Building Context

I am reading Me (Moth) by Amber McBride which is a novel written in poetry. This is the third or fourth poem novel I’ve read recently and I’ve discovered I love the form. It strips away so much noise from the emotional content of the book. But a novel in poetry requires an accumulation of layers of meaning. I reached a few lines on page 80 that struck me:

“Steps in new directions are hard to take
& it is hard to be sure if Sani is the moon
or just a dumb light bulb”

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride, pg 80

Looking at those words, you may wonder what in them was powerful. I’ve pulled that quote out of the book and dumped it here for you to read. In doing so I have ripped it free of the context which gave those words impact for me. Through eighty pages of reading I learned how my protagonists’ name is Moth. How she is in the process of cocooning after a soul-deep injury. How she meets a boy name Sani who is as injured as she is. And now she wonders if them traveling together is a path toward healing or just endless and deadly circling of the moth and the porch light. Context gives the words their power.

I think about this when I scroll through social media and see endless thoughts and snippets ripped from their contexts for easy sharing. One descriptor for this experience is Context Collapse. The tricky part is that sometimes snippeting works. Sometimes it is incredibly useful to share a pull quote or a meme to spread an idea or to share sorrows and joys. There are twitter threads and social media graphics specifically designed to carry their context with them packed tight.

But even the best-packed meme still arrives in a head different from the one that created it and the one that shared it. The new mind and heart carry their own context built out of a lifetime of experiences, fears, and joys. A context that is built and informed not only by their own life, but also by what appears before and after the snippeted meme in the feed. The new person reacts based on the context they carry in ways that are baffling or feel very tangential to the conversation that the snippet was intended to spark. Even people who are in fundamental agreement on problems and solutions can end up arguing because we’re having multiple conversations instead of a singular one. A cloud of possible conversations sparked by the same snippeted meme, shaped by individual contexts.

We all end up shouting at contextual ghosts that we’ve made up in our own heads. If we are not careful to actually build context with the person we’re attempting to converse with, we can end up holed up in defensive bunkers, terrified of the straw men we built for ourselves.

Pausing to build context is the key. It is taking those lines I pulled from Amber McBride’s book and asking me why they mattered to me, what impact they had. Not just finding out the context that the book provides, but also what are the resonances in my own life that make them ring like a bell for me. Even after all of that, you still may not see why those lines matter, maybe they fall flat for you instead of ringing, but at least we will have had a shared conversation. And likely will know more about each other than we did before. Building shared context is how we connect, how we learn to love, how we heal.

But context building takes time and patience. It takes using social media tools against their built-in purposes. It requires us to add our own context to the things we share instead of just sharing them. It takes all of us learning to hold space for each other.

Addendum: You should definitely read some of Amber McBride’s work. It is beautiful. If you want, feel free to use my affiliate link to pick up a copy of Me (Moth).

Shifting Employments

A year ago this week I learned of a job at Writers Cubed Inc where I would be the Director of Operations helping run conferences and other events for teenage writers and support teen and child literacy. I applied and got the job. This week I am winding down the last pieces of my employment with them. It isn’t the outcome anyone wanted. They wanted to build me into their structure for years to come and I liked being a core structural element in making events happen. Unfortunately finding funding for non-profits is complex and often difficult. They’re experiencing a funding gap and they can’t afford to pay a Director of Operations for the next year or more. So I’ve been carefully closing up files, finishing off email chains, and logging out of programs. I’ve also been observing the emotions of job loss as I go through them, even while part of me is glad to have my time less constrained. My work for them went on hold more than a month ago, and I haven’t been any less busy.

This often seems to be the case. As if tasks are just waiting in the wings to flow into any available space. We got our copies of A Little Immortality delivered from the printer and that has moved us into Shipping Season with its attendant raft of tasks. Every shipping season is a little bit different. This one is the first time we’ve had books delivered from our local printer, it is the first time orders will be waiting on the arrival of coins instead of books, it is the first time my son is being trained in all the shipping tasks with an eye to him fully taking over the job the next time around. All of this occupies my time while I’m contemplating how my life will be shaped when my schedule is no longer bent around working 10-15 hours per week for someone else. While I’m also contemplating how I can fill the income gap that not having an additional paycheck will cause. I can see my way through August. Between now and then I need to figure out additional steps.

One of the things I am doing is plowing through drafting books, so that I can get feedback on books, so that I can move closer to getting more books on the table. Working an outside job on top of the work for my own business taught me stamina in a new way, I’m using that stamina and habit-of-work to make words happen. Then once I have feedback, I’ll have a better feel for whether anything I have written is viable as something that can be published. I’ll have a feel for how much more work there is to do. Perhaps when the first rush of shipping slows down I will be able to get some videos posted to Patreon. Perhaps after I’m done drafting entire books I can turn my attention back to shorter fiction. Or perhaps when I reach August it will become apparent that I need to be looking for another job.

