Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Column at Patheos.com, and Other News

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on UnsplashJuggling writing adventures has left me with quite a few loose ends these last few months–including blog updates here!–but there is, happily, some forward momentum.

As of last week, I launched at Patheos.com, under the column name, Another White Atheist in Colombia. I will be posting there twice-weekly, at minimum, and if you like what you read there, I would humbly ask you to consider forwarding links to specific articles, or signing up for regular email updates, or “liking” and following my associated Facebook page. Or, hey! Even better! Joining the conversation!

Now, some folks will see the word “atheist” in the column name, and think my focus is the usual, stand-up-comedy shtick of “So what about those believers, eh?” I have already received some bizarre emails from people close to me who want me to tear down or make fun of X belief with my column. Uh, no. (Way to show how little you know me!)

I am an atheist, sure, and a secular humanist–and this latter label matters more. As such, my focus with this project is secular storytelling. I especially want to see contemporary humanist practice focus on what is shared between persons across the belief/non-belief spectrum, rather than pointing and laughing at difference. I think we have a great deal of unpacking to do of our secular myths in order to improve the world, and I look forward to the opportunity to contribute to those changes with essays and fictions alike.

On the fiction front, too, there is progress. I am finally satisfied with the more integrated and increasingly bilingual voice of my stories, and… I simply need to convince editors of the same! It has been two years now since my last short-story acceptance, but I have grown so much in that time frame, and I look forward to finding just the right venue for some of the stories I have finally been able to write from my new home of Medellín.

(When in doubt, though, I remind myself of all the great writers who never saw their works succeed in their lifetimes. The fact that I have seen any success is a privilege.)

I also look forward to getting back to the Failed Story Project, and I have two more essays about Colombia that I would like to post by the year’s end. I am also struggling to finish the novel, which… has been surprisingly challenging despite how close I am to the end of that first draft. (Certainly, the onboarding process to my new position with Patheos.com has taken up quite a bit of mental energy!) I look forward to being able to dedicate a few more days entirely to that book project, and expect that it will be out in the hands of my first potential literary agents by the end of December.

I’ve also had a touch of success with non-fiction writing, especially with reviews for Strange Horizons, but I’m lagging in freelance pitching. I suspect the problem has a great deal to do with how new the activity is, which leads me to envision that every step will take ever so long to complete. As I gain confidence and learn to handle rejection in a whole new realm, I am sure I can reach a point where 2-3 pitches are sent out weekly. I certainly want to be writing more about Colombia for North American audiences, so at some point I simply need to get over my hang-ups and start letting the pitches fly.

…And granted, too, even as I write all of this down, I recognize that I am trying to do too much. However, I do think this gig at Patheos.com will offer just the framework I need to start making real headway in the fields that matter most. I am a strong believer in the idea that “the work expands to meet the time allotted”–so by having more stringent obligations between the Patheos column and my paid work, I have every confidence that I will gain greater efficiency with what little time for writing and pitching lies between.

How about you fine folks? Where do your creative projects find you? Are you bewildered by their breadth? Their varying degrees of accomplishment? Do you have urgent new literary dreams filling your every spare hour? Are any failures weighing on your hearts?

Wherever you are, whatever setbacks the year has contained for you, I hope you’re able to see the road ahead for what it is: an opportunity, each and every day, to regain focus, purpose, and maybe even a little success in the work that we love most.

Go get ’em, tigers!

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Dhaka Region, Bangladesh, from Pixabay

The Failed Story Project, Part II: “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”

When I published “A Tower for the Coming World” in Clarkesworld two years ago, I felt a tremendous sense of clarity about the kind of voice I wanted to develop going forward: a global voice, a voice that de-centres Western narrative and assists in naturalizing in our canon whole other traditions of thought and speech and action. I wanted to write more and better stories that integrate ideas of restorative justice even for the most difficult members of our society, and to help legitimize a multitude of ways in which people could find satisfaction and purpose in life. I wanted to participate in exposing majority-culture Western readers to more language barriers, and the knowledge that a profound lack of agency does not inherently make certain life stories unworthy of being told.

However, “A Tower for the Coming World” was also my last science-fiction sale, and as I have tried to live up to the promise of that story in subsequent output, I have hit upon numerous hurdles related to the task of trying to appeal to majority-culture North Americans with stories that do not intrinsically favour or centre our expectations of worthy protagonists and themes and plots.

Not, as it turns out, an easy task.

As such, in this instalment of The Failed Story ProjectI want to look at one piece that exemplifies my problems in this ambition. Before I do, though, I want to make perfectly clear that I know there is already an abundance of writing in the West about other parts of the world, and about marginalized communities closer to home as well. These stories fall loosely into two categories–work by authors from those demographics, and work by authors outside those demographics–and as a writer usually outside those demographics, I am most certainly not trying to suggest that my problems are by any means unique, or that I am discovering anything new. Most likely, as the following story will illustrate, there is simply a certain amount of lacking skill that must account for why I haven’t yet surmounted the problems facing oh so many writers in this vein.

