Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Discussion of Unfortunate Behavior

I want to talk about abuse of power and abuse in the context of a relationship. They’re two different things.

Let’s start with abuse of power. An instructor at a writing workshop asked to “date” me about 20 minutes after the workshop ended. He meant, would I like to have sex with him? This was not abuse, although asking me right after the workshop end, when I had just been his student for a week, was sure slimy. I call him a sexual harasser because he did this to many young women he encountered, often more than once to the same woman. He wasn’t interested in them as people. He was interested in them as sexual targets, and he actively used any position of power he had to broach a sexual relationship with them. The workshop dealt with him appropriately. They stopped him from abusing his power as an instructor. However, he wasn’t “abusive” as it is used in the context of a relationship. He was not trying to isolate me, frighten me, or coerce me into something I didn’t want to do.

I have been in an abusive relationship. Whenever I set a boundary about sex, the other person variously sulked about it or stormed about it. Whenever I said I was uncomfortable, he told me how bad I was making him feel. He deliberately made me feel worthless for not providing him with sexual favors. That was a form of emotional coercion. He also threw physical objects around for time to time, which was frightening. He was a textbook abusive boyfriend.

I have been in a shitty relationship. My girlfriend was not terribly interested in my feelings, but she was happy to talk about herself, and I was delighted to listen; she was much more established in the writing industry than me. She taught me a lot of what she knew about how things worked and shared fascinating gossip. I thought I was in love with her, although in retrospect, I needed a lot of therapy. On top of that, she felt like my “in” to the industry. When we went to a convention together, I accompanied her to dinner with editors and published writers, and I felt like I was part of the in-crowd. After three or four months, she faded off and then broke up with me when I asked for more of her attention.

I spent the next three months drowning in suicidal ideation. I thought I might prefer to die than be without her. My reaction was a product of my brain chemistry, my particular insecurities, and a lot of other shit that was not, in fact, her problem or her fault. This was a terrible relationship for me, but it wasn’t because my girlfriend was abusive.

When two adults enter into a relationship, there is a reasonable expectation that harm may result. Breakups often hurt, and people on both sides usually lose social connections, access to expertise, and various amounts of power. This is the norm for a consensual romantic relationship, and either party has the power to end it at any time. The prospect of losing connections along with the person you’re dating does not make a relationship abusive. It makes it a normal relationship.

If what you’re valuing about a romantic relationship and a close friendship are the power they get you in an industry, then what you have is not an abusive relationship. What you have is a serious problem of treating people like stepping stones in your career. When people figure out this is what you’re doing, they’re not going to hold you up anymore.

I really did want to be friends with you, Alexandra Rowland.

Goodbye, Smudge

Smudge was a dog I didn’t want. When we agreed to foster her, though, I knew she was ours. No one wants a 143 lbs. untrained, unsound, seven-year-old malamute-Rottweiler cross–at least not anyone who should have one. She walked at a shuffle when she moved at all. I thought, she’s old (for a rotty), she’ll be an extra rug, and we’ll give her a home until she dies.


When we picked her up, she happily clambered in the car. In my house, she met my other dogs with interested sniffs and a few warning growls, and then walked to the door and looked at me expectantly. Her expression was clear; she’d had fun, but she was ready to go home.

We couldn’t take her home, of course. Instead, we took her on a walk around the neighborhood, and she was overcome with joy. She smelled everything that she came across with the utmost intensity. She made it about once around the block before she was breathing like a freight train, and when we got her home, she collapsed, exhausted, onto a dog bed.

When we picked up the leash the next morning to give her another walk, she couldn’t believe it. She snouted the leash. She had a ridiculous snout–too short and husky-like for her enormous rotty head. When Devin clipped on the leash, she snorfled, sounding rather like an extraordinarily happy dragon.


Despite knowing the dog market (such as it is), I made a lackluster effort to find her a home. I printed out posters and put them up in two locations. I offered her to several of my tutoring students. “Free potato dog,” I said. “You could have an enormous, blue-eyed potato in your house. It’ll be great.”

