New year, new plans

For the last couple of years, I’ve made some resolutions that have been a little outside the box, I suppose you could say. For 2014, I resolved to become the person I used to be. Yes, to some that sounds a bit odd, I’m sure, but somehow after college I started morphing into this quiet hermit of a person who wasn’t intrusive, wasn’t offensive, wasn’t obnoxious. Wasn’t anything, really.

But, you say, isn’t it good not to be offensive?

Of course! I don’t mean storming around shouting swear words in church or racial slurs in crowds or anything like that. I mean, I started going out of my way never to hurt anyone’s feelings in the slightest, even when that meant withholding necessary truths or even allowing myself to be hurt. I wanted to be the person I used to be, because I used to be someone who was outgoing, confident, funny, adventurous… but I suddenly realized I’d become the opposite of all those things. I don’t know when it started or why, but I knew I hated it and wanted to change.

So in 2014 I decided to start identifying places in my life where I’d allowed myself to become a doormat again, and either change my own behavior or start cutting out the people who abused my silence.

I got a tattoo.

In 2015, I made a more concrete resolution: Stop giving other people so much control of my thoughts and actions.

It’s good, to an extent, to care about what others think of you. Really, isn’t that what stops us from doing a lot of things we really want to do but shouldn’t? Like finishing that box of donuts by yourself or texting your ex or fill-in-the-blank. It helps us keep the reputation we want. I don’t want people to think I’m a cruel and heartless person, but I also don’t want them to think I’m easily manipulated, waiting to be used for their purposes.

I forced myself to sit down and think about the areas of my life where other people’s opinions didn’t and shouldn’t matter:

  • My appearance
  • My career goals
  • My educational goals
  • My writing
  • Our family planning decisions

It’s stupid, I know, but I was letting worry over what people thought of me and my choices dictate almost everything I did. I didn’t get another tattoo in 2015 (I wanted to) but we did buy a new house and a new car and make plans for me to go back to school, plans I’ll be acting on very soon.

I got two new piercings. (Just my ears, piercings are the worst)

I dyed my hair every color I could think of, sometimes changing it multiple times a month. It’s now a point of conversation when I see someone at work that I’ve not run into in a few weeks.

So for 2016, I’m continuing in the same theme. This year, I’m going to stop coddling everyone around me at my own expense. I’m not going to cause needless drama or seek out confrontation, but I’ve spent the last several years bowing my head and biting my tongue and hiding my tears when what I really should have done was say what needed to be said, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable. The truth really does hurt, even when you choose not to expose it. I could go in depth about what brought me to this decision, but it was a hard one to make, so I’ve spent enough time already trying to parse it.

Women's Do No Harm Shirt

My mantra for 2016. Buy the shirt here.

I feel I’m making the right choice. It’s time to stop putting myself last just so everyone else feels safe and happy no matter what. It’s time to stop excusing every offense with phrases like “that’s just the way s/he is” and “it’s okay, I don’t mind” or “things will be different next time.” But what’s right isn’t always easy, so I know this year’s resolution may be more difficult than last year’s. But I think there are better and brighter things ahead, and I’m excited to see them arrive.

This past week, you may have noticed the absence of Tuesday Reviews Day. It will be back; I haven’t fully committed myself to weekly vs. biweekly, so for right now that may remain a feature that simply occurs somewhat randomly.

I’ve still been reading regularly, and I did recently finish a great book I can’t wait to tell you about. I’ve got a few in the TBR queue and one in the box that I’m working my way through, but it’s a pretty emotionally heavy selection, so I may take awhile to get through it.

But mostly, I’ve been sloughing my way through NaNoWriMo. I don’t know if any of you have signed up, but if you have, scope out my page and add me! (My username should come as no surprise.) I can use some encouragement, to be quite honest. I write at a very weird pace, which is to say I tend to write when I feel motivated. Of course, that’s a very bad plan; motivation is fleeting, like most emotions are, and waiting for it is sometimes as productive as waiting for Godot.

