The difficulty of sustaining things (Part 3)

Last night I was Skyping with an old friend. We were late because my day had not gone to plan, and we talked about the year to come. I said that I needed to improve my performance on work and referred to the fact that last year I hadn’t put in the amount of hours needed to make progress. She is also a freelancer, so we discussed our hours some length before I realised that I had just negated all of my own proclamations about the industrial paradigm for work. ‘Working hours’ is an example of exactly the thinking that I’m trying to change, but like the Flintstones’ cat, it leaped in the window behind my back.

flintstone_cat

What I really meant about 2019 being unproductive on the PhD front is that my energy was going into different things. I want to keep the focus on the energy, not the product or the hours logged. If I can get the energy right, everything else will follow.

There are three things that I think about:

1) How to raise energy
2) How to stop losing so much of it to bad and stupid things
3) How to direct it.

Raising energy

I experience creativity as a physical feeling, there’s an urgency, a forming sense of action that I have inside. If it’s something that’s a long time coming, where I’ve prepared internally for a while and have (consciously or not) already put in a lot of work, then the initial impulse can be very strong and I feel like I need to act on it now, and when that happens I usually do act immediately.

I drop everything to catch the wave because I want to train my system to know that when it gives me that energy, I’m going to use it. Then maybe my subconscious will begin to trust me and we can work together.

But sometimes the idea is not well-formed, or I don’t have what I need, or I’m just tired. Then there might be lots of false starts where something rises up and doesn’t achieve escape velocity and it dies back again. It’s easy to feel discouraged here.

I get tired far more easily in my fifties than I did in my twenties. I never seem to grasp this, though. What I find is that I don’t think I should have to rest, but I do, and usually I have to rest for twice as long as I think I should. All sorts of science about sleep has come into public awareness in the last few years, but I’m talking about more than sleep. I mean rest that is an actual break from everything possible, a real step-down in energy expenditure and a step-up in nurture. When I’m tired, I rest until I’m restless and getting antsy. It’s a skill I’ve learned through getting it wrong and ending up miserable and toxic to others around me.

Energy is all about heart. If my heart is in something, then I’m tapping into a much larger energy pool than with my ego or intellect alone. Sometimes this happens with an idea or project that is deeply personal and specific to me. But more powerfully, I find that doing such work as leads to a deeper sense of connection and community with others brings far more energy than doing work alone. There’s just so much more to draw on.

I think of myself as a tide pool attached to an ocean. I’m not looking to hoard energy for myself; I’m looking to bring as much of it through me as I can because this nourishes me, and at the same time I want to disseminate it to others in a way that nourishes them. I want to be a conduit for more good things.

How to stop losing so much energy (to bad & stupid things)

I don’t mind if that conduit thing sounds cliché. Energy moves in and out of us all the time; none of us are closed systems. It’s a mistake to think that we can just ride the waves of whatever is happening in our lives or communities without gaining and losing energy. That seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet half of what I read on Twitter is people reeling and expressing dismay on Twitter about other things they have read on Twitter. Emotions spiral in company. For a long time I couldn’t go online without leaking energy faster than I could replenish it.

We can also draw energy from the exact same connections, though. We need one another, and we need to communicate. It’s impractical to just shut off all stimuli in the same way that it’s impractical to just stop eating. I like to use internet blockers for online leakage, and for leakage in real life I simply cut out things that are stressing me out whenever I possibly can. If I can’t cut them out, then I’ll point them out to myself by writing about them so that I remember to account for these losses when I’m planning what I can and can’t do.

This is not to say that energy shouldn’t sometimes be contained. I like to give ideas some isolation, some time in darkness and silence to develop mass and therefore gravity and therefore an energy of their own. I don’t want the outside world to intrude on this very vulnerable thing that I’m growing, and sometimes I cut myself off so that I can hear myself think.

Finally, the world is always crying out with need and distress. Sometimes there’s so much out there that’s desperate for help, and I feel like I can’t do nearly enough and don’t know what to do, decision fatigue sets in and then I end up doing nothing and just feeling exhausted. If it seems like this is starting to happen, I try to take on at least one concrete act, however small, to respond to the distress calls I’m hearing. It helps me keep going instead of collapsing inward in despair.

I don’t have any answers here, but this whole problem is something that I’m working on actively. I do find that simply identifying the things that drain my energy and the things that replenish it is a useful exercise that needs to be repeated frequently. Personally, I’m replenished by running, walking in nature, growing things, working outdoors, and hanging with my kids. If I’m doing a lot of those things then it usually means something’s draining me in some other part of my life.

How to direct it

When I was young, it was really difficult to contain and direct the creative juice—it was all over the place, all the time, messily. Now I am better organised, but it’s more difficult to raise energy in the first place. Learning how to organise myself in a dynamic way has made a big difference to me in recent years. I don’t subscribe to any system, but I have a loose method. Notebooks are really good for keeping track of things that aren’t quite there. I use Evernote as a hold-all.

Directing energy includes some of the ideas I’ve been talking about above: I strike when the iron is hot. I contain the amount of time I work–so this post is being rushed through squeezed between two other things–because if I wait to have enough time, I never will (and because working in a hurry helps to short-circuit perfectionism). I let myself rotate through tasks so that I weaponise my own procrastination. For example: I’m supposed to pay bills today? Hah! No chance. I suddenly need to work on this piece of code. I’m supposed to work on this code? Nope, planting vegetables. Everything gets done, but I try to minimise the amount of fighting with myself that I have to do. That way I’m saving energy for when I really need it. Sometimes there’s no choice but to do the thing you don’t want to do and to do it right now; but sometimes there is.

I might have more to say about this last one another time. I have to go pick up my teenager twenty minutes ago, so I’m going to close this. Being late leads me to my final point: ultimately, energy is lossy. Think second law of thermodynamics. Heat death of Universe. Mysterious disappearance of odd socks. It’s all the same.

