Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Blog is Moving!

Quick announcement:  For the few of you who follow this blog, I will be gradually migrating posts over to the new website:

I have had a blast meeting people on blogger for the short amount of time it was up, but I essentially had an offer I couldn't refuse. Hence the migration.  I will slowly add older posts to the new site. Once they've all been moved, this account will be deleted.

Again, many thanks to those of you who have been reading! I hope to see you on the new site soon!

Love, Amalie

Monday, October 27, 2014

To Retweet or Not To Retweet?

I honestly never believed it would happen to me.  "No way!" I argued. "Why in the world would I do that?"  I thought it was pointless, silly, and a waste of my time.

But I finally did it.  I finally joined twitter.

Before I knew it, I was a tweeting monstrosity, retweeting and plugging random blog posts with no clue of what I was doing. Truth be told, I still don't know what I'm doing most of the time.  But I've figured out a couple of things that have worked for me.  Maybe they'll work for you, too.

When to Retweet

Retweeting is (almost) everything on twitter.  The best way to be noticed is to retweet.  You gain the attention of the person you're tweeting (which can result in a follow).  More importantly, you're essentially pre-reciprocating.  People who retweet often, with quality tweets, get retweeted themselves later.  And if someone in my measly following of less than 500 (as of the publication of this post) retweets something of mine to their 10,000 + followers, then my words (and my name) gain a bigger audience.  I can't offer them much in return just yet, but perhaps they'll make connections with some of my followers, and meeting the right person at the right time can change your life.

So what should you retweet?  Almost everything I retweet comes not directly from my followers but from searches of particular hashtags.  Some of them are general, others more specific. #OctWritingChallenge is an awesome place to get community support with your writing goals.  (Check out for details in other months.)  Then there are several blogging hashtags that are particularly active on certain days of the week:  #MondayBlogs.  #WWWBlogs ("Women Writers Wednesday").  #ArchiveDay.  I love these three in particular because they are almost linked to interesting content.  I post links to my blog on those specific days (with the hashtag), and I spend my free time reading and retweeting others' works in return.

But here's the key:  Retweeting everything you see will get you blocked.  No one wants to see your name in their feed every five seconds.  Knowing what to retweet is crucial.

What I look for in a good tweet:

  1. The tweet (or blog post) is interesting and eye-catching.  A tweet has 140 characters to really get the reader interested in what the writer has to say.  Make it good!  Don't spam your followers with drivel.
  2. The post to which the tweet links (if it does) is interesting and well-written.  If the blog post is littered with errors in grammar, or if the writing is dull and uninteresting, I won't retweet it. Under no circumstances do I tweet something I wouldn't personally promote.  Take the time and read the post!  I've seen authors who I sincerely believe set their profiles on auto-retweet (even if there is no such thing).  It's like they retweet everything with specific keywords or hashtags. It's annoying, and I at least usually respond to such activities with a mute or an unfollow.
  3. The tweet can be edited down if necessary for comments. I like to give my wholehearted approval or add an idea to a particularly good post, but sometimes you can't do that and still get the essence of the tweet across.  I tend to avoid doing straight retweets (even if it drives the original authors crazy).

So tell me, what are your requirements for a good tweet? What could I or other aspiring writers do to make our tweets more relevant, interesting, and worthy of a retweet?  Leave your ideas in the comments below!  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Weaving in the Ends - Fear of the Finish

I have mentioned once or twice before on Twitter that, when not writing or at my day job, I'm often crocheting or knitting. I've been crocheting for a few years now, but I've recently decided to take up knitting as well. Of course, for my first major project I pick this beast of a pattern.

It's turning out relatively well, all things considered. I'm about 82 rows in, and here's what I have to show for it:

Please forgive the dirty couch. Nowhere better in my tiny apartment to take pics!  :-(
It doesn't look like much now, mind you, but when I finally finish binding off and getting it blocked, it will at least roughly resemble the pattern. I hope. Possibly.

To me, yarn work and writing are analogous processes. You start off with a pattern or idea, a generic feel for how a particular project is going to look at completion. But by the time you reach the end, your final result is sometimes less a reflection of the pattern you started with and more a reflection of the choices and changes you made along the way. 

Mind you, there's less room (and fewer chances) for error in yarn work, I think, than there is in writing. If I'm following a specific pattern (as I almost always am), the number of stitches in a given row is vital to continuing the project in a recognizable pattern. However, if you're experienced enough, you have a pre-established bag of tricks for hiding your errors as you go. No one other than your fellow yarn snobs will ever know the pattern was disrupted. In the end, you just have to follow the directions as perfectly as you can.

In writing, the end result is so subjective that the possibility for "error" is limitless.  Maybe I should not have taken that plot twist in chapter 23.  Maybe the twist is fine, but I should have set it up in previous chapters better.  Maybe that speech in chapter 11 is pure drivel written in a moment of NyQuil induced insanity.  In the end, that's what rewrites are for -- for finding those errors and fixing them before anyone notices the disruption in the pattern.

Here's the catch: I knit or crochet for myself or for my close friends. I have no desire to do it professionally. (Soapbox: Do you know how much we'd have to charge just to recoup the yarn alone? The skein of yarn for this pattern was $40.  No joke.  Remember that when you see these things ridiculously priced at craft fairs. End soapbox.) That means that I don't have to take my errors as seriously. Very few people will ever see them, and those who will don't care.

