Inspirations and Resolutions

I guess these are those interesting times we’d been taught about in school, huh?

As a child of the ’70s, the first thirty years never felt like they carried the import of being an era the way each and every day of 2020/2021 has. Like all of us, I’m about ready to live days that won’t make the cut for history textbooks of the future. Or VR Histori-casts, or whatever.

The challenges of emergency mental health (high risk, constant emotional intensity, predictable unpredictability, violence, variety, etc.) have mostly intensified under the vagaries of the pandemic (staff shortages, overall distress increases, fragmented primary care, increased access to opioids/overdoses, etc.). And as the mental health surges tend to follow the medical health surges, I have to say that I’m really not looking forward to the spring (or the years to come…?)

But, enough of that. It’s been a wonderful year for personal growth and this next one is positioned to be even better.

Back in 2010, a writing workshop leader, Michaela Roessner encouraged me to consider a low-residency MFA in writing. I couldn’t do it at the time, and for the next ten years I couldn’t bring myself to really consider the time and financial commitment to make it happen. But thanks to Covid, and online pivots, it became a doable possibility. And Michaela was right.

At the first residency at VCFA I was so nervous and overwhelmed with impostor syndrome, I could barely babble out an answer to any personal question. In every interaction I felt myself over-compensating or retreating with embarrassment.

Had I ever even really read a book? Have I ever truly written? What am I doing here?

But now, it’s 2022, and I sit with close to 250 pages of new fiction, at least thirty books read that I truly had not known existed twelve months ago, and a feeling of community. I am privileged to say that I may come through the pandemic with work I’m proud of, an expanded education, and new friends (that I’ve yet to meet in person). That is far from bad.

I write this in part because for the last ten years, as I searched for information on MFAs, I found my way to discussion boards with a binary classification of benefit/evil. For me, someone who had stalled in his creative work, who needs the structure of deadlines and invested readers, and whose vacation allowance sat sadly idle for two years, this has been lovely.

This last term, I’ve worked under Douglas Glover, who pushed me into new forms and approaches to creative generation. While Doug writes about many things (Don Quixote, slavery, the early Canadian colonies), as he told me in one our conversations, is always writing about love.

Which has highlighted something for me, especially going into my third residency. Every writer will tell you what they write about. Just this week I’ve heard writers say they write about families, intergenerational trauma, geography, child abuse, identity, the mythic. Well-established writers and apprentices alike can boil down thousands of hours of creation and creativity into a single word or idea!

Whaaaaaaa–?

A potential advisor asked me to tell him about my work. There I was, as tongue-tied and blank as I was a year ago. Not this time, as an impostor, I can stare at the stack of pieces I’ve sweat through and accept that I’m a writer. No, it’s no longer about verbs. I write. I read. I have read and written and critiqued and shared and published. The next step is different.

What do I write? Who am I as a writer? What do I want to do with all these words?

Sure, there’s the perspective that the market will decide, the stuff that sells, the stuff that gathers interest will point the way, but for the next year, it’s not about the market. I have a thesis to do, more work to create, and I have to (get to?) make decisions. I can write and collect and focus my work on whatever is meaningful to me. Forget agents and publishers, at least for a moment: as a writer what is it that I will make?

This year I wrote about Medusa and superhero furniture and the soul and love without commonality and suicide and Kafka and Zeus and about mothers who get to control their kids’ aging and a dozen other things both silly and sad. But, I’m still searching for the words that I feel comfortable to define it all.

It is daunting, yes, but also so damned exciting. And it’s great to not be doing it alone.

Summertime, and the living is…restless?

It’s been a while since I’ve put in an appearance here. Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been getting really sick of opinions. Not just everyone else’s, but my own, too. The internet is a geyser of opinion and there are many a day that silence seems the only appropriate response.

Good news! The Full Lazenby, a short of mine that was published in last year’s Unidentified Funny Objects 3, will appear again, this time in Imaginarium 4 the annual compilation of best Canadian speculative fiction. And who is writing the introduction? Margaret <frickin’> Atwood. Jesus, I can’t wait to hold it.

I’ve been performing 3-4 times/month with Oakville Improv both in the family-friendly venues and over at the Moonshine Cafe. The group has really become quite fun and funny–not always the case in improv. Check us out if you’re local.

In real life, the last few months have been really tough. We’ve lost a parent and are worried about another family member who has become quite ill. We moved again, this time for permanence. Work, as always, is challenging in every conceivable manner. My health is good. My daughters are lovely. I’m learning to meditate.

