Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 29, 2016

Packing 2016 Away, Remembering

I had a good 2016.

*ducks, waits for fruit to stop flying*

I did, though. I can’t be cagey about it. I’ve been collegially glum when appropriate this year, but I have to agree with Chris Kutarna, who, when speaking on CBC’s The Current this month, pointed out that periods of great disruption are going to have jolts and shakes in all directions, but we have to retain some perspective or we are at risk of becoming fatalistic. “This is a deeply contested moment,” he said, and that rang true with me. Nobody has won anything. This is not the end of history.

Picture of M used entirely without her permission.

For my little family, this is barely the beginning. My kids, Maggie & Oonagh, are now 8 and 5 years old, respectively. We are into real people territory, complete with opinions, tastes, hobbies, activities, and drama. Maggie reads non-stop, spending all her pocket money on books (benefit #1 of having a bookseller mother: any book you can find an ISBN for, at a discount.) She has become, additionally, a constant library-user. When she started finding typos in her books, she enthusiastically wondered whether perhaps this was a career path: she could read books for a living and find any errors before they go to print! Yes, Maggie discovered editing. I’ve tried to interest her in doing some guest-posts for me, or some YouTube reviews, but alas, she is – well, not shy, I should say, because she is in no way afraid to approach people in real life. But she is private. She doesn’t want her photo online, let alone her words or video. “It’s creepy,” she tells me. Well!

Oonagh learned to read this year as well, though she prefers graphic novels. More energetic by far than her sister, she prefers active games with elaborate props and settings. The stories she tells are delightful, if a little – shall we say, misleading? Her teachers are under several misconceptions about Oonagh’s home life due to her storytelling. We lucked into a teacher this year who is absolutely understanding, however; open-minded when corrected and very keen to encourage her storytelling. “Maybe she will be a writer!” she enthused at parent-teacher interview time. My partner and I both groaned. “Can’t you make her be a doctor?” I was joking, sort of.

The very best thing about kids growing older is that they loosen their grip on you. I went out more this year than I have in the previous ten years, and I’ve been able to take on projects I never could have before. In addition to publishing three new short stories (and two reprints), this year I wrote and performed a story accompanied by the incredible Junction Trio – “Distant Skies.” I learned about lighting and microphones, about the technical limitations of theremin(s?) and the rehearsal habits of professional musicians. I learned I really enjoy stage work, and I plan to do more in the future.

And there was more! I went to Ad Astra, launched Clockwork Canada twice, and read to a crowded room at SFContario. I hosted a really lovely music + writing workshop as part of the House Culture Festival. I went out to a book launch or drinks with writers at least once a month. I felt nourished, supported, and part of something that’s moving in a good direction.

It was also a year for professional firsts. I was nominated for both the Sunburst and Aurora Awards. The same story was listed on both the Nebula recommended reading and Locus recommended reading lists. I sold a story to my very-first Best Of anthology. I had my very first magazine cover. I had my very first Podcast story. I became eligible for full SFWA membership.

By the numbers? I submitted 17 stories (!) 32 times. 14 of these submissions were reprint submissions, which was my biggest push this year.  I sold 2 reprints and another 9 are still under consideration. That only means 3 reprint rejections, but who is counting?

Of the 8 unpublished stories that I submitted the remaining 18 times, 2 were sold – both on their first submission. The remaining 6 poor stories are mostly ones I have had in circulation for three years now. You’d think I’d take the hint, but no. What would I submit, if not these poor, neglected babies?

New writing, maybe? This year, I wrote approximately 54,000 words of new fiction, half of which went into a novel that is now on hold. I did finish 3 new stories, though; two novelettes and a short. I wrote mountains of non-fiction, worldbuilding, and plans. I didn’t track the latter this year, but I can say with certainty that I wrote something almost every day this year, even if it wasn’t publishable word count.

2017 is already prepped to be exciting. I have two publications on the horizon – one in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction 2017 and another soon-to-be-announced work that I am particularly fond of.

We are looking for new venues for more revised, polished performances of  “Distant Skies.” And we enjoyed the process so much that violinist Ivana Popovic and I have plans to do more music/science fiction collaborations in the future under the name Theiamania. 

I am half way through a novella-length alt-history murder mystery, set in the same world as “La Héron.” The main character is a banker with a preference for flings with ogres, and I love her.

And, last but not least, I have a serial in progress. The details will have to be terrible secret at the moment, but suffice to say this project is going to be big, fun, exciting, amazing, and so, so good.

You guys. 2017. It’s gonna be great.

December 18, 2016

On Focus and Reading

My brain feels like swiss cheese, only instead of holes, I have portals. Tunnels, sucking me out of my brain and into some other place, some other thought, and then sideways, down again, and – and I’m already off topic, because I barely know what the topic was. So, I will go back to the middle, and then digress a few times to points earlier than that, and maybe, if I’m lucky, I might find a beginning that hints at a source, or a cause, of my problems.

I have always had a hard time focusing on one thing, but it has become worse. So much worse. Infinitely worse.

Initially, I pegged the point where my lack of focus was actually hindering me – as opposed to just causing a kind of multitasking superself that could accomplish multiple things at once – as the decision to start taking anti-anxiety medication. The drugs helped me in so many ways that I didn’t mind much that I was having trouble with my memory, short term especially. My brain was overactive before, being merely active should have been fine.