No one took me up on it. Just as well. I could not have been more wrong about her potato-ness.

We took her to the vet, who prescribed her an anti-inflammatory to keep her comfortable, and began a regimen of twice daily walks. Once Smudge twigged to the fact that walks would be a regular occurrence, she went to the leashes in the morning and evening, rumbling and snorfling. She made the best sounds. She had a chest like a barrel, and a wonderfully deep and resonant voice.


Gradually, the walks had to get longer because Smudge would not be tired afterward. She was an awful toy-hoarder (especially once Rhymer took one of her toys from under her nose and disemboweled it), so we bought a batch of horrible squeaky tennis balls that both dogs loved. Smudge did not approve of fetch. If you accepted one of her balls and threw it away from her, she’d snatch it up and run away to a corner to protect it. If, however, you threw the ball to her, she loved to play catch. She threw tennis balls to us in an impressive three-foot arc. Occasionally, she threw them at our very confused cats. If we failed to walk her enough, we’d get pelted by squeaky tennis balls all evening.

On her walks, Smudge took the concept of pack seriously. She could not stand to be split up from either people or dogs. If Rhymer and I lagged, every third step she’d glance over her shoulder. Eventually, if we were far enough, she’d stop and refuse to go on until we caught up.

Smudge was a dog of many, many opinions. As she became fitter, I decided that we could introduce some obedience. This seemed like an especially good idea with a dog who clearly hadn’t made the connection that doing things for people = way to get stuff. So, we began a regimen of “sit” before leash and walk.


Smudge knew what “sit” meant. However, she didn’t understand why, when we were about to do something amazing and awesome, we had to waste time with sitting. Unlike many dogs, who kind of shrug and go with it, Smudge stared at us with contempt that would make a cat jealous, snouted her leash, stared out the door, and otherwise did her level best to persuade us that we should stop fucking around and walk. Patience, though, is generally key to training. Once I knew she knew the command, I waited. And waited. And waited. After about five minutes of nonsense, with a little nudge of me walking into her space, Smudge would grudgingly and kind-of sit. Generally, things improve after this small victory. With Smudge, it was the same pattern for two weeks.

Finally, I looked at Devin and said, “Let’s go without her.” We took Rhymer and went out into the street, leaving the un-sitting Smudge alone in the house. We could see her big blue eyes staring at us in horror through the window until we walked out of sight.

Devin went back in, and Smudge’s butt was on the floor before she’d finished picking up the leash.


That, in a scene, was what training Smudge was like. She always thought through whether cooperation was in her best interest, and she didn’t give a damn what the humans thought. It was charming, in a way. I’ve interacted with a lot of dogs, and few of them are so utterly self-confident and independent.

Although I’ve heard a lot of stories of how sled dogs decide to take a walk and don’t come back for days, Smudge was awfully attached to staying with her pack on leash, and this proved to be the case off-leash, too. We started hiking every day. Smudge loved nothing more than she loved adventure. In this way, too, she was an unusual dog; she adored novelty. Every time I took her to a new hiking trail, she bounced and sniffed and wiggled with delight.


Smudge just wanted to take it in. She loved to move, developing a ground-eating pace that took us up and down hills for miles. She checked in with me constantly, and her big, excited eyes and doggy grin of shared pleasure were impossible to resist. An hour and a half hike in the morning became mandatory for the peace of the household, and I started loving it as much as the dog. We took up the practice of finding as many new trails (or semi-trails) as possible, and she was game for all of it. I began to think, wow. This isn’t a dog we’ll have for just a year.


And several emergency vet trips later, over the last few days, I found out we’d have her for even less than that. We put her to sleep yesterday. She hated the vet–she’d climb into the waiting room chairs and try to climb into our laps–so I gave her a healthy dose of opiates, and Devin and I walked her for a few hours at Shell Ridge, which was green from the recent rain and rich with smells. She went to the car and to the vet exhausted and happy, and Devin and I both stayed with her until she was gone. For all her independent spirit, she shoved her head into my hand, and her paw into Devin’s lap and wouldn’t let us move without reproachful looks. “I think she’s secretly a needy dog,” Devin said.


