The Notebook

[Note: I meant for this to go out last Friday, but WordPress ate the original post, which, of course, was untarnished genius and is now forever lost in the electronic ether, and there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  So here it is again.  Not nearly as genius as the first, lost post, of course.  Lightning in a bottle and all that.]

When I was a kid, I tried on numerous occasions to keep a diary (like every other girl in the history of ever).  I bought cute little books complete with tiny locks and tiny keys that I would secrete away somewhere, maybe wear around my neck on a chain.  I resolved to write every day, starting each entry with the requisite “Dear diary,” describing in brilliant, breathless prose how the cutest boy in school smiled at me, how mean the popular girls were, how unfair and oppressive an eight o’clock bedtime was.  I dreamed of how I would hide the diary under my bed, where my mom would find it and read it cover to cover to my dramatic mortification.

I never got past day 3.

In 7th grade, my language arts teacher Ms. Fornes required us to keep a journal.  Unlike a diary, she explained, a journal was something you took along with you and wrote in whenever the mood struck you.  You could write about things that happened in your life, sure, but you could also write random thoughts, story ideas, music lyrics, anything.  My journal was a black marbled theme book with a patch of blue floral contact paper on the front, and I wrote in it obsessively.  Of course, I was an unhappy, angsty twelve year old, so the journal turned out to be Exhibit A for why I should have been in therapy rather than a work of scintillating genius for the ages.  But it did teach me the value of having something with me at all times where  I could write my thoughts.

I’ve been keeping a writer’s journal for years now, and it’s an invaluable tool that I recommend for any writer, for the simple reason that inspiration comes from everywhere.  People often ask writers where they get their ideas, like there’s some secret stream they go to and pan out a few amazing ideas like nuggets of gold.  But that’s not how it works.  We are all surrounded by ideas 24/7.  The two secrets to gathering those ideas are training yourself to see them, and writing them down before you forget.

Try this:

  1. Get something to write on that you can carry around with you.  I use a one subject spiral bound notebook because I use a messenger bag instead of a purse and it fits perfectly.  If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t carry anything you can’t fit in your pockets, you might want to try a notepad, or index cards. Or give your phone a try!  It doesn’t work for me, but it may work for you.
  2. As you go through your daily life, try to be aware of what catches your attention.  It can be anything: a song lyric, a t-shirt, a memory.  (Yesterday, I noted a quote from Ernest Hemingway, a store a friend was talking about called Unclaimed Baggage (they literally sell items from luggage that nobody picks up at the airport.  How cool is that?) and a memory of a nun who came to talk to our church about her convent’s ministry of giving the homeless dying a place to spend their last days and sitting with them through their last hours.)
  3. When you notice it (or as soon thereafter as possible), write it down.  It doesn’t have to be long and flowery; a short notation  will do.
  4. At the end of the day, look over what you wrote down, and pay particular attention to the things that speak to you the second time around.  They don’t have to stay within the bounds of the original thought or observation.  Let your imagination take the ideas to new and different places.

Feel this out for a couple days, and see if it works for you.  If you make a habit of it, you can let more time pass before going over what you’ve written down.  My habit is to read through each notebook when I’ve filled it.  This happens on a variable time scale – I’ve filled a notebook in a month, and I’ve had the same notebook in my bag for two years (the edges discoloring, the wire spine bending and coming apart.  I don’t recommend it.)  I’ve gotten several stories out of my little jotted observations, and my novel started as a written musing on the mothman legend (and that’s a perfect example of how an idea can start one way, then take you in a completely different direction: mothman to ghosts).  Even if only a few ideas pan out into actual fiction, though, the journal will also remind you that the world around us is deep, and full of fascinating things that we will forget if we don’t make note of them.

The benefits of being married to an astrophysicist

I write a fair amount of science fiction, but my science is pretty fast and loose.  I’m less interested in how exactly technology advances and more interested in how society develops.  That sort of science fiction is commonly called social science fiction, or soft science fiction, as opposed to hard science fiction.  More Ray Bradbury than Isaac Asimov.  More Hunger Games than Ringworld.

That said, there are times when I need to get the science at least passably correct.  At those times, I rely on two things: Wikipedia, and my husband.

See, I’m married to an astrophysicist. He studies black holes and what happens when one tears apart and gobbles up a star.  Which is the layman’s description, and when it gets past that, it goes right over my head.  Read one of his papers without being familiar with the mathematical languages of astrophysics, and you wouldn’t even be able to discern the layman’s description.  I went to his dissertation defense for moral support, and within the first five seconds my brain totally zoned out in sheer self-defense (sorry, sweetie, love you, sweetie).

