Tech Raising pt 2

The Runup

When I conceived the idea for the novel, I knew exactly how I wanted it to work. There would be a single story told from the point of view of six characters. It would take place in three countries equally spaced around a fictional world. As in the world we know, it would have a night and day, people would sleep and eat and all the things they do in real life, which meant that there would be several characters active at any given moment, but others who would be sleeping.

I started writing the content, but quickly realized that I had to figure out an organizational means of keeping everything straight. I settled on a fairly low-tech solution – a spreadsheet and a series of linked documents. The writing itself was fun. The less-fun part was constantly trying to explain to people what I was writing and how it was all going to eventually work.

The Pirate encouraged me to pitch my idea at TechRaising. I signed up and had sort of mentally prepared myself for explaining my vision to a bunch of people, but I have to be honest – at no point did the real difficulty ever enter my mind. The real difficulty was less about explaining my passion and vision to others, and more about standing up in front of strangers and laying bare my hopes and dreams. I was asking a roomful of people who don’t love me to validate my dreams. I can’t remember ever being quite this nervous.

TechRaising

The Pirate had prepared me for the process, letting me know that I needed to keep it short, high-level and to the point. I gave my pitch, frightened that I might literally vomit on the people in the front row. But the funny thing was that the minute I got up in front of everyone, all I thought about was non-linear literature, the possibilities for storytelling and writing, the number of people who would become re-engaged with literature through this new medium.

I got through my pitch and was received with applause and cheers, although my brain tends to blank that bit out. But the pitch turned out to be easier than the next bit. Once everyone had pitched, we were all supposed to mingle and talk. Engineers with an interest in a project were to get together with the person who pitched the project to form a team. The problem is, I don’t do well in crowds. At parties, I tend to stick to the one or two people I know, only branching out if someone I already know introduces me to someone new. Here, there was no one to help me. I knew no one except Margaret Rosas, one of the three organizers of the project. A couple of people came up to me to express admiration for my idea, but none of them was an engineer, so it wouldn’t do me any good. I finally hid in the back, and Margaret told me that if, by the end of the evening, I still hadn’t hooked up with a team, she would see what she could hook up.

But in no time, a couple of engineers approached me with questions about my idea. They were excited by the possibilities, and wanted to be on the team. They were both back-end guys, but we needed front-end guys as well. I had ideas for the logic required and for the interface, but no idea how to code any of it. The great thing about a small community, though, is that everyone knows everyone else, and these guys knew other guys at the event who were willing to help. Late Friday night I sent them everything I had, including the documents I had describing the project and a PowerPoint showing my expectation of its functionality.

What Are You Afraid Of?

The therapist I’ve been seeing for the past five months today came out with this revelation:

Given the things you’ve said to me, it seems you find the world a threatening place.

My therapist often says things I’m not sure about, and I have to go away and think about them. He’s a Freudian, and I call him on his bullshit. He’s trying to sift through my past, looking for single traumatic incident that imprinted on me this need to defend myself. I could relive every day since I was about 18 months old, and my shrink can pick through  any of the dozens of sub-optimal events that have shaped my view of the world. He would say that I’ve subconsciously formulated defense mechanisms that color all my interactions with people, and that, as a result, my outlook isn’t what it should be.

But there’s one other possibility. I’ve said before that I’m an introvert. No, I’m not going to link to a blog post where I’ve said it, because I say it all the time. Here’s a thing that’s true about many introverts: their nervous systems are wired differently. They experience sensations like sound, light and touch as more stimulating than other people feel them, and therefore have a stronger reaction. When you’re wired up so that bright lights, people talking in excited voices and people, clothes or stray breezes touching your skin feel uncomfortable to you, of course the world is a threatening place.

So it should be no surprise to anyone that, not only am I generally defensive, but that I don’t see that as anything I want to change. What I would like to change, though, is how this particular therapist views me. Because I’m now realizing that while I do have a fair few real problems (like an obscure obsessive/compulsive disorder that is the reason I keep my hair short), viewing the world as generally challenging isn’t a neurosis for me. It’s a reality.

