Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Time and the time: a belated wish for the New Year

This winter, trying to come up with something tangible that my husband could buy me for Christmas—all I ever really want is for the holidays to be over—I finally settled on a wristwatch.

I took to the Internet to find the simplest possible example. If not actually analog, my new watch had to strongly espouse analog-ness: a large, circular face, with clearly visible numbers and hands—nothing else. I just wanted it to tell me the time. Compared to my phone, which I had been using for that purpose, and which then lured me onto Facebook and Twitter and myriad other distractions every time I checked it, I expected a plain watch to be pure, sanity-restoring elegance.

But looking at one ultra-basic watch after the other dredged up a visceral memory: That Clock. The one I stared at beseechingly throughout my childhood, in 1970s and 80s public school classrooms, where rote, one-size-fits-all learning ruled the day. You probably know That Clock, too. Now sold on EBay, Etsy, and elsewhere as a “vintage” or “old-school school” clock, its current incarnations still preside over all manner of institutional spaces. It’s one foot in diameter, white with slightly-too-thick black numbers and two hands. The versions at my school didn’t even have second hands, because their continuous motion and/or ticking might have drawn attention. Instead, the minute hand lurched forward, presumably regularly, with a thunk.

The institutional clock denies the bored student, or the enmeshed bureaucrat, anything to gaze at or reflect upon. It thwarts distraction, sending its seekers reluctantly back to their work. This was exactly what I had wanted from my new watch, rendered sinister. In places where time feels most oppressive, most necessary to try to accelerate or halt, the anti-aesthetic institutional clock tells us: Don’t bother. The hours and the minutes move no faster or slower than they must. Do not beseech, do not wonder. Do not look up from your task. You will learn nothing more from this dullest of clocks than the time, which is simple, quantifiable, and instantly knowable.

And yet time—as opposed to the time—is anything but dull, simple, or knowable. As I’ve gathered from reading popular cosmology books, time remains a tantalizing conundrum. What’s it made of? How does it function? How might we alter its speed or trajectory? No one really knows. What we do know is that it’s closely related to entropy, the universal tendency toward increasing disorder that originated, in our universe, with the Big Bang. Objects break. Mountains wear down. We grow old, and we die. So far, the arrow has only ever pointed one way.

Time is everything falling apart. And while we realize disorder is inevitable, we have no idea how, or when, or (often) why it will occur. Time is in fact the opposite of the time, of what That Clock says and claims to know. Time is mystery, and surprise.

We humans resemble time—mysterious, surprising, often surprised ourselves. We don’t fully know what we’re made of. But, while disorderly, we’re curious, intelligent, empathetic, creative, and courageous. When things come apart, we can put them back together in new and better ways. And while we can’t yet stop aging (and we may not actually want to), inside we can slow down or speed up, or come at the world from different angles. We can imagine.

So here is my wish for this already advancing new year: Let us embrace time as entropy, not as order. However, I don’t mean we should completely reject That Clock. In fact, we can enlist it in our efforts. Whenever we see it, or any tool of numb officialdom, let’s remember to question its message of resignation. Let That Clock—in fact, any clock, our lovely new wristwatch, even the bewitching clock in our phone—remind us to look up, to dream, wonder, and reflect more often.

And let us imagine and work toward a world where everyone can do the same.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Some cheery thoughts on grief and horror for the new year

I tend not to have very high expectations for the holidays, but this past season was an especially large suckburger with extra moldy cheese. Our cat died rather suddenly, and although the suddenness has an upside (she was probably in for a fair degree of lingering misery), the event plunged us into grief. Which, I'm now reminded, is a feeling not quite like any other ... except, possibly, for horror.

When my father died nearly ten years ago, I had a very strong urge to watch horror movies. Not slasher-type, gory movies, but creepy, terrifying ones (I remember finding The Others especially satisfying). Normally I don't seek out horror, so this was a strange experience.

