The toxicity of the American Dream

Make America Great

Again A Wall is Built

Who Will Tear it Down

This time

When will we learn?

When will we change?

 

I wrote the above not long after Trump was announced as President of the US, and I’ve since watched, with a mix of horror and numbness and worry, all the toxic things that have been happening in the US, all the things I knew where going to happen and so much worse. I don’t live there, there’s nothing I can do, no elected officials to call, no vote that can change anything. It reminds me of the Brexit vote, where I also watched, with horror, as this country I live in voted to try and kick me out, as a marginal victory was touted as the unavoidable ‘will of the people’ with no sense of rhyme or reason.

All of this has made it hard to write. It’s made it hard to do many things other than get through the day. Will I get kicked out of the country in (less than) two years? I don’t know, so I can’t plan. Will we be in the midst of a nuclear war before then? I don’t know (follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter for a clear, reasoned and sadly worrying view on where the US is heading), and it terrifies me. My friends and family in the US are shielded by some degree of privilege, but I’m not sure that will be enough. I doubt my partner will be drafted into military service (what a weird thing to not have to worry about as a woman, and feel like for full equality to ever happen maybe we should, but then again… Sexism is super weird sometimes). But many other people likely will end up dead, not to mention the damage being done to the planet, and all because certain people with varying degrees of privilege are afraid of seeing that privilege ever so slightly diminished, of giving anyone else a seat at the table, so they voted to slice their nose off just to spite their own face.

And most of all, of course, these frightened people have been told their whole life it’s not the people in power that are screwing them over, but the other guys, the ones that have zero power at all. And because the people in power make sure they have no eduction that allows them to question this, they believe it. It’s very interesting from a psychological perspective, but also very scary, because it’s hard to change this narrative.

Another part of the problem, the part I wanted to write a cohesive, well-argued blog post about all those months ago, is the mindset of ‘US = Number 1’, and its British counterpart of (as I like to call it) Empire-state-of-mind. If you’re told your whole life that you’re the best, or you were the best, and in a place like the US it’s highly unlikely that you ever step outside the country to see any different, then you can never see what other countries have done that you can learn from (the prime examples for the US being healthcare and labour unions/worker’s rights). And indeed, you can never see that the people that serve you, and the news that reaches you, is actually doing you harm. You need to step outside your own narrative to get a better sense of it (much like with writing!).

In the UK, the feeling of quiet superiority is made worse by the tendency of politicians this last decade (or more) to blame everything that goes wrong on EU regulation and take the credit for anything that the EU does right. In the US, it’s made far worse by the American dream idea that you don’t need anyone else to succeed – all it takes is a lot of hard work. This ignores the fact that most billionaires got that way by using inherited wealth, pre-existing networks, or a combination of both (not to mention a whole lot of white privilege). And even if a person somehow manages the rags-to-riches story, it’s not like they haven’t had to rely on a lot of other people doing work for them and helping them in many other ways. Oh, and there’s the fact that they use roads, feel protected by police and firefighters, see their intellectual property protected by the courts, and generally rely on a lot of public good. But since everyone in the US is told they don’t need anyone or anything else to succeed, they are never told it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s good to have a community to rely on, that some Government intervention and help is warranted. That it’s better to succeed together, and a good thing to help others because someday you might need help yourself.

Looking out for number one, and thinking without factual basis that you are number one, are two very toxic ideas that make it hard to adapt and improve yourself. And what’s worse, if you think you’re the best, then any information that disagrees with that falls to the sword of cognitive dissonance, and you end up in a situation where a Trump-voting lady with an immigrant husband is genuinely surprised when they come to take her husband away. Or where people tell me “Oh, you’ll be fine” when discussing Brexit, because obviously it’s those other immigrants that are in trouble, and I’m somehow magically exempt merely through being someone they know…

Anyway, all of this means that it will remain hard for me to write for the time being, and I’m not sure how to get over that. I wish there was something I could do to change the world, but I can’t, and I’ve lost faith that writing can change anything, because nobody seems to take note of the people who are doing the best writing about the current situation and using that to change things. Politicians seem more selfish and short-sighted than they’ve ever been. Nobody seems to be in sufficient uproar (I mean, the NHS is being dismantled, but because it’s being done slowly, or maybe because British people find it hard to protest, to realise that their vote matters in a democratic system where oftentimes votes do not – who knows how much of an effect the not-very-democratic voting systems of the UK and US have had on the current situation – politicians are feeling free to continue as they are). All of the lessons from history are sitting ignored in books, as we repeat them once again.

