One of the reasons I love Twitter so much, is that if you miss a great joke (especially pertaining to SF/F writers, and the like), someone else will share.

From xkcd, via @mightymur (aka, the incredible Mur Lafferty).

Lady with a luteIf growing up means you can no longer play pretend, I want nothing to do with it. In fact, I’d like to go so far as to that I am, as of right now, declaring myself a professional pretender. I want to be a bard.

What am I on about? I’ve been spending a lot of time pondering my craft, lost in the labyrinth of my own brain, opening doors that have either been shut for too long, or have been cracked open, but not yet fully discovered. Prompted by no small part by some of Matt Staggs’s recent posts at Enter the Octopus, I’ve been waxing pensive (okay and maybe a little poetic) about this “new” age of writing and storytelling. I completely agree with Matt that the Internet has ushered in a new era of storytelling, where writers, readers, and publishers (well, sometimes) are connected on a level never imagined. Not only do we, as writers, have a direct feed to mountains of information (where would I be without Wikipedia or BoingBoing?), but we have direct feeds to audiences, looking for us. It’s no longer a matter of publishing houses telling readers what the next big thing is: they already know!

The thing is, even in this era of technology, gadgets, and ever growing worldwide problems, fiction is needed now more than ever. Fiction functions to keep us hoping, to inspire, to get us thinking outside our mundane little cubicles.

When I was in college and graduate school, my main era of study was the Middle Ages. As such, I tend to have a really backward view of how things work. Once upon a time, in our own world, storytellers, bards, and the like were revered. The Irish bards were a kind of druid, and held the lore and history of their entire culture in their minds (to our knowledge, they never wrote anything down). Sure, stories changed with the telling, but that was part of the fun. In some regions, being a bard was the highest calling one could have; remember, the majority of the population could not read, and certainly no one had televisions (um, duh). People depended on storytellers to transport them out of their dreary worlds into the space of the imagination.

So what’s happened to the bards and troubadours? Where have they gone? Most of us can’t go off to barding school (though, if you’ve been following along in my podcast, you’ll notice I invented one and sent Emry to it). Even if we write thousands of pages and novels and stories, there’s no guarantee that anyone will read them. In most circles, barding or writing or storytelling isn’t a viable option.

That is, unless you make it available.

Because, if you care about sharing your stories with others–if you care about continuing the tradition of storytelling–there are plenty of options. You can publish with a Creative Commons license, you can podcast, you can attend virtual writers’ gatherings and meet other bloggers and writers just like you. Instead of letting your manuscript languish at the bottom of a slush pile (which is still an option, of course, not that it doesn’t occasionally work), you can be proactive.

Sure, we all want to be the next bestseller. But don’t just assume it’s going to happen to you overnight (if at all, says the skeptic part of my brain). Remember, bards had to travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles to share their stories; modern day writers need to, too. Ours are just measured in bps rather than feet.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by John KeatsCompulsion is described as:

the act of compelling; constraint; coercion.
the state or condition of being compelled.
Psychology. a strong, usually irresistible impulse to perform an act, esp. one that is irrational or contrary to one’s will.

Writing is a strange habit, and certainly not one too many people engage in. There are lots of reasons for this. It is extremely time consuming; it requires focus, drive, and endless creativity; it is something done, with some exceptions, in near solitude.

And yes, it is, as Chaucer might say, “passing straunge.”

I have strange days when I open up Scrivener, and stare at the words–the words upon words–and can’t imagine where it all came from. I know, of course, that I’ve done it, that I’ve written the words and have told the story. But I can’t tell you where inspiration comes from, and I certainly can’t explain the magic formula involved when it actually goes right. Because, with writing–for me, at least–there is very little in the way of planning. Precious few are the days, hours, minutes, that I set aside for pure writing actually successful.

In spite of the loss of 10k words this week, the proof to me is that: hey, I wrote. I didn’t feel like I was, but I managed 10k in two weeks. 5k a week isn’t too shabby, that’s for sure, considering most of this “edit” has been a complete rewrite.

It’s rare that I go out of my way to share much of my writing. First of all, explaining fantasy novels–let alone steampunk fantasy novels–to anyone is trecherous territory. You either get it or you don’t.

