January, 2005

There’s been quite a brouhaha recently over the President of Harvard’s remarks that the reason there’s no parity between men and women among science faculty at his university (or indeed, at most institutions of higher education) is likely due to innate differences in the brain between genders. Following the obvious outrage that ensued, he apologized backhandedly on several occasions, but the furor continues. The president has his defendants, people that say the PC police are out to get him, that a person has to sublimate what’s scientifically been proven for what doesn’t hurt people’s feelings in mixed company and that this sublimation is wrong. These defenders, as well as Lawrence Summers himself, miss the point. It’s not that people are offended at the suggestion that men and women are intrinsically different, even to the nuts and bolts level of brain differences. Most of us are willing to accept that these differences likely exist. Women may tend to have a thicker corpus callosum (though the 1982 study that proposed that, by Christine De Lacoste-Utamsing and Ralph L. Holloway, has not been successfully replicated), while men have larger brains overall (at least when not adjusted for the relative size difference between men and women). Girls usually attain linguistic skills earlier than boys. Boys can turn three dimensional objects in their head faster than girls, and there may be a link between testosterone levels and this ability. Boys can be trained to have a high degree of linguistic skills and equal girls’ supposed natural ability, while girls can be helped to compensate for the gender-given spatial disadvantage through practice (by doing things like playing video games, interestingly enough). There’s also some evidence that shows that the distribution curve for girls and IQ has a large number of girls clustered right around the median IQ (100), so that the bell curve for girls is high and tall. Less of us are autistic or otherwise seriously mentally handicapped, and less of us are intellectual giants as well. Not that IQ has been proven to measure intellectual breadth and life potential (or ability to be a first rate educator at a prime university, for that matter). Boy scores, on the other hand, fall all over the map. They dot the bell curve on out as far as it will stretch, wide and flat, and thus populate the extremes more heavily than girls can hope to. All of these are things we know, having discovered them through rigorous scientific study. What we don’t know, necessarily, is what these things mean. A child’s brain is different than an adult’s, so getting from here to there does not exclude the nature vs. nurture question when it comes to potential gender differences, even as early as elementary school. And how substantial are these differences? Is using both hemispheres of the brain when decoding language really that different than using only one hemisphere? Are these differences really fundamental, or are they interesting but ultimately insignificantly different approaches to thought, like the brain functioning differences between, say, right-handed and left-handed folks? We don’t know any of these things, yet. So what’s especially offensive and discouraging about the university president’s remarks is not that he notes these possible differences, but that he makes the leap that this explains the lack of women among his own faculty. Given such an inevitable explanation, there’s no point in trying to change things, you see? And that position is both unfortunate and dangerous. It also happens to neatly sidestep the pink elephant in the room, the more than obvious explanation, the one we all know is true. Social gender bias is responsible for the lack of parity in men and women faculty in the sciences. This bias is everywhere, it’s endemic, and it exists equally in men and women. This gender bias works against both men and women. It holds women back from attaining high ranks in all kinds of fields (not just academia and not just science) and it holds men who decide to be homemakers (or want sole custody of their children in a divorce) in social disapproval. Everyone knows this, and to not acknowledge it is outrageous and deserves condemnation.

Think bias is a thing of the past? Ok, let’s do a little gedanken experiment, shall we? Close your eyes, and picture a scientist at work in a research laboratory. Did you get Marie Curie or Albert Einstein? I’m betting you got a white middle-aged guy in a lab coat standing over chemical compounds and a bunsen burner, or possibly hunched over a complex computer model of a distant galaxy. You probably didn’t picture a vivacious young girl with sparkling eyes and lipstick. Even though I’ve given you a whole paragraph to think about gender bias, your own and that of others, you probably still pulled up that guy in the lab coat. Don’t feel bad about that. So did I. The thing about biases is not that having the bias makes you a bad person in some way. In many cases it’s just the product of a lifetime of conditioning. The problem arises when there’s a failure to acknowledge that the bias exists. Failure to acknowledge society’s biases means you will never overcome them. You can’t compensate for something you don’t admit is a factor. And the worst part about this is that if women’s brains do turn out to be different than men’s and they do think about problems and solve them in different ways then we desperately need women in those laboratories right next to the men, giving their potential solutions to the questions we are all trying to answer.

