Recalibrating the writing eye

I always find when I leave drawing for a little while that, when I come back, I have to retrain my eye. Drawing and writing are both about observation; seeing what is in the world, reproducing it in a different format. Once that’s understood all craft looks like domestication. Taking in images, decomposing them, reconstituting them so somebody else can see what you see or understand something you want to tell them.

The main error I commit is drawing essentially my memory of what others have drawn. Not recalibrating against the world. I’ve gathered from talking with folks who don’t draw that the difference between these two ways of seeing isn’t always obvious to those who haven’t practiced both, and I’m not saying I have a high confidence in my ability to distinguish them in other peoples’ work. But I can feel, in my own drawing, when I’ve lost sight of what’s real and am just putting down a muscle-memorized symbol for an eye, a hand, a jacket, a pair of glasses, or whatever. It’s sort of masturbatory. I’m not drawing a hand, I’m drawing the set of strokes that I drew at another time to represent a hand.  So on and so on until the original image from life is basically lost.

Which is because brains are bad at remembering things. A memory of an event can be changed by the act of recalling it–which is the act of recoding and reinterpreting it and then putting it back in storage–and memories of images are distorted every time you have to pull them up from memory. Like a gun in a video game degrades every time you shoot it and eventually you need a new gun. You know, science.

So I was thinking about this when I was counting all the times in a particular story I used the phrase raised his eyebrows. When I write that down, I’m not really thinking about eyebrow-raising; I’m just trying to convey mild surprise or alarm. And eyebrow-raising is a kind of shorthand or symbol for that.

Sometimes there’s no point getting more precious than shorthand. The shorthand doesn’t fail to communicate; also, the pace at which a reader assimilates a shorthand is different from the pace at which they assimilate a new object, because shorthand is predictable. So designing the pace that a reader engages with new information in prose requires one to use some amount of shorthand.

But it is worth remembering that it’s a minor error of calibration; it’s reproducing a copy, reproducing other writers, reproducing past phrasing, instead of reproducing life. Even though people raise their eyebrows all the time, that isn’t the be-all of the actual experience of feeling somebody express mild surprise or alarm. Leaning on those shorthands too heavily is a signal to me that I’m not engaging thoroughly with the events that I’m trying to reproduce.

So when I do want to chase a new reproduction of an actual experience or image, that requires recalibration. In drawing, you always reference real life. And for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me to do this in writing.

For one particular story, I had an image of a helicopter in my mind, and was composing everything in the scene around this helicopter. But then when I looked up helicopters to verify a minor detail, I realized that, in the first place, I had no fucking idea what helicopters look like. I had the symbol of a helicopter in my mind, but it wasn’t calibrated against real life; it was the image of my memory of my memory of a helicopter. Actual helicopters look totally different.

My process has generally been to learn as much as I can about the real world and trust my creativity brain-algorithms to Google Deep Dream it all up into something new. But algorithms can train in the wrong direction. Just good to remember that and set aside time and space to recalibrate.




You Two Should Feel Very Lucky and ugly sexiness

My short story “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky” went up in Iridium Zine in April. I didn’t write a blog post for “Borrowing Ark Sutherland” earlier in the year because I already vented lots of blustery thoughts about it in the author interview for Luna Station Quarterly (which you can find here). But I also have lots of thoughts about this one.

My relationship to this story has changed somewhat between its writing and its publication. The reason for this might seem a bit tangential–I lost weight. Not a lot of weight, but enough to bring my body into legibility for a general audience. I was never heavy enough to experience the strongest cruelty of the informal social regulation that lays over all interactions between our bodies and other human beings, but I was heavy enough to feel ashamed when I ate in public. And I grew up heavy. I grew up ugly. Disheveled and often unshowered if I’m being totally honest with you. I didn’t pluck my eyebrows until I was seventeen.

The experience of living in that body and living in my current body were very different. I didn’t lose weight to love my body more–I loved my body already. I lost weight for other people. People smile at me more often. I fit into more clothes. I plan to lose enough weight that I can enjoy myself if I go to an onsen someday. Enough weight that when people’s gazes cut my way I never have to think, is it because I’m fat? And I could say, for my health and so on, but honestly, I was young enough to have no health issues related to my weight; my movement and the internal sensation of my joints and muscles don’t feel any different. In essence, all I did was purposefully normalize myself.

