To the new or newish mother who writes

This post was inspired by a friend whose struggles made me want to try to put down what I wish I had known when I was going through the babies and toddlers years. In that sense, maybe it’s more of a letter to my past self, because everyone is different and our circumstances are different–some of us have more obstacles than others. I had a couple of obstacles. Others have a huge stack of problems.

Looking back, I can write off an entire decade of my writing life as lost to the rigours of parenthood. When I had my first child I had already published three SF novels and three fantasies. My fourth novel was drafted. I was thought by some to be a bit of a rising star. Then I had my first child, and a bunch of other things happened in my life that were hard. And everything stalled.

I want to pause here and say something about the ‘you can’t have a writing career and babies’ line that’s been fed to some women. Clearly this is untrue and objectionable. But nor is it fair or reasonable to expect a person to produce at the same level and quality as before while under the burden of parenthood. Expecting that leaves writers who are taking care of babies swinging from a hook. The blessing and the burden of parenthood may be ordinary, but it’s not light, especially if there are other circumstances that make life hard that are happening at the same time.

I thought, going in, that I had the best of all possible worlds: I could work from home and take care of my kids and still generate income. And it’s true—if I’d been working 9-5 I doubt I’d have been able to have more than one child for all kinds of logistical reasons. So I can thank writing (and the NHS) for the fact that I’m able to have three. I know how lucky I am.

But this is about writing, not about the economics of having babies. I had the best of both worlds, but on a day to day basis it often felt like the worst of both worlds. I had to ignore my kids a lot in order to get work done, so I felt guilty. Yet I could never escape them and interact with other adults because writing all happens inside your head. As for the inside of my head: I was known as a writer of ‘cutting edge science fiction’ (my contracts actually specified that). But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write the way I wrote before. I didn’t have the time, the space, the resources on any level. I was drained to an almost pathetic level, and this went on for years.

I took failure really personally. It had to be my fault. I mean, what was I, a walking cliché? Apparently yes.  I can tell you that each time I was pregnant I lost all ability to think deeply and my drive to produce evaporated. Does this happen to all women? No. But it happened to me. Does that create a valid excuse for me and my gender to be dismissed? No. In fact, I challenge anyone to write books of the quality of Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn while in the throes of pregnancy and breastfeeding and the attendant sleeplessness and erosion of selfhood (because that is what happened, at least to me–I evaporated into the role of caregiver). Those books might not represent the best that is in me, but when I look back at the conditions under which they were written I have no issue with my performance.

I ended up writing off a decade of my working life to babies. Between 2001 and 2011 I was fumbling in the dark. I didn’t write well and I was only there for my kids half as much as I wanted to be—I felt inadequate on every level, every day. Ten years of brain fog and frustration—frustration, because I certainly wanted to be writing. I can still remember how badly I craved a straight shot at a piece of work.

In 2011, my writing career in ruins, I went back to university and I’m still there four years later, struggling for a BSc in a new field. I’m not quite there yet, but my head is above water now.

My head’s above water because my kids are older. I have my brain back. I sleep. I mean, I actually sleep. There were years and years where sleep was like the fucking Holy Grail. When you don’t sleep you start to forget that it was ever any other way and you live in the shallows, just getting by. I thought I was done for, intellectually. I thought it was over.

It’s not over. I’m only just getting started here.

In the midst of everything my family and I went through in those ten years, if I had known I was going to be OK and my brain would return and I’d come through stronger and wiser with all faculties intact and with a deep sense of appreciation of life’s gifts, if I’d known that despite the bumps in the road my kids would be fine, then maybe I’d have saved myself a lot of tears. I know I’d have saved myself a lot of thrashing and guilt, the desperate grasping at trying to do the impossible. In hindsight, I wish I could have climbed down off that hook.

But I bought into the lie that I had to be Superwoman.

I wasn’t. I’m not. I never will be.

It’s a lie.

The truth is that you muddle and you laugh as often as you can, and you accept that you can only do what you can do.

When I was going through all this, the person who reached out to me frequently was Kate Elliott. She kept encouraging me. It meant so much that my throat is closing, just remembering.