And here I am, watching and feeling like a failure because I’m not writing, I’m not in London protesting at Westminster, I’m not important enough for any UK politician to listen to. What can I do? Well, I’m open to suggestions.

Writing for fun or profit

I’ve been struggling lately, not just with moving to a different country and looking for a job, but also with what to write. My main problem, I think, is that because I don’t have a job, I’m feeling undue pressure to write something that sells. And this never works, if any of the published authors I follow on Twitter and any of the writing books I’ve read are anything to go by. And yet, paradoxically, continuing to write and edit a story that is never going to sell is also something even published authors still have to worry about. Every writer has an unfinished manuscript in a (digital) drawer somewhere, even the very best. So how do you* distinguish between a story that you’re writing for fun AND profit, and one that you’re writing for just one of the two?

You’d think it would be easy to determine when you’re not having fun writing something. If you hate working on it, if you have to drag yourself to the keyboard, then obviously you’re not having fun. And yet… Writing isn’t going to always be fun. At least if your goal is to be published, it can’t be just fun and games. You have to write on the days when you don’t want to. You have to keep going. It’s the only way to improve, to get through the 1000 hours of apprenticeship, the 100,000 words before you’re competent. And then there’s all the editing and polishing… Need I say more?

On the side of profit, there are even fewer guarantees. Whatever is trendy at the moment, is not going to be trendy anymore by the time you might be ready to query your manuscript. Never write for the market, because it changes too fast. The only way you can even slightly predict some sort of profit is by writing the best story that you possibly can, and submitting it to the right people, the ones who love stories like yours. It’s by no means an exact science, and probably defies any statistics, as, again, any published author would tell you.

So I’m basically screwed, right? There’s no way of knowing? Not necessarily! You’ll be happy to know this post isn’t all doom and gloom. Most writing advice states that if you believe in a story, with all your heart and imagination and everything else, then that’s the story to tell for fun AND the most likely to get published. It’s the story you will most likely want to keep writing even after bad writing days, or weeks. It’s the story that refuses to leave you alone. If you’re not sure how much you believe in your story, there’s always beta-readers to ask, as long as you ask some unbiased ones (i.e. don’t ask random friends if you should keep working on your stuff, if it’s good enough, because they will almost always lie to protect your feelings). And if someone tells you the story sucks, and you vehemently disagree, then get a second opinion because you’re obviously either still very passionate about it, or blinded by ego.

Now, having puzzled all of this out, my next steps should be simple, right? All I have to do is figure out which one of my writing projects I am most passionate about, and forget about everything else. If only it were that simple…

Is anyone else struggling with picking what story to invest in? Or just struggling in general? I’d love to hear some other perspectives!

 

*And by you I of course mean I…

Diversity in writing and publishing

There is almost nothing more diverse than people’s opinions about diversity. In general, almost everyone agrees that a certain amount of diversity is a necessary thing; if everything and everyone was the same, the world would be a very dull, stagnant place. Yet everyone has their own unspoken limit about how much diversity they can handle. Some can’t even fathom how any movie with a black and/or female lead could ever work (hello Star Wars aka biggest blockbuster ever), while others might draw the line at equality for human-cat hybrids, to posit some extremes.

diluted-diversity

Diversity is all well and good, as long as everyone looks like John Malkovich, amirite?

There have been many essays, many research papers, many discussions, about the necessity of diversity, in books, movies, boardrooms, anywhere. Most of these discuss diversity in terms of race and gender. I want to talk about a different kind of diversity, the kind that deals with biases in terms of people’s opportunities in life. Recently, RandomPenguinHouse (I so wish that was their merger name) announced that it would no longer require its applicants to have a degree. While this may seem like an insignificant, benign gesture, especially in Europe, where people are generally able to receive a lot of financial support to complete a degree, there’s no denying that fortune, i.e. degrees, still favours the fortunate. In fact, the current UK government is doing everything in its power to make university education just as expensive as the US, tilting the scales firmly towards the higher earners (which are still predominantly white males, so boring).

