I really like Austin Kleon’s take on creativity. His weekly newsletter is filled with bits and pieces which give insight and stir creativity within myself. This fairly recent issue goes into the many options for pens and notepads and index card systems and … I get breathless reading it all.
By the time I got to his notebook turducken, I thought I was going to need a bit of a lie down. I’m surprised he doesn’t have a notebook to keep track of all his notebooks!
Reading articles like this often causes me to fixate on my own tools and how I use them. Many of the systems he describes are things I’ve tried, thought about trying, and almost always given up on. Even my bullet journal has turned into something less than it was designed for.
It’s not the systems, it’s the fancy notebooks and pens. And being a school supply nerd myself, I can get into all the fanciness. But I don’t have the money to be spending on those things anymore. And, what’s more, I don’t feel like my creativity is missing out.
I do have a preferred style of notebook, they’re usually the type which can be found in museum gift shops. And I loved this sampler set of pens from JetPens (where I also bought this great pen case, which also stands up). Those are my preferences.
But what it comes down to is having a stack of composition books, blank journals, etc. I’ve accumulated over the years, that’s what I’ll be using. Nothing fancy, just something I can throw in my bag with the pens and current book.
I don’t begrudge Austin or anyone having preferences for tools which are more than I can afford right now. I love learning what others use. And I’m extremely comfortable knowing that whatever I use and how I use it will still get the job done.
When I have two day weekends, Sundays have become the day for beating back the clutter. Last week it was finding my desk amongst the stacks of books so I can read and write more comfortably. Today I’m beating at the overflowing email filled with a few requests for reviews, links to stories I’m following, and the daily ephemera which creeps in reminding me there are adulting things to be taken care of.
My day job affords me the opportunity to make up hours for days I’m forced to miss (as a contractor I don’t receive pay for company holidays). I’m also afforded overtime to help keep the finances in better shape. Of course, this cuts into time for my own work, which includes finding a balance for it all. But I have to have my #moneyhoney.
Yesterday, I took colorful pen in hand and opened my book journal to make the somewhat definitive list of projects and writing I’m working on. It is a lot. With deadlines. I’m not here to join the chorus of every writer saying it’s hard. That much is obvious. But when I dedicated myself to this work nearly a year ago, I knew going in it would be tough to keep up and get it done. That commitment remains foremost in my mind.
As my work on the Three Books continues (not writing, reviewing), I have taken some side steps into womanism. The woman’s studies reader has some of the classic essays from founding mothers, making this an opportunity to explore my own feminism. I was probably in my mid-fifties when I started recognizing feminism as a thing in my life, and the sexism which is so rampant in every woman’s life. I want to learn more in order to continue my own healing process.
Attacking the clutter is another way I’m taking care of myself. I can’t nap myself through it.
The best piece of advice I’ve received is, “Just finish the thing.” So that’s where I am.
Uncle Buck’s Grill and Diner is a uniquely updated version of a bowling alley food counter. It’s part of the monstrosity called Bass Pro Shops, a sporting goods store which takes up the entire side of a strip mall filled with big stores. The draw to Uncle Buck’s was their underwater theme for the bowling alley. I knew we wouldn’t bowl, but I wanted to see the place anyway.
So late on a warm Sunday morning, my friends and I descended on this spectacularly overdone place for lunch. Entering, we walked past the statue of Uncle Buck with the dumbest “I caught a grrrrrrrl” look on his face holding a mermaid cuddled up to him as if to say, “My hero!” Through the small alley filled with families eating pizza and playing on the black light lanes, decorated under the sea with shark heads on the ball return. The balls themselves were reptilian eyes. On the way out Henry, who is from Florida, pointed out one set was alligator eyes. To which I retorted, “That’s Godzilla! What are you talking about?”
The three of us were the only ones in the restaurant proper. Deep fried gator, a boar cheese burger, and a shared dessert were talked over. I was so full I figured I wouldn’t be able to eat for a couple of days. I was pretty close to right. Gone are the days when I could have eaten that, not shared the dessert and gone home to another meal later.
Joy is my emotional intellect partner. We drill down into our feelings and sort through them. She has talked me through many anxiety and imposter syndrome attacks. Always understanding, empathetic and loving, she shows me I matter.
