Author: xykademiqz

Purple balls are awesome. When made out of glass, that is.

On Creativity and Rejection

A former student of mine and I had a conversation right before he left; I remember it often. (The student has been working for a software giant ever since he graduated and he seems happy.)

During the conversation, he said that the job that I have, which he characterized as having to come up with new ideas all the time, was emphatically not what he wanted. What he wanted was to be given/told what to do, do it, and then move on to something else. He enjoyed the challenging tasks, but he did not want to be the one coming up with the tasks or the big picture into which these tasks fell.

I think about my job, and what he described as his dream job would be the definition of hell for me.

In my work, there is constant rejection. Papers get criticized, even if they don’t get rejected. Proposals get declined all the time, and awarded very rarely. Now I have taken up fiction writing as a hobby, which will likely come with even more rejection.

Let’s say you are like me, and you have a job and/or a hobby, where you come up with something potentially novel (e.g., an idea or a piece of art) and offer it to the world, with a high chance of the world rejecting it. Creating something new is in and of itself rewarding (to people who find it rewarding). Is rejection the price of creating? Could we just create and not seek feedback or acceptance, not engage with the world? Or is this possibility of rejection inextricable from the drive to create?

***

In real life, very few people know that I blog. Basically, only my immediate family knows about the blog and the book, and one colleague at a different institution.  (There are several people whom I first met through the blog and who know who I am, but the other way around there’s essentially no one.) You’d think the only reason is the protection offered by the pseudonym, and that is indeed a large portion of it, but there’s more.

When my mom visited last year, I gave her two hard copies of the book to take back home: one for her, one for my dad (they are divorced). Academaze was published by a small press, and small presses thrive owing to the print-on-demand concept. The concept helps even traditional publishers, as books can stay in print indefinitely.

Well, I don’t think my mom knows anything other than traditional publishing (a certain number of hard copies printed and distributed to bookstores). Plus, she might be a bit of an a$$hole. The first thing she asked me when she saw the book was, “How many copies were printed?” To her, and within traditional publishing, a good book means many copies. I tried to explain about the print-on-demand concept, and I saw that within 5 seconds she completely dismissed both me and the book as worthless. I felt foolish with my print-on-demand spiel, since she’d already made up her mind.

Over the following couple of weeks, she tried to read the book (she speaks some English, and can probably read and understand much more than she can say). She came to tell me, visibly disappointed, “You write so simply. I could understand almost everything.” My mom is not a big reader, but even she somehow expects a “good” book to mean convoluted prose. Sadly, she is not alone in this belief. (This related essay  is a long read, but engaging and thought-provoking.)

The experience with my mom is an example of why letting the people around you know what your (artistic) outlets are may be a bad idea. Sure, they might be offended by what you write about them (or how you otherwise relate to them through your outlet/art). More likely, and this is the part that bothers me about as much as someone being angry with me, is that they simply won’t give a $hit. They won’t care that you produce anything, they won’t care about what you produce, or they won’t like what you produce.

I showed a few of my stories to my DH. He liked a number of them, but the one that I thought was very good and that featured some stylistic challenges that I was proud of tackling, he didn’t like at all; he was actually irritated by it. I don’t want him to lie to me about liking or disliking something I wrote, but it just saddened me.

***

Is it meaningful to come up with scientific ideas without trying to get them funded or trying to do the work and submit it for publication? Is it meaningful to write or paint or sculpt without ever planning on showing your work? I think for some people it is, but, for many, it is not. These people who really need to engage with the potentially indifferent world can be found in all professions.

We’d bought Eldest a car about a month ago and we just had the interior detailed yesterday. I took it to this place that did a great job. The operation is small, and the owner himself also works on the cars; he’s been at it for 30 years.

It struck me how this small business owner puts himself out there every single day. He provides good service, and all he can do is offer it to people. Some will take it, but many won’t. Some will appreciate it, but many won’t. All he can do is try to be better and cheaper than the big chains, which he is, and offer what he has to the world. The world might care, or not, but he has to offer.

