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.

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.

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.

On Time

I’ve been chipping away at several projects lately, though the going has been unusually slow. The causes of the slowdown? Time, timing, and timekeeping.

Time, of course, is something of an ass. Though it feels like this summer has been unfolding slowly (perhaps because I’ve been awaiting the outcome of Several Significant Things, and the suspense has stretched out the hours), each individual day passes by far too quickly. I rise at about 5:00, have a pre-workout drink before heading to the gym, come back around 9:00, have a proper breakfast between 9:00 and 10:00, take a second shower, run whatever errands need to be addressed, eat a light lunch, and then sit down to the keyboard. Though I know that I write best in the early morning, this is the schedule I’ve been obliged to settle into, that makes the best use of my time overall. Last summer, when the gym held odd hours in light of COVID protocols, worked very well for me, as it shifted my gym arrival time to 11:00 and gave me a few hours of drafting time in the morning as well as a few hours of productive revising time in the afternoon and early evening before my partner came home from work. This year has given me more room for self-determination, but the result has been less than ideal.

That’s the view from the world outside my fiction and poetry. But the inside is where things have become both sticky and tricksy of late.

The novel I drafted last summer, for instance, plays out over the course of six narrative weeks, with two sides–and multiple actors on each side–conspiring and acting against one another. Much of my revision, alas, has centered on making the time line simpler and clearer while trusting the reader to follow along a little more gamely. I suspect that when all is said and done I’m going to strip out a few thousand words just to get some excesses in temporal reckoning out of the way. The same hold true for the novella I’ve recently begun, which hinges on reflection and retrospection. For the story to work I need to fix the central story events at a specific point in time, then count forwards and back to attend to the aftermath. I can skate on historical details to some extent–the narrator/point of view allows me to dispense with most of the period particulars–but I need to make sure the timing works out for the young protagonist, for the life events that ultimately shape their older self, and for all the bits and bobs in between. In the drafting process that leads to quite a lot of spot research when I want to mix in a historical point of reference to enrich the context and enhance the realism, which means the going has been slow. It’s not a bad thing–the researching and dreaming stages are important portions of the program–but at day’s end I always wish I was working a little bit faster.

To offset the tension that come with slogging progress I’ve been writing poetry, but that, too, has come with its own snags, snarls, and opportunity costs. Normally when I compose a poem I’ll knock out a few lines, arrive at an impasse, and step away from the keyboard for a few minutes (or hours) so my noggin can resolve the problem with some background processing. When I’m working on multiple pieces, however, I wind up using my working memory to deal with some new issue that arises in the interim. I can’t count on background processing when I’m preoccupied by objects in the foreground. That means that my mind is trudging haltingly along parallel lines. I know the solution–to deal with one project at a time like a grown-up–but that’s a hard ask when all the work is equally intriguing.

Today I intend/hope to rethink things and settle on some short-term priorities, though my long-term prospects will probably hinge on refining my habits of mind. I’d rather be writing, of course, but devoting some of my writing time to roping coltish notions in the cognitive corral is probably time well spent.

Knives In

I’m working on a reflective, retrospective story right now, so I went back to Different Seasons to see how Stephen King handled reflection and retrospection in “The Body.” I wanted to revisit the narrative to see how he handled dialogue particularly, as it strikes me as a little slippery in reminiscences but, as always, new eyes led me to notice new things.

All the gestures of artifice and artfulness are there, and it’s hard (having read King’s On Writing more than once) not to notice debts to geography and biography in King’s work. But what caught my eye most this time around were the plotting and the violence, especially in terms of how the story portrays pain.

