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Love, Simeon Posts

A Portrait of the Artist as Another Artist, But for Fun?

This post comes to you, courtesy of Mur Lafferty. She did not write it, nor does she know of its – or my – existence. But she inspired it through something she talks about in her podcast, I Should Be Writing. Recently, Mur picked up the violin. She says she is learning it as an outlet for creative expression without any external pressure, such as she feels in her writing career. This made me consider my own relationship with art in general, and whether I am even capable of doing something in an uncharted artistic field, just for personal enjoyment.

I have been a violinist since age five. My parents – both of them working as professional musicians to this day – chose that course for me when I was an infant, and I was having music theory and violin lessons before I started first grade. This is not unique where I come from. In a quirk of the Eastern European education system, I had access to a music school that incorporated every aspect of the craft into general education. And by the time I graduated and applied to college, I had a profession.

As a child, I never questioned this, and by the time I would have, I was already good enough at it, that it was unnecessary to question. But ultimately, I never had a phase of my life, in which the violin was something to do “for fun”. And with this comes, I think, the dissonance I feel when I consider Mur’s picking up the violin for personal gratification. It makes me jealous. Because I realized that from the moment I decided that I wanted to become a writer, I also never had a phase of doing it “for fun”.

Writing is a passion for me, but I have no framework to approach it in any other way, but professional. I want to learn how to do things well, what the mechanisms under the words are. The bones and muscles under the skin. I want to understand writing, and I want to be a professional writer. To be represented by an agent, to work with an editor for a big publisher. It is a dream, for sure, but it is also a product of how I view the creation and “performance” of art. I think I can do it, or else I would never have started.

In a way, this makes me sad. I want to be able to sign up for an improv class and just enjoy myself. Or heck, even an acting class! Pick up sculpting. Painting miniatures. Whatever. But I fear that I would never be able to keep the voice in my head at bay – the one that tells me that I have to be doing this “the right way”, or not at all. And I think that by being unable to do that, I might be missing something essential from the creative process.

Do you do some kind of art just for fun? If so, what life do you come from? What drove you into pursuing this form of expression? I would love to read about it.

Reading Update: 02/12/20 – No Impulse Control

I visited my boyfriend in Berkeley, CA this past week. As it turns out, this town is an orgy of bookstores that cater to every possible variety of reader, and I was not ready for this! The end result was a pile of books that I had to lug back to Chicago, because, as the title of this post hints at, I have zero impulse control. In my defense, those are all books I have wanted to read/own for a while. But the simple fact is, I acted like a puppy that was suddenly let off the leash in the dog park, and I feel not even the tiniest bit of shame…

Working on the Craft: Imperative

Another exercise from Brian Kiteley ‘s The 3 A.M. Epiphany . As the name suggests, this one requires you to write 500 words of a 2-nd person narrative that is made entirely by imperative commands. I may have cheated a bit here and there — as far as I am concerned, it is still a command, even if it features a whole entire sentence surrounded by dashes, like, say this one — but the overall process was fun and just the right amount of challenging, so I am going with it.

Wake up. Come on, open your eyes. Try not to wince when the light pierces your brain, it makes you wrinkle. Don’t think how grey and bleak it is, don’t try to calculate how many days the cloud cover has remained in place. Try to crawl from under the blankets faster. Remember where you are – the big guest bedroom, as befits your so-called rank. Take account of all the gaudy details the palace architect and that horrendous interior designer have seen fit to vomit all over said interior. Appreciate it for a moment, yeah. Try not to dwell on why you agreed to this state visit in the first place, considering you are just a marionette and have absolutely no authority to do anything this country’s glorified dictatrix would ask of you.

Don’t dwell, I said!

