Category Archives: Rant

Falling into our verjaardagskalender

Shady and I had an adventure with some very good friends from the Netherlands towards the end of 2019. We visited Dumbarton Castle and Auchentoshan Distillery, and at dinner they gave us a ‘verjaardagskalender’—a birthday calendar. They laughingly explained the rather Dutch gift to my American husband:

“You write the birthdays of all your friends in and hang it in the guest toilet, and whenever people go to the toilet at your house they sit on the pot and check to see if they made it into your calendar. So when we visit your house we’ll check if our birthdays are there.”

Shady hung up the calendar as instructed, and he fills out each month as we get to it. May’s picture is of a place I’ve never been: a terrace in Museumdorp Orvelte, in the province of Drenthe.

Loved ones with May birthdays: our apologies, we haven’t gotten round to filling May out.

The thing is, I have been there. Not that specific location, but that sunny afternoon. The cobbled terrace outside a beautiful old building, the bicycles going by, the sound of women gossiping in fluent Dutch. It makes me homesick for a place I haven’t lived in over a decade. Self-isolation makes me long for places less than three miles away—let me walk down a busy street in town! let me sit in a bustling café!—but the curious mix of nostalgia and longing I get when I look at that picture hits like a freight train.

It’s no surprise. The ongoing isolation heightens emotions I’d know how to handle at other times. The whole thing feels like being a teenager again, with that sense that something is fighting to the surface of you and your body isn’t big enough to hold it. Just like back then, it has nowhere to go; there’s just a morass of uncertainty. What will the future hold? It can’t be predicted—not because you don’t know the world, this time, but because the world is changing too drastically for your past experiences to help you.

As if being a teenager once wasn’t enough!

I’m continuing to reach out to people, and my daily life isn’t that different from before. My musician dad does wonderful livestreams on Facebook every Sunday. My grandad sings “we’ll meet again” in the background of my phone calls with granny. I’m grateful for all the ways this isn’t affecting me—but sometimes I sit on the toilet for longer than I need to, and fall into a picture of a sunny terrace in the Netherlands.

Pre-Eurovision last year, on my friend’s back porch in Leiden. We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…

Grief for the past, hope for the future

Today is a bad day.

Lots of days are bad days. If I measured my moods by my grief and panic over political events—not to mention ecological ones—I don’t think I’d have a good day in my life. Constant sadness isn’t an option, but on the day the UK formally leaves the EU I think I can allow myself to feel it. I am what smug twitter commenters with the overall demeanour of Nelson from the Simpsons call a Remoaner. They tell us to face facts: we lost. The people voted. Men without compassion or integrity won—and now I have to see their glowing, victorious faces everywhere.

I’m not sure how I’d feel about Brexit if its proponents were less smug. If I felt this vote represented some true desire Brits had for a better, more unified country, maybe it would be easier to take—but I suspect it wouldn’t. It’s too personal. My childhood was a bona fide manifestation of the European dream. In this dream, my Scottish parents moved to the Netherlands, learned the language while having my brother and me, and I grew up with two home countries instead of one. It was an enormous privilege. The fact that my passport said ‘United Kingdom’ didn’t matter. UK meant EU. Maybe I was odd, not-quite-Dutch and not-quite-Scottish, but it’s an oddness that enriched my life rather than detracting from it. Sometimes I’m jealous of people with deep roots in one single place, who can answer “where’s home?” without stumbling through the answer, but that doesn’t mean I’d change anything. My odd upbringing, as well as the seven years in the USA after, mean no one can tell where I’m from by my accent—but I know where I’ve been. I’m grateful for the opportunities my family and I were given.

I want others to have them too.

Fast-forward through my years in America. I moved to Dundee in late 2014: not in time for Scotland’s vote on Independence, but in plenty of time to vote Remain in the EU referendum. Boris Johnson is selective in choosing when Scotland’s votes matter. They matter when Scottish people vote to stay in the UK—under threat that leaving the UK will force them out of the EU—but they don’t matter when Scottish people vote overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. It’s almost like he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.

(Spoiler alert: he doesn’t give a shit about Scotland.)