But I hope to write for more than just those closest to me. I want to produce work that can be widely appreciated (or even loathed--notoriety has its perks). And I hope desperately to eventually get paid for it. Therefore, I have no choice but to work desperately on eliminating errors before anything goes to press. Working the kinks out of a manuscript, particularly one you've spent a lot of time on already, can be the most frustrating task on the planet.

For both knitting and writing, the final step is always weaving in the ends: tucking in those rough edges and making something beautiful out of an imperfect design. And that's the frightening part. Once the ends are woven in, the journey is over. You gift that completed project to the world. Or to yourself. Or whatever. But any unresolved errors are there, glaring at you, mocking you for all eternity.

For me, that fear of the finish is my greatest source of writer's block. I have such a blast crafting, whether it's beautiful patterns or beautiful words, that when the product is close to completion, I inevitably have a moment of panic.  Last weekend, I'd finished drafting all but the concluding chapter of my current novel.  I was so excited to be so close to entering another re-write.  And you know what?  I had to stop writing entirely for several days before I could bear to tackle that final chapter.  The idea that the draft might be fully on paper and ready for me to re-sculpt was terrifying.

Similarly, this past week I received a letter for acceptance of publication on a short piece (scheduled for publication November 5 -- I will be sure to plug it once it's out).  And although I was thrilled to get that first acceptance letter, I am also terrified.  That work will be OUT there, despite its flaws, forever accessible by those who choose to read it.  And how frightening is that?  It almost makes me want to give up writing altogether.

But I won't.  I'll just keep stitching words into phrases, phrases into sentences, paragraphs into chapters. Eventually I'll have stories that I might one day call finished.

If only I didn't have to weave in all those ends to do it.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why Marriage Matters

October, for those of you who do not already know, is LGBTQ History Month.  This time of year always inspires in me a need to reflect, to write about myself as a self-identified lesbian in context of the world in which I walk, live, and breathe.  Usually I end up settling for a post regarding why coming out still matters, or what self-love might mean in the context of identity.

This year, something remarkable happened, and my whole planned blog post went to hell.  Just yesterday afternoon, I saw a headline I never expected to see:

"Same Sex Marriage is Now Legal in Oklahoma"

I always wondered what I would feel like when this day came for me.  As a teenager, I didn't think I'd see the day when it was legal in any more than a handful of super blue states.  As a new adult, I didn't think I'd see it legal in my home state in my lifetime.  And as a betrothed thirty-year-old woman, I didn't think I'd see it legal in time for my own wedding.

Why Marriage Matters

My partner and I met on September 19, 2010.  We hit it off pretty much immediately.  Our first date, which we'd planned to be a trip to the OKC Zoo, became coffee and then the zoo.  That became coffee, the zoo, and dinner.  That became coffee, the zoo, dinner, and a movie.  And if it hadn't been a Sunday, we probably would have continued with more coffee, desert, etc.  I knew right away that this meeting would result in something special.  By October 23, 2010, she'd gotten down on one knee (very cutely, I might add) and asked if I would be her girlfriend.  It's still one of the cutest memories I have of our early romantic relationship.

A little less than a year later, I was in a very rough place.  I'd made the decision not to pursue my Ph.D., partially because I didn't want to leave Katherine behind.  I'd had difficulty finding a decent paying job and was making a bit more than minimum wage working a job for which I had no love at all.  I was miserable, and I couldn't even afford the love of my life a birthday present.  But, as sure then as I am today, I asked whether we might upgrade from "girlfriend" to "partner."  She accepted immediately.  From then on, no word less permanent than that would do.

Another year later, I asked her to marry me.

Yet another year later, we set a tentative date.

Yet another year later (as of this month), we began actually making plans.

And next year, when we finally do finish up our wedding plans and "tie the knot" it will be legal for us to do so.  We had planned on using our honeymoon to go somewhere we could make the marriage official.  Now we don't have to.  We can go on the trip we'd always dreamed of rather than the trip we needed to make.

I should be thrilled (and of course I am) that the thousands of Oklahomans without legal protection for their partners can now more easily obtain those protections.  I should be bouncing off the walls with joy.  But in the light of day, I must force a very grim reality.  If, after our wedding, my partner and I drive home to visit my family in Mississippi, those legal protections disappear in an instant.  It's as if we no longer exist as a legally bound couple.  If, God forbid, something should happen to my family, I might not be allowed to care for/foster/adopt my sister's children.  If we have a wreck out on Highway 82 and I am gravely injured, my power-of-attorney very well might revert back to my parents.  They could, if they chose, take those rights away from my partner.

That's why marriage MATTERS.  This issue can no longer be a religious issue--even Christian denominations and individual churches differ with regard to same-sex relationships and their associated legal protections.  It's still, however, a moral issue.

It's immoral for anyone to deny other people the right to define their own family structures legally. Neither blood nor gender makes a family; love does.

It's immoral that grown adults intentionally make young people feel lesser than their peers because of their attractions or gender expression.  People's sense of worth should be tied to their personal achievements and their inherent value and humanity; gender and sexual expression should not even enter the equation.

