Writing the Other

I’ve been blogging almost constantly for many years now, and what happens when I do a writer’s course? I stop writing. Or not really, I’ve only stopped writing the blog – I’ve been reading and writing more than almost ever before, and these past six weeks doing the course Writing the Other with Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford.

I met Tempest on the Writing Excuses Cruise, and we spent a day at the museums in Copenhagen. She was so supportive of my writing and answered all my uninformed questions, and also told us on the cruise about this course that I then signed up for. I am so glad I did! It’s been so enlightening, and just as Tempest wrote in the last e-mail of the course – it is a safe space where you can confront your prejudices and learn things you didn’t already know about whoever is the Other for you.

The best thing about this course was getting to work on your work in progress while thinking about these things. I had already planned a lot about my world and done a lot of worldbuilding, but this really took it to the next level.

Some of the exercises reminded me of things I learned while studying psychology and philosophy. We had many courses where we analyzed movies or texts, and in philosophy class we debated and learned to really look at an argument – what is said, what is left unsaid. The same thing goes for being a psychologist: your job is often to analyze the person in front of you. Which words are being used, what do they tell you about the person. What emotions do they elicit in you, and are those emotions yours, or are they just a reaction to the emotions that the person in front of you are feeling?

Being a psychologists, being a debater – both are skills that overlap being a writer. The funny thing is, while I studied so many people at parties and acquaintances thought psychologists went around analyzing everyone all the time, and that they sometimes manipulated people because of their superior knowledge about the human nature (wrong on so many levels). But the thing is – the people who really do this, analyze other people and try to manipulate the emotions – those people are called writers!

Writing is art and entertainment, and the point of both is to evoke emotions. And to do that you need to understand human nature. To do that well you need to write convincing humans of all kinds.

To write inclusively, you need to really look at your prejudices. To know where you come from, and to realize your blind spots and to do something about it. That is what this course was so great for. I really got to read and write and think about these things intensely for a few weeks, and it shows in my writing and in my thinking.

In an ideal world every writer would do  this course! Or rather, every human being, because we all need to confront our prejudices, and learn about people who are Other than ourselves, and learn how to treat them with respect.

 

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Interview with Niklas about what it was like to be a spouse on the Writing Excuses Retreat

So how was it like being a writer’s spouse on the cruise?

It was fun to see you are not as odd as I’ve believed! There are plenty others that are crazy just like you!

 

What about the programs for the spouses?

It would have been nice with more programs, but on the other hand I had time to myself (i.e. eating half of the desserts on the boat on our balcony)

And the content of the programs?

”Supporting the writer” was almost a bit sexist in my eyes, because most who gave their talks were female spouses who supported their male spouses, with more traditional values i.e. women taking care of the kids and the man having the career.

There should be some middle ground where supporting the other doesn’t mean that one part takes care of the whole family thingy, and the other one has the career which in this case is writing. There should be a balance to things, where both can support each other’s life choices, and sometimes that means compromise.

I would have liked to have a male perspective on the same issue, where their spouse is female.

Something else you want to add?

The culture of discussion at dinner table was different than what we’re used to. It was fun to even talk religion and politics at dinner table! We as Finns are not used to especially talking about religion.

The cruise was superfun! Both for your sake, and for me personally. It was well arranged, you were obviously psyched and it was nice to talk to people with the same areas of interest.

 

 

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Writing Excuses Cruise – tips and tricks

What I did that worked:

Before going on the cruise I tried to read as many of the authors as I could. That turned out to be not all of them, because we were simply so busy trying to get the kids prepared for us being away for ten nights and all the other arrangements we had to have in place.

I quickly found out I wouldn’t have time to read full novels by all the instructors, so I opted to instead read short stories (many short stories can be found online for free). And that was so great, because it also gave me tons of inspiration for my own short stories!

I was deliberating which short story to send to my short story critique with Mary Robinette Kowal, and ended up sending the one that wasn’t already polished to my satisfaction, but that I felt needed more feedback on. And I’m so happy that I sent it, despite it not being finished, because the feedback that I got was great. There was almost no surprises, which just confirmed that I am on the right track, and thanks to the workshop I now think I know how I can transform the story from a good one to a great one. I am not there yet, that I know how to fix everything, but I can see when things are not working properly and if I get the right Beta reader’s they can help me identify the problem.

I was so nervous beforehand to attend the critique group, not to receive the critique (I have a teenager. I get critique for my stories!) but to give the critique to the other parties. I was the only newbie in the group, but they took great care of me.

If I had known beforehand just how great everything would run, I wouldn’t have been so nervous going on this trip. Whodonit Productions are just great, and all the instructors and everyone involved in the retreat went to great lengths to make it a safe and encouraging environment. And they totally succeeded!  I think all us anxious newbies felt welcomed and if you went by the sound level during dinner – everyone definitely hit it off. Big thanks to all the people arranging the retreat and the encouraging talks in the beginning (like encouraging the veterans to take care of us newbies – that definitely worked!).

