cygnoir.net

Change, a poem set to music

“Change” is a poem I wrote about my experience in parochial school, all guilt and God and bad kissers. I chose a fixed form, the sestina, for this poem because of the themes of restriction and obligation. Also, fixed forms are fun.

Some time ago, my friend Gav recorded me reading the poem, then scored it, and I loved the result! It took me a while to share it because I feel tenderly protective about that past self. I hope you enjoy it.

cygnoir · Halsted M. Bernard with Gavin Inglis - Change

Within spitting distance of 20,000 words in my NaNoWriMo manuscript and I have given up on correcting my grammar because it takes too much time. 😱

Nearing 12,000 words and my shoulders are aching from typing so much each day. I might have to dictate some of my NaNoWriMo words this year!

My NaNoWriMo word count: 7,072. After the first 1,700 words, this story took a sharp left turn and I have no idea where it is going.

NaNoWriMo begins! For the past month and a half, I’ve been training for this by writing at least 750 words every day. I am feeling optimistic about finishing this year.

Tools and Tips for NaNoWriMo

We are mere days away from the start of National Novel Writing Month, so here are some helpful tools and tips for embarking on this bizarre journey:

  • Pacemaker allows you to set a word count goal for your manuscript and then a strategy like “Mountain Hike” in which your greatest effort is in the middle of the month. (That’s my preference, anyway.)
  • Workflowy is a supremely flexible and easy-to-use outlining tool. (Read my interview for more about how I use Workflowy to outline.)
  • These two Mythcreants posts by Chris Winkle have solid advice: “Outline a Short Story in Seven Steps” and “How to Turn Your Concept into a Story”. I also think that Christine Frazier’s day-by-day outline for NaNoWriMo could be useful if you’re starting from absolute scratch.
  • Scrivener is my software of choice. I used Ulysses for a while, but I missed features like the corkboard and the ability to snapshot a draft before revising. (NaNoWriMo participants get a 20% discount on the software, too.)
  • Don’t re-read what you’ve just written. That will engage your editor-brain, and there is no time for editing in November, only writing!

Share your favorite tools and tips in the comments. And good luck!

Encyclopedia Brown and Mister Rogers.

travelersnotebooks

About that writing offline I mentioned yesterday

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with notebooks. The first notebook I remember loving so hard that I wore it down to a floppy nub was spiral-bound with an orange cover. In my notebook I wrote down a lot of facts that I thought Encyclopedia Brown would need to know if he ever needed my help to solve one of his cases.

Now I carry two Traveler’s Notebooks: one for work, and one for creative projects. I like having this separation between the two worlds. When I switch between notebooks, I feel like Mister Rogers trading his jacket and dress shoes for a cardigan and trainers.

Writing from: a quiet study in Portland, Oregon. Listening to: Spotify’s Winter Classical playlist.

Postponing nothing.

selfleafie

Sometimes when I stroll through the circulation workroom of my library, a book cover catches my eye but because my to-read pile is already unreasonably large, I will merely nod respectfully to it and keep walking.

Yeah, right.

Recently my attention was snagged by “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. I was really digging November’s meditations on acceptance. This month’s meditations are on mortality, and they are more challenging. Example: December 1st was “Pretend Today Is the End” with this quote from Seneca:

"Let us prepare our minds as if we'd come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life's books each day. . . .The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time."

--Seneca, Moral Letters, 101.7b-8a

I expected this year’s Holidailies to be about how horrified I am by American politics. But when I considered the meditation, I didn’t want to write about that anymore. I’m no less horrified, and I will continue to combat the forces of darkness, but writing about it online is not how I want to spend my remaining time on the planet. (Writing it all out offline is a different story, and has kept me sane this year.)

In the interest of postponing nothing, here are things I want to tell you today:

  1. Fallen leaves smell really good. I know this because I got a good whiff when I took this selfie even though I have grown to hate how I look in photographs.
  2. I misheard a friend say "Van Gogh's Mirror" and started writing that short story in my head but if you beat me to it I won't be too mad.
  3. Reading this essay made me feel somewhat okay again after that NYT piece on Nazis in Applebee's. And also canceling my NYT subscription. Oops, politics.
  4. I have been knitting a sweater for FunkyPlaid since before we moved to Scotland but I finally got professional knitting help today and I think this year might be the year I actually finish it! Postponing nothing, right?

Writing from: a quiet study in Portland, Oregon. Listening to: “Follow the Leader” by Foxygen.

This Week

Life

Hello from the midst of another Portland ice-pocalypse! FunkyPlaid and I have a fire going in the fireplace and still have power, but the sidewalks and roads are covered with ice. Now that I have somewhat recovered from last year’s Project 365, I thought I’d attempt this weekly review again.

To combat the winter doldrums, I’ve restarted my daily mood tracking with Exist, which also integrates data from various other services I use to find trends and correlations. Some of the correlations will be obvious – like a better mood on weekends – but I am looking forward to the less obvious ones.

One of the services that Exist integrates is RescueTime, which I use to track how I’m using my computer time. It tells me that I have been 65% productive, which is a 10.2% increase from last week. (That is an overall productivity score, not only during work hours, so it also includes how much faffing off I do online during nights and weekends. This is intentional.)

