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On the Things You Can’t Learn from Books: My Experience at West Coast Falconry

I haven’t done much writing lately.

As my regular blog readers know, I’ve been working on my Big Fat Fantasy Series (with little concrete to show for it) for longer than I’d like to admit. When I read this quote from Pat Rothfuss’s interview with Locus, it definitely resonated with my experience:

“People talk about the trunk novel, writing 10 novels before the 11th or 12th gets published. For me it was just the one book. I worked on this one book for the same amount of time that other writers worked on 11. (In my head I always think of it as ‘‘The Book,’’ like it’s the Platonic form of the book.) So really, I sort of wrote 11 books too – it was just 11 serious different drafts of this same story, constantly refining it.

What I’ve been doing the last few weeks (in between dealing with bouts of nasty Uber-Cold and far too many Real World logistics) doesn’t even count as drafting:  I’m still in outline mode, trying to lighten the burden on my Future Self by figuring out where my story is going before I write myself into too many corners. I’ve spent most of the last 2 months scowling at my third trilogy, which was always the most loosely plotted portion of the story and which is stubbornly refusing to resolve itself into a nice tight arc the way the other two did. I’ve dreamed on more than one occasion of throwing the whole thing in a drawer and letting it simmer for a while. I’ve thought of printing out Elizabeth Bear’s refreshingly honest take on artistic burnout  and tacking it up on my wall. I’ve wondered if any of these books is ever going to see the light of day, or if I should throw in the towel and run off to become a lumberjack.

And it was deep in that mindset, two weeks ago, that I packed a bag for the weekend and drove up into Yolo County, northern California’s agricultural heartland, to a place called West Coast Falconry.

While the substance of my novels’ arc has shifted and changed in a hundred different ways over the years I’ve been working on it, one thing has stayed resolutely the same: my protagonist’s heart and soul are wrapped up with raptors. So I’ve got half a dozen falconry and raptor biology books on my research shelf, and I started working at a local wildlife rehab facility last year in part because it gave me regular opportunities to interact with raptor patients. But for years now, I’ve known that all the text and pictures in the world, and even learning how to safely restrain an injured hawk for an exam (which I’ve now done a few times), wouldn’t give me the kind of detail I needed to make my book work. I needed to see birds that were comfortable around people, and talk with people who spent their days with birds.

West Coast Falconry, run by master falconers Kate Marden and Jana Barkley, bills itself as a way for the general public to learn about raptors and the ancient sport of falconry. I first met Kate and Jana in 2012 when I went to their site for a “Falconry Experience” — the chance to watch their falcons chase the lure, and to call a Harris hawk to my arm. I walked away exhilarated, with pages of notes — but then, bit by bit, the days and the years slipped by. I got caught up in the minutiae of plot and character, of word choice and world-building, not to mention real life, and I felt my story growing stale. I needed an infusion of inspiration.

And so, after hemming and hawing about it for months, I signed up for the three-day Falconry Apprentice Seminar. This course is designed to prepare would-be falconers for taking the California apprenticeship exam, and covers everything from state regulations for obtaining and keeping raptors to building a mews (hawk enclosure), interactions with game wardens and the Department of Fish & Wildlife, trapping and training a wild bird, what to feed your bird (and how to butcher said food), and hunting etiquette. On the final day, we gathered early in the morning, with two Harris hawks, and went hunting rabbits.

While I’d spoken with Jana (a fellow author!) before signing up and gotten her reassurance that I would be welcome in the course, I knew that I wasn’t the target audience, and during the opening ice-breaker, I felt awkward. While the other students spoke confidently about wanting to hunt with a red-tail or a peregrine or an owl, or peppered the facilitators with logistical questions about  building a mews in the suburbs, the best explanation I could come up with for my presence at the table was “…so, I’m writing a book. Not a book I can tell you the plot of, really — not a book that’s close to done — but really, I promise, someday, maybe, there will be a book.”

My nagging sense of imposter-hood lasted for about an hour, as we reviewed the bureaucratic process for becoming an apprentice falconer. But once we got past paperwork and into the meat of the lectures, my doubts disappeared.

