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.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

What? Oh, yeah, I'm still around.

Yes, yes, I'm around, and everything is mostly the same. You know. Working. Editing a new novel that's about to go out on sub. Chewing my fingernails to the nub over the election. Worrying about life stuff. Writing songs about Bigfoot for a choral performance. Eating. Drinking. Sort of sleeping. Oh, and tweeting. Lots of that.

Haven't had much to say in the long form lately (obviously) (as if a blog were "long form," good lord, how far have we fallen). But that will probably change as I climb out of the abyss of an odd summer and into a suddenly busy but more routine fall.

I like routine. Here's to more of it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"The Truth about Psych Camp" is now on Audible!

Just in time for summer vacation, and perfect for your approximately 40-minute commute. My short story, "The Truth about Psych Camp," is now on Audible. With fabulous narrator Luci Christian.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Why is writing so difficult? No, really--why?

It's the perennial question for those of us who call ourselves "writers." We supposedly need to write as much as we need to eat and breathe. Maybe more so. We don't even care if anyone ever sees what we create, let alone likes it. (This is a lie.) Writing is our identity, our passion, our reason for being. And yet, as often as not (at least for me, so I suppose I should say the "we" is royal here), we dread sitting down to do it. We do not want to. Our inner toddler begins kicking and screaming, maybe vomiting a little for good measure. If we manage to quiet this monster--or if we can endure him or her screaming in the background--we can get something done. And then we hate what we've written.

Why is writing so hard? Why do we hate what we love so much? And is there anything we can do about this?

If I knew the answer, I would tell you. I promise. But here are a few thoughts I have at the moment.

1. Writing is exhausting.

I'm closing in on the first draft of a new novel, and instead of feeling excited and exhilarated, I feel increasingly drained. Though I'm only actually "writing" for an hour or two every day, my head buzzes continually with ideas, corrections, doubts, aha moments ... It's like the Buddhists' "monkey mind" turned into a giant gorilla and running amok. I am burning glucose in large quantities. I feel dizzy and not entirely in control. I don't really like this feeling.

2. Writing is uncertain.

In fact, like faith, it's the opposite of certainty. Even as I put a word on the page, I think, "There's a better way to say that. What is the better way? Should I say that at all? Maybe I want to say something different. What should I say instead?" If it doesn't happen right away, it will happen as soon as I stand up to make a cup of tea, or--invariably--once I turn the computer off. Related to #1, above, writing means coexisting with constant doubt. Doubt fastens itself to me, like a twin conjoined at every point from head to toe. I drag doubt around.

3. Writing is exposure.

Even if no one ever sees your work but you, putting what's in your mind onto a page or screen makes the internal external. That means it can be seen, and, worse, interpreted. Maybe I think I'm saying A, but someone else thinks I'm saying B. And B is a very bad thing, which reveals my profound incompetence, wickedness, naivete, and general fraudulence. I don't want to face these things in myself, let alone allow anyone else to discover them. Why on earth am I doing this?

4. Writing is unrewarding.

Yes, I know, writing is its own reward. So is persistence. So is growth. But wouldn't it be much nicer if, after you wrote 500 words, your computer dispensed $500 into your damp and trembling palm? Or you received 500 prestigious awards? 500 compliments? Something?

5. Writing is self-indulgent.

I also know the arguments against this one. The world needs art, the world needs novelists. Although you're not directly feeding the hungry, or building a wall around Donald Trump, you're helping to create empathy and understanding--and increasing your own capacity for both. But shouldn't I really be building that wall right now? What was I doing while the U. S. descended into fascism? Finishing my satirical novel?

From all the think pieces I've read on this very topic, I've concluded that none of these issues can be solved. Again, like a Buddhist, we must just acknowledge them and press on. It's just that it's all rather disappointing. I thought this was supposed to be fun.

Well, sometimes it is.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Recipes return! Vegan split-pea and fakin' bacon soup

I used to post more recipes than I do now, mostly because I got in a kind of cooking rut this past year. But now, just in time for the Bay Area's unprecedented spring heat wave, it's ...

Vegan split-pea and fakin' bacon (or fake cured meat of your choice) soup!

2 tbsps olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
salt and pepper (smoked salt if you have it)
4 cups vegetable broth
4 cups water
2 cups dried split peas
3-4 medium carrots, diced
2 large or 4 small potatoes, diced
1 package tempeh bacon (e.g., Fakin' Bacon) or similar fake cured meat

Heat olive oil in stock pot. Saute onion till transparent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, salt, and pepper, and saute another minute. Add broth, water, and split peas. Bring to boil, then simmer 30 minutes, partly covered. Add carrots and potatoes, and simmer another 30 minutes, till potatoes and carrots are tender. Add "bacon."

That's it!

No photos, it's kinda ugly. But good!!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

On paying yourself first (in your writing)

Years ago I read an article on how to make sure you have enough money to retire before you die, or some such. Not likely at this rate. But anyway, one piece of advice was: "Pay yourself first," which meant that with every paycheck, you should make sure you were putting all you could into your retirement account before you did other stuff with your money, like buy things.

Talking about finances makes me anxious. Talking about writing also, lately, makes me anxious. But we're going to talk about writing here. 

For a long time I was writing in the late afternoon, after finishing up my paying work for the day. And that went OK. There was a certain upside to already feeling mentally and physically drained, so that I would just bang out my page (my goal at the time) and get on with napping or making dinner.

But sometimes, it was just too easy to blow off my writing, having spent most of the day writing for someone else. So now, at this point in my writing life, I think it's better to pay myself first--to get my own writing done and out of the way before I tackle anything else.

Of course this works best if:
  • you are a morning person
  • your morning schedule is somewhat flexible
  • you work at home, or at least can work at home
  • you can write relatively quickly, so that you don't have to set the alarm for some ungodly hour and get up when it's dark and cold and sit miserably in front of a glowing screen while the person who would normally make you coffee is still asleep
The advantages of this approach include:
  • making your own writing top priority, so that you acknowledge its importance in your own mind and to others
  • not having your unfinished page eating away at the edges of your consciousness for the whole day
  • having an actual functioning brain when you're writing
  • possible opportunity (which can be blown off *without guilt*) to write more in the afternoon
Currently I'm doing 500 words every morning. So far, so good.

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.

Embedded image permalink
Zee Hebert, 2002(?)-2015