obsessive

Sometimes, I teach creative writing to the youths of the nation (high school kids) and the advice I always give them, no matter what, is to write your obsessions. To give into them. To chase them. To follow where they lead. Because whatever you’re obsessed with or consumed by will come out in your fiction eventually, whether it’s sex or pokemon or baking or art deco or frayed jeans, and it will make your fiction better.

It’s something that held me back for a long time. I thought I needed to write a certain way, and about certain things. I grew up on SFF, but then fell deep into experimental and avant garde literature, and that meant writing in certain modes and about certain things. But even when I was deep into this stuff, my heart was still with SFF. It’s why even my most experimental novels involve invented cultures and peoples and mythologies.

Like a lot of arrogant and angry young men, I thought that art had to be a specific thing. I thought, as an artist, that I had to be a specific kind of artist. Those things mostly held me back, and they led me to discourage my own impulses and obsessions, which made my writing worse.

Since coming home to the genres that defined and shaped me, I’ve felt much freer and just better. I mean, me being a better writer isn’t just because of the genres I now write, but it’s helped. I’ve written in dozens of genres and styles, but I think my home is in the fantastic and surreal.

Anyrate, I think about my obsessions a lot, because they repeatedly come out in my fiction, even when I was actively trying to bury them.

Things like dust and wolves are everywhere. Ravens too, and a recurring dream I had for about a decade. Then there are all the people missing a hand, missing an eye, and all the characters who just never say a single word.

But the bigger ones are totalitarianism,  systemic violence, cultural clashes, shared stories, theology, Taoism, and cooking.

Most of those have always been present, to one degree or another, but cooking is a new one. I love cooking. It’s one of my favorite things to do in life. And it’s recently found it’s way into my fiction. Three of the last four novel(la)s I’ve written have cooking as a major component. Two of them involve the invention of boardgames, like chess or go.

Weirdly, these little things are making my fiction better.

The big themes are fine, and the small details are good too. But what I’ve found is that specificity adds a lot. At least, this is something I’ve found from my own reading. A character in a novel can be working a loom, and while I have no interest in such things, it’s really obvious how much the author cares. And that level of care and all that specificity just makes the utterly mundane utterly fascinating.

And so I suppose that’s what I really mean about chasing your obsessions. It’s no good to just list things you enjoy doing. You need to dig into the meat until you’re grinding on bones, breaking through to the marrow. If you want to make the reader care about the mundane things your character does, you need to really care about those things.

A scene about cooking is worthless if you don’t care about cooking, and your ambivalence will come through. Too, why would you write a scene about something you don’t care about?

It’s something that I think fantasy does better than literary fiction. Literary fiction is generally less plot driven, but I also often find the characters weaker. And it comes down to these obsessions. If your characters aren’t obsessed with something, then they feel weirdly alien. Inhuman. And while fantasy gets derided for favoring plot over character (which I generally disagree with), I’ve found that fantasy is often lethargically paced (why else would it take three or ten books to tell a story?) but that it remains a page turner, whereas the literary genre is just a slog.

There are a lot of reasons for such things and unbelievably numerous generalizations to make, but I’ve found that genre fiction tends to allow their characters to be obsessed. To have them dig into the minutia of things.

Like, I just read Lonesome Dove, which is often considered the best western ever written (for good reason!), and so many of the characters are just obsessed with…something. Horses, guns, drowning, gambling, whoring–it really doesn’t matter.

Obsessions are good.

But, yeah, follow your obsessions.

Luckily for me, mine change often, so I always have something new to write about.

Right now, it’s extinction and witches and blacksmithing, which will reveal themselves in my next two novellas.

I guess I could’ve captured all of this just by saying that obsessions are good.

witches and poetry

So it’s been a few months, yeah?

I’ve been meaning to post all kinds of things since my last post about the Tao Te Ching. I really enjoyed doing a post a day about the Tao Te Ching, and you can just keep scrolling on the homepage to find a bunch of them. Or you can click here.

Anyrate, I’ve had essays I wanted to write and share about politics, art, love, life, my cat, and other stuff, but I seem to’ve sort of lost the habit.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about. The tendency to share and how it becomes habitual or ritual. Over the last couple years, I’ve been using social media less and less, and it’s sort of like I’ve been weening myself off the incessant sharing that happens online. There are all kinds of reasons, but mostly it’s just that social media isn’t good for me, personally.

But because I don’t really share much online these days, it seems less and less important to share anything online. It always seemed like the point of starting a blog was to do more long-form sharing of thoughts and so on. Then facebook came the place to share all my dumb thoughts, so I used my blog less, and then when I began using social media less, I thought I’d use my blog more.