Between what we learned in the classroom and what we saw in the field, I walked away with enough material to turn into 8 single-spaced pages of notes when I got home Sunday evening. A lot of it was straight-up prepared material from the curriculum, like these tips:

  • Birds captured from the wild as first-year adults (“passage” birds) are often more pleasant to be around than those hand-raised by people, because they know that they’re birds and will not try to attack their handler for food as they would their parents.
  • The best way to check your bird’s condition is to palpate its breastbone (the keel); although raptors don’t enjoy being touched, the bird can be trained to tolerate this handling, including recognizing the word “keel” as a cue for what’s about to happen.
  • Most of the killing that happens on a hunt will be done by the falconer, not the bird; the bird’s initial attack rarely kills the game animal, and so part of the falconer’s responsibility is to make sure the game is dispatched as quickly and humanely as possible.

As you can see from these examples, the class was pretty comprehensive; in addition to the written material, we learned what it feels like when a bird lands on your glove, got some first-hand experience with operant conditioning, and gutted Coturnix quail as preparation for the hawks’ morning meal. And yet, I think the most valuable things I learned were nothing to do with the prepared curriculum at all.

Over the course of the weekend, I spent two twelve-hour days and a six-hour morning with five falconers. And as I watched them interact with their birds and listened to their stories, I felt my basic background assumptions shifting. Here are some of the myths that were dispelled for me without anyone’s having to say a word:

  • That one can be a “part-time” falconer. If my protagonist keeps a raptor and treats it well, that means he’s taking it hunting for hours at a stretch, at least every few days. I drove away from West Coast Falconry this time pondering which key scenes in my outlines could feasibly take place in a rabbit field.
  • That the glove and gauntlet worn by falconers are only necessary to avoid being “footed” (grabbed) by an angry bird — in a setting with mystical/magical ties between human and animal, the hawk would “just know” to sit lightly. After watching an excited hawk bouncing around on her falconer’s arm, with one foot slipping off the glove onto bare skin, I realized that even an innocent touch is painful. (Also, a hawk would never sit on someone’s shoulder like a parrot — the wingspan’s too large and the bird’s too flighty — and so when it travels on your person, it’s on your fist. Which makes your footprint in a crowd considerably wider).
  • That a hawk could sleep with humans in any old room without needing special accommodations for perching (more complicated than you’d think because for the vast majority of its life, a raptor’s weight is on its feet; wild raptors spend an average of 20 minutes in the air each day, and never lie down unless they’re very ill), casting (undigestable parts of its meal, vomited up some hours after eating) or its mutes (waste, which a hawk typically shoots 4-6 feet away from its body; falcons are more considerate in this regard, muting straight down, but still have the other problems).
  • That a falconer’s bird, sleeping safe in its mews every night, will live to a ripe old age: we heard several stories that made it clear these birds’ lives are far more dangerous than those of your average tame animal. In addition to mundane dangers like disease, they face threats from the game they hunt, the wild predators whose territories they cross, and the environment they race through in pursuit of their quarry. Finally, with the exception of one species, raptors aren’t social: a falconer with multiple birds must consider them all potential threats to one another.
  • That every hunt is successful. We flushed more than half a dozen rabbits in our two hours in the field, with two experienced hawks, and only caught one.
  • That anyone could successfully figure out how to train and handle one of these birds without mentorship, mystical advantages or no.

I walked away from my weekend of falconry with a far better understanding of the commitment — in time, money, love, and tears — this lifestyle requires of those who seek it, especially in any world not inclined to give its people the liberty of days at a time to go hawking. I knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that falconry isn’t a passion I have room for in my daily life, now or probably ever. But I also knew that to write the book I want to write, I will have to take steps to bring more falconers and trained birds into my days. So in the week since, I’ve taken the first steps in that direction and I plan to continue doing so.

Because while I’d never be one to dismiss the power of research (I was too long a student to do that), there are some things a book can’t teach you.

DSC03797

The author with Seabhag (she-VAK), a female Harris Hawk, at West Coast Falconry in 2012.

