Thursday, November 17, 2016

How to Deal

It's been a week and some change since the 2016 US Presidential election, and it's probably not a surprise that I wasn't excited about the results. I am, specifically, sad that we have lost a potential 4+ years with HRC's experience, level-headedness, and compassion at the helm; angry at injustice in our electoral system; and fearful of the future under the new administration, especially for people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, LGBT+ folk, and the disabled, to name only a few. (If you want to learn more about why this election specifically threatens people of color and what you as a white person can do about it, this list of resources is incredible!)

These emotions are real and I want to give myself space to feel them, and to respond to them.

But alongside these feelings, I've felt despair. A sense of doom. A feeling, deeper than fear, that things will never get better and that I am helpless to stop what's coming.

For me, this emotion isn't helpful. It makes me want to roll over, to give in, to bury my head in books and TV and any other distractions. To turn the music up loud and scream "La la la, I'm not listening," so I don't have to deal with reality knocking at the door.

Because I'm fairly privileged--it's not my door that reality will come knocking on first.

But I know myself. I feel better when I make a plan. (Apparently I'm not the only one: HuffPo has a list here, as does Forbes.) What I'm doing now is thinking in circles of influence, starting with my closest circle, myself, and working outwards. The lists below represent actions I will take to help myself and others around me. And when I feel despair, I will look at this list and say "There's your action, darling: go forth."

For me, I will:
Eat and drinking healthy stuff.
Keep a regular sleep schedule.
Take medicines I have been prescribed.
Do mindfulness exercises for 5 min. each day.
Keep going to counseling.
Spend time outside 3x/week.
Figure out a helpful "social media diet" so I can find a balance between staying informed and educated, and finding hope (my friend Andrea's blog post particularly helped with the hope part).

For my household, I will:
Spend less money so we can have more in savings, in case we have an emergency.
Encourage my partner to get all his medical needs met in case ACA is overturned.
Hug and cuddle my partner and pets.

For my close friends and family, I will:
Reach out, ask how they are doing.
Listen and not dominate the conversation with my own feelings.
When changes hit them, I will support with my words, my presence, and my finances when able.
When violence threatens, I will offer safety.
Not let them off the hook when they make thoughtless or bigoted statements, but call them out with kindness, as the Southern Poverty Law Center has outlined here.
Take responsibility and apologize when I make thoughtless or bigoted statements, as Maria Dahvana Headley urges here.

For my students, I will:
Require them to respond to each other with care and kindness.
Teach them to read and consume media critically, and to express themselves with nuance and thoughtful language.
Teach every class about the bystander effect and its corollary, and how to get past it.
Continue carrying my Black Lives Matter bag to show support for my black students and raise awareness of the movement on campus.
Be a safe space, a listening ear, and an advocate for my students' concerns.

For my community, I will:
Vote in local elections.
Volunteer or donate for local campaigns I believe in.
Attend rallies for causes I believe in.
Spend my money at locally-owned establishments.
Work with my Unitarian Universalist congregation to promote inter-faith dialogue.

For the greater state/country, I will:
Volunteer or donate for campaigns and organizations I believe in (here's a list of 10 that are in particular need right now; and since the environment/climate change aren't on that list, here's a few more).
Call my representatives about issues that matter to me (check out the "We're His Problem Now" call sheet.)
Donate $5 each Friday to a cause that I care about.
Write the best damn stories, essays, and poems that I can.
Promote the voices of other writers--especially those in marginalized communities.

This is my call to action. If you're feeling scared, make a list, or borrow mine. Use what works for you, and jettison what doesn't--and feel free to share.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

WriteFest Exercise 3: Fan Fiction

For this exercise, Cassie asked us to pick a minor character or villain from a story we are familiar with, and write a scene from their point of view.

I chose Terry Pratchett's Death of Rats.


The Death of Rats picked his way through the spilled corn on the floor of the granary. In some shadowed, spiderwebbed corner of his mind, he remembered corn, remembered the feel of the kernels as he sheared through them with his teeth, the sweet dribble of juice that spilled down his throat as he chewed. But Death of Rats had not eaten corn in lo these many eons. He was here on other business.