She only had five months with us, and I miss her terribly. I didn’t want her, I thought, but I was wrong, and it was such a pleasure to be a partner to that terrifyingly intelligent soul, with all her intense joy and bottomless appetite for adventure. Goodbye, beautiful, remarkable girl.


The Chicken Poetry Is Discovered

After Devin Singer and I hid illustrated poems about chickens in Sharon’s house, she responded. Her alias is Dr. Richard Poulton, a renowned chicken researcher. I am pasting this response below.

Dr. Richard Poulton
College of Fowl Studies
Department of Theoretical Psychology

Dear Ms. Haist (and Accomplices),

It is with a most bizarre sense of satisfaction that I write to you today having (I believe) managed to discover the last of the Poem/Cartoons which was hidden so very cunningly. !
Whereas these efforts certainly demonstrate an amazing dedication to the promotion of Chickenhood, and my heart (what’s left of it) is warmed (or at least partially thawed) by the artistry shown in all of these interesting (if not partially incomprehensible) offerings, I must say that I have some reservations as to the general psychological well being of those involved. I can only guess that the perpetrators (I mean artists) have a tremendous amount of talent (or pathology) and way (way) too much free time.

I am also led to believe that he, she or they may need an extended amount of counseling; or perhaps actual commitment to the mental health facility of their choice.

It is this last thought which compels me to write to you today with what I must assure you are the most sincere intentions. My past (murky and disjointed as it may be) has put me in touch with many who suffer from similar symptoms as, it would appear, are exhibited by those involved with this perplexing event. I have found that these early manifestations of fowl zealotry are indications of an underlying taxological dysphoria which, if left untreated, can lead to a number of frankly miserable complications.

These can include the subject’s delusional belief that he or she has been born into the wrong species altogether. This sad and sorry state often develops in the early teenage years and can be so overwhelming that the patient may seek to have a dangerous and often times disastrous surgery the details of which I will abstain from relating in this letter. Suffice it to say that such inappropriate yearnings in young people must be snuffed out by any and all parents, guardians or mentors who are acting in a responsible capacity with regards to the minor(s) in question. There lies an urgency in these situations which cannot be understated.

First and for most, the person(s) in question must be removed entirely from all sources of agitation by which I mean that there must be no exposure whatsoever to Gallus gallus domesticus. This will include dietary restrictions as well as visual and auditory exclusions. To be truly effective the community at large must cooperate to remove all such stimulus. In other words; it takes a village. Not the slightest stirring of a feather must be experienced by those who suffer from this affliction. I fear I must say that this will be a set of conditions which must be adhered to most strictly for the entirety of the patient’s lifetime.

It is with great sadness that I offer you this opinion as I am sure that you may have been under the misguided impression that this condition is benign and that the resulting deviant behavior was merely a harmless prank. Sadly, I feel it is my duty to inform you that those involved, at least from a psychological standpoint, are almost certainly doomed.

Yours in Regret,

Dr. Richard Poulton

Project: Chicken Poetry

I was invited to a night of Vogon poetry by friends Michael and Julia, and exceedingly pleased by the invitation.

I could use that, I thought. I could use some really terrible poetry.

Another of my friends, Sharon, was having a rough time with her real estate business. It involved her 90 plus year old mother and so many lawyers that she’d taken to nicknaming them. Sharon has always had a thing with chickens, featuring them prominently in her artwork. So, I conceived a plan to fill her house with the trials of chickens in modern life, in the form of poetry.

The brave souls of Michael and Julia’s Vogon Poetry party contributed many haikus, and my class of Viable Paradise XVII added additional haikus and limericks. Devin Singer and I illustrated them all, and yesterday hid them in appropriate places in Sharon’s house. When she comes home from her latest business trip, she will have a surprise.

