Creativity and Writing: My Genius in the Corner

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Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk on creativity and genius
Elizabeth Gilbert speaking on creativity      and genius

I have been on a long-term writing retreat. One of the main reasons I chose to do this was so I could hopefully figure out what my relationship is, or should be, between myself and my creativity. Did I even want to have a creative life as a dedicated career? Left-brain work and engagement comes easy to me, but like many gifted people I am multi-talented in areas both left- and right-brained.  Each of those areas of focus fulfills me in a way the other can’t.

I have been back and forth with my creative work all my life. Do it, love it, run away from it to the refuge of the chewy mental challenge of something left-brained and preferably entrepreneurial as well.  Finally I was at a juncture in my life where it seemed nothing was working for me. I wanted to go to law school but was unable to swing the financing. And it became clear to me that I needed a new focus, the right focus. So I escaped to the country to write a book (of course) and, yes, figure this stuff out once and for all.

Being a Creative Writer

I’ve been at this since I was a small child.  I wrote my first story as soon as I’d mastered the letters for it. At age 6, on the double-lined paper of a first-grader, I wrote out my story and ran home and handed it to my 24-year-old brother.

The sun is warm today.
I mean Hot.
I will rob your bank today.
You will be tired. I know you will.
signed,
an Outlaw.

Yes, it read like a hold-up note, and maybe it was. It was the fall of 1962, and cowboys and outlaws were bigger then than they are today.  But this was the vignette playing out in my mind, that vibrant scene I had to capture somehow. There it was. My first story. And I knew it.

My brother knew it too. When I turned 33 he tossed an unwrapped picture frame in my lap in his unceremonious way and said, ‘Happy Birthday.” In that frame was the story he’d kept all those years.

I hadn’t yet sold a book, but we both knew what I should be doing.

“Top That”

I’m not going to go into a lot more autobiographical depth here. Let’s just skip ahead a ways and say that my first science fiction novel, Mainline, got good reviews. Really good.  In 1997 it placed number 9 in the Locus Poll Award for Best First Novel. My publisher was okay with me writing fantasy, but after two books and so-so sales in that genre it became obvious they saw me more as a science fiction author, and wanted more in the vein of Mainline.

Well, I do love me some sci-fi, and live part-time in that science fictional world anyway. Sure, I was up for that. I’m eager to tell stories there, and that’s how Splintegrate came to be my next book (finishing it now).

But it has been a long, long road to get here with it. Part of my problem was that I fell into a subtle trap that best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) talks about in her brilliant TED talk about creativity and genius (video below).  Besides the very real challenges of discovering how to live – how to be – in a creative space in order to write, I dealt with my own smaller version of Gilbert’s conundrum, which she describes thus:

“It’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book.”

Drop the word “freakish” and add “science fiction” to “book”, and we’re talking about me.

Gilbert talks about friends asking her, wasn’t she afraid that she could never top the success of that book? Her answer was yes, and her challenge was to find a way to “recalibrate” her relationship to her creativity, so that whatever comes in the future, success or failure, she remains a comfortable vehicle for creativity to flow through. She shows up for “her part of the bargain,” and that thing, that creative force, that glimpse of God sitting over there in the corner – that is what she allows herself to have a relationship with.

In other words, the onus is not all on her, within her, brilliance or failure contained within the four walls of her mind. Instead, it is a partnership with something greater than self, that she allows to come through herself.

This is the same process I have been going through, especially while on retreat. I’ve been here before. In working through The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s profoundly transformative work1, I came to recognize this partnership with the divine or the transcendent that is part of allowing myself to flow creatively.  I have long had a personal and immediate experience of, as Cameron puts it, “not making it up, but getting it down”, as I channel (I use that word deliberately) what comes through me and onto the page.  (See my “About” note at this site, under the header “Why I Write These Stories.”)

So what has changed for me?

Taking time for introspection about Creativity and Me, is one. Doing some intense work in that area (thanks, Gail! my dear friend who is my companion in that jungle.)  Getting a story published in an anthology is another.  I don’t ordinarily write short fiction, but this timely invitation to write a military science fiction short came at just the right moment, and to be frank, seeing my work in print again reminds me that – hey. I’m an author. Not just a writer, putting words on a page, but a teller of tales – and channeling the tales that need to be told. (Thank you, Danielle and Mike, for this opportunity that reminded me of my proper framework in Things Creative.)  Age is another. I’m in my mid-50s, and the cumulative effect of these and other changes and insights makes me feel like I just figured out what I want to be when I grow up.

I’m not a writer. I’m an author. The two feel profoundly different to me now.

Creativity and Being an Author

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, then, feels very apropos, even though she recorded it two and a half years ago.  She talks about recognizing that creative force not only as being within, but being a specific Thing outside one’s self, that a person can interact with. She tells of the marvelous experiences of poet Ruth Stone, who felt poems physically barrel through her, and would run to write them down before they fled. Sometimes, when she’d almost missed one, she could sometimes “catch it by its tail” and pull it back into her body, writing the flood of words as she did so, capturing the poem in full but backwards, from last word to first.

I’m not writing backwards yet, but I am recognizing, finally, unequivocally, when Story is approaching, and when it is barreling through me. And when I’m stuck and feel like I’m empty of That Thing, then I can, like Elizabeth, raise my head from my work and talk to that not-so-empty corner of the room, and say, hey. I’m showing up for my piece of the work. It would be nice if you helped me out, here, too.