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On Six Months as a “Real Writer”

Since my last teaching job ended at the end of March, I’ve been self-identifying as “a full-time writer.” In practice, for me, this has meant two things. The first is that I permit myself to consider my novel “work.” The second is that I set myself a goal for a number of hours worked each week, and I track those hours. Since I’m about to reach the six-month mark, I figured it was about time to sit down and reflect on my experiences so far – and to share them, because people always seem to find other people’s writing-process accounts fascinating.

I have definitely noticed a change since I’ve made these changes in practice, not only in my writing process but in my mindset. In fact, although I’ve been writing semi-consistently for most of my life, and almost every day for most of the last nine years, the last six months have seen some revisions to aspects of my routine that have been there for years.

First and foremost, I find that allowing myself to have designated consistent writing time is a godsend. I’ve talked before on this blog about how I typically block off one weekday as “writing time” – no contractor appointments, coffee dates, or house-cleaning obligations, just me and the laptop. In general, I also try to avoid making appointments before 1 PM so that I can have my mornings to work. I’m still not as good about staying out of email and social media distractions as I’d like to be, but I have started setting my phone to do-not-disturb mode for a few hours. It’s not an absolute system – there are certain people, designated as “priority,” whose calls will still get through in case of emergencies – but it’s a bit of ritual that works for me, a “physical” acknowledgment that I am now enclosing myself in the sphere of my book for a limited time. The world will be there when I’m done.

As for the other factor, the hours-per-week – well, it’s had a few effects. The first is psychological. I’ve told myself that I will aim to do twenty hours of work on the book each week: this was also what I aimed for when I was writing my dissertation in 2012 and 2013. That means that when I’m evaluating my admittedly-unstructured week, I find myself making calculations about how to spend my free time. Do I have a busy weekend planned? Then maybe I won’t take that friend up on her Wednesday afternoon coffee date, because I know that I won’t have time to fit in my last few hours at the end of the week. I also find that tracking hours is better for my morale than tracking word count (which I know a lot of people do, including Stephen King) because it allows me to “count” things like going for a walk to untangle a sticky plot knot, or spending a morning outlining a new chapter. I know that sometimes the words will take a while to come, but if I’m ready and waiting for them, I can count the time as writing.

That’s the other thing I’ve found as an effect of my twenty-hour work week – I get less anxious about sticky plot than I used to. Even a few months ago, when a chapter jammed up, I would fret and pace and let it get under my skin, ranting to Husband that “this is clearly the most difficult chapter! It’s just not working! I can’t figure out where it’s supposed to go, I’m not working on it anymore!” Those rants have dramatically decreased in number since I’ve started this new process. I think part of that is that I’m just gaining more experience – putting in more time on the book within a more condensed time frame means that I’m getting accustomed to the ebb and flow of drafting, the fact that almost every chapter will have its sticking points and that after a week or two of frustrating fumbling suddenly the pieces will fit together and I’ll know how to move forward. But I think the other is just having some measure of accountability. Whether the writing is going well or badly, I still expect myself to show up; I still have that record of my time that I log at the end of the week, encouraging me to apply butt to chair (or, at least, brain to problem) and wait for my subconscious to work its magic.

I recognize that I’m privileged to have a schedule that accommodates this level of immersion in a creative project every week, and I also acknowledge that a lot of my tricks are the same ones I used to get myself through the later stages of graduate school. But all the same, my experience has made me a convert to a few tricks of the trade that seem like they’ll work no matter how much time you have to devote to your storytelling:

  1. Take your writing seriously. Allow yourself to make and keep appointments to work on it, just the way you would with work for which you’re accountable to someone else.
  2. Set attainable goals for yourself. Say that you’ll engage with your story for 30 minutes a day, or that you’ll try to get in 2 2-hour sessions over the course of a week.
  3. Don’t get obsessed with word count. I know that NaNoWriMo and other writing contests encourage writers to spew out words and not worry too much about content, and that’s a strategy that works well for many people – but if it doesn’t work for you, or doesn’t always work, find another way to give yourself a sense of forward momentum.
  4. Figure out what times work best for you to write, and don’t be afraid to take advantage of those times.