I won’t “win” NaNo this year, I know that already, but honestly I’m already really proud of myself. I’ve written about 4,000 words (please stop rolling your eyes) and that’s actually a personal best for me. I’ve never written a single creative piece of that length before. It’s intimidating. I’m a short story, flash fiction, free-verse poetry type of gal, and novels just don’t come easily to me. But I’ve had this great idea knocking around in my head for quite awhile, and with the help of my amazing sister and frequent visits to Chuck Wendig’s blog, I think I’ve made some great progress toward a novel. I have an actual outline (miracle of miracles!) and a real conflict and an actual idea of the ending and how I want to get there. I know things will change between now and completion, and that’s okay. I’ve already changed a lot, to be honest. But I’m feeling really great about this.

So, are you doing NaNoWriMo? Tell me about your story! Are you pursuing some other creative passion? Are you doing something else that scares you?

…………..why not?

Stages of Grief, or Stages of Writing?

This morning I read this post by Chuck Wendig. Of course it made me laugh, but it also made me realize something about my own writing process: I think I may be stuck in the “Depression” phase. And that makes sense, sort of, in the grand scheme of the things that are my life and personality.

I’m prone to depression. Notice I didn’t say I “have” depression. I think that may be because a large part of my family still harbors some of society’s stigmas toward depression. I’m not sure why that is, but I know it’s affected me and the way I talk about myself and my emotional and mental struggles.

I get depressed over the strangest things. You may have noticed, for example, that my posts fell completely off with no warning and no reasoning. I made a very brief attempt at weekly review posts rather than biweekly ones, and it proved more stressful than I thought. I like reading at a slow pace and giving myself time to process what I’m reading; otherwise I find myself reading just to be reading, and I don’t retain anything at all. Months later I may even entirely forget I’ve read a book if I read it that way.

When I realized that weekly posts were probably going to be too strenuous, it hit me hard. Harder than it probably should have. Instead of telling myself, “that’s fine, just adjust the schedule again. People will understand,” I told myself I was a failure, a horrible writer, and no one followed my blog anyway so what difference did it make. Of course, these are horrible things to tell yourself, and I know that, logically. But that doesn’t stop Scumbag Brain from being a scumbag.

So of course the conclusion Scumbag Brain reached was to just. Stop. Blogging. And somehow, I was mostly okay with this. I would get a twinge of guilt here or there, or really miss writing, or have a great idea, and yet somehow I’d dismiss it all with some lame excuse or self-deprecation.

But then I read Chuck’s post. And I get that it wasn’t specifically talking about my situation, but it seemed so relevant. It really struck me that this is what I’ve been doing with my writing for years; I get started, somehow get discouraged, and I get out. I put it down and never go back to it.

I’ve decided in recent days that I want to change all that and let myself be the person I want to be. I need to get out of my own way, basically. So I signed up for Habitica — which is already making a difference in the way I think about my free time and my priorities. I did some research on online graduate schools and got some input from some of my career mentors. And most terrifying of all: I signed up for NaNoWriMo. I’ve signed up for it before, but this time, I mean it. I work at my alma mater, so I enlisted the English department chair to help keep me accountable, and I added daily writing to my Habitica tasks. Plus, last fall I was able to attend an excellent character-writing workshop with Mary Robinette Kowal, and I’ll be drawing heavily from what I learned there, not to mention using the completed excerpt I ended up with as a basis for my concept.

I’m really excited about what’s in store. I’m just hoping that I can hold on to this momentum, because life isn’t always a stroll down a sunny lane. Recently, husband and I moved into a brand new home and, while of course it’s exciting and wonderful, it’s also very stressful and a little scary. Part of me wants to stay home all day in my pajamas and enjoy it to the fullest, and part of me wants to be ten years old again so I can stay at the home I grew up in in my pajamas and not have anything to worry about, apart from which flavor of Ramen I’ll eat for lunch and whether I can sneak a second soda.

Chibird's penguin encouragement :)

Chibird’s penguin encouragement 🙂

But that won’t do either. It’s time for the Acceptance phase.

I can do this.

So now I’m going to go do it.

Only Up From Here

So. Let’s state the obvious and get that out of the way — it’s been over a month now since my last post. I need to get better about posting, I know, and I have a host of excuses but none of them are really good enough. So, sorry! But moving on. Things are gonna change, I can feel it. (Points if you caught that reference.)

I’ve got some things in the works I can’t wait to share with you guys. The Breaking Bad post is coming along nicely even though I know it’s going to be several months behind for people who watched the show live. Even for people who didn’t, myself included. I’d have liked to get that done awhile back, but life happens and regret changes nothing.

