Justine Graykin

writer and freelance philosopher

Score one for the living
I had a dream about my sister.  Her passing last year was a culminating trauma in a lifetime of familial dysfunction.  She refused to see me in the year before she died, making the rest of the family promise not to tell me that she was even sick.  (more of the story here)  It's the kind of haunting that even a skeptic can understand, the curse of the dead upon the living.  Ghosts rise out of the grave in the form of memories and unresolved issues.

In my dream, I saw my sister as I remembered her when I was a child, slim and lovely, brilliant and successful, the paragon I could never hope to live up to.  But she was the ghost of my sister, angry and unforgiving, shouting at me, holding up a long list of all my failings, all the ways I'd let her and my family down.  I tried to get away from her, but she followed me with her bitter condemnations.

Then I turned to confront her, and I shouted back at her.  "You're dead!  You can't hurt me anymore!"

And she closed her mouth.  It became a thin, angry line beneath eyes filled with accusation.  I turned and walked away.  She could not follow.

DIY Summer Novel
I just spent another long, frustrating session searching for a book.  There is a particular one that I want to read and I'm just not finding it.  Something written for a woman my age.  Something that is neither dark and edgy, nor perky and simplistic.  It needs to have a sense of humor without being sappy, cynical or sarcastic.  It needs warmth and optimism while still being realistic.   Something thoughtful, reflective, but still with a lively, engaging plot.  Quirky characters with depth and humanity.  An exploration of relationships that doesn't resort to steamy sex or Cinderella fantasy.  Something with a strong, central female character who isn't an urban professional or a suburban mom, who isn't defined by her relationships with others as wife, sister, mother, daughter, or best girlfriend.  She should be able to relate compassionately to others without sacrificing her independence.  The setting ought to be rural, preferably in the north country.  It needs to involve a journey of growth and understanding, reaffirming the simple joy of living among the tragic injustices of life, finding meaning even in folly.

I give up.  I guess if I want a book like that, I'm just going to have to write it myself.  Lucky thing I happen to be a writer.

Our Friends Electric
I am suspicious of technology.  Not a Luddite by any means; I just don't automatically embrace every new thing that comes along.  It has to prove its worth to me.  I have a good number of friends who are even more suspicious than I am.  For example, they completely reject social media.  Take Face Book.  They have nothing but contempt for it and for the people who use it.  They are convinced that it's all about people posting what they had for breakfast, what color shirt they're wearing, and where they are going to go for lunch.  And they are paranoid about their personal information being spread all over the web.  (I can't help wondering what personal information they have that would be so interesting that it would be so worth sharing.)  And how stupid could someone be, telling everybody on FB that they are going on vacation?  Some criminal could get hold of that information and go and clean out their house while they are away.  I think they are a bit unclear on how FB works.  But there is no use trying to explain it to them.  They'll tell you all about the horror stories they've heard and shake their heads at how naive you are.

And don't get them started about how pathetic FB users are, thinking they have all these hundreds of "friends", when they are actually all these lonely isolated souls neglecting their real friendships to spend all their time eating donuts and surfing the net, and sharing what their pet is doing and chatting with all their so-called "friends" whom they've never even met.

Now, I expect there are a few poor souls like that.  And maybe there are folks who spend all their time giving a blow by blow of their day, their diet, and their choice of dress (although that seems more like something that would occur on FB's ADHD cousin, Twitter).  It could be that I just have an unusually clever and interesting collection of "friends", most of whom really are friends of mine who I know from different areas of my life, some of whom I'd never have contact with from one convention to the next if not for FB.  Sure, quite a few of them are folks I barely know, friends of friends, fans of my work, people I'm a fan of, folks I may have never actually met face to face.  I prefer to think of them as connections, rather than "friends".  And through them, my life has been immeasurably enriched.

I've found FB amazingly useful for sharing information with people I know.  My connections on FB have clued me in to important news, fascinating articles, great cartoons and memes.  I've had some good, in depth conversations with people on FB.  I've found out about stuff I never would have known about otherwise.  FB has its flaws, to be sure.  But it has definitely proven its worth to me.

But so have my other friends, the ones who self-righteously shun FB.  They're good people, generous and kind.  They'd help me out in a pinch without hesitation.  They have their flaws, too.  But I'm glad to have them.  I'm glad to have them all.  You can't have too many friends.

The Perils of being a Writer
An exchange on the Broad Universe FB page with Phoebe Wray and Danielle Ackley-McPhail was a reminder of one of the occupational hazards of being a writer.  Phoebe was struck when she realized that quite subliminally, in the heat of immersion in the novel, she had written certain characters that strongly resembled people she had known.  I think we all draw on our life experiences and acquaintances and cook them down into a soup from which we then reconstitute characters and situations.  The result can sometimes be unsettling.  Danielle had the rather creepy experience of moving into a neighborhood which uncannily resembled a fictional neighborhood she had described in "Yesterday's Dreams".

