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My life in cats: Kennedy

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

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This is Kennedy. She lives with my friend Jenna. Kennedy is quite pretty, and Kennedy is quite aloof. She really likes Jenna. The rest of us are not that interesting. Although, if she is sitting on her scratching post, then she is willing to accept gentle patting, perhaps.

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She may have been a rescue from a hoarder’s house, which perhaps explains some of her wariness.

Despite the lack of petting, I realized that Kennedy had decided we were people who belonged to her when my friends fostered another cat. Kennedy became jealous and demanded all the attention. Our attention included.

Kennedy sometimes gets very angry at the downstairs bathroom.

How do you handle writer’s block?

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

writersblock

There are a few different kinds of writer’s block.

One kind is medical. If one of my chronic illnesses is flaring up, I may not be able to write. It’s hard to write through a migraine, for instance. It’s also hard to work through things that are less acute than migraines, but last for a long time, like depressive episodes. It can feel like it’s never going to be possible to write again, and that the block is something you’re just faking, and could get through if you just tried hard enough.

I think one of the best solutions is to be gentle with yourself about it. Hammering yourself and making yourself feel guilty because of your health is in the way is only likely to make you miserable and increase your stress–which can make the health problem worse. It can be hard to be generous with yourself, especially when the illness is lasting a long time and you have deadlines. Do what you can–but when you can’t do more, keep it in perspective. You may be doing more work than you think you are, and mental work counts, too.

Mental work is the other kind of block that I find most often afflicts me. This is when there’s something wrong with the story that I have to solve before I can continue. For instance, in my current novella project, the main character is speaking in first person, past tense, so I needed to know what timeframe she was speaking from, and how she felt about events. What is she trying to communicate? Because the story lies in how she feels about what she’s “saying,” whether she’s literally telling someone else that or not.

While I didn’t know that, I couldn’t compose, because I couldn’t know how she’d feel about or relate events. I tried, of course, and I tried a few different angles on it. I talked about it with people and took other measures to deal with the problem intellectually. But in the end, I personally need to have an emotional connection with the story that I can’t just intellectually engage. A lot of mental work was happening in the back of my brain, and at some point, my subconscious was like, “Yeah, I’ve worked that out now. I’m feeling it.”

This is also a time to be generous with yourself and your pace. Tying yourself in knots about your progress can cause it to be even harder to have that psychological breakthrough. Mental work doesn’t always feel like work because it doesn’t produce words on the page, but it is work, and it’s necessary work. Give yourself credit for it.

Those are the primary types of writer’s block I experience. Do you experience a different variety?

My life in cats: Europa

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

Europa

For some reason, my friends’ cat Europa has recently decided that Mike and I are people who are supposed to be around. She’s acting much more friendly, and sometimes doing things like rolling around on her back to get my attention. I don’t feed her, so that’s not it.

It’s nice, though.

(By the way, she does not actually want to be petted on the belly when she offers it. Like most cats that aren’t our cats, she becomes all claws.)

My obsession with the show The Good Place

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

I am *so* into the TV show The Good Place. I love it when screenwriters can pull off something with such pinpoint precise structure and dialogue. It’s one of those pieces of media that you occasionally see, and think, “Damn, I wish I’d written that.” I think I’d be really terrible at writing for TV, actually. So it’s a good thing that I didn’t write it.

The Good Place (if you don’t know) is a comedy show that takes place in the afterlife. It tackles philosophy in a way I haven’t seen on TV before. The show contains a set of scenarios that invites the reader to ask, “What is morality?” Like the actual literature, it refuses a simple answer. It overtly discusses many of the complex (and sometimes overly simplified) answers that philosophers have come up with.

I really respect media that can be both informative and entertaining. I never feel like The Good Place is preaching to me, but it polishes up/builds my knowledge of philosophy. It does another thing I really like also–the writers’ passion for the subject comes through so boldly that it makes me care about the subject, too, even if it’s not something I’m natively interested in. (The TV show Slings & Arrows does this with some Shakespeare tragedies; the writers’ love just saturates it.)

I watch a lot of TV because I’m addicted to narratives, but when I read anything in prose, my work brain kicks in. TV avoids the work brain. I usually judge TV with lower standards than prose, because I consume so much of it, but The Good Place is just awesome.