It's immoral to equate my love for another consenting, mentally competent adult to pedophilia or bestiality.  When the U.S. allows underage children or animals to enter into legally binding agreements, I will be happy to join the masses in the protest line.

It's immoral for one person's right to freedom of religion to extend so far as to deny me the right to practice mine.  My religious beliefs require that I be faithful and monogamous to my one chosen partner; I welcome you the right to be faithful (or not) to yours.

It's immoral that the church of my birth will host a woman's third marriage with joy (even when its savior specifically decried divorce) but will not even validate my first marriage to my one and only long-term partner.

And it's immoral that my relationship to my partner is somehow seen as less valued--non-existent even-- when I cross state lines because of the genitalia I was given at birth.  That's not only homophobia; it's sexism, and it's disgusting.

At the end of the day, I don't care what you think of me or of my life choices.  I don't even ask that you respect them.  I ask only that you give me the freedom to pursue my happiness the same way you're allowed to pursue yours, and to allow me to protect my loved ones just as you'd like to do.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writing What You Don't Know

"Write what you know."

I've never heard any more clichéd (if at least superficially true) piece of advice on writing.  And I've heard it millions of times.  I imagine you have, too.

The basic sentiment behind the statement, that writers can best express those things that they have experienced or felt, is absolutely true.  Those stories that best immerse the reader in the human experience, in the depths of love and hope and fear and despair and treachery, become inevitably grander for the author's empathy for and experience with those emotions.  Likewise, a good autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) story, when told well, will reach its readers by its sheer authenticity.

Some of the more superficial implications of the statement are likewise true.  A writer who has no knowledge of the basics of police procedure, for instance, will have difficulty producing a believable protagonist who is a by-the-books law enforcement officer.  A heterosexual man will have difficulty writing from the point-of-view of a post-transition transsexual woman.  An author with no previous experience in classical musicianship will have difficulty understanding just why the simplest of Bach preludes will drive a great pianist mad.  These deficiencies in knowledge and experience can be nigh-on-impossible to overcome--or at least to overcome well.

But, if we take the oft-repeated adage literally and apply it to every situation, where then will we find the elements of fantasy? Of speculative fiction? Of paranormal horror?  Heck, how can a person who self-identifies as cisgender female write from the point of view of her male counterparts?  And yet writers do all these things--with varying degrees of success--every day.

Write What You Know
Tatsuya Ishida is my idol.  Sinfest is the awesome.  Go love the comic and buy the books.

I recently came upon an article that argued that we should not be limited to writing what we know:  we instead should write what we understand.  If love (by its presence or absence) is a universal experience, then a writer should be able to place that emotion within the bounds of almost any context and produce a believable story.  Or at least one entertaining enough to allow its readers to suspend their disbelief.  Furthermore, that suspension comes more easily to readers if the author has paid particular attention to the world of the story, even if it's entirely fictional.  A writer cannot necessarily know that world of pure imagination.  But a writer should understand it.

I want to take that argument a step further.  I believe that sometimes, we write what we know.  Sometimes, we write what we understand into the context of those things we don't know.  And sometimes, we write about what we don't know specifically because we want to understand.  

I have written before on how my current novel-in-edits, Choosing Her Chains, began with a chance meeting of a character.  She intrigued me from the moment I met her, and I dove right into the process of discovering who she was.  But my journey from that strange first meeting to the present, as I attempt to clean up the final manuscript, was much more than character discovery.  Through the writing process, I began to better understand myself.

The story has transitioned through three compositional stages.  First came the vignette.  I'd imagined this woman standing on the edge of a lake bed waiting for something.  I knew she longed desperately to step out into the water, but that she was waiting for something to call her into its depths, to grant her the power and freedom to move.  I wrote that first vignette to discover what--or who--she'd been waiting for.  In the process, I realized that her desire, her longing, her courage and her fear, those were all just my own attributes projected onto an unknown character's form.  As I wrote what would become the final form of that short scene, I had to delve into myself.  What would most force ME to wait barefoot in freezing water?  Could I have done what she was doing?  What did I have to confront in myself before I could portray her decision authentically?

That 1500-word vignette grew a plot, and before I knew it I had outlined a 20,000 word novella.  In that particular version of the story, I spent a great deal of time getting to know my protagonist.  The outcome at story's end depended heavily upon a sensitive understanding of the plot points that came before it.  I had to force myself farther than I had before.  My own boundaries regarding writing had to be broken, or I would never be able to portray the kind of emotion I KNEW my protagonist felt at story's end.

The novella was never going to be able to stand on its own, because although I understood the protagonist's motives and decisions, I didn't really understand the characters that pushed her into those decisions.  Outlining the full novel became a process of looking into each character's mind and discovering who they were, and how their own pasts and personalities contributed to their decisions within the story.

And that's when the epiphany came.  I had known the story I wanted to tell.  I more or less understood the "moral" I wanted to portray.  But until I'd examined it from every possible angle, worked out each person's motivations and why they felt the way they did, I could not have articulated why I wanted the story to come out the way it has.  And without the "why," the whole story (and its underlying premise) fell flat.