Let's help each other

Research shows that teams with a diverse mix of people are more productive

I’ve been researching ways to get a job in publishing. You can work in a bookstore, do an (often unpaid) internship, get a specific kind of degree, or…? And if you’re in the UK, you also have to be able to afford to live close to London, at least for most job opportunities. In the US, New York would be your very expensive destination. So what it comes down to is that even without a degree requirement, you still need to be able to fund lowly or unpaid work in a horribly expensive city. When you look at it like this, there’s still a long way to go.

I am interning at a company at the moment (paid, luckily), working with an editor that started off as a speculative intern (i.e. an internship not attached to a degree, like mine), who then decided to go get a degree, and a Masters in Journalism, to give herself some theoretical background. Plenty of other people at the company started as interns and worked their way up. I am also working with/for an amazing senior editor who started off in marketing. They hired me with a PhD and almost no editing experience (at the time). My point, aside from raving about my current place of work, is that diversity goes beyond whether someone has had higher education or not, whether they are a certain race, a certain gender (my current company only has 1 male employee, by the way, and it’s the most supportive, tough, hard-working environment I have ever encountered). Diversity, and this is why PRH’s decision is bigger than I’ve now made it seem, comes from first acknowledging that it is wise to hire people from different backgrounds. Technical people, artsy people, sciency people, they all bring different, fresh perspectives, which are what most companies desperately need to stay relevant.

From a writing point of view, some writers have MFAs, some don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as they can tell a compelling story. Compelling stories, they come from life, from different experiences. And so I come back to diversity. We’ve had so many stories about the plucky, muscled white guy who finds out he’s a hero and gets the girl as a reward. Just making this same hero black, or a woman, breathes so much new life into such an old trope, I frankly don’t understand why more writers don’t take this relatively easy opportunity to spice up their stories. Even the same plucky white guy, only he’s in a wheelchair – think of the story possibilities! I recently beta-read a story with a character who I thought was destined to be Mr Love-Interest until it was casually mentioned he was gay. Let me tell you, it was such a relief! Not that people have to be gay in order to not be forced love interests, of course, but still, + 100 diversity and interestingness points! It’s THAT easy.

 

P.S. Writing is clearly not that easy, or I’d be writing my book right now instead of this post, but you get the idea. The new, shiny, diverse idea.

The driving forces of creativity

A lot has been said about creativity, and even more because of creativity. Some writers seem to churn out a book a week, like they’re on some sort of creative-IV-drip. Others take a long time, and a lot of breaks, to turn their creative sparks into stories into publications. This leads to the question, are the first kind of people more creative than the second? Is creativity a limited resource for all but the best of us?

In a previous blog post I have discussed inspiration and how you can’t wait for creativity to find you; you have to go after it with a club. But there is a lot more to creativity than just being inspired. Many psychologists have studied creativity, over many centuries, and yet it still remains elusive. If the fictional people in the previous paragraph are any indication, there is certainly an element of personality to how creatively inclined a person is. While psychologists disagree on whether creativity is linked to intelligence, there does seem to be a clear link to mental illness, due to a certain personality type that is attracted to creative pursuits. That does not mean that people more prone to mental illness are more successful with their creative output. There are many different factors involved, as with everything else in life.

Aside from personality, which we can’t do much about, another important aspect of creativity is knowledge and skill. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction essay collection, A Slip of the Keyboard, at the moment, and in it he describes the importance of reading a wide variety of things. Not just fiction books, but history, technical stuff, basically anything you can get your hands on. And once this information is in your head, you can find it spilling out of you, transformed into a story that might look completely different from what the information started out as. The same goes for skill. Creativity is best built upon a foundation of skill, so that when it strikes you’re ready for it. There are all things that you can practice, ways in which everyone can be creative.