Henry, my book benefactor, is my intellectual jack of all subjects partner. We’ve drilled down into feminism, religion, books, emotional trauma, art, etc. He is my museum partner, come hang out and help me get stuff done friend. He also helps me remember my past has shaped me, and the struggles I fight are almost always because of childhood trauma.
The day before my birthday I asked Henry to come over because I didn’t want to be alone. I was all kinds of freaked out about turning 60. The number didn’t bother me so much as reflecting on what I thought I should have and didn’t at this point in my life. The dream had always been a house, a husband and a career. None of which were ever a possibility in my non-dream state.
The realization I was ill-prepared by my parents to face the world had come earlier in the day, but it was Henry who helped me drill deep and figure out why I was feeling like 60 was some sort of doomsday marker for me.
Watching my mother handle money was a master class in what not to do. But it didn’t teach me the things I needed to do to attain a house I could make a home. Things like saving and using credit judiciously in order to secure a mortgage.
Which brings us back to the weekend after my birthday when the three of us sat in Uncle Buck’s Diner and Grill and talked. My writing, the books I’ve read, the plans I have. And, somewhere during the S’mores skillet Joy and I shared, she looked at me and said, “Look how far you’ve come.”
Stunned into silence, my thoughts reviewed what we’d talked about. Henry and I taught Joy about genre appropriation, #LitFic vs. genre, ways of looking at the text. As I spoke, I felt the voice of authority creep through me. I actually sounded like I knew what I was talking about, and was thankful for the practice of explaining it to someone who doesn’t read genre.
Underneath all of this is a layer of anxiety which has caused procrastination which has led to guilt and paralysis. I keep taking deep breaths, reminding myself what it’s about, that being a critic is why I put up with the shenanigans at the day job. All the things, I have planned, scare the bejesus out of me if I let them
And when I stumbled over Black Leopard, Red Wolf, I panicked. I circled that review like my life depended on it. The perfectionist in me held me back, while my imposter taunted me. Who was I to think I could do any of what it would take to reach such lofty goals? I would come home drained from the day job and stare at the blank page. WTF did I have to say?
None of the conversations I’ve had with encouraging friends made it better. While talking to someone who’s also read Black Leopard, I bemoaned my inability to just write the review. “It’s dark, violent, and complicated.”
“Why can’t that be your review?”
Uhm …. Back to the blank page. I typed those words, and then I typed some more. I referred to Moral Fiction, which led to more typing. My imposter was laughing hysterically at me by this point. Jumping up and down and pointing at me in ridicule. I was an anxious, guilt-ridden mess. Then one weekend, “Oh fuck it I just want it to be done.” More words on the page. Still doubting myself, I wrote. I referred to my notebook, and thought about why I didn’t like this book, and about the conversations I’d had about it.
I got through a shitty first draft. And then I left it. I spun through the emotional cycle. Anxiety, guilt, fear. During my breaks at work I breathed deeply, and while reading another book, thought about Black Leopard as though it was a career defining review.
But I also thought about why I want to do this work, and what it would feel like if I stopped. What would happen if I just went back to reading and writing Reader Response? That thought didn’t make me happy at all. “No, I’ve come too far, learned too much to ever just go back to that.” Forward, onward it is then.
Why then am I following this path which has the possibility of taking me lofty places I’d never dreamed of? It’s easy to answer, and it’s not. The kind of conversations I have with Henry and Joy are the kinds of conversations I want to have with others. I want to cut through the chatter and get to the meat of a book. I want to stand in a hall at a gathering of geeks and talk about the way Marlon James thinks he can read Game of Thrones and then write the African version.
I want to talk about the way Alfred Bester took a noir crime thriller and turned it into a cyber-punk story with SJW overtones and bad feminism. Further, I want to write the critical reviews that almost no one else is writing. I’m not sure I’m up to saying I want to inspire others to dig deep and demand better from our genre, but I do want to hear those conversations. I want to see a LitHub for genre, a place where serious discussions are being had. Selfishly, I want to have more people in my life I can talk to the way I do Henry and Joy.
And what this means is I have to fight through that emotional cycle. I have to remember that getting the thing done is more important than getting it perfect. There’s no going back for me. I’ll never be able to read in the same way. My book journal will always be out with the book I’m reading. It’s scary. But I can’t give up, I just can’t.
And so, in not quite a year, I’ve gone from wanting to learn the better way to read and write about what I’ve read, to actually doing it. I’ve gone from just wanting to do it to amuse myself to wanting to do it for the community. From reading whatever came off the pile to reading with purpose, and writing about it with purpose.
