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.



What’s wrong in all my first drafts

The stuff I’m editing right now is totally inscrutable to me. Even though I wrote it. I mean, I wrote it a while ago, and it’s quite weird, and it’s on that edge where I can’t tell if it’s good or bad. So I’m trying to do more reflection as I edit, hone the lens, and maybe someday I’ll be able to tell if this is an interesting story or if my past self was doing serious drugs. But, you know, drugs that caused her to write a first-person voice who can’t stop going on about weird math.

I notice that there’s some second-draft changes I’ve been making a lot across stories lately. Some of them are good? Some of them are just kind of weird?

The first thing I do–I almost always have to chop at least one entire scene. Usually it’s because it was taking too long to do something that should have been done in two lines. Then I nail those two lines onto the end of the dialogue in the previous scene or the next scene.

I know what scene is getting cut before I even finish the story. But I can’t just not write that scene, because it always seems like the next logical step when I write it. I probably couldn’t even write the scene after it, the one I want to keep, if I didn’t write that middle scene. Thanks, weird middle scene, and goodbye.

The other most important structural change I always make is shoring up the ending. When I finish writing, I’m usually so relieved to be ending the damn story that I just want to be done, and the last 500 words is a vaguely related collection of deep-sounding reflections. Honestly, not sure I have managed to upgrade many of these endings from “vaguely related collection of deep-sound reflections”, but maybe they’ll get there someday. And practicing endings is one of the specific reasons I wanted to write more short stories, so in the long term, this is a positive.

Assorted prose changes I’m always making:

  • I cut the preposition half of a bunch of phrasal verbs (like cutting “up” from “looked up”.)
  • People are always looking at each other in my first drafts, so I have to get them to do other things.
  • Dialogue usually needs more pep in the second draft.
  • Every time I see “There was” or “It was” I’m like, could this literally be turned into one adjective in the next sentence? (“There was a red table, where Lee sat.” should be “Lee sat at the red table.”)
  • I think more about the unreeling of time in every sentence. When I’m writing a first draft I just want to get an action down, so I use a lot of “Lee kissed his teeth after Alex gave him a real mean look” or whatever. But I’m trying to be more strict about communicating the actual passage of time with sentence construction? Thinking about ways to do this a lot. Reflecting on the section about time in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

The booby prize: I find that I liked much longer sentences in July than I do right now. And this is almost definitely just because I’m reading The Shipping News. Here’s the start of the chapter I just read (p. 219 in my edition, which is the one with Kevin Spacey on the cover):

Quoyle jumped down the steps. He would drive. But walked first down to the dock to look at the water. The boat charged against the tire bumpers. The waves pouring onshore had a thick look to them, a kind of moody rage. Looked at his watch. If he stepped on it there was enough time for a cup of tea and a plate of toast at the Bawk’s Nest. Clean up the oil piece then down to Misky Bay to the marine archives. Check boats in the harbor. Supposed to be a schooner there from the West Coast.

After a couple hundred pages of this you look at the subjects of your own sentences like “What are you even doing here? I don’t need you, bud!” It’s contagious. Someday, when I’m reading another book, I’ll probably look back on these sentence subjects with fondness and miss them terribly.






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?