***

I guess there are people who want to do what they want to do, even if the price of it is rejection. Or perhaps there are people who want to do what they want to do, and cannot imagine not trying to offer the products of their mind or their hands to the world. Their creations make no sense unless there is someone on the outside of the creator to appreciate them.

People like my former student don’t seem to have that need. I am guessing there are many people like that, who are happy doing what they do, living their life, not emitting into the world. That’s a life with little rejection, and it’s certainly not a bad life if you have the right personality and mindset.

I need to emit into the world, hoping the world receives some of it.

Whiny Acute Procrastinitis

I am having a very hard time making myself work on what I need to work on. Two papers need to go out — they have been drafted by my students, but they are in a bad shape language-wise and I don’t have the time or the will for back-and-forths, so I need to edit the text directly right away (as opposed to several drafts from now). I have taken and put down each of them several times and made some edits, but I just can’t make myself go all the way to the end for either of them. My stomach turns when I think about how much work each of them will be.

Then there is the infernal proposal to NSF. This proposal was recommended but not highly recommended two years in a row. In fact, two years in a row I have been ‘on the bubble’ and ended up without money. I am really sick of this material, sick of reading it and sick of writing it. And now I have to do it again, more than once (trying two agencies plus some internal funds).

I better get my $hit together, and I eventually will, but I don’t think I have ever felt this much resistance toward engaging with my own papers or proposals. What’s strange is that I can’t say I am tired, as the summer just ended and I didn’t overwork; I am physically in better shape than I’ve been in a long time (exercising 5x a week) so I should have more energy; I’ve already allowed myself weeks of free rein within my creative outlet with the specific purpose of scratching that itch really well so I can work on technical stuff.

And I can’t wait forever for the muse; there are deadlines (the internal one is tomorrow). Cranking out 10,000 characters from scratch is usually a piece of cake for me. Reading what I’d read a million times already, so I can massage it into yet another shape and size is freakin’ nauseating, and I’m not speaking figuratively.

Naughty procrastinating xykademiqz.

(Kids, don’t do as I do.)

 

Tank

I have a confession to make: I don’t watch Game of Thrones.

I did watch season 1, and maybe even parts of season 2, but at some point I lost interest. It moves too slowly for my taste. I can keep up just fine by looking over DH’s shoulder to see what the characters have been up to once every few months.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post…

DH is complaining that G. R. Martin still hasn’t released the much-awaited final book of the Songs of Ice and Fire sextalogy (?),  the book series that sprouted the show. We got to talking about how Martin is the opposite of a prolific writer (a blocked writer?), how each book takes him many years to produce, and while they are good (so says DH, I don’t like fantasy and haven’t read the books), there are books of comparable quality written by far more fecund authors.

One of Eldest’s favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, came up. Eldest adores his books, and DH concurs that they are very good (you have to be into the genre). Sanderson is a machine; he produces one or more books per year, you can follow his publication plans and completion of his various projects on his website. Stephen King is of similar cloth — a book every few months.

I admire prolific artists. Not everything has to be a masterpiece, but famous prolific writers have certainly produced more than one strong, memorable piece.

Even if not everything they make is gold, the abundance of their output means their creative tank is large and never dries up. These people also seem to be generous toward those who attempt to write fan fiction — they don’t have to be stingy with their worlds or their characters, because there’s always new and more and better inside them. (Someone like Martin does not seem to have a large creative tank, and I have come across several interviews with him where he says that fan fiction writers are stealing from him, and he actually goes after them).

In the world of music, Bob Dylan comes to mind — he may not be your cup of tea, and not all he made was great, but he has recorded dozens of studio albums. That’s copious creative juice, and that’s what I admire.

I admire the same qualities in scientists. Those with a robust publication output (talking about senior ones here), always changing, growing, also seem to be the ones who every so often publish a highly influential paper, because influential papers require lots of creative power.

I know someone will come to say quantity doesn’t equal quality, and of course that’s true, but “quantity breeds quality” is not entirely false either. The more people produce, the better the average quality of the output is, and the best stuff also gets better.