Usually this sort of uncertainty makes me anxious. I suppose I am a little, but I’m also feeling fairly calm, like this is a good path, that I have good plans, and that between now and September further paths will become more clear to me.

Growing for the Future

My clover is growing. It is now recognizable and visible from a distance.

Of course the weeds are also growing, since the conditions which allow my clover to thrive are also beneficial for a number of weedy plants. However as the clover establishes, I should have fewer weeds to pull.

Seeing the brown patch fill in with green is very hopeful. Later this week I will pay a sprinkler company to fix several sprinkler problems and that will hopefully help me keep things green.

Fixing the sprinklers is part of a much more involved process that I’m undertaking in several areas of my life where I’m expending resources now in ways that will let me conserve my resources of time and energy better in the future. The past several months I’ve been training my 20yo to take over the tasks of warehouse management and store fulfillment. This week I’ll be training him on Kickstarter fulfillment as we start sending out the first shipments of Schlock Mercenary A Little Immortality. I can see a future where I’m no longer handling fulfillment and am able to focus my energy on making new things. I see a future where this brown patch is green.

Visiting My Bookshelves

In this quieter space with fewer appointments on my schedule and fewer admin tasks for me to track, I have been doing some organization and clearing out. This is how I ended up standing in front of my bookshelves. One of my bookshelves. I have shelves in multiple locations which serve different portions of my library collection. This time I stood in front of the shelf which is mostly full of children’s books from my own childhood and from when my kids were young. I accidentally stood there for half an hour, reading spines, occasionally pulling out a book to leaf through. I was remembering, not just the story contained in the book’s pages, but also the story of how the book came to be mine, the story of why the book mattered to me, the story of who I shared that book with. These physical objects contain so much more than what is printed on their pages.

Books have shaped so much of who I am. They continue to do so both in what I’m reading and what I’m creating. I could write my life history simply by going to my bookshelves and telling the stories of me and each of the books on the shelf. I don’t think everyone stores and processes their lives in this way. Howard does to some extent. He has shelves of his own. One of my sons definitely stores memory in objects, but his objects are more likely to be video game cartridges. My other kids, less so. Books matter to me deeply, which is why making them is a large part of my life’s work.

The Hope of Clover

Last summer a large section of our lawn died. A combination of heat, drought, misaligned sprinklers, and inattention (my personal resources were over-tapped) turned it from thriving green plants into a crispy yellow dirt patch. Every time I went outside I felt the weight of failure as I considered the results of my poor stewardship. Months later, I still feel that failure. It it is an indictment of my gardening, and somehow also a commentary about the world at large. As if the ecological disaster of the drought were playing out small scale in my yard. I can grant myself compassion and grace over the situation. I really didn’t have any attention to spare, but that doesn’t change the dirt patch.

I’ve found myself in a season with a few more resources to spare. Not a lot. I can’t pay a landscape designer to come in and reconfigure my entire yard to be more drought friendly and correct all my sprinkler placements. But I can take tiny corrective steps. So, I bought clover seeds and scattered them. Thousands of tiny seeds in a vast swathe of dirt, each seed carrying the hope of green abundance later. Green clover will thrive better in dry circumstances. A clover lawn will be better for local insect life as well. Clover moves me closer to a garden that will feed my soul with greenness in the height of scorching summer while also moving all of my landscaping closer to plantings that require less effort and less water to keep alive.

Today my patch of dirt has thousands of tiny sprouts.

They’re pretty much invisible from more than a foot away, but they are there. Tiny specks of hope that I can recover from failure. In fact, perhaps, the existence of this failure has laid groundwork for something which may be much better for the long run. If I can kill a lawn, grieve over dirt, scatter seeds, and then grow clover; what else can I recover from?

I crouch down to admire my tiny, tiny plants and feel hope for what comes next.

One of the Good Ones

@IsabelKaplan posted the following plea on Twitter:

Plz send heartwarming stories of straight male partners supporting your creative endeavors. Hungry for a story that isn’t “I achieved unprecedented professional success and my relationship was never the same.”

I responded on Twitter, but it is hard to fit all the thoughts into the space that Twitter supplies, so in more expanded form:

Howard and I will hit 30 years married in August. We’ve had a recent dynamic shift where I’m stepping up, writing more things, taking work that makes me less available at home. As I started taking on these roles, stepping into a primary wage earner space, I kept waiting for the push back and quiet resentment. Howard always said “Go do the thing.” He’s always said “go do the thing” yet somehow I still found myself pausing and checking with each step. Is this move okay? How does it change our dynamic? Am I making Howard feel bad about his disability when I run fast all day long? Especially since I know that “run fast all day long” is Howard’s preferred mode for living? So I paused and gave space for complex feelings that never showed up to fill the space that I left open. It turns out that Howard means “go do the thing” with his whole self.

