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Nostalgia and Familiarity

Leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I rewatched both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to try to get a sense for the trilogy as a whole. I also brushed up a bit on the critical and fan reactions, curious how Lucasfilm and Disney have responded to the feedback and continued to shape the narrative of the Star Wars film canon.

As many, many other people have already commented, I was interested in how making new Star Wars films is inevitably an exercise in controlled nostalgia. Many of us grew up watching the original films, and for people like me who have been fantasy/science fiction geeks since childhood, Star Wars influenced our games and stories and home videos and family cultures. We had a number of LEGO sets from the prequels trilogy, and my brothers and I spent countless hours retelling Star Wars stories and making up our own.

Fan responses to the new Disney Star Wars seem to divide along the twin fault lines of “too much like the originals” and “too different from the originals.” Force Awakens was criticized, rightly or wrongly, for being too derivative of A New Hope: a lonely orphan on a desert planet learns he/she has force powers, while a desperate Rebel agent secures crucial information (stored in a robot) for overthrowing the bad guys, and the final showdown is blowing up a big space station with the awful power to destroy other planets. Last Jedi on the other hand, was criticized, rightly or wrongly, for forging too much of its own path: Luke’s character arc seemed to reverse foundational cornerstones of the Jedi/Sith legend, the new developments in force powers went far beyond previous films, and the exploration of issues like intergalactic weapons dealing and slave trading was more serious than one had come to expect from the space opera series.

To be fair, nostalgia and familiarity were also a primary rubric I used for evaluating how much I enjoyed the new Star Wars. For me, Force Awakens was actually the perfect amount of nostalgia, grounding viewers firmly in the Star Wars tradition with X-wing fighters and light sabers but making very real changes to the universe: storm troopers are no longer faceless automatons, for instance, and the visible diversity among the main cast is a clear update from the ’70s and ’80s. On the other hand, Last Jedi didn’t feel particularly like a Star Wars film to me, with its extremely time-focused structure and its endless side plots, although I appreciated its ambition and attempt to open deeper questions. Rise of Skywalker, then, felt like a capitulation to nostalgia, literally resurrecting Emperor Palpatine and retreading the halls of the Death Star, delivering storytelling that is safe and satisfying but not challenging.

This balancing act seems to be present in all speculative fiction, or at least I find myself trying to walk it in my novels, whether they are high fantasy, portal fantasy, or alternate history. When describing worlds and magic that don’t exist, I want it to feel grounded and real enough for readers to enter into the illusion, but I also want it to be different enough to take readers beyond themselves and the stories they tell themselves about life. Too similar to what readers already know, and the story doesn’t feel like magic and discovery. Too different, and readers don’t know how to engage with or relate to the story. Somewhere in the middle, and readers will feel the comfort of familiarity but also the pull of the unknown at the same time.

Silent Retreat

I was at a silent retreat at the Capuchin Retreat center in Macomb County, Michigan, this weekend. I had a lovely time reading books, drinking tea, meditating, wandering around their one hundred acres in the rain and snow, listening to a few sessions from the resident spiritual directors and friars, celebrating services in chapel, and sleeping as much as possible.

This was my second silent retreat at a Catholic center, and the silence is supposed to be maintained throughout the weekend, even at meals. The silence is a discipline, to encourage the retreatants to slow down and listen, but it often feels uncomfortable and even impolite, for instance if you’re sitting at a table with a few other men and not making eye contact or saying a word. 

At the first silent retreat I went to, they piped in recorded messages on the teachings of Pope Francis during meals, but at this retreat we listened to music in the dining hall. Without as much to occupy my mind, I found myself paying more attention to the food. I thought a lot more about the sweet, acidic taste of pineapple, or the crispy, golden outside of hashbrowns, or how I actually like oatmeal when it isn’t too sweetened. I also found myself telling stories about the food, already imagining conversations where I was telling other people about the experience of eating in silence and how it changed the meal for me.

I am a storyteller, if not by nature, then certainly by training. And without anyone to talk to during the weekend, I found myself spinning narratives about pretty much everything. How would I digest this conference session and explain it to someone who wasn’t at the retreat? If I were describing this walk through the woods in an email or, say, a blog post, what details would I pick out? I had my first professional massage with a massage therapist during the retreat, and processing the new-to-me experience, I thought a lot about the sensations. What are the words for that feeling of someone rubbing circles in the palm of your hand? What’s happening to your bones and muscles when someone pulls back on your foot and toes?