The truth is, though, whether or not the novels, the stories, the poems ever see the light of day, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t stop writing, I can’t stop playing pretend. Because, really, that’s what it is. In fact, I can trace it back: I started writing novels when I stopped playing pretend with my little sister. We had an incredible world, she and I, filled with the kind of magic and mystique that only little girls can muster in the closeness and imaginative golden years of youth.

But, like Susan Pevensie, I suppose, I had to grow up. I was twelve and, at least according to me, much too old to be pretending to be someone I was not. Yet, the imagining didn’t cease. I wrote alone for a while, then brought my sister on board, and later wrote with my friend. Then when I was 15, I started the long dark years of teenaged angst, and didn’t write much (other than music, that is). And even in undergraduate school, I didn’t write much. This was mostly due to a rather stifling relationship that honestly didn’t leave any room for me. The stuff I did write was for workshops in my writing courses, and certainly not for me. I never could let go in those classes.

It took graduate school for me to revisit the book I’d started rather haphazardly when I was 18. That novel is finished, per se, but it still is lacking. I’ve probably been through it five times and I seriously doubt it can be resurrected. It’s a good story, but it’s so young. As I wrote it I could feel my writing improve, I could tell I was getting better; it’s hard to keep consistent when you’re growing that much.

Now, life is no less difficult–but it is different, in many ways. The Aldersgate is more than just my novel in progress; it was, you see, my way out of a very dark place, in the aftermath of postpartum depression. It brought me hope that I could write again, that I could create, and that there was light somewhere, even if it felt very distant. Slowly but surely, the world of the novel was revealed, in snippets, in voices, in conversations. It was as if after the suffering, the terror of nearly losing my son after he was born (and, I’m told, nearly dying myself bringing him into the world), I was given a gift.

I often say that Emry, the Bard, is the closest to me in the story. And at first, I thought it was because he was musical, and often clumsy, slightly foppish, and certainly a romantic at heart (curse me, but I am). But as I continue to write him, and to explore his growth in my novel, I realize that we share something else in common: suffering. We’ve been places that we can’t explain to people, even if we tried. And in spite of it all, we risk that suffering again because we love–not just our work and our calling, but our friends, too.

All that said, I’m feeling rather reflective since the Great Hard-Drive Explosion of 2008. Every now and again I feel as if I walk into another chapter of my own life; the light is different, the stars have moved, and there’s a new song to be sung.

So, with that, I suppose it’s time to move on along.

O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us—O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads, and smile;
Lift up your heads, sweet Spirits, heavily,
And make a pale light in your cypress glooms,
Tinting with silver wan your marble tombs.— Keats, “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil”

The Valkyrie\'s VigilYes, I realize my post title looks a little like a thesis topic (save for the Talking Heads reference, hah!). And although I will be the first to dispel the often nebulous and detrimental highways and byways of literary criticism, I can’t be completely free of it.

But to the point. I am a woman, and a writer. And by and large, a lover of fantasy, science-fiction, steampunk, and a great many other genres and subgenres. Fantasy comes first, and always has, by way of Tolkien, Lewis, and L’Engle, with whom I attribute to saving my sanity as a child and, in many ways, showing me what I need to do with my life.

But I can’t help but feel altogether disappointed, most of the time, when it comes to women in fantasy. I think my first big disappointment came from Tolkien, really. Certainly, there is Eowyn; and Arwen and Galadriel wield their own powers well. But as far as the main characters in the story are concerned, there are no women–not in the fellowship, not from the Shire. Eowyn, the only woman that takes up a sword and fights has to disguise herself as a man to get any respect at all, and in the end, quietly marries and has done with it.

This “warrior-princess” role has been adopted as one of the main archetypes in fantasy fiction in the years after Tolkien, with its own adaptations. You can’t peruse the shelves at your local bookstore without the busty, iron-clad, berserker-haired shield maidens with less skin coverage than a garden-variety stripper. Oh, she’s sexy (if you’re into… that, I guess) and savvy, and she’ll fight as well as any man. But more than anything, she sells the books.

No, I don’t have a problem with women fighting. I also understand that the bias regarding women as warriors stems from age-old legends and myths; these are stories in which “men are men, and women are women” to put it to the old cliche. And that’s fine. But by and large, the sexist view of women as trollops is only bound to discredit fantasy as a genre even further.

