in too much of a state of near-readiness (okay to be fair one would be in too much of a state of near readiness) and I am taking all of these self-imposed deadlines way too hard. I can tell this because I’ve turned myself into a living embodiment of the “it’s got anxiety” meme. Do not do this.

It’s not as though I didn’t have warning. The entire back half of last year was spent doing twenty things in a day and muttering to myself that this incessant need to be productive, to justify things that are not productive (watching TV, playing Diablo) with finishing absolutely everything beforehand. It’s not even as though this is uncommon! I don’t know off the top of my head what any of the technical terms for it are, but I know it’s not uncommon. (Editrix: f we’re talking SUPER technical that’s totally in the OCD family of anxiety; workaholism, superwoman complex, my desperate need to go stab John Calvin in the face?) (Thank you, my dear, the swords are in the garage loft.)

Let’s have a breakdown, pun entirely intended, of what’s going on now. I’m writing this blog post so I don’t have to look at Sandborn and deal with the last few edits before it goes off to the Editrix for a second pass. After which it’s entirely possible that all the major structural edits will be done and all that’s left is typos and word choices before it goes to publication, so there’s that anxiety. Then there’s White Lightning, which is so far behind schedule it’s come all the way around to potentially be on schedule a year later, plus trying to balance this with finishing the draft of Long Road so that can sit and percolate. I’m studying Arabic and Hindi and making slow progress, which is great, but I’ve started these languages for the third time. All of last year was wheel spinning. Not the crafty fun kind. I’ve picked up guitar, which is going fine except for not managing to do regular exercises in the exercise-a-day book the way I want to, I’ve started drawing which… no, actually, that may be the one thing that doesn’t have a caveat attached to it. So I have that going for me. But my online course in bio is semi-comprehensible at best and I seem to attach the same kind of importance to that as I do to classes I took in real live school, so that’s not helping. We’ve got a fair amount of blog-work to do that, given the timeframe, is not awful but needs to be addressed before it becomes so. Plus martial arts, plus eating healthy, plus dressing myself and keeping a budget, plus plus plus.

And part of this is almost definitely that I’m still wobbly on time management and the very small margin for exhaustion I leave myself. And part of this is that no, I do not have a deadline on the progress I make in the umpty-million languages I want to progress in, I do not have a deadline on the guitar or the drawing, if I do not get the practice in every night it’s fine. If I take a night to do nothing but write and play Diablo, that’s fine too. If I go to bed early and skip Arabic and Hindi for a night, that’s okay. If I decide to up and quit either or both of those languages, no one is going to penalize me but me.

This is where one of those we are our own worst enemies. We give it coming and going, coming with the scheduling and going when we inevitably realize that we’ve fucked ourselves over and there is no room to breathe here, we forgot to allow ourselves time to be human. To have nervous fits, to have bad days, to catch colds, to have something break. Ourselves or the material we’re working with, pick one. We’re not machines. We get tired.

I don’t know why this is such a hard concept for me to grasp. I try to comfort myself by telling myself this isn’t just me, I’m not the only one that does this. Whether or not I believe myself is a whole other story again, because see also anxiety and the chaos in my head tends to eschew sensibility in favor of whatever is most dramatic at the time. Normally this would also be the part in the blog post when I offer a pithy solution, but I don’t have any of those either.

The only solution or saving grace I have to offer is this self-examination. Good habits, and several years of reminding myself that downtime is just as important as productivity. More so, because it gets left by the wayside so often. Sleep, as my doctor recently reminded me, is essential to good health. Rest is, also. Anxiety and memes and compulsive need to measure up to ridiculous standards aside, my worth as a human being is not measured by how many amazing and useful things i can get done in a day, and neither is yours. We can be our own worst enemies, or we can breathe and take a moment and be our own allies the way we would for any other friend.

There are enough things in this world trying to tear us down, tear us apart. Let’s try and not be one of them.

Post Camp Nanowrimo 2015

Well, that happened. That was a thing that I did.

