I’m hitting that part of a creative spike where things like eating and sleeping fill me with irritation, because they take time away from writing. Anything that calls me out of the other worlds I’m building tap-by-tap is resented. Well, not quite anything–the kids and the dogs get a dispensation, but even when I’m with them or tending their needs, a part of me is running over a story or two in the back of my brain, shake-tapping the pieces so they’ll fall together when I can sit down and write again.
It’s funny, but now that the kids are older, they’ve started attempting to take care of me. The Princess will bring in fresh soft pretzels, the Little Prince will keep the dogs occupied while I’m hunched over my keyboard, alternately chewing my fingernails and typing at high speed. They’re bloody thrilled to take care of supper one day a week, and slightly less thrilled to keep the kitchen clean but they do it anyway. It is an exotic thing, to have one’s children call you to the table for supper. It’s like the moment they can buckle their own seatbelts. The pride in their achievement is married to a sneaking sense of mild loss and a larger wistfulness, hoping against hope that one isn’t forcing them to grow up too quickly.
Another symptom of the creative spike is intense, color-saturated, extremely fragrant dreams. Last night it was a particular classroom I haven’t thought about in years, but every detail–including the nasty short orange-flecked nylon carpet–apparently stayed inside the recesses of my gray matter, as well as the particular smell of chalk and the brand of fabric softener the teacher used on her slightly sour clothes. You know the smell–when they sit in the washer for a while, and finally they’re run through the dryer, but that tang of mildew remains? I always wondered why she smelled like that, and apparently my brain is still pawing lightly at the question. And dream-me is still running her fingertips along the edge of my desk in that room, every chip and crack familiar.
Anyway, the classroom started to crack and shiver, and neon-green jungle vines crawled in through the sides. I sat frozen as my classmates screamed in terror. All I felt was weary delight that finally school was out for the day.
I’m sure there’s some sort of message there, but I’m just going to call it a sort of mental upchucking to make room in the belly for other things. The only trouble with those dreams is that they’re not quite as restful as plain sleep, so I wake feeling frayed and even more irritated, desperate to get back to writing.
So. It’s Monday, I almost carried the French press and my clothes into the shower with me, I am fractious and longing to lose myself in imaginary worlds. It could be a lot worse, really.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “protecting the work.”
I ran across the concept years ago, in this essay by Jennifer Crusie. Much like my beloved writing partner’s “it makes me tired,” it’s a phrase I absorbed and had to spend a long time learning to apply.
I’m slow, yes, but I can be taught. Just ask said writing partner.
I ran up against a wall last week. A high creative spike collided with some…unfortunate news. The energy I’d been using to create a new world from scratch evaporated into Dealing With Bullshit, and I ended up drained to transparency, my nerves raw exposed sparking wires and my fists aching for the heavy bag I still haven’t had the time to hang up. (Even though we’ve been in this house for *mumblemumble* years now.) I knew the signs–I’d hit burnout, and in a big way. Self-care was called for, so I took the weekend off, read a few books, hung out with the kids, brushed the dogs, did housework, and only wrote 200 words each day. *sigh*
What do you do when burnout is a real and looming problem? Here’s a few strategies.
* Admit there’s a problem. It sounds stupid-simple, right? I always think of my therapist introducing me to the transtheoretical model of change–specifically, the precontemplation part, where you begin to think about thinking about changing. A possibility one does not admit is a possibility lying fallow. Admitting to yourself that your work has value, your energy is finite, and you are worth conserving some of said energy to spend on what you want and like doesn’t sound like a big deal, but without it there’s a snowball’s chance in a forest fire you’ll be able to protect yourself. Protecting yourself is part of protecting your work.
