Year In Review: 2016

2016-collage

I’ve started writing this blog post four different times, and it keeps trying to become a novel. Twenty-sixteen was an enormous year. It’s hard to summarize my own experience without explaining the hundreds of things that happened all over the world.

Externally, it was widely regarded as a bad year. There was more gun violence than ever in the news. Turmoil in the Middle East, to put it diminutively. A worsening of the racial conflict in America. A tide of political squabbling powerful enough to pummel a person into the sand day after day after day, and a completely unthinkable outcome. And so many voices passed away: Bowie. Prince. My princess, Carrie Fisher. I even had to put my beloved dog to sleep, because he was getting so fearful and aggressive so quickly, I felt I had no choice but to keep my family safe.

But 2016 was one of the happiest years of my life.

Winter

Before 2015 ended, I read a book that changed my life, and saw one of my fondest childhood dreams come true in a huge way when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. A FEMALE was front and center of the highest grossing movie in America, wielding that tremendous power created by life itself—the Force. That movie actually made me weep with gratitude, and I denied how much it meant to me until recently when Rogue One came out and I could no longer contain my enthusiasm. Star Wars is just a movie franchise, but it has always been something far greater than that to me. I admit it, I’m a hopeless Star Wars geek, even at 31.

So I went into 2016 with a huge grin on my face, and a heart full of hope and exuberance.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in the creative realm, though. I’d read Big Magic and it was somehow inspiring and discouraging at the same time. I nearly gave up on writing fiction because I didn’t enjoy the act of writing it, but I decided not to quit because frankly I’m tired of giving up on everything. I rediscovered that quote in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?” And I decided to spend the year asking myself that question, and paying attention to the answers.

Spring

In the spring we traveled to New Zealand to celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary. It was an absolutely fantastic trip, worth the many pennies we paid for it. We hiked and kayaked and relaxed in a hot spring and rode in a helicopter and ate some wonderful seafood and slices and savory pies. Hobbiton was even more magical than I expected, with the milky way and shooting stars showing so clearly overhead that it was like I’d never truly seen the night sky before. I’d go back to New Zealand in a heartbeat (but there are other places I need to see first).

One of my best friends got married and moved to Minnesota in May, and I was her shivering Maid of Honor. I honestly never thought I would be somebody’s MoH, and it meant the world to me. It was bittersweet to send her into the next chapter of her life. I gave a toast, which I had carefully written and revised and memorized and worried about, and it went over really well. After that, feeling high on adrenaline and a little bit intoxicated on old fashioneds, I couldn’t stop dancing to the phenomenal playlist she had put together for the reception. It took me two or three days to gain my strength back after that party.

I caucused for Hillary Clinton for the second time, and I was unabashedly happy to see her make history as the first female nominee of a major party for President of the United States. I wasn’t the least bit worried when Trump won the Republican nomination, because a person like that couldn’t conceivably win the election. A female Jedi-to-be and a female President-to-be. I was over the moon.

We went to California to surprise my grandmother for her 91st birthday, and I got to see some old family documents and hear my great-aunt’s stories. Apparently my great-grandmother was under five foot tall!

Summer

In the summer we roasted a pig and visited Wisconsin and rode bikes and learned to make sushi rolls and painted our living room a nice teal color. I got new glasses. We went to St. Louis for Nathan’s birthday and saw LCD Soundsystem perform at a very muddy Lou Fest. I went to half a dozen concerts in 2016—seven if you count the two days of Lou Fest. So there was much dancing and singing and driving and being happy.

I gave a pint of blood. I rescued many pounds of food from the garbage and presumably fed some people by donating my company’s leftover catering to the local homeless shelter three times. I donated more money to charity in 2016 than I ever have before. I read a book called Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler that was about a racist, hostile, desolate future America, and I couldn’t fathom a story like that ever coming true.

