In a Good Cause: Hope for Haiti

One of the most frustrating things about the way the American news cycle has devolved into over a year of all-presidential-election all-the-time is that events in the wider world get downplayed, ignored, or at best recast as opportunities for US Presidential candidates to make a gaffe (or, I suppose, dodge one).

Meanwhile, Hurricane Matthew is yet another blow to the country of Haiti, which has already suffered under natural disasters and shoddy international policy from the rest of the world. Disaster porn gets thirty seconds on one night of the evening news, and then we go back to discussing our own horse race. The people of Haiti deserve better.

Hope for Haiti is working to provide support as Haitians develop sustainable economic and social communities. Clean water, a cause close to my heart, is one of their primary areas of endeavor, but they also work in other infrastructure areas, health care, education, and more.

Good Enough

Every writing problem has an equal and opposite writing problem, right? It’s like Isaac Newton or something. So any time you hear a piece of advice, the opposite is almost certainly also great advice for someone. So let’s talk about one of those: the good enough problem.

There are the perfectionists: nothing they write ever reaches “good enough.” They revise it over and over again and never let anybody see, or never anybody who might do anything with it. Or they don’t revise at all, because everything is so flawed that there’s no point, they might as well try again and look, the new thing needs revision too. Definitely flawed. Might as well scrap it and try again.

And then there’s the other category: the people who don’t want to be told how to revise their piece, they want to be told that it’s good enough already. Just as it is. You may find some of these people at student workshops, but they don’t want to workshop, they want to be the immediate and effortless star of the workshop. They want to show up and have the pros running the workshop say, “This is so amazing, let us shower you with fame and wealth.”

Perfectionism is the enemy of good fiction. So is the conviction that good enough is good enough.

The thing is, if you’re going to ask “is this good enough?”, the question is, for what? Good enough to be published? Well, sure; all sorts of awful things have gotten published. Good enough to be a strong contender for publication? Maybe. Good enough that you’ve done what you can do with the idea with the skills you have right now? Good enough that you learned from it? Good enough that figuring out what to do with it and moving on to the next thing is the best plan? Good enough that it will help you make the next thing better?

If you’re aiming for good enough permanently–if you want it to be a minimum bar you clear–then it can get in the way of aiming for good.

If the only thing that’s good enough is perfect, you’ve given yourself an excuse not to work for better.

And either way you miss the satisfaction of “as good as I can make it for now, and the next thing will be better.” Which is worth finding, whether you’re publishing or not.

In a Good Cause: Alliance for the Great Lakes

Every week between now and the election–thankfully not that many weeks left–I’m posting about a charity. This week’s is Alliance for the Great Lakes. (WordPress has been weird about dropping my links when I publish posts, so I’m going to write out the URL here even though it’s awkward:

Those of you who know me know what a major spot Lake Superior has in my heart, but they’re all pretty great. (It says so right in the name!) And they’re also really significant for the water health of North America. Alliance for the Great Lakes scores very high on all the charity raters for how much of their money goes to their mission instead of overhead and gladhanding. The eastern Great Lakes are a stellar example of a place where making an effort to clean up our act as a species has made a significant difference in my lifetime, and we want to keep Lake Superior awesome rather than letting it get awful and having to clean it back up again. Safe swimming in Lake Michigan for fish and nieces! Support our Great Lakes!

Books read, early October

Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. This was interesting but not very satisfying. While it makes some gestures in the direction of being about an entire hemisphere, it really focused on broad movements of Anglophones–neither the specific stories of individual situations nor the rest of hemisphere as a whole in nearly as much detail as I would have liked. It’s kind of one of those in-between books that tries to do a whole lot and ends up not doing as much as would have been useful if it had focused. I particularly wanted more about the enslaved peoples’ thoughts and lives as best we can know them at this point. It’s probably a valuable addition if you’re building a reading list about the history of slavery and freedom, but it should definitely not be a main source by itself, or even with its preceding volume. Also, what is lacking between the establishment and the overthrow is the experience–which varied considerably over the Western Hemisphere, and I think that a study that went into those experiential differences would be fascinating. This is not that book.

