Poetry Hit

I was blown away this morning by two very different poems that happened to be next to each other in the anthology I am reading, An Invitation to Poetry, part of the Americans’ Favorite Poems Project.

The first was Ars Poetic by Archibald Macleish. I’m sure I’ve read it in the past, and that it slid past me without impact. But for whatever reason this morning these lines:

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind –

somehow resonated with me, touching the feeling that comes after a big storm, when the clouds have swept away and opened up the dome of the sky, to both sight and feeling. That might have very little to do with the overall intention of the poem, but that’s what reading it felt like to me this morning.

And the second poem, as different can be, was Language Lesson 1976 by Heather McHugh. This poem was a revelation: a language puzzle, playful, a love poem, all at once. I’ve never read a poem like this before. The closest I can come to explaining the experience is a good bilingual joke. They both hinge on your understanding of language and your ability to conceptualize in some way that language. Meta language, maybe (maybe? seems like it could be?). It was like learning to read all over again, first the words said one thing and then suddenly they rearranged themselves on the page, in my head, and said something entirely different, and lovely. No excerpt could do it justice, you have to read it in its entirety via the link above.

Writer’s Block or a Belated Road Trip Wednesday via YA Highway

I know I’m a little late to the party for YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday. The topic was How do you beat writer’s block? I scanned a lot of the responses, and then I had to think for a long time about why I disagreed with most of the posts.

So here goes:

Most of the bloggers weren’t, in my opinion, talking about writer’s block. When they responded that they go for a walk, listen to music, brainstorm with a writer friend or hope for inspiration in the shower, they were talking about the creative process. Specifically, the normal ups and downs of the creative process. For some reason (cultural, based on movies, dunno) we believe that writing (and the creative process in general) is this forward moving, smooth upward arc of progress. That’s progress, not process; process is full of fits and starts and backtracking and cutting 50,000 words because they went in the wrong direction or trashing the outline because it’s just not going to work.

But I got to tell you — that’s normal. That’s what the writing process is. Sometimes writing involves staring at a blank screen or a blank page for five hours and not writing a single thing. That’s still writing, not writer’s block. Sometimes writing involves staring into the air at nothing your friends and family can see. Sometimes it involves walking around the block. That’s all writing process, not writer’s block.

Writer’s block is like grief. It’s a dull heavy blanket over all your thoughts. It’s the feeling of dust in your soul, dry, powdery dust that doesn’t remember the touch of moisture, much less what it’s like to have green things grow in it.

Writer’s block is knowing that you once wrote, but you can’t now. It’s knowing that the words you wrote used to sparkle for you, maybe like a rough chunk of ore, but with a little nugget of something, that, once hacked at, cut and polished, will sparkle.

Writer’s block is wanting to write and having nothing. NOTHING. There’s no connection to the secret garden, fairyland, the place where dreams come from, or the girls in the basement, whatever you call that place that the words and ideas usually well out of. Writer’s block is wanting to write, knowing it will make you feel better and you still can’t.

Writer’s block, like grief, can only be healed by time and the persistent, coaxing hope that you will heal. The hope, no, the faith, that somewhere there is a trickle of water, of blessing, of dreams with your name on it and that someday it will come back to you.

There are things you can do to help time, but none of them on their own will help: taking care of yourself, however that translates for you; exercise; filling your cup with experiences that will one day feed your writing again; reading, if you can, or seeking out other forms of entertainment.

So if you’re in the midst of creative process, and need to brainstorm or sit back for a few minutes or days, that’s great! That’s normal and stuff is happening.

But if you’re in that other place, I’m sorry. It sucks like hell.

Writing the Other

So Zoe Marriott had another awesome post on Friday about writing characters that reflect the real world — in other words, not always having an all white, straight, able-bodied cast. I’m really liking her blog and I have got to move her books to the top of my TBR list.