And I learned something about myself! I learned that I can, in fact, draft a novel in a month. I would probably have been even more able to draft a longer novel in a month if I hadn’t come down with flu for four days or had to work a day job. Which is moderately terrifying. Of course, the idea of churning out 12 novels in a year is somewhat tempered by the knowledge that no, this novel is in no way shape or form ready for publication, and you do have to sit down and edit the thing before you do publish, and that will take a few months at the very absolute pushing-myself-ridiculously least. But I guess it’s gratifying to know that I can do that? Maybe that puts it at three novels a month, one for each Nanowrimo, and then I can spend the rest of the year editing and putting out dime novels. Certain People are going to kill me for saying that now.

Anyway. So. Nano happened. I wrote a little over 80k, eighty thousand words, which when put together with what I’d already written before I started this, makes almost 100k. A good sized novel. And about a third of that is going out the window already, because it’s filler, it’s me kicking stuff around while I get to know the characters if not the world in and of itself. Insufficient prep! I mean, at this rate by the time I write Long Road for the third? Fourth time? It might even be worth something, or very close to a final draft by the end of it, and on the other hand oh dear god you mean I have to cut 33k of the Demon Hunters draft and write it all over again?

This is what it’s like to be a writer, folks. This is why they say, if you can do anything else, anything at all, and get the same kind of fulfillment, do that instead. You get the elation of having finished a draft followed by the horror and dread of realizing that you have to rewrite huge chunks of it. This is also why, not incidentally, I put off editing until six weeks minimum after I’ve finished a novel draft. Because in the moment of being elated and in despair and over-emotional, I’m likely to cut out the wrong things. Or just scrap the thing entirely when there was a workable novel there.

(I wonder if agencies and editors have the same problem with Camp Nanowrimo as they do with Nanowrimo, given that the focus is more on writing in general and less on writing a novel. After Nanowrimo has become known, as Nano has become more famous, as the month of the killer slushpile. Poor agencies and editors.)

Right now, post Nano, I have a frillion and one projects. It’s almost comical. I’m picking up a dime novel I had mostly drafted and finishing it, I’m finishing up the edits on Sandborn where I’d gotten line edits done and now I have to filter in some scenes I’d only elided before. I’m picking up White Lightning and shaking it out for what needs written and what needs edited. I’m prepping for two more things including my next Camp Nanowrimo novel, and I’m eyeballing another dime novel I was in the middle of that I was trying to get out as quickly as possible, which naturally means that it’s coming along slow as uphill molasses and half of what’s coming out is wrong anyway.

These things I do to keep me busy after Nano, and also to keep my mind in shape for writing. When I go for a week or more without writing, the muscle gets atrophied and the discipline gets tossed out the window, and with every day it gets harder to start again. I may not be able to focus on writing directly, not as much after several days of 5 and 6k per day. But I can do writing related things. I can world-build. I can do edits, I can fill things in, and I can sort through and read over and make notes. Slowly, over time, I can build back up so I’m writing 3 and 4k per day again. As with any muscle, once you give it a hard workout you need to let it rest and rebuild. So too with writing.

And for that matter, I can write down what I’ve learned. Writing, as with most skills, is always a moving target, there is always something you can learn from what you did and improve on the next pass. Editrix spent Nano looking over my shoulder every now and again and pinpointed one of my problems for the third time, which means it’s likely a recurring problem I’ll need to work on for future novels: Get to know the world and the characters before you start writing. In a way, I need to prep by writing fanfic of my unwritten worlds, I need to have the patterns in place before I can start writing decent stuff, so I don’t spend half the time spinning my wheels on the page. So I guess one of the things I’ll be doing to rebuild my writing muscles will be drablets and flash fiction to figure out who the characters for the next Camp Nano novel are. Ah, my life.

The Important Things

I’m sitting up here with a mug of cocoa in one hand and typing with the other, with Leverage playing in the background and classic rock playing in my ears (as I start it’s Once In A Lifetime by the Talking Heads, ah my childhood), working on this blog post and trying not to feel guilty about how long it’s been or about the literally 20 other things I did not get done today. I’m serious. I have a list. I think it’s about 20 items long.

I’ve forgotten the three important things.

You know that saying, don’t you? The internet knows this one well,

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.

Henry James, in a letter to his son, or so the internet thinks.

It’s easy to remember that we should be kind to other people. We’re reminded of this quite a bit, in the news media, by other people’s responses to us, in television, in films, in books. We are reminded to be good, to be kind. To extend of ourselves to help others, and that’s not a bad thing, that’s part of how society thrives and perpetuates itself. Encouraging the individuals that make up that society to share and help each other.

