Surrey International Writers’ Conference

This weekend I’ll be in Vancouver (BC, not Oregon) at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Here’s my schedule, if you want to come to any of events or just say hi.

Fri Oct 19, 2018

12:45pm – 2:15pm “Meet and Mingle Luncheon” This is supposed to be a good chance for guests and attendees to meet and chat, so you should feel free to come up and say hi if you see me!

2:15pm – 3:30pm Breaking the Rules Workshop. This is the convention version of my online Breaking the Rules class (http://rachelswirsky.com/rules/)

3:45pm – 5pm World Building panel with Nalo Hopkinson, Cat Rambo, and Stephanie Stein, moderated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

5pm – 6:30pm Socializing at the hotel bar. Come say hi!

 

Sat Oct 20, 2018

10am – 11:15am Detail & Image Workshop (http://rachelswirsky.com/detail/)

12:45pm – 2:15pm “This Day We Write Luncheon” Another chance to come chat.

2:15pm – 3:45pm Blue Pencil Session This is where you can make a 15-minute appointment to have me read and critique 3 pages of your work (for free!). https://www.siwc.ca/blue-pencil-cafe/

5:30pm – 7pm Book signing. If you would like to buy a copy of my collection Through the Drowsy Dark, there will be some for sale at the conference. I’m also happy to sign loose paper or bookplates!

 

Sun Oct 21, 2018

11:30am – 12:45pm Second Blue Pencil Session

12:45pm – 2pm Closing Lunch. I may have to leave this one early to get ready for my trip home.

If anyone here is going to be at the conference and want to hang out, let me know!

My Life in Cats: Masque

This is Masque who belongs to friends of ours in Portland. We actually raised Masque from kittenhood at about three weeks when we found her and her brothers in our backyard. We bottlefed her, and weaned her onto solids, and wiggled the cat toys very gently on the ground so she could attack.

Masque lived with us for several years, but there was a lot of strife in the household by the end. After we got Masque fixed, she decided that she liked humans but she was no longer into the idea of other cats. Her brothers, with whom she had previously been very close, were very confused, and kept trying to play with and cuddle her. She was having none of it, so there were a lot of howling cats dashing around.

Since Masque moved up to Portland from California where we raised her, she’s become a floof. The winter has inspired her coat to become lush.

She runs away from me sometimes when we go to the friends’ house. I tell her that she’s ungrateful. “I raised you from a three-week-old kitten,” I say, and, “I bottle-fed you.”

If I stay long enough, she eventually comes to flop down next to me.

So, she’s like, half-grateful.

My life in cats: Kennedy

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This is Kennedy. She lives with my friend Jenna. Kennedy is quite pretty, and Kennedy is quite aloof. She really likes Jenna. The rest of us are not that interesting. Although, if she is sitting on her scratching post, then she is willing to accept gentle patting, perhaps.

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She may have been a rescue from a hoarder’s house, which perhaps explains some of her wariness.

Despite the lack of petting, I realized that Kennedy had decided we were people who belonged to her when my friends fostered another cat. Kennedy became jealous and demanded all the attention. Our attention included.

Kennedy sometimes gets very angry at the downstairs bathroom.

How do you handle writer’s block?

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There are a few different kinds of writer’s block.

One kind is medical. If one of my chronic illnesses is flaring up, I may not be able to write. It’s hard to write through a migraine, for instance. It’s also hard to work through things that are less acute than migraines, but last for a long time, like depressive episodes. It can feel like it’s never going to be possible to write again, and that the block is something you’re just faking, and could get through if you just tried hard enough.

I think one of the best solutions is to be gentle with yourself about it. Hammering yourself and making yourself feel guilty because of your health is in the way is only likely to make you miserable and increase your stress–which can make the health problem worse. It can be hard to be generous with yourself, especially when the illness is lasting a long time and you have deadlines. Do what you can–but when you can’t do more, keep it in perspective. You may be doing more work than you think you are, and mental work counts, too.

Mental work is the other kind of block that I find most often afflicts me. This is when there’s something wrong with the story that I have to solve before I can continue. For instance, in my current novella project, the main character is speaking in first person, past tense, so I needed to know what timeframe she was speaking from, and how she felt about events. What is she trying to communicate? Because the story lies in how she feels about what she’s “saying,” whether she’s literally telling someone else that or not.