In my comment to her post (yup, I actually commented, I liked it, and her blog, so much), I mentioned that if you belong to a majority group, and are writing characters that are different from you, it’s important to ask your beta readers to pay attention to the issue. Flat out ask them to look for places that you unwittingly fell into the trap of a stereotype (For example, one issue I recently dealt with: My villain was the only biracial person among a multiracial cast of characters. So to I tried to make sure it’s clear that it’s not a racial characteristic by including a biracial character among the good guys.) or have been oblivious (For example, there’s one male author who writes female characters who always cross their arms over their “breasts”. Now this might just be me, but I generally cross my arms over my “chest” because I am not so super-aware of my breasts that I think about them all the time. Throws me out of the story every time — not that I’m reading this author for his great characterization. I still haven’t figured out why exactly I read the entire series; it wasn’t for the infodump either.)

And if you’re lucky enough to have beta readers who belong to one of those groups you might be trying to write about, they are not exhausted by constantly educating the privileged about why what someone just said or did was racist, classist, ableist or sexist, and they think about these things in a critical way, you can ask them to tell you where you just tripped over your big, fat privilege and ignorance. (In other words, walking up to a random woman, a black person or a person in a wheelchair (for example) and asking them to read your work and tell you about being a woman, a black person or a differently abled person, or asking any of those people to act as a representative for the entire group is NOT OK. But I know you know that already.)

And the other thing I said in my comment was that how you react if you mess up in a public, published kind of way is really important. In my view, a lot of RaceFail had to do with people obliviously saying “I did not do something that was offensive to you!” instead of being respectful, acknowledging that we all make mistakes and taking it as a learning experience to do better in the future. (Of course a lot of that was the result of unexamined privilege manifesting itself as defensiveness and attack, and some to the fatigue that people of color feel dealing with this issue also manifesting as attack, and it just spiraled downwards from there.)

But as an example of a response that is appropriate, I was thinking of N.K. Jemisin admitting she had messed up by linking her character’s blindness to her magic in The Broken Kingdom in her post Why is Oree Shoth Blind? (Edited to add: You have to scroll down past the parenthetical asides to get to this part). Or the apology issued by Strange Horizons and one of the authors whose work was posted, in response to comments stating that the story was racist because of its stereotyped depictions of native americans (I can’t find the links).

Ok, and I stole the title of this post from Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward and their book/workshop Writing the Other because I hate coming up with titles and because it’s so good! The title, I mean. I haven’t read the book–yet.

Blogs I’m Reading

Why you should read every hardcover with the book jacket OFF on E.M. Bowman’s blog via YA Highway. Yes! I love that frisson of discovery when you take the cover off and find something unexpected. (And YA Highway has much better blog titles than I do.)

How to Create a Compelling Character, Step 3: Choose A Metaphor Family by Cockeyed Caravan. Yes, this! Something I’ve been trying to articulate to my critique partners but haven’t quite managed. Speaking about the language a character uses as part of character development:

Which brings me to my favorite new technique: giving every character their own metaphor family. This can be a “go to” source for every swear word they mutter, every compliment they give out, every daydream they indulge in, etc. Sometimes their metaphor family is based on their job, but it can also be based on their cultural background or their psychology…

And Jennifer Crusie, somewhere, wrote about how a character’s language can shift over the course of a novel, revealing their new allegiances or beliefs as they adopt the language of the people they begin to identify with. (A bit like visiting the South and picking up the accent, but of course it means more because it’s fictional — it’s a character marker)

SFNovelists Sampler – A Year’s Worth of Reading! on Science Fiction and Fantasy Novelists. A compiliation of “25 first chapters from 25 of  SFNovelists’ members” for free. Like Marie Brennan, whom I haven’t read or Martha Wells, whom I adore.

Also Best Science Fiction Redux on Book View Cafe Blog, which has an alternate list to NPR’s very white male list with many books I haven’t read.

