My poly bureaucracy creeps slow. Very slow. This is for my wife and girlfriend’s protection, because I am a dumbass.
See, I have a tendency of assuming that emotional intimacy == compatibility. Yes, it feels wonderfully cozy that we share all of these fears and concerns and relationship patterns, and finding your most sensitive feelings reflected in someone else is a beautiful thing.
The problem is that I’m fucking crazy. So finding someone I really resonate with immediately? It usually means they’re as bad as I am, and that we’re actually going to exacerbate each others’ issues.
I’ve been known to dive head-first into relationships without checking for compatibility first, just sort of assuming that because we have A Connection it’s going to work out. Then, after months of daily fights, me wringing my hands 24/7 about WHY WON’T SHE UNDERSTAND, and an eventual slow death by slices, I’ve learned that I need to spend more time getting to know people before I start getting committed…. if only so my wife isn’t obligated to play psychotherapist for me when things turn sideways.
So there’s a six-month cooldown time in place, where we can make out but not have Teh Sexx0r… and usually that cooldown time stretches to nine months, or even a year, as we just take it slow and not rush getting permissions.
The big question is, why don’t I find this limitation confining?
Part of it is, of course, is that I chose this lifestyle. This isn’t an externally-produced ruleset, created in a process tantamount to blackmail; it’s one I helped shape, because after a series of four disastrous relationships that imploded messily across my poly web, I took an honest look and said, “Okay, that’s a bad pattern, what’s a potential fix?”
But more importantly, sex is the least important bit for me.
Don’t get me wrong; anyone who’s ever made out with me will tell you that I’m passionate as hell. But sex is something that’s common; particularly in the kink communities, it’s not particularly difficult to get. If you’re open about your desires, reasonably personable, and are sapiosexual as I am, you’ll have a lot of options.
What I can’t get elsewhere is you.
Sure, maybe I’ll spend nine months hanging out with you on our once-a-month dates, getting to know each other… but that’s the best part. For me, “getting to know people” is an activity I find desirable in and of itself. Chatting, snuggling, dining out… that’s all stuff I like. And the level of flirtation/innuendo is a beautiful spice for that.
If and when we eventually hook up, that’s gonna be a wondrous new layer to what we share, and not the entirety of it. So I’m perfectly okay waiting for that to happen, since that is far from the whole reason I’m here.
I’m in no rush.
So yeah, it’s a long time. It’s not a process I’d recommend as standard for most poly groups. But that’s the glory of poly relationships: there’s no objective set of rules. What would be insanely restrictive for one set of people is actually a wise and stabilizing force in ours, just as what would be joyous freedom for some couples would actually cause harm if I tried it at this time in my life.
But does it matter if my rules would work for you? Lemme repeat: if it’s working for you and the people you’re dating, then it’s great.
This glacial proceeding helps me to choose better partners, and keeps my wife and girlfriend happier (even as neither of them are bound by this six-month rule), and hopefully the people I’m dating in this slow process are still happy to see me even if I’m not whipping out Little Elvis yet.
It’s an approach. Because there’s no the approach. And there never will be a the approach as long as humans are varied creatures with differing needs.
Eventually, if you’re trying to make it as a writer, you’re going to despair. You can’t write well enough. This story will never sell. If you do sell it, it’ll never be popular.
This terrible feeling like you’re just wasting your time and nobody cares happens, absurdly enough, to very popular writers. It happens to nobodys. It happens to writers, period. If you’re putting words down and trying to get people to read them, there will be times you’ll want to take everything you wrote, set it on fire, and then fling yourself in to burn with it.
Here is what you do when those down days come: you write more.
Took a nasty rejection straight to the sternum? Write more.
Had a confidence-shredding bad review? Write more.
This grand story in your head is completely beyond your ability to commit it to the page? Write more.
This terrible book you’re reading made millions, and your better work can’t find a home? Write more.
Feel like you’re a fraud who’s somehow lucked out when better writers languish behind you? Write more.
Your favorite author just told you he abhorred what you wrote? Write more.