By situating the Muse not just within, but also outside myself, and by making her presence tangible (like Dobby the house-elf, per Gilbert’s funny analogy), I’m shifting the way I work. Here, finally, is Someone or Something I can engage with and gain traction with over the long haul. “Being creative” is not something I alone am responsible for. It is an outworking of God or the Universe or whatever you wish to call it. Now maybe I have a better way to gain full participation from all parties involved.

Maybe this is something every artist must go through, this recalibration of self and relationship to creativity. Or must, if you want to go beyond your self-set limitations and baggage from the past.

So now, when you hear me speaking to an empty room when I’m supposed to be writing,you’ll know it’s because I am talking to my Genius. She’s over there, sitting in the corner – and if you listen just so, you may hear her response. Or at least, if I listen just so, I know that I will.

And that is as it should be.

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1. A book I found so transformative, in fact, that I credit my unlikely sale of Mainline to the work I did in The Artist’s Way, and dedicated my novel in part to Julia Cameron. How unlikely was that sale? It was sold unagented out of the slush pile at Tor on the strength of a 30 page partial, making it (I was told) only the third book ever to be bought from their slush pile, and certainly the only partial ever sold in such a manner. Kids, don’t try this at home. I broke every rule of “how to sell your first novel” – but I did it in an intense state of visualization and by being open to serendipity and the aid of the Universe. What Cameron said.

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Me, Short Stories, and Robert Heinlein

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Me, Short Stories, and Robert Heinlein

I have a funny relationship with short fiction. It is not the form I reach to automatically when I write: I think in the long-term panoramas of book-length works. But now and then something will grab me, and out will burp a short story. And some short fiction I really, really love.

tesseract

A Tesseract

In spite of this, for most of my writing career I have not thought of myself as a short story writer. It is only now, that I am looking through older material in my files, that I realize I have been writing shorts in fits and starts for more than 30 years.

Thinking back, I am not surprised by this. My inspiration to write short fiction, the thing that totally grabbed me with its amazing twist and utterly fascinating core concept, was Robert Heinlein’s phenomenal “And He Built a Crooked House” (which you can read online here.) The “cool” factor in that story was off the charts for me. I can’t say what I thought was so cool about it without doing spoilers, and if you’re not familiar with the tale yet, I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I hope you’ll read it yourself and maybe you’ll be fascinated by some of the same things I was. (Might get into this more in a later blog post.)

I loved that story so much that, in the days before photocopy machines were everywhere, I typed it out with my just-learned 7th grade typing skills, so I could have a copy to read again after returning the book to the library. I even built a tesseract out of toothpicks and modeling putty, after his description in the book, so I could see what he was trying to explain. (Pre-internet, it wasn’t so easy to find images of obscure things like tesserae.)

After I lived and absorbed the adventure that was that story, I thought, I want to write like that! But as I continued to work at writing, I discovered I am basically a marathon runner, not a sprinter. Still, when I do feel the need to dash, it is sometimes with Heinlein (or other role models) on my shoulder.

I am also terribly fond of unforeseen twists and gotcha endings. Or even “gotcha” starts. I remember one very brief page-and-a-half opening chapter by Len Deighton in one of his spy novels that made me literally gasp with surprise. Now isn’t that funny: I no longer remember which book that was (I’ve read them all), but I do remember that reaction, which is exactly why I went on to read everything the man wrote – then from his example was able to add some tricks and techniques to my own writer’s toolbox, and hopefully have become a better writer for leaning in this sort of manner.

The twist or gotcha doesn’t work for every story, nor does it always happen even if the author wants it to.  But regardless of the exact style that ends up on the page, I have been happy with the results of much of my short-form story telling, although very little of it (only two pieces to date) has ever been published.

I suppose that’s another consequence of not thinking of myself as a short story writer. But things in my writing life have been conspiring to make me think of short fiction differently, and so my relationship to these kinds of stories has undergone something of a sea change recently.

What does this mean for you the reader? Well, it means that I’m finally pulling my short fiction out of the filing cabinet drawers and letting it see the light of day. In some instances, these stories are free. Others carry a modest price tag. I’m now making my short fiction available here through my website or online ebook outlets like Amazon.com.

Related projects coming up:  Right now, I’m wrangling folklore from my fiction settings and writing more of the same. This will be appearing soon in a book called Sa’adani Tales.  Another short story project in the works is called Backstreeters, a collection of tales about the low-lives and backstreet vagabonds of the Empire.  I also have a couple of novella projects that I’ll be announcing later.

If you’d like the inside scoop on these and other projects, please sign up for my newsletter. The form is in the left-hand column on this page.

So: on to the stories!  You can find links to my short fiction and excerpts for reading on this page.  Let me know what you think, ok? I’d love to hear readers’ takes on this content, and I’ll be reading your comments with interest.

 

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Sa’adani Tales: Folklore in Short Stories

 

Minor characters and interesting byways

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I don’t know why the people and events and settings of Splintegrate are so intensely alive to me. There is, of course, the fact that I feel that I “go there”, living in that space and piggy-backing on the consciousness of the locals for a time, in order to see events unfold and get the story down. But I do this with all of my books. Yes, they are all pretty vivid to me, but this one seems even more so.

It’s like there is a certain intensity, an aliveness I am getting, with even the smallest of events and most incidental of encounters. For instance:

There is a street vendor selling snack food from a cart in Old Town. He sells a kind of fritter made of breis (a genetically modified rice-type grain, a common staple food found on human-inhabited worlds) and diced prawns harvested from the rich biosoup of the Dolos Ocean. Packed into a ball, they’re rolled in a spice mix, savory, salty, with a bit of heat to it, and deep-fried quickly in hot oil just til golden brown. Scooped out, drained, tossed in a fiberboard go-box with a container of something that looks like a cross between thousand-island dressing and garlic aioli for dipping, but spicier.  It’s a local food speciality; I can almost but not quite hear the name (though if it continues to niggle I will have to meditate and go listen and come back with the word).