One of the central problems, of course, is that when writers such as myself depict other cultural contexts and demographics, we are too often using these contexts as “flavour”, as “props” for enlightening some centralized majority-culture Western protagonist. (Conversely, if writers from other cultural contexts want to get published, they tend to have to write to suit the expectations of Western readers about other cultural contexts, or else to write for “niche” markets.) This is why the #OwnVoices movement has been so important, and why it is ludicrous to suggest that centring authors who have direct experience within non-majority communities is somehow an attack on any author writing about the same communities from external subject-positions.

In the words of the creator of #OwnVoices, Corinne Duyvis:

Q: Are you saying privileged authors shouldn’t write outside their experiences?

No. People can write whatever they want; that goes both ways.

That said, it’s common for marginalized characters to be written by authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst. Society tends to favor privileged voices even regarding a situation they have zero experience with—just consider the all-white race panels on talk shows.

All #ownvoices does is center the voices that should matter most: those being written about.

I keep this in mind as I reflect on my own, past efforts to de-centre certain norms, and try to learn from my mistakes. For instance, I don’t think Game of Primes is necessarily a bad story, but even putting aside sentence structures sorely in need of another round of editing, I remain pressingly aware of the fact that my protagonist’s neurodiversity is too much a “selling feature” of the story, and not simply a naturalized facet of that particular character’s vantage point. I would write quite a different version of that tale today.

Similarly, I resonate deeply with Aliette de Bodard’s excellent essay for Uncanny Magazine, “The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure”, in which she deconstructs one of the most frustrating problems with a great deal of Western SF&F: the idea that stories are only worth telling if they involve people in power or people engaged in dramatic attempts at its reclamation. As she notes:

The other thing about dismissing powerlessness is that it devalues and erases the oppressed. It’s saying, essentially, that the less power one has, the less worthy of a story one is. That if someone is truly oppressed, and the story isn’t about some brash rebellion, some gaining of that overt power, then it’s not worth telling. That being oppressed is some sort of grey, featureless state where nothing worth notice happens—that there are no sorrows, no joys, no everyday struggles, no little victories to be snatched. That, in short, the only story of oppression worth telling is the brazen breaking of it.

(Snowpiercer likewise illustrates the fallacy of so much dystopic fiction in this vein, by advancing the argument that even fixating on breaking a system of power is more often than not still a reification of that system of power. The only way to break the cycle is to blow up the narrative “engine” in its entirety.)

And yet, as much as SF&F editors are sympathetic to this perspective in theory, one of the major criticisms I receive from editors about my writing is the lack of more immersive action right out the gate, which both serves as an indictment of my particular skill-set and hints at a pervasive industry norm. Now, there is a style of writing that does well in the markets today without direct action–a much more lyrical, immersive, free-indirect voice–but  I find that style to have a somewhat classist, workshop-writing feel, and don’t much enjoy using it, except in circumstances where I think the story merits it (e.g. “The Aftermath”, a trauma narrative). As such, when it comes to market-failures, my reluctance to employ a “high literary” approach, though I know these sell better, is entirely my own, stubborn fault.

But so it goes. Suffice it to say, I have a ways to go to be a more compelling storyteller of tales that de-centre and otherwise challenge Western norms–but if I managed it once, maybe I can again. I just have to learn from failures like those in the story discussed below.

Part II: “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”

Dhaka Region, Bangladesh, from Pixabay

Background

I was moved to write “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other” after reading about horrific circumstances for child-labourers in the tanneries of Bangladesh. I couldn’t even imagine what life must be like for such children (like so many other child-labourers the world over). However, in the alien-ness of that subject-position, I found myself returning to a common source of wonder in my life: the idea that we, as a species, will never experience monumental cosmological transformations on an equal footing. As William Gibson has observed, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And so, after reading this latest example of just that terrible fact, I desperately wanted to write a sci-fi story that highlighted just how uneven that distribution would be even if our species were on the verge, say, of a first-contact scenario.

Recently a story in the news vindicated one of this piece’s other underlying assumptions–namely, that even in an age of advanced computing there will still always be some use for analog systems, even if they mean the waste of whole lifetimes to anonymous drudgery–but mostly, my research for this piece involved immersing myself in Bengali subcultures and trying to anticipate how those cultures might change (or remain unchanged) a few decades down the line. In the process, I gained a deeper appreciation for which parts of the region have a monopoly on media distribution, learned a great deal about tanning processes and the associated chemicals, and integrated pre-existing knowledge about how government policies try to curtail reproductive poverty.

I also read related poetry, watched Bollywood films, and listened to contemporary Bengali classics. For this reason the title of the piece is a translation of a line in a famous song by Mohiner Ghoraguli, in keeping with my strong belief that when a writer uses another cultural context, they have a responsibility to remind readers that the other cultural context has its own, rich artistic tradition already speaking for itself. Margaret Atwood may have notably suggested that the role of the writer is to give voice to the voiceless, but I firmly dissent from the assumptions in that framing: the role of the writer is to call attention to voices that already exist but are not being heard.