More exciting news: I managed to get into an all-day writing workshop led by the amazing Mary Robinette Kowal, which will be held on June 21. I’m so stoked about this and I can’t wait to share all the details. All of them. Right now, I’m not sure when I’ll have a post ready for that, but you can be sure there will be one.

Plus, more book reviews are in the works! Right now I’m reading Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow and The Butterfly’s Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe. Both are fantastic books so far, though I will say Sharp Teeth is a bit slower read for me as it’s written entirely in poetry. I picked it up because the subject seemed interesting—plus it came highly recommended from friends—but I think I really just wanted to expand my reading horizons. I’ve built a pretty comfortable little box for myself as far as my reading choices. There’s a lot of Victorian Steampunk and post-apocalypse dystopias in the box, a few Southern lit works but certainly not any poetry. But I’ve got to say, I’m not at all disappointed by Sharp Teeth. Remember the book The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton? If you’re nodding your head thinking “oh my God, what a great book,” you should probably pick up Sharp Teeth. I’ve found it very reminiscent of The Outsiders. I came across The Butterfly’s Daughter in a local authors section at the gift shop in Charleston’s South Carolina Aquarium. I bought it for a few reasons: a) Local author b) Female author c) Primarily female characters d) POC female main. It already passes the Bechdel test with flying colors and I’m not even halfway through it yet.

As far as our personal lives, not much is changing. We’ve got plans in the works to get our house fixed up and on the market by the end of the fall, so there’s that. The husband’s garden is doing pretty great this year, too; observe:

Food!

Food!

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More food!

More food!

Of course, he took both of these back around the end of May, so everything is considerably larger by now. Some of the corn—which is already taller than me now—got damaged in a rough storm we had earlier this week, so that’s disappointing. But if everything we have left produces, we’ll still have more than we can eat. We’ve talked about getting a little stall at the local farmers’ market, but we’ll probably end up donating a lot of the excess.

Overall, things are really looking up, finally. I’m feeling back to myself and I’m even going back to the gym. Of course, I still have a ways to go, but it doesn’t seem so daunting anymore. Looking forward to what’s to come!

Aside

Patience

I know it’s been an abnormally long time since I’ve posted, and I’m sorry about that. But I’m sure you’ve seen the hints and maybe outright omissions here and there that I struggle with anxiety disorder and probably depression. I’m not on anything for it, though that isn’t a mark of pride for me or an attempt to demonize people who are. I’ve been really struggling lately and have not felt at all like myself for at least a week, perhaps longer. The mere thought of writing left me drained and when I tried to anyway, nothing came together how I wanted and it all seemed pointless.

I am blessed with an amazing support system of family and friends, and while I’m sure some of both groups will see this and think, “But I had no idea,” or “Well, she didn’t tell me,” I hope they don’t also think that’s because I don’t trust or love them. I confide in as few people as possible during the difficult times because spreading a wide net does not help me. Maybe one day soon I’ll be able to write a longer post about my struggles recently, and I’m sure by then they’ll seem silly and we’ll all have a laugh over how overblown I made the whole thing. But right now I am healing and I am doing much better. Taking one day at a time. I hope you’ll understand and perhaps look forward to a blog post soon that I’ve been very excited to write … you might want to go rewatch the series finale of Breaking Bad. No more hints though.

Creative or Crazy: Inspiration, creation, and whether I want my family to read this

Courtesy NIDCD; Description from Engadget.com

When experienced rappers freestyle, MRIs showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex—responsible for self-motivation—but a decreased activity in the region responsible for self-monitoring. (Image courtesy NIDCD, explanation via engadget.com)

This past weekend I ran across an interesting essay on Twitter and it took me back to countless discussions I had as an English undergrad: What is it about creativity and insanity that make them seem to go hand-in-hand? Does creativity invite insanity, or does insanity entrap and engulf the creative? Why are artists so tortured? Do we know something about the world that no one else does, or have we got it all wrong?

Another thing that struck me—and I don’t remember when, but it wasn’t long after I read that excellent essay—a friend on social media posted: “I wish I could just stop thinking for just a few minutes.” And wow, do I echo that sentiment. I can’t even watch television with a completely switched-off brain. One of my favorite shows is Revenge (don’t ruin it for me, I’ve missed this whole season, partly by choice and partly not) and even then I can’t sit passively and watch. I’m constantly analyzing camera angles, framing and light choices, color palettes and even wardrobe. Everything is important; a cigar is never just a cigar. I’m forever latching on to lines of dialogue, pinching or poking my husband and gleefully asking, “Did you get that reference?”