People love to quote Samuel Beckett: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’ to the point where is has become motivationspeak, a 10,000 hours of deliberate practice slogan about continuing to strive for success, and thus completely missing the point of the original work. The point is futility. The point is you can’t win. Nobody can.

Well, so what?

The difficulty of sustaining things (Part 2)

Part 1 is here.

My first idea for good practice in energy management is to change the model of working. I’ll tell you where this is coming from based on my own experience.

When I first moved to Britain with my then-husband Todd, I left a good solid teaching job behind. My first novel had just been published, I was deep into writing Someone to Watch Over Me, and Todd was sitting on a nice two-book deal with some early foreign sales, so we had a pot of cash advances. There was more money in the writing game in the mid-1990s than there is now, by the way. I did not like the look or pay of the teaching profession in the UK so I decided to try to make it as a writer for a bit as I figured out my next move. That was when I found out that writing on the side does not necessarily scale up to writing full-time.

Now, one of the first pieces of advice I remember getting about full-time writing was:

Treat it like a job. Get dressed and go to work and sit at the desk for eight hours a day, and then knock off and have a beer.

Hello? Frankly, if that’s the way it goes, then why leave a 9-5 job at all? If I wanted to work 9-5, I would work 9-5. For me the whole point of living a different way is to live a different way, not to go to an office and sit there like a minion.

But the awkward truth is this: without anybody riding me, I went from cranking out a few thousand words a week with a day job to doing maybe a couple thousand more without a day job, with the rest of my time spent flailing, skiving, procrastinating, and beating myself up with guilt over my own selfishness that I wasn’t doing something useful.

I began to doubt myself. I began to doubt whether I was the real thing.
I’ve always been a person of waves and surges. This could be down to brain chemistry; my father was bipolar. I am not, but nor am I a nice level plane of a person. I’m exceedingly lumpy, and when I was young I didn’t know how to get things done given the unpredictability of my underlying energy patterns. I thought I had to just wait for the right surge and then ride it, but you can never be sure if or when another surge will come, or what direction it will take you in.

Writing full-time, my mind would look for an escape, some easier way to live other than being faily and inadequate and slightly helpless, and I became insecure because I could not find such a way. Todd and I went to see the stone circle at Avebury, and in the gift shop I bought myself a leather necklace that was a clay or stone talisman, and carved in it was a (Celtic? Can’t remember) rune that meant Tenacity. *

I started to actively teach myself to be tenacious. I returned to the physical discipline of martial arts. I started running. And after some months of living with uncertainty I got myself into a contract and then into another contract, and I began to work on deadline. I loved this, because the deadlines were achievable provided I wasn’t too much of a fuck-up, and they acted as anchors to keep me from getting lost at sea. I learned that in the last days of a deadline I could work like a house on fire. I learned that I could tap into reserves that were outside of me—the feeling was almost like a drug.

That’s how I know that if I really need energy, I can get it. It’s there on an emergency loan basis.

But deadlines can’t be faked, and without a contract you don’t have them. When you’ve worked under contract, the most dangerous time is when the contract is not renewed and you can’t find a buyer for your work. Obviously, the loss of income is scary. For me, it felt like having the entire universe dump me for somebody hotter. But even after getting over that, there was another problem. It’s that working under contract I had come to adopt an industrial model of what I was doing.

An industrial model means that we think in terms of regular rates of work flow and industrial-age metrics for productivity. We say: how many hours did I work? Or, how many words did I write? Or, what do I have to show for myself as product? This is a factory mentality. Adopting this thinking is totally understandable when working for a commercial engine that demands output at specific, regular intervals. It may even be valid within that very limited framework, at least some of the time and for some people. To me it’s a blunt instrument that deadens me as a human being. I would even argue that commercial publishing mechanically selects writers that are able to cope with the industrial model, and throws out everyone who can’t. Fine. Way of the world, right?

Except, I am the real deal, and no publishing machine is going to convince me otherwise. I have been writing since I was seven years old, so I’m going to say: Trish, you are OK. You are not broken. To keep going, you just need a different way to look at this. I decided that what I need to do is actually unlearn some stuff that I’ve learnt through being a professional. This means getting rid of stuff, not adding it. This isn’t a one-time event. It’s more like the opening to the old Flintstone’s cartoon. You throw the cat out the door and it comes back in through the window.

Over the last several years (and a couple of published books) I have chucked out three things:

  1. The idea that I’m making a product for sale. I might sell it, I might not. That’s not why I’m making it.
  2. That I need to work in a certain industrious way.
  3. That my work is in any way measurable numerically.

So what do I mean by ‘work in a certain industrious way’? I mean, dismantling some assumptions about my work process,  like the assumption that there is a linear relationship between time and conscious effort put in and quality of outcome. I mean starting to pay attention to what actually happens when I stop bossing myself around and yelling at myself.

For example, a lot of people try to write every day as a baseline for establishing writing practice. This is fine; I’m not saying anything against it. Establishing a regular periodicity to our work can be helpful for lots of reasons, including habituating ourselves to working so that we start to enter a desired frame of mind as a matter of conditioning to a certain time or place. Great, but it’s not the only way. There is nothing really special about a particular chunk of time, small or large, beyond its physical practicalities. And the problem with having certain habits is that when the habit is broken or the situation changes, we are thrown. If I say, ‘I am going to write every day at 7 pm for an hour’ and then for whatever reason I don’t, I’m now in a negotiation with myself over why I was bad for not doing the thing, or why I am a victim because I couldn’t do the thing, or whatever. And somehow? It always ends in self-pity (and frequently in cookies).

