on balancing

At the writer’s workshop several weeks ago, I asked a panel of authors how they balanced paying attention to real world events — the incessant bad news, for example — with being a creative person. I wasn’t looking for any tried and true method so much as I wanted to hear from writers who had already actually published things, because each of them has struck that balance in their own ways.

One of the reasons I stepped down from working full-time with the human rights organization is because when I’d try to make a moment of quiet for myself, and reach to draw on my creative pool, I’d realize it had shrunk down to a sticky mud puddle. (To be honest I don’t know that I have a ~creative pool~ but the mud puddle part of the analogy feels really, really accurate.) At times it would be so bad that I had to struggle just to think of something for dinner — cooking being a rotating role on my teams and occasionally a source of great anxiety for me. So I would use my quiet time to veg, instead. (Which is not bad, not at all, but as someone who earnestly wants to write fiction, it’s also not a good long-term strategy.)

Being an all-or-nothing sort of person means I’m not very good at striking a balance. After the most recent US presidential election, I stopped writing for two months. I’d reach, and there’d be nothing but mud. So I’d compensate by scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, fueled by this weird urgency that if I wasn’t reading and sharing the most up-to-date analyses and on-point Tweets, I would somehow be letting the fascists win. There are a lot of good ways out there to fight fascism, but I’m pretty sure exhausting myself to the point where I can’t write is not one of them. (I can say that now, with the benefit of hindsight. That doesn’t mean I’ll remember it in the future.)

On the panel at the writer’s workshop, Justina Ireland replied to my question by reminding me, and all of us assembled, that this is not the worst it’s ever been. It’s definitely bad now, but we can look at history (and not even very distant history) to know how much worse it was. Dhonielle Clayton offered a kind of permission I hadn’t realized I was looking for, by saying that she just steps back from social media entirely when she knows she has to write. Leigh Bardugo said she didn’t have any techniques for striking a balance, but when she encounters someone online who really ticks her off, she goes over to DonorsChoose.org and supports students and teachers until she feels better.

I think I will always be someone who can easily get wrapped up in the latest news, whatever that may be, and I will always be someone who needs to deliberately choose to focus on creating, instead. The tendency to let my creativity shrink, unchecked, may be something I always struggle against. Somewhere along the line I decided that a creative person is able to create stuff at any time, and it’s taking me some effort to unlearn that. Figuring out what affects it, what makes it shrink (and grow), and figuring out good ways to step back from the constant stream of (bad) news without becoming ignorant, is something I am working on.

I’m glad I piped up at the workshop, because it’s one thing to suspect that real live authors also struggle with this, and another thing to hear their own ideas about how they strike that balance.

Madcap Retreat: March 2017

I had a feeling that the Writing Cross-Culturally workshop, put on by Madcap Retreats together with We Need Diverse Books, and headlined by bestselling authors Nicola Yoon, Leigh Bardugo, and Daniel José Older, would be pretty fantastic. I’d knew from friends who attended previous workshops that Madcap organized great retreats, and Older and Bardugo were already two of my favorite authors. Plus the menu for the weekend, posted on the workshop’s website, looked delicious. Nothing soothes my latent anxiety and impostor syndrome like the prospect of tasty meals — we all have our coping mechanisms, okay?

So it seemed like a safe bet, going into this workshop — which was located, by the way, at a cabin retreat centre in Tennessee’s Great Smokey Mountains, no big deal — to say I would find it a worthwhile experience.

Whether or not it would be transformative was up to me.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to hang out with people who are deeply interested in the same kinds of things that really interest you, I recommend finding those spaces, because the experience can be incredible. I spent the weekend not only with writers, but with genre fiction writers, and with genre fiction writers who are largely writing for Young Adult audiences. As I looked around the room on the first night, I saw so many nerdy teeshirts and laptop stickers I immediately knew I had found my people. Cultural identifiers by way of Harry Potter references. The primary get-to-know-you question was not, “What do you do?” but “What are you working on?”