So I want to say to you—and you know who you are, specifically, but all of you  reading this who may need to hear it—please cut yourself whatever slack you need. Paradoxically, life will work better in the long run if you can just take it easy on yourself. You don’t have to beat yourself up. The world will do a real good job of that. Be as kind to you as you possibly can.

Hang in there. You will come through. Hugs.

[title edited to reflect the fact that people become parents at all ages]

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toast

So say you’ve wrestled with a central problem on many occasions. It’s sweaty and there is grunting. You try brute force, cunning technique, you try dirty tricks. No dice; the problem keeps getting the better of you. Then one day, having turned your back on that problem for now because thinking about it just makes you feel down-at-heel, you are sitting there at the keyboard minding your own business. You’re following a little thread thinking you’re just chasing down a detail when out of the blue WHOOMP this big wild purple idea with tap shoes materializes right in front of your face and starts dancing for its life, saying, ‘I dare you to use me. I fucking dare you.’ With a terrible shock you realise that the tapdancing purple idea will solve your big problem, but so very much NOT in the way you imagined. So much not.

The whole process takes about five seconds but the thing you’re working on will never be the same. Now it’s shot through with lightning.

This is one of the (rare) highs of writing. So what if it burns all your hair off and the smell is atrocious? Being a writer means that once in a while, you are nothing more than a piece of toast.

the work of working is always a thing

I’m reluctant to write this publicly because frankly I think there is such a large pile of writing about writing by writers that adding more to it is a bit of a disservice to the world. Yet here I go.

I’ve been sitting here warming up to go back to work on something that was hot and alive a few days ago and is now making faces at me because I don’t know how to get my head back into the space I was in when I wrote it. I’m sitting here feeling like a giant steaming idiot because, really? How hard can it be?

In fairness to me I’m not sure that writing is as easy as I seem to think it should be. Like, I have this image of writing as the one thing in life that I’m supposed to know how to do and that I can do with so much more ease than the average random person, as if this somehow means it isn’t hard to begin, hard to carry on, hard to finish. Maybe I hold this image because I annoy myself when I whinge; there are a lot of things that are harder; writing is a privilege. Etc. The truth is, I have always had to twist and contort and flog myself to get myself to write, always always.

Except when I haven’t.

Well, obviously. Because sometimes writing feels like the most natural thing in the world, like eating or sleeping. (Maybe if people judged you when you ate and slept, those things wouldn’t be so easy, either.) But if I only wrote like I sleep and eat—that is, when tired or hungry—then nothing would get finished. Writing would be a physical discharge and no more. To make more out of it I’ve got to be able to work, and the work of working is always a thing. See how articulate I can be? I stun myself.

Actually, I’m not interested in how clever I can be. The answer to that is always: not enough. And more importantly: who cares?

I always want to tap something rather than manufacture something. I’m perennially unconvinced by the things I have manufactured, but I fall in love with the inner streams I’ve been lucky enough to tap. That’s what I really want to do.

So if I want to tap something then I have to be willing to be quiet and pay attention. This is actually the hard part, and the more facile you are with words the harder it can be to just STFU. This simple relation is why our world contains an abundance of people talking their heads off with nothing to say.

Writing is listening. Listening means you aren’t the boss. You are the listener. That’s the work. It isn’t the whole work and nothing but the work. But it’s the work nevertheless.

I will now STFU and go back to it.

About twitter

I feel like I’ve spent more than I can afford on negotiating my relationship with social media. Twitter has become a burden, even though I rarely post there. It feels like carrying around library books I’ve borrowed but have no real intention of reading, just because having them makes me feel virtuous.

On the other hand, a small-footprint writer like myself has to maintain as much online presence as possible, and Twitter links to my blog. Plus, I can’t be arsed to take the Twitter widget off my website.

So I’m not leaving Twitter as such. I’m just unfollowing everybody. Even if I love you to bits. It’s my way of dealing.

I’ll try this for a while and see how it feels. I am on Facebook for my friends and family. I don’t want to use FB as a professional space–I may cut that down, too. I can be reached by e-mail via my website. My writing is out there. That’s about as interactive as I need to be.

A few words about Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

This is going to be a brief statement to clear up one or two points.