Maybe most importantly of all, as I’ve noted on this blog before, keep at it. Whatever lets you make progress on your creative goals, if you’re working at them, you’re doing it right.

On Resets, Writing, and Life

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. – E.B. White

This quote, from Day 38 of Barbara Abercrombie’s Year of Writing Dangerously book of meditations, accompanies a mini-essay on the archetypical concept of “ideal conditions,” basically making the point that there is no such thing. Real life will always be seeking to get between an artist and their work, particularly when (like me) your deadlines are flexible and you’re accountable in the end to no one but yourself.

For me, the last few days have been a particularly trying example of this. In a holdover from dissertation discipline, Mondays are my designated writing day, the day on which I schedule no appointments or errands; but yesterday, after a very chaotic two weeks for our family that ended in a rush of late-night Sunday paperwork, I spent half the morning picking up pieces of our orderly household that couldn’t wait any longer (since banks and creditors are not much inclined toward flexible deadlines). When I finally settled in with my chapter, I got far enough along to know that I had the makings of a good writing day ahead of me – and then had to spend half the afternoon running a similarly-urgent-but-ultimately-fruitless errand. I resolved that Tuesday would be a “reset,” and that to make that happen Husband and I would have a relaxing night and go to sleep early… and then, around 9 PM, a beloved local stray cat was hit by a car on our street and killed. So instead of unwinding, we spent the evening grieving with neighbors and digging a grave in the front yard. Now, on Tuesday morning, I’m sleep-deprived, frazzled, and cranky… and yet, more than anything, I want to be in a state of mind to work on my manuscript. So I’m writing this post as part of my reset effort, cleansing myself for writing time.

In introductory sociology, I tell my students about Emile Durkheim’s work on religion, and the distinction he draws between the sacred and the everyday. Sacred objects are set apart, treated with special reverence; sacred places often require their visitors to perform a small ritual when they enter (whether that’s genuflecting to the altar before you sit down in a Catholic church or removing your shoes at the door of a mosque). And sacred time is different from everyday time.

I don’t always have time for a long ritual before I start my morning writing, but there are certain things that are more often than not a part of my routine. I make a cup of tea; I see my cat settled on his window seat next to my writing desk; I read that day’s writing meditation from the Abercrombie book. And then I shut off my wireless adapter, I mark how much time I’m going to work that morning (one hour, or two, or three) and I sit down and see what happens.

My expectations for today aren’t very high. I don’t think I’ll write beautiful prose or solve sticky plot problems: I think it’s more likely I’ll fumble around, add a few words here or there, maybe review a scene I’m already happy with. But regardless, I’m going to do it for an hour and see what happens. Because I might break through and find the focus that I’m hoping for, the focus I had in my sights yesterday – and if that’s the case, it’ll make my day immeasurably better.

The more I do this, the more I realize that half of writing is prioritizing the time; most of the other half is showing up. So today, with all the crises that took my Monday away resolved, I’m going to take a deep breath and see if I can’t find my way back into my scene.

Reset achieved. Wish me luck.

Writing Takes Time: On Vanquishing the Demon of “Productivity”

…the fact remains that writing takes time. To write takes dreaming and remembering and thinking and imagining — and very often what feels like wasting time. It takes silence and solitude. It takes being okay with making a huge mess and not knowing what you’re doing. Then it takes rewriting and struggling to find your story and the truth of the story, and then the meaning of the story. It takes being comfortable with your own doubts and fears and questions. And there’s just no fast and easy way around it. — from Meditation #12 of Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement

In the last few weeks, my writing has not been going well.

Part of this is due to what sociologists would call “environmental factors.” Husband and I are always hit hard by the December holidays (which for us encompass 2 different religiousish traditions, 3 different nuclear family branches, travel and/or out-of-town guests [this year featured both!], at least 3 or 4 additional non-familial celebrations and our anniversary). This year, both of us caught the Cold of the Century in the last two weeks of 2014, and I started a new part-time teaching gig at a new institution the first full week of 2015 after not having taught at all for seven months. So there’s been all of that conspiring together to complicate my ability to sit in an upright position in front of my computer for long enough to get into a state of flow. But that’s not all that’s been stymieing me.

