The Writing

05 December, 2016

my new asshole neighbor


A young grey squirrel, eating spent grain and soggy cheetos left in the pot for sparrows and whatever the little brown-headed birds are called.

No. She is not cute. She's a tree rat. And unlike the actual rats (because we have real live wild rats--brown AND grey!) who live around here, she has no concern for the cats who haunt this patio on a regular basis.

Also, today, she ate the avocado. You can just see it in the photo, that slender green stalk of potential baby plant sticking up beside the hummingbird feeder (that's the black metal rod, which terminates in a glass bulb full of sugar water, which so far has escaped the squirrel's notice.) Against all odds, it was surviving my plant-care system of benevolent neglect. It was, like, still green and everything.

And today: broken. Devoured. Only a sad little fractured stem. Only I kill the plants on this patio, squirrel.

THIS MEANS WAR.


03 November, 2016

who wants to live forever?



We begin this post with a cat picture, as is the custom of the interwebz, and also because Skugga looks very grave and dignified in this instance (which took place about 3 seconds before he decided he needed to gallop around the living room).

It is that point the quarter where, as one can see by the gap in the posts, I've been slammed under endless student drafts. This is because I teach the entry-level college writing class, which means a lot of writing and a lot of commentary to be made on the writing. My students are not good writers. That's why they're there. It's no shame to them; most of them are international students, or generation 1/1.5. That they're taking college classes in a language they've been speaking for 4 years is a testament to their badassery. But they still need a lot of feedback, and that is where my energy goes.

It'd be easy to say my energy goes there because that's why I get paid. I mean, that's true--the university pays me to teach, and by all the good green gods, I will do that. They don't pay me to care, though. I do that for free. And because I care, and because my dedicated peer tutor cares, we spend maybe more time than is union-mandated doing the work for which we are paid. (I have never understood why people go into teaching if they don't love it. It's not a place for people who 'can't do anything else'. It's the place people go when they want to make a difference and get, like, zero fame and recognition for it, except from one's students and maybe one's colleagues.)

I choose to teach because I think the job fucking matters, and because I'm good at it. I teach this particular course and level of writer because I see the biggest improvements and evolution in student writing and thinking. There are other courses that are easier, from an instructor's perspective. This one's a constant push of writing and commenting. But when I read a Boss Fight draft, and see a kid who's gone from omg Nicomachean Ethics and Beowulf I don't get it to a cogent examiniation of courage in poem and philosophy... yeah. Okay. I feel pretty good.

And yeah. Aristotle and Beowulf. Because if it's hard for everyone--and it is--no one feels stupid, and at the end, everyone feels like they accomplished something (because they did). And also...I don't know when or where else a student's going to get any exposure to ethics, unless they seek it out in an elective. People are very good at talking about their hearts, and following their feelings, and jesus, okay, fine. But Aristotle emphasizes reason, and so my kids have to think about that, too: their motives for doing what they do, and whether or not those motives are noble, or under compulsion, or from passion, or whatever.

One of my students observed that a truly virtuous teacher, by Aristotelian standards, would kindly sacrifice her time to her students because it was noble to do so, and because she reasoned her efforts would have some result; the teacher who is kind from compulsion is not really virtuous, even if her efforts also bring results. I joke with Nous that I am the citizen-soldier of teachers, acting for honor's sake, because of the shame I would earn if I did not perform my duty. That's not true, though. I respond poorly to external compulsion of all varieties.

But my gods, if it's internal--if, like, I think I need to finish a project no matter fucking what because I don't leave things unfinished--I can make myself pretty miserable. Like, 93k words of miserable that just keeps going in the wrong direction compounding itself because I will get this done. If this WIP had been a sweater, or any other knitted project, I'd've frogged it. No. I'd've cut the yarn and thrown the whole damn thing out.

So I did.

I could simply pretend this toadshit comes from starting the project when I was carrying an extra course last spring and I proved simply unable to balance Teacher Brain and Writer Brain. There's even some truth to that. And yes, external stress didn't help--isn't helping, thank you election--because I started this story in a dark, low-contrast world of competing political world-views and morally ambiguous characters a protagonist who was not a hero and then I realized--oh. I've read this before. Like 100 times. Am I adding to this conversation about moral ambiguity? Am I elucidating some angle of the non/human psyche, or leveling a critique/observation about the real-world context? Am I just exploring motives and underpinnings for why someone acts like they do, the literary equivalent of making excuses?  I grew to like the characters. I just kinda hated their world. It looked too much like this one, even with aliens and spaceships and cyborgs. It was cynical. I'm tired of cynical.