Hanging from the rafters of the granary amid dusty beams of sunlight, a cage spun slowly. Three rats were inside, scurrying around. He heard their squeaks of fright, a scuffle of aggression. He examined the round structure, wondering how he’d get up there. The stuccoed walls were criss-crossed with wooden scaffolding. He slung his scythe over his shoulder, narrowed his eyes until only two slits of otherworldly blue showed beneath his hood, and began his climb. SQUEAK, he called up to the rats above, letting them know he was on his way. They lay silent and still on the floor of the cage.

At first, climbing the scaffolding was enjoyable. He was able to stretch his long legs and arms in ways that his job didn’t usually require of him. A lot of standing around, it was, interspersed with moments of riding his pale white rat-sized horse. It was rare that he got to be active. It was rare that he got to scurry.

He was scurrying now, though, leaping from beam to beam in an effort to make it to cage before the rats inside expired. Probably poison, he thought. It’s usually poison. He could hear their labored breathing slowing. If he didn’t make it there in time, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to guide them into the Rat Waiting room. Rats often had the mistaken impression that he was in charge of deciding whether they went into Rat Heaven, or Rat Hell. SQUEAK, he reassured them. Those decisions were made farther up the chain. He was only the guide.

This scurrying was taking too long, so he decided to make use of one of his privileges as the Death of Rats and leaped out into space. He did not fall, though, but instead ascended quickly in a column of blue light until he hung just outside the door to the cage. SQUEAK? he asked, knocking gently on the wire. He liked to be polite.


Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing, Twitter Anxiety, and the Myth of Production

This past fall, I became much more active in the SF/F writing community on Twitter. Almost immediately, I fell into one of the deepest and toughest bouts of anxiety I’ve ever faced.

Anxiety is treacherous and terrifying, and it is much more than just normal, day-to-day stress. And my anxiety wasn’t just caused by Twitter; it was also caused by an aggressive and demanding schedule at work, and my own tendency to equate my self-worth with my ability to produce writing in my spare time. But Twitter certainly exacerbated it.

Why did I join Twitter in the first place? I wanted to follow writers I admired, to get a glimpse of what they were doing that I could imitate. It was as if writing was learning how to knit or fix a tire, and I just had to follow the steps to success. So I followed several up-and-coming writers and started to take mental notes on where they were submitting, who they were following, what conversations were dominating the field.

I was quickly overwhelmed by how much competition I felt. Before, I’d been writing mostly in a vacuum. Now I had the freedom to compare myself to other writers 24/7. They were selling more than me, writing more than me. How were they writing so much when they were on Twitter all the time?

I didn’t feel as charming or as interesting as everyone else I followed. Outside, I was all “jokes jokes jokes” and inside I felt lonely and afraid and worthless. I was afraid I’d be pushed out of the community before I really got a chance to be in it. I was afraid that I’d do something wrong or bad or stupid online; I couldn’t really tell how I was being received, and it was intimidating. I felt pressure to produce, pressure to be funny and clever and to have something to say about the movie I was watching, book I was reading, music I was listening to, burrito I was eating.

Beyond that, I felt anxious about the platform itself. I wanted to get retweets, likes, comments, and follows. Was it okay if I commented in a friendly manner on someone’s Tweet, or was I annoying them by crawling up in their mentions? If I said the wrong thing, would I be made an example of?

In comparison to the anxiety and tension I felt on Twitter, Facebook suddenly felt like a warm bath.

This all coincided with my feeling of rejection in general. I had been writing fiction for a year and a half. I wasn’t having much success selling my stories, but I was generally optimistic about the outlook. For most of that time, when I got a rejection, I told myself that my story was just one step closer to finding a home. I imagined myself as an awkward but friendly duck, and the rejection as one tiny drop of water, rolling off my back. But soon after I became active on Twitter, I didn’t see rejection as a tiny drop anymore, but as the giant lake surrounding me.

I developed shoulder pain, an eye twitch, and an ulcer, all before I had my first panic attack in November.

