I Am a Spy in the House of Me.

I am a spy in the house of me. I report back from the front lines of the battle that is me…I am somewhat nonplussed by the event that is my life.

Carrie Fisher, 2001

IMG_20170510_220142069.jpgWhen Carrie Fisher died, the background of my phone was Princess Leia with Nicholas Cage’s face superimposed over hers. I remember sitting alone in my dark little cubicle in the corner of the printing company that I worked for and staring at Nicholas Cage’s face and being angry and sad and trying very hard not to cry.

I get teary every time someone posts about her, or a new promo for Last Jedi comes out, or even if I just think about her too hard. Despite how funny it was, I was choked up while reading most of Wishful Drinking.

A lot of girls grew up looking to Leia as the badass girl in the boy’s club. She was amazing with her cinnamon bun hair and blaster and sass.

I don’t think that’s true for me though.

Recently I’ve been looking back at things from when I was a kid and realizing thier major influence on me. How my passionate love for writing Naruto fanfic as a teen is probably the reason I’m still a writer. How anime and cartoons set my suspension of disbelief high in a way that was perfect practice for writing magical realism. There are so many things that I’ve looked back on recently and gone “Wow. You changed me. Thank you for existing.” I wish Princess Leia was one of those things for me, but she wasn’t.

I do not remember a time in my life where I didn’t know about Star Wars. I don’t remember watching it for the first time. It’s just something that has always been there for me. Pre-prequels, I wanted to be Luke, not Leia. I was a hardcore tomboy and I wanted to use the force so bad. Leia was a girl, worse, a princess, and she couldn’t move things with her mind.

By the time the prequels came out and I was looking for a lady role model, I loved Amidala/Padme. She was a queen. She had cool outfits.

So why the hell am I so upset about Carrie Fisher? It’s not that she’s someone that is deeply relatable to me. I didn’t grow up a child of Hollywood stars, or hop in and out of rehab. I’m depressed, but not bipolar. People don’t look at me and think “SPACE PRINCESS.”

But just before Force Awakens came out, she did this interview, and I fell in love:

What a beautiful, goofy lady.

THEN, to take up some more room in my heart, she opened an advice column at the Guardian (where she was only able to respond twice before she passed away), where she said this small line that tugged on my heartstrings and has stayed with me:

Hilariously – after all the drug addiction and celebration marriage and mental illness and divorce and shock treatment and heartbreak and motherhood and childhood and neighborhood and hood in general – I’ve turned out to be (at close to 70) a kind of happy person (go figure!).

She was happy. And I believe she was happy. She was a woman, fighting her mental illness and addictions, and she was recovering from that every day, because people don’t realize that when you have a mental illness (and I assume it is similar for addiction) you are recovering from that every. fucking. day. And she was still happy. That’s why I love her. That’s why I’m so deeply sad that she is gone.

Carrie Fisher didn’t just write or talk about the hard parts of being mentally ill, she was a pillar of hope. She wasn’t an echo-chamber of awareness, she was surviving. And at least some of that time, she was happy.

Rest in love and peace, Carrie.

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Fantastical Zoology

IMG_20170822_202905801Sometime in elementary school I was given a copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is one of the textbooks used by the students at Hogwarts. I was so pissed when I opened the book and saw that the publisher/J.K. Rowling decided the book would be better with “Harry’s” and “Ron’s” notes scribbled in the margins. I wasn’t here for their slacker tendencies. Where was Hermione’s copy? Could I have that one? No. The super cool descriptions of the magical beasts of Harry Potter were almost secondary to the fake games of tic-tac-toe and Ron’s snarky notes about Aragog. As crappy as it was, I read the whole thing. It was my first bestiary.

In middle school, I eventually moved on to Arthur Spiderwick’s Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, a beautiful bestiary written as a companion to Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi’s Spiderwick Chronicles. At the time, my love of magical creatures was about imagining a fantastic world running just alongside ours, and if only I could stand with one foot in the water and one on land at twilight, I would be able to see it. It was something that I deeply wished to be real.

Once you reach adulthood the whole “magic is real” thing gets harder to believe, but I still find myself needing to shove these beasts into our world via fiction. Many of them have allegorical roots (deeply Christian allegory, but still) so they lend themselves nicely to metaphor. I’ve snatched up every bestiary that I have come across: Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, T.H. White’s The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century, and whatever chunks of Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods I can scrounge up on the internet. I love imagining a world where the manticore is as real as a sheep. I also love the weird and stupid things people wrote legends about and claimed they saw. The Ax-Handle Hound that has an ax for a face, the Haggis that has uneven legs so they can climb mountains easier.

