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I’m still alive, really

I’ve been neglecting this blog terribly. The good news is that it’s because I’ve been busy. My broken leg is doing pretty well, so I’ve gone back to normal activities plus writing. I still read tech blogs and websites, but honestly, research for my novel has taken most of my free reading time. I share interesting finds on Twitter when I can, even if I don’t have time to add commentary or flesh out a post for the blog.

NaNoWriMo starts Sunday and I’m using the event as motivation to get my fingers moving on my novel. I’ve been doing lots of research, plot and character development, and thinking. It’s time for me to churn out some scenes and chapters, even if the first draft is awful and full of holes. Though I consider myself a NaNoWriMo participant, I’ll be out of town for a few days next week and doubt I’ll meet the 50,000 word count goal by the end of the month. I’ll try!

Things are not going well for Jakob. I found out from his sister that he’s not online because he has forgotten his passwords and how to use his devices. Cancer in the brain will do that, it seems. He has stopped chemotherapy and gone back to smoking, though the cancer has spread to his lungs, and his sister is making plans for his end-of-life care. I haven’t signed in to Second Life in weeks because it hurts to go to the land we shared there, but I’m starting to feel the urge to go online and purge it all. I’ve been worried or mourning for 11 months and it’s exhausting; I want a fresh start soon. Is that cold? It’s not that I don’t care about him — I do — but he hasn’t been able to communicate since August and there’s nothing I can do but send him snail mail now and then. I may try splitting my evenings between SL and the MMORPG I’ve been playing, to ease myself back in.

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I’m still playing ArcheAge and my main avatar has reached the maximum level of 55. There is freedom in that: I don’t have to worry about dying anymore because I can’t lose XP. I have fair gear for someone who doesn’t plan to spend an arm and leg on an MMORPG; the gap between what I have now and the next level is crazy. It’s not rare for a single endgame gear piece to cost the equivalent of $100-200… and that’s with a 7-piece armor set, weapon, shield, bow, and instrument. In the most bizarre twist, I’m now an officer in my guild although I rarely talk or do anything with other guild members. Heh. They seem to be nice people, but I don’t want to spend my time doing virtual farming and fishing when I could be learning boss, dungeon, and PvP strategies.

Another post when I have something to contribute to general Internet discussion, which could be tomorrow, could be in a couple weeks. I’m still here. Have a fun Halloween!

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Identity: Tell me, who are you?

Who are you? Who are you now, and is that the same person you always are and always were?

I’ve always played with identity. As a child I was imaginative and, let’s say, indiscriminate about the boundary between reality and fantasy. The first sign of this may have been when I was five and screamed for days because my parents said my imaginary friend couldn’t move to our new house. A couple years later they began dropping me off at Sunday School with instructions to go to church alone afterwards. (As an adult, I understand that they relished their child-free Sunday mornings more than they cared to adhere to the dictates of Roman Catholicism. Fair enough.) I would sit on the hard pew and imagine I was blind. Or maybe deaf. I’d concentrate on what senses would still be available and try to tune out the one I “lost”. Sometimes I’d refuse to say any words aloud because then, I was a girl who didn’t speak English.

Harlequin 1

It isn’t uncommon for little girls to have a phase of fantastical confusion, but usually other interests or maturity put an end to it. I read this compelling New York magazine article about the two girls who stabbed their friend in the so-called “Slender Man attack” with empathy and growing discomfort. Luckily my crazy imagination never extended to violence and I channeled my make believe into society-approved acting and writing. Nevertheless, it’s embarrassing to recall how much I lied. Sometimes the reason was manipulation — inventing a dire health crisis to get extra time for chemistry lab reports — but often it seemed the stories came out of my mouth before I processed them anywhere else. Why on earth would I spontaneously pretend to be an exchange student from England when I knew almost nothing about the place and my accent came from playing Anna in “The King and I”?  That’s who I became to the cashier of a bookstore I visited on a field trip. WTF, younger me?

In my 20s I began to make a conscious effort to stop lying. The impulse remains in me as a stress reaction. It’s commonly said that people who compulsively lie do so for attention, but that couldn’t be further from my truth. I might lie to blend in, or to end or shorten an awkward conversation, or to divert attention from something I don’t want to discuss. It’s rare; usually I cage the lies behind my teeth before they leap out.

But, what about sliding into different identities online? Where are the lines drawn between performing a role, exploring parts of oneself, and outright lying?

I’ve had a blog off and on, mostly on, for 14 years. As a blogger I am honest in the way that a 2×4 board is not exactly two inches by four inches, yet it’s accepted as such until there’s a need for precise measurements. I may change names and locations and mess with timelines. I skim over details. The emotional and intellectual content is always as true as I can make it, but the rest is flexible enough to condense for narrative clarity or warp for privacy. I feel that my blogging identity is synchronous with who I am offline. You wouldn’t be greatly surprised when meeting me in the physical world after reading this site.