Get up – stop coughing, it makes you look like even more of a decrepit old man than you already act like! – and get to that bathroom. Yeah, don’t stare too hard at the mirror. Try to get cleaned up, to the best of your uninspiring capability. Wash the shame of last night’s “reception”, or as the young kids call it – “a clusterfuck of getting shitfaced on disgustingly expensive wine, while half the continent is choking on poverty thanks to your hostess”. Yeah, take that hangover pill, you know you want to. Forget that it’s another admission of weakness. Embrace it – weakness is not out of your way. Don’t think too hard, just choke it down, like you choke down your continuing political impotence.

Get dressed now. Do this right, or you won’t be able to impress the Empress, or whatever she calls herself these days, or her lackeys who you are supposedly here to woo. Consider this carefully and dress appropriately, so that your look screams courtly humility, with just a touch of “I will degrade myself for you”. Remember why your country sent you and try not to think of what the assholes who built this wonder of architectural kitsch will do to your people if you fail. Don’t think about it – seriously, I know I didn’t stutter – and pick that shirt with the pink ruffles. Look at yourself in the mirror now, and asses your capacity to present just the right amount of court buffoonery before you make the trip.

Ok, now get to the throne room for the early morning reception. Act like you don’t know that they did this on purpose, to make you and the other bobble-heads like you feel emasculated, defeminated, or however-else-they-identify-ated. Pretend that it doesn’t sting. Fail a couple of times on your way if you need to, while it’s still safe, then put on that broad, somehow charming “sentient block of cheese” smile you are renowned for in literally no circle, and get on with the theatre of diplomacy.

Walk down the long, gaudy strip of carpet like a good, obedient boy. Don’t look at the crass opulence on display, pretend you don’t hear the snickers. Ignore the metric fuckton of frills and lace half the court is wearing, then avert your eyes from Her Corpulent Majesty, the Whatever She Has Decided to Be Called Today, and just bow. Keep a straight face, damn it! Stifle the giggles – nobody has time for your nervous breakdowns – and offer her The Speech. Accept her gracious grunt of acknowledgement.

Go mingle with the rest of the diplomacy victims once this is done and over with, and act like any of you matter. Try not to think what her obnoxious kingdom can do to yours, and if you can’t do that, hold the depression until tonight’s reception starts. Allow yourself to drown the inner shrieks in more grossly expensive wine like an adult.

Then do it all over again tomorrow, and then do it the day after, until you have saved your nation, or have found any other meaningful reason to keep existing.

Simon vs. the Tragedy Porn Agenda

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for well over a year, and I might be the only human in the world who is interested in the subject at this point. But as this is my blog, I get to go for it, and perhaps someone out there will care. Plus, it might give you an indication as to why my blog is named as it is.

I came out at 25. Late, by modern standards, and yet it felt like I had wasted half a life by then. I was never really technically “in the closet” to begin with. My mind is capable of phenomenal feats of compartmentalization, and so the “gay thing” had been stuffed so deep in my consciousness that I was in a permanent state of absolute repression. And so, I “came out” to the world about the same time I came out to myself. Moving to the United States, seeing life not as I had expected it would be, but as it could become, began a process of buildup in me that had only one possible healthy outcome.

The word just popped into my mind one day, unexpected and unasked for. GAY. It wasn’t any different from the million times I’d said or thought it before, and yet it was also profoundly, relentlessly new. Because it was about me. The moment was shocking, to be sure. I don’t think I did much else that night.

But it felt like a prelude, not the main event.

Two days later, I managed to type those three letters in a Skype chat with a friend back home. My fingers moving on the keyboard, the pinkie hovering over the Enter key. Then — almost despite myself — pressing down. It was the hardest physical feat I’ve ever accomplished. The sheer fever of the moment, the diamond-sharp awareness that your life is about to be split into a “before” and “after”. The condensed, immovable now of my first coming out to someone else was beyond the intensity of anything I have experienced, before or since.

The fever didn’t subside through the next few weeks of telling people face to face and embracing what it meant to me that they knew. That I knew. At first, the fear and underlying excitement would flare up every time — what if this is the one person who will reject me? Who will make a disgusted face, close up, turn around, curse at me?