This brings me to the real point of my story, which is anecdotal, but especially meaningful to me in the context of this discussion. Last weekend we took Sophia to the Science Center here in St. Louis. We’ve been very excited about the number of wonderful educational things for Sophia to see and explore. There’s all sorts of great cultural opportunities that were simply not available to her where we used to live. As you probably know, because I’ve written about it, Sophia has an age appropriate and completely commonplace fascination with dinosaurs. We encourage it, and she has started to assimilate all sorts of facts about them: whether they are carnivorous or not, their names, what they look like, distinguishing features, etc. It’s really delightful to talk with her about these things. It’s true that she plays dinosaurs going to the ball, and dinosaurs coming over to play with the horsies, which is probably not the same sort of play boys engage in with their dinosaurs, but she is still absorbing all the salient facts (the carnivores often crash the party and scare the others off, for example). It’s all good, as they say. At any rate, we went to the Science Center, which is – astonishingly – free (though parking is seven dollars) and had the best sort of time. There’s a life-size animatronic display of a T. Rex and wounded Triceratops which I’ve been told many children are afraid of but which Sophia worked up her courage to go right up to and observe for a long time. She’s still periodically talking about how the T. Rex had clawed the Triceratops and how the Triceratops was hurt. It made quite an impression on her. A woman had set up a display nearby with different skulls, probably intended for older children, but Sophia listened very closely as she explained which belonged to dinosaurs and which were present day animals, and pointed out similarities and differences between the different skulls. Sophia was fascinated by the whole thing, and truly enjoyed touching the different skulls. Then, we moved into a darkened room with a sophisticated diorama of ancient St. Louis, complete with models of the ocean animals that were present here when this area was under water millions of years ago. A man was there, either a volunteer or an employee of the Science Center, and as we walked up he was talking to a boy whom I’m pretty sure was almost exactly Sophia’s age. He was a bit physically larger than she was and a bit less verbal than she, which is how I’m deciding they were close in age. The man was talking about the display to the boy, and telling him, particularly, about trilobites. Then he reached into his vest – he had one of those fishing vests with the seventy tiny pockets all over – and pulled out a trilobite fossil, which he handed to the boy so that he could see it. He talked about how it was unusual because it was curled up, and most fossils of trilobites are found flat and opened. Sophia edged up real close, and actually placed herself between the boy and the man, looking at the item and listening curiously. The boy set the item down on the display, and the man promptly picked it up without letting Sophia so much as touch it, and tucked it back into his pocket. Then he went on to pull a small nautilus fossil out of another pocket. I thought to myself, “Oh, he’ll give Sophia a chance to see this one, he was just intending to take turns. Don’t jump to conclusions.” As you have probably guessed, from reading the leading paragraphs, he did no such thing. He reached over her, completely ignoring her and her rather obvious interest, placing that second item too next to the boy and taking it back up from him when the child showed little motivation to touch the beautiful thing, again without giving Sophia any chance at all with it. I needn’t tell you, I suppose, that I was furious. I did nothing, because I thought it was important not to show my fury, but I ran through all the possible things I could have done in my mind. Would complaining to someone have changed that man’s attitude? No, probably just made him resentful and even more determined to exclude girls from his show and tell. I prompted Sophia to ask the man for the fossils directly, because I figured he couldn’t refuse a direct request from an interested child, but she was too shy to. I couldn’t blame her for being reluctant, walking right up to the man and watching everything he did should have been signal enough that she wanted a chance at touching the fossils. I don’t know what I could have done to improve matters for her, but I saw a thousand things I might have done that would not have helped and most of them would have been counter-productive, so I elected to let it go and not attract her attention to the obvious slight. Making a big deal out of it, too, could have imprinted something negative on her and I wanted the experience overall to be positive. What can I do? I don’t want her to grow up in a world where her clear interest is shunned in a place that is supposed to be specifically designed to be safe and welcoming to children and their scientific inquiry. I have no power at all to change the world. I can only compensate, compensate, compensate at home, filling in her interest with my limited knowledge, and my even fewer – as of this moment, none – fossils. Still, it makes me despair a little, because I want her to have all the open doors and get to pick one, instead of being faced with a series of closed doors she has to break through. It makes me sad that this fight still has to be fought, and it makes me sad that I can’t fight that fight for her. Ultimately, she has to make her own way. But she is so young and small, yet, and the deck seems – when things like this happen – stacked against her.


iTunes says I was listening to Somnambulist (Simply Being Loved) (feat. JC Chasez) from the album “Emotional Technology” by BT when I posted this. I have it rated 3 stars.

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I can’t give this book the ringing endorsement given to it by Neil Gaiman, though that endorsement did cause me to read the thing. M. John Harrison’s Light is not my favorite SF book of the last decade (though I’d be hard pressed to say exactly which book was). There were parts of it I didn’t even like. Even so, I can’t deny that it is a remarkable book nonetheless. It’s a smart book and it’s a bright book and it’s a sleek book and if you love science for science’s sake and have any interest at all in probability and quantum physics I would recommend this book to you very highly. And yet, and yet…despite its elegance and intelligence and subject matter it lacked a certain warmth.

As a piece, it worked together beautifully. I particularly liked the daring of Harrison’s non-linear ordering of events. It was critical that this tale be told in the fragmentary way that it was, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy thing to do. I was very satisfied with the ending. In fact, I was so satisfied with the ending that I liked the book much better after I’d finished it than while I was reading it. I’m beginning to acquire a new respect for books that end properly.

