Updates: Editing, vacation, and #DVpit

Hi Internet, it’s been a long time! I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth; I’ve just been wildly busy with all sorts of projects that I haven’t had time to actually sit down and talk about them. So, here’s a little update!

  • As of today, I’m now a member of the Editors Canada/Editors’ Association of Canada, which is exciting because I can now go to seminars and meetings and talk to other word nerds. Freelancing can get a bit lonely, even for the aggressively solitary among us, so the option of having a real-life network is really appealing.
  • I’m just coming off two weeks’ vacation, which was beautifully relaxing and deeply necessary.  I’m listing this among my professional updates because it’s way too easy to create an image and expectation of constant work that is both false and damaging. When I work too much and too long, I get sick and burned out. So in the very real and pressing interests of my ongoing professional life, I took a nice long break. Spent a chunk of it in Texas with friends, drinking on patios and talking about stories.
  • I’m incredibly excited to be helping out with #DVpit, a twitter pitch party for marginalized authors hosted by Beth Phelan at the Bent Agency . I’m offering help with twitter pitches and query letters, for free! There is definitely still time, so hit me up if you want to talk out your pitch strategy and query letters.
  •  As a result of some of the conversations that came about around #DVpit, I wanted a way to offer more material support to marginalized authors. So as a result, I am offering a permanent monthly PWYC editing slot for marginalized authors. It’s wretchedly expensive to hire an editor, and all the barriers that make it hard to get into the publishing industry also make it hard to make enough spare cash to hire a first pass editor. With the industry offloading a lot of the work onto authors and career development hard to come by, it’s often hard to even get noticed without pouring a lot of time and money into professional revisions. And so the cycle continues. My contribution is a tiny one, but I think it’s really important to offer solidarity. I owe a lot to people who stuck their necks out for me and did a heck of a lot of unpaid work, so it’s time for me to pay it forward. My ability to do this work is limited by my schedule and health, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

 

 

 

 

 

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Women’s Words, Women’s Works

I spent a couple weeks of my Christmas holiday intermittently reading the MetaFilter Emotional Labour Thread. It took me forever because I had to take it in chunks–it kept making me so angry it was like having an out of body experience. The document I was reading, which has since vanished from the internet, was a 63 page compilation of a thread on MeFi about women’s experiences with emotional labour; it’s example after example of the banal, quotidian ways in which men are absolutely terrible.  You should read the thread, though it will probably make you angry.

It did get me thinking, though, about writing and emotion. Writing novels involves thinking about other people’s–imaginary people’s–thoughts and feelings, thinking through their actions and reactions. I don’t want to overstretch the concept of emotional labour here; rather, I want to point out the way that creative labour, particularly writing, is deeply tied to feelings–thinking about feelings, creating feelings in others. Men are perfectly capable of understanding feelings, as long as it’s filtered through the lense of “literary greatness.”  Even Hemingway and Kerouac were writing about feelings–not too much feeling, of course, just enough to be tragic and manly. Writers of fiction are trying to evoke an emotional reaction in the reader: that’s what the novel does, and that’s also why the novel was condemned when it rose to popularity as a Western literary form.  

When women write, suddenly novels become emotional creations again. The horror. All of those icky girl feelings are derided with sneering genre titles: Women’s fiction. Chick lit. Romance. These genres pass beneath the notice of the literary establishment, mere sop to overemotional women–just as the first novels were way back in the day.  Never mind that the purchasing power of romance readership is all but singlehandedly keeping the publishing industry afloat. Rather than hiding the emotional component of writing under a veneer of cerebral literary respectability, women’s fiction and the fiction women like are often explicitly about feelings, about love and sex and family. These genres validate and valorize women’s lives and feelings; no wonder men hate them so much.

Romance is often made fun of for its sexual content, because of course few things are more awkwardly hilarious than women’s sexual desires. The fantasy of romance is partially the sex, yes. The wild, mind-altering fantasy that women might find lovers (male lovers! men!)  who care about their sexual satisfaction.  

The other fantasy of romance, though–and I would argue, its core fantasy–is that of emotional reciprocation. Romance novels are about couples that risk something profound to be together, and who are rewarded for that risk with a happy ending. Everything will turn out all right, love conquers all. Detractors argue that this is unrealistic. Of course it is: show me one example from that MetaFilter thread of a man going out of his way for his wife, let alone risking something profound for her. The men in romance novels care about the women, more than they care about pretty much anything else; they reciprocate emotionally and contribute to the relationship.  That’s the fantasy.

In a world where women’s emotional labour is so rarely acknowledged and reciprocated, one of the most derided genres is based on a fantasy of emotional intimacy and reciprocation. Read the MeFi thread, and then come over here and remind me about what’s so shameful and stupid about women wanting to read about having their emotional needs met and having amazing sex.