My iPad had problems, but we were able to fix it while still in Kiel. I am so grateful we went to Kiel with time to spare. We got the main part of the shopping done (the kids expected gifts when we came home) and we had time to fix my keyboard.

We packed a rucksack and that came in use all the time. Both on the boat and on the excursions.

I usually have problems when being in spaces with AC, and this was no exception. I am so glad I brought my eye drops and antihistamines, they helped a bit.

What I should have done:

I should have brought more pens.

I packed four of my favourite pens, and they all broke! My plan B (to visit a stationary shop in Copenhagen) also backfired because we were in Copenhagen on a Sunday, but we luckily got a free pen that I used on the whole cruise.

I should have brought an empty water bottle. We ended up refilling a bought one, but a proper sports bottle would have been better.

I should have taken pictures of our dinner companions every night, and not just the few nights I remembered. We talked to so many people, it is difficult to remember with who on which night. I should at least have written down the names of the people we had dinner with, but we were always so tired when we went to sleep, I totally forgot.

I brought a couple of books for some of the instructors to sign (which they did very gracefully, thank you!), and then in Stockholm we went to the Science Fiction Bookstore and bought books by almost all the rest of the instructors. We had some books on Kindle, but looking back I wish I had bought all the books beforehand in paperback instead of Kindle (because I love signed books, and not signed Kindles!). I am happy I got over my Nordic shyness and asked everyone for their signature, despite myself yelling inside my head ”No you fool, stop bothering these people – they don’t want to be disturbed right now when they’re on this fantastic cruise.” I am so happy I didn’t listen to myself!

I am happy I made the most of the cruise.

I talked to so many people, and would have loved to talk to everyone some more.

Every day we met new people on the cruise, even after we were certain we had talked to everyone, and I know there were some we never got around to talk to. That part was the best – to find your own tribe, people who like the same things you do, who think in the same way and that are so helpful and encouraging.

I asked all the questions I wanted to ask of the instructors. I asked the dreaded ”Am I on the right path, and do I have what it takes to be a successful writer?”.

I showed my first three pages to one of the instructors (Thank you , Piper!) and didn’t die on the spot. I even got some great feedback so that I now feel I know what to do with the novel.

I even asked a question in front of the whole group without the ship immediately crashing into a suddenly appearing iceberg, or me having a massive heart attack. I did have a muscle in my face that twitched suspiciously immediately after asking the question without anyone pretending to notice. Later on two guys came up and talked to me about that very question and gave me some great advice, so I am so happy I found the courage and said something.

I even did cosplay, my first real cosplay if you don’t count one Halloween when I went as Madame Vastra and our then-not-teenager was the Doctor where not one of our friends (we were only a handful of families at our house) knew who I was! This time I really put an effort and went as my favourite  spirit animal at the moment – Nanny Ogg, from the books of Terry Pratchett. I need to be more like her, not minding what anyone thinks and just collection memories instead of trinkets. This was definitely a cruise she would have loved!

…and not many people knew who I was cosplaying as, which was also funny!  Plus Niklas won a medal for best prop, which was superfunny!

I also, after talking to Emma Newman (we all love her – she is the best!) took the rest of the week off writing, and we decided not to go to Tallinn in spite of having already booked a tour. We took the day off and sat in the hot tubs, had massages and had really cruisey drinks and took selfies and pretended we were on the Love Boat (Yes, we are middle aged and that old!), and tried to make everyone on Facebook jealous without succeeding (thanks Mum and Dad for the likes!). Because it was just that awesome to be on a proper vacation after so many years, knowing the kids were great and everything was taken care of.

Advice I want to give myself If I could time travel to before the cruise:

Don’t fret. It will be great – everything is taken care of, and if there are glitches the people arranging the retreat will fix it

Don’t think you will remember everything – come on, you are trying to be a writer. Write a journal!

Do make the most of the cruise, and try not to be so anxious – you are with like minded people, and almost everyone is as anxious as you are, if not more. These are your people, remember that!

 

 

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The Writing Excuses Retreat 2017 – my two cents

This was such an life-changing experience for me and my spouse Niklas – I don’t think I can do the retreat justice, but apparently now ”I am a writer!” so I’ll try.

”This is real. This is really happening!”

I’ve been listening to the Writing Excuses-podcast religiously for the last two years. Whenever I get stuck on something in my own writing, I google an episode about where I am in the process and after listening to it I always get inspired to keep writing. The instructors on the show are so encouraging, and just as much if not even more in real life!

So it felt like a once in a lifetime-opportunity when the WXR came to the Baltic Sea. Niklas and I scraped together the money for it and just went for it. All in, in all ways possible. I tried to read everything I could find on blogs about people’s experiences of the retreat, and then I took their advice.

I printed business cards (they did come in handy lots of times!), I read books of almost all the instructors (didn’t have time to read them all). I wrote down questions for the instructors. I prepared my texts. But nothing could prepare me completely for what an amazing experience it would be, in spite of everyone on the blogs gushing about it.