The thing about writing is that so much of it comes down to tenacity. The most popular writers in the world can all tell you about this fellow they knew when they were starting out, a colleague who could write stories that would charm the petals from a rose… and yet these natural geniuses didn’t stick with it. They either let life swamp them, or couldn’t stand the rejections, or didn’t feel like it. And these magnificently talented people never became Writers, because for whatever reason they never pushed through.
It’s not that they weren’t very good. It’s just that they stopped knocking on doors. While the writer you’ve heard of kept ringing doorbells until she got an answer.
So pushing through is what you need to do. Write when you’re sad. Write when you’re busy. Write when you’re uninspired. Write when you’re utterly consumed with the idea that you cannot do this. Learn to take all of that despondence and to transform it into beauty, for writing in the throes of despair will do two things: when you are writing sad scenes, you will have so many more emotions to cram into it, and when you are writing happy scenes, you will be forced to emulate joy. One will make for better writing, the other will elevate your mood.
The truth is, though I’ve written in both despair and elation, I can’t really tell which mood I was in when I go back to revise. You must learn to write without hope. Keep creating through those dry spells, keep sending out stories during the rejections; decouple your personal contentment from your creative muse and make that bitch dance for you. She’ll be clumsy at first, foolish… but with time, you can make her do the most elaborate pirouettes when you’re barely able to move off the couch.
In fiction, there’s often a plot sequence: Try/fail, try/fail, try/succeed. In real life, there may be a hundred try/fails before you get to that succeed. But you’ll never know unless you stay in that execution loop.
And then write more still.
(Inspired by Catherine Schaff-Stump’s Writers and Despair.)
Just discovered: I could pretty much ruin any woman’s day when she’s about to leave the house by asking, “Oh, you’re going out like that?” and then muttering that it’s fine, it’s fine.
I just said that to Erin hypothetically, and she knows I didn’t even mean it, and she’s still itching to change her clothes.
(Cue tides of women saying that they’re above that. You may thank me for making you feel superior.)
I fricking love getting my stories read at Escape Pod – the narrators there are so good, the forums so full of awesome feedback, and there’s just something beautiful about hearing words I wrote become part of an old-time radio show. So my singularity-as-horror tale “Dead Merchandise” is up – and the people at Escape Pod seem to be digging it, thus far.
In case you need a sample, it follows:
The ad-faeries danced around Sheryl, flickering cartoon holograms with fluoride-white smiles. They told her the gasoline that sloshed in the red plastic canister she held was high-octane, perfect for any vehicle, did she want to go for a drive?
She did not. That gasoline was for burning. Sheryl patted her pockets to make sure the matches were still there and kept moving forward, blinking away the videostreams. Her legs ached.
She squinted past a flurry of hair-coloring ads (“Sheryl, wash your gray away today!”), scanning the neon roads to find the breast-shaped marble dome of River Edge’s central collation unit. River’s Edge had been a sleepy Midwestern town when she was a girl, a place just big enough for a diner and a department store. Now River’s Edge had been given a mall-over like every other town — every wall lit up with billboards, colorful buildings topped with projectors to burn logos into the clouds. She was grateful for the dark patches that marked where garish shop-fronts had been bombed into ash-streaked metal tangles.
The smoke gave her hope. Others were trying to bring it all down — and if they were succeeding, maybe no one was left to stop her.
Anyway, you can listen to it here. It’s about thirty-five minutes. And another great production, but I’d expect no less from the ‘Pods.
Sometimes, you get a rare gift, but don’t recognize it for what it is.
Kitchen Nightmares is a show that specializes in dysfunction. The pattern is standard: world-renowned chef Gordon Ramsay shows up to a failing restaurant, meets some owners who are in deep denial about some aspect of their business (usually the terribly food), and yells and cajoles them until they come around. (Most of the restaurants fail within three years after Gordon’s makeovers – but then again most restaurants period close within three years, and all of these guys would have been out of business within months without Gordon’s help, so I generally consider Gordon to be a good bet.)