It never happened. Despite the out-of-body aspect of it all, the self-defense mechanisms I had developed in the past two decades had picked the territory well. I was in a college town, surrounded by young, progressive people, many of them queer themselves. I was safe, or close enough. I was met with nothing but love and support.

Which is, of course, almost perversely disappointing in a way, when the climax of all those years of fear and trepidation is nothing nearly as dramatic as you had built up in your head. Because you being gay doesn’t matter to anyone else even remotely as much as it does to you…

Love, Simon (directed by Greg Berlanti and based on Becky Albertalli’s breakout YA hit Simon vs. the Homo-Sapiens Agenda) was a quiet success. A mid-budget romantic comedy is already something of an outlier in this era of massive block-busters and indie sleeper hits. But the movie’s John Hughesque atmosphere and the disarming charm of its characters added to its status as the first teen movie by a major studio with a gay protagonist, to make it an event in a year marked by shattering cinematic experiences.

However, it was a much more personal revelation to me. Not because of any groundbreaking social message, or a profound, heretofore unseen approach to the queer experience. But because it captured the feelings I brought up earlier. The moment when you are not sure if your throat might close and refuse to form the word. The strange disappointment that your coming out isn’t nearly as shocking to the other person as you thought it would be. The overpowering emotion of being loved for who you are, not despite.

I saw this movie in theaters 9 times. I rewatch it every year on National Coming Out Day. It is not the greatest cinematic expression of our times, and even compared to some other contemporary queer movies, it may lack artistic and — to some — social depth. But that is a surface read. For all its gorgeous visuals and universal themes of desire and longing, Call Me By Your Name for example left me at a distance. There was little for me to resonate with. I rarely lounge for an entire summer in my family’s south Italian mansion. I have never had fiery romances with precocious hyper-intellectual teenagers. Peach is not my sex fruit of choice.

Which is not to diss what is truly an incredible movie. But Love, Simon did something else, and did it better. It showed a gay boy dealing with coming out in a relatable setting, and it showed the outpour of kindness and love that he received. It spoke with the language of personal experience, and it used small gestures, unspoken words, and that same fever that I myself lived through. And that message clearly worked, because the movie quadrupled its budget and survived heavy hitters like Ready Player One and Avengers: Infinity War in theaters.

We are trained by art to perceive suffering as the greatest form of storytelling. Doubly so for minority narratives. But just as with every other marginalized group, the queer experience is not always — not even predominantly — dramatic. It is not exclusively a tragedy to sympathize with. Sometimes it is just tender and simple, and full of small stakes that can matter more than anything else in the world. Sometimes it is just saying a word when silence feels like death.

And in this regard, Love, Simon was one of the most subversive and groundbreaking LGBTQ-themed movies of this past decade.

Reading Update: 02/5/20 – I HAVE AN ARC OF HARROW THE NINTH!!!

I mean, that’s kind of it. That’s the post.

No, but seriously. I have raved about Tamsyn Muir’s debut science fiction/baroque necromantic lesbian punk Gideon the Ninth ever since the book came out and I gorged myself on it last September. It was one of the most unique and original works I had read in a year of quality books, and I was having micro nervous breakdowns about having to wait until June for the second part of the trilogy.

Except, now I don’t have to! Because ARCs! So I am just gonna put my other reading plans on a quick hold, and squeal myself into reading this now, thank you very much.

Working on the Craft: Chastity

Today’s exercise comes from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. Titled Chastity, it is maddeningly simple: Write a few paragraphs of descriptive narrative, without using adjectives, adverbs, or dialogue. It was surprisingly hard, which tells us that I am a novice at doing exercises, because obviously it would be hard! But the result was sufficiently satisfactory, and yes, I am dumping all these sweet, tender adjectives and adverbs right here, since I wasn’t allowed to do it in the text itself.

Oh, also. It’s short, because I did the barest minimum. Did I mention It was hard? I like my adjectives and adverbs with a fiery passion.

