Thursday, January 26, 2012

Impending Doom

See these things?

They eat. A lot. Not what I set in front of them at dinner, mind, but they do eat stuff.

Unfortunately for this situation, my work has announced a round of impending layoffs. I think my chances are worse than many; I have less credentials than others and less experience. I have volunteered for a few dirty jobs; such a thing may redeem me or at least count for a good recommendation.

Right now I am trying to avoid the blues/the panic/the inevitable "but unemployment would mean so much writing time!" thoughts. (I already work from home. I have tons of writing time. It's just that lately I've used it to play the drums because HOLY CRAP THIS IS STRESSFUL.)

If you read this blog, you probably know me; if you don't, I have many years' experience teaching and tutoring with a major emphasis in online pedagogy, a Master's in English, a TESOL certification and a lot of experience with special-needs students. I worked for two years in publishing. I taught wilderness survival skills once (although I know eff-all about doing that stuff in the Northwest; drop me in a desert and I'd be fine).

We're trying to stay in the Northwest if possible. If you know of any steady, real jobs, holla.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Interview With Evil

Today I have gone to a dark place.

I have decided to interview my nemesis, Jake Kerr. From the moment I met Jake at Viable Paradise 14, I knew he was pure evil. Maybe it was his evil eyes, his Easter Island-style head, or the kittens he was chomping down between lectures, but I knew that one day I would have to kill him. It seemed a shame to do so without giving him a chance to speak for himself.


Me: Jake, tell us a little bit about yourself as a writer and an evil genius who must be stopped.

Jake: First of all, I think you can safely change the word "must" to "cannot." As to the "evil" part. That's all in the eye of the beholder now, isn't it?

I started in high school writing horrible Pern fan fiction in a desperate attempt to be Anne McAffrey. Only male.

After that failed attempt I went off to college and eventually spent fifteen years as a music industry and then technology columnist for various magazines. All of them subsequently folded after I left. A lesson for others, to be sure.

Me: Music? Hey, I play in a band. YOU killed the radio star.

Well, if I didn't kill it, the fact you are now in a band certainly will. But I thought we were talking about writing, painful as that topic may be to a failure like yourself.

Me: When I fail myself into a lecture circuit and a house on the coast of Italy, your definition of winning will be "cry like a toddler with no cookie."

Jake: Whatever helps you sleep at night. Anyway, a few years ago my former classmate, Laura Hillenbrand, wrote a book called Seabiscuit, and an email exchange with her inspired me to go back to the love of my youth--the stories of Bradbury, King, and Sturgeon; the novels of Philip K. Dick; the rollicking adventures of Piers Anthony and Edgar Rice Burroughs. So I sat down and started writing fiction again.

Me: Okay, that's actually a pretty cool story. You take this round.

Jake: I find it cute that you are keeping score.

Me: Out of pity, Jake, in the exact same way Bilbo pitied Gollum.

Jake: I can only assume you mean pity for yourself, which makes you both Bilbo and Gollum. I think from now on I'll call you "Gilbo." So, Gilbo, after some significant...

Me: Gilbo? Is that the best you can do? You'll never be a great writer, Jake. Never. It's sad, really.

Jake: After some significant critical work with the Writers Garret here in Dallas and a trip to the Viable Paradise writer's workshop, I sold my first story last year to Lightspeed Magazine. I understand you are still seething in jealousy over that, are you not?

Me: Pah! I do not deign to notice. In fact, when I read that issue of Lightspeed, my eyes skipped right over that story. I'm not even sure it's real. And definitely not eligible for Hugo and Nebula noms this year.

What kind of themes do you find yourself exploring in your writing? Are there topics or experiences that really interest you? (Besides eating kittens.)

Jake: I find any theme that causes pain to one Spencer Ellsworth particularly enriching. Beyond that, I really like to focus on the nature of the human experience and the emotions that it generates. To me the hard science is always a conduit to the real story. I'm particularly intrigued by two things: How people react and deal with situations outside their control and the nature of what it means to be human.

I should add that you are not human and you are, for the moment, outside my control. So I find you morbidly fascinating.

Me: I feel like ten thousand spiders just migrated up my spine.

Is there a work that has particularly influenced you with these themes? Can you name one (or a few works) that deal well with the issue of what it means to be human, and how people deal with situations beyond their control? How are you seeking to rip them off?

Jake: The obvious example for themes about what it is to be human would be the works of Philip K. Dick. Although SF is rich with this theme, from Matheson's I Am Legend to Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl. Alfred Bester was a giant at examining themes of individuals thrust into situations that they must struggle with, much of which is their adapting to the reality or changing it themselves.

I would be remiss not to mention Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," which was the inspiration for my story, "The Old Equations." While not very similar in structure or topic, they both address the concept of dealing with loss--an individual, through scientific situations entirely beyond his or her control, must deal with profound loss.

Me: It's interesting to me because I grew up reading Asimov and didn't discover Philip K. Dick until later, and I always thought they were more alike than people thought. At the core, as you said, their works are about people adapting redefining humanity to suit a new world.