In the interest of full disclosure—despite what my pro-Indie family might think of me for admitting this!—I wasn’t convinced on Independence when I moved to Scotland. Some part of me was glad I didn’t get a vote. I didn’t know the situation, and sentimental feelings inspired by folk songs and tragic stories of oppression don’t add up to a functioning government. Now I’ve lived here, and it’s a different story. I’ve seen clearly how the Scottish government shields us, at least in part, from England’s endless appetite for privatisation. The people in charge of England want their country to be just like America, where the environment and poor people’s lives come second to companies turning a profit. Makes sense for Tory politicians; they’re rich. They’ll never have to live in places like Grenfell Tower, and they don’t have to face the negative consequences of their policies. They don’t even have to face the consequences of lying to voters. It’s harrowing, and my heart hurts for all the people in England anticipating more of the same austerity that has already claimed too many lives—but I believe better is possible for Scotland. I see the work the people around me are doing, whether they were born here or simply adopted the country as their own. They’re working to get better pay for teachers, or to protect the environment, or to shine light on the horrific imprisonment of immigrants at Dungavel. I see them caring deeply about their communities and the public good. These are the people who deserve to inherit the Earth, not slogan-slinging hypocrites who confuse politeness with morality.

Regardless, I’m getting off track. This was meant to be about the EU, and it’s becoming about Scottish Independence. The thing is, I trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to human rights. I even trust Brussels over Westminster when it comes to caring about Scotland. You’d have to walk around Scotland with blinders on not to see all the roads, parks, and organisations that have been supported by the EU. The fact that some EU rules don’t have their intended effect and ought to be reconsidered is par for the course; that’s how governments work. It’s an EU rule that stopped businesses from dumping their waste into our waterways. I’m sure that was extremely inconvenient at the time, but is anyone going to argue we’d be better off with polluted rivers?

Never mind—I’m sure someone would argue that. Letting businesses pollute your country is great for economic growth, after all.

I’m disappointed. I grieve for a thing I thought I couldn’t lose. Growing up I thought progress was inevitable, that society would always improve on itself until we built a world so great it was boring. I thought that when we saw injustice, we’d fix it—not capitalise on it. How ignorant was I?

Instead the reality is this, and I suspect many people born with less privilege knew it all along: movement towards a more equal society is driven by good people fighting for their rights and the rights of others. Women weren’t given the vote. African Americans weren’t given freedom. Not much is changing on this day—not in any physical sense—but something good is slipping further from our grasp. The EU’s founding values are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Things worth fighting for, and things worth holding the European Union accountable for when it falls short. I don’t want to leave. A majority of Scotland’s people don’t want to leave.

I don’t intend to go quietly. My friends and I will organise and whinge and protest. ‘Remoaner’ is right. Screw every disingenuous, rich prick who pushed us into this mess. They deserve to live the lives they consign others to.

Happy Friday. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Out of Time

At long last, it happened!

What happened?

I finished reading I Capture The Castle.

“Why would you frame such a non-event like there’s actual news?”

My reason is simple: “because”! Writing/publishing updates seem less interesting than reading updates. The querying process for book one of my space opera with Ash continues to be a waiting game, and we’re working on other things in the meantime. There are thousands of advice posts that can tell you about querying in general, so it feels boring for me to rehash it, even though I’m sure it’s at least mildly interesting for non-writers. The short version is: we’ve had lots of rejections and a few full & partial requests, but waiting on an answer is like waiting for a warm, non-windy day in Scotland. Suffice to say I’m not holding my breath.

This is where anyone reading with a focus on my career should stop reading, as no more progress-relevant details will be discussed from this point onward. My computer scientist husband beta-read this post and said that, while he enjoyed it (which I think he was telling the truth about), it’s ‘definitely a ramble’.