While I didn’t know that, I couldn’t compose, because I couldn’t know how she’d feel about or relate events. I tried, of course, and I tried a few different angles on it. I talked about it with people and took other measures to deal with the problem intellectually. But in the end, I personally need to have an emotional connection with the story that I can’t just intellectually engage. A lot of mental work was happening in the back of my brain, and at some point, my subconscious was like, “Yeah, I’ve worked that out now. I’m feeling it.”

This is also a time to be generous with yourself and your pace. Tying yourself in knots about your progress can cause it to be even harder to have that psychological breakthrough. Mental work doesn’t always feel like work because it doesn’t produce words on the page, but it is work, and it’s necessary work. Give yourself credit for it.

Those are the primary types of writer’s block I experience. Do you experience a different variety?

My life in cats: Europa

Europa

For some reason, my friends’ cat Europa has recently decided that Mike and I are people who are supposed to be around. She’s acting much more friendly, and sometimes doing things like rolling around on her back to get my attention. I don’t feed her, so that’s not it.

It’s nice, though.

(By the way, she does not actually want to be petted on the belly when she offers it. Like most cats that aren’t our cats, she becomes all claws.)

My obsession with the show The Good Place

I am *so* into the TV show The Good Place. I love it when screenwriters can pull off something with such pinpoint precise structure and dialogue. It’s one of those pieces of media that you occasionally see, and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” I think I’d be really terrible at writing for TV, actually. So it’s a good thing that I didn’t write it.

The Good Place (if you don’t know) is a comedy show that takes place in the afterlife. It tackles philosophy in a way I haven’t seen on TV before. The show contains a set of scenarios that invites the reader to ask, “What is morality?” Like the actual literature, it refuses a simple answer. It overtly discusses many of the complex (and sometimes overly simplified) answers that philosophers have come up with.

I really respect media that can be both informative and entertaining. I never feel like The Good Place is preaching to me, but it polishes up/builds my knowledge of philosophy. It does another thing I really like also–the writers’ passion for the subject comes through so boldly that it makes me care about the subject, too, even if it’s not something I’m natively interested in. (The TV show Slings & Arrows does this with some Shakespeare tragedies; the writers’ love just saturates it.)

I watch a lot of TV because I’m addicted to narratives, but when I read anything in prose, my work brain kicks in. TV avoids the work brain. I usually judge TV with lower standards than prose, because I consume so much of it, but The Good Place is just awesome.

My life in cats: Henderson

Presenting Henderson, also called Sweet Lady Henderson, which is a great name for both a cat and a blues singer:

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Henderson was stray until recently when she made camp on my friends’ porch. They fed her through the winter, and eventually took her to the vet, where they discovered she was older than they’d thought, and really not suited to go back outside. (Some cats do just fine as fed outdoor cats–she was clearly struggling.)

Mike and I fostered her for a little while. She’s a sweetheart. She wags her tail when she’s happy. I can’t even deal with how cute that is.

She would like to be petted, please. Constantly, if possible.

The vet had to shave her because her fur was a mass of angry tangles. So, she looks a bit like a furless, pathetic goblin. A purring, furless, pathetic goblin with a wagging tail.

She seems to have rustled up a home. If you have to be a stray cat, it’s good to be charming. And since her home is with friends of ours, we still get to enjoy petting the furless goblin (who will eventually be furred) and watching gifs of her wagging her tail.

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My life in cats: Aurora

Aurora

Sometimes I think I should document my life in cats.

My friend’s cat Aurora is a very intelligent, very grand-looking tortoiseshell maine coon. She’s very self-possessed and polite to me–but not overly so, because generally when I’m over, it’s feeding time. And if it’s “time to feed the kitty,” then focusing on anything other than food is not on.

Aurora has some rare behaviors — for instance, she will correct her behavior when my friend reminds her to remember her decorum. When my cats hear us tell them things like “respect boundaries,” they look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and then bolt across the room.

Many of my friends’ cats are female, where all of ours are male. I don’t know how much there really is a behavioral difference between male and female cats, but it always feels like there is. Ours are energetic, ridiculous goofs. Aurora has this thing called dignity. I’d try to explain what “dignity” was to our cats, but then they’d just look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and bolt across the room.