Just incidental snack food bought along the way – may not even make it through the final cut – but don’t you just want to go there and stop and have some? I do.

Or this:

Here and there in the cityscape, in some plazas and greenways or in quiet inner courtyards, are little chusto shrines scattered about Port Oswin.
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Urban planning in science fiction, part II

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This is the second of a 2-part post about the role cities play in Sa’adani thought and society.  That’s Sa’adani as in the human (but not Earth-human) culture of the eponymous Empire, the backdrop of my science fiction novels. You can see Part I of this “sustainable living in urban spaces” exploration here.

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Sheo Evos – the Flourishing Communities

 

Picking from the best features of the past and melding these with the needs of contemporary life of his times (700 local years ago, in 405SR), Emperor Esimir IV mandated that Sa’adani cities should be chartered in accordance with the She’vos (pronounced SHAY-vohs, from “sheo evos”, Flourishing Communities) precepts laid out by Minister of the Left Lord Shay Lasmiric, a notable scholar and philosopher of his time.  The 25-year-long first She’vos Census which followed established which communities would be granted a She’vos charter, and which not. It was a coveted endorsement, since She’vos communities became eligible for certain imperial and planetary funding, significant tax breaks, and support not available to other communities.  Urban growth since then has been planned with an eye to the Flourishing Communities ideals and requirements. The She’vos Census is repeated once every 50 years, and is completed in 2 to 3 years empire-wide. This is more rapid because the first one established the basic ways and means, and because communication and travel speeds have improved significanty in ensuing centuries.

Today, the designation of “city” is not due only to size or economic prosperity, but happens because an urban area meets the She’vos requirements. Urban designations are as follows[1]:
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Earth With Two Moons: Maybe Not Just Science Fiction

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How’d the moon get to be floating around the Earth? It’s a question a lot of people have asked over the eons.  It used to be that question was answered with myth and legend, giving the moon – like the earth – divine origins. I like to answer origin-questions that same way in some parts of my science fiction, and often have a piece of folklore that fills in the blanks on such topics. In fact, I have a folktale called “Rulandor’s End,” that explains how the little, fast-moving moon in Casca’s1 night sky came to be.  (I’ll be uploading that story very soon, along with some other content in my Sa’adani Empire section here, and will be updating this post as soon as that’s online.)

Scientists usually have a different take on such things, however.

For quite a while, our researchers have had a theory that the Earth’s moon was created by a giant impact. They posit that a Mars-sized planet smashed against the Earth. The impact ejected a lot of mass into space; that mass then swirled around and eventually coalesced into the moon.

But there’s an odd thing about our moon. The side that faces us is relatively smooth and featureless, but the far side is quite rough and mountainous. This is not in keeping with the form you’d expect for a globe where gravitational attraction caused the mass to come together uniformly around a center.

A new hypothesis has emerged to explain this asymmetry. Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz believe it is possible that we once had two moons orbiting the earth, probably both created by the giant impact event.  Eventually, they collided – a slow collision, not strong enough to obliterate both, but grinding one into the other and deforming the planetoid that survived the collision.  A collision of this sort would not create craters or melting, but would deposit a new layer of thick crust on the impacted area.

“Our model works well with models of the moon-forming giant impact, which predict there should be massive debris left in orbit about the Earth, besides the moon itself,” said Professor Erik Asphaug, lead researcher on this work2.

His colleague Professor Francis Nimmo, one of the authors of the “tidal forces” theory, said “It agrees with what is known about the dynamical stability of such a system, the timing of the cooling of the moon, and the ages of lunar rocks…The fact that the near side of the moon looks so different to the far side has been a puzzle since the dawn of the space age, perhaps second only to the origin of the moon itself.”

The event might have looked something like this:

Two moons colliding.
Artist’s rendering of smaller moon colliding with our moon about 4 billion years ago. Credit: Martin Jutzi and Eric Asphaug, UCSC (Nature.com)

That is interesting enough as a theory, but you know where my science fiction imagination runs with that? Right here:

How would that have looked, seen from the Earth? What tidal effects would it have created, or how devastating were the impacts from debris cast through our atmosphere?

And even more spectacular and down-right terrifying: how would that look if you lived on the moon involved?

Science fiction has all manner of stories that take place on moons.  From Heinlein’s classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to Piers Anthony’s intriguing Jupiter moon settings in the Bio of a Space Tyrant cycle, to Yavin 4, the rebel base in Star Wars IV from which the Death Star-destroying attack was launched – we do like our moons in this genre and we’re not afraid to live on ’em!

So what if you were living on one when another moon comes a-calling? You can run, but you can’t hide. Talk about an end-of-the-world scenario, writ small but no less deadly for any lifeforms in the way of it.

panic

Feels like something a short story should be written about.

Just sayin’…

Loving that new hypothesis in a perverse science-geek-cum-story-teller kinda way.

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1. Casca is a world in old Sa’adani space in my science fiction settings where I’ve been doing considerable development and world building. It has not yet made an appearance in my published works, but probably will in the future.

