Watched the final episode of Parks and Recreation, and it was really fun. The episode is built around a series of flash forwards that allow you to see what the characters get up to in the next few years (spoiler alert, they’re all happy forever). And when the episode was ending, I found myself getting surprisingly emotional. My feels did seem out of place for me. I mean, I liked the show, but I didn’t like it more than I liked, for instance, Scrubs, and yet I feel like I got way more emotional at this series finale than I did at that one. Part of it might have been that I wasn’t sure, until the end, whether this was really the series finale or not, since I thought that the final season had 13 episodes (turned out that this double episode was both ep 12 and 13). Thus, the ending of the show kind of snuck up on me.
Other explanation is that my emotions have been closer to the surface recently. However, I feel like I’ve been saying that exact line–“My emotions are closer to the surface right now”–for so long that I’m starting to think I’m actually just a more emotional person nowadays. A frightening thought. Maybe one of these days I’ll become one of those people who feels actual human sadness when a celebrity dies (as opposed to the purely notional and completely unfeeling sadness that celeb deaths normally evince in me).
Parks and Recreation was a really good show. Wholly optimistic. Not dark at all. And one that loved and respected its characters. In most shows, unsympathetic characters tend to be humanized, so that by the end you love them. However, in comedies especially, sympathetic characters often suffer the opposite fate. They become overwhelmed with so many quirks and idiosyncracies and foibles that you start to hate them. I know that Scrubs and How I Met Your Mother, for instance, kind of suffered this fate. By the end of the show, you’d just seen these characters behave in so many unfeeling ways and act so selfishly and whine at such length that, even though each individual incident was explainable and forgivable, their sum total was such as to make you kinda dislike these people.
Parks and Recreation somehow avoided that. Its characterization of Leslie Knope was masterful. I have no idea how they managed to make her so funny and so competent. That was the case with all the characters. They were funny, but they also knew their shit. That’s amazing. I guess workplace comedies sometimes manage that. For instance, I recall that the lawyers in Ally McBeal were pretty good lawyers. But I think it’s surprising because Parks and Rec was about such a bland office and such a bland town and such a bland profession that it would’ve been so easy to go the other way with things. And, in fact, that’s what they kind of started to do in the first season. But then they switched courses and made something amazing. So, you know, kudos.
I have a friend and fellow author, Dominica, who’s really into tarot. I’ve actually never asked her whether she really believes in tarot or not (as in, does she believe it actually tells the future), but I don’t really believe in it. I think it’s mostly just a combination of cold reading (discerning what your audience wants to hear) and vagueness (if you say that someone’s romantic life is going to be rocky, then pretty much everyone will believe it).
However, I really enjoy having her read my cards, and today I realized why!
I think it’s because I tend to fall into ruts in my thinking, especially when I’m focusing on the future. I tend to either think that the thing I am looking for is about to happen. I never think, “Oh, maybe I’ll suffer a failure” or “Maybe I’ll switch directions.” Somehow my mind doesn’t go there. Instead I just take sight of one thing and get really locked in.
Whereas when Dominica reads for me, she’s really good at opening up other possibilities. For instance, in the part of my tarot reading that forecast my writing future, she gave me a card that meant, she said, I was in chrysalis, and that I shouldn’t be too anxious to break free. Which was interesting to me. I don’t think that way. I never think that maybe my current struggle to write is worthwhile and that it’s part of the process. Then the next writing-related card she dealt me was a tree that was on fire, and she said that meant I’d suffer a rejection soon. Again, that’s not something I think about. It’s something I try not to think about: the idea that one of my precious projects will be rejected. But it felt, in some way, valuable to have to face the possibility.
Put one way, this sounds really banal. Obviously, I always knew that maybe I needed to struggle a bit more before I’d find another project. And, equally obviously, I always knew that rejection was a possibility. But even if you don’t believe in it, the tarot deck feels so definite. When the card is in the deck, it’s a possibility. But when it’s laid out on the deck, it feels frighteningly definite. This is real. This is the card you got. It happened. It’s useful as an imaginative exercise. After getting a reading, I feel like I’m able, to some extent, to process the possibility of future misfortune. So it’s pretty worthwhile. Of course, Dominica does it for me for free. On the other hand, maybe it’d work even better if I paid for it…
Might’ve turned the corner on this. I’m zooming through. I continue to be extremely impressed. How does Tolstoy do this so artlessly? He really makes it look easy. The fun thing about re-reading a book is that I can see my old notations. I highlighted so many passages my last time through, but here is one of them. The most fun and muscular thing about Tolstoy is that he has the ability to both comment upon the action as the narrator and to comment upon it as a character. Here he is inside Levin’s head, describing Levin’s thoughts on arguing:
Levin had often noticed in arguments between the most intelligent people that after enormous efforts, an enormous number of logical subtleties and words, the arguers would finally come to the awareness that what they had spent so long struggling to prove to each other had been known to them long, long before, from the beginning of the argument, but that they loved different things and therefore did not want to name what they loved, so as not to be challenged. He had often felt that sometimes during an argument you would understand what your opponent loves, and suddenly come to love the same thing yourself, and agree all at once, and then all reasonings would fall away as superfluous; and sometimes it was the other way round: you would finally say what you yourself love, for the sake of which you are inventing your reasonings, and if you happened to say it well and sincerely, the opponent would suddenly agree and stop arguing. That was the very thing he wanted to say.