My life in cats: Henderson

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

Presenting Henderson, also called Sweet Lady Henderson, which is a great name for both a cat and a blues singer:

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Henderson was stray until recently when she made camp on my friends’ porch. They fed her through the winter, and eventually took her to the vet, where they discovered she was older than they’d thought, and really not suited to go back outside. (Some cats do just fine as fed outdoor cats–she was clearly struggling.)

Mike and I fostered her for a little while. She’s a sweetheart. She wags her tail when she’s happy. I can’t even deal with how cute that is.

She would like to be petted, please. Constantly, if possible.

The vet had to shave her because her fur was a mass of angry tangles. So, she looks a bit like a furless, pathetic goblin. A purring, furless, pathetic goblin with a wagging tail.

She seems to have rustled up a home. If you have to be a stray cat, it’s good to be charming. And since her home is with friends of ours, we still get to enjoy petting the furless goblin (who will eventually be furred) and watching gifs of her wagging her tail.

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My life in cats: Aurora

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

Aurora

Sometimes I think I should document my life in cats.

My friend’s cat Aurora is a very intelligent, very grand-looking tortoiseshell maine coon. She’s very self-possessed and polite to me–but not overly so, because generally when I’m over, it’s feeding time. And if it’s “time to feed the kitty,” then focusing on anything other than food is not on.

Aurora has some rare behaviors — for instance, she will correct her behavior when my friend reminds her to remember her decorum. When my cats hear us tell them things like “respect boundaries,” they look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and then bolt across the room.

Many of my friends’ cats are female, where all of ours are male. I don’t know how much there really is a behavioral difference between male and female cats, but it always feels like there is. Ours are energetic, ridiculous goofs. Aurora has this thing called dignity. I’d try to explain what “dignity” was to our cats, but then they’d just look up with wild eyes, writhe around in a circle, and bolt across the room.

In Defense of “Slice of Life” Stories

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

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When I was in college, I insisted that any poem worth its words would have a strong idea behind it–something it wanted to communicate to the reader. I still think that, but I’ve broadened my definition of what an idea is.

Many poems attempt to communicate an impression or an emotion. A poem about nature might not be intended to communicate “here is an intellectual idea about nature,” but instead “this is what it looked like through my eyes” and “this is how it felt.” Fine art landscapes can be like that, too. They depict a place at a time, both transient, through the eye of the painter (where the eye of the painter may figure more or less into the image, depending on whether it’s a realistic painting, etc).

What this makes me wonder is–why are we so dismissive of this in fiction? Plots are excellent; ideas are excellent. But what’s so wrong with a slice of life, that we refer to it with distaste? Why can’t fiction be about rendering transient, momentary emotions? Why do we demand they always be in the context of a plot?

I expect this is a historical artifact of genre expectations for fiction. I think the prohibition against plot-less fiction is stronger in science fiction & fantasy circles, but it’s definitely something I’ve heard reinforced in more academic or literary spaces.

One factor that occurs to me — is this influenced by how we imagine the role of the author in fiction, versus in poems or paintings? A poem is not necessarily written from the perspective of the poet, even when there’s an “I” at the center of the verse. Culturally, however, the belief that a poet is the narrator of their own poems is so strong that in every poetry workshop I’ve been in (I’ve never been in one on the graduate level), the teacher has to remind people at least a couple of times that the assumption they’re making about the narrator’s identity isn’t necessarily true.
Paintings, also, are generally seen as being rendered by oneself. This doesn’t have to be true either–the artist’s eye doesn’t have to be the one that observes, and the painting doesn’t have to render what the artist would see. Our narratives about painting speak even more strongly against the idea that they are filtered through a perspective other than the painter’s, and it’s not hard to see why — we think about painters bringing models into their studios, or taking their canvases out into the open air to paint the mountains. Even less realistic work tends to be narratively fitted into the idea of painter-as-observer–for instance, the way we talk about the artistic work of people with mental illnesses (for instance, Van Gogh), suggests that the ways in which the artist’s vision differs from the objective eye is integral to their “madness”–that they literally see the world as they paint it.

I think we culturally acknowledge that life rarely has an actual plot or shape to it. Poems and paintings are more easily classified as themselves slices of life, so when they omit plots, that is consistent with our expectations from them. There’s more room in memoir than fiction for this sort of thing also (although it can be contentious), wherein the writer is expected to be relating something of themselves.

