Monthly Archives: February 2013
Unlike winter, essay season seems to come earlier every year. A list of topics goes up. The request for a thesis and outline goes out.
And of course, there’s a rush on the libraries.
Over the last 3.5 years, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe different strategies to the “research” part of the research paper. Now, I’m not talking about whether you use notecards or looseleaf; obsessively note page numbers or look them up later.
I’m talking about procuring sources.
Sources are currency. Sources are power. Sources are the security blanket that lets me sleep at night.
There are several types of student essay-writers. Let’s look at a few.
Style: Start early. Clear shelves before other people even have a topic. Hoard books like a squirrel hoards nuts, because if you leave it too long, everyone else will steal your books and you’ll have nothing left to use.
Traits: Twitchiness, anxiety, slight hunchback or raised shoulder from carting heaps of books.
Worst Fear: “Item due back: April 8”
Style: Automatically set catalogue filters to “online resources.” Read books, journals, primary sources without ever leaving the comfort of your room or carrel.
Traits: Blurred vision, headache, aversion to smell of old books.
Worst Fear: “Access Denied.”
Style: Seek out the really old, really rare books that can’t be taken out. Set up camp in library, lifting brittle pages late into the night. Don’t come out until research is done/essay complete.
Traits: Dust-covered fingers, keyboard marks on face, vague feelings of pride and loneliness.
Worst Fear: “The library will be closed the weekend of….”
The One-Hit Wonder
Style: Find one book. A real book. Probably the authoritative book on your subject. Read that one book. Quote that one book throughout. Have a list of vaguely related articles from which you occasionally cite a sentence or two in order to meet bibliography requirements.
Traits: Smug grin, skill at mental gymnastics.
Worst Fear: “Plan to devote considerable attention to the historiography…”
Style: Between databases and rare collections, come up with mostly primary sources. Not only mostly primary sources, but mostly random, obscure, hard-to-categorize primary sources. Pamphlets with no real publication information. Oral interviews. Third English Editions of a translated passage of a primary source in an electronic book currently in its second edition in the original French.
Traits: Half-bald from pulling hair out, sore teeth and jaw from constant clenching, a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style lying in a broken heap in the corner.
Worst Fear: The correct/recognized way to cite your source simply does not exist.
Style: Read the Wikipedia article. Track down and use their footnotes. Done.
Traits: A mix of confidence and desperation, tendency to lose hours to following the Jacob’s Ladder of Wiki-links.
Worst Fear: The prof edited Wikipedia.
There are more, I’m sure, but…I need to return to my stacks upon stacks of books. 😉
So. Today is Bell Canada’s “Let’s Talk” Day.
Mental health is important to me. That means that today, I’m going to be talking about some uncomfortable stuff. It’s uncomfortable for me, too—sharing on the great wide interwebz. If you don’t feel that this is a topic for you, this is the time to stop reading. It’s ok, I’m not offended. I’ll see you next time.
Still with me?
This is a topic that tends to get swept under the rug, alluded to with vague euphemisms, or avoided altogether. And yet, it’s so, so important, especially for creative-types. Research shows that we are much more likely to experience mental health issues than the general population, but the fact remains that they’re prevalent even in the general population.
Issues with mental health are not a sign of weakness. They are not a sign that you are “crazy.” They are not indicative of any failing. They can and do happen to anyone.
And yet there is this stigma. While it is perhaps better than it was even earlier in my lifetime, it is nowhere near gone. And so, the majority suffer in silence. The silence makes everything worse. Trust me, it does. The lack of understanding from other people, the intense fear and shame at carrying this “secret,” the loneliness and isolation…
So, let’s talk.
I have anxiety.
That probably surprises a grand total of absolutely no one. While I manage it a lot better than I used to, I’m sure everyone at school and work has seen me in the grip of an anxious flare-up at least once—those few moments of sheer panic before I can get things under control again. Or, they’ve seen the more subtle manifestations. For as long as I can remember, my biggest issue in social situations has been initiating contact. As my family puts it, I can’t say, “Can I play, too?” I find it very, very difficult to say, “Hey, can I get a ride?” “Hey, wanna grab coffee?” “Hey, let’s catch a movie.” Even if I know the person well. Even if I know the answer is likely to be “yes” (this is where I really appreciate my friends who understand my quirks…and then make me get over them).
