Friday, January 15, 2016

Non-Fiction for Fiction Writers: Irritable Hearts

Character and world-building: two essential skills for writers.  I'd submit that our invented characters and worlds are inevitably reflections of our real worlds and our understanding of ourselves and others.

Some of that understanding comes hard-won and first-hand.  I learn through falling down.

I also learn through shifting perspectives.  I need a sense of the wider context in which my own life sits, and I need it to believably write people who aren't me.

I also have trouble reading fiction when I'm working a lot on my own writing.  Something about the process, especially in the last couple of years, has made it very hard for me to get swept up in a novel the way I used to.  I get hung up on the craft of it, like having x-ray vision, seeing the skeleton too prominently beneath the skin.

Non-fiction also has its tropes and conventions, but since it isn't what I am writing, it's easier for me to read it wholeheartedly.  And I've read a lot more of it in the past couple of years.

So: this is going to be the first of a series of posts about amazing non-fiction that has expanded my understanding of people and the world.

Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland



Irritable Hearts is the memoir of a tough, hard-drinking, seen-it-all journalist who falls in love with an equally tough soldier.  It’s also the memoir of a sensitive, vulnerable writer who lives through some of our worst fears and then nearly dies in the aftermath.

This book questions what it means to be strong.  Did McClelland start out strong and did trauma break her?  Did she start out more vulnerable than she knew, and did trauma put pressure on the cracks that were already there?  Did she start out in denial, and does she now show her greatest strength in resilience?

McClelland has been criticized--rightly, I think--for writing about someone else's trauma without permission, in an earlier piece that was the genesis of this book.  In this book she confines herself as much as possible to her own experience.  She does a great job of exposing the tangle of personal history, privilege, and politics that underlie both her own trauma and her imperfect response to it.

Irritable Hearts fascinates me because it doesn't give easy answers.  McClelland isn't a perfect victim, and she isn't perfectly recovered by the end of the book.  She isn't a perfect partner to her soldier husband, and he isn't a perfect husband either.  In all this imperfection is an irreducible optimism, a liveliness.  A more interesting story.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Setting Myself Up for the Win

2016 is going to be a huge year for me, with the release of Spells of Blood and Kin in June.  And 2014 was a huge year, too: the year I signed with my wonderful agent Connor, the year he made the sale.  A year of leveling up.

2015, then, was a bridge year in some ways: a year to consolidate my gains, to do all the work I could to make sure this next phase in my writing life will be a successful one.  Timelines in writing are very long compared to some kinds of work: even more than a year, in my case, between deal and launch.  I came to learn that it's very useful time!  Edits, proofing, and a lot of other associated tasks took a lot of it.  And of course, other projects need to be in the pipeline--my next book, plus some short stories, although the time I've spent on those has dropped a lot since the novel has to take priority.

Like most working writers, I also have a day job--which is understating it a bit; I have a career which I love, and which is sometimes demanding.  Between this, family events, and cons, 2015 saw an increase in travel for me, with the result that some of my writing work ended up being done in airport lounges during the inevitable delays and layovers. (Philly has good cheese fries.  Logan has a Starbucks that sells vacuum packed olives! Reagan runs out of beer weirdly often.)

So 2015 was a year of logistics, deadlines and checklists.  It was a year of anxiety, of getting used to new and higher stakes.  But it was also a year of marvels.  These things are inextricable.  I thrive on change, and one of the ways I do this is to give myself talismans and rituals, souvenirs of the new places I end up, new hooks on which to hang my new hats.  Lots of change = lots of new meaning in my life = more change, in a wonderful upward spiral.

My rules of resolutions are that they have to be measurable, they have to be consistent with my nature so that I might actually do them, and they have to be positive (I learned that from the epic Quitting Potato Chips debacle of 1997).  With that, here are some things I resolve for 2016! 
  • As many cities as possible on my book tour!  I have no idea of the scope yet, but as dates are confirmed I will post them here.
  • A different way to support causes.  For the past few years I've done charity mountain bike races, which is wonderful, but difficult to fit into a heavy travel schedule.  I might volunteer for same-day support of some of these events, which would allow me to help out but without having to train in advance.  Or I might choose something I can do online/remotely.
  • A new tattoo and/or frequent nail art.  It's really working for me to have a physical, personal talisman that I can look at often.  (If you're wondering, the past few rounds of nail art have been Pittsburgh black-and-gold, because Pittsburgh has been my biggest and most consistent talisman this year.)
  • Keep on working with the great writing productivity suggestions from Rachel Aaron's 2k to 10k.  Huge win so far, guys.  I don't know how to carve out more time--but these tips are really helping me make the most of what I do have.
  • Keep on learning the world with my feet.  Some of my most shining moments this year, and many recent years, have been running or walking through the cities I visit.  Chicago's lakeshore trails; Pittsburgh's bridges; Boston's fens; San Antonio's river walk.  It's a glorious combination of fitness, tourism and meditation, and I'm going to have some new destinations to try out this year.
  • Post more of my reading here.  I have been reading a lot of nonfiction in the last couple of years, and I'd like to talk about it more--some of it is specific research for my own writing, some is related to my job, and some is just fascinating.
There you have it, friends.  May 2016 be powerful, prosperous and fun for all of us.