Don’t Look Back

If you’re anything like me, your brain spends a good portion of its time and energy reminding you of all the things you should’ve done, however big or small. Making you feel guilty for never learning how to draw, or taking a trip abroad, or working out, or writing, or whatever.

If you’re a lot like me, that guilt becomes crippling. In my case, it hits me hardest when I skip a day of writing. (Or two. Or three…)

The left side of my brain, my Inner Editor–that pesky perfectionist–gets stuck in a loop. She looks back at my screw-up, whatever it was, and replays it a thousand times, analyzing it, and making me feel like crap for not getting it right the first time.

Sometimes, if it’s really bad, she’ll replay my entire life, questioning every choice, criticizing every action and lack of action. (She especially enjoys doing this right as I’m trying to fall asleep, or right when I sit down to write).

Can you guess what happens next?

Nothing. She stays stuck in that loop, pushing each of my flaws and failures to the forefront of my mind. And then I feel so awful that I continue not to write, or work out, or go abroad, or learn to draw, or whatever. And that just adds more fuel to her fire.

“You should’ve spent time writing before you went out yesterday, Paula.”
“Should’ve cleaned the apartment first thing, instead of procrastinating the day away.”
“You should’ve started exercising years ago.”

On and on she goes.

When I allow myself to spend too long looking back, I have a hard time looking away again. Because my Inner Editor is a huge perfectionist, she focuses on the things I got wrong (never mind all the things I got right)–and she stays stuck, because she wants so badly to fix those errors. But she can’t. It’s in the past, it’s done.

The only way to get my mind out of that loop is to grab my Inner Editor by the ears and force her to turn around and look aheadTo envision myself in the future: six months down the road, a year, five years, ten. To glimpse the person I want to be, the things I want to accomplish. And then, before I can waste time daydreaming, to stop looking towards the future and look right here, right now, and start doing what needs to be done to get where I want to be.

Never mind all those times I didn’t accomplish what I set out to. No looking back.

I can’t change the years I spent dreaming of writing and never actually doing it. I can write right now, and keep writing every day for the rest of my life. Ditto for exercising, learning to draw, whatever it may be.

And if I slip up, there’s no point dwelling on it. Dwelling never helped anything. What does help is brushing myself off and moving forward, getting better.

Daenerys Targaryen has a great mantra in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series: “If I look back, I am lost.” She means it a little differently than I do, but the phrase holds true for me nonetheless, and maybe it holds true for you, too.

Because when I look back, I often do get lost. Very, very lost.

So here’s to looking ahead.

 

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Update: Flash Fiction Anthology #1

First of all, apologies for the lack of posts in the past few days. I’ve been busy with the holidays and some personal things, and I haven’t had the time to write them, though plenty of topics have been zooming around my head.

I hope to get around to blogging more later today, but since I’ve been so busy, I haven’t even had a chance to work on my flash fiction anthology, and it takes priority. I’m seriously behind schedule with the anthology, and one of the five stories is giving me hell, so I’m going to spend the rest of the day working on that. Then, if I’ve got time left over, I’ll write a proper post. If not, then I likely won’t get around to blogging again until after Christmas.

Either way, I hope that you’re all keeping warm (and if you’re in a hotter climate, oh how I envy you), and that you’re enjoying this holiday season (whether or not you celebrate any of them).

You Are Disabled (And Your Characters Should Be, Too)

I’m gonna make a statement that may surprise you. Whether or not you pass as “able-bodied,” you have a disability. At least one.

Maybe you need glasses. Maybe you have eczema, or diabetes. Maybe you speak with a lisp.

Whatever it is, there is some part of your body that doesn’t work the way it “should” according to our able-bodied ideal. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because the truth is, there is no such thing as true able-bodiedness. It’s an ideal that no individual can attain. All of us, each and every one, is disabled in some way. (And even if you’re as close to true able-bodiedness as one can be… it’s only temporary. Age will eventually “disable” you.)

In reality, there is no able-bodiedness, just two degrees of disabledness.

The first one we call able-bodiedness. But, really, “able-bodies” should be called “not-visibly-disabled-bodies.” These are the bodies that are catered to and accommodated in our society. These are the bodies that are privileged and considered “normal” even though they too deviate from the able-bodied ideal.

Then, there is conspicuous disabledness: bodies with disabilities that we can see, whether because they manifest physically, or because, through lack of accommodation, they become visibly apparent. These are the bodies that we call disabled. These are the bodies that are considered “abnormal”–not because they are abnormal (any more than not-visibly-disabled-bodies are), but because they deviate from the disabilites that we, as a society, view as acceptable, as the “norm.”