Once I realized that my interactions on Twitter were a source of stress, I managed it. I only let myself have three Twitter check-ins per day, and I wasn’t allowed to check in at all before I wrote my words in the morning. I also unfollowed people—some of them the very people I had come on Twitter to follow, people I liked and respected—because they were stressing me out by being so good at their jobs.

A reasonable person probably would have quit Twitter at this point. But I hung on for dear life, knowing that it can be a useful tool to writers. Twitter is where I hear about calls for stories, get notifications from journals about when their reading periods open, find out about current SF events and topics of conversation. I went to a workshop I heard about on Twitter, one of the best choices I’ve made for my writing. And I met people to share my work with, creating a network for smart, plugged-in beta-readers.

Ultimately, the problem is with me, not with Twitter.

When I approach it the right way, Twitter is a great support system, a really kind and loving place. I’ve seen strangers give each other virtual hugs, tell each other that they’re wonderful, to keep writing and fighting in the face of sadness and fear and the crawling ooze of mortality. @posisailor tells her followers every day that they are worthwhile and that they can achieve their dreams. @gaileyfrey asks her followers to tell her about their successes, and then tweets affirmations. @matthaig1 writes kindly and transparently about struggles with depression. In short, I’ve seen love there.

And I want to be a more loving person. More loving to myself and more loving to others. I want to be a champion for others’ successes, and for my own.

But even with these guidelines and good intentions, Twitter can push my buttons. And the reason why comes down to the myth of productivity.

Let me give you an example. I posted a story of mine a couple weeks ago, and got some retweets by some authors who I *seriously* admire. And I was euphoric about it. Nothing feels quite as good as getting a compliment from someone who doesn’t know you in person. They only know you through what you produce and, in a way, these are the most powerful compliments of all—entirely merit-based (or so it feels).

But this is a trap I fall into too easily. Equating myself with what I produce. I’m only as valuable as what I’ve managed to accomplish in a given day—and not even that! Going to the grocery store, or a doctor’s visit, or taking a walk with my dog? None of these entirely-necessary duties contribute to my sense of productivity. Only writing-related work—writing, revising, editing, or submitting—matters to this mentality.

This is my bad mental habit. And it is contributing to making me sick.

I know I’m not alone here. I see this mentality on Twitter, among my friends who post their word-counts on good days and lament when they haven’t written anything on bad days.

But we are more than what we produce. I feel shitty when I don’t write, when I don’t have things out in submission, when I haven’t updated my blog in a while because those are measurable levels of “how I’m doing” as a writer. But regardless of how I'm doing as a writer, I have worth. I matter ... WE matter ... no matter what.

Monday, March 07, 2016

WriteFest Writing Exercise 2: Non-Human Characters

For this exercise, Cassie let us pull 4 random characteristics that real animals have on Earth, and then combine them to create a new character. And it had to be sentient. My four characteristics were:

1) Has antenna

2) Mother can birth one litter of babies with multiple fathers

3) Gills to breathe in water

4) Can see clearly in the dark

So welcome to the "cave-creepers."


Margarine huddles on the side of the subterranean lake, her antenna twitching incoherently as she expels streams of goo into the water from her mouth. Around her, seven male cave creepers flutter, their antenna brushing hers and each others. They radiate excitement and concern. As this is the first time they have witnessed birth, they worry about her health. Should she be this pale, her skin this dry? As they have all just become fathers, they are jubilant and relieved. Our children, the movements of their antenna all but shout, our children are healthy, and alive!

Silhouetted against the soft glow of the lake, twenty-two newborn cave creepers flit in the water. Their bodies are soft, slick, translucent. To the fathers, these babies look so vulnerable, so exposed. But they stretch their wings and fluff their neck-ruffs of fur in pride anyways, bragging to each other through flicks and swishes of antenna: See how fast that one swims? She will be a hunter, for sure. And the thickness of his hind legs? He will certainly win his year’s race to the surface.