This aside, though, there are distinct benefits to being married to an astrophysicist, especially to a science fiction writer.  Is there a way to use a nuclear bomb as a fireworks show, and what would it look like?  Those pictures of nebulae: are they actually that color?  Or are they colorized by the scientists who take and analyze the pictures?  What sort of signal from outer space would be definitively not from a natural phenomenon?  He knows, and can (usually) give me explanations that I can follow.

More valuable, perhaps, is that ideas get snagged in his intellectual net that would escape mine entirely were it not for him.  Just recently, he told me that there will come a point where the universe is expanding so fast that the light of one part will not reach the light of another.  When astronomers (of whatever species they are at that time, billions of years in the future) will look up and see only the stars in our own galaxy.  They’d have ancient records of other galaxies, but no ability to perceive them first-hand.  Will they believe in other galaxies? (Note: I had to edit this, changing “stars” to “other galaxies”, because I apparently got it wrong, and my husband doesn’t want to look like a slacker.)

What an awesome premise for a story.

I need feminism because

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My general policy is that I don’t get political on this blog.  Online political arguments are as draining as they are futile, and my politics are such that I get crap from liberals for being to conservative, and crap from conservatives for being too liberal.  Besides, this is a writing blog, and while my political philosophies are part of the ether that informs my fiction, I tend to focus more on universal human experience than on fictionalizing my viewpoints.  Political fiction is not always a bad thing, of course: we wouldn’t have Animal Farm or The Handmaid’s Tale without it.  It’s just not what I do.

So why the post on feminism?

It starts here. Basically, Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) has been mired in a sexism scandal. It started in their bulletin, a respected professional publication, with an eye-rolling cover of your typical chainmail bikini “warrior woman” and an editorial about “lady editors” in which the two male authors waxed poetic about how their colleagues were knockouts (if you’re skeptical about how problematic this is, when’s the last time you heard someone sing the praises of Gordon Van Gelder, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and include extended references of how he looks hot in a Speedo?)  Things got worse the next issue, when Barbie was named as a role model for women because, among other things, “she maintained her quiet dignity the way a woman should.”  And the next issue, they just kept digging when the two men who wrote the “lady editors” piece wrote another article, complaining that they were being censored for their views, and that it’s silly that people got so upset over the fact that they called the female editors beautiful.

One of the interesting things about these sorts of situations is that what has come to the surface is, to use an apt cliche, the tip of the iceberg.  The fact that any of what was published in the SFWA Bulletin was considered at all appropriate to begin with is indicative of the deep seated sexism within the science fiction community, which is indicative of the sexism within the general community of authors and publishers, which is indicative of the sexism in our society.  I started this post with a picture from a campaign in Cambridge, England, where people were given a whiteboard with “I Need Feminism Because” written on the top, and were asked to finish the sentence.  The answers are worth your time, and you can find more here.

Think about the picture I included here, though.  We know her as J.K. Rowling because her publisher insisted that she use initials instead of her name, because young boys would not read a fantasy series about boy wizard if it was written by a woman.  And you know what?  They’re not wrong.  People assume that when a book is written by a woman, or is about a woman, it’s to be categorized as “chick lit,” appropriate for female consumption but not for a general audience.  Boys in particular are adverse to reading things they perceive as “girly,” either because the main character is a girl, or because the author is female.

This problem is particularly pronounced in the world of science fiction, fantasy and horror.   While there have always been women in these genres (Frankenstein‘s Mary Shelley for the win) for a long time it’s been a male-dominated field, and, as the SFWA kerfuffle aptly illustrates, there are deeply ingrained attitudes that still make things hard for women writers and editors.  Connie Willis is one of the most respected science fiction authors today, and still she gets groped (onstage!) by Harlan Ellison.

When I started to seriously consider sending my work out for publication, the possibility of using a pen name came up.  I write science fiction and horror.  I know that there are people out there who will not read my work because it’s written by Eileen Maksym, just like there are people out there who would not read a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that’s written by Joanna Rowling.  Should I go by E. Maksym?  Or another name entirely that obscures the fact that I’m a woman?  Absolutely not.  Because refusing to be publicly identifiable as a woman is not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem.  Because every woman who hides their gender to be accepted is one less woman to stand up and be counted.  Because the world of science fiction needs women who prove that we are here, we are capable, and we deserve and demand respect.