What bothers me about women in fantasy is the tendency for authors to simply stop asking the hard questions. Women are very different than men; we face different issues growing up, and we even think differently (recent science has done some fascinating research into this area). For this reason women in fantasy tend to fall into the Arthurian dichotomy–either you’re like Morgan le Fay: an adulterous, evil-minded, conniving crazy woman, or you’re like Elaine: fragile and honorable, but damaged and idealistic. Of course, there are plenty of shades in between. I haven’t read everything, and I doubt I’ll get the chance to before I die–but you get my point.

This is all quite dangerous territory. And I don’t suppose I have a concrete answer; really, it’s a comment. I want more. I want more from heroines than dressing up as men and fighting; I want more of the conflicts and difficulties it takes being a woman; I want more writers to play with our heads, challenge our concepts about gender and sexuality. It seems in the realm of fantasy fiction that the possibilities would be endless! And yet, so much fantasy writing simply chases its tail around, being “familiar” and “expected” and, ahem, boring.

But, I guess chain mail bikinis sell books, right? And that’s what publishers want. So maybe if I ever want to get myself published I have to compromise a bit.

No, no. That won’t do. That won’t do at all!

WaterhouseAlthough there are some members of my family who value a good novel now and again, there’s still an underlying current of distaste, embarrassment, and outright disrespect when it comes to the genre of fantasy. It’s as if people can accept that I’m a writer, and that’s well and good–when I wrote an essay, a non-fiction essay about my family, people practically lined up to get copies, tripping over themselves to read what I’d written. But when it’s the work I spend the bulk of my time on, the fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk stuff, well… let’s just say the volunteers aren’t exactly queued up around the block.

At the risk of sounding like a jerk, though, let me back up a moment. It’s not that I’m not appreciative of people who have read my writing, mostly non-fiction essays and the occasional poem from college. It’s just that it irks me when individuals, not just in my family but in the larger circle of literary critics/publishers, dismiss works that are overtly fanciful with no other reason than well, it’s hard to understand.

Yes, there is a heap of terrible fantasy writing out there (as well as any other genre, I should point out). And for some reason, bad fantasy and bad science fiction seem to be exponentially worse than, say, bad historical fiction (this, I am certain, has to do with cover art in many respects).

But no one should treat fantasy as a single flavor of novel because, at least in my view, fantasy writing is as dappled, diverse, and unfettered as any genre out there. Magic or no, elves or no, dwarves and fairies or no, fantasy writing can take you anywhere. Things to avoid? I happen to think that (although I have a soft spot for them myself occasionally) there are too many dragon stories. There are also too many orphan stories. And too many main-character-discovers-his-great-powers stories.

There are, however, too few believable female heroines (especially the sort who would wear actual armor, rather than iron-clad bikinis). There are too few believable worlds, worlds which breathe their own character into tales. There are too few consequences when it comes to magic. And of course, there is simply too much in the way of the line between good and evil.

To take fantasy writing through this next century, fantasy writers need to examine their motives. We need to look into our collective crystal balls and ask ourselves why we’re doing what we’re doing and why, above all, we tell these stories. Because fantasy writing stems from the oldest literary traditions–the myths, legends, and religious texts of the ancients–it has a power over the human consciousness. One need look no further than World of Warcraft to see how much impact a fantasy world can have on (MILLIONS of) people.

Fantasy writers ought not forget the power and the responsibility we have in opening the eyes of others to words never before conceived of; we must also understand the line of ancestors before us, who’ve paved the way. It’s not something to be taken lightly, I don’t think; fantasy fiction that’s taken lightly often ends up laughable, cliched, and painfully hokey.

So yes, it’s taken me 500 words or so to say it, but here’s the thing: I write fantasy because it speaks to me. The decisions I have made in my life can all be traced back to a love of literature, and especially literature that took me somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with our Earth, of course; it’s a lovely place. But the weird, the wonderful, and the wild of fantasy literature is, to me, one of the most delightful paths to tread. When I let my imagination go, I don’t visit France or Morocco or Tunisia: I go to Arda, to Narnia, and the thousands of other unseen worlds, just under the surface, their reflections shimmering in In Between.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, I just like to make my own rules.