I won’t spoil too many features of the narrative, but I think it’s fair to say the plot is broadly mimetic in its effort to capture memory. Although we know the narrator, Gordie, has grown up to become a writer, the piece follows the contours of his remembrance, which is a kindly way of saying it’s sprawling. But it sprawls revealingly, catching at all the moments that Gordie has attached to the singular experience of traveling down the train tracks with three friends to see a dead body. In short, until they reach that body and live out all the consequences of doing so, not much happens. They buy supplies, they swim, they walk and talk. We get glimpses of how Gordie sees the world along the way. King spikes the journey with thrills and horrors, as one might expect, but the walking and talking is paramount.

And at story’s end we get a grim epilogue. If you’ve seen the film adaptation, Stand by Me, you might imagine that the focus of the conclusion is on remembered friendship, a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia offered by an older, wiser man who sounds a lot like Richard Dreyfuss. In the narrative, however, the ending centers on pain. Most vivid, I think, is the depiction of the beatdowns the reader is led to expect. Older bullies, thwarted in their ambitions earlier in the story, pick off the members of the quartet one by one. Blood is shed and bones are broken, and King catches at the harm done vividly and viscerally.

More haunting, however, is the manner in which King threads other kinds of pain through Gordie’s reflection. We learn a great deal about how life treated these four boys after this pivotal event–about the changes they underwent, about the kinds of young men they grew to be. Gordie’s story fixes particularly on the fate of Chris, his closest friend, and reflects on his short life in a clear-eyed, almost declarative way. But pain–felt pain–comes through. It’s subdued, understated, and tinged with the matter-of-factness that characterizes Gordie’s point of view most of the time. It’s a pain that lingers, however, that lasts after the wounds have closed and the bones have mended.

I think that’s one of the elusive qualities that elevates King’s stories in the eyes of his audience. Over the past few weeks I’ve binged on quite a bit of cinematic horror, and in those stories it’s easy to see both how fragile and durable our bodies are (at least on the silver screen). Between Scream 5, the Fear Street trilogy, and a few other flicks I’ve seen at least twenty slashings and a great deal of blood loss. Those moments shock and appall, just as you’d expect.

But the stories, like “The Body” itself, take on depth and complexity when viewers and readers see costs and losses, when they plug into characters with sympathy and imagination and try to envision what a life would be like with all those absences, with all that trauma. Those costs and losses, when reckoned well, seem to me more meaningful, more momentous. At least a couple of the films I’ve screened have thrown in an extra knife wound or two just to remind the viewer that no one is safe, that no one comes through the experience without shedding a little blood. But to me, at least, those casual stabbings are gratuitous in a suggestive way. We don’t need to see them to know that the characters we care about are leaving the screen harmed and scarred, with the sort of aches and pains that will haunt them all their lives.

Heat and Light

Photo by Huper by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

While I’m only a few weeks into The Academic Summer, the season is already off the rails. As always, I gave myself a couple of weeks to gear down from the semester. I tackled a few cleaning projects and domestic diversions I’d deferred, and I also wrote/revised some short stories I thought I could manage in the three-week frame of May. It made for a goodly transition, and June and beyond were reserved for the revision of the novel manuscript. I made that plan last December, and it seemed like a fine one at the time.

Predictably, alas, I’ve moved into June with reservations. The trick for me invariably involves deciding if I’ve got reservations of the right kind.

As a rule, I resist (or try to resist) deferrals inspired by dread. If I suspect I’m avoiding a project because it looks daunting in prospect, then I’ll talk myself into proceeding (though it might take me a few days to get my skull on straight). Fear is a bad reason to punt. Revising the novel does seem to me like a sizable, significant thing, but it’s also an eminently manageable one–it’s work I’ve done before and I enjoy doing. I’ve jotted down notes since December to guide my revision, and I know exactly how I have to start. It will involve several weeks, but I’ve tucked into far more time-consuming work before. It’s decidedly doable, which of course means that a horde of smaller, more manageable projects are vying for my attention,