I’ve stored up thoughts, sensations, emotions, and descriptions for as long as I can remember. I suppose there’s something acquisitive about it. For a writer, it’s imperative that I am able to call to mind how different experiences, conversations, or emotions feel or affect people. And in the endless cases where I’m describing something I’ve never personally experienced before, I need to talk to people or read books by people who have had that experience so I can better imagine it myself and express it on paper.

The strange thing about this writerly impulse—I realized in the middle of my massage—is that it also distances me from my own experience. In one way, I’m not staying with the experience because I’m trying to step back enough to get some perspective on it. Paradoxically, I need that perspective so I can describe to someone else what it really feels like in the moment.

In some way that I still can’t wrap my head around, storytelling seems to pull me closer to experiences and also provides me greater space from them. And these two movements seem to happen at the same time.

Inching Along

Today began the first full workweek of 2020. It’s only six days into the new year. Last week was split perfectly in half by New Year’s Day, which here in West Michigan was surprisingly sunny and warm, and I got out to the park to go cross country skiing in the afternoon just as the sun was starting to slant, long and golden, through the pine trees.

I’ve only written here and there, in fits and starts, since the turn of the year. Fifteen minutes on break at work. An hour over the weekend when no one was looking. The holidays stretched long in my family, starting days before Christmas and just finishing this weekend, because one sibling was sick over New Year’s and so they came later instead.

Having just written up my writing goals for 2020, I feel itchy. I want to get back into my daily word count. I want to build some momentum. I want to stop feeling like my characters are old friends I’ve lost track of, like I don’t remember what they’re into anymore and don’t remember how to talk to them. When I do make time to write, I read and reread my sentences, wondering if they sound right, feeling vaguely that something is wrong, self-conscious that I’m not working more quickly.

I’ve been here before. Many, many times. I’ve gotten bored with projects, or too busy with work or school, or been really sick, or gone on vacation without my laptop. Whether for a few days or for whole months at a time, I’ve taken breaks from my writing before and managed to get back into it with time.

I used to get a lot more scared when I lost my writing momentum. I’d worry I’d lost it for good, or that working on my manuscript would always feel this slow and painful.

Over the years, I’ve mostly given up that fear. I can’t seem to actually stop writing, and I’ve learned from experience—over years and years—that the momentum does come back eventually, even if the process is long and slow and often requires patience. There are ebbs and flows with writing, as with pretty much everything else, and instead of worrying about my natural writing rhythms, I can spend that time much better by just sitting down and writing.

So I’m trying to be generous with myself with what I am getting done. I did edit a few paragraphs today. Maybe they aren’t amazing, but they’re done, and I’m moving forward. I am refamiliarizing myself with the characters and plot of my novel. I am getting back into a more normal routine after the holidays even if Monday doesn’t always feel great. And even if I don’t get my momentum back right this minute because other things come up, I know myself well enough to know I will keep writing anyway.

I’ve been writing stories for over twenty years, so I doubt the 2019–2020 holiday season is going to be the thing that stops me cold in my tracks.

2019 Goals; 2020 Goals

It’s about that time when I look back at my writing goals for the past year and set my writing goals for the new year.

As always, I lose track of my yearly goals somewhere in the middle of the year, but I still think it’s a useful exercise to remember where I wanted to go and where I actually ended up.

For 2019, I wanted to:

  • Finish a first draft of my pirate novel
  • Edit my portal fantasy novel
  • Send my zombie novel to 100 agents, and if I got no bites, send it to indie houses that accept unsolicited manuscripts
  • Edit my pirate novel
  • Blog weekly
  • Continue writing sonnets

Overall, I’m pretty happy with how much of this I got done. I did indeed finish the first draft of my pirate novel, and while I did not edit the whole manuscript, I’m about half way through. The first half was the hard half (I’m telling myself), since we significantly changed the setup of the whole novel, and hopefully the further I get, the less I will have to edit in terms of plot and character dynamics.

I also managed to edit my portal fantasy novel, and I’ve even gotten some really helpful feedback from beta readers. There will be more editing to do than I hoped in the third draft, but I feel poised to finish the book strongly and get it all ready for agents this coming year.

I sent my zombie novel to well over 100 agents, and in fact several agents are still looking at it. Since it’s still under consideration, I haven’t started sending the manuscript to smaller indie houses. But that’s a can I’m willing to kick down the road for now.

