I have been trying to write this letter for most of the month, and it is arriving a full two weeks late. It has been a time, hasn’t it?
I’ve been thinking about what Shannon wrote in our very first in-person meeting – “The calm that exists because of it is wonderful and is like a vacation that never ends. I remember vacations and loving the way the days were shaped by desire and curiosity. I remember loving them. I know you love them. Imagine a world like that.”
I’ve been thinking about all the pressures we are under to be productive in this time of isolation and lockdown and physical distancing, and how we are also under a competing pressure to experience this time as a break, a rest, a reset, a vacation of sorts. I’ve been thinking about how both of those pressures land in unkind ways for many of us.
Right now, maybe not “more than ever” but certainly more than usually, we need ways to reach for hope, to find the shiny threads hidden in the gutters, to seek out possibility, to imagine our way into the future. We need ways to do this that are justice oriented, that are aware of existing power structures, that are welcoming of diverse experiences, that hold space for the discomfort and fear and grief of this time in our lives. We need robust hope, a light that can show us the next step forward.
So, here we are. The Shiny! speculative writing group meets again.
This month there will be no in-person meeting. And I’m not sure when we’ll have our next in-person meeting! We’ll be listening to the recommendations of health professionals, and then being a little extra careful because some of us have compromised immune systems or complex health concerns (including me!)
Instead, we will be meeting from 4-6 pm Mountain time on Sunday April 5 in a GoToMeeting chat. If you’d like the invite link, please send me a message.
In this letter, you will find a craft lesson, writing prompts, some recommended reading, and some shared writing.
How do we practice craft during a crisis? Plot, pacing, dialogue, point-of-view… all of these things seem so far beyond what many of us are experiencing in our daily life. How do we bring these onto the page? How can we write anything good while everything around us is terrifying and bad?!
If you’re having trouble writing anything at all, let alone anything that feels like it’s “good” writing, you’re not alone. Even Neil Gaiman has been having a tough time with it.
So, instead of our usual craft lesson, this month let’s try something else.
Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, writes, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.“
This month, let’s remember that craft includes shitty first drafts, incomplete paragraphs, stories that go nowhere, ideas that tumble around the page and end up looking like a mess. This is craft, too.
So just write anything.
Write five first lines, with no demand on yourself to take them further than first line.
Write one snippet of dialogue.
Write a list of ideas, no matter how far-fetched.
Set your timer for 10 minutes and free associate from the word “pandemic” and then set another 10 minute timer and free associate from “hope” and then spend five minute searching for resonances between your two lists. (Free associating just means that you start with the word and then you write as many words as you can think of that are in some way connected.) When your mind takes you down a path during this process, follow it – turn the timer off and go.
However you show up for yourself at this time, however you show up at the page (or not!) is craft.
I know it doesn’t feel like it. Trust me, my beloved magpies, I know. I feel the failure, too! I, too, saw that post that went viral about documenting our lives during this time for future historians, and even though I’ve had a three-pages-every-morning routine since my dad died, I still haven’t managed to journal in the morning this month. I know it feels like failure.
My favourite craft book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, and the title reminds me that right now we are steering our craft through the storm.
Now is the time to be kind with our creative selves.
These gentle invitations to the page are craft, too.
This month’s shared writing comes from Agnieszka, and although it was written before the pandemic was determined to be a pandemic, before we went into isolation, before we realized that everything would change… even though it was written before this time, the portal described is exactly what we need right now.
Now, with so many pressures to be productive, to be creative, to be well… it’s a possibility that some of us will experience create productivity, creativity, wellness, in this time. But let it pass. Just breathe. Hold onto the wall. Just be in the now. In the doorway.
A portal opens or closes
A portal opens or closes March 1, 2020
(My gut hurts from worry about too many difficult things, unsolvable problems, total fear of failing at all dreams, time passing by, kids growing away from me, me hanging on too tightly and causing issues for their future but letting go causes issues for their future too. But, there is nothing coming from all this effort! I’ve been too serious, too worried. That’s always the problem – worry shuts down creativity… But does it really??)
I want this mind to open. Let life pass. Let ideas pass. Let hope and newness and possibility pass. Why be so crammed in the dinghy basement of tension, freaking out, pressure, fear, and self-judgement? Why breathe only comparison and self-judgement? Let possibility pass.
Let possibility pass. The door IS open. Yes, it is. Regardless of words not coming out perfectly. Just a chance to practice, to imagine, no matter what, doesn’t matter what. Just let them pass. Breathe. Let whatever IS there just be there.
And stay. Stay quietly calm, present, patient. Curious.
Let it pass. Give it time. The door stays open. Approach slowly. No, it won’t suck me in. It’s okay. Hang on to the wall. Take small steps. Breathe deep and slow.