Sincerely Yours

One of the many things that marks an introvert is the tendency to live in one’s own head. I don’t know how conversations work for extroverts, but for me they work something like this:

Me: Hello! It’s nice to see you! Is that her real hair color? I wonder if she thinks my dye job is awful.

Her: How are you! I haven’t seen you in a while. What’s going on?

Me: Nothing. I mean, I’ve been really busy, but it’s just the same old stuff. I sound really lame, don’t I? Oh, crap. She’s looking at her watch. She thinks I’m boring.

Her: I’m going to lunch with George at 1. Have you met George? He worked with Marshall in purchasing before Marshall moved to Des Moines. I heard he’s doing really well there. Really happy. He and his wife bought a five-acre property with a 100-year-old farmhouse that they’re fixing up.

Me: Wow! That’s great. He’s working in Iowa, or remotely? She thinks my house sucks. I know she does. For crying out loud, I’m not the DIY type! Or does she think I’m not happy? Why did she say “really” happy? Like I’m faking it? 

Her: Oh, he’s working remotely. Well, I’ve got to run. Call me! Let’s get together for lunch next week!

Me: Absolutely! Does she really want me to call, or is she just trying to be nice. I’ll call her, but I won’t mention lunch. Just in case she didn’t really mean it.

That’s right. Every single exchange is questioned. And long after that one-minute exchange is over, I’ll still be playing it in my mind, continuing to question “Did she really mean that?” for the rest of the day. In practice, it’s exhausting. I never feel like I know the truth about how other people feel about me. Whether someone is laughing at my jokes because my jokes are really funny, or because they think I can do something for them. When someone expresses delight or admiration for the work I’m doing, I don’t know whether it’s the work, or whether they’re trying to impress me by being impressed by me. I’m as susceptible to flattery as the next person, but I would also like to know that when someone is nice to me, they’re nice to me because they actually like me.

And just so you know, if I’m nice to you, it’s because I like you.

At the Top of My Game

It happens every time. I’m feeling good. I’ve got a lot going on. I’ve scheduled myself pretty tightly, partly from necessity, partly from neglect. I can’t control when other people want to have meetings or need to pay rent or get sick, and I tend to forget that planning a birthday party takes more than a day, or that I can’t be in two places at once.

At first, I’m humming along. I’m hitting on all cylinders, I’m cranking out the work, I’m feeling good about the number of things I’m checking off my “to do” list. You’d think I’d be happy, right? And I am! In fact, I’m so happy that when someone says to me “Can you take this on?” I say “Sure I can!” And I will trot out the old adage that if you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person you know, which is generally me.

I’m staying up all night reading for school, spending all day on the phone taking meetings while revising my manuscript while sending emails to the library board about our next big event.

And then comes the day when it all goes sour.

It could be that my kid mistook the deadline for her school project, thinking it was due a week later. Or somebody in the family gets sick and my down-to-the-second timing gets thrown out the window. Or worse, that I get sick, so not only can I not do all the things I’ve planned, but I feel horrible both mentally and physically.

As fast as I came up the hill of “I can do anything! I’m an achieving machine! Nothing can stop me!” I’m now screaming into the valley of “I’m a fuckup! Who do I think I’m kidding? Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

At one point, I put together a list of criteria for myself for which projects I should take on, and which I should decline. The problem is that when I can do anything, I can do anything. I don’t need to consult a list or a calendar. Certainly I can give you feedback on your website, write four chapters of a novel, help you move across country and meet you for drinks! But once it becomes clear that I can’t, it’s not just that I feel bad for letting people down. It’s what I imagine all those people are saying. That I’m a flake. That I’m incompetent. That I’m not as bright as I’d like to think I am.

The end of the cycle is where I start believing that it’s all true. I’m not looking forward to that.