Jake: I read a lot of Asimov, too. Science fiction from the latter half of the twentieth century has been incredibly influential to me. From the folksy Bradbury to the new wave stuff in the Dangerous Visions anthology, I really couldn't get enough.

Me: Are you just a straight-sf guy, or do you see any similar themes in fantasy?

Jake: That's a good question, which makes me wonder if you are having someone else actually write these.
I've read a ton of fantasy, from Tolkein to Stephen R. Donaldson to Piers Anthony. I don't think I ever found the kind of philosophical depth in fantasy that I found in science fiction. It is distinctly possible I just didn't read the right works, as I didn't read nearly as much fantasy as SF. That said, there is no doubt that there are great works of art in the fantasy genre, works that leave you emotionally drained at the end. And the imagination! Say what you will about Piers Anthony as a writer, he has one of the all-time great imaginations in the genre. Not to mention Gene Wolfe, whose imagination is further honed by his amazing use of language.

Me: Hypothetical situation: I am a writer and you are my biggest fan. You find me wrecked in the snow on the side of the road and take me home to nurse me back to health, only to discover that I have killed off your favorite character in my newest book. How do you react?

Jake: There are so many outrageous assumptions I can't even answer it. You're not a writer. I'd never remotely be your biggest fan. I'd never in a million years nurse you back to health. That said, I do believe you have the blackness of heart to kill off a favorite character of mine, so I think the only natural response would be to hobble you, chain you to a manual typewriter, and make you rewrite Twilight.

Me: Bella gazed longingly into Edward's eyes, and then Jake died. Horribly. Thrice.

Jake:See, I just KNEW you read Twilight. Multiple times.

Me: I was curious when I found out "Stephanie Meyer" was your pseudonym. (It explains how he funds all these space lasers and secret evil hideouts, folks.)

Your story is, as I pointed out through gritted teeth, eligible for Hugos and Nebulas and you yourself are eligible for the Campbell for Best New Writer. Why should people vote for someone who would gladly nuke Peoria from orbit if it served his evil plans?

Jake: I would hope that people would vote for others for the Campbell. I am entirely unworthy of that honor this year. As to the Hugo or Nebula, if someone finds that my novelette moved them more than others, then I would hope they would vote for me. But that is a highly personal decision. On the other hand, my winnning a Nebula or Hugo very well may drive Spencer to suicide, and ridding the Earth of his vileness is worthy enough a goal that you should perhaps vote for me whether you like my story or not.

Me: Please. My seppuku standards are much higher than that. I have faith that humanity will not make the mistake of recognizing your work.

But should it ever happen, I will form a resistance and google-bomb you with slashfic.

Jake: So what you're saying is you'll just redirect people to your site.

Me: I didn't say Autobot/Decepticon slashfic. My site is an entirely different animal (and by animal I mean what Megatron calls Optimus Prime in the throes of passion).

Hypothetical situation # 2: You discover that at my death, the timestream diverges into a horrific dystopian future where people are eaten alive by giant rats. With tentacles. Who are often confused with a political party because people call them "tentacrats." Only you can save me from this accidental death. Do you intervene for the good of the world, or do you take your chances with the tentacrats?

Jake: Since the dystopian future of tentacrats doesn't seem altogether that different than our current form of government, I think I'd take my chances with the rats rather than save you. Hell, who am I kidding? If saving you stopped Cthulhu from being unleashed on the world, leading to puppies and kittens dying and nothing but pain and suffering for all, I'd still not save you.

Jake Kerr, everyone! His vileness knows no bounds, and you should never read his story because it will corrupt you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Truth Is Revealed

I used to tutor an eleven-year old with Asperger's who was also named Spencer.

We had a language called Spenzish.

Smurgle all ye wattabups meant "give me a cookie."

There. I have no more secrets.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Two Things!

I found this old journal I used to write my stories in. It had some art in the sidebar by the amazing James C. Christensen, including this 16th-century-looking dude in a frilly doublet and hose, throwing up the peace sign.

I captioned it "Two things! Your cheese is rotten and your butt is huge!"

So, now that you know that, you can take care of your, y'know, problems.

I wanted to write a bit about depression and creativity. (Two things!) There's a fallacy out there that depression is linked to creativity. You have to be a little psychotic to be an artist. Chop off an ear when things get too dull.

This is a fairly powerful fallacy in medicated now because a lot of people get on antidepressants, get happy, feel better than ever before... and can't think of anything to write about. Still, better to have a dearth of ideas but be happy than have a dearth of motivation and sit on the floor crying. Right?

Ehh, it's more complicated than that. This book explains it better than I can. Depression is a by-product of our alienating and sedentary modern lifestyle. Our ancestors belonged to an incredibly nurturing community and were almost never sedentary.

Rumination is poison to the depressed. Give us too long to think and we'll start thinking about what failures we are. But Skipper, writers need time to ruminate! Writing IS sedentary and alienating by nature.

In order to fight my depression properly, I had to relearn how to write and not get depressed about it.