2. Lovett, Richard. “Early Earth may have had two moons.” Nature News, Aug 3, 2011. Nature.com. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110803/full/news.2011.456.html

Why It’s Still Smart to Court Traditional Publishers

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fall book displayRight now indie publishing and traditional publishing are two separate paradigms, but there is convergence on certain points, driven by the market impetus of the ebook. Traditional publishers  are still gradually losing the footrace and are scrambling, trying many different permutations of new business models (or even just singular initiatives) to gain more traction in the market that is slipping away from them. (See this for an example: MacMillan to crowdsource romance novels next year).

But in the meanwhile, if you can get picked up by a major publishing house, it does lend a certain caché to your work that makes even your indie-published ebooks stand out from the crowd. It comes down to the curation problem:  old school was curate first, then publish. Agents and publishers were the curation gatekeepers, screening out the dross, bringing only good stuff (supposedly) to market.  New school is publish first (ah, the ease of ebook publishing by any monkey with a word processor and a pdf tool), and let the public’s buying taste perform the curation process after the fact. The problem with this is that a lot of crud gets into print before the good stuff is winnowed by the buying and review processes and becomes easily findable by most buyers.  So how do you stand out in this crowd?

Mainstream publishers are still respected because of the curation they provide. In the ever-growing sea of ebooks, the problem becomes, how do you find good stuff (as a reader) among the glut of new publications, many if not most of which are poorly written drek?  Knowing that an author is also published by a hard-to-break-into-print traditional publishing house can substantially help elevate one’s profile out of the massive horde of “yet-another-self-published-ebook” authors.

For that reason alone, I’d still knock on the door of big publishers and agents.  I’m lucky in that I am already published by Tor Books, but if I were not, I’d be courting an agent. Maybe not as a mono-focused priority while I continued to release my own material, but certainly as a long-term strategic goal, for the overarching marketing benefits that will accrue.

That said, once you have an agent it is critical to come to an explicit understanding about what portion or type of your work you want them to represent, and what portion of it you will continue to publish on your own. You don’t want misunderstandings down the road if you are still publishing some of your own work while an agent is trying to manage your career and represent your body of work.

Urban planning in science fiction

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English: Hong Kong from Western District overl...In my Sa’adani Empire setting, there is a distinctive cultural attitude that shapes what kinds of cities are favored and how most urbanized Sa’adani live. I’ve had to think about this urban planning and the philosophies behind it in order to better characterize some city settings in my writing.

Details about urban planning aren’t sexy and don’t surface too often in fiction – not even in science fiction, where you’d think we’d spend some brain cells thinking about how people might live in the future.  Granted, we read about the end product – urban life, whatever its form – but often very little of the process or rationale that lead there.   Yet I find that process interesting. I think about sustainable living and how we are ever going to make sense out of the morass that many of our cities have become.  In my science fiction I’m always curious what choices and priorities lead people to live as they do.

Here’s part 1 of a 2-part post on this topic. This is written pretty much from the Sa’adani point of view.  There are implicit and explicit assumptions built into this discussion that stem from a Sa’adani cultural framework (such as the statement that “a city’s emotional focus is on communal life”). Whether it is or isn’t, that at least is the Sa’adani cultural ideal, and where they believe energy ought to be going in the management of small-scale urban living.  Obviously I could write another book elaborating on these background assumptions alone. But never fear: I’m not going to. 😉  I’ll just let this piece speak for itself.  With no further ado, then:

 Cities in Sa’adani Thought

A city is a center of community, a more mature form than the village or town which is its predecessor.  Its emotional focus is on communal life, not merely on the economic benefits of having services and products clustered closely together (although for practical reasons such features are of course not ignored).  A city nurtures and shapes the life of the spirit, of the community, family and individual through creative expression, learning, philosophy and spirituality.  Chau-sen deities associated with cities never lack for avid followers, a reflection of how a city becomes a nearly personified thing in the mind of those who live there.

A city is also a self-organized unit for defense under the patronage of its leading House, Houses, or clans.  According to the ancient ideal, a city is self-sufficient at its core, able to withstand sieges and fight off attacks, and produces what it needs to support itself even in time of war or famine.  In diversified and eclectic economies, complete self-sufficiency is less often required for purposes of survival, but the ideal is still cherished, inspiring urban thinking and influencing many initiatives, such as energy self-sufficiency or encouraging the production of a variety of goods rather than specializing in only a few.

With economic growth, cities also become economic centers, bringing together resources, production and distribution for the betterment of the community and the broader marketplace. Largely in consequence of this, it  is recognized that cities can easily grow too large and cumbersome. Especially when they prosper, people flock to abundance and the tendency is to let unchecked growth run rampant. But this quickly  leads to a city that is difficult to maintain, less inclusive of citizens and less able to serve their needs. It may also lead to political unrest, for the larger the city, the more anonymous and disconnected an individual feels when there are hundreds of thousands of residents – even millions – instead of manageable tens of thousands.  Ties of fealty to a liege lord and clan head are weakened, and the importance of the kin group forgotten.

This is a lesson that has been learned in past civil conflicts, and has left a hallmark on Sa’adani thinking about community life and urban development. 
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Back in Time With Living History: the PBS “House” Projects

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Regency House1

Mr. Gorell Barnes, Regency House Party

What was it really like to live “back then”? I think that is one of the central questions that motivates the enjoyment of historical fiction, whether one is reading, writing it, or watching in a film.  For a long time, a good historical novel was the only way a “modern” reader (of whatever era) could experience the past in great detail.  Great books of this sort bring an era alive with an immediacy that lets us forget our modern sensibilities and exist for a time in the skin of someone from the past.  It is the closest most of us ever get to visiting and living in the past.