My biggest problem with the book was probably that there was a dearth of sympathetic characters. Serial killers, anorexics, deranged magicians, and all sorts of unpleasant folks populate the story. And I never quite got the trick of liking any of them, even though I felt as though Harrison wanted me to. It’s as though his universe is unable to hold together if there’s any decent people in it, and you can forget any semblance of an act of kindness. There’s a couple of cats that aren’t terrible – merely catlike and indifferent – but that’s about it. No one you can really like shows up until the book is over halfway finished, and the one who does is a minor character, an exception to prove the rule that everyone’s a jerk. He also trots out some tired childhood traumas to explain people’s bizarre behaviors (*spoiler* can we please have a moratorium on sex abuse of children as the pivotal point of character development, already?).

I won’t say it wasn’t worth reading. I will say, however, that I’m taking all future Gaiman endorsements with a bigger grain of salt. Though I’m still gonna read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel when I get a chance, about which he says “…in my probably biased but not entirely uninformed opinion, [it] is the best English fantasy novel written in the last seventy years: over 800 pages, and when it ends you’re just sad there aren’t another 800…”.

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Writing group was great! I had a lot of fun, and I came home way too late. There were a lot of people there, many of whom had written really engaging things to share. I read the opening scene of “Yonder Wicket Gate, Yonder Shining Light” and got some nice compliments and some useful advice on several minor things. A couple of people said it reminded them of A Canticle for Leibowitz which I acknowledged as a distant source of inspiration and am taking as a good thing. I chickened out of reading “Loyal Companion” which is probably what I should have read, since I’m sure it needs a lot of work, and I am planning to have Yonder overhauled at Viable Paradise (if I am accepted, of course) so I don’t necessarily need to have it looked over right now. Everyone present at the writing group was friendly and supportive. The group was a good mix of ages, ethnicities, and encompassed a variety of writing genres. No one was writing a genealogy (which was a definite downside of my attendance at the previous writer’s group). Most importantly, they were happy (and made me happy) for everyone’s attempts and for people’s successes. I sensed no jealousy or rancor. I will definitely be going back to WUTA, probably next week. I’m not sure what to do about the first writing group I went to. I’d like to stick with them, but I’m not sure what they can offer me, and it’d just be for what I think I might be able to offer them. They’re all about the encouragement and the approval, and frankly, I don’t need that right now. I need useful feedback, not just smiles and “oh, that’s nice, you’re expressing yourself”. They treat each other with kid gloves over there, and that’s no way to improve. There’s a point at which everyone needs a cheering section, and there are many days that I still need one, but I have that already, and I don’t want it from my writing group. On the other hand, if I’m very careful about how I give my critiques, then maybe I can help some of them gently move away from needing the cheering section on over into wanting the brutal dissection of their words. It’s only once a month which doesn’t seem like too extreme a martyrdom for the sake of giving back. Not that I’m overflowing with free time to pitter about to twenty different writing groups. I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll over think it and eventually decide something or other, probably not to go, because that’s easily accomplished through inertia. So, to summarize: new writing group is great and useful and goes way into the night. So way into the night that yesterday I dragged through the day, tired from having stayed out so late, and my writing suffered accordingly. I am not any kind of a night owl and my brain needs its beauty sleep.

I am mentally reworking “Loyal Companion”. I deliberately left in some vagueness as I wrote it because I thought I’d leave what was happening open to interpretation, but I realize now that I know exactly what is happening, and that I need to represent exactly what is happening for clarity’s sake in the story. It is, I am starting to understand now, a skeleton of a story, and it needs meat and skin. I hope I get some time for a rewrite this weekend, so that I can read it (or part of it) next week at WUTA. It’s the first thing I’ve felt really strongly needs an overhaul. Not just cutting words and scenes or adding words and scenes. Stuff needs to be changed to make it work. I think I have a handle on which stuff, and we’ll see how it goes. I’m actually pleased that I have a clear image as to what can change in the story. Sometimes when I write things out, it’s almost as if they become etched and fixed, and while I can adjust them, it’s normally very hard for me to see a way to change them radically. This is probably an editing handicap, and I’m glad to see myself getting around it, at least in this instance. Then again, that could just be an indicator as to how bad the story actually is. Terrible and I could only appreciate it with such a distance of time. Still, terrible but salvageable (which I think it is) is far better than just terrible.

I’ve also had a friend read over “Egghead Kingdom” and it needs work too, work that I wouldn’t have seen it needed, I think. So that’s on my plate as well. I’m not sure where this little piece is going, if anywhere, but I’m going to try to follow the recommendations I’ve been given and see where they take me. It’s quite a lot of work, all this thinking about the stories and working on rewriting them. It’s good work, but it’s still work.