One other element in this story’s construction might also have been its downfall: I also wanted my character to have a sexual orientation following–as I do–attraction to the person, not the gender. However, for some reason, when I get hung up on the possibility of doing something subversive (and indeed, when I was writing this story, I felt I was being subversive by trying to integrate a fluidly bisexual character without pointedly calling attention to his sexuality), I tend to get way too subtle in my execution. To me, such stories always feel terribly provocative when I first finish them, but when I read the piece again months later, I am baffled by my initial assumption that the grand reveals were really that grand after all.

Such was the case with “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other“–a story in which I wanted to call attention to the fact that many people in the world do not have the agency to engage with the meat-and-potatoes of sci-fi’s grandest adventures; that many of these people are nevertheless used by people in different class strata to achieve their own interstellar ambitions; and that these exploited persons–while lacking in traditional agency–still contain multitudes. What human being does not have their share of guilt and reservation, talent and community, foolishness and yearning? And so I tried–and failed–to write a story where all of these and more were realized in the tale of one young man in a near-future version of the brutal tanneries where so many live and die.

The Verdict:

I only had three places to submit this piece–Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Clarkesworld. I knew it wouldn’t work for Analog, and Tor.com has been closed awhile to new short-story submissions. Even then, those three places were a bit of a stretch, because Clarkesworld tends to favour more stylistic experimentalism or snappy action, and C.C. Finlay at F&SF definitely prefers more action.  I think Charlie summed it up rather gently when he wrote,

Dear Maggie,

Thank you for giving me a chance to read “Like The Stars That Are Light-Years From Each Other.” I liked the characters here and I thought this ended in an interesting place, but the narrative developed very slowly for me after the first page or two, and overall the story didn’t quite win me over. I’m going to pass on this one for F&SF, but I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it and hope that you’ll keep us in mind in the future.

In short: It’s a boring story. I had some hope when Asimov’s kept it in queue for a good month at a time when most folks were getting rejections within a week… but I also tend to notice that Asimov’s slush readers don’t necessarily read submissions in order, so I wasn’t surprised by the ensuing form letter. Nor did the boilerplate rejection from Clarkesworld surprise: ever since Neil took on more slush readers (to handle a monumental submissions load!), there is zero expectation that past publication with Clarkesworld will grant me more rejection commentary even if a story does get to second-round reading (as this one, I am fairly certain, did).

Simply put: this story didn’t work for these three places, and then it ran out of places for consideration. So it goes!

The Take-Away:

I was excited to have found a sense of direction after “A Tower for the Coming World”, but so much went awry in the months after its publication–so much that eventually led, too, to my decision to uproot to another country, and spend quite a bit of time learning the ropes of survival in an entirely different culture. I have a novel that also pursues some of the themes I mentioned above–a true labour of love, and something I value deeply–but I haven’t been able to touch its near-finished manuscript in a year. After “Tower” I found it difficult, in general, to complete fiction while struggling in my post-PhD-program life (a miserably precarious existence that had me working most every day with little hope of light at the end of the tunnel). And then I finished “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”–my first short story after that last publishing success.

I suppose I should be glad of its existence, then, if only as a leaping-off point.

Going forward, though, there are quite a few things I need to keep in mind to better harmonize ambition with output and marketplace viability:

  1. Slow stories do not sell, unless they are highly aesthetic by design.
  2. Subtle stories–when I write them, at least–are too damned understated to be effective narrative engines. I need either to improve in this style or find another.
  3. If I am writing slow and subtle stories as a matter of course when trying to engage with different cultural contexts, I need to ask myself if the story really warrants slowness and “subtlety”… or if I am simply being tentative, as a writer, for fear of erring in my portrayal of some aspect of this different world.
  4. It will take a while to become adept at this kind of storytelling, and I have to give myself that time to improve. Just because I lucked out with one story does not mean I don’t still have significant growth ahead.
  5. If I invest too heavily in any one story, it will be harder to accept its failure when there are so few market opportunities for any story I might envision. Write more. Write diversely. The best ideas will always re-emerge elsewhere.

Questions for Fellow Writers

How much time do you spend on the research phase for your stories?

What narrative factors vary the amount of time you spend in research mode?

How do you keep yourself from getting too caught up in your own preoccupations when writing work that could be regarded as controversial?

Which stories would you write differently if writing them for the first time today?

What are the most pressing themes and focal points in your work on whole?


 

Good luck, and good writing, to you all!

From Pixabay

The Failed Story Project, Part I: “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies”

Failure used to weigh on me. Here in Colombia, though, I have learned to take a great deal more in stride. I’ve had to, because the last six months–ever since I stepped foot in Colombia on my first trip in January–has been a relentless education in adaptation. I have learned to laugh at myself. I have learned to accept defeat. And I have learned how little today’s defeats even matter in the long run.