Fall

In the fall I was still feeling great. Ambitious, even, which is an unusual feeling for me. I finished my first article for Wikipedia. I wrote a dozen blog posts. I wrote and revised a short story, and I started to believe that even though my fiction isn’t good, I can make it better through the process of revision. I started to feel hopeful about writing fiction, and even started to enjoy it a little bit. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the third time, and I managed to keep going even as the unthinkable happened. I was writing away as state after state fell to Trump on Election Day and my husband reported that there was no longer any way Hillary could win the presidency. I wrote every single day in November and I hit the 50k word goal, but unfortunately I failed to keep the momentum going afterward. Maybe I was too stunned by all the bad news rolling in each day like clockwork. Bad news for the environment. Bad news for immigrants and minorities. Bad news for everyone relying on Obamacare. Bad news for women. My first draft has yet to be finished, but I haven’t stopped working on it yet, and I don’t plan to. I must keep writing this story. I found my answer. I must.

We dressed as Morticia and Gomez Addams for Halloween. We saw Arrival, and it made me cry, too. I put my dog to sleep, and that made me cry a fucking river. We hosted Thanksgiving. We got norovirus before Christmas and had to somewhat quarantine ourselves over the holiday. My brother and his girlfriend visited us for New Year’s Eve, and we were there when they became engaged at the close of the year.

At the end of 2016, I still had a smile on my face, in spite of everything. There was a lot of ugliness this year, and I believe there’s a lot more ugliness to come, but there was also a powerful undercurrent of beauty and joy in my heart, and it persists. I’m posting this on Martin Luther King Jr. Day because over the course of the past year I’ve come to believe his words, the same ones President Obama used in his farewell speech last week: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I’ve become an optimist. I believe that there’s good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for (which is a J.R.R. Tolkien quote, and also belongs in this blog post). I believe it will eventually win, and I’ve realized that I have the power to help.

I don’t think 2017 is going to be easy, but I’m ready to stand up and be an agent for good in small but important ways. I have big goals I’m working toward personally, and I’m happy to have both the work and the goals. I’m enjoying my own journey. I’m ready for whatever is coming next.

Fantastic Games: Thoughts on Creativity

The following is a piece of writing I found on my computer from early this year. I wrote it after reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and listening to some other talks on creativity. It’s surprisingly coherent compared to most of the thoughts I type out, so I thought I would share.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert cover artI’ve been reading about and experimenting a lot with creativity lately, and I’ve made a few discoveries that I’ve found helpful.

First of all, that most creative adults seem to doubt themselves. Hugely. Even people who have already achieved success in their field seem to always feel pressure and doubt when it comes time to work on the next project. This is a revelation to me, because I experience it acutely, and at least now I know that I’m not alone. Artists tend to try to look confident at all times. Everyone does, really. It’s why we only put our best selfies and our highlight moments on social media. We want to remember the good. And people who are promoting themselves want to project an air of confidence. But creative people don’t always feel that. They often feel doubt.

I had thought there was something wrong with me, to be honest. When I was younger, creating came so naturally. I didn’t think about it. My teachers at school gave me assignments and I completed them. And then when I came home, I went to the basement and spent my evenings drawing or hammering out fanfic or poetry. I didn’t spend a lot of time with my friends. I remember my mom complaining that I spent too much time in my room when I was a teen; she wanted me to come to the living room and keep her company. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t want to neglect anyone. And I’m out of the house for longer hours every weekday. And I have responsibilities to take care of when I’m at home. It’s hard to make time for creative endeavors. I feel like I have to force myself to do it. I have to bribe, reward, schedule, sacrifice. I have to say ‘no’ to my friends sometimes. I have to spend less time with my husband.

I feel like I create for a different reason now. I used to do it because I enjoyed the act of doing it, and because I felt instant gratification. When I finished a simple drawing or poem or snapped a decent picture, I felt an instant sense of accomplishment. Doing the creative thing was intrinsically rewarding. Now, it isn’t. I feel a small sense of accomplishment right after I’ve just spent time on a project, but the project itself doesn’t feel like an accomplishment to me. When I look back on what I’ve created, I feel disappointed. Writing fiction is something that takes such an enormous amount of skill and practice to get good at. It’s like learning to play an instrument. The other arts I’ve dabbled in weren’t like that, except when I tried to learn to play the guitar. I was no good at it, because I didn’t put in the practice time. I think fiction requires that same kind of practice time, maybe. You have to just get into the habit of doing the motions. You have to push yourself to get better. You have to study the art with dedication. Otherwise every time you sit down at your keyboard, garbage comes out. Just like garbage came out every time I occasionally sat down with my guitar.