And these conspicuous disabilities, these deviations, scare people. They scare people because they are a reminder that any and all of us can (and will, eventually) become conspicuously disabled, too. And that’s scary because in our society, having a conspicuous disability makes you second-class. Not because having one actually makes you inferior in any way, but because it’s regarded as abnormal, because it’s not accommodated, and because others will define you by your (conspicuous) disability.

In fiction, unfortunately, this happens all too often as well. (Of course, exceptions exist, but I’m focusing on the rule, not the exceptions.)

In fiction, if conspicuously disabled characters are even included in the first place, their disability becomes the driving force behind their characterization–rather than more important and relevant characteristics like, oh I don’t know… their personality. Their interests. Their past. Their hopes and dreams. Their fears. Everything about them that makes them who they are. Instead, they become caricatures, defined entirely by their disability.

Writers have got to stop doing doing that.

Because, in the first place, defining a character by their disability prevents them from reaching any kind of real heroic or protagonistic status–they’re written as too one-dimensional for that. And, frankly, it’s bullshit. One doesn’t need to pass as “able-bodied” to be heroic. It’s not a pre-requisite. Heroism is in one’s actions, in one’s moral’s, in one’s soul… and having a conspicuous disability doesn’t stop one from taking action, from having morals, from possessing a soul.

(The same goes for villainy, too—having a conspicuous disability doesn’t make one pure or good by default. But if a character’s villainy stems from their disability, if the disability is their driving force, that’s a problem.)

And, secondly, we are all disabled in some wayThat means our characters are, too.

So. Imagine you’re reading a novel, and the protagonist wears glasses. His poor eyesight is a disability, even though we don’t regard it as such (because it’s accommodated and seen as “normal”–or, at least, “normal-enough”). Now, imagine that our protagonist’s “acceptable” disability is treated the same way as any conspicuous disability: Everything about him, and his story, revolves around his poor eyesight and his need for glasses. Everything.

You’d probably chuck the book across the room, right?

And why? Because it’s not believable. People who need glasses need a lot of other things, too: love, recognition, adventure, whatever. Their life doesn’t revolve around their poor eyesight.

So why do we, as a society, let writers get away with treating other (read: conspicuous) disabilities the same way?

I wish I had an answer to that question. Maybe it stems from fear of becoming conspicuously disabled themselves, or a fascination with conspicuously disabled bodies. Maybe it’s due to a lack of interaction with and understanding of conspicuous disabilities. Maybe it’s because conspicuously disabled bodies are in the minority, so writers think that they can get away with writing them as one-dimensional caricatures and no one will notice. I honestly have no idea.

What I do know is that it doesn’t have to be that way. All it takes is for writers to start including conspicuously disabled persons in their stories, and stop defining them by those disabilities. Make your cast as diverse as the human population, and write people as people, not caricatures. It’s as simple as that.

Your disability is not the most interesting thing about you. No one’s disability is the most interesting thing about them. So don’t let your character’s disability be the most interesting thing about them either.

Update: Flash Fiction Anthology #1

In my last post, I mentioned the link between able-bodiedness and heroism. I’d been planning to elaborate and write a blog post/rant about it tonight, but I just finished working on my flash-fiction anthology for the day, and I’m too brain dead to write anything else. Anyway, expect that post to be out tomorrow.

In other news, I’m almost halfway through that flash anthology, so that’s cool.

Put More Frida in Your Fiction

In the past couple days I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog post by snarkynarwahl about needing less impossibly attractive females in fiction, and more real ones. 

I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment: Women don’t look like super models. Even super models don’t look like super models. And equating heroism with those impossible (and, let’s be real, highly caucasian) standards of beauty is both damaging to young readers, and a total cop-out.

(I’m not even going to begin delving into the issues of associating heroism with able-bodiedness, because that’s a post in itself–and because having a “disability” and a conventionally attractive face aren’t mutually exclusive.)

Anyway. I’d like to take it a step even farther. I want more than “average”- and “ugly”-looking women, with crooked teeth and hairy upper lips and gangly scars and fat on their bones and lazy eyes and blemished skin and unibrows and broken noses. I want those characters to find beauty in themselves, instead of trying to shape themselves into someone else’s ideal. I want women like Frida Kahlo, who found beauty in her unibrow and mustache, where others may have found only a reason to buy a razor. I want female characters who aren’t supermodels, but are confident.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (photo credit: fridakahlo.org)

Not all of them, because a lot of us are insecure about our physical appearances. But I’d like to see some of them–and especially some heroines. Because no one should be insecure about their looks. And some people really aren’t (at least most days).