The opposite has mostly been true. Like I said, sharing online is kind of like a habit or ritual. Once I broke the habit, it no longer seems to matter whether or not I share anything online.

Anyrate, there is some news to talk about.

i-am-alone-facing-the-moon-front-cover1

My first poetry collection is coming out from Hawkline Press. There’s an announcement on their site.

Obviously that’s the cover and title up above in that amazing image.

I wrote it a few years ago. I think it was 2014. I wrote three poetry collections that year. All of them over the course of their own individual weekends when I had fevers. I wrote like 600 poems that year, but haven’t done much with them.

Still, very excited to have this coming out. It’s about 130 poems, most in the ryuka, tanka, and haiku, and then a final freeform series that might be my favorite poetry I’ve ever written.

The collection is inspired by the life and death of Yoshiya Chiru.

The collection is dark and weird and simple.

It’s funny to have a my first poetry collection come out as my fourth book, since I used to primarily think of myself as a poet. Obviously I’m not, and probably never will be, but I’m proud of the poems I wrote, and I hope you like them.

I’ll probably talk more about them in the future.

witches

I also just wrote this novel. Or, not just now. I’ve been writing it for a while. I was hoping to have it finished before May, but then I spent all of April and May not writing. It was a weird deadline to put on myself, since I began this near the end of February. It’s about 130,000 words right now, though it’ll almost certainly balloon a bit once I do edits/rewrites.

It’s a big complicated novel about terrorism and imperialism.

Also, it’s a fantasy novel.

There’s a lot to say about it, really.  The novel is mostly about four people: a student, an activist, an immigrant, a 200 year old poet, a 500 year old teahouse owner, and a factory worker. They’re all elves, which is funny to me, since I never really ever intended to write about elves or other standard fantasy creatures.

But the novel is really about race, culture, religion, terrorism, aspirations, systemic violence, totalitarianism, and whistleblowing.

This novel really is a reaction to basically everything I love and hate about fantasy novels. For example, most fantasy novels treat races and cultures as monochrome. All elves are the same culture, all dwarves are the same culture, but humanity gets thousands of shades. So I decided to give my elves all kinds of shades, and so the novel is really about how no cultural purity is an invention, and a dumb one. But also it’s about how systems of power crush people.

I’m really happy with it, but it’s also one of the darkest novels I’ve written, which is kind of saying something, considering how many times I’ve written apocalyptic books.

But, yeah, this year’s doing well. Last year I wrote a giant novel and two short novellas. This year I’ve written two novellas and a reasonably large novel. Next I’m going to be writing a western novella, then a pirate novella, and then a novella about burning a witch at the stake.

But that’s not for a while.

It’s a relief to be finished writing this book because now I can get back into all the other things I want to do! Like read books, play videogames, and just not have the weight of a huge book on my shoulders.

That’s all for now, though. I’m going to say that I’ll keep updating things on here, but that’s a lie.

Mostly I’ll just be taking pictures of my cat.

I’ll see you when I see you, followers of this dumb blog.

woolf waves

I’ve been listening to Max Richter’s glorious new album. It’s inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf. Specifically, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. It’s tremendous, as are all things Richter does. The final movement–and perhaps his most emotional piece in years–is in the above video. It begins with the reading of Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, which I’ll copy in full here:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

It’s always struck me as a profound and devastating statement of love and illness.

I don’t have a lot to say about it, really. Or, I do, but I’ve said it before in a dozen other blog posts over the seven years I’ve had this site.

I’ve been writing my novel to this album. It’s a completely normal thing for me to listen to a Richter album on repeat for days, and he’s been the soundtrack to more than a few of the novels I’ve written. I don’t know if my work is capturing anything as well or as beautifully as Woolf or Richter, but I’m very pleased with the words coming out of me lately.

I feel fortunate that I’ve managed to avoid any serious bouts with depression over the last years, and it’s certainly what’s allowed me to be so productive.

I’m nearly 40,000 words into the new novel. I’m hoping to have it finished before May, which seems doable, even though the novel may balloon up to about 200,000 words.

As is almost always the case, I sort of saw this as a short novel, but I quickly grow comfortable with the size of this novel. I said that I’d keep it underwraps this time, rather than share the process of writing this novel while I write it, and I think I’ll keep to that.

I will say, though, that every chapter presents a very difficult challenge. It’s the kind of writing I simply was not capable of writing even a year ago. It’s the kind of writing that is exhausting, but ultimately rewarding. Complex yet simple. Dangerous yet loving.