Those of us for whom the writing process is an intrinsic part of our psychology experience a strange blurring of fiction and reality.  Sometimes we really can't be sure where the dividing line is.  How much of a character or situation is imaginary and how much of it is based real life?  More unsettling still, how much of our inner selves are we revealing in what we draw on and how we use it?  Most of us have had that conversation with the friend or family member who is convinced that a character is based on them, and how could we present them in such a negative light?  Or the uneasy look of somebody who read something of ours that was particularly dark or twisted.  Maybe we ought to talk somebody about those perverse thoughts.

The worst part is when you are asked to explain "where you got that" or "did you mean to say that."  Sometimes we just can't answer.  There are a lot of conscious decisions in the writing process, but a huge part of it is iceberg effect.   We aren't conscious of what's happening or where it's coming from.  It perks up from our subconscious.  Especially in first draft writing I almost feel like a secretary furiously taking down dictation as fast as I can as it is being hurled at me by the voice behind the door.   I have almost as little control over it as would a dream.  Then, in the process of revision, I discover what it is I am trying to say, and figure out the best way to say it.

So what about those things that I didn't notice about what I was saying until someone else points them out later?  Were they intentional or not?

Not why but where
I took the month of April off from writing. It seemed more important to take long walks in the woods, listening to music, sometimes jogging, sometimes running, letting the beat in my head govern my gait. Most trails around here pass by beaver ponds and marshes. Good places to stop and sit in silence, or at least, in the ambiance of the surroundings. Locating myself. I am here, on this ledge, looking down into the water, where there are salamanders and water beetles and lumbering, debris-coated larvae. Then, I am not there anymore; I am standing in a different place, the sun at a different angle, the water opaque. Time is like beads on a string, a succession of moments. I imagine looking across the marsh and seeing the ghost of myself where I was at a different moment. But I see nothing. There are no such things as ghosts. That past moment is gone, and all that exists is me, in this spot. The moment passes into extinction, and I am now a person walking on a hemlock-shaded path, noticing tiny white flowers and patches of sunlight on brown needles.

And now I am the person at the keyboard, typing.  This is where I am now.  And it occurs to me that the most important question to ask is not why.  Why is a function of relationships.  Because of this, that.  The purpose of this is that.  Why seems nonsensical.   It is each successive where that places me, lays out my purpose, orients me and defines me.  I am the me which is here.  Now is here.

Followers from Spamland
I'm pleased that my website has been steadily growing in the number of hits, likes, comments and followers.  But recently, something strange has been going on.  And it seems I'm not the only one who has noticed it.

New followers, every day, in growing numbers.  Many of them have websites totally unrelated to anything in mine; many don't even seem to speak English.  What is going on?  A good number of these "followers" don't even have websites at all.  They are phantoms who descend on my website long enough to click the "follow" button, then disappear again.  What's up with that?  Of what possible benefit to them is this bizarre behavior?

It doesn't seem to be causing me any harm.  Some of my new followers are definitely legit; my hit count has gone up, and I'm getting more genuine comments (as opposed to the spam comments that WordPress blocks--a few get through, and are pretty obvious, so I just trash them).  This seems to be a WordPress phenomenon, and from the chat in other blogs and forums, a pretty recent one.  One blogger pegged it as having started around April 5.  That seems about right to me.  Graduation day from a spammer's class in India?  (I picked India only because a lot of these fakes seem to be coming from that region of the world.)

If any of you out there are experiencing a similar phenomenon, and have some clue why this is happening, I'd be grateful if you'd share your insights.  At the moment, this merely seems to be a puzzling annoyance.  But perhaps I ought to be more worried than I am. 

The exquisite drudgery of writing
It's a rare person who puts pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and pours forth a masterpiece the first time around.  Most of us mere mortals, in an ecstasy of inspiration, furiously pound out a first draft.  That is the beginning.  Then we return to it, again and again, rewriting, revising, tweaking, sometimes throwing out whole sections and cuisinarting the plot.  It's all part of the search for what it is one is trying to say, and then saying it in the best way possible.  Finally, you get it the way you want it, you sit back and say, "Ah!  Brilliant!" and you share it with your crit group or with an editor.  And they proceed to rip it to shreds.

I've been working on Elder Light for, I think, something like twenty years.  In the meantime I wrote some other stuff, some short stories that got published, and a novel that is coming out in the fall, and innumerable essays, blogs and articles published in assorted venues.  But I always go back to Elder Light, rereading, adding, revising, expanding.  It has settled itself into nine novels which range in length from 142K to 75K.  Of course, that could always change.  Nothing is set in stone until it is published, and even then, new editions do come out.  There always seems to be something that occurs to the dedicated author that would improve the work.  You're finally done when you are dead.

As I wait for Archimedes Nesselrode to go through the slow process of incubation and birth (my publisher says November -- a small eternity) I continue to crank out my essays, blogs and articles, the latter of which are my regular source of writing income.  But I also continue to work on Elder Light, laboriously taking notes, because my aging brain can no longer keep all the details of the saga straight in my head, doing research on various aspects to boost realism, or conversely, reading some article and realizing that it has direct relevance to some aspect of the story, so I go back and apply the new knowledge.  And when you are dealing with nine volumes of story, even a small tweak in the middle has repercussions through the whole work.

