A Love Letter to my Writers Group.

I always considered myself kind of a lone critter.  I’ve never enjoyed group work, and I find it difficult to work without privacy… either the privacy of an empty apartment, or the privacy sometimes afforded to us in public places.  It’s one of the primary reasons I now prefer to live alone, and possibly one of the reasons that I preferred for so long to live with roommates.

But if the only voice you listen to is your own, your work steadily becomes more and more self-referential, and eventually ceases to add to the cultural dialogue.  This makes us creatively obsolete.  What becomes obvious is that we cannot work in continuous solitude, a tortured soul hammering at a typewriter beneath the bare, swinging lightbulb of our own desperate inspiration.

Creativity exists not in the generation of ideas, but in the synthesis of disparate parts into new wholes.  One must gather the parts, and one does this through a deliberate choice to participate in society.  On the production end, it’s vital for us to understand that our ideas, narratives, and sentences do not spring fully formed and beautiful from our brains.  Rather they stagger forth from our skulls like chicks from the egg, sticky, weak, clumsy, and weirdly ugly, but showing a kind of promise.

They need help.  If you leave that little bird on its own, it will get cold and die.  If you nurture it, however, it will have a chance to grow wings.

So we must enlist help from the outside.

The first group I tried was not a good cultural fit.  Only two of the group of five got through the submission I provided.  Some claimed it was too long, but it was the same length as the other submissions, and followed submission guidelines for the group.  They weren’t interested in anything other than strict genre-based fiction.

The next group was a mistake altogether… they weren’t workshopping at all, just drinking wine and reading aloud what they’d written to a round of polite applause.

I was about to give up, when an idea came to me.  I got in touch with a friend and colleague and asked:

Why don’t we start out own?

And we did.

And it’s perfect.

That’s one of the great things about writers groups, is they’re by nature small, because at some point the volume of work the group must get through in each session becomes impractical.  That means your town or city can support as many of these groups as it needs.

So here are some of the things my writers group does for me, and your writers group should do for you:

They will help you workshop your writing.  My group has literally had the punishing task of going through a novel of mine chapter by chapter, providing notes throughout each step.  They will help you to realize that that sentence that you loved just doesn’t work and was never as pretty as you thought it was.  They will tell you in glowing terms what part of what you’ve written really does work.

They will share in your frustrations and in your triumphs.  They have either been there, or are all too aware that they will have been there at some point in their lives.

They are uniquely capable of understanding the trials of being a writer.  When I was all fired up about a project, I tried talking to some of my civilian friends about it. I thought, these people are smart, they read, they’ll get it.

No.  Nobody who isn’t a fiction writer is interested in hearing anything about your book until it’s finished and available for purchase.  They don’t want to hear about character dynamics, or the structure of the narrative.  It’s not that they’re not smart, good people, it’s that this is a conversation that they cannot participate in with you as equals. They cannot perform literary analysis on a book that they haven’t read.  Moreover, they do not care, and honestly, they shouldn’t.

But your writers group will be interested.  Or they’ll at least pretend to be, because the next time they leap from bed scrambling for a pad of paper to write a new idea down on, they’re going to need someone to talk to about it.

They will help you refine ideas before the first draft is even started.  The writers group is a crack team of people who have experience creating stories, and if you go to them saying, “I want to do x, but I have a problem with y,” they will help you brainstorm a solution.

They are capable of the kind of brutal honesty that in strictly social circles would be considered rude.  They will tell you if what you’re working on is a dead end, and they will tell you if what you see as a particularly clever conceit is just a tired cliche.  They can see what you’ve produced without the rosy fog that sometimes clouds your own vision, and they will use that ability to help you.

Their most important role, however, is arguably that they will never tell you to stop.  No matter how much mediocrity you put in front of them, they will encourage you to try again and try again until things are working.

So to those in my writers group, who have taught me more then the entirety of my formal education, I say thank you.  And to anyone out there struggling in the directionless sea, I say, find yourself a good writers group.  Or hell, just make one yourself.


Scrambled Egg.

When I first hit my head, I didn’t think it was possible that I had a concussion.  I went right back to work.  After I had been diagnosed with a concussion, I didn’t think it was possible that I’d broken my skull.  I went back to work a week later and thought I’d be better within a month.  Now that I know that my skull was fractured, and that it could be months before I’m back to normal, I am beset by feelings of frustration and sadness.

