Welcome to Wrackwell Abbey

Still getting settled here at the virtual Abbey, so I’ll use this featured post as a guide to the sideshow.

This homepage will feature a conventional stream of updates; I’ll try to post something useful here once or twice a week, more if I can say something kindasorta interesting kindasorta concisely. The first time I had a blog I tried posting daily as part of my regular regimen, and it got tedious pretty quickly for all parties concerned. I’ll let the Muses determine how often new prose appears this time around.

The tags and categories will, I hope, be fairly intuitive. Clicking “Fiction” will teleport you to content focused on short stories and novels; “Poetry” will do the same for verse. Using the menus will get you to lists of fiction and poetry I’ve published; I’ll do my best to make sure they’re accurate and up to date. I’ve got a subcategory/tag for “Hypnosis” as well, as I find the way it bears on language, storytelling, and the mind endlessly fascinating, and “Oddities” will lead you to all the other bits and bobs that constitute a life lived online. You might find a little content on music, on gaming, on film, and on other cultural subjects in which I am invested–at bottom I’m a sucker for subject matter that’s filthy with ethical implications, where language and human behavior interact in strange ways. I’ll try not to let the Tags get out of hand. With luck I’ll also get the sidebar menus up and running, which should deepen and broaden the widgetry.

For bite-sized and/or fun-sized posts you can find me over at @ArsGoetica on Twitter. I’m on a few other social media platforms as well, but that tends to be the one I mind most often. (For the record, that tag is a portmanteau of Ars Goetia, a section from The Lesser Key of Solomon, and Ars Poetica, which I thought summed up my writing interests nicely.)

For my experiments in hypnosis you can find me over at Painted Maze Hypnosis on SoundCloud. It’s a work in progress, especially in terms of adapting the voice I use for live hypnosis sessions into recordings, but in time I hope it will become a repository for several soothing, affirmative files that will help writers overcome a few of the hurdles that plague us.

(The image that serves as the banner for the site as a whole is adapted from Johannes Plenio. You can find more of his gorgeous photography over at Unsplash.)

Plausibility and Beyond

(Image adapted from Bogomil Mihaylov at Unsplash.com)

I am an engaging, effective hypnotist. How do I know that? Because when I hypnotize myself, usually with the assistance of a light and sound machine, that’s what I tell myself. I’ve repeated that mantra in my mind often, and as a result, it’s as good as true.

If you’ve visited the Abbey before, you’ll know I’m fascinated by the machinery of the mind to an alarming degree. A goodly chunk of the literary theory I regularly study focuses on the ways in which our worlds are constructed by our noggins, no matter what Samuel Johnson might say. When I teach rhetorical analysis in my composition classes, I tend to focus on how writing effectively creates its own readers, pinning them down with a series of linguistic invitations and solicitations in even the blandest modes of expository prose. Reread the first sentence here, and you’ll see what I mean. And of course in hypnosis, where the work of conveying suggestions centers on phrasing and framing, it’s easy to indulge the impulse to build whole worlds out of half-truths.

There’s something vaguely counterintuitive about it, but it’s ridiculously easy to spot in just about every facet of our lives. Ever met a critter who imagines themself as an underdog but comes to the table with just about every kind of cultural, educational, and economic advantage? They had to dream themselves into being, dealing all the cards that were stacked against them, all the opposition they faced and overcame. If you’re asked to imagine a dog, do you imagine some freakish ur-canine, or do you conjure up a vision of your pooch of choice? Ever tried to break a habit but–alas!–you’ve convinced yourself that it’s simply too ingrained in your days and ways to shake? It’s that sort of thing.When we have a little time for critical self-examination, a set of self-inflicted patterns we’ve built and installed rises up to the surface like a secret Braille code. We impose meanings on ourselves–stories on ourselves, by and large–to explain why we are who we are and why we do what we do.

One of the simplest formulations of the act occurs in our creative writing classes, where all of our faculty communicates in terms of states of being rather than doing. “You’re an ingenious writer,” we’ll say, and then proceed as though it were true. Because it is, like it or not. There’s no sublime act of creation or naming going on–we’re just acknowledging a state of affairs that the writer might not already recognize, and we’re acknowledging it in a distinctive way. Saying “your writing is ingenious,” as the youth are wont to note, hits a little different; saying “you write ingeniously” might feel nice, but it has a different vibe. When I hypnotize a client I’ll throw several variations on the same kind of idea at them, and before long they find themselves surrounded by a legion of affirmative identities they can’t escape.

I find that most of my writing consists of plausibility strings, strings I follow as far as I can go before tying them in to something wiggedy. The trick for me usually involves making sure the wiggedy thing is plausible, too, at least at some level. Take, for instance, the image above, the curlicue of a particularly photogenic cucumber tendril. Those tendrils, as gardeners know, operate a bit like ivy, allowing the plant to latch on to something stable and pull themselves up to get more leaves into the sun. I can use a simple, natural occurrence like that as a foundation for the depiction of flora that acts similarly, perhaps for some more sinister end, pulling other things down rather than trying to raise itself up. Press the notion a little further–maybe add size or sentience into the mix–and you’ve got yourself a manageable monster.