And then there’s writing. I’ve come to accept that my process (as it currently stands) is that when I have an idea that I’m obsessed about and that if, on my death bed, I had not seen complete would be heartbroken over, I set to work. Now frequently, the various drafts and/or rejections kill the death bed regret and the project stalls. But I’ve been spending the last two months reading biographies, Italian history and literature as research for a ridiculously ambitious project. We’ll see just how far I get, but the outline is almost complete and it feels pretty cracking.

I can spin it two ways: What if there was a physics of the mind? or, more pithily, Freud and Einstein solve mysteries. Is your jaw off the floor yet? Are you losing your <frickin’> mind? Good. I am too.

Funny stuff

Unidentified Funny Objects 3 launched early–it’s available in e-formats and paperback. It’s now a major fetish object on my bookshelf, and I am very pleased with the reception to date. Check it out!

Also, I am very pleased to report a new sale to Nature: Futures. A Brief History of Human Intelligence will appear in Nature Physics. I’m making my way through their recently released second collection and there’s some great stuff, also worth checking out!

Unidentified Funny Objects 3

UFO-3-cover

The Table of Contents for Alex Shvartsman’s sci-fi humor anthology UFO 3 was revealed today, and it includes a story of mine “The Full Lazenby.” It’s a riff on identity and fandom and celebrity culture.

Being included in this volume is especially exciting for me because…

…it’s a story I started working on for the original UFO. I’m glad that after two years of tinkering it tickled Alex’s fancy.

…I’m a huge Don Quixote fan. This year’s cover exchanges Cervantes’ harmless windmills for an intergalactic threat.

…Piers Anthony is included. Dog-eared paperbacks of his were the currency of my grade school, so basically, he’s a real Author. It’s a thrill to see my work listed next to his.

UFO 3 is available for pre-order (as are the previous great volumes) so be sure to check it out!

It is a pleasure to fail…

Motivation comes from odd places. It’s not uncommon to struggle to find motivation for oneself yet find it easily at the bequest of others. Personal trainers, coaches, teachers, spouses, they exist to not be let down. We project our hopes onto them, make external what is inherently conflicted, and are free to try.

Some years ago, I said that I wanted to write so my daughters would be proud. That mantra felt different somehow, more challenging, more inspiring, than trying to please myself.

Did I mention that my daughters can’t read?

An unexpected byproduct of this quest is the opportunity to fail in their plain view. As a physician they didn’t see the gloom of internship, the doubt of residency, the regret of fellowship. They’re too young to understand (I hope) what the stakes are in my day job.

Writing though, they kind of understand. They get stories. They speak story. They play, breathe, sing, dance, and otherwise subsist on story. They understand someone liking a story and they understand not liking a story. (e.g., five minutes from the end of Disney’s Hercules one turned to me and asked what was happening. I couldn’t blame her).

Weirdly enough, sharing the hopes and disappointments—submission and rejection, an honest BlackList critique, an idea that I can’t make work—is comforting with a four-year-old at my side. I highly recommend one.

Failing and trying are important. Perseverance is an important lesson that’s hard to teach. It’s too coolly handed down as obvious and easy. I’m (kind of) grateful for the opportunity.

Many teenagers don’t even know what their parents do all day, let alone how they got there. I like the idea that my daughters might experience vicarious failure through my many rejections, just as I hope to one day experience joy through their successes.

Perhaps as parents we should all fail more.

A Work in Progress…

Here’s a quote from a 2005 writing class student autobiography:

I’m both proud and ashamed to say that I only read fiction. I can’t remember the last non-fiction book I finished but I love novels. It’s not surprising that most of my writing projects take on the form of novels. Unfortunately, over the years I’ve learned that my scope has significantly exceeded my skill and discipline. I have three half-finished novels that take up space on my hard drive. Two of them get picked up every two months and revised or mutated, but rarely added to. They’re both very alive in my head, just not so much on paper.

And so I wrote. I wrote and I wrote. By 2008, I finished the first full draft of a novel and even sent it around. I dreamed of movie deals, and agent interest, and any interest…

Well, I revised. And I did a NaNoWriMo for a new novel. And I kept taking classes. In the spring of 2010, at a college reunion, I said aloud: I want to be a science-fiction writer.

It was a weird thing to say. I read a lot of literary fiction. I’m not a cosplayer, don’t own a lightsaber. Yet, most of my preoccupations were highly speculative (a word I wouldn’t learn for a while to come). 

2010 sticks in my mind because, despite lack of publication, or writing routine, or anything that might possibly justify the title “writer,” I was bombastic enough to proclaim: “I shall be writer.” It was a moment of naive candor and I’d said it to other people. I was on the record with myself. I was accountable.

Time has snuck past me. I’ve be cranking away for somewhere between five and twelve years and it feels like I’ve both come a long way, and that I’ve barely begun. 

Newsflash: 2013 to end soon

It’s December. Seriously. December.