The most important aspect of creativity, in my opinion, is probably intrinsic motivation. The main reason some writers are more productive than others is because they manage to ignore everything else and focus on just writing as much as they possibly can. If you write so much, every day, you are bound to get better at it. It also means that you are right there, at your desk, ready to write down any inspiring thoughts that strike you, and keep producing work even when those thoughts don’t come. Many writers have said that they can’t tell the difference between the words they write when they are inspired versus when they are not.

Motivation is also the most important because it is the hardest to achieve. You can have the right personality, read up on all the things, and practice, but without proper motivation, it is hard to keep churning out stuff. It is certainly the aspect of creativity that I struggle with the most, as I often get demotivated by the thought that my work is not good enough. It’s also why things such as NaNoWriMo are so important, because they offer some nice external motivation to make up for any lack of intrinsic motivation to ‘suck’. Unfortunately, external motivation doesn’t last nearly as long as intrinsic does. If I ever find out how to keep my motivation-switch permanently on, I will be happy to share it, but I suspect it is a different kind of switch for everyone. Please do share how you manage to stay motivated in the comments though, maybe we can figure out the secret together.

If only I had a hook with some chocolate dangling next to my laptop.

Often discounted in discussions of creativity is the environment you are in. This includes the environment you grow up in. If your childhood has you surrounded by books and people writing, you are more prone to read widely, thus developing knowledge, and try some writing yourself, thus developing skill and the idea that it’s not that hard, which feeds back into your motivation. Even if you didn’t have this nurturing environment as a child, there are still things you can do with your workspace as an adult to help you be creative. Sometimes it helps to sit in a cafe, observing people, gaining knowledge in that way. This is again something that differs for everyone; some people need to turn off their internet, some people thrive having twitter side-by-side with what they’re writing. You do you, as the hip kids say (do they still say that? I feel old now).

While I have focused here on an artist’s creativity, and of course writing, there are many different types of work that require creativity. Science is built upon creative endeavours, new ways of looking at old problems. While a scientist requires a different personality type and knowledge background from a fiction writer, they both thrive when they are being creative. Scientists just use creativity in a more restrained, functional manner, which links back to differences in personality types and might very well be why there isn’t a link between science-style out-of-the-box thinking and mental illness.

There is however an interesting link between science and fiction writing, with a lot of scientists who try their hand at writing fiction churning out great books. This probably goes back in part to Sir Pratchett’s motto of accumulating interesting facts. Whatever it may be, I hope I will someday be one of those scientists who becomes a successful writer.

If the world goes to hell, fantasy lovers would do well

“Why don’t you do something useful with your time?”

This is a sentence that many fantasy readers, and certainly writers, must have heard growing up. And yet, if ever there is a disastrous event that puts our civilisation back at square one, those people will be glad to have fantasy enthusiasts in their corner. Of course fantasy enriches our lives as they are, encouraging creative thought while letting us escape reality, and often teaching us about concepts such as morality as we follow the main character’s journey from doubter to hero. But that has been well-researched and discussed in the past. What this article focuses on is the grand potential that lies within fantasy lovers, waiting for a catastrophic event to reveal itself.

Since fantasy readers have had their imaginations tested throughout their lives, we will be mentally prepared for a completely different kind of world. I’m not saying we’d shrug, mutter “Well this was only a matter of time” and grab our survival packs, shooting anyone who gets in our way. But fantasy lovers would certainly be among the least shocked. We will know the new world, because we will have inhabited similar ones in our minds, through the words on the page and our own imaginations. We will rally, as we have learned from Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Ged, and many other such heroes dealing with impossible adversities. Just like those main protagonists whose lives gets uprooted, we will not break down and cry, because we know that the whiney, useless characters almost never make it to the end of the book. Instead, we will focus on staying alive, finding food, finding shelter, even finding a safe haven so we can continue reading.

amazing painting credit: holyblasphemy.net

Totally prepared for any eventuality

All of the social awkwardness that forms the cliched image of the fantasy ‘geek’, that will no longer matter. Etiquette is thankfully the first thing that goes out the window when society breaks down, and in its place will have to be brutal honesty. We will know from endless experiences with foreshadowing who we can trust, and who needs to be left behind. After all, nothing sticks in your mind like shouting at a book because the protagonist is clearly trusting the wrong person and getting themselves in serious trouble. The groups that form, maybe from groups of friends that you already have in your life, will be stronger than ever. They will have to be. And hopefully we will be wise enough to bypass the awkward phase where a group of friends thrust together in the name of survival first distrust each other for no reason except to create tension and extraneous trouble, and no one would have to die a heroic death in order to redeem themselves.

