Expectations: Fiction vs. Real Life

I take my fiction experiences–whether they’re written, on a stage, or on a screen–very seriously. An interaction on Twitter this morning made me consider some of the ways my feelings toward fiction manifest themselves.

Here was the Twitter exchange I had this morning:

I didn’t appreciate having my attitude toward villains described as “simple minded” or immature, yet I responded politely as shown. Yet it’s true: I’m not interested in the motives of bad guys in books or movies.

This is an old habit, going back to my youthful love of the Star Wars saga. The fascination people had with Darth Vader or Boba Fett, for example, eluded me. Even Vader’s revelation that he was Luke Skywalker’s father didn’t move me that much. My 11-year-old self assumed that he was lying. The subsequent confirmation of Luke’s parentage made for an interesting resolution to Return of the Jedi, but I remained a fan of the heroes. Vader didn’t redeem himself until very late in the game.

The prequel movies depicting the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader was a narrative mess, and I still wasn’t that interested in Anakin’s fall from grace. What did bother me was the Clone Wars movie, which was set between Episodes II and III. There, Lucas had already set the trajectory of Skywalker as heading down a dark path. What, then, was one to make of this cartoon that depicted him as becoming better or more heroic? Were we supposed to feel that much worse when he succumbed to the dark side? Anyhow, it didn’t work for me, given the narrative arc shown for the character at that point in the series. I was also not pleased to read “there are heroes on both sides” in the opening crawl of Star Wars III. The original Star Wars trilogy worked because it depicted a straightforward morality tale of good-vs.-evil. Who the heck do you root for if there are heroes on both sides?

For me, fiction is about structure and meaning. This is probably because I read and wrote stories as a way to make sense of the world or to make the world a better, more just place, if only in my mind. I had enough examples in my adolescence of the bad, the mean, or the violent succeeding; I didn’t need or want that in my fiction. Call it idealism, call it escapism, call it what you will: to be satisfying to me, stories with obvious heroes and villains need to end with the hero triumphing.

I recall another expectation about fiction that created a great deal of amusement for one of my professors in graduate school. It was a hypertext class, and one of the reading assignments was a “novel” called If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino. That had to be one of the least-satisfying reading experiences I’ve ever encountered. The book consisted of a series of episodes in different genres, none of which connected to each other, and all of which ended without resolution. I came into class infuriated that the author had wasted my time. The professor, amused, asked me, “Why are you so upset by this?” I replied, “Good fiction isn’t supposed to do that!”

Since I’m probably on the verge of being called simple-minded again, I’ll just state my objection here: If I wanted that sort of experience, I could turn on the news.

Much of the fiction that works for me takes the form of a structured morality tale. There are other works that are not conflict-focused or are more ambiguous, like man vs. nature–I’m talking here about man vs. man stories. There are also tragedies, such as the darker works of Shakespeare, but those don’t appeal as much to me, either. Again, I’m trying to make sense of the world and perhaps reinforce my rather naive hopes that good will triumph in conflicts. If I wanted to hear that “the world doesn’t make any sense,” I could read any number of columnists or bloggers. If I wanted to see conflicted human beings acting in a manner perceived as villainous, I could turn on the evening news. If I wanted to see evil triumph, I could read histories about some of humanity’s worst despotisms.

There are writers and readers out there who thrive on relatable, multi-layered, or even sympathetic villains. I wish them well. However, I am not the market for those sorts of stories. They don’t interest me.

Losing Friends

Cancer sucks. It has little regard for the feelings of its victims or the people whose friends depart this life due to its pernicious effects. Yesterday I lost my friend Debbie, who was as good a person and as good a friend as anyone I’ve ever met on this earth.

Debbie and I got acquainted thanks to my request for someone to handle public relations for a space conference I was running ten years ago. She wasn’t a full-time PR pro, but she was an organized and enthusiastic space supporter. She also had a hilarious sense of humor and an extrovert’s joyful willingness to get introverts to talk. Debbie designated herself “Media Queen” and several of the ladies on the team soon picked up on their own “royal” titles, forming a “Tiara Coalition,” each sovereign of her own domain (track chair, signage, etc.). Her chipper demeanor in a stressful environment kept many of us calmer and looser than we otherwise might have felt because she was always there to jolly us along. The picture above is typical Debbie and how I remember her best: crazy happy and waving enthusiastically for the camera. That picture always makes me smile.

