The Weather Outside is Frightful…

Thames Frost Fair, 1683–84, by Thomas Wyke
Thames Frost Fair, 1683–84, by Thomas Wyke

It’s that time of year again. Grey skies, ice storms, hard freezes, frigid mornings and bitter nights. I’m not talking about the holidays—I’m talking about winter! The solstice is rapidly approaching, but for most of us, I think winter begins when the last of the colorful leaves has fallen and the world around us takes on the fragile white shell of frost.

I actually love winter (up to a point). I’m a January baby, and I always love it when nature celebrates my day with snow. As a kid, it was a point of pride any time the school district declared a snow day on my birthday. I’m fascinated by the crystalline structure of snowflakes, and any fairytale set in a snowy landscape has my riveted attention. Winter has a duality to it that I love: all at once, it’s beautiful and soft and barren and dangerous.

It is, beyond a doubt, a great time for stories.

When we were kids, we learned about the different types of conflict: man versus man, man versus self, man versus society, man versus technology, and man versus nature. Nowadays, we don’t read a lot of man versus nature. Tales set in the wilderness often morph into stories about finding the self in the landscape—journeys of self-discovery that happen only when we pare away the external things and find ourselves alone in the elements.

But the classic man versus nature story doesn’t involve the hipsterish, navel-gazing twist of really being a story about the self. (Though I suppose we could argue that most stories involve a conflict of man versus self, but that’s a topic for another blog post!) True conflict with nature strikes a note of fatalism and fear that can’t be recreated when writing exclusively about self-discovery.

When nature—particularly winter—marks us out for conflict, all we can hope to do is endure. We may discover new depths in our own character, but ultimately, the struggle is to fight back against nature using any tool at hand, including nature herself.

One such story that comes to mind for me is The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A seven-month winter besieges the frontier town in South Dakota where the Ingalls family has settled, and they have to find ways to survive without regular sources of food and fuel. As the darkness deepens, Laura and her family must twist hay into sticks to burn in their stove, and they must make do with less and less food. Finally, Laura’s future husband and another young man venture out into the snow in search of wheat to keep the town alive. This was always one of my favorites of the Little House books, not just because of love the details of historical life, but also because it demonstrates the tenacity Laura and her family showed regularly, just trying to survive.

Another collection of wintry tales I adore is The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphries, a collection of short (even tiny) stories set during the moments the Thames has frozen. From glimpses of the frost fairs to the story of Queen Matilda’s escape across the Thames from her cousin Stephen, these stories give glimpses of the magic we humans can make when the winter threatens to freeze us alive.

What are your favorite wintry reads? 

Genre Conventions, I Defy You

One of my current favorite shows on TV is Jane the Virgin, a clever, satirical romance-drama-telenovela hybrid that is one of the smarter shows I’ve seen in the last few years. It breaks down romance and soap opera conventions while still playing within the rules of the category: even as it pokes fun at the rules of the telenovela, it abides by them. The result, while cheesy at first glance, is magnificently self-aware, snarky, and satisfying, because it trusts an audience aware of the conventions it explores.

Without getting spoilery, the first episode of the new season looks at the expectations of the romance reader/viewer, specifically that magic component, the HEA. (That’s Happily Ever After in romance lingo, for those of you who aren’t in the know.) When readers pick up a novel in the romance section of the bookstore, they expect, by and large, a happily ever after, whatever that may look like: a wedding, a baby, a kiss, a couple together forever. When writers break with that convention, it seems to create two primary results: extreme disappointment or flat-out awe at the creator of such a groundbreaking work.

As writers, most of us aren’t lucky enough to land in the second category. It takes a deft hand to write a tragic romance or a sci-fi with magical components, and it takes a truly visionary editor to find a way to sell those genre-bending pieces.

So what makes one of the successful convention-defying pieces work? Often, it’s the tricks that make all great pieces of media stand out, like great characters, compelling conflicts, and gorgeous writing. But I think there’s a secret ingredient that Jane the Virgin has unwittingly revealed: self-awareness.

While Jane the Virgin works within the rules of the telenovela, and would likely alienate its audience if it tried to tell a true tragedy, its self-awareness turns it from a typical soap opera into a deconstruction of a soap opera. By pointing out and exploring the rules of its genre, it tells a deeper story because it looks at why we have certain expectations of genre fiction. The audience becomes a part of the story.