Our leaders will be the fantasy authors. They have a lot of experience herding people through all manner of bad situations, even if they may cause those situations in the first place. They have often done a lot of research into various means of survival, to know if what they make their people go through is realistic, and into death, to make sure their characters are able to protect themselves, and into many more things that probably puts them on some government watch-list somewhere. Most importantly, they are able to see the big picture. Fantasy authors are the gods of their universe, even if they sometimes feel like they are not in control of what their characters get up to. As such, they are able to see what needs to be done and order people around even if that means putting them in bad situations. They might be cruel, but they are also effective, and in the end they hope and believe along with everyone else that the good guys live and win. Except maybe George R. R. Martin.

Some fantasy lovers will find themselves plucked from obscurity and become great warriors or thinkers or cooks, like Alanna the Lioness, Christopher a.k.a. Chrestomanci, or (Bel)Garion. Others will have developed skills in their life that may only be called upon after the end of the world. Prominent geek and all-around awesome human being Nathan Fillion has once said that he’s learned welding specifically so he can be the skilled person in a group of survivors, the one that will need to be protected, even if it means other people in the group have to die instead. Those of us who haven’t had such foresight and don’t develop into heroes might even become those people that sacrifice themselves in order for the more skilled survivors to have a chance to keep humanity going. Or not, since we are all the protagonists in our own live’s stories, and would generally prefer not to get horribly murdered…. Maybe I should find something useful to do with my time aside from fantasy after all, just in case.

Sure, the world may never have to fight off magic, aliens, or an army of orcs, but regardless of the challenge one can be sure that those of us with fantasy in our brains and in our blood will be able to think flexibly, adapt, and deal with things head on.

[P.S. This is an article I originally wrote for another website, but since I never heard back from them I figured it’s safe to just post it here now]

The multitasking writer

I’ve been writing pretty consistently every day since I came up with a great new idea for a novel (sometimes as little as a few sentences a day, but hey momentum is momentum). Then last Thursday I found out about a contest on Wattpad set by Margaret Atwood, to write a short story either set in 2114 or as advice to 2114. I only had a weekend to write it (the deadline is midnight tomorrow GMT, you still have time to enter!), so I reluctantly had to set my novel aside for a few days. And now I have to find a way to get back into it.

Some people can write two stories at the same time, some can edit one while writing another. Most newbie writers can/should focus on only one ‘universe’ at a time, since the deeper you manage to delve into your universe, the richer the story should be, and that’s hard enough. I’m certainly not nearly confident/experienced enough to be able to switch between story-worlds within a day. I’m struggling to get back after even a few days in another world. Like writing itself, such abilities require practice. Since working on multiple stories counts as a form of multitasking, I suppose I as a woman and a relatively young person should be better at it.

Also part of another great blog post about multitasking

“Multitasking” Not sure how much more I’d actually be able get done with extra arms.

Yet if you look at multitasking from a neural perspective, there’s no such thing. Yes, we can walk and talk at the same time, but that only works because we only do one of those things consciously. The brain has limited resources, and especially tasks that require higher order cognitive processes take up a lot of these resources. Just like a computer, a brain doing two or more things that require higher cognitive resources is constantly switching between the tasks. We don’t actually do these things at the same time. This is why it’s so dangerous for people to do other things while driving; if something unexpected happens during those few seconds the brain dedicates to looking at one’s phone, a delayed reaction would occur that could be catastrophic.