It’s much harder to remember to be kind to oneself. To allow oneself to be flawed, fragile, and in need of time or space. There’s always a million and one reasons why this thing needs to be done now, or this thing should be done before we relax, or this other thing has to get done before your parents get here. If you’re not cleaning, you’re cooking, if you’re not cooking, you’re studying, the world will absolutely shatter if you don’t finish all of your chores, and heaven forbid you tell a friend, sorry, I didn’t finish that book yet, mind if I keep it a while longer? I’m sorry, I can’t make that event, I need a day off where I can sit around the house in my pajamas and eat chocolate cookies.

We’re not supposed to do that. We’re supposed to be super people, and the more we at least appear to have it together the more we’re supposed to continue to have it together, day after day after day. It’s not even the opinion of others, it’s what we perceive as the opinion of others that trips us up most often. Sometimes, yes, we do have deadlines. We forget to take into account how much we can and can’t do, what we can balance, and we take too many projects on with outside deadlines, and then we have to live with the consequences.  Hopefully one of those consequences is learning not to do that again.

But there’s also our self-imposed deadlines. I’m going to read this many books by the end of the year. I’m going to clean the house by the weekend. I’m going to clean the house this weekend and you will be able to eat off the floors by Monday.

You take it too far you end up like me, feeling guilty about every moment where you’re just relaxing on the couch playing silly computer games. Every minute you spend surfing tumblr becomes a minute you could be doing push-ups, studying, cleaning, prepping food to cook later. You learn these tricks, you make them up for your life as you go along. If you’re patient with yourself, and attentive, and you’re not afraid to fuck up once in a while. You find ways to make your life a little smoother. But that doesn’t mean you have to make up for it in other places. Having extra time doesn’t mean you have to justify it somehow or fill it up with something else productive. Sometimes it is really okay to just lie back and take a nap.

We do not, as a general rule, prioritize or even much value downtime. At least in the American culture where I grew up. I very much remember fellow students having informal contests over who studied more, who got less sleep was a point of pride, who was busier, not necessarily who was doing more extracurricular activities but who was working harder at things that were considered to have value, schoolwork, studies, college applications, volunteer work. It would have been part time jobs if, admittedly, I hadn’t gone to a school largely populated by rich kids. In college it was a little less pervasive, but the same thing. We all worked so hard because we felt that our value was in work, and the results of our work, good results and not failures.

This is a vicious, terrible lie. It is okay to fail, and it is okay not to be working every moment of every day. It is okay to sometimes be idle, to let yourself recharge. It is good to forgive yourself for your failings because holding onto them does nothing useful. Knowing what you did wrong is useful, continually beating yourself in the head about it is not. Go ahead, give yourself permission to have that brownie, read that allegedly trashy book, watch that movie just for the one person you find attractive. Curl up under the covers and take a nap. It’ll be okay, I promise. Just for now, for a short while, be kind to yourself. It’s just as important as everything else.

Education As Virus: A Few Thoughts

“Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.” — Terry Pratchet, Hogfather

So, I’ve rediscovered my love of painting miniatures.

(So that’s where you’ve been! I hear you cry. No, actually, this was only a couple weeks ago, I’ve been AWOL for a lot longer than that. Or maybe I don’t hear you cry, maybe that’s the sound of the crickets outside my window. Who knows.)

At any rate. I also managed to infect a couple of friends with a love of miniature painting, or infect one and reinfect another, maybe, and in the process managed to get myself appointed mini painting tutor. Because she kept fussing at problems and I kept going “Well, this is how I solved that…” and she kept calling me a genius and I kept telling her, no, I’ve just digested the brains of many geniuses in my wanderings, and at the end I decided I might as well just compile all my various learnings about mini painting into one giant document and paste it on the internet.

And then listing off all the equipment I use, from a quick glance around this corner of my craft room, took about two hours and encompassed several thousand words. Never mind the whole initial painting post, which doesn’t even get into various techniques and things. I didn’t realize I’d accumulated a novella’s worth of mini painting information given that I haven’t done it in a couple of years. I’m not even that good at it, I don’t think.