I missed a few weeks of my blog here and there this year, but I’m happy that I have been mostly consistent, and that I’ve rarely felt like I didn’t have something writing or editing–related to write about. The blog continues to be a useful place for me to think out loud about my current writing challenges and questions.

I didn’t write many sonnets this year, but happily I placed two with journals, SUFI and God & Nature. These were my first creative publications, and both helped me feel more confident about my writing and future work.

Most of my 2020 writing goals continue directly from my work in 2019:

  • Finish the second draft of Pirates and get beta feedback
  • Finish the third draft of the portal fantasy novel and send it to agents
  • Follow up with agents interested in my zombie novel; if no dice, send to indie publishers
  • Blog weekly
  • Write poetry as able
  • Send poetry and short fiction to magazines for publication
  • Consider re-editing the memoir I wrote with my brother when we were both in graduate school

I’m sure I won’t get to all of it; as always, there’s more writing to be done than I can actually do. But I’m excited about the projects I’m planning to tackle this year.

Christmas Break

I already have family in town for the holidays, and I’ve barely written a lick of my novel for days.

But there have also already been thought-provoking conversations about Eastern Orthodoxy and neurotheology, we’ve started my annual read-aloud of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I’ve been enjoying lots of different kinds of stories from Handel’s Messiah to The Nutcracker to (hopefully!) Star Wars.

I’m looking forward to getting back into writing in 2020, with lots of fresh ideas and questions percolating in my mind.

Telegraph Avenue

I first read Michael Chabon in a literary criticism class where we were assigned The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and I wrote a feminist critique of the text for my final assignment that’s probably still on my hard drive somewhere. I loved Yiddish Policemen’s Union, read it several times, recommended it to everyone, and started making changes to my own writing, such as experimenting with present tense and more intentionally working on metaphor. I’ve read several other Chabon books since then, including Gentlemen of the Road and Manhood for Amateurs. I remember when Telegraph Avenue came out back in 2012 and meant to read it then. I’m pretty sure I even borrowed it from the library and read the first pages at some point.

I buy books now, instead of taking them out from the library, because it takes me a while to finish anything these days. (See: I read all day at work every day, so sadly sitting down with a book in the evening isn’t always my first choice.) Sometime in the summer when I was at the bookstore looking for new books, I picked up Telegraph Avenue, and a few weeks ago I finished it.

Telegraph Avenue is a big book, but from how long it took me to read the thing, you can probably guess that I didn’t love it. Which surprised me. In previous Chabon books I’ve read, I felt like he hit that balance of quirky and serious and funny all at once. The characters were complex and interesting and surprising, and the plots often left me guessing. The writing was intricate and beautiful, self-aware and in-your-face “literary” but still an essential part of the narrative.

Telegraph Avenue boasts a large cast of characters, so simply in terms of how much time he could spend developing each character, he had to spread himself thinner. Unfortunately, instead of the characterization coming across as deft and economical, too many of the characters felt like caricatures to me. This was perhaps more problematic or pronounced because half the cast is black, so the ways Chabon contrasted the white and black characters seemed stereotypical and lazy: the main white couple is uptight and a little emotionally frozen, with the wife taking emotional responsibility for her volatile husband and teenage son; the black male lead has daddy issues because of his absent father and is currently cheating on his wife, who is an angry black woman who is also pregnant, which makes her doubly crazy, but she has a dream of being a high-power OB-GYN who serves struggling black mothers. The central conflict of the book pits a nostalgic hipster record store against faceless black capitalism, and while neither wins outright, the narrative sympathies are strongly in favor of nostalgia.

The writing also felt self-indulgent and undisciplined, with Chabon’s many metaphors and obscure Star Trek and Tarantino references weighing down the story for me rather than deepening and strengthening it. This may just be my professional bias now that I’m an editor, and I spend some of my days fighting with authors, asking them to cut words and put their readers above their own literary genius. I would be curious to go back to Yiddish Policemen’s Union and see if it feels as overwritten to me.

All that said, I never felt bored reading Telegraph Avenue, and I did want to know what happened to the characters. It just felt slow and lackluster, and that surprised me, because historically I’ve really liked Chabon’s books and learned a lot from his characterization and style.

Discouragement

I was at a birthday party for one of my colleagues this weekend, and when editors get together, even not at work, we end up talking about books.

I asked one friend how her novel is coming along, and she gave me a look.

“I’m forty thousand words in,” she said, “and I’ve hated it for the last twenty thousand. Actually, I’ve hated it from the start.”