Now that the novel's about to enter its second stage of rewrites, I believe I've discovered why "write what you know" fails to work for so many writers, myself included.  For many of us, there is a demonstrable difference between "writing" and "editing" and between "editing" and "publishing." 

"Writing" is about discovery, about asking yourself what you do and don't know, and about seeking answers for what it is you don't understand.  It's about giving yourself permission to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, even if the attempt fails miserably.  Sometimes pieces never move beyond this stage, nor should they.

"Editing" is about synthesis.  It's about taking those things you've learned while "writing" and turning them into something cohesive and clear.  This stage turns ideas into beliefs and thoughts into knowledge.  I have had many stories languish at this stage simply because I'm not yet quite at the point where I feel I've come to the correct knowledge with regard to the story.

"Publishing" is about taking what you've learned, what you now know, and presenting it as best you can to your readers.  It's about taking your well-formed beliefs, knowledge, and passions, and letting them move in the world.  The best stories, fiction or non-fiction, do well once published not only because the author wrote what they know, but because they validated that knowledge within themselves long before the story ever went to press.

So, I've decided to strike "Write what you know" from my bag of writing truths.  Forevermore (or at least until next week), my mantra shall become:

Write what you don't know.

Edit to come to know it.

Publish what you know that you know.

Then if, at the end of the day, you change your mind, that's okay.  The day we stop learning is the day we die (an apothegm seventy million times more true).  But don't only write what you know.  Write what you want to know.  Pay attention to the details of what you're writing and eventually, you will know what you have written.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fear and Genre Jumping - Writing What I Would Read

When I decided to refocus my efforts on learning to craft fiction, I assumed my gifts would best serve the dramatic genre. After all, up until that point all of my best short stories (and the one novel I finished for NaNoWriMo back in 2008) were LGBT dramas.  I loved writing those sorts of literary tales of love lost and regained, of personal epiphanies and modern degeneration, and most of all, of hope in the here and now and the promise of a better tomorrow.

But the more I thought about it, the sillier my assumption seemed.  I didn't really like reading those sorts of stories most of the time. Why would I want to write them?  If you asked me what genre I preferred as reading material, I would have answered speculative fiction and fantasy, no questions asked.  But I was absolutely petrified to cross that bridge, to tackle a story that was too fantastic.  What if it came off as cliché?  Silly?  What if my world-building was unbelievable?  What would I do then?

As it turns out, I'd do what I always do.  I'd go back, start from scratch, and re-write the piece.  In my own methods, I've found no difference between revising speculative fiction and revising realistic drama.  At least with speculative fiction I wrote pieces I'd genuinely enjoy reading (at least the first thirteen times). My first novel, due out this spring, is a lesbian feminist drama.  It's also fantasy.  And it's the book I've been dying to read (even if someone else might have executed it far better than I).  Instead of feeling bogged down at the prospect of rewriting, I'm excited, because with each revision I come that much closer to something I hope others can enjoy as much as I do.

I believe that every author finds more success in specific genres than perhaps in others.  These variations in quality naturally reflect our talents and our personal preferences.  But I also believe that if someone is afraid to tackle a particular genre--not uninterested, but afraid-- they owe it to themselves to make an attempt.

In the spirit of my own ever-present fear and attempts to overcome it, I'd like to offer my readers a short piece I wrote a year or so ago.  It was written for a very small-scale prompt-based contest, and is definitely not one of my favorite pieces. The multiverse in which the story takes place is much larger than I have the time or energy to tackle right now, but perhaps in the future a novel or two will come out of the ideas.  We'll just have to wait and see.  

So, without further procrastination, in honor of my 300th Twitter follower (hey, you've gotta start somewhere), I present to you "The Gate." Enjoy, comment, burn, etc.  Just keep in mind that I blister easily.  ;-)

"Thunderstorm at False Kiva," by Max Seigal (copyright 2013).  This picture was the prompt/inspiration for the piece below. Check it out at The Atlantic.

 * * * * * * *

The Gate
by Amalie Cantor
**Note: An earlier version of this short story is housed at my online portfolio at  If you like this little piece, be sure to go check out some of my other stuff!**

“Blindfold off,” the harsh voice snapped.  Isra lifted the black velvet wrap from her eyes as the Jeep's asymmetrical jerking lurched to a stop. She squinted, blotches of blue and green swimming in her vision.  Her eyes stung with the salt of sweat as they readjusted to the faint light.

Six hours of almost constant shifting over rugged terrain had left her shaky and unbalanced. Isra braced an arm on the Jeep's frame as she stumbled onto jagged stone. Her eyes finally focused as she examined her new surroundings.

She’d expected the base to be hidden in some remote military bunker, sterile and devoid of life. Instead she gazed at a vast canyon, its ruddy walls lit sporadically by the yellow lightning crossing the purple sky to the northwest. The Gate--for it could be nothing else--stood upon a surprisingly small stone platform flanked by an assortment of monitors and control panels. The surrounding ten or so technicians flurried from screen to screen in preparation for--

--for what she couldn't be precisely certain.  Each wore an unpretentious Egyptian blue uniform, their cream and crimson badges firmly attached to the right breast pocket of each wool jacket. Isra's own uniform, which Red had thrust into her hands earlier that afternoon, stretched uncomfortably around her chest and lay overly baggy around her torso. The top few buttons refused to stay snapped, which had entertained Red endlessly as the two women traveled.
"I'm glad you accepted the mission.  At least I've got a great view for the drive," Red snickered as she hit another bump in the gravel road.  Isra could hold either the torn leather seat or her chest, not both.  Unfortunately, she valued her skull more than her dignity.

