Friday, April 21, 2017

Writing during the apocalypse, part six

I have just started reading Dan Chaon's Ill Will. I am existentially obligated to read this, because it is a darkly humorous horror story set in CLEVELAND. (Yes, all stories set in Cleveland are darkly humorous horror stories.)

Then I read this very interesting interview with Chaon, which suggested a writing method I've used in the past and think I will try again. Chaon mentioned writing the book as a series of chapters, and trying to complete one every night. In the completed book, many of the chapters are quite short, and the narrative is somewhat fragmentary, jumping from one point of view to another, and from one time period to another. 

This was more or less how I wrote my first novel, although I didn't have that much intention about it. I simply wrote short pieces I was interested in, with the hope or faith that because I was interested in them, eventually they would all fit together. Writing the connective tissue (i.e., the plot) can come later, but it may not be completely necessary in all cases. Sometimes the theme is strong enough to connect otherwise disparate sections.

In the past I've made the case for working from a pre-existing plot and allowing it to evolve as you go. Now I'm arguing that the opposite can also be effective. Just writing scenes or chapters that seem somehow related to you--or don't seem related as yet, but still intrigue you--can help you build up a deeply resonant narrative over time.

This can also work well with the 20-minute plan, which helps prevent excessive rumination and lends itself to the compact but still potentially fertile fragment.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Writing during the apocalypse -- part five-ish

Obviously it's not easy. That my previous post was in late January speaks volumes. The last few months have felt like years, and doing any work voluntarily, as opposed to under strict instructions or deadlines, has seemed close to impossible.

Nevertheless, here I am.

In the last few weeks I've tweeted rather proudly that I've started writing for 20 minutes a day. Rather than focusing on word- or even page-counts, the only thing that matters here is the time spent. You can just open your file and stare at it for 20 minutes and close it again. But if you're like me, you'll at least start seeing sentences you'll want to change, and from there get a few ideas on how to proceed.

So far, my new--yes, dystopian--novel is eight pages long and has the meandering format of a mostly un-outlined freewriting exercise. But so what? At this point the process is as much about note-taking and idea-generating as actually writing a story. And I find I have ideas in the hours I'm not at the computer, which means there's a there there, and that's reassuring.

The closest thing I can relate the T___p era to is watching a close family member slowly, inexorably, painfully die. It's hard not to feel helpless and sad and frustrated and angry, and to suspect that one's little acts--political, artistic, social, professional--make no difference whatsoever. But my greater fear is of allowing myself to give up, and of looking back on myself in a few years--if we're all still alive--and realizing I rolled over. And wasted the time that still belonged to me.

Persist.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On writing during the apocalypse--part three or four of many more

A few weeks or months ago (time in the T__p era is already a blur, events and hours run together as if in a dream), I lamented one of the many problems of writing in the beginning of the end times for America. The particular problem concerning me was the need--I felt--to give all stories and novels an explicit totalitarian context. Anything written before November 8, 2016--especially written *right* before--seemed newly non-credible. How could anyone write about, say, a family coming apart at the seams or vampires falling in love without acknowledging that it all takes place under a completely fascist regime? But then again, how to stay out in front of all that this regime can and will do, so that even your worst predictions don't end up seeming quaint by publication time?

This, as you might imagine, has proven a mostly paralyzing mindset. Trying to plan a new novel and a new story, I found myself adding layer upon layer of complexity, trying to inject government perfidy into every aspect of my character's lives. Too many threads competed with each other and the gears of narrative ground to a halt.

So now I'm thinking of starting very small. As Jonathan Franzen said in a Powells.com interview years ago, "The real pleasure in writing [The Corrections], for me, was discovering how little you need." I'll begin with one character, one story line and work outward, rather than first attempting to create a whole world system that will never be as strange or sinister as the one we now inhabit.

I have a feeling the larger totalitarian context will arise of its own accord.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Thoughts on grief and shopping

In an uncanny, almost freakish coincidence, our cat Bella, littermate to the late lamented Zee, has died of the same illness (lymphoma), almost exactly one year later, i.e., during the recent holidays, which are already horrible by nearly all measures, at least for me.

So, first off: Rest well, beloved Bella. We miss you.


I've just noticed that I am coping with my devastation in a way that replicates the premise of my first novel, Bigfoot and the Baby. That is: we shop because we grieve. I suspect I've bought more unneeded items for myself in the past 24 hours than I did all last year. And, sad to say, these purchases somehow make me feel better, if only temporarily.

Notions of "filling the void" come to mind, but seem inadequate, as an explanation. Perhaps there's an illusion of control--I find something I want, I buy it, I own it--that eludes us when a loved one is ill or dying. When we shop, we complete a concrete transaction with a gratifying result. There's no helpless guessing what might happen if we make one choice or the other; and if we don't like what we bought after all, we can usually return it (or the consequences of our mistake are usually minimal).

But the grief we feel may be more inchoate, which was an underlying theme of Bigfoot. Though I'm not religious, I believe Judaism and Christianity capture this feeling well with the story of the Fall. Our lives are rooted in a tremendous sense of loss, of reaching for that paradise we can never quite envision, let alone regain. Every actual loss resonates with that fundamental condition, making grief seem both bottomless and holy.

What evolutionary advantage this might give us, I can't really say. But it does give a real boost to consumer capitalism.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

More thoughts on writing and living during the apocalypse, which is not going away

This article on Flavorwire, "How Do We Comfort Ourselves When Staying Vigilant (and Anxious) Feels Like The Only Responsible Option?," really spoke to me. Three-plus weeks into the Upside Down, I'm still mostly unable to concentrate on anything but scouring Twitter for any sign of hopeful news (occasional!), confirmation of my worst fears (frequent!), and concrete actions I can take (quite a few, though I never feel sure they are "helping").

