My Summer, Catching Up

Prairie

What a summer this has been. So much to catch up on, so much to have joy about, and so much to look forward to.

  • Maybe most relevant to my writing interests (and certainly most beneficial) was the Odyssey Writer’s Workshop, which I attended this summer. It was a transformative experience for me as a writer and a reader. I put away the stuffy, pretentious novel I’d been feeling obligated to work on and started writing something I like in both concept and reality. I met incredible writers–smart, kind, gracious people who demanded my best and helped me achieve it. I met Jeanne, the director, who will be in the acknowledgements of my first book as the smartest reader and best teacher I’ve ever had the fortune to know. I made so many new friends and learned so much–I would wish it on every writer.
  • Still on Odyssey: I had the chance to meet and learn from N.K. Jemisin, Patricia Bray, Meg Spooner, Scott Andrews, and, for a whole week, Mary Robinette Kowal. Odyssey would have been incredible if all we did was learn from Jeanne; the guest writers made it extraordinary.
  • This isn’t a summer thing, but it became a tell-able secret this summer: my wife and I are having a baby girl this fall. We just finished painting her room and stripping away the carpet there to reveal beautiful hardwood floors underneath. Look, look! (Incredible paintings by my sister, Katie)

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  • I finished my second summer residency for my MFA program last week. It was a change of pace after the craziness and intensity of Odyssey, but I had a fun time meeting the new students, reconnecting with the second and third years, and seeing lots of good readings and craft talks.
  • I don’t think I’ve updated since this happened: I’m one of the new Articles Editors at Strange Horizons! I’m working with an unbelievably awesome team of other editors within articles, but the whole Strange Horizons crew is pretty amazing. I’m lucky, lucky, lucky to have this opportunity.
  • I’m in a new office, getting ready to teach two new classes this year, and I have one of those L-shaped desks. This whole office move situation (and really the whole work situation) has been pretty depressing and disheartening in recent months, but I’ve been trying to look on the positive side, to be, as one of my friends and colleagues here says, “a soldier of joy.” So I’m being joyful about the future addition to our family, the writing-related opportunities I’ve had, and this cool L-shaped desk. Hopefully I’ll have some happy publication news soon.
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What I’m Reading: February

Well, the semester is underway and student papers have started doing that thing where they pile up on my desk in secret, covetous groups and side-eye me until I either grade or leave the office. So I’ve left the office. Your move, student papers.

And now the snow, like metaphors about snow in an MFA classroom, is falling without any sign of stopping, and I’m getting ready to ensepulchre myself in blankets and read more of Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere, which is an eerie novel to read when you live in a small, Midwestern town like I do (the book is in part concerned with how messed up and problematic those cute, idyllic little towns can be). It’s a great book, but I really haven’t been sleeping well recently.

This month, I’m looking forward to getting into Lavie Tidhar’s upcoming novel Central Station (which I’ll be talking about over at Hazel & Wren), China Mieville’s new novel This Census-Taker, and Claudia Rankine’s much-celebrated Citizen.

Oh! And don’t forget to check out this amazing kickstarter for an Ursula Le Guin documentary. The world needs this. Actually, the world needs about twelve Le Guin documentaries. Or more.

8 Months, 25 days

Remember this? That rejection was for a story submitted last February, my first story ever submitted.

And just today I signed a contract for my first sale! The excitement is real, people! My story “The Demon in the Page” is now forthcoming in Metaphorosis.

I heard the good news of the acceptance this past Sunday, which was exactly 8 months and 25 days after my first submission. It’s not the same story I submitted back in February (that one is still getting sent around and reworked), but it’s still pretty darn special. I have more I want to say about this, but for now, I’m still in celebration mode, and it’s Halloween, so I’m going to have a scotch, pass out candy to people dressed like other people/places/things, and keep floating on this wave of happiness.Contract Header

NerdCon: Stories

I attended NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis this weekend. It was great; the organizers brought in an awesome lineup of writers, podcasters, artists, and creators of all kinds. The presentations varied from the guests playing games of various sorts on stage to standard panels to Q&As. Since this was the first year for the con (though not the last, I would imagine), it wasn’t packed, which is always a plus. Feeling like you’re a participating member in a vast, buzzing insect swarm is never a great experience, especially in the hyper-clean-yet-oddly-still-grimy space so many cons seem to occupy.

I realized this weekend, though, that cons really aren’t for me: I’m 28 and feel like I’m 75 most of the time. My back hurts pretty much constantly from excessive time spent in my youth carrying big-ass drums. After teenage years during which I thought I was literally the coolest person in the world, being around those kinds of teenagers makes me wish for sweet, swift, merciful Death to take me away in her chariot. Crowds of any sort absolutely drain my batteries, and even being around other fans of stuff I’m fannish about sucks my energy. And as an aspiring writer, I feel the obligatory weight of the ever-hateful “networking possibilities” in a place like NerdCon, which, instead of actually making me want to network, actually makes me want to curl up in a corner with a notebook.