"At least mine are real," Isra sneered before they hit another pothole.
Isra stared after Red, who had approached the platform and now shared whispers amongst the technicians.  A young man snorted under his breath as she'd whispered something into his ear.  Red smiled that same coy smile she'd attempted on Isra that very afternoon. Rationally, Isra should not fault her.  Why not use your charms to get what you want?

Isra despised her nonetheless.  Kari would have--

--but it didn't matter now did it?

“The guest of honor arrives!” A deep voice, smooth with humor and charisma, called from behind the platform. The gentleman--The Colonel, Isra assumed--approached with certain footsteps and offered her his hand. “Welcome, Violet!” Isra’s lip curled at the pseudonym but she said nothing. “You made great time! The storm is rolling in faster than anticipated, so I’m afraid we won’t have time for introductions.”

Isra nodded and accepted the handshake. She barely restrained a sneer when his eyes flickered toward her chest. “I understand, sir.” She studied him for only a moment. His dark hair and eyes twinkled as an impish grin stretched across his face.  Exactly as she’d been forewarned.  Best not to encourage familiarity then. “I am here strictly for the mission. If we succeed, we will have plenty of time for introductions later. If not--"  A giant clap of thunder shook the very ground as it rumbled.  She raised her eyebrows.  She needn't finish the sentence.

“Few words and strong intentions: the two things I love most in a woman.” His grin brightened.  He glanced toward his technicians, who froze at his gaze.  The hairs on the back of Isra's neck prickled as he placed a hand on her back and guided her to the platform.

Isra, for the first time, turned her full attention to the mechanism in front of her. The cylindrical base, no more than three meters wide, grew organically from the surrounding stone, yet its smooth surface shone as if polished. Standing vertical its very center, a flat metallic disc sporadically flashed white in time with the ever intensifying lightning. She approached the side of the platform to examine the disc’s mirrored surface. Silver, perhaps platinum, polished to a flawless shine, reflected her image perfectly. Still, the image felt unnatural. Synthetic. Aberrant. For one, it displayed none of the equipment, make-shift chairs, and consoles scattered around the apparatus.  Nor did it reflect the mountainous orange slopes behind her. The device displayed only the reflections of herself and The Colonel, who’d stepped up behind her. She stared at the strange aura of light surrounding each of them in the reflection: hers, a murky blue-gray; his, a dark copper.

“Amazing, isn't it?” Even at a whisper, his voice cut through the speeding wind and thunder. “Vertolium, the most unique substance yet known to man. I personally refuse to call it a 'metal;' it’s too fluid, too unstable. But when polished and prodded just the right way, it produces the most astonishing reflections. They show the grounded things, those things that are eternally true, those things that cross time and space and even from one universe to the next.  Your essence never changes, though your personality, your looks, everything else might fade away.” 

"It's beautiful," she whispered.  She reached a hand out as if to touch the smooth surface, but jerked back as a streak of lightning crashed into a tree not thirty meters away.  Isra couldn't help but deeply inhale the fragrance of burning pine.

"I suppose we should proceed,"  The Colonel called as he turned his gaze on Isra. “They’ve told you why you’re here?”

Isra swallowed the hard knot that had formed in her throat. Perhaps she wasn’t so resigned to this mission as she pretended. “Yes,” she whispered. “To seek her out, to measure whether our connection can be sustained, even now.” She took a deep breath. “To discover whether I might successfully cross The Boundary.”

The Colonel nodded. His grin disappeared.  With a snap of his fingers Isra was surrounded by the flurry of his team. They systematically and efficiently placed wireless electrodes at strategic points of Isra’s skin: temples, heart, navel. A particularly rotund gentleman pressed the barrel of some sort of gun to her left wrist. With a slight hiss, the gun pierced the skin and placed the final microtransmitter. Isra examined her wrist, tingling with an almost imperceptible current. Her hazel eyes widened.  No mark.

“We’re in,” a new voice from the left called, but Isra ignored it. She watched intently as The Gate began to glow an electric blue. The Colonel clasped her unaltered wrist and gestured to the platform. She refused to face him but nodded and stepped forward.

Isra exhaled slowly as she stepped onto the cylindrical base. As soon as she stood in its center, a visible barrier snapped into place around her. The slight discoloration of the atmosphere separated her from the flurry of activity beyond the mechanism’s invisible walls. Though she could still see each team member working diligently to prepare the machine, their images were overwhelmed by auras as clear to her as spotlights, and as natural to her as breathing. What had seemed foolish speculation was suddenly comfortable, real, even inherent to the nature of existence.

“You’re feeling it already; that’s good.” She glanced back over to the Colonel, who eyed her with that same grin. “This will be both the simplest and the most difficult thing you have ever done.” He gestured to the sky above them, startlingly dark as the purple faded to deep blue and yellowed lightning created an electric charge in the air. Though power surged all around her, she felt as comfortable as if she’d taken this journey a million times.