The catch here is that I have literally no idea what kind of plant that really is. I started out with a little fib, and that fib was already predicated on snatches of truth. I’ve watched enough Gardener’s World to know how ferns work, uncurling from similar spirals, but that’s my only semisolid frame of reference. I’ve seen enough cucumber plants to know they have tendrils, so that might be true or truthy, and I’ve seen how ivy clings. That’s about as far as I can stretch. But if it felt true enough to go on, it’s functionally true. No point in quibbling about it. Eventually the reader will be able to see the seams of what I’ve stitched together, but they can be hard to spot when you’re working with two balls of yarn dyed the same curious color from the get-go.

I’m terribly fond of this kind of thinking, which I tend to think of as one of the most accessibly modes of creativity. And whenever I suspect I might have stretched my plausibility strings too far, I remember who I am as a reader myself, someone who’s willing to follow that slender tether into the minotaur’s maze, sure I can find my way back out.

And if it happens to break when I’m deep down in the dark? So much the better.

Facing Forward

Once upon a time I was an 18th-century scholar, and I imagined that I’d spend an inordinate amount of classroom time trying to reconstruct the historical considerations that shaped the literature of the era, ideally while wearing a monocle and a periwig. The Long Eighteenth Century (1660-1837, by my nefarious, grabby reckoning) is a pretty perky frame of inquiry, what with the rise of the British novel and the Gothic and the various what-have-yous. For a variety of reasons I don’t get to delve down in those mines very much anymore, but today I’m thinking (as I do with uncommon frequency) about the olde-skool idea of countenancing, which I think is just as relevant as ever.

The subject pops up in my noggin for a number of reasons. ‘Tis the season, for example, for letters of recommendation. Some folks are applying for positions in M.A. and Ph.D. programs, some others for jobs and scholarships, and to nudge those doors open they generally need a reference or three from someone who’s already walked down comparable corridors. That’s countenancing in the most conventional sense, pairing my name and my reputation with my professional evaluation of a student in the hope that doing so will open the way for them. In some cases it’s incredibly straightforward, as when I write a letter for a historian who plans to pursue a doctorate and wishes to establish that he’s a strong writer and skillful researcher. I’m nicely positioned to add my face to his case. In others it’s a little more elusive, as when a former student who works as an academic administrator asks me to serve as a reference for bigger, better gigs. I have no doubt that she’ll excel in just about any context, but to countenance her I’ll need to write a very different kind of recommendation, one that downplays particular sensibilities that most ac-admin critters don’t find particularly valuable. I’ll leave off there, less I inadvertently reveal any of my spicier opinions on the subject.

Countenancing, however, seems increasingly relevant in the virtual realm as well, occurring for social media users in a variety of slippery yet significant ways. What happens in those areas of operation feels to me a little bit wilder, in part because it more openly acknowledges that every one of us is a constellation of personae, not a singular, all-purpose, head-mounted human face.

At the most localized levels it’s not hard to witness the power of the countenance. Have you ever mistakenly liked or hearted or starred a photo that a friend (or, more appallingly still, a past-tense paramour) posted a couple of years ago? That frisson of apprehension–how will that positive regard be read? will attempting to undo it only compound the problem of acknowledging my acknowledgement?–speaks to the power of the countenance. It involves owning up to something, an impulse, at least, and potentially affection or admiration as well, that admits all sorts of reading and misreading. Just yesterday, having not visited one of my social media sites in awhile, I liked a photo that was posted in early November. And here I am, about three weeks later, wondering if doing so might be improper somehow, amounting to something like a confession of stronger feeling than I intended. One begins to wonder how one’s face looks in context, how the admission that I looked and admired affects the complexion of being seen.

And at times it feels like an even more tricksy business. Generally speaking I’m kind of a trollop when it comes to liking stuff. Posted an accomplishment? I’m gonna like it. Posted a good joke? I’m gonna like it. Posted an adorable picture of your cat gone goblin? I’m gonna like it. But there are times when my clicking finger hovers above the mouse, trying to decide what my wanton liking might imply. It’s an awkwardness we recognize most easily when it comes to affixing a simple heart or a star to someone who confesses a worry, grief, or loss. In some regions of social media we can convey our sense of support with a special emoji, but in others we can only crudely acknowledge our commiseration. And what to do when an acquaintance posts a semi-scandalous entry in the Feeling Myself genre of photography? One would like to think liking the photo amounts to a statement of support, a gladness for that good feeling, but one does not want to own up inadvertently to anything more. Given my tendency to speak on strange and sordid subjects in my own feeds under various guises, I often come across a phenomenon I think of as a dynamic of discouragement. Post on literary topics or mention achieving some writing or gaming goal, and I’m apt to garner a like or three; post something more indelicate or unseemly, however–a weird recreational application of hypnosis, for example, or some other indication of my wickedness or naughtiness–and folks will quite reasonably veer off. Even in the realm of casual, incidental operations we don’t want to be seen acknowledging (and tacitly accepting and supporting) positions and perspectives that might seem to us discreditable. It’s a variation on the theme of benign neglect, a gentle pressure to reform. Avoiding any statement on those unsavory matters protects our own reputation and gently discourages the poster, informing them that we’d really rather not be put in that difficult position again.