I had my students read an essay last week discussing the changes made in the 2007 Zemeckis Beowulf movie from the original poem. My students were struck by the difference in Grendel's mother, between poem and film, from (arguably) scariest monster in her underwater lake who almost eats Beowulf, to Angelina Jolie in gold shiny skin with a tail. They liked that movie-Beowulf seemed more mortal, more human, in that he allowed himself to be seduced; but they were pretty convinced he was a damn fool for having done so, and they would never make that mistake. I posed to them this dilemma, then: make a deal now, for success your whole life, your life's dream, and then die, rather horribly, sometime around 60; or muddle along, doing your thing, for the next 80 years with no particular success or failure. Just, you know, middlin'. There were some wide eyes. There were some thoughtful stares. There was a sudden sympathy for movie-Beowulf.

(And I thought--yeah, okay. If you told me--trade the last 20 years of your life so that something you wrote lasted for the next thousand plus years and left a mark on the culture--like Aristotle or Beowulf--I'd have to think long and hard about that bargain.)

A fair number of my students condemn poem-Beowulf because his motive for killing the monsters is always his fame, his glory, his legacy; they want something more pure for his courage than even Aristotle's cold reason. They want him to be brave because it's just right. They want him to be a damn hero.

I think maybe that's the story I need to tell right now. A hero. Not an unproblematic one, maybe; but still, someone who actively tries to do good things because it is noble to do, and base not to do so, and that means a society that isn't so mired in cynicism that public opinion means something.

Maybe that's my fantasy.

28 September, 2016

devil winds

I am certain I've used that title before.

The Santa Ana winds (aka devil winds) came late this year (or, if not late, then after a spell of proper northern-mid-latitude autumn cool that tricked us all into thinking we lived in a different climate zone). So this last weekend, it was all triple digits. First real day of instruction, 106. Yay!

At least I got my latest ink during the cool spell, so I could wear long sleeves without courting heat stroke. Some instructors get dry erase markers for the start of the school year. I get Yggdrasil (which is fitting. I'm teaching Beowulf). 

The heat and dry are one thing. The associated atmospheric gymnastics are quite another. Caffeine is fantastic for migraines, but it can do jackshitall for sinus pain. So, having done my week's commenting on student writing, I find myself with time to destroy in a fit of despair work on Current Project and an uncomfortable awareness of every. tooth. in my head. Also, my eyes feel like sandpaper marbles. I wrote large swaths of Enemy and Outlaw with headaches (I started Enemy during the Santa Anas). I have a different selection of character aches and pains in mind for this novel. No headaches. We are so DONE with headaches.

So yeah. Not banging my head against plot right now. I will blog instead. That's writing. Right? That counts. Really, I'm hoping that if I look over here, the resolution to the story will show up. The real PITA about being a pantser (discovery writer sounds so much less terrifying and chaotic than my process) is that, well, sometimes the pants rip out in inconvenient places (to strain the metaphor). I'm also at that stage where I'm sure I am the WORST writer ever, and that this is the WORST novel ever written, and also I should just not write this genre because reasons. Eyeroll. It's all toadshit, and I know it's toadshit, but that doesn't change the anxiety attacks when I sit down to write.

could be watching trashy Netflix series. I didn't do a lot of that this summer, in a break in pattern, because I was trying to write this monstrosity manuscript (and also replay the Mass Effect trilogy to see if I could make friends with the end this time. No, but we're at least cordial). I define trashy as anything I can binge-watch while knitting, but wouldn't want to watch with Nous because it's hard to hear dialog over the bitching, er, the critiques. Not just his. I can't get through an episode of Blue Bloods without pontificating at length at the sexism, the shallow plotting, or Danny's sheer assholery. But it's a solid B- series. I mean, there are no surprises. Ever. It does its genre relentlessly. I can appreciate an unimaginative exercise in genre, particularly when I am knitting something repetitive. (Only in TV though. Not in books.)

(Are you looking for a point? There is no point. This is not an essay. I need to listen to the new Kidney Thieves and this is my chance.)