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Why I Read and Write Science Fiction

Yesterday, I detailed my struggles with creative writing. And yet throughout the ongoing war with bad writing and my doubts relating thereto, science fiction (SF) has always been there as a sort of talisman, something to read and reinforcing my love of future- and technology-minded literature, both as something to read and something to write.

Why I Read SF

Not too surprisingly for a GenXer, I got sucked into SF courtesy of Star Wars and Star Trek. SF fans got me to read “real” or hard SF (as opposed to space opera), which generally meant “Golden Age” writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. As I got older, my tastes, politics, and interests shifted a bit. I shifted to Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Silverberg, and Frank Herbert, plus a lot of one-off titles that I often grabbed based on the cover art or the blurb on the back of the book.

The common elements in all of these novels (and short stories) included a focus on the future…often more technologically advanced and better in some social matters than the present. Perhaps that was what I needed in my moody and bully-populated adolescence: a focus on and belief in a better future. I absolutely needed that sort of attitude at that age because my contemporary circumstances sucked.

SF also featured a lot of brainy or intellectual characters as heroes, which was something I appreciated as someone who was small, thin, weak, bookish, non-athletic, and clumsy. Characters in SF weren’t always klutzy (though the works of Frederik Pohl were more obviously flawed than most), but they were clearly brain-forward and often the worlds they lived in respected that intellectual ability.

Why I Write SF

My fiction writing has tended to be in a science fiction mode. Even when I write “stories” (narratives might be a better description–see yesterday’s post) about more typical problems like personal growth or romance, they are often placed somewhere in a science-fictional, future world. Current problems don’t excite or inspire me. So I’ve tended to write about the future, with the message being that it will be better.

My ghost-writer buddy Laura suggested that I make that sort of fiction my focus, .

Focus on the message or the experience you’d like your reader to have. I write for my younger self. My main message that I wanted 12 year old Laura to receive was one of self empowerment/self belief and also belief in a very cool future. So I wrote into that. 

And really that makes sense. It’s like my blog, which provides practical career advice to my younger (22-year-old) self in the hopes of helping other English majors find a fulfilling way to use their skills and pay the bills. Perhaps I should go back through my younger years and consider writing stories that younger Bart would have loved and found inspirational. There are still kids being bullied in this world, and they’re being fed a ton of dystopian fiction. It would be nice if they read about a better future that’s worth living for, yes?

A Narrative About Storytelling

I spent part of the weekend engaged in analyzing my creative writing journey. What has yours been like? Strangely, mine has gotten more difficult as I’ve gotten older.

My Writing History

My family has home movie footage of me reading a book when I was less than two years old. Given my hypothyroidism, which was not diagnosed until age 1, I struggled with my physical development. It is, therefore, entirely possible that I could read before I could walk. I was drawn (so to speak) to those black symbols printed on bound white paper. Apparently I was also interested in trying create my own. Grandma Leahy claimed I told her at age five that I wanted to be a novelist. (Is it possible that I’d even know that word at that age? Yep.)

The first piece of writing I had “published” was a set of “alphabet stories” we were assigned in second grade or something. It went into my elementary school library, and I fished it out of the shelves when I learned that the school was closing. In one story I wrote about Wally the Whale, who wanted to swim from one U.S. coast to another, so he swam through the Panama Canal. Because, yes, 8-year-old Bart was interested in transportation. In another of those stories, I wrote about the D word–divorce–that had happened in my home the year before. It was accompanied by a rather dark crayon image of a dead man’s corpse burning in a garbage dump. Guess who got to spend some time with the social worker soon thereafter?

As I progressed, I started writing Star Wars stories, transmuting my play time with my friend down the street into typed stories. Eventually, in my teens, I started writing fiction in my own world(s), which alternated between mainstream and science fiction. I got an IBM PC Jr. sometime around then and started writing more. A lot of my story writing was cathartic. Writing in the heroic mode in the Star Wars universe, I would transmute my adolescent (ages 11-20) struggles into wish fulfillment fantasies, in which I was a person with authority and respect. A person who could make an impact. A leader.