It’s not even that I blather on (although I do, just take a look around here) or even that I soak up information like a sponge (I do, oddly this doesn’t come in as handy as you’d think), it’s that I refuse to stop learning. Which is harder than you might think. In every discipline or craft or hobby or field of study there are always going to be people who say, you’re doing it wrong, which automatically raises hackles and causes one to instinctively shout back no, you. Which is all well and good except a) that’s no basis for communication and b) you might actually be doing it wrong. I’ve been doing feathering wrong for a few years, as it turns out! A different tutorial explained it to me in a way I understood much better. Turns out what I was doing all this time was layering, which is fine for some things but also doesn’t create the effect I was going for elsewhere. C’est la vie. Now I will practice proper feathering, and probably fuck it up several times before I do it well. Again.

To put it another way, there’s a lot of people out there who say you don’t need a degree in Creative Writing or English to be a professional writer. There’s a lot of people who say you do! I take strong issue with with those who say you need a degree in either and preferably both to be a writer; to me, writers write, if you are a noun you must verb the noun, or something that makes more grammatical sense than what I just said. You get the idea, because it makes instinctive sense, because you know what I’m talking about, because I’ve written a lot of stuff like this down. Writers write. But is there only One True Way to write? Or to Become A Writer, which is again in my opinion largely a self-defined process anyway, apart from the writing. Not hardly. There are as many ways as there are writers, probably ten times that many.

But, like mini painting, like everything else in life, there are techniques, and tricks, and other things to make your life easier. And these things you must learn, else you will be doomed to reinvent the wheel or the layering forevermore, and really, why bother? That’s time you could be spending writing your next novel or play or screenplay. Even if you just take some time out to look at a forum and the discussions it offer, or if you run into a problem and go through some of your favorite authors asking their advice and seeing if they answer, learning from someone else’s fuckups is starting a few steps ahead of where you were, which is a few steps you don’t have to take yourself.

I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about mini painting, or writing, or sewing, or any of the other crafts I’ve practiced. I’m also not saying that this is the be all and end all approach; as with all bits of advice, your mileage will vary. You may need to make all the mistakes to embed them properly in your thinkmeats, I am not you and therefore do not know your particular brain processes. But I will say that in my experience, and in what seems to be the experience of a number of other people I know, it’s just easier to learn from other people’s mistakes or bad habits. Or to find that approach and discard it as not for you, and then that’s one thing you don’t have to try. Either way.

It is a very large world out there full of people who wish to dispense advice, including myself. Go forth, my children, and partake of the wisdom of the world’s people. Become infected. Pass it on.

Fighting Monsters

It’s been a rough couple of months. There may be rambling.

There was one week there where, in the same week, there was a sudden death of a friend of the family, a work injury (not mine, but in my household) that required a visit to urgent care, and a gas explosion a couple miles from my house. A fireball 200 feet tall that Michael Bay would have been proud of. That was a tense couple of hours till the gas got turned off and the fire was put out. And that was just one week. Granted, it hasn’t all been that dramatic, but for the past couple of months it feels as though every time I get up, something new happens to punch me back down. It’s only in the last week and a half, two weeks, that I’ve been able to approach anything like my level of functionality, which brings with it the realization of how long I’ve been listing from task to task like a crippled galleon. Too damn long. And for the most part, it’s circumstantial. I had my annual physical the Monday or so after the fireball and when I listed off the past week to my doctor (because I clicked yes to the have-you-experienced-feelings-of-sadness-or-depression box on the appointment questionnaire and they didn’t have a ticky box for “look, shit’s just been happening lately”) he got a bit wide-eyed and agreed that that’d do it. Call him if the depression doesn’t ease up when life eases up a bit and we’d discuss treatment. Thankfully, life eased up and the depression did turn out to be situational instead of clinical. I’m nearly back to functionality, that being teetering on the edge of overextending myself and thinking that if I just shuffle my schedule I can take on this one more project…