So yeah, the con was great. I can recognize that. But I can also recognize that it totally wasn’t for me (in no way because of the specificity of this con–it’s all conventions, conferences, colloquia…gatherings that start with ‘c’ apparently), and that whenever I start getting stuff published, that’s going to be a big hurdle for me. I left both days (Friday and Saturday) feeling simultaneously exhausted and guilty for feeling exhausted.

One frustration and one joy from the con:

Frustration: I went to two panels moderated by the same person (a creator I’ve not loved for a little while–it was my own dumb fault for picking the panels, but I was so interested by the panelists that I thought it would be ok! Not so, unfortunately…), and each of these panels seemed, despite their descriptions, to be opportunities for this person to pontificate. At great length. To the extent that the panelists–the actual people who have been asked to participate on speak on these panels–had either very little time to speak or were instead pulled down rabbit holes where the message seemed to be, “Gosh, it’s super hard to be really successful. People shouldn’t make me feel bad about complaining about my success. I’ve been so limited in who I can complain to about being so successful, and that’s really hard for me.” And you know? Fair enough. But it needs to be recognized that a panel at a convention is probably not the right place for that *very, very, very* privileged whining to happen. That first panel was basically saved by Dessa, who kept bringing the discussion back to positive advice for writers. She’s awesome.

Joy: On Friday night, a whole bunch of creators played a game that was a mix of The Canterbury Tales, D&D, and other storytelling endeavors. It featured the creators improvising stories that could be challenged by other players, which then forced the teller to either creatively work with the disruption or give up the opportunity to score more coins. Anyway, Mary Robinette Kowal, to whom I’ve listened on Writing Excuses, was incredible. Her stuff was funny and witty, but she was also clearly having so much damn fun up there. I haven’t yet read any of her books, but I desperately want to now!

Some of That, Some of This

Because posts from bloggers apologizing to their imaginary audiences for time away are the worst, and because I want to be blogging again but don’t really have much to say, I’ve decided to do a random wrap-up of the banalities of past days, the hopes for future days, and the happiness of present days. It’ll be an exercise in writing without purpose.

-I was stung by a bee yesterday. On my right ring toe (I don’t actually know what that toe’s called–but if it were a little piggy, it would have none.) It was weirdly nostalgic. I used to get stung by bees all the time as a kid (mostly because I was a little demon who thought bee hives could be cleared away using rocks, hurled at speed. Shockingly, I was often wrong), and it turns out that those little pollinators still know how to cause surprising and terrible pain.

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-I’m working almost exclusively on my novel these days (though I still have plans to start the web serial–just, you know, someday), and I had the awesome realization that what it needs is precisely this big worldbuilding mechanic nestled at the heart of a different novel idea I’ve had for awhile. So, I just sort of plopped them together in my mind, and holy smokes, imaginary reader, it’s way cool!

-I’ve lived in dorm rooms or temporary, rented housing/apartments for most of my adult life, and it’s only really recently that I’ve started shaking off that deeply instilled idea inside me that shuts down any creative impulse I have to put myself into my environment. When I was in graduate school, I lived in the bottom floor of this house in West Virginia, and after two years there, I had put up almost no posters, had rearranged not at all, and I could completely extricate myself from that place in under an hour and a half–leaving no trace. I slept on an air mattress (thanks to some great friends for that–B.A.M [Before Air Mattress] I was sleeping on the floor), had relatively few personal possessions, and had sent out no domestic roots at all. But I own a house now (or am a part-owner, anyway), and I don’t have to silence the urge to recreate my environment. It’s exciting in a way that makes me sad for teenage me, so freaked out about leaving any impression behind.

-The new semester is coming along. I’m trying to be excited about it; I’m sick of hating my job so much of the time. I get to talk with smart people for a living! I get to help those same people get smarter! I only have to work 9 months out of the year! Yeah!

-I didn’t teach at CTY this year, which was harder than I thought it was going to be (though it was nice not to leave my wife for weeks at a time). I get such a phantom nostalgia when I think about CTY: I didn’t go as a kid, but I can see myself in so many of the kids there. Lonely, passionate, smart, and so, so excited to find an oasis in the middle of summer, this magical place where they can meet other kids like them, other kids who will challenge and push and support one another. I think about how much I would have loved to go as a 13-year old, how much my life would have been changed if, instead of spending summers sitting inside the library alone, playing with fictional characters, I could’ve instead been in classrooms with other kids who loved to read, who were just as baffled by what it meant to be “cool,” who wanted to talk endlessly about which books or movies or poems or writers were the best. I taught for two summers at CTY, and I could feel the absence this summer–acutely–despite the busyness of things in July and August here. I think about the dances, the discussions during class (and, for that matter, during breaks), the games of chess squeezed into any free time possible, the games of four-square, all of it. And I miss it.