Or take wordcount. It’s such a nice simple metric, especially for novelists where we are logging training miles to build our mental systems. But as tools go, it’s blunt AF. I have engaged in hours and days and weeks creating something and feeling great about pounding out those words, only to realise that I wrote in the wrong direction or that I just generated stuff out my ass to appease the wordcount gods and convince myself that I was worthy because look how hard I worked. It’s fine to write off into the Blue, to go the wrong way, to write out your ass. I’m not saying people shouldn’t do that. I’m saying that generating words for brownie points isn’t a good way to think about work. Carrot and stick isn’t a good way to do anything. Those ways of dealing with ourselves are all factory-worker, class-system, imperialist methods.

The issues we need to be dealing with are not rate-of-flow issues. They are not how-many-widgets issues. The real questions are: where is the energy? How can I optimise my access to energy?

When we want to do something, we will do it without being paid, without being rewarded, without anybody’s sanction. We will do it because we want to, and the energy to do it comes up out of us from some unseen source, and it fills us, and we maybe get in trouble because we were so absorbed that we forgot to do important adult things or we violated some code of silence but we don’t even care.

Right?

If this is true, then why is it so hard to sustain things? Why, for many of us, are these rushes of inspiration so capricious? My take is that partly it’s hard because we’re human. I am not a machine, nor do I want to be. Also: our visions are always bigger and better than we are. We get tired. We get distracted. We let stuff get under our skin and the next thing we know we’ve talked ourselves out of continuing. We lose energy and we don’t know how to get it back. We felt the heat before, so we think this fire is  always going to ignite spontaneously, and when it doesn’t, we don’t think to go out in the forest and gather fuel and tinder and find something to make a spark and huddle over it and blow on the tinder and burn our fingers and drop the matches and try again. While swearing elaborately.

It’s hard to have a dynamically balanced relationship with energy. Either there isn’t enough of it, or we don’t know how to keep and direct what we have, and we think this means we suck. But in fact it’s just that work is always work is always work, and there isn’t any magic, and we don’t suck for being tired and unmagical. Except that there also is magic, and not all work is the same, and things are kind of random but nature doesn’t hate us, so it’s OK to trust nature because she has always got us. Not because nature is nice, but because nature is us.

There will be one more post about this (I think) where I’ll unpack how I’m thinking about energy right now, both for science and for writing.

* I subsequently lost the necklace—it literally fell of my neck at some unknown point while I was wearing it. It should have said ‘Irony.’

The difficulty of sustaining things (Part 1)

I promise this post isn’t about New Year’s resolutions. Ugh.

It’s about energy, which is cyclical in biological creatures. Last few years there has been a lot of noise about the importance of sleep, as if the Productivity Culture had finally noticed that people aren’t machines that can be worked like a flax mill. We all underestimate how much rest we really need because we live in a culture that equates exhaustion with heroism. The term ‘regenerative culture’ has been floating around, too. I first encountered this idea in the work of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, although she didn’t call it that. She simply spoke about the Northern Hemisphere seasonal cycles of nature, and how there is a rising and falling of creative power that is a natural phenomenon to be harmonised with rather than fought.

For a lot of years I have tried to work with this idea of cycles, and I’ve found it to be generally sound. But no person is a closed system, and our inner seasons are influenced by many factors outside of ourselves. I don’t know whether the times we are living in are more turbulent than our ancestors’ times, but it seems pretty clear that the technology that binds us and then rends us apart is being calibrated to cause maximum turbulence (for profit) and so it’s hard to be online and not feel storm-tossed. Just as physical weather patterns are a mess thanks to changing systems, so too is emotional weather. That’s what I feel for myself and that’s what I see when I lurk online.

So, how to keep anything going? How to make a spiderweb in a monsoon? When there are teams of people getting paid to disrupt and divide our communities and our inner equilibria, how do we get on with our lives without adding to the problem? I think about it when I have my hands in the dirt and when I am running.

I guess most of us work best and are happiest when connected to some meaningful purpose. The trouble with me has always been that I don’t get on well with the dominant cultural drivers, and I don’t find meaning where I’m told to find meaning. I know I’m not alone in this regard, and yet very often I feel alone and to some extent I cultivate solitude. As humans we conserve energy in groups. We need each other. We can also drive each other batty–and ironically, we can enter a group of people because we feel we will be sheltered there, only to find that this microcosm of people with lots in common is still having pitched battles within itself. So, what was accomplished? It’s frustrating and discouraging, and sometimes very draining.

So how to get anything done? First we have to take care of basic needs, and then after that or maybe during that we have to resist or somehow negotiate with the demands of the dominant culture, and then after that (or maybe during that) maybe we can get something done that calls to us. This all takes a lot more energy than going with the flow of   work   shop   die. It helps if there’s a synergy between basic needs and resistance and creativity, but most of us can’t work on the front line of whatever cause or desire we hold in our deepest hearts. There are compromises and limitations.

Since having a family I have found that there’s an additional load of trying to figure out what risks are acceptable to take with them and what risks are not. It’s different to be 25 and unencumbered and pushing back against the system versus being 50 and having dependents who are looking to you not only for support but observing your example for how to live. Again: I know I’m not alone here, but I rather suspect that many people around my age just don’t have the energy to start new things because at our age we are inherently tired!

Yet we are all subconsciously gnawing on problems and dreaming dreams of something better. And at any age, there is an energy that comes when an inner knot has finally worked out how to release itself and allow trapped thoughts to flow freely. You feel an urge, you get an idea, and suddenly acting on this impulse feels more important than anything else. For kids these impulses come multiple times in a day. If you are older, maybe it was underground for years before it welled up. So you set out to take action, and there’s a burst of joy that you are doing what you are meant to do. But almost always, after the initial impulse, you run into trouble and it sort of dies away. Or something happens externally, and you can’t seem to keep it going. Or your energy just runs down, because that’s what energy does.