What’s interesting about this fantasy is the fact that it’s collectively produced by and for women.  This is emotionally charged creative work that women do for other women. I’m vastly overgeneralizing about an entire genre here, but I think this broad dynamic between readers and writers of romance is worth discussing, especially within the context of women’s emotional labour. Through these romance heroes, these utterly improbable men, women are reaching out to other women and validating their desires, needs, and experiences. It’s a kind of interpersonal emotional labour conducted through the medium of writing and publishing. Women’s words and women’s work are important not in spite of their emotional content, but because of it. This dynamic is, if not unique to, then most pronounced in the romance genre because of its emotional content and overwhelmingly female authors and readers. The cliche of the romance reader as an unhappy middle aged housewife takes on a different cast in the context of emotional labour. This emblematic reader, emotionally abandoned by her husband, finds solace, validation, and companionship through other women’s words. That’s pretty cool.

Of course, the emblematic reader of romance is implicitly white, straight, and (it almost goes without saying) cisgender and nondisabled. The heroes and heroines of romance fiction are overwhelmingly white, straight, cis, and nondisabled–as are its authors. Only certain kinds of people are understood as loving and loveable; only some kind of emotional labour is being validated and reciprocated through mainstream writing.

There are many wonderful authors, editors, and publishers working to change that; most of them operate online as independent presses or self-pub services. If mainstream romance is the bottom of the literary heap, online romance publishing is in the sub-basement. It’s one of the only places authors writing romance outside of the hetero mainstream can find any kind of platform for their work. This kind of creative emotional work is so devalued it barely registers on the cultural radar, except perhaps as a joke: the realm of anatomical impossibility and unedited dreck. This perception is more a reflection of who’s doing the writing and the feeling, rather than a hard and fast rule about quality. I mean, of course some of this stuff is awful. So is a great deal of literary fiction. In publishing, as in life, the generosity of being judged by your best qualities rather than your worst is not something  afforded to those outside the circle of acceptability as determined by old white dudes.

It’s important, I think, to struggle against that, and to discuss and value the emotional validation and emotional labour components of fiction. Because it’s so important–especially for people who don’t otherwise receive a lot of cultural validation. And because it’s so often work done by women for women, by marginalized people for other marginalized people. To acknowledge emotional work as a strength rather than a weakness or an embarrassment in writing sort of upsets the literary canon, but I think I’m going to start calling boring classics “unemotional” in the same tone of voice critics use for “sentimental” and see where it gets me.  Old white dudes don’t get to be the sole arbiters of whose feelings matter, nor of whose writing matters. Damn the man, write more kissing.

 

The Ditches We Dig For Love

Writing and other forms of creative labour occupy a strange sort of place in our cultural imagination, a not-quite-work status that is somewhere between glorified and dismissed. The “Do What You Love” ethos has been much written about for how it articulates a lot of these attitudes and works to erase the “work” part of “creative work.” Slate wrote a great piece a couple of years ago that is still highly pertinent to this, so if you haven’t read that, go do it, I’ll wait.

Creative work under DWYL is naturalized as the extension of the the personality of the creative worker. We are driven to create by our very natures, by our love of creativity, and so our work is not really work. If this sounds familiar, it’s the same logic that’s been keeping women’s emotional labour hidden and uncompensated for approximately ever. Creative labour, in our current cultural and economic milieu, is much like emotional labour in that it’s held to stem from “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our character.” If it’s work, it’s work we, as creative people, would be doing anyway.

(It’s not an accident that  you cross creative labour with “women’s work,” you get one of the most economically valuable and socially devalued genre in publishing: romance. Creative labour about feelings? Gross. It’s barely real writing.)

This naturalization of creative work leads to the legitimization of the “work for exposure” model that fuels much of the commercial blogosphere. We’d be doing it anyway, so why pay for it, right?  To a person hoping to eventually maybe sort of make a living doing creative work, this attitude makes me want to scream.  

The naturalization of creative work helps to legitimize its financial undervaluing, but it also masks certain standards of productivity. If creative work is natural to a creative person, we must be doing it all the time, right? You can tell a creative person by their urge to create, so if they’re not creating, they must not really be creative. Much like other kinds of work, our culture values a high volume of production in creative work, all while refusing to acknowledge it as real work. There’s all of the pressure and none of the recognition–and certainly none of the financial compensation. It’s a hell of a lot easier to work as a writer when you’re already paid to do it, when you don’t have to squeeze it in around the jobs that actually pay the bills.

And while it is true that a writer is someone who writes, writing constantly is an unattainable standard. I have seen so many creative people, writers particularly, beat themselves up over not writing. I do this too, and I’m trying to unlearn it. Doesn’t matter if you just finished a project or are going through life stuff or if work is wild and you just don’t have the time. You’re committed to your craft, aren’t you? So why aren’t you writing?  If writing flows naturally from our creative souls, it must be easy and natural to write constantly. You just need a little more discipline to really stoke that inner creative fire. Nature needs to be trammelled by discipline to really blossom, and writing every day, all the time, is the best way to do that.