I have had depression.
For years, I suffered largely in silence. Hapax was essentially me clawing my way out of the darkness. I needed to prove to myself that light could win, that the rigid, self-loathing thoughts were wrong. I needed to see that the Seraph could beat the Angel.
And she does. Repeatedly.
Am I better? Yes. Yes, I am better, and I know I would not be without a metric shit-tonne of hard work on my part, and even more understanding, love, and support from the people around me.
Am I cured?
No. The anxiety is just part of day-to-day life. I’m aware of it, aware of the need to manage it. It’s almost like asthma: knowing you should carry a puffer and avoid triggers. As for the depression…I view it as being “in remission.” Just like cancer, you can be symptom-free and utterly functional, with no trace of the disease left in your body.
Except you always know it might come back.
Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you had the one bout, and that’s it.
But you always know it might come back, and so you monitor it for the rest of your life.
Now one other thing: and this makes people really uncomfortable.
Grief is hard. There’s no way around that one. Grief is hard, and not just on the person experiencing it. Like ripples in a pond, it affects people across that person’s life. People never know how to respond to it. If I had a penny for every time someone’s told me, “I don’t know what to say,” I would have a very large pile of useless metal.
Here’s the thing, though. There is no right or wrong answer in grief. Ok, the cop telling me, “Oh, you’re so young!” at the hospital, steps away from the gurney, was not terribly helpful. Neither was the person who cheerfully asked me at the visitation if I was “on Christmas vacation yet?”
Aside from those things: love, really, is all that matters. Anything said with love is helpful. Anything done with love is helpful. Some people simply texted, “Thinking of you.” I have a wonderful card filled with variations on, “I’m sorry.” Simple, simple messages, but each one was like a hug. Each one reminded me that people care.
Grief doesn’t make sense. It isn’t logical. It has no set pattern. Emotions swing wildly minute to minute. What was triggering today is comforting tomorrow, and vice versa. It takes time. And yes, all of that is hard on the people surrounding the bereaved. After all, the grieving person is volatile, irrational, preoccupied. Supporting them as they work through it requires so much patience and strength. Believe me, I know, and I am so grateful for everyone who’s stood by me.
Too often, I think, we shut down negative emotions. We try to keep them inside, for fear of being a burden, or for fear that people will grow tired of us. Certainly, I’ve noticed that tendency in myself. This is the most I’ve talked about it in a long, long time. At the same time, I don’t want my sadness and my tragedy to be the defining characteristic of me and my interactions with people. That’s not fair to them (I sometimes wonder if people are themselves grieving, mourning the old, pre-loss Katie), and it’s not healthy for me.
And yes, there have been people who have been unable to cope. I have lost friends through this. I don’t think there’s much that hurts worse. Someone you valued so much, turning their back in your most vulnerable moment, partly because it’s your most vulnerable moment…it hurts so very much, because it’s just loss heaped up on loss. (Please don’t freak out and wonder if I’m talking about you. If you’re reading this right now, I can almost guarantee it’s NOT you.)
But it just makes us treasure those who remain even more highly. Again, all things done with love. Sitting with someone. Going for coffee. Talking and laughing and pretending things are normal for a few hours. Even folding laundry and grocery shopping.
None of it—grief, depression, anxiety—are really comprehensible, not if you haven’t experienced it, and often not to the person in the midst of it. But in the end, what matters is that we have compassion. We hope for the strength to speak, and listen, and love. My own personal reserves of emotion are very low right now. But they won’t be forever, and I pray that in future, I can show the same love to others that has been shown to me.
That can’t happen in silence. This is about reaching out. Reach out to me, to friends, to family, to professionals. Accept that it doesn’t make sense, and that there might not be an answer. Have faith that eventually, it will get better.
And love. That’s the most important thing of all.
I’m glad we talked.
Kids Help Phone: http://www.kidshelpphone.ca/teens/home/splash.aspx
Canadian Mental Health Association: http://www.cmha.ca/mental-health/find-help/
Centre for Suicide Prevention: http://suicideinfo.ca/
Mental Health America: http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/help
American Crisis Hotlines: http://suicidehotlines.com/national.html
British Mental Health Infoline: http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines
Mental Health Council of Australia Helplines: http://www.mhca.org.au/index.php/help
New Zealand Ministry of Health: http://www.health.govt.nz/yourhealth-topics/health-care-services/mental-health-services
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand Resource Finder: http://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/resourcefinder/listings/resource/73/support-groups/#content-222
Sometimes people ask me how much of life shows up in my writing. I never find this question easy to answer. After all, I write fantasy. It’s all made up, right? How much life and research goes into that?