If you have a creative job or hobby that you enjoy, just do it; create. Not every nugget will be great, but some will be, and to get good enough to make the great ones, some early (or late) turd nuggets are par for the course.

This is the last one, I promise

OK, I think I got the short stories out of my system for a little while, which means that I can get back to papers and proposals; those babies (well, more like cantankerous old men) aren’t gonna write themselves. Also, I will be back to blogging!

Here’s the tally.

Total: Nine stories written and submitted over the past month (more like three and a half weeks).

a) Four pieces are microfiction (~100 words or fewer). One published, one really good that I expect eventually to be published, and two that may or may not be published but I wouldn’t mind retiring them, either. Of the latter two, one works as a poem, so I might try that for kicks.  (There is an online poetry journal called Rat’s Ass Review. The name alone means that I simply have to try to get something published in there. Not this particular piece, because it’s not good enough, but something else. Beware!)

b) Four pieces are flash fiction (under 1000 words). I think they are all pretty good; three are mainstream, one is a bit weird with a sci-fi bend and might be tough to place. They are not all the same length, style, or quality, but I think they are all good enough to be published somewhere, eventually. It might take some time for a couple of them.

c) One piece is short fiction, at about 2000 words. I had great fun with language and style when I wrote that one. It might be my best piece yet.

I feel okay about my understanding of the publishing-market lay of the land. I have a GoogleDocs spreadsheet where, for each piece, I have identified a string of 5-10 markets where I can send next following a rejection. I have already received a couple of rejections, but I don’t particularly mind, since those were either from extremely competitive markets (I don’t think I can yet swing it with the best of short-fiction writers, but perhaps some day; a girl can dream!) or from markets that were sort of suitable, but not really, and I sent a story there because I knew (thanks to Duotrope and the Grinder)  that they would give me speedy rejections accompanied by personal remarks, which I found helpful.

Resilience seems to be the name of the game when you try to publish creative work. Thanks to perpetually writing grant proposals (and perpetually getting them rejected), my hide is tough; it might have actually been ossified. I should be fine with rejections. My main issue is severe, severe impatience.

See what a young sci-fi/fantasy writer of growing acclaim says:

http://www.oceansinthesky.com/writers-life-just-keep-swimming/

***

By the way, come join the fun with our little online short-fiction contest.

Your piece doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t even have to be good, just give it a shot. You can crank out 300 words in no time at all  —  for instance, this post is over 400 words.

 

 

Miscellanea

 

I read this morning about one blogger’s long road trip, in which the blogger lamented — or, more precisely, preemptively apologized for — “eating (gross) road food” and the kids watching movies on tablets.

I don’t understand this. First, I  know for a fact that you can travel cross-country, stop only at McDonald’s, and still eat nothing but salads and grilled chicken. Boring, but honestly it would be boring anywhere else. Second, there are plenty of roadside restaurants that are not fast food where you can eat. I don’t know that any are Michelin three-star restaurants, but the food is decidedly not gross and you can, you know, read the menu and pick something you like.

Why does every second of life and especially kids’ upbringing have to be organic, locally sourced, wholesome, and above all educational? Can’t the kids (not to mention adults) let loose sometime and have it be OK, celebrated even? In August, on vacation, my family had ice cream before dinner every single night. The kids were really into an ice cream place that closed early-ish, so by eating dessert first everyone got their favorite treat and was much better behaved at dinner (even if they didn’t eat as much). This was a whopping five days of our lives, great fun and memories, and I guarantee my kids lives or gut flora were not destroyed by the less-than-perfectly-healthy temporary meal practices.

Finally, it really bugs me to see anyone sneer at edible food on moral grounds. Food is such a class marker in the US, and people turning up their noses at the food choices of lesser folks, even if they have to endure that cuisine for just a few days, really pisses me off. I know far too many people IRL who would not be caught dead at a sports bar/eating anything fried/drinking either beer or soda. This makes me very grumpy, because American sports bars are among the warmest places I know; people who go there are not trash.

