Sunday, March 28, 2010

How I learned to stop worrying and love the blog

In ninth grade, we had to pass a state-mandated writing test. Every student submitted a 5-paragraph essay on the same general topic, and they were graded on a 6-point scale, 3-5 being passing and 6 being extraordinary (or the result of a grader's pen slipping, I'm still not sure which). I was one of those obnoxious teacher's pet types who thrived on those extra little notes of praise that came back in the margins of my papers, and I looked forward to the state essay test for weeks. I was going to destroy this test. The graders would have to raise the high end of the scale to account for my superior 5-paragraph essay writing abilities. My incredibly boring English teacher would throw her hands up and cry in her monotone voice, "That's it! I can't teach you anything! Class, Nicole will be your teacher from now on."

Never mind the fact that I hadn't written much besides English assignments and Dragon Ball Z fan fiction. Those margin notes on my class assignments had filled me with the ego of a god. On the day of the essay test, I walked into the cafeteria testing area with a swagger, sure of my imminent victory over the English language.

The subject of the essay was "Write about a time when you learned something." I wrote about learning how to draw in anime style, and I went through every element of the essay carefully - introduction, three supporting paragraphs, conclusion - writing exactly as my English teacher had told us to write. Transition sentences to link paragraphs. Restatement of the point in the conclusion. Impersonal tone with no "I" voice. I wrote the most by-the-book 5-paragraph essay any kid has ever written about how to learn to draw in anime style.

I scored a 3 - just passing.

My best friend wrote about a time when she learned how to walk across a log without falling off it. She scored a 4. Another kid I knew wrote some bullshit about learning to pilot a spaceship or something, and he scored the legendary 6.

Looking back on that essay, I understand now why it was just passable. First off, have you ever tried to write about drawing? Without context or personal stakes, it's about the dullest subject in existence, short of writing itself. Second - and this, I realized years later, was the big one - writing about something as personal as art without a personal voice doesn't work. I wrote my essay like an instruction manual, impersonal and redundant as the instructions my English teacher gave said to do. I eliminated the personal voice that had gotten those comments from my instructors, and all that was left were clunky statements of fact and redundant sentences. My friends who scored better had bucked the rules, used the dreaded "I" voice, and written what came naturally to them.

Now that I'm at the graduate level in writing, every text I read on how to write an essay encourages the "I" voice and the natural style of writing. Tell a story, they say. Give the reader something personal to carry them through even if the topic isn't in their field. Plunder the 5-paragraph essay format for structure tips, but otherwise, fuck it.

And further, "Don't alter your voice to fit your subject," writes William Zinsser in On Writing Well, a book I'm reading for class right now. It wasn't until I came across this sentence tonight that I realized I've been making the same mistakes as I did in that stupid essay test, right here on this blog.

I've been blogging here for a little over a year, and I've never gotten comfortable with it. I came to Blogger after parting with my 6-year-old LiveJournal blog, which was mainly about life stuff because mostly just my friends read it. I loved that LJ. It gave a relatively accurate view of who I was during the years that I kept it, because I wrote what came naturally and I didn't censor myself. But it became just a social tool for me, so I left the site to make a proper project blog, like all these knitters and writers I admire had been doing.

So I set up this blog, aiming to write about writing and crafts and art and only those things, without writing about myself. And I promptly fell into the same pothole I hit in ninth grade: writing about art (or writing or knitting) on its own is boring. Just posting "Here is a thing I made. This is how I made it," like I've been doing for the majority of the last fourteen months, doesn't make me excited to update. I've been slowly starting to write posts that don't bore me to tears, but the project-centric nature of the blog makes me feel limited to posting only on certain topics.

Meanwhile, on my fandom blog, I've taken to posting almost every day, when I have time. That blog has become a much better depiction of who I am, and a more interesting read, because it's uncensored. I'm not worried about how I might come off to random internet stranger over there, so the voice is 100% unadulterated me, and the topics range from inane babble to creative work to academic rambling. It reads like I actually sound, while most of this blog reads like a watered down, project-focused, scarcely nerdy version of myself. Hopping between these two blogs is jarring.

So I'm taking Zinsser's advice. This marks the end of me censoring myself, in terms of both language and content. I'm an open book elsewhere online and in person, so I'm going to aim to be more open here. (Not to the point of confessional poetry, but y'know.) I want this blog to be a reflection of who I am, not just what I make.

Here goes.

I ate a Dorito off the floor earlier.

...Okay, probably not what Zinsser was advocating, but I'll work on it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Three outta four ain't bad.

I've been in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin for almost a week now, staying at my usual retreat: my favorite aunt and uncle's house. This trip had been planned and thwarted twice in the last six months by events out of my control, and finally getting to go has been such a relief.