Any time we engage with a work of fiction, we bring to it our own circumstances, our history, and our particular wants and needs. I might pick up a romance novel because I need to see that happily ever after; you might pick up a fantasy novel because you want an escape. If an author denies us the defining characteristic we are expecting from a work we’ve engaged with, they are often denying to meet our needs. But when they find a way to satisfy those needs while still surprising us, that’s when conventions become secondary to story and art is born.

What are your favorite genre-defying stories? How does genre expectation influence your reading of a particular work?

Willpower Savings & Loan

I recently attended a workshop on building motivation, and while it wasn’t specifically targeted at writers (who make up a good portion of our audience here), it was so relevant, I wanted to pass on some of the wisdom I picked up.

LOL-Cats_Work

Studies have shown that we human types only have a given amount of willpower to spend in a certain day. Think of it like story points you’re given in an RPG — your character is allotted a certain number based on their characteristics and skills, and the GM can award you additional points for good behavior. You can then spend the points to give yourself a boost or alter the story in some way that benefits you.

Well, willpower points are a lot like that. You use your points throughout your day, making decisions big and small. Do you wear the blue shirt, or the purple one? Do you have toast for breakfast, or go to the drive-thru? Do you work hard, or do you check social media every ten minutes? What are you going to make for dinner? Every time you have to expend mental energy, you use up some of your willpower points.

On a given day, I wake up in the morning, I get dressed, I choose breakfast, I decide what to work on in the morning, how hard to work, what to have for lunch, what to work on in the afternoon, what to have for dinner, and how to spend my leisure. And that’s just big picture, not accounting for small decisions about how to do my work and whether or not to eat a granola bar in the late afternoon. It’s no wonder so many people come home, eat a frozen dinner, and then collapse on the couch to watch whatever is on TV: they simply don’t have the willpower left to do anything else.

remember-diet-lol-cat

When you’re self-employed or trying to work as a writer after your day job, it becomes even harder, because it takes more willpower to come up with tasks and then drive yourself to do them. At work, we often have tasks assigned to us and don’t need to spend our willpower points to choose what to do. But if we don’t have a boss giving us direction, that’s one more area where we have to expend mental energy.

So how can we ration our willpower points in order to actually get stuff done when we’re exhausted from that annoying thing called LIFE?

  1. Make some decisions for yourself in advance. Choose what you’re going to wear to work the night before. Make your breakfast/lunch ahead of time, or limit your options. The fewer decisions you have to make early in the day, the more willpower points you’ll have to spend at night.
  2. Make lists. No joke. When you know what tasks you need to get done, write them down and prioritize them. Making the list won’t take many points, and it’ll reduce the need later to make decisions later, because you’ve already told yourself.
  3. Don’t try to start building multiple disciplined practices at once. Upping your word counts this month? Don’t start a diet. Building a new workout regimen? Don’t give up caffeine at the same time.
  4. Capitalize on the power of habit. Once something becomes habit, you no longer have to spend willpower points to do it, so it’s useful to do the same thing for lunch or breakfast every day, or wear the same outfits on rotation. Plus, once you build a habit, you can work on a new disciplined practice.

But if you’re like me, you’re not bad about sticking to the list above, and you’re still exhausted and completely drained of willpower at the end of the day. That’s fine: we poor humans are not wired to make a million decisions every day. Happily, there are a few ways to rebuild your willpower supply:

  1. Sleep. This should be a no-brainer, but many of us sacrifice sleep in the interest of getting stuff done, and it’s actually hugely counterproductive. The best way to completely reboot your willpower points is to get a full night’s sleep, stress-free. Try to make it happen. (But in a pinch, naps help some people get a few points back!)
  2. Take a break and do something that refreshes you. This is very personal, so it’s hard to offer specifics, but you’ll know what it means for you. On your lunch break, read a book. Look at Pinterest. Take a walk. Don’t even make this a choice: do what you WANT to do.
  3. Meditate or something. Allegedly this can help, but I suck at meditation. Your mileage may vary. You may achieve a similar effect from other activities: participating in your spiritual practice, if you have one, taking a soothing hot bath, doing yoga, or even quietly sitting on your back porch and having a beer. Let your mind detach for a little while.

These suggestions are just skimming the surface of the existing research that surrounds motivation and ways to build it and maintain it. How do you ration your willpower points? What methods of willpower regeneration work for you?

Conventions 101: I Forget How to Human

For the last five years, I’ve been trying to attend one convention every year.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but for someone with nearly debilitating social anxiety, it’s a huge achievement and a measure of my commitment to my work. This year, I’m attending four cons of various types, including one for fiber artists, one for pagans, GenCon, and World Fantasy. That’s a record for me, and I have very mixed feelings about it.

