Plausibility and Beyond

(Image adapted from Bogomil Mihaylov at

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Pattern Interruption

Over the past weekend my partner and I went on a brief vacation to a bed and breakfast up in Traverse City. It made for a lovely, simple break–we made some tentative plans, but for the most part we played each day by ear, cruising around and stopping whenever something novel caught our eye. For her it was a needful respite from work, which can become stressful during the summer months, and for me it was an effective jolt, as I’d fallen into an existential rut.

Late in April, just as exam week was starting, a headache settled in. It was mild, all things considered, but distracting enough to make my days more complicated. After I muddled through exams I took a week off (another valuable break) to dial in my plans for the summer, but once again I fell into a rut by mid-June. It’s been a pretty productive rut, but it was clouded over by the headache and the daily pattern it yielded. My early morning workouts tended to clear my head, so they usually set the stage for some good writing time before lunch. But on more than a few days I opted to tackle stray errands before most folks were out and about instead, which was often A Bad Idea. I’d use my mornings kindasorta well, but I’d wind up frittering away my afternoons instead of dealing with whatever was on my existential checklist, which is for me generally bad policy. The headache, the malaise, and my tendency to dwell on bits and bobs over which I have precious little control (an impending promotion, the prospect of student loan forgiveness, enrollments in my fall classes, my exasperation with local medical care providers, and the like) bogged me down, mostly because I allowed it to.

So the trip to the upper yonder was valuable in a couple of ways. The route we took involved driving along roads I used to take to visit a former partner, an absolutely lovely woman who brought out some of the very best bits of me. There was a bit of reminiscing and existential recollection, which helped me to think differently and more critically about the progress of my current pattern. Additionally, and more importantly, some cranial tumblers apparently fell into place. On our return I started to fall back into an old, positive pattern, a tendency to focus on what I can do rather than what wasn’t happening for me.

In hypnosis, pattern interruption tends to be a transparent mechanism: a hypnotist will help a subject to shift their perspective, to examine patterns they inhabit, and then intervene at the point where a break and change might do some good. The persistent headache makes for a decent example. Heading into the summer I did my due diligence. I started out with an eye exam based on my limited observations at the time (the headache, a bit of double vision, moments of feeling slightly off balance), then went to my primary care physician, then went to a neurologist. After imaging and blood tests ruled out a bunch of potential issues, I figured I was pretty much done–it was simply pain I was going to have to live with. That felt like a settled fact by mid-June. When we went up to Traverse City, in fact, my sole focus was on keeping mum about the headache, making sure I didn’t do anything to prevent my partner from having a merry, relaxing time.

The break itself, however, prompted me to think a little differently about the world when we returned. On Wednesday I focused on doings–taking care of the laundry from the trip, tackling a couple of tasks I’d tabled, and emptying out my many inboxes, which consisted primarily of messages I could easily address but had deferred answering. Along the way I also called an older optometrist for a new eye exam. I figured a bit of fresh perspective wouldn’t hurt, and attempting something I could do rather than fretting about all the stuff that’s out of my control did my noggin some good. It would cost me a little time and money, but (since I had more info about the way my headaches, double vision, and vertigo behave after three months of living with them) the visit would help me lay to rest a few doubts about the sufficiency of that first eye exam. The doing, in the abstract, promised to relieve a little lingering stress and tension, but as it turns out it also identified a probable cause the first eye exam missed.

Pattern interruption doesn’t always work that way, of course, but the headache example makes for a fine illustration of the essential mechanism. We all get caught up in ways of thinking about things and doing things, and over time–assuming that the habits are essentially successful in helping us to get by–those patterns can become fixed, rigid, stagnant. To shake ourselves free we often need only a little time and distance to conceive of matters differently. And from that point of reconceptualization, it’s often possible to make change step by step, to climb out of those old ruts, to move somewhere new.

Over Flow

Although it’s not an especially rigorous representation, I find it helpful to describe hypnosis as a flow state. Most folk will nod along at that explanation, and the pleasurable recollection of being in the zone comes with plenty of positive associations a hypnotist can capitalize on. Because suggestibility hinges on the desire and intentions of the hypnotee, an invitation to enter into a flow state of one’s own volition is terribly enticing.

I also like to think of work in terms of rhythms and patterns, which is why I’m a little off this morning. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been chipping away at a writing project I took on to transition out of novel writing, knowing full well that I’d turn back to writing short stories and poems before long. Each morning I’d tuck in to the project, an eight-part sequence, with a rough count of 1000-1500 words in mind. I’d be pleasantly absorbed in an individual entry for an hour or two, drafting uncritically before subjecting whatever I produced to a rough-and-ready edit, and then I’d set it aside. Yesterday I polished off the last draft of the sequence, however, so today I’m in The Lurch. I need to identify the next project and devise the right rhythm for it, then fit it into the big-picture pattern of my work-day, -week, and -month.

The challenge of doing so, I think, is one of the byproducts of These Uncertain Times that we might not be paying enough attention to. While it’s decidedly not the whole of it, I think it’s one of the reasons that the shifting landscape of COVID-19 is so unsettling and disruptive to so many folks. Our plans–especially our longer-term plans–become more fragile, more contingent and it’s hard to establish larger daily or weekly patterns that make flow at the level of minutes or hours possible. Even a normal day like today will involve for me an unwelcome expenditure of mental energy that will keep me from being pleasantly generative. I’d normally be writing right now, but because I have errands on tap my brainspace is churning with pragmatics. In the past few minutes I had to settle the question of shaving (as a smidge of stubble helps to hold my masks in place), the order of operations (which will likely involve going to two stores on the opposite side of town as soon as they open to limit my exposure to humanoids), and the impact on the remainder of my day (which will now involve submissions rather than the drafting of something new). It all seems small, almost trivial, but even a bit of modest jostling early on can keep me from settling into the right frame of mind to get work done over the course of the day. And arrangements I make today will affect the rest of the week in small but substantive ways.