Now, nobody cares about the food in the American Kitchen Nightmares – it’s all about the crazy people. The owners are each uniquely bollixed – overly-proud, self-taught chefs insisting that the customers love their octopus slides, sad sacks who’ve given up after discovering that the restaurant life isn’t the easy money they thought it was, chefs claiming that pub food is Steak Wellington and wondering why their customers keep asking for burgers. The array of people in denial on Kitchen Nightmares is a fascinating microcosm in all the ways that a personality can kill a business.
But this week? They found the mother lode.
Amy’s Baking Company Bakery, Boutique, and Bistro – yes, it has all those names – had one of the most magnificent Facebook meltdowns ever after appearing on Kitchen Nightmares, and being the only business ever who Gordon Ramsay – one of the most stubborn personalities on television – actually walked away from because he couldn’t get through to them.
Amy and Samy, the owners, greeting Chef Ramsay by imploring him to help them against the “lying bloggers” who were spreading bad reviews about their restaurant. The problem was not their food – it was that they didn’t have someone like Gordon Ramsay to vouch for them. And they routinely yelled at customers, telling people who complained to fuck off, we don’t want your business, a fact both shown on television and in their customer’s reviews. They’d literally scream at someone loud enough that everyone in the joint would turn to find them.
The problem was that their “real customers” loved their food. Anyone who complained was not a “real customer.” And they both became frenzied, like snapping chihuahuas, because how could so many people misunderstand them? If they just got the word out past these local yokels, got real chefs on their side, then the world would understand. The problem was not that they were being irrational, it was that they weren’t reaching the right people.
Which is a common dysfunction. You know, if the world could see what we did, people would agree with us! The problem is you!
And hence, Amy and Samy got a very rare gift: the world saw what they did.
Hundreds of thousands of people saw them act up on Kitchen Nightmares – where, yes, it’s a show that emphasizes conflict, but at the very least they still willingly hounded customers out to the street on camera – and then watched them argue on the Internet. And in fact, pretty much nobody agreed with them. We all thought that Samy and Amy were awful people for withholding tips from their waitresses, for firing a hundred people over the course of a year, for being brittle and awful human beings.
How many people get that opportunity, really? To have their reality tested so thoroughly? Sure, you can say that folks would agree with you if they only knew the truth, but how often does that happen? They have empirical evidence now that what they’re doing is childish, alienating, and unlikable!
Of course, that opportunity doesn’t actually work. They’ll find more excuses. That’s largely what humans are: excuse-hunting machines.
But honestly, it’s a strange and beautiful test of their delusions: they got exactly what they wanted. And now they’ll manufacture reasons why it wasn’t exactly what you wanted, if things had just gone a little different then Samy and Amy would be drowning in flowers and sympathy. They’ll show they have a truly world-class psychosis, one that can withstand all of America scorning them.
I feel a little sorry for them, as I do anyone who attracts the ire of the Internet. But in this case? It’s also a fascinating look at how darned intense denial can get.
In case you haven’t heard yet, after discovering she had a gene that made it 87% likely she would get breast cancer, Angelina Jolie had a preventative double-mastectomy. And I’ve been thinking about two words that have been enraging me:
See, because, Angelina Jolie’s tits were for Brad’s entertainment, and he had ownership of the best tits in the world, and now they’re gone. This is a loss to Brad, you see. As men, we should feel sympathy for him, as expressed in a very common comment left across many news sites.
At which point I try to imagine the pain of being so certain I had testicular cancer that I literally thought, “Well, it’s them or me.” I envision the anguish of wrestling with that decision to literally neuter myself, of thinking “What if I’m in that 13%? What if I don’t need to do this?” All of the medical issues, the pain, that fluttering of identity when a large part what you consider Your Body gets chopped off and you have to come to terms with the fact that maybe all of you could go away. The realization that my body would be altered in ways I might find aesthetically horrible. The knowledge that everyone would know about this once I blogged about it.
And then I imagine seeing that comment sprayed everwhere: “Poor Gini.”
Because, you know, I’d be less useful to her without balls. My whole goal in life is to satisfy her sexually, and if I fail at that, it’s a tragedy for my wife. In fact, her biggest concern would doubtlessly be my lack of balls, because I had one job, and now I couldn’t do that for her.
Everything I wanted? Fuck that. I’m a support role for my partner’s sexual needs. She’s the one grieving the loss, really.