Cons are great. They’re a chance to meet people, to learn things, to get new ideas, to see individuals we look up to, to enrich friendships and connections we can now make over the internet. But they’re also expensive, exhausting, and stressful, at least for someone who has actual sobbing meltdowns when she has too much social interaction.

When I say I have near-debilitating social anxiety, I don’t mean I get butterflies about going to parties. I mean my hands shake when I call to order pizza. I mean I once rode a bus its entire route because I needed to interview the driver and I was too scared to talk to her. I mean I cry when my friends want too much of my time. Talking to people I don’t know actively frightens me.

I’m not playing around when I say I’m introverted and shy. I’ve come out of my shell a lot in the last decade, primarily because I worked as a reporter—which, in retrospect, was not a brilliant career choice—and I had to talk to people if I wanted to do my job.

So, for me, going to cons is a bit of an endurance test. Over the years, however, I’ve learned a few things about how to do it without inducing nervous paroxysms of overstimulation.

  1. If you’re attending with a friend, explain to them that you may need breaks. Hell, even if you’re not attending with a friend, if you need a break, explain to your companions that you need some time to yourself. Most humans understand that other humans need rest.
  2. Actually get some rest. Parties last all night, and most of the fun that’s had at cons is had at those parties. But the human brain mends itself or something while we sleep (ask a scientist if you want details), so even if you’re sleeping during the day, make sure you’re getting some sleep.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to do everything. Not really all that interested in “Underwater Basket Weaving in Ancient Civilizations” or “Flax: From Plant to Garment”? Well, you can skip those panels. Yes, I know you paid for the con, and that includes all of the panel topics, but you really don’t have to attend every single session.
  4. Remember that other people are people, too. For every terrified soul like myself, there’s at least one extroverted person who will introduce herself and take you around to meet all her friends. And really, if you introduce yourself to a terrified soul like me, I’ll introduce you to my friends, too. I’ll just be quaking in my boots while I do it.
  5. Learn your triggers and your warning signals. Does loud music stress you out? Maybe cut out of the dance party early. Do you get a headache when you’re reaching the breaking point? Time to bail. This one is tough, and it takes some trial and error, but you have to know yourself to be able to take care of yourself.
  6. Finally, learn to say yes—and no. If you’re not at your limit, saying yes to a random invite may just set you down a path to meet your new best friend. But if you are at your limit, saying no can keep you from having a bad con experience when you could have had a great one.

Honestly, if I can survive four cons in one year, anyone can do it. And remember, if you are a person who enjoys making new connections, reach out to someone you don’t know—your act of friendliness may save one person from a terrible, lonely experience.

Do you work the con circuit? What are your survival tips?

 

Sequels Revisited: A Sequel

There approximately a flobbity-gillion sequels being released in 2016. Have you noticed this? It seems like half the movies I’ve seen advertised are sequels, follow-ups, or continuations of years-old franchises — and, prepping for this post, I found about a dozen I haven’t seen advertised.

Fellow Scribe Nicole Evelina wrote about this phenomenon, too, arguing that sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, and I had so many thoughts about it that, naturally, I thought we could use a sequel to her post. I don’t disagree with her: some of these movies are beating horses so dead, they’re basically just pounding on a burial site. But I do think there’s a phenomenon here that deserves some attention.

So what gives? Has Hollywood run out of ideas, or are we collectively so frightened of the future that we’re clinging to familiar characters and stories we already know and love?

Well, the latter may be a bit of a logical leap, but I know from my own experience that when times get tough, the familiar becomes comforting. It’s no coincidence that some of my annual rereads occur during times that are inevitably stressful: my favorite books travel to cons with me, and anniversaries of sad dates find me rereading books that make me smile.

I’m not the only one who does this, either. There wouldn’t be $200 limited collector edition DVD sets if people didn’t enjoy consuming and re-consuming the same media they already love. Comic book continuations of canceled TV series satisfy slavering fans of Joss Whedon shows, and anime series regularly horrify their fans by creating devastatingly cruel sequels to beloved shows.