I took control of other things first. I got a therapist, started exercising, used a full-spectrum light in winter, and dropped some things from my massive priority list. That was when I dropped out of the publishing business. Writing works better if you know you have a few hours a day for it. I also got better meds. Right now I take what is politely referred to as a mood stabilizer, but I used to take an SSRI. It was a bad choice since I've got a form of bipolar disorder that is less crazy than the typical sort. The SSRI swung me toward mania instead of evening me out. I had to see an actual psychiatrist a few times, on top of the talk therapy, to identify these things.

I had found that the worse the depression got, the more likely I was to obsess over a piece. I rarely produced anything, and when I did, I scrutinized the juice out of it.

So I first wrote a novel I knew I couldn't sell. It was safe, like flirting with the hot girl who will only talk to you because you let her copy your homework.

I poured tons of first draft into it, just trying to tell a story. That helped me get my work ethic back, so I could tackle more reasonable goals. Revision was the toughest. I had to figure out a way to revise that did not resemble rumination. Stare at the same Word doc long enough, and you'll hate it and yourself.

Hard copies became my saviors. If I had to write a new chunk of a book, I would handwrite it. If I had to make major changes to a short story, I would print it out, scribble all over it, and actually retype the whole thing back into the computer.

The community of writers around you can really save you; I got connected to a writer's group that was ridiculously close-knit and welcoming, and, I think, still is.

I also had to make this my mantra: it's about telling a story. When I confused my professional identity, my self-worth and my desires for a "real writing career" with the joy of storytelling, I stopped cold. Let the id play, mean Mr. Superego.

I'd be curious to hear how other writers deal with depression and creativity. Can you actually write when you're depressed? Do meds make it better or worse? Is the cheese really rotten and the butt truly huge?

Monday, January 9, 2012


I got some really nice responses around the Internet to the post on writing and depression. I'm going to write a little more on it, since it's something I've struggled to write about for years. But first...

I haven't been able to think of a snarky yet humble way to do this. So. I'm eligible for a few awards in the upcoming 2012 award season, including the Hugo for two novelettes I published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.

To vote for the 2011 Hugo Awards, you need to have been a member of WorldCon 2011/Renovation SF, be a member of WorldCon 2012/Chicon 7, or become a supporting member of WorldCon 2012. To vote for the Nebulas, you need to be an active member of Science Fiction Writers of America.

Both magazines are also fantastic purveyors of fiction and deserve Hugos of their own, in the Best Semiprozine category. I'm particularly delighted to have appeared in BCS because of the way they are nurturing the rarely-seen form of short epic fantasy. I encourage you to read around in both and nom nom nom (as in nominate).

I also want to make special note of this post by editor Jennifer Brozek. Jen published a story of mine in the anthology Human Tales and is a really great editor and great person, and you ought to check out her anthos as well for fine stories.

Finally, I'm eligible for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. For a New guy, I feel as though I've been here all along.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Dumps

On Mur Lafferty's response to Bloggess re: depression. Um, yeah. More so for writers.

I've been meaning for years to write about depression and writing, but it's a bit like trying to untangle that mess of cords behind the TV. Does this cord go to the muse, the depression, the superego, or... what does that one do?

In 2006, I would go to work in the special ed department of Inglemoor High School and get depressed around 9 in the morning. Thank God I worked with the kindest kids in the world, or it would have been even tougher. It lasted until right before I got off work, and when I got home and sat in the quiet, I felt so relieved that the black dog was gone... until I wanted to write or do something productive.

Then a different demon set in: The Why Aren't You Good Enough Beast.

It's my drunk superego, and he's a mean drunk. I would stare at a blank page, check Facebook, maybe doodle a bit, until it was time to cook dinner, then the Beast would scream about my worthlessness for an hour until my wife got home and found me crying into the chicken mole.

I would make unrealistic goals for myself, trying to jog my writing. Two thousand words a day! A story each week! Six stories this month! A novel done by a month from now! Pulitzers a-go-go! The redemption of the F word!

The ridiculous goals made me more depressed because I knew I couldn't meet them and the Beast was now screaming, screaming, screaming in my ear that I was supposed to break in (whatever that means) years ago, dammit!

I'd like to say that my writing is always an out for depression, a place to set my sad little soul free. When I lose myself in the story, I feel that way. I love to see something take an unexpected turn, to let a character do dumb things and write their consequences.

But it's just as often a source of the depression. My superego and id don't play well together. The superego is quite helpful. I am grateful for the type-A bastard and the stick up his ass. He makes me revise, he makes me submit, and he makes me keep some kind of goal, although I have to check his ambition.

I am grateful for the id, distractable little bugger that he is, and his stormy, gooey affair with the muse. He gives me the humor, the twists and turns, and the occasional moment of brilliance.

But both of them can make the depression worse, and they want different things. The id wants whatever the hell it wants at the moment--usually chocolate, the guitar, and old comics. The superego wants only to impress.

The clinically depressed tend to ruminate. We review recent events in our life looking for proof that we are worth something, and find only evidence that we are worthless.

For anyone who feels this way out there, you're not what your rumination leads you to believe. I mentioned the special ed kids. Some of them could only say a few words. Some of them were in diapers. But every day, they smiled at me and laughed at my dumb jokes and made it a little better. They won't do much for the advancement of society. Depression was a problem for them as well.

But they mattered. Don't fool yourself into thinking you don't.