My friend also hosted me in her home when I went up to Washington, DC, to play go-fer and convention manager for the Science Cheerleaders every other year from 2010 to 2018. Later, she became my tax advisor/preparer as I transitioned to the freelancing life. Debbie’s professional skills were akin to her getting-introverts-to-talk talent, as she helped small businesses organize and run their business. It was a truly remarkable set of skills to have, and she applied them to organizations as diverse as a publishing company, a couple of non-profit space advocacy conferences, and a small space avionics firm.

But mostly I’ll just miss my friend and the great conversations we had. She was a counselor who seemed to understand the introverted geek male better than he understood himself, and her fun-loving, welcoming ways caused those geek males to trust her. She made conversations so fun, you sort of forgot that she was dispensing wise advice along the way. Beyond space and geeky males, she had a love of her two adult-age kids, elephant statues, crafting, board games, Cafe Berlin (a German restaurant within easy walking distance of her place near Capitol Hill), and fine whiskeys (as well as whiskys).

As the pandemic hit–I might have the timing wrong–Debbie moved out of DC to be closer to her family in Delaware. Then I learned she’d gotten ovarian cancer and was undergoing some pretty harsh medical treatments to get rid of the stuff. I think I spoke to her once in 2020 and now I regret not trying more often. I know I sent her a card or two to cheer her up during her treatment and looked forward (at some point) to seeing her again once she’d recovered. That didn’t happen, though, and now a lot of people beyond selfish little me are minus a joyful, vivacious presence in our lives. It sucks, and I will miss my friend a great deal.

Is that a tornado siren?
Is that a tornado siren? Debbie making last-minute announcements at ISDC 2011 as my ears pick up the sound of a tornado warning. We had multiple tornado scares that year, but Debbie stayed chipper and on task.

Debbie and me at Humans to Mars Conference
Debbie and me at one of the Humans to Mars conferences. She was just fun to be around.

Book Review: We Will Tell You Otherwise

This will be a somewhat unique review in that I know but don’t know the author. Beth Mayer and I attended Lincoln School, a no-longer-extant elementary school in Lombard, Illinois. She and her family lived in Illinois through our junior high years, then they disappeared to the frozen tundra of Minnesota. The magic of Facebook put me back in touch with Beth, and I learned she was an English teacher and writer. Deciding to take the risk (I’m normally a science fiction reader/writer), I bought her book of short stories, We Will Tell You Otherwise. My reactions follow.

First, a word or two about Beth. She was and as far as I can tell remains a sweet, kind person. A tad quiet and shy. And I don’t think I’ll be shocking or embarrassing her or myself to admit that I had a crush on her [X] years ago. I was socially awkward back in the day, and so kindness to people like me rated high as a virtue. Her mom was the school librarian, and I know I pestered her a lot. I appreciated her patience.

All this is to say that the shy and gentle girl of my memory has grown up and is now writing stories in a shy and gentle manner. What do I mean by that? Well, Beth’s characters are often restrained in their curiosity and their responses to people. They aren’t screaming or losing their temper. There are things that they might be interested in knowing, but seldom ask.

The stories themselves are more akin to dramatized anecdotes than movie- or novel-style plots and conflict resolutions. It feels as if we are drifting into these various characters’ private lives, listening in on their personal conversations. There are conflicts and sources of discomfort for the viewpoint characters (sometimes first-person narrated, sometimes first-person limited). The characters’ reactions or internal resolutions to the conflict in the narrative are often implied or left to the reader to guess. There are allusions to dark or violent actions, but those are mostly “offstage.” I found myself wondering where the characters might go from there.

I’d be curious to see Beth’s characters given longer stories and more space to move around–how do they plan to face their challenge(s)? What comes next? I suppose that’s what I mean by shy storytelling. Or maybe coy is a better word. There are conflicts there, often pretty serious ones. How do these literary creations respond to them? Is this understated storytelling the current literary style or is that a Beth thing? I guess I’d like to see Beth write a novel. 🙂

The best story in the collection (my view) is the second to last, from which the book mostly derives its title, “I Will Tell You Otherwise.” There, the reader sees the more traditional tools of setup, confrontation, and resolution. Her characters are very much alive, and if any of the stories in this collection would benefit from a longer treatment, it would be this one. How can you go wrong with a character name like Cha Cha McGee?

