Refilling the Creative Well (Today Might Be the Day)

I haven’t written any fiction in over a month. Not a poem, not a story. Nothing.

The last time I tried, the whole experience was fraught with pressure and guilt, me sitting there at the computer talking to myself: Come on, come on, you can do this. Write something. Anything.

The occasion was a Halloween short story contest in a writer’s group I belong to. The group hosts these sorts of things several times a year, and generally I like to do them because they impose deadlines, and I most definitely work harder when I have a deadline and someone to (potentially) disappoint on the other end.

Anyway, the participants were all given a story seed: some image or phrase that was supposed to be woven into the story. My seeds were the Ivy League, a woman who used to be a twin, and a lonely knot. You could choose from among your seeds or use them all.

And I had nothing. I sat at my computer for days; started story after story, then deleted what I had written. I stressed over it, cried a little bit, and then I made a decision.

I just put that bag down and walked away.

2015 will go down as my most successful writing year to date. I’ve had six stories and eight poems appear in various places. I wrote a good bit more. I graduated with a Master’s degree. I just needed to give myself permission to let that be enough.

Since then I’ve read books, worked in my garden, and watched a lot of TV and movies. The ideas, the voices and the stories, are coming back, swirling around in my mind, whispering in my ear. This week I’m cooking Thanksgiving dinner for nearly 20 people, so I’ll be busy as hell. Still, the words are coming back, so I might just sneak out for a while to write.

Today might be the day.

Book Review: Neurotribes, by Steve Silberman

*Cross-posted at Goodreads & LibraryThing

On one level, Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes is a history of Autism Spectrum Disorder that spans hundreds of years, many tragedies, and a thorough examination of the recent “autism epidemic,” including the many “cures” touted by experts ranging from behavioral intervention to the Anti-Vaxxer movement. My own son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS in 2003 at the age of three, so the experience of reading Silberman’s book was often like revisiting my own family’s journey through the confusing and oftentimes downright hostile world of diagnosis, intervention, and the unending fight for proper support and services.

Throughout the book, Silberman makes the case that past focus on “causes” and “cures” is misguided at best, and downright harmful at worst. As my own experience illustrates, parents are frequently made to feel as if they somehow “caused” their children’s ASD, either through neglect, exposure to some unspecified environmental factor, or, prior to its thorough scientific debunking, through vaccination. Later, inability (or refusal) to submit one’s child to a “cure” often further subjects parents to accusations that they did nothing to make their child “better.”

As Neurotribes makes clear, however, autistic people don’t need to be cured. What they need are the support services which will allow them both a voice in their own lives and as much independence as they can successfully maintain. My own son is frequently underestimated by everyone around him. He is a bright, compassionate, affectionate person who also happens to sometimes flap his hands and repeat sections of dialogue from his favorite movies in order to lessen his feelings of anxiety. As Silberman so beautifully illustrates, he and every other autistic person have so much to offer the world, if only the world will let them.


Book Review: Speak Easy

speakeasyCatherynne M. Valente is a master of metaphor and beautiful language. As an author who traffics primarily in the fairy tale, this is apt, but I think it’s worth mentioning on its own. In that respect, Speak Easy, her recent adaptation of the Twelve Dancing Princesses story, lived up to my expectations. Valente’s prose is gorgeous and lush, fully immersing the reader in the world of the Artemesia hotel. Set in Jazz Age New York, a la The Great Gatsby,  the imagery reflects the times as well as the protagonist, Zelda Fair–decadent, ever-dancing, ever-elegant. The over-the-top nature of the writing does what fairy tales often do; in fact are supposed to do–infuse the world with magic and the possibilities of the limitless. This, coupled with the author’s unique imagination, always makes reading Valente a joy.

Although I found the story a little slow to get going, Valente’s skill carried me through to the second half, when Zelda descends into an Underworld that has more in common with Faery than Hades. Here Zelda and the other “princesses” discover a world where, for a price, creativity flows endlessly, and their artistic instincts are not subsumed, as they are in the world above, by the economics of survival.

That is, until Frankie Key, the story’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, comes down below to find her.