-And even though I’ve been missing CTY, it’s been great to be at home and spend a summer with my wife, with whom I will shortly be celebrating our one-year anniversary! And since she’s probably the only one reading this: happy anniversary, Wife Person! You’re pretty much the greatest.

-Here are my hopes for the future: creativity and passion, happiness and sadness, drizzly days and fall colors, words and pages, kisses and handholding, hope and laughter.

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Interview: Sam J Miller

1. Can you talk a little about your work as a community organizer? Do you see your passion for community as coming from the same place as your passion for writing? Do these two things have similar goals/aims?
By day I work as an organizer with a group called Picture the Homeless, which was founded and is led by homeless folks, and we work on bringing people experiencing homelessness together to fight collectively to fix the systemic problems they face. Because of the myths and stereotypes surrounding homeless people, most policy-makers and media debates feel perfectly comfortable ignoring them even as they make decisions that impact them. So it’s our job to support homeless people building power through direct action, trainings, meetings with decision-makers, public speaking, media work, etc. Mostly we work on police reform and housing policy. It’s super radical and super fun and that’s why I’m still on the job after eleven years. I think my writing and my activism come from different places – writing and reading fiction is an activity focused inward, on what Nabokov calls “aesthetic bliss,”* whereas my organizing work is focused outward, on fixing the problems I perceive in the world – but they definitely feed each other. Working with homeless folks has opened my eyes to some shocking, horrific realities that most people turn a blind eye to if they can, and that finds its way into my fiction. Poor people today are already living in a dystopia, and are already reduced to pawns for other people’s profit, so the worldbuilding in “We Are The Cloud” is pretty rooted in the reality I see firsthand every day. And organizing has shown me that when people come together, they can do anything – that’s the idea I metaphorized in “The Heat Of Us.” At bottom, of course, my writing and organizing probably spring from the same impulse, as everything does – an attempt to find meaning and joy in a cold and hostile universe, and to help others find that too.
2. What is your writing process? How has it changed as you’ve grown and changed as a writer?
When I was younger I used to write every day, and I think that was a really important stage in my development – certainly my prose rhythm and sentence structure got pretty tight during that time. But the overall quality of my work, especially around story structure and character, suffered, because I was constantly executing ideas before I’d had a chance to really sit with them and learn about what excited me, what they needed, etc. Now I mostly just let story ideas bounce around in my brain until they start to glom onto each other, take shape, turn into something interesting and exciting, and then I’ll start to write for an hour a day here or there, when I can, and not stress myself out too much if a couple days go by – because when I beat myself up is when I start to force myself even when it’s not flowing, and that rarely yields good results for me. I’m fortunate that I can write pretty much anywhere, and often pretty fast – for my birthday every year I take the day off from work and go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sit there all day and try to write a complete story rough draft. Overall I work better late at night, or early in the morning. And getting input from my writer friends is a huge and essential part of the process. That’s one of the most important things Clarion taught me. No one is in this alone. Your comrades make you better. And you make them better. I’m privileged to be part of an excellent writers’ group in NYC, and to have my Clarion 2012 brethren and a bunch of other great readers and writers to critique my drafts and make them better… and sellable.
3. Your list of short fiction is really extensive and varied. What is it about the short form that appeals to you? And piggybacking on that, what is it about speculative short work that appeals to you?
Short stories are fun because you can create the wildest worlds and people, in miniature, and then smash them up or flip them sideways or abandon them. They’re like experiments – what can I do with this crazy idea? So I can do horror, then fantasy, then hard SF, then super crazy multi-genre mash-ups, so as not to get too bored or stuck in one way of doing things.  As for – why work in these genres at all? I write speculative fiction because that’s how the world looks to me. Life is magic. The world is science fiction. We carry tiny rectangles in our pockets that can access the sum total of human knowledge! And have you ever seen an ocean? THAT SHIT IS CRAZY. To me the world is so full of wonder and horror that speculative fiction is the only literature equal to the task of reflecting it. By telling the most ridiculous lies, we as speculative fiction writers can present the primal truth of human existence in ways that other genre and non-genre lit could never begin to do.
4. Can you give any info on your current projects? Can we expect to see a Sam J Miller novel any time in the near future?
I just finished a draft of a super-dark-edgy-fucked-up novel, “Rules of the Body,” about a bullied gay teen boy with an eating disorder – which I was. SO CROSS YOUR FINGERS AND PRAY IT GETS PUBLISHED. And, also, always, a couple hundred baby-bird story ideas squawking in my brain, demanding to be fed.
5. What are five pieces of writing that have influenced you the most? (I realize this question is totally impossible, but I thought it might be fun to try)
Actually, it’s pretty easy. Octavia Butler’s “Mind of My Mind.” Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life.” Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Isaak Babel’s “Red Cavalry.” I mean, that’s a somewhat arbitrary cut-off, because I could list dozens of other books that inspired me just as much (Jean Genet! James Baldwin! Charlotte Bronte! Zora Neale Hurston! Borges, Gogol, Cortazar, Atwood, Highsmith!), but if I look at who I am as a writer, and what I want to do, those are things that keep me going.
* “For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” – Vladimir Nabokov
Thanks so much to Sam for agreeing to do this interview. He can be found online at his website and his twitter. Go check out his website and read all of his stories! Twice!

