Even in a little thing
I made my students work this morning, because today is the day of the Evil Gillian. Although I got called the Uber-Gillian by one student. Writing and thinking during a writing class is not unforgivable.
What is unforgivable is what I just did to my work experience student. She's putting some books in order, and brought me a book by Camille Bacon-Smith, for it was her first hyphenated name (my work experience student, not Camille!) and I told her about hyphens, but I then said "Now look closely at the cover." She did so and noticed the lovely garden. "Now look at it from a distance." She did so. "It's a sku-ull," I intoned. Her face was priceless.
Camille, I owe you one. She can't get the cover out of her mind.
I only read the one book yesterday. I appear to have end-of-year-itis and to need time out to just unwind every now and again. I guess most people get that unwind-y time by having parties. I have some, but not many, for I'm very tired of the whole reaction to not having Christmas. That's why I wasn't unhappy to trade in tonight's party for a quiet dinner with a friend I don't see often. It's not at all unwind-y to have to explain that just following the religious or secular majority doesn't work for me. The people who say they want to know very seldom actually want to know, either.
Today is the last of my wonderful Wednesday students for the year. We will play word games, as we always do on the last class of the year.
Between my class (for which I possibly need to wear clothes - must have a shower shortly) and my dinner, I have a lot, lot, lot of things to do. In a perfect world, this will be the last time I go into Woden Plaza until the silly season is done. If that works, my life will have a modicum of sanity *and* I'll get back to my reading schedule.
In a few days time, most of my 17th century will be replaced by the Beast (the High Middle Ages) until early January. From research at the early end of a project, I shall be moving to work that takes us closer to the end of it. Quite different types of work. I like the former better than the latter, which is quite different to me in my twenties, when the careful finishing up of things and checking footnotes and sorting references appealed to me intensely. The public service trained me to take less joy in these things, or age has crept up, or something. I don't hate it, but I no longer rub my hands with glee.
And on that note, I ought to get ready. I'm still teaching, after all, and I can't do it dressed in only a t-shirt and from my own desk, when the class is way south of here.
For locals my body is telling me we're getting hot weather. I don't know if it will be a scorcher today or if we're building to one later in the week, but this morning already has that hot Aussie-summer feel to it and, at 8.45 it was 22 degrees. I want to ask the thermometer to stay within my comfort zones, but it will only do that occasionally from here until early March. Expect whingeing, for I am really a cool climate person. The heat is probably very good for me. I'll keep telling myself that. Some people pay to visit here in the summer. I'll keep telling myself that, too.
I have just one book to finish between now and 3 pm, but it requires very close reading, much note-taking and enormous amounts of pondering. I keep having to take breaks to think. This is a very particular book, you see. I get them from time to time. I don't normally mention them, for they're other peoples' work and the other people release news of them when they're ready, but this one is slowing me down. I'll only read two other books today, and I only read two others yesterday. Any novel that forces me to think this much at this time, deserves a public note.
On other news, if I can lose one more kg, I'll have got rid of the weight I put on when I was so very ill. My overweight will be quite normal overweight, rather than the other sort. This means that I'm going to have a lot more physical energy in the coming year. I suspect I'll need it.
And in other news, I'm making lists of items I need and will just have to find money for. This is the downside of being single (no big birthday presents except for the decade-celebrations) and Jewish (no Christmas) - I have to sort this stuff out for myself, almost always. The moment I made my list, though, a friend offered me her old iPhone.
This means I'll have a mobile in the new year, which will make quite a few of you happy. I won't be using it for long conversations, but it'll be handy if there are meetings, or if I get into trouble, and yes, I will work out how to send texts. This is only an interim measure until I have income, but the iPhone should be easier to use than the Nokia and Motorola interim measures that failed so very thoroughly at other times. There are only a few models of phone that work for someone with my eyesight and brainshape, it seems.
The money that I was going to find for the phone itself, will now go on running it. All recommendations of cheap and reliable packages will be gratefully accepted and carefully thought about.
A couple of people have asked me to make bit a bit clearer what the problem is with a couple of the seasonal wishes and why certain of them become problematic.