Living in the Past

For many people, though, experiencing the past through the imagination alone is not enough. This has given rise to reenactment societies, working opportunities in living history (like the docents at Colonial Williamsburg), Renaissance Faires, the SCA and more. All of these offer folks a chance to sample a bygone way of life, but it is always in small doses, within close time constraints and within the framework of modern life. Just beyond the borders of Faire lie the interstate; the Civil War battle must be refought in time for everyone to return to work on Monday. These experiences cannot create a truly immersive sense of living in the past within these constraints.

But there is another way to go live in the past, one that is much more comprehensive than these leisure-time amusements. It is not available to everyone, but for those chosen to participate, it is arguably more immersive and for that reason potentially more enjoyable (and stressful) than the alternatives. This is the series of “historical living” experiments that PBS has aired over the last decade and a half: a series of historical “reality” documentaries where the focus is the experience of living in another time.

The 1900 House Family

The 1900 House Family

The premise is simple: a carefully selected cross-section of people leave their modern lives, don the garments of the era, and move into a painstakingly recreated, historically correct setting. Intentionally isolated from all interaction with the modern world (as much as possible, considering that their experiences are being filmed), persons are assigned roles, their duties and obligations lined out for them, and they live as that person for the next several weeks or months. In conjunction with experts from historical preservation societies, academia, and other specialities, Wall to Wall/Channel 4 in the UK launched their foray into this arena with The 1900 House project in 1999.  As of this writing those producers and WNET in the US have covered groups of people living in 1940s Britain and Wales, Edwardian and Regency EnglandColonial America, the post-Civil War Texas frontier, and the Montana frontier in the late 1880s.

Transitioning Back in Time

The results of these long-term living history experiments are fascinating.  There is some indoctrination before the living experience begins, and some persons walk right into the era as if born to it. Others have a very difficult time adapting to the change and the loss of modern conveniences and social customs they are used to.  Everyone has their social niche and expected role lined out for them in detail. Some overarching goals are often assigned, and the person or group’s success will be rated accordingly. For instance, eligible young men and women in Regency House Party know they are angling for a marriage proposal by end of their summer with houseguests of varying status and incomes.  The rancher in Texas Ranch House knows he has to round up and sell enough cattle by the end of the summer to make his next mortgage payment, or he will lose his ranch. Even those without lofty goals can still have quite demanding challenges ahead of them: the maid of all work who cooks and cleans for a  household in 100-degree heat with nothing but wood stoves and elbow grease really has her work cut out for her.

In many of these shows, individuals are evaluated at the end of the residency, when their success personally and as a household are rated. If they had truly lived in that era, how would they have fared by the standards of the day? Did they establish a prosperous ranch, or go broke trying? Have sufficient food stores to survive a harsh winter? Found a husband or lost their honor in the community?  Evaluations are are conducted by area experts applying the standards of the period as much as recreation skills allow.  They are based on objective criteria, but to some extent are also necessarily subjective. What a modern person deems was a “success” may be a resounding failure in the past era, for reasons the evaluators explain in detail.

Corsetry

Regency House Corsetry

Almost without exception, no matter how much indoctrination they receive beforehand, modern people face peculiar challenges in stepping back into the past like this. For women a consistent stumbling block seems to be the sexism and social strictures they encounter. It is built into the mores of earlier eras and is harshly apparent to contemporary sensibilities when a modern woman has to live with it every day.  Also, for women used to comfortable clothes and freedom of movement, the often severe constraints of period fashions and the behaviors expected (be fully dressed even in a heat wave, etc) grow into a not-insignificant stress point. Many women said the heck with authenticity and took expedients like omitting their corsets, or spending the day in the equivalent of period underwear even when outside the house.

It’s a Man’s World

One thing that is striking when watching several of these shows is that men seem to have an easier time because the demands of the transition don’t hit them as hard.  Male privilege becomes if anything more explicit, and more pronounced than in our modern era. While there may be forms of etiquette they are expected to adhere to, there is no major social penalty for them if they do not (though evaluators will note if their behavior is not in keeping with the mores of the era).  For men, one is left with the impression that stepping back in time through a House project is a satisfying exercise in dressing up and playing an extended if grown-up form of let’s-pretend. Men are not asked to abandon who they are; instead they get to concentrate on one aspect of themselves and let that side “come out to play” and live the role (the Regency gentleman; the Texas ranch hand; the WWII householder on the home front).

Cooke Family, Texas Ranch House

Cooke Family, Texas Ranch House

Women, however, are suddenly surrounded with do’s and do-nots.  An Edwardian maid carrying on with a footman could be fired; Regency women are not allowed to amuse themselves outdoors in the carefree and physical manner men are. On the Texas Ranch project, all five women in the project felt discounted by the men and left out of any important decisions and opportunities.

On the ranch, this led to a contretemps that could have spelled the end of the venture had this really happened in 1867.  In this setting, the cowhands expected Mr. Cooke, the owner, to deal with them  “man to man”, on the strength of his word.  The input of Mrs. Cooke in the rancher’s dealings was universally resented as interfering at best, and emasculating at worst.  While the men’s attitudes were era-appropriate (a headspace modern men fell into quite readily), their expectations of the ranch owner challenged his 21st century practice of his wife having  equal input into decision-making. In frontier Texas, the hands come to disrespect her husband because it was thought his wife pulled his strings and he did not keep his word.  This assertive modern woman needed to put a lid on it, or she risked creating resentment and power struggles.