Margarine, her wide eyes bleary with exhaustion, gazes blankly at her children. Her lovers settle around her, gently herd her up the rocky bank to the nest they have prepared. Here she will rest, here she will be fed and pampered through her recovery, while the seven fathers take turns watching their young ones grow and develop in the water. When the baby cave creepers have developed lungs and the thin membrane of their wings begins to stretch from wrist to side, they will crawl from the lake and it will be Margarine’s job to teach them all she knows. But for now, it’s the squish of fat grubs and the crunch of tender minnows that she looks forward to. A month or more of nothing, she manages to communicate. How delightful!


Monday, February 29, 2016

WriteFest Writing Exercise 1: Setting

Last week, I went to Houston to the WriteFest conference and took a 4-day workshop on speculative fiction with Cassandra R. Clarke. Houston was great--good food, great art--and the workshop itself was a wonderful experience. Cassie's discussions of writing were down-to-earth and inspiring, and she did a great job of fostering a community within our little group. And WriteSpace Houston is full of smart, fun, supportive writers ... I now want to start something like this in Oxford.

Anyways, here's my first writing exercise, based on Cassie's prompt about setting: Think of a place you either liked or hated from your childhood. Describe it, being careful to include some of the emotions you associate with this place.


I’ve run away from my mom in J.C. Penney’s again and I’m hiding in one of those circular racks of clothes, crouching down in the middle. I turn around, glancing out the slivers of space between the baggy shirts and polyester pants. People mill around outside my hiding place; a woman drags her son, red-faced and screaming, by the arm. A man stops to consider a tie, flips it over to glance at the price, walks away.

I am safe. Hidden. Quiet as the eye of a hurricane amid the bustle of the shoppers and the hum of the smooth jazz. Even when a middle-aged woman comes to thumb through the clothing, pulling out a hideous printed dress and holding it against her, she doesn’t notice my pale face shining in the gloom. If she did, she might shriek, or laugh—it’s happened before. But not this time. I press against the side of the metal frame, letting my head sink back into the clothing until it covers everything but the tip of my nose, the way I like to pretend I’m drowning in the tub.

I can see my mom over in the corner; she hasn’t noticed I’m gone yet. She will, though; when she does, my pleasure will be diminished by a spark of anxiety and guilt, pressing up from under my skin until the only recourse is to duck between the hangers and reveal myself to her, hugging her legs tightly and smiling up at her so she’ll forgive me and still buy me an Orange Julius later. But for now, I am a tiny god huddling in a dark circle, watching the world go by, gleeful in my invisibility.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Wild Girl: A moving novel about the literary history of fairy tales

Kate Forsyth’s book, The Wild Girl, was published in Australia in 2013 but has recently been released in the United States in both hardback, Kindle, and audio versions. It tells the story of an unsung hero of the history of fairy-tales: Dortchen Wild, the sweetheart and eventual wife of Wilhelm Grimm and the origin of many of the Grimm’s tales.

Dortchen grows up with six sisters and an invalid mother under the authoritarian rule of her apothecary father, Herr Wild, near Hesse-Kassel (part of what is known today as Germany). Their next-door neighbors, the Grimms, fascinate Dortchen, who befriends the youngest Grimm, Lotte. At a very young age, Dortchen develops a crush on Lotte’s older brother, Wilhelm, who has returned from university. She assists Wilhelm and his brother, Jacob, as they work on their project to collect German folktales. Along the way, Dortchen and Wilhelm fall in love (this isn’t a spoiler, as you learn about their relationship in the first chapter). But war, poverty, and family trauma keeps them apart, even as the stories they share draw them closer together.

Forsyth incorporates a lot of historical research into The Wild Girl, describing daily German life as well as providing the larger context of the Napoleonic wars. What I found most fascinating was the ways the Grimms researched and wrote their story collections. Fairy-tale nerds like me will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at how 19th century fairy-tale scholarship worked — and how it sometimes didn’t work, as we see when Jacob and Wilhelm’s collections do not initially sell. And I am grateful to Forsyth for another book that draws attention to the unknown female storytellers of these famous tales. Her book Bitter Greens performs this task for the women behind the “Rapunzel” tale; in The Wild Girl, we have Dortchen Wild’s legacy as a consummate storyteller unearthed and preserved. That alone is reason to celebrate this book.