My biggest criticism of Speak Easy is that I really wanted Zelda to be a stronger character. Throughout the story, she seems mostly guided by the events around her, rarely coming to her own defense against those who would exploit or consume her. Though her thoughts and actions are undoubtedly subversive, she seems to mostly use what  power she does possess for its seductive qualities, when she could instead protect the life she has come to love or the things she has created there. With Valente’s history of strong female protagonists (the Fairyland series comes to mind, particularly), I found this somewhat glaring lack of “girl power” disappointing.

Still, all in all this was a great book. I think I’d forgive Valente just about anything in order to read that gorgeous, lush prose. Definitely recommended reading for all lovers of the fairy tale genre.


October in the Chair* – Announcements & Updates

I’m not sure what it says about me and my writing, but a good deal of the poetry and fiction I’ve sold this year comes out this month. Darkness? Probably. I’ve got a lot of it tucked away inside and writing is one of the ways I purge it. In any case, if you follow my work, there’s a lot to be had this month. To wit:

My horror story, “Mother,” is featured in this week’s podcast at Pseudopod. Along with Escape Pod (science fiction) and Podcastle (fantasy), it’s a great source of speculative fiction.

This week at Strange Horizons, my poem, “Harrowing,” is featured. Strange Horizons is one of my absolute favorite spec fic markets, as the stories and poems they publish tends to be particularly bad-ass and very, very good.

Over at Star*Line, the online newsletter of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, my poem, “There Is No Why,” is one of the editor’s choice picks for October. It’s my take on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, set in the ‘trailer parks and honky-tonks’ world of my youth.

Speaking of the SFPA, their beautiful online journal, Eye to the Telescope, features poems centered around the theme of race this month, and includes my take on the subject, “First Contact.

This week also marks the publication of the Horror Writers’ Association Second Annual Poetry Showcase, wherein you can read my poem, “Midnight at the Hub City Café.” It’s not free to read, but the version for kindle is up at Amazon for only $2.99, a bargain if you’re interested in some of the best dark poetry around.

On a slightly less monstrous note, my poem “The Garden Wild,” is up at Liminality, a gorgeous online journal of speculative poetry that tends more toward fantasy and magical realism. My poem was written as a tribute to my mother, who showed me the joy in tending the earth and the magic in growing things from the soil.

And finally, my poem, “Anchorite,” marks my first appearance in Eternal Haunted Summer, a beautiful journal that specializes in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry with pagan themes.

Whew. October had a lot to say.

Or maybe I had a lot to say to October.

*My favorite story from Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things.


Coming to a Birdhouse or Bathtub Near You

Today is what I’d call a perfect autumn day. A light, soft rain is falling, and the air is filled with the smell of decaying leaves and the earth beginning to put itself to sleep. I know some may find this surprising; to most people the perfect autumn day involves crisp breezes and a bright blue sky.  To me, though, that sky seems almost menacing. It reminds me of a cheap kid’s toy, of the bright, forced cheerfulness of hard plastic. Caitlin Kiernan calls it the “wide carnivorous sky.” It’s like being trapped inside a marble. Give me gentle rains and cloudy skies any day.

I haven’t sorted through the vacation photos yet, but when I do, I’ll post a few here. It was a wonderful trip, mostly because we were all jammed in a car for two weeks, and we got on one another’s nerves, and we got closer, and we saw half the country together. I got to show the LOML and  my kids things I’d been wanting them to see for a long time. I got to see things I’d been wanting to see for a long time. I have to admit, however, that toward the end we were all very homesick. It’s good to be home.

While we were gone I had a couple of poems come out into the world. The always-gorgeous Liminality published it’s Autumn issue, and my poem “The Garden Wild” is part of the line up. This poem was a kind of tribute to my mother, who, though she lived her life enveloped in a miasma of pain, gave me the gift of gardening, and my love of the natural world.  Eternal Haunted Summer is a beautiful webzine I discovered this summer, and this month their Autumn Equinox issue features my poem, “Anchorite,” written, as so much of my work is, about my ongoing 20-odd year obsession with the LOML.