That’s the core function of countenance culture: our readiness to attach our good reputation to some stuff, which makes our refusal to do so in other contexts more meaningful. You see it a lot in romances and novels of manners, where it’s incredibly important for the good and the virtuous not to countenance the bad behavior of various rakes, scoundrels, and similar folk who are too loose in their manners or free in their affections. To acknowledge them, whether that involves admitting them into polite company or writing them a letter of introduction (the sort of all-purpose reference that openly asserted one’s endorsement of the good character of a critter back in the day), is to risk one’s own status or standing, the good name we’ve earned over time. Like it or not, our faces are all too often on the line.

These days we’re experiencing a particularly acute bout of countenancing, given the instability of some of our legacy social media platforms. Facebook seems to be becoming obsolete, serving as the haunt of older social media users. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most of the folks still on that site are only lingering there because they don’t want to lose touch with the far-flung friends who’ve yet to give it up and migrate to Instagram, TikTok, or some other mod, happening, and switched-on site the kids are into these days. And of course the spectacular implosion of Twitter is obliging plenty of users to examine their own positions critically, which involves a whole world of awkwardness.

To remain on Twitter, at one level, feels like countenancing some utterly repellent behavior, both from the new owner and from the throng of bad actors that’s been allowed back inside. Many folks want to express their scorn and their disgust, as remaining on the platform feels like a kind of complicity. It’s not exactly facing, but it’s facing-adjacent: we users have to acknowledge that our revolting host is not the sort of person we’d normally allow to make use of our good reputations. But for a number of reasons it’s difficult for people to simply disconnect, to migrate to another site, no matter how many contenders old and new might be out there. It’s a space where a number of forces–ideology, commerce, activism, access, and influence–merge and converge. A critter like me, with indirect connections to just a few hundred people, can climb up on my very tall and decidedly noble destrier, the highest horse I can find, and ride away. I mostly use Twitter to find calls for submissions and identify publishers (for which it is valuable but not indispensable) and to keep abreast of breaking news and cultural happenings (for which it is all too often critical but increasingly unreliable), so for me the losses would be nominal and could perhaps be recouped on Hive Social, Cohost, Mastodon, or some other site. But for writers and game-makers who’ve earned followings in the tens of thousands, or who rub elbows with folks who can spread word of their creative projects near and far for the sake of promotion or fundraising, it’s a resource that’s far too valuable to relinquish. Until some viable replacement emerges–and until a goodly crowd moves in a single, determined direction–it’s simply not a resource they can abandon without suffering significant losses. It’s what we in the countenancing industry call a proper pickle, as we don’t want to associate (or be associated) with some of the company we currently keep but lack the authority to turn them away.

Right now it feels quite like those awkward tables at the holidays, where spending time with our family, friends, and loved ones too often involves acquiescing to the presence of folks we’d rather not acknowledge, much less validate. That’s something of a sour note to end on, I confess, as it feels like a circumstance we cannot avoid. But I find a bit of comfort in the fact that, at least when it comes to countenancing, the openness with which we face toward some things and face away from others can become a powerful kind of action in its own right.

The Disconnected Self

There’s something rather magical about social media, at least in its more rarefied forms. After I logged on to Facebook for the first time I reconnected with friends from high school in a matter of weeks, and (as a sort of legacy platform in many way) I’ve been able to watch some of my former students grow over time, earning terminal degrees, writing and publishing themselves, becoming parents. After I joined Twitter I was more readily able to give shape and scope to my writing career (at least on the creative side of things). I found a writing community, found calls for submissions more routinely, and was able to support emerging initiatives for LGBTQIA+ writers, for BIPOC writers, for subjects that always struck me as criminally uncovered. I occasionally made contact with creators I admire, even if only incidentally. And of course there has been news and The Discourse, all the stories out there in circulation that one gains access to when people on the scene of major events can fire their observations off into the aether.

The darker side, of course, has reared up with irritating frequency, no matter how aggressively I curated my feeds. Like most folks in These Uncertain Times I rise each day with a little more weight in the downwardly-dipping side of the scales, so a couple of bad stories or grim predictions about the future can be enough to send me off on a sour note. And to feed various appetites I found myself breaking things down and diversifying in spite of myself, curating some feeds for my work, others for my private life, and others for my many, many niche hobbies. The current state of affairs, which seems to involve little more than vindictiveness dressed with all the trappings of free speech has me consolidating some personae and closing down others. The theories about why a billionaire would so aggressively and publicly undermine the foundations of his reputation are fascinating, but ultimately I’d rather be playing or making games, writing fiction and poetry, and hanging out with my partner and friends. I’ve been keeping tabs on Discord more regularly, and I opened up a Mastodon account so that I can hopefully keep a hand in, as the Brits say, but it’s one of those moments of existential whiplash: I need to make an array of changes, and while it’s pretty easy to see what I need to move away from, it’s harder to figure out what I need to move toward.