You need some context to really understand what I am trying to tell you.

First of all, I am from Finland, and in spite of being extroverted I still feel anxious when I meet new people and wonder what  kind of impression I leave. I have had many bad experiences over the year with people not liking my personality, which makes me a bit apprehensive when I meet new people. I had no idea what to expect from the cruise.

Secondly, Niklas and I haven’t been on a proper vacation for more than fourteen years! We went to the Mediterranean a few times when our youngest was still a baby, but at the time I was in so much pain from giving birth (I almost died) and the following surgeries, that they didn’t feel as much as vacations as a form of recovery trips, with me going back a bit more rested but still with the same ache and PTSD as before. Then we had the two little ones (who are not so little anymore! They are both 10 at the moment) and we just never had the opportunity for a proper vacation. Our private economy went belly up along with the rest of the world, and the kids were traumatized and needed stability and having parents who stayed with them 24/7.

Thirdly, I’ve actually never spoken English for more than a few minutes at a time. I listen to English every day, I read almost conclusively in English, but speak – just a couple of times for more than the short while it takes you to buy fish and chips.

And fourthly, I felt this was an opportunity to get a confirmation that I am on the right track writing-wise.

 

So  when say it was a life-changing experience, I mean life-changing.

 

We came back from the cruise well-rested and relaxed, and I have, wonder of wonder, been able to keep that sense of relaxation with me ever since (fingers crossed it remains!). I’ve slept well for the first time in more than ten years. I’ve met new friends that are my crowd, a place where I don’t feel as the odd one, but just one of the guys, one who can contribute.

There was no threshold for talking to people. Everyone was so welcoming and encouraging, even the most introverted souls on the retreat who probably were more anxious than even I was.

I’ve learned so much about LDS and Mormons (I used to be a teacher and taught religion, so I had a lot of questions that I finally got answered, like why are there so many Mormon craft blogs). I found out I speak a bit like an American when I try to speak, in spite of the school systems effort to make me sound British. I also didn’t know I had such huge blind spots when it comes to Americanisms, and had no idea a lot of Americans pronounce Copenhagen the German way (we always say ”Copen-HAYgen” when we speak English). I got to feel like a European. Haven’t felt like one since we were in South Africa, but now I suddenly identified as one, and that was a fun thing to ponder.

I love thinking about cultural differences, and on this cruise I found many likeminded individuals.

I also found people to talk pop culture with, who dig my kind of pop culture (Star Wars and Star Trek, all the SciFi on Netflix etc – you know, all the geek stuff). I didn’t feel the need to dress up if I didn’t want to – this was definitely the crowd who would have loved our 14 year old’s Doctor Who T-shirt or his Deathnote notebook! By the way, he was so jealous he didn’t get to go on the cruise! And he would have loved it.

Every night people brought out the board games or sat at tables discussing writing or awesome books or awesome movies and TV-shows. My type of crowd! I even found people who loves etymology as much as I do, which hardly ever happens.

We discussed grammatical differences and the third pronoun in Swedish, and got so many book recommendations that my reading list is about ten times as large as beforehand.

nobody got my Ann Boleyn reference btw! Not many Brits around and with them I talked other stuff… The necklace is my version of Ann Boleyn’s B-necklace

 

I felt really overwhelmed in the middle of the cruise and talked to some of my new friends who told me to go and talk to Emma Newman, and then I did just that. She was so supportive, and after that I felt relaxed and had new confidence.

I am on the right track, I can do this, I just have to stop pushing myself so hard and allow myself to go to the progress at a pace which my body also can accommodate.

After that talk I felt as if this was the best trip ever, the best vacation, the best …anything. But then amazingly it got even better!

On the last night I met not one, but two women who could totally relate to my personal story, and we had so much to talk about that I feel so sad that the trip ended that quickly, and I so hope we get to meet again in the future some time!

I’ve gone for 14 years without anyone understanding what I went through with almost dying while giving birth.

I’ve gone for 14 years without anyone understanding what it’s like to have chronic pain in your pelvis, and have your husband always having to help you with stuff.

And now suddenly, here they were – women who completely got it! I cry when I type this, because it was just such an amazing experience. I’ve googled my symptoms so many times, have tried to find support groups etc, but then I find support there on the Writing Excuses Cruise! It was just amazing.

And that maybe tells you a bit of what you can find when you are writing. Writing is not just an academic exercise, as I thought beforehand (I tried telling my brain it wasn’t, but I didn’t believe myself). Writing is art. Writing is about emotions. Writing is about finding what is hard in your life and to talk about those things.

Writing changes people, and it changes me.

I feel like I am in the perfect spot now that I am middle-aged and have all these experiences, and maybe, just maybe I can help someone through my writing and use them for something that adds to society.  Even while writing dark fantasy, because dark things happen to people and we need to read about them to process them.

 

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