Yesterday, in an ongoing effort to divert the local raccoon tribe from my vegetable garden and back porch, we set up three feeding stations out in the north field. I’ve trained a wildlife camera on the area, and so hopefully I’ll be able to post a few pictures soon. In the meantime, the crows and squirrels have found things much to their liking. Hopefully that’s a good sign.

Today I’m decorating for Halloween with my kids and working on what I hope will become an annual Halloween horror story. This year I want to get back to the source; the idea that Samhain is the day when the spirits of the dead can interact with the living. No vampires or zombies or witches; just a good old fashioned ghost story.

I’ve Glimpsed Our Future, and All I Can Say Is…Go Back

Mounting panic as we prepare to launch into the great American West next week. The LOML and I continually joke that we’re reenacting National Lampoon’s Vacation, nervously laughing in the dark while we piss our pants hoping that’s not actually the case. To say I’m a little intimidated would not be an exaggeration. In my personal life I’m constantly torn between being who I really am, i.e., an artist and a gardener with a decidedly weird-skewing worldview, and giving my kids the All-American mom-and-apple-pie Mayberry upbringing that was denied me. Yes, I know that exposing them to some weird is a good thing, and I try to keep that in mind, but when you grew up in a home where ‘weird’ translated into kids taking care of parents instead of parents taking care of kids, you tend to shy away from going too far with that shit. Case in point: the great American road trip, and my desire for my kids to see some of their own homeland before jobs, responsibilities and general LIFE get in the way for them as it does for us all. I have this growing panic that I’ll forget something, or that our house will fall down or be swept away by floods while I’m gone. Call me crazy. You won’t be the first.


Time Is Not A Pony Ride*

Autumn is coming. **

Every year I always find it interesting how you can feel it, even in the midst of 90º+ days, if you stop long enough and just listen. Some of the trees are already almost bare, and while much of that is due to the recent 5-week mini-drought, you can almost hear the trees sighing with fatigue, ready to shrug off this wet, soggy spring and dry, punishing summer to sleep for a while, and try again next year. It’s a smell in the air that at first comes only on the occasional breeze, but gradually deepens and stretches itself out across the land. In spite of the fact that I’m not a huge fan of winter weather (I can never truly get warm when it’s cold outside) I welcome the autumn. Just like the trees I’m worn down by the incessant heat, and I feel their need for rest pulling at my heart. Everything needs to sleep. Everything needs to dream.

Yesterday I planted four raised beds of beans and peas, the first time I’ve ever tried a fall crop of them. There was one bed of Provider, one of Royal Bush (a very pretty purple color), one of Piggott peas, and one of Crowder peas. Beans and peas are one of those things I’ve never really mastered, mostly because I can never figure out if I’m harvesting at the right time, or, if I am, how to preserve what I’ve picked. In any case, we’ll see.


*David Byrne

**Doesn’t sound as dramatic as GRRM, but there you have it.

The Persistence

Sometimes writing feels like an exercise in pointlessness, like I’ve punched some ticket to that great waiting room in the sky and I’m doomed to forever circle success, floating along with fat, naked, unbaptized babies and wholly contented pre-Christian native tribesmen. To date, I’ve logged over 500 rejections since I started doing this seriously in 2008, and most of the time, the psychological toll those 500 carry far outweighs any successes I’ve managed to pull off. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never get better, never master the craft I’ve devoted so many hours to learning. Some days, I don’t even know what keeps me submitting and submitting and submitting when I’ve been told no so many times.

Every once in a while, though, the universe throws me a bone, just enough to make me keep the faith, and keep on writing. This week, it was finding out that Ellen Datlow mentioned me in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven. My name isn’t on the cover, of course, and I don’t even have a story listed in the table of contents. Instead, there was this tiny little tidbit, referencing work published in the always fantastic Goblin Fruit:

Some of the darkest poems in 2014 were by Megan Arkenberg, Sally Rosen Kindred, Seanan McGuire, Lynette Mejía, Shweta Narayan, Sonya Taaffe, and Lindsey Walker.