Periodically, I post updates on this ongoing project on my website.  Today I published some excerpts from Nicodamien, the eighth book in the series.  Yes, I'm nearly all the way through it again.  However the last book is still only in rough draft form.  I expect I'll stall out there for awhile, beating it into final draft shape.  By then, no doubt, I'll have the endured the exhausting trial of a book release, and the good or bad news from the reviews and sales thereof.  And I will once again tackle the misery of querying, searching for a publisher for Elder Light.  I can only hope that Archimedes Nesselrode is sufficiently successful to generate interest in my other work.  Alas, Elder Light is very different from Archimedes Nesselrode.  If I am successful with AN, will they fuss about EL, wanting more AN instead?  And if AN is not successful, will they refuse to even consider EL as a result?

Never mind, it will be what it will be, and there's no use wringing one's hands over something that hasn't happened yet.  Hell, the asteroid might hit between now and then, and it will all be moot anyway.  So, back to chipping away at revising Nicodamien, and cranking out the rest of the literary widgets.  I'd say it's a living, but it isn't.  However, it is a way of life.

Don't keep it a secret!
Those who follow my blog and posts have heard me rant about the current trends in books, bitching about how every author seems to think they have to be dark, anguished, and/or cynical, and pile on the sex and violence with lots of gritty detail in order to be taken seriously.  In the agonizing words of one of my fellow librarians, "Happy books suck."  He was complaining because the reading group at his library was tired of the current crop of literature and was asking him to recommend something upbeat. Well, perhaps I'm not the only one who is tired of getting bitten by the books I read.

Joy, joy!  When I was at the Boskone convention in Boston, I happened to listen to a reading by Dan Kimmel, movie critic and professor of film history, of his new novel, Shh! It's a Secret. I enjoyed the reading and bought the book.  Just finished reading it, and I can't wait to recommend it to everyone out there who, like me, has been standing and staring uneasily at the racks of new books, afraid to pick any of them up for fear of getting burned again.

It's hard to find the right words to praise this book, because even the very terms have been freighted with baggage by the literary hipsters so that they seem negative.  Warm, charming, funny, delightful, uplifting ("Oh," they sneer, "you mean schlocky!" *snort*  "Right!  I get it.  Capra-corn!").  Die in a hole.

Shh! is a kind of send up of Hollywood blended with classic first contact stuff.  But instead of exploiting an alien's unfamiliarity with Earth to extract humor from humiliating mistakes, Kimmel's character rises to every conundrum by being clever, friendly, and trusting in the basic goodness of people. Abi Gezunt, the Brogardi ambassador's son, wants to be in pictures, and it turns out, has a surprising amount of natural acting talent, not to mention talents that charm his host's family as well as his leading lady.  But the problem is--just trust me that there is one, several in fact, but they are all neatly and satisfactorily dealt with.

Kimmel makes excellent use of his deep knowledge of Hollywood and the film biz.  Even though the science behind the Brogardi is a little shaky (see the Star Trek rant: How come all the aliens look like us?) it doesn't matter.  There's a nod to the remarkable similarity between the two species and how it baffles the biologists, and it's left at that.  We're off with Abi--"Abe"--as he explores Earthan culture and the Bartender's Guide.

I think I'll mention Shh! to my fellow librarian as a possibility for his book discussion group.  It's a potent antidote for book-bite.

Oh, the irony
People really ought to actually read a blog before they "like" it.  I sometimes follow up on the "likes"  and "followings" I get on my blog just out of curiosity.  I just put up one entitled "Magical Thinking Nation" in which I observe with concern how fringe thinking, fuzzy science and outright crank idiocy are taking over the public discourse.  In my first paragraph I say, "There seems to be a prevailing mindset among the people of these (dis)United States that if they believe something loudly enough, it will be true. Conversely, if they deny something passionately enough, it becomes not true."  I point out the Reality has a way of trumping all this believing, no matter how intense and fervent it may be.

Well, thomasmaxwell12 liked that.  So I thought I'd check out his blog to see if I might like what he's saying.  Imagine my surprise when I read how he had learned that, wow, everything is made of energy at the sub-atomic level, and gee, thought is energy, so quantum physics makes it possible for you to change the world just by thinking about it. Then, in the comments, they start quoting Bible passages at one another to justify this revelation.

I think I can safely assume that Tom never read past the title of my blog before "liking" it.  I rest my case.

Triumph of the Plutocracy
We fell off the fiscal cliff -- that is, we are all riding a bus which Congress deliberately drove off the cliff.  And other than the usual kind of memes posted by the usual people, there seems precious little panic over it in the social media.  In the news media, we have the usual useless finger-pointing.  But I don't see people running in circles, screaming and shouting (or even sitting back with a cynical smirk making snarky comments) the way I did when the "fiscal cliff" confronted us back at the first of the year.  Could be we are all so ground down by it that we're suffering from panic fatigue.  Just what the plutocracy hoped for.  We can't summon the energy to do anything about it.  The War on Poverty changed to a War on the Poor, and victory is in sight.  And we go down with barely a whimper.


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