Learning not to give up is the big learn. It’s easy to say ‘don’t give up’ but nobody tells you how to not give up. I suspect that’s because nobody really knows. I don’t know, and I’ve been wrangling creative work my entire life. But I have a few ideas for good practice.

I’m engaging in one of them right now. I gave myself an hour to get some thoughts down, and I’ve now run over by nine minutes. So I’m calling this Part 1. I will write Part 2 next time. See you then.

Fun with rubbish

New Year’s Day. I’m up and sorting out crisp packets, chocolate wrappers, empty deodorants, dead biros, and bread bags for Terracycle dropoff. It’s kinda ick to see how much we get through. I spent months of 2019 bending my mind to taking the reduce/reuse side seriously, but there’s still plenty left to recycle because we live in the modern world and there are three teenagers in the house.

I started using Terracycle last year after reading about it on a zero-waste Facebook group. It works like this: some big corporation sets up an incentivised recycling programme where a group (usually a church or school, but not necessarily) can make a little bit of money by sending product packaging in large batches so that it can be profitably recycled. The profit side isn’t greatly in line with my own values, but I haven’t found a better alternative to pitching stuff in a landfill. (I tried ecobricking and it was far too time-intensive, although an instructive experience in terms of really grasping just how hard it is to get away from unnecessary plastic.)

terracycle.png

The website isn’t the easiest to use in the world. You have to look up each waste stream individually and then find a location near you that takes that type of item. Some locations take multiple items, some take only one kind of waste, and some programmes only take a particular brand. Last year I dropped off at a local church that collected several different kinds of waste, but it looks like they aren’t taking crisp packets or sweet wrappers anymore, so I might be heading to a hedgehog rescue centre in South Shropshire to unload that stuff.

Where we live, rubbish collection happens fortnightly. There’s one wheelie bin for the household. The last time I took ours down was just after Easter. I have been cleaning the shed this week, so it’s starting to fill up again and I will probably take it down in January. Other than that, we haven’t used it or the green garden waste bin (because we have a garden and I compost all of our food).

In our kitchen windowsill I keep a bin for personal care products and a jar labelled ‘Pen Cemetary’–Ryman stationers collect that. Instead of a kitchen bin I have a box for cardboard and paper. Hanging from a hook is a bag for recyclable plastic like bread bags and inner cereal wrappers and a bag for non-recyclable plastics (this is the stuff I was ecobricking–now I just toss it, but it’s much less than before the ecobrick experiment).

When I look at the photo, everything is a compromise. I tried exclusively baking our own bread. Took too much time. I tried sticking to popcorn and oven-roasted veggie skins instead of crisps; also too much time, and too boring. I banned multipacks of crisps, but then discovered that my partner had been buying them for one of the kids and had wrappers stashed in his car in the hundreds. We all love chocolate, but it has a terrible record for human rights as well as environmental destruction. I buy it in bulk, cheaply, from a Belgian company with pretty good cred; but at Christmas I caved and bought high street chocolate for the stockings. I also litterpick sometimes when I’m running as part of my campaign to become a difficult bat as I age.

I’ve talked about this before on Facebook and elsewhere. There was a positive response from people trying to do more about their own consumption and waste patterns. I find I feel defensive, though, because I don’t want to come across as bragging about my efforts or shaming anyone who isn’t able to put this level of work in (and it is work, no doubt about it). At the same time, I feel defensive against those who have thrown up their hands and succumbed to nihilism or despair, who will mock anybody who is making some kind of effort to do better in the face of seemingly insurmountable forces determined to crash the natural world to its death. I will always maintain that to do something is better than to do nothing. It may not matter to anybody but me and my family, but the alternative is to ride along passively with a current that is running outside my own value system. I have done my share of being helpless; it’s a last resort.

On a lighter note: there’s ASMR in folding crisp wrappers.

Happy new year!

 

Primary sources

Since I had my first child almost 18 years ago, before I’m anything else I am glue. I am what holds other people’s lives together. To be glue, I need to be both invisible and reliable. It’s quite a glamorous adventure.

krazyglue.png

I don’t think I’m any different on the page. How could I be, when for most of my adult life I have been trying to write directly out of my own lived experience?

And by ‘directly’, I mean, directly: without the medium of media acting as a buffer between the day-to-day grind and the tomfoolery of my imagination. I work without reading, or watching, very much stuff.

I read a lot of fiction as a kid, but in middle age I haven’t had the same freedoms. I watch some light and fluffy TV with the family, but lately not much for myself, and looking at Twitter I feel like my intake is lower than average. I can’t really figure out how people consume so much material when, for me, going into these media experiences is intense and mind-landscaping and takes a lot of processing time that I don’t really have (because glue). Maybe other people process things faster.

I feel like a big weirdo for admitting the above. I would love to read more, but not at the expense of neglecting my gluehood. Based on scuttlebutt since forever I’m pretty sure that I am supposed to be aspiring to be a big shot with my bigbrain. I would like to do more but the unsolvable problem is that the people who are held highest in the culture are those who leave the gluing to others and then pretend no glue exists even though, without a shit ton of invisible help, their eyeballs would fall into their cognac*. This reality-warping elision leaves gluefolk to get on with it in humble fashion, which is not the worst thing unless you care about recognition, as everyone in the media seems to (I guess that’s something of a circle jerk), or survival. After all, these same elision-artists are the beaters of a world that is enthusiastically falling apart, in case anyone failed to notice that no glue can withstand a sustained and deliberate assault.

If we made Glue visible, would that help the situation for everyone? To me, being visible has always implied becoming a target, so I have mixed feelings on this subject. It shouldn’t be necessary to be up on a stage to be accorded value. Worms do important work, too, and fungi and plankton and microorganisms and so on. There are many stories underground and in the air and earth and water that have not been found or formed, surely. In fact, the telling of untold (and especially untellable) stories is the very difficulty and challenge in science fiction.