At age 18 or so, I got my own Smith-Corona typewriter with maybe 100 KB of memory. I bought a pack of paper and started cranking out short stories in between class papers or over breaks. It would be difficult to say that I wrote stories so much as character sketches or situations in which the main character learned something–I was in college, after all. After college, when I was in Florida and working for Disney, I had plenty of unencumbered time and wrote a startling number of short stories (narratives?) throughout my 20s (29 of them in just two years). Did I submit any of them for publication? Of course not. I was writing for therapeutic purposes. Plus, I also recognized that I was not writing stories so much as fictional narrated experiences. No antagonists, no concrete plots, no character development, etc.

I tried my hand at science fiction here and there. Again, I was writing about characters gaining insights or experiencing strange effects from technology. Conflicts and actual storytelling continued to elude me. I was 30 when I finally wrote my first novel–a Star Wars story, of course, rooted in those stories that were born out of my childhood playtime. That novel continues to be modified and improved right up until the present. I would not write another one until I was 42. I decided to try National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and write an actual story, an historical romance, for a change. Did a bunch of research, threw in a little character development, and everything. The problem was that the book just wasn’t very good (“Everyone writes a sh!tty first draft,” according to Anne Lamott) and I didn’t enjoy the writing process enough to make any revisions to it, probably because it was written as a way of venting my feelings about a previous romantic relationship. Draft? Written. Revisions? Neglected. Into the files it went.

My shift to novel writing and more serious, structured narratives coincided with finally getting work as a technical writer in the space business, a primary career goal of mine. I’d learn the mysteries of launch vehicles, crank out conference papers and other products. As a result, when I came home, I had two things happening in my mind when I sat in front of the computer: I was tired from work, and I was painfully aware that I needed more professionalism and quality in my work.

Two years later, I tried another NaNoWriMo experience, this one science fiction again. And, while more promising than the previous novel draft, this one also lacked traditional conflict, structure, or character development. I gave it to friends (one a published author), seeking inputs. I got the inputs…and then left them to rot in my files with all the other unpublished dreck. I didn’t want to do the work. The work filled me with loathing, self- or otherwise.

Despite this, I still wrote short stories here and there and tried another SF novel for NaNoWriMo four years after the last one. I ended up finishing it a year later because NaNoWriMo got interrupted by a vacation. I had a few people read that one as well…got zero feedback, and let it drop into the files with the others. My joy at writing was diminishing as well.

I met a new lady friend around the time I turned 50 and started writing short stories/anecdotes for her for fun as part of my courting ritual, but the relationship soured and with it my desire to write anything creative, for that matter.

So now I’m 53. I’ve written a lot in my career, from corporate training classes to conference papers, engineering documents, public speeches, news articles, and marketing/outreach materials. You could say I’ve done a few things, most of them without much fear or anxiety. So what’s going on with my creative writing?

My Current Problem(s)

It turns out that I am much more comfortable writing content for other people–customers, bosses, what have you. It’s writing for myself that creates anxiety in my typing.

My fears and excuses for not writing multiply and grow more complex the longer I consider them.

  • Fear of writing something terrible, scientifically incorrect, stupid, etc.
  • Fear of not living up to expectations (education, background, etc.).
  • Fear of criticism/mocking.
  • Fear of offending the always-angry Twitter mob and the perpetually offended. Will I say the wrong thing(s)? Will I be accused of portraying someone different from me insultingly? Will I express the “wrong” point(s) of view?
  • Will the angry people start attacking me online?
  • Will the angry people start threatening me online?
  • Will they not stop there, but show up at my house and threaten me or my loved ones?

Et cetera.

I even have some fear of success, on occasion.

So this morning I asked myself: Is writing something I even want to do anymore? Is this still a ‘passion’ that I need to pursue to feel complete? Is writing the way I will make my positive mark on the world? My legacy? Is there something else I should be doing instead?

One of the books I read to try and nudge me back into creative work was The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield calls all the doubts and fears I expressed above “resistance.” He says:

The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.

Sounds great, in theory. In reality, I’m somewhere between feeling ashamed about not doing the work but also feeling ashamed about trying to write when I feel like I’m forcing myself to do something I ought to be doing, like a painful obligation. What the hell am I supposed to do with that no-win scenario?

My Path Forward?