I still wish I’ll run into a friendly fey creature one of these days. Until then, I’ll keep making my little zoo on my own.

This is part 5/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre 

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets 

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology

Part 6: I am not Picasso

Taking Stones from My Pockets

Virginia WoolfOne final nugget of wisdom that the unnamed magical realist gave to his audience of young writers was that “Writing is the only true form of therapy.” He said you could pay someone to take you into your subconscious and show you your issues, but they’ll slap a diagnosis on it, which will only give you distance. Writing keeps you all up-close and personal with your problems. No distance. Just you and your subconscious. I have another word for that: wallowing.

One of the things I seemed to absorb from a very young age was that artists are tragic heroes in their own stories. From Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, to Heath Ledger and Robin Williams, I used to think that to be an artist meant you had to constantly suffer, which was good, because I felt like I had that suffering part down. It was bad because that meant I had to keep suffering if I wanted to make anything worthwhile.

It wasn’t until I studied Virginia Woolf in undergrad that I finally started to separate the artist from her mental illness. I had just started going to real therapy with a real therapist and taking real pills to account for the real chemical imbalance in my brain.

As I learned about her and read Mrs. Dalloway, I didn’t see a beautiful, artistic martyr anymore. I saw a woman who was very sick, like me, and her sickness killed her. I remember thinking she was brilliant, and she could have shared so much more of that brilliance with us had she not killed herself. But I noticed it is this sort of analysis that perpetuates this stupid idea that people are art factories, and sometimes there are casualties. Mourn Virginia, not the work that could have been.

I like to imagine Virginia at home with the resources I have: taking pills in the morning, going to therapy. She isn’t happy-cheery all the time, but she is alive, and she doesn’t want to die, and she isn’t fundamentally unhappy. She writes because it makes her feel good, because it makes her happy. I find this imagining more heartbreaking than the piles of volumes that she could have written in misery.

Writing can be deeply therapeutic, but it is not the best, or even only therapy at an artist’s disposal these days. Art does not come from suffering. Artists deserve to be happy. I deserve to be happy.

I write because it is healing, and because it makes me happy. If it didn’t do those two things for me, it would probably kill me, and that’s not worth it.

This is part 4/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre 

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets 

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology 

Part 6: I am not Picasso

The Irrational Fear of Genre

Drawing_of_a_CockatriceMy undergraduate education was excellent, and I was incredibly lucky that my writing program never discouraged me from writing what I wanted to write. There were some perks of a writing program that had an unofficial focus in literary fiction: my education focused a lot on rhythm, sentence structure, and character development, and less on the total weirdness and worldbuilding that I threw at my peers and professors every week. They had no idea what to do with that stuff. There were two other fantasy writers in the department during my time there, and there were none in my graduating class.

In my last writing class of undergrad, my professor told me two things that I have taken forward with me:

The first is that I write “magical realism,” which was a term that I had never heard before, but once it was described to me, I could recognize it in my work and others’ almost instantly. Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters collection had been a major influence on me when I read it in high school. Some of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories fall into this category. Not to mention I had just finished Murakami’s 1Q84 which is nothing if not magical and realistic. Magical realism is subtle, it’s ethereal, it’s small-scale and it’s unexplained. Most of all, it’s magical.

Which brings me to the second thing that my professor told me: “You really transcend the genre.”

This one broke my brain a little. By this point I was reading Caitlin R. Kiernan, more Kelly Link, piles of Neil Gaiman, and was regularly listening to the Escape Artist podcasts. I was swimming in genre, and I didn’t think I transcended any of that. I still don’t.

People think fantasy and they see hardcore sword-and-sorcery wizards in middle earth having raunchy Game of Thrones sexy times or something. Every time I explain what I write, I get “Oh, like Harry Potter,” or “What did you think of last week’s Game of Thrones,” or my favorite, “I don’t read that. I read real fiction.” They assume there’s nothing more to the genre than “Harry Potter” or “not Harry Potter.” If your only exposure to the genre is the little bits that make it into the popular culture, then of course you think magical realism “transcends the genre.” It’s closer to literary fiction than your sword-and-sorcery understanding. But the blending of fantasy and literary fiction doesn’t invalidate the fiction that is straight-up fantasy. Never underestimate escapism. Escapism saves lives.