It’s been a rough weekend on the internet. Primarily because of Dylan Farrow’s open letter and Philip Seymour Hoffman, my various friends have been expressing various emotions, among them shock and grief and hurt and rage and sorrow and perplexity and disappointment and. Lots of emotions. Lots of ands. No major fights that I can see, thankfully. I will always be grateful to my mother for raising me to understand, and to try to live by, that emotions are not bad or wrong. Emotions are emotions, they simply are. They’re what you feel. And what you choose to do with them, the actions that you take, that can be good or bad, right or wrong. It’s wrong to hit someone if you feel angry. It’s wrong to tear someone down and call them names if you feel sad and upset. It’s wrong to dance a victory jig around someone who’s hurting and make them hurt even more. But feeling that happiness or anger or what have you isn’t, it’s the human condition to have emotional responses to outside stimuli. On the internet, if you don’t type out what you’re thinking, no one can see you collapsed in your chair in spasms of schadenfreude-induced laughter. And, whatever the cause of that laughter, no one gets hurt by it.

A rough weekend on the internet. A lot of people have said a lot of things, and a lot of those things were hurtful. A whole lot of those things were disappointing. Let’s see, how many people have I been disappointed by this week? At least one. A big one, a writer I really admire, and I sit back in my chair and I feel sad and betrayed and upset, and I go “Oh Stephen King no,” and I kind of want to yell at him a bit. That won’t help. So I go grab a glass of water and take a five to stretch and come back and look at that again, and think, “Okay. I really like you, guy. You’ve taught me a lot about writing, a bit about life, you seem like a decent guy and you help a lot of people. And on balance, I still like you. But, dude, that was a cruel thing to say.” (He has since apologized.) Stephen King will never hear that I said these things (unless he inexplicably finds his way to my blog, in which case, um, hi?), but I’ve resolved the conflicted feelings in my head, or at least started on a resolution.

It’s a hell of a lot harder when the person you admire and adore, or at least look up to and like, turns out to be an unquestionably terrible person. When there is no possible reason or excuse that makes the bad deeds better, and you have to reconcile your experiences and the accustomed pathways of your emotions with the knowledge that this person is a horrible human being. By your standards, or by standards so widely adopted that they might as well be universal. How do you deal with that? I genuinely don’t know, I haven’t been in that position yet, and I’m glad and grateful. Going by responses I’ve seen over the last weekend, a lot of people have opted to deny it ever happened. That’s not the route I would choose. It’s an easier path, quicker, more seductive, yes I just went there, but I don’t think I would choose that. I won’t know until it happens, if it happens.

The impulse is there, though, isn’t it. Not just in the Dylan Farrow situation, but even in the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. To shy away from it and say, it wasn’t like that. It didn’t happen. My idol isn’t that horrible creature. My inspiration wasn’t that struggling person. These are strong, shining beacons of skill and talent in one area or another, they’re not human beings, they don’t have flaws. That’s a seductive fucker of a lie, right there. Or alternatively we can lie and say, this person was weak. That person was stupid. As though we’ve never had a stupid moment in our life. Never made a mistake. We can say and think all kinds of things to comfort ourselves, to make ourselves safer in at least the feeling if not accurate knowledge that bad things won’t happen to us because we’re good, we’re right, we do the right things and that means we get happy endings.

Even if we know that’s not true. It’s total bullshit. When things are going well, we have to believe it because it keeps us going on, doing the things we do, hoping for a good result. When things are going poorly we have to believe it because it can get better. But when things get really bad, when the hits just keep on coming, when a gas line explodes and a relative gets cancer and a friend dies and you find yourself making unforseen trips to urgent care, you kind of can take comfort in the unfriendliness and unfairness of the universe. It’s not personal. It’s not anything you did. Shit happens. You don’t always get a happy ending, sometimes the monsters win.

When we’re kids, we read stories that do for the most part have happy endings. The heroine conquers the evil witch, the hero slays the mad sorcerer, and they get to go home happy at the end. Unicorns come back to the world. The sister rescues her baby brother. The world is made whole again. And all of that comes after the scary parts, the eight foot scarlet demon with the horns the width of your entire body, the demonic bull made of fire, the alien dripping acid. Your parents try to comfort you when you have nightmares about the scary parts, they tell you the monsters aren’t real. They don’t remind you that if the monsters aren’t real, neither are the happy endings, or any other part of the story. But, okay, the monsters aren’t real, nothing’s going to creep out of the closet or through the window in the middle of the night, or out of your book. There is no clown in the sewers coming to drag you down.