At that time, I had also stopped shaving my body hair. But the terror that shot through me when I went through US border security in a tank top and had to lift my arms for the indifferent young TSA agent was a dent in my confidence. I might still go back to au naturel; I liked honoring my second-wave Dykes To Watch Out For lesbian foremothers, and I spent less precious time in the shower. But at this moment I can’t handle it. It leaves you vulnerable and too seen. It stings like a nerve open to the air in a worn-down tooth.

The things that I escaped by normalizing myself are the results of a body-surveillance that I was thinking a lot about when I wrote “You Two Should Feel Very Lucky.” In the beginning, I thought of this surveillance as being about womanhood, but I no longer think that’s central to it. Certainly women are more heavily surveilled, but people will bring down the brunt of their judgement just as quickly on men with inconvenient and unattractive bodies. (Every neckbeard joke ever tossed out on Twitter by girls with perfect eyeliner still pricks at me. I’m not trying to one-up their oppression credentials or whatever, I just want to make a note.)

In fact, I think the surveillance is most centralized and intense on people of all genders with “marked” bodies, in the sense of the opposite of unmarked. Many of them are people with visible disabilities, which is not an experience I can speak to. But there is a category adjacent to that category, the “neckbeard” category, of “voluntary” ugliness, “fixable” ugliness, that betrays an unwillingness to conform to standards of public viewability and is, therefore, deeply offensive to many who believe that they have a right not to view bodies that surprise or alarm them.

So–in some ways this story used to belong to me and now it only belongs to a past me. But even though I no longer look like a person who should have written a story about being in a bad body, the experiences I had and didn’t have as a possessor of that neckbeard type of ugliness shaped me intensely. And probably it belongs to a future me as well. I’m very aware that my public legibility as a young, able-bodied, normal-weight white woman with her eyebrows plucked is fleeting and will be gone before too long. We all get old, and for all I know I’ll end up spliced in a teleporter too.

One last thing is that other than the strangenesses of living in an illegible body, when I was writing this story I was thinking about us ugly people loving each other. It astonished me when I read somebody express, on their 2009 sex-positive queer poly feminist blog (remember those?), that you didn’t have to be sexy to have good sex. Isn’t it bizarre how it had never occurred to me? That sex and love more generally wasn’t something that happened for a camera, or for an audience, or for surveillance. That you didn’t have to self-check for ugliness when you were undressing alone in your home. That you could be ugly and still find joy in your body, and appreciate the body of another ugly person.

When you kiss somebody, you don’t experience them as a visual object. You experience them through your skin. There’s no ugliness to the touch. I guess I thought that was worth writing about too.



Reflections on June stories

In June I wrote my first-ever short stories. Even when I was a kidlet my ambitions always ran towards novels, and then in high school when my ability to finish long projects failed I never even really gave much thought to trying out the short story. Then, mysteriously, in like January, I regained the ability to write and dug in to some very ambitious and possibly ill-advised projects which are now on ice. And finally in June I left a temp job and decided to wring something productive out of my vacation month. Blood Still Flows, one of the June short stories I’m currently hashing out the second draft for, was definitely the first thing I’d finished in ~6 years that wasn’t exclusively intended for the eyes of my Special Person Not Otherwise Specified. So: man, am I ever excited about short stories. Finishing things feels awesome.

I meant to do a short story a week, but They Came to Calgary has ended up expanding to novellette length, which means it’s probably going to be impossible to sell but maybe I’ll end up putting it up here or somewhere similar one day when I give up on it. So I count June an 80% success. In July and August I did too much travelling to write much, but in the latter half of August I got to check off another personal goal that I’ll keep under wraps for now. (I also did a lot of language study, and realized if I really apply myself and can learn a language to N3/B2-level fluency every five years that’s…a lot of languages over my whole lifetime. And similarly, if I wrote a story every week that would be a lot of stories!)