What I’m ultimately trying to do is make change in the right spirit, which can be elusive even with a witching board. One of the bedrock facts of hypnosis is that it’s incredibly difficult to change anything you don’t actually want to change, so at least part of the problem is mustering the determination to live a bit differently. The good news for me, at least, is that I have ready reference to a positive example in my partner. She’s in the process of launching her own business, which is a heady, anxious, exciting time. It’s not hard to understand why all those mingled feelings are hard for her to manage, but each day she navigates that maze of possibilities and settles on excitement. There are plenty of concerns she has to entertain, plenty of considerations she has to take into account, but at day’s end what she holds onto is that excitement–the thrilling possibility of being her own boss for the first time, of earning for herself rather than someone who inherited enough money to buy an existing business or purchase a sizable share of an already-successful partnership, of doing the sort of affirmative, self-determined work that she’s wanted to do so long. It has me thinking of bigger projects, of more involved work, of stretching my legs a bit to see how fast I can move and how far I can go.

It is, alas, lurching, awkward movement, like exercise my body is unaccustomed to doing. But I can see the shape of change taking place, since one departure from the usual order of things usually catalyzes changes in other areas. I’m a creature of habit, and it’s amusing to see old habits falling like dominoes, ceding ground to experiments with new ways of doing things. Whether or not those changes will also yield new ways of being is always a little uncertain, but I have enough faith in the process today to hold me over.

Patronage and Aid

I am, in the parlance of the virtual realms, an easy mark.

Over the course of the past year I have handed over more cash than I care to mention in support of Kickstarters, Patreons, political campaigns, charitable causes, mutual aid, and other calls for crowdfunding. It doesn’t take much to entice my interest or stir my sympathies, and I do my best to support those causes and projects I believe in.

That being said, that patronage begins to weigh more heavily on me as the year draws to a close. It’s not an entirely material thing, though domestic economics certainly bear on my decisions. Them What Lives Beneath the River know that I have plenty of standing subscriptions to services I seldom use and memberships I rarely inquire after. I’m bleeding money as we speak. My decisions, at least in part, are predicated on a desire to spread the wealth around, so each fall I take stock of how much I’ve spent and where it went. In the following year I’ll try to point my resources in a different direction.

And then we have my idiosyncrasies. So, so many idiosyncrasies.

I’m no expert, but here are a few tips I think I can responsibly offer when it comes to hitting up the interwebz for a bit of financial assistance.

  1. Build on desire, not fear. When it comes to money, I know that fear is a powerful motivator. Just about every political campaign I’ve ever donated to is pretty energetic when it comes to fearmongering, particularly in the mailings that follow hot on the heels of initial donations. But–and this is true of artistic projects and mutual aid as well–I have an easier time supporting or promoting a good thing than trying to prevent a bad thing from happening, and that’s doubly true when I know that preventing the bad thing hinges on contingencies in which I have no part. Tell me you’re a few bucks short of acquiring a new computer with which you can write or make art and I’m apt to donate; tell me you need a few dollars to acquire a new computer or you might never make art again, and I’m apt to pass you by. I think/hope it’s not some essential defect of character that drives such decisions, but (given the limits of my personal economy) I’d rather contribute to bringing good things into the world if I can.
  2. Make giving simple. Here’s a real (all too real) observation from three recent fundraising campaigns, two for 2023 projects and one to meet immediate needs. Easy mark though I might be, that easiness comes with a catch: it’s driven by impulse, not by logical processing. If I see a cause I’d like to support, I like to click and donate/patronize. That’s it. But in the three cases I mention indirectly above I literally couldn’t find the links to the fundraiser itself, at least not in the thread that drew my attention to the calls for patronage/aid. To be clear, it’s not malicious omission on my part. I don’t log off from my computer in a huff and wail “I would have donated to your cause if you’d only made it eeaaaasy,” and then pat myself on the back for my generosity of spirit. It’s always along the lines of “Mental note: look for that fundraiser tomorrow.” Trusting in my incidental memory, alas, is generally a losing bet, and in the flood of posts and tweets the odds that I’ll find my way back to a cause are pretty small. (And to be doubly clear, it’s worth noting that the usual search engines are of precious little help, even when you hunt for very particular things–algorithms and engine optimization mean I will get plenty of comparable causes instead of the one I seek.)
  3. Motivate donation. This too, alas, feels like a failing in me, but I kind of need the why behind a call for giving. I actually have a line item in my wee budget for such things, and (though I’ll refill those coffers if a windfall comes my way) that means I sometimes have to choose from several good causes. A simple, seasonable reason is almost always all it takes for me to click the link. I’ve read more than a few calls (usually in an attempt to meet an ongoing need) in which the writer is understandably exasperated and tired of asking for donations. They’ll write “Looks like we won’t meet our goal/deadline; you know what to do.” As above, though, asking a prospective donor to hunt down your why, when any given afternoon will confront them with a dozen comparable calls, is apt to mean they click a different link just because it requires less processing power to do so.
  4. Differentiate and discriminate. One of my social media friends posts several calls for mutual aid per day, all for good, if miscellaneous causes. For that reason, I’ve more than once missed out on their own calls, lost as they were in a wash of information that all looks about the same to my speed-skimming eyes. The same holds true for folks with projects in the offing, who naturally want to be supportive of their peers. They’ll post a link to their own Kickstarter/Patreon, and doing so will put them in mind of promoting their friends and colleagues. That is, I think, positive human policy, but it can cause me to scroll on by in the midst of my skimming. As above, this is more habit than malice on my part. I try not to feed my addiction to social media overmuch, and that leads to some terribly casual reading habits.
  5. Spread the wealth. This post is getting a little on the sprawling side, so I thought I’d try to close out by squeezing three bits of advice together. The first derives from the fact that it’s October, the best of all possible months, which means that I’ve got I’ve got a few calls for donations from places that circle the academic calendar and a few dozen more from horror projects. As above, I have a finite budget for such things, so only a few of those can get my support. Calendrical pragmatics stand in the way, so it’s not a bad idea to seek support in odd months if you can. By the holidays, despite the giving spirit, many folk will be tapped out. The second derives from the difference between calls of general use and localized value. A request for funds that will support a virtual student magazine will always get my attention; a request for funds that will support a reading series in Texarkana probably won’t. I have a pretty good attitude about Texas, but this feels like it falls into the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of critters category (and my calculations would certainly change if it’s made clear that the reading series would be broadcast to a wide audience). Finally, when it comes to tiers and rewards, I think it’s wise to distribute thoughtfully. If you need to raise a bajillion dollars, having a ten-dollar tier that gets you the critical thing (a digital issue or digital version of a game, for instance) strikes me as a problematic proposition. I think in those cases a blank give-what-you-will entry field will serve the cause better. And I think when it comes to stretch goals the folk who were already able and inclined to support a cause will snatch up the best, limited-edition perks straight away. Larding the lower and middle tiers with things cash-strapped would-be donors might like can make it more appealing to get on board. The rewards are seldom the point, but as an added enticement they can tilt the scales and maybe get a bit of extra buy-in as a personal splurge. It’s not a bad thing to send a donor away with that good feeling–and a nice reminder to think about giving again a little ways down the road.