Berit I. Brown, ed., Nordic Experiences: Exploration of Scandinavian Cultures. A series of essays by various authors about various Nordic figures–Grieg, Strindberg, etc. Having recently been to an exhibition of 19th century Swedish outsiders in painting, the insider nature of the choices was particularly glaring (overwhelmingly male, no Saami figures), but taken individually they were reasonably interesting scholarly essays. This is another “add it to your shelf if you have a shelf but don’t read it as the only thing” book.

A.S. Byatt, Passions of the Mind. Critical essays, where before I have only read her fiction. Mostly quite interesting, and they motivated me a great deal more than the Brown collection above did to add various authors to my collection, or bump them up the priority queue. Not anything like as engrossing as, say, The Children’s Book or The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, but I didn’t need it to be.

Mat Johnson, Pym. What a weird book. What a weird, weird book. This is about Edgar Allan Poe and race in modern America. It follows the shape of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, including the abrupt and unsatisfying ending. It tells you that it’s going to do that, it foreshadows the crap out of the abrupt and unsatisfying ending. And there are funny satirical bits, and quite a bit of it takes place in Antarctica, and…yeah. This book. This is the kind of book that totally qualifies as speculative fiction and yet doesn’t seem to come up in discussion very much in the genre community, so: this is a thing, read this thing.

Astrid Lindgren, The Brothers Lionheart. Reread. This was a childhood favorite. It is stark and spare and morbid and beautiful and Swedish. It is also a prime example of how the reader’s 50% is more like 80% in the case of children’s books. There’s a lot you have to fill in for yourself, not plot-wise but in terms of what the small descriptions and character interactions mean. Which is not a bad thing, just a thing.

John Lindow, Trolls: An Unnatural History. A brief survey of how trolls are portrayed in sagas, in folk tales, in literature. Interesting but not life-changing.

Microsoft (?), Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft. Kindle. This was a free offering, and I do hate to look a gift horse in the mouth. There are a lot of authors I like in here. But Elizabeth Bear’s story was the only one I really liked, and that meant that I was gravely disappointed because there were a lot of other stories I expected to like. Conclusion: Microsoft is maybe not the best source of cutting-edge science-inspired science fiction? or maybe just doing a one-off like this isn’t? I don’t know.

Robert Moor, On Trails: An Exploration. It really is what it says on the tin. Goes into different trail-formation patterns and techniques in the animal kingdom, some discussion of humans–especially North Americans–and their different concepts of trails (as opposed to roads). Appalachian Trail is present but not obnoxious. Quite an interesting meander through the concept.

Karina Sumner-Smith, Towers Fall. The end of a trilogy. Threads wrapped up, good triumphant and evil downcast, more or less. The ending is healthy and organic in ways that it was not obvious that it would have to be. I was also delighted by the imagery of the very ending, and I’d be interested to see if it was also delightful to people who don’t know Karina personally.

Andrew Wilson, Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship. The subtitle of this book put me off for some time. On the one hand it’s got “DICTATORSHIP” right there in the title, which does not promise a sprightly read, and on the other hand, “the last,” really? that seems optimistic. But the title aside, this was really lovely. It talked about various proto-Belarus ancestral states. And crucially, it skipped over the sentences that would have started, “Like the rest of the tsar’s territory at this time, Belarus…” or, “As in other Soviet Republics, Belarus….” So it could spend its time on things that were unique to Belarus, confident that if you care, you can get the other information elsewhere. And in fact I can! and more time to medieval sorcerer-kings was all for the best for me. Also, I hit a moment where I was thinking, “He really hasn’t talked much about the Jewish population, this was a really important region for Judaism,” when bam, entire section on Jewish Belarus. I call that thoughtful. Now I’m looking forward to the history of Ukraine I have on my pile by the same author.

Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman. This is another book that is totally speculative fiction and yet I haven’t seen it discussed by many people in the community. It’s a mystery novel where the policeman in the title is investigating deaths in the face of an impending apocalyptic asteroid strike. People are coping via hedonism, despair, and various other extremes, and then there’s our hero, making sure that people are not neglected and the law is upheld. I’m not sure I need more in this series, but this was an interesting thing to do, created a mood quite thoroughly and yet followed through on implications.