When people ask what stage I’m at with my book, I tend to say I’m working on a second draft, which is true insofar as I have a prior version of this story that’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end. But when I sat down to my new draft in June of last year, one of the things I knew was that huge swaths of my plot were going to have to be ripped up and completely rewritten. I knew there was a lot of stuff that didn’t work, motivations that were hazy, scenes that didn’t fit with the overall backbone of the tale I was trying to tell; at that point, I couldn’t even have told you what the central theme of the book was. So in a lot of ways, what I’m working on still has many elements of a first draft; I’m taking the key points of my story, the stuff I know I want to keep, and trying to make them fit together in a more coherent way. Meanwhile, a lot of the rest is being completely thrown out and rewritten — and this section of the novel, the piece of the plot arc I’ve been working on since late September, is particularly full of dross that needs to be winnowed away.

What that means, in practice, is that I spend a lot of my writing time these days asking questions like this: “Where should I start this chapter?” “Why is this character doing this?” “How can I keep this plot revelation and kill the scene it’s a part of?” And more often than not, I don’t get an answer right away. Sometimes, I can go days pounding my head against the keyboard or throwing words down in what I know is the wrong direction before I figure out where the story’s supposed to go.

In my schedule, Mondays are blocked off as “writing days”: I make no appointments, undertake no major home improvement projects, and don’t allow anything on my social calendar until dinnertime. And so, in my results-oriented head, I tend to think a “successful Monday” is a day when I’ve sat at my computer for at least 4 hours (with 6 being preferable) and/or pushed out at least 2000 words. Made the best use of my time, starting first thing in the morning when I’m freshest.

This week didn’t turn out that way. I didn’t sleep well Sunday night; then, because of various unavoidable teaching- and life-related commitments, I didn’t get started with “Writing Monday” until after lunch. And when I finally sat down, staring at the opening lines of a chapter I’ve been hammering away at for two weeks now, nothing happened. In 3 hours, I managed to tug about 600 words from my subconscious, and even as I wrote them, I was pretty sure most of them would be going right back to the scrap pile. By the end of it, I was frustrated, disheartened and feeling like a fraud. This is a state I’ve been in quite a bit in the last few weeks. One of my personal artistic demons is the need to feel “productive,” and if my word count’s going up, I can point to that and say that I’m doing something. If it’s not, I can quickly get to feeling like I’m wasting my time, at which point I turn into the Bad Writing Day monster and stalk around the house terrorizing Husband and the cat.

But today was different. Because as I was about to go off on my usual “this-is-all-garbage” rant, I remembered the writing meditation I’d read this morning, reproduced in part at the top of this post.

I picked up Barbara Abercrombie’s A Year of Writing Dangerously on a whim in a bookstore a few days into the new year, and immediately decided it was coming home with me. It includes 365 one- to two-page reflections on the writing process, and unlike most writing books I’ve seen, it’s not meant to teach you how to write better: it’s focused entirely on encouragement, and I was sold when I saw that Day 1’s meditation ended with this quote:

I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straitening shyness that assail one. — John Steinbeck

Steinbeck, dear readers. The guy whose books are almost-universally regarded as triumphs of literature. He didn’t know how to start his writing sessions, either.

I’m coming to realize that in my writing life, tiny revelations like that are often exactly the kind of reality check I need (I follow many of my favorite authors on Twitter for the same reason). We all need a reminder from time to time that we’re not alone — and for writers, that includes the reminder that on days when the words won’t come, it might not have anything to do with your talent or your legitimacy. It might just mean that your plot’s not done stewing yet.

So yeah, I only wrote 500 words this Monday, and I’m probably going to trash most of them the next time I sit down. But I also figured out what’s wrong with the beginning of this scene, and I know what needs to happen to fix it. I don’t know how to make it happen yet, but I’m confident that’ll come. It might be on a walk, or in the shower, or a Facebook-free pen and paper brainstorming session. Or maybe I’ll just sit down at my computer and make a mess and see what comes out of it — because, as I was reminded today, writing isn’t all about putting words on the page. Sometimes, you just have to give it time.