I described this on Twitter and got a couple of responses essentially saying “you got one of the good ones.” Yes I did, but I think that statement actually downplays what is happening here. Because Howard isn’t possessed of some innate goodness that people either have or they don’t. Howard chooses who he is on a daily basis. He’s been choosing for decades. We’ve been building communication and choices together. I actually think that younger iterations of us would have had to wrestle with exactly the emotion and resentment I kept pausing for. Younger Howard would have had a pile of feelings to work through about me stepping into spotlight. Current Howard is practiced and adept at managing his own feelings without making them someone else’s job. He’s learned a lot of emotional intelligence and excellent partnership skills through the years. The fact that our current dynamic shift is without friction, speaks to who we have chosen to become and the relationship we’ve built in all the years prior.

Howard definitely gets credit here, because he chose a growth path for himself which deliberately gives his partner as much space to grow as she needs and wants. To his credit, that is always who he has wanted to be. He said as much thirty years ago when we were dating. He told me that he could see I was in the process of growing and becoming, and he never wanted to interfere with that. I believed him. I married him. We sometimes both failed at the shared project of giving me space to grow. I often kept myself small because of unstated cultural expectations about what my role should be, because my own anxieties tell me I’m only allowed to take up space if it won’t inconvenience other people. Learning to be inconvenient has been part of my growth path. Joyfully, every time I allow myself to take up space, I discover that my best beloved (both Howard and my kids) are quite willing to scootch over and let me be big.

I wish that everyone’s life was full of people who are willing to make space for them to grow as big as they can. The good news is that this is learned behavior. You, and any partner you currently have, can choose to become this way if you’re willing to put in the work to let go of ego, root out anxieties, and learn communication skills.

The Days After the Events

The morning after the event that I spent six months planning, I woke up without a list. I lay awake in bed probing the lack of urgency to pull me from it. It was a stark contrast to how I’d regimented my life in tasks, alarms, and calendar reminders. I entered the day through that void and mushily thought my way through a formless mass of memory and experience that needed processing. I needed to unpack it all. And possibly also unpack my suitcase, and begin picking up the pieces of house tasks that were neglected on the run up to the events.

The second day after the event I slept late on purpose. I woke early and chose to dive back into sleep. I chose that again in the middle of the day when I took a two hour nap, my body choosing hibernation as a coping strategy for stress recovery. I did do some necessary tasks, orienting myself back into a post-event life. I began to form lists for post-event tasks. I wrote a page of highlights, fragmented sentences to catch moments, threads which I could pull on later to remind myself of the myriad of joyful stories. The events succeeded in all of the important and emotional ways. I saw my tasks through all the way to making sure that the last guest was able to board her much delayed plane on the day after the event. I also began making notes for next year, because there were gaps and moments which were managed and fine, but which next time I would like to run more smoothly.

The third day after the event (today) I rolled out of bed on my usual schedule and clocked in to begin answering email. My admin brain is still tired, but there are things to finish and I must start doing them. So we collect data and receipts and answer questions and begin talking about what is next. And I take time for a massage where the therapist’s experienced hands convince the muscles of my back to let go of all the emails, lists, charts, and decisions that have been stored in knotted muscles. I walk in my garden and toss clover seed onto the lawn I’m trying to replace with clover because the day is gloriously sunny and pleasantly warm for the first time in months. Then I return to my computer. I want to describe my events, share the joy of them. But apparently I must first describe and share the experience of recovery. Somehow this meandering description fits my weary brain while wrapping words around the events themselves feels harder.

Yet they sit in my brain, all those highlights glinting and tinging off each other like a crystal chandelier in sunlight, casting rainbows across my mind. I just need to find the words which allow me to display the unique beauty of each moment, because this chandelier is not made of identical crystals, more like crystal snowflakes, each one unique and worthy of admiration. Even the flawed ones.

I remember a conversation sometime during the Gala where the other person was describing a feeling of triumph, that I did not (in that moment) share. I was still making sure pieces were in place. I was doing work which was essential to the smooth function of moving large groups of people from reception to banquet tables and getting them all fed. I did the work well, and I am glad that I did it well, but I was always aware that my well-done work could have been done well by a number of other people had they been given the tasks. There was satisfaction in being part of a team that carried off the event. There was a lack of anxiety because any failure of mine was likely to be caught and compensated for by the work of others. My triumphs, my crystal moments were not in the events as a whole, they were tiny individual things enmeshed in the events.

It was seeing teenagers in their prom dresses and cosplay on the gala night being so delighted at coming to a fancy gala event that was designed to celebrate words and books, things that they love.

It was the moment when our Gala MC had the teenage poets and short story writers stand and I realized that nearly half the room was full of these fledgeling writers who are going to soar.