In September I’m thinking of doing a story-a-biweek to finish the two stories lurking in my Dropbox that are still WIP. There are a few deadlines I want to shoot for in fall (including a Christmas deadline for a gift). After that things will be up in the air again a bit. But I suspect the granularity and structure of the short-story-a-week format is a good way to stay accountable. Let’s see how it goes; here’s to another academic school year and maybe not being plunged into any deep depressions this time?


It’s moral fiber all the way down

Here’s the most recent thing I’ve been thinking myself into circles about. I’ve tried to write this post three times because it’s something I keep realizing for a split second then forgetting my reasoning, and I’m too upside-down to figure out if this post actually even conveys that reasoning. Also, I think this is truly entry-level ethics, the Death Cab for Cutie of ethics, and don’t want to present it as if I’m making a revelation. But perhaps it will be an interesting thing to chew on for others who have only a vague idea of the body of work behind the phrase “determinism.”

Suppose Annie and Benny are both struggling in school. They have bad grades and keep disrupting class by talking loudly to each other or arguing. They’re taken into the principal’s office one day and he tells them they have to shape up or they run the risk of having to go to that one sullen building in every hometown which tidy middle-class kids like me learned surprisingly late was for kids with vague behavioral problems and probably poverty, because tidy middle-class families never talk about it, and we never encountered any kids who had gone there and come back out.

Benny puts his nose to the grindstone and improves quickly. Annie doesn’t. She continues to get easily distracted or whatever and ends up being sent into the cursed building and Benny loses track of her and goes to a local university to get a GIS degree.

Here’s the question: Why didn’t Annie improve? Under what circumstances could we possibly say, “Annie could have done better than she did, but she didn’t try hard enough like Benny, so she failed?” In other words, under what circumstances could we say that Benny deserved his outcome and Annie deserved her outcome, and therefore justify, as a society, why Annie’s quality of life lowers?

Scenario 1: Annie just found it a lot harder. She has undiagnosed ADHD and a bad home life or something, and so she wasn’t able to apply the same focus to the problem as Benny. I think most people in my circles agree that this is sad and wouldn’t blame Annie for her outcome. The solution is to, say, get Annie on Ritalin and let her move to her nice aunt’s house and finish high school in the next town over, and the assumption is that if Annie and Benny were on an equal playing field, Annie would do just as well as Benny or even better.

Scenario 2: Annie straight-up cared less and didn’t try as hard. Annie has a fine home life and no underlying impairments, she just doesn’t care about school and decided she wanted to play Call of Duty instead. To make the problem clear, let’s say that Scenario 2 Benny has lots against him, which is why he was having trouble at school–he often goes to school hungry and has to work a part-time job–yet when he applied himself, he succeeded where Annie failed.

This is the scenario where I think everyday assignment of blame starts to break down. I think lots of people would attribute good qualities to Benny, let’s call them moral fiber, and bad qualities to Annie.

It seems to me like the sort of “folk model” of good and bad outcomes is that everyone has the same amount of moral fiber (you can also think of it as motivation). (I should note, too, that the folk model of where I live, a very liberal urban area in Canada, is likely quite different from the folk model others may draw.) Some people have bad circumstances which understandably affect how they draw on their moral fiber. I think most people find this generally sympathetic, even if they don’t judge situations as we would expect them to judge them based on the model. For instance, most people in Scenario 1 have sympathy for Annie who has bad circumstances, and are happy to see her enter better circumstances so she has greater capacity to utilize her moral fiber. But Scenario 2 Annie is very unsympathetic. She had no excuse–she just decided not to draw on her moral fiber.

But if Scenario 2 Annie has the same amount of moral fiber as Benny, why doesn’t she use it? What causes her to make a decision to be “bad” and Benny to make a decision to be “good”? It has to be some internal factor that differs between them, right? A factor whose presence causes them to care about school? A factor whose presence permits them to decide whether to do unfun things like studying instead of fun things like playing Call of Duty so they can have better outcomes in the long term?