Obviously, these movies were all in development for ages before their release this year, but it’s hard not to look at our national climate and see a little bit of myself in the collective return to familiar franchises. When we’re immersed daily in hatred and bigotry, it seems right to return to an Earth where we can pull together to fight off aliens (though I hear the new Independence Day is a bust!) or an ocean where the broken-hearted or disabled can be the heroes of their own adventures (Dory, I heart you!). We all need some encouragement and a reminder that some things don’t change, even if those fixed points are fictional characters we continue to love.

I realize this is a romantic view to take of what is clearly a money-making ploy (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny? Really?), but I do think that the successful franchises continue to exist because they offer us something we need. Whether it’s our love for the characters, the power of the stories being told, or the wonders of the world that’s the setting, something keeps these particular stories alive for us. And while I’m now a confirmed Ilvermorny skeptic, I do know that it can be hard to let go of the Harry Potter world.

What do you think? Is there any merit to my faith in the power of repetition?

Creativity as Therapy

The last month has kicked my butt. If I’m honest, this year has kicked my butt: it’s been a roller coaster of good and bad, with few breaks between the ups and the downs and the deeper-downs. But May has been the worst, and my husband and I have been mourning the loss of a beloved pet.

Grief is a bear. With it come sadness and depression, and depression comes hand-in-hand with a whole host of fun little friends like fatigue, social disconnection, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in hobbies and other day-to-day pursuits. For creative types like myself and a lot of you reading this blog post, this can translate to a loss of creative passion. When you’re exhausted and can’t concentrate and don’t want to see anyone or do anything and simply getting through the day is a struggle, writing (or sewing or painting or whatever it is that you do regularly) becomes an impossibility. In short, depression dries up the well.

May is, coincidentally, Mental Health Awareness Month, and a lot of smart people have been writing about this year’s theme, “Life With a Mental Illness.” I’ve lived with depression and anxiety, and I’ve written about that struggle elsewhere. This year, I want to focus on creative acts as a treatment for the loss of creativity.

I was discussing my sadness and the complete creative drought that has accompanied it with my very wise friend Emmie Mears recently, and she suggested that I experiment with new-to-me creative endeavors as a method of exploring and releasing my grief. I could paint or draw, even abstractly, as a way to capture my emotions and memories, and then, later, I would have a visual record of how I felt during this time. The result would be a tribute to my pet and, just as importantly, a tribute to my own feelings.

I thought this was a brilliant plan, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a great way to work through depression and anxiety, as well as grief*. One of the most important methods of self-care is acknowledging how we feel when we feel it: many people try to dismiss or ignore feelings of depression or anxiety, and that denial does nothing but compound our feelings of inadequacy or, worse, “craziness.” Self-stigmatizing only makes it easier for society as a whole to dismiss mental illness as self-indulgent or non-existent.

Exploring a new artistic pursuit, particularly in an improvisational or freeform way, may allow us to shut off the thinking/judging parts of our brain and simply allow free expression of emotion. When we don’t have standards of quality or accomplishment we feel we need to meet, we’re able to create without judgment. And for writers, in particular, when we stop trying to use our words and instead simply create, we’re forced to acknowledge our feelings for what they are, rather than trying to explain them away.

In the end, we’re left with a record of our feelings that we can and must acknowledge as something outside of ourselves.

There are lots of free, gently-guided ways to experiment with new forms of creativity. I’ve rounded up a few here that you can check out, and Google is awash in other classes, challenges, and how-to’s. Maybe one will speak to you!

Index-Card-a-Day Challenge: I’m intrigued by this one. The goal is to create a 3×5 piece of art every day for 61 days. You can draw, paint, doodle, make a collage, sew, whatever strikes your fancy, and you end up with a physical record of everything you did or tried to do. This might be a good way to try to work through a specific problem.

Year of Rock: If you’re a musical type, you can sign up for free classes to learn guitar. While this is less free-form, you might be able to explore a side of yourself you haven’t yet been able to express. Plus, for some, the chance to turn off anxiety and simply listen and learn might have added benefits.

Art Journaling: There are approximately one bajillion links on Google about art journaling, but this art is about as freeform as you can get. That Pinterest link to “How to Start Art Journaling” ought to give you a few thousand ideas.

Free Craftsy Classes: Craftsy offers a HUGE range of courses and subjects, and the free classes might allow you to explore new crafts in a commitment-free way. Unleash your inner cake decorator! 

Private Pinterest Boards: Since I mentioned Pinterest, I can personally vouch for the creation of private Pinterest boards as a method of portable collaging. Pin places and things that make you feel peaceful; pin images that inspire you; pin images of memories or dreams. Use your private boards as a mini-getaway.