Three-A-Week (3.2): Nino Cipri’s “The Shape of My Name”

Published March 2015 at Tor.com.

(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)

I finished “The Shape of My Name” and immediately rushed to the start to read it again. Like any good time travel story, there’s the promise here of plot significance that only reveals itself on a second or third read, and I wanted to savor those things, certainly. But mostly I ran headlong into a second reading because I couldn’t let go of the story. There’s an invitation to know more of these characters that is intoxicating. Important elements are given the barest treatment in the story, just gestured at, and it becomes impossible to read passively. I felt like I was taking part in the story as I was reading it, forging connections between timelines and characters that are just barely conjured by the narrator. There’s something of a puzzle in this story; there’s a sense that the fractured pieces of the relationship between Heron and his mother (Miriam, I think her name is) are all there, all waiting to be gathered together and stitched slowly back together.

There’s more important stuff to talk about, but I just want to take a quick moment to say how really wonderful it is to see time travel done well and done for a purpose. This is one of those story forms that often seems cheap to me, done for a neat intellectual exercise or as a way to easily handwave plot complications. But here, the plot ties together with surprising grace and the mechanic of the anachronopede serves character in a way that’s hugely important. It’s really great.

The story is told as a letter to Heron’s mother, an epistolary account of who he’s become. A letter of introduction. And this becomes so important, both for the narrator and for the audience, because we get to see and be part of the process of Heron’s self-realization. The story has small phrases here and there crossed out, which makes this a letter still becoming, something not yet fully realized, and the audience gets to see that. This sense that Heron is in the middle of something, is becoming who he truly wants to be, is figuring out if he can forgive his mother, is figuring out where and when he belongs–all of these things in potentia leave traces of themselves in the crossed out phrases, the edited memories and language. Much like Heron’s leaps through time, the narration itself is the product of disparate times and moments and even selves.

There’s this super interesting moment in the story where Heron sees himself from the future. It’s brief, only a glimpse of a not-quite-recognizable person talking to his mother before he’s swept away upstairs. Because the story is so well done, and because it’s so clear that the reader is in good hands, I knew implicitly that this was an important moment. And later on when I realized who that person was, it was something neat to think back to, but it was also sort of troubling. The story is told in the past tense, and as I mentioned above, we get the sense that it’s still very much an alive, growing, developing thing. I read through this moment of past to-be Heron meeting present Heron and it struck me as either a missed opportunity or something really tragic. As a really impactful moment, it seems to go by quickly and without any real comment. Even the description that Heron gives of his later self (“I only caught a glimpse of the man standing in the corner; he had thin, hunched shoulders and dark hair, wet and plastered to his skull. He was wearing one of Dad’s old robes, with the initials monogrammed on the pocket. It was much too big for him.”) is so sparse as to be kind of unremarkable. In the structuring of the story, this seemed to be a plot point buried early to pay off later. But it’s not really a plot element; it’s a character element and I wasn’t sure if the small space given really set it up to pay off as much as it might have.

However, the other reading I can see is that Heron (who is not Heron as this point but has not yet found his name and is still being identified [at least by his mother] as female) can’t yet recognize the person he is going to become, and all he can see is a man looking a little off-kilter and wearing a robe he doesn’t quite fit into, which is maybe telling all on its own. It’s really sad to compare Heron’s experiences from either end of this moment; he’s unable to really recognize or see himself both as a child and as an adult, and those missed connections are both orbiting around his mother, who doesn’t truly see or recognize the man she meets or the child she carries upstairs. It’s a powerful moment the second time around, and thinking about it like this actually really makes me appreciate and understand the brevity and sparsity of the first iteration. Yeah, I think I see it now.

These things make me think of this brilliant and sad quote from the story: “You loved Dad, but your love kept you hostage. You loved me, but you knew that someday, I’d transform myself into someone you didn’t recognize.” It’s beautifully written, but it ends up being only partially true. Heron certainly transforms into someone unrecognizable to his mother, but the sad truth of the story is that he was never recognizable to her, not really. She fought so hard to see him as the daughter she wanted him to be that she never really saw the son he was. It’s heartbreaking.