When I was a kid, okay, older than a kid, I was a young teenager then. And my baby brother had nightmares, and by this point I was pretty much helping my Mom raise my siblings, and so on this particular night I had to deal with the monsters under the bed. Well, hell. I know how to deal with this. Sure, sometimes there are monsters. But we know how to deal with their ugly mugs. I put gargoyles around the room, and had one of them face the bed and one of them face outwards, so they could watch from all sides. That’s what gargoyles are for, I told him, they were created long ago to protect people. I have a few to spare.

I was raised by intellectual hippies. Not even kidding. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, see also and up above about letting your feelings be what they are. I was raised on peace and love, In Harmony and Free to Be You And Me and A Woman Is (does anyone remember that book?) and the Beatles and spent my summers on a commune/farm collecting eggs and making mud palaces by the duck pond. And books. Lots of books. All kinds of books. I learned all kinds of things about monsters. I learned that you can make anything a mantra to keep back the evil spirits (Stephen King). I learned that mirrors are magic places and you can change yourself to be as powerful as your enemy, if you have courage. (Margaret Mahy). I learned that there is power in sisterhood (Jane Yolen) and family can be born and sometimes really shitty but also worth forgiving (CS Lewis) or family can be made and hard-won (Katherine Paterson). I learned that the really dangerous monsters keep their heart in another place, so you can’t confront them head on, you have to find the heart and take it the fuck out (Russian folk tales). I learned that sometimes you make the monsters (John Bellairs) and sometimes you are the monster (Robert Louis Stevenson) and sometimes the way to defeat the monster is just to make friends (George MacDonald) because it turns out the monster was just a person like you.

I never did manage to get the Goblin King to show up and take my baby brother away (sorry baby brother!) but I learned a hell of a lot from him. From the stories. From all the monsters I fought with all the heroes and heroines and even some of the villains. I even learned to accept the fact that there are no happy endings, because nothing ends, and everything in circles. End, begin, all the same. Big change. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. 80s children if you did not hear that in Aughra’s voice I am disappoint. (Dark Crystal.) I learned that people can fuck up and be forgiven, and that there is grace in both sides. And that, too, sometimes when you break something there is no taking it back, and no forgiving. And you just have to accept that.

So, monsters. Demons to slay. When you become an adult you’re supposed to put away childish things, the idea that you can solve riddles and do quests and rescue something or someone and slay a monster and call it a day. I clung somewhat harder to my books and movies than most, and it did get me in trouble a bit when I was an older teen/young adult. But it also got me out of it again. You see, my young apprentice, many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view, and why is it childish for a person to be a princess but adultlike to confront your inner demons? Why do we tell our children that monsters don’t exist, don’t worry about them, and then turn around and describe people who hurt children as monsters in the press? Unless, of course, they’re rich and famous and have many awards, and then it’s a clusterfuck. No, there aren’t vampires that wear capes and talk in thick regional accents and suck blood and burn in the daylight. But there are people who seduce and sap your energy. There aren’t boogeymen under the bed, but there are people who think it fine to sneak into your bedroom at night and do monstrous things. They’re not common. They’re rare, but they exist. There are monsters. And the scariest part is, they look like people. Fingers and toes and eyes and nose and they look like people you meet on the street. Sometimes you have to look really close into the mirror, and if you squint, you’ll see the monster. Monsters totally exist. But the good news? You can fight them.

Not alone. And not without practice, sometimes a lot of practice. The monsters that come from outside are easiest; you build walls, you set up guardians, you hone your weapons, and you attack or defend as you have resources. The monsters that come from within, those are harder. Those take a lot of practice. You might have to consult a wizard, a witch, or a sage, which we call a counselor or a therapist. You might want to talk to a priest, by whatever name you call that person. It’s good to have backup, because those little shits are insidious. They lie, remember? They say things about how that horrible thing isn’t true, that would never happen to you. They lie and sneak up on you and have the irritating habit of coming in swarms. And they’re not nearly so obvious as SUV sized scuttling crabs or razor-taloned harpies, so you have to know what you’re looking at and see them coming. Naming them is a good first step, it’s one of the first things we learn from folk and fairy tales, names have power. Just ask Rumplestiltskin. Name your monsters, learn their ways and weaknesses, gird yourself, and locate your backup.

