Acres of Perhaps #14 - July 8, 2021
Summer always evokes mixed feelings in me: I hate the heat but love the promise of freedom that years in school have trained me to expect. I don’t get those vacations like I used to, but I take more days off during these months for sure.
I hope you’re getting the time you need to get into (or hide from) the summer.
Five Interesting Things
Writing: I finished a 34,000-word novella just in time to send it to Tor Nightfire as part of their unagented submissions window, which means that it goes directly to editors instead of being filtered out first by the process of finding an agent. That’s not to say that agents aren’t useful, only that in this particular case, most of them don’t take on projects that aren’t full-length novels.
Posting: I’ve created a new online venture called Might as Well Write, a blog where I answer questions from creative people about the art, mechanics, and emotional tumult of writing and publishing. Check it out, and ask a question!
Reading: A few hours ago, I finished reading The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, and it is a wonderfully cozy book, perfect for summer, in which good people who are different learn how best to use their difference for good. It’s the kind of book that leaves you wanting to hang onto the feeling it gives you for as long as possible.
Watching: Aimee and I have been watching Loki on Disney+ and largely enjoying it, but like other shows of its kind, you can see that it is an idea stretched a little thin across more episodes than it needs. We’re also watching Relentless, a documentary about a missing woman from Hannibal, Missouri who may or may not actually be missing or just hiding while her family works a con on the true crime community.
Kittening: A few weeks ago, we adopted a fostered kitten from the animal shelter, but while we were waiting for them to wrap him up, we also saw a second kitten who seemed to want to come home with us. We held our ground all the way home, but an hour later, I went back to pick up the second boy after all. Now we have Harlan (Ellison) and Harold (Ross), who can entertain themselves when we’re not available…or when they can’t MAKE us be available.
When I was a kid, I loved the idea that the Boy Scout Handbook contained all of the information I needed to be a good person, including the strangely personal things like taking care of my skin, brushing my teeth, sleeping with a window open, and placing a plywood sheet between the mattress and box spring for better posture.
I followed it to the letter, winning me the admiration of my fellow scouts during our hikes and campouts. Wait, did I say admiration? I meant mockery. That’s okay: I was in it for the ideals of the handbook, and they were in it for the fascism, I’m guessing. Or the knee socks.
Ever since, I’ve been a fan of handbooks and primers and how-to’s about everything from model railroading to programming in Pascal, from home maintenance to tarot reading.
Is it that I like being told what to do? I doubt it; I rarely do anything the same way twice. More likely, I’ve always just liked the fiction of a good handbook, the promise (lie) that if we follow the right steps, order and excellence will ensue.
Of course that’s absurd. Family Handyman magazine has more fantasy in it than Lord of the Rings. Every third issue is about building the ultimate workbench. For what? To build the next workbench?
Writing is an endeavor that lends itself well to handbook-mongering because there’s such variability in how each writer works. I’ve read probably a thousand or more books about the “craft” (a word I hate, by the way), and each contains about one amazing and useful insight.
(There are a few exceptions I’ve mentioned before like Saunders’s Swimming in a Pond in the Rain and Koch’s The Modern Library Writers Workshop that have SEVERAL amazing and useful insights.)
I buy so many books about writing because I’m of course looking for the next instruction that will make everything fall easily into place, and though I know rationally that’s impossible, I still keep buying.
For what it’s worth, I buy far fewer of them than I used to. For one thing, so many feel like scams now (“Write a Novel in Nine Days!”). For another, the kind I need has changed from the lessons of mechanics (scene, setting, plot, character) to more esoteric topics like reaching more deeply for meaningful stories and coaxing them from my brain.
(I’ve learned, I suppose, from both writing and teaching that arranging the words differently doesn’t help all that much if they’re not coming from somewhere interesting.)
Because I need more often to be reminded than taught, I recopy a distilled writing handbook into each of my notebooks. They mutate slightly as I need to emphasize one thing or another, but here’s a recent example:
That page is the distillation of a Bachelor of Arts in English, a Master of Arts in English, a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, the Clarion workshop, assorted other workshops, feedback from friends and mentors, and a thousand books on writing.
It’s the tip of the iceberg, just enough to prompt me to remember what was hardest to learn. These are the result of applying the abstractions of someone else’s handbook to my own experience and feeling which ones make sense to me.
All books, fact and fiction, are handbooks in that way: distillations of experience into instruction first for ourselves and then for others (who will only take a portion for their own distillations).
Maybe an A.I. at the end of time will compile the ultimate distillation of all the handbooks. If it does, I’m guessing it will print out, “Give a shit about what’s in front of you.”
In the meantime, if you want a handbook that works (regardless of whatever passion you pursue), you’re going to have to build it yourself. That means you will feel again and again the beautiful excitement and recognition when something clicks with your experience, which I think is the most fundamental human experience.
I’m not kidding myself that you want a mysterious photograph. You want a kitten photograph. I get it.
As always, I am grateful for your support. Thank you for reading, and take care until next time!
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