Isn’t that just…moral fiber again? (Moral fiber2, maybe?) So if it’s moral fiber2 you use to decide to use your moral fiber, and Annie and Benny have the same amount of moral fiber2, why on earth did Annie not do the same thing as Benny? Or if they don’t have the same amount, does moral fiber2 vary between people, and if so, does that variance come from genetics or environment, and if either, isn’t it also not fair to expect Annie to magically accumulate more of it? Or is it also supposed to come from some internal virtue, and if so, how far down do I have to go before it becomes clear that moral fiber3, moral fiber4, and moral fiber5 all have the same logical problem?

So you begin to see why there doesn’t seem to be a point in assigning moral blame to Annie. It’s logically much more consistent to say that the decision to not study was itself instilled by genetics or environment, neither of which Annie could control.

I obviously recognize that not everyone thinks society has a duty to ensure everyone under its aegis lives a life reasonably free of avoidable suffering. But even many of those people would agree, I think,  that this folk model comes packaged with the idea that society does have a responsibility to protect two types of people: people who work according to its expectations to produce value (it would be “unfair” if after Benny’s work his teachers failed him just because they dislike him) and people whose environments and genetics are judged to have prevented them from working according to its expectations (for an extreme example that I don’t think will cause any object-level quibbling, it would be “unfair” if Cala, who has Down Syndrome, had her family killed in a car crash and died of preventable injuries in the hospital because she couldn’t figure out how to handle health insurance and nobody would help her). But for the third group of people, who don’t work according to society’s expectations but don’t visibly have genetics or environment to prevent them from doing so, society relies on moral fiber to justify withdrawing its support, and it doesn’t seem like moral fiber is a very solid foundation. If you become convinced there’s no such thing, as I have, everybody falls into the second category and society has a duty to care for them. Right?

I have no idea how to solve this problem except with highfalutin long-term ideas like UBI. If Annie and Benny can both live reasonably happy lives even if Annie, by genetics or environment, has much less moral fiber than Benny and doesn’t study or show up for work on time, then we don’t have to assign her bad outcomes based on something she can’t control. Benny might get a slightly better outcome even then, but trying to regulate how good an outcome Benny gets is a bit sour even for me. But then, can we even morally justify being okay with Benny getting extra just because of his genetics or environment?

Queer is the map, not the territory

Epistemic status: I only write to hear myself talk; please read in a tone of bafflement and not condescension.

I’m gearing up to read Whistling in the Dark, a collection of 21 interviews with Indian men in various homosexual and homosexual-adjacent behaviour patterns collected by R. Raj Yao and Dibyajyoti Sharma. Here are some things its first bit reminded me of that it’s easy to forget going to an upper-class university with a rainbow-painted crosswalk (and not even the slick six-color, I’m talking the original Baker Eight, magenta sex included, you better believe).

A. Shit is really bad for some of us out there and no matter how life-and-death Internet baby fights feel sometimes, we Westerners owe at least, at least to our faraway sibs the respect of giving a thought to their stories sometimes, and that doesn’t mean using them as a rhetorical tool to bash other WEIRD Internet gays, and yes I recognize that I’m sounding real smug for a person who just read three chapters of one book, but it’s much more a reminder to myself (drowned recently in the old Discourse Spiral) than a subtweet at anyone else in particular.

B. Queer is the map, not the territory. Lesbian is the map, bisexual is the map, trans is the map. Are we still conducting ourselves like we’ve uncovered some secret truth present in all the world and named and defined only by us and taxonomied like plant life? I’m asking, does it make any more sense to call hijra “Indian trans women” than to call trans women “Western hijra?” I feel like there’s this sense that there are “cultural genders and sexualities” and then there’s, you know, the scientifically proven LGBT rights which we need to Educate everyone about. Or maybe this is just something I filtered myself because it’s not like I’m in any position of enlightenment, I just thought of this like two weeks ago. I’m just saying  we’re still out here beating each other up over fuzzy sets with definitions we invented ourselves. I’m just thinking even the most expansive term we have, “queer,” like, queer is also a cultural sexual orientation. Where is our shared territory? Gender dysphoria and crossdressing and same-sex sexual/romantic behaviour? Or is that list itself influenced by what seems queer to me?