It's simple. "How are you celebrating Christmas?" and "What are you doing for your holidays?" are the specific questions I reacted to on Saturday. Any that have the same basic premise is a problem, however. When children ask me these questions, they're really upset I don't get Christmas, but they accept it. I'm a grown-up: I must know what I'm doing, even if it's strange. When adults ask, it's usually with the assumption that everyone has Christmas. Not celebrating, not having the festival at all, and not going on holiday are unacceptable. I'm doing things wrong, even if I claim I know what I'm doing.
The problem is the premise of the question. The unacceptability of my reality. It denies some of the actual possibilities (in this case not celebrating, not having Christmas, and not taking holidays), which means any answer from me is going to be a lie or directly rude (because implying that a question is stupid is never very polite, however graciously one does it) and this, in its turn, puts me in a difficult position. When one is put into that position on a regular basis, it's easier to lie, or get grumpy or to hide than to share the kindly given joy that emanates when friends are celebrating something important to them.
The difference between being minority and majority, is that majority people don't have to choose between lies, grump and hiding nearly as often. Telling me to be a nicer or more accepting person about it doesn't help. Me being nicer doesn't stop people being nasty or stupid or insensitive. This means that, from my point of view, it's transferal of blame. Blaming me for my unhappiness because I'm not someone different. Because there was no socially acceptable answer to that question.
Christmas greetings are not a problem, for they're sharing your seasonal goodwill and I'm happy to accept your good wishes and to wish you happiness back. Christmas cards are not a problem (and I wrote a footnote about it, so I thought this was clear, until a friend apologised for sending me one) because it's you sharing your celebration with me and that's reaching out to me and making me feel good about the world through your happiness. In fact, I'm apparently about to get three rather special cards from three of my favourite under-tens. This is going to make me feel really rather good about the world.
What's not good is assuming that a world where I'm not celebrating Christmas is inconceivable. It makes me smaller. This doesn't share your happiness. It pushes me into a hole.
I don't mind doing my own thing over other peoples' festive season, but I do mind doing it from a hole. The insult to injury is when I'm told to come out of the hole, for me being in a hole is apparently one reason why Jews are disliked. That latter hasn't actually happened this year, but it happens quite frequently "If only you celebrated Christmas, you wouldn't be seen as an outsider and maybe people wouldn't pick on you."
This is why "How are you celebrating Christmas?" and not accepting "I don't" as a perfectly normal and acceptable answer pushes me into the hole or makes me angry.
Is that clearer, friends who were puzzled?
Three things yesterday reinforced just how this strange season can be made less extreme. The first thing was when the umpteenth person commanded us (the group) to tell them how they were celebrating Christmas and what we were doing over the holidays. As usual, I've been trying not to reply when people ask me this, for all I get is negatives when I say "I'm Jewish - I don't get Christmas" and "I'm poor - I can't afford to take holiday." I'm poorer than I was a few weeks ago, in anticipation of less money next year, by the way, for more of my usual work has been distributed elsewhere by those who feel strongly that younger men deserve work more than older women. Also, I'm being ask to do this or that for no payment far more often and I always explain how much I'm willing to do, then, for the rest, explain my rates - and if you don't see me at certain events or doing certain tasks, you can guarantee I've been asked to give up at least 2 days of paid work to do those things, which are, for me, professional activities. Anyhow, back to my "What is Christmas for many of us" tale...
Given it's going to be a bad time this year and given I had weather-change ache, I finally lost it.
I said straightforwardly "I'm not celebrating Christmas because I"m Jewish."
"You get holidays, though. Tell me how you're going to enjoy them."
If I took holidays I would be alone for two weeks, for I haven't got money to go away, so I don't take holidays over Christmas unless there's someone to take them with. Christmas is a dreadfully lonely time for singletons who don't have the festive stuff, and it's even worse for singletons who don't have the money for cool experiences abroad or even interstate and who have no money for treats.