The clouds began to part, layer by layer, to reveal beams of light. For a moment, I had to avert my eyes. As I adjusted to the brightness, I looked up to see a vessel that dwarfed the peak I stood on. It was like a rose of metal, come from a giant’s garden. Walls curved, lines chased each other to craft a shape which made me weep with awe.

It towered above me as it descended, a landing that obscured the sky. The beams of light that came from its surfaces reflected from the curves in the metal, and turned the ship into a source of radiance, as if the illumination came from the inside, wanted to escape, and the hull contained it with difficulty.

My mind refused to comprehend, all thought banished by the sight in the clouds. I should have ran. I should have sent warning. I wanted to avert my eyes, but I could not. The sight occupied the entirety of the world I had known so far. The colony at the foot of the mountains could not muster anything with the capability to combat this vessel. An empire had descended over a backwater. Everything was about to change.

Review: Come Tumbling Down

I was lucky enough that by the time I discovered Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, there were already four of them out for me to devour. Which means that Come Tumbling Down was the first installment I actually had to wait for, and the anticipation was not fun. It also made me wonder whether having to wait will put unfair expectation on the book.

I’m happy to report that Come Tumbling Down is just as good as the rest of the series, easily near the top of my personal Wayward Children chart. Down Among the Sticks and Bones is by far my favorite story in this universe, and a return to the Moors had me biased all manner of ways, but the novella stands on its own, as a completely different experience from the previous adventure of Jack and Jill.

Spoilers for previous books in the series

So far, the Wayward Children series has established a pattern of alternating stories that I have labeled for myself “adventure” and “character”. Every odd number takes place in present day and tends to be mostly plot-driven, while the even ones take us back to the origin of a character we met back in Every Heart a Doorway, connecting their magical world’s theme to the essence of who they are as a person. The fifth book in the series follows this path and takes us back to Eleanor West’s school, but only for a moment. Down in the basement, where Christopher now lives, a door opens out of nowhere, to bring forth an unconscious Jack Wolcott, carried by her twice-dead lover Alexis. Except, Jack is in the wrong body…

Come Tumbling Down continues the tale of my favorite Wayward Child, and as such I had no choice but to fall in love with it. While the narrative is more straightforward than the hypnotic fairy-tale logic of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it still builds on the themes of the Moors, and how they resonate with the characters we already know from previous installments — Kade, Christopher, Cora, and the freshly-revived-and-technically-a-candy-construct Sumi. Like in the rest of the series, identity is front and center. From the concept of heroism, through the constant throb of feeling like an outsider for the way you are or the way you feel, to the immensely personal experience of being trapped in a body that does not feel yours. McGuire is fantastic at bringing these themes forward without making the story “about” them, or acquiring any sort of preachy quality. The wayward children are outcasts, and misfits, and heroes. Their unique otherness is as integral to who they are, as it is to the adventures they are thrust into.

The Moors resonate with me in a way that no other magical place in this universe has so far. The wild dualities, the extreme, yet petty passions, the pure horror aspect of that world — as far as I am concerned, it is the series’ best creation, and Come Tumbling Down strives to show how the wild things under the red moon impact those who went through completely different doors. The novella stumbles a bit with some of the characters (particularly Kade and Cora who truly deserve books of their own at this point), but I absolutely loved Jack’s development. It was also a delight to see Sumi not as the victim from Every Heart a Doorway, but as the fierce and often terrifying warrior known in Confection.

I adore Seanan McGuire’s style of writing. The seemingly effortless interaction between fairy tale and modern storytelling, woven into the Wayward Children books, fills me with admiration and ugly jealousy. While I prefer her “character” origin stories to the “adventure” ones, every page of Come Tumbling Down has some little twist of phrase, some allegory or dream-logic statement that had me rereading and nodding to myself. If I had one critique, it would be that at times the omniscient POV jumps a bit too suddenly into other people’s heads, but at this point, we have been with these characters long enough not to be too jarred. The atmospheric writing is also helped along by the gorgeous illustrations done by series veteran Rovina Cai.