That sentence was encouraging; on seeing it I did a little victory dance inside my head. I’m getting somewhere, even if my steps are small. I’m getting somewhere.

Is it fame and fortune? No, of course not.

But it’s something.

Watermelon in Pantyhose

It’s hard to even think about gardening in this weather. Before 7am and after 7:30pm are tolerable, but in between the heat index hovers around the 105 – 110 degree mark. Not pleasant.  Still, gardening is my meditation, and my exercise, so, like the bats who wheel and loop above the courtyard, keeping the mosquitoes off the premises (mostly), I creep out after the sun sets or, more rarely, before it rises higher than the trees.

Most years I let my vegetable garden just go to hell come late July/August. By that time the heat has long-since done in the tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn I planted in March; this year it even took out the strawberries I’d planted in the cinder blocks that line my raised beds. This year, though, mostly on a whim and that gardener’s problem of never being able to pass up a rack of plants at the local home improvement store, I came home a few days after the 4th of July with several watermelon plants, along with a couple of Halloween pumpkins, some squash, two eggplants, and four tomatoes that claimed to be heat tolerant. Lo and behold, all these drought-stricken weeks later they’re all still alive (mostly). More surprising still, the watermelons seem to be thriving!

Now, to be fair, I didn’t just plunk them in the ground and walk away. I’ve kept them well-watered and fertilized with worm compost tea and Epsom salts. At the moment, I’ve got somewhere between 5 and 10 fruits hanging from the vine, which runs up a trellis the LOML and I constructed from a cattle panel. This brings up another problem, however, as watermelons tend to get quite heavy as they grow. A little magical Internet research and voila! A use for all those pairs of pantyhose I’ve kept around since the 90’s!

watermelon in drag

A watermelon in drag.

Coming along nicely.

More potential wearers of women’s undergarments coming along nicely.


On the Making of Magic, Pt. 2: An Invocation

Writing is hard, and I don’t mean do-I-put-a-comma-here hard; I mean the overwhelming majority of my working time consists of me sitting in front of the screen, just staring at it. Usually, eventually, something comes to me, but it’s very, very rough and has to be gone over again and again, the seams ripped out and resewn together in different ways until I can look at it and not shudder. Even then, it often ends up abandoned. I have a folder with hundreds of unfinished pieces in it; times when I thought I had the nugget of something extraordinary, only to discover dead ends or (worse still) that what I was writing was ordinary, clichéd, or just plain uninspired. Heinlein said you should always finish what you write, but for me that would just be murder. Sometimes I can come back to a piece later, and figure out how to fix it, but more often than not, dead just means dead. I move on.

Then there are the days when I sit down at the computer and the words come easily. Those are the magic days, when I’ll wake up with the first line of a story or poem sitting there in my fingertips, just waiting for me to write it down. On those rare occasions it almost feels as if someone else is in control, and I’m just the typist sent up for the day from the secretarial pool. I’m sure there are any number of books or blog posts dedicated to explaining how to “beat writer’s block” and bring on this state of creative frenzy, but for me it remains magical and a bit mysterious. Enough so that, rare as they may be, those days more than make up for all the others spent staring at a blank screen or an absurd amalgamation of clunky sentences.

The only invocation I know is a burning curiosity about everything in the world. I have books on ancient history, permaculture, genetics and Pre-Raphaelite art. I spend hours in bookstores, libraries, and museums, my head bent at odd angles as I peruse titles or study the tiny details of paintings. I spend even more time outdoors, studying the patterns in nature: weather, the seasons, how things grow and change. My invocation to magic isn’t about begging for inspiration; it’s about filling myself with a million bits of knowledge, things that can coalesce into ideas, poems, stories. I often joke that writers are jacks of all trades but masters of none, but in a sense this is not only true, but essential. Whoever said “write what you know” was only half right. There’s nothing wrong with writing about the familiar, of course, but the best writing comes when we fill ourselves with the world. Like any true magic, it can’t be tamed or trained to show up on command, and I’ve learned to live with that.

After all, that’s what makes it wonderful, isn’t it?