I tried to imagine what writing without struggle would be like:

  • Not caring about scientific or engineering accuracy (at least in the first draft).
  • Not caring about how others might receive my work.
  • Not focusing on critical or monetary success or failure, just writing something that makes me happy.
  • Writing the truth fearlessly according to my lights, not the prejudices of whatever mob might find it objectionable.
  • Apply the skills and knowledge I do have to put together something good.
  • Be as ambitious as I care to be, even if it turns out that ambitious is not something I want to write.

A younger Bart remembered how to do most of that, even if his skills weren’t too polished. My older self has learned how to write better but is now afraid to share whatever’s in his head…or worse, won’t write because he has nothing to say.

Writer’s block sucks.

Where is Technology Taking Us?

At 6 a.m., my brain suddenly decided it wanted to write. More to the point, it wanted to discuss the future: which directions might we go, and where we were likely headed. I waited until I’d showered and had breakfast to do something about it because I don’t like writing on an empty stomach. That said, where are we going? Below are some of my thoughts.

Specifically, my busy mind was looking at some dichotomies:

  • More freedom or more control?
  • More efficiency or more redundancy?
  • More complexity or more simplicity?
  • More inclusiveness or exclusivity?
  • More community or more isolation?
  • More choices or fewer choices?

Some of these bullets are technological questions, some are social questions that could be embodied by our technologies. The originators of the internet wanted information to be free. However, ironically, the internet didn’t grow and improve technologically until government and businesses moved in to populate the virtual spaces. Government uses our patterns of electronic behavior to determine our potential risk to lives and property. Businesses use our online behavior to sell us products and services and sell our buying patterns to other businesses so they, too, can sell us products and services.

As my tech-minded friends like to remind me when I complain about mostly free online environments like Twitter and Facebook, “If you’re not paying for the service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

Users are aware of these dynamics, more or less. Some enjoy the convenience of having helpful, fun, or interesting products and services marketed to us (the Hawaiian shirt makers have started swarming my Facebook profile lately). Some migrate to other digital environments, either out of concerns about how their information is being used or because they feel their personal or political views are being censored by large social media platforms.

I can’t say that we’re moving in a purely utopian or dystopian direction. Our computers are watching us, but it’s mostly corporations tracking and shaping our spending habits rather than the government minding our propensity for thought crimes. On the other hand, if people participate in blatantly antisocial or violent actions, they’re likely to announce their intentions beforehand or brag about their “success” on YouTube afterward, giving the government plenty of evidence for making an arrest. Whose “fault” is that?

The sheer number of options for communicating or receiving information has enabled us to customize the electronic “world” we see. And the more we focus our attention in specific directions or toward specific ideas/topics, the more we find our perceptions filtered through our self-grown information ecologies. More choices, but less shared experience. More inputs, but less community.

We’re still moving in the direction of communities off Earth, flying or autonomous cars, and “smart”homes, but we’ve also got people becoming polarized by different views of the world and even different facts. What’s a valid source? Which facts are worth paying attention to, and in what order? These are the questions we are all forced to confront, though it might be harder for younger generations, which never grew up with a more limited print and television environment. How do they view the present? How will they view the future?

Is there a point to any of this rambling? I don’t know. I’ve been struggling (again? still?) with writing science fiction, and I was hoping these thoughts would lead to a story idea or a way of looking at the future, but all it’s done is add to my struggle and confusion. I am not particularly imaginative when it comes toward envisioning the future. I’m much too conservative (in the limited intellectual sense, not necessarily the political sense). Still, I try to understand the present by writing in a science fictional mode because people and their concerns in the present vex and often bore me. SF is about the future of our relationship with the universe and the technologies we use to cope with it. Mainstream/contemporary fiction is about people as they are and their current, personal concerns. I’m not interested in other people’s personal problems. That’s like traveling in gossip. Writing SF is about individual destinies, aspirations, and accomplishments. Technologies might or might not figure prominently in mainstream fiction–though it’s harder to ignore them, even for people focused on personalities.

Maybe I’m thinking about the future of technology as a proxy for trying to figure out my own, personal future, in literature and elsewhere. Where am I going? Where are any of us going?

To be determined. To be continued.

Blocked

Writer’s block sucks. It’s unfathomable to the non-writer and demoralizing for the writer. After all, you write because you love it, right? So what happens when that love of the work turns into something else or gets wrapped up in other feelings? A whole lot of nothing. I’m in the midst of a four-year run of this condition now, and it’s starting to eat away at my soul. Maybe blogging about it will help. I’ve done sillier things.