But Forsyth’s own storytelling is beautiful and heartbreaking on its own. Reading The Wild Girl was, at times, hard to continue because of what a painful story Forsyth has pieced together — some details imagined, I’m sure — for Dortchen. I had to take a couple of breaks from the book because of how sad Dortchen’s life became. Some of her experiences, particularly those with her father, are visceral and traumatic. But Forsyth manages to weave them together with the fairy tales (probably worthy of trigger warnings themselves) that Dortchen tells Wilhelm, creating a frame narrative in which Dortchen expresses her own grief and horror through her storytelling. I was reminded again of Bitter Greens, and the ways in which the women claim their own voices in the face of oppression and abuse.

In the face of Dortchen’s suffering, I broke down and wept when Wilhelm presented her with a new copy of the Grimm collection. He has re-written the tale “All Kinds of Fur” to shape it into a joyful tale rather than a horrific one. He tells her that “the whole reason for telling the fairy tales is to awaken the heart. To help people believe that misfortune can be overcome and evil can be conquered.” In The Wild Girl, Forsyth has created a powerful novel espousing the idea that stories can bring hope and healing.

The audiobook was read by Kate Reading, whom I know best as the female narrator of THE WHEEL OF TIME series. Her voice, warm and cultured, conveyed Dortchen’s vulnerability perfectly, while also capturing the gravitas of other characters.

*This review first appeared on, where I gave the book 4 stars.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Hugo Nomination #5: Austin Grossman's Crooked

Austin Grossman’s Crooked is my favorite book I read in 2015*. I expected good things from Lev Grossman’s twin brother, but not much otherwise as I am not — was not — a big fan of Nixon or, indeed, of American history in general**. But by the end of the first chapter, I was breathless, thrilled, entertained and excited beyond my wildest expectations. Also, obsessed with Richard Nixon.

Crooked tells the story of Richard Milhous Nixon’s rise to power, complete with childhood in Yorba Linda, fight against the Communists as a young senator, Vice Presidency under Eisenhower, and his infamous Presidency. It’s all there: the Cold War, Vietnam, his visit to China, the moon landing, Watergate. And it’s no surprise that Watergate should be the linchpin for a novel about Nixon, but the secrets Grossman uses Watergate to cover up for are a surprise. Because Nixon isn’t the scowling jowls and flashing victory-sign you’re familiar with. Well, he is those things — but he’s not just those things. This Nixon is a sorcerer.

In Grossman’s alternate history of the mid-twentieth century, the faceless Communist threat is much more insidious than creeping ideology. Instead of restricting their arsenal to nuclear warhead, the Russians are developing supernatural weaponry. Invoking Lovecraftian forces both ancient and futuristic, they plan to infiltrate the American government with a man possessed. Senator Nixon is the unwitting victim of their first attempt and witnesses the horrific fallout. After this, the Russians have him in their pocket; he works as a mole, trying to ascertain what kinds of supernatural weapons the American government has developed.

Which, as it turns out, is quite a lot. And we get to watch Nixon as he unravels the mysterious origins of the American Presidency and the dark powers that come with it.

This by itself is all well and good. In the right hands, it might make for a book along the lines of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Take serious history/literature, mix with a dash of chthonic forces, and bam! You’ve got yourself an entertaining novel! And how else can I describe a book that includes a horror scene set in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney World?

Only that, despite how fabulous and over-the-top (in all the best ways) the plot sounds, the writing is even better.

Not that plot is separate from writing. It’s easy to think about it as something apart, that a story just “comes to us” and then it’s our job to set it down on paper, to make it pretty, to make it sing. Well, that’s not how it works, and Grossman has carefully plotted this novel, weaving his narrative of the dark forces behind national powers seamlessly into the events of Nixon’s presidency, and using the inciting event not only to set Nixon down his path towards power and the Presidency, but also to set up the book’s greatest antagonist. The sheer believability of Crooked in reference to American history is one of its greatest strengths; it takes the familiar and makes it strange and wondrous again. For instance, as Nixon drives across the country, “past the great slumbering presence below the Grand Canyon,” he comments on the Eisenhower interstate system, calling the highways “a runic inscription right across the country,” that managed to bind “the things that lived in the in-between places, strange survivors of long-vanished primeval forests.”