In the end, it is because I am looking for the unseen that I don’t try harder to ‘catch up’ with all the latest media output. And you know what? With respect to any work, my own or a blockbuster piece of media that I munch with Doritos, when all of the bells and whistles are stripped away I am only ever working with the primary source of my life. I’m trying to take the many hours spent putting stuff back in order in the kitchen, negotiating homework, shopping, organising car repairs, and so on and alchemise them into the gold or silver or wood or plastic of a true story. The story is a residue of my life, not my life’s purpose. As a corollary, I’m not writing to escape my life, but to enter into it more deeply.

* I’m not sure about the beverage here, but I’m definitely positively certain about the eyeballs part

Tenderness

The TLDR is: hi writing peeps, I’m back. Long version:

It’s about two years since I updated this blog. I had no plans to resurrect it until suddenly–as in, like actually yesterday, the day after the General Election–something in me spun on a dime and changed. I’m a little surprised that I feel this, but nevertheless I’m feeling with some urgency that I want to reconnect with the writing community.

Why did I step back in the first place? I have cited practical reasons in the past, and they are true, but it was more than that. I don’t wish to dredge up the events and nastiness that unfolded over 2013 or so and that came to a head around the time that Shadowboxer came out in 2014. I mention it because my attitude towards the SFF writing community became cool and distant after that time. I was hurt, and even after I thought I was over it I wasn’t over it. And let’s face it: even before stuff kicked off I had been feeling embattled and I was struggling with my identity as a writer and my place in that world. I was never at ease in SFF.

But I have been away from the scene for quite a while now. My life looks a lot different, my relationship with my writing has changed, and the world has changed.

For like a year I worked on my PhD pretty hard. Big adjustment. But it was good until last autumn after the IPCC report came out. Brexit food insecurity soon led me down a rabbit hole into climate-induced food insecurity and implications for full-on social collapse. I hit a bad patch. I don’t really want to go into it deeply. I’ll just say that my partner and I had rebuilt our lives from financial ruin and when I was accepted on a funded PhD I thought I was finally on a path to solid ground for my family. Brexit had been a blow, Trump had been a heavier one; but with the IPCC report I realised that bad had come to worse had come to worst, that there is no longer any solid ground for the future, for the kids I’ve brought here and worked so hard to protect and do right for—-no solid ground, in fact, for anybody or anything.

I barely paid attention to my science work for several months. I was really swept away by what I was reading in the climate movement, realities that I had managed to shove aside and not think about or even fully take in. So I scrambled to try to fix my own life. I tried to make adjustments, to hold up my end, to plan, to reassemble some kind of path under the feet of my children, to deal with my own feelings about the accelerating collapse of nature as the headlines mounted. I was desperate to do something—-anything—-to avoid dealing with the helplessness and despair engendered by the new information. I changed my family’s diet, cut way back on driving, started organic gardening and extreme budgeting and zero-waste, oh, all kinds of stuff. I wanted some kind of control, to prepare the family for bad outcomes.

And in the end, despite having kept myself to myself for years, I joined Extinction Rebellion and went to the October Rebellion for a few days. I’m still loosely involved with my local group, although by November I had to set myself hard limits because I’d neglected my science work for too long.

Writing has been shelved completely. For a long time I could not convince myself that there is any point in continuing to write stories and especially to pursue publication when one of the biggest enemies our planet faces right now is consumerist denial and carrying on as usual. I would look at Twitter, people talking about their books, and honestly I would feel sort of sick to my stomach. Then I would go outside and pluck slugs off my homegrown mange tout with a little bit of a superior air, but also with great loneliness because how can you really talk about this stuff? It’s not a cheerful topic. I would spend time just walking in the forest and being with the trees, because really that was all I could handle. I had to stay out of my head.

But life is always moving, and I think I’m seeing things a little differently after the Tory landslide in the election. Also, through contact with Extinction Rebellion I’ve become conscious of the need to deal with vulnerability. I’ve thought about what community means. I have started to reflect on my own American-culture-indoctrinated beliefs about the supremacy of individualism and independence and to realise on a visceral level what a nonsense that is and how I have not let go of it but I need to. I almost can’t believe I’m about to post this on the Internet, because I have so carefully curated my relationship with the online world to avoid showing too much of myself. I have repeatedly recoiled from the toxicity online—there is so much of it, in so many forms. But now here I go, typing these words to say that it seems the only way forward is vulnerability, is tenderness.

I have asked myself many times, what contribution can I make to the world? There are things I hope to do with the technical knowledge that I’m developing in my PhD, maybe a little further down the road. But fundamentally I’m an artist. I know a little about creative work because I have done it for many years in all kinds of circumstances. And maybe that enables me to offer something useful.

I’m starting to see that part of our survival as humans must come from how we think, what kinds of stories we tell ourselves and others, how we empathise and take on one another’s point of view, and how we value our own creativity and its messiness. I’m not talking about writing for market now. I’m talking about the fact that creative acts are how we construct ourselves out of the maelstrom of real and virtual life. They are how we individuate from the machinery. Maybe there is a part for me to play in supporting the work of others even as I am a little shaky about making my own right now. I have been moved by Gareth Powell’s tweets helping other writers. I think he has the right of it. I think we need to look after one another and do what we can to hold one another up.

I’m going to start posting stuff on this blog again. I’ve been on Twitter for a while in a super low-key way, but I have followed very few people in the writing community so far. Sometimes in the past Twitter felt too much like playing status games to me, and I didn’t want to feed that side of my personality. I’ll try tuning back in a little more now, maybe not a lot, maybe only sporadically, but I’ll try just putting myself out there, thin skin and all. I’ll do what I can to help.