Some of them are bright and shiny–lots of anthology calls for short stories, for example, all of them with cool presses I’d love to work with. Some of them are also sizable and enticing. I have an idea for a volume of thematically-bound genre poems, for example, and in the process of sifting through the folders on my desktop as part of my three-week cleanup I realized I had a measure of the prep work already finished. Forward momentum seems like it should be well worth capitalizing on. But in the scheme of Wandlessian thinking both the shiny and enticing tend to be perpetually renewable resources. I could get more stories done for June deadlines, but then will I be able to resist new calls when July arrives? And completing a poetry manuscript would certainly involve not only realizing the bigger vision but also making sure that I’ve got plenty of stand-alone pieces to put into circulation. It’s the sort of thing that would be rewarding but would certainly stretch into next summer. And in both cases the work is on the speculative side–I’m not entirely sure what calls for stories I would answer, and I’m not certain what shape the collection will finally take. I’ll have to write my way toward those destinations in a loose, exploratory way. There’s heat to be had, but not light–not a clear sense of design and destination, a sense of how it would fit into the scheme of progress that will still see the novel revised in some definable amount of time.

The nail in this summer’s coffin for me, however, has been an opportune convergence, a more or less fully realized vision for a 30,000-50,000 word novella that grows a little sharper for me every day. It builds on the sort of impulse I generally trust: I had a vague recollection from my youth I wanted to flesh out, and it converged with a superficially unrelated idea that gives it shape, scope, and energy. If I just had a raw-yet-solid idea in mind I probably could set it aside. But this one comes with a sense of plot escalation right out the box. And a vivid sense of character arcs. And, as it turns out, a tone and a theme that very much vibe with my Wandlessian obsessions. That’s the sort of work I can’t easily turn away from. The heat is there, and so is the light, and I’d be a chump not to see where it leads me.

So my summer is off the rails, but I ain’t even mad, as the kids are wont to say. It’s not a trolley problem: I’m confident the new rails I’m on run parallel to the ones I planned to ride this summer. And if I learn a few things along the way that allow me to come at the revision of the novel with fresh insight and energy, then it’s a side quest well worth accepting.

The In-Crowd

This is proving to be a jugglesome summer, with a bunch of optional tasks and ambitions piling up all willy-nilly on my desk. In the next few weeks I hope to finish off and send out a couple of stories, chip away at the revision of my novel, and work on a few hypnosis recordings, in addition to any game writing that might come my way from the fine folk over at Superhero Necromancer. All the while I’ll be trying to revise and tighten up my daily routine, which currently features my return to the gym, some low-level household repairs, and some prep for the fall semester. It should make for a pleasantly hectic stretch.

I’m also trying to keep up with some of my usual diversions in the new shuffle, and most mornings I swing by Discord, Reddit, and a couple of other channels to see what’s happening in the worlds of hypnosis, ethics, gaming, and other areas of interest that intrigue me. It’s not much of a morning ritual, but it’s usually enough to get the gears spinning.

Today’s visit to HypnoDiscord was particularly interesting, insofar as what I believe to be an adult human male–one in his early 40s, as it turns out–is having a meltdown. He has, to his thinking, made an earnest effort to engage and be engaging, to enter into dialogue with his fellow Discordians respectfully and amiably, to earn himself the sort of exposure that will make him a fixture on the channel he’s joined for years to come. Alas, his efforts have not paid the dividends he expected, and this morning he’s railed against the in-crowd for denying him the access he deserves.

Folks, he’s been on the channel for about eleven days.

I will not pretend to be wily in the ways of human interaction, networking, or suchlike things, but (since Discord makes retracing steps fairly easy) I went back and took at look at how this critter engaged with the channel. And Lo! it was perhaps not as wholesome and inoffensive as he suggested. He indeed put himself out there, as the kids say, but often in intrusive or obtrusive ways, popping into conversations and offering underinformed opinions, offering tactical compliments to the users he hoped to impress, and otherwise doing things that struck most other users as a little bit disingenuous. And at a second level of engagement he was behaving in less savory ways–piling on in some exchanges when he could see which way the wind was blowing, reflecting negatively on other contributors in order to install himself at a higher place in the conversational hierarchy, etc. It made for an interesting portrait, all told. What struck me as telling, at day’s end, is that he felt his efforts were sufficient to earn his way in after a very short tenure on the boards.