I haven't had such a strong urge on this occasion, but I have come to think that horror and grief are quite close. There's the same helplessness in the face of suffering and death. The same shivering emptiness. The shock, even when the death is expected. So I suppose that getting through the horror movie, or book, is sort of practice for getting through the grief: a miniature version of the longer, harder process, which contains a promise that you will survive.

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Zee Hebert, 2002(?)-2015

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On the awesomeness of small writing goals: a NaNoWriMo heresy

So, in this month of NaNoWriMo (which has now surpassed Thanksgiving as November's premier event), I offer this totally non-NaNo advice:

Set small goals.

If 1,700 words a day, or 1,000, or 500, or any damn number sounds like way too much, I say, how about one page a day? That's what I've been doing for the past few months, and it almost always works. Some days I do 2-3 pages, and some days, dammit, I still don't do any. But I'm finding this the best and only way to work right now, with my brain and my time as fragmented as they seem to be. It's pretty easy to squeeze a page, or half a page, in between conference calls. And instead of looking at word counts, I'm concentrating on the digital ink spreading further down on the page, which just feels more satisfying.

I read somewhere recently that another writer had set a goal of three sentences a day. That's great. Or do twenty minutes a day, even if you spend that whole time staring the page and not writing a word (I bet you can't keep from writing something, though).

The point is, I think most writers need different writing strategies at different times, depending upon external and internal circumstances. Yes, you need to move forward, but the pace is far less important than the movement itself.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Understandings gleaned from heavy bouts of novel revision

What I think I've learned recently:

1. Making a character likable/relatable does not necessarily mean making readers feel sorry for her. This tactic often creates the opposite effect through sentimentality, overt authorial pleas for sympathy, general mushiness, doormat-ism, etc.

2. Evil is different from mean. Evil is interesting and requires intelligence. Mean is knee-jerk (h/t CZ).

3. If you are writing for publication, your book is not 100% yours.

4. Altruistic punishment (a.k.a. comeuppance) is something readers really want in fiction. Perhaps especially because it doesn't seem to happen that often in life.

5. I hate/love revising.

Monday, October 12, 2015

New fiction in two places

New fiction, about impending and past catastrophes, up at Monkeybicycle and Queen Mob's Teahouse.

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(Drought: a current catastrophe)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

About girls and women and confidence

I have noticed in recent years that schools seem to be intentionally working to promote confidence in students--and especially in girls. But this isn't a post about educational trends specifically. It's more about cultural trends generally, and about my own experience in particular.

To get right down to it: in my day (growing up in the 70s and 80s), and in my world (upper-middle-class suburban Cleveland), confidence in girls was not a feature, but a bug. A bug to be swiftly and fully stamped out as soon as its little feelers began to wave. I grew up surrounded by women and girls constantly saying self-deprecating things like I'm so dumb, I can't do math, I can't (fill in the blank). Whether by overt intention or just widespread cultural norming, I'm convinced that the reason so many of us were were taught from a young age to think and speak this way was to make sure we could snag a husband. If we were too confident, too independent, too opinionated, too competent, we would not obviously need a man to help us get our helpless selves through the day. Feeling useless (and therefore offended), they would reject us, and we would live out our lives bitter and childless and unfulfilled and alone.

Clearly, this reflects a rather dim view of men as well as of women, because if one really succeeded through this particular strategy, one got to spend one's life with an insecure asshole. But I remember distinctly being told that men didn't like women who were "too smart." I remember being told that by a boy I had asked to a homecoming dance (in a perverse twist, the tradition at our school was for girls to ask boys to dances). And so, being a dutiful sort, I adopted the language and the practice of self-deprecation. And I have struggled against it ever since.

I feel reassured that this way of thinking and being has at least begun to change. But I still see evidence that the bad old ways hold sway, especially in certain parts of the country. What to do? So many things. But one easy thing we can do today is to stop talking about ourselves as stupid and incompetent--not only but especially around young women and girls.