Fiona Wood, Wildlife. This is mainstream YA, and it points out how fine the line is between a problem novel and a novel of character. It would be very easy to make this sound like a problem novel, where grief and toxic friendships are the problems in question. Instead it was a novel of character, far more broadly worth reading. I like Wood’s characters, fumbling as best they can toward treating each other decently, and I will look for her other work.

In a Good Cause: 360 Communities

Remember last week, when I said I was going to post weekly about charities between now and the election? Yep, that was last week.

This week’s charity is 360 Communities, formerly known as the Community Action Council. They have multiple sites in the south Minneapolis metro, providing shelters for people who are fleeing domestic violence, food shelves, school success programs, and assistance toward self-sufficiency. They also run a hotline and assistance for those who have been sexually assaulted. They work toward affordable, available, high quality child care. Basically the more you learn about this group, the more good stuff you’ll find they’re doing.

They are local to me. But there are groups trying to do similar work local to you. If you live in an area with food shelves and shelters, they always, always need support–volunteers as well as donations. And if you live in an area without those institutions, I guarantee that there are other people in your broader community looking around to say, “this is wrong, we need these resources, what can we do in the meantime?” “Domestic violence shelters in [your area]” will give you a first pass search on what’s out there. Same deal for “food shelves in [your area].”

One of the things I really like about 360 Communities is that they’re trying to address people’s whole set of needs, not just one piece or another piece. But getting at the pieces is still useful when you can do it. Better some than none.

In a good cause: CVT

Okay, kids, new ballgame.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about the US presidential debate going on tonight. I’m not even watching. But I’m pretty sure that the things I would have to say would be disgusted, and possibly profane, and also that if you’re going to vote for one of those two candidates and don’t know which one yet, I don’t know what information could possibly convince you.

That’s not what we’re doing here.

I thought about posting a link to a worthy charity every time I get upset about the election, between now and the election. I literally do not have that much time, and also I think it would bring about more upset that wasn’t aimed anywhere positive. So this is aimed. This is directional. You’re mad? Good. Research your down-ballot races and vote. But. Voting is not the end. All the things that are making you upset and sad and angry in the world have causes and effects beyond this election. So once a week I’m going to post a link to a charity taking specific concrete action. Maybe you’ll have time, talents, or money to donate to them. Maybe you’ll pass them on to someone who does. Or maybe your time and energy and funds are all depleted, and…you’ll see some people doing concrete positive things in the world. That can’t hurt.

I’m starting with an old favorite of mine, the Center for the Victims of Torture. I’ve been having trouble with WordPress actually keeping my inserted links when I do them, so I’ll write out the URL: They do worldwide work in supporting, healing, and advocating for the victims of torture–and trying to make sure that no one else ends up in that position. Their headquarters are here in Minnesota, but in the US they also have offices in Washington DC and Atlanta, in addition to working elsewhere in the world. They estimate more than 30,000 torture survivors are living in Minnesota. Thirty thousand. Just in Minnesota. That’s more people than live in Fridley or Winona or White Bear. That’s like if all of the population of St. Peter and all of the population of Northfield had been tortured, all of them, every person in both of those college towns of any age or gender. Some of those people are trying to deal with parenting and eldercare and learning a new language and new customs, while recovering from that kind of heinous treatment from their fellow humans. And this group is on it. They are there to help.

More in this vein next week. Meanwhile, I know you’re doing what you can. We all are. Hang in there.

Books read, late September

Susan Jane Bigelow, The Demon Girl’s Song. Discussed elsewhere.