A Plug for BookLust’s Diversiverse Challenge

What’s the last book you read by an author of color?

If you’re a regular reader, you may have noticed the new design on the blog this week, and specifically the new button that’s appeared in the upper left-hand corner with the tagline “A More Diverse Universe.” It’s the logo for Diversiverse, an awesome reading challenge that’s being organized by Aarti at Booklust for the last two weeks of September. If you want to participate, there are two steps you need to take:

  1. In the next few weeks, read a book by an author of color
  2. Between September 14-27th, post a review of that book in some public location online (you don’t need to have a blog to do this; Goodreads counts, and so does Amazon)

I’ve spent the last 2 months talking on this blog about how important representation is in genre fiction. Unsurprisingly, one of the more reliable ways (though certainly not the only one) to increase the visibility of characters from any underrepresented group is to encourage and support authors who are members of that group. There are a million reasons why this challenge is a worthwhile one, and I would strongly recommend folk consider taking this opportunity to expand your reading horizons. If you’d like to officially enroll, you can sign yourself up on Aarti’s page (the Diversiverse link above)

As Aarti points out, this challenge isn’t really so difficult to fulfill. In her words:

You may have to change your book-finding habits to include POC authors in your reading rotation.  You absolutely do not need to change your book-reading habits. 

In that spirit, I’ve included a short list here of some genre authors you might check out as a starting point. Stars indicate those whose books I’ve read, the others are authors I’m familiar with but haven’t read yet (as you’ll no doubt note, neither list is nearly as long as I’d like it to be! Please feel free to add other rec’s in the comments!)

  • Saladin Ahmed* (fantasy)
  • Octavia Butler* (science fiction)
  • Samuel R. Delany (science fiction)
  • Junot Diaz (magical realism)
  • Nalo Hopkinson* (fantasy)
  • NK Jemisin* (fantasy)
  • Malinda Lo (fantasy)
  • Marie Lu* (YA dystopia)
  • Nnedi Okorafor (fantasy)
  • Salman Rushdie (fantasy)
  • Charles Saunders (fantasy)
  • Charles Yu (science fiction)

Writing and Fate

I’ve just finished going through a momentous process this week: sitting down with the people at the center of my professional life and telling them that what I want to do 30-50 hours a week for the rest of my life is something other than a full-time tenure-track professorship in sociology. I’m still planning to finish my PhD (hopefully in the spring, gods willing), but the professional game plan after that now looks something like this:

1) maintain part-time teaching jobs here in the Bay Area to

a) give myself an opportunity to do the parts of sociology that I like best – blowing my students’ minds with stuff that they’ve lived around their whole lives and never considered before.

b) feel like I’m pulling my weight/contributing to my family’s success/etc.

2) get this cussed book series done and polished and out into the world with its head held high. And send other books  out after it.

I’ve been a long time coming to this decision, for a couple of reasons, the biggest one being that I’ve always been someone very concerned with “the plan.” Sure, I loved writing fiction; sure, it was what I’d wanted to do since I was five years old (or younger, even: my first recorded story, still preserved somewhere in my dad’s house, has illustrations by me, text transcribed by my mom, as my tiny perfectionist self apparently deemed my own handwriting too messy to qualify for inclusion in a “real book”). Sure, I’d been working on the groundwork for this novel project for years; sure, I’ve got 3 other unfinished novels in my files, and one finished one that I wrote in a flurry my freshman year of college that I’m not intending to ever let see the light of day; but I’d already broken with my working-class family’s norms enough by declaring that I was going to stay in school until I was thirty, preparing to “do the professor thing.” Endless school was only justified if there was a secure, solidly upper-middle-class job at the end and your education was directly related to that job. So, PhD in sociology = sociology professorship. Right?