For most of the past six months, I have used this account to store private-access essays about my transition to life in Colombia–and in the process, to practise writing in a new genre. I think I am two or three essays from the end of that project–one or two tackling the language-learning process, the real culture-shocks, and the emotionally knotty story of taking a tattoo here; and then the last, outlining that moment of clarity in which another person’s homesickness affirmed, for me, that I am exactly where I need to be.

After I finish that last essay, I will then try to pitch the whole collection as a book, and target all future essays about Colombia at magazine markets instead.

Herein, though, lies my current problem: even though I am a writer, even though I have a record of publication, I am still learning (and re-learning) how to get published again. For instance, I haven’t received so much as a response to my many freelance-article pitches in the last few months, and–not surprisingly, considering how few pieces I’ve been sending out–I haven’t managed to sell a short story or novelette yet, either.

Now, these are early days yet, but I want to try something a little different with this blog going forward. On Medium.com, starting mid-week, I am going to start publishing the non-fiction essays that don’t find an audience after multiple pitches. But here? Here, I hope to start posting a different calibre of failure: my stories at market’s end.

The Failed Story Project will draw from writing that has been rejected by all relevant, professionally paying markets. Many writers struggle to let go of stories at this point, but for me it is important to accept when a work has failed to find its audience, to let it go, and to focus instead on the work ahead. My literary philosophy is simple: If something about a given story really matters to you, that concept will return to you in future writing–and almost always for the better. Give it space to resurface. Move on.

That said, I have written a lot of failed work. My duotrope account (an online submissions manager) lists 83 works of fiction, including one novella and a dozen novelettes, that I felt strong enough about to submit to paying markets over the last six years. If I’m lucky this summer, I should also finish a novel for submission by September 30. If I succeed it will be my third such project at that length.

Obviously, then, not every story is going to make it to The Failed Story Project. I want to focus, rather, on the stories that were almost good enough–the ones that had promise, and from which I can benefit most from a little dissection of what was missing. It is my hope that other writers might benefit from this, too.

At the very least, it will be an excellent exercise in letting things go.

Part I:

“The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies”

From Pixabay

Background

There were a few motivating factors for this story. For one, I had just finished a riveting biography of Vladimir Putin, and what struck me most were moments in the narrative when I felt genuine empathy for the man–despite knowing what kind of leader he is now; despite knowing, too, all the harm he did others along the way. As a failed PhD candidate, I especially resonated with the sense of loss that can accompany many hard years’ work abruptly stripped of their value–as was the case for a young Putin when the files in his outpost became irrelevant overnight due to broader political changes. No matter what the nature of one’s work is, surely that sense of displacement in its absence is universal?

I wanted to write, then, a story that explored the humanity we share even with people whose work is brutal and destructive–a story, furthermore, that perhaps could illustrate how failure to recognize this shared humanity is the surest way to overlook the perpetuation of that brutal work by other, future means.

To create some distance from the source material, though, I chose another cultural context–a near-future Panamanian outpost at the close of hostilities between humanity and an alien race. I was excited, if also nervous, about trying out my Spanish for the first time in a short story. Panamanian Spanish differs from Colombian in many of its phrases, and its register, but the real problem was that, at this juncture, I hadn’t been to a Latin American country even once. So, I had research to do, to fill in gaps while still trying something new. I listened to Panamanian music. I read Panamanian poetry. I scoured floral and faunal catalogues and literature about the national parks. I creeped for an hour on Google Street View to try to get a sense of the region on hand.

And then I wrote my story, which you can read here.

The Verdict

I actually received a positive first rejection for this piece. Trevor was tremendously kind when he wrote:

Hi Maggie,

Thanks for letting me see “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies.” It’s a good story – maybe my personal favorite of what I’ve seen from you, in fact – but it’s a bit light on the actual “science fiction” bits for it to be a good fit for ANALOG. So, regretfully, I’m going to pass on it. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble placing it elsewhere, and I look forward to seeing your next.

I had seen some lighter historical sci-fi in the magazine, so I’d hoped that my near-future Cold-War scenario would be a good fit in that vein, but no–technological ideas are far more important for this publication, which has been kind enough to publish me five times–and that is an excellent working note for future submissions.

Trevor’s suggestion, “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble placing it elsewhere,” was also very kind–but inaccurate. I sent the piece to Fantasy & Science Fiction, then Clarkesworld, then Asimov’s. It got to round two at Clarkesworld before I received a boilerplate form rejection. Asimov’s sent a boilerplate letter, too. But C.C. Finlay, as always, was tremendously kind in his own rejection note, wherein he wrote:

Dear Maggie,

Thank you for giving me a chance to read “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies.” I liked the quality of the prose, the characters, and the theme of this, but I thought the narrative needed more of an arc, and overall the story didn’t quite win me over. I’m going to pass on this one for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it and hope that you’ll keep us in mind in the future.

Have I mentioned how lovely the editors in the SF&F world can be?

I knew it was a bit of a long-shot with Charlie because he loves a gripping hook and an action-driven narrative, while my pieces tend towards the understated, which makes them harder sells for sure. One day I will find, for him, that perfect balance of action-oriented narrative and the deeper, chewier philosophical questions I so enjoy… but it certainly won’t be with works like this one.