There’s this kind of stigma around women believing themselves to be beautiful, regardless of others’s perceptions of their beauty: If a girl thinks she’s pretty, she must be vain. But there’s nothing wrong with a girl or a women who looks in the mirror and likes what she sees, who feels comfortable in her own skin. Women don’t need to look like a supermodel to feel that way about themselves–and neither do female characters.

So I don’t just want to see heroines who don’t fit society’s beauty mold. I want to see heroines who don’t fit that mold, and know that they’re beautiful anyway.

(But I guess that’s a huge part of why I want to write–to create the kinds of stories, and characters, that I want to see.)

What about you: are you tired of female protagonists with photoshopped good-looks? Would you like to see more “average/ugly” heroines with self-confidence? And, side note: if you know of any good stories with heroines like those I’ve discussed, drop me a line, because I’d love to read them.

Failure is the First Step

Anytime we do anything, we risk failure.

Let that sink in for a moment. Really, really sink in.

Anytime we do anything, we risk failure.

Let’s take walking as an example–because most people have (or have had) the ability to walk. It’s something we do every day, without even thinking about it.

With every step you take, you risk tripping or stumbling or otherwise falling flat on your face. But when was the last time fear of that little failure, fear of stumbling, stopped you from walking? When was the last time that actual failure, actually tripping and falling over, made you stay on the ground, refusing to ever try walking again?

My guess is never.

We’ve all heard that old cliche, “Success is a journey.” But too often we forget that failure is the first step. And often the second, and the third, and the fourth…

The only way for us to learn to walk is to stumble, again and again. And even when we think we’ve got it down, even when we’ve been doing it for decades, the risk of stumbling is still there, always lingering.

The same can be said of anything we choose to do, and especially those things that make life worth living: sports, art–and, for me–writing. The possibility of failure is always there, and especially so when taking those first wobbly steps.

Yet too often most of us, myself included, let our fear of certain kinds of failure blow insanely out of proportion. The fear of failure cripples us. Or rather, we allow the fear to cripple us.

Example: if (when) I do fail as a writer, and write something awful, what’s the worst that could happen? My hard drive won’t explode. My grandma won’t have a heart attack.

The absolute worst possible outcome is that I write something I don’t like…and learn to do better next time. Which makes each moment spent on that “failure” worth infinitely more than all the hours wasted doing something with no (read: less) risk of failure. Why should I be scared of failure? Failing is the first step.

We forget that failure is not only inevitable, it’s necessary. That without it, we cannot improve. That without the threat of it, everything would easy–and easy can be fun, but it’s never satisfying.

Most importantly, we forget that failing isn’t a big deal. It’s actually a good thing. To fail, you have to at least be trying–and nothing is a greater mentor than past mistakes. I am especially terrible at remembering this.

So this is me, reminding myself, and reminding you: give yourself the gift of failure. Without it, you cannot walk. And if you cannot walk, you certainly cannot run galloping through the fields of success.

Making Time

I saw the most ridiculous commercial today. (Well, all commercials are ridiculous, but this one was especially so.) It was for some kind of exercise machine, and it started with the statement that:

The number one reason people don’t exercise is time.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Not having enough time may be the number one excuse people give for not working out, but the number one reason that they don’t is that they don’t really want to.

When people say they don’t have time for something, what they’re really saying is that they’d rather spend their time doing other things–but they don’t want to say that, because they feel like they “should” be doing whatever it is that they aren’t (exercising, writing, whatever).

If you want something, if you really want it, you will make time for it. Because if you want it, it will drive you, and you’ll learn quickly that if you sit around waiting to “find” time, it will pass you by. You have to carve that time out of your schedule, and gift it to yourself.

And if you let go of all the excuses you have for not doing those things you didn’t really want to do in the first place, you’ll free up a lot of mental energy to focus on doing the things that actually do matter to you.

So, if you want it (whatever “it” is), do it. Make it happen. Make time. Give up the excuses. If you’re not doing what you love, what you want, then you’re only hurting yourself, and you’re wasting nobody’s time but your own.

And if you don’t want it… give up the excuses, too. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you should be going after something that, in your heart, doesn’t matter to you. Instead, go after what you do want, and don’t feel the need to explain why you’re spending time on the things you love, instead of the things other people think you should love.

You don’t need an excuse. It’s your life. You only get one. Make it matter to you.