None of these distinctions—high fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism, sword-and-sorcery, fairy tale—are inherently bad or good. Whether one is better than the other is completely subjective. They are all fantasy though, and I will argue that until I die.

After my graduation, my undergraduate university hosted a reading for a writer whose magical realism I was familiar with. He’s not famous for his magical realism; he’s famous for his “serious literature.” Still, I was excited to hear what he had to say and to see him read his own work. After the reading, he stuck around for a Q&A.

I don’t remember the questions that were asked, but I do remember his little nuggets of “wisdom.” He told us to write from the heart, because the heart is where truth comes from. He said we could write from ideas, and a lot of other writers have and been published and have careers, but they’re not…

And as he trailed off, he let out a small laugh and the rest of the room giggled with him. I assume he was going towards “they’re not artists” or something of that nature. No matter how that sentence ended, it was clearly placing “emotional” writing over “fun” writing.

Genre writing is often idea writing; it’s “what if” writing. What if a guy got stranded on Mars? What if a kid woke up one morning and found out that he was a wizard? What if there’s another world just beyond that wardrobe? For me, in fantasy, the “what if?” comes first, and the heart comes later. For some people there’s just the fun of a “what if?” but even then, you know they care enough to answer the question. So what if the answer isn’t some grand musing on the human condition?

After all his wisdom was dispensed, the writer did a signing.

I may have imagined this next part. I am a fiction writer after all.

While I was standing in line, I heard him talking to someone else about how this new book was his favorite to write. This was the only one that he actually knew was good. I bought his book, but not the new one, the old, magical realism collection. When I put it in front of him I saw the light leave his eyes, like I’d just put a dead rat in front of him. Like I’d yanked a skeleton out of his closet and started waving it in his face.

Magical realism is fantasy. If you write magical realism, that means you write weird, surreal fantasy. There is nothing wrong with that, friend.

This is part 3/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre 

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology

Part 6: I am not Picasso

Finding the Cabin in the Woods

IMG_20170501_204730251I started my romance with horror with slasher flicks, which ended up being more cathartic than scary. I had some sick revenge fantasies as a teenager. Thankfully I am not a teenager anymore, and I have developed this weird thing called empathy.

I still love horror movies. I also fall for literally every jump scare. All of them. There could be a flashing neon sign pointing to the corner where the monster will jump out and I will still flail and utter a long string of curse words. It’s something I can count on in these kinds of movies; it’s simple and spooky, and fun, and funny. I like having that moment of naiveté in a movie where I can predict almost anything because the formula is so standardized. Horror for me is letting go, letting something happen. Even when I find horror movies that legitimately terrify me (I’m looking at you, Skype vignette from VHS), they’re fun. Horror is fun.

Short fiction is what keeps my love for horror alive. Fiction doesn’t do jump scares well and is often aiming to disturb you instead of make you scream. Once I got hooked on the webzine Pseudopod and started building up my library of horror anthologies, I couldn’t stop. Horror stories allow me to face my fears in a way that is safe and weirdly relaxing. I can feel that creepy, ominous darkness and then hop back into the real world over the course of an hour or so. I like being disturbed, unsettled, and uncomfortable outside of real life, where I don’t have much control over when I feel these things.

The horror stories started spilling out of my brain after a while. I’m learning how to freak myself out, and in turn get control over those ominous, depressive feelings. Somehow, the horror stories in this collection still ended up being the stories that were fun to write, even if I kill all the children, which is something I never thought I’d write about, but I do three times in this thesis alone. File that under “unexpected things I learned at Stonecoast.”

This is part 2/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets 

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology 

Part 6: I am not Picasso

Tomato Smoothies

IMG_20170603_134359500During my second semester at Stonecoast, I was hospitalized for my depression. On one of the last days before I was discharged, during check-in, another patient said that one of his goals for the night before was to mindfully eat a salad. The grad student mediating check-in asked him a bunch of questions about his salad. How did that feel? What kind of salad? Was it good? Finally, he asked about the cherry tomato that the patient had mentioned, and I swear this is my most vivid memory from my ten days in the program: The patient said the tomato was “transcendent.”

Going through hospitalization for your mental health is a surreal, weird experience. For me it was helpful (still not dead), but it was still so strange. Adding dragons to it seemed like a natural choice. My brain functions much better on metaphor, and what better metaphor for your brain trying to kill you than a giant dragon?