And after those four? Well, then I’d run out of markets, because Tor.com and Lightspeed are almost always closed to submissions, and there aren’t any other major players wherein this piece would be a good fit. (Strange Horizons, for instance, is not the place to pitch a sympathy-for-the-devil narrative!) So, with one glowingly positive rejection, one encouraging rejection, and two form letters, “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye To His Spies” entered the dustbin.

The Take-Away

  1. I could have had the Analog sale if I had embedded even one far more explicitly hard-sci-fi component, so truly, this was my sale to lose thanks to poor market planning.
  2. Although I prefer stories that are more nuanced and understated, I know that the SF&F markets favour either deeply poetic or more explicit and arresting narrative. I need to find a better balance in my work: stories I can stand by that still fulfill market preferences on whole.
  3. My first foray into writing a story with Spanish was not bad, exactly–but my self-consciousness is apparent in how the Spanish components exist as a kind of textual seasoning, rather than as a seamless part of the narrative. A dear friend pointed this out after the fact, and though it was disheartening to hear–because the last thing I wanted was to exoticize Latin America–the feedback has had a huge impact on my approach to integrating other languages going forward.
  4. I do still want to write stories about deeply flawed people, but I know SF&F publication will be an uphill battle for many of these tales. I’ve had some success to date–with “Hydroponics 101” and “Belly Up” in particular–but Analog is the only market that seems to bite with such tales. “A Tower for the Coming World” at Clarkesworld offers some insight into how to make such tales work for others, though, so it’s hardly a lost cause. All in good time.
  5. For now, this is a story I would love to be able to slip into a short-story collection down the line… but let’s not count chickens before they’re hatched, no? As it stands, “The Lieutenant Colonel Says Goodbye to His Spies” was–if nothing else–an important warm-up round to a new era of bilingual writing, and a tool for clarifying the acceptance parameters for editors at major markets in my field. (Also, truly, a pleasure just to write–and really, where’s the failure in that?)

Questions for Fellow Writers

When you start tinkering with a story idea, do you have your ideal market in mind?

How much do you find you bend or shape your idea to fit that market if you do?

Which professional markets do you feel produce work most in line with your stories?

Which professional markets in your genre produce work the least in line with yours?


 

Good luck, and good writing, to you all!

Plans, Plans, Plans… and Flowers

Among the many projects I started this year is a two-person podcast, aptly titled “Never Try”, which addresses a wide range of failures throughout history. With any luck, the podcast’s 10-episode first season will be published this year, but for now, I’m gratified that the first bit of research I did for my segments involved the difficult personal life of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Not everything negative in Melville’s life deserves sympathy; in the throes of his setbacks, failures, and depressive spells, he also caused harm to others, including his wife and children. However, in the sum total of his sadness still lies a pointed reminder: namely, that the giants of our cultural canon were messy human beings, many of whom struggled with little immediate success, and no way of knowing that their lives would have any greater impact.

I’m heartened by this reminder that success has no fixed blueprint, because this has been a grinding and disappointing year for me. I had high hopes for many things, all of which fell through: the transition out of academia, the completion of a novel project, the production by summer’s end of a season of podcast episodes, the achievement of any further writing sales to build on last year’s fortuitous landing in two Year’s Best Anthologies, the accumulation of savings to make moving to a new community a viable option, and the preparation needed to take a post-secondary equivalency exam in physics, so as to build history-of-science writing credentials by other means after withdrawing from my PhD program last November.

More than these individual failures, though, I’ve been shaken by what they suggest on whole about me: in particular, about my (in)ability to establish clear, coherent goals and see them through. There is, of course, always the spectre of type-II bipolar disorder weighing on any large list of unfinished projects (bipolar manic phases being known in part for huge spurts of furious and disorganized energy), but I don’t think this set of failures can be dispelled as simply as that. Rather, I suspect the furious energy involved here has more to do with desperate desire to offset one failure (i.e. the abrupt collapse of my PhD two dissertation drafts into the process) with concrete affirmations that I can develop an accomplished life by other means.

Either way, though, furious energy is rarely effective energy, and the last few months have shown no exception to that rule. A few weeks ago, someone attempted to sympathize by telling me that being intelligent can’t be easy, because there are so many things I could be doing that I must have difficulty a) choosing between them, b) sticking with one path, and c) building my career therein. This friend was being kind in calling me “intelligent”, because the other half of his statement needs no such prerequisite–and it, at least, is true: I have been wavering. I have been frozen by the thought of how many lives there are to live. And then, of course (in the manner common to many persons lucky enough to have such problems), I’ve felt ashamed for wasting my abundance of opportunities–and, in this shame, I’ve wasted even more.