Over the last year, though, I started coming to the conclusion that maybe it was time for my plan to change. Part of that had to do with learning more about what that professor life looks like. When I arrived at Berkeley, I thought I liked research; I quickly learned that the parts I like best – wandering out into the social wilderness to talk to people, look at stuff, and write down what you’ve learned so you can share it with other people – are only a piece of how academic research actually works. Part of a professor’s obligations are to publish in academic journals; to publish in academic journals, you need to always be thinking of your project in terms of how it’s going to enrich the scope of knowledge in your field, what existing theories you’re proving or disproving or expanding or arguing with. Saying “but – but this is COOL!” is hardly justification for getting your work published in an academic setting. I don’t enjoy playing the research-writing game; getting my hands dirty in that process – and seeing the expectations placed on junior faculty at research institutions, and the schedules that some of my advisors were required to keep to get their work done – convinced me that maybe what I wanted was a full-time job at a teaching-focused school. Maybe even a school where I didn’t have to do research at all (which would mostly likely mean a community college: liberal arts schools still expect their faculty to conduct and publish research, although my colleagues who work in that environment point out that finding the time to do so is a trick and a half).  It was a change in the plan, for sure, but the plan – an academic job, tenure, eventually moving away from the Bay Area – was staying fundamentally the same.

So at the beginning of the 11-12 academic year, I was thinking I might go for a community college job, or else maybe a liberal arts job where I could just deal with the research piece. Then a few things happened. Last summer, Husband got a job here in the Bay Area that ‘s literally perfect for him (pays well; lets him work with colleagues he loves; lets him do interesting, creative work); that added one more thing to our collection of sadnesses about eventually having to leave the area (Husband’s a bred-and-born local, and I’ve lived here six years now, long enough to put down roots). Then, last September, I lost a close family member to cancer: as I think often happens in these kinds of situations, it prompted me to take a look at my life and reevaluate my priorities. In that spirit, I decided to take the writing project I’d been tinkering with for the last few years and start thinking about what’d need to be done to turn it into a “real book.”

And then things took off. First, I realized I easily had enough material for several books – several BIG books – and started getting ideas for how I might hammer the story arc into place. Then I workshopped my first few chapters in a Bay Area writing class and saw the people there get excited about them; then I joined forces with a few other alumni from that program to form our own writing group, and I suddenly had a fabulous set of beta readers, willing to stick with me for the long haul. And they were, and are, excited and supportive and full of great ideas to help make this story better.

And then I turned to Husband, one afternoon, and said “I don’t think I want to do sociology for 40 or 50 hours a week.” And he asked: “Well, what would you want to do, then?” “Writing.” And my wonderful, sweet, supportive husband smiled and said “…then you should do that.”

I test-drove the idea in early June and July of this year, putting sociology on the back burner to work on my novel full-time for a few weeks. I loved it. When I had to go back to work, I cried. (Of course, those of you who know me in real life know that that’s not unusual for me, but regardless…) And then, on one fateful Saturday afternoon in June, sitting in an ice cream shop with Husband before we went to the movies, I decided that I was going to go for it, and said it out loud to Husband first: “I don’t want to go for a tenure-track position. I want to try to swing this writing thing.”

Ironically, we were going to see Brave that day;  the Pixar movie whose tagline is “Change your fate.” And I did. I started looking at part-time teaching options; I figured out how I could trim the scope of my dissertation back to finish it in a year; I kept hammering away on the novel.

And after a summer full of stewing, I talked to my dissertation committee this week, told them about my crazy change in plans. And none of them accused me of heresy, or threatened to light me on fire, or hit the ejector seat button to fling me out of their office. They said it all sounds great, and that they’d support me in looking for part-time teaching jobs, and that I’m smart to have realized what I want before I get myself trapped in something I don’t. And they recommended I try to write the dissertation with a book manuscript in mind, which I might just do, because who knows? Maybe I’ll get two book contracts next year. That’s not in the plan, either. But sometimes – if the stars seem to be lining up, and if you’re lucky enough to be able to take a chance – you’ve got to throw the plan out the window and go for it.