What Is Revealed/What Is Hidden

There are facts about my life that everyone knows. My parents divorced when I was very young. My mother was a single parent for most of my life. Only one of the four of us siblings didn’t finish college. My extended family is close emotionally, although not geographically. Those facts are generic, bland, and could be said of millions of other people. They don’t challenge anyone, they don’t embarrass anyone, they wouldn’t hurt anyone if they came out in public.

I’ve been talking to a few people about parts of my life that are not so well known. The things about my life that aren’t well known aren’t historical facts (sure, our family has its share of illegitimate babies, extramarital affairs and homosexuals, but everyone knows about them and nobody cares). Mostly, they’re about my own opinions of the things that happened to me as a kid.

From the time I was very small, my family has classified me as “dramatic,” their way of saying that I’ve always blown things out of proportion. My childhood was a really awful time that I was lucky to survive. I don’t recall it as being happy, and while I have a hard time remembering things like birthday parties or family outings, I recall in stark clarity childhood slights, fights and wounds. I contrast my view of my own childhood with my younger sister’s view of hers. She once claimed that she “raised herself,” but she may have amended that view now that she’s older. She was outgoing, popular, always the center of attention. When it was just my sister and me living with my father and stepmother, it was crystal clear that they liked her and had no idea what to do with me.

I’ve told people stories about my childhood, about things that I’ve been through, and they all say “You should write a book!” That’s true. I should write a book, but the book I should write is fictional and has nothing to do with the things that I’ve lived through. I can’t write those things, because I don’t have the courage to say thing things I know about my family to the rest of the world. Mostly, it’s because I know terrible things about the people I love, and yet I love them. Truly, deeply, in a give-my-life-for-them kind of way. I love my family in a way I feel as a physical sensation in my chest. It’s the stillness between heartbeats and the peak and trough of every breath. And yet, I know these awful things.

But there’s the flip side of this knowledge. A while back, I recounted something to my younger sister from our childhood, and she told me that she didn’t believe it had ever happened. I could have pulled rank on her and said “You’re three and a half years younger than me, you don’t remember,” but she’s the sort of self-confident person who wouldn’t believe me. I don’t think that the thing I recounted was anything of consequence. I could never tell her anything of consequence because of the fear that she would tell me it had never happened. I can’t stand the thought of having the defining moments of my life denied, because it would be too much like having my own pain denied.

Maybe if I put my family in a room, like they do at the end of television mysteries, and went around the room saying “YOU threw spoons at me when we were little,” and “YOU sided with your friends against me,” and “YOU told Mom and Dad that I’d done stuff that I hadn’t so I’d get into trouble,” pointing my finger in their faces as I paced around the room, the other hand held behind my back, maybe if I did that, we could all talk about it and what it meant to me. Maybe they would understand that the things they experienced as good-natured teasing hurt me deeply. That their labels for me – “lazy,” “weird” – defined in a negative way how I saw myself for most of my childhood.

So in the meantime, I write fiction. I don’t make my characters autobiographical, and I don’t base them on anyone in my family. If you want to dissect my fiction for clues into my early life, I will tell you not to bother. The truth you’re looking for is both more and less than you think it might be.

 

Living Out Loud

I’m nearly at the end of listening to Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop TalkingIt’s a well-researched and nicely-structured discussion about how introverts differ from extroverts physically, psychologically and temperamentally, and how American society undervalues the contributions of introverts.

I’ve identified as an introvert for the last 10 years or so. Before that, I believed I had problems with depression (which was situational), that I was socially awkward (because I was measuring myself against extroverts), that I might be autistic (because I was so different from other people I knew that I felt like a different species). Having come to grips with my introversion, I’m comfortable understanding my own needs and have developed an array of coping mechanisms for the kinds of social situations I encounter frequently.

When I tell people I’m an introvert, they don’t believe me. Other introverts don’t believe me because I am loud. Really, really loud. Embarrassing loud. Extroverts don’t believe me because I’ve spent so much of my time growing up among them, working with and for them, and being married to them, that I fake extrovert well. I grew up in a large family of mostly extroverts where the way you got what you wanted, whether it was second helpings at dinner or getting your sister out of your bedroom, was to yell. If you wanted someone’s attention, you didn’t tap them on the shoulder or stand in front of them until they acknowledged you. You stood wherever you were in the house and yelled until they yelled back.