In case my ramblings were not coherent enough, Come Tumbling Down is a magical book, and an absolute delight. If you have somehow read the previous four books, but weren’t sure whether you should pick up this one, I am very confused, but I cannot recommend you do so at once. If you have yet to start this series, Every Heart a Doorway awaits you, with its many doors. I envy you the journey.

Reading Update: 01/29/20 – New Year’s Resolutions

Not much to report since last time (except, stay tuned for a review of Seanan McGuire’s Come Tumbling Down soon) , so instead, I wanted to talk about my New Year’s resolutions in terms of reading. And yes, I recognize that the very notion of “New Year’s resolutions” smells of giving up at the gym around January 20th, but I promise this is slightly less sad!

First of all, last year I decided to set myself the goal of 52 books. It was a nice number, a book a week, except I didn’t set it until about September. The unexpected result of that was my falling in love with the novella, but I digress. My first resolution is to repeat this number, and if possible — to surpass it. Goodreads says I am 5 books ahead of my goal, but with a wedding coming up in the summer, and a potential move to another state, things might grow dicey in the second half of the year.

Goal #1: Read at least 52 books (no cheating with comic TPBs!).

Next goal: short stories. I have always struggled with those. It’s embarrassing for an aspiring writer of speculative fiction, considering not only the origins of these genres, but also what used to be the traditional path to publishing in the era of print magazines. With that said, I just can’t make myself read short form. Some silly mental block prevents me from starting a story, and when I do finish one, I’m thoroughly unmotivated to begin another. Which sucks, because there are a ton of authors I want to read, many of whom thrive in this medium. So:

Goal #2: Read at least 3 short story collections, be they by one author, or anthologies.

Last, and certainly not least, it is 2020 (yeah, hi. I have mastered the calendar!). I am a foreigner on a path to citizenship. The world is on fire. American political structures are on fire. The US constitution is on fire. Even if I wanted to stay away, I know too much about current politics to do so. Which brings me to my third goal. Political non-fiction to me has always been like Yoga, in that I have never done Yoga, but I like to think of myself as someone who would do Yoga. Well, that might not be in the cards for this year, but I want to finally read some of the books by the people who I listen to on podcasts.

Goal #3: Read at least 3 non-fiction books on current politics.

It is all doable, I am already on it, and I am using this platform to keep myself accountable. Hopefully, you stick around for it all!

Working on the Craft: The Reluctant I

Once in a while, I want to do a writing exercise and post the result here. The goal of this exhibitionism is to keep myself accountable, as long practice shows that few things motivate me as much as the need for external validation and the fear of not showing up. For my first attempt, I picked Exercise 1 from The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley. It is simple: to write 600ish words of first person POV, in which the personal pronoun is only used two times. The result is unpolished, unedited, and woefully melodramatic, but I enjoyed doing it, and so you get to judge it too. Here goes:

I stand on the small square, staring at the wall which rises tall above the crooked buildings. The mists are everywhere – an oppressive dome that covers the city entire. It looms just above the copper chains draped on their rods on every roof, testing their strength. A swirling front batters the human-raised barrier ahead, as if angry at the brown metal that repels it. The world is drained of color.

The copper won’t be enough this time. The sentries have ran down the stairs, abandoning their posts. There have been no screams of warning – the immutable weight of the mists demands silence now – but the wordless retreat is message enough.

Everyone else on the square knows what comes. Or rather, they don’t know, and that’s the point. That’s the real horror. Anything could be hiding inside the mists. Everything is. The grey wisps themselves are poison and worse. Clusters of people stand still, staring at the wall. Some hold each other. Others don’t seem to notice that they’re not alone. A little boy’s questing hand finds insensate fingers as he reaches for what must be his mother. A young man whispers in anger and fear at another – a brother? A lover? – trying to pull him away from this open ground. But the grey tendrils that even now begin to slide over the wall are hypnotic.