I’m still stunned when publishers send books at my request for review. But I’ve gone from hoping I’d win a copy on LibraryThing to asking the publisher directly. This work fulfills me, even when my anxiety leads me to near paralysis.
It’s also led me to understand I just need a day job, not a career. It’s easier in some ways to shrug the nonsense off and move on. I may be drained when I get home, but I know there’s more for me than trying to carve a career out of yet another place made of jello and bandaids.
That sunny day at Uncle Buck’s will serve as a marker in time. It’s the one that reads, “I made 60 and am thriving.” It also reads, “We were together in congenial company and I was lifted up by the reminder of how much I’ve grown.” And that’s the difference a year makes.
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner ~ read
My review of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth by Stephen F. Knott are in Drink Tank #410. (The typos are my fault, not Chris’, and will be corrected when I post here.)
Title: How Fiction Works
Author: James Wood
Publisher: Farrar Strouss Giroux (now MacMillan)
Publisher’s Blurb: James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.
Being a reviewer is writing, “This female character isn’t very nice which means she’s not a very good person and that makes it hard to read.” Being a critical reviewer is writing, “this hard to like character takes everything we know about the anti-hero trope and turns it upside down, to the purpose of saving the Queen from near certain death.” Knowing how craft works is the difference.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “… reading for significance is always a negotiation between our excited discovery of the work and our comprehension of the work after the excitements of discover have faded a bit.” We could have read Goon Squad for the sheer brilliance of the story itself, and left it at that. A lot of readers have. But because we look for significance in what we read, we cogitated and poked around.
Knowing about the craft of writing allows me to ask the questions which allow me to get beneath the surface of a work. In working through Goon Squad three times, I found questions I didn’t know to ask, and ways to answer those questions. Because I am working my way away from Reader Response, and learning to be think critically about a work, I need to know about craft.
When I look for reviews about a product, I look for the ones which tell me what the craftsmanship is like. “This insta-pot is put together well. The display is easy to read, the settings are easy to set, the lid closes tightly, and the removable pot makes it easy to clean up.” As opposed to, “I love this insta-pot and would buy again.” I’m not buying an appliance based on the last review, unless I know the person making the recommendation well.
Thinking critically about a book is recognizing how the book was written, the choices an author made to tell the story, and being able to write a more informed review. As to credentials, people will trust reviewers who know about the craft of writing more than the one who only wants to recap and express fondness, or dislike, for the author and the genre.
When I review a book critically, I want to make it clear that I know something about the writer’s craft, and that I have some understanding of how craft serves the story. I want my own writing to reflect that I know something about using craft and strive for thoughtful, well-crafted reviews. Having this knowledge leads to being included in conversations which go deeply, and being taken seriously enough to be invited again.
Instead of saying to myself, “Oh I know I can do better than that,” when I read reviews, I now look for reviews which go deeper and encourage myself to strive for that level of writing. For me, it’s the difference between saying “I loved this book and if you love zombies you will too,” and, “Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series gives us a look at how her protagonist gains agency and self-esteem through being turned into a zombie and finding a power structure which supports her in her growth.”
“124 was spiteful,” is one of the best opening lines of a book ever. Reader response would figure out that 124 was an address and the house at that address was haunted, and they might leave it at that. Critical review will delve deeper, “Why is the ghost at 124 spiteful? What is it doing to tell us, the reader, why it’s behaving in such a way? Why did Toni Morrison use the word spiteful instead of something like angry?” Even further a critical reviewer would be able to point to other examples of this deliberate type of disorientation in storytelling. Once we learn about the craft, we can find the patterns in other stories and discuss why disorientation is good craft. We also learn when it’s been applied well and when it doesn’t work. This also gives us credence as reviewers, and provides evidence we speak from authority when writing a critical review.
Knowing about craft elevates the discussion and makes the experience of reading, and writing, richer. How Fiction Works provided me with more tools with which to think about reading. Plus it gave me the phrase “flaneurial realism.” to cherish.
My review of Lime Street by David Jaher, about Houdini and spiritualism is in this issue of The Claims Department
My 2018 reading wrap up is featured in Drink Tank #409
My byline in The Drink Tank #408 – the John Scalzi issue. What it’s like to form an opinion and then meet the author.