I want to be working on “Yonder Wicket Gate, Yonder Shining Light” but I haven’t the focus and concentration to do so this morning. I have the fixes for the first part to do as suggested by my writing group, and the continuing writing of the current part, but my mind is flitting about from subject to subject, primarily filled with all the topics I’ve been intending to blog about for some time now and haven’t gotten to yet. William Gibson was right! The blogging is getting in the way of the writing! Well, actually it’s my errant mind that is getting in the way of the writing and I’m just using the blog as a convenient place to eject all those distracting thoughts so I can focus. So maybe the blog is helping. I don’t know. Jury still out, only time will tell, and all that.

I have a few more things to say about writing. Back in December, in one of those link following things a person sometimes does, I came across a story by a new author, who has spent almost two years now seriously working on her craft and doing submissions and reporting about it. She’s just made a pro sale to Strange Horizons but is close enough to being a total newbie that I find her writings on the subject of her writing incredibly helpful. I read what she had on her site, and followed some links to some of her online publications, including one to a story called “Reparations“. It’s an incredible story. It literally took my breath away. Go read it now and give her feedback, especially if you like it. (If you don’t, be constructive and if you can’t be constructive, be silent). At any rate, I wrote to the author, Merrie Haskell, to let her know how wonderful I thought her story was, and she wrote me back, and has been very encouraging about starting out on this journey. At any rate, her progress speaks to me of how much time and work this thing will take, and I am happy to have someone who is ahead of me on the road, but not so far ahead that she’s already crossed over into Professional Writer Land, if you know what I mean. Through her, I can see that if I just keep walking and walking and walking, that I am on the road to where publication is, and that I will eventually get there. It’s a long, long way, but she told me she’s available for an email pep talk, so there’s no need for me to be disheartened as I proceed. Thanks, Merrie.

The other notable writing thing I want to point out, which is a cool thing for both writerly and readerly types, is that I’ve been listening to they 2004 Cybercasts of the National Book Festival. There’s some really great stuff here. Neil Gaiman reads from his upcoming book Anansi Boys, making me especially eager for it to be published, for example. There’s lots of interesting speeches in lots of different areas of the written word to be enjoyed. But the best thing in there, as far as I’m concerned, is Lois McMaster Bujold‘s speech. She’s a genius, and I’ve been thinking long and hard about how to incorporate religion and spirituality into a book since reading how deftly she explores these territories in Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls. In some ways, “Yonder Wicket Gate, Yonder Shining Light” is a response to some of these impulses, though I am very well aware of how crude my approach is compared to hers. And just for the record, I have not read her take on Pilgrim’s Progress, Borders of Infinity, though I intend to. I am encouraged by her because she started out writing, walked away from it, and then picked it back up in her mid-thirties, as I am doing. She’s terrifically smart, and in case you don’t want to listen to all thirty-five minutes of her speech, I’m going to delineate some of the things she said that I think are particularly insightful.
She said three things that I want to address:

  1. “No one writes in a vacuum.”
  2. “A genre is a group of book in close conversation with one another.”
  3. “There seem to be two kinds of readers. Those who read as though they are watching a movie screen in their head. The prose is transparent to them. They never see the words. They see what’s happening – and I’m one of those readers – and then there turn out to be readers who are very, very word sensitive. …[They] see the words as well as, I presume, processing them into pictures.”

I don’t have anything to add about no one writing in a vacuum, and you can just look back at the entire post thus far to see my confirmation of this sentiment. However, I had never before thought about books in conversation quite that way. My view of books is as discrete entities. Still books are inter-related and this web can potentially extend further than just along genre lines. Her statement is an admission about the interconnectedness between the writing and reading worlds. It is not a one-way function. The author cannot just push out a book and close the door. Stories begin where others end or where they branch off from where the reader wanted the original story to go. Fanfic is probably the biggest indicator that authors cannot really own or seal off the worlds they create. Everything an author creates is appropriated from other places, and usually those places are books they’ve read. And yet, I love her characterization of this as a conversation, as a continuation of what was begun instead of, as is so often negatively portrayed, as plagiarism, theft, and lack of creative force. It implies respect from the reader upon turning their hand to writing.