My aunt and uncle's house is outside a small town on a few acres of wooded land with pockets of rusted horse-drawn farm equipment and 50's era car husks. The biggest excitement of the week is driving down to the recycling center. The coffee pot starts brewing at 6:15am every morning, and I wander out of the spare bedroom and curl up on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a blanket until the wood stove warms the house. I'm never happy about being awake before 9am except when I'm here. At home, being awake before 9am means I've got a workday ahead of me or a massive to-do list looming. Here, being awake before 9am means drinking a hot cup of coffee, having breakfast cooked up for me with a side of sarcasm by Uncle Larry, and getting a good view of the day ahead, which is always laid back even when I have a to-do list.

Aunt Suzy's cat Kolipoki demonstrates how I feel most days that I'm here:


On top of the laid back lifestyle up here, this house is just about humming with creative energy. Suzy is a jack of all arts and crafts. She's painted, drawn, woodburned, thrown pottery, carved, and probably some other things I'm forgetting. The house is covered with her handiwork - my room is the one least touched by Suzy's art, and it still has a lamp she woodburned, two framed paintings, and a large underwater mural on drywall screwed onto one wall. Being surrounded by things she's created makes me want to surround myself with things I've created. She's been working on a new carving while I've been here, but it's large scale and won't be done before I leave.

Larry is an inventor. He spends most of the day up in his shop, welding together weight lifting machines of his own design. Three days a week, he's also the personal trainer for the household and his and Suzy's friends. He invents things other than weight lifting machines, but they're not for sale. He makes up songs to sing as he walks around the house, episodes of CSI that ought to get shot, ways to tease me, and over J-term of 2008, "Bidet in a Box" - which, combining his singing and inventing talents, had its own theme song at one point. Every morning for three days when I woke up, Larry would pass me at the coffee pot and say, "I made probably a million dollars this morning working on my Bidet in a Box idea. What did you do this morning?"

It pains me that Bidet in a Box will never be an actual product, not because Larry won't get his millions but because I would love to see a commercial with a cartoon box of toilet wipes singing, "Bidet in a Box, Bidet in a box! Buy it and you'll feel smart as a fox!"

(To answer your questions about this picture: No, he only wears a coat when it's below 0 degrees F; about 65 years old; and yes, he could bench press you.)

Anyway, so: Peace? Check. Quiet? Check. Crazy creative people? Double check. Perfect creative sabbatical.

My to-do list for this trip was:
  • Finish a chapter from Sum (AKA book 3 of The Fantasy Series What Ate My Life)
  • Finish knitting my Sylvi coat
  • Write the first chapter of an upcoming novel, which I plan on submitting to the WisCon writers workshop at the end of the month
  • Work on the multi-chapter fanfic I've had in my head since the fall
On Thursday night, I finished a chapter of Sum that I had started in 2008.

On Sunday night, I posted the first chapter of the fic.

And today, with the exception of buttons and a good soak and blocking, I finished this:

This coat was the knitting project mirror to Or Your Money Back, a project I took up thinking I could sit down and knit on it when I was stuck on the story. It turned out that the story itself had few places to get stuck, and the coat turned into more of a symbol of my confidence regarding the project. For a long while it was on hiatus, then it came creeping back into my current WIPs once I was submitting queries, and this week, watching my aunt read (and cry over) OYMB, I finally worked up the guts to finish it.

Like the book, the coat turned out whimsical, twisty, and just a tad shorter than I expected. It also took a mad dash of what seemed like for-fucking-ever to get the finishing done.

I did wind up making some progress on that first chapter I need to get done, but not as much as I had hoped. Normally, not hitting an intended deadline drives me a little nuts. Today, though? Too much else has gone right, and I am far too relaxed to care.

Big dumb grins all around.

I go home tomorrow.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sketchy: Asif riding a unicorn

My coworker bought me a desperately needed energy drink and sugary things to go with it. I traded him a sketch of himself.

I think I need to engage in this form of bartering more often.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rainy day comic.

Click for big.
This never happens when I'm singing along to AC/DC or something that will make me seem cool. Only Miley.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Where do story ideas come from?

Well, I'll be watching Torchwood with Kiah, and...

Kiah: "Why are cannibals always country bumpkins?"

Me: "I don't know. They should be in the city sometimes."

Kiah: "They should be hipsters!"

Me: "YES! 'We spent too much money on jeans, so we couldn't afford food.'"

Kiah: "'Why are you doing this?!' 'Because we don't have money for food!' 'But we just went shopping for jeans!' 'Exactly.'"

Me: "And then they eat their friends!"

Kiah: "'We ate Henry because he was really loud.'"

Me: "'And he didn't like Sigur Ros.'"

Kiah: "'He was always playing Top 40 hits.'"

Me: "...I really want to write a story about hipster cannibals now."

The creation of stories is a mysterious process, you see - almost spiritual. Collective unconscious, muses, the genius in the walls, etc. Very weighty stuff. Difficult to explain. *puffs pipe*