Work

Three big deadlines hit all at once, which means that I spent too long in my office and felt pretty disconnected from my team. When I got home each night after work, I was too drained to do anything useful. But somehow I managed to begin a new short story draft!

twitter.com/cygnoir/s…

Media

I finished reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt which is a gorgeous novel. It perfectly captures that free-fall of a passionate love affair and all the ennui-ridden rumination that accompanies it. I’m looking forward to watching Carol now that I have read the source material.

I started reading You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life because that seems like a good plan for 2017.

This week I have been listening to a lot of Real Jazz on SiriusXM. I also listened to the La La Land soundtrack a couple of times and finally listened to the newest Dinosaur Jr. album, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. Hearing Dinosaur Jr. again prompted me to once again attempt to reconstruct one of the best mixtapes I have ever received. (Adam, if you’re reading this, that mixtape haunts my dreams.)

FunkyPlaid and I saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and enjoyed it quite a bit. We also finished watching Westworld, which was ultimately a disappointment. I loved the first few episodes, at least. Then we started watching Luke Cage which I like so much more than Jessica Jones!

On the Internet

twitter.com/cygnoir/s…

[ more tweets & retweets, etc. ._.-. this section will be better in the future ]

Ink o' the Week

I gave Rohrer & Klingner’s Verdigris another go, but it is too dark for me. I’m still enamored with the cool greenish-grey of De Atramentis Charles Dickens. Maybe I should look for an ice-blue to go with all of this wintry weather … recommendations?

Day 282 of Project 365: Reading old drafts.

Today’s big task was to reboot my writing routine, so I downloaded Scrivener for iOS and synched some manuscript drafts to my iPad. I love using Scrivener on my Mac, and I’m so glad that the iOS app was worth the wait.

While learning how to use Scrivener for iOS, I re-read part of last year’s NaNoWriMo manuscript. I had become somewhat disheartened about it after telling a few people bits and pieces of the plot and worrying over their responses. Re-reading the draft today affirmed my belief that there is a story I want to tell in there, and it’s got solid bones that I can edit into something good.

I won’t make the same mistake again, though; from now on, I’ll keep the details of early drafts all to myself.

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Writing from: my study in Portland, Oregon. Listening to: soft autumn rain.

Day 241 of Project 365: Time is on my side.

Lately I’ve been struggling with time management. At work, there rarely seems to be enough time to get things done. At home, there is never enough time to relax before I have to get back to work. And on the bus, time smushes up so that even when I have extra hours to read, to listen to podcasts, or simply to ponder life, I do a little of those and a lot more dozing off.

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One thing is for certain right now: I’m not spending enough time writing. I’m heartsick whenever I realize another day has gone by without significant progress on any draft. Eleven weeks into the new job and I’m fixating on being unable to write short stories on the bus. Something is wrong here and I need to figure it out.

Day 16 of Project 365: Panda says relax.

2016-01-16

Many hours later, I am still riding the high of an epic karaoke evening with Writers’ Bloc. The month I moved here I saw them perform for the first time and thought to myself, “I would love to be in Writers’ Bloc someday.”

A year later, I was.

Since then, we have shared many pints in the back room of a local pub, critiquing and scheming and blethering on. I’ve been lucky enough to perform with them a few times, too. Both the critiques and the performances have been invaluable, and I would not have half the excitement for and confidence in writing that I currently do had it not been for Bloc’s influence.

One of the pre-karaoke cocktails I had at Panda & Sons had a hidden message folded up and tucked into it. Panda said relax, and I listened, and I sang, and I laughed, and I will remember.

Writing from: a frosty lounge in Edinburgh. Listening to: the anti-karaoke, Chopin’s Nocturnes.

Day 14 of Project 365: Be ready.

2016-01-14

On the way to the Writers’ Bloc meeting tonight, Gav pointed out this pair of boots stranded on Princes Street. I’d like to make up a story about how they came to be stranded on Princes Street, but I know the truth.

The person last seen wearing these boots was walking down Princes Street, minding her own business, humming a tuneless tune to herself. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone approach, and her heart immediately sank; she knew the types in brightly-coloured jackets who lunged cheerfully into one’s path and asked for donations to good causes. She walked faster but could not shake the figure who now loomed into her space. Before she could beg off the donation with mumbled appeasements, a piece of paper was thrust into her hands. She squinted after the hastily retreating figure and then back to what it had given her.

“If you want to fly, jump now,” the paper read. She turned the paper over in her hands, looking for any distinguishing marks, or caveats, or disclaimers. Fly? For how long? To where? And jump? A big jump or a little jump or straight up or to the side or …?

She stopped walking then. She folded the piece of paper once and put it into her pocket. And then she looked up, way up until her eyes unfocused, and she jumped. The boots couldn’t go where she was going, so they stayed behind.

When you encounter an opportunity that scares you, be ready.

Day 1 of Project 365: Morning Pages

2016-01-01 23.24.32

You’ll have noticed that I failed utterly at Holidailies this year. It was the worst timing ever this year, what with the NaNoWriMo hangover and the lurgy and FunkyPlaid being away and trying to cram so much into my last-ever Edinburgh holiday season.

But I have missed a regular prompt to be creative here, and one experiment helped me do that like nothing else did: Project 365.

So let’s begin.