A Very Wrackwell Hallowe’en

Crikey. It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?

Truth be told I have only myself to blame. I’m the sort of critter who creates work for himself when left unattended, and the academic semester makes that prospect temptingly simple. At one level I’m glad for it: when I take more time to put together lesson plans, for example, there’s generally more consistency, continuity, and utility. Most of the stuff I’m cobbling together for class right now is stuff I’ll be able to use again. There are some natural drawbacks involved–the fact that my lesson plans and assignment sheets are clearer and tighter doesn’t in any way seem to diminish the amount of time I spend answering emails and fielding questions–but I feel good about the effort, which is a reasonable reward in its own right.

I’ve got plenty of irons in the fire on the professional and paraprofessional fronts as well. I’m pleased to report new work (one of my favorite stories, happily) will soon appear in Bourbon Penn, and in just a few months I’ll appear in Hidden Realms, to be published stateside in March by Flame Tree Publishing. (They’re the folks responsible for Ramsey Campbell’s latest, the folks who have issued books by a gaggle of Stoker Award winners.) I’ve been making progress in establishing my footing as a virtual hypnotist as well, which is no small feat. As it turns out my home recording situation was lousier than I knew, but a few changes have improved the sound quality significantly, so much so that I’m going to be able to res-record a few files and launch a proper SoundCloud site before long. Not bad for a shut-in.

In relatedly unrelated news I’ve taken on a few committee obligations, the most pleasurable of which involves work on our university’s game-based learning program. The committee is a new one, which means that there’s less procedural mapping an a lot more freedom. The CLGS (Center for Learning through Games and Simulations) is kind of killing it, and the connected press is currently in the home stretch of successfully fundraising for another game–Rising Waters, which you can find over here–that chances are good they’ll launch another project over the holidays.

And I’m writing, of course. Hooboy, am I writing. This Friday I’ll be running a game, Legends of Lost Lake, which is pretty polished as far as 1980s-set slasher simulations go. (The trick, as it turns out, is devising ways to build suspense over one session so that everyone can die or survive in the second half of the second.) I decided to tuck into a novella, and that’s unfolding in unexpected ways. Most of the time I build around an event or a fairly fleshed-out character, but this one feels more like exhuming a voice, a rather different thing. Right now I’ve got four stories and four poems half-concocted on my desktop, too, which should keep me busy enough when only one or two cylinders are firing.

With some luck I’ll be able to keep all the necessary plates, pins, and rings in the air, at least for the rest of the semester. But if you can’t get enough random bald man, you can always read a good book between now and my next post.

A Deceptive Addendum

Not long ago, in the waybackwhen, I posted about some of the ways I try to get myself sorted, especially when I’m shifting gears into a new season of stuff. I thought it would be worthwhile to add, however, a brief description of a habit inside the habit, one that tends to give my mental health a gentle upward nudge.

I’ve invariably got an array of to-do lists up and running, but of course some things fall through the cracks. Itemizing life in advance is a mug’s game, however nice that might be. At the end of any given week, however, it sometimes feels like I’ve seriously underachieved. While there’s a semi-healthy part of me that understand that life ought not be measured in feats and written proofs of my existential effectiveness, there’s a less noble component of my programming that likes to see a few items ticked off the ol’ checklist at week’s end.

And so I add them.