How do creative endeavors help you to work through difficult times? Have you ever experimented with a new art as a way to work through a difficult time in your life?

*Yes, art therapy is a thing that already exists! However, therapy can be pricey and inaccessible for many individuals.

Evangelion and Shards of Identity

asuka
I’ll talk about Evangelion. I promise.

 

We see the word identity a lot these days. “Self identity.” “Cultural identity.” “Identity politics.” “I identify as…” It’s part of the human condition to constantly question who we are as individuals, as a society, as creatures who live linearly but exist non-dimensionally.

Any one of us can name a number of roles and characteristics that define us for ourselves and others: male, female, agender, parent, person of color, spoonie, bisexual, candlestick maker, superhero, whatever. Each of us is some amalgamation of descriptors that can only start to sum up the who and what of the stuff between our ears. And as intersectionality becomes a more widely recognized and emphasized facet of politics and personality, our society is coming to realize that each of us is more than our nationality, sexuality, or vocation.

asuka head tiltBut in spite of that recognition, most of us have one particular piece of identity that encapsulates the core of our being, something about ourselves we elevate and hold sacred. Maybe it’s mother or woman or lawyer or artist. American culture prioritizes the career: when strangers ask us about ourselves, we say things like, “Oh, I’m a web programmer.” It’s not what we do, it’s who we are, even if, facing our maker, that’s not the only standard by which we would wish to be judged or defined.

In part, it’s a social shorthand, a code for our place in society. When I say, “I’m a writer who moonlights as a web marketer,” I’m saying: “I’m a self-identified artistic person who works with technology as a way to supplement my income—oh, and you can likely guess that because I work in a non-essential field with a computer, you can assume that I have at least a few pennies to rub together, I’m educated, and this is probably a path I chose rather than one that was forced on me.”

Whether or not the conclusions you then draw about me based on your own experience and identity are correct is a different issue.

Self-applied taglines like this are useful, of course, but when I do it often, what I choose to publicly emphasize can begin to be reflected in my own internal hierarchy of identity. What should be a core identity, a hub around which my personal constellation of self rotates, instead becomes a gravitational identity, without which none of my secondary identifying articles can be sustained. And if that personal star of self categorization changes or, worse, implodes, I’m left with nothing but a collection of unrelated, rudderless characteristics with no basis and no direction.

Fellow Scribe Brian O’Conor and I have been rewatching Neon Genesis Evangelion for our podcast, The Young Podawans, and during this rewatch, I’ve been intensely sympathizing with one of the show’s most unlikeable characters, Asuka Langley Soryu. She’s red-headed, loud, impatient, unkind, competitive, and, above all, reckless. But that’s not why I identify with her. Rather, I see myself in her internal conflict when she begins to lose her central identity.

After a really awful defeat, Asuka’s ability to pilot an Eva begins to fade and, as a result, Asuka begins to wonder what her purpose really is; if she can’t pilot an Eva, why does she even exist?

asuka love self

I may not be a mecha pilot, but I do know what it is to wonder who you are after a perceived failure at something to which your identity is pinned. I think most writers rely on the creative act to give them a place in the universe. It’s a career that requires so much input of self and such dedication over so many years, all other things can begin to seem secondary to its pursuit. And if you aren’t writing, or can’t write, who are you? What’s your point?

That road leads to clinical depression, and that’s why it’s so important to recognize the intersectionality that exists within you, without reference to cultural mores or your place in society. I may be a writer, but I’m also an artisan and a gamer and a geek and an animal lover and a pagan and so many more things that I could fill an encyclopedia simply with ME. My existence does not disintegrate when I take away once fragment of identity, even when it’s one of those core characteristics. Although my entire sense of self may shift to accommodate the new arrangement, I exist even beyond the most random collection of traits by which I may identify. Nothing can take that away.

asuka smile

It’s not always an easy thing to see. But Asuka’s crisis is one that so many of us face, and the heart-wrenching realism of her struggle to reclaim any sense of worth without her former identity is part of what makes Neon Genesis Evangelion such a powerful show. While it’s not, perhaps, the most uplifting demonstration of a battle with depression, it does illustrate that this struggle is one that exists outside the ephemeral web of political climate and social commentary.

The bottom line is this: Identity is not fixed. It’s never too late to question what makes you yourself. And if something changes or breaks, that does not change the central YOU that exists underneath the labels and social cues. Even if that internal sense of self is a work in progress, it’s not something that anyone or anything else can take away.