We’re starting with my ever-present sidekick, my Midori Traveler’s Notebook. I’ve fussed over digital productivity tools in the past here, and while I still use a few of them, I’ve been back to analog for a while now. I use the Bullet Journal system in one of my three notebook refills. That one keeps my daily task-list and other lists organised. The second is my writing notebook, in which I record ideas and write first-drafts longhand. The third is the one pictured, my morning pages journal. Per Julia Cameron’s advice, I write three pages every day in this journal to clear the cobwebs. These are stream-of-consciousness words, nothing so structured as to comprise a journal entry.

This year I did make one resolution: other than Project 365, I will not be participating in any something-a-day, something-a-month, something-a-year challenges in 2016. These challenges can be very motivating and inspiring for others but they fill me with anxiety. As soon as I made this promise to myself, I felt relieved. I’ve been using these external benchmarks as indicators that I am … doing what, exactly? I’m not even sure.

On the eve of a major relocation and its surrounding upheaval, it’s time for me to focus on what inspires me creatively, and do more of that. I hope you’ll join me as I figure it out.

On making messes.

Today I thought I might talk to you about making messes. And just before sitting down to write, I peeked at Twitter, and saw this tweet:

twitter.com/matthaig1…

I have never been terribly good at making messes. I cringe at my own floundering, especially when it comes to writing, because my taste is better than my current skill level. NaNoWriMo was a special kind of hell for me, which made it all the more important that I finish: I love surprises, but hate being surprised by myself. This is why I spend time every morning writing the mess out of my brain, what Julia Cameron termed “morning pages”. I grab my notebook and a fountain pen and I make a mess. I am okay with this mess.

But then NaNoWriMo happened, one 50,000-word mess. I’m glad I did it, and glad I finished, but it shook my confidence in my ability to tell a coherent story. My meticulous planning was abandoned within the first week because every time I sat down to write I had no interest in telling the story found in my outline. Knowing that it was more important to get words onto the page than to be strict about an outline, I opted for messy writing. New characters were invented, stuck around for a scene or two, and then disappeared. The protagonists went off on tangents that did not further the plot in any way. I barely adhered to basic rules of grammar.

I would love to tell you that it felt great to make this mess, but most days were slogs punctuated by brief moments of mediocrity. And I realise that all first drafts are crap, but a short story draft has the one shining benefit of being short. By the end of November I had the distinct feeling of being trapped at a party with people who kept cornering me in the kitchen with random anecdotes. “And another thing,” one would tell me as I looked longingly toward the door, stirring the ice in my empty drink. “Have I mentioned my long-lost cousin? Because I really think she would show up right about now and explain about the time I almost drowned as a kid.” What? Okay, no. Stop.

But now that I have a week of distance from NaNoWriMo, I see two bright spots to all this mess-making. One, by wildly bashing away at a keyboard for a month I refined an okay idea to a good one. Only a fraction of that good idea is in the first draft, so it will require a significant rewrite, but now I know the story I really want to tell. And the second bright spot was the camaraderie I felt by sharing this huge, ridiculous undertaking with other people. My mom and I texted our word-counts and encouragement to each other every day, which helped me stay focused despite being demoralised. And my friend sharks and I conducted several terrific writing-sprint sessions together, including our very last so we crossed the finish line at the same time.

I know my writing, and my life, would be better if I could learn to be okay with making a mess. How many things do I prevent myself from trying because I’m afraid to mess them up?

NaNoWriMo 2015

It’s almost here! National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, begins on Sunday. I will endeavour to write 50,000 words in the month of November. This undertaking is about quantity, not quality, so I cannot vouch for the words themselves, only the ridiculous number of them. This word count meter will update throughout the month so check back if you want to see how I’m faring.

But I’m a planner at heart, and so I’m using a fantastic tool called WorkFlowy to keep the chaos at bay. Frank Degenaar of Productivity Mashup has just published a thorough and engaging book called “Do Way, Way More in WorkFlowy”. In this interview for the WorkFlowy blog, Frank and I chatted about how I use WorkFlowy to create detailed outlines for my fiction. I also shared the WorkFlowy outlining template I created for use in NaNoWriMo and beyond.

If you do not want to participate in NaNoWriMo but would still like to support the 501©(3) nonprofit that makes it all possible, you can donate via my fundraising page.

Wish me luck!

Waiting for perfection.

Life

“If I waited for perfection, I’d never write a word.” –Margaret Atwood

Often I want to say something important in the perfect way, so I keep putting it off until I figure out the perfect way. If the perfect way never occurs to me, I never say the important thing.

The point is to say the thing because there will never be a perfect way. (Thanks, Ms. Atwood.)

So here’s the thing: in January, we are leaving Scotland to move back to the States. After getting our bearings in the San Francisco Bay Area we will likely end up in Portland, Oregon.

I have approximately thirty-seven different feelings about this move. On the whole, I think it will be the best thing for us. But Scotland has been home for four years, and there is so much I love about it, hence my wish for perfection in relating the news.

But it is better to say the thing. We’ll go from here.

FunkyPlaid will be in the States to navigate the store through the holiday season again, so I will have one last solo Christmas in Edinburgh. It will be more bittersweet this time than ever, but I am determined not to spend all of it feeling sorry for myself (or packing, even though there will be plenty of that). Plus, my favourite shark will be visiting for part of December, and I can’t wait to show her around this wonderful place.

Work

I fear there will be no more JDB1745 updates until life evens out sometime early next year. However, FunkyPlaid’s thesis is complete! His viva voce (thesis defense) isn’t until January, though, so no calling him Doc Plaid yet.