…except people wouldn’t write that. I’m a guy. Oh, there’d be a lot of sympathy for the sex I couldn’t have, but the underlying premise is that as a male, my body serves my needs. If I want to wear a comfortable shirt that hides my pecs or makes my belly look big, then that’s my decision; I don’t have to deal with a societal pressure to display myself appropriately for the needs of others. If I have to change my body, then that’s what I need to do. I don’t have to consider, or sympathize with, the feelings of all the women fantasizing about me when I feel like doing what’s medically necessary.
I’m not an object for someone else’s pleasure.
Look, it’s well known that I like big breasts, and I literally cannot lie: I’ve never been shy about blogging my love of sex, or of porn. And on those occasions women have felt generous enough to allow me the usage of their breasts for my pleasure, it’s inevitably been a wondrous occasion.
Yet I never once thought the breasts were there for me. They were a part of my partner’s body, and she carried all of the downsides of having them – needing bras, enduring back pain, the difficulties while jogging. When some of my lovers opted for breast reduction surgery I was supportive, because they weren’t just a pair of tits to me – they were a human being, and an unhappy one. If reducing their breasts would make the rest of their lives better, then I wanted their lives better.
As Damien W. Grintalis said, “My guess is Brad would rather have her alive and breastless than possibly dead.” Because a real relationship is multilayered, complex, full of all sorts of supports that go beyond HI YOU ARE SEXY FUNTIEMS NAO. Gini and I had some difficulties getting back into the swing of sex after my triple-bypass, but I don’t think Gini once thought, “If he doesn’t get better in bed, I’m gonna have to leave him.”
Angelina Jolie was, and doubtlessly still is, a beautiful woman. But Brad Pitt had his choice of beautiful women, and as such I assume he picked Angelina for reasons that go far beyond prettiness. I hope he and Angelina are doing all right as they weather today’s storm of media coverage, bracing themselves for the first round of tabloid photos that are sure to arrive. It’s gotta be a tough day for both of them.
Poor Brad? Fuck that. Poor Brad and Angelina. And I hope, I hope, it gets better for the both of them.
To master a skill, you must devote 10,000 hours to it – or so the theory goes. But that 10,000 hours must consist of mindful practice, or else every fryolater slapping burgers at McDonald’s would be a master chef. No, you have to concentrate purposefully on improving your skills, flexing different muscles to install new muscle memories.
So how do you practice mindfully as a writer?
Look, I believe in the 10,000 hours, because I’ve experienced both sides of it. I wrote fiction for twenty years and failed at it, sinking a lot of my time into writing but without making much headway. And then, after Clarion removed some much-needed blinders from me, I wrote purposefully and I started to sell lots of stories. So while every writer is different (the trick to “writer’s tips” is understanding that they’re all about unlocking your inner efficiency, and so you should ruthlessly discard whatever sounds silly to you), I think I can tell many writers how to get those 10,000 hours in so they work.
1) Write Short Stories, And Finish Them.
…at least for purposes of practicing. Novels are wonderful beasts, but they’re sprawling things with hundreds of moving parts – and it’s difficult to get friends to read your 120,000-word saga and offer useful advice. Whereas short stories can be finished in a week or two, they’re usually about simpler scenes, and it’s easy to get people to spend the forty minutes it’ll take to get through them: all things you’ll need. You can write fifteen short stories in the time it takes you to write a novel, and get better feedback as to how the internals of it worked (because with a short story, people are more thorough about critiquing).
Also obvious, but some people never get this: finish those stories. From a practice perspective, five half-written tales aren’t nearly as effective as one completed story. You learn the full arc of a tale when you complete them – and more importantly, you can go to Step #2:
2) Get Each Of Those Stories Critiqued By People Who Like What You’re Trying To Do.
Particularly when you’re in the early part of your journey, there’s going to be a gap between “What you intended to do” and “What you actually evoked in the reader.” For most people, it’s impossible to tell where those gaps are without actually bouncing them off of other readers, and getting their feedback.