I have been noticing, in the past couple of months, that many writers whom I’ve been reading lately are actually writing movies. I don’t mean they wish their piece was actually a movie, or that they are failing to make screenplays. What I mean is that their narrative is a determinedly visual narrative. They are spilling out a sequence of events, describing something that they are watching happen in their head. Sometimes they’ll throw in a nod to the other senses, but mostly they’re moving you along a story just as quickly as they can. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it is a thing I find slightly jarring, and just a little offputting, and until now I couldn’t put my finger on why. I think, after hearing Bujold speak, that this is because I am not a visual reader. I’m not that first category of people she describes, who don’t see the words. I see every word. I am obligated, in fact, to read every word, sometimes more than once. And, unlike her presumption, I don’t process those words into pictures. Or rather, let me say, I don’t have to process the words into pictures. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. That’s a part of what reading is about for me, sometimes having a sense of passages without a direct visual correlation. Sometimes there are sounds in my mind, but often deeper things that are more visceral, and not easily nailed down into something as coherent as a picture. My mental pictures can be a part of my reading, but never the main thrust of it. It never occurred to me that stories might need to play out as pictures at all. This leads me to an understanding of why I’m such a slow reader. If one only absorbs a picture and then a picture and then another picture of what is going on, one can probably fly through prose relatively quickly. If you’re ruminating the words, however, you have to do it slowly. Looking at it in this way also helps me understand why I can enjoy books in which not much happens, whereas movies where nothing happens make me crazy (don’t get me started on Lost In Translation). And, until Bujold said it so explicitly, it had never occurred to me that other people might have a different way of reading than I do. It’s likely that this revelation has applications for my writing as well, but I haven’t worked those out yet.

And again, this has gone on for far too long. I apologize and I’ll try to keep things shorter, more web-readable, from now on.

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As I mentioned earlier, for the past couple of weeks or so I’ve been trying out a new weblogging tool in order to try and keep myself out of the bad, bad habit of composing blog entries in browser windows, where they aren’t usually saved (unless I save them to draft, which I rarely ever do, because saving something to draft is like assigning it to the Gulag) and thus too often lost. The software I’ve been using is called ecto, and I’m almost ready to plunk down cash for it (it costs 18 dollars which seems reasonable and yet I’m always reluctant to pay for software) though I’m still trying it out and making sure I want to use this all the time. It has a lot of features that I really like (like autosaving) but it doesn’t do some things that I wish it would. It doesn’t support extended entries on my platform, for example, which makes it not terribly useful for entries which I put behind the Read More tag. On the other hand, I only do that with dream entries, so that’s not so bad (forgot another dream just this morning, in fact). I haven’t found an effective way of including images either, although it purports to do that, and maybe I just haven’t properly figured out how to. It has an iTunes reporting button, however, which is really slick, and nicer than the AudioScrobbler plugin I have for Nucleus. I can actually include my ratings, with the iTunes reporter. On the other hand, I love the CurrentMedia reporter which I’ve been using to let you know what I’m reading, and that’s Nucleus only (though I don’t see why it has to be. ecto could be doing something like that). On the other hand, I don’t enter something for that plugin with every entry, so like the dream entries thing, I can probably tolerate switching to the Nucleus front end for that. Another ecto bonus is that it’s very good and painless about pinging a ton of places which is more than can be said for the Nucleus plugins I’ve tried to use for that.

I haven’t done a writing summary in a while, have I? People have been asking me how it’s been going, so I suppose that means it’s time for an update. Well, first I wasn’t doing the summaries – which I had imagined myself doing weekly – because I was stuck and not doing well and not wanting to face the dearth of words, and then I didn’t do one because I was busy doing the actual writing. Ha. However, I can check back on my notes and summarize here, catching you all up to where I am. Just so you know, no writing went on while Sophia was out of school for Christmas. So she started back to school on January 3rd.

  • Monday, January 3 – 1,216 words
  • Tuesday, January 4 – 1,918 words
  • Wednesday, January 5 – 164 words
  • Thursday 6 – Sunday 9 – no words
  • Monday, January 10 – 418 words
  • Tuesday, January 11 – 1634 words
  • Wednesday, January 12 – 247 words
  • Wednesday 12 – Friday 14 – no writing but much painful fiddling with troff. Sadly, more of this needed
  • Saturday 15 – Tuesday 18 – no writing done, Monday was MLK holiday and Sophia was home
  • Wednesday, January 19 – 1098 words
  • Thursday, January 20 – 1469 words
  • Friday 21 – Sunday 23 – no words
  • Monday, January 24 – 1704 words
  • Tuesday, January 25 – 1257 words

Phew. I really need to do this more often. It looks like, so far, I’m falling short of the desired 5,000 words a week. Of course, it’s only three weeks into the year, so I’m not going to say it’s not possible for me to do 5,000 words a week. I didn’t even really think that 5,000 was very many, though. I have to admit to some disappointment in that regard.

The novel stands today just shy of 25,000 words. It is tentatively named “Yonder Wicket Gate, Yonder Shining Light”. I know, I know, probably too long and probably too obvious, but it’s working for me for right now. I have to call it something. I like the sound (and sense) of wicket gate, and of course I feel like anything science fiction ought to have shining light. I have come to a point where I’m not sure whether the story will truly be novel length. If it’s not, I have no idea what I will do with it. I only have a handful of specific scenes lettered out in my mind, but I feel as though I’ve set up quite a lot that requires resolution and that those scenes I have in my mind don’t do anything to resolve what I’ve set up and in fact add more to what has already been set (so there must be others that do the resolving, but where are they?). I think this is a part where I just need to trust the story to go on for as long as it will and end where it will and keep at it, but it’s kind of distracting to have this uncertainty so close. I’m tempted to go back and start trying to enumerate and make chapters and sections out of what I have already written. This is a temptation I’m resisting as it can only interfere with the forward momentum I’m currently enjoying. I have a sense that the completed part is possibly a third of the piece, but I don’t feel like I have another two-thirds worth of stuff to add, so I don’t know where the sense that I’m a third of the way through is coming from.