* Small wins. I can tell when I have enough energy, because I can look at the master to-do list taped above my desktop and feel excited instead of crushed under a heavy load of pointlessness. When the latter happens, I flip the list so I can’t see it and say out loud, “I need a win.” Which is my verbal signal to start looking for something easy and quick that I can feel good about. Like setting a kitchen timer for five minutes and writing. When the timer rings, I feel good because I did at least that. Or I do three pushups–just three. That’s a small win. There are a couple games I keep on easy mode for when I need the dopamine jolt of a quick victory. Cooking an egg. Pulling a few weeds. The whole point is to take five minutes and do something that gives you a tangible “win,” no matter how small. Stack a few of those little wins together, and somehow the rest of the day’s work doesn’t feel as daunting.
* Retract. I call this one “going into my cave.” There is absolutely no shame in curling up under a blanket for a little while. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your own creative process requires you to put an edit letter in a drawer for a week before getting to work on it. You are not required to be on social media when you don’t want to deal with harassment, or when you’re tired, or when you just plain don’t want to be there. Give yourself concrete and definite withdrawal time; build it into your schedule just as you build in commute time for work or appointments. Note: if you’re worried about becoming isolated, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, which is why I say “definite time.” You can always add a few minutes/hours to a scheduled retraction, or decide to re-engage with the world early if you’re feeling super good.
* Clean. Or don’t clean. Housework (or yard work, or any other small chores involved with living) can be therapy. It can also be procrastination, or a “not-good-enough” stick to beat yourself with. Sundays are generally full-family “cleaning days” here at Chez Saintcrow, with the kids and I doing several 20/10s to make our living space reasonable for the next week. I love the 20/10s so much–it’s a version of giving myself a small win. When I’ve finished a zero draft and the flywheel inside my head is trying to slow down, cleaning gives me enough moving around and tangible progress to provide a little relief. Sometimes, when stuck in a scene, I’ll wash dishes or fold laundry until it resolves itself. Chores can be a help to creativity. On the other hand, they can be total procrastination, or you can get overwhelmed and slide down a long slope of “I should be tidier” straight into “fucking depressed because my living space isn’t surgically neat.” In that case, you can use a 20/10 to break out of that despondency and show yourself tangible progress, or you can repeat after me: “Can I get to the exit if there’s a fire? Yes? Good, I’m not going to worry about that right now.” Give yourself permission not to feel like crap over housework.
* Bitch. I’m serious. If you have a trusted friend you can bitch to, great. Set aside some time for a rant session. (Make sure you’re not simply unloading on your poor friend. Have definite time limits for the session, and negotiate beforehand so your friend knows they don’t have to fix it, just listen.) If you don’t have that trusted friend, or don’t want to “bother” them, set a pillow in a chair and rant out loud to it for a specific amount of time. DON’T rant on the internet, anonymously or not–on that route lies shit-stirring, don’t give jerkwads a chance to bite you. DON’T yell at your pets, kids, or houseplants. I like the pillow-in-the-chair because it’s difficult for me to anthropomorphize a pillow. (I tried ranting at a sockmonkey once, and ended up apologizing to it for hurting his feelings.) Don’t ever underestimate the power of a good bitch session for letting off internal pressure and freeing up a ton of energy that can go into your work once you’ve finished complaining. Sometimes, trembling on the edge of burnout, I’ve spent as much as twenty minutes ranting, getting as petty and vicious as I want to be…and, at the end of the session, I feel so much better it’s not even funny, and I go back to work with a tranquil smile.
Dealing effectively with burnout is only part of protecting your work. Tomorrow, I’m going to write about another part–being your own bodyguard.
* Does it count as six kilometers if you had to drag an Australian shepherd for the last two because other dogs were everywhere?
* …where the fuck is the tofu?
* Did I turn the washer on?
* No, really, where is the tofu?
* Is that dog drool or…you know, let’s just not even ask.
* Did I remember to put coffee in the grounds basket? (Gods forgive me, I hadn’t.)
* WHAT DID I MEAN TO PUT ON THE GROCERY LIST?
* Do I really have to eat something? (I decided eating was bullshit and I had to get the shopping done before the drunks get on the road.)