Sunday is my last day of work at the weekend gig. Tough to believe that it has already been two years! Time to polish up the CV and start the Stateside job-hunt. Know of any wonderful libraries in the Portland area who are looking for an enthusiastic tech-loving librarian?

Writing

Amidst all of the other craziness I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo again this year. It might seem like terrible timing but considering how my mental health improves when I make time to write every day, this will be good for me. I’ve been whipping my writing muscles into shape by participating in daily “dashes” with a group in Second Life called Virtual Writers. My current pace is about 1,000 words per hour. Since my goal is 1,667 words per day during November that means almost two hours of daily writing. I’m excited.

Wellness

Speaking of getting into shape, it is time for another running challenge! I’m going for a sub-30:00 in the Great Winter Run, my last race in Edinburgh. The course is once around Arthur’s Seat, and it is a great way to start the year.

Media

Reading

  • "Hamilton" by Ron Chernow (just started)
  • "The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber (finished, but not yet reviewed)
  • "The Heart Goes Last" by Margaret Atwood (finished, but not yet reviewed)
  • "Eleanor and Park" by Rainbow Rowell
  • "Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson (no, I still haven't finished this)

Listening

Music

The “Hamilton” musical soundtrack has been on endless repeat this month. Not much else.

Podcasts

I started listening to the Tanis podcast because it is produced by the same folks who do The Black Tapes Podcast, and that season is now over. I am glad there is something spooky and weird to tide me over, but I am not yet sold on Tanis. I’ll keep listening, though.

Playing

FunkyPlaid got me hooked on Dungeon Boss, a battle game with cute retro graphics.

Watching

Television

“Homeland” and “Les Revenants” and “Downton Abbey” have all started up again now. Before they did, FunkyPlaid and I started watching “Utopia” (UK version) which is all kinds of thought-provoking and disturbing so I hesitate to call it enjoyable.

Film

Stage

I had the huge privilege of seeing my mom in a play called “The Cheek” in Tourmakeady, Ireland – where the play was set! It was a great production and my mom gave a stunning performance. I hope to have some photos of Ireland to share soon, if I can ever stop playing Dungeon Boss.

Internetting

I Faved This

twitter.com/BofMouais…

You Faved This

twitter.com/cygnoir/s…

Ink o' the Week

Noodler’s Black Swan in Australian Roses, because I was looking for a purple with excellent shading and this Goulet Pens post reminded me.

Photo credit: Autumn arrived at my home in Second Life. I sure do love fall foliage, even the kind on virtual trees.

This Week and Last Month

Life

I’m writing to a prompt today, just for the hell of it: “I can do strange things, believe me.” The strangest thing I do these days is ponder Mendelian genetics in order to better breed virtual cats in a dying world. (It’s not really dying, or it is, depending on who you ask. Does it matter?)

Did I ever do stranger things, or did I only trick myself into believing that my brand of normalcy was So Different? Yesterday I read David Orr’s article in the Paris Review about the most misread poem in America, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, and I admit to feeling a little vindicated. And perhaps a little sad.

Like many other nascent lit-nerds, I memorised this poem after misreading it heartily and shoving it in front of myself like a badge, a shield, a sticky post on the blog feed of my identity. I might have scribbled it across notebooks in high school, or inked it on the hem of a jacket, or used it for earlier posts on this very site. (I haven’t looked but they’re probably there.)

I won’t blame my younger self, or anyone. How could I? That tattered shred I clung to was choice. Choices. The ability to say to oneself, to the world: I could do this thing, but then I could do something else. Isn’t choice the foundation of hope? To rub off the bravado of American identity from the poem and really read it again to discover that the speaker knows the paths are not all that different. He knows and yet he will someday tell someone — someone impressionable? someone who knows better? — that that single choice made “all the difference”.

I don’t think I could have understood this meaning before I moved here and was forced to confront my American obsession with choice. How many times have you read my laments on the lack of peanut butter brands in Scotland, where peanut butter isn’t even a thing that people want to put on sandwiches hardly ever, let alone shove into their maws slathered on a Nutella-dipped spoon? How many times have I been utterly stumped by blasé responses to my suggestions at work? Not that people here don’t value choices, but I believe they’re less starry-eyed by the illusion of it. How much choice do we really have, and how much does it matter when our older, wiser selves evaluate how it’s all gone by?

It is startling to ponder how comforting an illusion can become. A couple of weeks ago I had to face a demon in the form of a minor medical procedure. Since I’ve encountered this demon before, I know some tricks that can help, mostly deep-breathing exercises. Creative visualisation doesn’t do much for me when I am panicking, even as much as I love falling into daydream. But the deep breaths weren’t doing too much and so I conjured an apparition of our wee lost Torgi. I could see him in front of me down to the bristliest whisker. Calmed me right down. Illusion, comfort: thank you. Call it whatever you want.

Sometimes we know we’re lying to ourselves and we do it anyway.

I can do strange things, believe me.

Work

JDB1745 is still lightly napping as the thesis takes the foreground. Every once in a while it twitches in its sleep and I jot some notes down for the next phase, and then we both go back to focusing on other things. For now.

The weekend gig has picked up steam for the first weeks of the new semester. I’m back down to only one day of overlap with most coworkers right about the time when I could use more days of overlap just to stay in the right loops. That’s the most challenging bit of the job: keeping on top of the input streams, and sifting through them all to ensure I retain the bits that are relevant to the weekend staff. Once a week, I wish we would all use Slack.