And now, for your reading and viewing pleasure, the poetry of chickens:

Polar Vortext-brrr. Quick, buy a warm coat online! No credit for clucks.
Polar Vortext-brrr.
Quick, buy a warm coat online!
No credit for clucks.
There was a young rooster named Bob. Who was beautiful and a snob. He applied one day In a coop to lay But found laying hens was not the job!
There was a young rooster named Bob.
Who was beautiful and a snob.
He applied one day
In a coop to lay
But found laying hens was not the job!
Crop-culture warning: the immediate eggperience has passed sell-by date.
Crop-culture warning:
the immediate eggperience
has passed sell-by date.
The sky is falling!
They call me Chicken Little.
Bleep, Bleep, the cellphone Its battery is dying Sound like hungry chicks
Bleep, Bleep, the cellphone
Its battery is dying
Sound like hungry chicks
Stuck with these cluckas Chickenheads all around me with one cock to share
Stuck with these cluckas
Chickenheads all around me
with one cock to share
When driving down a Portland street Be slow and show respect. For my chicks and I May be strolling by As we hunt and peck.
When driving down a Portland street
Be slow and show respect.
For my chicks and I
May be strolling by
As we hunt and peck.
Feathered friend listen Silence falls when night draws near I will rub your feet
Feathered friend listen
Silence falls when night draws near
I will rub your feet
Leave a crack for light But no hole for any Fox News in the Henhouse
Leave a crack for light
But no hole for any Fox
News in the Henhouse
I fear holidays When humans slaughter my kin Except Thanksgiving Ninjas do not cluck Ninjas do not pluck feathers While leaping rooftops. I'm too fat to fly but I flap my wings daily watch for the wizard  (or Dorothy)
I fear holidays
When humans slaughter my kin
Except ThanksgivingNinjas do not cluck
Ninjas do not pluck feathers
While leaping rooftops.

I’m too fat to fly
but I flap my wings daily
watch for the wizard
(or Dorothy)

Cock Rock a Doodle Wouda shoula could do Ah, what a cock do.
Cock Rock a Doodle
Wouda shoula could do
Ah, what a cock do.
Day and Night I feel the loneliness of my coop and look upon yours
Day and Night
I feel the loneliness of my coop
and look upon yours
Goddamn I hate email Nothing but spam about getting my pecker enlarged.
Goddamn I hate email
Nothing but spam about getting
my pecker enlarged.
Hens above shit on me Chicken wire on all sides I'd kill for an omelette
Hens above shit on me
Chicken wire on all sides
I’d kill for an omelette
Drive-thru sabotage. Line up to pay for your sings, Human McNuggets.
Drive-thru sabotage.
Line up to pay for your sins,
Human McNuggets.
Cooped-up with feather brains not repeckful of the known hierarchy
Cooped-up with feather
brains not respeckful of the
known hierarchy
Knock, knock! Who's there? Chicken. Chicken who? Chicken you forgot to wash your hands and flush the toilet.
Knock, knock!
Who’s there?
Chicken who?
Chicken you forgot to wash your hands and flush the toilet.
There once was a chicken named Cluck Who was very hard up for a buck For a nickel a word The destitute bird Sold her fiction but not with much luck. Chickens flying high Over the fence to freedom In the yard, crickets.
There once was a chicken named Cluck
Who was very hard up for a buck
For a nickel a word
The destitute bird
Sold her fiction but not with much luck.Chickens flying high
Over the fence to freedom
In the yard, crickets.