So. This is a threshold then. Afraid that I’ll get lost. It feels like fear on the inside. If I let go of the worry, what will be there? The story of success is bullsh*t, I know… If I let go of the tensions, what will keep me upright…?
Maybe it’s okay to let the tension go and just be. Just be. Lie down. Rest. And maybe it’s not all up to me.
The tension lessens. The door is still open. Nothing needs to happen. Just let possibility pass. Stay here waiting.
Breathing into the vast space. Take shelter in the sky. Letting the blue feed me. Drinking in the safety of the ground. Letting skin be warmed by the sun. That’s it.
Coming back into being. Not past, not future. Just now. Just being now. In the doorway. When the breath passes through, the stories and possibilities will pass through as well.
Reading it also part of our writing craft!
This month I have some excellent recommendations, along with short study guides.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. By adrienne maree brown. This book! It is the spark that grew into An Unexpected Light and it is a constant source of inspiration. I highly, highly recommend it. It also includes many, many references to speculative fiction works and writers.
Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories for the Transformative Justice Movement. Edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. This collection of stories is a brilliant place to spark your ideas for justice beyond the prison industrial complex and ideas of punishment and exile. If transformative justice is part of the future you want to imagine, this book will offer you a lot to work with.
Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture. By Nora Samaran. This book (which is phenomenal and inspiring) grew out of Samaran’s essay “Nurturance is the Opposite of Rape Culture,” and both the essay and the book invite us to imagine what might become possible if we cultivated communities based on nurturance rather than violence. Where the essay focuses specifically on men and women and rape culture, the book expands this conversation to include all of society. For those of us wanting to write speculative fiction that includes care and nurturance, this will help. (For those of us who want to understand violence, this is also an incredibly valuable book.)
Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief. Edited by Cindy Milstein. I think that learning how to grieve, and how to write grief, and how to grieve together, and how to become comfortable with grief and grieving – these will be critical skills for those of us who want to write through to more possible futures. It’s a beautiful and moving book.
I want to share hopeful short fiction. I think it is so important! But in reality, I have not been able to focus on reading any kind of fiction this month. And I won’t share what I haven’t read, so instead… I love this essay by Aislinn Thomas. “Disability, Creativity, and Care in the Time of COVID-19.“
And I recommend watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and Netflix. (Participants in An Unexpected Light have been invited to participate in weekly watch parties while we’re all in isolation together. Would you like to participate? Let me know!)
Here are the three prompts for our next writing session. (Which, again, will be happening on April 5, from 4-6 pm mountain time, on gotomeeting. If you’d like the link, let me know!)
The last prompt is an invitation, and a hope. I hope that you will contribute to the zine!
An enchanted apple. (Or pomegranate seed. Or fruit from some sort of super fancy tree. Or, like, a really amazing raspberry.)
The soft relentlessness of waves on sand.
Write something for my Succulent Zine! (April 10 is the deadline for the zine.)
I love the comic about how we are basically houseplants with complicated feelings, and it got me thinking about how isolation means we need to be succulents, able to survive and thrive in conditions of scarcity and intensity, and how fear also turns out lives into deserts, and how precarity does the same.
So I thought we could use that metaphor, and make a little zine about what gets us through, and how we get each other through.
What are our skills of survival?
What are our strategies of mutual aid and collective action and care?
How are we keeping ourselves going, and what can we teach each other?
Many of us are in communities with generations-long histories of succulent lives in deserts of ableism, transantagonism, queerphobia, colonialism, white supremacy. Oppressed and targeted communities know the way forward.
If you’d like to write something about how you’re feeling about the news, the health guidelines, the government response, your own experiences of isolation as a result of disability or illness that were not accommodated and how this has given you insider insight into what gets you through
A few weeks ago, before COVID-19 blew up like it has, I had the opportunity to interview Kay about their experience in An Unexpected Light. This is an excerpt from that interview, focused on answering concerns that folks might have about taking the course. The transcript is below.
Although we didn’t talk about COVID-19, I want to write about something that Kay brought up, and why I think that we need to find ways to imagine possible futures right now, despite the chaos and fear and the way that this pandemic is highlighting just how precarious so many of us are.
For example, why didn’t the stock market set aside three months of savings and give up avocado toast before this? Honestly, irresponsible. (I can’t take credit for this joke, but I do love it.)
In our interview, Kay says, “I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to imagine dystopia. And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This [course] is kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise.”
It is so easy to tell the dystopian stories, to picture the dystopian future, to imagine the many ways this is awful and getting worse. And it is awful, and it is getting worse. But those dystopian stories do not help us move forward.