I want this novel to be a surprise, and I think it will be. I think I’m doing something that is rarely, if ever, done, and that pleases me. I’m also writing in a mode that I’ve never written in before. In many ways, I think it’s my most daring and most normal novel, and I like that juxtaposition quite a lot.

 

writing and offlining

I’ve been feeling good for a few days now. Maybe especially since finishing the novella I was writing, though the title has already changed since writing that post. But I’ve been feeling good and positive. Chelsea’s parents are here, which is a good time, and my cat’s just being my cat, so that’s always awesome as well.

Been reading a lot of poetry, something I basically did not read at all last year, which is sort of odd. But I suppose I’m making up for it this year.

Don’t know what to say, really. Just feeling good, happy, productive.

I started a new novel today, too. Just finished the first chapter, even. It’s about terrorism and systemic violence and systemic power. It’s inspired a lot by the Tsarnaev brothers, oddly. I read Masha Gessen’s excellent book on the Boston bombing and it really got me thinking about all kinds of things, connecting the treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and especially the way the FBI treated his friends or people he barely knew, to the way governments treat minority groups, dissidents, and certain demographics when they commit a crime. Also reminded me how much that event influenced my writing back in 2013. I think I wrote three stories directly because of that bombing.

It’s going to be a tricky novel. A very complex and complicated one. It’s going to require a lot of thought and planning. Speaking to Kyle Muntz about it this morning made me realize it’s definitely a novel, and possibly a very long one, and not a novella.

So I know I talked about my next project being about anarchism, but I’ve had pretty good luck with these recent novellas. So I’m deciding to just jump into the shiny new idea, rather than sit on it for a few months, like I used to.

And so I wrote the first chapter, and I’m extremely pleased with how it came out. Gives me more confidence to tackle this project. Also, I’ve decided not to share a whole lot of information about it while I’m writing it, which is sort of atypical of me, since I sort of use this site, in part, to dump extraneous thoughts about what I’m working on while I’m working on it.

Sort of unrelated but also kind of related, I’ve uninstalled the twitter app from my phone, so now the only social media on my phone is instagram. This is probably a dumb thing to talk about, but I did the same thing with the facebook app when I decided to cut down on my facebook time sometime last year or the year before. It was successful, since not having easy access to social media in my pocket will create enough of a barrier of access that I’m unlikely to devote a lot of passive time to it, which was all too easy when it was just a few thumb taps away before. Along with that, I’ve logged out of facebook and twitter on my computers, because, again, that little barrier of access (insignificant as it seems) is typically enough to keep me from spending a lot of passive time on either site.

Because passive time is kind of my disease. Probably most people suffer from it a bit. Instead of just not doing things, we’ll tab or thumb over to facebook or twitter and just start scrolling. Hours can get used up that way. I’ve mostly found it makes me less happy, which is not ideal.

I found, too, that when I cut down on facebook, it usually just means I spend more time on twitter, so this is kind of a symbolic way for me to back off both social media sites.

Intentionality is something Chelsea and I talk about a lot, and we’re both trying to be better about it. We want to be more intentional with our time and activities, since it’s so easy to just sit on a couch watching netflix while I have a laptop open and I’m scrolling through whatever. It’s not like it’s a terrible thing, but it often makes me feel like I lost time by being so passive about my evening, just letting various screens dictate my time.

And so this is part of it. Trying to avoid the passive scrolling and use that time for anything else. Like drawing maps, learning origami, writing, reading, or just actually watching the shows we put on netflix, instead of just creating a background noise to our passivity.

But, yeah, I’ll probably be offline a bit more.

You won’t miss me, because how many of you are even reading this? A blog is like a silent cry into a void! And mine’s no different.

Anyrate, I’ll be writing about terrorism for a while. Hopefully it doesn’t blow up on me the way Songs of my Mother did, but I do think it might be around 100,000 words, which is a lot of words to write.

I’ll let you know when I finish.

a burning green

Last night I finished this new novella, which I discussed a bit just the other day. I didn’t expect to be finished so soon, since I thought I was taking kind of a relaxed pace to this, but I finished it in about eight days. Which, I guess, is pretty relaxed for me, since I’ve finished novels three times this length in roughly the same amount of time.

The first draft is around 21,000 words, and it feels oddly satisfying to already have two novellas finished this year. I thought I’d be taking a long break from writing after finishing Songs of My Mother, but that seems to’ve unintentionally instilled some kind of work ethic in me, or at least a writing habit.

So hopefully I can keep this up, though the next idea I have is for something quiet a bit longer. Perhaps 100,000 words. It’s going to be sort of my largest statement about anarchism, in that I’m building a continent like Europe that will basically just be a bunch of functioning anarchic states.