I’m confident it’s a solid first draft. I’ve read some of her previous work, which is excellent. She’s done tons of research. She recently signed with a great agent, and good publishers are considering her completed manuscript.

And yet I’m also confident that “hate it” is exactly how the drafting process feels for her right now, because I’ve been there too.

I’m kind of there right now, actually. At this point I’m accustomed to hating every manuscript, draft, and edit I’ve ever written at about the one-hundred-page mark; that milestone is just cursed for some reason. But at any other stage of the writing process, feeling discouraged or frustrated with the manuscript isn’t terribly surprising either. I recently crossed two hundred pages in my current edit, and instead of feeling accomplished or texting writer friends excitedly, I just felt . . . unaffected.

My current manuscript is a big book, so two hundred pages isn’t even halfway. Ever overly optimistic about my writing goals, I’d hoped to be done with this edit by the end of the year. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if I’m done by summer. And all the time I’m working on this manuscript, I’m not editing my portal fantasy manuscript, which I’d love to start sending to agents in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, I could offer myself the same encouragement that was ready to hand for my friend. For where my colonial fantasy manuscript is, as a second draft in progress, it’s very solid. In the meantime, I have a completed manuscript under consideration with several agencies I would be thrilled to sign with. I have another manuscript I’m itching to get back to because I happen to like it a lot and think it has promise.

And yet I feel discouraged about my writing these days. Like every other writer waiting for their breakout, my friend and I traded opinions about books we’d read recently that we weren’t impressed with, with the inevitable question, Why are these books getting picked up and published when other solid manuscripts aren’t getting a look? And of course the question behind the question is, Should I really be spending all this time writing when there’s no guarantee that my books will be published and I’ll have a chance to share my stories with more people than just my friends?

At the same time, though, it was reassuring to talk to my friend about our novels. It was good to remember that my discouragement isn’t unique, that many others have trouble seeing their own writing objectively and working at it even when it isn’t fun or exciting anymore.

Thanksgiving

I haven’t written a word in my novel manuscript since Wednesday. Usually I would find this disheartening, but I’ve learned through trial and error that I actually get less frustrated if I don’t expect to write anything over holidays. I’m also better able to focus on friends and family if I don’t have a daily word count gnawing at the back of my mind. I still don’t feel entirely myself when I haven’t done any writing in four days, but I know it’s a temporary situation and I will get back to my novel and its characters in good time.

In the meantime, with no particular thoughts about my creative or editorial processes, it seems appropriate to use this space to talk about some of the aspects of writing I’m thankful for:

  • I’m thankful that writing can open up imaginary worlds. I’ve read a lot of children’s books over the past four days, and though I may prefer David Wiesner’s Tuesday or Alexander and the Dragon to the Berenstain Bears, I’m glad all of them lead young readers into spaces of imagination. I think it’s important for readers of all ages to imagine beyond what they’ve been told are the limits of possibility or realism.
  • I’m thankful that writing can create communities. Again, the simplest example I’m thinking about is reading books to children, but reading takes place in other groups too. I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight every Christmas, and often different family members join me and read aloud. In broader ways, whole fandoms and communities grow up around books like A Song of Ice and Fire and Harry Potter. The stories, characters, magical objects, and dilemmas become touchstones that we use in everyday conversation to help make sense of our own lives (Sorting Hat quizzes, anyone?).
  • I’m thankful that writing can transcend time, place, and culture. Through books I can explore Victorian England or medieval Mesoamerica or ancient China. I can engage with how different people have lived and thought throughout thousands of years of human history—or how different people around the globe see the world. Writing is one of our most profound tools for communicating and empathizing with others.

There are plenty of other reasons I’m thankful for writing and creativity in general, but these three points are certainly high up on the list for me.

Jojo Rabbit

Back in 2016 I stumbled on Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Rotten Tomatoes. It was highly rated, it was foreign, it was a buddy comedy—it all sounded right to me. And it was. In fact, I became evangelical about the film. I started recommending it to people and showing it to anyone I could. It’s easily one of my favorite movies.

So I was excited and curious when I heard that Taika Waititi was making Jojo Rabbit, a historical satire about a ten-year-old German boy who is a member of the Hitler Youth and imagines that Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi, who is partly Jewish) is his best friend.