I am aware that people have read my previous post as implying that Rochita Loenen-Ruiz gave me the identity of Requires Hate, and it seems that as a consequence Rochita has been blamed by her community for outing another writer. Rochita has done nothing of the kind. At no time did Rochita Loenen-Ruiz reveal to me the identity of Requires Hate. I am capable of drawing my own conclusions from available information, and I had more information at my disposal than the average person.

If my previous blog post in any way implied that Rochita had come to me with the intent of revealing secrets or outing anyone, then I apologize unreservedly to her because it was never my intention to suggest that. I’m really, really sorry for my part in any misunderstanding.

At the time I wrote that post, I had reason to believe that misinformation about me was circulating, but because I didn’t know exactly where or how it had circulated my only option seemed to be to make a blanket statement on my own behalf.

At the same time, I was also very concerned about the people around me who were at risk, particularly my friend Rochita. I have tried to do what little I could to protect the people close to me who I felt were most vulnerable. Rochita is one of those people and it is the height of irony and a matter of deep sorrow to me that she has become the target of backlash based on my actions.

Perhaps it was a clumsy post. It was the best I could do.

I will not be discussing the matter on twitter or in any public forum. My e-mail is available on my website if anyone has reason to speak with me personally.

Toxicity and me

If a person comes to you and tells you that I have a problem with them and that I am spreading vicious rumours about them, please do me the courtesy of notifying me before you assume that I am the spreader of vicious rumours.

You might also ask yourself what possible interest I would have in injuring a vulnerable young writer. Especially when I have recommended that writer. Especially when that writer and I have barely ever interacted—and then, only momentarily and with courtesy on twitter. At least, this is the case according to them and the name that they use. I have certainly interacted with this person under another alias.

If a person tells you that my work is this or is that you might ask how it is they know this when they haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet—according to the story they tell about their own identity, at any rate.

If a person is making friendly overtures to you and if they are lovely and sweet and very, very talented, you would be right to react with disbelief if someone suggests they are anything other than who they appear to be. This is because most of us—myself included—are accustomed to dealing with basically honest people. And most of us want to make our community a more inclusive, welcoming environment so we will bend over backwards to do so.

A person may be completely disinterested in social justice; they may indeed be using that platform simply to advance their own ego—there’s no crime in this. But they may also be using a platform to cause trouble and harm. They may be lovely to your face but not so lovely behind your back.

Be careful, guys.

I believe that a person’s work should be judged apart from their character—I can’t always do this myself, but I believe in the principle that everyone deserves a fair reading. If a person is a good writer, they are a good writer. End of. I don’t have an issue with anyone’s writing or with their right to be published or recognised or their ideas and their work hailed.

I don’t have an issue with a person having a history in which they wrote politically-charged diatribes of whatever stripe. But if that person then decides to enter the professional arena then I expect them to behave professionally and play by the rules that the rest of us play by.

It is ironic that the person who now says I’m spreading vicious rumours about them is actually a person I’d recommended to multiple anthology editors on the basis of their ability and the originality of their viewpoint. When that same person used their connections to bully and ostracize a close friend of mine, and when that person’s associate behaved in a transparently racist way towards my friend, I informed my publisher of the identities of the people involved (both of them new professional writers) in strict confidence. I also informed one of the editors to whom I’d recommended them—I haven’t had a chance to speak to the other yet, but as I don’t think he’s commissioning right now it’s less of an issue. I did this because I do not want to be seen to condone these young writers’ behaviour in any way—I recommended them, after all, and they turned out to be a poor choice of recommendation. And I want to put my colleagues on their guard that one of them may in fact be utterly two-faced and that the other has behaved in a racist, bullying manner. I do not take this sort of thing lightly.

If this is me spreading vicious rumours, then I’m guilty.

I welcome criticism of my work—as a published writer I consider it a privilege to receive even the most violent criticism because this goes with the privilege of being published. I don’t enjoy it, but I can take it.

I welcome and encourage and support a more socially open and respectful environment that is inclusive across many vectors, and one of the reasons I have kept quiet about this is because the last thing anybody needs is another shitstorm where a lot of people get hurt unnecessarily. But I will not stand by and do nothing when an individual and at least one of their supporters attacks people (like my friend) who are genuinely working hard and making sacrifices to bring diversity and mutual understanding to our field. And I will not stand by and do nothing when my own reputation is attacked. It is my understanding that this is what is now happening.