I’ve started some grappling, grasping efforts at finding a writing group. I need someone to talk nuts and bolts with. Writing is, necessarily, a solitary activity, but there comes a point at which things are written but not ready and – absent an editor – I need some trusted confidantes to show me were the weak places are. (Huh. I just remembered a little bit of last night’s elusive dream. There was a house, with a false wooden flooring upstairs in a bedroom or possibly the attic, and silver dishes hidden underneath, left behind by the prior owners. See who needs extended entries? I can just interrupt myself and core dump any little stray thought right here in the main entry!) In December, I picked a writing group at random and showed up. It just so happened that on that day they had a guest speaker, and so things were not at all what I expected. It was worth going to, but not what I was looking for, if you know what I mean. I went back this month, and the more normal read a bit from your piece, offer critiques, discuss writing questions format was present. I was encouraged by that, but the people with the most incisive and useful comments were not regulars, but visitors from another writing group. That writing group, I thought to myself, is where I want to be. It’s tonight and I’m nervous about it, for some reason. I haven’t decided what to take for review, though I have at least two pieces that I sense need serious help (both Loyal Companion and Egghead Kingdom). I know some of the places that need to be fixed in Loyal Companion, but I haven’t done them yet, so I don’t want to take that and get only feedback about stuff I already know is problematic, but on the other hand Egghead Kindgom is such an odd little piece that I don’t know what people will make of it. And I don’t mean odd in any kind of avant-garde way. It’s fairly pedestrian as that goes. It’s just kind of odd in scope and function. Just a little thing I spun out because it’d been on my mind, probably the most promising candidate for something I can never sell and so ought to go up on the webpage. So, I shall probably be going down there tonight, to Writers Under the Arch, and giving it a try. Perhaps I will bring a few pages of the novel. Who knows? At the point where I was stuck in the writing, about a week ago, I let Kurt read what I had so far and tried to describe to him what the problem was, and why I couldn’t proceed. I was talking about plot and pacing and structure in a way I rarely do. In fact, things had come out of my mouth that I had not realized I was thinking. It made me happy to know that on some level I was thinking about these things, but it was also strange, hearing myself give analysis of my own work that I didn’t know I had done. I was especially trying to explain the story’s need for a sort of pause before the next sequence of events. I thought, but did not say, the word caesura. It made me realize that I need writing geeks to sound ideas off of, people who will help me polish what I’m digging up and setting out. Kurt is a fairly good sounding board, because he’s so widely read and so attentive, but I would prefer him to be in the position of encourager, and let someone else help me wrench around details of plot and character and construction. I want him to be the first enjoyer of the works, not the first analyzer.

I had a chance to read Egghead Kingdom yesterday for the first time since I wrote it. It seemed like a new thing, so it looks like eight weeks is enough resting time for a story before I can come at it with fresh eyes. This is a very useful piece of information to have, now I know just how long to shelve something before attempting another draft.

Gah, I have about eight more writing-related things I wanted to say, but there’s just too much in this entry already. I need to give you and me a break already.

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I had the completely contradictory sense that I’d been madly productive while remaining completely behind yesterday. I finally got a local driver’s license, something I’ve been meaning to do for about a month and a half, but still no progress on getting local tags for the cars, for example. I went to give blood, but before I could feel all good and altruistic about it, I got turned down because of the amount of time I lived in the U.K.. The “long periods of time” obliquely referred to in the link from the Red Cross turns out to be three months or more between 1980 and 1996. The lady felt bad for turning me down, but I told her not to worry, that I wanted the blood supply to be safe and that I wanted people to be turned down, even if those people should be me. I wonder if there’s a time lapse after which they can assume I’m not going to turn up with variant Creutzfeld Jacob Disease. I’ve actually been turned down for donating blood quite a bit. A few times for not meeting minimum weight requirements (I used to be quite thin), and after September 11 for having been to Argentina within the last 12 months (but no one asked me then if I’d lived in the U.K.). Maybe that’s just one of those things I’m not meant to do.