Here’s the R. Raj Rao list of who’s represented in the interviews: gay, bi, MSM, hijra, koti. MSM is what gets to the heart of what I mean I think. Even when it comes to rural Westerners, there’s men who have sex with men but would never consider themselves gay or bi. Are we really going to be out here enthusiastically telling them that their definition of gay is wrong and they’re wrong about their sex identities? That they’re gay whether they like it or not? Guys! We made it up! Just like we made up everything in our hoarder’s closet of a semantic collection of concepts loosely linked by association! Just like everyone did!


We believe pretty much anything we’re told, which was great in a time when we were only ever told things by our close family and friends (who probably saw those things firsthand) but not so great now that we’re constantly being told things by strangers. Lots of people, including me, like to think of themselves as not so credible; but there’s so many things I’ve just accepted because my friends told me they were true, and so many things I’ve relayed from some random on the Internet–usually with enough epistemic honesty at least to mention my source and say “take this with a grain of salt”–without knowing whether they were backed up by evidence.

I’m thinking about this for two reasons. One is the election we’ve all already thought too much about–but at the same time can’t safely stop thinking about, like, the second I wanted to stop thinking about it Trump named Steve Bannon chief strategist.  I was used to thinking of the Breitbart people as ideological enemies of about the same calibre as 4channers, so this is almost more surreal than the presidency. Facebook fake news and blatant untruths in the far-right media were the subject of a lot of journalism leading up to the election. Leftists like to think we read the true media, but how much can we really pat ourselves on the back? We can think: I hear and believe things that are also heard and believed by NPR. But what are my reasons for believing NPR is a good source, and are those reasons any different or any more objectively rational than the reasons of somebody who trusted a Facebook news item about how Hillary went in as a commando to kill American personnel in Benghazi with nothing but a combat knife and a can of hairspray?

The other reason is that I’ve been reading about Yoruba epistemology in Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft by Hallen and Sodipo. It so happens this is actually my first introduction to formal epistemological philosophy outside a semantics classroom, so I’m sure to some extent the stuff I’m astonished by is old hat–the Quine chapter completely blew my mind right out of the gate and there’s another blog post to be written about that. The writers complicate the traditional translations of mo (translated as “knowing”) and gbagbo (translated as “believing”). Mo ideally is seeing with one’s eyes. Gbagbo they translate as agreeing to accept what you have heard. And of course there are many other languages where the speaker marks propositions to tell the hearer how they came by the information–hearsay, seeing with your own eyes, inferring from context, heard it on Facebook.

Once in an anthropology intro class my TA tried to explain the point of view of some Indigenous opposition to the Land Bridge Theory: “There’s different ways of knowing than just the scientific one.” The snide white jokester she was talking to was like “You mean the truth?” I believe in the scientific project and in objective knowledge but, I mean, come on. That guy doesn’t mo that people moved from Siberia to America tens of thousands of years ago, he just gbagbos it. (From what I’ve read, I gbagbo it too, but what the hell, I wasn’t there.) Just accepting what you were taught by one person as opposed to what you would have been taught by a different person if you had been born in 1200 in a Kwakwaka’wakw settlement doesn’t necessarily make your thing true and their thing fake. Believing this seems to be the root of a lot of unnecessary smugness–yeah, yeah, including my liberal smugness. Either way you’re just accepting what you hear unless you’re willing to start digging much deeper, and digging deep on everything you hear isn’t really feasible. (Though a Year of Living Biblically – style epistemology project where I fact-check everything I hear for a year sounds surprisingly interesting.)

At the same time, it’s hard to dislodge your ego and take material seriously that contradicts your ideology. You have to kind of virtualize your belief set and run their OS alongside yours so you can safely delete it when you want to go back to normal. And I don’t think I’d want it any other way–I don’t want to internalize material I believe to be false–but are my reasons for not wanting that even valid? How would I know if my belief was false and the OS I installed just to try out a few programs was true?

I feel glumly Sapir-Whorf about the idea that maybe languages with evidential markers encourage their speakers to avoid categorizing material we hear in the same bin as material we experienced firsthand. That’s definitely a topic for further research, though, not a real theory. Don’t quote me. Definitely don’t think of that as something you know.