It breaks my heart that this post is necessary, but I believe that the movement toward equality in our field—and indeed in the world—is robust enough that the efforts of one individual to cause harm and to divide will not bring us down.

I don’t like secrets. I have not stated this person’s name publicly only because it was given to me in confidence by my friend who is vulnerable. If she chooses not to release the name, it is not my place to do so.

I apologise to my friend who has been targeted for abuse for bringing this out in the open when they would prefer it kept quiet.

I apologise to the people who have been hurt by this person’s other identity for allowing the deception to go on for so long.

You see the position I am in? Whether I speak or don’t speak, someone will get hurt.

There are plenty of people who know what’s going on and choose to allow it. That is up to them.

re: the hostility of UK SF toward women writers

Something said to me in passing recently makes me want to clarify one point regarding my relationship with British SF.

By 1999 I’d published three mass-market SF novels in the US and sales weren’t great. My US agent told me, ‘The SF part of your career is over’ in pretty much those exact words. I was advised to move into fantasy and YA. I tried to do this but couldn’t make it work.

In the UK, my agent at the time (Mic Cheetham) managed to get me two more two-book contracts to write SF for Orbit UK. Only one of those books (Maul) sold in the US, to a small imprint. Mic encouraged me to write SF. She encouraged me to persist. My books sold badly, but I built a name here.

I am only writing SF right now because of the UK scene. If I lived in the US I’d be doing something else.

That is all.

Amphibious

Think about those whales. There’s something pretty badass about them. They’re like, ‘I used to be a land creature but I’ll become helpless on land so I can go down under the sea. And I have no gills but I’ll just come up to breathe when I have to.’

Really? Are you guys nuts? I mean, you can’t survive on land. You drown if you stay under too long. It’s a TERRIBLE IDEA. You live in two worlds, but you can’t live in either of them completely. What were you thinking?

Whales are like, ‘Oh yeah? Watch me.’

You know what I’m going to say, right?

Being a writer is like being a whale. Leaving aside the getting-hunted-to-extinction part (we can talk about that another time). It is about diving down, repeatedly, into the dream world and bringing what you can to the surface. You can’t stay down there in the imaginary world. But if you stay up in the dry real world too long, you start to wither.

I am writing this post for a friend. I hear her despair at the state of the culture she is working in, its hailing-as-spectacular the mediocre and unoriginal, its blatant disregard for her existence because that culture only recognizes certain kinds of phenomena as being worthy of attention. And I want to say to her, use your whale powers and dive down.

Working on a book is like a series of dives. Periodically you have to come up—not just to eat, sleep, converse, earn money, do the laundry, but also to take soundings with the upper world. To take your bearings in the air. This means checking in with the culture and taking a look at the environment you are going to release your work into, and hopefully getting some oxygen from it that you badly need in order to keep going.

To write well requires an amphibious nature. I think it requires an ability to stand the depth pressure, to hold one’s breath against the desire for the opinion of the collective. I can’t do good work if I’m plugged into the mains of the overculture. I need silence for that. I need to go down and not come up for as long as I can stand it.

This is an act of faith. What if you run out of air and die down there? What if you come up and the world has changed and what you were doing is no longer apropos? The longer I go without checking in for the world’s approval, the more panicky I become.

There is a real and valid tension in the desire for connection and social reinforcement, and the need for silence and solitude. It is a tension intrinsic to the nature of writing. But there’s more going on. Writers are increasingly asked to be interactive outside the already-profoundly-interactive process of our work. This expectation is freighted with consequences that I personally don’t yet understand. Some of my closest friends are people I met online. I wouldn’t know them if I hadn’t come up gasping for air. Yet I can tell you that I’m out of my habitable zone when you throw me up on the beach.

We can’t stay down all the time but we don’t belong in the air, either, my whale friends.

For my friend who inspired this post, the problem is that sometimes the air will be good. But sometimes it make you choke. And sometimes it will make you light-headed. And you never know what you’re going to get when you come up and open your lungs. If a writer is working in a politically hostile environment, she may come up for air often in search of support because there are friends up there with oxygen for her. But there is a price to be paid if the support also means engagement with political battle on a daily basis. Because a person who is having a political fight cannot dive down at the same time.