Fiction is seen as more of a pretense, I think. And while there’s a general acknowledgement that life itself fails to be narratively tidy or have plots, most people seem to expect that if you’re going to go to all the work of building a pretense, you should make it more aesthetically tidy than life.

Without taking anything away from plot- and idea-driven fiction (my personal bread and butter), I think that closing off the possibility of slice-of-life stories makes our body of literature weaker. I want authors to have access to a full range of tools so I can read what they build.

Drowning in Light

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

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In the middle of summer, at this latitude, it’s light all the time. Not literally–we’re not that far North–but it can feel like it as the hour passes eight thirty and the sun is still happily shining.

It’s not as oppressive as the dark. I’ve only been here for one Winter, and many things were going wrong then, but when darkness crowded out the mornings and the afternoons, it felt like the world was narrowing to a pinpoint.

It was an ominous, oppressive feeling, and I made a personal note to myself not to spend a whole winter here again without traveling to see some light. I also bought a sun lamp.

I was pretty well warned about the dark winters in the Northwest. That, and the rain, although I haven’t found the rain that difficult to deal with. I can’t remember if anyone mentioned the summers–how weird and suspended it feels to be constantly in the light.

Time seems to have melted away. Everything is an endless afternoon, until the sudden, late blink of nighttime. It’s giving me some trouble getting things done–usually, when the light starts to wane, I switch over to evening tasks automatically. I have a pretty good sense of internal time, so I don’t spend a lot of the afternoon checking the clock, and it feels like it could be three p.m. from noon to eight.

The sunlight is nice in a lot of ways. I’m not having trouble sleeping through the early sun this year, though I did last year. But it’s interesting to observe in myself how my body responds to light, and how much it matters to how I feel and what I’m doing, despite my perpetually troubled sleep cycle, and how much of the time I’m in artificial light, looking at illuminated screens.

I think of myself as located in my mind, but we’re all bodily creatures.

It’s summer! It’s graduation time!

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.


It’s summer! It’s graduation time!

I haven’t paid any attention to these signposts for a long time. After you’re not in school for long enough, its importance just kind of melts away. For years, I noticed graduation season as that time when YouTube starts putting up graduation-related clips.

However! Summer has become relevant to my life again. We hang out with two teenagers a lot, and they’re both in middle school. Ugh, middle school. So they’ve been counting down the days for a while. (Also, during the summers, we get to hang out with them during the day, which is nice.)

My husband is also in graduate school part time, and he’s going to graduate in a few days after turning in a final project, and he is SO RELIEVED, I can’t even tell you.

Back to the kids, the older teen (I shall hereforth call her Adelaide) had her “promotion ceremony” from middle school last night. One of her friends came over, and they fussed over their makeup for a longer time than usual. (Adelaide is into really dramatic makeup--cosplay-type makeup.)

I didn’t dress up for my middle school graduation. I mean, I’m sure I wore a nice dress. I’m equally sure I didn’t spend time primping. I was just happy to get out of there.

Adelaide is happy to get out of there, too, but she’s also feeling sentimental as she stands on the brink of high school. “I cried so much my eyes hurt,” she told me last night, a few hours after the ceremony. “Still.”

I’m her friend, not a parent or anything like that, but I still feel proud that she’s made it through all the trouble and drama and awfulness that is middle school. It’s a hell of a gauntlet.

Adelaide’s life as a pre-teen is super different than mine was. I mean, I was certainly not doing makeup or ready to date anyone when I was that age, while Adelaide is a bit of a swain.

I really get hung up on how much queer rights have changed. When I told Adelaide that I hadn’t met an out trans person until college, she was floored. She’s openly pansexual, and she publicly dates other girls. Some of it is because we’re in a liberal city, but a lot is just sheer cultural progress.

I think about how my friend Clay came out at fourteen in high school, basically because he had to - no one was going to accept him as straight. The hate and disdain he got even when he wasn’t dating anyone was extreme. His family kicked him out for a period of time. He ended up taking a lot of drugs, being so isolated and miserable.

While Adelaide? She wore a rainbow tie to her graduation in support of queer rights, and so did her friends.

Here she is, looking great:
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That's a mixing bowl.

Originally published at Rachel Swirsky. You can comment here or there.

That’s a mixing bowl.


that's a mixing bowl

(That is also a cat.)

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