I’m back.

Running late

I guess this is an end-of-year post? Or maybe just a general catch-up that is long overdue. I had a new book come out this year, Sweet Dreams, and a story in Haunted Futures in which the ghost of Richard Feynman has a cameo. I finished my MSc in Astrophysics with Distinction. Two weeks after submitting my thesis I started a PhD at LIV.DAT, a joint venture between the Astrophysics Research Institute and Liverpool University that receives funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to train data scientists in the UK.

It took me five years to get an honours degree from the OU; I did it part time alongside kids and business and writing. But the PhD program is full-time and the commute to Liverpool from Shropshire is kinda hardcore. I am being paid to learn. It is a huge opportunity for me and my family, and I’m ecstatic about being in this position. I won’t do anything to jeopardise my progress. Obviously, writing will be sidelined for a long time, and I’ve turned down a few public appearances for the same reason.

Friends occasionally express disappointment or worry about the not-writing part in the nicest possible way, but the truth is: I can’t do both and do them well. The other truth is that I’ve been writing professionally since 1993, and the longest I’ve ever gone without working on anything was maybe two-three months during exam season. Those breaks ended up being immensely powerful and resulting in better work when I came back. After all, creativity is cyclical; sometimes the best thing you can do is let the cycle reach bottom.

 

 

Titles from Ada Lovelace Day

On 10th October I had the honour of speaking at Ada Lovelace Day Live! 2017 as a science fiction writer among an amazing group of scientists. Now, I do know that one is supposed to announce these things before they happen in case people want to go, but it’s been extraordinarily hectic as I’ve just started a PhD at the Astrophysics Research Institute in Liverpool and I don’t quite have my sea legs yet. So this is late.

During my talk, ‘Has reality put science fiction out of business?’ I listed several books as examples of the many different kinds of functions that science fiction has. I promised to put these on my website since I was whipping through the slides quickly. Here they are! Only a few days late. Forgive me.

I would like to add that this list is only the tip of the iceberg. It was assembled in haste, and there are many, many other authors and books that could have been included. I’m especially kicking myself about omitting these: Nnedi Okorafor, who is an engine of imagination (her Hugo-winning Binti might be a good place to start), Emma Newman (whose Clarke-shortlisted After Atlas is a gripping mystery set on another world), the short fiction of Aliette de Bodard, which looks at space travel via mindships in Vietnamese/Chinese cultural futures (try On a Red Station, Drifting), and literary novelist Nina Allan (The Rift).

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Now, here are the books that I showed on the slides:

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time extrapolates from current tech to explore the future of reproductive technology.

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N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning The Fifth Season uses metaphor to deal with the impact of systems of oppression.

 

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Nisi Shawl’s Everfair follows the road not taken with an alternate history of the Belgian Congo

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A great example of using science fiction to push a concept to its extreme is Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, in which language literally shapes reality…

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Classic title Floating Worlds by Cecilia Holland experiments with alternative political structures in a futuristic Solar System.

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Science fiction can interrogate social constructs like classism and racism, as in Stephanie Saulter’s Gemsigns and its sequels about a future London in which specialist humans have been genetically engineered to serve humanity.

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Novels like The Rapture by Liz Jensen are science fiction as a form of protest–in this case, a stark warning about the environmental future of our planet in the form of a thriller.

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The human impact of technology is a theme in much of Pat Cadigan‘s work, including her Clarke-winning Synners where addiction to virtual reality transforms its users. Most of Cadigan’s stuff is damned prescient.

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Natural History by Justina Robson goes beyond humanity to post-human existence beyond the Solar System, where human and machine are blended in one personality.

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Finally, Karen Lord offers hope for the future in The Best of All Possible Worlds, an optimistic and progressive vision of what is possible in the distant future beyond Earth–surely one of the most important functions that science fiction could have right now!

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Kelley Eskridge: a recommendation

I love being on the Clarke shortlist—in the run-up to the award I have always appreciated that more readers are looking at my work, and this means a lot (even if the new readers don’t end up liking the book!) So while I’m in this more-visible place, I want to take the opportunity to say one important thing about Occupy Me, and that is Kelley Eskridge.

Kelley is a highly accomplished novelist, screenwriter and writing teacher. She is also the first reader for her wife Nicola Griffith, and from reading their posts at Sterling Editing I knew that Kelley had a deep influence on Nicola’s novels. That’s why in early 2014 I asked her to work on Occupy Me. I had already spent about three years struggling to get my head round it. Being out of contract after so many years of publication. I was bruised and discouraged and frustrated, and I needed a cheerleader more than anything, so like a very weary gambler I scraped together some money and took a chance. I told Kelley that the draft would be done by the end of that summer.

I was thinking of her role mostly in terms of keeping me accountable for finishing. It’s also true that at that stage of my life, I couldn’t afford a near-miss. I had to sell the book, and with my sales record that wasn’t going to be easy—I felt that I had already been written off in some circles.* Nothing less than the best I had in me would suffice. I’m not generally someone who shows their work to beta-readers, but in this case I was hoping Kelley could help me troubleshoot.

And she did! But I was in for a surprise, because Kelley did a lot more than troubleshoot. The edit that she wrote was a tremendous piece of work. I have been writing for a long time, I’ve worked with some really good editors, and I was blown away nevertheless. I want to try to articulate what Kelley does that really stands out.

First, she made me tell her up front what I wanted to get out of the edit as well as what my specific hopes and fears were—for the book, and for my writing in general. In the twenty years up to that point, nobody had ever asked me those things! It was a relief to be able to spell them out for someone who cared. She also asked for a sample of the work, which I was very reluctant to give because it was a mess. Her responses, though, were so understanding and insightful and respectful that I began to trust her more or less right away.