Writing

Illicit Ink’s Jura Unbound show in the Edinburgh International Book Festival, “Happily Never Ever”, was a blast as you can see from the photographic evidence.

And finally, finally I have made a breakthrough in this story that has been wrecking me to write. I owe that to a dear friend who talked it through with me in a very non-pressuring (yet gently nudging) way. If you do anything creative, I hope you have a friend like this, someone in your area of creativity who challenges you to be better at it. Or just to finish drafts.

Wellness

Instead of trying to hit arbitrary benchmarks like step goals in Misfit, I’ve been using Exist to explore trends and correlations in the data I’m collecting. Mood tracking has been particularly useful, as I can see on my Exist dashboard that my mood is better when I am more active and get solid sleep. So do more of that, self.

The weather has turned colder once more, and the days are shortening, so it will be time to break out the light-box before long. I’m kicking around the idea of training for a fun-run in November just to keep my body moving.

Media

Reading

Have I have been reading Neal Stephenson’s “Seveneves” forever, or does it just feel like it? I don’t know if I am enjoying it, either. Two-thirds in, the timeline jumped ahead five thousand years, so everyone I cared about was long dead. I will say this for Mr. Stephenson: he has gumption. And pages. So many pages.

My to-read pile is starting to organise itself. I fear it shall revolt soon.

Listening

Music

Last.fm underwent a redesign and reduced the functionality of the site significantly. I’m not going to complain about it here because Last.fm has a support site for that. For now I’ll list a couple of things I’ve listened to recently.

Radio Riel, mostly their Ragtime stream: I found out about Radio Riel through a community in Second Life that I visit called New Toulouse which is “loosely themed after New Orleans and the bayou, 1900-1925.” (If that sounds like someplace you’d like to visit, let me know and I would be happy to give you a tour.) If you just want to hear the soundtrack of the place, give this Ragtime stream a listen.

Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist: This is all over the place, like my listening habits, but I’m enjoying what the robots have suggested for me so far. Nadine Shah is the best new listen the playlist has given me.

Podcasts

The Black Tapes Podcast: Recommended by a Writers’ Bloc comrade, this docudrama gives me the whim-whams in the best way. Think “Serial” crossed with “The X-Files” (and now that I’ve looked at some of their social media streams, I see that I didn’t come up with that description).

If you are new to podcasts, or simply don’t know how to get started with listening, try PocketCasts. It is the easiest and best way to subscribe and listen to podcasts from your Android device, Windows Phone, iOS device, or web browser. And if you’re a Twitter user, view my Podcasts list for some other recommendations.

Playing

  • Alphabear (iOS/Android): Spry Fox made another fun game, this one with word-building and power-ups in the form of cute collectible bears. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve seen some of my Alphabear tweets.
  • Fallen London (Web, and soon iOS): Billed as “a free, browser-based, literary RPG of sorts” it’s no wonder why I enjoy it. I also like a game that I can dip into whenever I like and don’t lose (much) progress.

Watching

Television

FunkyPlaid and I re-watched “Firefly” and then “Serenity” and loved them all over again. We are now about to finish the first season of “The Trip” which is painful and terrific all at once.

Film

“Hector and the Search for Happiness”: ★★½.

Stage

Festival season was eventful! I saw several shows, including two Bloc comrades in the SHIFT/ Spoken Word series and Puddles Pity Party.

Internetting

I Faved This

twitter.com/brian_bil…

You Faved This

twitter.com/cygnoir/s…

Ink o’ the Week

Diamine Ancient Copper: the colour of crunchy autumn leaves. Badass orange-brown with super shading, made all the sweeter because it was a gift from someone super.

Photo credit: Just a pretty garden in Second Life that I found. (If you’re reading this via email or RSS feed, I’m not sure it will show up, so click here to see it.)

This Week and Other Weeks

Life

I have tried to write this several times now. It never goes well. I find unsettling analogies, or take refuge in bluntness, or just pretend the thing that happened didn’t happen at all so I can get through the first paragraph. But it happened. And it derailed the tail-end of my spring completely.

I keep thinking that I will be ready to write about it, and then I will, and then these entries (which were supposed to be weekly status updates, and nothing more) won’t loom in my to-do list like horrible chores.

But I am still not ready to write about it, the thing that happened, and so I’ll just say that at the start of May one of our cats died and he was so much more than “one of our cats” and it was so much worse than I imagined it could be and it continues to hurt every day and I don’t want to write anything more about it so we’ll just move on from here.

Okay? Okay.

The thing that happened disrupted everything. Because I let it, and because my everything was already so precarious. So any good tracks I was on, consider those derailed. Any good habits I had forged, consider those discarded.

Rage, even now, two months past, blindsides me. The smallest things irritate me past rational points. Most social media channels are unbearable not because they have changed but because I have. I don’t know if I will get my old self back.

I don’t know if I want my old self back.

The strangest part of grief is the compulsion to keep pressing myself against the serrated edge of his absence. I am mostly over that phase now but sometimes it comes over me, the need to prod that wound, like I still don’t believe it, so that the pain will make me believe it.

I still don’t believe it.

But I make myself believe it.

Before the thing that happened, I had planned to travel to the States in June to celebrate a milestone in my mother’s life. When the thing happened, the trip carried another weight: I needed to escape, both geographically and mentally.

And then right before I left our other cat had surgery for a fibrosarcoma on her back. She’s doing fine for now.