But that’s not how it works. The best creative advice I’ve ever got was from my Grade 12 Writer’s Craft teacher; she said, “Writing is like digging a ditch.” (Thanks, Ms Westerhof!). It doesn’t matter how much you love the project; the bulk of writing is grinding work. Sitting down and wrestling with words and ideas until you can carve something meaningful out of the muck. It’s frequently boring. We have moments of inspiration, sometimes. But mostly it’s ditch-digging.

The corollary to that is: sometimes you need to set your shovel down and sit in the shade a while. If we understand writing as work, as labour, it makes more sense that we should sometimes need breaks from it. Needing a break doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human. As with any other kind of work, our capacity to perform that work is shaped by our circumstances and our abilities. Taking breaks is not a moral, personal, or artistic failing; it’s necessary to stay engaged and alive. Without it, we become tapped out, tired, and repetitive. The extreme end of constant production is burnout, which I can tell you from experience is absolutely no fun. Rest isn’t the opposite of creation, it’s an integral part of the process.

How much rest any one writer needs is highly dependent on their personal circumstances; those of us, like me, who work slowly and need a lot of rest aren’t worse writers or creatives. It was only when I began more fully attending to my own needs for rest that my creative process began to blossom because I was giving myself space to work in my own way and at my own pace. When I acknowledged writing as hard work, I started to build space for myself to do that work in way that is healthy and sustainable for me

Even if you’re trying to “do what you love,” love isn’t enough to keep you digging the ditch when you’re exhausted. Nor should it be. It’s not lack of love that drives us to rest; it’s self-preservation and self-care. Because I love my work, I need to take breaks from it in order to make it the best it can be. Sometimes doing what I love means not doing it, setting the shovel down and having a nap in the shade. The work’s always going to be there, but the love might not, so take care of it.

 

On Failing Out of NaNoWriMo

This year, for the first November in my literate life, I had a month free. Every other year up until now, I’ve been in school. To celebrate my freedom, I decided to take on another ill-advised, stressful project with absurd deadlines and unreachable standards: NaNoWriMo.

I knew going in that 50k in a month was not doable for me. Even at my brightest, healthiest, most energetic self, I’m a slow writer. I like to mull things over before I commit them to the page, to roll words around like bright marbles, trying to find the prettiest one. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just how I work. The point of NaNoWriMo is much the opposite: write as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Don’t stop, don’t think too hard about it, don’t edit; just let it flow. It’s an approach that’s designed to get over the fear so many aspiring writers have of actually writing. Write 50k in a month, and after that everything seems easy.

In an effort to set myself up for success, I set my goal for 20k, which felt more doable. Which shakes out to roughly 600 words a day, if you’re counting it that way. For a slow writer, that’s still a lot. I wanted to use the month to really focus on getting through the major plot points of the story I’m working on. I figured a framework would help keep me on task and get me through some of my stuck points.

My grand plan was complicated by illness and its treatments. In mid-October, I was put on beta blockers to deal with a persistent heart rhythm problem. The heart rhythm issue made me tired and spacey; the drugs made me exhausted and completely unable to hold a sentence together in my mind. For context, I also have fibromyalgia, so I know from exhaustion. It was debilitating, not just for my writing but for my entire life; what made it worse was that my hobby, my escape, was taken from me. I mostly slept a lot.  I fought with my doctors to get my dose down to something I could live with. The side effects were still awful, but at least I could make my eyes point in mostly the same direction and I had a few mostly-alert hours in a day.

Throughout all this, I did my level best with my NaNo project. My goal shifted from a word count to just working on the story every day. Sometimes that meant writing one sentence in a day. Sometimes even that was too much–too complex, too frustrating. My words and images were all greyed out; finding the right ones was a slog through damp fog. Even when I wanted to write, I couldn’t; for someone who’s always been highly verbal, it was a frustrating and alienating experience.

But writing is more than putting words on the page. The thinking and mulling and percolating that’s necessary for me to write well was still something I could do. I thought about my story when I was going to sleep or waiting in the doctor’s office. It gave me something to do with my mind. A lot of that thinking was repetitive, since it was hard for me to hold on to thoughts, but novelty wasn’t the point. The point was simply doing the work, spending the time. Creating in these small, internal ways made me feel more like myself when so much of my life felt alien and out of control.

This process isn’t actually different from what my process looks like when I’m at my healthiest. The experience didn’t so much alter my process as magnify it. Played in slow motion, I could observe all the ins and outs of my brain as it works through things. It didn’t totally allay the frustration of being unable to write, but having to struggle so much for creation made those thoughts more precious to me.