telecommuting doesn't get the eggs laid, just makes lonely hens
doesn’t get the eggs laid,
just makes lonely hens
In Portland it used to be quite the thing To keep some urban hens But hipsters prowl For fresher fowl And now it's geese in pens.
In Portland it used to be quite the thing
To keep some urban hens
But hipsters prowl
For fresher fowl
And now it’s geese in pens.
Small Pen, windowless, stressed pace. Life's pecking order No time to cross road.
Small Pen, windowless,
stressed pace. Life’s pecking order
No time to cross road.
Around tribal fires I dance in circles headless Then into the pot
Around tribal fires
I dance in circles headless
Then into the pot
'Cause SIRI says so The chicken crosses the road: Beep-Bam! SIRI was wrong.
‘Cause SIRI says so
The chicken crosses the road:
Beep-Bam! SIRI was wrong.
I have sharpened my knives, I have Put on the heavy apron. Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served In blue willow-pattern bowls. I have put on my boots and opened The kitchen door and stepped out Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn, I have entered The hen house.
I have sharpened my knives, I have
Put on the heavy apron.
Maybe you think life is chicken soup, served
In blue willow-pattern bowls.
I have put on my boots and opened
The kitchen door and stepped out
Into the sunshine. I have crossed the lawn,
I have entered
The hen house.

ReaderCon: Further Thoughts on Magic and Science

The Difference Between Magic and Science was one of those definitional panels, and true to form, Max Gladstone, Lev Grossman, Andrea Hairston, Kenneth Schneyer (moderator), J.M. Sidorova did not exactly define either magic or science (at least not in opposition to one another). Instead, they brought up some interesting frameworks that we use to think about science and magic. The following is a synthesis of their discussion and my ideas about the frameworks.

J.M. and Max distinguished science as the conceptual framework of technology, and technology as stuff that works. Useful distinction. It led Andrea to explain out that people evolve with technology with a story of grub-eating chimpanzees who learned to use sticks, got the best grubs, had the best babies, and generationally, became the best chimps. J.M. said, “All living organisms are scientists. If you hear a rustle in the bushes, your first thought is not magical.”

While I like the idea of science as a practical response to a given situation, I do not think it’s quite the case. Maybe it is more like a spectrum between basic association and hard science. If an animal is having a startle reaction to rustling bushes, it is not thinking. In its little prey-brain, it associates rustling with potential doom, and it reacts before it has time to think. The more leisure a critter has to imagine, to make multiple connections, and to contemplate underlying logic, the more the process resembles scientific thinking.

That said, scientific thinking is not the only useful way of thinking. Consciousness is the mere tip of an iceberg that is actually made of meat. Magic addresses the submerged meat of the human mind, the concepts that don’t fit in well with rationalist thinking.

Lev Grossman proposed that material realities of modern life are alienating to the inner self, and magic is a way of negotiating and defining that disconnect. Andrea brought up the Enlightenment, with which came the idea that the universe is inanimate. In some African American cultures, however, the universe is an actor with agency. Magic animates the universe.

Animating the universe brings intractably vast concepts to a human scale and makes them relatable. This is hugely and impossibly important. It is why parables are so damn useful. It’s why religions tend to be collections of stories. I think this is why the panel started talking about mystery and wonder in relation to magic. Magic is supposed to be taking that on. It’s magic’s job. Interestingly, it also seems to be science’s.

Max pointed out that not very far into science you get into the infinitesimally small, and therefore weird indeterminacy. He said, if you’re relating to science in the right way, it’s a gateway to the numinous. Andrea expressed a similar sentiment, “I am dazzled by the fact that in all the possible universes, there is the statistical possibility my hand could go through the table.”

Science, though, begins at a human-scale, proceeding by careful step-by-step facts the numinous. Magic, on the other hand, takes in the numinous and brings it back to human-scale in a place, a being, a story.

ReaderCon Summary Report

ReaderCon is a literary science fiction and fantasy convention in Boston with a reputation for excellent discussions and panels. Many folks whose writing I love find their way there regularly, and with the additional temptation of a mini-reunion with my Viable Paradise cohort, I attended for the first time.

Overall, I had a delightful time. My main regrets circle around there being more people to talk to and more interesting things to do than I had time for, and those are good problems to have.

On one of my favorite panels, When the Other Is You, Chesya Burke, Chip Delany, Peter Dubé, Mikki Kendall, Vandana Singh, and Sabrina Vourvoulias (moderator) talked about their experiences as “others.” The impact was in the specific experiences and perspective the panelists discussed, which ranged across generations and cultures, and I highly recommend listening. Update: Scott Edelman posted the video here.