Imagine you’re making a cake. You start with some recognizable ingredients—eggs, butter, milk, flour, sugar—and then you change some of them. You separate the eggs, or cream the butter, or chuck some chocolate chips in on a whim. Then you mix them all together, and suddenly, it’s hard to tell where one ingredient ends and the next begins. And then, you throw it all under high heat, and when it comes out, it’s delicious and totally does not resemble the elements going in….although you’ll certainly notice if a cake is lacking sugar. Likewise, you’ll notice the chocolate chips, or extra spices, or what have you.
Writing is kind of like that.
Take a lot of different things. Change some. Mix them together. Let them react and transform. See something very different come out—with maybe a specific flavour distinguished here or there.
For me, it’s always interesting to see what gets chucked in. Writers are like kleptomaniacs at a grocery store. Random ingredients somehow end up in our mental baskets, and they sometimes get used in unexpected ways.
Looking for firewood in Australia one afternoon, our guide showed us how to knock over small, dead trees. In the current draft of Strix, three of my characters work together to knock down small, dead trees. At the time, I didn’t think about the experience as fodder for fiction. And then it was, and it was exactly what I needed. Kind of cool.
Likewise, I have a short story in the February issue of Black Treacle Magazine, wherein I shamelessly riffed on Black Creek (with the important caveat: I shamelessly riff on places, not people).
Likewise, the numerous times I’ve smiled at the delightful children’s doodles scrawled across my choir music wound up in Hapax—Praeton likes the random sketches and notes too.
Of course, sometimes you don’t know things, which requires research. I’ve never been flogged. Nor am I a celibate priest in his fifties. Nor have I ever gone for days without water. My list of Google searches would likely leave a few people scratching their heads.
And then, the magic of fictionalization happens. I guess that’s like tossing everything in the oven.
Assorted bits and bobs go in, and the results aren’t always predictable. Random bits of life that you don’t necessarily think about until the moment comes, and it just fits. Really, it’s just a reflection of the old saying, “Write what you know.” Write what you know, but watch it become transformed as you change it to suit the needs of the story.
What’s the hardest part of writing?
Is it coming up with ideas? Is it thrashing out a plot? Getting to know your characters? Sitting down to write the thing? Editing? Peeking through your fingers at the edits? Hitting the send button?
Well, everyone’s different. For me, the hardest part of writing is the time between sending a piece off and hearing back. That dead space when I know the other person has it, but I don’t know
- What they think.
- If they’ve read it.
It’s awkward. You’re dying to know, and you have to wait: whether it’s an agent, an editor, an actor, a beta, or even your mom. Patience—I work on the deep breaths.
Because there isn’t all that much you can do, other than wait. Two days ago, I had five separate pieces in various people’s hands. By yesterday, I’d heard back on two (both good news, incidentally, but I’ll leave that for another post). As for the other three…I know two will take a long time, and I’m not expecting to hear anything for a while. The other…I just don’t know.
As hard as it is, don’t obsess. Put it out of your mind. Work on something else.
(All of the above are things I keep telling myself.)
Turns out I’m still in school, and for the first time, I have a bit of breathing space with the writing/podcasting. This dead space is a great time to actually make some progress on this, my last round of essays. I’ve also really enjoyed my forays into short fiction. Keep busy, keep doing things. Don’t stop just because you’re no longer clasping the piece in question to your chest.
It’s also a matter of sensitivity, I think. Hopefully, when you give people things to read, you have an idea of what else is going on in their lives. If it’s a friend, hopefully you know when they’re in the midst of essays, or when they have a flurry of work. If it’s an agent or editor, you can assume they’re juggling many different projects at once. When it’s time, your turn will come. But you’re not the most important thing.
These are good skills to cultivate in general. Patience. Perspective. (p)Sensitivity. I keep coming back to my favourite lesson learned in New Zealand:
I guess we’ll find out.
I need to get that put on a bumper sticker or something. Although, since I don’t drive, it might be kind of pointless. A fender sticker, maybe?
I need more coffee.