Identity with multiple avatars in a virtual world is more complicated. Take this scenario as an example: someone who knows I have multiple Second Life avatars invites me to come to a dance club, and I reply, “Let me sign on as Kay, because my alt doesn’t go to places like that.” I am the conscious person who animates both avatars and my reply makes it clear that I’m comfortable going to the club. Who, then, is not?

Before you say that I simply draw a line between two roles that I play online, let me add that if I went to that club as my alt, I — physical me — would feel the mild distress of being in a place that is out of my comfort zone. If I changed to my main avatar I’d feel confident and at ease in the same place. Both of them are me, but I have parceled out my personality among them and though they’re more alike than they used to be, some differences remain. Luckily for most people who meet me online, I’ve put most of my hostility and anger into my rarely-used second alt, but beware if you ever run across her. She can be a monster.

He sat to take a photo with me

When I’m in SL, I make an attempt to be honest or silent about my RL. My online identity may only reflect a portion of who I really am, but it is consistent and leaves open the possibility for people to get to know me better. That hasn’t always been the case, but it is now. That doesn’t mean I welcome conversations about offline details until I know someone well, but I’m not part of the “SL is SL, RL is RL” contingent (valid and perfectly acceptable, just not me). Considering my childhood, it’s a little surprising that I don’t enjoy online roleplaying. I’ve tried, but I can’t pretend for long before I want to make deeper connections with more authenticity. And, I frakking hate paragraph-style roleplay… but that’s another topic.

This topic was on my mind because I gave birth to a new identity over the weekend. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to use a pen name for my serious writing. I’m a private person and whether I have any success or not, I want a buffer between me-the-author and me-the-person. The timing was right. I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing about her early days as a poet and writer:

If I had suspected anything about the role I would be expected to fulfill, not just as a writer, but as a female writer — how irrevocably doomed! — I would have flung my leaky blue blob-making ballpoint pen across the room, or plastered myself over with an impenetrable nom de plume, like B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose true identity has never been discovered. Or, like Thomas Pynchon, I would never have done any interviews, nor allowed my photo to appear on book jackets; but I was too young then to know about such ruses, and by now it is far too late.

We live in a media-saturated time and I’m no Pynchon, so I don’t expect to remain effectively anonymous, but simply detached. Atwood talks about the dual nature of being a writer, which I can relate to so well. It was the following section from her book that convinced me it was time to give my writing doppelganger a distinct name.

Now, what disembodied hand or invisible monster just wrote that cold-blooded comment? Surely it wasn’t me; I am a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long. Anyway, that cold-blooded comment was a couple of lines ago. That was then, this is now, you never step twice into the same paragraph, and when I typed out that sentence I wasn’t myself. …I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person — the one credited with authorship — is certainly not me. She could never be imagined — for instance — turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread….

What to call the writer-me who takes sympathetic characters and tortures them mercilessly? My husband and I brainstormed a list of first names and then I pulled a few surnames from books I love, we mashed them together in different arrangements, checked them in Google, and said them aloud. I had to change the spelling of the surname I preferred, but then, there she was. I showered her with gifts to solidify her reality: a domain name and website, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook account. Eventually I hope she’ll be like a uniform I slip on for work; not as comfortable as my home clothes and with some different rules of behavior attached, but still me inside.

 
 

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Jumping into the past for the future

roll-oh 1940

I consider myself a writer, though the money I’ve made as one wouldn’t pay my mortgage for a month. The last couple weeks presented me with an existential crisis. Recovering from my broken leg yet not able to resume all my normal household work, I started feeling restless and trying to define myself. I spent hours paging through job listings and course catalogs. Maybe I should go back into software project management. Maybe I should apply for a job with my city. Maybe I should take programming classes on Coursera. Maybe maybe maybe.

Finally, I skimmed my files of incomplete writing and got hooked in again. I’ve started many projects over the past year, from science fiction to modern drama to goofy short stories to a dense historical novel with the potential to be a family epic. After browsing them all, the last is the one that kept playing in my head, leaving me awake at night thinking about my characters and their world.

So, I’m committing myself to work on that novel as my primary job. Most of the story takes place between the years of 1930-1950; my love of modern technology isn’t going to play a large part in my research. I’ll be hip-deep in a different era, when Roll-Oh was the dream of the domestic robot:

My goal is to keep posting here two or three times a week, though, so I don’t lose my connection to the fascinating intersection of humanity and technology. It’s time I take my other writing seriously, get this story out of my head and onto the page, and maybe earn a few coins toward retirement. Wish me luck.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Side Topics

 

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Fairy houses all the way down

A personal post, not a tech or anthro one…

New neighbors

This year I committed to working on publishable fiction and set aside three mornings each week to write. I’m vaguely amused when I read other writers sniping at each other about writing technique: prolific ones yelling that dreamier types need to shut up and just do it, the contemplative sorts calling out the others as shallow typists, etc. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes I’m ready to write and sometimes I’m not, and I can nudge myself in the right direction but it’s useless to force it. Monday I couldn’t write. Today, I had the intensity and focus of a coked-up ’80s stockbroker.