And don’t forget to kick back and have a good rest after a day of monster fighting. You’ve earned it.

Make It Simple (To Last Your Whole Life Long)

So, a thing happened to me a couple weeks ago. Sometimes at work the work goes by either too quickly or very little at all, and I end up at loose ends in the back offices of the store. And then, if needed, I go out and hang out at the front desk and play checkout girl. Sometimes it’s quiet; I do a lot of reading or knitting there, we all do. Sometimes, people come in and have questions. And sometimes they bring their kids. Inevitably, some kid wants to sit and treadle the spinning wheels like it’s a bicycle, going far too fast. Usually, if we have enough people that someone can go away from the front desk, I or one of the aunts will go and do a spinning demonstration.

I did one on Thursday, day after New Years’ Day. A family who were, I suspect, on vacation, they had the look of people wandering around staring at everything in wonder, even the trees by the streets and the parking meter. Most likely tourists, none of whom had intended crafting purpose. Though for all I know they might have gotten entranced by the yarn and decided to knit or crochet something. The daughter, maybe somewhere around 8 or 10, went and stood by one of the castle wheels and started chattering at her parents about how it worked. I have no idea what she said. But she was really interested, so I offered to give them a demonstration on one of the other wheels as the belt (well, cord) had come off the wheel they were playing with. I went over to our floor Lendrum and did some spinning and did my spiel and made a 2-ply bit of yarn and gave it to the girl by way of demonstration. Pink yarn, or maybe lavender, something of that ilk was in the demo basket. She loved it. As I walked back to the front desk I saw her gravely passing it to one of the adults to hold while she put her coat on so she didn’t lose it. This is something I don’t remember about spinning, or any of half a dozen skills.

I had a similar moment with my language abilities last night. By now I’ve only been spinning for three or four years, but grew up with this branch of the family doing all of these crafts as a matter of course, I literally cannot remember a time when I only spoke or understood one language. This is simply how I’ve lived. And sometimes (depending on what it is, a lot of the time) I forget that what’s ordinary to me is amazing and magical to others. It helps to keep this in perspective. Swapping skills with other people, where I teach them to spin or speak Spanish or what have you and they teach me music or dancing, it helps to remember that part of the reason they look so effortless when other people do them and so crap when I start doing them is that I’m years behind where they are in terms of experience. Never mind the hard process of finding out that some skills are harder for you than others.

Let’s take another tack.

I read two articles this morning, actually an article and a blog entry. The first article was how anti-religious sentiment was on the rise in the world. I don’t mean anti-religious in general, I mean both anti-general religion and anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-pick-a-faith. Except, oddly, Hindus and Buddhists and folk religions. Apparently everyone’s so busy hating the others they haven’t bothered to hate on Hindus for a while. I read that, and then I scrolled through my blog roll and found a post about being called to share by God, or wishing to be so called. I know, I know. You can count the number of times I’ve brought up religion here on the fingers of one foot, but I promise it’s relevant. Anyway, reading this article gave me hope. Not everyone who feels called by their faith or their deity to bring unto the masses means called to bring conversion at the barrel of a gun. Sometimes it just means, bring a shoulder to cry on. Bring hope. Bring laughter to share. Bring what you have, share it around. Bring wonder to a child who might be tired from being dragged around by her parents all day, by showing her something that may be ordinary to you, but is magic to her.

See, from the time we’re born we start learning things. We learn inward and outward, we learn things about ourselves and the way the world works for us (because the way the world works for me and the way it works for my Dad and the way it works for my Grandpa are very, very different things), and we learn skills and stories and things to do, outwardly. And if we learn a thing often enough, it becomes simple to us. It becomes so ordinary that it loses its special and we take it for granted. But what’s simple and easy for us is like magic to other people. What we understand so easily, other people find complex and mysterious. And if we find occasion to share it with someone else, we might remember that sense of wonder we felt when seeing it done by someone else, or doing it ourselves, rightly, for the first time.

This is one of the reasons I believe that writers must read. Dancers must watch. Crafters must go to craft shows and study not just the other craftsfolk, but also their audience. Look at the people staring in amazement, or watch (or read) and feel that amazement again yourself. And remember that this feeling here, that uplifting and joyful feeling, is why you struggle through the hard parts.