Chaz Brenchley, A Day on the Water and Three Twins at Crater School Chapters 9-18. Kindle. I am terrible at reading serials. One chapter at a time is drastically unsatisfying. One stand-alone Mars boarding school adventure novella plus ten chapters, however, is enough of a chunk of story that it doesn’t leave me feeling completely unsatisfied. Just eager for more. This rollicks. It is both light and earnest in ways that most of my current reading does not manage. I only wish it was done as a book already.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Mark read this before I did, and he said, “I’m in the middle of this book, and everybody is being nice to each other.” They are, mostly. Within whatever they’re able to do. These are people who are trying their best for each other. I find this refreshing. The fact that the word “angry” appears in the title is not at all a reflection of the emotional tone of the book, which is hopeful. Also this book is full of lots of different kinds of sentients from different planets working together. They have varying culture, individual personalities, orientations, senses of what orientations are possible (in oh so many ways)…and they perk along doing their best, and sometimes there is a crisis. If it sounds like you want this, yes, probably you do.

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. This is a magisterial biography. It’s the one that Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by when writing his show, so of course there are clear throughlines there. Do you want 700 pages of Alexander Hamilton? Maybe you do. To me this is not like the Morris bio of Teddy Roosevelt where you might want to read it even if you don’t already know you want to, because it’s that good. To me this is just a really good bio of Alexander Hamilton, not a category-transcending work of nonfiction. But quite a few people want a really good bio of Alexander Hamilton at the moment, and you know what, this is one.

Paul Cornell, Don’t Worry, You Aliens. Kindle. Melancholy empty-world short, beautiful.

C. C. Finlay, ed., F&SF March 2016 sample. Kindle. I think I sort of see the point of doing a sampler like this, where there’s not much fiction and a ton of nonfiction. But I think it may not be doing F&SF a service when they’re putting it out to try to get people to subscribe, because I think that while the nonfiction they publish is fine, I don’t think that’s their main point, and giving people a “sampler” that isn’t really a sampling may not get as many readers. On the other hand: giving away content that you are accustomed to receiving pay for is a difficult proposition to sort out, and maybe this will work just fine. I hope so.

Haikasoru eds. (Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington), Phantasm Japan. There is a structural strangeness in this volume that works out great for me: Zachary Mason’s A Tale of Japan shorts are a series of very short stories throughout the volume. I don’t recall ever seeing this sort of thing in an anthology before–linked short shorts, yes, but mostly all mashed up in one spot. I liked them, and I liked having another one coming along as a palate cleanser between other stories. Other stand-outs in the volume were Project Itoh’s “From Nothing With Love” and Miyuki Miyabe’s “Chiyoko.”

Andrew Leon Hudson, ed., Ecotones: Ecological Stories from the Border Between Fantasy and Science Fiction. Kindle. Sometimes in a sub-genre you like there will be chunks of it you really don’t like. That happens to me with environmental SF and fantasy with things that are basically horror universe stories: stories of an actively, consciously hostile universe, stories in which the fabric of the universe is Angry At Us. I see why this is tempting, but I feel that it actually undermines the workings of indifference: there doesn’t have to be some conscious entity “at home” in order for things to go badly haywire with an environment. Ah well; not all anthologies are for all readers.

Leena Krohn, Datura. Kindle. A plant-focused vaguely hallucinatory Finnish phantasmagoric sort of thing. I want more Leena Krohn in English.

Cixin Liu, Death’s End. Discussed elsewhere.

Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. An intriguing thing to write a study of–how the language white writers use and the things white writers highlight create attitudes about Native peoples in this region–but after pointing out some simple but meaningful things about “the first baby born in this village” and “the last [person of insert tribe here] died, leaving three children and fourteen grandchildren” and what each type of language assumption meant for white and Native peoples in the region, it handled itself with examples that did not seem to further illuminate. So this should be a small piece in your understanding rather than a big one, I think. Fine enough if you have no grander expectations of it.

Sarah Porter, Vassa in the Night. Discussed elsewhere.

Cherie Priest, The Family Plot. Discussed elsewhere.

Lynne M. Thomas, Michael Damian Thomas, and Michi Trota, eds., Uncanny Magazine Issues 8-12. Kindle. I have this thing where I don’t tend to go to read online issues of Uncanny straight through because I get them on my Kindle, but then I don’t read my Kindle very much at home. So I end up with piles of things I want to read but have not read yet for obscure, personal, not-very-good reasons. Some highlights I hadn’t encountered yet included Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Virgin Played Bass,” Sarah Rees Brennan’s “The Spy Who Never Grew Up,” and Aliette de Bodard’s “A Hundred and Seventy Storms.” Every time I let things pile up like this, it becomes clear that I’m missing out. And yet not, because the stories are still there when I come around to them.