* WHO MOVED THE FUCKING TOFU?
* Did I turn the washer on? (No, I hadn’t. It was sitting there, with clothes and soap, patiently waiting.)
* Where are the dogs? (“Underfoot” is always the answer. I tripped over one of them and almost fell on the other.)
* Oh. I moved the tofu. It’s already marinating. When did I do that?
* …wait, why do I have the beans on? (It’s chili night. I shouldn’t have bothered with the tofu.)
* Why isn’t that scene working? Who do I have to kill to make it work?
* Did I really just drop that? (Thank God it wasn’t glass. THAT time.)
* IT IS BEFORE NOON ON THE 3RD, WHY ARE SO MANY PEOPLE DRUNK ON THE ROAD?
* Was that sodden lump of something on the pavement a squirrel or a rabbit? (I don’t know, it was already dead and in the middle of the road and I was going thirty miles an hour, it was hard to tell.)
* Should I figure out how to go back and scrape it up and bury it? (No, I’d get run over. SHUT UP, CONSCIENCE.)
* Am I going to drop this bottle of shampoo/bottle of mineral water/bottle of rye whiskey/package of ten bars of soap/bunch of bananas/any other random thing I’m holding?
* Is that woman going to let both of her young children careen around the grocery store unsupervised while she’s on her phone? (Oooh, ouch, that one just tried to run over an old man…)
* Is that woman on the phone talking about Kenny Chesney? Who talks about him for more than thirty seconds AT MOST, AND ONLY IF FORCED TO?
* Why am I dropping everything I touch?
* When will I hit my absurdity limit and find all this funny? (Hint: it happened at about 11am. Since then, well, you get the idea.)
* Seriously, do I have to wash my bra when I get home?
* WHERE IS THE TOFU…wait, don’t tell me…
* Did I forget my debit card? Please tell me I didn’t forget my debit card.
* Do they suddenly not stock oatmeal here? (No, they do, I was right in front of it and if it was a venomous animal, I’d be dead.)
* Huh. Is that pair of small children with tiny shopping carts pretending to be cats or racer drivers? (They tried to take out another elderly man, but he was too quick for them.)
* Wow. Is that woman with them STILL on the phone? (Yes. Yes she was.)
* Is it worth telling the woman on her phone that her hellspawn children are going to get her sued?
* Did I remember tofu?
* What else was on the list? (The list had been left in the car, because it was Just That Kind Of Morning.)
* GOD DAMN IT, WHAT ELSE WAS ON THE LIST?
* …was it mouthwash? (It was. That was my one victory. Remembering the mouthwash.)
* Did I really just use the evil eye on those two small children with their tiny shopping carts? (I did.) Is that woman still on the phone? (She was.) Did the evil eye work? (It did. Until they got to the checkout.)
* Should I put the whiskey back? (Don’t be an idiot, Lili. You’re going to need that shit.)
* Did I just make a Gloria Gaynor reference to my checker? (I did.)
* Did the checker just laugh and knock over a bottle of mineral water? (She did.)
* Did we both stand there laughing like loons? (Yes. Yes we did.)
* Did those children scamper out into the parking lot and get run over by a black Escalade? (Almost. I shouted, another woman lunged to catch the taller/older child almost by the hair, the taller/older child had realized something was wrong and grabbed the smaller one’s arm, and that motherfucking woman with them was STILL on the phone. Didn’t even thank the Good Samaritan. But I did.)
* I only wore my brassiere for an hour and a half, do I really have to wash it?
Fortunately, my clumsiness was funny to me, my patience lasted, I decided I did not need to launder my brassiere, the tofu will keep until lunch tomorrow, I killed no-one, and I do not have to leave the house on the Glorious Fourth AT ALL. And at least the two small children with the tiny shopping carts (and mother STILL on the goddamn phone babbling something Kenny Chesney) were safely in their own car the last I saw.