So would I recommend the book? Yes. The writing is skillful, engaging, and easy to read. The stories touch on family, friends, relationships, and the conflicts, resentments, and hurts that can arise from them. The characters depicted feel real. I have no idea how much they are based on real people and how much is creative invention, but they are still skillfully rendered, which is not easy to do in these short episodes. The culture, behaviors, norms, and taboos of the characters are distinctly Midwestern in their flavor. I found this a charming reminder of home and a girl I knew long ago.

Journals As Repositories for the Soul

I’ve been journaling since I was a college freshman in 1988 (go ahead and do the math; I know–I’m old). In that time, I’ve filled various paper and electronic pages with my half-baked philosophies, wishful ambitions, and angst-ridden frustrations. Aside from various conversations with people I know very well, my journal is where I’ve been the most honest about who I am, what I want, and why I do what I do. This morning I’m meditating on what to do with all that content.

Why Keep a Journal?

Therapy

I’ve given serious thought to burning my journals before I die or (riskier) requesting in my will that they be burned after my death. Given that, one might wonder why I have not done so already or why I should get stressed out to learn that during my move from Virginia to Alabama or Alabama back to Florida, the movers lost (or gave to someone else) the first box of my journals.

The reason I refer back to them now is for reference or curiosity: what was I doing or thinking at X point in history? Do I want other people doing the same thing when I’m gone? Sometimes it depends on the day. Most of the time, I’m committed to burning the journals–ideally before any nosy people decide to dig into and publish them.

It all circles back to the same question: why keep a journal at all if you don’t expect or want others to read it? There are some obvious reasons. Writing in a journal (or diary–pick your word) is therapeutic, not just in the sense of relieving tension from particular situations, but often literally as a form of therapy. I started journaling in part as a way to sort out my own problems without resorting to talking to an actual therapist. I had a general idea of the sorts of questions therapists ask, as I’d been seeing counselors off and on from ages 8-18, so I figured I could ask those questions of myself and write the answers without talking to a professional. People in a great deal of personal pain are not eager to tell other people what they’re feeling or why–that’s how they ended up in therapy in the first place. Other times, therapists recommend keeping a private journal as a way to cope with ugly, nasty feelings.

So there’s a lot of therapy in my journal, which is to say a lot of thoughts and feelings that are private and nobody’s damn business.

Personal history

Occasionally I write about places I go or things I do. Some folks keep a journal so their children or future family members will know how they lived their life. Personal reporting for the next generation, as it were.

Mostly, though, I’ve journaled to map the contours of my soul. I don’t fill out the physical details much–also a failing of my fiction, which is why that remains unpublished. Should I just burn all that and leave my thoughts and my self mostly a mystery to others after I die?

Fuel for future fiction

I am a technical writer by profession. My fiction writing has fallen by the wayside in the last decade or two, but that’s not to say I’ll never try to publish my fiction at some point (150+ stories, 4 novels–it can’t all be crap, right?). I could probably sift through my journal for fiction ideas. I wrote down a lot of story ideas that I never actually completed. Or I could write fiction based on situations from my past. I was a different character in my 20s and 30s than I am in my 50s, by temperament and circumstances. Could I write about Younger Bart as a fictional character? Maybe.

Quite frankly, a lot of my journaling embarrasses my later self. I find it uncomfortable to go back and read about the feelings or situations Younger Bart got himself into. Sometimes I’ve written things down so I can get them out of my head. If it’s on the paper, I don’t have to think about it anymore, right? Again: therapy.

So why keep the journals around, especially when they’re taking up a substantial bit of space in one of my closets? Once I’m gone, I’ll live only in my works (training documents? engineering proposals? blog entries? Facebook posts?) and in the memories of others. Or I could create art, which is not my specialty. Right now my journals are the most accurate record I know of who I am. Some people have a significant other to share their life experiences with. I don’t manage such things well, so I have conversations with close family and friends. There are maybe half a dozen people I talk with on the phone regularly for purposes of baring my soul and letting my voice be heard in the world. I don’t write much fiction, and what I do write I don’t share with too many people. I suspect that’s on purpose.

For now, I still have the journals. Maybe I’ll share the contents with others in some form, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just burn the lot and let my soul remain a mystery.

2020: Taking Stock

A couple years ago, I started keeping a “gratitude jar,” which gives you the opportunity to write down one good thing that happened in the past week. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the following year), you empty the jar and learn what good things happened to you.

2020 was a tough year for a whole bunch of us. I had a text discussion with a colleague who suggested that I look at the year from a personal rather than a global perspective. Looking at things that way helped. 2020 was not my worst year by quite a stretch–it didn’t make the top three, or maybe even the top four. So I’ve got that to consider.