Other pleasures included the guerilla speakeasy reading, the discovery (thank you, A. C. Wise) that there are caterpillars who stack caterpillars’ skulls on their heads like terrifying hats, and the gigantic Viable Paradise dinner, organized by the inimitable Dave Twiddy, where I got to meet some of the incoming class and graduates of other years. There was of course the usual convention joy of meeting people who I’ve only see occasionally or chat with online. Devin Singer, Sheila Cail, Latasha Ewell, and I all hosted a room party, our first one, and that was a smashing success. When the convention ended, we were not done! and went to a Sunday afternoon Barnes and Noble event with Tor authors Max Gladstone, Paul Park, Felix Gilman, and Brian Stavely. Brian can host a mean trivia game.

Thank you to the convention staff for a wonderful convention. I look forward to next year!

Writing Process Blog Tour

Tagged as if I were a species of migrating raptor by Casey Blair and John Wiswell, and privately by Beth Matthews (who, like the tagging scientists, clearly meant well), I shall now talk about my writing process. Check out Casey’s, John’s, and Beth’s blogs, too. The variety in process is fascinating.


The elevator pitch for my novel is “Watership Down with wolves.” Its working title is To Howl with Wolves. In a time of terrible famine, a young wolf finds herself without a pack. She meets a coyote, and the two of them team up to survive in the shadow of an increasingly voracious and aggressive wolf pack.


Partly, the predator-prey population charts we looked at in elementary school inspired To Howl with Wolves. I found the steadily rising populations, followed by precipitous crashes, rather haunting. What would they mean to the animals living those cycles? Science fiction is often about people doing science, whereas To Howl with Wolves expresses science through animal behavior and ecology. A small library of scholarly articles, books, and government reports, as well as a visit to the Indiana Wolf Park, are behind much of the characters, plot, and setting.


I want to read it. It is a wolf-coyote buddy novel, backed up with actual biology. I love wolves and coyotes and realism with animals. I love the exploration of the concept of pack and family and friendship. The ability to take an animal’s perspective also is useful for serious matters like direct emotional expression and for more amusing ones, such as the possibility of a carnivore who is also a foodie.


My writing process is horrifically intuitive. Some days, I swear I am like Schmendrick in The Last Unicorn. “Magic, do as you will!” The words that actually end up on the page are there because they “feel right.”

To channel this, I use a mutating outline, which begins as “emotionally charged scenes I want to write” and eventually progresses to “where the book should end up.”

I do a lot of research and talk a good deal about novel ideas, simmering them in the associative-unconscious part of my brain that does creativity. During the talking, I get a better conscious sense of the ideas. Basically, they will either resonate with the rest of the story, or they won’t. If they don’t, I will keep poking until I find something that does. Then I outline what will happen. Then I write it. Sometimes I am right about the resonance, and I go to the next chapter. Sometimes I am wrong, writing is excruciating, and I start the process over.


Should they have the time and inclination, I would like to hear about the processes of Devin Singer, Michael Johnston, Paul Star, and Latasha Ewell.

Relevant Narratives

“Like the pain of a bad wound, the effect of a deep shock takes some while to be felt. When a child is told, for the first time in his life, that a person he has known is dead, although he does not disbelieve it, he may well fail to comprehend it and later ask–perhaps more than once–where the dead person is and when he is coming back.”
― Richard Adams, Watership Down

When I was about twelve, I began role playing on the Internet in AOL chatrooms, especially those affiliated with Star Wars. My favorite scene, which I wished to play unto infinity, was the remarkably powerful young female Jedi, who the Sith would attempt to sway to the Dark Side. She would be tempted, but she’d always turn them down in a triumphant burst of inspired Force-usage.

I soon discovered more general purpose alternate world chat rooms, and among these, some of the best role players were involved in an elaborate game based on the world of Gor. In this world, all women were wanton slaves to the men. That is a very bland description. The actual experience was more vivid. Even in other roleplay interactions, if you played a woman, you could either be flirted with or ignored. Within a year, I stopped playing female characters, and I started roleplaying men.