Now I have to go check the fridge. I am possessed of a completely irrational, sneaking suspicion that the tofu has been moved…
I spend a good bit of time thinking about the little old lady I want to be. From growing my hair out now (I will never, ever have short hair again, I swear unto my patron goddess) to checking my smile to make sure the lines I want will etch themselves on my face, to pricing swordcanes (look, just because I’m old shouldn’t mean I’m helpless) to working on brain flexibility–you get the idea.
I have a horror of losing mental acuity. For a long time I thought a lovely, agile brain was the only thing I had to recommend me. Nowadays I value myself slightly more, but the habit of regarding my own prospective mental loss with intense horror has remained. That’s why I keep going back to the piano, and playing around with languages. I’ve shifted to Korean and (my first love) Latin, since I’ll need to spend serious time on them both–French and Spanish are lovely, but it feels like cheating to practice them at the same time I’m studying Latin, you know? Also, Duolingo has just released their Japanese pack. That seems like a good way to spend multiple hours.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying something I’ve been mulling over for a while. It’s never too late, and you are never too old, to find something that delights you. Getting in the habit of looking for delightful things and playing with new stuff is an investment in your future self. If what makes you happy is problematic or nerdy or strange, don’t let that stop you from gaining what enjoyment you can from it. We’re here for such a brief period, might as well find neat things to play with in the meantime.
People tend to calcify as they get older, and it seems such a shame. Practicing juicy flexibility now, in order to retain it as long as possible, looks a much better way to be. Besides, if one approaches things like, say, new technology, in the spirit of play, being okay with making mistakes and poking until you find out new ways of using it, learning is ever so much easier. When you’re “just playing,” a lot of mistakes are recoverable.
It helps to be in the habit of going, “Huh, I’m wrong, let’s find out some cool stuff together!” or “I don’t know, let’s look it up.” Parenting taught me that it’s okay to admit being wrong and trying again. It is, in fact, not just okay but preferable. Kids tend to respect an adult who admits, “Hey, I fucked up, let’s revisit that.” It cuts out so much bullshit.
We could all do with a little less bullshit.
So, my advice for today: spend some time thinking about the old person you want to be, or even just planning for your future self. The mask you wear will become your real face, if you do it long enough. It’s far better to consciously choose than to let it be thrust upon you, or being blindly reactive.
Some readers are upset because Svin isn’t Jill or Dante. She’s more like the name-shifting narrator of She Wolf–dedicated, and all right with murder if it gets the job done. One isn’t meant to get inside Svin’s head very far, and if she was a male protagonist, she probably would be called an antihero.
Since she’s most definitely not male, she’s called cold and distant.
This is very much like the reader fury over Jill and Saul’s relationship. Much of that fury dissipated when I noted publicly that if their genders were reversed, nobody would blink. It would, in fact, slot that romance neatly into the gumshoe/classy dame noir space. Funny, right?
I laugh, until I don’t.
Even Cormorant’s editors had difficulty with Svin. She isn’t likable, or approachable. She has her own agenda, and the reader isn’t allowed to take over her body. Nobody is allowed to do that, which is not normal for female characters in our culture. There’s also deliberate craft decisions I made, like no self-talk in italics–a hallmark of my style, one could say. It forced me to write differently, especially when Svin’s interacting with Barko or Vetch.
I knew readers would be expecting Svin to be more like Jill, or Dante, or even Selene or Emma Bannon or or or. But femininity is not a one-stop “strong woman” shop. Svin is just as feminine as any of them; she is part of the full range of female expression. It irks me that if I’d written her as a man (and/or under a male nom de guerre et plume) there probably would have been an avalanche of “ooooh, smexy brooding antihero!” Or, in the latter case, cookies and head-pats.
We have a long way to go. Sometimes the way gets goddamn rocky, and I get tired. Since I’ve written (and continue to write) chicks-in-leather and romance, I’m clearly not a Serious Writer of Science Fiction, right? I should have made my female protagonist in my love letter to Soviet sci-fi more “likable”, catered to different expectations, right?