“You have,” the Colonel’s voice interrupted her thoughts. Isra’s brow furrowed in confusion, but he made no attempt to enlighten her. “Your instructions are simple. Stare into that disc and study yourself, until you see the image of that which you seek. The lightning will provide a power surge, during which you must release any remaining anxiety, and do what you will know to do. Once you’re on the other side, we have no way of knowing how long your body will be able to sustain the paradox. Here, you feel more confident and at home than you’ve ever felt in your life; you will not have that luxury there. You will be the outcast, the abomination: every cell in your body will try to call you back. You must ignore it. The longer you are on the other side, the more information we can gather.”

“If I don’t return?”

“Neither success nor failure is ever absolute. We’ll still get what we need.”

Isra took one last look at the Colonel before she turned to focus on the disc. She could hear endless activity surrounding her, but it reached her ears as if through a dozen walls, each thicker than the last. The commotion around Isra faded into white noise, insignificant and irrelevant. Each tiny hair on her body rose as the growing electric current surrounded her like a halo. As the halo grew, the murky gray-blue aura surrounding her fanned out in every direction until she could see it not only in the disc’s reflection but also radiating from her skin. The aura snaked out in tendrils, searching, searching--

--And then a snap. The murky gray condensed into a solid, almost tangible line, extending from Isra's navel and reaching into the depths of the mirror in front of her. Her reflection faded into a hazy maze of colors: pinks, reds, and mauves. The cord from her navel reached into the haze and merged with it.  It gradually faded into a bright green and reached out into the distance. The Colonel had been right. She knew exactly what was at the other end, and her chest filled with familiar longing. The lightning surged, and feeling more like herself than she ever had, she stepped forward and through the open doorway. She felt a cold tingling rush as the atmosphere of the world beyond fell upon her skin, and with an explosion of light, sound, and electricity, all was darkness.

* * * * * * *

The irritating prickle of light pressed tiny needles into her closed eyelids. A bitterly cold breeze brushed across her exposed fingers. The air felt charged in a way Isra found disconcerting, even repulsive. Her skin throbbed as if submerged in a churning vat of electrified slush.  Her mind could not integrate the physical pain with her awakening vision. As her eyes awoke, she gazed upon an orchard in springtime, a dozen spindly trees covered in tiny pink flowers, occasionally swept from the branches by a light breeze and gingerly tossed onto the lush grass beneath her. Yet, as she swept her hand along that lush grass, the sting of thousands of tiny razors licked at her fingertips. She jerked her hand to her face in pain.  Her skin remained perfectly intact.

The Colonel was right. Every atom in her body vibrated with longing to return from whence she'd come. Yet she could not, would not, leave just yet. She hadn't found her; her mission was yet unfulfilled.

"I wondered when you'd arrive," a melodic voice called from behind her. Isra moved achingly slowly, using all her hard-won concentration to ignore the pain as she turned to face the voice. Her face flushed in anger as the voice chuckled.

"Always were the stubborn one," it called again. Isra furrowed her brow as she managed to turn toward the new arrival. The cord at Isra's navel had grown even more tangible, the blue-gray reaching out, twisting into a brilliant green, and connecting her to the unearthly form standing before her. The woman looked like no one she'd ever known:  dark skin, violet eyes, hair so deep and dark it shone purple as the sun danced upon it through the branches above. The woman wore only a light tunic and skirt as she strolled towards Isra. Isra's heart clenched in pain even as she gazed upon her.

"Amaranthe?" Isra whispered, though she was sure she’d never known that name. She shook her head. "Kari?"

The woman smiled and cocked her head to one side. "I was called that once. I've been called many things, both before and after. You were most correct the first time. I'm Amaranthe." She gave a deep curtsy, and Isra realized she was being mocked. Without thinking, she reached out to swat Amaranthe's arm, but met only air. Amaranthe had ducked out of the way and landed several feet away. Isra frowned.

"You mustn't touch me," Amaranthe warned. "The paradox would not be sustained, and you would be ripped from this world with a speed that would destroy you." The corners of her lips turned up, her teeth bared in a gruesome smile. "I learned that one the hard way.  Let's say our first few meetings have made me more cautious."

Isra stared. "The first few?" Amaranthe sat on the grass a few yards away, perfectly content in her bare feet, digging her toes into the soft earth. Isra--and why did thinking of herself by that name feel so disconcerting?--continued to grit her teeth in pain as the grass inflamed every inch of skin it touched.

"Yes, dear Peregrin." Peregrin. Yes, that was her name. Why had she never known, not until this very moment? "This is at least the fifteenth such time I've stumbled upon you in this place. For some reason you're always drawn back here." Amaranthe's eyes danced casually over her form before they focused with interest at the still-exposed cleavage. "You didn't look quite this good the last time, though." She smirked and returned her eyes to Isra's.  "But, oh, how I’d love to tug at those fiery curls now."

Isra’s facial muscles spasmed with the first genuine smile she’d felt in months. “God, I’ve missed that. Missed you.” Water gathered at the corners of her eyes.