I've also read several articles by members of marginalized groups saying something to the effect of: "Feeling anxious and voiceless, white liberal? Welcome to my world." This is very true. It's now clear that one effect of privilege is the ability to relax on a regular basis, to assume that everything will be more or less OK in the end--because it usually is, more or less, for most of us. So now we know. And it isn't fair or reasonable to expect sympathy for the shock and sadness and weariness we suddenly feel--though solidarity is a different matter. We can bond over these feelings, and channel them into collective action.

But what does it mean if I still want to relax sometimes? Is that a slippery slope to relaxing all the time, to assuming other people are taking care of it, to deciding that my daily phone calls to Congress or my petition-signings or my donations are too-small drops in the bucket anyway, so why continue? And what about when I'm called upon to do something larger--as I now doubt will be?

Is accepting the same as "normalizing"? No, this and other articles tell me. Accepting on some level is even necessary for action. We must know something is real before we can take real steps against it. But accepting also feels scary, because it means we really can't go back; the world and life we had are truly gone. Yet, can we recover anything of that old life? And what does it mean to try to do so?

This leads me to a problem I'm having with resuming my writing. My basic assumptions about the world I'm depicting--even if it's a not-quite-real world to begin with--have overturned. Everything now seems to require a dystopian frame, an overarching totalitarian menace above and beyond, say, the standard dysfunctional family or workplace. Something like the Eye of Sauron, perhaps, or Nazi Germany. Raise your hand if The Man in the High Castle now looks completely different than when you first watched it.

So in addition to not really feeling like writing (though I am getting there), I don't yet know how to write in this new (to me) world. But part of accepting--and not normalizing--means learning to do that.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On (fiction) writing during the apocalypse

I've seen a lot of discussion online about whether fiction writing still matters, post-November 8. I have wondered the same thing. Who cares about our carefully crafted worlds, our beautiful sentences, our quirky yet lovable characters, when the American experiment may be at an end? Shouldn't we be doing something with a more immediate effect, that reaches out to more people than those who already agree with us?

Here's the provisional conclusion I've come to. We need to keep writing, no matter what it is that we write. We're going to need good stories to get through this, including stories that aren't overtly political. (And by "good," I mean by the same definition as we used before November 8--nuanced, not overly didactic, respectful of the reader's intelligence, etc.) Let's not censor ourselves. Someone else may try to do that soon enough.

However. Let's also not kid ourselves that fiction writing represents a sufficient form of defiance in this new era. We're all going to have to be braver than we ever were before. We're going to have to feel scared and sick a good part of the time, as we push ourselves beyond our previous limits. I had to fight with myself just to call my liberal Democratic Congresswoman's office yesterday--I'm that phone shy. And I'm going to have to do a lot more than that. I'll have to be ready to protect people who are being harassed or threatened or even physically attacked (even as I may be a target myself, though that's less likely). I'm going to have to march, and do many other things I haven't even thought of yet, but which will scare the hell out of me, and which I may try to find excuses not to do, because I'm so scared, and still partly unwilling to believe that any of this is really happening.

So I must not use my "liberating" or "subversive" writing to excuse inaction in other areas. But I also must keep writing and reading--for respite as well as inspiration. We will all need both, in abundance.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Thoughts on Day Two of the Horror Clown Show

Like almost everyone else, I believed the polls and the polling aggregators. They said don't worry; I didn't worry. I worried a little, only because the unlikely outcome was so awful and unthinkable. I donated money to Clinton and the DSCC repeatedly, but I didn't phone bank. I should have. Maybe it would have helped. But I was pretty confident that we would pull this out, and that on Wednesday I'd be giddy with relief and proud of electing our country's first woman president.

Then the impossible happened. And now that I have finally managed to get some sleep and choke down some food, I'm beginning to get my head around how and why this was not only possible but highly probable. Of course, there isn't one simple reason. This was a perfect storm of reasons, absent any one of which we'd probably have another President Clinton. White racism and sexism. White women who, it turns out, feel their race privilege is more important than their bodily autonomy. Media false equivalence. A Democratic candidate who embodied the establishment, against a Republican propped up by the establishment but authentically voicing (because he really feels it) inchoate anti-establishment rage. Cowardly, opportunistic, dissembling Republican leaders. Pollsters who missed the true story, badly, and those of us who wanted to believe them, so we did. Comey. Russia. Wikileaks. Clinton's strategic missteps. On and on.

Of course, as many writers and thinkers I respect have already started doing, we need to talk about what to do next, and then act. Not once, but over and over and over till we are sick of acting, but still we must. Life as we knew it is now over. It not only can happen here--it did happen here. It is happening. How do we stop it?

Slate has posted a number of articles with concrete suggestions, like this one and this one. We can also donate to the ACLU, and Greenpeace, and numerous other organizations protecting human rights and the planet. Blue Staters  and even Red Staters can push their legislatures to do what California's has already done: vow to resist the regime and protect all residents.

If we're in relatively privileged positions, it also behooves us to listen--really listen--to those whose very lives a Trump presidency immediately threatens: people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, sexual assault survivors, immigrants, disabled people. Do not say, "Don't worry, it will be OK." It will not be OK for these people. Do not say, "I know exactly how you feel" and then start detailing your feelings at length. Listen quietly. Offer a hug. Then promise that you will work to stop this shit.

And then stop this shit. Every day.