I’ve gotten off track, but I think that Dawna [I don’t know who this refers to!] was on to something when she said that the main goal is to get back to that state of mind where you can do your work with joy. It’s not just about being an adult and being disciplined and getting the work done. It’s about doing it with gratitude. And someone else—or maybe it was her, too—said that passion doesn’t mean having always having a fun time. It means suffering. Those are actually conflicting ideas, aren’t they? Elizabeth Gilbert says not to become a martyr for your art. It shouldn’t make you suffer and hurt yourself. It shouldn’t torment you. But she said if you truly want to dedicate yourself to your art, then sit your butt in the chair each day and stubbornly write away.

So, I think what i’m getting at is: grow the fuck up and just do it, and also embrace your inner child and quit tormenting yourself over it.

I think you have to just make your mind up to do something and then stop asking the question. You don’t ask yourself every day ‘do i feel like writing? do i feel like going to the gym?’ you just do it because you already decided yesterday how you were going to spend today. It’s not a question anymore. It’s not a debate. It’s closed for discussion. Just do it. You have to do the things you have decided to do, every day. It’s like getting married. When you’re just dating, you have to keep asking ‘is this the right person for me?’ And then when you get married, you must stop asking that question. It’s not a question anymore; the decision has been made. Move forward. Stay true to your commitments. Take choice out of the equation, and you can begin to feel powerful and in control and grateful for all that you have and are capable of.

You know, I think self-image is not really at all based on feedback from the outside world. I think it’s 90% the image that you want to project. There isn’t a single person out there who’s sitting on the edge of their seat with these expectations, waiting to see what you’re going to do next. And if there was, you’d call that person a psycho and move on with your life. It’s all about your own judgment of yourself. And that is ridiculous! You can move completely past the opinions of all the other assholes in the world, and you will still have your own expectations to live up to. What if we didn’t have these rigid images in our heads of what we want to look like? Nobody keeps up their instagram feed for other people. A lot of people probably think they do, but the truth is they keep it up for themselves.

I’m getting rambly. But I think I’ve hit on something. Kids judge each other. Adults sit around and judge themselves. I don’t know which one is dumber. God—life should be a constant celebration!!! Look at these amazing things we’re able to express!! Look at how rich and nuanced and wonderful our language is!! Look at how beautiful everything is. We do these arts because we find them beautiful. Because they are fantastic games, and we want to play. And sometimes playing takes a huge amount of effort and dedication, but it’s still play. It’s still a privilege and an honor.

Why I Wrote an Article for Wikipedia (and You Should, Too)

I’m happy to announce that my first Wikipedia page is now out in the wild. I am not going to mention it by name in text for the sake of protecting my identity, but you can see it in the screenshot below and then go find it, if you’re interested. As of this writing, the page hasn’t changed much since I wrote it. It received a rather poor rating from the mods, and I’m not entirely sure why yet, but I am proud of it anyway.

Wikipedia article screenshot

So why did I decide to write a Wikipedia article? I had never heard of the subject of my article before I picked her somewhat randomly from a list of redlinks (missing articles). I was certainly not an expert on her. I don’t believe I’m an expert on anything, because even though I read a lot, I have a terrible memory. I get my facts pretty crooked, unless they’re related to Star Wars.

But I learned how to do research in the third grade. And I needed this little confidence boost of feeling like I’d contributed something concrete to the world, however small. Strange that digital things can feel concrete, isn’t it? And the #1 reason that I decided to write an article for Wikipedia is:

90% of Wikipedia contributors are men.

I wanted to become a Wikipedia contributor to help tip that balance a little. It took me an embarrassingly long time to put this one article together, but I want to push myself to keep contributing occasionally to Wikipedia, both writing articles and editing existing articles. Wikipedia is largely written by and about men, so there’s a big need for articles to be written by and about women.