You probably wouldn’t have been able to stand me while we watched two of my favorite Breaking Bad episodes, “Ozymandias” and “Felina.” As a matter of fact, I drew so many connections within “Felina” alone, you can anticipate an in-depth analysis of that episode in the coming days.

I suppose all that is why the essay stuck with me. Here’s the passage that stood out:

A few months back, Andreas Fink at the University of Graz in Austria found a relationship between the ability to come up with an idea and the inability to suppress the precuneus while thinking. The precuneus is the area of the brain that shows the highest levels of activation during times of rest and has been linked to self-consciousness and memory retrieval. It is an indicator of how much one ruminates or ponders oneself and one’s experiences.

For most people, this area of the brain only lights up at restful times when one is not focusing on work or even daily tasks. For writers and creatives, however, it seems to be constantly activated. Fink’s hypothesis is that the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off — and, as a result, creative people show schizophrenic, borderline manic-depressive tendencies. Really, that’s no hyperbole. Fink found that this inability to suppress the precuneus is seen most dominantly in two types of people: creatives and psychosis patients.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that this flood of thoughts and introspection is apparently vital to creative success.

Hm. So. Suddenly, everything made sense. The way I hate being quiet, can’t stand being bored, it’s not because I have ADD. I’ve never believed that. I just can’t stop thinking about things. I can’t rest. Everything is connected and nothing is coincidence and I must discover, must learn, must read, must write, must know, must create.

Often, I’ve tried to describe this to other people and the only thing I can think of is “I feel like a hummingbird.” My brain is constantly moving, seeking out new ideas and connections and new things I can create or learn or research.

Of course it’s difficult to sustain, and sometimes like my friend I wish I could just turn it off. But it does get me some great ideas. And yes, sometimes those ideas are things I would never show my family. Sometimes things I would hesitate to show my family. More than once I’ve had the great internal debate: If this actually got published, would I need a pseudonym? More than once, I’ve thought: yep.

And I’d like to note that the beginning of this article does seem a little off to me. Sure, there have been writers who drowned themselves in alcohol and ruined their relationships, but all writers and all creatives aren’t overtly mean people who sabotage themselves and those around them. I mean, I personally like to drown myself in soda! (Seriously though.)

But it all stems from this: everything I see I try to relate to something I’ve seen before, heard before, felt before. There are no individual moments. Time is an ocean, not a garden hose, as you might have learned from John Dies at the End, and we are just adrift on it and trying to find the shore. And so when I start writing I may end up with a noir slasher story, or a paranormal coming-of-age piece, or a haunted house tale with more truth in it than you’d believe. I don’t think it’s because I’m crazy, just like I don’t think horror writers are crazy. Turns out we just see the world a little differently.

Book Review Time: Dead Iron (Age of Steam #1), Devon Monk

Dead Iron cover

Stunning cover art by the disgustingly talented Cliff Nielsen

Okay, I promised y’all a book review and a book review is what you’re gonna get!

(FYI, I post quick and dirty book reviews on my page over at Goodreads. Those entries are springboards for longer reviews which may contain spoilers, which I will post here. If you want a quick look at my thoughts immediately—or very soon, at least—after reading a book, spoiler- and summary-free, always check my Goodreads reviews first.)

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I’ll be the first to admit I don’t branch out of my comfort zone very often. I don’t read books by people I’ve never heard of unless someone I know says, “hey, you’d really dig this book. Why don’t you check it out?” I’ll also admit that while Devon Monk has quite a few other novels under her belt, I’d never heard of her. Which initially made me sad, because I like to support female authors. Now, of course, it just gives me a reason to sing her praises for the Age of Steam series.

Like I said, I don’t branch out a lot. But what I do know is if you want me to read a book, any book about anything at all, tell me it’s a Western. I’ll read a Western until the spine breaks and the pages fall out, and then I’ll tape it carefully back together or hold each page individually if I have to. (Have actually done that. One of my Westerns is a first edition from the early 1900s and it is literally falling apart. Books are meant to be read, guys.) I. Love. Westerns. My great-grandfather (a.k.a. Very Best Friend in the Whole Wide World) loved them, introduced me to them, and my love for the genre has spiraled out of control ever since. In fact, in my entire reading life I’ve only met one Western I didn’t like. I still finished it.