Amaranthe sighed. “I know, love, I know. I often seem to leave you a bit too soon.” Her eyes hardened. “But that’s no excuse for your cowardice."  Isra flinched, but Amaranthe pressed on.  "You shouldn't be here. What would happen if you ran into yourself? It might rip apart the fabric of every universe, not just yours or mine." Isra's eyes widened.

"You mean...I'm here?" She looked at the cord connecting the two of them and realized there was a second, less visible protrusion extending from Amaranthe's navel into the distance.

"Where else would you be? Of course you're here. You’re meant to be with me; you were destined to eventually arrive here.”  Her lips thinned even as her smirk continued.  "Just, not yet."

Isra’s face heated as her blood began to rush. The increasing ring in her ears reminded her that she didn't, in fact, belong here. They wouldn’t have long; she hadn’t meant the conversation to turn this way. “This is a regular occurrence, then? You abandon me and I follow you here?”

Amaranthe sighed. “I’d forgotten your propensity for melodrama.” Isra smirked as Amaranthe’s serene facade cracked, evidenced by her down-turned lips and shadowed eyes. “But no. Many times you abandoned me. Suicide. Accidents. Old age a few times. In one sense death is very reliable; in another, he has a bit of a fetish for variety.” Her lips curled into a sneer. “I at least was never fool enough to try to cross The Boundary to find you.”

Amaranthe’s eyes glowed faintly as the world began to melt into blurred colors and lines. Isra’s body couldn’t sustain the displacement much longer.

Amaranthe shook her head.  “You shouldn’t be here. You are giving him too much information. He’s using you as his damned guinea pig. He has ambition grander than you can imagine and will never be satisfied with power in one reality: he wants control of them all. Should he finally discover how to cross himself, he’ll do everything he can to make that dream a reality, even if he must annihilate everything in the process.”

Isra frowned. “What am I to do, then?”  Both voices now rang hollow, as if the words themselves traveled through water to reach her ears.

“Stop following me, Peregrin. Each time we’re separated, he seeks you out, lures you in with promises he won’t fulfill.” Her eyes dimmed. “Yes, I’m she whom you've loved and lost, but I’m not Kari. In each universe, time and time again we are reborn; we meet, we fall in love, and we are eventually heartbroken as we part ways. We feel the heights of both ecstasy and pain, and it is terrible and wonderful and breathtaking. Eventually, we both are born here, and we are happy. Be patient, and that time will come for you--unless you allow him to destroy it all.”

“But I can’t, Amaranthe,” she whispered. “I could never stop myself from searching for you, even if I wanted to.”

Amaranthe smiled. “Well, you’ll admit that much at least. I suppose you’ll just have to figure out a way to stop Him.”

“And how should I do that?”

“Live. I warned you: it’s your cowardice, your fear of being alone that drove you here. You hoped to find me, yes, but you expected to die. Your ultimate goal was to stand by my side once again, no matter what that cost you or anyone else.  But Peregrin, you are the only person in your world who has experienced what you have and who knows what you know. There is much good left to be done in your world even now, even on your own.  The world--all worlds--need your help.  Use your brain and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.” As other colors faded from Isra’s vision, the violet of Amaranthe’s eyes pierced into Isra’s. “Even now you make a choice: to die, to move onto your next life where you will find me once again; or to live, to face the rest of this life with courage. Please, for me, make the right decision.” Unable to fight any longer, Isra gave herself over to darkness.

* * * * * * *

“We’ve lost the connection,” Red snapped as the activity on the monitors spiked and then crashed to almost nothing.

The Colonel’s smile didn’t diminish. “Five minutes of data this time. A new record, ladies and gentlemen!” He turned and gestured toward the platform. “Take care of the mess, would you Greenie?” He fondly slapped the rotund man on the back. Green’s eyes narrowed, but he moved to obey nonetheless.

The Colonel turned his gaze to the monitor and begin the painful process of scouring the data. Red frantically typed away at the primary control panel.  She periodically shifted screens as The Colonel called out instructions. He groaned under his breath.  He always hated this part. Brilliant though he may have been--and he was neither naive nor humble enough to deny it--making definitive conclusions based on millions of minute pieces of data was still tedious as hell. He could only hope that the The Subject's hard won measurements could produce a clearer picture this time. With each attempt the formulas gained clarity and precision. Another few tries and the team might be able to attempt the crossing with an Untethered Subject.

“Boss,” Green’s voice called from the platform. “You might want to come take a look at this.”

The Colonel’s smile slipped for the first time that evening. “A bit busy here, Greenie.”

“Trust me; you definitely want to see this.”

The Colonel furrowed his brow and scowled as he approached the platform. The electric hum had ceased as the power had shut down.  The barrier had vanished, its metal disc melted back into its gelatinous state. The Subject lay perfectly still in the middle of the platform.

“Green, what’s the meaning of this?”

Green gestured to The Subject. Frowning, the Colonel knelt and pressed two fingers into the limp body’s throat. His eyes widened as he recognized the faint thump of a still beating heart.

The Colonel flew back to the monitors. At the top of an auxiliary screen, a weak but slow and steady beep pulsed almost silently. The Colonel’s eyes lit up in wonder, his restored grin stretching the sides of his face.