We must find a way to be present with the difficulty of this moment, without losing our ability to act on hope – not the flimsy hope of “everything will be fine!” but the robust hope of action and intention. Rebecca Solnit, in Hope in the Dark, writes, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal… To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
“To hope is to give yourself to the future… to make the present inhabitable.”
We need that hope.
We need to act – to be connected to a sense of possibility, to a sense of ourselves as acting in solidarity with each other when we stay home, to a connection to the earth and our non-human relations. There is hope to be found in this time, and we must reach for it.
You don’t need to take An Unexpected Light in order to find that accessible hope.
You don’t need this course to bring that light into your life.
But I do think that many of us need the light. Whether it comes from a course or it comes from our communities or it comes from forgotten books on our own bookshelves.
I am in the process of converting some of the content in An Unexpected Light into some free lessons that I’ll be sharing on this blog, and into a ‘light’ version of the course that will be less costly and meant for folks who are in quarantine or isolation.
And in the meantime, find the unexpected light.
Find the people on the margins who are writing about possible futures.
Find the voices that are guiding us through to more justice, to more community care, to collective action.
Here are a few places to start:
Kay references Vandana Singh’s essay Leaving Omelas: Science Fiction, Climate Change, and the Future. It’s one of the essays we read in the course, and it’s fantastic. In the time of this pandemic, this essay is even more relevant. Singh writes, “We are taught to unsee the connections, to look at the world in chopped up, disconnected little pieces. Our Omelas constrains our empathic imagination to small personal circles, and to short scales of time and space. Science fiction should enable us to see structures of oppression and control, to make us aware of and question the things we normally take for granted, and to expand our imaginative reach. But more often than not, science fiction simply reflects the world in the image of the overwhelming paradigm.” COVID-19 is forcing us to see the connections, and it has the potential to expand our empathetic imagination. That this essay was written in 2018, about a story written in the 1980s, should tell us that there is guidance to be found in our history. There are maps that we can follow, even in these new and terrifying times.
Consider spending some time with the Destroy series – a set of special issues in Lightspeed, Fantasy, and Nightmare magazines that includes People of Colo(u)r Destroy; Queers Destroy; and Women Destroy. Start with People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy (And within that rich wealth of stories, consider starting with Darcie Little Badger’s pandemic story, Black, Their Regalia.)
Another essay included in An Unexpected Light is Lewis, Arista, Pechawis and Kite’s essay Making Kin with the Machines. We are realizing how critical our machines are – our internet, our ventilators, our computers and phones. This essay brings Hawaiian, Cree, and Lakota perspectives to the idea of machines as kin, as part of our network of non-human relations.
Read Brairpatch Magazine’s article, Mutual Aid for the End of the World. “There is so much latent strength in communities of disability when we rely on each other to survive with each other,” says Jim, an autistic trans man with disabilities who is mixed-race Indigenous. (Jim asked that we use only his first name, for privacy.) “Able-bodied people who have the choice to go it alone without consequence, or who have wealth and influence or access to resources that enable them to make it on their own – it’s a choice for them to do this work [of prepping], not a necessity. We rarely learn hard lessons voluntarily.”
adrienne maree brown (who is, truly, the core of An Unexpected Light even though she doesn’t know it! Her work inspired this course and her writing is central to the course) shared a collection of resources in this blog post.
And last, consider backing Hugh and Nicole’s COVID-19 comic. Their work is fantastic, and this will be an excellent resource.
Keep an eye on the blog, I’ll be sharing content from the course, as well as ideas and resources for moving through this time.
If you want to take the course, get in touch! You can also register at the Thinkific course page. (Note: all of the scholarship spaces have filled, but sliding scale is still available.)
Either way, become phototropic – turning towards the light. And if you can, become bioluminescent, creating light for others to turn toward.
As Kay says, hope is a beautiful thing, and it’s more accessible than people may realize.
TS: So if someone was kind of on the fence about taking An Unexpected Light, what do you think is the most important thing for someone to know about the course if they’re debating whether to take it?
KO: Hmm. Cause like a lot of different factors can go into somebody debating whether or not like, am I a writer? Like identifying as a writer would be a big one. Like, I know that that was kind of a contributing factor and I mean, there’s no pressure on you to do that, and like, if you’re like, “am I a reader? This seems overwhelming.” Same thing goes, like there were certain parts of the course that I like just couldn’t deal with, so, I mean, I just put them off [laughs] indefinitely.
TS: That’s fair.
KO: You can skip over stuff. If accessibility seems like an issue, like financially, I know I worked out a payment plan with Tiffany that worked for me, and my money, my financial situation, so that’s another really awesome option for people and that I know Tiffany’s open to.