Even after a good deal of therapy, situations that require me to be present in my own female skin often elicit an emotion that feels a lot like nausea, like I should be able to throw up something about myself.

If you want to undo shame, you have to find situations where you can feel proud.

I recently read Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, and I did not like it much. The levels of violence, death, and despair are all too high for my tastes, and yet I also love that book because in the main culture, the women are the badasses who are in charge of everything, each making their own mistakes in character, in human variation. Hurley stomps and stomps on the concept of patriarchy in every choice she makes, and even though she kills off characters (lots of characters), God’s War is a surprisingly safe read because sure, there’s death and pain, but there is not an intrinsic shaming of women, and there is the expectation of them having honor.

At FOGCon, someone asked Seanan McGuire about restraints she puts on her writing. Among other things, she said that she never makes a walk-on-to-die character a minority because the last thing she wanted was for someone to finally see themselves on the page, only to have them snatched away.

The thing about writing is that I can steer that narrative. I can make worlds and people who are set up to excel and to win. I can create and envision stories that let both me and the reader move into a space where we fit, where we are understood, and where we are appreciated and honored. I write for a lot of other reasons, too: cool shit, amusement, entertainment, an interest in viewpoints other than my own, and so on. But a desperately important thing to me about writing is that I can make and change the rules to whatever I need them to be.

The last few months have been long and strange. At Viable Paradise, when my critique group liked my novel, it felt like they handed me back my heart. I did not expect to also meet my girlfriend, Devin Singer. The result has been significantly less under my control than my writing, but it has thus far been a curious process of shared imagination, of both telling and negotiating a story–in particular, a story about two women, in a relationship we both take pride in.

As Lois McMaster Bujold said, “It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead center of a target you didn’t even know you were aiming for.”

Flight or Flight as Applied to Writing

…Unless there’s blood on the floor, of course. War, pestilence, murder, any kind of ordeal or violence, that’s what they respect. Blood means we were serious. ~Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

Learning to write, for me, is inextricably entangled with learning to manage my mental state well enough to get words on a page. I think this is a not-uncommon problem.

I used to dream of being chased. No accident, there. I spent years running away inside my own head. I reviled myself for it, because while I was resigned to many of my less-than-positive qualities, I did not want to be a coward. If you have an affinity with predators, you must learn not to be prey, a friend once explained to me. You must, when you dream you are being chased, stop running, turn around, and fight. I knew that no matter how fast and how far you run, you can never run away from yourself. The obvious alternative was fighting. I applied this conclusion to being a writer.

You can just imagine. This is the fight or flight approach to writing. Either you’re running away from it and avoiding writing, or savagely driving yourself to the computer for the daily bloodletting of words. It’s a framework, all right. It is a very easy to framework to fall into, too, because writing is hard for all kinds of reasons: drafts look bad, time is scarce, blank pages are hauntingly empty, other people do it better… Writing, viewed from a certain angle, kicks you directly into a trigger-state, which is to say, a state where you feel you should respond in some survival-based way (run, freeze, or fight).

The fight-based approach felt like being a real writer. I was not cowering under my mountain of excuses: I sat in front of the computer shaking in frustration and terror, but I wrote. I felt peculiarly satisfied; I like to be good at things, and I was getting good at fighting. Every time I wrote, I felt like I was triumphing over myself.

Then, at Viable Paradise, I discovered that people liked my writing.

My whole edifice of ruthless battle cracked at its foundations in under five minutes and never recovered. The fighting dissolved into relieved crying. As it happens, trigger states are not actually that fun for me. They may seem fun, but it is the kind of fun that comes with feeling vulnerable and successfully defending myself rather than the kind of fun that comes from feeling confident and happy. “Yay! I’m not dead!” is not the same as “Yay! I’m having a good time!”

There is not actually much virtue in making a Greek tragedy out of sitting down to write. I am not saying that the drama was a conscious choice. It wasn’t. It was a trigger-state choice: I wanted to run. Therefore, I chose to fight, and I felt better fighting than running.