In Defense of “Slice of Life” Stories

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When I was in college, I insisted that any poem worth its words would have a strong idea behind it–something it wanted to communicate to the reader. I still think that, but I’ve broadened my definition of what an idea is.

Many poems attempt to communicate an impression or an emotion. A poem about nature might not be intended to communicate “here is an intellectual idea about nature,” but instead “this is what it looked like through my eyes” and “this is how it felt.” Fine art landscapes can be like that, too. They depict a place at a time, both transient, through the eye of the painter (where the eye of the painter may figure more or less into the image, depending on whether it’s a realistic painting, etc).

What this makes me wonder is–why are we so dismissive of this in fiction? Plots are excellent; ideas are excellent. But what’s so wrong with a slice of life, that we refer to it with distaste? Why can’t fiction be about rendering transient, momentary emotions? Why do we demand they always be in the context of a plot?

I expect this is a historical artifact of genre expectations for fiction. I think the prohibition against plot-less fiction is stronger in science fiction & fantasy circles, but it’s definitely something I’ve heard reinforced in more academic or literary spaces.

One factor that occurs to me — is this influenced by how we imagine the role of the author in fiction, versus in poems or paintings? A poem is not necessarily written from the perspective of the poet, even when there’s an “I” at the center of the verse. Culturally, however, the belief that a poet is the narrator of their own poems is so strong that in every poetry workshop I’ve been in (I’ve never been in one on the graduate level), the teacher has to remind people at least a couple of times that the assumption they’re making about the narrator’s identity isn’t necessarily true.
Paintings, also, are generally seen as being rendered by oneself. This doesn’t have to be true either–the artist’s eye doesn’t have to be the one that observes, and the painting doesn’t have to render what the artist would see. Our narratives about painting speak even more strongly against the idea that they are filtered through a perspective other than the painter’s, and it’s not hard to see why — we think about painters bringing models into their studios, or taking their canvases out into the open air to paint the mountains. Even less realistic work tends to be narratively fitted into the idea of painter-as-observer–for instance, the way we talk about the artistic work of people with mental illnesses (for instance, Van Gogh), suggests that the ways in which the artist’s vision differs from the objective eye is integral to their “madness”–that they literally see the world as they paint it.

I think we culturally acknowledge that life rarely has an actual plot or shape to it. Poems and paintings are more easily classified as themselves slices of life, so when they omit plots, that is consistent with our expectations from them. There’s more room in memoir than fiction for this sort of thing also (although it can be contentious), wherein the writer is expected to be relating something of themselves.

Fiction is seen as more of a pretense, I think. And while there’s a general acknowledgement that life itself fails to be narratively tidy or have plots, most people seem to expect that if you’re going to go to all the work of building a pretense, you should make it more aesthetically tidy than life.

Without taking anything away from plot- and idea-driven fiction (my personal bread and butter), I think that closing off the possibility of slice-of-life stories makes our body of literature weaker. I want authors to have access to a full range of tools so I can read what they build.

Drowning in Light

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In the middle of summer, at this latitude, it’s light all the time. Not literally–we’re not that far North–but it can feel like it as the hour passes eight thirty and the sun is still happily shining.

It’s not as oppressive as the dark. I’ve only been here for one Winter, and many things were going wrong then, but when darkness crowded out the mornings and the afternoons, it felt like the world was narrowing to a pinpoint.

It was an ominous, oppressive feeling, and I made a personal note to myself not to spend a whole winter here again without traveling to see some light. I also bought a sun lamp.

I was pretty well warned about the dark winters in the Northwest. That, and the rain, although I haven’t found the rain that difficult to deal with. I can’t remember if anyone mentioned the summers–how weird and suspended it feels to be constantly in the light.

Time seems to have melted away. Everything is an endless afternoon, until the sudden, late blink of nighttime. It’s giving me some trouble getting things done–usually, when the light starts to wane, I switch over to evening tasks automatically. I have a pretty good sense of internal time, so I don’t spend a lot of the afternoon checking the clock, and it feels like it could be three p.m. from noon to eight.

The sunlight is nice in a lot of ways. I’m not having trouble sleeping through the early sun this year, though I did last year. But it’s interesting to observe in myself how my body responds to light, and how much it matters to how I feel and what I’m doing, despite my perpetually troubled sleep cycle, and how much of the time I’m in artificial light, looking at illuminated screens.

I think of myself as located in my mind, but we’re all bodily creatures.