But my favorite part is Nixon. His voice dominates Crooked. You thought nobody could capture your attention, your imagination, quite like Cthulhu? Wait till you meet Grossman’s Nixon, a sneaky sonofabitch with no illusions about himself and yet all the illusions of power imaginable. He’s flawed, tortured, and completely compelling, managing to be self-deprecating, self-aggrandizing, and slyly hilarious at the same time. At times, he loathes himself so much that he dreams of getting away from Richard Nixon; when he’s given false passports, he sees them as “million-dollar bills, like the Count of Monte Cristo’s treasure chest,” a way out of the sham of a life he’s created.

As the mysteries behind government pile up, he quickly gets in over his head. Despite this, Nixon craves power, pursuing it with the dogged determination of an addict. When Henry Kissinger approaches him in 1966, asking him to consider thinking about running for President again, Nixon considers what it would mean to let himself dream this long-dead dream again:
There are the rare, rare moments when you’ve lost a thing you treasured and made your peace with that loss; your life is going to go on without it, a diminished place, but you’ve figured out how to twist yourself around just right to love and appreciate the new thing you’ve become — and then you’re given another chance at the thing you wanted so badly.
But he’s funny, too, at the most poignant or frightening moments. Introducing his constant companion, Gary, the carrier of the nuclear football, he lists all of the embarrassing or private bits of his life that Gary has had to witness, including “gastrointestinal episodes,” “furious arguments with Pat,” and “restrained, dignified weeping,” before concluding, anticlimactically, that “Gary and I were not friends.” Another list, this time in a classified document, tells of “potentially nuclear-resistant entities” who might represent a threat to the United States, including “Corn Men,” “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” “the British royal family,” and “Little Hare, a Native American trickster god of the Southwestern United States.”

Buried beneath Nixon’s paradoxical, ridiculous exterior is a darker truth, though — the unknowability of the human heart. He admits that, since a young boy, he felt an attraction to secrets. He remembers the moment when his mother taught him what a secret was, realizing that there was “more than one side” to him:
No matter how pure I seemed, righteous all the way through, there was always another me that couldn’t be put down, a sly one, a clever one, a lying one, a vicious one. I could be elected president of the whole goddamned United States but I’d always be Tricky Dick.
All of this secret-keeping takes its toll on Nixon as an individual and on his closest relationships, primarily his relationship with his wife Pat (who has some delicious secrets of her own!). He tells us in Chapter 2:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war. It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know. In other words, it is the story of a marriage.
In comparison to these painful human truths, Grossman doesn’t spend much time showing us the dark forces or the secret rituals that call them forth, causing some readers to complain that they wanted more of that aspect of the book. But I thought it was perfect. One of the effects of Lovecraftian horror is the sense that the big scary thing is always just out of sight, around the corner, down a well, or lurking beneath the waves. Spending a fraction of time actually with these creatures helps amplify our terror when we do see them. But I think there’s another reason, too, that Grossman spends most of his time on Nixon’s personal fears and failings. This is his clue to his readers that the horrors of power, of being a double agent, a spy, and a fake — of, essentially, being alone — are just as chilling as the supernatural horrors the novel keeps at bay.

I got to listen to Crooked as narrated by Kiff VandenHeuvel. VandenHeuvel nailed Nixon’s brusque delivery without being too over-the-top; his voice was rough but resonant as if his jowls were an echo chamber but, somehow, it did not devolve into caricature. It was one of the best audiobook experiences I’ve ever had — and yet, despite getting a review copy of the audiobook for free, I STILL went out and bought this in hardback… which should tell you something, because I’m pretty cheap!

*Well, other than City of Blades, but that actually released in 2016.
**This is pre-Hamilton as well.
**This review originally appeared on, where I gave the book 5 stars, easy.