So here’s the actual subject of the post: the concept of being out of your time. Beyond your time. (Not to be confused with the platitude “ahead of their time”.) Does that make sense? You’re right, it doesn’t. Let me try to explain:

I’ve always loved stories about loneliness brought on by displacement. Being alive and a human being is hard, and in fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—we can see characters we love struggle through a landscape that makes this struggle more literal. A character can leave their home, their loved ones… but they can also leave the time they know, whether they spend years in stasis or walk into a mushroom circle to be transported three-hundred years into the future. That’s what I mean by “out of time”: a character leaves behind the world they know, and suddenly they’re somewhere temporally separated from all the things they care about. You can get a sense of the past that birthed them reaching for them, but that time will never reach them again. The people who were important then may have thought of the character, may have wished to speak to the character again, but those people are only memories now. And in the present, the character may long for those people—but can’t return.

It’s grief and change and the march of time we all experience put in more obvious terms, and no mushroom circles are needed in reality—but SFF dealing with characters “out of their time” gives a vivid illustration of something I know to be true:

You can’t go back.

The trope reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:

I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between places.

It’s simple truth, but I love seeing it written into the plot of a story. One story I love that dealt with a character out of her time is Medair, by Andrea K. Höst, which involves a champion who goes to find a mythical weapon that will turn the tide of the war destroying her empire—only to return, weapon in hand, centuries too late. Then there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game, where an outcast in a post-post-apocalyptic world goes in search of her mother and the truth of her society. She becomes a force to be reckoned with in the present, gaining recognition she would have longed for when she was an outcast child, but the search for truth leads her again and again into the distant past, to people she can’t possibly gain recognition from. She can’t punish those who did wrong; she can’t reassure those who hoped they did right. She’s a witness to a story that’s already unfolded, and it’s heartbreaking as well as hopeful as she’s forced to do what she can in the present.

Thousands of non-genre novels deal with the same theme. Characters try to connect with their ancestors and draw meaning from history—but I’m a shallow person who enjoys the shininess of fantasy and science fiction, where this quandary can be brought to the fore in especially beautiful ways.

Anyway, I digress. The nature of reaching for the past and falling just short of it brings us—at last!—to I Capture The Castle and the reason for this rambling post. This classic novel by Dodie Smith isn’t fantasy or science fiction, and doesn’t deal with any sort of time travel. It was just written in the past, which is the relevant point for me today. Smarter and more literary people than me can explain the book better I’m sure, but it’s an exploration of a girl’s adolescence as set down in her journals. She’s imaginative, introspective, given to flights of fancy and melodrama—and in her extremely sincere attempts to get to the heart of what this whole “being alive” thing is about, she has reminded generations of readers of their own adolescence, when they were experiencing things for the first time and filled with their own questions and musings.

Original cover of "I Capture the Castle".
The original cover of “I Capture the Castle”.

And so: a book written in the past, depicting an imagined past inspired by the real past, sends readers back to their pasts. Then we come to what inspired this ramble. After the ending, I leafed back to a random page of the introduction to skim, and read the line “by her death in 1990—” about the author’s life and legacy.

I’ve looked it up: Dodie Smith died towards the end of November in 1990, about 3 months before I was born. There’s always something strange about people whose lifetimes didn’t quite overlap with yours. If I reached out towards the very start of my life, and she reached out to the very end of hers, our fingertips would almost—but not quite—touch. Yet the girl, time, and place she depicted in I Capture the Castle long ago connects with the me existing now and the imagined me I remember from my own adolescence.

The whole time connect/disconnect is a fanciful study in contrasts Cassandra Mortmain, main character and dreamer, would probably like. And the image excites me for all the intersections of past, present and future we get to experience just by being alive and interacting with our environment. Perhaps more importantly for me as a writer, it excites me for the way fiction allows us to connect beyond gaps that seem unbridgeable. Time is the longest distance, and anyway, I don’t want to brush shoulders (or fingertips!) with all the authors whose work I admire even if they happen to be alive today; meeting heroes can be disappointing. Still, it seems like a huge privilege that we get to share these experiences, whether the distance between author and reader is temporal or simply the distance between two squishy, differently wired brains.

Sometimes I look at the length of my to-read list and see it as a chore to be managed instead of an opportunity for the kind of connection that makes art seem worthwhile and life worth living, but I prefer it when it feels like this. All sparkly and full of opportunity.

It makes me want to write.

Writing with and without depression

Today my husband told me he was tired of seeing the otter on my front page. Putting aside the fact that people should never be tired of seeing cute otters, he did have a point: this blog has been gathering dust for a while. Well, let’s change that.

