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.
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.
First, AK Press is having a $1.99 sale on all of their published ebooks. I love AK Press, which is a worker-owned anarchist publishing house. Although I have enjoyed almost every book I’ve read from them, here are my top recommendations from their sale, and why I think they would be useful for this group:
- 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.)
- Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times. By Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery. This was one of the single most formative books in my own life as a social justice advocate, and it offers incredible wisdom for imagining (and writing) more just and more joyful futures.
- 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 throughFrom the call for submissions here.
Alright, my magpies.
We’ll find our way. We’ll write our way out.
(On which note, have you listened to the Hamilton soundtrack recently? Do you need some historical hiphop in your life right now?)
Until next Sunday.