In general I do believe that most social fora involve some level of earning in, but in-crowds tend to be more inclusive than exclusive phenomena. They’re most often matters of finding ones folk, surprisingly enough, rather than going out of one’s way to bar others from admission. The recent Stoker Awards make for a fine illustration, especially since I “watched” them mostly from the sidelines on Twitter. I think it’s 100% normal and healthy to be envious of the lively interactions had by folk in the horror community on such an occasion, especially since they were lovely folk having a lovely time: gorging on books, meeting old friends and peeps they’d long admired, and celebrating one another. More intriguingly, at least with today’s theme in mind, you could see folks Earning Their Way In live–not by dint of being so important and conspicuous that they couldn’t be ignored, but being friendly and accessible, attentive and generous, genuine and gentle. There is of course a natural, inevitable dimension of self-selection (one would rather expect that folk who regularly see each other on the convention and awards circuit would be apt to meet one another and form friendships), but on the surface there’s no evidence of the sort of concerted gatekeeping that our pal on HypnoDiscord called out. There are just folk being folk, looking out for like-minded folk out there in the madding crowd, doing all the honest, authentic, and open things that connect folk to one another.

While I’m here trying to connect, however, I might as well mix in some overt self-promotion, for I am in the final round of the contest over on the Big Purple Wall. If “Clicker” diverts, amuses, or moves you, be sure to give it a vote! You can vote every day over the ten-day contest run, and I’d sure appreciate it!

Art/Work

Still sifting through the rubble left over from the semester, and I’ve wound up with a list of things to do about as long as my very-long forearm. Last summer/fall was entirely preoccupied by a single task, drafting the novel, so this year I find I’m rather out of practice in living life a little more organically.

Most years I feel a little bereft the week after school wraps up for the term. A highly-structured, high-accountability life with dozens of human connections lurches into the blank expanse of summer, which is no less work-intensive but much more discretionary and features far fewer players in the ensmble. It’s of course one of the auld ironies that plenty of folks assume teachers begin the annual ritual of gallivanting about when summer comes around, but at best I’ve got a soupcon of gallivanting tentatively penciled in for about two weeks this year. Among the topmost items on my to-do list, however, are investigating new books to teach in 2022-23, fleshing out a new class to pitch to the university’s newly-launched Center for Learning through Games and Simulations, redesigning some peer review structures for composition classes, etc. It’s quite a lot to do, and it’s best to do it while the spring experience remains fresh in my memory. And when it’s all done I get dessert: the chance to chip away at some new fiction and poetry projects, all the while chipping away at the revision of the novel.

Though I’m not a fan of thought-terminating cliches, I often have to remind myself that the work is the work. There are parts of it that are enormously rewarding, but the lion’s share of it aligns with my desire to put food on the proverbial table. I might well get the university equivalent of a merit raise this year, but when I look back on the documents I compiled to apply for that raise I come away with a vivid sense of the structure behind the structure, the grindy, hustly, churny bits of buiness that make the pleasures I sometimes get to indulge in possible. I have four years’ worth of documents foldered on my computer desktop, and another new folder awaits all the materials I’ll need to compile for 2026-27. The trick generally involves making the daily grind look and feel organic, like a natural, intuitive process rather than a systematic, rule-bound march toward that distant destination. Sometimes, however, the bones lay bared before me.