In the coming four months, though, I have a work schedule that does not allow for much striving, and I’m hoping to use this restriction to my benefit. I will be stretching myself thin on the work front, so to avoid a level of crankiness experienced in previous terms when working 2-3 jobs with little financial security over the full week, I’m limiting my social media, prioritizing a rigorous climbing and running schedule, and curtailing evening social encounters (especially where there is the opportunity to drink). Mostly, though, I want to see what I lean towards in the small moments of freedom this schedule allows for, and try to listen to those natural inclinations, and build upon them for whatever comes next.

I’m sure this sounds easy, but if I’ve learned anything about myself this summer, it is that I am terrible at defending what want to do when confronted with resistance. In the last few months, while failing at things I have striven for, I’ve had a disorienting number of people encourage me… not to pick myself up and try again, but rather to stop striving so hard at all: to take the paths of least resistance when offered; to put off dramatic risks; to give up trying to accomplish so much; to just “enjoy the journey”.

Now, on the one hand, this feels like a sure way to give up on dreams that require long-term planning, diligence, and sacrifice. Moreover, when I think in terms of this loss, I feel most acutely the absence in my life of a fellow-traveller: a person who would always champion those biggest dreams, and push me to take the risks needed to achieve them, and support me (as I would them) along the way. Granted, I know such people are rarities–and furthermore, that my own experience involves people who drain time, money, and energy for their own survival or ambitions, and frequently have no interest in my interests at all. But, despite the pragmatic reality, the theoretical sticking point remains: the sense of having failed at so many other things in the past few years because I failed first, when I was younger, to achieve the right sort of ally-ship in life. So be it, though: if that’s the problem, that’s one I cannot fix overnight.

On the other hand, though, I think I know what people are really saying, when they encourage me to relax. They’re saying: Learn to see the successes in the everyday. Seek out more pleasure in being present. Build a sense of accomplishment around the miracle of being alive at all, and celebrate that wonder with other such miracles while you can.

I have enough examples, after all, to know that these are rich lives, full of purpose, too.

In the building where I live, for instance, an older lady named Margarida tends a small plot of flowers. Margarida is Portuguese, and although we’d conversed many times before, I felt we bonded most one predawn in our shared laundry room, when she told me about a then-upcoming trip to Portugal: a trip that she was treating as a final goodbye to a sister in decline. Was this sad? Yes, of course, but she was thankful for having the opportunity at all–“So long as my sister doesn’t surprise me by dying before I get there.” But the trip, when I saw her on her return, went even better than expected: a rare opportunity for both to reflect upon the long arcs of their lives–the sorrows, the joys, but most of all the little quirks that made their worlds their own. She was satisfied, she said, to have had the chance to reflect on a life well lived.

If Margarida has particularly sad days, I never see them. What I do see is the side she shares with most of the world: the side that wears and trusts in her cross with pride, but makes a less overt display of all the little things she does for her community, even though her impact is plainly felt: in the baked goods she brings to local vendors, in the time she spends with less independent residents of our building, and, of course, in the flowers.

I didn’t realize, until I ran into her one morning, weeding the lot and picking detritus from between the stems, that the flowerbed was entirely of Margarida’s own construction: a labour of love over a decade old, and not just a standard facet of the building owner’s designs for the apartment complex. Perhaps if I’d looked closer, sooner, I’d have realized this wasn’t the work of a contractor… but to be honest, I had taken the whole thing for granted throughout my four years in the building. When I mentioned my surprise to Margarida, though, she laughed. She told me that she worked on this flower garden for two reasons: first, for the pleasure of the work itself–that sense of achievement in seeing something so fragile come into its own; and second, for the joy of brightening her neighbours’ world, whether they knew it was by her hand or not.

These, too, are valuable lives, and I’d hate to think that I’m impugning similar in my friends groups, and my broader networks, by not being satisfied with the sheer act of being alive, and all the little joys that come from being present in and for my community. I live in an area surrounded by people who have–for reasons of brain injury, addiction, degenerating age, or extreme mental health concern–lost the ability to produce anything like the output I long for; but then there are also a great abundance of locals who do have the ability to produce similar, and simply have no interest in it. Or, if they do have interest, their working lives and child-rearing lives and attendant slings of financial and social stress have entrenched them in a sense of defeat about artistic practice. And in this body of experience, they, too, offer lessons in what constitutes a life well lived. Who the hell am I not to listen? Am I just spinning wheels for the sake of spinning wheels? Using my immense amount of busy work, and all my goals and ambitions, to pretend my way to a life of meaning?

There are days when I want to leave, and live an anonymous life in a small community teaching English halfway across the world–maybe translating and writing in the quiet of the evenings or the lull of predawn; but always, in this fantasy, without all the attendant worries about “wasting” time and failing to achieve any recognition for the work. Who really needs another book about histories of science? Another short story, or poem, or tediously long-winded blog post? It’s no wonder I’m told so often to stop striving, to relax, to just go with the flow of life. None of these things I care about matter. Nothing really does–but not in the nihilist sense of the phrase; more in the sense of “so why are you breaking yourself over any of this?”