Women’s brains might be able to switch quicker, because they’re wired differently or because of differences in upbringing or both, hence the myth of the kickass female multitasker. Modern young people have shown however that practice is the best way to learn how to switch more rapidly and make it seem like you’re doing two things at once; given the constant attention-sinks that are smartphones, tablets and TVs, young people have learned how to disperse their attention between all of their devices while still remaining sane. They sometimes even spare some resources for actual human conversations. And though this is bad for attention spans, it certainly helps them process things more quickly and be more adaptive to changing circumstances. It’s a great example of how our brains adapt to the new environment created by advances in technology and science.

The brain is like a muscle. Practice strengthens the connections required to flex our creative skills. There has to be a balance between being able to switch, and being able to go deep into one particular story; both of these skills need to be nurtured. There might be some select few writers who have these skills from the get-go, but I’m willing to bet that if you ask Margaret Atwood, Stephen King or Chuck Wendig, they will tell you they had a lot of practice before things clicked. So right now I am, not entirely willingly, practicing switching between story-world while maintaining clarity about the story and characters. Hopefully one day this will allow me to edit one story while working on the next. It’s probably one of those things that separate the professionals from the hobby-writers, and I know which one I’d rather be.

If anyone is interested, you can find my hastily-written short story here.

Waiting is life

Ever since I became a teenager, I have been waiting. First, I was waiting for the next year of high school, because my parents kept promising next year would be better. Then, in university, I spent a year waiting for my father to die, for him to fully succumb to a brain tumour. Then eventually my Bachelor degree was completed and I still had no idea what I wanted to do, so I started waiting for a purpose, then for my PhD to be finished, and now I’m looking for a purpose again, or still, depending on how you look at it, while also waiting for a time when I am finally reunited with my partner and living in my own place. I’m starting to realise something though. I can’t postpone everything while I wait for life to start. It’s already happening.

The indubitable Terry Pratchett, through the character of Death, once stated “It is said your life flashes before your eyes before you die. This is true. It is called living.” Life is short, in the grand scheme of things, and any moments spent waiting is a moment not spent doing things. So, assuming I’m not the only person who’s ever had this feeling, why do we wait?

We can never stop running out of time

Everyone has goals they want to attain, personal and societal. We are told when the ‘normal’ ages are to have friends and start relationships, to move out of our parents’ house, to start a career, to establish ourselves. And once upon a time, this was easy. The career we were going into, it was the career of our parents. The person we married was probably from the same village, someone we had known growing up, maybe even someone our parents had picked out for us. Now, there are no guidelines. There are no rules. If you want to write a book and publish it, there’s self-publising. If you want to start a business, you can easily do it online. There are teenagers making lots of money by building apps, and there are people close to pension age reinventing themselves and discovering new talents. Contrarily, if you want to stay in the same job for your entire career, that’s now almost impossible.

What all of this uncertainty means is that there is no longer a defining point in one’s life where one can say ‘This is it, now I’ve really started.’ The goalposts keep getting moved. As soon as you’re done with school, you need to start making money. When you’ve got a job, you need a house. Once you’ve got a partner, you immediately start to feel pressured to get married and/or a child. And even when you’ve got all those things, there is always another goal ahead. Where does it end?

I don’t know how many other twenty-somethings out there feel like they’re still waiting for their lives to start. Maybe it’s just a symptom of not feeling satisfied with what you have, maybe it can actually push you to do/be better. Whatever the underlying doubt or fear or societal guilt is, I know it can’t be healthy in the long term. While some stress is good, when it prevents you from doing things and/or becomes chronic, your body starts to suffer. As a psychologist, I could diagnose myself with a form of anxiety. And like other forms of anxiety, it takes time to get over feeling constricted, to trust things will be able to work out again. So ironically, people who feel like they’re stuck need to wait it out, try to relax and work slowly to change their unhelpful thought patterns. Meanwhile, life keeps happening, so we’d better try to enjoy it.

Wise words

Maybe now that I’ve been able to vent these thoughts, it’s time for me to embrace the waiting and all of the uncertainty that comes with it, and just live, doing the things that I am able to do within the constraints of my ‘incomplete’ state of being, and not worry about the rest. Of course on the other hand, I like striving for more, and fantasising about the wonderful things to come. If I completely accept things as they are, I will never complete a novel or find a good job. So like everything else in life, balance is the key.