Tolstoy, Leo (2004-05-31). Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club) (Russian Classics) (p. 396). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
And here is commenting upon things as himself, Tolstoy (or at least as the narrator), talking about why Levin always loses arguments with his brother:
In the disagreements that occurred between the brothers during their discussions of the peasantry, Sergei Ivanovich always defeated his brother, precisely because Sergei Ivanovich had definite notions about the peasantry, their character, properties and tastes; whereas Konstantin Levin had no definite and unchanging notions, so that in these arguments Konstantin was always caught contradicting himself.
Tolstoy, Leo (2004-05-31). Anna Karenina (Oprah’s Book Club) (Russian Classics) (p. 238). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
Haven’t been feeling very good about myself or about life lately. The usual woes. That’s why I’ve fallen behind on blogging. I just can’t muster up the energy. I haven’t been reading much either (still making my way very slowly through Anna Karenina). I’ve been putting in a lot of writing time, since thinking about story problems relaxes me. However, the writing hasn’t been going particularly well. I think part of it is that I rely on my ability-to-feel to gauge whether or not a particular section of the narrative is working. If it makes me feel things, then I think it’s good. If it doesn’t, then it’s bad. With my ability-to-feel on the fritz, it’s proving more difficult. Not sure what to do about that. Right now I don’t really have any pressing writing matters, since I haven’t heard back about my proposal and I’ve already sent in my novel revisions. I do have an MG novel that I guess I’ll start to revise in a few days now that two friends of mine have given me comments on it. But I’d really like to write something new. I wrote a few short stories earlier in the year, but other than that I feel like I haven’t done anything new since I completed the first draft of the MG novel over the summer. I feel like it’s becoming harder and harder to write. I think that’s largely a matter of higher standards, but who knows? Nothing is clear to me.
(That’s a very Tolstoyan way to end a blog post, by the way. I like his chapter endings. They’re very short. They end exactly at the point where there’s nothing more to be said. Anna Karenina is, in all aspects, an amazing work. It’s like Tolstoy simply sat down and transcribed all the moments in life that matter at all. I’ve tried, here and there, to do that, and I’ve always failed. Just try it sometime. It’s incredibly difficult.)
For years, I was obsessed with tracking my submissions on Duotrope. I’d log in every day–sometimes even multiple times per day–to see if magazines had responded to other stories that had been sent in after mine, and I’d stare at the statistics and try to intuit whether my story had been passed up for more consideration. Which was all a complete waste of time, of course, since it didn’t materially improve my chances of selling the story. What’s more, I knew it was a waste of time, and I resented myself for giving in to the obsession. Finally, when most of Duotrope went behind a paywall, I refused to sign up, and the rejectomancy died down.
Eventually, though, I signed back up for Duotrope, because I felt like the available free options weren’t quite as good when researching literary magazines. And, for awhile, I was worried that I’d slip into old habits. But I haven’t. Like right now I have a few submissions out, and I thought about logging into Duotrope and seeing whether my submissions were out for an unusually long period of time, but I was like, ehh, whatever.
It’s strange. We have these behaviors for so long, and they seem like such an integral part of us. But over time, they disappear or mutate, and even though it’s indicative of a major change in our orientation towards our work and our future, it doesn’t really seem like a big deal, because: a) it happened so gradually; and b) we can’t really remember how obsessed we used to be. At this point, it seems crazy to me to spend so much time worrying about this stuff–to the point where, when other authors tell me that they do it, I tell them that what they’re doing is unhealthy–but for a long a time this sort of obsessing
seemed not just natural, but inevitable.