It’s a fair point, and so–for now, while I work a difficult schedule and figure out how to cope with the terrible decision I have allowed myself to be pushed into–I am going put off bigger goals, and as much coherent striving as possible. I’m going to focus on just getting through these next few months, and–in the process–listen: to other lives, yes–other ways of finding meaning in existence-but also, to myself. I want to see what comes most naturally to the quiet spells between necessary labour. I want to see where my heart really lies–what sorts of “gardens” I’m inclined, on my own, to tend–and then, without all the frantic performance, all the desperate urgency that has marked so much of these last few months full of failure… to tend to them: quietly, patiently, and with more love for the daily labour than any hope of a grand result.

Whatever successes you have and have not achieved in your own creative practice, I hope you’ve at least found the gardens most worth tending to in your lives.

If not, then I wish you well on your own, impending hunts.

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Professional Update: April 23 – May 31

As I noted in my last post, I’m trying to move past oversharing on a personal level, and hoping to focus instead on the professional. I know it’s not healthy to be so overwhelmed by simple questions like “How are you?” that catching up with most people becomes a dread-filled exercise, but–right now it is, and so it goes. Many months of feeling trapped in conversations about my failure have taken their toll, and I’d just like to focus on the work to come.

To this end, tomorrow I hope to distribute the last of the thank-you letters I owe to people who helped tremendously with my teaching work this past term. With any luck, I can then focus on sending long-overdue notes to others who have reached out and been met with silence over these past few months, but–one thing at a time.

After tomorrow, it’s on to prepping for a condensed course, Intro to Science Fiction, that I will be teaching at a different institution in May. I have quite a bit of work to do this week to get the course ready, but I am looking forward to a body of meaningful conversations about the genre with a highly practicality-oriented cohort of college students.

On the writing front, the sudden emergence of this course meant giving up on finishing the novel by the end of April. This was a bit deflating, because the novel was supposed to be my transition project–a way of restoring confidence in the wake of last year’s failure–and I’d originally booked a 10-day window off all work (now rescinded) to revise it for submission in mid-May. Now I won’t be able to touch the draft in any meaningful way again until June 1, because between my two main jobs in May, I only have one day off. Nevertheless, my main concern here is not burning myself out, the way I did while juggling PhD work amid two to three jobs for three years. So, life goes on, and I can try to finish the novel again soon enough.

In the meantime, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to squeeze out a story submission in the next few weeks, but mostly I have non-fiction projects on hand: two book reviews due in early May, one article I hope to send out April 30, and a host of freelance editing to support a local writer I’m honoured to be assisting in the production of their first book of poetry.

For most of May, though, I expect I’ll have quite a bit of evening marking and lecture prep for this condensed course. And that’s okay. There are worse things for a sci-fi writer to be doing than reviewing their genre and contemplating its next directions for a while.

In June, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2017 will be published, containing one of my novelettes from Analog; and in July, Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection hits the stands with my last Clarkesworld story. I’m not sure when my next Analog story comes out, but these two reprints and that new work are it for now. It’s… a strange feeling, not having anything substantial in queue (or even written) on the short-story front, but there was a logic to my choice in January to focus on the novel instead.

June will arrive in due course–and with it, a fresh chance to finish the novel, start work on a new collaborative creative venture, and return to short-story-writing practice.

For now, though, I am in the middle of a significant energy deficit (i.e. work tasks these last two weeks all took far longer than they should have; I feel like I’m treading water in molasses these days), and between the aforementioned projects, I don’t see that I will have much time for anything else. But–so it goes sometimes. My original plan for May had been a slow, calm withdrawal from one professional field into another–but now that my trajectory’s changed, I am simply trying to be present in my circumstances, and to see where this new current takes me.

I also remain hopeful, though, that amid my new responsibilities I can still do a better job promoting other people’s creative excellence. With this in mind, wherever your own artistic projects and lives might take you in the coming weeks, I wish you all every success.

Notes on a Dead Year, & Thoughts for the One to Come

I started 2016 with high hopes and a raging head cold.

This year, no head cold–but my optimism is firmly tempered.

Last year I was simply thankful to reach 30, despite many crises in my twenties that made planning for the future difficult. I had lost much in preceding years, and sadness reigned when I thought of all the negativity present in the universe in part because of me. Calmness reigned when I looked, instead, ahead, as someone who at last had triumphed over their traumas.

That sense of triumph did not last long. I taught my first course, but felt like I was blundering through the material I had so lovingly put together. I tried to mend the more exhausting relationships in my life, and ended up estranged from a great deal of community for months. I created some healthy distances in my life, but only with great strife, while the intensity of my work schedule made it hard to build better connections in their place.