“Well, team, tonight has gone even better than expected!” The team crowded around the monitor in astonishment as that slow and steady pulse refused to cease. They watched for five minutes. Ten. And still the heart kept on beating.

“Initiate Plan B! Finally!” The team immediately dispersed to enact the emergency protocols. The Colonel went back to the platform and grinned down at the still Subject. “Welcome back, Violet. I suppose we’ll have to introduce you this time.”

He pulled out his phone to begin the necessary flurry of calls. With an excitement he’d not genuinely felt in lifetimes, he spoke. “White? Prepare for Phase 2.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In Defense of Microambitions

I have a rather large confession to make.  I am, despite my best efforts at personal reform, a devotee of the art of YouTube surfing.  I have made several attempts at sobriety, but I have yet to see meaningful change in my way of life.  My partner is likewise afflicted with the horrendous affliction. We cycle relentlessly in an ever-widening gyre of days of remission only to inevitably fall back into relapse.  Ours can be a painful existence, and I cannot say I'd recommend it to anyone.

Yet, even in that dreadful darkness can we find beacons of hope.  I was engaged in a multi-hour viewing binge about a week ago, when I came upon this delightful video of an address at UWA given by Tim Minchin.  The whole speech is full of chuckle-worthy plays on words as well as meaningful--and meaningless--advice.  I particularly recommend a stretch beginning at 3:15:

"...I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you. You never know where you might end up. Just be aware the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery, which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye. "

As a child, I was guilty of sins far worse than YouTube gluttony.  You see, I was a dreamer of dreams.  But not just realistic dreams, oh no.  I had delusions of grandeur the likes of which the world had never seen.  (Obviously, I've never quite grown out of them.)  You see, fate had predestined me to be the world's most brilliant figure skater.  In the evenings, I would consult on high-risk surgical procedures whilst preparing gourmet meals for my five-star restaurant.  On weekends, I would paint landscapes worthy of the Louvre and read poetry to thousands of adoring sycophants.  I would find the life I was destined to live.

Of course, the two times I attempted ice skating I could not maintain my balance for more than thirty seconds at a time.  I had neither the stomach nor constitution to give my mother her weekly allergy shots. I didn't learn to boil spaghetti properly until I was at least 27.  My only contributions to art were the scribbles on my bedroom wall, and my poetry stayed relegated to the catacombs of deadjournal, where I hope they yet rest in peace.

None of these things were in and of themselves bad.  They were sparkling dreams contrived by a young girl who had been taught that there was no goal so high she couldn't strive to reach it.  The problem was never the dream.  The problem was its execution.  I never learned how to work for those dreams, and so, when I realized their non-sensibility, their impracticality, I gave them up, changed them, shifted them into what I assumed were more meaningful long-term goals.

I have come to realize though, as Tim Minchin did, the value of the micro-ambition.  I value these bursts of desire for achievement for two primary reasons.  First, as he suggests, they promote flexibility.  I cannot imagine what opportunities I might have missed had I been too focused on an ultimate goal.  Had I been determined to stick with music education as a career, I wouldn't have moved 700 miles away from the only home I'd ever known to learn a new trade.  Had I been determined to continue my doctoral studies, as I had planned to do, I would have both likely lost the love of my life and been another hundred thousand dollars or so in debt.    Had I not seen the value of entering one small writing contest, then another, then another, I never would have even considered the possibility of becoming a writer.  Had I not been fortunate enough to win one of them, I likely would not be nearing completion of my first novel.  Each of these accomplishments arrived thanks to one small shiny thing that managed to distract me from what I thought was my final goal.
Second, micro-ambitions give you something small and achievable to which you can apply yourself much more effectively and consistently than if your life is defined by enslavement to a particular path.  My whole adult life has come down to discovering and chasing a series of micro-ambitions.  Complete this class.  Finish this degree.  Get this job.  Be admitted to this program.  Move to this place.  Write this story.  Publish this poem.  Finish this novel.  Whether I knew what I was doing or not, I set myself goals which, while rather large, were small in comparison to my childhood dreams.  Because these goals were smaller, I achieved them with an awareness of what could be done now and well, rather than what would take a lifetime of work and might still never see fruition.

At the end of the day, I do still have dreams.  I'd like nothing more than to end up on the bestseller list one day.  My dreams may be flighty, but I value them more for their fickleness.  Every day is another opportunity to make my dreams come true, because every day is an opportunity to bring a new dream to life.  For now?  My dream is to finish Book 1.  Then perhaps Book 2 and Book 3 (both already in the initial planning stages).  After that, who knows?  Maybe I'll throw in the towel on writing and go back to school, finish that Ph.D.  Maybe I'll open a restaurant selling gourmet grilled cheese* or a bookstore or a corner coffee shop with lattes that don't taste burnt (Sorry, Starbucks).

I don't know just yet.  I've honed in on the shiny thing of the moment.  But as to what comes next?  I'm still watching the periphery.

*I'm serious about the gourmet grilled cheese.  Ever tried a jalapeno popper grilled cheese?  Mine are phenomenal -- definitely better than his.  I also make a killer feta/red pepper grilled cheese.  Watch out world.  It's coming.