I got accepted for the Lambda Literary workshop this summer in LA. I mean, I’ve always known that I was an emerging LGBTQ voice…but now someone else knows it too! What’s funny is that I’ve gotten so used to getting rejected for things that when I clicked on the link, I was like, “Oh yep, here I am getting rejected for more things.” I’m actually looking forward to it. They gave me money too, which is cool. Someone on my Facebook page was encouraging people to apply, and I wish I remembered who it was, so I could thank them. I applied to Lambda’s ‘fiction’ and not to their ‘genre fiction’ workshop by the way, because I’d never associate myself with that filthy genre fiction stuff =]
It was nice to get into something. It encouraged me to get out my applications to the Tin House Conference, Sewanee, Bread Loaf, etc. Tin House, in particular, has rejected me flat-out, twice in a row? What is this? It’s always weird when a place won’t allow you to paythem money to attend their conference.
Right now is also the time of year when people are hearing back from Clarion and from MFAs and other application-type stuff. I’ve already heard back from a few friends and online acquaintances. Some have happy news. Others have not-so-happy news. In both cases, I feel like the answer is largely luck. If your application gets in front of the right reader at the right time, then you’re in. This is especially true (as is usually the case w/ my friends) when you’re a genre writer who’s applying for an MFA. It’s a pretty tough sell. Especially when you’re writing core genre material. If you’re writing stuff with swords or spaceships, it’s hard. Whereas if you’re writing things with zany SF elements like, I don’t know, a robot that follows you around and reminds you that someday you too will die, then it’s a lot easier. Basically, MFA programs are good at sniffing out your pedigree. And if it smells like your SF has a more literary pedigree, then it’s a lot easier. I tell this to some people and they understand it immediately, while I tell it to others and they get very confused and demand to know what the hell I am talking about.
I don’t know. Just go out and read George Saunders and David Foster Wallace and Aimee Bender and Kelly Link and Miranda July and Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem and eventually you’ll just start to get a sense of the difference. SF-tinged literary fiction has a very definite aesthetic to it. And while some genre SF fits into that aesthetic (the work of Maureen McHugh comes to mind), there’s also lots of perfectly awesome genre fiction (Ted Chiang, for instance) that’s a bit too nuts and bolts to really fit within the current literary SF aesthetic. Not saying that Ted Chiang couldn’t get into an MFA program, though. Just that it might be a bit harder.
The reason that other writers are terrible at commiserating with their colleagues over their failures.
When I was a sophomore in college, my roommate, Matt, once reproached me for the terrible job I was doing consoling him for something (a bad grade on a test? I don’t know). After he told me about the grade, I started giving him advice on how to study better, and he said something like, “Rahul, this is an example of the difference in the way that the genders handle other peoples’ problems. Men tend to give advice on how people can fix their problems, whereas women try to alleviate the emotional pain that the other person is feeling as a result of their problem. And when people tell you their problems, they–regardless of their gender–usually want commiseration instead of advice.”
Anyway, I have no idea whether that generalization is true, but it’s stuck with me for years. When people come to me with their problems, my natural tendency is still to give them advice, but I do my best to squash it.
For years, I’d use I’m-feeling-your-pain types of commiseration (i.e. “Oh, that’s so awful” or “Oh, that must be terrible for you.”)
However, I eventually realized that I’m-feeling-your-pain statements tend to sound heavily constructed, insincere, and a little patronizing. Like, err, no, of course you don’t feel my pain. How could you? Also, why do I care whether or not you feel my pain? I mean, I suppose this type of commiseration can be helpful in limited cases, when I’m worried whether or not it’s okay to feel bad about something. But, in general, I think they’re of limited effectiveness in making people feel better.
So that’s when I began a journey deep into the heart of misery and started to really think about why various misfortunes feel terrible. And I realized that, at least for me, most misfortunes are fundamentally pretty minor. Getting a novel rejected or getting turned down by a romantic prospect is not a huge deal in and of itself. There’s always another novel. There’s always another prospect. No, the real problem is that these setbacks tend to undermine my sense of self by making me think, “Huh, maybe I am a terrible writer” or “Huh, maybe I am an undesirable person.”
(And that’s also the reason that some misfortunes don’t require any commiseration. For instance, I not infrequently get ripped off or make terrible buying decisions that have, at times, cost me thousands of dollars. But since I don’t think of myself as a savvy consumer or a sharp, discerning negotiator, this kind of stuff really doesn’t bother me)
So whenever I want commiseration from people, I want them to shore up my sense of self by telling me something like, “No, you’re still a great writer” or “No, you’re still awesome!”