Mostly I’m disappointed in myself; I’m managing to keep normal people hours, but I’m still sleeping nine or ten hours a day, which is nearly double my usual five to six hours.  I feel as though the time spent sleeping is wasted time, as though it’s indulgent and the time could be better spent actually accomplishing something.  The fact of the matter is, though, that by the end of the day, I’m so sleepy that I can hardly keep myself awake.  In the morning, when I used to jump out of bed right away, I hit the snooze alarm two or three times.  I remember being up for sunrise pretty regularly.  I even remember scheduling sunrise walks to the bay to watch the herons fish.  I went out with friends (sober, on account of the symptoms I’m still having) last weekend, and when I used to be able to stay up until four in the morning, I was yawning by one thirty and crawling gratefully into bed by three.

It’s more than just the sleeping, though.  I came home from work tonight and was without the mental energy to do anything.  Television was out of the question… video games required too much concentration… even a podcast was too jangly and noisy to be tolerated.  I struggled to work on my novel last night, and it took an hour of agonizing effort just to put a hundred words down.  And the crazy thing is, I knew exactly what I wanted to write that day.  I just couldn’t organize it enough to turn it into words.  It spun around in my head, crystal clear and sequential and perfect, and I couldn’t capture it.  I just couldn’t… for reasons that I, of course, still don’t understand.

I’m absent-minded, and I still struggle for the right words when I’m talking to people, especially on my bad days.  I have a hard time finishing tasks, even simple household chores.  I just kind of get distracted and then forget that I was working on something.  I can’t listen to music while I’m doing things, because it’s too distracting.  It either pulls me out of the work I’m doing, or I become so annoyed and frustrated by it that I have to turn it off.  The loss of music pains me.

So I came home from work tonight, and I just couldn’t do anything.  No television, no podcasts… nothing.   It was like I got through the door and had to shut out all the noise and lights and movement and demands and jangling chaos.  I fed the cats and just sat around in a dark, silent apartment.  Reading something as simple and short as a news article was a struggle that I eventually gave up on, leaning my head back and closing my eyes for the relief of not having to look at anything.  So I just sat.  Normally this would be unbearably dull for me, but I didn’t feel bored.  I just felt sad and empty.  People all around me are busy accomplishing things; my friends are all working on their own pursuits, and when they’re not, they’re out doing something fun.  And I was sitting in a dark, quiet house.  It’s isolating, and it makes me feel lazy.  Since fat people already labor under the lazy slob stereotype, well… it doesn’t feel great.  Not all days are as bad as today, but all told I’m barely managing to put in time at my part time job, feed the cats, feed myself, and look for work.

I had always thought the one good thing about having this much free time available to me was the opportunity to follow creative pursuits.  I have several projects going right now, and I honestly haven’t gotten much done since the beginning of November apart from this blog and a handful of drawings.  The house is a mess and all I’ve been able to do is just keep it from getting any worse.  My bills are getting paid, sort of, and I’m not at all going hungry, but I feel incapable of handling even the basic parts of keeping a life together.  And it’s not just laziness or procrastination, even though it feels like it is, because I don’t even have the capacity to handle the fun stuff.  A lot of the time it just feels like I’m counting the hours until I can go to bed without seeming like a very old person, and I don’t remember doing that since I was an angry and whiny teenager.

I mean, what good am I if I’m not doing anything?  If I’m just sitting around taking up space?

Not all of my days are like this.  I have some days when I’m clear as a bell, and some days when you can hardly tell.  It’s a subtle difference… it’s not something that you would notice if you talked to me.  I would seem normal; though I might stumble over my words a bit, it wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary.  There are days, though, when it is an earth-shattering difference to me.  Like the difference between being an adult and a child.

I tell myself that tomorrow will be better, and most times it is.  But I feel lonely and worthless a lot of the time, and I think it’s starting to wear me down.  Apparently it could take another four months to heal… with gradual improvement within that time.

Two more hours until I can go to bed.

Making the Case for Monogamy.

I want to start this out by saying that I, personally, am monogamous by nature.  I have never felt the urge to cheat on either of my boyfriends… not that it was a wanton desire that I had to resist to maintain my own moral standing… it was just never a thing that occurred to me.  Even when I have casual sex partners, I have one at a time, not due to some kind of rule I have, but because I seem to neither want nor need multiple sexual partners.  On top of that, I would imagine that having multiple partners, whether romantic or just sexual, would take too much management for me to deal with… the supposed “thrill” of having multiple partners just wouldn’t be worth the effort.    Monogamy is not a struggle for me… it’s just sort of the way that I am.

Monogamy has been a facet of human relationships and sexuality at least since the advent of the big monotheistic religions, and in some places even before that.  Even human societies in which non-monogamous relationships are accepted and common, people still seem to form bonds with one other person, resulting in some degree of monogamous behavior. It’s pretty well entrenched in modern western society, and as a result there is a kind of assumed moral superiority given to monogamy.