But things slip from me now like I’m carrying water in a net. It’s not just funny things, like putting the sugar pot into the freezer or calling a bus a train. I read ten pages of a book and find I have no idea what I’m reading about. I’ve been thinking about something else, something unrelated. Or I schedule a lunch date and a doctor’s appointment into the same slot, and despite knowing I have both upcoming, I fail to notice they conflict. They’re on parallel, separate, timelines in my head. I don’t put them together until I’m in trouble.

I blamed the drugs, but in all honesty, the stress of the events leading up to the decision to take drugs had caused my brain to fragment long before drugs got involved, and the extra work I took on in its wake didn’t help either. I’m assured that this kind of dysfunction is common in overworked people. “Pregnancy brain”, “mommy brain”, and, probably, “freelancer brain” are all real things that turn high-functioning adults into badly-trained puppies. I’m told I should relax, maybe take less on. I had an ex who told me his over-worked sister had a stroke in her 30s, and I should be mindful of that. I dismissed that, at the time, as not how strokes work. Now I wonder.

But could I ever focus? Really? I recall being a teenager, sitting in my favourite spot on a baseboard heater, trying to read – something – but being so distracted by my own reactions to the text that I just couldn’t make any headway. I had my journal at my elbow, and I’d have to put the book down and write instead; get my own thoughts out of the way. I say “out of the way” like I could dump them, then go back to the text unimpeded; but no. Once my brain was headed in another direction, there was nothing to do but follow it. I’d start a novel instead, or a web venture, or rope three friends into mounting some kind of expedition. There was nothing for it, really. I never finished anything.

My generation is remarked upon as being one with no focus, no ability to read or learn deeply. We, society, blame media. That might be it. I’m on the edge, GenX by some calculations and Millennial by others, but the internet came early into my life in the form of BBSes and the Carleton University Freenet in the early ’90s. I was always dividing my brain space between what I was supposed to be doing, and this secondary track wondering, how was I going to mine what I was doing for a good narrative to share? Could I post about this to alt.gothic, or send an email about it to the-boy-I-liked?

If media – social media – is to blame, can I pull back? Is the solution to my lack of focus, to my declining memory, to flip a switch, go offline? The world is full of pundits who certainly think so. But they tell stories of existence that mean nothing to me. They have always been good, focused students who chose to avoid the distraction of the internet, or introverts who were just as happy without external stimulus. I read a study about alcoholics recently that found the people with the easiest time avoiding alcohol were – get ready for it – people who didn’t really like alcohol anyway. Alcoholics had a taste for it.

Extroverts, too, are energized by social interaction, and what is the internet if not a constant, 24/7 source of stimulation? Introverts find this tiring, but I’m not an introvert, and never have been. I’m not going to become one by quitting Twitter. Even as a child, before media, I invented friends in my head and spoke to them for hours. I started journaling at a very early age, more interaction with an imaginary companion. I wrote letters to all my friends and talked to them on the phone whenever possible. It’s not media. It’s me.

When I realized I was having greater-than-usual problems with my focus, I thought it might be my nearly-drugged brain needing time to form new connections. The net needed to be woven a little tighter. I could still take on everything, I just needed to practice. Like mythical monks or vikings, my version of training involved beating my head against the stone wall in order to make it stronger. I’m not sure if it’s working, or if I’m giving myself a concussion. Is it both? Maybe I need more training.

Last night I found myself playing video games – one of the few things I can focus on, because of whatever it is that makes hyperfocus work – and I realized I was too tense, too stimulated to get to sleep. So I shut my device off and picked up my book instead. My brain physically hurt. I’d been having headaches for days. Christmas does this too me – too much to remember and keep track of. Even I can see a limit when it is that obvious. So I climbed into bed, picked up my book and resolved to relax and focus.

Within moments, I could feel the hole. A portal, with a tunnel. I wanted to channel what I was reading – and the fifty thousand ideas it had spawned already – out. I was composing Tweets and a blog post and wondering how I could use this idea for a story and wondering if I should Google stroke symptoms. It was the same feeling you get when you get “sucked into” a book, only it was sucking me out; or perhaps sucking me into something else, something more fragmented. I tried not thinking, but that just made me sleepy, and the whole point of reading this book (interviews with authors) was to make me think. I wanted to be sucked into the book, not out. Why can’t I just focus?

How does anyone? I could have read a stupider book, I suppose; something that would only amuse me and not give me any cause to think about anything. Or I could have kept a notebook at hand, like I used to – a bedside book to make notes as I read. I could try to “just listen,” reserving reaction until I had absorbed the whole, but I can’t even do this in a conversation. If I wait for someone to finish their soliloquy, I can’t remember by the end what I’d been desperate to say at the beginning. I am a terrible interrupter. Apologies to literally everyone I have ever met in real life.

I try to imagine the habits of great, deep readers of pre-media pasts. What did they do? Could they somehow channel their own ideas and thoughts into a holding area of their brain, to be written out and expanded upon at the end? Is this a brain-building skill, like a memory palace? Will it help me hold all of this *gestures at all of space and time* a little better?

How is it done, and can it be done by me?

I don’t really know.