The presentations themselves, by authors I already knew I loved and authors I quickly realized I needed to read ASAP, were on topics like cultural appropriation and the very real damage bad representation causes, believable worldbuilding (how to play god without being a jerk about it), and how essential it is to know what powers underlie a story’s conflict. I took copious notes and imagined myself as a happy little sponge, soaking in all of this information.

Before some of the recent events and decisions that led me to apply for this workshop, I spent four years working full time with a human rights organization in two different countries, both of which have their own dominate narratives people rarely stop to question. The important thing here is that during this time I learned how crucial it is to pay attention to the structures of oppression that justify and perpetuate violence in the world. Structures like racism, heterosexism, and colonialism, which function on an individual and an institutional level, and which are inextricable parts of especially Western culture.

I came to understand how I, as a white person with a college degree and a US passport (among many other privileges) benefit directly from those structures, and so I know that any effort to dismantle oppressions must primarily be an internal one, before I can do anything lasting and good in the world around me. It’s something I remember and strive to work on on a daily basis, because this kind of work is never done.

To that end, I spent most of the weekend keeping my mouth shut and my ears open, both to listen to the faculty in their presentations, and to the discussions happening during meal and break times. I learn a lot by processing things out loud, but in order to do that I really need to listen, first.

And there were so many great discussions!  As I already said, the participants of this workshop already had a kind of shared culture, a super nerdy YA/speculative fiction story culture, which enabled us to dive right into conversations about writing, and our writing, and books, and our (favorite) books, with little preamble.  For example, over dinner someone across the table initiated a conversation by asking everyone, “What House are you?” (Gryffindor, of course, unless we can do those hybrid Houses and then I’m probably a Gryffinclaw.)

But it was also fantastic, for me, to find a common language in those understandings of power, and privilege. I am used to looking at these structures through the lens of a human rights worker — how colonialism directly impacts Indigenous communities, for example, in ways as seemingly unrelated as a paper mill dumping mercury in the water system to an online news website allowing bigots in their comments sections.

I am used to examining real world events and searching for the underlying power structures that enable violence, and I understand that violence is much bigger and more insidious than the stuff of action movies and headlines.  I’m not saying I’m super good at this work, but it is something I practice and it very much relates to the shutting up to listen I mentioned above.

To examine these structures through the lens of a fiction writer is new for me, however, and incredibly inspiring. I’ve long had the notion that I couldn’t write good stories unless I included, somehow, the things I’ve seen in real life, but I felt pretty murky on how to do that — how to do it in a good way. There’s plenty of ways to do it badly, but I can’t say I’m doing my best as a storyteller (or as a person) if I’m doing it badly. That’s a betrayal of myself and a betrayal of the people and communities who’ve entrusted me, on one level or another, with their stories.

Which is not to say I learned how to tell a good story in one weekend. Whoa, no. But when I went into this workshop, my notion on how to do this was something like

Step 1) Figure out what step one is. Maybe write a sentence? No no it’s bad delete it

And now, after those many presentations and discussions and notes and small realizations and many moments of going OH!, my approach to writing feels more like

Step 1) Build a foundation! Now build it more. Do the building materials work for this structure? What about these? Where did this brickwork come from, anyway? What else do they make over there? Okay wait — who’s flying this thing??

Etc.

One long weekend in eastern Tennessee, filled with copious notes and discussions and revelations and laughter (and, yes, very tasty food), and I feel like I have some charts now, some guides and maps, where before I had only vague notions. I have a toolbox of questions to ask myself, not just at the beginning but the whole way through, and I know that sometimes the answer to the question, Is this my story to tell? might really be No. There, too, I can practice my listening.

And, bonus, I have a new group of friends, many of whom have much more experience in the art of taking What Ifs and turning them into really cool stories. Their nudgings are a big reason why I dusted off this blog, honestly.

TLDR: I am so glad I went to this workshop. I am so glad I was able to go, that I have a community of people who believe in me and who all helped get me there, and now, that I have another community of people to cheer for, as we all make our journeys as storytellers together.

Hooray!