It should be fun.

But this new novella, it had a pretty unpleasant name during the writing process, but I’ve landed on Born Under a Burning Green for now. It might change, and it might change often, but I like it right now, and it’s pretty appropriate.

It’s about 90% dialogue, really. Most of it is funny to me, though that might just be my own preference. But these two women with pasts that are only ever obliquely alluded to just talk about the world and their place in it. Sort of a pseudophilosophical text in a fantasy world. In many ways, it’s meant to mirror the standard epic fantasy quest storyline while also removing everything that makes that a typical story. So there is a quest, but the reader isn’t really aware of what it is. There are great actions taken, though many of those are left undescribed. And in most stories, these two would be villains, since they do little more than murder humans and monsters alike.

So it’s a black comedy, I think, but also kind of an aggressive text, in that it’s pretty unfriendly. Brutal characters who are, essentially, living in a peaceful world. They don’t so much fight other humans. They butcher them in an often gruesome manner, though a lot of that is left to the imagination. The only things they fight are the monsters which roam the continent. Strange, foul monsters.

But, yeah, weirdly proud of this, partly because of how peculiar it is, but mostly because it’s a very peculiar thing for me to write, and it’s told in a manner that’s unusual for me as well. There’s very little outside of quotation marks. So the whole narrative and world is given through dialogue, which is just kind of a wandering, fun, accidental experiment.

But, yes, it’s finished. I hope you get the chance to read it someday. And I hope you love it.

quiet breaths

I was feeling pretty down earlier today. Pretty down for the last week, plus a few days. I probably don’t need to tell you why, but a lot of it has to do, I think, with how often I kept tabbing over to facebook or twitter.

I’m forming bad habits again. Unhealthy, stifling habits. It’s something I’m actively trying to prevent: spending so much time online.

Tonight I’m going to play Final Fantasy XV, maybe try some origami or draw some maps, or maybe write some more of this novella I’m working on.

The current title is vulgar and only a placeholder, but it’s about two women in a pretty traditional fantasy world. But instead of going on a quest or fighting for some cause, they mostly walk around and talk. Both of them have no education and very little understanding of the world they live in. They know kings and gods have a place but they don’t understand any of it, so much of the novella is made up of philosophical discussions between these two incredibly ignorant characters as they make sense of the world and try to sort it out to one another.

The dynamic is pretty interesting to me, because the novella is about 85% dialogue with very little extraneous descriptions. Because of this, it has kind of a meandering and hopefully naturalistic feel.

The other 15% of the novella is them killing monsters and other people.

So it’s a very violent text, but weirdly fun to write, and endlessly amusing to me. Not the violence, but the conversations. I might even just toss a short section of it in here to give you a taste:

The girl said, “There are no gods. Everybody knows that.”

“Then what is the Tesha?”

The girl shrugged, “Don’t know. Probably just some guy. Who cares?”

Her companion gestured to the dead bodies, “Priests.”

“Priests work as much for the king as they do for the Tesha.”

“What king?”

“What?”

“You said—”

“The fucking king! Shit,” the girl threw down the bone she was whittling. “You know,” she whirled her knife as if the gesture encompassed the whole world, the bracelet of teeth clacking, “the fucking king. Everywhere’s got a king.”

“But which king?”

“Shit, I don’t know. Wherever we are.”

“If we don’t know what he’s king of, what makes him king?”

The girl slumped where she sat and sighed, “You’re really pissing me off.” She picked up the whittled bone and went back at it with the knife, the teeth bracelet rattling with every stroke. The scrape and grind of blade on bone vibrated up her wrist to the elbow.

Across the fire, her companion flayed the head of one of the dead priests, “Don’t see what there’s to get mad over.” Struggling with the skin on the nose, she gave up and sawed through the cartilage and let the severed nose fall to the dirt. “Who says there’s no gods?”

The girl snorted and shook her head, “Everybody.”

“Everybody don’t mean shit. You mean Alton and his family.”

The girl blew the bonedust from her hands and examined the blade she was making out of the bone. Her jaw clenched on one side and she reached down to her feet and groped for something with her eyes still on the bone in her other hand. Grasping at nothing, she looked down and then around her.

“What?” Her companion paused what she was doing.

“There was a grindstone here.”

Her companion whistled and when the girl looked up, her companion tossed it to her. The girl went to grinding the boneblade smooth. “What’re you making?”

Her companion giggled, “Don’t know. Thought I’d make, like, a guitar.”

“With a skull?”

Her companion shrugged, “Not sure I know what a guitar looks like.”