As a rule, if it’s something that requires a little foresight and an investment of time, even if I forgot to mention it while planning out my prospects, I’ll put it on the list of the week and cross it off retroactively. It makes for a decent reminder that I haven’t been as indolent as the checklist otherwise might suggest. Today, for example, I remembered in passing that I probably ought to wash my hoodies and long-sleeved shirts now that temperatures have dropped. It wasn’t something I originally planned to do, but it’s something that will make life easier for Future Me. By the same token, one of my tasks for early October involves identifying some clusters of readings for my composition classes. Yesterday I had a bit of spare time while my students huddled up for a peer review workshop, so I hunted some down there and then. When I got home I added both items to my list of Weekly Things and crossed them off.

On Sunday I’ll make a new list, but instead of looking back and imagining I managed just the bare minimum (lesson plans, paying the bills, etc.), I’ll actually have a more accurate reckoning of what I’ve done. It makes me a feel a bit better; if nothing else, it convinces me that I didn’t squander the week gone by. And, to a meaningful degree, it also raises the bar. Instead of having 8-12 accomplishments in my back pocket, I’ll come away with twenty or so, which persuades me that maybe I can be a little more active and ambitious when mapping out the weeks and months ahead.

I might not ever be a Man of Action, but it pays to be honest with myself about my daily activity–even if that involves adding something done to a to-do list after the fact.

Tales of the Unexpected

This morning I read one of those “Where do your ideas come from?” threads, which are always a delight. Some accounts are pointed and precise (“I had this experience, and Book X arose from that experience”), some are redolent of metaphysics (“I open myself up to the Higher Mind and let it fill my imagination”), and some are fraught with shenanigans (“I leave sugar cookies on my nightstand and the noggin goblins bring me ideas”). It can be an imaginative exercise in its own right, though I think if we’re being honest with ourselves–or at least when I’m being honest with myself–creative fecundity seems to abide by two principles.

The first (for me, at least) is The Ebb and Flow, which follows laws that can be at once understandable and utterly mysterious to us. We just started the semester here, for example, which means I’m doing my best to get my teaching off to a flying start, preparing and overpreparing for every eventuality I can think of. In my composition classes, for example, we’re just about midway through our planning for the first formal essay, and I’m already drafting materials for the second. It’s pretty pragmatic stuff, and it means that the creative currents, at least in terms of poetry and fiction, are running slowly at the moment. I think that’s a normal and natural part of the process: ebb and flow, drought and flood, feast and famine. Sometimes our minds are preoccupied by other things, so when we lower the bucket into that spring-fed mental well it comes back empty. There are plenty of tricks to get those currents moving once again, but in some cases it’s simpler to concede and adapt to the pattern of our creative lives. I generally try to get one or two more sizable projects up and running during the more flowing moments and hope that the current will carry me to the next generative stretch.

The second is more exasperating, at least for me, and sometimes seems more pernicious. I’d call it The Unexpected Guest, although in my creative life it’s something more akin to a series of serial visitors. I know some writers who conceive of a plan and go at it from start to finish, then edit and expand, rethink and revise with single-minded purpose. In contrast, I tend to be at the mercy of fleeting obsessions, with one impulse preoccupying me for a short while before cascading into the next. It’s exciting and delightful at one level–the cascades keep on going for as long as I chase those impulses–but pretty dang annoying at another. It takes real effort to take those waves without being bowled over, but that’s the only way I can see a project through from start to finish.

Close to the end of the summer, for instance, I started lining up the components of a poetry collection that suddenly emerged from the shadows, a theme I’d been unconsciously fleshing out for months but didn’t really recognize as a coherent whole until I had written and revised about four pieces. The moment the bigger picture crystallized, however, I was able to sit down and lay out the ideas for other poems that would belong to that collection…until the idea for a novella intruded. So I set the collection aside, figuring I could chip away at it poem by poem, and drew up an outline for the novella and started in. As I set down the first few pages I grew increasingly fond of my main character and got a much better handle on their motives and voice…and then an idea for a series of hypnosis recordings arrived. I think you get the point. Back in the day it was called the pressure of ideas; today we might call it hyperfixation, though in my case it’s a decidedly subclinical thing. I can interrupt the pattern anytime I like, though it involves an act of will on my part. And at times it’s difficult to commit to that intervention, because it always feels far better to have too many ideas than too few.

Over the next couple of days I hope to see those recordings through, as I’ve done too much preliminary planning to shrug off the possibility. Then it’s back to the novella, I think–until some new impulse rolls in and bowls me over.

Working/Memory

Tension headaches normally occur for me as a band of muscular discomfort that’s snuggest around the back of my skull, and right around 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon I felt that old familiar band ratchet tight around my noggin. The source of tension, in this case, was both trivial and knowable: my partner asked me to find another landscaping company to do our annual shrub trimming next fall, as the folks we use had made the same mistake they’d made before.

That is, as I hope you can tell, a terribly small thing. It’s a tenth of a gram in the Grand Scale of Life. But the sudden tightening of that band told me I had just about reached the limit of my working memory.

I’ve had a headache for about four months now, which is of course a cause for concern. (I have some small reason for hope right now, as a second opinion from an optometrist following a couple of months of testing suggests that it’s nothing but the result of some corrective tension in the muscles surrounding my eyes.) But what it means these days is that I can tell almost to the moment when my working memory has reached capacity.