Grief and worry have a way of clouding memory but here’s some of what I remember of my life from the past few months.

Work

Not much to report on JDB1745, and this will likely continue through the end of the year. There will be small refinements to make but FunkyPlaid must focus on finishing his thesis now so we can’t undertake any major movements. I’m squirrelling away all sorts of ideas for the next phase of our project, and the more I do, the more I look forward to working on it.

The weekend gig is more intense project-wise over the summer, plus many folks are away on leave, so I feel more isolated than usual. I continue to struggle with the balance of wanting to throw myself completely into a job and only being there three days a week.

Writing

The guest post I wrote for Cat Rambo’s blog on motivational tools for writers was published. The timing was darkly amusing; my own writerly motivation had ground to a halt.

But now I am recovering, and I am currently working on two projects:

  1. Assembling some short stories together into chapbook form.
  2. Writing a short comedic piece for the Book Festival. Illicit Ink will present a show called “Happily Never After” for Jura Unbound and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Wellness

Misfit changed their app and I no longer have a weekly tally of points, so here I’ll start tracking how many days in the last week I hit my fitness goal: 2. Not great.

In April, May, and June I was around the 2-3 days per week mark. One day in May I somehow managed almost twice my goal and my personal best since I started using my Shine by having a normal workday but tacking on a social event in the evening that was 1.5 miles away.

So yeah. I need more exercise.

Media

Reading

Since the end of March I’ve read some good books, fiction unless otherwise specified:

  • “The Bees” by Laline Paull
  • “Reasons to Stay Alive” by Matt Haig (memoir about depression)
  • “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler
  • “The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion” by Elle Luna (figuring out what you want to do with your life, then following through)
  • “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews
  • “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

And that leaves me at 11 books this year. I will have to seriously hustle to make my goal of 50.

Listening

I am giving Apple Music a whirl. So far I love the playlists it suggests for me but it doesn’t have built-in scrobbling capabilities like Rdio or Spotify. For those of us who love tracking what we listen to with Last.fm, that is a disappointment.

My top artists for the past three months:

  1. Chouchou
  2. Ratatat
  3. Louis Armstrong

A friend made a Neo80s mixtape (mixCD?) that I’ve been enjoying too. Lots of M83, White Lies, HAIM, Grimes … really good stuff.

How do I not have a podcast section? I’ll fix that now. My top podcast listens for the past three months (and I am stealing the blurbs from their websites):

  1. Judge John Hodgman: You might know John Hodgman as the PC from those Apple commercials but those are the least of his comedic accomplishments. His podcast is laugh-out-loud funny as well as also thoughtful and interesting.
  2. RISK!: Listen to real people tell true stories. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing, always intriguing. Like The Moth’s more worrisome cousin.
  3. Mystery Show: I never thought I would care enough about Jake Gyllenhaal’s height to listen to a 40-minute podcast about it. Then I heard Mystery Show.

Playing

  • 80 Days (videogame, tablet): I am not good at this game, probably because of the timed element, but I keep going back to it for the interactive story parts. I still have not made it around the world in 80 days. Will I ever? Who knows.
  • Splendor (boardgame, 2-4 players): FunkyPlaid taught me how to play this and I think I like it. It feels similar in some ways to Dominion, which I love and don’t play nearly enough. I’d like to play it again.
  • Gone Home (videogame, desktop): I finally purchased this on Steam when it was on sale and played through in a few hours. The plot and execution were both excellent, and the experience was worth much more than the price I paid.
  • Fallout Shelter (videogame, tablet): I tried. I really did. But I got so bored.

Watching

Television

FunkyPlaid and I finished “Les Revenants” at the end of April and went on to “Orphan Black”. The first two seasons were so good; the third became unwatchable for me. We stalled out partway through and finished up the season of “Outlander” instead. As of last night we are on the second season of “House of Cards” (US version).

I stopped watching “Game of Thrones” after the infamous episode with Ramsay and Sansa’s wedding night. With that source material and that cast and that budget, there is no excuse for lazy writing. Later I heard that the show has diverged even more from the books, so that’s probably it for me.

Film

I finally saw the film “What We Do in the Shadows” on the plane ride to the States, which was even better than I thought it would be. If you like mockumentaries and Flight of the Conchords, don’t miss this.

Stage

Internetting

I Faved This

twitter.com/joshgreen…

You Faved This

twitter.com/cygnoir/s…

Ink o’ the Week

Daily carry

  • Pilot Iroshizuku Ku-Jaku: I raved about this ink before and my excitement has not abated. It is a perfect ink in my Lamy 2000. If you are looking for a saturated blue-green with ridiculous amounts of shading, try this one.
  • Pilot Iroshizuku Yama-Budo: This is in my new Pilot Metropolitan, a gift from a pen-loving friend, which surprised me with how well it writes. Despite the fine nib the Yama-Budo provides a nice shading between dark fuchsia to light burgundy. It is an elegant ink.

Wish list

Photo credit: my Instagram.

Departures, a return to interactive fiction.

I have been in love with interactive fiction ever since the first time I slipped the first 5¼” floppy of Infocom’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” into my Commodore 64’s disk drive. It was an intoxicating melange of Douglas Adams’ peculiar brand of surreal silliness, devious puzzle-solving, and the idea that I could slip inside a story and become part of it.