At any rate, even though I felt like I accomplished quite a bit, I’m still feeling a little bludgeoned by the list of things I have to do. For example, I spent a bunch of writing time last week reacquainting myself with troff markup so that I could print out some of my pieces and do some edits. All my troff skills have atrophied in the year and a half that I didn’t use the program (the last time I used it extensively was when I was working on Cualcotel). I didn’t even have my previous sed scripts and hamster helpers around, as they all died with White Star. So I spent like three writing days in a row digging through troff stuff, and I still don’t have anything printed to show for it. I’m going to have to find some time, maybe on the weekends, to work on the non-writing part of the writing: the printing, the edits, the submissions, the mailings. Otherwise I’ll never get anything finished. It continues to boggle my mind that I have no job and I’m as busy as I am. It also worries at me that I’m just into mid-January and the white rabbit in my head is jumping up and down and looking at his pocket watch and going on about how behind I am. The year just started, how is it possible that I’m so behind? Everywhere around me are half-finished things. This is one of the primary burdens of parenthood, that you are constantly derailed from what you intended to do before you can finish it. There, where I started clearing my desk, six stacks of papers. There, where I intended to bake a loaf of bread, the quick mix still in box on the counter. I could put it away, but I still intend to do it, maybe right now. Oh wait, I’m in the middle of this blog post, maybe I should try to finish that before I start something else. I need more time!

I’ve never been completely happy with my level of productivity. I always seem to hang out with people who can multi-task better than I can and get a lot more stuff done than I do. I don’t know if this is a sort of illusion people weave, or if I’m really not capable of doing as much as everyone else does. Everyone around me does more than I do and looks less tired than I am. For one thing, I suspect most people get more useful hours out of their day than I do. I sleep eight hours a day. Every day. I would sleep less, if I thought that would help, but I don’t think it will. My body needs that much sleep to function and if it doesn’t get it, I’m even less productive than normal. So all those hours stolen away by sleep. Perhaps that’s one reason I feel the need to chronicle my dreams. See? I wasn’t just sleeping, I was also thinking up these bizarre and intricate stories. It wasn’t just wasted time. Speaking of which, I have had two very vivid dreams this week that I woke from in the middle of the night and I told myself I would remember them both for later. Then I slept again and forgot them. Oh well.

Part of my sense of accomplishment comes from finally having gone down to The Book House, one of about four independent bookstores I’ve been longing to see the inside of since I moved here. In my former town, the only independent bookstore was insufferably haughty. It had so much attitude that I only went into it in order to deliberately read books off the shelves to Sophia and leave without purchasing anything. So I decided to finally get off my ass and look for a copy of the Chronicles of Narnia in the correct order at the Book House, and thus I roused Sophia from her nap two days ago and we set out. It’s a cool place with two store cats (Chaucer and Blake). They’re the fluffy kind that I like least, and at least one of them sprays – the odor is unmistakable – but it was still kind of neat, and Sophia certainly loved it. The building is an actual Victorian house, with rooms and rooms of shelves and books, from the basement to the second floor. Sophia had a great time, and let me browse for a good 45 minutes on my own while she played with the laundry basket full of toys in the children’s room. The front hallway reminded me keenly of Eudora Welty’s house, the only other house I’ve been in where bookshelves are in every single room. I was browsing the science fiction and fantasy section (and came away with Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country which has been on my list of things I ought to read for a while now) when the owner of the book store became engaged in a conversation with a book buyer about the house ghosts. Perhaps you remember, faithful reader, my synopsis of houses near my own which are purportedly haunted. I had not noticed when I did my web-sleuthing back then that The Book House is one of these. I listened, intrigues, as the store owner described all the weird phenomena about the store, and relayed what a ghost expert had told her about the identity of the ghosts. According to her there are three: the girl Valerie who is a playful and sometimes helpful apparition, a man dressed in dark clothes to whom they ascribe malign intent, and a thoughtful smoking man who showed up after they purchased an entire collection of books, attached to them somehow. So there I was, browsing and eavesdropping, when suddenly Sophia starts screaming,”Mama! Mama!” in a panicked voice. Of course I run through the house to where she is, thinking what an idiot I am to leave my child alone in a haunted house. She is coming out of the children’s room and I hug her. She clings to me whimpering, unable to articulate what scared her so. I round the corner, holding her tightly and see all the toys she’s been playing with on the floor, including an ancient Curious George Jack in the Box. I had earlier demonstrated how it worked, turning the handle until the monkey popped up, then closing it back up.

“Did the jack-in-the-box scare you?”

She nodded, eyes wide.

“Did he pop out when you weren’t expecting him to?”

“Yes! After only half a turn he popped out!”

Ahhhh. Well, then. Nothing paranormal about this jolt of fear. We put the jack-in-the-box away and determined not to play with him anymore. Then we took our still shrink-wrapped, earlier, Scholastic edition of the Chronicles of Narnia, paid for it, and went home. She wanted to start reading it immediately and it was so nice to see Mr. Tumnus again. I had forgotten about the wonderful dedication at the front of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe:

My Dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand, a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,

C.S. Lewis

How wonderful, no? “some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again“.