It’s almost always just a little thing, like the aforementioned incident, or someone sending me an email asking me to pencil in a meeting a couple of weeks away. That extra cathexis (a commitment of mental energy) shorts the circuit board and prompts my brain to power down, to idle for awhile. I told you recently about the ways in which I try to manage imminent tasks, but this is the flip side of that necessity. If I don’t keep clearing the queue, and if I don’t actively detach cathexes from things I can’t actually do anything about, then I am essentially sentencing myself to some cranial pain.

It’s easy to neglect that aspect of our processing, like subscriptions we signed up for once upon a time or appliances that are constantly running in the background. We’re not often aware of them. Walk down a hall in the middle of the night, however, and you’ll often find the faces of clocks running in other rooms, chargers lighted to let us know our phones and controllers are ready, appliances on standby. In my life I’ve got new stories and poems to draft, older ones to revise, lesson plans to write, and the like. That’s my day-to-day stuff, always drawing a little bit of energy. But the pending bits and bobs add up. I need to collaborate on a syllabus, though I don’t know when a colleague will be ready to tackle it; I need to make some hypnosis recordings to see how viable they might be as a side hustle, but I need to test some new tech before I do; I need to keep in mind appointments I’ve got on my schedule or plans I’ve made with my partner, though those hinge on a dozen contingencies beyond my control. And of course there are all the ambient worries I have zero control over, which take up a few amps of brainjuice each day. Until I get them off the docket they’ll hang around to haunt me.

No easy solutions to this matter, alas, aside from doing my best to clear projects from my to-do lists as soon as I can. What’s more important, though, is to recognize the underlying pattern and not lay blame on the wrong doorstep. Unless we inform them, folks don’t know, and only we ourselves really know the state of play inside our minds. The trick, I think, is to create a little space to spare so that it takes some really extraordinary new commitment to take us over capacity.

If you figure out how to manage that, do let me know! Until then I’ll try to keep one step ahead of my own mind and see what I can do to make that tension relent.

Habits and Patterns

Today is the first day of the fall semester, which means that I’m an absolute wreck.

It’s not that I’m especially nervous about heading back to the classroom or anything quite like that (though I’m naturally trying to figure out how I’d like to manage my own masking and COVID care, among other things). The jangly part for me is trying to dial in the shape my life will take–or ideally ought to take–over the next several months.

The summer was loosely scheduled, but the moving parts of each day were decidedly mechanical. I knew with perfect certainty what I’d be doing up until about noon on most days, and in the hours that followed before my partner came home from work I generally knew what I’d be up to. The bad news for me is that I didn’t plan any transitional time into the calendar: I knew I’d be reconsidering my course outlines to get ready for the term in August, but I didn’t brace myself for the temporal lurch that unsurprisingly arrived today. I wrapped up my summer plans on Friday, and today I’ve got to figure out the shape of my days and ways over the next four months or so. A weekend was not nearly enough time to get myself sorted.

Broadly speaking I’m cautiously optimistic about some big-picture prospects. Over the weekend I identified a change in tech that should allow me to dive into some recording ideas I’ve been planning for awhile, and I also came across a movie that perfectly captures the tone I’m aspiring to in both my novel and in the new novella project I started late in July. I feel pretty good about my teaching plans for the semester as well, as I’ve rejiggered many of the moving parts to make them more accessible and student-friendly. I tend to mistrust autonomic optimism, optimism as an unexamined habit of mind, but when enough moving parts align I try to ride out that trust.

To get my mind in some semblance of order–and to capitalize on these strange optimistic impulses–I’m leaning on some old tricks of the trade, which I thought I might pass along today. There’s nothing revolutionary about them, but they are often of use to me when I’m getting ready for change but haven’t quite decided what that change is going to look like.

The first step is broad-based itemization. It’s the kind of goal-setting most of us do when we’ve got longer-term prospects on the horizon. I lost thirty pounds over the summer, for instance, and I’d like to keep that momentum going. I’d like to finish off the draft of the novella. I’d like to figure out how to make better hypnosis recordings. It’s all chunky stuff, stuff that I’ll chip away at over the course of the coming weeks and months–big plot arcs rather than individual scenes.

The second step, then, is breaking apart my ambitions. I find few things more dispiriting than having a long, undifferentiated list of things to do that I can’t actually accomplish in any settled length of time. For me it feels like having a full cognitive inbox, an inbox stuffed with messages that I have no choice but to leave in the hopper. I know folks who regularly open up Outlook and find themselves starting at dozens or hundreds of emails. That’s far too many cathexes for my mind to manage, so I like to break actionable notions down into separate lists. At present, that means I’ve got Optional/Future projects in one (story ideas I’ve got in mind for various calls for submissions, for example, or revisions of older projects that have occurred to me), On-Deck/Ongoing items in another (like the draft of the novella, the refinement of my recording methods for hypnosis content, etc., all of which I’ll nibble at over weeks and months), and Week of August 29th prospects in the third, uppermost list. Those are all items I can reasonably tackle over the next couple of days, like buying a new USB cord or cleaning my computer desktop or getting my books for the term on the right shelf. They remind me that I’m making progress every day, and they keep me from fretting about those pending tasks that would haunt that uppermost list if I were less granular.