***

Send in those stories! You know you want to…

 

Xykademiqz Inaugural Short Fiction Contest 9/12-9/27

Judging by how many people clicked on the links for The Grinder, how to format a short story, how to classify your story by genre, etc., it looks like quite a few readers have interest in writing fiction.

This gave me an idea! We can have our own small flash-fiction competition here!

SUBMIT YOUR SHORT STORY HERE

Here are the rules:

Over the next two-ish weeks, starting today, September 12, and  ending Wednesday, September 27 (11:59 PM Pacific time), please submit a short story under 300 words.

1. The submission should include:

a) your pen name (could be your real name, or not)

b) real name (optional)

c) email (required; will not be disclosed; you will receive a confirmation within a day that I got your story)

d) a website or a Twitter handle (if you want me to link to it)

e) a brief biosketch (no more than 30 words)

f) title of your story

g) body of your short story (no longer than 300 words; the word count does NOT include the title)

2. 300 words max.  If you are a bit over, I may just edit it down to 300 myself. If you are a lot over, I will return it to you.

3. The story should be fiction, any genre. It can be inspired by reality, but has to be fictionalized.

4. Topic can be anything you like. If you need a prompt, how about “academia is / drives me nuts.”

5. You can submit multiple stories, but not more than 3 per real name and/or pen name and/or email. You will get an email confirmation within a day of submission.

6. All stories will be published October 1st and onward, so your prose will see the light of day on Xykademiqz blog.
Depending on how many stories I get, I will post one or more per day starting October 1. They will all show up.
Afterwards, I expect to create a special page for this contest that will remain for posterity in the Xykademiqz archives.

7. Readers will vote for their favorites. Once all the stories have been posted and voted on, the top three will get small prizes, think Amazon gift cards; if a winner lives outside of where these gift cards can be redeemed, we’ll think of something else.

SUBMIT YOUR SHORT STORY HERE

Please submit your stories! This is meant to be a fun exercise to get everyone’s creative juices flowing.

Don’t leave me hanging here, twiddling my thumbs, with nothing fun to read.

SUBMIT YOUR SHORT STORY HERE

I will leave this post sticky on top of the page until September 27.

If you have questions about the contest, please ask in the comments.

Xyk the Fiction-Writing Dilettante

It’s been a bit quiet here. The thing is, I have a ton of work to do: definitely one and ideally three papers need to be submitted by the end of the month, and I am (or should be) working on two proposals, which both must be in by the end of October.

I have been massively procrastinating… by writing fiction. I have written several microfiction pieces (up to 100 words or thereabout) and several flash-fiction pieces (up to 1000 words). It’s been very enjoyable! I have a new pen name and an associated website, and will keep my fiction writing decoupled from the blog. You as a reader might think it’s a shame, or not. This is a nonfiction academic blog, with an established theme, voice, and audience; I shouldn’t inflict my fiction (which may not be very good anyway) on the audience that is here for something else. Plus, my fiction serves a different, more personal purpose than blogging. Not that you’d think I would need to vent more than I do, given my many rants here, but it turns out that I do need a more artful outlet in order to get all of my multifaceted craziness out.

Here are some insights from my fiction escapade, in no particular order.