I want to say to my friend: We have to be amphibious. Whatever else is going on, we have to find a way.

Whales breathe this way their whole lives. They make an art of it. So can we.

Martial arts and Shadowboxer

This is just a brief post to draw your attention to a series of posts I wrote for Charlie Stross at his blog. I have been wanting to lay out some ideas about martial arts and fighting and their portrayal in fiction, and when Charlie offered me free use of the space I took advantage of his generosity and wrote four posts. Here they are:

Martial arts and the cycle of bullshit

Wag that puppy

Who let the dogs out

Going to the source

The last post refers specifically to Shadowboxer, which is coming out in October. I will not be doing a ginormous blog tour, but I will be making the occasional guest post here and there over the course of the next several weeks. I also plan to run a few posts here at my own blog in celebration of the book’s release. My publisher have made this free excerpt available if you’d like a preview.

While I am about it, I will draw your attention to the review in Publisher’s Weekly that says: SF author Sullivan (Lightborn) spins a kinetic, violent, and magical tale that makes excellent use of Jade’s hard-edged voice. Sullivan brings to life the beauty of Thailand and the sweat and blood of the gym, infusing them with magic and danger.

I was looking around online and I noticed that someone used the word ‘hype’ with regard to my novel. I have heard this before, earlier in my career when I was young and perceived as an upstart I guess. ‘Hype’. It’s an odd word considering that most of my books have passed so far beneath the radar of popular notice that they faceplowed the sidewalk. If you saw my sales figures you would think me idiotic for continuing to write professionally.

Having poured so much of myself into my novels and then watched most of them attract no more than a glancing notice, it’s quite difficult to take an optimistic view about this one. I am trying. I’ve said before that in my opinion it’s the best thing I’ve written (apart from the book I’m writing now). I don’t know if that statement means anything to anybody but me, but there it is.

The sound of me saying no

One of the things that has happened since I had kids is that I am constantly in an energy deficit. When they were small, I felt like I was being eaten alive. Most of my energy went to them and whatever was left over had to be scraped up and used for matters professional and creative–always with a sense of near-fatal drainage. When I started my OU degree, whatever energy I got back as the kids went to preschool and then school, went into studying. The intellectual demands have only increased as the coursework has got harder, and I am now studying final-year courses in physics.

Thanks largely to the internet I live in a field of noise. The buzz of people and their things demanding attention is a total surround. Sometimes I feel like everybody wants something from me. I feel pressure to deliver what is wanted lest I otherwise disappear into the general background static against which my identity is already barely discernable as a faint outline. And I resent this expectation.

So I’m just going to put this out there: I am not an infinite resource. I shouldn’t have to say it, but I feel like I do have to say it or I will be sucked into a vortex of Doing It All. Modern women are widely expected to be superheroes in all sorts of areas. It’s a thing now. If you’re not a superwoman then you ain’t worth the time of day to the world. Well, I have found that the more I allow myself to be regarded as a Woman Who Can Do Anything, the worse off I am. People expect miracles. I expect them of myself. It all becomes one.

At the moment I am getting ready to launch my first novel in four years. I have set boundaries on how much support writing I will do around the launch, but even so this amount is not trivial. I am embarking on the 90 credits of study I need in order to finish with the OU this year–there is a strong probability that I will crash and burn because the courses are extremely challenging and time-consuming. I am revising a very difficult SF novel under tight deadline and with high expectations–expectations on which I intend to deliver. I am handling a DVD release for my partner’s business. I have a short story due soon and several other writing projects on the backburner. They are on the backburner because my life fills up with noise. Everyone’s does.

I am not the busiest person I know, not by some stretch. But I’m a lot busier than I want to be, busier than I reckon it’s healthy for any animal to be, and so I will now be practicing saying NO. When I say no it is not because I don’t care or I don’t regard a thing or a person as important or because I don’t want to be involved. It is because I refuse to sabotage my work and my personal life by taking on too much and breaking myself.

Turning people into packhorses is another way of controlling them, you know. Making women feel crazy because we can’t keep up is also a thing. This has not escaped my notice.

Yes, I am writing this at four-thirty in the morning, since you ask.