Unfortunately, she was not able to remain hands-off. Mrs Cooke felt she and the other women on the ranch were cut out of all business of importance and made to be inconsequential. Her antidote for this feeling of powerlessness was to assert more control in her husband’s ranch business.  Yet the more she exercised authority with her husband, the more the ranch hands resented both Mr. Cooke and her interference. Things came to a head when finally – two days before the project officially came to an end – every cowhand quit their employment and left the ranch en mass. While the rancher’s daughters were saying “I don’t understand. Dad’s so nice!”, what they were blind to is the fact that he made some harsh decisions and went back on his word to his men on several points under the influence of his wife’s input.

Cowboys, Texas Ranch House

Cowboys, Texas Ranch House

If this had been real 1867 Texas, the rancher would have been hard pressed to find a new qualified crew of cow hands in a frontier where every such person was eagerly snapped up by competing ranchers. The desertion of his crew might have spelled out the failure of his ranch. It is an unhappy ending for the Texas Ranch project, and one brought about in no small part because of the clash of expectations between a modern woman and her more limited 19th century role.  Mr. and Mrs Cooke were startled at their failing evaluation; based on the pleasant time enjoyed by their family, the Mrs had deemed the ranch stay a success.  But according to evaluators, the more systemic elements in their scenario (poor use of food resources, muddled accounting practices, and the complete alienation of work crews) would have doomed this fledgling ranch or at least made its long-term survival very problematic.

Living Under a Microscope

Obviously, a PBS “House” project is in many ways like life in a fishbowl. Constantly under observation, cast into a strange setting with clothes that make daily functioning a challenge, often short on food or facing physical challenges in the environment, thrown in with strangers, and with many constraints built in on what one can and can’t do in the era: this set-up has many of the elements which make reality shows so popular. Unlike Survivor, however, the drama is not manufactured. People come into these projects generally expecting a good time and a pleasant adventure. There is no built-in dynamic that pits one against another, but what we do see happen is a stratification and alignment of factions based on the historical elements that were in play.

In Regency House Party, for instance, there is surprising tension between the marriageble young women and some of the older women chaperoning them.  Class tensions spring into life with the economic and labor divisions inherent between masters and servants in the Edwardian Manor House.  Likewise with the Texas Ranch, where at one juncture Mrs. Cooke thinks the hands should be appreciative of the work the family puts into feeding them, while the cowboys resent what to them feels like calculated charity at the rancher’s table.  Friction arises organically, just as do alliances, cooperation, and strong bonds forged by shared challenges. Quite often participants remark afterwards how real the period felt to them.  With the modern world absent from view and lived experience, it fades even more from mind as daily life and coping with problems demands that they “be here, now.”  In doing so these modern time travelers fall into an historical “present time” that becomes their very real life for that time.

The 1940s House

The 1940s House

For a microcosm of human behavior, one could choose far worse to study than these people who abandon their ordinary lives to exist as fully as possible in another era. If you’ve ever wondered how you would get by if you were suddenly transported to another place and time, these historical House programs on PBS and Channel 4 (UK) are well worth checking out.  At least these documentaries permit us to see how our contemporaries fare in such settings, and if you’re like me, you can do some vicarious living through their experiences at the same time.   It is not time travel, exactly, but of all the modes of experiencing history, this seems to be the closest thing to being there.

These period living experiences  are produced by various organizations, and have been aired by PBS in the U.S.  It does not appear that they are working on any new ones at this writing, but previous shows are available now on DVD or online at  YouTube.  The episode embedded below is from the Texas Ranch House series, which illustrates some of the tensions between women, rancher and ranch hands discussed earlier in this post.  See especially Mrs Cooke’s complaints about not being part of management decisions around the 17 minute mark, and her reaction to veiled threats from a visiting Comanche around 34 minutes.

If you’ve watched these shows, which ones were your favorite and why? What period would you most like to participate in if you could be part of an immersive experience of this sort? Please leave your comments below.

 

Maura, Texas Ranch House

Maura, Texas Ranch House

Women Warriors and Chest Size: Three Factors to Consider

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Did You Say Chicks?!

Esther Friesner's "Chicks" anthologies (starting in 1998) was the first to intentionally poke fun at the "chick in the chain mail bikini" trope.

Today I read a post by Ginger Snap over at Troll in the Corner that talked about a perennial issue in gaming and fantasy settings:  women’s breasts, and the effect this has on combat, armor, action and gaming-related activities.  She points out, rightly, that non-existent or scanty chest armor doesn’t offer real protection for a fighter serious about fighting. She also matter-of-factly describes some issues about having breasts and maneuvering with them that may not be immediately evident to folks without substantial bosoms.

Now, given the posting date (April 1), I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that some or all of this post was meant to be tongue-in-cheek because of April Fool’s Day.  (Lawful Good has small cup sizes, while Chaotic Evils can “sling double-Ds…with the best of them.” Ha!)  Even so, I thought this article touched on some good points and also an issue (breasts on female adventurers) that rarely gets serious discussion.

This prompted me to marshal some thoughts on this subject that I’ve been noodling over for a while. Rather than hijack the comment thread there, I reference that post as a springboard to sharing my own observations on this topic.  Although inspired by an April Fool’s (?) post, this one is not intended to be tongue-in-cheek. While the ideas here may apply to any female character who will be active in her world and stepping outside traditional functions, these comments are made primarily with warrior characters in mind. They also apply to both role playing games and female characters in novels and other fictional settings.

The Infamous Chain Mail Bikini

One of the more tired tropes about women warriors in fantasy settings is that of “the chick in the chain mail bikini.” Supposedly she can kick butt, but why and how does she come through every clash of arms unscathed, or damaged only to the extent that her (invisible) armor class permits? This defies logic, since her armor itself is skimpy or non-existent.  In the last 20 years there has been more rethinking of this silly “near-nekkid babe kicking butt” trope, not in small part because more women game nowadays and more women write both game material and fantasy novels than in years past.  Like Ginger Snap, I’m not going to get into the (sometimes heated) debate about the need for realistic body or chest protection here at length. But there are a few other points about protective armor worth making.