Step three is focusing on a) the known and b) the known bits of business that actually fall to me. Left to its own devices my brain can conjure up plenty of junk to worry about, though most of those conjurings belong to the realm of The Unknown. My partner, for example, plans to start up her own business in the coming months, and I intend to help her out in any way I can. But at this juncture I have only a fuzzy idea about what kind of help she might like, so fretting about it inevitably leads me to an array of dead ends. Likewise, I’ll be collaborating with a colleague on a course we’d like to get on the books in 2023 or 2024. Right now, however, the ball is in her court; we’ve got some ideas on the table, but not much progress can be made until we’re both ready to hunker down and get the syllabus written up. I could try to slap some flesh on the bones on my own, but all of that work could be pointless if we decide to move in a different direction. That project, then, gets dropped into the On-Deck file–it doesn’t need to crowd my brainspace right now.

Step four, given the divisions I’ve made, is tackling stuff on the first hop–getting junk done as soon as I’m able. The infinite business we call Adulthood involves the churning of tasks, clearing one item from the to-do list only to add another and another. The longer we leave those items pending, however, the more cognitive energy we expend, at least in my experience (hence the reference to cathexes above). Today I’m meant to blog, for example, so here I am blogging. As soon as I’ve finished the entry I’ll cross it off my list, and then I’ll tackle other items, one after another, until it’s time for me to head to campus. It’s not the sexiest state of affairs, but it will keep me from succumbing from that paralysis that comes with having too much junk to do and too little time to do it. Today could have easily become unmanageable, which would bode ill for the term, but I’m one paragraph away from completing this task and I’ve already got three tasks behind me. Not bad for 8:00am on a Monday, and at day’s end I’ll feel like I’ve made some progress–primarily because I actually have.

The fifth and last step on the day is anchoring the new habits, which I think is important to do any time I alter my routine, the mechanical pattern that shapes my day. It often feels like a cheap trick to me, but it’s really just a substantial, visible reminder of the difference I intend to instate. Right now, for example, I’m drinking from a different coffee mug, a mug unlike the one I used every day this summer. It seems like a trivial change, but every time I reach for it I’m reminded that what I’m doing today is not what I’ve been doing every day since May. Many folks I know consider themselves impulsive, spontaneous people, but I think there are generally underlying patterns–how we eat if not what we eat, how we actually dress ourselves if not what we’re wearing–that we tend to gloss over, some of the foundational habits we have learned to sublimate. Even a slight revision can be enough to remind us that things are a little different, enough to get some new way of living underway.

Practical Magics

Image from NASA via Unsplash.com

I’ve been revisiting the manuscript for the novel over the past week, just skimming over a few pivotal scenes and trying to prioritize edits. I’ve got a handful of higher-order changes to make, and I think foremost among them will be adding proofs of the antagonist’s capabilities. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not terribly fond of endless escalation, page after page and scene after scene of misery that forecloses all chances for the protagonist to win the endgame (except one, naturally), but I do think it’s important to hammer out proportions at the level of overall ability. The antagonist almost always has an edge, usually at the level of ruthlessness; we expect traditional protagonists to care for others and perhaps even exercise restraint when push comes to shove. I’ve established ruthlessness in my villain, I think, but I also need to make clear that, as far as overall juice goes, she’s got plenty of power and wants a little more.

The catch, alas, is that I find power dynamics endlessly fascinating. As subject matter goes, it’s a rabbit hole I can easily tumble down if I’m not very, very careful.

I can’t say I’ve got an especially good handle on the topic, largely because it’s so elusive and pervasive, occurring in a wide variety of forms and shaped by countless contexts. It’s not hard for me to see that most every scholarly or creative prospect I take up falls somewhere on the graph where power and ethics intersect. My approach to education is meaningfully informed by power, from the implied consent that comes with enrollment in a class to the mechanics of grading to the design of assignments. Seemingly simple matters quickly get bound up in questions of preparation, access, and fairness. Hypnosis is knotted up in questions of power as well–how much power is the hypnotee handing over when they enter a hypnoidal state, for example, a question that is itself complicated by my use of hypnotee rather than subject and hypnoidal state rather than trance. It’s a realm of operations where people go in expecting to be manipulated, but only in ways the psyche can accept. I write on BDSM from time to time, as it is an area of inquiry and practice that attempts to make power dynamics transparent but at the same time involves a distinctive kind of ethical negotiation–no matter how participants talk it through, there’s a moment when conditions of possibility change. Games (both video and table-top) are fraught with questions of what players can do, how and why they do it, and the means by which they acquire power for the doing. And storytelling centers on the play of power at the level of knowing and knowledge, as the writer manages disclosure and the reader makes meaning from what they learn along the way, sometimes wresting control of the story away from the person doing the telling.

I could go on and on, which is perhaps why in my own storytelling I find it difficult to manage power with a light touch. And that catch itself comes with a catch, as power often operates on us invisibly, in ways we don’t always recognize until it’s too late. There’s no such thing as fair play when it comes to narrative, but the teller’s power only goes so far. The trick of telling, I think, is to arm the reader with all the information they need, and to trust that they are going to use that information as you intend. It’s a big swing and a big risk, but it’s one we have to accept if we expect magic to happen.