Excellent news, though. Nature Futures will be publishing a short of mine called “No Fury Like a Woman Cold Called”. It’s an homage to PK Dick crossed with a little Douglas Adams and a dash of David Ives. Or something. So that’s super-cool.

I spent this year pursuing higher education in the form of a Certificate in Television Writing from the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension. Managed to cram that puppy into nine months and have turned out my first spec (Burn Notice so it’s already stale) and a spec pilot Shrinks (I want to go with Mental, but it was the name of a series just four years ago, who knew?). So that’s kept me busy. It’s nearing the launchpad for general acclaim-seeking after a pro critique and a few more drafts.

Yesterday I had inspiration for the novel that’s been gathering viruses on my hard drive. It’s got a killer first 150 pages and a fun but unsatisfying ending. I’ve been stuck on this simple question: how does society unknow something? That’s all I had to figure out. And maybe I have. TBD.

I haven’t been nearly as aggressive with short fiction as I should. Maybe 2014 is a year to do that. I have a YA dystopian thing that keeps clawing its way into being, six years after that market got flooded.

Finally, I have this crazy idea I’m calling mindpunk for the time being. Freud. Einstein. Nineteenth century Vienna. Physics. Repression. History. That one’s a bugger.

Vita brevis, ars longa, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, judicium difficile

The Bad Math of Doctor Who

I’ve been a big Stephen Moffat fan since Coupling. That show was pure brilliance and, to my mind, the most tightly written sitcom ever.

Comedy writers talk about math—the structure of emotional connection. In comedy, that’s laughter. Each show has its own rhythm. Family Guy and 30 Rock play fast and loose with joke set-ups, while a good Seinfeld episode plays four set-ups to their extreme ends for laughs.

Coupling felt like perfection. Which is good and bad. There was resonance between the story-structure and the jokes with perfect call-backs and clever, tight resolution.

The bad thing is that such writing runs the risk of feeling like math. I think of volleyball. Bump-set-spike. Bump-set-spike. Bump-set-spike. A harrowing rhythm to maintain on the court, but a dull spectator sport.

Cleverness is intellectually satisfying, but emotionally neutral.

Moffat is a master of math. Coupling is brilliant. Sherlock is incredible. Doctor Who’s Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace are fantastic. but his run as showrunner is plagued by unsatisfying drama. Things (mostly) fit together intellectually but it’s kind of blah.

A Good Man Goes to War? The Wedding of River Song? The Pandorica Opens? Dramatic titles for sure, but where was the drama?

Moffat thrives within the sitcom and mystery structures, but sci-fantasy drama is too flexible. The limitations are variable (especially death) and the characters are moved around like chess pieces. The reasons (barely) make sense but I leave most episodes with a shrug. 

The Day of the Doctor was no different. The morning after I’m excited about what will come next on Gallifrey, enjoyed the banter, but I’m underwhelmed by any of the “big” stakes that were supposed to be present.

I miss Rose, Donna and (especially) Martha. Jack Harkness, even the one-off Lady de Souza. They were characters and not math. They made choices, they won, they lost. 

My Process: States of Being

  • Potentially Awesome. A flash of inspiration. The possible forms it might take are endless—a decalogy, a movie franchise, an epic poem. Laughter, tears, bitter insight into How The World Really Works. It’s all there, and it’s mine to plunder.
  • Awesome. First draft done. From nothing to something. Gold has been mined but not refined. Is it rough? Sure it’s rough, but its beauty shall blind anyone who dares read it! Let it sit briefly, before the world beholds its wonder!
  • Decidedly Not Awesome aka damn, this needs a lot of work. Three weeks after the first draft, doubts have arisen only to be confirmed when the drawer is opened. What was exciting has been muddled and lost. It’s going to take a lot of buffing to polish this turd…
  • Okay. One month later. Re-written, shown around, re-written again. It can no longer be denied that it is a story. Maybe it’s better. After all the work, perhaps it is better than originally hoped, a submission ought to give me the answer…
  • Crap. Absence may make the heart grow fonder but two months in slush limbo only bring its glaring faults to the forefront of my mind. I can’t bear to open the file and confirm the spelling errors, logical inconsistencies and derivative prose. Yet to know that I can neither correct its faults nor protect myself from a reader’s umbrage…shameful.
  • Confirmed Crap. Rejected thrice!!! It doesn’t work. They can’t use it. They may want to see other things, but never again this vile piece of shite! Away it goes, banished to corners of the hard drive saved for tax receipts and college one-acts. Never again will it see the light of day.

Until…Two years later. I click on a document folder whose title I don’t recognize. The story within, well, it’s got a certain whiff of inspiration. Sure, it’s buried by tonal issues and the pacing is flabby, but with a little work…

Repeat.