Lee Pace gifs: a fresh new feature of my blog.

2018 was an incredibly uncomfortable year for me—and also a plain incredible one. It started, as all calendar years do, in winter. I had a good, consistent exercise routine, I endeavoured to eat healthy and write a lot, I was surrounded by people I loved and talked to them regularly… and I was miserable. At the time I put this down to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which didn’t make a huge deal of sense as I’d just spent almost three weeks in Florida celebrating Christmas and New Year with my family, but it turns out that feeling miserable all the time doesn’t leave you a lot of energy for accurate self-reflection.

Thankfully, it wasn’t just me seeing me. My misery was closely tied to my writing, and 2017 had seen me try something entirely new: co-writing a book. My co-author was Ash, a friend I’d met in fandom, and we had no idea what we were doing—but we did it anyway. We raced our way through NaNoWriMo, and then Ash kept going and I stalled out.

It wasn’t writing I hated—I still loved writing fanfiction—but I hated producing original content. It made me feel vulnerable, unqualified, forced to make decisions I didn’t want to make. (This post from July 10 2017 seems, in hindsight, a fairly obvious attempt to conquer those feelings; it didn’t work.) Ash and I had poured ourselves into this book we both loved, with characters we both loved, and I couldn’t stand to work on it. Needless to say, Ash had a few questions… and a few theories.

Eventually, I accepted the idea that I might need help. This became another problem, as my denial turned out to be the only thing keeping me afloat. Once I stopped denying how I felt—and how I’d been feeling for a long time—I became terrified that I’d visit my GP and he’d tell me I was fine. Worse: that this was just how I was going to feel for the rest of my life.

I went to my GP, and he didn’t tell me I was fine. He told me that, given my lifestyle (ie: doing ‘everything right’ yet still depressed), I was a good candidate for antidepressants. An uncomfortable adjustment period followed. The nausea was no joke, but over the course of about a month I started feeling different. It was REALLY odd. Music brought on a storm of emotions. I got angry sometimes, instead of feeling resigned. Colours seemed more vibrant.

Me after a month of meds.

Anyway, the ins and outs are too many and too legion to properly discuss in a blogpost that’s meant to be about writing. Suffice to say that, once I had Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors on my side, I had the energy and the capacity to make changes. It’s amazing what a brain can do when it’s not waging war with itself; knots years in the making began to untangle, and my relationship with myself improved. Finally I could relax—and once I could relax I could have fun.

It took time, but original writing became something I loved again, the way I loved it as a teenager before it ever occurred to me to doubt myself. I’ve had more joy in original writing the past year than I did in the five years previous. Being a ‘tortured artist’ helped me about as much in my writing career as repeatedly stubbing my toe would have.

Antidepressants aren’t the solution for every depressed person, but my experiences have given me some insight. I have no patience for people who see antidepressants as a quick fix or a band-aid. For one thing, it wasn’t quick. Every week I stumbled over a new stupid thing I had to change about myself to be happier. For another, so what if people need chemical help to feel happy? Sadness is not inherently more authentic than happiness. It’s just sadness. It feels bad and it drains your energy. It stops you from being able to fix the things that make you unhappy, then calls you lazy to boot.

I’m calling it: you can’t “mind over matter” when your mind doesn’t have the right matter. I’ve spent the past year unlearning all the unhealthy coping mechanisms I picked up in half a decade of struggling to overcome depression without medication; I ought to know. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe The Good Place actress Kristen Bell. She speaks openly about her mental health struggles, and hearing this from people like her—who seem bubbly and successful and like they couldn’t possibly struggle with anything more laborious than picking out cute outfits—should help people realise this isn’t about trying, or weakness, or a person’s community being unsupportive. The worst thing about going on meds for me was the sense that I had all the tools to be happy and yet somehow failed. I’d failed my family and my friends and myself. I’d taken all the love people around me gave, and I’d squandered it by letting myself fall into this pit.

Screw that outlook. Sometimes love isn’t enough. It doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s, and it doesn’t cure cancer, and it doesn’t cure depression. How lucky we are, then, that we live in a world where people are learning to treat these diseases.