Every profession has it or something like it, of course–that under-structure of work that seems blandly mechanical at one level but becomes artful in practice. In teaching it most often occurs as a rhythm, a musical balance between classroom instruction, fielding questions, and getting and returning work, all while being responsive to the improvisations of students and administrators as we go. It’s true of every profession, however. My partner had a bit of dental work done on Wednesday, for instance, so I went to grab her the dinner she wanted from our local mashed-potatoes dispensary. And while I waited in line I could see a cashier utterly in the zone (whipping through customers at an impressive rate, keeping the lines of communication between the counter and the kitchen humming) coupled with a prep cook who was merrily pulling and packaging orders with dazzling automatic efficiency.

The snag in the system, however, was a middle manager (at first blush it looked like he had just started his shift) who was utterly out of sync with everyone else, working on a different set of imperatives that had a bit of footing in the dinner rush but was probably looking forward to all the tasks he needed to tackle by closing. It’s the sort of thing that gives one pause whenever a pundit speaks of unskilled labor. There are yawning chasms between knowing the work one is meant to do and doing that work efficiently and artfully. We can see it in its boldest, plainest strokes–the bench-riding second-stringer standing in for the masterful athlete, for instance–but generally forget that most steps in our daily experience hinge on someone who has worked long enough and hard enough that all the tricks of their trade become instinctive and invisible.

I’m thinking about that a lot when it comes to fiction today, the ways in which technique, when artfully accomplished, vanishes into the flow of a story–and the ways in which accomplished writers can venture past established techniques, can improvise and innovate to tell stories in unexpected ways.

Speaking of stories, while you’re here why don’t you swing by The Big Purple Wall, where my short story, “Clicker,” is freely available and currently in contention in a lively virtual scrum. If the spirits move you, you can vote every day, but I hope you enjoy the story any which way!

Concatenations

The past few weeks have afforded me the time to do a bit of extracurricular reading, which has served as a poignant reminder of how the reading/writing feedback loop works, at least for me. I think every book of writing advice under the sun tells us to read widely, variously, and voraciously, but I find what happens after is not discussed nearly as often.

Only rarely do I find myself directly influenced by any text I’ve encountered. I’ve never told myself to write a story or poem just like the one I’m reading. Every now and again I’ll come across an interesting poetic form, for example, and try to reverse-engineer it via a few trials of my own, but for the most part the new input caroms around the inside of my skull like billiard balls. Today I’m rereading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders, for example (I selected it for a class sight-unseen, based on good classroom experiences with Lucky Fish, skimmed it over Christmas, and am giving it a class-prep scouring right now), which is a lovely blend of natural observation and personal reflection. Inside my melon, however, the new content I’m pouring into my brain is colliding with memories, stray thoughts, and daydreams as well as snatches of facts and all the interruptions one is apt to encounter when one tries to sit still for an hour or three. It makes for an unpredictable mixture, but from it–because my brain is feeling pretty spongy this morning–I’ve been able to pluck out several unexpected bits and bobs that might turn into poems or stories as well as a few Notes to Self that could figure in my revisions for the novel manuscript when May rolls around. It’s much like adding loam to depleted soil–there’s a little nourishment to be had, but there’s no telling what will grow from it.

The chief challenge when attempting to encourage the reading/writing feedback loop is capitalizing on those chancy, flickering collisions. For the same reason I keep a bedside journal (and have an overhead bedroom lamp I can turn on remotely with the push of a button)–to catch fleeting thoughts before I drift off to sleep, thoughts I would otherwise surely forget–I tend to keep my phone beside me when I write. My Notes app is filled with ideas and reminders, suggestions I hope my future self will be able to take advantage of. As a tag-along clause, it’s important (for me, at least) to jot down hints and intimations with sufficient clarity for Future Me to follow up on. If I don’t, I generally find myself mystified by the cryptic, impressionistic ravings of this “Bill Wandless” person–if that is his real name.

Those habits of receptivity and recording, coupled with practice as constant as I can manage, might well be the most important formative forces in my writing life. While I sometimes rather wish I had a bit more control over what those forces actually form, it’s hard not to be astonished and delighted by the way my mind can surprise me.