To put those in context, I will detour through my other points first. In the list of Factors to Consider for adventuresome female characters, I come first to:

Body Type

A phenotype is the set of visible attributes that arise from one’s genetic makeup.  Different phenotypes have different body configurations, and these are often geographically linked – and far more so in the days before transportation over distances was easily available to masses of the population.  Therefore, in your typical fantasy setting, the average woman’s body type is going to be pretty much like that of the mass of the population around her (unless she has traveled far from home).  A woman’s phenotype may differ to a great extent from how women in another country and ethnic group look.  This is something to keep in mind since the appearance of your characters will reflect that of the larger phenotype group(s) you have populated your fantasy country with.

Women of the San People (Bushmen)

Women of the San People (Bushmen)

The question then becomes, what does your local population group look like? Tall, short? Fat (from subcutaneous adipose deposits, like the Inuit), or slender (like wiry Masai warriors)?  Bulky muscles, or slender, lanky ones? When it comes to women, breast size will also fall into general categories based on the phenotypes common to the group.  To use Earth analogies: are your locals tall, strapping firm-muscled Scandinavians who farm and even go a-viking with their men? Are they compact-muscled, flat-chested San People (Bushmen) of  Africa?  Are they lean and slender Asians?

The body – and chest – build of a curvaceous Italian woman (like Sophia Loren) is significantly different from that of a slender Japanese gymnast.  Assuming she was built like most of her country women, real-world Japanese female samurai and heroine of fantasy novels Tomoe Gozen could easily wear a man’s armor: she was probably not large-chested enough for the fit to be a problem across the torso, while shoe-horning a Sophia Lauren analog into medieval armor presents a very different set of challenges.

Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren

The point here is that it is not enough to say ‘women have breasts’ and therefore their build is always problematic when it comes to wearing armor or moving athletically.   The hindrance factor will be related to two things: 1) the woman’s phenotype and what this has dictated for chest size and body build, and 2) whatever measures she may be able to take to make the bosom more manageable.

Managing the Bosom, or Cultural Mores at Work

There are several things woman have done for ages to manage the weight, mass and vulnerability of the breasts.  First, if breasts are small enough, something equivalent to whatever men wear is sufficient: from bare-chested to wearing a light quill breastplate or even fitting into plate steel armor, small breasts that are easily and painlessly compressed are non-problematic.

When a bosom is large enough that the weight and mobility of the breasts becomes an issue with athletic movement, the most common thing done for centuries has been for women to bind the chest. A cloth or long sash-like fabric is wound around the upper torso, compressing the breasts in place.  This not only secures the bosom but gives the woman’s chest a masculine profile.  (In modern times we approach this with the equivalent of sports bras and compression garments.) Many women who posed as men during historical periods (either passing in society, or fighting as soldiers in wartime) took this measure to hide their female curves. As a practical step it reduces the girth of the torso at its broadest circumference, making it possible for even relatively large-chested women to fit into armor built for men. Granted, not always comfortably, but this is indeed a functional way for many if not most  woman to fit into armor made for men.

Another thing done where binding is not a cultural practice or feasible for other reasons (think hot Africa), is to simply do without and compensate in other ways for breast movement and mass. This requires myriad small adjustments in body balance, the angle at which weapons are held, and so on. But in groups where women develop their own ways of fighting they seem to manage to adjust effectively regardless of the existence of breast mass. The practices of the 12,000-strong army of women that protected the Kings of Dahomey in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries are a good case in point: regardless of personal body configuration, these female warriors wielded a variety of weapons and trained and fought intensively in the elite royal military corps. Aside from wearing uniform attire, no particular external compensation seems to have been made for their bosoms, but as fighters these women warriors developed a fearsome reputation among enemy nations and Europeans.

Finally, customized clothing and outerwear are a time-tested manner of bringing delicate and potentially cumbersome organs under control. The brassiere is a 20th century invention but before that were corsets, bodices, and a variety of undergarments meant to contain the bosom and give a more refined line to clothing.

Elizabeth I

The ideal, flat-chested, boyish silhouette of Elizabeth I's era.

However, when we think of cultural behaviors, actions like padding the bra or stuffing an upper garment because one is under-endowed  are not things that a typical fantasy-era character would be worried about or even think to do. These kinds of practices came about because of the form-accentuating use of the brassiere, and before that, the cleavage-enhancing functions of corsetry. Such practices are more a reflection of contemporary attitudes towards the breast and the garment, rather than a default behavior across cultures and time periods.

In Elizabethan times, for instance, a smooth, flat-chested silhouette was the ideal, and the large-chested woman was challenged to squelch her curves (often resorting to breast-binding to do so). Stuffing her clothing to enhance the swell of her breast would have been the last thing on her mind.

The best rule of thumb about how the bosom is presented might be to have as clear an understanding as possible of the mores and ideals about beauty for the era in which the female character is adventuring. This is probably the single biggest determinant of what kinds of behaviors would seem natural to her in her physical presentation and how she might want to deal with her bosom (enhancing it, underplaying it, disguising it, or what-have-you).  It all depends on the culture the character lives in.