“It’s like,” the girl paused, then giggled along with her companion, “like a thin thing and a hallow thing,” her words collapsed into full on laughter and her companion laughed with her.

The night wore on and the fire burned down to embers.

Her companion said, “Should we add more wood?”

The girl shrugged, “You tired?”

Her companion shrugged and tossed another log onto the embers, then a second. They sizzled, popped, and eventually lit.

“What got the wood wet?”

Her companion shrugged, “Blood, probably.” She was deboning the leg of one of the dead priests. “If there’re no gods, then why is there a Tesha?”

The girl sighed, “Same reason there’s kings, I guess.”

“Why’s that?”

“Shit, I don’t know.”

That’s how the novella begins and it continues in that manner. So it’s a mix of comedy and brutality that’s sort of oddly therapeutic to write. It helps me breathe easier.

It’s interesting to me what I’ve written since completing Songs of My Mother last year. I’ve written a novella inspired by Greenlandic cuisine, Taoism, anarchy, and pacifism, and now I’m writing something that is, in many ways, its opposite: a violent, meandering, chaotic text with ignorant characters who have an undescribed past.

I don’t know what inspired me to write this current novella. In the Greenlandic novella, I was seeking to find an answer to the violence I see in the world. In this, I can’t say I’m looking for anything. Maybe I’m running from something, or trying to explain bits of reality to myself, bits of america to myself. Because I see how the recent frustrations, fears, and concerns are playing out in this short, brutal, comedy.

But, yeah, I’ve also written a handful of poems about Trump. I’m collecting them into a collection titled The Golden King. Maybe it’s a form of resistance or a way for me to write out my greatest fears for the future, but it’s a pretty unpleasant text so far. It’s draining to write those poems and so I’ve only written five, but I think the rest of the collection will be from a different kind of perspective, and hopefully those will give me a sense of hope and peace.

Which is what I’m seeking, first in my own life, and then in the world. It’s why I’m going through the Tao Te Ching every day.

Trying to breathe and live quietly.

Which is not to say passively.

It’s difficult to be at peace right now, to find balance, and sometimes it’s making me feel hopeless, since I see no balance to this. But, ultimately, it’s helping me. Allowing me to step back and see the world with cleaner eyes. Eyes less stained by the brutality of the present.

And I need that. I need to remember that the world is still a beautiful place. That resistance is more than shouting loudly online. Resistance is a complex, multifaceted thing, yet it can be as simple as clearing your thoughts, playing chess, or folding laundry.

Resistance is persistence.

I saw an interesting thread of tweets by an Iranian responding to americans on twitter. He highlighted how Iranians live and enjoy life, even though they live under a brutal theocratic regime (and he reminds us that the US toppled a liberal, democratic government to put the theocratic dictator in place).

It gave me a quiet sense of hope. That life goes on. That even when things seem hopeless, even when life is at its darkest, people still find beauty and love and laughter. They dance, and they sing.

That’s resistance. It’s the kind few talk about, but it’s a terribly important form of resistance: to persist. To love. To live. To laugh. To create art and collaborate with other people. To build friendships.

And it’s inspired me to act on some long-standing plans. Like hosting monthly gatherings (this is in the planning stages, but Chelsea and I have some simple ideas) and then I have some other ideas that require a lot more planning and some funding, but we’ll get there. Even if it takes me years. We’ll get there.

I guess what I mean to say is that it’s important to remember to enjoy life.

So take some quiet breaths and look away from your screen at some point every day, and just talk to another human. Not about politics or current events, but about what interests them, or what interests you.

Maybe just have a beer with friends or take a walk by yourself with headphones on, jamming to music you love. Or take the headphones off and listen to the sounds of winter.

It’s a good day to live, even if everything seems terrible.

glossolalia

Sitting at the Hong Kong airport, about to spend the next dozen hours in the air, and Trump is now president and a thousand other things.

One good thing that happened to me this week is that I finished a new novella. It’s called Glossolalia, or don’t scream it on the mountain.

It’s about one tenth the size of Songs of My Mother and about as opposite of that book as a text can be. I wrote more about both books a month ago. Incidentally, that post is also sort of about Trump, too.

But I’m very happy to have finished this, even if it took me about a month longer than I expected, and mostly because I spent three weeks or more not writing (it was the holidays, and stuff or whatever).

But the novella is influenced a lot by Taoism, anarchy, pacifism, Trump, Kyle Muntz’ new novel, The Effigies, and then all this random research I did about Greenlandic cuisine.

Stay safe and sane, everyone.

I’ll be on  a plane, heading back to Trump’s america.