Dead Iron is a Western. But just in case I might decide to overlook it, to think “I don’t know her, what if I spend $15 and it sucks, omg, I can’t take the pressure,” this book decides to also be steampunk. And also paranormal.

O ok can I have 6 copies please

(I kind of have a thing for steampunk/Victorian lit)

(I basically love everything with words)

(and also parentheticals)

After all that digressing, it’s time for some reviewing. Spoilers ahoy!

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The cover art is indeed the main character, so, mrowr, helloooo nurse. He’s Cedar Hunt, a university teacher from Back East (oh please could he get any hotter?) who is also an out-of-control werewolf, thanks to a mysterious curse from a Pawnee god. He may or may not have murdered his also-cursed brother. He’s arrived in Hallelujah, Oregon, ahead of a fancy railroad mogul with some sinister ulterior motives. I love the word ‘sinister’.

The novel is entirely set in and around this tiny town, with a cast of characters including a young female deviser with an unknown past, a widowed witch looking to avenge her husband, a blacksmith whose son goes missing, a trio of brothers with an unusually strong connection to the land, and a Strange henchman who isn’t as much man as machine.

While the novel is a bit of a slow burn at the beginning, it’s anything but boring. It does border on overly technical in places, where Monk pauses to describe the town’s steam clock, for example. And while you may not be able to power through these sections, they’re certainly worth savoring, because that clock gives a bit of insight on sleepy old Hallelujah. And I think the slow burn is partly due to the decision to use alternating third person perspective, in which each chapter shifts to a new focal character. Due to chapters that are fairly short on average, it can sometimes be jarring, especially in a marathon read, but overall it doesn’t pull you out of the narrative. It can, however, give the impression that perhaps Cedar isn’t the main character after all.

And the world-building. Wow. While there isn’t a chapter devoted to its point of view, the land, as in all good Westerns, is very much a driving force and a character of its own in this novel. Dead Iron may be set in the US, but keep in mind this is Steam Age America. Nothing is familiar and yet everything is. I was completely transported to this place where ladies wear bonnets and petticoats, people ride horses and pull wagons, and yet there are machines crafted from gears and powered by steam to perform every function in life—and every function to end it. Even the paranormal and horror elements didn’t feel out of place, and it’s typically very easy to end my suspension of disbelief. Sorry, but I’m a nitpick.

Before I realized this was part of a series, I was a little disappointed in the lack of backstory on both Rose and Cedar. But never fear! There are two more books for all that. (Coincidentally, two more reviews coming soon! Ha.) I love the character development Monk executes here, though. Even without backstory, and in some places because it’s missing, Rose and Cedar are full characters with clear goals, fears, and conflicts of their own. And speaking of conflicts, the sexual tension between Cedar and the widowed witch Mae is fascinating. It’s frustrating (see what I did there?) but believable; after all, she’s very recently widowed. But don’t expect that to stop you from trying to will them into getting together. Overall, though, I think Monk treats all the characters with a fair amount of development, detailed yet appropriately concise. I especially love seeing strong female characters who aren’t as emotional as either brick walls or newborns and aren’t advanced through the story via a graphic rape scene. (Seriously though, that’s a cop-out move.)

It’s not often I run across a book I simply can’t stand to put down. In fact, I think the last time that happened was The Hunger Games series. But Dead Iron changed that. Over and over I heard myself say things like, “I’ll eat in a minute, only five more pages,” only to finish those and sneakily begin the next chapter. “Sorry, babe, this chapter’s longer than I thought. Ten more pages?”

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I plan to round up every review with a few quick stats regarding things that are important to me. Here they are:

World-building: 5/5 (Detailed, plausible settings; environment conducive to plot/characters/etc)
Character development: 4/5 (Characters with strengths and weaknesses, observable growth/change)
Storyline: 5/5 (Here, I consider time shifts, main plot vs secondaries, believability, etc)
Style: 5/5 (For this I think about stylistic choices like imagery, diction, POV, etc)

Overall: 5/5

Bechdel test: PASS

I was not solicited or paid for this review. I bought the book with my own money, read it on my own time, loved it with my own heart, and raved about it of my own accord. You should do the same.