I’ve finally moved away from being glued to our local public radio station every second of every day, though it’s still pretty cool and I listen to it often. I think my interest in AudioScrobbler has helped in that regard. I’ve also started to pull some of my old tracks off my iPod (including all my writing electronica) with Senuti and so reacquainted myself with quite a few beloved mp3s. This week I loaded CDs into the CD player of my car, and realized that there’s apparently an issue with my trunk player and the weather. If it’s too cold, it doesn’t want to load the discs or something. I never would have imagined that such a thing could make a difference. Maybe it’s just the age of my car and not an intrinsic weakness of the trunk players.

Not that I don’t still love my public radio like crazy. To prove it let me now leave you with a link to yesterday’s Fresh Air interview. If you have any interest in the current intersection between religion and politics in our nation and the ability to listen to audio on your computer, then I highly recommend Terry Gross’s interview with Richard Land from the SBC followed by her interview with Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners. Very interesting stuff, that certainly made me think. I was not aware, though I probably should have been, that the SBC was the only major religious organization to advocate the invasion of Iraq.

iTunes says I was listening to Mayan Pilot from the album “Blueshift” by Splashdown when I posted this. I have it rated 5 stars.

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~ Welcome to NARNIA ~

Ok, I officially live under a rock. I had no idea this was coming up, or that the critters and costumes were being done by WETA. Maybe I’m wrong to be as giddy about this as I am, but I am really super excited. I have a lot of faith that they’ll get it right. And it will be nice, after having nothing really to go see at the end of 2004 for the first Christmas in three years, to have something to look forward to. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is so delightfully wintry, too. Yay, yay, yay! I’m as eager about this as other people are about the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake.

Now if someone would just find me a copy of the Chronicles in the correct (not chronological) order, so that I could read it to my daughter, then all would be well with the world.

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I don’t know if it’s because it’s MLK day or what, but I had the oddest dream about race last night.

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Well, I’ve looked at the list of book reviews I want to write and two are for short story collections – which will probably involve typing a table of contents – and one is for a novel. So guess which one I’m going to do? Yes, the novel. It should be easier. I first found Caitlin R. Kiernan through her blog where she talks a lot about writing. Well, mostly grouses, but sometimes says some useful things (grousy and useful are not mutually exclusive anyways). At any rate, she often refers to how frustrating it is to write stuff that no one understands, and how reviewers and readers are constantly referring to her work as difficult to follow. Don’t believe the hype. There’s nothing particularly obtuse about her style, her plot, her characters or anything else within the covers of this slim volume. Threshold even has a glossary to help you with the scientific language. I’ll admit there’s some ambiguity involved in the story but truly, it’s not hard to follow what’s happening nor whom it’s happening to, and the story requires ambiguity to succeed. It does succeed. I was entertained and pulled into the world feet first and I cared about the characters. I particularly liked the way Kiernan used heat and light as oppressive forces. Few writers can make broad daylight seem quite as terrifying as she does in this book. In terms of atmosphere, this book was superb.

I also generally liked Kiernan’s prose. There was a simplicity, exactness, and poetry to her words that I very much admire. However, she does have one writing idiosyncracy that many others have commented on but I must also point to, because it was distracting. She pulls adjectives together to create new wordlets, usually with synaesthetic overtones. In every instance that I noticed one of these compound words I stopped (and to her credit, I didn’t always, and sometimes her conjoined words fit perfectly and seamlessly) and re-read the sentence several times. While I understand the limitations of language, especially to a visual author which Kiernan clearly is, and I also understand the desire to stretch and reform language to your own voice, I usually didn’t see the need for these agglomerations. The sentences would have painted just as clear a picture if the words had been their separate entities, used in the standard way. I’m not someone who thinks there’s no room for experimentation in writing but I must admit to being continuously pulled out of the tale by the pushedtogether words. That said, it was a small thing, and didn’t deter from my enjoyment of the book overall.

I occasionally found the dialog to be a little eye-rolling and unbelievable as well, and I’ll admit I held a grudge against some of the dialog because it often chopped up bits of lovely prose with a lot of verbal equivocation and stumbling about. I would not have stopped suspending my disbelief if the characters had been just the teeniest, tiniest bit more eloquent than they were and it would have eased my anger at them for interrupting the flow of things with their pointless jabber. That’s probably a totally personal viewpoint, though, and not terribly valid as analysis of the piece.

The ending was a slight let down for me, in that it seemed almost too easy. I didn’t find it terribly confusing or as vague and open-ended as everyone else seemed to, but I did find it undercut the tenor of the book as a whole. Still, this wouldn’t be the only author I’ve read and enjoyed that didn’t know how to write an ending (Neal Stephenson, I’m looking at you) and it certainly didn’t diminish anything that came before it. I may be reading more Caitlin R. Kiernan in the future.

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