Amanda Palmer talks about how when we make art, we’re like the ingredients in a smoothie. You’ve got your real-world experiences and then the fantasy and the abstract. Shove it all in the blender, turn it on, and BAM. Art. Sometimes you get a super-finely blended smoothie, where everything is homogenous and you can’t really tell what went into it. Sometimes you’ve got something that’s less blended, and you can still see all the bits of you that you threw in there. It all depends on what setting your blender is on. I suppose my blender’s set pretty low, usually. “The Dragon,” which is the first story in my thesis, is almost autobiographical.

I started making up stories as a kid because I needed to get away from my problems. I can remember the earliest signs of depression starting to dig its roots into my brain around third grade. I had a lot of things that I felt like I needed to run away from, and as I got older that list seemed to get longer and longer. The setting on the blender got lower and lower, and writing became less about running away from things and more about staring them right in the face and telling them to back the fuck off.

Obviously, not all of my stories have the blender on a low setting. My darker stories, my horror stories have the blender up pretty high. “The Manticore” was also written during my time at the hospital, and was directly influenced by the way other people spoke about their parents and children. “The Manticore” isn’t based on any one person’s experience, let alone mine. These higher-blender stories tend to be bleaker as they tend to function as messed-up cautionary tales. Be careful what you wish for. Nobody’s safe with that weirdo in the bar. Tear down that stupid dam in Estabrook Park.

This is part 1/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read the other parts as they are posted:

Part 1: Tomato Smoothies

Part 2: Finding the Cabin in the Woods 

Part 3: The Irrational Fear of Genre 

Part 4: Taking Stones from Pockets

Part 5: Fantastical Zoology

Part 6: I am not Picasso

“Why is THAT the real world?”

P95201705169511312495vHDR95AutoOne morning before starting our horror workshop, our magical leader Nancy Holder caught one of us referring to life outside of residency “the Real World.” She just looked at us and said, “I never understood that. Why does that,” she said as she pointed out to the snowy Freeport street, “have to be the real world? Why can’t this be the real world? Let the day job and all that stuff be the fake world.”

I’ve been trying to shift my perspective, especially now, as I am moving out of my MFA program and into this world where I’ll be making stuff all by myself, with no due dates or deadlines beyond the ones that I set for myself. And I am bad at setting deadlines for myself. Like, terrible. I’ve spent the last six years of higher education writing things at the last second and working well under pressure. Well, the pressure’s about to be off, and for the first time in my life there’s no one but me to tell me to get shit done except me. My real writing world is shifting and changing and I’m struggling to adjust. I haven’t even actually graduated yet.

Last week I printed out my thesis and I stared at my stack of paper and I thought, “That’s it?” It looked so small. The metaphorical mass of that thesis feels like so much more than 125 pages. I put so much into the thing. So much energy and time and so many feelings and all the saddest magical creatures and now it’s done. Shipped off to Portland for binding.

I keep having to remind myself that I’m only 23. I have time. And with that time comes all these options and they’re so overwhelming. There are so many things that I have in my head that I want to make, but it’s all on me to make them. My brain is full of podcasts and short story sequences and blog posts and comic books that I want to just shove out into the world but I can’t seem to just pick one thing to make. Instead, I’ll be feeling all this creative energy and not know which outlet to throw it at, because they all feel equally urgent, and they all feel awkwardly inadequate. I love my thesis, I’m very proud of it, and like every other moment of writing success I keep finding myself wondering how the hell I’m going to top it. Or if I’ll ever top it. Or if I’ve used everything up and I’ve got nothing left.

I know, my blog is really living up to the “sad” part of its namesake. But I think I’ve figured some shit out. Maybe. I’m only 23 I don’t think I’m supposed to have things figured out yet.

One of my Stonecoast buddies, the always magical Celeste, started this awesome group for journaling which has done amazing things to clear my brain. Through her prompts, I figured something out: I want to collaborate. I wand to make things with people. The hardest part of preemptively grieving the end of graduate school is that I’m losing residency. I’m losing those amazing ten days where my writing world is at its realest and I am surrounded by like-minded nerds and I have to write things. Writing isn’t so lonely when I have that community. So I’m working on finding collaborators, and surrounding myself with other creators from grad school and beyond that I love and who inspire me, and I feel better.

I want making things to be my real world. I’m working on it.