Lavie Tidhar, ed. The Apex Book of World SF Volume 1. Quite often I want a volume like this to introduce me to new authors, people I haven’t read yet. In this volume, the stories I liked best were by authors whose work I already knew: S.P. Somtow and Aliette de Bodard. On the other hand, it’s churlish to complain about having gotten good stories from any source, so I won’t.

Fran Wilde, Cloudbound. Discussed elsewhere.

Space for the heart

I am newly returned from a week and a half out of town. I went on a writing retreat and visited some friends for a few days. I came back to a bunch of stuff to catch up on and am still not quite caught up. Closer, though.

And I want to say: this is great. I have done more of it this year, I will continue next year, it is so good. I think it doesn’t require a particular shape of thing to be good. Whatever you can manage, whatever works for you. For some people this will be an hour at a coffee shop, for some a weekend at a friend’s house. For some people, having any humans around defeats the purpose, and for others having to do any maintenance work does, so those shape what will be possible for you. If you really need to not have to think about food and cleaning, housesitting for a friend while they’re out of town won’t fit the bill. If you need at least a day to really get mental distance, a few hours by yourself won’t work. If you can’t have people around you, getting an airbnb with half a dozen friends will be a pleasant vacation rather than a productive retreat. But.

But consciously, actively making a quiet, separate space–this is a thing that I think is undervalued, especially for people trying to do large creative projects. It’s not just the room of one’s own. It’s the time of one’s own, the permission to take that time. The sense that taking that time is not the same thing as powering through a word count goal. Ideas may come, word count may come. But the quiet comes first. Even if it’s half an hour’s stop at a waterfall on the way home from running errands, a quick dash into the woods when you’ve been doing eldercare. Whatever shape it takes for you.

I have seen in people of all ages–though reflected in different behavior sets–the idea that being up on current events and well-informed is an unlimited virtue, and a virtue that requires the intake of every soundbite that comes out of a politician. I am all for informed voting and civic engagement. But 1) You do not get informed from soundbites. Yes, there are times when “this candidate said this appalling thing” is news you can use. But it’s not all there is to the vast majority of campaigns. If you were going to buy a major appliance, you wouldn’t consider yourself ill-informed if you hadn’t watched all the company’s commercials–or well-informed if you had. “Hey, the Maytag man said they’re reliable! He said it again!” That’s not research. Neither are the soundbites the news/commentary cycle thrives on. And 2) Everything you do in life, you do within your own limits. Even if you’re committed to making home-cooked meals, some days that’s going to mean pasta or scrambled eggs instead of five elaborate courses. Your limits include your emotional limits as well as the limits of your time and understanding. Doing your best does not mean doing nothing but reading political commentary for months before an election. There has to be room to set it aside and think of other things. Your family, your friends, your scrambled eggs, your creative work. The way the river looks as your plane lands.

I really mean “has to.” There has to. Our elections have gotten unreasonably long in the US, and it’s affecting everyone else in the world. If you stay intensely engaged on it, you will get exhausted, you will burn out. There has to be space to breathe occasionally.

I know I’m lucky to have the money, the flexibility, and at the moment the health to go somewhere completely separate from my ordinary life. I’m really lucky. But I also think that it’s a good thing for most of us to look for opportunities for set-aside space within our lives, however we can find it. Not just “I am on deadline and now I will go and go.” But also “what is this thing that I am doing that is worth doing, and how can I do it better?” and “what am I missing, what am I not seeing?” And other subtler questions that are how we keep our heads above the waves, other questions that speak to what we’re doing that’s worth protecting. Culturally easier when you’re at some stage of a large project–I could say to my Facebook, “I’m going away to start my new novel,” and that was true. But the novel is what it is because I had the conceptual space, the emotional space, to make it that and not do it by rote and reflex.

No matter what work you want to do, I think that’s something we all need from time to time, especially in times of whirling chaos.