But here is a thing: No matter how viciously you fight, it doesn’t stop you from hurting. It doesn’t make you feel safe.

For me, the better choice is what I’ve been referring to as “sideways.” You see sideways things a lot with writer tricks. At Viable Paradise, Steven Brust explained how he’d worked a play on lines of Hamlet into every chapter of one book in order to move forward, which emphasizes cleverness (especially useful if you are Steven Brust) and reframes writing into a game. M. J. Locke talked about the feeding and care of your Beast, a kind of metaphor for your creative force / muse, which reframes writing into the process of taking care of yourself, and also creates a supportive sort of imaginary friendship with your writing.

Prior to Viable Paradise, I mostly ignored these sideways tricks because my framing wouldn’t permit them. It’s pretty simple: if you think you’re in a survival situation, and someone is suggesting tea and candlelight and maybe a hug to help you wind down, you will probably look at them, if not with hostility, then certainly with contempt. They don’t understand that you are serious.

My latest sideways trick has been, rather than encountering a blank screen and whimpering in terror, focusing on something related: a map for ten minutes here, a nonfiction book there, and then approaching writing again. Also coffee shops. Also talking to people. Whatever diffuses the “this is a confrontation that I am going to win” mindset.

Susan Palwick has explained that storytelling is the opposite of trauma. If this is so, then pushing myself to the point where I am triggered — where I am experiencing a sort of trauma — in order to write is counterproductive. Narrative is what happens when I am healing, not hurting.

Viable Paradise

I’m not much an advocate of workshops being life-changing experiences, but Viable Paradise was. Two reasons: one personal, one pack.

Amadeus is one of my favorite movies, in no small part because Salieri recognizes Mozart’s seemingly effortless brilliance — all the notes are already in his head — and adores Mozart’s music, while despising his own failure to achieve the sublime. “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint,” he says.

I’ve had this narrative for a long time: I am a good writer, and I am a competent writer, but the wild talent, the force of nature channeling of story, eludes me. I am a mediocrity.

I dreaded the polite, contained, “It’s nice” reception and grimly braced myself to figure out how to write it better.

Therefore, people’s reactions to the first three chapters of my novel sounded like some teenager writing wish fulfillment fanfic of my life. People liked it, and they were not my friends and family. They were peers and professionals. I’ve done a lot of crying for reasons of misery, not so much for reasons of overwhelming relief and joy.

That was amazing inofitself. What is more amazing is knowing that I am capable of writing the way I want to, that I have done it before, and that I can do it again. It is possible. Knowing that a thing is possible makes all the tedious fucking up along the way a great deal more bearable.

The other part of Viable Paradise is the community created by the instructors and staff. Many places on the Internet have a flavor of competition and isolationism. This is difficult to put into words. I see it in the people bragging about how they work so much and so hard they forget to sleep or to eat, and the laughing camaraderie that goes with that, and in the celebration of introversion (a good thing!) blended with the rejection of spending time with people. Real artists find strength and fulfillment mostly in their work. Their passion feeds them, and they flourish. I have a streak of ruthlessness, so for a while, I tried to embody this: the hell that I would show weakness.

Viable Paradise makes different assumptions; it assumes a need for community and for comfort. The staff emphasized, again and again, how we could come to them for decompression and food. They offered hugs and talking. They made us delicious dinners. If someone had a bleary look in their eye, both staff and instructors made sure to check in with that person.

The instructors did not only lecture. They hung out with us, talked to us, and offered their time to answer questions or go over our work. Professionals at the top of the field treated us like colleagues; Elizabeth Bear outright said that we were. The blend of trusting in our competence as writers while treating our upsets and bouts of exhaustion as normal created a close sense of community and security.

I fell into it, and the rest of the students seemed to, too, and our camaraderie felt supportive rather than savage.

I had not known that this understanding, this connection, this kindness existed. I had not known how highly some groups of people valued community and how deliberately they created and sustained it. They do, though, and I am profoundly glad.