I went to see Jojo Rabbit earlier this week, and unsurprisingly it’s a trip. Especially in the opening sequence when the boy, Johannes, goes to a Hitler Youth camp, the satire comes so fast and thick that I was laughing many times even when I was cringing and wondering if I shouldn’t be laughing. (Is it actually funny that a camp leader is teaching all of the young girls that their sole purpose in Nazi Germany is to make beautiful blond-haired children? Even if the acting and framing make it abundantly clear that the filmmakers think this is absurd?)

As in Wilderpeople, the humor is zany, awkward, and occasionally culturally loaded, so the comedy certainly didn’t disappoint. But also like Wilderpeople, Jojo Rabbit balances its hilarity with real danger, grief, and character growth. Waititi isn’t afraid to gives his characters traumas to overcome (it goes without saying that the traumas of World War II were legion), but it’s the careful chemistry of humor, loss, and hope that I find so appealing about Waititi’s work. In many ways it reminds me of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which at their best put crazy episodes of love potions gone wrong side by side with scenes of emotional turmoil or even the death of beloved characters.

I continue to be impressed with the child actors in Waititi’s films, and the dynamics between the child and adult actors. Perhaps because there are so many children in my family life, this somehow makes Waititi’s work more “realistic” to me. In a similar vein, I enjoyed seeing Scarlett Johansson playing a normal human being, not a sexy-voiced robot or a leather-clad superspy. Her role is still larger than life in many ways, but her character is hopeful and playful and sad all at once—complicated in a good way.

Of course I trawled the Wikipedia page after seeing Jojo Rabbit, and I do have to agree with the criticism that the film is in places too light. There are too many nice Nazis. Their living conditions, clothes, and food are too nice. I was reminded of a book I read when researching my own Wold War II novel, Frederic Tubach’s German Voices: Memories of Life During Hitler’s Third Reich, which detailed German civilian life during the war. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit doesn’t reflect the realities of World War II, and with such a devastating and traumatic world event, erring on the side of flippancy can be problematic. At heart, though, I think Waititi’s project is one of hope and empathy, and there’s plenty I can learn from his work in how to show the good and the bad, the funny and the serious, together in one place.

Not My Own Voice

While sending out my alternate history World War II novel, I’ve noticed that a lot of speculative agents are looking for #ownvoice stories. This has given me some pause, as the three point-of-view characters in No More Hiding are a Slovakian Jewish woman, a gay German man, and a teenage German socialist. I’m not Jewish or gay or German, but I figured I could mostly get away with it. I’ve read books on Judaism and kabbalah and my own religious tradition shares a lot of sociocultural background with Jewish thought, and I’ve taken graduate seminars on queer theory and have a close sibling who is gay. One of the first agents who asked to see more of my manuscript was a Jewish agent, so I figured my depiction of Anya couldn’t be horribly off base.

With my current pirate fantasy project, however, I’m starting to feel like maybe I’ve stepped too far behind my own experience. It’s basically set during the age of sail, and the main character is half Spanish and half Native American. In the section I’m now editing, she’s visiting with her mother’s tribe, so the cross-cultural conversations and relationships are getting lots of close airtime. And by the end of the book, there are some seriously complex social and political situations between the colonial and native characters.

Obviously, one tries to be sensitive. Although we’ve opted not to align the mother’s tribe with any specific people group in the real world, we’ve done the research to try to make the characters and town feel “authentic” to their time and place. We’ve asked the questions: What kind of houses would they live in? What would they eat? What’s the social structure like? How would they actually think? That is, if it’s even possible to get outside of my own conceptions about what people hundreds of years ago from a foreign culture would think and feel?

There’s also the question—as there always is in fantasy and science fiction—of whether to try to imagine an idealized version of reality, or whether that’s sugarcoating reality. For example, we’ve consciously decided to make our fantasy world less patriarchal than our world was during the age of sail, so it’s not uncommon for women to inherit property or lead armies or rule kingdoms. That’s an area where we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine optimistically. On the other hand, we’ve chosen to maintain a high level of racism in the world, which means characters that I otherwise like and want to succeed are often making biased misjudgments and ugly choices.

At the end of the day, perhaps it’s a good thing that I’m uncomfortable creating thoughts and feelings and dialogue for my native characters. Our world, after all, has a long and terrible history of Europeans or people of European descent making up false and hateful stories about Native Americans. And maybe I’m simply not in a place where I should be attempting to write such characters at all. In my head, part of the essential power of fiction is that it allows all of us—the writers and the readers—to imagine what it would be to live other lives and have other experiences, and through the magic of story to become more empathetic people. But perhaps whether stories truly led to more understanding and empathy depends on who’s writing the story and what the story is.