Don’t Write What You Know by Bret Anthony Johnston on the Atlantic. (via Terri Windling’s blog)

Instead of thinking of my experiences as structures I wanted to erect in fiction, I started conceiving of them as the scaffolding that would be torn down once the work was complete. I took small details from my life to evoke a place and the people who inhabit it, but those details served to illuminate my imagination. Before, I’d forced my fiction to conform to the contours of my life; now I sought out any and every point where a plot could be rerouted away from what I’d known.

Poetry Hit

Who knew poetry was a coping mechanism for the morning commute?

Today on the subway I felt like the water hyacinth from The Way of the Water Hyacinth by Zawgee:

Falling but not felled
By flotsam, twigs, leaves
She ducks, bobs and weaves.

I realized that made my fellow subway commuters the ducks in this scenario, which cheered me up immensely:

Ducks, ducks by the score
Jetting, quacking and more

Ducks are ridiculous, and there’s nothing like ridicule to diffuse some morning rage.

Blogs I’m Reading

So, what have I read today?

NPR’s list of Top 100 SciFi/Fantasy titles, which is shamefully lacking women and people of color. To balance it out I traced back through the Russ Pledge posts that started this summer, like Taking the Russ pledge and A shocking UK sf ‘favourites’ score: men 500, women 18 on Ask Nicola, MIND MELD: What’s The Importance of ‘The Russ Pledge’ For Science Fiction Today? on SF Signal and Taking the Russ Pledge on Wis[s]e Words. The Angry Black Woman asked for scifi by people of color in the comments to her post Mindblowing Science Fiction by POC and I know I’ve seen lists elsewhere, but a quick google search didn’t help me that much.

So then I moved on to Sniffing Dirty Laundry: A True Story from “the Help’s” Daughter by Bernestine Singley. She recounts her reaction to the white woman who called her to gush about how much she loved her black maid, the author’s mother. Fabulous post about how in this so-called “post-racial” society stories like The Help are used to perpetrate racism and revisionist myths about the South and white people — with continuing impact on black people and all of us today. And, rare thing in the blogoverse, the comments are as insightful as the original post and create dialogue. (via @JustineLavaworm on twitter). And for good measure I read “Growing Up Oblivious,” by Barbara Beckwith  on the same blog, about a white woman whose family employed a black maid when she was little, and revisiting those memories as an adult who finally becomes aware of the white privilege of her life. All of which will give me way too much to fight about during my sojourn in white suburbia this weekend with my family.

But first of all a fascinating look at current thought on the past of homo sapiens, Homo Sapiens, Meet Your New Astounding Family on Discover Magazine:

A single, unforgettable image comes to mind when we ponder human origins: a crouching ape slowly standing and morphing into a tall, erect human male poised to conquer every bit of habitable land on this planet….But that ascent-of-man picture is looking as dated as the flat earth. A series of scientific and technological breakthroughs have altered much of our fundamental understanding of human evolution.

Diversify Your Reading

Diversity in YA has a Diversify Your Reading Challenge going on and there’s lots of fabulous prizes to be won.

The rules for readers and book bloggers are:

We invite readers and book bloggers to read diverse MG and YA books throughout the summer (you choose the books!) and write an essay (at least 500 words) about your experience. You can post it on your website, Blogger, LiveJournal, Tumblr, or on Facebook; we only ask that your post be publicly readable. Our favorite blog posts may be re-posted on http://www.diversityinya.com later this year.

They have suggestions, which include their own monthly lists of new books released and a link to Black Teen Read‘s book lists, and prizes like Wildefire by Karston Knight and Ash by Malinda Lo. Deadline to enter is September 1.

I just requested Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger because I saw her on the Diversity in YA panel and because of this post An Equal Place at the Table over at The YA YA YAs

I was clear at the onset that I wanted to write a light, fun, contemporary novel featuring South Asian teens. I didn’t want to focus on the identity of my characters, but I didn’t want to ignore it either. I wanted to place my story smack dab in the middle of popular culture, and I wanted to create a world that consisted of teens from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

And while I was trolling the internet I found this other challenge that has been going on for a while, with monthly prizes. Check out the FAQ for info about how it works.

Both require you to sign up and link your reviews.