I suspect I was wounded most, though, by my own ego. In some communities, 30 is supposed to be an age of wisdom: the earliest age of candidacy for some political offices; the age of rabbinical viability for figures from both the Old Testament and the New. But of course, even the character of Christ has his failings, like his temper tantrum over a fig tree–and there’s something comforting about that, even as an atheist: knowing that people can have their missteps overtly acknowledged, and still be celebrated for other, ostensibly more constructive acts.[1] Meanwhile, other traditions recognize 30 simply as the beginning of a new phase in personal growth. In Plato’s Republic, the character of Socrates purports that 30 is the age when the dialectic can first be taught with any measure of protection against the “insanity” of youthful eristicism–and even then, only with great care and prolonged study, after which

they must be sent down again into the den and compelled to hold any military or other office which young men are qualified to hold: in this way they will get their experience of life, and there will be an opportunity of trying whether, when they are drawn all manner of ways by temptation, they will stand firm or flinch.

Only after this, and much more, does Plato’s Socrates suggest that the survivors at 50 will have wisdom enough to rule over their own lives, let alone provide vital leadership to the rest. I have a ways to go, then, before I require further excuses for failing to achieve a better balance in my own life–and in 2017, I intend to make full use of this extension.

In the wake of 2016’s global politics, for instance, a final gear seems to have fixed itself in my heart, driving an engine of conviction that has, if not a clear endpoint, at least a direction: a sense that the time for play is over, and the real work must begin. Not since 9/11 have I felt so present in my own era, or so certain that “big history” is stirring–overtly and inscrutably–all around me. On the one hand, I know that these are dangerous feelings, because a deep immersion in political histories can distract a body from the specifics of a given cultural context. To this end, I wonder sometimes if my current fears are out of proportion with the actual extent of today’s threats to forty years of (already uneven) social advancement.

But then again, so what if these fears are out of proportion? Because, on the other hand, the greater danger lies in waiting until the world is burning in order to say, See? I was right all along! If the worst price we’ll have to pay for advocating harder, right now, for our most vulnerable populations and democratic institutions is the risk that, years later, others might shrug at the thought that either was ever really threatened in the first place, so be it. Let us live to mark that privileged future as the truest sign of our victory in the present.

There are, after all, more futile ways to spend one’s energy. I dedicated a great deal of 2016 to a project I wanted very much to succeed: a dissertation on representations of astronomy in the 19th century, which would have paved the way for a career in scientific non-fiction, which would in turn have allowed me to advocate for scientific literacy as both educator and writer. To this end, I wrote and researched little else in 2016 between three jobs, and let the rest of my life fall away. Time for fiction-writing became a particular rarity, and even when I did write stories, I was not ignorant of the fact that most pooled around 9 to 11,000 words–the same length, give or take, as my dissertation chapters. That PhD project was, for all intents and purposes, my life in 2016. It consumed everything–and to an end that as of yet remains uncertain.

What I do know is that I will be pivoting hard in 2017, and finishing a novel draft by April. One of my constant refrains as a writing mentor is that, if you let go of the story that isn’t working, the story that has failed to find its place in the world, then the best ideas in that story, and the themes that matter most to you, will be freed up to resurface in future works. Moreover, when they do–however long that process might take–they will almost always emerge more seamlessly than in any versions come before. So it is with my current project, where, for the first time ever, I am finding a confluence of ideas and character types and reading practices that have been flitting about in novel and story drafts since I was at least 17. I already know the shape of this project from beginning to end, and–despite its reliance on a narrative structure that scares me–I am beginning to think that, if I pull this off, the book will contain everything I have been trying to say about what storytelling means to me for years.

And yes, I know, that is a lofty bar to set so early on. This, though, is the crux of what I want to bring with me to the year to come: Decisiveness. Self-confidence. The surety that, at this point in my life, irrespective of any ongoing sadnesses and setbacks, I can lay claim to a certain set of skills, and that–in consequence–I have a responsibility to use them.

In a few days I begin to teach another course: a writing course, wherein I hope to help others find and hone their voices in turn. A part of me is preemptively grieving the possibility that this tremendous opportunity will also be my last–but the rest of me knows that where life goes on, growth goes on. There will always be other communities, other spaces in which to become a better ally in hopefulness about the world.

With this in mind, I am hoping this year that I will always be in a space to repeat to myself–at the next, inevitable downturn in mood or life outcome–that 2017 may be an arbitrary turning point, but it is our arbitrary turning point, and that ownership gives us both license and responsibility to make the very best of the time ahead.

I lay no claim to knowing exactly what that will look like–“making the very best of the time ahead”–but my head is clear and my heart is certain: I know I still have to try.

A Happy New Year to you all, then–for I know you will as well.


[1] Granted, the tribalism, pro-slavery sentiment, scientific ignorance, failed prophesies, indifference to animal welfare and social change in the mortal lifespan, and dubious rabbinical counsel are often overlooked because billions consider Christ a god, which makes the elision of his flaws as troubling as they are inevitable, in keeping with his purported superiority over the rest of humankind. Nevertheless, the general principle holds. Wouldn’t it be splendid if we could hold each other’s failings up–not to undermine each other’s successes, but so as to recognize the fullness and the complexity of other lives, and to stand firm against the glorifying impulse that makes it so easy to be disillusioned when any human being, however charming or socially constructive, fails to be perfect on all accords? This secular humanist can always dream.