KO: Another thing would be like, “am I gonna be graded on this?” The idea of like, learning or doing or making… I came from an art school background. I got a BFA from ACAD [now Alberta University of the Arts] and I really like the approach and style of this course because there’s no grading unless you want feedback for your writing and even then. I was just a reader and did a little bit of feedback for people and then you get the chance to read some really amazing stuff.
TS: Yeah, as the person who got to read everything that was submitted and then only sent it out to the folks who volunteered to be readers, yeah, the writing that has been shared in the course has been fantastic. And if folks are worried that you’re not a writer, I can tell you that some of the most profoundly moving pieces have been written by people who don’t see themselves as writers and who maybe hadn’t even written speculative writing previously. Because we’re thinking about the future and hope and possibility and justice, and I don’t know, the course just, this cohort of the course has been full of brilliance.
TS: And that Kay’s word. Kay came up with that at the Shiny writing group.
KO: [laughs] Everybody was jumping on it and I love it. “Cohort” is just like a really, you know? It’s just like, I love it. Everybody’s in this, you know, bumping shoulders, “Kay, what’s up?”, bumping elbows…
TS: Yeah. Trying to imagine futures together.
TS: Would you recommend people take the course?
KO: Oh my God. I haven’t stopped talking about it since before I was taking the course. I think that pretty much everyone and anyone could really benefit from it, because there is so much of a push, especially in science fiction, to like, imagine dystopia.
And dystopia is not very hopeful, if anything it’s quite damaging in a lot of ways and it’s not inclusive and it’s not intersectional. Like, if there’s a dystopic future, chances are you know who’s gonna go first; everybody living in the margins. This is like, kinda the flip side of that, where the margins are creating a new world and a new path through that muck and mire, around that muck and mire, over it, under it, floating above it. Like, it’s just…hope is such a beautiful thing, and it’s much more accessible than people might even realise.
KO: And like, I never would’ve really realised that Indigenous people had already lived through the end of the world if I hadn’t been a part of this course, so. It’s weird to think about, but that’s just a history that we’re not introduced to; it’s not a perspective that you hear. It’s like, no First Nations really did live through the end of the world; their world, everything they knew. So, that’s a huge takeaway in and of itself, so. Anybody who is talking about decolonising anything should probably know that.
TS: Yeah. And I think it really serves a colonial, capitalist narrative to imagine that the apocalypse we’re facing now is “the” apocalypse, and to ignore the fact that you know, first contact was an apocalypse and the transatlantic slave trade was an apocalypse and is an ongoing apocalypse. And the inaccessibility of care to trans folks is an apocalypse.
TS: And ableism in our culture is an apocalypse, and each of those communities not only is surviving the apocalypse, they are figuring out how to build possible futures.
KO: And everybody it seems like is survivance. That was one of the things.. I’m about it now; it’s not about simply survival, it’s about vibrance, it’s about…there’s levity there, there’s joy to be found there, and there’s future to be found there and so, like, it’s not just about surviving it anymore. Yeah. [Kay gives two thumbs up]
KO: [laughs] Take the course!
TS: Yes! Take the course! [laughs]
KO: I feel like I always get off track so that’s my takeaway: Do it. But only if you want to.
TS: Yeah. Yes.
KO: No peer pressure! [laughs]
TS: Is there anything else that you wanted to say, either about your experience writing or your experience in the course that you think you’d like to have in this interview?
KO: Hmm. Lemme think. Nothing immediately comes to mind other than the fact that I really liked the idea of, I loved that you kind of had Octavia’s Brood at the core of it because that is some stuff. Like, there is some brilliant writing in there. And the essay, is it Leaving Omelas?
TS: The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.
TS: I think? I don’t know, actually.
KO: Yeah, I wasn’t sure either, [laughs] but I say it both ways just to…
TS: But, you’re talking about the essay by Vandana Singh?
KO: That was, like, one of the most.. I think that was a point of clarity when I read that, it kind of put everything in focus for me. And that was when I really stopped to think about what I was writing. So, I don’t know if it’ll ring true for other participants like that, but, it really, it’s an incredible essay. And even just the dynamism in it, and talking about like, what is it? Newtonian physics?
KO: And like, that being a thing. It’s just so good, everything about it. It’s an excellent essay.
TS: It’s an excellent essay.
KO: And, what was the quote that you say, like “writing science fiction is like, everything…”
TS:“All organising is science fiction” which is a quote by adrienne marie brown.
KO: And that was something that I’d also like to leave with anybody that’s considering this course and not sure. It’s like, getting together to, online, to talk about this, emailing Tiffany your work, considering this course, like, all of it is creating possible futures and maybe bringing something into the world, so. [sings]: Science fiction! [laughs]. It’s not all just like ancient sexist Star Trek! [laughs]
TS: It’s true. It’s so much more than that. Awesome. Thank you so much.