Incidentally, this is why other writers make terrible commiserators. I find that there tends to be a strong instinctive belief, within the writing world, in meritocracy. For instance, when my first novel got rejected by publishers, almost all my writing friends said something like, “Oh no, it sucks that that happened. Publishing is such difficult business.” Which carries within it an implied criticism (“You need to work hard if you’re going to make it in this very tough business.”) It takes a very generous-hearted writer to say something like “No, those editors were wrong. You deserved to sell that book” because most writers carry within them the faith that if a book is good enough, then it will sell, and that if it doesn’t, then it’s probably bad*.
So there it is. It’s simple. If someone comes to you with a problem, all you’ve got to do is figure out the part of their self-image that’s been weakened, and do your best to bolster it. It’s better if you use specifics (i.e. “You are an amazing writer because of X, Y, and Z reasons”). But, actually, even generalities tend to work pretty well on me. I’m always willing to believe good stuff about myself.
*Most writers also believe that it’s possible for bad books to sell, but let’s not get into that.
And that made me remember my major criticism of the book, which is that the final third of the book is pretty superfluous. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the book is about a heroic corporate executive who struggles to keep her railway afloat even as the United States implements increasingly authoritarian collectivist policies. About two thirds of the way through the book, though, she discovers that all her fellow industrialists (who’ve been disappearing throughout the book) are holed up in a secret colony in Colorado where they’re waiting for the United States to collapse (after which they’ll come out of the canyon and create a better and freer USA). Anyway, Dagny decides to leave the canyon because she can’t accept that her train system needs to be destroyed, and then a whole bunch of other stuff happens and she regrets her decision, etc, etc.
However, everything that happens in the book after she decides to leave the secret colony is, both from a plot and a thematic standpoint, entirely superfluous. She’s already made her decision. She’s heard what the other industrialists are planning, and she agrees with it, but she’s not willing to make the sacrifices that the plan will demand. And from the moment she goes back to her desk and tries to run the railroad, we know that she is doomed. We know that there is no way for a person like her to operate within the system that Rand has created.
The problem with the book is that it doesn’t trust its readers to understand that Dagny has made the wrong choice. And that while her choice was laudable, it was also sentimental and blind and fearfful. Instead, it needs to spend hundreds of pages maneuvering everything into place so that she’s converted, even though everything that happens has a sense of inevitability to it. Oh, and it also needs to give room for its hero to make a 50 page speech about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.
It’s silly. If you’re going to write a novel to support an idea, then write the novel. And trust that your characters and your plots have enacted it. Another novel that’s crippled in the same way is The Jungle. Upton Sinclair wanted to write a novel about how industrial society is destroying poor immigrant families, so he wrote an absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking novel. And then, after the family has fallen to pieces, the novel goes completely off the rails and the main hero becomes a socialist and we spend dozens of pages listening to speeches.
I think the desire here is to leave the audience with both: a) a sense of hope; and b) a call to future action. It’s not enough to convince them that the problem is real; you also need to convince them that your solution is the right one.
And I think that’s great.
People all the time will say something like, “Don’t write a novel to sell an agenda.” Which is obviously incorrect. There’ve been tons of people who’ve written novels in service of ideas and agendas. Personally, I’m even a big fan of putting a huge explication into the novel. I think that if you have something you’re trying to say, then it’s a moral necessity to actually come out and say it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it, then you shouldn’t let it ruin the plot and character arc of your book.
If you want to include a long explication of your philosophy in your novel, there’s a very easy mechanism for doing it. You just include an essay-length addendum. Tolstoy has an absolutely fascinating 30,000 word epilogue in War And Peace where he tries to make some nonsensical point about God and God’s plan for the Earth (Napoleon is involved somehow too). Admittedly, no one reads it, but anyone who wants to read it can do so (I read and loved it). And, more importantly, he didn’t pervert the structure of his novel in order to include it! He didn’t figure out a way to turn Prince Bezubhov into a mystic who was revealed these secrets on a mountain somewhere. No. He just ended Bezubhov’s story in an apropriately tragic fashion…and then he stepped out from behind the curtain and explained himself. (George Bernard Shaw was also famous for doing this in the prefaces to his plays).
I’m not a huge fan of vacations. They’re just not my style. First of all, I find all the planning and spending money to be a bit stressful. I also don’t like the alienation of travel. I really try to limit all trips. Even conventions, while fun, aren’t a high priority for me. Even more, I’m not sure that I buy into the vacation concept. I guess there are two theories of vacationing. The first is that you live life at a higher intensity for a few weeks and accumulate some memories that you can hold close even when you’re stuck with the day-to-day. The second is that you relax and accumulate some ease-of-mind that you’ll eventually fall back upon when life gets too difficult.