The death of a city is a solemn thing. It asks to be witnessed. Even if it is by the victim itself.

A mute thud reaches the square. More a vibration than sound, something massive striking the wall. Another follows, then a third. That one lasts longer, but as everyone stares at the copper plates rising above the rooftops, waiting for the cracks to appear, the young man who has refused to be spirited away to the lie of safety points up. Eyes follow, and there, above the wall, the tall rods with their copper chains are shaking. Thick tendrils of mist have moved between them, sizzling as they get close to the metal that repels them. But they hide something else.

The rods begin shaking. The copper chains rattle, the sound muted. Swallowed. The mist has now almost obscured them, the wisps trying to slide down the wall even as they are burned by its surface. Then a rod falls into the miasma, which opens to allow its passage, then closes over the gap. Another follows. A sharp, slithering hiss, as the chain is unmoored and dragged down.

Nothing moves for a moment. The dome of mist seems to hold its breath.

Then it collapses. Torrents of grey death pour over the wall and over the buildings, trying to suffocate the city with their weight. The screams start, finally, as the wall collapses and shapes dart through the breach. Some of them screech with voices that are almost, but not quite human. Altered things, remade by the mist into hurt and rage. Others drift above the ground, more the wisps taking shape than something moving through them. A massive grey wave passes above the square, something grand and grotesque making its own current as it swims over the city that has denied its kind for too long.

People try to run. Some are swept by the mist and the things that come with it. Some escape through the narrow alleys beyond, but their fate will be no different. The grey dome collapses on all sides. There is no pathway. No place else exists now.

I choose to stand my ground. Not out of defiance or bravery, but for the simple, meaningful act of witnessing the end. As long as there is someone who doesn’t turn away, the mist has not destroyed everything that matters.

A vast shadow moves through the grey swirls, sweeping closer until there is nothing else in the world.

But there are other cities. And as long as someone is there to witness the end, then the end will never be final.

The Intersectionality of Personality Types and Writing Habits: Playing Against Type

Two things are true about me. First, I have some mild obsessive-compulsive tendencies, mostly manifesting as a need to optimize and organize things (but not extending to making my bed in the morning, because I’m not a monster). And second, I am, as of this stage in my development as a writer, deathly afraid of outlining.

All indications point to someone like me being in his natural habitat when it comes to planning out stories. And yet, everything I have written so far has been the very essence of pantsing, discovery writing through and through. I tried to figure out why that was, and what I came up with was both surprising, and at the same time quite obvious.

Planning out your work, as I understand it, is a way to create a structure for how it is going to go, in terms of story, theme, worldbuilding, or characters. When I listen to outliners describe the things they put down before they start writing, it feels paralyzing. I just don’t know any of this in advance! How am I supposed to begin an outline?

And I realized that I do this in my head. It is chaotic, and subject to constant revisions – as I guess all discovery writing is – but precisely because I am so prone to organizing and structuring things in my life, it is actually easier for me to hold an abstract structure in my head, rather than try to put a concrete one on digital paper.

Because the flip side of having this kind of personality means that I don’t know where to draw the line. When I try to outline, what happens is that every bullet point has a subset of bullet points, each of which needs to have further clarifying bullet points, and then I have to color them differently, based on purpose, character, or theme… and then I am absolutely lost, and feel defeated and unable to continue.

However, one does not write The Next Great Epic Space Fantasy Series through pure discovery writing. Or maybe one does, but not this one. So I have been forcing myself to learn to outline simpler stories, without adding more than the absolute bare minimum to each bullet point. And it is manageable, of course, and something I will get better at. But it was still a strange feeling, not being able to do something it seemed I should be a natural fit for.

Maybe this realization is only a surprise to me, and every other writer in the world already knows that personality types and writing habits don’t always overlap. But I thought it interesting, and hopefully others will too. It showed me that even as I am learning how to better put my thought process into a word medium, there is no particular “right” way to do so, even if it seems like there should be.