Priorities And Other Bullshit About Being An Adult

Getting the extra arms was expensive, but totally worth it.

I want to be awesome at everything.

I don’t know if it’s my classic Type A, overachiever personality or just my relentless interest in just about everything from robotics to art to yoga to cooking to combat sports, but I want to be good at stuff. All the stuff.

But, not being possessed of infinite time, energy, and resources, I have to choose.

Being human is like character development in an RPG. You start off with so many points and you can put those into whatever you want, but they are finite. You can’t do everything. And even when you figure out what you want, you might have to prioritize those as well. Is it better to put all your ranks in Perception, or to spread them out and be less good at seeing that the goddamn dungeon floor is trapped?

We all have to choose what we want to spend our time on. And, since practice is usually correlated to performance, by extension what we want to be good at. If you want to be a great dancer, you need to devote a lot of time to it. Likewise if you want to kill it at Halo, or be a world-class chef, or, say, a writer.

And the very act of choosing what to specialize in means that there are other things that you have to let go. Or at least let go of doing extremely well.

I devote the majority of my time to writing, because I want to be awesome at it. Therefore, lesser amounts of time get devoted to my artwork, my video game skills, my coding projects, and my robot army. And some things, like fencing, knitting, and digital painting, have been put aside for the moment. I might come back to them one day, but right now, they’re simply a lower priority than everything else.

This gives me enough time to work hard on my writing, have fun with yoga and running and art, and still have time for a modest social life. And, you know, being married. And I love all those things, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t the occasional wrench as I realize I have to let something else go to prioritize what I really want.

But there is good news. You probably have stuff that you want to do. And stuff that you have to do. And stuff that you’re just doing without really considering whether you want/have to or not. You can mine time from the things that you just do out of habit and repurpose it for stuff you actually want. Like taking your tv time and using it to learn French or Python. Or letting go of a volunteer position that has become a burdensome obligation and devoting the time you’re no longer spending in meetings to writing.

Ultimately, your time is yours. You have to choose how you want to spend it.

What have you given up to pursue something you wanted more?

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Post-Mortem: Gutting Your New Year’s Resolutions

If this was your list, maybe skip this post.

Here we are, three months into the new year. Is it still new? Or is it a slightly used year now? Previously loved? Whatever, 2015 is now one-quarter over, and you know what that means?

It’s time to check in on those New Year’s Resolutions you made.

Now, before you look guiltily at your running shoes and then dive head-first into a bag or Doritos, I am not here to make you feel bad. I’m quite sure most of you have other people for that.*

All I want you to do is think back. Did you make a resolution? How did it go for you? If you stuck with it, why? And if you didn’t, why not?

Don’t turn away from this stuff, especially if you didn’t follow through on your resolution. Yeah, it might suck to look at what you consider to be a failure, but look anyway. Get down there, rip it open, and sniff the entrails of the failed attempt, because they are fucking full of information.

This is where you learn stuff. About yourself, what motivates you, what doesn’t, what can keep you going when you don’t want to,  and what makes you give up in hopeless frustration.

So do your post-mortem. Did you resolve to write 1,000 words every day and give up halfway through January? Then maybe that’s not the right goal for you. How about 500? Or writing every weekend? Or maybe not writing at all, and spending that time on something you actually enjoy. Or perhaps you need a different type of motivation: writing a flash fiction story and posting on Twitter every day.

Or, if you persevered, why? What kept you going? Because, after three months, I know damn well that there were days you wanted to give up. So what did you use to keep yourself on the path when the going got rougher than off-roading on a bike made of cheese graters?

For my resolutions—finish The Book by July, finish a sketch every day—I’ve been making good progress. I had to take three weeks off from writing due to Serious Health Issue at the end of January/beginning of February, but I got back on the horse and kept going. And I still kept up the sketching during that time. I used things like my sticker motivation calendar and public accountability in the form of posting the daily sketches to Facebook to keep me on track. As of now, I have 89 sketches (missed a day in the hospital) and 70,000 new words on the novel manuscript. Go, me.

Make notes. Examine where you succeeded, and where you failed. And be better prepared for next year, when we’ll do this all over again.

So, that’s me. How about you? Did you make resolutions? Did you stick to them? Did you learn anything from not sticking to them?

*If you don’t, then there is a surcharge for Making You Feel Bad, which comes in Regular, Mocking, and Disappointed Mother Who Only Wants The Best For You flavours.

Vacation Home: Things I Learned Visiting Discworld

The Discworld, my brain's favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

The Discworld, my brain’s favourite vacation home, captured in all its glory by Paul Kidby.

I spent half of Thursday crying and the other half reading. Both because Terry Pratchett had just died.