It was seeing the faces of guest authors on TABC morning as they saw how many writer teens we had gathered. And the joy on all the faces as we participated in a book dash to give every teenager a book to keep.

It was the opening skit of TABC which was exactly the right amount of cheesy to let the teenagers know that it is okay to be silly and joyful. And then having that mirrored in the closing skit where the audience participated in defeating the villain by shouting “My story matters!” which we all knew for silly theater, but which also has an impact and lingers in the hearts and minds of everyone who was in that room.

It was the quiet girl I watched out of the corner of my eye all through that closing ceremony because she was at a table by herself and I wondered if I needed to make sure she was okay. But the corners of her mouth tugged up at the jokes, and she drumrolled with everyone. And she shouted too. Sitting by herself because that was how she was most comfortable, but not lonely, and not alone. She had found her tribe and place of belonging even if she hadn’t talked to many people all day long. I hold that girl in my head. Her story matters and I hope that by telling it she learns to sit up straight and take space instead of trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

These are a few of my crystals. Moments I feel honored to have witnessed, but which I do not claim as my triumphs. I can’t take credit for them, no matter how many hours of work I put it. It is a shared magic that requires the sharing to exist at all. I am not triumphant, I am honored and awed. And pleased. And tired. And aware that the ground work for next year’s round of magic begins with the emails I need to find enough brain for in the rest of this week.

The Poem that Flew Away

As I drifted off to sleep last night I held a tiny thread of poem on the tip of my mind. I remember it was lovely and I knew I could pull it in to craft something solid. Today only the memory of it remains. I hope when that poem is done flying free that it lands on me again and lets me shape it into words. Until then I sit with the memory of potential.

Also, I need to put a notebook by my bedside again.

My State of Mind

My mind is heavy with stories that aren’t mine to tell. People I love are traversing some emotionally volatile terrain. Others are facing life choices around new medical information. At the same time I’m on the last weeks of running toward a conference and a gala that I’m helping orchestrate, and I’ve gotten rolling on a writing project that was stalled for months. I am spending my days alternating between highly effective and jellyfish puddle.

Yesterday I was all kinds of sad. Today I feel hopeful. I’m trying to not equate well-being with productivity because correlation is not causation. I’m looking at tomorrow’s tasks and hoping that I can continue work on my writing projects because even though I know about correlation and causation, I do think that when I spend time with ideas and purpose, I am steadier for everything else.

Advice About Writing Groups

This weekend I was part of a conversation where I was asked to give advice to people who are looking to form writing groups. I wasn’t completely happy with my on the spot thoughts, so, in the spirit of mentally re-hashing conversations and rehearsing what I wish I’d said instead, I’m going to write down my advice here.

Writing, whether for personal amusement or with the intent to build a career, can be a frustrating and lonely experience. To stay balanced and keep perspective, you really do need a writing community, and you need other people to look at your work to help you see the things you’ve been missing. Forming a critique group is one of the ways to meet those needs, but it is not the only one.

Before forming a group, or joining one, it is very useful to spend some time thinking about what you need in order to grow and thrive in your writing life.

Format: Some groups meet online, others in person, still others are hybrid. Some are talking based others are text based. Some have strict time keeping others more free flowing. Some are critique only, some are primarily social, some have guest lecturers. Each of these format options serve different purposes and you should pick the ones that best match the writing needs of the people in your group. Some writers need to feel close and safe with people before hearing critiques, others want a level of emotional distance from the other people in order to not take the critique personally.

Frequency: How often is your group going to meet? How often can people submit work for critique? Are there page/word count limits? Think about what is sustainable with the schedules of the people in the group. Once per week might be just right, or it might start causing problems with partners and other commitments.

Methodology: The critique group where the writer sits quietly while everyone else discusses their work may be a very common method, but it is far from the only one. Some methods are collaborative, some are discussion based. Some require everyone to bring pages and read aloud. Others require submission in advance. What is the agreed upon framework for offering and accepting critique.

Ground rules: what does your group consider out of bounds for your group both for discussion and for reading content? Does everyone need to take turns bringing snacks? Talking through in advance how things will work is key to having a smooth group.

Purpose: In some ways this one comes first up above when I told you to consider what you need from a group to thrive as a writer, but now I want you to give focus to that thought. What purpose does this group seek to serve in the lives of is members. Is your group purpose an exchange of critiques or is your group purpose emotional support for your writer journeys? The purpose of your group should affect all of the decisions about the group format, frequency, methodology, and rules. If your group purpose is “exchange of critiques” but your format has you meeting monthly with snacks and the first hour of each meeting is purely social, then you’ve mismatched purpose and format.

In a good group, you will get out of it way more than you put in, but you have to be willing to put energy in. You have to think about how you can contribute to keep the group running smoothly.

There are so many more things that can be said about writer’s groups. This is just a launching place to help people get started.