You need good readers, though. Usually your Mom and your buddies are just happy to see you writing, and they aren’t overly critical in the way that they analyze it. You need people who are willing to tell you, kindly but firmly, that this story totally didn’t work for them – and then break down what, exactly, what in your prose stopped them from reading the story you wanted to write. (People who complain because you didn’t write the story they would have written? You can dispense with them post-haste. And you can’t rely on rejections, which are too often a mere “no” and hence offer nothing of use for you to go on.)
So find a good writers’ group (or just a group of writers) and have them break down your stories in depth. Otherwise, you’re like a pitcher who can’t see where your ball is landing. You need some feedback to work on your aim.
3) Focus On A Different Technique With Every New Short Story.
If you’re reading a lot of fiction – and you should – you’ll notice the strengths of other writers. As your crit group savages your tales, you’ll notice weaknesses in your own fiction. So to practice mindfully, write stories that focus exclusively on those techniques. Think, “I’m not very good at writing stories without action sequences,” and then set out to write an effective story with no explosions. Think “I usually white-room my stories, not putting much effort into setting,” and then write an evocative prose-piece that’s as much about the exotic bazaar it’s set in as it is about the people in it.
I can tell you what new technique I was trying to master in any story I’ve written. For example:
- “‘Run,’ Bakri Says” was me saying, “I don’t write action stories, so I should write a story that’s nothing but action from start to finish.”
- “Sauerkraut Station” was me saying, “I really liked the way Little House on the Prairie made a bunch of mundane activities like farming and house-building seem riveting. Can I write a story in space that does the same thing?”
- “A Window, Clear As A Mirror” was me saying, “I usually have at least a little plot planned out when I begin writing. What happens if I write a story with no ending point whatsoever, and just wander?”
- “My Father’s Wounds” was me, absolutely loving the way Steven Brust made magic seem mundane, and asking whether I could write a story that had totally human elements with a bit of magic in the way that he did.
- “Dead Merchandise” was me saying, “Wow, Cat Valente writes really dense prose that’s elaborately descriptive, and I’m so bare-bones. What happens when I write something really visual with poetic imagery?”
Now, if you read those stories, you may note that they might seem totally different from the intent I started out with. That’s what happens when you make a story your own: it drifts away from the original influences, and becomes this wonderful melding of new techniques and old strengths. (Or it turns out to be a glorious failure – I have a couple of stories dead at first draft that expanded my skills, but weren’t good stories on their own. That’s okay; the techniques I learned there came in handy in later stories.)
The point is, by experimenting with each of those stories, I practiced. Some of them sold, and got good reviews. Some of them got shelved. All of them sharpened bits that were previously dull. All of them made me a better writer – and quickly, because instead of spending months writing a novel that utilized some (or all) of these ideas, I wrote an easily-critted tale that could tell me whether I’d succeeded or failed.
4) Do Not Write Scratch Pads.
Note that the “test” stories I wrote above were all published: one was nominated for the Nebula, two got “Recommended” reviews from Locus, the toughest reviewers in sci-fi. That’s because even though I was trying new things, I still wrote these stories as though I intended to sell them.
Even if you’re doofing around with something that seems insanely out of your element, even if this seems absurdly stupid to try this crazy new technique, treat the tale as though you had a deadline and an interested editor. Approach every story you write as though this is the big one – because it might be. Who would have guessed that my 18,000-word Laura Ingalls Wilder rip-off would become my most beloved piece of fiction? Hell, I thought it was unpublishable.
5) Practice By Not Writing.
Some of the best mindful practice I got came from not writing, but analyzing. It’s a lot easier to see how fiction works when your own ego’s out of the way – and looking at how tales work (and, just as critically, how they don’t work) expands the brain. So a lot of your practice can, and should, be things like:
- Critiquing other people’s stories. (As a bonus, it helps you stay in that crit group.)
- Being a slush reader. (Breaking down out why six stories a day aren’t publishable makes you realize just how high the bar is in fiction.)
- Reading with intent, which is to say reading your favorite author to go, “Why do I like this so much? What really works here?”
You can’t write for four hours a day every day, but you can usually get a story read on a lunch break. That’ll nudge you closer to your 10k goal.