To me it often feels like the difference between Living With and Living Around someone or something. One involves a kind of simple acceptance and welcome, a concession to the way things have become (which is, incidentally, 1000% different from ugly variations on fatalistic “It is what it is” thinking), while the other involves active accommodation, like tiptoeing around a crime scene in a desert, trying to retrace our own footsteps in shifting sands, reluctant to touch anything. The former can take some getting used to, but once we’re done we can add it to the pattern; the latter requires mindfulness each time, and that can be exhausting.

For that reason it’s not a bad idea to be sensibly gentle with ourselves these days, gentle as far as we are able. And to enjoy those moments of flow when they come, even if we can’t easily fit them into the larger rhythms and patterns of our days and ways.


(Kerry Noonan as Paula, center, from Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives)

If you’re like me–and my apologies if you are–you’ll remember where you were when Paula died.

I came late to Friday the 13th as a franchise, but even as a whelp I understood a few basic truths about the context of Camp Crystal Lake. Foremost among them was the catalyst offered to the viewer in the very beginning, way back when Mrs. Voorhees was our antagonist: negligent counseling will not be tolerated. That premise gets folded in to a wide variety of transgressions, sex and drug use foremost among them, but we are asked again and again to remember that wee Jason Voorhees died because those entrusted with his welfare were not paying attention.

It’s perhaps for that reason that Part VI felt like such a strange departure–though of course the fact that Jason had been reanimated Frankenstyle might have at least a little to do with it. For at this iteration of the camp we actually had perhaps the most responsible counselor the place would ever see: Paula, pictured above. And what becomes of her? She is murdered, and while most of the murdering occurs offscreen (save for a moment when her mostly- or wholly-dead self is chucked through a window and hauled back in), the aftermath suggests that Jason went a little wild with the killing, even for him. Most of the other deaths in the film are forthright affairs–efficient stabbings, skewerings, beheadings–but I remember seeing the entire interior of Paula’s cabin painted with her blood and wondering what was up. What made Jason single her out for the bonus round? The answer, I believe, is a bucket of nothing: it simply makes for a more spectacular reveal than just another dead body in a film that would see a dozen.

Murder–and I hope it goes without saying–is not a top-shelf problem-solving strategy. But in horror it often gets doled out in ethical proportion: those who deserve the worst fates typically get them, often in an ironic way that lays bare their awfulness. Part VI, however, seems to set aside that ethos, indulging in murder without much reference to that artificial–and I would say artful–standard. A little while after Paula is killed a kindly police officer dies right after trying to comfort an actual camper. So it seems pretty clear that we’re moving toward a new ethos, one that’s meant to offer the audience a different kind of satisfaction. And I’m not sure I’ll ever find it satisfying.

I still watch horror movies when I can (my partner isn’t a fan, so I sneak them in when she’s otherwise engaged), but I find that more and more films lean on a more elusive ethical vision of death that, while perhaps more realistic, seems far less poignant and meaningful. And there are some I find downright nihilistic; those I simply won’t watch. As a viewer I still need something of an ethical vision, even if it’s not a positive or redemptive one. If the point is that people die because people die–and if the writer and director seem to reserve especially cruel punishment for those who try to be good, or caring, or helpful–then I feel I might have better served by a book or a movie with something more substantive to say.

The Only Way Round

Like most humans/humanoids, I go through fertile and fallow periods. For long stretches my head is intensely generative and creative, snatching up stuff from the aether and turning it into something substantive. Like most humans/humanoids, I’ve also found it challenging to navigate These Uncertain Times™. Some days I’m grateful for the distraction of a pending obligation or project, but on others I struggle to muster the requisite energy to get even a little bit accomplished. Because I’m a high-functioning weirdo, however, I often have enough oomph to wake up and get what needs doing done.

One consequence of These Uncertain Times™, however, has caught me by surprise: for the past three months or so I haven’t really daydreamed, haven’t really fantasized, haven’t really flexed any imaginative muscles in a conscious, purposeful way. I should probably qualify that a bit for clarity: I’ve planned and schemed and executed a few designs, but not much is happening on the ideational front. When I stare at the proverbial stucco, not much is going on. Nothing new intrudes and asks for my attention.

That might seem like a strange claim to make, but it’s one I’m confronting today. In sifting through my Big Folder of Percolating Projects I realized the latest new entry is dated September 24th. I spent much of the time between then and now chipping away at the novel, of course, but in the early part of the writing process my mind was routinely coming up with oddities that got stuck in my cognitive craw and that I jotted down for later use. These days, that’s not often true. It might be that I don’t see much on the horizon to look forward to in the near term, and it might be that my brain has exhausted most of its usual objects. Without a little challenge, change, or provocation, even the spiciest fodder can seem a little stale.

Because this is a writerly blog, however, I think it’s worthwhile to squint hard enough at those clouds to spot the silver lining: The Big Folder of Percolating Projects is a real thing, and at present I’ve got about sixteen fresh-ish ideas to work with and build on. I’ve got older notions foldered away here and there to tide me over as well, enough to ride out several months in the bunker. As a takeaway life lesson, then, my avuncular advice is to keep on hoarding and storing–to sock away plenty of stuff to work on when the Idea Fairies aren’t visiting quite as often as you like. The writing life involves more than a little patience as we see things through from start to finish, and if we find a few stray seeds when we’re tending to the old growth, it’s not a bad idea to pot them up, stow them in the hothouse, and see what’s sprouted when better weather comes around.