I live in a house with two other people. My husband is an introvert raised by two introvert parents. His parents trained him from childhood to walk soundlessly over hardwood floors and to speak only when the other person was in the same room. You can tell he doesn’t like to yell by the fact that he does it only when he’s angry. My daughter is highly sensitive. From the time she was an infant, she would startle at sudden noises, shy away  from strangers even with me present, refuse to speak up in groups. She cried easily and demanded that her clothes not touch her in certain ways. She hates yelling.

I’ve made it my mission this year to work on my loudness. We adopted my husband’s parents’ rule about not yelling between rooms, and that’s going well. I’m working on speaking at a reasonable volume. I’ve been making an effort to be more mindful of the volume of my voice, and have found that the results are wonderful! Peaceful, non-stressful dinner conversation. Discussions that don’t have the physical feel (to me) of arguments. Just turning down the volume has made a difference in the way we interact – we tend not to interrupt each other as much, and to say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me” more often. If these little shows of civility are a result of turning down the volume at home, I think that my next mission will be to start speaking more quietly when in public.

If I were more quiet in public, I image that people would have to come closer to me to hear me. In coming closer, they would have to moderate their own voices. In such an intimate tête-à-tête setting, people would naturally become more conscious of whether they’re talking over each other, using kind language, saying inappropriate things. They would be better able to discern the effect their words had on their listeners. Widespread civility might result! I see the experiment now as necessary, and I’ll let you know how it goes. But you’ll have to lean in close to hear.

Conferences For Introverts

I spent the weekend in Baltimore for the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. I ended up comparing it to my residency last month at Antioch, and all in all, I felt that I learned a lot and met a lot of great folks, but I won’t go back.

My unwillingness to return is less about the quality of instruction or the personalities of the other participants, and more about the fact that I realized that I am not cut out for conferences or workshops of this type.

People who know me have heard me claim that I’m an extreme introvert. “No, you’re not!” they say, but I am. Not all introverts are shy, socially awkward or quiet, but all the introverts I know do feel that in social situations where there are lots of new people, loud music, unfamiliar places, etc., they are overstimulated. Some seek the edges of the party, some come but don’t stay long, some won’t show up.

This workshop went like this: all the participants stayed in the same hotel held the entire conference. Friday night, we had a large-group class 6pm – 11:30pm. On Saturday, we had small-group classes 8am – 1pm, then again 2:30 – 5. We all had lunch together on that Saturday; by the time we broke for dinner, all I wanted was to take a walk away from the crowd. We had a 9pm – 11:45pm session Saturday, followed by a 9am – noon session Sunday. During the “everybody in a room, everybody talking and sharing” sessions, I found myself having questions and comments but not wanting to speak up and share. At times I disagreed with the panelists, but said nothing.

I enjoyed meeting and getting to know my fellow participants, but the most valuable and interesting part of the exercise for me was the small-group critique sessions. There wasn’t any small talk in those sessions – we went right to the meat of critiquing and talking about style and content, etc. I didn’t feel that I was playing a role (“engaged dinner companion” or “energetic group-discussion participant”) or that I was overstimulated. The largest group had four other people in it, which meant that nobody was yelling or talking over anyone else.

The whole thing differed from my grad school residency in that at Antioch, I have the choice to attend as many or as few sessions as I want. If, by afternoon, I’m tired out and feel that I need some time alone, I can go back to my hotel room (where I have no roommates) and veg out. We had few required large-group activities, mostly orientation-type things that I won’t have to repeat.

While I won’t be going back, I do want to keep in touch with the folks I met. I found all of them to be interesting, engaging and full of the same kind of ideas and passion I have for writing. For anyone who reads this who’s interested in making their horror, sci-fi or other genre fiction more commercially viable and who’s less of an introvert, I would recommend the Boot Camp. I won’t be there, but you should go.