I love writing again. I love coming up with characters and pelting them with problems. I love messaging Ash about what would happen if we stuck our characters in a supernatural novel instead of a science fiction one. At the most basic level, I love forming sentences in aesthetically pleasing ways, and letting an image take shape. I love this skill I have that, by my fifth year post-university, I’d learned to resent.

Some things don’t change with the right amount of serotonin. Rejection still sucks. Putting myself out there is still hard—but I’m lucky. I am so, so lucky. And thanks to modern medicine, the NHS, and the people around me, I can finally feel the truth of that statement.

It feels good.

The Hunger Games post

For a while now I’ve been promising the amazing Ingrid that I’d write “that post” about the Hunger Games. You know—the one that compares the books to the movies and finds the movies wanting. Until Mockingjay Pt 2 came out, I didn’t think I’d be writing a post like that, because—apart from the first film—I thought many of the book-to-movie changes had been well done.

Unfortunately, here we are..!

Turn back the clock a few years to when the first Hunger Games movie came out. My facebook feed was awash with people complaining that it was either a cheap imitation of Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale, depending on who you asked. I’ve only read summaries of these works—and passionate arguments that people miss the point of LotF by ignoring that it’s a response to The Coral Island—but I doubt they’re the same thing. Fights to the death, yes—but that’s the grisly window dressing, not the point.

The Hunger Games series, for me, was the reverse hero’s journey. It’s the Disney’s Hercules scene where Hercules jumps into the green underworld goop to rescue Meg (Prim), but he fails and never goes back to being his shiny muscle-bound self; in fact, people have to stop him several times from jumping into the underworld toilet bowl himself. Katniss doesn’t emerge from her story a hero; she emerges from her story heavily scarred and unable to perform basic tasks, at least until much later, after a concentrated effort to heal and put trauma behind her. I saw that referenced in the movie, but I never quite believed it. I waited dry-eyed for Katniss’s grief to move me (I was crying five minutes into Mockingjay Pt 1) and found myself unmoved. What the hell, movie?! I knowingly didn’t wear make up when I went to see you!

Anyway, to recap the books: at the start of the story we have a heroine who’s willing to sacrifice herself for her sister, but who still fights tooth and nail for survival. At the end (minus the epilogue), we have a heroine who just wants to die. When she can’t take a suicide pill, she starves herself. She suffers from PTSD (has done for two books now) and she’s physically so weak that, back in District 12 after going out to her old haunts, she has to be rolled back to her house in a cart used to move the bodies of the dead.

In the movie, I didn’t see that weakness. Her burn wounds healed in a matter of moments, and the next time I saw her she was made up and perfect. She was composed and beautiful days after her great loss, and I don’t recall a scene where a team made up a gaunt and lifeless Katniss—I couldn’t tell that she was empty on the inside, though of course it’s harder to show that on screen. Still, to my mind, movie Katniss went from strength to strength, overcoming incredible trauma to deliver a trite lecture on survival in the last few minutes of the film. If the movies hadn’t been split into two parts I might have accepted the lack of emotional development (or degeneration, I suppose), but with the amount of time this movie had to spend on characters I’d hoped for more, and it makes me suspicious that one of the biggest themes in The Hunger Games—the eventual helplessness and trauma of the hero—was not deemed acceptable movie material.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I think the last movie was made too palatable for general audiences, and I say that as someone who pretty much hated the last book in the series. I hated it—but I hated it because I wanted to believe the hero could always overcome the odds, and Katniss couldn’t. What made for a dull narrative (hero is always caught up in other people’s struggles, loses will to live, is moved about by other players) made for a powerful message. If the message had happened in a literature book it would have been acknowledged, but because it happened in a dystopian YA book, I think people ignored how unusual it was, and the movie didn’t manage to carry it to a wider audience. Hence, disappointment—and that’s it for The Hunger Games post. Long story short, I believe Collins deserves credit for writing an unusual narrative that acknowledges trauma, the helplessness of political figureheads, and how long it can take to heal. The movies, while improving on certain aspects, failed to carry that message home.