Neither one has ever sat well with me. When I’m on one of those higher-intensity vacations, I always feel a melancholy. It makes me so aware of the fact that all things are transient. And when I’m on a relaxation-vacation, I feel like as though all of this well-being is going to disintegrate the moment I return to ordinary life.
Anyway, this is just a long way of saying that I’ve done absolutely nothing for the last two days except watch The West Wing and play this roguelike game, Sunless Seas, that my friend Chris recommended on his blog. And it’s been not-unfun, I suppose.
This is the time I’d allotted to trying to work on my next novel-for-adults. I have a vague concept in mind for it, but nothing has quite gelled. I don’t know. I feel like a bit of a slacker. I haven’t completed a major project since writing the first draft of my MG novel back in June. I feel as though I’m in a bit of a rebuilding period in terms of my work, but I’d really like to stop rebuilding and start building. That, to me, is the real vacation. I love that feeling of really understanding a project and flying through it. I never feel so confident and excited and at-ease as I do when I’m halfway through writing a novel. It’s all the excitement of the wildest vacation you can imagine, and it doesn’t cost a cent.
I’ve been rewatching season one of The West Wing, and in that show there’s a plotline where some political opponents of the President try to embarrass his Chief of Staff, Leo, by revealing that Leo spent time, seven years ago, in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. And in the show, this is treated like a completely cynical and absurd move, because we know Leo! He’s so wise and caring and responsible! Obviously no one could ever doubt that the world is a better place with Leo in charge!
However, I’m not sure it is an absurd objection. First of all, before someone goes off all half-cocked on me, please note that I’m a recovering alcoholic myself (with five years of sobriety), and that I’m not proposing that anyone in real life be fired from their job (also, firing someone for their recovery status would be, under the ADA, an illegal act).
But you have to wonder…Leo is in a position of immense responsibility, where he needs to exercise sound judgment every day. He’s also in a position that entails lots of stress and lots of temptation. Most people have an awful day here or there. But when a recovering alcoholic has an awful day, there is a non-zero chance that he will start drinking. And if he starts drinking, then there’s a very good chance that the next few months (or years, or decades) of his life are going to be filled with dropped responsibilities, unsound judgment, poor mental acuity, mood swings, heart problems, criminal behavior, lying, panic, depression, rage, etc.
So I have to say that alcoholism, even when you’re in recovery, seems like a definite downside for a person. In most cases, though, the downside is ameliorated because if a person starts drinking, their performance tends to tail off pretty quickly, and they can be fired relatively easily. In Leo’s case, though, you have to wonder. He’s basically a shadow president (a Dick Cheney figure). How long would it take to fire him? How much damage would he do in the meantime?
I think what’s scary about this thought experiment, though, is that every person runs this sort of risk every single day. I mean, for most people, it’s not alcoholism, but it’s something. Anyone can have a nervous breakdown or a psychotic episode or a period of depression. Anyone can have a stroke or early-onset Alzheimer’s or just a gradual decrease of mental abilities. Anyone can become arrogant and detached and really full of themselves. Anyone can become nervous and withdrawn and fearful. Basically, past performance is never a guarantee. Anyone’s abilities can fail them at any time.
We pretend like there are two states in life: “healthiness” and “disaster”. And we pretend that, barring disasters, we can expect such and such a span of health.
But when we shove disaster aside in that little phrase, ‘barring disaster’, we ignore that…well…disaster will come. It’s unavoidable. It’s like, i remember a conversation I once had with a young Silicon Valley guy. He was talking about how he exercised and didn’t smoke or drink and he ate kale and did everything perfectly and, as such, he could expect to live to be 100.
So (ignoring whether that number is sound on an actuarial level or not), I said, “Yeah, but you could get hit by a bus tomorrow? Or some free radical could shoot through one of your cells and flip it over into a cancer cell.”
And he was like, “Oh yeah, I meant barring all that stuff.”
Which is fine, I guess, and I knew what he meant. But that is the stuff. That’s the stuff that happens. We pretend like death and disease only come to those who ‘deserve’ them. We pretend like only alcoholics suffer breakdowns and terrible mood swings. We pretend that only smokers get cancer. And, more insidiously, the moment someone falls ill, we re-label them. They’re not like us. They’re disabled people. We’re not disabled. We’re healthy. We know, intellectually, that there is no moral difference between us and them, but just being able to think of it in those terms–as two very separate camps–is comforting, because it ignores how easy it is to cross from one into the other.