The edit followed through on the information I had already given her, and she placed the problems in the book (and its strengths as well) into the context of the overall picture of my writing. She could connect material in the book to the issues that she’d asked me to articulate at the beginning. Also, she was able to very specifically put her finger on the places where it was going wrong, even when the cause wasn’t obvious.

This is no small thing. Most editors can say that there’s a problem of some kind and they can maybe describe the problem, but usually they can’t accurately identify the cause, much less how to fix it. Often I have to figure out the real underlying cause as well as the solution, and this part of the process can be bloody hard because you feel like you’re groping in the dark. With Kelley it was like going to a doctor with a niggly knee pain and being told, look, your pelvis is out of alignment and that’s causing this thing with your knee. I felt like she could see right into the mechanics of how I was thinking, or, as I recall her putting it (more or less), ‘I get up inside your mirror neurons.’

On top of identifying what was wrong, Kelley made some absurdly simple suggestions that solved complicated problems in a single stroke. Gold.

The other thing she did was to let me know what was working well. There were a lot of passages in the book where I was in doubt. I worried I’d pushed everything too far. I figured I’d be ridiculed and I half-expected her to advise me to rein myself in. Almost without exception, those were the places where her feedback was hugely encouraging. She gave me the courage to stand my ground and be real.

I had the sense that she was with me inside the flow of the work and every move she made was designed to make me better. In fact, I learned a lot about my writing in general as a result of working with Kelley. That knowledge has stayed with me and helped me.

I wrote one revision of the book before it went out to publishers, and after it sold it went straight to copyediting. So I’ll state the disclaimer that weak areas remaining in the book are down to me, of course—I couldn’t fix everything. But I know that a number of people who read this blog are also writers. I wanted to put the word out that if you are looking for a freelance editor who can not only improve your novel, but your writing in general, then I wholeheartedly recommend Kelley Eskridge. If you can get her, work with her! She’s amazing.

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*It was the ‘been there, done that, let’s find a fresh new girl instead’ type of thing that I could smell in the digital air. I could be imagining it, but have heard it said openly about women who are older than I am, back when I was the fresh new girl. So I know exactly what it is.

Guest of honour speech, Stranimondi

I don’t normally write speeches in advance for events, but I was glad I got something on paper for Stranimondi 2016 because as it turns out, every word I said had to be translated into Italian on the spot by the superb Chiara Reali (thank you, Chiara). I had a wonderful experience at the con and I thank everyone for the warm and generous reception.

This speech is loosely based on a blog post that I never published called ‘Cry Me a River’–as ever, I wear my heart on my sleeve. Maybe it will interest a few of you.

***

First I’d like to thank the organisers very much for inviting me and especially Giorgio Raffaeli for taking care of all the details. This is my first time in Italy, and I have my partner and our children here as well, so it’s very exciting. I don’t know anything about the Italian science fiction scene, and so it’s also very stimulating and I hope enlightening for me to be here with you.

I’ve been going back and forth about what I should talk to you about today. And then I thought, you probably have no real idea who I am or what my work is about, so I’m going to talk a little about that. But first I was thinking that it’s a funny coincidence that your other Guest of Honour is Alastair Reynolds, and of course he is an astrophysicist who worked for the European Space Agency before becoming a science fiction writer. And I am a science fiction writer who, in my forties, returned to university, and with one thing and another I’m now studying for a Master’s degree with the Astrophysics Research Institute in Liverpool. And that’s really funny—I don’t know if anyone has ever done what I’m doing, going completely against the natural order of things.

How did this happen? Well, the simple answer is failure. I had failed as a writer—I’ll tell you more about that later. Back in 2010 I was a mother of three small children, freelancing from home. My seventh science fiction novel had been released, it was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award and the Clarke, and yet it wasn’t selling. I did an interview in which I was asked about the low percentage of women winning the Clarke Award, and that triggered an online discussion on the Torque Control blog, then run by Niall Harrison. I was happy to see the topic being taken seriously; back in those days if you googled ‘women in SF’ you’d go straight to links like ‘Hot chicks of Sci-Fi TV.’

Then a prominent male science fiction writer decided to weigh in. This is someone who has a high profile in the UK and earns a lot more money than I do. He linked to an article claiming that women are scarce in science because we simply ‘aren’t interested in carburettors and ohms’.

I can still remember the physical blow that those words felt like. Such a betrayal from my own community. I was angry but mostly I was crushed. Online I told everyone, ‘I’ll be in the shed, hitting the Muay Thai bag.’ But actually, I cried. A lot. I remember sobbing to my partner, ‘It’s not like I want to be the most famous writer ever. I just want a place at the table.’

At the time this happened, I had just learned that my American teaching qualification wasn’t acceptable in the UK, which meant I couldn’t get a job. The UK government was funding training for science teachers, so I had been planning to take a few biology courses to qualify for the funding. (Coincidentally, around the same time the writer Steph Swainston did something similar with Chemistry teacher-training). After the remarks about carburettors and ohms I was just so furious and felt so betrayed that I thought: Forget biology. I’m going to prove this person wrong.

I ignored the fact that I’d taken my last maths course at 15 and had received a D. I signed up for my first Open University courses in maths and physics.

If I’d known what it would really be like, I probably wouldn’t have had the courage. The first few years getting up to speed with maths and physics were horrifying:  gruelling and demoralising in equal measure. Talk about stranger in a strange land. The mindset I’d developed for writing wasn’t required here. For maths you need ferocious concentration and a willingness to be wrong but calmly go again. And again. And bloody again. No emotion needed or wanted—it only gets in the way.