If one doesn't do Christmas, then until after 25 December, the shops, the streets, the television constantly remind us that we are alone and not doing what everyone else is doing and that this is WRONG because we're supposed to enjoy ourselves. Also, they tell us that if we're poor, we're supposed to accept charity at this time of year, though the help has never come the way of any of my poor friends from minority religions, unless they pretend to celebrate Christmas. That's the bottom line: we're expected to be happy because this is a happy season, and we're expected to toe the line about majority religion. Toeing the line means becoming religiously invisible until the New Year. When I was in Canada and the UK things were a lot easier, for there isn't this sense of forced public camaraderie.
If someone wishes me any kind of festive greeting, I wish it back, with pleasure. If you enjoy Christmas then I will happily sit back and hear you explain your presents and tell me about how many people you fed or how much you ate or what cute hijinks your children got up to. This is good stuff. Friends being happy is always good stuff. Friends telling me that I must be happy and must tell them how I'm enjoying *their* moment of happiness is insensitive.
That was instance number one, when I finally said, to a group of people who should have known better, "No." What I nearly said (but bit my tongue) was "If you ignore all the solitary people and outsiders, then you have no right to command them to inform you of their happy status. You lost the right when you stopped showing you were interested in their real lives."
It comes down to some times of year having a privilege attached. Majority privilege (of having one's festivals taken up by the media and made the norm, of having enough money to do what one wants during the quiet season eg eat out, take holidays, throw a party) ought to be balanced by majority responsibility. There's not much majority responsibility around this year - but oh, there's a lot of privilege.
Instance two, though, showed me what things can be. A friend of mine who is an early childhood teacher and I had a wonderful talk just two hours after I felt "I ought not exist, for I don't do Christmas or take holidays over summer" about how one goes about these things. He had paid attention to my grumps, you see, and really cares about a sharing society, and we worked out ways of retaining the joy in each celebration and of giving respect without treading on toes. His sensitivity to the subject was balm. It turned out that what I needed was someone to listen, and not to assume. Simple respect for my differences. Not "Enjoy" but "How are you spending this period?" (The answer for those who don't yet know is working, and probably 12 hour days, for I've lost time due to that virus and my income next year is dicey.)
Instance three was the magic that healed everything. It's what Christmas can be for outsiders. Ought to be for outsiders. How a majority festival can be a gift to everyone.
I went with a group of friends to see the Christmas lights. One of the friends is seven and so the car was full of the sense of wonder. Several families who had lights up changed their kids for bed and let them wander around their gardens with their dressinggowns tightly knotted. These children told any other children who asked what part they played in the lights and how the family put them up and which lights were the best. And the adults talked to the adults.
I had a lovely conversation with a really nice guy (who had some equally nice tatts) about his lights - they were lesser this year because of vandalism and theft last year. One of his old reindeer had been found up a tree somewhere because of a bunch of enterprising but rather nasty teens. I was glad to have met him and to see his lights, and he was glad that someone admired those lights, even when they were but a shadow.
The respect thing and the joy thing - it has to be mutual. Sadness has to be dealt with. The guy and his kids (who admired my photo of their lights) and the friends who thought to include me on the light trail are the best of this season for me.
If anyone else tells me I have to think like them and be like them I shall still probably still be a party pooper. But if anyone wants to sit down with me and tell me about the celebrations of their childhood, or how their son saved for six months to buy them something really daft, or how they've always wanted to go to the Caribbean and escape the crowds - all of these things I shall listen to, intently and with great joy. And I have come up with a beautiful solution for those people who want me to compulsorily enjoy their season of happiness: give me presents*, or take me to dinner, or drop in, which a couple of my friends are about to do. Share your happiness, don't command me to emulate it.
*I like cards and presents, but I won't ask for them terribly often, because it seems so wrong. One of my students gave me a lovely card the other day and it gives me much happiness whenever I see it. I don't get many of either cards or presents, for obvious reasons, but every one I get is enjoyed so very much more because they're rare.
I have fairies, I have elves and I have hobgoblins. In fact, I have four types of fairies. Ten more minutes than I'll do some paid work. It's so tempting, however, not to!