When I’m in my fiction writing frame of mind, it’s as if you can find me in the little fairy caravan in the photo above. It’s a trailer inside a birdbath, at a campsite, in my backyard, inside a virtual world. I may interact with the rest of the world but my imagination is trying out phrases and scenarios deep inside. I’m not completely anywhere else.

I average about 2000 words of writing each morning I set aside, but it’s not a simple matter of adding up words until I’ve got over 80k and then stamping it ready to ship.  Sometimes the 2000 is a chunk of a chapter in solid draft form, sometimes it’s character background information that occurred to me at 3:00 am, and sometimes it’s stilted dialogue that I’ll have to re-write a dozen times. I’m learning as I go, trying different styles and deciding which rules to enforce and break. Non-fiction and blog-length essays are so much easier. I tried setting up a writing spot at a table with quiet Baroque music in the background. Sure, that’s fine. I do that some days. I can write just as well where I am now: on the couch, laptop on my knees, and a snoring dog beside me with her nose buried under my thigh.

The one element that seems to be non-negotiable is solitude. I’m lucky and grateful to have a supportive husband. He knew I was a writer when we first met, regardless of my day job, and he’s counting on me to provide our retirement income while he toils away to support us now. He treats my writing mornings as sacred, which helps me take them seriously, too.

In January I started and archived three writing projects before the one I’m working on really started to take off. I love writing. I love words and I love playing with sentence structure and grammar. I love how a story grows in ways I didn’t expect. I love following an idea down the rabbit hole and deciding later if its something to keep, save for later, or burn burn burn so there are no witnesses.

Before my writing time this morning, I talked with Jakob in Second Life. It’s been eight days since his first chemotherapy treatment and he is very sick. I scoured websites in both German and English to find him useful information for talking with his doctor and taking care of himself. As I quipped bitterly on Twitter, I don’t know the words to order a steak in German, but I can describe chemo side effects.

Jakob and I do not have the same philosophy about treatment of terminal cancer. He is on the “quantity of life” side — he wants every possible day. I am a “quality of life” person. I bite my tongue a lot, metaphorically, because I respect his right to make choices for himself, but I ache every day he is suffering. Last week I had a long talk with one of my doctors about Jakob’s condition and when I mentioned he was starting chemo, the doctor’s face fell.  “Oh. Why??”  The doc and I are in agreement: if we knew the prognosis, we’d rather have five good months than fifteen shitty ones. But if Jakob follows a different path, I feel I should make sure he has information and give him love and support with what he chooses. Maybe he’ll have dozens of months, as he hopes.

However, he is deeply in denial. I visit him in ten weeks and he still insists that he will be able to drive hours on the autobahn and spend two weeks away from his house then. I know that isn’t possible. He can barely walk and certainly cannot drive now; that won’t get better while he’s going through chemo cycles. So, I quietly suggested that maybe I could take a train to him, and I could drive if we wanted to go somewhere. “We will see,” he replied. I’d like to make alternative plans — I’ll be traveling for two and a half weeks before I see him, so I won’t have a lot of chances to research options then — but he wants to wait. Forcing him to deal with reality seems cruel, so I’m prepared to wing it.

I’m stressed now too, with Jakob’s illness and other things, and my tolerance for pettiness and self-orchestrated drama is at an all-time low. I don’t need it and I won’t spend time with it. One deep breath and I’m in my fairy trailer in the birdbath, safely tucked away from all the nonsense.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2015 in Side Topics

 

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The fog of memory in a digital age

Lately I’ve been working on a novel with a plot line based loosely on events in my life almost 20 years ago. My recollection of the story has one narrative and set of characters — some are still friends, some I’ve lost touch with, and some are gone. Memory is subjective and I’ve never claimed to have a great one. I remember useless trivia but forget people and things from my own life. However, even two decades ago, everyone in my story was active online. So, I wrote for a few weeks from my memories, then I went to the Internet.

Wow. What had been cloudy to me is slowly becoming clear and my reaction to this is complicated.

Through the mist

I thought the story had taken place over several years. It hadn’t. I had been struggling with the details of the timeline, yet there were some things I could verify, like when a movie was released or when a CD or book was available. I searched for those and started making corrections. I discovered that someone had already written part of the same story in an anthology. I read that and it confirmed the dates I had found. In the end, it turned out that the framework of the story had lasted 22 months, not 4-5 years.