Last year was also a major challenge because on the random date of January 29 I decided to stop drinking alcohol (for how long is still TBD, but at least a year). In the midst of civilization shutting down or acting crazy, sometimes the best thing I could manage for my weekly note was “X days sober.” I have 13 notes like that, and yes, I’ve kept going. Starting 2021 on day 339 of the non-drinking lifestyle and so without a hangover. Definitely a better way to start the year.

The next-most frequent good things I noted during my weekly notes were times I spent with family and friends, either virtually or in person. Introverted as I am, I still appreciate the opportunity to have personal talks here and there. I spend a lot of time alone, but I also had a few hour-plus talks with close friends, and those did my soul all sorts of good (calling people out: many thanks to Karl, Tim, Gwen, LaDeana, Katrina, Cal, Tara, Jeannie, and Tom). I joined a walk-around-Disney group this past year and ended up taking many of those walks places other than Disney via Zoom meeting on my phone. I also attended more virtual cocktail parties than I ever did in the real world…sober, of course.

I have a pile of “miscellaneous” notes of things I did that made me happy last year, such as getting a therapist (in January–I stopped therapy a few months later because the pandemic rendered a lot of my problems moot); buying art for my apartment; completing a short story; or doing something as frivolous as making pancakes for the first time.

Books were a major part of my 2020. I read 69 books of various sorts and couldn’t finish two. The reading was a defense against reading/watching the news. Plus, I think I discovered how much time I was wasting just drinking. Amazing how much I could accomplish if I wasn’t just sitting in a bar.

Work still had its place in my notes. The biggest work-related event for 2020 was finally publishing my technical writing book and getting it out on the market (and into libraries) for others to read. I still have some marketing work to do. Of course once you’ve written one book, people want to know what you’re going to write next. The answer is: I have no idea. The tech writing blog, however, will continue.

I plan to continue the weekly “good things” tracking jar in 2021. If anything, I need regular reminders that good things do happen, even if I’m having a cr@ppy day, week, month, or even year. May you find good things to celebrate in 2021!

Writing for My Own Pleasure

When I turned 30, I sat down and turned the little Star Wars stories I’d written between ages 8 and 18 into a full -blown novel. I never tried to get the story published, of course, but I enjoyed the process. With the ending of the Skywalker saga last year, I toyed with writing a sequel. I haven’t (yet), but I keep arguing with myself about the project.

I had multiple reasons for not attempting to publish the first novel. Lucasfilm had its own set of stories, many of which mine was not as good as or compatible with. Plus, it was just for fun—fan fiction. Also, as a first novel, it had any number of first-novel faults. However satisfying it was for me personally, it just wasn’t that good.

So now, 31 years later, I find myself mulling a sequel. I’ve written a few more novels since then, so it’s not a question of ability. At age 51, I’m simply struggling creatively. I don’t write much fiction at all. playing around in the SW universe is easy. I know that place. Many of its environments and “rules” are already established. Writing fiction there is fun. All I need to do is move my own characters 30 years forward in time and adapt them to the stories depicted in Episodes VII-IX.

But why write such a story? Why put in the work if it’s only for my own amusement? Maybe to prime the creativity pump. If I put in the time for that story, other ideas might come to mind. I’ve done sillier things to kill time. I just need something to fill the dusty, empty space that has occupied my life over the last year or so.

Life as a Remora

This morning I was journaling about the Hot Ones YouTube show, which interviews celebrities while having them eat progressively spicier chicken (or vegan) wings. It occurred to me that celebrity interviewers are akin to the remoras that attach themselves to sharks and other large marine animals. They’re tolerated by the larger fish because they often perform a useful “cleaning” service, cleaning up parasites and other bits of junk that collect on the larger animal. 

In the celebrity world of Hollywood, interviews and interviewers are tolerated because they help the movie star sell seats in movies. It then occurred to me that I perform a similar function in the aerospace business. Here’s how I put it on Twitter, with a little added flourish from Scott Adams:

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing…each to his/her own ecological, professional, or social niche, I guess. It’s just that I used to have bigger dreams for myself. I was going to be a creator, an author, a dreamer of big dreams. For the past 20 years I’ve shifted to writing and editing the dreams of others–people with more creativity, more education in the sciences or engineering–to the point where I’ve doubted or just given up on my idea of being a “big fish” on my own one day.

Welcome to middle age.