Now, this was a problem for me. Emotion is the fuel I use for writing. Not only was cold, rational cogitation not my metier, but I suspected I was actually allergic to it. It didn’t help that I wasn’t sleeping much and was still running around after small children to a stupefying soundtrack of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ theme music.

But I hung tough. Luckily, the initial hurdles were the highest: calculus and mechanics. By mechanics I don’t mean carburettors, but the motion of objects under gravity. You know: like rocket science.

Now, I’m fighting the urge to say, ‘But I can’t really rocket science, I’m rubbish.’

It’s true that I’m never going to be the world’s most quantitative person. And I have to confess that in fact I don’t really care about carburettors—I’m not big on metallic machines, generally. But I care deeply about nature, and here’s the thing: rocket science is the tip of nature’s iceberg. There’s a lot more to physics than orbital mechanics.

Physics underpins all nature. It’s a fantastical field of study—full of mystery, as weird as you can imagine but weirder. The close relative of physics, applied maths, is ubiquitous in the world today. Biology, economics, environmental science, social science—you name a discipline and you can find maths being used to model reality and to make predictions. We live in an age of big data. All of this is to do with the nature of nature—and who isn’t interested in that?

These big questions are for everyone, not just for those of us who are mechanically-inclined or have testicles. They are for all of us.

I had to reinvent myself a little to get on the physical science path. I don’t think I appreciated how much reinvention I’d done until a couple of years ago an acquaintance from my son’s school dropped in for coffee. We sat at my kitchen table catching up: she was working on an artistic project in her spare time, and I had just started learning quantum mechanics. She looked at me sceptically.

‘Yes, but do you believe in all that?’ she asked. I laughed nervously. Had she mistaken quantum mechanics for homeopathy? After all, crystallography and crystal healing sound similar.

‘I don’t have to believe in it,’ I said. ‘The technology that comes out of quantum physics is working right now in your phone. The evidence is everywhere.’

That’s how I ended up trying to explain Young’s double-slit experiment. But when she looked at my diagram of wiggly light waves heading towards a wall with two slits in it, she started giggling. She said, ‘Sorry, only they look like sperm!’

It was about then that I recognised myself in her. Remembered all the times my linear, organised brother (he grew up to be an engineer) had tried to walk me through an algebra problem, only for me to interject something about unicorns.

One book that I wish I’d had when I started is Barbara Oakley’s ‘A Mind For Numbers.’  Oakley started out as a Russian translator in the US Army and changed to maths and engineering in her mid-twenties to improve her career prospects. Like me, she had to start from scratch, and she subsequently made a study of how people learn math and science. As an engineering professor, Oakley has described learning methods that are supported by neuroscience, methods to enable anyone of any age to learn advanced maths, taking advantage of the brain’s plasticity.

While I’ve been slowly reinventing myself as a trainee scientist, the culture has been changing its attitudes to women. The process of change is painfully slow, but it is getting better. In the UK a senior physicist was sacked not long ago for joking that women should be in separate labs because ‘they cried and you fell in love with them,’ but in my day this kind of talk was normal. When I see high-profile scientists losing their jobs for sexual harassment, I remember my math teacher from when I was twelve. (Coincidentally, this was the year that I stopped being any good at math.) Mr. Ryan kept an iconic poster of fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields on his classroom wall, the one where she’s wearing only a pair of tight jeans, saying ‘Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.’ Mr Ryan wasn’t considered creepy back then—he was the cool teacher. That’s what I mean when I say the culture has changed.

Another thing changed while I was working on my degree, and that was the surge of attention paid to women science fiction writers whereas before we had been summarily ignored. This was the result of many, many online and in-person conversations across the science fiction community in the US and UK. Ann Leckie’s work broke out, with its lens on gender-based assumptions, and from what I could gather this wave of support was the result of a direct effort on the part of her publisher and the wider science fiction community as a whole to raise the profile of women writers.

While all of this was going on I was slowly writing Occupy Me, which was published earlier this year. I worked with the attitude that I would push my ideas as far as I possibly could, take the biggest risks, knowing that only a few people will read it. I was able to do that because—thanks to physics—I am no longer afraid to fail. Moreover, I no longer care whether I am recognised or not. I can assess the value of my own work, and I know when I’ve achieved what I set out to do with a novel, even if no one else does. I am at peace with failure.

What does this feel like?

It’s like building boats and launching them only to watch them sink, maybe in the harbour, maybe farther out. You don’t even wait for the wreckage to wash ashore. You just go get more wood and do the work that it is in you to do. Over and over. That’s what it is.

And the truth is, all boats sink, in the end. Everybody dies. Nothing is permanent. So failure is not to be taken personally. Moreover, there are a lot of interesting things that happen when you allow yourself to get really comfortable with failure, to get up close and personal. To sit beside failure without flinching, to smell it, to converse with it. Eventually failure becomes a companion and not something to be feared. And most importantly, failing is not the end, it is the beginning.

So, what is my work about? Occupy Me is a high-energy, wild puzzle about consciousness and cosmology. All of my books are about consciousness, explicitly or implicitly. Many of them also deal with duality, and it’s very normal for me to use different parallel viewpoints to create an effect. The way I do this—especially in Maul, which has just been published in Italian by Zona 42 as Selezione Natural—is to juxtapose storylines that don’t really belong together, and to let them play off on one another, let them bump and collide and see what comes out. I’m very interested in the concept of negative space: what isn’t there as opposed to what is. And one thing that I like to do is allow space for readers to form their own interpretations. Some people are frustrated by this feeling of openness in my work. This groundlessness and the feeling of disorientation that I like to cause in you. But to me, that’s what science fiction is for, even more so than realistic fiction. It is for you the reader to work your imagination and contribute your own interpretation. I write books for people who like to chew on ideas, who have teeth and who want to think. I do not spoon-feed.

Thank you so much for having me.

(double slit image from philschatz.com)