ETA: That wasn't what I meant to say. I meant to say that the pre and post Cromwell writing about folkflife is vastly different. Or I meant to say that writers who are creating magical histories with magical creatures could make life a lot easier for me if they'd only do the Ngram thing. Ngrams aren't the be all and end all, but they demonstrate usage of words and can compare usage of words and lead to primary sources. It's one thing to put something (eg a vampire) in a period it didn't belong with strong narrative intention, it's another thing entirely to rely on an enfeebled imagination to populate a place and time with magic creatures that don't belong. Use Ngrams to check the obvious! Or cut your fantastical creatures from whole cloth and make them new and exciting. Otherwise, yes, I think I shall assume an enfeebled imagination is at work.
I'm taking a break from one train of thought by sneaking in something selfish. I could do it anytime, and I have deadline stuff to do by tomorrow lunchtime, but I so want to know the early, easy, lazy results.
Yesterday I did some basic checks for usage of words in the seventeenth century, so that I knew how to assess some of the concepts I'm going to be playing with. I'm guilty (quite often) of close analysis of words in many contexts over time (hermeneutics, I guess, but not solely with religious texts), but this is not that. This is just a quick toe-in-water so that I know how to read books of the time. There's a danger I'll overlay late Medieval meanings or modern meanings with some particularly key vocabulary, and I want to understand the mindsets of the late seventeenth century in their own contexts. I need to, for this novel. I may choose to overlay modern stuff, but I want it to be an active choice. I want to know the world my characters are seeing, using their words.
Yesterday I discovered that 'superstition' basically delivered a negative view of Catholicism or belonged with idolatry (which was often a negative view of Catholicism) and was nowhere close to its most common modern meaning. 'Elf' on the other hand, was a misreading by Google Ngram (which is my main tool for this quick and dirty approach) of 'els' - Ngram has obviously not yet sorted out long s's. This got me curious about the number of times supernatural beings are actually mentioned in texts (those that are in the database, which is a limited sample, but still way better than I could do by hand, from here, even if I had a year) and what the references refer to. So far it's pretty clear that 'fairy' means Spencer's poem, for the most part, or maybe something like cloud cuckoo land, but I didn't check that closely yesterday, for I ran out of time. I need to check it again. And morris dancing was done by elderly men with hob-nailed boots, according to the single reference I found, although I only looked at the first few references Ngram located, because again, I ran out of time. Those dratted elves got in the way. Also about two dozen primary sources on useful subjects, which I have now downloaded for later perusal. I downloaded all the key dictionaries from the period yesterday, too. I'll read them and make notes of the concepts with explaining and translating, and then do the Ngram thing again, probably in January.
Examination of words, you see, leads to the contexts of words and useful volumes shout "You need me." This is another reason I do this kind of thing - it gets me much better access to the wider literature of the period, not just the literature that gets mentioned by moderns. When I locate an interesting source using Google, I download it if I can and weep bitter tears if I can't. This means I have growing stock of original texts that will work as background reading for my novel, when I'm finished the books from my bookshelf. I hope to be finished the books from my bookshelf soon, for I timed this batch of reading and the Aurealis reading to be done all at once.
What I'm doing now is simply working down a short modern list of supernatural beings and terms and finding out their contexts in the seventeenth century. This will flesh out the works I'm reading now, which are mostly on magic and etc, and by modern historians and give me the big concepts and the politics and the tools to interpret my new vocabulary. It will also start to give me some vocabulary for my people. Not much use having someone wittering about 'someone elf' when they really mean 'someone else.'
I did this a bit differently for my time travel novel (which still needs a home). I took the vocabulary straight from my own textual analysis. This is because I have a much stronger understanding of the texts and who knew what and when - and also because so few texts survive. Years of overclose acquaintance with a literature proved handy. My new process is just as much fun, but quite different in feel. It's going to be a while before I see results, but I'm having a whale of a time getting there.
The immediate upshot of this is, of course, that I want to make elf jokes.
I just had a lovely conversation with an exceptionally useful young man who was sorting out my download speeds. I can now watch YouTube! Also, and probably more importantly, work is so very much easier now that things move at a vaguely acceptable pace.