I should emphasize that the “block” I’m dealing with is personal in nature. I don’t get writer’s block on the job (i.e., for other people), except in rare cases. Writing for myself is something else. The needs of a customer are always known, or if not known, can be discerned by asking questions. I’m a much more difficult customer.

  • Do I know what I’m trying to accomplish?
  • Do I know who my audience is?
  • Will this work be engaging to the reader?
  • Is the work saying what I want it to say?

I don’t always have the answers to these questions, nor am I terribly confident when I answer them.

Ghosts from the past

Several years ago, I got into the habit of sharing one piece of creative writing with a lady friend on a daily basis. Part of the courtship ritual, as it were. However, the relationship did not go as hoped for, and so it ended.

The problem is that in the process of ending that relationship, I also yanked out a lot of the wiring that I used to write creatively for fun. Writing was something done for her. Being a creative writer was someone I was in that relationship. Writing after that brought me right back to the mental state I was in fresh out of the relationship: No, I don’t write anymore. That was something I did for her. That was a different life, a different person. Somewhere along the line, I made the mistake of using a real person as a “Muse,” and now find myself, years later, not wanting to return to the writing habit because it puts me back in the headspace I had when writing for that specific person.

Given the number of relationships I’ve screwed up over the course of 40+ years, you’d think I’d have the sense to separate the creator of the product from the recipient. But no, my subconscious juxtaposed the two in this case and decided that writing “for myself” was no longer possible.

It’s vexing, and a little sick-making, to be honest, because it’s not like real people are flawless or will never let you down. They will, just as I no doubt let down the person in question and others along the way or since. Indulging in a “muse” is a great way to short-circuit a professionally minded brain because when I have paying work, I don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike before getting to work. The work must be done, sit in front of the goddamned computer and crank out the prose. If you don’t, you don’t get paid and you don’t eat. QED, the writing gets done.

However, that’s business. Writing for oneself is a slightly different animal for me. I never felt confident (or good) enough to write fiction for a living. I was a little too addicted to things like eating and having a roof over my head to write stories for a living. I pay the bills by writing and editing content for others. Fiction or poetry became things that I wrote for myself, in my free time, when I felt like it.

So when you start connecting all these dots together, you can see how writer’s block can and will interfere with the idea of writing for pleasure. I write content for other people or organizations. And while I do enjoy the process, especially when the content has to do with human space exploration, I realize that the thoughts are not my own but the ideas of others. I settled for that sort of writing to pay the bills because I lacked the confidence to write stories for a living. I suppose if I had forced myself to earn my living writing fiction, I might have gotten better at the craft through sheer repetition, persistence, and practice.

Yet the daily practice stopped when I ended that relationship. I was writing for her, after all, and she was no longer part of my life. So then what?

Quitting drinking helped clear my head, mostly. Yet I still had this injury to my soul lingering the background. It’s like a mental limp, hobbling my ability to fully express myself, either because I felt that my reason for writing went away or because I lost confidence in the person who wrote because the writing (or I) was insufficient to keep the relationship going. In the process of breaking the relationship, I inadvertently broke something fundamental to my well-being as a human being. The recycled mantra in the head is akin to, The writing failed, I failed, and so I don’t write anymore.

I can appreciate the works of others–indeed, my reading has been voracious over the past few years–but I can’t contemplate my own work without a feeling of vertigo or seasickness. The person I was in that relationship was someone who wrote, and that person failed. I haven’t been able to become that person again, and that hurts. I need to fix this. I’m tired of hurting. : (

Poetry Experiment: Do, Be, Do

Here’s where my brain went at 6:30 this morning…

Do, Be, Do

The mind dithers and withers
as it goes
Pursue your fondest dream today
or bake in the TV’s glow?
Things to go, places to do
and always a bill at the end
With good and bad habits
to cultivate and mend.
No doubt the clock ticks ever
farther down–
Will you grin when the phone chimes
or frown?
Are you truly busy today,
with chores ever pressing,
Or just keeping boredom at bay
while the Horsemen are still dressing?

–BL, 3/3/22

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!