Fuck that noise. Always and ever, fuck that goddamn noise.
I like writing romance. I like writing urban fantasy. I like writing fantasy. I like writing sci-fi. I like writing steampunk alt-history. Ad infinitum. I like telling a variety of stories, and that’s not going to change. I do not write by committee, I write what the story wants, and I’m pretty sure that’s what readers keep coming around for.
There’s always the chance that I just didn’t pull off my vision clearly enough, of course. (No doubt plenty of “objective” assholes will chalk it up that way.) But I did what I set out to do, and I didn’t truckle. I’m a hack, sure, but a prideful one.
And Svin is an unabashedly female character. If she doesn’t fit someone’s idea of what a woman should be, that’s not her problem.
Sunday night, the washer stopped working, and the Little Prince spilled a whole glass of ice water all over his nightstand. Plus there was the dropping of things, a couple other breakages, and even though I’d managed to get my housecleaning chores done, the entire thing just made me want to go to bed.
Cue up Monday, a flooded utility room because of the washer–I love my children, but I swear to God, the next time one of them puts a chunk of duct tape through the washer they are cleaning that goddamn room to white-glove–and finding out the major medication I rely on to allay the panic attacks somehow, mysteriously, just tripled in price since last month, and it wasn’t cheap before.
Needless to say, I was more than ready to crawl into bed and just consign the whole day to the dustheap. I rolled with it, sure, and it was even funny in places, but that shit is exhausting. I challenged Monday and it didn’t break me, it just made me tired.
On the bright side, I may get a zero of the werewolf novella out today. That will set it up for revision and release in a little while, and I’ll have to start thinking about cover design. I want to do the Beguine books/novellas myself; we’ll see what happens. Meanwhile, once the werewolf zero is done there’s the Veil Knights book to revise, then it’s into the wilds of Afterwar to make that book as good as possible before it goes off to the editor as a Reasonable, Grown-Up First Draft. In between all that I do have to prep the genie-and-accountant story, and there’s a suspense book I want to write, not to mention the sequel to The Marked.
Now if all this work would just pay me a living wage, I’d be all set. *sigh*
I’m not very cheerful today, so if you see me around and I don’t wave or make eye contact, it’s because I’m buttoned up tightly to keep the stabby-stabby from escaping.
First order of business: that damn washing machine.
Yesterday, I hit my limit, and muted a few words from my Twitter stream. I just got overwhelmed, and caught myself thinking several times that perhaps the people who voted that malignant mango-colored mudhole in deserve the pain they’re about to experience. The trouble with that is so many innocent people will also suffer, and when I find myself wishing for justice without mercy it’s a sign I need to back away and take a few deep breaths.
Anyway. I put together a “Fuck it, I’m going to the library” T-shirt on Zazzle. Yesterday, in the middle of trying to chip recalcitrant words from my cortex (who would have thought that werewolf smut would fight me so hard?) I got an email saying that a library hold had come in. So I threw up my hands and went to pick it up, and got a few movies to watch and some Preacher graphic novels to read as well. All in all, it was a pleasant hour, and I managed some wordcount when I got back.
The hold was for Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. I don’t know what I expected, but only a few pages in and I’m ready to slap the asshole she’s writing about. It’s a combination of how he treats his poor horse and the fact that Gilbert doesn’t even think to ask about said horse that irritates me. Of course, I read Krakauer’s Into the Wild and suffered the same longing. The idolizing of a selfish asshat who goes “out into the wilderness to find himself”, leaving a trail of destruction and suffering among the people who care for him, is something I find particularly repugnant.
So today: a short run with Miss B, more werewolf smut, a short chapter from the POV of a new addition to the Roadtrip Z crew, and maybe, if I’m very good and the gods of plotting while running are kind, a stab at a space-midwife story.