  1. I appear to be actually capable of writing fiction; I was not sure I had it in me (read: I was positive I did not have it in me), but now I think I do. Confidence, you are a fickle mistress.
  2. The flash-fiction format is definitely a good one for me right now, as I am very comfortable with the ~1000 essay length owing to the years of blogging. (This is my 8th year of blogging, btw; I started in early 2010 — time flies!) Given my lack of patience and free time, I think flash fiction works well.
  3. It’s really fun to let the process of writing take over. This is completely new to me: characters actually getting minds and lives of their own and guiding you, the writer, as opposed to the other way around. Being at the mercy of your own characters is surreal but enjoyable; perhaps “trippy” is the right term.
  4. In contrast to what I am used to seeing in technical writing — em dash separated from the text with a space on both sides, like here — which I think holds true in close to 100% of the technical journals I publish in, literary folks like to keep their em dashes glued to the text on both sides–like so. It hurts my heart, but life is cruel like that; it throws unreasonable rules of punctuation your way when you least expect it and crushes you. By the way, if you ever wondered how to format a story for publication, here is a template that many markets recommend.
  5. Market? What’s a market? I am glad you asked. What we scientists would call a publication venue or a journal is referred to as a publishing market. So you say you published in a professional market if they pay the professional rate (I think it’s 6 cents per word), or that you submitted to a nonpaying market, etc. It felt weird during the first few days of researching markets to call them markets, but I am now used to it (sort of).
  6. Learning about the publishing markets has been very similar to — yet weird and different from — learning about the publishing practices of a scholarly field that is very different from mine (e.g., a field outside the natural sciences). There are genre-specific and genre-flexible markets, and you really need to read prior work in a market to figure out what they want. Each market has a niche, but the information about the niche is often vague. It is a bit like faculty search ads — they know what they want, sort of, but want to leave their options open just in case they get something they didn’t even know they wanted but now must have. Here’s a nice post on how to classify your short story by genre. I write stuff that falls under general/mainstream fiction, but I have also pieces with humor and science-fiction elements. Many literary-fiction markets seem to assume that you have an MFA in creative writing or similar as a minimum for consideration. Science-fiction markets look for good writing, but really emphasize originality of plot. There are few markets for humor, which is a real shame.
  7. Disclaimer: I am a writer dilettante, so I likely don’t know anything about anything. Having said that, IMHO, some of what is coveted as good literary writing seems to be an exercise in taking oneself far too seriously. Related issues (e.g., something trivial is buried under a barrage of adjectives and the result is termed evocative) bother me in contemporary novels and short pieces alike. As if the writer cannot help but insert themselves in the story, over and over again, lest we forget for a second what an erudite wordsmith they are and, God forbid, focus on the characters instead. Alas, I am a curmudgeon with a proclivity for barren prose, my fiction thus ill-fated.
  8. The best (free) way to look at different markets is The (Submission) Grinder, where you can search for potential markets based on the type of work. You can see how fast they are to respond, what type of work they solicit, etc. The paid version is Duotrope  and it does have some neat features that The Grinder does not and that may make Duotrope worth $5/mo (e.g., where else the people who submitted to a certain market also submitted and where else they already published; this is an excellent resource for mentally mapping the market landscape). OTOH, I love The Grinder’s graphs; you can really see how many days you likely have until you hear from the journal the market and you can get a lot of insight about the relevant timescales in the review process. Fun fact: from tracking many of the same journal stats in The Grinder and in Duotrope, it appears that the literary folks favor Duotrope, while the sci-fi folks favor The Grinder.
  9. I am not a professional writer, so what I care about is that my work gets out there, in a reputable market, and FAST. So, a market’s fast response is my number one criterion. The second one is whether I can get a personal response, even if rejected, because I want to improve. There are markets that are both fast and personable, and I would always target those over those that take six months to give me a form rejection but are higher on the prestige scale; I suppose I have the luxury of doing that because I am not a professional writer. I do bite my nails enough waiting to hear about grants and papers, and I want my fiction out and actually read by other humans sooner rather than later later. You could say, “Why don’t you just put it online yourself, on a blog?” Because I would like the stories to be accessible to the people interested in similar material; I would like the stories to be recognized by people with experience in an editorial capacity, as I want to know if they are really any good (good being somewhat relative, but not completely arbitrary) or if I have serious issues to fix. For instance, Academaze could have been self-published, but it’s much better now that Annorlunda Books published it. Having a dispassionate editor who recognizes the worth of the work and wants to help you make it better and more visible is priceless! (Thank you again, Melanie!)
  10. Up to here, this post is ~1200 words, so this is a bit longer than the 1000-word cutoff for flash fiction, but as I said, this length is quite comfortable for me. And you can say a lot in 1000 words.

Wish me luck!

How is everyone’s semester going?