Later, I would find some measure of satisfaction in constructing scenarios and settings within MUDs, but did not know enough about coding to do much more than world-building and Easter-egg-hiding. Role-playing was firmly within my wheelhouse, though; as a theatre brat who dabbled in playwriting, stage directions and emotive word-choices were second nature to me. I decided that role-playing was my bag, and I’d leave interactive fiction writing to the professionals.

But interactive fiction popped up on my radar again when I came across Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest”. It hit me hard the first time I played it, then harder on replay: certain options you wish to take are simply unavailable to you. They sound good. You know you should do them. And yet you cannot. This, to me, communicated an intrinsic aspect of depression. It was a brilliant piece of game construction. The rest of it is also excellent, but this part stuck with me. I was curious about how it was built, and that’s when I first heard about Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. I noodled around with it a bit but didn’t have a story idea begging to be told this way, so I promptly forgot about it.

Recently my friend Gavin Inglis wrote an interactive story called “Hana Feels”. “Story” seems like a flaccid descriptor here because the project’s goals are much larger than telling a story. “Hana Feels” teaches us how to talk to people who self-harm. It exercises our empathy muscles. It asks us to push past our own experience to connect with another human who needs it most.

“Hana Feels” is a poignant and dismaying and important piece of writing, not only for addressing the stigma of talking about issues such as self-harm but for showing us there is still a great chasm between what we say, what we mean, and what someone in distress is capable of hearing and understanding. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so see it for yourself (note: it is still in beta, with the final release later this month). Gav created this story with Twine, and experiencing the complexity of “Hana Feels” inspired me to reconsider using Twine to write interactive fiction myself. And then he told me about Twiny Jam, an event that ended just this morning, in which creators use Twine to make a 300-word interactive moment and share it with each other.

The prospect scared me. So I knew I had to do it.

Some time ago, I confided in a dear friend that the worst part of saying goodbye is the moment where you could, if you wanted, turn around and just not go. Just stay. I described this particular feeling in an airport – when we were still able to accompany our loved ones to the gate – but you can think of it in any setting, physical or not. We encounter this moment all the time and yet we somehow make the choice, the reasonable choice, over and over.

The idea for this particular story came from not making the reasonable choice. Most of the story was cut due to the jam’s word-count limit, but I’ll tell it in longer form someday. For now, it says what I wanted it to say. It’s called “Departures” and I hope you enjoy it.

Turning Pro - Day 7

This is the seventh day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “My Own Moment of Turning Pro” to “The Professional Lives in the Present”. I don’t have much to say about this part of the book, because what I found most valuable was the reiteration of the qualities the professional possesses that Pressfield listed in “The War of Art”. (I won’t list them all, because I think that book is definitely worth a read, but my favourites include “The professional shows up every day” and “The professional does not take failure or success personally”.)

However, I think we can all have a feeling or two about this quote:

The amateur tweets. The pro works.” 

But I love Twitter!  … I know. I have been guilty of tweeting about cool things, or retweeting others’ cool things. And it’s not like I’m going to stop altogether, but it is easy to convince myself that I have made movement toward becoming a writer by retweeting other writers or tweeting about the act of writing. Even this meta-talk about writing is a bit amateurish on my part. (I’m choosing to forgive myself because all this reflection is in the name of turning pro.) Pressfield adds a nice juxtaposition at the end of this section: the professional is ruthless with himself and the professional has compassion for herself. Yes, we should not hesitate to murder our darlings, as the famous phrase goes, but we should also guard the joy that comes from creating. It is a difficult balance.

Turning Pro - Day 6

This is the sixth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “The Amateur will be Ready Tomorrow” to “Rosanne Cash’s Dream” on my lunch break at work. And then I uncapped my fountain pen, cracked open a brand-new Rhodia dot-grid A5 notebook, and wrote a full page of fiction.

It’s not good writing, but it felt great.

I read the section called “The Tribe Doesn’t Give a Shit” with amusement. This is a part of the process, maybe the only part, that hasn’t bothered me much personally. I know fantastic people in this world and yet I have never once felt as if I am part of a group of people I need to impress. Pretty early on I internalised the knowledge that I should just do what I enjoy doing and not worry if I fit in anywhere. In Pressfield’s words:

“When we truly understand that the tribe doesn't give a damn, we're free. There is no tribe, and there never was. Our lives are entirely up to us.” 

So Pressfield keeps talking about going pro and I want to know what he means already. I want steps. I want something to act on. He senses this like magic and tells me, finally:

When we turn pro, we stop running from our fears. We turn around and face them.

Fair enough. I’m pretty sure I know what this means. It means that when I sit down to write, I write. I don’t let the fear of never being good enough stop me. When I have an idea, I write it to completion, even if it goes off the rails and can never be rescued. I write. I finish. I do the work. I got this.

Turning Pro - Day 5

This is the fifth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “Accidental Incapacitation” to “The Amateur Lives in the Past” and a few quotes stuck out to me. The first was:

“Fear is the primary color of the amateur's interior world. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking foolish, fear of under-achieving and fear of over-achieving, fear of poverty, fear of loneliness, fear of death.” 

Sure. It’s impossible not to relate to this quote. Pressfield goes on to state that the pro is just as afraid, so that’s good, because I don’t see losing my fear anytime soon. I read once that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, anyway. Or maybe that was just Peter Quinn in “Homeland”. #quinning I bet Quinn doesn’t even have a Facebook account, so the next quote doesn’t apply to him at all:

“The amateur fears solitude and silence because she needs to avoid, at all costs, the voice inside her head that would point her toward her calling and her destiny. So she seeks distraction. The amateur prizes shallowness and shuns depth. The culture of Twitter and Facebook is paradise for the amateur.” 