Anyhow, at the very end of it, we tried to tell each other to have a nice Christmas. I'd been avoiding saying I was Jewish because it seems to get me into trouble, but I admitted it at this point. He said that he was Moslem. We were being so polite in trying to wish each other nice festive seasons, but both of us work right through it. We both laughed and decided to wish each other an entirely wonderful New Year.
I need more conversations like this - it was very cheering.
My thoughts for this minute are how very tangled good writers can get before they get better.
Over the past few years I've read maybe a half dozen Australian writers of significant potential who haven't quite sorted out their own writing voice. It's coming, but not there. They hide beneath literary metaphors sometimes, or beneath vicious text that splatters off the page and mires us in violence. The overall telling of a tale is as speculative fiction (as often horror or science fiction as anything else), but they haven't yet developed quite enough sensitivity for how their prose reads and how their voice sounds. The result is, oddly, good writing, but it has a bit of a mischmasch feel to it, as if a half dozen other writers could have done equally well. Which they could. For there are that many writers at that stage, who I am reading at this time.
The telling signs that they're not where they need to be often lie in the characterisation: it's muddled. Take three stories and two novels and all the point of view characters could be the same, with just minor shifts in language or feel. Three authors and just one character. Each of these writers (and I have specific works in mind) is so focussed on their metaphors and their splatter that they rely on their fallback characters. I ought to find it odd that they have the same fallback character, but it's not odd at all. This character is a genre-based conglomerate. It's one of the pantheon of types. It's a male character that fits into stories where a feisty heroine or manic pixie princess doesn't work, or the quest hero has no place. Just because it's not a type we talk about, doesn't make it less recognisable. When one doesn't set out to devise a whole person, then it's quite likely the character will be a type rather than a human being. One day I'll put all these works together and read them as alternate lives of Character B.
Sense of place is another potential issue, for places tend to be atmospheric rather than real. This is another character issue. I can't get places tangled, because my perimenopausal body reacts quite differently to different places. My characters are forced to do so, too, because what I must endure, they must also endure. I don't give them my weather-predicting superpowers, but I do work out their personal relationship to their physical environment and I do try to make that environment turn real. I was taught that by George Gissing, I suspect, and other writers who I have been known to re-read. In the Year of the Jubilee is one of my touchstones for male writers who get the place right and the characters in the place right and generally make me a happy reader. Gissing did that with everything he wrote, though. I've got his diaries, and he put that sense of people and place into the entry where his next-door-neighbours die because they lit a candle when there was a gas leak. This just shows that one doesn't have to be female and middle-aged to do sense of place. Nor that one has to be writing for anyone but oneself.
Also the group of writers I'm talking about today seldom stop and use simple language. They have a concept and think about how impressive they can make it sound, I suspect. Not always, but too often. My brain obviously has a limit on how much rich language it can digest - it's like eating chocolate cake. I love it, but after a point I stop tasting it and just get sick. My middle aged body and its sad limits...Often the impressive-sounding metaphors and literary text are what the tale requires, but they haven't yet developed a mental pause button and they don't say to themselves "Right now, all he needs to do is walk down the street, grumpily." Or they don't say it often enough. Most importantly, they don't say it to themselves at the right point in the tale. Their stories are far too even in tone, because of this. There's no glass of water to sip from time to time and to to make the chocolate cake taste good, bite after bite*.
The resulting stories make me think of teenage boys. So full of moods and hormones and stray flashing smiles that one forgets that they're on the way to somewhere interesting. The moment is too complex in most of these stories, and the tale gets subsumed in the intensity. The telling details are absent or misplaced.
They're good writing, after a kind. Some of these short stories and novels are interesting enough to win awards. But they're only partway to where the writer can be and needs to be. There's an element of "I am a clever writer" in them, and this element replaces that sense of "This is the writing I need to do" that each and every one of these writers has put aside.
Today it's bugging me, for I'm reading something that gets a great deal of praise in the community, but it's only a fraction of the tale it could have been, if the writer had only take a breath, repositioned, and sorted out character voice and telling detail and given a sense of place.