Do not assume that our modern attitudes towards breasts and the popular Western predisposition towards large ones has always held sway.  That is simply not the case historically or anthropologically.  Before adjustments are made for charisma or appeal based on a character’s bosom characteristics (if you want to take that tack), you have to know what the baseline standards are for beauty in a culture. Are breasts even regarded as anywhere near as compelling a feature as they are in 20th and 21th century Western civilization?  It is very likely they are not, since other eras and cultures have had widely differing sensibilities on this subject.

Protection: Armor That Makes Sense

Now to come back around to what I mentioned at the start: getting out of that chain mail bikini and protecting the girls. I’m not going to rehash a lot of what’s previously been written, but I will second Ginger Snap here, who said, “To protect properly, [armor has] to be big enough to cover dem boobies.”

When getting armored up, the female warrior needs armor appropriate to her fighting activity:  an archer needs to be unencumbered and mobile, while a horse-mounted fighter might be armored anywhere from lightly to wearing full plate.  But at a minimum, if we’re talking about a character who may come to body blows in melee combat, protecting the vital organs is, well, vital.

Out of millenia of armor development, there’s no shortage of armor styles that accomplish this function. Of course one should pick armor that is era- and culture-appropriate.  Ryan, blogging at Mad Art Lab, is an armorer and has written a great article about the tension between fantasy representations of armor and the practical demands of protective gear.  Here’s what he says about plate armor:

“Plate armor is the way it is largely out of necessity. The layout and articulations of the plates are the best solutions the designers could come up with to balance mobility with protection. Also, note that nobody was naked under their armor. There was a ton of padding between the metal and the flesh that absorbed the energy of the blows.  That means the difference between male and female plate armor is relatively trivial because once you’ve padded it out and left space for movement, you’ve all but erased the figure of the person inside.”

Real armor on fantasy women fighters will accommodate the chest, but it’s not about the chest.  The silhouette that signals “female form” is going to be dulled down when real protection is worn.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing: there are a lot of great looks and even historical precedent for this, as you can see in Kirin Robinson’s brilliant Tumblr blog,  “Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor.”  (Lots of great art there, and well worth checking out, if you’re not familiar with it.)

Nevertheless, the woman who does not have a boyishly slim figure is either going to employ bosom management tactics as discussed above, or will end up ordering custom armor for herself, probably at considerable expense for the extra custom work. If she is chesty but intent on getting good body armor, this is probably the only serious option open to her. Men might wear armor made for another man of similar build, but a well-endowed woman is going to be squashed, pinched, or simply not fit into scrounged armor at all.

The quest for appropriate gear in cultures that don’t ordinarily arm woman can be a mini-adventure in its own right. Certainly, the woman who scores the right custom armor has handiwork to be proud of, which she may value over any other piece of gear she owns.

Queen Elizabeth rallying troops before attack of the Spanish Armada

Queen Elizabeth rallying troops before attack of the Spanish Armada

Instead of treating women warriors like female men, OR like martial cheesecake, there is a middle ground. Acknowledge the girls, acknowledge the need for real protection, and within the rules of the local culture, see where this leads the character. Sometimes physical attributes can make life more challenging, but this can add depth to story or game if you work it right.

New York Under Water: Sea Level Change This Century

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At the end of September 2009, renowned climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf spoke to an international climate change conference in Oxford, England. Rahmstorf is a respected authority specializing in analysis of ice melt and sea level changes. He and other climate scientists made this startling announcement:

A rise of at least 2 meters (~6 foot) in the world’s sea levels is now virtually unstoppable.

Sit with that for a moment.

“Unstoppable.”

No matter what we do now to rein in greenhouse gases, the processes that initiate significant sea level change are already underway. A tipping point in the ice melt processes has been reached. The best outcome, said Rahmstorf, would be that after temperatures stabilized, sea levels would only rise at a steady rate “for centuries to come,” and not accelerate. This assumes we can halt global warming after about 1.5 degree C increase.

Realistically speaking, though, given political issues and climate change denial resistance from the various ostriches on the scene – the much more likely scenario is that humans collectively will not be able achieve the 1.5 degree C limit, in which case the rise in sea level will be much more rapid.

Rahmstorf’s best guess is a one meter rise this century, assuming three degrees warming, and up to five meters over the next 300 years. This and other estimates are also affected by unknown variables such as what will transpire with large sheet ice at the poles, and transient sea rises, which are different from long-term global sea levels. Should the climate heat up more than that, or sheet ice or transient events occur, it is easily possible to see a 2 meter rise this century, and possibly much more. (For considerable discussion on this and related points, see the excellent content at Real Climate: Climate Science from Climate Scientists.)

But the tipping point is already here, and passed. That means global processes are underway with their own inexorable march towards ever more melting ice and rising seas. This will proceed at its own pace, as inevitable and unstoppable as the rising tide.

This is not a distant eventuality, but a sea change (literally) whose effects we will see within our lifetimes. By 2050 certain populated coastal areas will be significantly impacted by this impending change in sea level. It is no exaggeration to say entire cities will be flooded or submerged: a 2-meter sea rise will, for example, obliterate built-up urban areas in the southern San Francisco Bay, including parts of San Jose. It will submerge chunks of the Port of Los Angeles, threaten Washington D.C., and drown portions of the densely built Jersey shore and industrial New York waterfronts. Low-lying coastal islands off the Carolinas, Florida, and along the Gulf Coast will simply vanish.

Most people have not even begun to contemplate (much less plan for) the real-world consequences of such a fantastic change in the world as we have known it.

Submerged New York: scene from A.I. (2001)

Part 2 in this series:  What Does a 2-Meter Sea Rise Look Like?

Part 3 in this series:  Global Warming in Science Fiction