We live in a culture that wants everyone to produce more things faster. Being disabled makes that monumentally hard. NaNo, as well meaning and useful to some as it is, is very much a product of that ethos. NaNo is the domain of the external and extemporaneous processors, those who make things up on the fly. That’s not a bad thing, but all this focus on fast production and word counts obscures both the story work that goes into writing, and the people who do that work slowly. It’s easy to feel bad about taking things slow when other people are posting their skyrocketing word counts; in some ways the structure of NaNo, with its public word meters and talk of “winning” fosters that kind of competition.

But, and here is the crucial thing: writing is not a competition, and there’s not a right way to do it. Making up stories is not something you can lose at. Even if getting words on a page is hard for whatever reason, all of that thinking and creating that goes on inside your skull is still valuable; it still matters. All that stuff I made up in my head gave me somewhere to go when things were crappy–how could it not matter?

For me, trying to get around the false starts and slow thinking doesn’t change the fact that that’s how my brain and body like to work, particularly when I’m very ill. I can’t optimize away my slowness, and I don’t want to. I got off the drugs not so much because I wanted to produce faster, but because a side effect of beta blockers is depression and I get enough of that on my own. I haven’t returned to that story yet; I want to give it some time to simmer. I want to roll around in the words that are beginning to bubble up in my mind again; I want to take my time. 

 

Towards Fembot Poetics

I all but grew up on the internet, but blogging consistently has always escaped me. Every few months I would toy with the idea of blogging seriously, but it would always disappear in favour of endlessly scrolling Facebook and Tumblr. In the past few months, I’ve become seriously ill, and the blogging project reemerged with new urgency. I’ve always been a words person, a writer; but a sudden severe bout with a lifelong illness rendered my ability to words variable and inconsistent. My writing process, always an elusive and finicky thing, became much more laborious. Losing my words to medications, fatigue, and side effects made them that much more precious to me, and I wanted to find a way to explore my changing process. And so with incrementally slow progress and a great deal of agonizing, this blog was born.

Fembot Poetics. Poetics is the study of literary form; it is about the way in which meaning emerges in texts. In contrast to poetics we have hermeneutics, the study of meaning itself. Poetics is the how of meaning, the study of linguistic choices and textual elements and how they contribute to the effect on the reader.

If this sounds like a load of stifling theoretical bullshit, well, it is. I love theory as much as the next liberal arts M.A., and hate it as much as one too. But under all the Aristotle and the Theory and the Poststructuralism of poetics, there’s a kernel of something interesting: how we take the raw stuff of life and shape it into something meaningful. How we create.

The other half of this blog title is that least prestigious of creations, the fembot. The fembot lacks the high theoretical associations of the cyborg and the sci-fi cachet of the android. Created to be good for something, circumscribed by the misogyny inherent in her creation, the fembot is not a robot who matters. At her most complex, she’s murderous; at her least, merely fuckable.

The image of the fembot speaks to my experience as a disabled and chronically ill woman. I was born with a heart defect and I’ve undergone intensive medical intervention several times throughout childhood and into my adulthood. I’m familiar with feeling more like someone’s weird science experiment than an actual person. Reduced entirely to my body, to what it can and can’t do, to how other people think and feel about it. My agency and my sense of self have been systematically erased by lifelong, ongoing contact with a medical system that doesn’t quite understand that defective bodies are humans too.

The title of this blog is a tongue-in-cheek reference to feminist critical theory. It’s a search to understand the fembot not only as a creation but as a creator; a creator with process, depth, deliberation, and something important to say. As an editor, I’m interested in poetics, in the whys and wherefores of authorial choices and how that shapes narrative. As a disabled woman (a fembot), I’m interested in creating, not just being created.

The creative process itself is also a kind poetics–a critical practice or lense. Creativity is a way of making meaning by emphasizing some things, some perspectives or thoughts or feelings that live in us. When we create, we take back the narrative. For disabled people, who are so strictly circumscribed by narratives of eugenics, tragedy, and ‘inspiration’, taking back the narrative by creating our own is a political act. At the same time, so much of creative advice is laughably inapplicable to disabled people. Write every day no matter what! It’s hard to do that when you can’t get out of bed.

This space grew out of frustration with that way of speaking about creativity and process. It’s an attempt to tilt the ground a little, to focus on alternative versions of creativity and creative process that don’t demand an unflinching, relentless productivity. I want to think about a creative process that includes the low spoon days, the days we can’t get out of bed, the days where one sentence is a struggle and the days when words just won’t come. What if we learned to value our ebbs as much as our flows? To see rest, quiet, and illness as integral components of creativity, not its enemy. What if we embraced working from where we are? I want to nurture a discussion of process that centres disabled and ill experience, instead of merely allowing for it. Our bad days are not weaknesses to be overcome, not skips in the record, but living moments that inform our creative selves.