Wikipedia lists the following as reasons that fewer women contribute than men (source: Gender Bias on Wikipedia):

  1. A lack of user-friendliness in the editing interface
  2. Not having enough free time
  3. A lack of self-confidence
  4. Aversion to conflict and an unwillingness to participate in lengthy edit wars
  5. Belief that their contributions are too likely to be reverted or deleted
  6. Some find its overall atmosphere misogynistic
  7. Wikipedia culture is sexual in ways they find off-putting
  8. Being addressed as male is off-putting to women whose primary language has grammatical gender
  9. Fewer opportunities than other sites for social relationships and a welcoming tone

Another reason cited in the article is Wikipedia’s failure to attract female editors.

So far, I haven’t really interacted with the Wikipedia community, so I can’t speak to what it’s like. My plan right now is to keep to myself, but maybe some day I’ll be confident and involved enough to want to join the fray. The threat of online harassment is definitely off-putting, but I think it’s an issue no matter what forum you enter online — even among family and friends on Facebook! It’s more damaging in some forums than on others though, and it’s weird to join an established community with nothing but your words to represent you.

As far as the interface, I didn’t find it too difficult since I have a background in web design & development. In fact, I thought learning and using the markup was pretty fun. But I can see how it would be uninviting to many. I had to use Google to find the resources I needed, on Wikipedia, about editing Wikipedia—things like style, markup, formatting, citation. It was like there was too much information and no good way to navigate it.

But it’s a rewarding little challenge to step up and create something that could be useful to people. I would encourage all of my friends to give contributing a shot, especially the women. You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be able to learn and follow the rules. I did 100% of my research online, so I was able to do it on my own time, from the comfort of home. I’m sure not all articles can or should be researched this way, but as long as the sources meet the criteria, it’s still better than if the Wikipedia article continued to not exist at all. If the powers that be decide that your sources or your writing suck, they can point it out and it can be fixed.

If you’re interested, here’s the list of redlinks where I found my subject. Poke around, maybe you’ll find someone who interests you. Join us! Everyone’s favorite encyclopedia could use your skills.

NaNoWriMo 2013 – I did it!

2013 NaNoWriMo Facebook Winner Cover image

I’m a NaNoWriMo winner! Which just means that i wrote a 50,000-word “novel” this month. Whew!

I hadn’t even planned to do this, but on November 1st i saw Erin Morgenstern (author of The Night Circus, i.e. my idol) and a couple of other people tweeting about it, and i thought man, i really want to do that. I wish i had a story to write! And so, in the true nature of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, by the way), i decided to fly by the seat of my pants. I took about an hour to come up with a story that had a semblance of a plot, with a protagonist and a sort-of antagonist and something of a conflict/mystery and a beginning and a middle and an end, and then i signed up and started writing. And i made myself write every day, just like they told me.

It wasn’t easy. My dog feels very neglected. The first week was easy, and then the second week was much harder. I thought getting past the halfway point would make things easier, but it didn’t. The third week was the worst; i was swiftly running out of story and i felt like i was writing total crap and that my story wasn’t even worth finishing anyway. There was one day when i was feeling so miserable about it that i decided that i needed to donate $10 to NaNoWriMo and get my halo so that if i felt like quitting i would feel crappy about giving money to something that didn’t work for me anyway. And that strategy worked, because i damn near quit that night but then i saw my halo, and i got to work.

Why is it a halo, by the way? All the cartoons i watched as a kid trained me to associate halos with dead people. So, looking at the NaNoWriMo site, it looks like half the participants are dead because they have halos over their avatars.

Anyway, i powered through it and i got through week four slowly but surely, adding little scenes here and there to fill out what was already a finished story. I never fell behind. I gave myself the day off yesterday for Thanksgiving (which was a fantastic meal hosted at our place for the first time and cooked almost entirely by Nathan!). And then this morning i got up at six, went beer shopping with Nathan, came home and putzed around a bit and then started writing. I had about 1800 words to go and nothing to write, so i added one more playful scene, hit 50k words, validated it on the WriMo website and earned this nice little badge! And it’s not even 1:00 p.m. now.

Now i can read books again! I’ve fallen behind with my reading goal because of this, so i need to read four more books in December. Wish me luck!