It’s hard to explain why I was so upset by the death of a man whom I had never met. And now, never will. Part of it was that, probably: I will never be able to tell him how much those books meant to me. Something I’m sure he heard a thousand thousand times, but I like to think that no one really gets tired of hearing how they touched someone else’s life.

It was the stories, of course. And the characters. And the turns of phrase that stuck with me, year after year. I have all the Discworld books, and some of them have been read so many times that they’re falling apart, and need to be replaced. One, in fact, finally split on Thursday afternoon, after sixteen years of me reading it over and over.

Reading those books was—and is— fun. And reading has got to be entertaining, or what’s the point? But it wasn’t just fun that made me stick with them, or them with me.

Those books were, to paraphrase Tolkien, a light in dark places for me. They told me that being weird wasn’t just okay—the world is full of places and people who will tell you that being your weird self is ‘okay’, like you need their permission, and besides, ‘okay’ is the very fucking definition of mediocrity—but that being weird was awesome. It was something to be celebrated. And the people who didn’t understand that were probably Auditors* in disguise or something, so fuck those people.

The books told me that even things that hurt you can be laughed at. And should be.

They also told me that I wasn’t alone. That no matter how isolated or lonely I was—and there were long periods when I was both—that there were, somewhere, people who understood. One of them was this odd British man who wrote characters that felt like me, like someone had ripped out a piece of me and stuck them to a page**, but there must be others. I wasn’t sure how I would find them, but just the knowledge that they must be out there was enough to get me through. It meant that I wouldn’t always be alone.

That sort of thing means a lot when you’re sixteen.

And now I’m thirty-two. It’s been a lot of years since I first picked up a Pratchett book in the library—Lords and Ladies, if anyone’s wondering. But I’m still reading them, and now I read as a writer. And you know what? They’re still just as good. In fact, as a writer, now I can appreciate the economy of description and sharpness of observation that were among Pratchett’s hallmarks. I can see the humour and the anger.

I’m going to spend some of the next few weeks re-reading all my favourites from the series. And when I read about Death and his garden and the black desert, I’ll be thinking of Sir Terry.

Goodbye. I hope I can someday write something that touches someone half as much as your work did.

*The Discworld incarnation of rules and conformity, and exactly as boring as that sounds.

**Vimes and Susan in particular.

If It’s Not Broken, Break It

This hamster very firmly believes in not judging books by their covers and that when it rains, it pours.

I’m learning to hate adages.

I shouldn’t; I mean, they’re just words. But, much like Twitter*, the effort of condensing a sentiment into a small, memorable package means that it either 1) comes across as something a mentally-deficient hamster would say or 2) loses all meaning and context.

Adages are too often the shortcut of thinking.

Today’s annoyance? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Sounds good on the surface. Why mess with something that’s functioning perfectly well? After all, it’s working, right?

But.

But.

What if there’s a better way out there?

Something that you’re refusing to see because good enough is…well, good enough?

Much like ‘write what you know’, this phrase has the ability to become a straight jacket. You get stuck in a routine or a method of creation because it’s always worked and it’s fine and trying something new is too much work. But if you’re never going to fix anything as long as it functions with the minimum efficiency, you’re never going to expand your horizons.

If I didn’t try to change things that weren’t broken, I never would have written short stories, or horror, or young adult fiction, because adult fantasy novels were fine. And while not all those experiments worked out for the best, they were still valuable.

Hell, from the Real Life Files, that adage would have seen me never ask my husband on a date, because we were fine as friends. It would have seen me still trapped in an academic career, because it was good enough. It would see us stuck in another province, because why risk the move to a strange town?

So fuck that. Sometimes you have to break things before you can make new things. Break your routines, break your characters, break your stories, and see what you can make out of the pieces. If you can’t make anything, then go back to what you knew. At least you tried. But in the trying, you might just make something great. Isn’t that work the risk?

You always write at home? Go to a coffee shop, or a library, or the park by the river. You always write hard science fiction? Write a romance. Learn something from it. You only read speculative fiction? Pick up a literary award-winner or a non-fiction history.

The new and the novel are where ideas come from. Complacency is the enemy of creativity. And if you’re a writer, then why the hell would you choose complacency?

So break things. Raise new things in their place. And find out what you can do, not just what you can get by doing.

*I love you, Twitter, but you are possibly the shittiest place on earth to have a nuanced conversation about anything.

Break Out The Scotch, It’s Time For Year Four!

Maybe keep the candles away from the scotch, though.

Holy shit, here we are again. The beginning of a new year of Bare Knuckle Writer. Year four, to be precise. In the words of my role-playing character, “who would have thought we’d make it this far without someone nuking us from orbit?”*

I’m damn sure it’s no coincidence that I chose March to start this blog, with about as much prior research as it took to learn how to register a domain name and think of one I liked. February, as some of you might have gathered from the preceding post, is always hard for me. Shortest month feels longer in my head, and greyer, and colder.