Well, yeah. The Internet is the ideal environment for the amateur. There is always a website or fifty, vying for one’s attention, constructed in such a way that the experience feels engaging even if it is comprised of a set of completely passive interactions. I also think that Twitter and Facebook can be powerful tools. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves: time spent on social media isn’t creative time. It can be constructive, but there’s a difference. I think that’s what Pressfield is getting at here. One more quote that struck me:

The amateur and the addict focus exclusively on the product and the payoff.” 

I agree with this, because I tend to get very caught up in what the result will be of what I am creating. “Where will I perform this? Where will I sell this?” This is not to say that I shouldn’t be savvy about markets or gigs, but rather that I have lost the excitement of creation for its own sake, focusing instead on its packaging and the eventual (I hope) reward.

Turning Pro - Days 3 & 4

This is the third and fourth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

I’m playing a bit of catch-up today and reviewing the sections “The Addict As Dramatic Hero” through the end of Book One. Unfortunately, I had a tough time relating to Pressfield in this section of the book. Although I enjoyed reading about his time picking apples in Washington state, and living all alone in a cabin with just a cat and a typewriter, I haven’t had a life like that at all. Moreover, I don’t think that creative professions require itinerant lifestyles to succeed. I see how it could be helpful not to be bogged down with the routine of a 9-to-5 job, but I don’t think it’s necessary. However, an idea I do agree with is that it is easier to break the cycle of addiction when one is freed from a routine that supports it.

Later on in the book, I came across a quote that resonated deeply with me:

"All addictions share, among others, two primary qualities.
  1. They embody repetition without progress.
  2. They produce incapacity as a payoff.” 

Pressfield goes on to mention some specific addictions, none of them surprising, especially one we’re all familiar with these days: distraction. We talk about how we just can’t stop checking Facebook or ponder why we know who the Kardashians are, but even these superficial protestations belie our priorities. For me, checking Facebook is the embodiment of the phrase “repetition without progress”. This section ends with some musing over the pain of being human, and again Pressfield’s wording gives me some trouble because I don’t think of the struggle of life in terms of an “upper realm” that I cannot reach, not exactly. Or maybe I am thinking about it this way without this particular Platonic phrasing, because when I write, I do glimpse something else, something Other, that exists outside my paltry experience of reality. His words left me wanting a more practical metaphor, but perhaps I should try seeing it his way for a little while. I did like this quote: 

The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in one of two ways — by transcending it or by anesthetizing it…. The artist takes a different tack. She tries to reach the upper realm not by chemicals but by labor and love.” 

Labour and love. Now these words I like.

Turning Pro - Day 2

This is the second day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

I’m playing a bit of catch-up here because the rest of the book-club will be embarking on their Day 3 posts today. For Day 2 I read from “Three Cheers for the Amateur Life” to “Addiction and Shadow Careers” and the following quotes stood out to me:

"The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.” 

OK, this is the first point at which Pressfield’s language makes me uncomfortable. That might not be a bad thing, if it is indicating an idea that resonates negatively. But the idea of being an “addict” is one that is hard to take for me personally. It’s not that I’ve been addicted to things before, because I certainly have, but thinking of myself as an addict triggers a whole bunch of negative stereotypes I have about what an addict is. Let’s go with Pressfield a moment here as he elaborates:

“Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.”

This idea of self-sabotage dovetails nicely with a Zen Habits blog post I recently read about Savor Discipline. Leo Babauta addresses how the present self wants what it wants regardless of how it impacts the future self. He writes about the idea of merging the two interests, just as you would if you and your friend were making a decision on where to go for lunch. It wouldn’t always be one person’s choice; the two of you would take turns. Or you might merge your interests to come up with a third option that both would like. The present self and future self merge interests to find something they both can savour in the present moment. (I’m not doing this justice, so please read the post for yourself. Read the whole blog, while you’re at it! It’s wonderful.) So how does this tie in with what I think Pressfield is saying? Well, here’s my practical example: I have lots of data-entry ahead of me today. I also have errands to run, chores to do, words to write, you know the rest. Future-Halsted would really like it if I just did all that work right now so she could kick back and do nothing later, but that would leave me irritated and frustrated. Present-Halsted just wants to curl up with a book and a cat or two, but that would result in nothing getting done. So I’ve found a third option: writing this post. I’m knocking something off my to-do list while taking a moment to reflect on a book I’m reading, and exercising my nonfiction skills a bit too. I’ve found something to savour in the moment instead of indulging my self-sabotaging ways. Now I can make peace with Pressfield’s “addict” nomenclature because I get it: I have been an addict. I have been addicted to the concept of productivity, with all of its bells and whistles and to-do list apps. When I’m ticking off boxes, I get something like a buzz — look at all I’ve done today! — but those boxes can be for utterly inconsequential things, and at the end of it, when I’ve spent all of my energy ticking boxes and left nothing for myself, I can only see the hollow spaces of what I haven’t yet accomplished.

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I acknowledge that I live and work on stolen Cowlitz, Clackamas, Atfalati, and Kalapuya land.
I give respect and reverence to those who came before me.