This is the moment I need to admit that I'm not just reading Aurealis books and research books. I have a large backlog of fiction that I need to read for other purposes, and my work experience student and I have put them aside and I need to get through them. Trying to double guess which book I'm talking about is not a sensible thing to do. If I see the author soon, I'll talk to them about it, if they are in the mood to listen (and if they really don't care, then I won't talk to them about their work - life is simple, that way) but this is not really about this one author or this one book. It's a pattern in Australian writing and it bugs me more than somewhat. It's one of the reasons I want to teach undergrads, because self-indulgence is something that can be exploited and it can be disciplined and it can be avoided. Also, I've not been able to get traction in the wider community on the sort of courses that would help solve this kind of personal writing issue and other writer-teachers I've spoken to have similar problems. It's much easier to offer punctuation and grammar and the year of the novel. To be honest, it's much easier to sell places for punctuation and grammar and the year of the novel.
What also worries me is that, currently, I think writing communities are unintentionally developing bad habits. We read the work by writers we know and love and who are personal friends (or who we at least go drinking with) and we develop blind spots.
I don't know if all the writers I've seen with this same set of issues belong to the one community (if they do, it's not geographical) but I've seen other groups with other problems. It's got me thinking about how we correct them and it's immediately led to me dropping out of my favourite circle, because I could see the patterns developing and I could see that, any moment, I would try to write adventure-based YA fantasy, because it would give solace unto the group and I would glean some positive comments for so doing. We're so desperate for people to see what we do and to give words that say "Yes, I understand" that it's always tempting to push our writing over the edge, or back-off and develop dullness, or shift into a different genre, or even ignore our actual writing gifts just to get those comments.
We get bad habits in writing groups, sometimes, because a strong voice in the group prefers a particular kind of writing and doesn't acknowledge it as a personal preference (the strongest voice in that group at that time gave amazing positives for adventure-based YA fantasy, obviously), or because the group is too close and has lost the capacity to make stringent and useful criticisms. Not all writing groups go this way, but it's a danger for all of them.
It's a double danger when the market is in the same phase as the writing group and so all a writer hears is "Write this - what you're doing is not going to sell, not going to work, not going to be a good story." We see the success pattern and we forget "That's not why I write." We forget our centre and don't learn our style and voice and potential - this is what I have been seeing a lot of, in recent years. We get so many negatives as writers, that when an almost-positive comes, we will lean into it and try to make our writing become it.
It's harder on writers who share their fiction in a genre group but who prefer to write at the edges of genre - and all the writers I'm thinking of today fit in that classification. So do I, so this blog entry is as much a note for myself on problems I need to avoid as a criticism of other writers. The balance between retaining one's authenticity and integrity, selling, and growing into all the potential that's there in one's early work is a difficult one.
This post was brought to you by the teacher and the incipient menopause arguing with each other. Growing one's potential is very similar to the emotions of menopause. One is forced to doubt everything and find one's inner strong self - all good writers have to do this. This is why men need to learn about menopause**. Those writers I'm talking about haven't yet. All my complaints are about symptoms. The cause of those symptoms is much deeper.
*If you haven't worked out that this is one of those days when I wish my body was one of those male ones, with hormones that behave more often, you really should send me some dark chocolate, immediately. It would help both of us.
** See first footnote!
I have nine books to receive for the Aurealis, and nine books on hand still to read. Only eighteen books to go. And today is a reading day (because yesterday was a day for other things) so I think I shall read two of them. Plus work on the seventeenth century project. Plus see if I can locate something mysterious for the Beast that K sent me information about. Plus apply for a job. I've already done a bunch of admin stuff, but I have more.
This means it's a very quiet day today. I do not need dramas or things going wrong, please universe. The more I can finish today, the more likely it is that I'll get to the library tomorrow, and the library beckons.
Also, I want time off for good behaviour fairly soon, for I have Clannad to watch. I also have a season of Mission Impossible (the TV series) and Leonard Nimoy is having a fine time in it.
So... to my books!