But March…it might still be colder than a Frost Giant’s left testicle out there, but something has started to thaw. Maybe the ground. Maybe just my own imagination.

Things are moving again, and I like that.

As I said, I started this blog pretty much on a whim, and never set a timetable for myself. And every year when my renewal notice pops up in my inbox, I wonder if I should do it for another year. And, thus far, the answer has always been ‘yes’. I don’t plan any further than that, because I never want this to become an obligation. It’s my side project, like musicians recording under a different name. It’s something I do for fun, and occasionally to give difficult thoughts a place to live that’s not me. Or not just me.

But, to all of you who follow and read and allow the infectious spores of my thoughts to claim a section of your brain…thank you. Thanks for the follows, and the comments, and the questions, and the Twitter conversations. Thanks for your time and attention, which, goddamn, are valuable commodities these days. Thanks for listening.

And keep that dial right where it is. A brand new year is coming up, and you don’t want to miss it.

*Shortly after saying that, someone did attempt to nuke our party from orbit. Because DMs are like that.

Spring Comes: Getting Through The Hard Days

Fuck, if these things got through the snow, I guess I have to. Smug purple bastards.

The end of February is the worst. The cold makes me grumpy and tired, I’m entirely over any sense of the beauty of a fresh snowfall, and everything seems to take so much effort that I might as well give up and stay under a blanket on the couch while binge-reading all the Harry Potter novels again.

The sight of a shovel can reduce a grown man to tears at this point.

But I get up, and I haul my carcass to the desk, and write. And then I haul it outside to shovel. And haul it further to go to yoga and the gym and to see people. Because, despite what popular depictions would tell us, locking yourself in your room with the Muse* is not the best way to prove yourself a writer.

No, as always, the best and only way to be a writer is to fucking write. Judges judge, loggers log, carpenters….carpent**. Writers write.

Even when The Half-Blood Prince and a stack of marshmallow cookies is calling their name.

The thing to remember is that these shitty periods, the ones that crop up for me at this time of year and at least one other (November), the ones that never seem to end? They fucking end. Always. And once they’re over, you’ll never think of them again. Like high school. Seems so important at the time, but once you’re out, you find yourself wondering what all the damn fuss was about.

Anyway, this is less of a pep talk and more of a reminder. Whatever thing, be it the weather or your mood or your tiredness, is keeping you from doing what you love…it will pass. In the meantime, keep doing what you love anyway, because fuck those things. Seriously, you’re going to let a bunch of weather determine if you’ll write? I can see it interfering with gardening, but even then, read a seed catalogue and dream of spring.

Some times are hard. Some days are hard. But there’s never been a day when I regretted shovelling out the car and going to the gym. There’s never been words I regretted putting down because they were hard.

Writers write. Now get to it. And remember: spring comes.

*Ie, a bottle of gin.

**Shut up.

Can And Will Be Used Against You: Real Life Research

The tractor sent flowers to the hospital for Al, which everyone agreed was very classy for a piece of heavy machinery.

Whenever I’m around people and one of them tells the often-embarrassing tale of a particularly weird thing that happened to them or around them, the following happens:

Person Who Didn’t Tell The Story: *turns to me* That’s going to turn up in a story one day, isn’t it?

Me: Probably, but I’ll change the names so only we know who did it.

Person Who Told The Story: *nervous laughter*

It must be how psychologists feel whenever people start acting “normal”* when they’re around.

Rest easy: most of those stories you tell me and mine do not end up in our writing. Sometimes it’s because real life really is stranger than fiction; I still find it hard to believe than a well-educated person who had made it well into middle age would claim to find the taste of chocolate laxatives so good that they’d eat enough boxes to spend an entire day at work violently shitting themselves.** And sometimes it’s because the stories themselves are too distinctive. No one wants to explain to their family over Thanksgiving dinner that they didn’t think anyone would recognize Uncle Al in that short story about the guy who tried to fuck a tractor.

Mostly, though, that stuff doesn’t end up there because it’s not the stories we’re looking for.

What is far more likely to end up in our writing material are feelings, atmospheres, quirks of speech, habits, places, or things. That lamp made seashells from a long-ago vacation that Aunt Ida took in her youth; most of the shells have fallen away, leaving dried glue and memories behind. The way family dinner feels when everyone’s just waiting, waiting, for Racist Inappropriate Grandma to make some comment about Sophie’s new boyfriend. The hollow sound of the wind in the now-abandoned neighbourhood of your youth, rattling loose shutters that no one will ever come to repair.

The way you hesitate and flush, twisting your glass around and around in your hands, before telling that story, half embarrassed, half proud.

So, you’ll end up in our stories. All of you. But you probably won’t recognize yourself when you do.

* Or what they think is normal. Hint: it’s not.

** God, I wish I was making that up.