A late addition: For those who don’t read the PhD webcomic — this was posted today:

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1527

Clearly, it really IS fate. 🙂

This is History, Folks. Right Here, Right Now

One of my projects this week has been getting caught up on really old NPR podcasts (yes, I live an exciting life ;)) and I encountered this story about the Man Booker Prize book for last year, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. The part that really struck me was this quote from the book, about the difference between history you live through and history you only hear about:

I still read a lot of history, and of course, I’ve followed all the official history that’s happened in my own lifetime — the fall of Communism, Mrs. Thatcher, 9/11, global warming — with a normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I’ve never felt the same about it. I’ve never quite trusted it as I do events in Greece or Rome or the British Empire or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again. The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest. And yet, it’s the most deliquescent.

Although I probably won’t read the book — straight literary fiction isn’t usually my style — the point struck me nonetheless. The history that you live through seems, at least to me, somehow less inevitable than the stuff that you only hear about.

I’m 29, and I’ve experienced relatively few “big” historical events in my life. As a matter of fact, I have a very clear memory of watching a History Channel special on “We Interrupt This Broadcast” moments (the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, etc) with my dad about 2 weeks before I left for college, and commenting that “we haven’t had many of those since I was old enough to remember.” He countered that “you probably don’t want to experience too many of those.” And I shrugged, shipped merrily off to college in August of 2001, and then understood what he meant a little better a few weeks later.

History does seem different, somehow, when you can remember first-hand the way things were before it was made. My sister and I flew from Manchester, NH to Philadelphia in 2000, our first time flying without an “adult,” and our aunt met us at the gate; my cousins born in 1992 and 1994 (and my undergraduates) will have never had this experience. I saw Senator Obama speak in Oakland in spring 2007, when he was still “that guy who might get picked as Hillary’s VP candidate if she’s lucky enough to make it all the way.” Just saying those sorts of things makes me feel old, but it also gives me a sense of the flow of “the big story” of history that I don’t think I had when I was younger. Ditto being old enough to recognize better than 50% of the people whose deaths make the news these days; it’s always a little strange to me when some notable makes the passage from “contemporary” to “historical figure,” someone who my kids will never share space on the planet with.

I’ve had occasion to think about this in terms of my novel, too; because the tale I’m writing takes place in a larger world with its own complex and detailed history, there are a lot of “historical events” due to take place after the era in which my first book is set, and I already know the eventual fate (and manner of demise) of many of my characters even though the majority of them will be living happily for many years after the point in time that I’m writing about right now. It’s made me realize that knowing an ending does shape the way you frame what comes before. If I know, for example, that a character will die in 10 years by falling under a bus, I might be tempted to foreshadow this by having them trip and be caught by the protagonist JUST IN TIME some years earlier, so that when the protagonist hears later about their inevitable demise she can think “oh, no! If only I’d been there!”

It makes sense that I’d do this, of course; that’s how fiction works. But I wonder if we don’t do it in real life, too. I wonder if future generations of high school students will still wonder at how things would’ve turned out differently if New Hampshire had voted for Al Gore in 2000 (I missed being old enough to vote in that election by 6 months. I wondered), or how a different national disaster policy could’ve made the outcome of Hurricane Katrina less horrific, or whether the Star Wars prequels could’ve actually been good movies. Once history happens, it seems like most of us — at least those who are casual observers instead of professional historians — think of it as pretty much fore-ordained.

I’m not sure why I’m feeling so philosophical today; maybe it’s the political season, maybe it’s the fact that the 9/11 anniversary is looming again (it probably doesn’t help that we’ve turned the date itself into a title — though I suspect even so, the calendar date won’t carry the same weight for kids born in 2002 that it does for us “grown-ups”), or that my family’s approaching a big personal anniversary next week. But I do think it’s worth pondering, at least for a moment: how is the history you live through moment-to-moment different from the history that’s handed to you already pre-packaged with a beginning, middle, and end? I think maybe the stuff that we learn about abstractly (whether it’s the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the fact that there was a person on this earth named Abraham Lincoln, or the notion that North America was once populated by mammoths and giant buffalo) all feels a little bit like fiction — deliberate and planned, put together by someone with a sense of overarching plot — and it’s only the stuff we live through ourselves that seems messy and complicated and “real.”