Polyamorous relationships and open relationships (for the purpose of defining terms, an open relationship is what we shall call a relationship with a primary partnership in which both partners have agreed to one arrangement or another by which it is acceptable to seek sex outside of the relationship, and polyamorous, or “poly” relationships are what we shall call a relationship consisting of more than two romantically and sexually involved people) are becoming more common, and their advocates are becoming more outspoken.  As is often the case when people are facing what is perceived of as a restrictive moral majority, there is some degree of demonization that happens… I have heard poly advocates claim that people are monogamous simply due to the repression of judeo-christian cultural norms, or due to an outdated view of morality.  That we are monogamous out of fear, or out of a need to control our romantic partners.  That monogamous people expect the impossible; to have all of their emotional needs met by one person.  That there is no biological reward or urge for monogamy, that it has been imposed on us as a kind of repressive stricture.  I have even read one article go so far as to claim that monogamy is sociopathic behavior.

Let’s not get all crazy here.

I don’t know a single monogamous person who meets all of their emotional needs with one person.  I don’t; I have a host of friends and family members who meet emotional needs for me.  I have people that I talk to about writing and art, people that I talk to about faith and spirituality, people that I talk to about politics and economics.  I have people that I can depend on for affection, and people that I can depend on for intellectual stimulation… and I don’t have to have sex with them to meet those needs.  I can maintain emotionally intimate and caring relationships to people with whom I am not sexually involved.  These people are called friends.  I’m not really sure where the idea that you have to exchange carnal delights with someone in order to have emotional needs met came from, but it seems ridiculous to me.  As a person who spends long periods of time without a partner (I’m very picky), I would lead a pretty miserable life if all of those emotional needs went unmet during those times.

Some contend that the biological imperative demands that males mate with many females in order to sire the largest number of offspring.  This is correct, but it is a simplistic view of the biology of the situation and assumes that all animals face the same social and reproductive situation, which they do not.  Humans are unique among the earth’s animals for the length of time that we spend rearing our young.  It takes a lot of time and energy and resources to raise a human child to self-sufficiency, and these offspring are normally single-birth, rather than litters.  The chances of the offspring’s survival is increased by having male involvement, and the level of male care in not just humans but in other monogamous primate and bird species is markedly increased by monogamy.  Monogamy prevents infanticide, a relatively common occurrence among our primate cousins.

Our big big brains are hungry organs; the human brain consumes roughly twenty times more calories than a comparably sized piece of muscle.  The brain is the source of human ascendency, and it required a lot of calories to evolve to the size and complexity that it currently enjoys.  Monogamy among our early ancestors may have contributed to that surplus of calories by ensuring male involvement in the rearing of offspring.

The biological side of things involves bonding and hormones.  We are social animals, and as a result it is to our benefit to form social bonds with other humans.  It increases our likelihood of not just survival but success.  As a result we have a hormonal system put in place to reward the formation of social bonds.  Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter released by the brain in response to social activity.  It’s found in other social animals as well, and it’s a reward chemical.  It’s become known as the hormone of physical touch… it’s released in response to hugging and kissing, and plays essential roles in childbirth.  It’s released by nursing mothers, and facilitates maternal bonding with offspring.  It has been found to play a role in not just sexual arousal, but also in orgasm… women with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to orgasm and experience stronger orgasms.  It also encourages romantic bonding.

Some recent studies suggest that oxytocin encourages monogamy in men.  Men in relationships, under the influence of elevated levels of oxytocin, have evidenced a lower degree of attraction to women who are not their long-term partner.  This makes sense in light of the fact that monogamous mammals seem to produce more oxytocin.

None of this is intended to promote monogamy or to discredit non-monogamous relationships.  With the exception of expecting monogamy from my long-term partners, I don’t really care what you do.  If it makes you happy and you’re not hurting anyone and your partners all know what the score is, go for it.  Even monogamy presents itself as a range of behaviors… monogamy doesn’t mean that we mate for life, and it doesn’t even preclude cheating.  Around half of people admit to having cheated on a partner in a monogamous relationship… hell, even monogamous animals cheat sometimes.  And regardless of all of this, the assumption that things that are most within human nature are the “right” way to do things misses the point of even being human.

What I do want, though, is to challenge the assumption that monogamy is a relic of the past; a social behavior engaged in because it’s all that we know and that the monogamous are too repressed or too uncreative to fulfill some deep desire for multiple sexual partners.  Some of us are just monogamous.  And that’s okay.