Then, I opened some long-ignored backup folders and looked at dates on old, low rez photographs. Instead of clarity, this led to more confusion.  So many things that loom large in my memory overlapped in such a short period of time. It’s shocking to me now.  I went through month by month and made notes based on the evidence, rearranging the list of scenes that had taken a different shape in my mind.

This morning I did what I had been dreading: I read through a dozen logs of chats between a friend and I, saved from that period of 1996-97.  The almost random nature of the conversation hints at what I know was speedy banter between two adept typists who had developed their own way of communicating — vulgar and raw and full of cultural references. The logs paint a very unflattering picture of me. I was single, struggling with illness, juggling freelance gigs and trying to make ends meet in a very expensive area. But, I was also manipulative, insecure, deeply unhappy, immature, and narcissistic. I can see how my attempts to be the Cool Girl may have even encouraged some very dangerous behavior in my friend.

It’s going to take me some time to process what I rediscovered and in the end, I’m sure it’ll make for a better story. The “me” character doesn’t feel like me anymore, because she isn’t: she is a fictionalized version of me at a very different time in my life. It’s a lot easier to let go of my ego and let her be the flawed person she needs to be, growing a personality distinct from my own. On the other hand, I have to deal with the reality of who I was and wonder, now, who I am.

Assembling the timeline and reading those chat logs allowed me to piece together the facts again, so that I can step away from them and be sure my novel is a work of fiction. If I wasn’t writing, would it be better to just remember the softer, slower version of that time? For me, I think the answer is yes. Relationships that have become more meaningful with time stretched out lazily in my memory. I have happy remembrances of times between the chat logs but they are now punctuated by those harsh jabs of reality. When we can easily archive so much of our lives, and some people are actively recording every minute they can, maybe we need to consider what benefits we get from shifting memories.

 
 

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The difficulties of writing personal stories in a connected age

I haven’t read any of Dani Shapiro’s books, but last week I came across her New Yorker piece “A Memoir is Not a Status Update”. It’s a dense essay and it got me thinking about online sharing, how we tell the story of our lives, and the expectations of connected readers.

I wonder what would have become of me if I had come of age as a writer during these years of living out loud. My parents were in a car crash in 1986 that killed my father and badly injured my mother. If social media had been available to me at the time, would I have posted the news on Facebook? Tweeted it to my followers as I stood on line to board the flight home? Instead of sitting numbly on the plane, with the help of several little bottles of vodka, would I have purchased a few hours of air time with Boingo Wi-Fi and monitored the response—the outpouring of kindness, a deluge of “likes,” mostly from strangers? And ten years later, would I have been compelled to write a memoir about that time in my life? Or would I have felt that I’d already told the story by posting it as my status update?

Many people do share painful personal things like that on Facebook and perhaps that is the primary way they narrate their lives. I don’t, but not because I’m terribly private. A few quick replies to my status update won’t make me feel more supported than I already do by the people closest to me. Also, I’m both introspective and a storyteller, and the couple visible lines of a Facebook update are not how I want others to read my story. Perhaps this is part of what Shapiro is getting at when she insists that writing her memoirs is not as simple as “telling her story”:

I’ve waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair—for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters.

While I agree with her on this, I find that incoherence fascinating as well. It’s one of the reasons I’ve liked reading personal blogs for the past decade and a half. As long as we read them without the expectation of polished tales that are psychologically insightful and narratively complete, it is hard to find the raw emotion and immediacy of human experience written anywhere else. I think there is great value in both. I might appreciate the final memoir more as a reader, but as a student of human nature, I love blogs. Facebook feels different to me; it is less introspective and more about presentation. A blog post can say, “I am experiencing this and just want to throw it out there as evidence of what life is, tragic or joyful, confusing or simple, lusty or numb.”  On the other hand, many Facebook updates seem, to me, to say, “I’m am experiencing some version of this and I need your validation, reassurance, or congratulations to feel whole.”  There are blogs that do that too, or put a filter on all real emotion, but those aren’t the ones I’ve most appreciated.

Shapiro also published an open letter on Salon earlier this year, “Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook“.  Now that we have a mind-blowing database at our fingertips, it’s easy to fact check everything, even things like memoirs that were never intended for that scrutiny. “When a writer sits down to write memoir, she is not sharing her diary,” says Shapiro. Events and people are left out, rearranged, and changed through the memory and the craft of the author. Someone wanting to make a memoir (or an autobiography or historic fiction, I’d add) match up with a factual timeline is missing the point.

We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records. I’m sure it will make for scintillating reading.

In my offline, non-academic writing, I am struggling with drawing a line between fact and fiction. I want to write truthfully but not completely factually. I’ll be thinking about Shapiro’s letter for a long time.

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Side Topics

 

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